Review: The Chosen Vessel ~ theatre notes

Friday, November 02, 2007

Review: The Chosen Vessel

The Chosen Vessel, from stories by Barbara Baynton, directed by Stewart Morritt. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Felicity Hoare. With Chloe Armstrong, Joe Clements and Margot Knight. Petty Traffikers @ Theatreworks until November 18. Bookings: 9534 3388

In the Dictionary of Australian Biography (1946 edition), Barbara Baynton gets fairly short shrift. After noting her three marriages, Percival Serle says brusquely: "Barbara Baynton's reputation rests on half a dozen short stories, written with much ability and power, and uncompromising in their stark realism. The building up of detail, however, is at times overdone, and lacking humorous relief, the stories tend to give a distorted view of life in the back-blocks."

The 1970s advent of second-wave feminism and histories such as those of Henry Reynolds, which recorded the hitherto unacknowledged violence of European settlement, led to a reconsideration of Baynton's slender oeuvre, a recognition that perhaps her stories captured an uncomfortable truth, particularly about the lives of women, that was ignored in the preferred canon of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson or Steele Rudd. They certainly disrupted the narrative of rural battlers that still infects Australia's myth of itself: Baynton painted a world of harsh masculine domination, of brutalised relationships and terrifying sexual violence.

Her reputation rests, as Serle noted, on a few short stories, published as Bush Studies in 1902: a series of vignettes of bush life varying from a comic description of a bush christening to the three grim tales retold here by Petty Traffickers. Baynton's realism and air of Gothic horror shows the influence of Guy de Maupassant, the French equivalent of Edgar Allan Poe. And her short narratives - especially in what is probably her best story, Squeaker's Mate - still have the power to move and shock.

Sadly, in this staging by Stewart Morrit you are more likely to notice the Victorian sentiment than the brutal power of these stories, though there are moments when these adaptations - if they are indeed adaptations - lift out of their literalness and genuinely access the horror Baynton sketched so well. Here the credit mostly lies with the committed performances rather than with the direction: this production features some fine acting from Chloe Armstrong and Margot Knight. But oh, the literalness...

The show opens with A Dreamer, an account of a young woman, newly pregnant, visiting her mother in the bush. She is not met at the station, and must make a nightmarish way through storm and darkness to her mother's house, during which she nearly drowns. I couldn't see any cuts to the story at all, although there may have been; it is narrated in its third-person entirety by the three actors who, as they speak the words, illustrate every phrase, practically every pronoun.

If a pipe dripping into a tank is mentioned, the pipe - with water gurgling through it - will magically appear against the theatre wall. If there is lightning, the lightning will dutifully flash, every time, with the proper accompaniment of thunder. If a tree must be grasped, the branches of eucalyptus will be there to be grasped. I am not sure that I have ever seen anything quite like it. That Armstrong, struggling across a bath full of water (representing the river) holding on to said branches - there were a lot of branches in this show - manages to be genuinely riveting is, on reflection, quite amazing.

Squeaker's Mate had more than one character, so at least featured a little dialogue to leaven the narration. In its pitiless description of how the useless are discarded and forgotten, this brutal story about a crippled woman reminds me of Kafka's Metamorphosis; but again, its power was muted here. While Margot Knight as the paralysed woman generates a performance of compelling physicality, it also features a performance by Joe Clements as Squeaker, the oaf who first exploits and then abandons his partner, that somehow made Baynton's picture of insensate brutalisation merely comic.

The final piece of the night, The Chosen Vessel, provides the best theatre of the night. This is a story of a woman, left alone with her baby in her isolated house, who is stalked and then raped and murdered by a passing swagman. A sequence where the terrified woman lies in the dark, as the swagman breaks a hole in the wall of her hut, is genuinely frightening: Armstrong's nervy fragility and a rather brilliant lighting design make it a scene of total suspense. Unfortunately, the structure of the story itself - it shifts perspectives from the lone, frightened woman to other characters - is not translated with any lucidity into the narrative on stage, which makes the end anti-climactic, as well as puzzling to those unfamiliar with the story.

It must be said that this show is visually rather gorgeous - Felicity Hoare's inventive lighting plays across the vast Theatreworks space, picking out with warm colours the sparse objects on Peter Mumford's set. But otherwise, it is by no means a successful transposition of prose into theatre. To be frank, it left me rather baffled: The Chosen Vessel seems to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of theatrical storytelling. Theatre, as was thrillingly demonstrated recently in shows like Dood Paard's Titus or Barrie Kosky's The Tell-Tale Heart, is much more than moving pictures that go with words. Otherwise, why not just pick up a book?

Picture: Chloe Armstrong and Joe Clements in The Chosen Vessel. Photo: Peter Mumford


Dangerous Meredith said...

Thanks for this comprehensive and balanced review of this show. I found your criticism on the literalness in the direction to be particularly interesting.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Meredith.