Review: Moving Target ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Review: Moving Target

Moving Target by Marius Von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade, directed by Benedict Andrews. Set by Robert Cousins, costumes by Fiona Crombie, lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound design by Hamish Michael. With Alison Bell, Julie Forsythe, Rita Kalnejais, Robert Menzies, Hamish Michael and Matthew Whittet. Malthouse Theatre @ The Beckett until March 29, Sydney Opera House April 2-13. Bookings: 9685 5111

The first thing you notice when you walk into the theatre to see Moving Target is that there is no escape for the actors. The six performers are already before you, in what appears to be a giant, open-fronted box. There are plainly no hidden doors, no moving walls. The actors could, of course, step out of the front of the stage, but the "fourth wall", the convention that separates the stage from the audience, is as tacitly constraining as any material barrier. They are thrust before us, trapped in our gaze.

On stage there is a red carpet, a table, a couple of chairs, and a red couch. There is an assortment of props - a sleeping bag, a doll, a toy dinosaur, some rolls of masking tape. And that's it. What follows is one of the most intriguing pieces of theatre you will see this year. The result of an intense collaborative process between the actors, director and writer, it reminds you of the multiple meanings of "play". Some sequences are sheer genius. And yet, frustratingly, it doesn't follow through the implications of its own process.

I was so puzzled the first time I saw Moving Target that I went back a couple of nights later. It was no punishment to do so: this is, for most of its two hours, a fascinating, funny, disturbing and sometimes beautiful show. But each time I saw it, a little dialogue from Beckett's Endgame echoed in my head.

HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something?
CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something? (Brief laugh.) Ah, that's a good one!

If only Mayenburg had emulated Beckett's tact, Moving Target might have been revelatory theatre. But no, the text had to mean something. And as soon as this is clear, the glorious imaginative suspension of play that levitates this production crashes down to earth. Mayenburg is, without doubt, a poet of the theatre, and in Moving Target he demonstrates, sometimes brilliantly, his gift for unsettling, under-the-skin imagery and dialogue. But he needs more of the poet in his work, more of that blind, even foolish trust in the currents of process, if this work is to take flight, if he is to drop the conventions of writing a play in favour of playing.

To make things more confusing, the text on the page reads very well. But the problem with the show is not that the production doesn't serve the play. What is offered in Moving Target is something different and potentially more exciting: a work of theatre in which performance is an integral part of the script, in which gesture and words are organically linked, each emerging from each. And for most of the show, that is exactly what happens.

Its premise is ingeniously simple. Before us are the actors as themselves: each is called by his or her proper name, Alison (Bell), Julie (Forsythe), Rita (Kalnejais), Robert (Menzies), Hamish (Michael) and Matthew (Whittet). The performances emerge from the game of hide and seek, a game that has a certain poignancy already because in Robert Cousins's merciless white box there is hardly anywhere to hide.

The actors, who are all excellent clowns, become increasingly imaginative and absurd in their efforts to hide themselves. In these games, the stage oscillates between disorder and order: the furniture is thrown about the stage, the carpet is rumpled, the sofa up-ended and, in one case, an actor becomes almost terminally tangled up with a chair. And then, patiently, order is restored - to an extent. Part of the process of the work is the gradual breakdown of recognisable order, which is realised not only in the bad treatment of furniture, but in the heightening emotional dishevelment of the actors.

These enactments of childish pleasure and - increasingly - distress are counterpointed with the dialogue, in which the six actors become parent figures - each differentiated and yet not quite characters either - speaking about a problem daughter. It's unclear what is wrong with this child, who is at the unsettling age of prepubescence, at the threshold of adult sexuality. This girl, it appears, is dangerous: she makes stains appear on the carpet, she is surrounded by a mysterious energy, her touch can make metal hot. And always, everywhere, there are bloodied feathers.

The mise en scene is superbly choreographed by director Benedict Andrews, with a lot of unobstrusive detailing and a rhythmic authority that gives the impression that the space itself is animated, like some kind of meta-puppetry. This sense is reinforced by Hamish Michael's sound design, which uses mics embedded in the set itself and jagged snatches of music, to create a dense and sometimes punishing soundscape.

The actors have found a particular and very theatrical language of gesture, a mixture of exaggerated banality and child-like formalism (familiar hand games, for example, that as the parent of every toddler knows, must always be played the same way) that develops into a rich texture of performance. It begins as faintly hysterical, faintly neurotic, and gradually accumulates into a highly expressive mimesis of contemporary anxiety.

This anxiety is free-floating, all-pervasive, and all the more uncomfortable for its lack of focus. It builds up to an extraordinary monologue delivered by Julie Forsythe, who is perhaps the most compelling performer in this very strong cast. She tells a story, comically punctuated by sounds from the other actors, in which the anxious parent witnesses what appears to her to be an ideal family having a picnic together. They have been hunting, and are happily seated by their prey -

It brought tears to my eyes. And I asked my husband: when was the last time we had such a carefree picnic with our daughter? And my husband thinks about it and says: never, we were never carefree, even at breakfast, there’s a butter knife and I break out in a cold sweat, how does the father know that none of his three children will take the front charger and gun him down from the back, what a happy and healthy family for them to stroll through the tall grass with unsecured weapons and him not afraid that they’ll zero in on him and shoot his head from his body or follow a whistle command and riddle his thighs with bullets and leave him to bleed to death, or they plot it in advance and the best shot kills him with a single dry headshot through the silencer. No, everything is wonderful here...

As she takes us through the macabre absurdity of this vision, a sardonically twisted image of middle class family life, Forsythe summons an increasing sense of tragedy. It culminates in a piercing cry of anguish: "Why us and not him? Why us?" And it's heartbreaking, even though we don't know why she is so tormented, even while we register the horrific reality of the ideal family she so envies.

It's this kind of naked actorly presence that works so successfully in Moving Target. Andrews has assembled a brilliant ensemble of performers who are all capable of fulfilling Peter Ustinov's frustrated instruction to a method actor: "Don't do something! Just stand there!" (Which is much more difficult than it sounds). Rather than investigate character, Andrews exploits the individual performative strengths of each actor, and the result is richly rewarding.

Things begin to turn awry a little after Forsythe's monologue. It's as if the show loses focus: the lighting begins to be melodramatic, the game-playing begins to lose its earlier comic ease. The actors pull out paper and paints and do some finger painting, and the dreadful suspicion begins to form that this is, after all, merely self-indulgent.

Simultaneously, we begin to collide with the meaning of the text, which is spelt out for us by the playwright, and all the possibilities that have been opened up during the course of the show begin to be whittled down. We are speaking about terrorism, after all. We are examining how these public anxieties infect and eventually destroy the private sphere - or perhaps, it is the other way around - and yet, the focus of all this murderous terror is merely what a child puts into a box and throws away, the wounded bird of her heart. She is the blank doll on which the adult world projects its fear of its own damaged innocence. There are all sorts of ideas to unpack from this, of course, but they seem so much less exciting than what was promised earlier, when the possibilities of meaning existed in the imaginations of the audience.

It occurs to me that the central problem is that there are two possible artworks uncomfortably jostling in this show. They run parallel for some time - until quite close to the end, in fact - but then find themselves sadly at odds. The first is the work in which the text is integrated with the performances, in which gesture and and word, physical games and language, are each relating freely. While this is happening, it is tremendously exciting theatre. But towards the end, the writing asserts its dominance and narrative becomes the controlling impulse of the theatre. And at this point the energy whooshes out of the whole thing.

Yet Mayenburg has written a very interesting play that, if it were given a more conventional production, could make a compelling piece of theatre. The text has a poetic integrity, a delicate interlacing of mystery and revelation, that could, on its own, be more than enough. The problem with seeing it in this production is that you glimpse another possibility that is at once more disturbing, more exciting and perhaps more terrifying. The editor in me suspects that the problem in this production might be solved quite simply, with some brutal cutting. In this case, less might be much more.

Picture: (L-R) Robert Menzies, Alison Bell and half of Hamish Michael in Moving Target. Photo: Tania Kelley


houseseat said...

Alison - I really agree re the overall form. It's in the last quarter, when the chronological nature of the narrative suddenly asserts itself that the energy perversely dissipates. Yes, it's overlong, but this last quarter would make no more sense for the previous three-quarters being shorter - you're hard-pressed to know where you'd cut given it was all such a heart-stopping ride.

Your review inspired me to go again, and recaptured for me the very rare sense of disquieting wonder I felt on opening night.

Alison Croggon said...

On the second viewing, I narrowed what I thought the problem was down to the two penultimate scenes (I loved the final monologue). Certainly nothing in the first three quarters or so...

Look at us, with the scissors! It's so easy to cut up other people's work.

sydney arts journo said...

Hmm... your favour towards this director is compelling but I just don't understand it.

I should come down to see this I think... maybe just as i should have seen his Patrick White.

Anne-Marie said...

I think you've inspired me to go back for a second viewing as well.

Your reviews always show me a different opinion about a show and make me think about something I hadn't thought of. For me the last quarter of Moving Target pulled the whole piece together. I loved the almost forced intertwining of text and process and was almost salivating at the heightened drama of the lighting.

An artist recently sent me an email because he didn't like my opinion of a show. Content aside - he asked, "I wonder how reviewers would feel if their lives and work were held up to as much scrutiny"

He wasn't being ironic. Everytime a writer puts something in a public space, our skill, knowledge and opinon are open to public scrutiny.

We can count hits, but it's sometimes important to know that hits do translate to people reading and respecting our writing.

I don't always agree with your opinion about specific shows, but I love reading what you have to say about them.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Nick - I've only seen Andrews work in the past couple of years, since Eldorado, also by Mayenburg. So I don't know what his earlier work is like. But like him or not, I don't think there's any argument that he's one of the most interesting directors around. You should come down and have a look!

Thanks for the note, Anne-Marie. It seems to me that critics ought to be as open to scrutiny as anyone else putting work out in the public sphere. It goes with the territory!

Christine said...

Hi Nick,

I'm really sorry to have missed the Patrick White too.

But no need for a flight south: this show's coming to Sydney:

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks Christine. I have (ahem) amended the header to include the Sydney dates...

Matthew said...

Without doubt your best review in a while, Ms. C!

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, Matt. The fact is, you can't write interestingly unless you have interesting theatre to write about...! It was nice too not to have an Australian deadline (it was reviewed in Adelaide) making me parcel up my thoughts by noon the next day. Which makes me think that perhaps I ought to think more about letting the blog deadlines, such as they are, determine themselves.

st genesius said...

Yes a very good review and an interesting-sounding show. Just a question--does the youngest actress in the show get stripped to her underwear or less? Not a sight to which I object, but I do find it amusing that it seems to be the signature of every Benedict Andrews production...

Chris said...

I had a similar reaction to you in regards to the split focus of what the piece was trying to say, Alison. Except, I was much more engaged with the pseudo-political commentary than I was the theatrical game-playing! I have not had a more awkward and bitterly enraging thirty minutes in the theatre for months than the beginning of this play.

You can read my full review here:

Anonymous said...

1. Brilliant review.
2. yes. Hot bods undressed.
3. Brilliant writing - as quoted in the review
4. Overlong, superfluous waste of a night
5. Brilliant actors - some usually pretty crap as humans, made brilliant by a director
6. Fail to see the point, terrorism, boring
7. Glad I got a comp
8. Go see something at LaMama
9. Malthouse = Emporers New Clothes
10. This kind of work doesn't fit Australia, it shouldn't be programmed here
11. A big expensive joke.
12. Brilliant script, so glad to read some of it in your review
13. Wasn't bored, but just left feeling kinda sad, that I sat through that.
14. Alison Croggon - amazing review - glad I saw it so I could have your thoughts to figure it out.
15. Only remembered it, only bothered thinking about it, when reading about it here.
16. Love theatre, why is it so dumb?

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Chris and anon - love all those contradictory responses, btw. If nothing else, it shows how meaning works itself out between the audience and the artist. A tricky balance, god wot - too much left to the audience and you feel cheated, too little and you feel patronised or exploited...and who is to say where the line is drawn? I guess it's a matter of holding it in dynamic tension.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

your review is fascinating and I look forward to seeing the show in Sydney.

We have been lucky in Sydney to see more of Benedict Andrews' work. It just gets better all the time. Well not every time, but it is a steep upward curve.

The Sydney version of The Season at Sarsapararilla was stronger than in Melbourne (which I saw)mainly becaue it was first designed for the SOH Drama Theatre's idiosyncratic panavision-shaped stage. This meant the film-screens sat back level with the set, no head turning. The techno design did not appear forced.

Also Melbourne missed (taking nothing away from Melb. replacement - Luke Mullins)) a stunning performance from Dan Spielman as Mr Nice Guy, Ron Suddards. He was so clean cut and fresh and 'aspirational' there was no slumming it in Judy Pogson (Hayley McElhinney) ending up marrying him. You felt she was going a bit for second best in life in Melb, just the way the scenes of the young lovers played out. Dan's version gave the ending a bit of a more hopeful kick.

We also got an awesome Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf from Andrews' last year, at Belvoir. Not as perfect as "The Season", but rivetting and original. In concept, Andrews' played against every established expectation. An all-glass set, no fusty book-filled room, everyone cast younger. In the second half the two walls of glass turned around so the audience was barriered as Martha (Catherine McClements) on the inside hurled blocks of ice (for the drinks)at her husband (an awesome Marton Csolkas as George) prowled around the house.

Among other fine productions we've seen up here, we also had a faultless production of Endgame a few years back. No mean achievement. A spooky, ghostly, deathly Julius Ceasar starring Arthur Dignam; and a gripingly mysterious production of Caryl Churchill's Far Away (my favourite new play in years). To name a few.

I think 'Beno' has the finest mind in the business at the moment, and as he gains in experience and confidence he is handing more and more over to his actors. That will be the key to his mastery of the directorial art. For me, as I respond naturally to his style, it is at least as exciting as watching Neil Armfield emerge a couple of decades back.

Something went terribly wrong up here when Michael Gow's Toy Symphony swept this year's awards. Not because it wasn't good. But it had been Andrews' finest year - his coming of age - and all he got was a gong for the design of "The Season".

As you say, good (to read) reviews can only come from shows which stimulate a response. I will report back when I see the show up here.

Love your work


James Waites

PS: Up here, it's also a nice change to see the occasional naked woman after eras of buffed naked men! lol!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jmes - great to see you here, and many thanks for this insight into Andrews' work. I've seen basically everything since Eldorado, and both seasons of Sarsaparilla, and yes, he's a totally impressive mind (I totally agree about the mystifying nature of the Sydney awards - I didn't see Toy Symphony, of course, but how could you overlook Sarsaparilla???) I'm sure, whatever you think of it, you'll find Moving Target fascinating - I look forward to your response!

sydney arts journo said...

Alison generously took me along to the Andrews production of Virginia Woolf in Sydney which I don't agree was 'awesome'.

Central to my problem with his direction is that I don't see a clarity in what his actors are expressing and indeed I almost feel as though they have been plonked in the middle of a set design that's from out of space, without any script discovery.

The result is that they are lost in an incomprehensible world and the delivery of the play is thrown into a murky place of technical and a little-bit-too-clever-by-half staging.

And what on earth is the addiction to using microphones? The use of them in the second half of Woolf made all the good work of the first disappear - instantly.

They could have save thousands on that show with that revolving set as well... which is not dissimilar to his Three Sisters a couple of years back - elevators, gimmicky toys, star wars themes... could have saved thousands of bucks... I just don't know - all that fluff. I just want the story - striking, simple and elegant.