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. 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.
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 -
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
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.