The Serpent's Teeth: Citizens and Soldiers, by Daniel Keene, directed by Pamela Rabe and Tim Maddock. Set design by Robert Cousins, costume design by Tess Schofield, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composer/sound design Paul Charlier. With Brandon Burke, Peter Carroll, Marta Dusseldorp, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Steve Le Marquand, Ewen Leslie, Hayley McElhinney, Amber McMahon, Luke Mullins, Pamela Rabe, Emily Russell and Narek Armaganian/Josh Denyer. STC Actors Company @ the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until May 17. The man we surround, the man no one approaches holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
There is something about the act of theatre that can annihilate language. It can silence the critical voice that runs in the head, that background chatter that is continually questioning, taking notes, making impatient comments. Despite itself, that voice finds itself wholly absorbed in the present, its attention held, its sceptical distance destroyed. All sense of the passing of time vanishes.
It’s a rare experience, but that total absorption is what I seek in the theatre. And it’s what happened when I watched The Serpent’s Teeth, a diptych by Daniel Keene that opened last week at the Drama Theatre, performed by the STC’s Actors Company. When the lights came up at the end, I found in its immediate aftermath that I had nothing to say, that what I had just experienced had emptied my mind of anything so superficial as an opinion. I felt that the only proper reponse was to write a poem.
Yet it is probably true that I have never devoted so much thought to writing about a work of theatre. Ever since I heard, in the middle of last year, that The Serpent’s Teeth was to be programmed by the STC, I’ve been debating the ethical question of whether I should write about it. (Those interested in that internal debate can find it here: I would ask anyone who wants to attack me for writing about my husband’s work to consult this document, to save me the trouble of defending things I never asserted in the first place).
But in the end, all the laborious justifications fell away, swept aside by the theatre itself. More than anything else, I think this production is its own magnificent justification. Yes, my response – afterwards, if not in the intense experience of watching it – is conditioned by a certain personal pride. This is an ambition, a possibility, that I have believed in now for so many years – and not only in Daniel’s writing (I have long been aware, for example, of the austere integrity of Tim Maddock’s directing).
I know such work can call out of other artists their most serious and principled thinking, and permit the expression of their most ambitious art. I know this ambition is possible because I have seen it realised, but most often thousands of miles away from here.
But last week I saw it at the Sydney Opera House: a work of theatre in which every aspect held the others in a profoundly delicate formal balance, a work in which the differing disciplines of lighting, performance, direction, sound and text were each suspended in synthesis, bent towards a common desire.
At its most profound, theatre is always about the dissolution of the individual ego, which seeks instead a more permeable expression of its soul. The one and the many cease to oppose each other, and become the necessary elements of a complex, living dynamic. To achieve this is difficult: it is why failure is and must be part of the lexicon of theatre (“Fail again. Fail better.”) But on the rare occasions when this ambition is fully realised, it offers a brief glimpse of human possibility: a larger, more generous way of being.
“Beauty,” said Ezra Pound, “is difficult”. It is difficult to see, difficult to create, difficult to negotiate. Yet at its core is always something very simple: one human being perceiving with newly rinsed eyes the world that he or she lives in. Beauty is something that only belongs to human beings: it is an aesthetic order we make out of the chaos of experience, the vulnerability of truthfulness. There is always an ethical aspect to representation, a moral question in the making of beauty, which is why, when it is most terribly honest, it is sometimes considered neither ethical nor moral.
Beauty is what artists make. Very often the beauty they create is not considered beautiful at all: it is too full of human sorrow, human flaws, human danger and violence. Artists take the unbeautiful world and show us its beauties. In order to do this, they sometimes destroy our cherished ideas about what we consider beauty to be. That is as it should be: flux and change and ambiguity are all we will ever know of certainty.
Artistic beauty emerges from structure: artists make things. Daniel Keene has offered, in Citizens and Soldiers, two objects made out of words. They are sculpted with a stern, even fierce poetic, austere and plain and finely honed as a surgeon’s scalpel. They are two very different explorations of the formal possibilities of theatre, but each rhymes with the other to make a third thing: a diptych that meditates on different aspects of the price of living with war.
It is possible to read these plays and experience them as you might any other work of literature, as autonomous worlds made out of language. But they are plays, designed to be expressed by the breath and bodies of actors, to be choregraphed in the three-dimenional space of a stage. They are words written for theatre, designed ultimately to be written on the air and to vanish in their saying, into the past, into memory.
Citizens and Soldiers are plays about love. Not love as it is understood in romance novels or Hallmark greeting cards, but love as it is: the generous wound of need, the binding that draws people together, the anguish of the understanding that we are not alone, and that our fate depends upon others. It is love that makes one face more precious than another, that makes us understand that our private selves are embedded in other lives, that we are larger than we realise. In love lies the seeds of hatred and betrayal and sorrow; it contains all the trivial and mundane irritations of human relationship, the silences of what cannot be expressed, the gulfs that open between people, the desire that speaks across these gulfs but can never close them. The possibility of love is the only thing that gives me hope for the human race.
Everyone in these two fictions – one set before the wall that bisects Palestine, the other in an aircraft hangar in Australia where five families wait for the remains of their men to be flown home from war – acts out of love. A man takes his mute grandson on a long walk to swap an olive tree for an orange tree, a token of peace exhanged for a token of beauty. A woman seeks schoolbooks so her daughter can study. Each person present in the hangar is there because they loved the man who is now dead and must now face the anguish of his absence. And it is this difficult love that illuminates the tragedy and comedy of these humble stories about war, that gives them their meaning, that invites us towards understanding.
One can moralise about war, but these plays do not invite such moralising. It is impossible to moralise about love. It is too complex, too contradictory, too necessary. This is not art that seeks to moralise. It simply says: on either side of this stage, we are all human. All of us.
The central character in Citizens is a wall. It has been built hurriedly out of concrete blocks, a raw fact that bisects the world between here and there, ours and theirs. It looms at the front of the stage, defining a narrow strip strewn with rubble. The actors may only enter from the right or the left: all other choices are forbidden them. The wall has a voice that rises and falls. It might be surf or the low rumble of a hidden city. It might just be the wind.
It pulses in the light.
When we return for Soldiers, the wall has vanished. In its place is a cavernous, industrial space. We cannot see the ceiling. In the first play, we are confronted by the brutal, horizontal line of the wall. The second is dominated by a high vertical, the huge double doors of the hangar at the back of the stage, which the actors open and close, letting in sharp diagonals of light.
There is no sound except the actors' voices and footsteps and the metallic clang as the doors close.
Narrative here is about place. Light sculpts the narrative, binds it together, gives it meaning. It shapes time into the measure of a human breath. It carves the emotional spaces through which the actors walk, so we are aware of the darkness that surrounds them, of the shadows that stir in their hearts and spring behind each gesture of their hands. Light heightens the intimate vulnerability of their bodies, mercilessly illuminating every nuance of expression, and then it dwarfs their human measure, and they vanish into its harsh brilliance.
We are always aware we are watching a stage, on which actors are performing. There is no pretence otherwise. The few objects we see -- an orange, a shopping trolley, a toy plane -- become richly imbued with our attention. An orange is simply an orange, but it is also a metaphor. What that metaphor means is up to us.
We are watching a dance. In Citizens, it is a dance of bodies restricted to a narrow strip, "contained, pure, narrow, human", in which we briefly witness fragments of very ordinary lives: a married couple painfully squabble as they rest from an exhausting journey, or a man and his daughter journey to a funeral beneath an absurd yellow umbrella, or a young woman takes her injured dog to the vet in a cardboard box.
In Soldiers, we are watching a theatrical liturgy, a meditation on grief. The empty stage is stripped to its most essential elements -- actors, light, space. The space is alive: it breathes, changes, swells and shrinks. In one moment we are watching a man alone in a strip of light that knifes across the darkness. He is weeping. The single action of his grief fills the theatre:
In another moment, almost without our noticing, the stage inhales: before us is a chorus from a classical tragedy that echoes our own witnessing, that stands and watches as we watch. In each moment, a sense of absolute, razor-sharp spatial intelligence, a restraint that releases emotional pressure only when it is most telling, when it will break our hearts.
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow...
Echoes everywhere, fragments of our theatrical past: the ghosts of Beckett, Miller, Kroetz, Chekhov, flit across the stage and vanish.
It is not real: it is a work of theatre.
What is real is feeling. Every detail of voice and breath, each gesture, each step, is shaped into the communication of feeling. Within the stark formality of the direction and design is the discipline of the performances, and welling within each of those is a vast generosity, an ocean of tears veined with laughter.
We recognise each gesture, each expression, each voiced nuance of emotion. If we do not know what it is to live with war, we understand thirst and weariness. We might not have mourned a dead son, but we all understand loss. The performances enter embodied experience and pierce the membrane of imagination. We recognise, with pained delight, the shape of our own own sorrows. And our joys.
I haven't yet named anybody except the writer. This is a true ensemble production: there are no stars, nor even any major roles, and it is impossible to pick out a single aspect of production or performance without feeling that I am doing an injustice to the rest.
But credit must be given. Nick Schlieper's lighting design is revelatory: I am not sure that I have seen lighting so richly expressive, so deeply integrated into text, design and performance. Robert Cousins' stark staging eschews any hint of naturalism. He offers the integrity of a theatrical space, employing an absolute minimum of elements to maximum effect. As crucial as Cousins' spare vision are the acutely noted details of Tess Schofield's costumes and, in Citizens, Paul Charlier's unobstrusive but pregnant soundscape.
The performative depth of this production would not have been possible without the Actors Company ensemble. These plays are demanding, formally and emotionally, and the slightest misjudgement would smudge their delicacies. They give actors no time in which to establish character: they must be immediately present in all their fullness, or they will not be there at all. Only a group of accomplished actors who have worked together for years could attain the richness, complexity and emotional honesty these plays demanded. Perhaps for the first time, this production exploits the full capacities of this remarkable company.
Citizens and Soldiers are beautifully directed, by Pamela Rabe and Tim Maddock respectively; they reveal two different visions of theatrical possibility, each of which profoundly understands how the larger dynamics of space and time interact with the detail of performance and text. In each, the meanings and formal shapes of the plays emerge organically through the action on stage: nothing is inessential, nothing is signposted. Together, Rabe and Maddock have created a stern and deeply gentle beauty, a pure act of theatre that uncompromisingly reveals the impure complexities of human beings.
Pictures from top (left to right): Josh Denyer and Pamela Rabe in Soldiers; Peter Carroll and Hayley McElhinney in Citizens; cast, Soldiers; Steve Le Marquand and Marta Dusseldorp in Citizens; Brandon Burke, John Gaden and Steve La Marquand in Soldiers; Josh Denyer and John Gaden in Citizens. Photos: Brett Boardman.
Australian Stage Online
The Sydney Morning Herald
Nicholas Pickard (Sydney Arts Journalist)
Kevin Jackson's Theatre Reviews
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The man we surround, the man no one approaches
holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him