Review: Ollie and the Minotaur ~ theatre notes

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Review: Ollie and the Minotaur

Ollie and the Minotaur, by Duncan Graham, directed by Sarah John. With Sarah Brokensha, Adriana Bonaccurso and Wendy Bos. floogle in association with 9minds, @ fortyfivedownstairs, until May 10. Bookings: 9662 9966.

Naturalism is a term that is all too easily used and abused in Australian theatre. There was a time when theatre was divided into two camps, the naturalistic (represented by playwrights such as David Williamson or Hannie Rayson) and non-naturalistic (weird stuff like Barrie Kosky). I think - or at least, I devoutly pray - that those times are past, and that artists as diverse as Eugene Ionesco or Ben Johnson are no longer shovelled casually into the same basket.

But perhaps what most deeply puzzled me about these categorisations was that what was often called naturalism - more properly, a derivation of tv soap opera that a friend last night labelled "user-friendly theatre" - seemed to me to bear very little resemblance to plays that were properly described as naturalistic. Naturalism was considered to be an uncomplicatedly transparent reflection of "life as it is", rather than another form of theatrical artifice.


The great exemplar of theatrical naturalism, Henrik Ibsen, adapted the term for his own uses from the naturalistic novelists of the 19th century, such as Zola, whose literary ideas evolved from Charles Darwin. It is often forgotten that Ibsen's work was as influential to modernists such as James Joyce or the Surrealists as he was in the genesis of 20th century realist and naturalistic aesthetics. Or that a profound poetic underlies the work of those whom naturalism inspired, from Chekhov to Strindberg to Gorky to Shaw. Naturalism as we know it is most often a decadent idea, informed most of all by its alleged invisibility. It's become a default position of aesthetics, a form paradoxically defined by its absence.

Which brings me to floogle's production of Ollie and the Minotaur. floogle is an independent Adelaide company whose work I encountered last year, via an impressive production of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. Then I was struck by this young company's unshowy stylishness and close attention to detail in language, design and performance. Ollie and the Minotaur is a profoundly intelligent exploration of naturalism that solidifies my respect: here the playwright Duncan Graham and director Sarah John resuscitate a deeply unfashionable theatrical form and demonstrate that there's a lot more to it than jejune representations of talking heads.

It's clear from the opening moments that Graham's play revisits a contemporary cliche, the reunion of old friends over a weekend, during which secrets are revealed and friendships unravelled. It's a plot that's been exploited in everything from the classic 80s movie The Big Chill to the tv comedy series Black Books. In this case, it's three women, Thea (Wendy Bos), Bec (Sarah Brokensha) and Carla (Adriana Bonaccurso), who have reunited at a beach house where they spent their some formative times in their adolescence.

They drink astounding amounts of gin: the most common gesture during the play is probably the refilling of glasses. And this constant impulse towards self-anaesthetisation is the first hint of the pain and brutality that the play reveals. Among other things, Ollie and the Minotaur is a confronting picture of contemporary Australian mores.

However, it's is as notable for how it confounds expectations as for how it fulfils them. Underneath its taut naturalistic surface - a deceptively transparent texture of frank colloquial language - is a poetic consciousness that unobtrusively draws on the potency of myth and tragedy, giving this apparently simple story of betrayal and self-deception a compelling resonance.

For all its surface comedy, it reveals an almost unrelievedly bleak vision. Its vocabulary is familiar, a casually obscene, colloquial slang that exploits contemporary icons from popular tv and movies. But it becomes apparent that this language is not there in its usual function of provoking the laughter of uneasy recognition. Rather, as the play progresses, the language gradually and inexorably exposes its own poverty, revealing the brutalisation that underlies contemporary attitudes to sexuality. In particular, perhaps, it exposes the self-inflicted misogyny of raunch culture, although this play is never explicitly moralising: its characters are presented without judgment, although they judge each other without mercy.

Thea and Bec are former lovers, bound together by an uneasy friendship cemented by Ollie, Thea's nine-year-old daughter, the product of a casual encounter when she was 18. Carla is the necessary third friend, ironic witness or butt of their jokes. It becomes clear that all of them are sexually damaged: Carla still lives with her adored father, and has a long-term relationship with a man who is serially unfaithful to her; Thea blames all her failed relationships with men on her daughter; and Bec has never had a relationship longer than five months.

This unpromising Sex and the City premise gradually winds you into a theatrical experience not unlike Long Day's Journey Into Night: a gruelling and ultimately shockingly honest exploration of the ways human beings damage each other and themselves. The myth of the minotaur underlies the structure: it is the ravening beast at the centre of the labyrinth of their mutual deceptions. And, we are given to understand, the only way out is through the slender thread laid by the mutual love these women have for the child we never see, Thea's daughter Ollie.

It's hard to fault the writing, although there are perhaps moments when scenes could be more economical. And the production, directed with an unerring eye for detail by Sarah John, is exemplary; this is a play that is all conversation, but the stage is always alive and dynamic, never merely a frame for static dialogue.

The staging is minimal, defined by black curtains that enclose the space: an uncluttered set - a kitchenette, an old lounge suite - gives us enough detail without compromising a subtly heightened sense of theatricality. The lighting too is unforgivingly minimal, with only one major change of state. It focuses your attention on the committed and nakedly honest performances from all three actors. Bos, Bonaccurso and Brokensha deliver detailed portrayals that, like the writing itself, shift unobstrusively towards a tragic denouement.

It's a reminder that naturalism isn't the child of television, but of poetry and classical tragedy. And of the true power of the form, which is its ability to directly confront contemporary language and mores within the heightened reality of theatre.

Picture: Wendy Bos and Sarah Brokensha in Ollie and the Minotaur.

6 comments:

Chris Summers - theatargh said...

I've recently been accused by a friend of mine of disliking naturalism in all its shapes and forms and was rather offended. As you rightly noted, Alison, there is a beautiful poetry and psychological depth underpinning many of the great naturalist works. While it's true that I wouldn't normally visit the theatre for the type of 'user-friendly show' easily accessible on television, your review has got me interested in revisiting my own definition of, and position on, contemporary naturalism. I'm a fan of Pinter and this company seem very interesting - I'll try and catch the show this week.

Also, at the other end of the spectrum, have you caught Sisters Grimm's 'Cellblock Booty'? Most enjoyable piece of trash I've seen in forever. Review's on my blog if you're interested.

- Chris

P.S. Great job with 2020, and the fantastic response to Serpent's Tongue. I would love to see one of Daniel's plays on a Melbourne stage.

Chris Summers - theatargh said...

Teeth, even!

George Hunka said...

Thanks for that reminder about Ibsen's place in the history of Modernism as well as naturalism, Alison -- it's something all too often forgotten. It's interesting, I think, that Duchamp, born in 1887, grew up during the era of Ibsen's and the Realists' greatest successes. And it reminds me, too, that some of those great so-called Absurdist masterpieces like "The Bald Soprano" seem to work best when staged in wholly naturalistic environments.

I found this interesting in your notes on the "minimalism" (as charged a term as "naturalism" is) in this production. The production practice focuses attention on the performances, but on the language as well. Without all the scenic fooferaw, the lyricism that lies beneath contemporary language comes more to the fore. Too many times, Chekhov plays allow the propmaster to haul the samovar out of storage once again. I've always found that these so-called naturalistic plays work best, and their poetry becomes most obvious, when presented plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

Maybe "Serpent's Tongue" could be the sequel.

Alison Croggon said...

As in, "that man speak with forked tongue"?

There are so many charged terms, George. I think what drives me crazy is that the vocabulary - which can be quite precise - is used in such a scattergun way, so it ends up not meaning anything...

Alison Croggon said...

...and no Chris, I haven't managed to get to Cellblock Booty, though I've heard good things from a few people (and read your review). Sometimes I really do wish there were three of me, instead of one of me pretending to be three...