Review: Red Sky Morning ~ theatre notes

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Review: Red Sky Morning

Red Sky Morning by Tom Holloway, directed by Sam Strong. Designed by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Danny Pettingill. With Erin Dewar, Sarah Sutherland and Erin Dewar. Red Stitch Theatre until September 27.

I have often theorised, over various beverages (coffee, whiskey, absinthe) that, while Melbourne is an exciting place to be if you like going to the theatre, with some brilliant theatrical minds and bodies, our theatre suffers from one debilitating weakness: its writing. Waxing lyrical, I'd suggest that this might have something to do with an inward-looking, parochial literary culture. Or alternatively, perhaps it's linked to a conviction I've encountered now and then among theatre artists and, sometimes, critics that literature and theatre are activities that are not only mutually exclusive, but naturally opposed.

Writers can react in defence by turning into enormous intellectual snobs or, alternatively, dump the idea of literature altogether as an unnecessary affectation. There's often been a broad streak of anti-intellectualism in Australian theatre, that can sideline literary art as a secondary, perhaps optional, part of the theatre. Actors might train for years to discipline their voices and bodies but, hey, any fool with a keyboard can write. The other response is for playwrights to become the sterile kings of an untouchable domain, a la the Edward Albee school of theatre. (There's that joke: how many playwrights does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: none. No changes!)

By the time I've reached this point, I usually have to be scraped off the floor and gently pushed home before I start dribbling. Or worse, before I begin to expound my ideas about what writing can be in the theatre, which is good for another three hours. But all this is a long-winded way of signalling that I think there is, in fact, a rich loam of theatre writing in Australia, which, despite the production of exciting playwrights like Lally Katz or Ross Mueller, remains mostly unploughed. Judging the RE Ross Trust Play Awards this year, I read a number of adventurous and intelligent texts that, above all, were clearly written for the theatre, as opposed to being transposed novels or bad attempts at poetry.

This is at once encouraging and challenging. Because if there are all these writers making interesting plays, how can our theatre culture support them? The talent out there far exceeds what our mainstream theatres, even with the best of intentions, can produce. I began to wonder if Melbourne needs a theatre specifically for writers, a theatre which exploits our sophisticated theatrical practice to realise the possibilities of this new work.

Or perhaps there's Red Stitch. (I realise this is a cue for other independent theatres to clamour that they, too, put on new writing: yes, yes, yes. And I'm not ignoring La Mama or Hoy Polloy or any others. But certainly, there's Red Stitch). Tom Holloway's Red Sky Morning is the first product of Red Stitch Writers, a system of in-house play development started last year. This is a new step in Red Stitch's history, which since 2001 has concentrated on picking up and producing the overseas work that escapes the notice of the MTC, and it demonstrates that there's a world of difference between putting on a play, however well, and making theatre.

In choosing to produce Holloway's play, Red Stitch made a courageous bet. And it's paid off. Red Sky Morning is exciting work, which, as good theatre writing should, attempts to rethink the possibilities of theatre. And, crucially, the commitment of the director, performers and designers to realising this play shines through this production.

Tom Holloway has written what might be called a spoken oratorio, a poem for three voices that, like a piece of music, weaves through counterpoint and harmony and tonal collisions. Holloway exploits the patterns of ordinary speech, its repetitions and elisions and fractures, with consummate skill. There is, despite the year-long development, a suspicion now and then of over-writing, a mere whisper of a few words too many, but it's a solid and artfully worked script with a powerful emotional engine.

It consists of three internal monologues that follow the course of 24 hours in the life of a rural family, a Man (David Whiteley), a Woman (Sarah Sutherland) and a Girl (Erin Dewar). Each monologue is autonomous, touching the others not through dialogue, but through a complex pattern of echoes and repetitions. It's a device which reinforces not only the mutual isolation of each character but, poignantly, their unmet yearning to connect.

They are at first glance an "ordinary" family living an unremarkable life somewhere in country Australia. It's a familiar landscape to anyone who has lived in a country town. The Man is a shopkeeper, his wife does housewifely duties, and their daughter is a schoolgirl whose major preoccupation is her crush on her schoolteacher. But, as Holloway begins to excavate their inner lives, it becomes clear that tragedy - as Chekhov understood profoundly - is not only the provenance of the large gesture. It exists in the smallest details of ordinary life: in the caress misunderstood, the moment missed, the dream unshared, despair unsaid and unheard.

In fact, Red Sky Morning is a play in which, quite literally, nothing happens, which is perhaps one of the hardest things to achieve successfully on stage. It begins with a missed moment of passion between the couple, when the Woman farts luxuriously in the bedroom, and their mutual embarrassment creates an impassable wall beyond which neither are able to reach, despite their longing for each other.

The Man goes to work, the Girl goes to school, the Woman waits for them to leave the house so she can begin drinking. Each moment of violent rebellion against the loneliness and tedium of their lives splutters out into impotent fantasy; the only character who can still express her rage is the Girl, and we suspect that she, too, will learn to push down her anger and despair, hiding it underneath the deadening normality of domestic routine.

The beast which haunts this family is represented by the recurring figure of a hallucinatory dog (like Les Murray's black dog, which he used, after Churchill, to describe his own black depressions). The Man is deeply, suicidally depressed, a weight which perhaps has sparked his wife's alcoholism. This profound dysfunction makes their daughter long for a "proper" family, a family whose weaknesses don't expose her to shame and insecurity and finally, terrible fear.

Director Sam Strong gives this complex, delicate play a production which is remarkable for its precision - very necessary, given the demands of the text - and its troubling, erotically charged darkness. Peter Mumford's design, moodily lit by Danny Pettingill, is a stylised Australian house floored with red earth, its walls defined by venetian blinds that can be snapped open and shut. Like the text, the design blurs the distinction between inside and outside, the hidden and the revealed.

The performances all rise to the challenges of the writing. Whiteley is almost the cliche of the decent, inarticulate country bloke, to the point where he is occasionally outshone by the other two actors (this might account for the odd moment of over-direction in his performance). Sutherland and Dewar give committed, focused performances, wringing out of the text its painfulness, violence and comedy.

If ever you need evidence that a production's process is reflected in what happens on stage, this is it. It certainly justifies Red Stitch's investment in Holloway, who is clearly a talent to watch. And it makes an intense, deeply absorbing hour in the theatre, a production that patiently accumulates power towards its devastating end.

Picture: (From left) Erin Dewar, David Whiteley, Sarah Sutherland in Red Sky Morning. Photo: Gemma Higgins-Sears


Michael Magnusson said...

"a mere whisper of a few words too many" ... 'Too many notes Her Mozart' was said about the work of another boy genius.
Just kidding, I agree with you. This is a good play and good production but what it signals in terms of writing development is as good and exciting.

Alison Croggon said...

I think that was Schaeffer rather than history, but it's a quote I've rather loved myself.

I bet if I had a script and a red pencil, I could find the words I meant. But then again, I might not... :)

Michael Magnusson said...

Apparently Emperor Joseph really said that to Mozart and Mozart apparently spoke back.

Alison Croggon said...

You're right, Michael - I should have looked it up! Amadeus being pretty much fiction doesn't mean none of it mightn't be fact... I always assumed Schaeffer stole the Salieri/Mozart idea from Pushkin, but I've never checked that out either.

P.Dantic said...

From the wikipedia:

"Amadeus was inspired by Mozart and Salieri, a short play by Aleksandr Pushkin and later adapted into an opera of the same name by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov."

Michael Magnusson said...

I seem to remember Shaffer's idea for Amadeus coming from, as well as the old claim made by Salieri that he poisoned Mozart, a weather report for Vienna on the day of Moart's funeral which claimed there
was no rain and storm (which prevented anyone other than his family attending) but was quite sunny. Shaffer thought all these contradictions might make a good story.

Alison Croggon said...

The similarities with Pushkin are pretty compelling however - the hard-working but ordinary artist eaten by envy by another's genius is Puskin's invention - here's Salieri speaking in the opening scene:

Oh, never did I know a moment’s envy,
Never! Not even when Piccini caught
The untamed ears of the Parisians,
Not even when, for the first time, I heard
The opening of Iphigenia played.
Who is there who can say proud Salieri
Was ever that low thing, an envious man,
That trampled snake that only lives to bite
The gravel and the dust in impotence?
Nobody!...Now, though - I myself must say it -
Now I am envious. I envy deeply;
Yes, I am wracked with envy. O heaven, where,
Where is the justice, when the holy gift,
Immortal genius, comes not as reward
For any burning love or self-denial,
Labor, diligence or prayer, but lights
It radiance instead in heads of folly
And frivolity? Oh, Mozart, Mozart!

And it continues with Salieri posing as a Man in Black who commissions the Requiem, and Salieri poisons him in the end...

André Bastian said...

Hi there,

I agree totally with Alison in her review on Tom Holloway's play... by far one of the best I've seen to date in an artistic environment dominated by harm stringing conventionalism which is no wonder if we look at the current funding practice in theatre. Compared with other theatre nations like the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, etc., there's just no reasonable funding for market independent (say: art) work. And there is, as Alison observes with brilliant acuteness, not much sense of the importance of form in art. It is, actually, the form which counts in Art, NOT AT ALL the content. That's why Leni Riefenstahl is still one of the greatest visual artists of the last century with a much deeper artistic impact on our current daily life than some might expect and -by confusion between form and content- wish. And that's why, on the other hand, Arno Breker did not have any persistent impact. (Please forgive my scarcity here.) We might hate the content and the message of an art work, and we might not agree at all with the personal attitude of one or the other artist, as I do not, obviously, with either of the latter ones. And I don't want to suggest with this that an artist may escape the responsibility of what he expresses with it's art. But these last rushed thoughts on a much more complicated issue may explain why I don't understand the mention of, in my opinion, one of the most boring, mainstream craftsmen (not artists), as Schaeffer is, in this context. He is just an example how formally annoying work -which, indeed can be 'lovely' in cinema- may chum up with our need of dull entertainment instead of trying to show us, time and again -by exploring the possibilities of storytelling in form- that reality is actually a construction of our mind. Then we might also stop taking for any truth whatever is written. (See:'Too many notes Her Mozart')

Thanks for your attention and have a beautiful day ;-)


André Bastian said...

Is there anybody to correct this terrible tipo which says "it's art" instead of "its art"?


Alison Croggon said...

Hi André (belatedly) - many thanks for your thoughtful note. And sorry, I can't fix up errors. I only have the power to DELETE. (Bwahahaha...) Which in this case, I'd obviously rather not.

And quite. I actually can't imagine what art is if it's not an essay in formal curiosity and passion. But it's a VERY complex issue, as you say.

Perhaps we can excuse mentioning Schaeffer because Pushkin followed in his wake?

André Bastian said...

Dear Alison,

Thank you very much for your comment. It is, INDEED, a really complex issue and as you will have recognised, I answered to the "Schaffer" issue in a very fervourous morning mood fully aware of all this mediocrity around and obviously also IN me. I can see this much more relaxed today, and he might certainly be a nice guy to have a talk with ;-) or a glass of wine (donno); anyway, he obviously is one of the big boys of the business and the success is on his side. But,(un)fortunately, success and ART still does not necessarily go together. By the way, to get a bit more private: I very much enjoyed the second part of your partner's The Serpent's Teeth in Sydney some months ago. I learnt a lot about Australia (and also about my country of origin and the attitudes of its people). And it is a brilliant piece of text!