Review: Savage River ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: Savage River

Last Friday, the Melbourne premiere of Steve Rodgers' Savage River also saw the opening of a significant new theatre: the Melbourne Theatre Company's Lawler Studio. This gorgeous 150-seat venue is the studio the MTC had to have: a basic, flexible black box space that is beautifully fitted out and which, crucially, features excellent acoustics. This will give the MTC a lot more artistic room to move.

I can't overstate how important this possibility is to the wider ecology of Melbourne theatre, as much as to the culture of the MTC itself: it opens the door to new talent and new audiences, allowing the company to nurture some exciting energies that simply can't be accommodated in larger venues. It looks to me that it will be a worthy complement to the work that goes on elsewhere, in the Malthouse's Tower seasons and the Arts Centre's Full Tilt programs. I have thought for some time that the lack of a mainstage theatre that devotes itself, Royal Court-style, specifically to new writing is a significant gap in Melbourne culture; and it seems to me that the Lawler Studio might be it. Certainly the emphasis of this year's program, under associate director Aidan Fennessy, is squarely on new plays.

The inaugural season kicks off with a modest but intriguingly various program of three works that reflects the diversity of Australian contemporary theatre writing, as well as a season of playreadings later this year. After Savage River, Lally Katz's Apocalypse Bear Trilogy is one of the MTC's Melbourne Festival shows, and Peter Houghton premieres the third in his trilogy of comic monologues, The Colours, next month. The opening play, Savage River, premiering here after a season at Sydney's Griffin Theatre, is unambiguously a play. And even if it is more melodrama than drama, betraying the faults of a promising but new playwright, it is encouraging to see a new work with these ambitions.

Earlier this year, after reading my way through more than 50 scripts as a judge for a couple of awards, I started to wonder where all the dramatists were. I saw plenty of writing for theatre, some of it very exciting indeed, but very little work that really grappled with the craft of drama. As was said in the judges' report for the RE Ross Trust award, "the strongest entries tended to come from the poetic or 'alternative' end of the spectrum. All but one of the winning contenders conform to this pattern."

I've speculated privately on why this might be. I suspect part of it is simply that writing drama is very difficult indeed. I have wondered now and again whether the much-vaunted "post-dramatic stage" is simply about an art being forgotten, rather than its being no longer relevant. It also occurs to me that the strength in "alternative" writing might equally stem from the fact that the culture around collaborative work is presently so vital: we have brilliant directors, designers, theatre composers, technicians and actors who are able to realise different kinds of theatricality with sophistication and flair.

The culture around writing plays is only just beginning to catch up, dropping, I hope, the anti-intellectual "a-play-is-not-literature" polemic that led to such incuriosity about the formal qualities of plays, and perhaps laying down at last the deadening issue-led ideologies that dominated the 1980s and 90s. Deadening, I would argue, because they focus on aspects extrinsic to a text, politicising work in ways that are ultimately deeply conservative - both politically and aesthetically - because they draw attention away from the primary experience of theatre itself. That primary experience is, after all, the truly radicalising force of any kind of artistic work.

Savage River is a play that doesn't fall into this vanguard; it rightly leaves any "issues" for the audience to think about. Set in an isolated shack on the edge of Savage River, a mining town in the north-west of Tasmania, it explores the obsessive relationship between Kingsley (Ian Bliss) and his son Tiger (Travis Cardona), which is disturbed when the arrival of a stranger, Jude (Peta Sergeant), catalyses dramatic change. Kingsley and Jude are both hiding: Jude is an alcoholic trainwreck with a shady past, on the run with some stolen money. Kingsley, who works at the mine, has kept his son "safe" from the corrupting and dangerous world, and also, we discover, from the family of his Indigenous mother, who disappeared when he was a small boy.

These three characters become a broken mirror of the conventional family unit, a strange reflection of the settler-invaders who drove the local people from their land and into the shadows. In the figure of Tiger's absent mother and her family, there's a glance towards the recent scholarship on Aboriginal history, which argues that Indigenous genocide was as much a practice of hidden genealogies and secret family history as it was of slaughter. And beneath it all is the uneasy question of belonging, of relationship to place as well the bonds between people.

In the play's best moments, there's an edge of Sam Shepard in these isolated characters, a rough-hewn lyricism that could be burnished to an iconic, and particularly Australian, grandeur and tragedy. It doesn't get there: Rodgers as yet lacks the subtlety of emotional register to lift the story beyond melodrama. The first act moves slowly, obliquely filling in the textures of these three lives without quite avoiding the perils of stasis, and when in the second act events unfold, as you know they inevitably will, they crash down with a kind of grinding legibility. You can see the potential in some of Rodgers' dialogues, an ability to write dynamic language that surely comes out of his acting experience, but his crafting of dramatic movement - perhaps the most demanding of all writing, bar poetry - is still crude and uncertain.

As a result, there is an air of overstatement in the performances, as if the actors are pushing the emotional meat of the play, rather than permitting it to emerge. The actors all have their moments - I especially liked Cardona's portrayal of Tiger's confused innocence - but at the same time I thought that feeling was being demonstrated rather than communicated. All the same, there's no doubt that the production is elegantly designed, with a simple but evocative set by Stephen Curtis floored by black sand, a lush lighting design by Daniel Zika and some nice music from Jed Kurzel. Kelly Ryall's sound design does tend to swell up to signal important moments, but generally Peter Evans's direction is tactful, lucidly framing the play. It's not going to set the world on fire, but it's a decent start to what I hope will be an exciting new phase for the MTC.

Picture: Travis Cardona and Peta Sergeant in Savage River.

Savage River by Steve Rodgers, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Stephen Curtis, lighting design by Daniel Zika, sound design by Kelly Ryall, music composed by Jed Kurzel. With Ian Bliss, Travis Cardona and Peta Sergeant. MTC @ the Lawler Studio, until August 8.


Born Dancin' said...

"Savage River... is unambiguously a play."

When did the theatrical notion of 'play' come to signify the exact opposite of what we usually mean when we use the term? Saddening, now that I think of it...

A fine review; I think I enjoyed Savage River more than you, and it's definitely in that naive realist mode that rarely floats my boat. Perhaps I was just surprised to find that kind of piece actually keeping me compelled. There are certainly some forced, mawkish moments; I think the performances actually surpass the script.

Looking forward to checking out the Lawler again, though.

Matthew said...

I think I liked it less. (I wrote the review for The Australian, and it wasn't a positive one.) I think we had similar problems with it; though my review, reading back on it, was much harsher. Meanwhile, I would love you to write more (because you've got so much time on your hands, right?) about why you think little new work "grapple(s) with the craft of drama".

Alison Croggon said...

When did the theatrical notion of 'play' come to signify the exact opposite of what we usually mean when we use the term? Saddening, now that I think of it...

Only when it's in italics, BD. Actually, I think the various meanings of the terms ideally collide, or at the very least, vibrate gently together... and they're hardly at odds in this case.

Matt, I've been writing far too much this week; about theatre, I mean. But will keep those speculations in my back pocket. I'd actually be more interested in hearing what others think.

Matthew said...

Perhaps we could have the blogger's version of a roundtable discussion (what the film bloggers used to call a blog-a-thon), writing to the subject and posting our responses on the same day. Followed by gratuitous linking to one another and much conversing in the comments.

Dot said...

Stories and seem out of vogue for Melbourne writers at the moment – I miss them, we get play plays from the West End and Broadway put on by your MTC’s and your Red Stitch’s but not so much from Australia and not so much from new Australian writers (actually Sydney do a bit – but then they have Griffin)

I think you are right Alison – drama is difficult. It requires events that push each other forward, characters that have minds of their own rather than prettily arranged thoughts of the author. I saw AVIARY at La Mama recently and thought that there were very interesting thoughts in it but I got bored without an experience to draw me in, to make me forget I was watching something somebody wrote. Maybe that’s why August : Osage County was so talked about – it was a great big fat story from our time. I don’t know.

I know when I was at uni they pushed avant-garde performance rather than play. I don’t ever remember a tutorial on story – it wasn’t till I grew up a bit that I realised that’s what I love most about theatre. I think our culture and our funding systems all reward boundary pushing which is fine – but I hope it’s not at the expense of a ‘traditional’ stories about our time and our people. I think this has been highlighted by seeing Savage River –it was new Australian writing that wasn’t written by your Williamsons or your Murray-Smiths but it was a ‘proper’ play...

Alison Croggon said...

I am personally a bit obsessed with storytelling. I think the arts of narrative are complex and rich, and often misunderstood: as you say, narratve is often dismissed in ways that to my mind gloss a few of its essential qualities (eg, a good story is much much more than "plot"). The most ancient and oral stories are in fact deeply mysterious still, and often have (apparently) deeply illogical structures. As human beings we do have a hunger for it - stories are how we understand our worlds, and reach into other places. I think you're quite correct, Dot, in suggesting that this was what made people so love August Osage County. Also, btw, why fantasy is so popular!

Which isn't to say that I don't appreciate non-narrative writing, which brings other kinds of illuminations; contemporary poetry, on the whole, isn't big on story either. Liking one doesn't mean not liking the other, which is a dichotomy I've never quite understood.

Nathan said...

I saw this up in Sydney, and I found it enjoyable enough. The scenes without Tiger were a little harder to watch, and by the end came something of a chore, because I knew exactly what they were going to say before they did. Tiger held it together for me though, I thought Cardona did a great job - though I think I just have a soft spot for for that confused sort of innocence on stage.
Probably what irked me most was the blackouts and sound, which kept taking me away from being in the story; I'm sure the sound could have been a little more subtle and less 'here comes a moment of emotional significance' and the blackouts could have just... not been there. Overall though I found it nice enough, it felt like afternoon television (in a good way, and not just because it on a sunny Saturday afternoon).

Gilligan said...

Just catching up with this very interesting discussion.

I'm a bit puzzled by the suggestion that there is a lack of "story" in contemporary theatre. I don't think I've ever seen a play that didn't tell a story. Even post-dramatic pieces that don't follow traditional narrative structures, to me, still tell a story.

For example, Ranters' Holiday had no traditional narrative structure, but through its incredibly captivating form of conversation we "experienced" a story through memory, as opposed to being "told" a story. I think post-dramatic pieces still deal very heavily with story, but their form deals more with the pursuit of experience, rather than the "telling" of a story.

In regards to Savage River, I found it to be both strong and weak in equal measure. I thought almost every element of the play, from writing to direction to performance and design, had things worth complimenting and aspects that let it down.

I'm surprised that what I thought was the plays strongest quality, the performance of Ian Bliss, has been largely overlooked. Rarely have I seen masculinity and the archetype of the Australian male so strongly portrayed on stage. Although, I think Chris Boyd commented on this in his Herald Sun review.

I was also guilty of drooling over the amazing new space. I'm very much looking forward to the Katz work. However, I have to question the selection of Houghton's work as part of the Lawler season. If the the MTC is serious about the studio being a breeding ground for ground-breaking work, why has it programmed the third play in a series of works that are rather mainstream? The earlier two plays both received seasons at The Malthouse, and we've already had Commercial Farce this year. Don't get me wrong I think Houghton is great, but surely the resources could have been better used?

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, there's a confusion of terms happening here. I agree with you, Gilligan. There are many different kinds of making stories and structuring narratives. By "story", I think people mean something with a clear and direct narrative/emotional line, which I have rather lazily described as "drama" (I think of story as a much more general term). I'm thinking hard of ways to make these distinctions which are not, in the last analysis, nonsensical, but haven't come up with anything yet.

Only guessing, but Houghton is very popular, and the Studio season needs people to come to it.

Gilligan said...

Yes that's true but I think there is also tendency for people to try and pin things down as one or the other, when the lines probably aren't so clear cut.

As for the Houghton thing, I'm sure just as many people would go see something a bit more challenging. We live in Melbourne after all. However, I do understand the MTC being conservative to begin with, just hoping for a bit more boundary pushing next time.