The unspeakable is spoken.
Howard Barker, Theatre Without a Conscience
The naming of the intolerable is itself the hope.
John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
Liminal Theatre prints a long quotation from Howard Barker's collection of essays, Arguments for a Theatre, on the back of their program for Oedipus - A Poetic Requiem. It's from Barker's essay Theatre Without a Conscience, in which he condemns the "social hygiene" of a theatre which seeks to improve and enlighten and educate, a theatre which, as he says, "never sins". Barker, always the fiercest defender of imagination and beauty, demands a theatre that is a "black box", a theatre in which darkness reveals the inherent danger of play, and which seeks not the easy gratification of moral acquiescence, but the solitary terror of being.
What Barker proposes in part is the trangression of ritual, the dark transformation which unites the sacred and the profane. He interrogates the thrill that surges through our bodies as darkness falls in a theatre. "Why are we... half afraid? Is it because we are about to watch an actor? Yes, because actors are not entirely human, but more, it is the sense of attending on a sin, the possibility of witnessing a transgression..." Theatre, says Barker, is immoral; but he also quite clearly - and quite rightly - says that as a dramatist, he is a moralist. In fact, he is one of those artists whom George Bataille once called hypermoralists - artists like Jean Genet or Emily Bronte or De Sade or William Blake, whose attacks on the certainties of social morality are in the service of a more austere questioning, a rigorous and merciless calling to account of individual experience and thus of individual responsibility. The exact opposite, one might say, of moralising.
These reflections are certainly pertinent to the ambition of Mary Sitarenos' production of Oedipus. Sitarenos has taken Ted Hughes' free adaptation of the classic tragedy, Seneca's Oedipus, and transposed it into a choric lament by four women; the text has been edited but not substantially altered. Hughes' text was originally written for the National Theatre, premiering in 1968 in a production directed by Peter Brook. As Hughes said, his collaboration with Brook sought to "unearth the ritual possibilities" within the play. The result is one of the best things Hughes ever wrote, a play in which the words all but blister the lips in their speaking. Its visceral potency is still shocking: its invocation of an amoral, unjust universe blasted by plague and famine, of a life which makes death the lesser evil, remains terrifying.
Liminal Theatre creates Barker's black box, a work that plays like a nightmare across the retina of the subconscious. Sitarenos draws on Liminal's Asian influences - which have been internalised also in 20th century western theatre through Artaud and Brecht - to create a kind of theatre that is unique in Melbourne: a theatre that attends to its roots in ritual, and which here enacts the catastrophic edges of imaginative possibility. With Ivanka Sokol's dynamic video projections - fluid plays of abstract imagery that hauntingly hide and reveal and distort the human body - and Chris Wenn's driving sound design, which unites echoes of ancient Greek music with modern electronic sound - Sitarenos creates a kind of total theatre that engages all the senses. And it's performed in all its relentlessness without a trace of apology or irony (aside, of course, from the black irony of Oedipus's fate).
The play takes place in an intimate theatre that seats maybe 40 people at most, its walls defined by black cloth. A mask is projected onto black curtains as a pre-recorded prologue - a brief contemporary speech about the significance of the myth of Oedipus - crackles through the auditorium. Then two women, their white arms spectral against their black robes, draw open the curtains, revealing a stage naked but for a single leafless branch to one side. And we launch into the opening speeches, summoning us into a landscape of death, of dried springs and withered harvests and the reek of funeral pyres and rotting corpses.
The conception is at once simple and ingenious. Oedipus is represented by a simple mask suspended from the ceiling, and his speeches are recorded, his physical absence playing disconcertingly against the live enactments. Jocasta is also a mask, although her speeches are performed by one of the four performers (Ivanka Sokol, Jo Smith, Georgina Durham and Claire Nicholls). The action of the play is physically realised through stylised movement, white limbs and faces writhing out of darkness, that is given an unnerving textural variety (fleshly rottenness, flame and fire, the ambiguity of mist and smoke) by Sokol's video work.
The effect of all the different elements is to throw the emphasis onto Hughes' text, which at times - such as in the stunning scene when Manto describes an "evil" sacrifice to the blind Tiresias, or during the description of Oedipus's self-blinding - is almost as hard to bear as if we were really witnessing those terrible acts. In the face of so much achievement, it is a little churlish to wish that the actors' voices had been more compelling; but often the voices, while certainly adequate, left something to be desired. Even a little more actorly control and power would have made a great deal of difference.
No matter what the quibbles, the achievement and scope of this piece is astounding: here we gaze into the abyss that is tragedy, an abyss that is always and without exception an enactment of and a lament for our own inevitable deaths. Out on the edges of our culture, with the most minimal of resources, Liminal Theatre is making theatre of a rare ambition and seriousness. Attention must be paid.
Oedipus - A Poetic Requiem, from Seneca's Oedipus by Ted Hughes, directed by Mary Sitarenos. Set design by Mary Sitarenos. Videographer Ivanka Sokol, sound construction Chris Wenn, sound design by Chris Wenn and Mary Sitarenos, lighting deisgn by Damien Lentini. Chorus of women: Ivanka Sokol, Jo Smith, Goergina Durham and Claire Nicholls, with voices by Peter Finlay, Paul Robertson and Mary Sitarenos. Liminal Theatre @ J-Studios, 100 Barkly Street, North Fitzroy, until September 14. Tickets at Easytix.