The most contemporary thing about contemporary art is its crisis...
The Accident of Art, Paul Virilio
It's always interesting to revisit a show, and doubly interesting when it's as fascinating as Daniel Schlusser's production Life is a Dream, an enactment of the 17th century Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca's famous philosophical play about the nature of reality. Theatre in its purest forms is flux made visible and plastic, a constant interrogation of the present through the conditionings of the past. (I mean this quite literally. Weeks or months of rehearsal, countless orchestrations of bodies, objects, sound, spatial arrangements, make every action a deliberate and conscious choice that, if it is to possess any life, must manifest in the now as if it were newly discovered: a paradox theatre can never resolve so much as embody).
Heraclitus, whose ambiguities and musical language make him a poet among philosophers, argued that: "On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow" (for the Greek scholars among you, "Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei"). Not so much that one can't step into the same river twice, which is Plato's interpretation, but that in returning to the same river, one will encounter other waters: the river remains what it is only through the constancy of its change.
Likewise with revisiting a work of theatre: the work's structure and identity remain constant, but the experience will be, in countless subtle ways, a different meeting, buffeted by variable currents. This change is, crucially, the condition of its vitality. In the case of Life is a Dream, focus inevitably shifts on a second viewing, and becomes more layered: what I said about its first season last year, with Company 08 at what was then the Victorian College of the Arts, remains true. (And since I hate repeating myself, that review contains a discussion of the original play and its relation to the performance which I'll not explore here).
Yet, wholly unsurprisingly, this incarnation is more conscious, more practised, and more immediately legible. As much as any evolution in the work itself, this is also because I was sitting close enough to the performers to hear their private dialogue, which was mostly inaudible the first time. Although in both cases the emerging power relationships between the performers was very clear, there was a quality to this inaudibility that I missed, a heightened sense of voyeurism that underlaid some of the work's strange unease.
Schlusser uses very little of the original play; it exists as shining moments of pure dramatic poetry that bubble out of the riveting banality of the performance on stage. He weaves fragments of Beatrix Christian's translation through what he calls "poorer" speech: a casual domestic conversation that establishes its own routine - boiling a kettle, tea making, instructions to comfort or to attack another performer. The conceit is that the performers are, like Segismundo himself, damaged adults abandoned by parental authority; they are caught in a traumatic repetition that attempts to restore order, clear lines of authority and power, where none existed in the first place.
This initial reality is established patiently and without any concession to dramatic artifice: there is no attempt to persuade an audience to empathy, no overt manipulation. The action on stage flirts constantly with the edges of boredom, but its apparent artlessness is belied by its careful orchestration. The stage dynamic escalates insensibly from a mundane if degraded domesticity to excesses of cruelty and desire with an action like breathing: it eddies in and out of crisis, gradually generating a concentration of energy until the poetry of Calderón's play becomes possible.
The power of this production depends crucially on the nine performers who, with the exception of Johnny Carr who plays the imprisoned Segismondo, are unable to escape our gaze. They inhabit the reality of the stage with unwavering concentration, hooking and keeping an involuntary attention with the depth and detail of their performances. When they shift seamlessly from casual spoken language to the startlingly beautiful poetry of Christian's text, it has both the shock of contrast and an underlying continuity.
The show's sense of unity stems from the central metaphor that is filleted out of the play and extended in performance - the figure of the abandoned and mistreated child. Here the fairytale mother is dead in childbirth, the father an absent tyrant; the child is betrayed by those who should have most cared for him. When Segismundo is brought out of his prison in chains, his legs and elbows agonisingly chafed and blistered, he is the embodiment of abjection. His suffering, according to the king, is the condition of the kingdom's security: he is the scapegoat for the king's fears and, as a result of his mistreatment, also embodies them.
Life is a Dream plays out the aftermath of damage: it's clear in the neurotic repetitions, the infantilisms of mutual dependency and the relentless scapegoating, as much as in the complex denials that are encapsulated by mundane routine. In particular, it illuminates how traumatic shifts of power are domesticated and normalised, just as after revolution the king - Napoleon, Stalin - restores the lines of authority that have been blown violently apart. Freedom glimpsed through the lens of revolution is, after all, terrifying, and perhaps there is something in the human psyche that craves the security of tyranny.
This production is in some ways deeply pessimistic: trapped in the damage of childhood, it suggests, we can never embrace either freedom or responsibility. Against this is posited a fragile hope in a possible ethics, Segismundo's statement that the good we do matters, whether it occurs in a dream or in reality. It offers no resolution: the production is simply a playing out of crisis. It's a crisis of art as much as it is of conscience, poising us, just as the performances do, on the razor-edge of contingency, between the ghosts of the past and the trash of the present.
THIS week I also caught Andrew Bovell's When The Rain Stops Falling, which finishes its MTC season today after a national tour. This production has been bouncing from festival to festival, with plaudits showering down like the torrents mentioned ad nauseam in the play itself. And I'm frankly baffled by the fuss.
The structure is an uncomfortable conceit that stretches Arthur Miller-style realism towards surreal ends. The writing is like a lot of the Australian brand of so-called magical realism, which employs an enervating faux lyricism to dress up what are essentially banal conclusions with some pretty imagery (in this case, fish and rain). The anxiously detailed plot (paedophilia, suicide, child murder, child abandonment, love affairs, fatal car accidents, all swimming in the thematic broth of climate change) is strung together by a bunch of increasingly unlikely coincidences, ranging across four generations of two families to trace the genealogy and resolution of psychic damage.
Yet for all this frenetic ambition, it nowhere strikes a true emotional note: all through the play, statement ("I'm going mad!") substitutes for the emergence of feeling. It's amazing how agonisingly boring this becomes: the falsity mounts to an almost hysteric over-compensation, which is perhaps most noticeable in the copious tears shed by various actors. And it's not helped by the leaden pace of the production, which delivers its holy truths with an earnestness worthy of George Lucas retelling the Christian myth in the Star Wars prequel. Repetitions are archly (and frequently) deployed to demonstrate the fatal connections across generations, but they function chiefly as a plot contrivance, rather than as a deepening of metaphor.
The design is stylishly imagined by Hossein Valamanesh, but in the end amounts to a parade of pretty tableaux unveiled to a neo-Glass soundtrack, which is at least played live. The performances, perhaps worn down after several seasons, varied wildly the night I saw them; Neil Pigot's bizarre decision to play both his roles as if he were an old man whose boots were full of water was intensely distracting, as were some very poorly rendered British accents. For the record, Yalin Ozucelik got his accent pitch-perfect, and Paul Blackwell's understated performance was a pleasure to watch, which provided some compensation for all the mugging.
Even more than its intellectual fuzziness - the issue of climate change, for example, is basically a kind of aesthetic wallpaper - its main lack is emotional precision, which would seem crucial in a work that is essentially about the life of feeling. Ironically, given its obsession with rain, it made me think of some lines of Ezra Pound's: "dry casques of departed locusts / speaking a shell of speech... / Words like locust-shells, moved by no inner being..." It gives the whole a strange air of being an imitation of something else.
Life is a Dream, adapted from Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Beatrix Christian, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Marg Horwell, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, special make-up effects by Dominique Noelle Mathisen, composed by Darrin Verhagen, stage management by Pippa Wright, produced by Sarah Ernst. With George Banders, Brendan Barnett, Johnny Carr, Andrew Dunn, Julia Grace, Sophie Mathisen, Vanessa Moltzen, Sarah Ogden and Josh Price. The Store Room until November 29.
When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell, directed by Chris Drummond. Desined by Hossein Valamanesh, composer Quentin Grant, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With Paul Blackwell, Michaela Cantwell, Carmel Johnson, Kris McQuade, Yalin Olucelik, Anna Lise Phillips and Neil Pigot. Brink Productions, presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company and Melbourne International Arts Festival, Sumner Theatre untl November 22.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
The most contemporary thing about contemporary art is its crisis...