Review: BC, Progress and Melancholy ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Review: BC, Progress and Melancholy

In one of those interesting synchronicities, there is a rash of contemporary theatre examining the foundational Christian myths. As Hayloft's BC - a rewriting of the Annunciation - plays in Melbourne, the STC is hosting Genesis, a contemporary look at the first chapters of the Bible performed by the Residents, their new ensemble. Black Lung last week put Christianity on the rack of its traumatic anarchy in Glasoon. Looking further back, two years ago Uncle Semolina & Friends reworked the Old Testament in OT.

It suggests that religion, especially Christianity, is an acute locus of both anxiety and curiosity among those companies exploring the outer edges of theatre. I guess it's unsurprising, given that God has risen from Nietzsche's grave to stalk modernity like a brain-eating zombie in a splatter movie: the rise of mediaevalist fundamentalism is the dark story of our time. As the sublime Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski said in the 1980s as he witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, the three great challenges to world peace in the following decades were religion, nationalism and racism. In the past few years, we've seen that prophecy playing out in our global politics.

But this focus on religion is also a curiosity about the foundations of western culture. Christianity shaped the West: it has been a defining force in its art and thought for hundreds of years. It's influenced our metaphysics, philosophy, law and social conventions. And for those raised in the shadow of that tradition, it is a primary expression of transcendence and the divine.

It's this last aspect that debut playwright Rita Kalnejais explores in BC, which takes the story of the Immaculate Conception and sets it in an outer suburb of a nameless Australian city. After attacking the modern classics - Chekhov, Stravinsky, Wedekind - it's good to see Hayloft taking on the risks of new writing, with Benedict Hardie's Yuri Wells earlier this year and now BC.

Here Mary is the teenage daughter of Joachim (Tyler Coppin), a depressed real estate agent, and Anne (Margaret Mills), who is in recovery from cancer and is perilously on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Her learning-challenged brother, Gabriel (Dylan Young) is obssessed, not entirely healthily, with birds, the angelic possibility of flight. Elizabeth (Yesse Spence), in the original story Mary's confidante and the first to recognise that Mary's pregnancy is the fruit of God ("Blessed are you among women!") becomes a pleasant, well-meaning neighbour. There are disturbing threads running through it: foremost the suggestion of incest between Mary and her father and, more directly, her brother.

It's an interesting idea that, despite some moments of coup de theatre and an outstanding cast, doesn't quite come off. Kalnejais can certainly write: she has the gift - perhaps because she is also an actor - of understanding direct dramatic action, and of creating characters who immediately assert their reality. And there's no faulting her ambition. However, the play falters in its formal balance between the naturalistic and the surreal: the naturalistic scenes are not nearly as focused as the others and often are simply too long, creating longueurs. And there's a more basic problem with the larger structure, which leads to a couple of false endings.

The play aims to illuminate moments of ordinary grace, investigating the divine immanent in quotidian existence, but a conceptual muddiness gets in the way. For instance, it's not the angel who impregnates Mary, but God: Gabriel merely announces the fact. I simply didn't understand the point of the brotherly incest or why God was absent from the shenanigans. And the Christian idea of grace is actually deeply interesting: the simple idea presented here of unmediated grace fudges its sternness and beauty, and begs the question of why Christianity is introduced in the first place. This kind of fuzziness means that the writing doesn't escape the problem of conjuring sentiment rather than real feeling.

All the same, director Simon Stone and his team create moments of genuine comedy and theatrical power. The immaculate conception itself - in which the angel and Mary unite as reflections separated by glass - is a beautifully thought and realised image of transcendence. And although some of the characters - Ashley Zuckerman's Joseph, for example - veer dangerously close to caricature, they are strange and individual enough to escape the worst perils.

Claude Marcos's set, an evocation of a suburban house bisected by a diagonal window that can turn into a mirror, vividly recalls Benedict Andrews' obsession with windows and mirrors, but works well on its own terms. Stone elicits some excellent performances, with a stand-out role by Dylan Young as Gabriel. I'm not sure Kalnejais could have asked for a better production of her first play. What she needs is some sharp dramaturgy.

Bagryana Popov's Progress and Melancholy is also a nice idea laid low by uncertain dramaturgy. It's one of a number of recent shows that reworks a classic, in this case, Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The idea is to excavate its subtext, radically resituating the play in the present - not only the contemporary present, but in the immediate present of the performers and the audience. Maybe the test of this kind of exercise is whether you're sitting in the audience wondering why the company doesn't just do the play: and in this case, I would have preferred to see Chekhov Uncut.

Popov has the chops here: her 2005 physical movement piece Subclass26A, which explored the realities of asylum seekers in detention, was riveting, sharply thought political theatre. So how come this one went so wrong? The play's subtext - focusing on personal, social and economic change - is shallowly explored, the connections made between the present of the actors and the imagined past of Chekhov are generalised and even sentimental, and when the physical movement aspires to the condition of dance, it is sometimes embarrassing. As a work, it seems frustratingly half-formed, and the informing ideas - the economic rise of China, the oncoming disaster of climate change, the feudal/capitalist exploitation of workers - all seem to operate at the level of naivety.

And yet there's the core of a great idea inside it. For all my reservations, the show features a couple of excellent performances. Natasha Herbert's Ranevskaya is (when it is allowed to occur) a moving and accurate performance of a middle aged bourgeois woman in denial of her disintegrating present. But the highlight - the performance that made this show worth watching - was Todd Macdonald's electrifying Lopahkin, the former-serf-turned-businessman who buys and destroys the cherry orchard, revenging the humiliations of his humble birth. In Macdonald's performance the intersecting realities - the big-talking developer, the ambitious nouveau riche serf - united and made sense, and the actor himself took a back seat. Given this, I wondered why the show didn't focus on Lopahkin, filleting that ambiguous character out of the play and attending to the realities that he both embodies and represents. But hey, it wasn't my show.

At one point they stopped the show and handed cake around the audience. It was good cake. It was well-meaning. And this was a well-meaning show. But I do think Chekhov would have threatened to shoot himself.

Picture: Dylan Young and Nicole Da Silva in BC. Photo: Jeff Busby.

BC by Rita Kalnejais, directed by Simon Stone. Set and costumes by Claude Marcos, lighting design by Kimberly Kaw, sound design by Stefan Gregory. With Tyler Coppin, Nicole Da Silva, Margaret Mills, Yesse Spence, Dylan Young and Ashley Zuckerman. The Hayloft Project @ Full Tilt, Black Box, Victorian Arts Centre, until December 19.

Progress and Melancholy, directed by Bagryana Popov. Design by Adrienne Chisolm, lighting design by Richard Vabre, composition and sound design by Elissa Goodrich. With Natasha Herbert, Todd Macdonald, Majid Shokor, Sara Black, Paea Leach, Christophe Le Tellier, music performed by Ernie Gruner. Fortyfive downstairs. Closed.


Chris Boyd said...

A minor point. The immaculate conception doctrine refers to the creation of a soul without original sin (i.e. Mary's) not the conception of Christ without, er, intercourse.

RK's Mary prolly rates as maculate!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the theological corrction Mr Boyd. I did know that. I still got it wrong. It's like spelling "receieve".

Maude said...

Wow, theology pointers on theatre notes. Way to go. I thought it was both Christ and Mary who were without sin... that the notion of immaculacy (is that a word?) was extended to Mary in one of the Vatican councils in the early twentieth...

Anonymous said...

Pertinent at least to probe the way/s in which the Christian doctrine sits at the back (or right at the front) of our personal and collective cultures.
The horizontal axis intersects the vertical exactly along the mid-line in some of the pre-Christian, Celtic crosses.
The horizontal plane pushed up toward the vertical distorts, representing a profound shift in consciousness- the denial of the earth, sensuality, muck, contact with feeling, in favour of escape into the abstract.
In the end it's a desperate flight from incarnation- the inability to acknowledge we are embers sparking and misfiring in a lump of flesh.
The pulling away from the earth elicits the opposite gesture- plunging straight into it. How much of western art/thinking is informed by these polarities?

Maude said...

Brilliant, thanks, love it.

Alison Croggon said...

Somehow missed these comments in all the other fuss. Yes, it's absolutely pertinent how Christianity conditions our (western) experience. But it's a complex religion, like all of them.

Some of the most beautiful expressions of those contradictions are the writings of the mediaeval mystics - not only the famous ones, like Teresa of Avila, Hildegard von Bingen, St John of the Cross or St Bernard Clairvaux, but many lesser known ones like Margery of Kent, or the Beguine nuns. What's amazing about these expressions of extreme religious experience is their sometimes startlingly frank eroticism and the physicality of their violence - Teresa talks in great detail about a vision where an angel plunges a spear into her entrails, drawing them out before her (and quite clearly the spear is a phallus). Others are less violent, but equally sensual in their expression. They fascinate me because this is when this mode of expression for spiritual experience was invented in the west.

Octavio Paz has a great book, Conjunctions and Disjunctions, which explores the transgressive aspects of religious writing (Christian, but also several Indian traditions, Hindu, Tantric, Thugee), looking at how only poetic language can reach beyond the limitations of language towards that inexpressibility of experienec. In my thinking anyway, this bleeds out to the obduracy of unmediated existence itself, Spinoza's idea of immanence rather than transcendence, eternity in a moment (Blake's "world in a grain of sand) which itself eventuality leads to existentialism.

Heidegger talks about the same kind of tension without the Christian overlay in his essay The Origin of the Work of Art, what he calls an "intimate struggle" between the obdurate materiality of a work (the earth)and the legible intellect (the world) that seeks to understand it. Truth is understood as a process of strife between this worldly self-opening and the earth's concealedness, rather than as, say, a correct representation. He reaches back before Christianity to use as his image a temple, built of stone to reveal the god.