Adelaide Festival: Le Grand Macabre, Vs Macbeth ~ theatre notes

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Adelaide Festival: Le Grand Macabre, Vs Macbeth

Note: there are spoilers in these reviews

Ms TN is bereft of complaint (which is, as Rilke said, the abiding vice of poets). It's glorious to be in Adelaide: the days are fine and hot, the evenings mild and clear, and there is no shortage of interesting things to see and to think about. At night the buildings along North Terrace transform into absurd and beautiful fantasias in a light display that exactly paints each facade of these superb buildings - the museum, the art gallery, the university - in saturated colour. The display, called Northern Lights, changes every two minutes, so the same building is at one moment a fantasy neo-classical Renaissance palace, at the next a fairytale hardware store (with gnomes). As the hundreds of people out oohing and taking photos attest, it's enchanting public art.

It is a gorgeous walk from the Torrens River, which is a riot of Spiegeltentian lights, and then along North Terrace. This was my route home from the Festival Theatre, where last night I saw the much anticipated production of Le Grand Macabre. György Ligeti's only opera, and the work widely judged to be his masterpiece, it's presented as a massive co-production between four major European companies - Brussells' Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, the English National Opera, Barcelona's Gran Teatro de Liceu and Italy's Teatro dell'Opera di Roma.

The vast scale of this production has been judged to be the reason for the relative thinness of the theatre component of this year's festival, at least for a visitor from Melbourne. Artistic director Paul Grabowsky has included a number of first-class Australian shows (Eleventh Hour's King John, Back to Back's extraordinary Food Court, Lucy Guerin's Untrained, Wesley Enoch's The Sapphires, and so on). Not, as Seinfeld said, that there's anything wrong with that: it's not as if these shows have been seen in Adelaide, and they deserve this further exposure. But as far as spectacular international theatre goes, Le Grand Macabre is about it. There is Elevator Repair Service's The Sound and the Fury, but after suffering through Gatz I've passed on seeing what they do to Faulkner, even if this one is five hours shorter. The one festival show that I'm sorry to miss (or which I haven't already seen or won't, like Wrong Skin, see later in Melbourne) is the Irish Druid Theatre's The Walworth Farce, of which I hear glowing reports.

Its status as the big show of the festival throws a weight of expectation onto Le Grand Macabre: you want it to be extraordinary. I confess here, gentle reader, to a tiny twinge of disappointment. There's no doubting the beauty and wit of Ligeti's music, nor the opera's status as a modern masterpiece, nor indeed the spectacularity of Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco's production. I wish I had the musical literacy to describe Ligeti's composition: the attraction of his score is its depth and lushness, which emerges perversely out of stern modernity. There are references everywhere, from Monteverdi to Beethoven, clashing gloriously with a riot of percussion and unexpected juxtapositions. It's rich, layered, complex and witty, and it is a profound pleasure to hear it.

The libretto is from a play by Flemish dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, La Balade du Grand Macabre. The opera has a complex history of production: it premiered in Stockholm in 1978 but reached its present form in 1997, when most of the spoken text was cut or scored, and the preferred language changed to English. The play itself is set in an imaginary world called Breughelland, and its abiding hauntings are Breughel - in particular his painting The Triumph of Death - and Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. Both these paintings are inscrutable nightmares, emerging from the chaotic late mediaeval period in Northern Europe, which was devastated by plague and war. They are informed by fantastic depictions of proverbs and other folk motifs, now mainly lost to interpretation, and behind each painting broods the Christian visions of Apocalypse and Hell, of the fiery damnation and waste of eternity.

Ligeti's art emerges from a time in which the horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction of the cities of Europe were still a recent memory: Ligeti's immediate family were sent to Auschwitz, from which only his mother survived. The irony and savage satire that inform Le Grand Macabre - in which Death himself (Nekortzar, sung by Roderick Earle) is mocked as a drunken sot and fraud - is the same black vision of absurdity that haunts post-war dramatists such as Tadeusz Różewicz, Thomas Bernhardt, or Heiner Müller. Here, the Europe that rose from the ashes of World War 2 - as fearful, corrupt and self-serving as it was before the war that seemed, at the time, like the end of the world - is mercilessly satirised in scathing Dadaist takedowns.

The paranoid security state is, for example, mocked in the absurd police chief Gepopo (Susanna Andersson); the corruption of democracy in the White and Black Ministers (Adam Goodburn and Christopher Tonkin); pusillaninous authority in the figure of Prince Go-Go (Brian Asawa). Even science gets a serve in the figure of the masochistically married astronomer, Astrodamors (Frode Olsen), ever at the mercy of his sexually voracious wife Mescalina (Ning Liang). Through this world walks a confused Everyman, Piet the Pot (Chris Merritt), who unwittingly finds himself the slave of Death, and a rather poor substitute for his Pale Horse.

The only ambiguous hope is in the figures of the lovers, Amanda (Ilse Eerens) and Amando (Annie Vavrille), who alone refuse to succumb to fear, and who insist on the earthly pleasures of their love and the brief, vivid intensity of the present moment as the only truth. They are like the lovers in Breughel's The Triumph of Death. There, the entire canvas is dominated by a terrifying vision of the armies of death marching through human life, laying everything waste. The only patch of green is a tiny lawn in the bottom corner of the painting, on which is seated two lovers playing music to each other, their backs turned to the desolation. They are at once an image of the solipsism and blindness of sexual love, heedless of everything but itself, and a poignant reminder of human resistance and beauty. In this opera they are portrayed as skinless, like those images in an anatomical diagram of muscles and tendons, their nerves utterly exposed and unprotected.

Directors Ollé and Carrasco situate the action in a giant, grotesque woman's body, bookending the opera with a short filmed narrative about a woman called Claudia who, after gorging herself on pizza and Macdonalds hamburgers, and smoking ashtrays full of cigarettes, has a brief moment of physical collapse during which she believes she is dying. Her naked body becomes the huge puppet that dominates the stage: performers emerge from various orifices (except, interestingly, the ears, the nose and the anus), clamber about her collapsed legs, screw off her nipples and hide inside her, or (literally) worm through her entrails. Some extraordinary video is projected onto the woman: at various times her body is a charnel house of bones, a site of apocalyptic flame, or becomes a three-dimensional image of her skeleton as the body rotates. It ought to be spectacular, and it is, generating beautiful stage images: but for the first half it is also static, more like watching visual art from a distance than the dynamic invitation of performance.

After interval the staging becomes more dynamic, and consequently more engrossing: it is in this half too that a scrim descends for one of the more beautiful scenes, when Piet and Astradamors float together in shifting clouds, believing that they have died and gone to heaven. There is much that is spectacular, obscene, lyrical and comic in this production, and I wouldn't have missed Gepopo's big Dadaist solo for anything: but what is ultimately missing is a real sense of the tragic, however removed at an ironic distance. I suspect this is because of its framing in the small domestic moment of Claudia's indigestion. This has its pertinence and intelligence as a metaphor for Ligeti's abortive and drunken apocalypse; yet it makes the opera not so much a defiant mockery of death and its mechanisms, as a removal of death altogether. It is only, after all, a phantom of western over-indulgence. Still mulling over this one. But I feel that I ought to have felt more.

I felt a similar nagging disappointment in Vs Macbeth. This is a collaboration between the STC's actors ensemble The Residents and Adelaide's The Border Project, and it demonstrates a laudable desire to return to a dirtier, rougher theatre after the extravagant spectacles of the Actors Company. There is much to like in this production, but as a project it still seems to me to be at the level of potential rather than actualisation. I felt I was watching a production that rehearsed gestures I've seen elsewhere in the work of Benedict Andrews or Melbourne's Black Lung (the concept was, in fact, something like a cross between the practice of these two); but without the disciplining intellect of one or the outrageous anarchy of the other, it ends up falling between two stools.

Where it succeeds is in its exploitation of the central metaphor of Macbeth: darkness. The entire play takes place at night, when the clear borders of day are erased and moral certainties waver in the vaporous air, when evil deeds are hatched and nightmare crawls into insanity.At night the uncanny and the demonic emerge from the shadowy reaches of the psyche: from its shadows emerge the witches, with their riddling prophecies that, like all oracles, perilously hold the seed of their undoing. Sleep - a recurring motif - is the softer face of death, the means by which we are unconscious to ourselves; it is sleep that deserts Macbeth and his wife and exposes them to the full horror of their inner darkness.

Backed by the growls of an electric guitar, director Sam Haren lets loose the action on a black stage that is curiously both cavernous and claustrophobic, with two monitors on either side that mostly track the live action. The performers are exposed in unforgiving, harsh light, or vanish into the shadows. Ambiguity is the order of the day: in a canny piece of casting, Macbeth (Cameron Goodall) also plays the traitor Cawdor, whose title Macbeth takes. The witches (Ursula Mills, Zindzi Okenyo and Alirio Zavarce) are ambiguously gendered underworld denizens, mocking Macbeth's doubtful certainties with voices amped and sonically treated to an unhuman weirdness. The most brilliant scene in the production - Macbeth's final visit to the witches - is in fact played out in total darkness, with Macbeth's face filmed in infra-red camera on the monitors.

The chief conceit is Macbeth's history as a cursed play, notorious for the unluckiness of its productions: we are reminded of this tradition by a game of Chinese whispers that runs along the audience (although the night I went, the audience rebelled and sent it backwards down the line). Consequently, there are a few moments where things go wrong: a prop catches fire, and must be extinguished; Macbeth's crown is too big and falls around his neck; a lighting rig falls down from the flies. The actors stop and deal with the "mistake", or have sotte voce conversations with technicians or each other, before getting on with the show. There's no point at which these small accidents derail the play or, conversely, illuminate it - they act chiefly as reminders that we are watching a live play - and ultimately it seems like a timid interpolation of carefully engineered anarchy that, inevitably, is thus not anarchic at all. But perhaps faintly annoying.

The other conceit is the use of paintball guns as the weapon of choice. For the execution of Cawdor, executions being a formal business, this is very effective: a safety curtain is drawn across the front of the stage, actors run on with a rack of guns, masks and armour are donned, and at last the Thane of Cawdor is spattered with green paint and theatrically dies. Later in the play, these formal safety procedures neutralise any sense of violence - only once, when an anonymous paintballer bends over and casually shoots Lady Macduff's baby (who is thankfully spared the "egg" speech) does it have any charge of crime.

All the lead performances are excellent, although the cast is a little uneven in the minor roles. Cameron Goodall is a nervy, wired Macbeth, driving, like a junkie, towards his own destruction. Amber McMahon as Lady Macbeth at first seems too delicate for the role, until she channels some termagent and sets ice in your blood with those murderous speeches. They're supported by powerful performances from Tahki Saul (Macduff), Brett Stiller (Banquo) and Malcolm (Richard Pyros).

Yet, for all its virtues, the production as a whole never quite generates the unnerving instability it seeks. Maybe, like the random dates that were flashed up on the video monitors, it's a bit over-clever. (I dutifully wrote them down but, despite some heavy googling, couldn't work out the significance of "London 1928" or "Amsterdam 1674" - was it because Madame Tussaud's opened? Or New Amsterdam becoming New York? Or just there to stimulate some pointless research? Or what?) Or maybe, like the - yes, legally necessary - signs outside the theatre itself, it was all a bit too careful to assure us that, after all, we were quite safe.

Picture: Northern Lights, North Terrace, Adelaide Festival.

Le Grand Macabre, libretto by Michael Meschke and György Ligeti after Michel de Ghelderode. Theatre Royale de la Monnaie, English National Opera, Gran Teatro de Liceu and Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival, until March 4.

Vs Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, directed by Sam Haren. Design, Sam Haren and Melissa Page, sound design and composition David Heinrich, lighting design by Govin Ruben. With Alice Ansara, Cameron Goodall, David Heinrich, Amber McMahon, Ursula Mills, Zindzi Okenyo, Julia Ohannessian, Richard Pyros, Sophie Ross, Tahki Saul, Brett Stiller and Alirio Zavarce. Sydney Theatre Company and The Border Project, Odeon Theatre, Adelaide Festival, until March 6. Opening Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney, on March 20.


Anonymous said...

The dates stood for various accidents that had occurred throughout history whilst performing Macbeth. For example, London 1928 stood for the first modern-dress production of Macbeth at the Royal Court Theatre, where a large set fell down, causing serious injury to members of the company, and a fire broke out in the dress circle.

I enjoyed Vs Macbeth but agree that it was a bit lacking.

Alison Croggon said...

Aha! So I should also have entered "Macbeth" in the search string. They were cryptic notices, to say the least. And somewhat distracting - during the show I was trying to remember the dates of the General Strike, (1926, if you ever need to know) and if that had anything to do with, say, revolution, and if that had anything to do with Macbeth. &c&c&c. It didn't occur to me they were dates in the production history of the play. Maybe it did to others?