Review: Cageling ~ theatre notes

Friday, May 07, 2010

Review: Cageling

Few poets write of desire with such passionate delicacy as Federico García Lorca. Lyric, erotic and savage, his poems celebrate the anguish of absence, the bittersweet longing for what cannot be possessed. When he writes of his home city Granada, he imagines an ideal beauty, the "spiritual colour" which Andalusia woke within him. This beauty exists within and beyond the "poor cowardly city", the "miser's paradise" that contains "the worst bourgeoisie in all Spain", of which he wrote bitterly only months before he was shot dead near Granada by Fascists. He saw the real as clearly as the possible.

In Lorca's poetry, repression squeezes desire into a defiant brilliance. Lorca was gay - some claim that is the reason that he was murdered - and so, in a world of absolute divisions, he existed on the penumbra between both sexes, a fluid creature of the twilight, weaving his poems out of the blinding contrasts between night and day. He made of them paeans to life in which beauty is a measure of mortality: "Like all ideal things," as he says in a poem about fountains, "they are moving / on the very edge / of death."

His theatre articulates these tensions in different ways. Lorca's plays attacked the bourgeois theatre of his time both stylistically and thematically, uniting a burning passion for social justice with a take on tragic poetry that incorporated influences from Shakespeare to Surrealism. He is most famous for his "rural trilogy", Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, the last of which he completed two months before his assassination. In all of them, but especially in The House of Bernarda Alba (which is subtitled "A Drama of Women in the Villages of Spain"), Lorca presents a critique of the place of women in Spanish society.

The House of Bernarda Alba is the story of the newly widowed Bernarda and her five daughters. Bernarda turns the frustrated rage of her marriage into an uncompromising tyranny over her children, insisting that she is the only authority in the house. As one daughter - enriched by her step-father's death - is courted, the others are riven by jealousy and desire. The youngest and most beautiful daughter becomes the mistress of her sister's fiance, with tragic results. It's a bitterly savage portrayal of the internalisation by women of the chains of patriarchy.

This is the world that The Rabble, one of the most interesting young companies around town, explores in Cageling, a work of physical and visual theatre that springs from Lorca's final play. Created, co-directed and designed by Kate Davis and Emma Valente, it is most certainly not, except in the most abstract sense, a performance of the play: aside from a few fragments Lorca's text scarcely exists, except in how images from the text have been amplified and embodied. In fact, often it seems more like an attempt at physicalising the qualities of Lorca's poetry, which is, along with a little Ovid, interpolated into the minimal text. [Correction: the poem, Grandmother's warnings to Carlota and Ana, is actually by Ana Rosetti. Though I would have sworn it was Lorca]. While Lorca (with, I think, a certain irony) said his play was intended as a "photographic documentary", this is a theatre of dream and nightmare, seeking to tap the unconscious in parallel ways to Lorca's surreal lyrics.

I had an interesting time watching this show: my responses shifted wildly through its duration, from irritated impatience to straight-out impressed. The design is stunning: the set is a wooden box placed in the middle of the space, with paned windows facing out to the audience, who sit a couple of metres away. The inside of the box is painted white, and the costumes and various props are black, reflecting the austerely beautiful world Lorca describes in his play. Near the window is a microphone.

When the audience enters, the actors are already inside, trapped in this box from which they cannot escape. There are five of them - Daniel Schlusser, Dana Miltins, Mary Helen Sassman, Jayne Tuttle and Pier Carthew. Both men and women are sexually ambiguous: they wear the constricting dress of formal mourning but are sometimes bearded, sometimes male, and they all wear ballet shoes.

For 20 minutes, nothing happens: the performers shuffle from one side of the stage to the other in tiny ballet steps, rehearsing the mundane domestic routine. At one point, Schlusser moves across to the microphone and taps it, before retreating without saying anything. Expectation is drawn out to such a pitch that for me the thread broke: I wasn't wound into the action, as can happen with this kind of uncompromising refusal, but rather thrown aggressively outside it. The windowpanes already forbid direct relationship, and the actors face the centre of the stage, in a wholly contained, alienated world. I really thought I might scream.

And yet - and yet - gradually, backed by Matt Davis's nuanced sound design, the show winds up, almost imperceptibly, into an extraordinary expression of repressed desire that explodes volcanically into violence. I missed The Rabble's two earlier shows, Corvus and Salome, which were both produced in Sydney, but I can see why this work has prompted some people to draw comparisons with Romeo Castellucci. Although The Rabble is doing quite different things, the ambition - and often, the potency - of the theatrical images this company creates are in the same universe. When these images work, they are sheerly strange, poetic, erotic, disturbing. Their sense is the language of dream.

Aside from its oneiric choreography, Cageling's power comes from the courage of the performances, which are rigidly disciplined, and yet reach into extremity. Schlusser, playing Bernarda Alba, is compelling: he is both male and female, as Alba herself takes on the role of patriarchal tyranny, or like a priest, whose spiritual authority is signalled by feminine dress. His is the voice which insists, as Pier Carthew attempts to recite a poem into the microphone, on the emotional truth of its language: this is real, what is this reality, what is it?

The minute exactness of the performances and movement play against what feels like a fuzziness in the broader direction and structure of the piece. This kind of theatre, like a poem, depends crucially on rhythm: the pulse of contrast, the shaping of transition. These are aspects Castellucci judges to a micron. Thinking it over afterwards, I thought it was here that I felt most problems with the show: its structural rhythmic uncertainty means that the relationships between stillness and movement often fail to be kinetic, each investing each with potential energy. Sometimes the inhibition it seeks to express seems instead an aesthetic inhibition.

In short, it's fascinating, frustrating, beautiful. And also clearly in evolution. I'm sure later shows - I saw it on opening night - have developed from what I saw, and I'd be very curious to see it again. Sydneysiders get a chance to see it for themselves when it opens at Carriageworks on June 24.

Picture: Dana Miltins in Cageling. Photo: Daisy Noyes

Cageling, devised from The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca. Co-created, designed and directed, by Emma Valente & Kate Davis, sound design by Matt Davis, dramaturgy by Dan Spielman. With Daniel Schlusser, Pier Carthew, Dana Miltins, Mary Helen Sassman and Jayne Tuttle. Fortyfive Downstairs unti tomorrow night (booked out). Carriageworks, Sydney, June 24 to July 3.


Anonymous said...

I think I would have gotten a little more out of this play if I had not seen Castellucci's work (Brussles #09) at the melbourne festival. For me it was more than obvious that the group not only was influenced by this performance but at times lifted images from it. Gothic figures dressed in black against a white backdrop often swapping gender roles, guttaral noises into the microphone, stuff being pulled out of mouths, detached was a bit close to the bone for me and it made me think to what point you can be influenced by someone, and at what point you are taking others ideas and naming them as your own. I think my reaction may have not even been this if there was any note of castellucci in the program, when I looked I couldn't find any.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - I see your point, although I didn't have that difficulty because it seemed to me that those images - especially the stuff about gender - were springing out of their source texts.

Maude Davey said...

I have never seen Castelucci... I loved this. It took a while for it to grab me - but I was willing to wait because of its beauty and strangeness - and when it did I found it delightful and surprising. The text was perfect - every word was unexpected - I don't know which bits were Lorca and which Rosetti - and the images at their best shared that quality. I felt the last twenty minutes or so, when it got chaotic, lost focus and became a little predictable... however, what a company, what performances, what a design... this is what you live in melbourne for.