Review: The Trial, All About My Mother ~ theatre notes

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: The Trial, All About My Mother

Last week, as is our wont now and again, Ms TN and her alter egos spent some hours pondering what it is that most matters to me in art. Is there one quality, we wondered, by which I gauge how much a work matters to me, one value by which we measure the rest? Yes, I answered myself, there is. What’s more, for all the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written here and elsewhere, I have never really said what it is.

Why is that? Is it cowardice? Is it because it’s too private? Is it that to articulate something so personal as what matters most is, somehow, to do it violence – to reduce it, to nail down a delicate and necessary silence with the crudity of words? And let's face it, when you put it baldly, it just sounds banal. What matters most to me, in any artwork, is its truthfulness.

Of course, "truthfulness" is a shorthand term for a constellation of qualities, some of them contradictory (as Whitman says, "Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict myself...") There is, however, one thing I unambiguously don't mean by truthfulness. I don’t mean that a work of art must tell The Truth, that one-eyed monster so beloved of morally calcified politicians or right wing columnists. The Truth – a singular, jealous god that admits no Other – is only the shiny side of a lie.

No, I'm thinking of less monumental, more profound qualities of truthfulness. True, as in when a craftsman runs his hand along a beautifully made table, or when a dressmaker cuts a pure line. True, as when you are true to your ideals, or to someone you love. True, as in poetry. This quality of truthfulness can't be disproved; but then again, it can't be proved either. Since its foundations are, like the ladders of Rilke's lovers, "long-since groundless ... leaning / on only each other, tremulously", it is, ironically perhaps, a little like faith. It has nothing to do with being "right" or "wrong". Can a life be right or wrong? Can an artwork?

"Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling," says Muriel Rukeyser. For Rukeyser, life and poetry are very nearly synonyms. They are a dance, an exchange, an invitation. I would say that of most arts, and claim it an especial quality of the theatre. The negation of feeling, its complexities, its realness, results in waste and injury, a necrosis of denial that infects every area of public and private life. Truthfulness is beyond mere honesty: "If we settle for honesty," said Rukeyser, "we are selling out." It is more complex and more ironic, more supple, more self aware. It's also more primitive. Its presence alerts the same kind of senses that make a deer startle when it smells a predator on the wind, or which reassure a suckling infant that it is safe. This truthfulness is never still, because it is a living thing. It keeps on happening, rippling out from the energy generated by encounter: artist and world, artist and work, work and witness.

So, if I have a "bias" - as is asserted now and again by more or less anonymous commenters on this blog, or by disaffected directors, or even by professional arts journalists interviewing total strangers about stuff that has nothing to do with me - then this "bias" tends to art that, to my mind, struggles towards the true. Equally, work that flinches from the true - especially art that makes grand gestures towards truthfulness, borrowing the weight and courage of others who have dared it, but refusing their risk - gets up my nose. Truthfulness has a price – for the poet Lorca, the price was his life – and you can’t cheat it.

Are my judgments "subjective"? Indeed they are, as are all judgments in matters of art by anyone. They don’t mean that work I don’t enjoy is therefore a lie – just as The Truth is almost certainly always a lie, so the opposite of a truth might be another truth. But they are certainly judgments that record my own struggle to be truthful. More, in writing down these thoughts and speculations, I seek to make reasonable judgments, because I value rationality as fiercely as I do feeling. No one can argue with my belief, because belief is unarguable and incorrigible: but anyone can take issue with my arguments.

Well, now I’ve said my ideals. Which, if any of you are still reading, brings me finally to last week's theatre viewing: The Trial, Matthew Lutton and Louise Fox's staging of Franz Kafka's famous novel at the Malthouse, and All About My Mother, Simon Phillips's MTC production of a play based on Pedro Almodóvar's film of the same name. Both are adaptations, and it's reasonable, given my preamble, to begin by asking whether the adaptation is true to the original. After all, Almodóvar, contemporary Spanish film-maker, and Kafka, Prague insurance clerk, are both, to the point of anguish, truthful artists. This fidelity is not about slavishly copying the work from one medium into another: it's more properly a question of whether the adaptation faithfully refracts in its new form the truthfulness of the original work.

Although it was first published in 1925, a year after Kafka's death, The Trial is one of a handful of novels – George Orwell’s 1984 and Albert Camus’s The Plague are others – which articulate with an almost sadistic precision the "human condition" of the 20th century. Matthew Lutton and Louise Fox have achieved something brilliant with this production: they have translated this iconic story to the stage without trivialising it, and without resorting to the romantic cliches that cluster around Kafka like flies around a corpse.

Kafka's work especially attracts this kind of thing, perhaps because of the obdurate refusals and opacities of his texts. They are more like cruel objects than stories, full of brooding significance that seems to retreat further the more you attempt to interrogate its meaning. For some commenters, he becomes a moraliser, although Kafka went to more trouble than almost any other human being to avoid moralising; to his hagiographers Max Brod and Gustav Janouch, Kafka was even a saint.

The brief essay printed in the program, by Dimitris Vardoulakis of UWS, is not untypical: Vardoulakis says the "main objective" of The Trial is "a critique of the ideal of liberal democratic freedom". "Instead of the logic of the law, Josef K should have followed the logic of desire that he discovered in his association with women characters...only then can Kafka's other freedom be possible." Yet the great nightmare of The Trial, and the reason why it resonates so disturbingly through the history of the past century, is that it shows a world where freedom is not possible at all.

It's fortunate that the production has nothing to do with Vardoulakis's argument, which attempts to rescue a utopic hope from a novel that is peculiarly resistant to any such illusion. The multiple seductions in the novel are far from expressions of liberation; rather, like the kiss Josef K bestows on Leni, they are "aimless", fevered and furtive exchanges that promise nothing except another slavery, this time to the imperatives of bodily functions. Josef K doesn't just die "like a dog"; like everyone else around him, he ruts like a dog too, only without the privilege of a dog's bestial innocence. The torment in this novel is consciousness, which is why Josef K's death comes almost gently, as a relief. One of the great virtues of Lutton's production is how powerfully it communicates a palpable sense of the sordid bodily realities Kafka evokes in The Trial – you can almost smell the grotesque seductions, the shabby, stuffy rooms, the sour sweat of panic.

Josef K’s unavailing struggle against the law that both accuses and condemns him is uncannily prescient; it foreshadows the faceless bureaucratic violence that came to fruition in Auschwitz or Kolyma or Tuol Sleng. Nor have its insights dated: in the surveillance society of the 21st century it resonates with an extra chill. And yet it's a mistake to think of it as a political novel. To regard The Trial as merely as a critique of the state's power to inscribe itself on the bodies of its subjects is to ignore its metaphysical dimensions, which culminate in the famous and inescapably Judaeic parable of the Doorkeeper at the end of the novel. Kafka is, like Beckett, a master of the precise and essential metaphor: The Trial might be most accurately called a portrait of the modern soul, in the same way Foucault's study of the penal system, Discipline and Punish, is described as that soul's genealogy.

The major strength of Fox's lucid script is that she refuses to lay any interpretation over Kafka's hauntingly mundane narratives, leaving them open to the multiple interpretations that resonate in the book. It's almost sternly faithful to the novel, but avoids any hint of deadly reverence. Likewise, Lutton's direction constructs a theatrical simulacrum of Kafka's claustrophobic reality that is at once compelling and, for all its nods to Orson Welles's magnificent film, totally original.

In Lutton's hands, the narrative becomes crudely theatrical, mockingly exposing the clumsiness, embarrassment and abjection of the human bodies which tumble around the raw plywood revolve that mainly constitutes Claude Marcos's set. The direction is swift, almost clinical, in how it moves the story imperceptibly from its banal, comedic opening into the logical absurdity of a nightmare. From its opening moments, when Josef K wakes up to find two police officers by his bed, ("before breakfast!"), to its desolate final image, Lutton and his cast generate an irresistible cumulative power.

The action is punctuated by several changes in the set - the dropping of curtains, the activation of the revolve about an hour in, and particularly a stunning set reveal late in the show. Each change serially exposes the mechanics of the stage, making us aware that the actors are trapped in the machinery, literally as well as metaphorically. Kelly Ryall’s brilliant sound design is one of the most textured and dramatically active I've experienced: it's a world in itself, paranoid and inscrutable, of half heard human voices, technological noise, irritating beeps, acoustic echoes punctuating the spoken text. In certain crucial scenes it segues gloriously into the lush romantic piano music of Ash Gibson Greig, a harsh juxtaposition that generates an almost unbearably poignant irony.

However, the credit for generating this reality must lie with the cast, who give impeccable performances, precise, comic and powerful, in a genuinely ensemble production. Only Ewen Leslie as the increasingly abject Josef K has a single role: the other six actors - John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas - play differing parts as the play requires. Leslie is riveting, slumping from the entitled outrage of the wrongly accused bank clerk to a man who is more and more abject, more and more certain of his own guilt and especially of his own shame. With some clever doubling, such as the splitting of the role of Leni between Kalnejais and McClory, the recurring faces become increasingly disconcerting, reinforcing the feeling that the action is some terrible, endless dream-reality where meaning and sense infinitely regress.

I think this a brilliant and perceptive theatrical adaptation of a novel that is at once simpler and more difficult than is generally allowed, as is the case with so many books called masterpieces. And it's also first-class theatre. I went twice, to make sure. And yes, I thought it truthful. All the way through.

This is not the case with All About My Mother, which is adapted by Samuel Adamson from Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 film. You might wonder why it was adapted at all, given that the film is so easily available, and so good. But even given the current fad for film-to-stage adaptations, it’s not so surprising that it should have been transposed to the theatre: All About My Mother is, after all, the most directly theatrical of films, stealing its structural and emotional ideas from plays such as Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

In his film, Almodóvar takes the form of contemporary soap opera and amplifies the tragic chords that underlie its melodrama. In doing so, he draws out the raw emotional truths behind the role-playing and performance of ordinary life. His abject, doomed characters are full of feeling, but never sentimental. The emotional landscape Almodóvar exposes is, like Lorca’s, bitterly beautiful: it’s a world of twilit ambiguity, where life and death, male and female, the sacred and the profane, meet at a disputed border.

What is surprising is that this production, directed with luscious visual flair by Simon Phillips, seems to be competing with the seductive spectacle of movies, rather than exploiting theatre’s capacity for emotional intimacy. It looks gorgeous, but it feels empty. In the clean, over-aestheticised spaces of Stephen Curtis’s design, Almodóvar's duende becomes so much exotic decoration. Without any palpable sense of abjection and filth in the production, there is no concomitant sense of the sacred. Instead, we just get soap opera with arty quotes.

All About My Mother – the title itself a nod to the most theatrical of films, All About Eve – concerns Manuela (Alison Whyte), working nurse and single mother of 17-year old Esteban (Blake Davis). For his birthday they see legendary actress Huma Rojo (Wendy Hughes) perform A Streetcar Named Desire, and Esteban is killed in a car accident as he tries to get Rojo’s autograph. Manuela, stricken by grief and regret, then revisits her former low-rent life in Barcelona, in an attempt to track down Esteban’s transsexual father, Lola (Jolyon James).

Samuel Adamson’s adaptation is, tellingly, an hour longer than the movie, and often feels like explication. Although it doesn’t slavishly attempt to reproduce the film, it’s hard to see what the play offers - aside from a spectacular design, that is - that the movie doesn’t do better. And there are one or two bad decisions - most notably, making the dead Esteban a continuous presence through the play - that introduce a cloying sentimentality.

The cast, led by Whyte’s gruelling and intense performance as Manuela, work hard and break through the multimedia wall now and again to generate moments of connection. Paul Capsis’s deadly irony saves the transsexual prostitute Agrado from becoming a camp cartoon, and Hughes delivers the final lines - a quote from Blood Wedding - with thrilling poetry. It's a borrowed, unearned flourish, although it did make me think that Wendy Hughes in Blood Wedding would be really something. But mostly, sentiment and spectacle win out over Almodóvar’s harsh and beautiful truths.

Versions of the reviews of The Trial and All About My Mother were published in the Australian.

Pictures: Top: Ewen Lesie as Josef K in The Trial. Picture: Jeff Busby Middle: Ewen Leslie and John Gaden. Picture: Jeff Besby. Bottom:The cast plays scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire in All About My Mother.

The Trial, adapted by Louise Fox from the novel by Franz Kafka, directed by Matthew Lutton. Set designer Claude Marcos, costume design by Alice Babidge, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Ash Gibson Greig, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas. Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until September 4. Sydney Theatre Company, September 9 - October 16.

All About My Mother, by Samuel Adamson, based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar, directed by Simon Phillips. Set design by Stephen Curtis, costume design by Esther Marie Hayes, lighting design by Matt Scott, sound design by Matt Scott, composer Alberto Iglesias. With Paul Capsis, Blake Davis, Katie Fitchett, Wendy Hughes, David James, Jolyon James, Katerina Kotsonis, Peta Sergeant, Lourise Siversen and Alison Whyte. Melbourne Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, until September 26.


Owen Richardson said...

Er, Alison, it was Whitman who said "Do I contradict myself? Well then, I contradict myself." He then said "I am large, I contain multitudes".

As do you.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Owen - Drat! I should double check everything, and especially whatever it is I think I know. The TN multitudes don't always include factcheckers and subs... It's obvious now you point it out, but I would have sworn it was in the preface to Fleurs du Mal. There is a sentence in the preface that reads: "the best of taste teaches us not to fear contradicting ourselves", which might explain my confusion. Or perhaps not. Many thanks for the correction.

william zappa said...

The Trial...... What a great review, what Great piece of writing. Thanks.

kieron meagher said...

AlisonI enjoyed your review of The Trial & I agree. However to sense the truth is one thing but trying account for it always problematic.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks William, and much appreciated. Yes, always problematic Kieron, and without doubt foolhardy. Nevertheless...

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for your 'vision statement.'

When other people do that I squirm in my pants, but yours was eloquent - and truthful!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Amazing writing Alison.

You say of the MTC show 'why bother adapting at all?' Couldn't this be the same argument thrown at The Trial?

Truthfulness? Hmmm, in adapting a work? Seems like something else at play me say.

For my mind, I am not so much a truth seeker as someone who seeks to respect something rather than 'like' it perse.

In the case of adapting another work of art to the theatre, I struggle deeply with trying to respect it.

There is absolutely no escaping the fact that this is not a new creation, it is not a work of art, it is a work of simulacrum. In the context of a major theatre company(s), it is more likely a work of fundraising.

My point is made, bring on the howls, but respect I have for new ideas and bold failures - rather than this sort of whatever.

Oh, and the CEO question...Alison, check every single arts company in this country. From LaMama to the anywhere else.

It's like the mining company sponsoring the childrens theatre company or the Prime Minister supporting "sponsorship is good" as our national sporting team are the Vodafone Wallabies.

So, respect there again.

Thanks for your great writing. My thoughts, ending, now.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anons, and thanks. Anon 2, you're quite correct: you could throw that argument at The Trial. The answer is in the work itself: The Trial in performance became a new and vital thing. (Maybe too look again at what I mean by "truthful". I'm not sure you really thought about what I meant when I said that it was "a question of whether the adaptation faithfully refracts in its new form the truthfulness of the original work", rather than a slavish fidelity.)

Yves Bonnefoy says of translating poetry that it is about finding the feeling and experience behind the language and translating that. Which is something like what I mean.

You don't think it's a work of art? What is it, then? Does that mean that, say, Christa Wolf's novel Cassandra is not a work of art, because she steals from the Oresteia? Or Caryl Churchill's Thyestes? And how is it not a new creation? It's been made by the creative efforts of a lot of people, including the writer. Unless performance, design, music etc count for nothing.

I'm all for the "new". But "progress" does not exist in art.

Anonymous said...

Progress does not exist in art? How so? Does not this faithful heart still bare its scars to the world anew - each passing season of mans time, upon this earth and beyond it, what shallow depths we plumb?

If there is no progress in art then there is simply no art. Art itself being though the thing of creation that whomever creates it can decide if it is art. I am speaking of this opionion in my own heart - that for a vision of this planet, dreamt upon this place here and now, does not so much rely on what this place once was - even despite it being still a yoke upon ones neck - but imagines this place new. Like the tides still come and go, the moon their masterful decider, and yet each sand upon its hurly burly thrown has its own tale to tell.

I say again, to like or not to like is not the question, but for me, whether it is nobler in the pursuit of greater humankind (or arts or science) to suffer the refraction of an older view or to take arms against a sea of indecision and take choices in standing colours bold against the mast?

This flag raising is rare to succeed, and my vote lies with the mob that destroy the hack of old lands, still beating their drum and I say good night to you old master and welcome the chance to fight.

I say fight my brothers in arms, let us bring carnage upon these gods of culture past, their weapons are tested and true, and yet we have the courage and the blood of free settlers to walk from their battles and rage up in those we choose.

I shall meet you there, upon the hill, perhaps at this time as the dead lie deep upon the ground, we shall truly understand the other. I know in my heart that progress is never really, and you shall see in those that live their stories which have been chosen to go on do prove mine own point.

Thank you. X

Alison Croggon said...

Hello, nameless and eloquent interlocutor:

I shall try to answer you better.

Yes, progress - the idea that each successive era ushers in a cumulative improvement in sophistication, intelligent, form etc - is a total illusion. And art especially demonstrates this. There is the famous story of Picasso visiting the caves of Lascaux and remarking in his amazement that we have learned nothing compared to those painters. Think of Jonathan Swift, and then ponder whether post modernity had anything to teach him. Etc.

This is not to say that there can't be the new and vital. But it only truly exists in a dialectic with tradition. The poetry of the revolutionary Mayakovsky is full of Christian iconography.

As for the Year Zero attitude... we've seen that in action already. It was the cry of revolutionary Russia, and there it led to the brutal starvation of million of peasants and the gulags. It was the watchword of Pol Pot, which led to the extermination of an entire generation of "bourgeois intellectuals", or anyone unfortunate enough to need glasses. "Carnage" means a whole lot of bones and death. Are you really affirming that as a means of "progress"?

The human subject is formed of millions of influences, social, psychological, artistic. It is not a blank slate. I note that you talk of the destroying the past in a poetic language composed of quotations: our very language is saturated with history. The only logical way to get rid of those taints is make something like Orwell's Newspeak - that way we can rid the language not only of its vernacular and artistic history, but also its nuance, expressiveness, liberating imaginative possibilities. If we throw our past overboard, what do we have to make and imagine with? We cannot understand the planet, and who and where we are now, unless we understand our past. The fact that people hardly know history means that they can be lied to and manipulated by corporations and politicians: amnesia is the dictator's friend, and the norm of consumers post capitalist global corporatism. Deadly conventional, like a corporate executive ordering the illegal logging of rainforest in a country far away from his office.

Memory is where true radicalism can exist. We can't reimagine ourselves if we don't understand the traditions that have shaped us, because all we will do is imagine the same things we have always imagined. The same old patriarchal wheel of death.

J-Lo said...

Hi TN,

It just happened that these were also my two theatre outings for the week (a double rarity!).

Thank-you for review of The Trial - I didn't leave the theatre wanting to rave, but I did leave glad I went, with plenty to mull over (which isn't to say performance and production are not first rate - just that it was properly thought-provoking!)

Having not seen the film, I went to All About My Mother with a relatively blank slate (vague expectations of sentimentality notwithstanding). As a parent, some of the emotional elements did strike through - but I was a little underwhelmed as a whole piece (as I do tend to demand more overall conceptual, if not necessarily narrative, coherence). I agree that the quoting of other texts was a bit touch-and-go.

Thanks also for your thoughts on what criteria you use to assess "what matters most" to you in a work of art. I think [very tentatively] that I like art to be in some way generous, i.e. that it gives something (which could be serious or some simple pleasure, and may not be the same for others or require/demand some degree of effort on my part).

I'll think about it some more.

Thanks again, more generally, for your blog - it remains a quality read, even if I only manage to be a fitful visitor!

Kind regards,

Alison Croggon said...

Hi J-Lo - thanks for your lovely note! Yes, that sense of generosity matters a great deal to me, too. It's somehow implicit in the act of making it. Or ought to be.