Review: Peer Gynt, Elektra, Creditors ~ theatre notes

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Review: Peer Gynt, Elektra, Creditors

The talk in the foyers of late has been that of scarred veterans swapping notes from the front-lines of culture. Never, say hardened theatrenauts (as they whittle their programs into speaking likenesses of Ibsen) has Melbourne seen such a season as this. A few years ago, you could count on the theatres going dark in November, leaving summer free for extra-curricular frolicking in front of the Wii. Not this year, they add blackly (expectorating into handy spittoons). This year, the culture has gone feral.

Some, their spirits broken, point silently to harpoons. Others lean mutely against walls, a thousand-yard stare betraying their inner turmoil. If only, they mutter into their beards, most of it wasn't so good. If only we could all stay home and watch Australia get demolished in the Ashes, secure in the knowledge that the local stages are bereft of interest...

Like some of my colleagues, Ms TN ran out of gas a month ago. Personally, I don't see a lot of point in TN if all it offers is straight up-and-down reviews; but sometimes, straight up-and-down reviews is all a gal can manage. So here goes...

Peer Gynt

Like Goethe's famously unstageable Faust, Henrik Ibsen's verse drama Peer Gynt is something of a gift to theatremakers. A phantasmogoric parable of a man's struggle with himself, it's one of the more bonkers plays in the repertoire, leaping with its anti-hero from the mountains of Norway to the deserts of Egypt, from rural wedding scenes to lunatic asylums. It is not a play for literal minds: the only level on which it makes sense is that of metaphor. And there it makes a great deal of sense indeed, foreshadowing Freud's own grubbing about with the monsters of the subconscious.

It's easy to see its attraction for a young, ambitious company like Four Larks. This company has in fact attempted this play before, in 2008. I can't compare their stagings; despite a bunch of good intentions - and we all know where they lead - I hadn't seen their work before last week. This young, unfunded collective has been making waves for a couple of years now, and finally last Wednesday I got to its production of Peer Gynt, staged in a barn-like space off a back lane in Northcote, to see what all the fuss is about.

The fuss is certainly warranted. Although the theatre they produce is vastly different, the aura around the event reminds me strongly of the early days of the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, which - similarly unfunded - staged several seasons of short plays in the Brotherhood of St Laurence warehouse in Fitzroy. There's the same sense of an audience excited by discovery, the same raw faith in theatre, the same feeling of welcome.

This adaptation of Peer Gynt, co-adapted and directed by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, Jesse Rasmussen and Mat Diafos Sweeney, hovers just on the theatre side of music theatre. The text is heavily cut, and many transitions or episodes replaced by narrative or lyric songs that channel the independent folk scene - think Joanna Newsom, the Decembrists, José González, Sufjan Stevens. The six-strong band, lined up on bales of pea-straw on the left of the stage, includes a harp, double bass, violins and banjo, and the vocals feature some sublime harmonising.

But maybe the strongest aspect of this company's theatre is its design. It stretches through the building's environment - charcoal drawings of Norwegian mountains adorn the walls as you enter the theatre, and a drawing on the barn door to the left of the set, which Peer Gynt himself is extending as the audience enters, is of a man with antlers, recalling the English folk figure Herne the Hunter, but is more pertinently an echo of the deer shamans of the Sami, who would adorn themselves with reindeer antlers during their mystic ceremonies.

Reaching back into pagan folk tales, just as Ibsen did for his play, gives the text and the music a powerful resonance, a sense that this is a contemporary enactment of a story that reaches back far beyond the 19th century. And the constantly inventive staging, often using re-purposed objects like feather dusters or bits of rope, reinforces this feeling: the ordinary is here made strange. It makes for a heart-lifting investigation of theatrical storytelling, with an unabashed intention towards beauty. There are glorious moments - Solveig (Tilly Perry), for example, appearing lamplit in a high window, singing to Peer Gynt (Ray Chong Nee), or the rambunctiously disrespectful trolls.

My only reservations are at the level of performance. Especially in the first half, its style veers, sometimes uncertainly, sometimes with unsettling sureness, from a Pythonesque grotesquerie to moments of clear naturalism. This was most successful in Ibsen's most surreal act, where Gynt becomes serially a rampant capitalist, a prophet and a scholar. The actors are clearly a talented bunch - each has a chance to show his or her strengths - and there's no questioning their commitment. This is mainly a technical quibble about voice - a complex text like Peer Gynt needs to sound clearly, and sometimes I was simply struggling to hear the lines. It almost seems churlish to mention it, since the theatre making here is otherwise so exciting. But there it is.


(Spoiler warning).

I wondered how the very talented young director Adena Jacobs would stage the ancient tragedy Elektra in a theatre as tiny as The Dog in Footscray. The answer is: with absolute simplicity. Eugyeene Teh's design surrounds the playing area in transluscent plastic curtains, and the walls vanish: we are suddenly in a space without edges. Actors can be so close we could almost touch them, and yet, by merely stepping behind the curtain, are suddenly cloaked in an illusory distance, or loom behind the unobscured characters like uneasy ghosts.

In the centre of the stage is a single object, a bed covered with old bloodstains that invokes the crimes of sex and murder that shape the action of this play. This production also makes a virtue of the venue's intimacy. The lights are up on the audience for much of the play, and when the actors speak to each other, they turn and meet our eyes as well, so we are not merely witnesses, but accomplices in the unfolding action.

Elektra is the second act of the trilogy of the Oresteia. The story begins with the murder of Agamemnon as he returns from Troy by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, as revenge for the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia. In Elektra, Agamemnon's daughter camps on the threshold of Clytemnestra's house, neither inside nor outside, awaiting the return of her brother Orestes. By the code of vendetta, Orestes must avenge his father's death: however, if he does so, he will commit another unforgivable crime, that of matricide.

Anne Carson's fine translation of Elektra is clean and contemporary, drenching the action in an unforgiving lucidity. Here it is - very effectively - cut: most notably, Aegisthus's return in the final scene is deleted. In the mouths of this most accomplished cast, around a stunning central performance by Zahra Newman as Elektra, it plays with a compelling muscularity; sometimes the language is bitten off with a contemporary, almost slangy curtness, and at other moments the keenings of the original Greek are left untranslated. These cries are spine-tingling, Elektra's purest expression of what Carson calls her "torrent of self". For she talks all the time, all through the play, veering between obsessive madness and a bitter rationality. All she can do is talk.

Two things are immediately striking about this production. The first is the obvious fact that this is a play primarily about women. When Clytemnestra (Jane Montgomery Griffiths) speaks of the pain of birth giving, or of her grief for her murdered daughter Iphigenia, or when Elektra savagely claims that she is the shape her mother has made her, or in the arguments with her meeker sister Chrysothemis (Luisa Hastings Edge), the play summons darkly feminine turbulences that drive it towards its grim climax.

These women writhe under their subordination to male power. Unable to act as men do, they can only take refuge in speech, plotting their actions through the bodies of their men: in this case, Orestes (Gary Abraham) and his guardian Pedegogus (Josh Price). The actions of men become in this play functions of the women's frustrated desires. Elektra's inability either to act or not to act make her vengefulness a different thing in kind to that of Orestes: her lack of control alarms and frightens him. What is for Orestes a question of male honour becomes, through Elektra's voicing, a darker and more visceral thing, inchoate hatred and love driven from the gut, rather than Apollonian justice.

The second aspect is the claustrophobic awareness of the human body. From the beginning, when Elektra squats on the bed, or strips naked, or when the Chorus (Karen Sibbing) slowly eats a cake that is a grave offering, finding inside it a bone, the sense of opaque fleshliness, of the weight of muscle and bone, is foregrounded. On the skin, all light: on the inside, all obscurity.

This culminates in an extraordinary final scene. After the off-stage murder of Clytemnestra, Orestes carries her body onto the stage and attempts to lay it on the bed. The body passively flops to the ground instead, a dead weight. For the next minute or so, Orestes tries to lift the body up, thwarted constantly by its limp lifelessness. He pauses and fixes a frustrated eye on Elektra, but she will not help him. At last, after an excruciating struggle, he succeeds in lifting the corpse onto the bed. Elektra, without looking at him, seats herself on the floor next to her mother, cupping her dead hand to her cheek. Orestes sits on the bed and stares into space.

It's in these anti-climactic moments that we feel the weight of the crime that has just been committed. It is the realisation that the murder solves nothing: rather, it has orphaned them entirely, and left them mired deeper in shame and grief. They can't even take comfort in each other. Neither sibling can look the other in the eye.


August Strindberg is one of my favourite misogynists. As with Friedrich Nietzsche, his perception of how men have shaped the femininity of Woman mitigates - to some extent, at least - his mingled loathing and attraction towards actual women. He comes close to the top of the list of Men To Avoid, especially in matrimony. His second wife, Frida, described her marriage as "a death ride over crackling ice and bottomless depths", and there's no evidence that his first and third wives would have disagreed.

A paradoxical side effect of Strindberg's obsessive loathing (all women, even his wives, were "whores") is his perceptiveness in analysing the war of the sexes. He could speak as an insider, a man who practised what he preached - a treatise that translates roughly as, treat 'em mean, or they'll have your balls. Yet his pitiless intelligence doesn't permit him to gloss his own behaviour. For a scathing portrayal of the wounds patriarchy inflicts on both sexes, it's hard to go past Strindberg.

His three-hander play Creditors is a classic example. Adolph (Brett Cousins) is a gullible and highly suggestible young artist who is the second husband of the novelist Tekla (Kat Stewart). Tekla is a thoroughly modern woman, the dominant partner in the relationship. As the play begins, she has left her husband at home for a few days while she goes out gallivanting. Enter Gustav (played with Mephistophelean oiliness by Dion Mills), a stranger who perceives the young man's weaknesses, manipulating him into a state of jealous hysteria.

Gustav is, of course, Tekla's first husband. Unable to forgive the blow to his masculinity caused by Tekla's departure, he has coldly determined to destroy their marriage. Having sown the seeds of insecurity and paranoia in Adolph, he seeks to seduce Tekla into betraying her husband while Adolph listens behind a door. Adolph has a fit and dies, Tekla is distraught with grief, and Gustav finds, to his enormous surprise, that his ex-wife loved her husband, after all.

Within this melodramatic plot lurks a surprisingly complex argument about men and women. Strindberg exposes a series of archetypes - the dominated man, the dominant man, and the Woman. All are ruthlessly articulate about their desires and feelings, and all expose their weaknesses as well as their strengths, generating a darkly fascinating narrative of argument and counter-argument that builds up into a devastating tragicomic satire about marriage. Strindberg dismisses from the outset the possibility of an equal relationship in a marriage; one partner must always be dominant, and - in his view at least - it must always be the man. What's provoking is how contemporary so much of this sounds. Not a lot has changed in the past century.

David Bell's production at Red Stitch is an excellent and lucid reading of the play. It focuses, quite rightly, on the actors. Using a muscular new translation by David Grieg, the three give powerful and detailed performances, opening out the complexities of their characters. The melodrama gets its due, as it ought, and it doesn't flinch back from comedy; but what sticks in the mind afterwards is the darkly visceral emotions that Strindberg transcribed with such troubling accuracy. My only complaint is a decorative pillar in the middle of the set that kept obscuring the performers. Why was it there? A querulous quibble perhaps; but not being able to see an actor's face for no good reason drives me crazy.

Picture: Four Lark's Peer Gynt.

Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted and directed by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro Jesse Rasmussen and Mat Diafos Sweeney. Four Larks, The Little Bakery, Northcote, until December 11. Details and bookings here.

Elektra by Sophokles, translated by Anne Carson, directed by Adena Jacobs. The Dog Theatre, Footscray, until December 18.
Details and bookings here.

by August Stringberg, in a new version by David Grieg, directed by David Bell. Red Stitch Theatre, Prahran, until December 18.
Details and bookings here.


Anonymous said...


Alison Croggon said...

All maniacal whaling critics carry harpoons. Well known fact.

Owen Richardson said...

(mutters into his beard)

that was me. No, I mean, the first comment was me.

I saw that play by Mr Theatre Notes the other night, and, like the one at the MTC a few weeks back, it made me think: what a damn fine writer he is.

Now I am going to have to go and see all the other plays you've recommended. I'll leave my harpoon at home.

(The word verification is, hauntingly, mente, ie, almost mental.)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Owen - I'm glad to hear you enjoyed The Nightwatchman. And yes, the time of the year is slightly unhinged...