Review: Song of the Bleeding Throat ~ theatre notes

Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Song of the Bleeding Throat

On a mild summer evening in the ivy-clad courtyard of The Eleventh Hour's headquarters in Fitzroy, it's not difficult to think that you have suddenly been transported to a different era. The lawn is studded with marquees; a door behind the temporary bar opens teasingly to a private house with shuttered upstairs windows, which you can't help but imagine must look like something painted by Bonnard or Vuillard. Even your host, artistic director William Henderson, could have stepped out of a daguerreotype.

Maybe it's Europe circa 1912, before world war and revolution wracked the planet, when a disparate bunch of radical artists were creating something that would be called "modernism". Only it's Melbourne 2011: a different place, a different era. Given the present sense of social urgency, perhaps it's not surprising that so many artists are looking to the modernism that flowered as the anxieties of its times thickened and convulsed, picking up the threads of experiment and discovery and attempting to make something new of them. Certainly, this investigation is a crucial part of The Eleventh Hour's eclectic, intelligent theatre, and why they're one of Melbourne's must see companies.

This time, instead of reworking classic texts, The Eleventh Hour presents a new play by David Tredinnick, who is better known as an accomplished actor. Song of the Bleeding Throat is described as a "burlesque", meaning its older sense of comic parody rather than strip-tease. And it's a fascinating beast indeed. Tredinnick is parodying ideas, in particular some of the formative 19th century notions behind contemporary Britain and America. His burlesque features such notables as the historian and social commentator Thomas Carlyle; his wife, Jane Welch (and their dog Nero), Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth and the Statue of Liberty.

The text is foremost a torrent of words. Tredinnick has created a bizarrely Beckettian collage out of quotations and almost-quotations from public figures ranging from PT Barnum to Marx: statements about empire and revolution jostle with domestic intrigues, fancies, poems and obscene malapropism. The language of high oratory or Romantic poetry is continually exploded by the decay and weakness of the body: Carlyle (Richard Bligh) is tormented by his bowels, Welch (Anne Browning) is a drug addict, Nero the dog (James Saunders) is beaten within an inch of his life, Lincoln (Neil Pigot) is dying (or dead). The only personage who seems above all this bodily flux is Whitman.

Each phrase is buffed to a dark lustre. Everyone speaks as if they all wrote out their thoughts in a goose-quill before uttering them. It's about as far as it is possible to get from the conventions of contemporary theatre: this is a text that has little truck with ideas of character or narrative. Its characters are symbols, mouthpieces, carefully constructed puppets - parodies, as Tredinnick claims. But parodies of what? There are all the obvious answers - they parody the vanity of intellectual achievement in the face of death; the selective consciousness of heart-stirring cries for liberty and revolution that ignores, say, those who happen to possess black skin; the tragic gap between ideal and reality (the play itself is prefaced by a quote from the greatest pragmatist of them all, Josef Stalin).

But most of all it seems to me that it parodies language itself. Language, which promises so much, here collapses inward on itself, revealing a pile of rubble that stinks of death, or is anerotically absorbed in the cultural body. The production often forbids us easy access to listening: Nero stutters, the Carlyles speak in Scots accents. Even its visionary clarities decay: Whitman's magnificent "I sing the body electric" becomes a narcissistic anthem in the musical Fame. The only recourse at the end is the solitary voice, Whitman's "song of the bleeding throat", which is cut off in mid-sentence.

This density of meaning and linguistic relations means that if you don't pay close attention, you will soon be quite lost. Even if you do, it's easy to feel that, as Lincoln says at one point, "I’m trying to blaze a way through this swamp". The weight of this orotund 19th century language, almost completely unleavened by contemporary brevity, often lies heavy. The danger of employing this diction is that it attenuates the work's political clout: what do all these words have to do with Now?

If it's anything, Song the Bleeding Throat is an overtly political work, at once exploring and mocking the formative nationalism of our time, US patriotism. Through the figure of Carlyle, a major Romantic essayist and thinker, it picks up European revolution and imperialism, connecting these ideals to the hopes and betrayals of the brash democratic exercise in America. Yet this is an oblique tracing, more a kind of animating of ghosts which still colour the assumptions behind so much public speech.

I find myself oscillating between feeling on the one hand that the text rings its changes very successfully, and on the other thinking that all this luxuriant excess of language ends up obscuring itself, that there is, in short, too much of it. (Certainly, coming from a school that prefers poetry of the theatre to poetry in the theatre, I think there's a little too much poetry). Its ideas are in fact often presented with an unsettling clarity, but the whole seems too much jostle. I suspect that there is a myopia of focus, an obsessive close-up attention that forgets the larger architecture of the play's argument and diffuses its point. It's common to claim that less is more, and it's not always true; but in this case, I think it might have been.

Perhaps the only director in Melbourne who could tackle a text like this is Brian Lipson, whose theatrical imagination is as baroque and elliptical as the playwright's. The production is as finely polished as the text itself: it features astonishingly disciplined and, frankly, riveting performances from its cast, although Neil Pigot as Abe Lincoln is the stand-out. The alienations in the text are realised in the theatre with a playful theatricality: in the first half, the three characters are formally placed as in a portrait (the staging is in fact based on a famous portrait of the Carlyles at home), with Nero - an English shepherd dog in the painting - becoming a working class lad in a cloth cap. In the second half, in a stunning coup de theatre, the entire space is reversed, and the audience finds itself looking up at the death bed of Lincoln.

There is no moment that doesn't feel utterly worked, down to the least gesture: even the twilight shading to darkness through the windows outside. And it glints with a dark humour that segues to sheer playfulness: when Carlyle decides to light a spill from the fire, for instance, and irritably summons the dogsbody/author to crouch behind the empty mantelpiece with a lighter. There are theatrical moments which are as good as anything you'll see, seriously, but somehow it meanders, creating palpable longueurs. I kept thinking of a necklace, a string of marvellous pearls with no string. And yet, again, this isn't wholly true.

It's often very funny, but underneath the whole is a vein of pure seriousness that harks back to those 20th century modernists, in particular the formalist experiments of Piscator and Meyerhold. Maybe my reservations exist in its timeliness. It was odd to watch this play last week, as the popular revolution in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East lit a more violent flame beneath the pieties that Song of the Bleeding Throat explores. Suddenly these ideas - democracy, revolution and their betrayals - seem invested with more urgent feeling and moment than seems adequate to burlesque. But then again, the song of the bleeding throat is precisely what is consciously elided in the play: its concern is with everything that silences that song. In any case, this is certainly an intriguing work, uncompromising and painstakingly realised, and worth seeing for that alone. Definitely not for those who like their theatre on a plate.

Picture: Neil Pigot as Lincoln in Song of the Bleeding Throat.

Song of the Bleeding Throat, by David Tredinnick, directed by Brian Lipson. Design by Brian Lipson and Alexis George, costumes by Alexis George, lighting by Niklas Pajanti and Nicola Andrews. With Richard Blight, Anne Browning, James Saunders and Neil Pigot. The Eleventh Hour, 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy, until February 12.

1 comment:

ttv said...

He performed amazingly. I love those people who have this talent.