Briefs: Howie the Rookie, Hypatia II, In The Next Room ~ theatre notes

Monday, April 25, 2011

Briefs: Howie the Rookie, Hypatia II, In The Next Room

Your faithful correspondent has been somewhat scattered of late, like a barrel of popcorn given a hefty thump. I have excuses, with which I won't bore you; suffice to say that recently my other lives have been demanding. In TN's bright new 2011 reincarnation, which frankly looks pretty much like last year's model, I am pursuing my aim of seasoning the madness of doing this blog with some kind of sweet reason. Some might say that, as with previous attempts, I'm failing miserably, but as the saying goes, it's a long, hard, bitter, uneven struggle.

I don't seem to have been very successful in cutting down my theatre attendance. However, I am exploiting the luxury of not attending every show on opening night, and instead going later in the season. Another resolution is that I won't necessarily be writing 1200 word reviews about everything I see. Even given these innovations, I'm still a little tardy in my notations. Howie the Rookie, for example, closed over a week ago, and even though I saw it in its final week, this response is late. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, etc, but a gal is only human, and sometimes barely that.


On to Howie the Rookie, staged at Red Stitch as part of its 10th anniversary season by Greg Carroll after a successful first season in 2002. Mark O'Rowe's Terminus was part of the Melbourne Festival a couple of years ago, and I heard Good Things (although sadly I was overseas and missed it) so I was curious to catch up with this writer. Howie the Rookie is an early O'Rowe play, written his twenties, and its evocation of working class Dublin sizzles with linguistic invention, brashness and wit. Its two halves consist of interlinked monologues, performed by Howie Lee (Paul Ashcroft) and Rookie Lee (Tim Ross).

It's given a bravura, if somewhat overdressed, production by Carroll. Ben Shaw's modular set design creates a surprising illusion of space on the small Red Stitch stage, but is full of fussy details - a painted image of a boy in a hoodie, or what appear to be cattle bones - that end up being merely decorative and therefore distracting. No one can say that the monologues are not delivered with energy, but I felt that the performances rather trampled the text into the ground. Red Stitch is a small space, and and there was a lot of shouting. I left with ringing ears.

This is a problem of direction rather than performance: both actors clearly had the gamut of emotional response at their fingertips, and when they didn't shout, the intelligence of the text had a chance to shine. The production seems driven by the idea that male aggression and sexual energy is, well, loud. Of course it can be, if not all the time: but O'Rowe's satire on masculinity, and its ultimate pathos, gets lost in the noise. Carroll has gone for stylised theatre, so the text is accompanied by high energy physicalisations, but again this lacks the subtlety of the text, as the movement is almost exclusively literal and illustrative. Still, an impressive early play from O'Rowe.


Last week, I got to the Alexander Theatre in Monash to see a showing of Hypatia II, a work in progress by Jane Montgomery-Griffiths, directed by Adena Jacobs. Last year Griffiths was responsible for the exquisite Sappho... in 9 fragments at the Malthouse, and Jacobs directed Anne Carson's Elektra at The Dog Theatre, and their combined firepower is reason enough even for a domestic rabbit like me to strike out into the wilds of the eastern suburbs.

Like Sappho, Hypatia II is a monologue that weaves together two narratives from past and present. In this case, it's the tale of Hypatia, a brilliant 4th century Alexandrian mathematician, scientist and astronomer who was horribly murdered under a fundamentalist Christian regime, and that of a contemporary maths lecturer who is publicly humiliated by a young lover. It was originally commissioned by Stork Theatre, and has undergone further development with Jacobs. As Griffiths says in her program note, it is now a different show.

Griffiths's performance is a riveting anatomy of misogynies, then and now: the sexual hatred that refuses women the humanity that permits their full potential to flower and grow. Hypatia's death was part of a larger torching of knowledge under the Coptic Bishop of Alexandria, when fanatics burned what was left of the great Library of Alexandria; but in her subsequent excision from history, she suffered a particularly feminine fate. Her modern equivalent is a woman who can't hope to match Hypatia's achievements: self-doubting, crouched in the shadow of her brilliant father, her enabling ego is snipped and pruned at every turn. Yet she identifies with Hypatia to the point of madness.

Without claiming a cheap equivalence, Griffiths's show takes the image of Hypatia's being flayed alive and gives it a contemporary spin. As Sarah Kane showed brutally in plays like Blasted, there is a direct link between psychic and physical violence: this text makes a similar link, and with an equally powerful linguistic viscerality. It works very effectively on a large stage, with Jared Lewis's monochromatic lighting design further isolating the performer, in wide angles of intense light or sudden darknesses. I hope to see this one again.


Lastly... I went to see Sarah Ruhl's In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play, which is currently enjoying a season at the MTC's Sumner Theatre. It's given a luscious production by Pamela Rabe. Tracy Grant Lord's two-level set is at once ingenious and lovely to look at, and her costumes are a Victorian fantasia. Hartley TA Kemp's lighting design is a nostalgic paean to the days of softly-lit drawings rooms and Iain Grandage's sound design is at once lush and nicely judged. The performances are impeccable. In short, there is nothing to criticise in the production.

The first act washed over me without much complaint: there was plenty to look at, and I even laughed a few times. Set in the days when middle class women were supposedly beset by the symptoms of hysteria - often a syndrome associated with feminine ambition or sexual desire - and were diagnosed the administration of medical orgasm as a treatment, it is pretty much a one-joke act about women who don't understand their own bodies. I couldn't help reflecting, as I watched the shenanigans, that another common treatment for hysteria was hysterectomy, a procedure that up until 1880 had a mortality rate of 80-90 per cent. Or that the poet Anna Wickham's husband incarcerated her in an asylum when she refused his prohibition on writing and published her first book in 1911. Which is to say, Victorian patriarchy was never quite this benign.

On the evidence of the first act, this play is more accomplished than last year's Dead Man's Cell Phone, and, as I said, it's very beautifully produced. Still, there's something about Sarah Ruhl that brings out the Dorothy Parker in me. I'll never know what happened in the second act. At interval I found myself outside the theatre. And somehow, gentle reader, I never found my way back in.

Pictures: top: Paul Ashcroft in Red Stitch's Howie the Rookie; middle, Jane Montgomery-Griffiths in Hypatia II. Photo: Pia Johnson; bottom, Helen Thomson and Jacqueline MCkenzie in In The Next Room. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Howie the Rookie, by Mark O'Rowe, directed by Greg Carroll. Set design by Ben Shaw, lighting by Claire Springett and sound design by Brett Ludeman. With Timothy Ross and Paul Ashcroft. Red Stitch (closed).

Hypatia II, written and performed by Jane Montgomery-Griffiths, directed by Adena Jacobs. Sound and lighting design by Jared Lewis, set and costume by Dayna Morrissey. Lunchtime performance, Alexandra Theatre, Monash University.

In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Pamela Rabe. Set and costumes by Tracy Grant Lord, lighting by Hartley TA Kemp, composition and sound design Iain Grandage. With Jacqueline McKenzie, David Roberts, Helen Thomson, Marshall Napier, Mandy McElhinney, Sara Zwangobani and Josh McConville. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until May 21.

16 comments:

Rebecca said...

Hypatia II sounds as though it was well worth seeing, and I'm sorry I missed it. I am amazed however at your benign forgiveness of the egregious "In the Next Room," to me one of the most pointless pieces of theatre I have ever seen. For once in my life I completely agree with that Cameron Woodhead person--lavish fortunes spent on costumes, sets and lighting cannot disguise a crap play. This is a five minute comedy sketch (and not very funny one--ha ha stupid women too dumb to understand the doctor is fiddling with their privates...oooh! ah!) stretched over the better part of three hours. How odd that you couldn't bother walking back in for the second act and yet could find "nothing to criticise." I would have thought given your often expressed stand on middle class, pointless drawing room comedies, this would have been at the top of your hate list. I note James Waites feels much as I did, and as many of the people (especially women) I spoke to in the foyer seemed to feel. Maybe it was that second act you never saw that was, for us, the nail in the very plush and over-decorated coffin...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Rebecca - I don't actually loathe drawing room comedies (Wilde being pretty well top of my love list). I just dislike them when they're badly done. Sarah Ruhl is something else entirely. I'm puzzled you thought this was "forgiveness", though. Maybe irony is a subtle art.

Yes, I thought the production was extremely well done. That's where I have "nothing to criticise". The play itself left me vastly indifferent. I saw half of it, and the half I saw was relatively harmless. I thought it fairly insulting towards women, even middle class Victorian women (as you might have gathered from my contextual comments). Perhaps it became really insulting after interval? I don't know, and having only that half to report on, haven't the right to speculate.

Sarah said...

It's what's called damning with faint praise Rebecca, and as the reference (and link) to Dorothy Parker made clear, it made her want to fwow up! Think I can definitely pass on this one!

James Andrew Cook said...

Thrilled to hear that I wasn't the only one to walk out after the first half of "In the Next Room". How sad that not just one, but two of Australia's mainstage theatre companies felt compelled to waist a valuable programming spot on this turkey of a play.

James Andrew Cook said...

That should be "waste". Forgive my poor sentence structure, I've enjoyed a few Merlots this evening.

Rebecca said...

Alison
I didn't say you loathed all drawing room comedies, a more careful reading of my post will show that I said "pointless" ones, which this one certainly is. Syntax, like irony, is a subtle art...
Augusta Supple writes well about this play, I recommend her blog as a review of the entire play, as well as the James Waites comments I mentioned before. They are both very fair in pointing out that a good portion of the audience was hooting with laughter and having a jolly time at the clowning of the women, but not them.

Alison Croggon said...

Merlots are definitely bad for the syntax, James.

Thanks Sarah (although I should say the comments about the production are honestly meant). To be accurate, Dead Man's Cell Phone made me think of Milne. There's another Parker review where, as in this one, she found herself outside at interval, and somehow never went back...

I'm not sure what your problem is, Rebecca: quite a few other people (as you clearly know) have said their piece on this one. I didn't hate it, but I clearly didn't love it. I don't know if it was pointless: what I saw seemed to be making some points about the patriarchal control of women's sexuality, but, to my mind anyway, misrepresenting the case.

Anonymous said...

Of course in the end it's only a difference of opinion.
I will agree that Howie the rookie was a little loud (especially in the second act) but it wasn't as bad as you make out - and i agree the bones on the set were pointless (stupid in fact. was there a theme of bones at all)? but how you could praise Baal yet in comparison tuck Howie under the carpet is criminal. the show was written, performed and just done so much better. only the design loses out (the Baal set change took my breath away). i compare cause they were the last two plays I've seen but also i was struck by the closeness of the poetic intention of the writing. how the RS production made such an impact on me and my friends over Simon's production is worth debating. there was such a buzz in the foyer after Howie yet i felt none at Baal. I just googled the reviews online and they all seem to agree Howie was a stronger production too. but of course, its all just a matter of opinion.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, it is a matter of opinion... Criminal? I'm not sure. Maybe if, as sometimes people seem to think, I had a staff and an office and a salary at TN, I could be expected to cover everything as it deserves, but I don't. There is the problem of sustaining criticism on the internet (as brought up in another discussion here recently) in a nutshell. How responsible to the totality of theatre in Melbourne can I be, given I have to make a living, and don't make it here? That's a real question, btw, not a rhetorical one...

interesting to compare Baal and Howie, although they're both very different plays. Both Howie and Baal are plays by young men, and both explore masculinity. I agree Howie was a well-written play from an exciting writer: it did strike me as an early play (for different reasons to Baal, which is clearly early Brecht in its unruliness): the storyline was a little too neatly dovetailed for my taste, a little too contrived in its signing off, to really grab me. Maybe the biggest difference is that Howie is a redemptive story, and Baal is a play which refuses redemption. I think Baal the more exciting play; whether it's "better" is another question. I'll stand by my critique of the direction though, because that was my experience on the night I saw it, and I found it frustrating.

Tristan Sinclair said...

Thanks for your thoughts on The Next Room, Alison.

I think one of the first things I said as I left the theatre was 'I wonder what Alison would have to say about that.' and you (at least in part) answered me.

I actually found your responses in the comments here more interesting than what you originally wrote.

(hooray for blog discussions!)

Alison Croggon said...

Nothing like being prompted to make you extend an argument. Not that - I confess freely - mine about The Next Room was much of an argument in the first place! But yes, hooray for conversation.

Mind you, even these briefs average out at over 300 words each: ie, 50 words more than the new official length for reviews in the Age...

Tristan Sinclair said...

Oh, I know. By in part, I meant that you could discuss half the show. It wasn't meant as a slight about your lack of dedication or effort. I'm familiar with the amount of work that goes into theatre criticism...

Tristan Sinclair said...

And, I'll just add writing anything about theatre, that is comprehensive and worthwhile, in 300/250 words is pretty impressive.

Alison Croggon said...

No slight taken, Tristan - nor intended towards those struggling with limited word counts. I've had to do my share of 100 word reviews for the Oz.

wfs said...

That's nice Tristan, but I do some 300 words indeed for my project, :-)

4 Coffins said...

CRITICISM OF A FUTURE AGE:

"I thought it was good/bad/a worthy attempt". (choose description)

no/1/2/3/4/5 stars

By (author's name)

I suppose the irony is that it is the internet that is accused of its limitations for criticism (although... less and less?)