Review: Return To Earth ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Return To Earth

I walked out of the opening night of Lally Katz's new play Return To Earth with my stomach in a knot. Readers, I have seldom seen a production which was so utterly wrong. It's wrong from the ground up, wrong from the first moment, and goes on being wrong all the way through to the end. Every flicker of life in this play is wrestled to the ground and throttled to death.

Any text, if it's at all interesting, invites a multiplicity of interpretation, and it's always possible merely to disagree with a take on a play. In this case, the wrongness goes beyond disagreement to a fundamental misunderstanding of the very being of the writing, to the point where the play itself is terminally obscured. It can happen to any play - I've seen it done to Shakespeare. It's as if a mistaken decision were reached early in the process, and every step afterwards led inexorably to doom. How this happened with the cast and production team that director Aidan Fennessy had to hand is a case study in artistic car crashes. On paper it's impeccable, some of the best talent that our theatre has to offer.

I should say that I am already familiar with this play. Back in 2008, I was one of three judges who unanimously gave Return To Earth a RE Ross Playwright's award for further development. The following year I saw it read in Hobart as part of Playwriting Australia 2009, and saw no reason to revise our judgment that this was one of Katz's best plays so far. Not that it's visible in this production; if I hadn't read the text, I might have thought it one of her worst.

Katz's early work, from the closely observed suburban absurdity of The Eisteddfod to the wildly theatrical dislocations of Lally Katz and the Terrible Mystery of the Volcano, created a riveting tension between a stern, even cruel emotional truthfulness and the dizzying vortex of her imaginative world. As her work has developed, from plays such as Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd to A Golem Story, the writing has become sharper: more theatrically crafted, less anarchic. But those desolating absurdities remain at the centre of the work: an obsession with death, loss and love, refracted through a self so splintered it can be scarcely said to exist. Katz is, crucially, a playwright of surfaces: her characters are performances of themselves, role-players in the most profound sense, and the emotional abysses that open beneath their emptiness and lostness can be vertiginous.

Return To Earth is an apparently simple fable that preserves Katz's unstable realities, but here locates it firmly in a - supposedly - naturalistic suburbia. There's not much in the way of plot. Alice (Eloise Mignon) returns home to her family after an unspecified time away, searching desperately for something real. Her parents Wendy (Julie Forsyth) and Cleveland (Kim Gyngell) welcome her home with claustrophobic solicitude.

Alice attempts to reunite with an old childhood friend Jeanie (Anne Louise Sarks), reconnects with her widowed brother Tom (Tim Ross) and her terminally ill niece Catta (Allegra Annetta) and has an affair with local car mechanic Theo (Anthony Ahern), a man whose skin is disconcertingly covered with shellfish. Alice finds she can save her niece's life by donating a kidney, but at the same time discovers that she is pregnant, which means the life-saving operation can't be done. Her niece dies, but Alice has her baby. Finally she tells her mother where she has been - in outer space, where she has lost her self but discovered the marvellous.

What counts is the slippages and ellipses in the texture of the play, how it lurches from apparently banal reality to strangeness in the space of a sentence. The result can be, as in Borges's story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, an increasingly disturbing feeling of the known world losing its moorings, becoming strange and perilous. In this production, we get quirky instead of strange, and emotional insight becomes mere whimsy.

Alice is played as terminally naive: there is no sense of interstellar alienation in her performance, no sense of almost irretrievably damaged adulthood. Her unvarying tone sets the pitch for the rest of the performances: somehow these characters, despite everything that happens in the play, are curiously static. The performances are generalised caricatures, rather than detailed investigations of emotional states. Claude Marcos's design, an abstract revolve mimicking a planetary system with a diorama of a night-time suburb in the background, exacerbates the problems: the actors all seem lost in the space. The set almost acts as a spoiler, leaving nothing to reveal about Alice's travels: we know from the beginning that she has been in outer space. Everything looks slick, but feels empty.

The major problem in this production is that the play's emotional realities have been flattened or simply avoided; certainly, I very seldom felt any emotional connection with what was happening on stage. Once or twice - interestingly, when the everyday realities were allowed to play without an overlaid theatrical self-consciousness - you could feel a flicker of life in the text, but otherwise its comedy and poignancies are all but destroyed. One feels that the MTC has tried to "make sense" of Lally Katz, closing up the centrifugal polarities of her work in the process, when her real gift is to use emotional truthfulness to destroy such enclosing rationalities. Without that truthfulness at its heart, the felt realities of loss and lostness, the play makes no sense at all.

Picture: Anthony Ahern and Eloise Mignon in Return To Earth. Photo: Jeff Busby

Return To Earth, by Lally Katz, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Set and costumes by Claude Marcos, lighting by Lisa Mibus, composition and sound design by Kelly Ryall. With Anthony Ahern, Julie Forsyth, Kim Gyngell, Eloise Mignon, Tim Ross and Allegra Annetta / Talia Christopoulos / Matilda Weaver. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until December 17.


DS said...

Given Lally Katz is famous for sitting in on most of the rehearsal process for the plays, it'd be interesting to know her thoughts on the sorts of decisions being made during rehearsals and at what point (if any) she felt it was all veering away from her idea of the play.

Alison Croggon said...

Critics can only guess from the outside. This happens to be the only Katz play of which I'd had foreknowledge, and I'm glad I did.

P.Dantic said...

"What counts is the slippages and ellipses in the texture of the play..."

I'm not entirely sure what the term "slippage" means in this context. Could you give me an example?

Alison Croggon said...

I mean slippages between an apparently ordinary reality and glimpses of the surreal, so that you can never take reality as straightforward. I don't have a script to hand, but one example is a seemingly straighforward scene when the lovers kiss, in which Alice realises that Theo's back is covered in barnacle-like shells. Her response is not surprise or shock, but just to pick out the shells from his skin, as if it were perfectly normal. These instabilities happen in a more complex way in the language too, which changes register constantly, but I'd need a script to quote them.

Emily Sexton said...

So interesting! I really enjoyed this show, and was completely emotionally engaged. I had two little weeps, in fact! But your criticisms Alison I have heard from others.

I was really happy to sit and accumulate a series of layers concerning what it means to 'betray' those who love you, by leaving. Structurally it made sense to me for this to be something that gathered its meaning slowly, compounded through introduction of each relationship (mother/father/brother/best friend/etc).

The betrayal was the main thought for me, and it was the most interesting; the "events" of the play (particularly the more melodramatic ones) - I was glad they were dealt with expediently. It really didn't matter to me where she had come from; it could have been space, it could have been the big smoke, it could have been doing a university degree, it could have been a relationship with someone others disapproved of. Whatever it was, it was a demarcation from her childhood and immediate loved ones, they saw it as betrayal, and now she was back, and an adult without much capacity to properly navigate her world (perhaps because she had severed essential relationships, or perhaps something else). But she was being forced to try.

Love that it can prompt such diverse responses!

Alison Croggon said...

Very interesting, Emily! I tried, I really did. I really wanted to like it. I don't mean, btw, that the melodrama of the play should have been melodramatic; but I had no sense of trauma underneath it.

And yes, that's theatre for you.

anoneemouse said...

It's a problem the mtc seem to have, whereby what might otherwise present as an opportunity to train up an audience into a world of strange or fantastic or adventurous or even 'different' - being outside the standard blue rinse comfort zone - where things make sense all the time and the sheer experience of being inside something only ever comes about through chance - is so often presented as dry, calculated, safe and unimaginative.

I loved that strange central character in this play, but that production lacked so so much. It didn't at any stage propel us outside of being a 'play'. And I'm not sure that kind of writing demands to be experienced as just 'a play'. It seems to me, especially when you get things like a guy covered in molluscs, and the girl talks about somehow getting pregnant, somehow, inexplicably... to have the world presented as so damn neat, ordinary, safe and predictable is a failure of not only what is possible (with the budget and the company and the team) but the writing and yes, the opportunity it provides to take people to a place they have never been before.

A safe production that fails through taking that approach. Better to go down swinging no?

Alison Croggon said...

Hello mouse - Yes, it does feel like a huge missed opportunity. Not saying that Lally Katz is easy to do - far from it.

Goosecap said...

It's simple really: Mr Fennessy is given a very interesting writer, the best cast possible, a team of terrific designers,a decent space to work in, an assured audience and the money he needs to realize his 'vision'. He then makes a brainless production which is a waste of money, talent and time. His production was an insult to both the writer and her audience. He gets paid to do this?

the scorpion said...

geez goosecap, harsh words! Perhaps it's just that some scripts are tough to get inside of. Perhaps it's many things that result in what might be considered (by you apparently) not a profound theatrical experience.

"He gets paid to do this?"

What sort of comment is that? Should he go and work somewhere and not be paid? Should we all then, only get paid if somehow the work we make 'succeeds'? That would suggest that those striking workers at Baida shouldn't be paid, because you don't like the chicken. Or the nurses shouldn't be paid because your myopism and elephantitis of the ego hasn't been satisfactorily cured.

That insinuation that he doesn't deserve to be paid is not only an insulting comment, it's also pretty bloody stupid. In fact, it has a level of stupidity attached to it that suggests you are either bitter, annoyed, or just simply an arse.

Hang on, how about we get your tick of approval before anyone is paid? Should we submit invoices and you can decide whether you want to pay the full amount, or mark the docket NO. Perhaps someone should go order you a big bloody rubber stamp so you can have each piece of artistic endeavour specially marked by your hand.

Stupid. Mean spirited. Small minded. Ill conceived.

Alison Croggon said...

Now, now children. Let's, uh, avoid the ad hominem and confine discussion to the work. Maybe check out the comments policy, handily available from the top bar.

Whatever my own disappointment in this case - and as you know I think mistakes were made - I don't believe failure is, or should be, a hanging offence.

Tim Wotherspoon said...

Whimsy, I feel, is not absorbed as invariably as it could be – and, if I were to be presumptuous, as it should be. An actor, whom I respect, told me the other evening that they did not ‘like whimsy.’ The phrase sounded very sad to me. A reviewer said the same to me on opening night.

I think it’s important to counter some of these less receptive critical interpretations of this production some more by insisting that this play will most certainly be deeply satisfying to a great many people. It is a rarer kind of MTC production, also...

The disparity of opinion (in my opinion) is either informed by differing aesthetic or perhaps by some stronger prejudice. Some may find the journey too inscrutable to enjoy it - what, precisely, is going on is not always evident. And I suppose my fundamental point is that this does not suggest artistic failure, but rather demonstrates a determination to sustaining a sense of a gentle but compelling ambiguity and an acceptance of the absurdity that is either always dancing on the fringes or swirling straight-through the middle of a sentence. I hear Lally Katz’s voice is coming through quite clearly, and it is a thrillingly whimsical and imaginative one.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tim - nice to see you here! I confess to a Dorothy Parker-esque distaste for whimsy per se, which for me is one step out from cute. I guess it depends what is meant. I'm not sure, for instance, what you mean: gentle ambiguity is not a problem for me, and neither is absurdity. And I certainly can't second guess the responses of others: in my experience, people have often enjoyed the things I haven't, and vice versa.

Tastes for whimsy aside, my specific problem here was that I felt the script was not whimsical, although it is certainly absurd, but was performed as if it were whimsical. To my mind, this was a considerable dimunition of its possibilities. In particular, I felt the loss of ambiguities...

Anonymous said...

I didn't get the link between Catta and Alice/Emily and feel that I missed something significant, e.g., was there anything significant about Catta and Alice/Emily sharing birthdays, what was the significant of Catta knowing the words to Eternal Flame (and Alice not knowing all the words)? Why did Catta refer to Alice as Emily when everyone else referred to her as Alice (whilst acknowleging that Emily was her previous name)? Am I looking for some connections that simply weren't explained?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - sorry, almost missed you there. There is a link - it seems to me Alice and Catta are versions of each other, perhaps Catta is the child who Alice wishes she was, or whom she has unwittingly killed. But very little seemed to be made of it.

Richard Pettifer said...

Hi Alison, I think this should have been a radio play. Lally injected such lyricism into the text that anything you do with it to direct it just kills it. I think Aidan's response just to leave it alone as much as possible and focus on the vocals, which I thought were incredible, especially Julie F and Kym G as the parents.

Basically I think this is a fine enough response from a director who's identified the strength of the play as its poetry.

David ? said...

I agree so much with the criticisms of this play.. It was the final nail in the coffin for me. I have been underwhelmed by the MTC season. Risible self-indulgence. The flat performances on the spare set were matched to my mood. I arrived in such high spirits having left a school party, to be dragged down by this sapping pointless dross. No more MTC for me...

Anonymous said...

I was very disappointed in this play. Even Julie Forsythe and Kim Gyngell couldn't save it.
I just thought it was too silly. There were moments that worked but the Alice character was just so annoying and ridiculously naive.
The last MTC I saw (Clybourne Park) was just so good.

Nick said...

I think everyone has missed the meaning of this play. Alice is touched by mental illness. She has a combination of borderline personality, bipolar and delusional thinking (perhaps schizophrenia). If you know anyone like that it makes a lot of sense. I loved the play. Alice lives in Wonderland.

Eugyeene said...

I trotted along to see it, quite excited, but, like everyone else, was disappointed. So much going for it- Lally Katz, years of development... I wonder if it's common knowledge or stage whispers but I heard that the team felt it unnecessary to push any further. Which disappoints me even more.

Brendan Paholski said...

There is a play wanting to get out here, but sadly not able to based on what I saw last evening. Katz may be talented and original, but the whole tenor of this production left me cold.

First time listener & first time caller said...

Some interesting and varied feedback that precedes me… As Nick observed, at times I did see suggestions of mental illness in the text, but too many of Alice's statements were confirmed by other characters, which for me ruled this out.

For me – a woman who has travelled the universe, left a small country town 10/20 years earlier, but still looks the same age as when she left, has seen amazing sights one could only dream of, has forgotten how to be 'human', returns knowing she is pregnant and craves the simplicity of humanity, should have been forged by a stronger central character – who despite her youthful looks, lack of memory of her past and lack of common human traits, is really working to a hidden agenda.

The fact she was portrayed as a wishy/washy, naïve, starstruck character, simply removed any underlying tension and softened any revelations and significant moments experienced by the audience. This sadly also flowed onto the other characters, who were constricted by a central character who spread a mist of vague ambiguity around the play, which given the smaller size of their parts, was impossible to break through.

As a previous post said whimsical layers and characteristics can add essential elements to a production, I'm left feeling they took on too central a role, reducing the impact and messages hold within the text.

Anonymous said...

Extremely confused and disappointed in this play. The reaction of the people in the audience around us was quite comical. There was disbelief and humour about how bad this entertainment was.

Yes I may have missed all of the meaning but as a simple person I won't waste my time attending another play written by Lally.

Alison Croggon said...

That's a real shame, because I am not alone in belieiving Katz to be one of most interesting new playwrights around. This production by no means exposes what's interesting about her work. She's well worth giving another go.

Richard Pettifer said...

...Although I think if you reduce her work to just entertainment, bad or otherwise, you are perhaps better off not seeing it. Go back to the television, it never disappoints on this front.

For me, the response from people is a curious 'welcome to the mainstream'. It suggests MTC's subscribers will not accept new and interesting writing, which does not bode well for 2013, as it is mainly composed of this very thing, with little in the way of extablished "brands" which Simon was so good at.

There is very little support for a writer who has been doing something different and amazing in her writing for years and years. This will, I fear, encourage Lally to move to more conventional playwriting. If this is the result of a foray into MTC, perhaps she should never have gone there.

But in the end, I think, how disappointing. This was not a bad play. Perhaps it was a failed attempt to meet the demands of a bold playwright. Perhaps as you suggest Alison, there is something missing, an emotional truth. More likely it is the result of trying to balance a subscriber base expecting to be entertained with what the play asks for, resulting in a watered down version of both. But whatever the reason, the outcome is a bit of a tragedy.

Anonymous said...

I saw this play last night and I have to say the omens were not propitious. The reviews had dampened my curiosity and having arrived at the theatre early to get in a quick fortifying sherbet with a mate only added to my pessimism as the foyer was funereal and populated only by a smattering of the last of the subscribers who seemed to have turned up only because the money had already been spent and it would be a pity to waste it.

I left exhilarated. The good will and love the parents show for their daughter but (oh my lord) its infantile register reduces such protean force to a Hall Mark declaration. The dying kiddie and wouldn’t we do anything for a dying kiddie because they are so innocent and so wise, look doesn’t she sum up everything by singing ‘Eternal Flame’ and isn’t she just the living incarnation of an unsullied excellence in the way she almost manages to place a golf ball in a cup not six inches from where she stands and is not her death redeemed in the birth of Alice’s afterthought. (And bang on Christmas to booot)

Is this not the mystery that is contained in a litre bottle of cottee’s cordial that actually does the same job as a rival’s two-litre bottle?

Oh and Alice/ Erica has found such joy in chewing slowly and has found refuge and dimension in a species of blissful idiocy or naivety that seems to have made peace with the demons that propelled her from her hearth (perhaps they were angels and not demons). An act of heroic forgetting or forgiveness, for the people around her hearth just aren’t up to too much reality but that doesn’t cancel your love for them.

There is a species of Australian chuckle. It’s a syrypy obscenity. The chuckle that accompanies every word when a topic might be veering off the weather into treacherous waters. Think of Peter Russell Clarke (no offense intended but his chuckle is the gold standard only to be followed by Don Burke’s). The chuckle is full of a suffocating matey vigour and indeed its cousin much loved by news readers and public service announcements made in airports is the voice with a lot of smile in it. You hear it, the uncalled for artifice of the tone and you just know in your bones that you are dealing with an hysteric just trying to keeps things nice. You know that that aint a chuckle or a smile it’s a warning ‘Don’t Go There (cunt).’ This play puts the chuckle under the knife.

I thought that Katz’s play was such a beautiful dissection of a particularly Australian manifestation of an existential constant, the challenge of navigating the demands of social conformity while maintaining authenticity. That last statement is so leaden because it’s a lot more dynamic for the fish is in the water and the water is in the fish. Even the scene changes had it, those brilliant strips of fluro blue split the space like a migraine.

I can see how the whimsy of the piece was evidently for many a failing strategy though for me I thought its application was if not ironic then certainly cautionary. Alice is not the heroine of this little community but a result of it, a weird diamond forged by the pressure of denial. To take her place she sniffs, she chews, she touches, she cuddles, she breeds, she embraces and revels in an animal spontanaiety (so why would barnacles shock, wouldn’t they thrill?). She doesn’t ask for an account, she doesn’t seek to explain, she seems to have made a blissful peace with ‘Don’t Go There.’ Even if it means she doesn't seem to think.

I thought the play and the production was tops. Still chewing it over.

Theatre Queen

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TQ - thanks so much for that. I will say that things can move considerably from the opening night of a play to the final night; to the extent where I sometimes think that opening nights are the worst possible time to review a production. But I'm glad you enjoyed the play.