Review: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

One of the paradoxes of art is the uneasy legacy of success. As soon as a work is labelled a "classic", it becomes curiously invisible: it transforms into a monument, cobwebbed by all the extraneous things its success now symbolises, and the energies that made it a success in the first place are polished away by the pieties that must now attend it. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a good example: a fixity in the Australian theatrical universe, a symbol of nationalistic pride, it too easily becomes a thing instead of an act. It even has a nickname: The Doll.

L-R: Travis, McMahon, Alison Whyte and Steve Le Marquand in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Picture: Jeff Busby.

Sometimes it seems to me that a good half of the job of artists, especially in a temporal art like the theatre, is to reignite the life of earlier work, to rediscover the energy still sleeping under the dulling detritus of cultural regard. It's this drive that leads to work such as Hayloft's Thyestes, Benedict Andrews's The War of the Roses, or Daniel Schlusser's The Dollhouse, explorations which explode the classic and rebuild it in contemporary form. But the desire to see afresh is equally at work in Neil Armfield's production of The Doll, now on at the Melbourne Theatre Company after its premiere last year at Belvoir St. Respectful in the best sense, it taps into the raw power of Lawler's play, and shows us what tragic realism can be.

Lawler's story of itinerant cane cutters who migrate to Melbourne every summer for the lay off is a parable of fantasy coming into brutal collision with reality and, like all tragedies, a meditation on mortality. For sixteen years, Roo (Steve Le Marquand) and Barney (Travis McMahon) have returned to their lovers Olive (Alison Whyte) and Nancy, for a white-hot summer of love in the boarding house run by Olive's mother Emma (Robyn Nevin). But now Nancy is gone: she has married a bookshop owner and settled down. Olive, refusing to face the implications of Nancy's betrayal, has roped in her barmaid friend, Pearl (Helen Thomson) to take Nancy's place.

When the boys arrive, it's clear that all is not well: Roo is broke, and his and Barney's relationship simmers with unsaid hostilities. These are catalysed by the arrival of a virile young ganger, Johnnie O'Dowd (TJ Power), who exposes that Roo isn't the man he once was. Under the sceptical eyes of Pearl the fantasy crumbles, to be exposed as a tawdry illusion. Only Bubba (Eloise Winestock), the girl next door who burns with youthful desire, refuses to reject its reality: although the dream is broken, she knows that it was real, and she wants it for herself.

There's an energy in this play that belongs to the 1950s, and perhaps it's no accident that Ralph Myers's spare, romantic design - a sash window through which light blooms lyrically back stage, shabby floorboards, a sense of space that echoes the emptiness in the characters - recalls something of the post-war films of Elia Kazan, such as East of Eden or On The Waterfront. There's no attempt to update the action: it employs an Australian idiom that has largely vanished from our cities, with the broad vowels and supple, ironic wit that later became caricatured as the "larrikin" or the ocker. In Lawler's hands it's plain and unexaggerated, the speech of working class people.

Likewise, the play's three act structure is unadorned and muscular: its characters are vivid and distinct and its emotional peaks earned, so you're gripped from the beginning. As with all good theatre, time suspends itself in your involuntary attention, so there's no sense of duration: it seems to fly by. The Doll remains what it always has been: a startlingly well-written text, of its time and place, but resonating beyond them. It reminds you what a pleasure it is to watch an impeccably crafted play.

The real resonance is in Lawler's critique of gender: he puts masculinity and femininity under the burning glass, so the roles evaporate and reveal desperate people seeing through a glass darkly, aware of how they are trapped, but unable to do anything about it. None of them are socially conventional characters, but for all their refusal of their allotted roles - as dutiful working husband or suburban wife - they remain trapped: Roo and Barney in their limited ideals of manhood, Olive and Pearl (although Pearl is, paradoxically, the freest of them) in differing ideas of womanhood. Their tragedy is that there is no escape for them: the only alternative to accepting the deathly conventions they have abjured all their lives is absolute loss.

That these qualities are so compellingly clear is a tribute to Neil Armfield's production, which focuses squarely on the text and performances. There were some cast changes (notably Whyte in the demanding role of Olive) for the Melbourne production, and you can see where some performances are more finely nuanced than others; but all the actors expose with an uncompromising clarity the passions at work in the action.

The emphasis in this play is on the women. Whyte is one of those rare actors who can summon extremity on stage, playing Olive's brittle aggression as a growing, overwhelming panic, and is a brilliant foil against Thomson's Pearl, whose matter-of-fact insensitivity covers an unexpressed loneliness. Pearl's pretensions towards respectability offer, along with Nevin's impeccably performed Emma, much of the play's comedy, but transform into an authentic and moving dignity. As the cane-cutters Roo and Barney, Le Marquand and McMahon play their masculinity with an old-fashioned swagger and bombast, pretensions which becomes poignant as they crumble under the pressures of reality.

When The Doll premiered in London in 1957, it prompted a memorable effusion from Kenneth Tynan. Winding up his excitability spring, he declared that this play was a harbinger of things to come: a working class tragedy that signalled perhaps the first drops of a seminal outpouring of drama from the Antipodes. As it turned out, the energy that The Doll heralded mostly happened in Britain.  The late 50s saw the premiere of some notable plays - for example, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley and Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey - which, like Lawler's, brought a new realism to tragedy, and different kinds of characters and settings to the stage: reacting against the drawing room dramas symbolised by Terence Rattigan, they were gritty, powerful, and aggressively contemporary. Lawler was in the zeitgeist.

In Australia, the gushing forth Tynan prophesied was more of a trickle: it didn't really occur until the 1970s, with the establishment of the Pram Factory and Nimrod Theatre. It wasn't as if the promise wasn't there: the late 50s and early 60s saw, for example, the premieres of Richard Beynon's The Shifting Heart or Peter Kenna's The Slaughter of St. Teresa’s Day. Australia simply didn't have the cultural and institutional support that permitted the explosion of talent that Britain saw in the 1960s, which witnessed the emergence of so many astounding playwrights, from Trevor Griffiths to Harold Pinter to John Arden.

It's hard not to wonder what happened to Australian main stage drama: on this same stage, almost exactly a year ago, I saw Don Parties On, a play which lacks everything - craft, insight, wit, passion, emotional truthfulness - that The Doll has in such abundance. Maybe, as much as with the lack of nurturing institutions, it had something to do with those cultural cobwebs, which are so good at muffling protean energies and have so often stifled them at birth. A prominent critic, who would have had no argument with placing The Doll at the top of the tree of cultural prestige, commented in one of his books that Australians have no taste for tragedy. That's only possible to maintain if you erase the fact that The Doll, one of our most iconic plays, is a searing tragedy, powerful and raw and uncompromising still, as Armfield's production so amply demonstrates. Not to be missed.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Ray Lawler, directed by Neil Armfield. Set design Ralph Myers, costumes by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Damien Cooper, composer Alan John. With Eloise Winestock, Helen Thomson, Alison Whyte, Robyn Nevin, Steve Le Marquand, Travis McMahon and TJ Power. Belvoir and Melbourne Theatre Company, Arts Centre Playhouse, until February 18.


4 coffins said...

Thanks for the review Alison. What enraptures me about the play is that it is so conventional, it's comfortingly conscious of its traditions, and there's great guffaws when the paint shop in Weston St Brunswick or recognisable happenings of Carlton are referred to. I liken it to seeing a Hollywood film shot in Melbourne, where I get all gooey when a location comes up that I know and I feel totally famous. And of course, this familiarity, as well as the familiarity with the chartacters as types, feeds its resonance with audiences here.

In this vein, I felt like this production lacked a certain localness that was dissappointing, for example in a visual sense I was not at all in a Carlton Terrace, and the design + concept seemed to borrow much from legacies of productions of Chekhov (e.g the significance of windows, Ralph's set a little bit Germanic?). I understand this direction as perhaps Anton + Ray a bit similar but all the same it annoyed me - how come we don't we have our own traditions? Isn't this OUR play? Why internationalise it, why genericise it? I wanted Pearl to be that chick behind the bar who serves me at Percy's, and Barney to be that nuggety dickhead working the mines and coming back for a three month long Mad Monday. This doll would hypothetically play well on the international stage, and in doing so, for me, loses its charm, and to a degree its honesty. Everything too pretty, too grand, too polished. We are a small country, it is a small tragedy, it is ordinary people's beautiful struggle. Somehow, elevating it to the grandness of Chekhov (although admittedly he has kind of the same mission) doesn't seem like a valid obective. I see you are in support - I wonder if you know what I'm talking about? Or perhaps you feel this granduer fitting for what is, admittedly, a grand play?

I dunno if maybe everyone is trying to make STC productions for export now, or maybe that's being very unfair on this production, (and besides - maybe that's great). Anyway, don't want to pre-empt what will possibly be your next post...

Alan Skinner said...

Thank you, Alison, for the perceptive comments about the play and its context. I haven't seen the production and probably wouldn't have if your review hadn't given me some food for thought. It's a play I like but having read it, seen the MTC's 1977 production, and the unfortunate Borgnine/Mills film, it didn't feel necessary to extract more from it. Perhaps now I might.

In the early 80s I worked with Lawler when I was an ASM at the MTC. He directed Arms and The Man (my first play with them) and I had the good fortune to have a brief chat with him about Doll and even then he expressed - with some sadness it seemed to me - the same sentiments as in your opening paragraph.

So, maybe it is time to re-visit something whose place in my cultural edifice I thought was permanently fixed.



Alan Skinner said...

Dear 4 coffins

If I watch, or even talk about, a Terence Davies film with Liverpudlians, I always get the sense that a large part of their response is due to the (either child-like or tribal) joy of seeing themselves in the mirror of film. It's unfortunate, because that connection through geography and familiarity often seems to cheat Davies of the wider relevance of his work.

I get some of the same sense in reading your comment, but perhaps I am not reading it right. Is the parochial quality so important in Doll? I would have thought it the opposite: that it rises above the limitations its familiarity sets on it in its home country, and the limitations of alien-ness set on it abroad.

And I have to confess that I balked at the word 'charm'. Charm is the virtue we bestow only on people ands things that rest beside us comfortably - which doesn't quite fit with my recollection of the play.

Nor do I think it to be a small tragedy, any more than Lennie's tragedy in Of Mice and Men is small.

4 coffins said...

Hi Alan thanks for that - I think this is a perennial challenge which you outline: whether 'universalising' a play somehow deadens its impact or if it in fact 'essentialises' or 'streamlines' it for a wider audience. The fact is all of the classics have had this done to them on the path to being classics, it just bothered me in this instance because it's my backyard. I suppose I am making a parochial and non-progressive argument here.

I used the phrase "loses its charm" in the horrible cliche way god intended it... please insert "magic" or "lustre" or whatever other superlative you might use ("je ne sais quoi?") - I do not find this play particularly charming, and don't think this is a good way to describe it. So, agreed.

Small - in relation to Chekhov, in which perhaps the tragedy has more... magnitude or something? Scope? Trauma?

How do we measure tragedy, anyway? By what's won and lost? By the opposition of the failed 'real' outcome to the imagined 'successful' outcome? The space between lie and the reality? Body count? (Hamlet: 8, Doll: 0) By the collapse of objectives and their closeness to our own objectives, thearefore its resonating with the audience? By the inferred value of what has been destroyed?

If what is destroyed here is a yearly routine of a few giggles and romantic-hedonistic lifestyle, an ideal of hyper-masculity, of stickin by your mates and then comin home to the misses, then this seems a very Australian sort of tragedy, and it would be unfair to rip it from its roots (again - if you buy the argument that this is happening... and even I'm not convinced).

Don't know if it will ever play well in Norway, for example. Whereas you'd think Chekhov would.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, 4 Coffins and Alan. I agree with Alan here. One thing I really enjoyed about this production was how Australian it is. But does it really have to stick gumleaves on it (or Carlton terraces) to reassure its audiences that "we" recognise "ourselves"? Are we still that insecure? I didn't feel at all that this was a generic production (it's Belvoir, not STC, btw). "Our" traditions are in part European, and become "ours" in how we employ them in our local conditions: this play's heritage is European (and American I think) as much as it is Australian. And Ibsen and Chekhov are as parochial as Lawler, after all. The only purely Australian performance traditions we have are in fact Aboriginal: and in contemporary theatre they too fuse and combine with other traditions. That's how culture works.

I'm reminded a little of Borges's comments after he was accused of not being Argentinian enough. He said it was as absurd as demanding that the Koran be full of camels to prove that it's Arabic.

I mean tragedy here in its specific theatrical sense as a form, btw. You can argue forever what defines it, but I take it to mean essentially the dramatisation of people struggling and failing against immovable realities - consciousness, mortality. It's also a pretty unforgiving piece of theatrical machinery, one reason this play is admirable. One of the radical things that happened in the 20C was that tragedy was wrenched away from kings and its scope given to "ordinary" people: Willy Loman, Olive Leech. And the point is that catastrophe is as devastating to a salesman or a working class woman as it is to a king. The tragedy here is about aging, the inability to preserve Eden, the cost of self-recognition. Yes, nobody dies, but the major characters undergo a kind of death, as their ideas of themselves are destroyed.

Alan Skinner said...

Hi, 4 coffins One of the joys and frustrations of foreign theatre is unpicking the local from the universal from the fabric of the work. Tennessee Williams, for example, is always American yet Brick and Maggie's struggle is not born of them being American. But if you lessen the American-ness, it doesn't play well. Perhaps that's the sign of a play that is universal: it has roots but it's not like an immovable oak in the forest but more like those bloody Ents in LOTR that can wander without changing form. In that regard like you I'd hate to see a production of Doll in which the Australian-ness is removed.

Checkov is probably an unfair comparison only in that he had the a remarkable ability to extract great meaning from small circumstance. Which is also why poor Checkov productions so easily fall to melodrama. As much as I appreciate Doll, it isn't Vanya.

The concept of tragedy in drama is one that interest me a great deal. I'd go back even further than Alison in the change of how the dramatisation of tragedy shifted from the grand, structural theme to the personal. Robertson's Society in mid-1800s slammed the lid on tragedy as the domain of gods and kings. (The same shift occurred in poetry as well and I blame Byron and Shelley. Prometheus, Ozymandias and Don Juan were the magnificent food of poetry and the public, given a rich surfeit of it, found its appetite terminally ailing.) Since then, we have moved tragedy from the realm of the external to the internal. It comes from whispers within rather than from thunderclaps without but to the same effect.

But why the change - now, there's the question.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Alan - As soon as I posted that, I thought of Buchner's Woyzeck (and before that Lenz's The Soldiers, which was written in 1776 and remains startlingly modern). Of course it happened earlier than the 20C, though American tragedy - O'Neil, Williams and Miller especially - put another spin on it. I think, for better and worse, that Romanticism was the great cultural revolution of modernity, and that modernism and post-modernism and whatever is happening now are still playing out the great shift in cultural consciousness it inaugurated and represented. People think Romanticism was all daffodils and tend to forget the revolution part of it...

Alan Skinner said...

Hooray! Glad to see that someone else appreciates the genetics of literature and thought. 'Romanticism was the great ... and represented.' Very well put, Alison.

PS Must chase down Woyzeck. That's new to me. Thanks.

4 coffins said...

The comparison to Chekhov comes from the staging of this play reminding me of several archetypes usually employed - the metaphor of the window as a means of escape, for example, first made famous by Stanislavsky and used in much the same way here (light streaming through the tulle curtains etc), or the vastness and emptiness of the room. (I think I was speciaically reminded of the Hungarians' Ivanov at the Sydney Festival a few years back) As you say Alan, it isn't Vanya, and this is precisely my point as well. Is a window a good metaphor for the characters of the Doll? I'm not suggesting it should be a looping TV replay of the 1993 Carlton vs Essendon grand final, but maybe this device (and I may be finally jumping off the deep end here) is not specifically transferrable to Lawler's "escape", and that it would have been great to innovate and find something else that made an attempt to capture this unique quality, though admittedly it seems borrowed from tragic traditions of the greeks etc.

There is a question about whether this comparison, whether consciously or unconsciously made, is fair. The parochial part of me says I'd like The Doll to stay in Carlton, and I think this would have created interesting challenge, but I acknowledge this production as an attempt to place it in a universal framework, which I think is valid to a degree. Personally I would have liked the play to make Carlton more famous, rather than erase it.

Lawler himself has put the camels full of Korens in the play... why bother locating it in Carlton? Why the heavy accents? Why the uniquely Australian dreams/struggles? It requires addressing from any production I think. There is room for interpretation, I simply found it odd to see a play about a place up the road that didn't acknowledge that place's existence, or indeed engage with what that might mean. Again, not neccessarily talking about a Brunetti's sign, but anyway, I think I'm fighting a losing battle here.

Australian performance traditions only exist in as much as there is a continuing attempt to develop them; unless they continue to be innovated upon. Tradition relies on its relevance to the here and now, otherwise it becoems a museum piece. We might accuse our lack of theatre traditions as a simple failure to innovate in the here and now.

Woyzeck should come with a warning label that it is an unfinished play and there are literally thousands of ways to complete it. I see it not so much as a work of romantic tragedy as a gauntlet thrown down to understanding the terror of existance after the collapse of moral structure. "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" - a statement true of the context of the play and also any attempt to interpret it, given its fragmented nature.

Politically I think the American side of things was motivated by their wanting to develop a national theatre that was different from the English. Honing in on the 'ordinary' citizen removes a fantasy/symbolic element from the tragedy and ideologizes (yup yankee spelling) ordinariness - arguably an attempt at claiming the domestic space as a site of political power, though we can see it as an opressive force as well.

Anyway they are ALL my thoughts on the subject... (sorry)

Unknown said...

Alison you are so right - I too sat in the theatre watching Alison Whyte's brilliant Olive and thinking Lawler has written the Australian Willy Loman character. And Robyn Nevin's pitch perfect Emma has the equivalent to the "attention must be paid" speech. It is the the Great Australian Tragedy.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Unknown! Maybe A Great Australian Tragedy?

And hi 4 Coffins. This is quite the conversation! I guess to me the set's space and light had an air of America rather than Europe. I mentioned Elia Kazan's films; also Edward Hopper, those melancholy characters lost in those diagonally lit interiors. I certainly didn't think at all of Chekhov, whom I've seen done any number of ways. (I didn't see that Ivanov.) I guess I'm still a bit puzzled that you think it needed signposts. But I'm repeating myself. Surely something like this production is utterly Australian? It certainly seemed so to me. I understand the concept of traditions in the evolution of art, and we have them - this play itself demonstrates that - but I don't quite understand why aesthetic borders must be fenced off and nationalistically guarded. It's a defensiveness that seems to me utterly colonial, and a recipe for poverty in any art, no matter where it is.

A short divagation on Woyzeck: no matter what order it's played in, and I've read a few versions, it's certainly a tragedy of an ordinary man. You can't just shuffle it infinitely: there's an implied development of action. Woyzeck's collapse into madness isn't so much about the collapse of moral structure to me, though it's certainly about existential terror; W lives from the beginning outside the privilege of a bourgeois moral structure. As he tells the captain when he's shaving him, he can't afford virtue. I was wondering how "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" (Assassin's Creed?) pertains to Woyzeck? Politically Buchner was a radical, and if anything the play demonstrates the carelessly predatory nature of class and privilege - those like the captain, the doctor - on those at the bottom. Which kind of fits with the times, the French Revolution, etc, and Buchner's own activism.

I don't know enough about American theatre to talk about how it developed: was there a push for a "national theatre" there? They had the War of Independence, after all, unlike us: they didn't have to make themselves different from the English, because they had already done it.

4 coffins said...

"Nothing is true everything is permitted" IS from assassins creed apparently, but via an impressive list: William S. Burroughs, Neitzsche and Dostoevsky ("if there is no god then everything is permitted"). It links a collapse of objective truth (hate this term, prefer "agreed truth") with moral vacuousness, or if you like the creation of particular truths forming the basis for particular moral relities, like the justification for the Iraq war (but anyway). I think its application to Woyzeck relies on its blurring of subjectivity, textual ambiguities and having an ustable narrator, which forms the basis of moral transgression. The play seems to on one hand set up rigid truths/structures and then destabilize them, creating a world that brings all action to within the realm of moral possibility. Therefore because Woyzeck's children were born out of wedlock, it is possible for Woyzeck to kill them, and these two events are conntected. B├╝chner posits this as an impossible existence - for the individual it is unreconcilable, and dehumanising.

Yes I think it's a difficult argument I'm trying to run - it's not really about signposts although we keep coming back to this. I'm not talking about (or trying not to) signification here, or naval gazing. Just trying to question the validity of the approach, which to me spoke of and directly employed devices tradtional to Chekhov, whether this is ok or not. (Seeing as you don't buy the lamp, it seems unlikely you're going to buy the bulb.) Perhaps someone who enjoys contemporary stage aesthetics per se would have been impressed by this - for me it did little to unlock truth in the play, and provided not enough investigation or interrigation into the play's questions. Some, but not enough. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what I'm tryyina say.

My understanding of the political context for American naturalism's development is about the primacy of the individual, the family home and the need to rewrite their history in a way that justified their own moral code. I think differentiation from the English was about inventing a history. When you're major cultural influence is the monarchy it's not a surprise in some ways that you'd assault this with rational individualism and a "back to home" vibe, as if to paper over any anxieties of dislocation.

Alison Croggon said...

Now you've lost me, 4 Coffins. Woyzeck has a child, but there's no mention of his killing his child, let alone because he's not married; he stabs his lover Marie (not his child) in a fit of jealous rage. He is clearly going mad because the doctor's medical experiments on him are making him lose his mind. There's no moral thing I can see anywhere in that play about his being outside marriage and therefore likely to murder his family; although the Captain clearly regards W as a moral beast, I don't think that's the point of the play. The biggest factor in Woyceck's tragedy is his poverty. Conventional morality is exposed in that play as a tawdry gloss on privilege, and not an ethic at all. And Nietzsche argued that collapse of agreed truth/God was the only way to see clearly: that those "objective" moral truths were actually lies. Ie, you could say he was arguing for a fiercer and truer morality.

Yes, I think we won't agree on your second point. I do think Chekohov is a bit of a red herring here, because I simply don't know what Chekovian tradition you mean - Chekhovian tradition in English theatre usually - and rather tediously - means those melancholy twilights. If you're saying that directing the play as a tragedy, in the tradition of modern tragedies from Ibsen to Miller, lessens its impact, yes, I can't agree. For me, it exposed the power and resonance of the play.

I'm a bit confused by your argument about naturalism/realism etc in the US and Britain too. Post-war Britain produced some of the greatest realist drama, in film as well as the plays I mentioned - think of Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, or Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life, et al (if you haven't seen them, rent them out - I love these films). Right up to Ken Loach now. Agree that individualism was/is a big thing in US ideology, but surely the big three we mentioned - O'Neill, Williams, Miller - were all writing fairly savage critiques of that?

4 coffins said...

Ok let's leave it then :) Though I think your reading of W. absolves him of any guilt, where I am arguing that his actions (fair enough, not killing his child, I misremembered that) are tied to moral and ontological collapse. This is from the shave scene:

CAPTAIN: (…)[Moved:] Woyzeck, he is a good person, but [with dignity] Woyzeck, he has no morals! Morality is that if one is moral, he understands. It is a good word. He has a child without the blessing of the Church, as our Lord hocherw├╝rdiger Garnisionsprediger says - without the blessing of the church, it's not mine.

Admittedly the Captain talks in third person which makes the scene ambiguous, but we can deduce that he is talking about W.

Whatever Neitzsche's broader arguments are (and I don't know them well) he definitely wrote the words. Perhaps he was being contrary, or provocative. Or Nihilistic.

I'm saying - what about Australian tragedy, and... isn't this different to other tragedy, as well as being implicitly tied to it? And wouldn't this therefore come with a different set of signifiers, that try to unpick this context, as well as acknowledging its archetypes? We are in a different context after all, and there is something unique about it. I don't think you can argue against Australian Tragedy being potentially different. Can you? I'm all for modern tragedy but I think this needs to be handled together with an appreciation of locality and context. If for you it exposed these, then it has done a good job, regardless of how it was directed (which I think is your point).

Yes American Naturalism/Realism... The big three we mentioned surpass whatever limitations were on them in their writing, which is probabaly what makes them great writers. there is a big glut of others I can't pretend to have read which probably don't, and where ideology plays a much less conscious role. I was talking about pre-ww2 America's transitions anyway. You know, when it shifted from vaudeville and civil war re-enactments.

Anonymous said...

One issue to keep in mind re:the set. This production was originally staged at Belvoir which is a very intimate space, vastly smaller than the stage at the Arts Centre. Watching the play the other day, I was a bit taken aback by the sheer space of this boarding-house room, but I expect within Belvoir is would have seemed much more close and claustrophobic - it probably would have had a different feel entirely. Makes we wonder whether Fairfax Studio might not have been a better fit for this production.

Anonymous said...

Plus at Belvoir the window opened out directly into Belvoir Street, so you had the outside coming into the theatre. I imagine a lot of that effect is lost in a different space.

4 coffins said...

Thanks - that probably changes my reading, or at least the reality of the play for me.

Sounds like I would have liked to have seen it at Belvoir.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, we were down in the Arts Centre bunker, so no outdoors. Different shaped stage too. If the window opened outside, I guess the lighting would have been different too? It was such a feature of this stage, and quite gorgeous.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi 4C: to continue our digression: I'm not sure how a play which explores why a man might commit an extreme act "absolves him from guilt". Certainly W's actions stem from collapse. But the Captain is hardly the play's moral centre: he is more the rotten moral (bourgeois) core, from which collapse spreads. The play itself doesn't tie up anything in a moral homily: it presents a series of events which complicate the notions of guilt and morality and illuminate their connections to class, power and poverty. It suggests a rather wider social critique than you're giving it here, which is actually an individualistic reading...

I'm not saying that Australian work is the same as everywhere else; the reverse, actually. I'm saying it's absolutely local, and also that it lives in the world.

4 coffins said...

And yet at the core of this morally vacuous world - what about Woyzeck himself? Where is his morality? He seems unable to take any empowered decision for change. Yes its a sick world, but Buchner also paints the individual as sick within it. One can see the play as a challenge to society, but there is a philosophical failure of the individual at its centre - which I think is a failure of resistance. I find this interesting because in some ways I think it makes it a deeper and more nihilistic text - not only a failed society but a complicit individual.

I think an individualistic reading of this text is ok? It's not Brecht, it follows the basic politics of individualism, and doesn't really make an attempt to confound this. We see events always through Woyzeck's eyes. The play carries his title.

Or perhaps you are accusing me of reading the play in an individualistic manner - I make no apologies for following my own line, within reason. It's your (self-motivated) role to provide fair and balanced theatre criticism, not mine ;). Doesn't mean I can just sound off of course, but surely I am allowed to make suggestions that are not critically watertight, like the reading of the Doll? Otherwise I fear I would have nothing to say! (Plus I wouldn't learn nuffin.)

sydney cane cutting hipster said...

Thanks for your review Alison, having seen this production in Sydney the idea of seeing it without Dan Wylie did not appeal. I found him the standout - almost a role made for him. I want to note that as you have mentioned Ms Whyte but not him.

Anonymous made a comment about the set and how this may or may not have played out in Sydney vs Melbourne. In the Sydney season I actually found the set design problematic - purely from a basic functionality perspective. The choice of wall colour was somehow too pink or beige - issues with costuming/lighting and the choice of wall colour really hampered the design - leading performers to sometimes disappear within it and from us.

In terms of the use of space, it was okay in Sydney but really I doubt there would be much difference with the lack of intimacy.

A mesmerising production though and an astonishingly good piece of writing.

Oh, and comparisons with Thyestes, war of roses and doll house - you can't be serious right? Sure they're older texts being redone, but in summer of the doll it's a faithful reproduction, owning what the play is honouring the text and giving credit to the writer for his achievement. At least in the case of Thyestes hardly the same sort of category.

I mean yes Thyestes an amazing performance, but this will not and can not be reproduced off the page as the doll is. It may well be a score for the performers or a new text was created, but that's not the original text is it.

But if you gave them summer of the doll to work up, then I'm sure hayloft would come up with something. Replete with all sorts of strange latent heterohomo arousals barely acknowledged... hmmm, like roo and barney maybe, quiet nights out in the cane fields, roo tapes barneys mouth shut and gently does things with a kewpie doll?

Alison Croggon said...

Hey 4 Coffins - I hope that I would never discourage anyone from following their own line of thought! God forbid. I simply disagree. Not sure either whether I'm here to provide "fair and balanced criticism". I try to be fair, but in the end, I think what I think. Just as you do.

I meant individualistic in the sense that the individual has ultimate agency and responsibility, whereas I'd say that Woyzeck suggests a rather more complex and discomforting equation. Ie, it's a play out of the revolution.

Sydney CC, I simply meant that despite their differences of approach, Armfield's production was, like those other works, driven by the desireto see freshly.

4 coffins said...

Ah - I misread you then. You meant indiviualistic as in that I'm reading the play as an individualistic play, not that I'm reading it individualistically. (There's a happy result. Did seem a bit out of character!)

P.s SCCH - nice little erotic fiction novel. Little bit of the old "cuttin' the cane" as they say... Roo and Barney gettin' "up nawth"...

Anonymous said...

sydney cane cutting hipster's last paragraph - ROFL