Minefields and Miniskirts ~ theatre notes

Friday, July 16, 2004

Minefields and Miniskirts

Minefields and Miniskirts, adapted by Terence O'Connell from Siobhan McHugh's book, directed by Terence O'Connell, with Robyn Arthur, Tracy Bartram, Debra Byrne, Tracy Mann and Wendy Stapleton. Playbox Theatre, until July 31.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who started reading about the Vietnam War again earlier this year, when the word "quagmire" was redefined as a no-go zone and the comparisons with Iraq started getting insistent. The US military were again talking of "winning hearts and minds" while Marines razed foreign villages and got blown up on foreign highways. General Kimmitt was holding his Five O'Clock Follies, and the indie journo was back, as hip as ever, telling the real stories: the art galleries in downtown Baghdad, the graveyards in Falluja, the deadly taxi rides to Baghdad Airport.

The first book I picked up was Michael Herr's Despatches, the classic account of his time as correspondent for Esquire during some of the worst years of the Vietnam War. It's a hallucinatory book which has fundamentally shaped the perceptions of the Vietnam War for later generations. His soundtrack is the suicidal guitar of Hendrix, and through his pages stumble the brutal, innocent GIs, out of their heads on fear and marijuana and speed: boys from the mid-West who had never left America before, poor kids from industrial cities, thrust into the adrenalin chaos of war. Then, as now, losing their friends, their legs, their minds, their lives.

No one has described the Vietnam combat like Herr, with a vividness that's as close as you will get to understanding without having been there: for there is a barrier between imagination and experience no words can bridge, no matter how vivid or how passionate they are, no matter how true. Herr put down on paper the unspeakable seduction of homicidal psychosis, later swollen to screen size in Brando's portrayal of Captain Kurtz in Apocalyse Now. He spoke, as Wilfred Owen did in an earlier age, of terror and pity: most of all, of pity. Though in an interview years later, he said he had no pity for the vets who beat up their wives, who sat in bars with dark glasses on, haunted by the awful things they had done. They deserved to be haunted, he said. I found myself admiring his moral pitilessness: it bespoke, I thought, a truer compassion.

This is, however intelligent, however aware, however passionately anti-war, the stuff of Boy's Own journals. War stories are traditionally the business of men: so Siobhan McHugh's book, a collection of interviews with more than fifty Australian women whose lives were touched by the Vietnam war, opens up a hitherto shadowy area of experience. This book has been adapted by Terence O'Connell into a play and, strangely, the territory covered by the play is only subtly different from Herr's. Maybe it's because atrocity doesn't distinguish between the sexes: men and women are alike capable of compassion, perception, cowardice, toughness, grief, appalling brutality and astounding love.

Here are the same soldier's wallets with the souvenir atrocity photos, the same heart-wrenching portrayals of civilian suffering, the same cruel interrogations, the same descriptions of Saigon prostitutes (but not the thuggish American contractors who bought them), the same choppers and ceiling fans, the same agonising, pointless deaths. I guess these things are now so familiar they amount to cliches. There are some gendered twists: the description of the birth of a baby, or the war correspondent condemned to the Women's Pages in civilian life, or the story of the veteran's wife, brutalised by her traumatised husband.

What you do get in this play, unlike most US portrayals, is a sense of the Vietnamese experience of the war, even though there is still a feeling that the Vietnamese were extras in this most Western of dramas. I had to wait until I read Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War until I truly understood that the Vietnam War was, first of all, a Vietnamese tragedy.

Although the source material is rich, as theatre it remains half-baked. For the purposes of the play, Terence O'Connell has adapted and conflated these fifty interviews into five representative characters: the Correspondent, the Entertainer, the Nurse, the Volunteer and the Vet's Abused Wife. He has then sliced and spliced to make five interleaving monologues punctuated by archetypal songs from the 60s and 70s - Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Joan Baez.

When I opened the play and saw page after page of dense prose, I felt apprehensive: I couldn't see how O'Connell's adaptation had grappled with the idea of what a theatrical utterance might be, what it means to say words on stage. This play relies heavily on the intrinsic interest of its source material, some snappy choreography and the charisma of its performers, but none of these are enough to make it theatre. It's not primarily a question of the play's structure, although that counts. The problem goes deeper, into what you might call the DNA of theatrical language.

The director Peter Brook put the problem of theatrical writing in his book The Empty Stage: "If one starts from the premise that a stage is a stage - not a convenient premise for the unfolding of a staged novel or a staged poem or staged lecture or a staged story - then the word that is spoken on this stage exists, or fails to exist, only in relation to the tensions it creates on that stage within the given stage circumstances. ...The choices (the dramatist) makes and the values he observes are only powerful in proportion to what they create in the language of theatre."

Which is to say that writing for theatre is an extremely specific art, in which, as David Mamet says, language is not about action: it is action. O'Connell's adaptation stays in the realm of the "staged story": little imagination has been devoted to making this material theatrical, except in the most superficial sense of that word. O'Connell, who also directs the show, says his major concern was to "give (the material) a beginning, a middle and an end", and this, in the most earnest traditions of deadly narration, is precisely what he does.

The signals are given early: there's a projection on a scrim as the audience enters which tells us exactly what we are about to see. After the first song, during which the characters are serially introduced, each telling the first instalment of their story, the rhythm is set: the women will speak their monologues, and sing, and speak their monologues, and sing; and you know they will do so until they reach the "present", which for the purposes of the play is an ANZAC Day march.

What saves the evening from tedium is the performances. Minefields and Miniskirts has a celebrity cast, and these women belt out some great songs. Perhaps it is worth it to hear these amazing singers tackle Carole King's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, which is a genuine show-stopper. But in all the performances there is a tendency to over-act, perhaps from a subconscious recognition of the inherent non-theatricality of the text; a dragging out of tears which has the perverse effect of draining the stories of their power.

The show's other saving grace is its visual spectacle. Catherine Raven's design, stunningly lit by Phil Lethlean, uses the simplicity of bamboo blinds to create a flexible and evocative theatrical space, swathed in the gorgeous colours of Thai silks. The set has some breathtaking moments of its own - when the blinds are drawn back and silhoheutted to reveal a backdrop of blue sky, for example, or a moment where it goes dark and "stars" come out all over the theatre. It reminded me of one of the most beautiful sets I've ever seen, for Steve Berkoff's Salome, which was also backgrounded by a luminous sky.

It is impossible not to wonder what might have been, if these resources had been applied to an inspired (or even slightly more imaginative) script: in the hands, for example, of a David Hare, whose Fanshen is surely the exemplary documentary play. O'Connell applies biopic conventions of music theatre to a "serious" topic, with mixed results, and the writing is bogged down by a ploddingly literal approach.

Sadly, the unsolved aesthetic dilemmas presented by the material muffle its political impact: for there is no doubt that these experiences have particular resonances today, when Australian soldiers are again at war in a far country. These stories simply should not be boring. It seems that O'Connell can't decide whether Minefields and Miniskirts is feel-good commercial theatre or worthy documentary, and so falls between two stools. Using the commercial musical as a vehicle does raise the question of whether the experiences described in the play can really be approached as sheer entertainment. In the end, it escapes trivialising them, I think; but only just. All the same, you are probably better off reading the original book.

Picture: Lisa Tomasetti

Playbox Theatre

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