Mysterium ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Mysterium by Sam Sejavka, directed by Lynne Ellis, designed by Marc Raszewski. With Lisa Tilley, Dije Arlen, Francis McMahon and Mark E. Lawrence. La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse until November 13.

Sam Sejavka has long inhabited one of the more interesting outcrops of Melbourne's theatrical landscape. He lives in a gravitationally-challenged castle way past the suburbs, behind dripping forests and gloomy cliffs and hand-painted signs saying "This Way to the Sinister Laboratory" and "Beware of the Were Wolf".

In short: if it's not quite compulsory to wear low-cut nighties or long opera cloaks to Sejavka's plays, it probably ought to be. He is our resident rock Goth, whose baroque imagination is unchastened by obeisance to anything so banal as credible reality. In Mysterium, he fills his cauldron with allusions from Moby-Dick, alchemical and mystic texts, Romantic poetry and long-forgotten theories on homunculi, and stirs up some unashamedly theatrical magic.

Mysterium explores the life force of erotic passion and how its repression in mystic religion, scientific rationalism or materialistic greed manifests ultimately as an urge to destroy life itself. Such is the energy and lyrical excess of the writing that I had no trouble putting ordinary rationality away and following this strange parable about the primal origins of life to its incredible (I use the word advisedly) conclusion. Two hours seemed to pass in the twinkling of a mad scientist's eye.

Sejavka has drawn on the allegorical structures of mediaeval mystery plays but, unlike those nameless authors, he is not concerned with clear moral instruction. Several strange characters, representing various aspects of human nature, are becalmed on a ship, suspended above an abyss in the ocean. They are the "natural philosopher" or scientist, Haeckel (Francis McMahon); Hepsiba, a high priestess of a cult which worships a primordial Goddess (Dije Arlen); Hepsiba's sidekick Praxi (Lynne Ellis); the captain of the ship Ratbone (Mark E. Lawrence); and a young, lubricious girl called Nectar (Lisa Tilley).

Mysterium is unconcerned with how these characters come to be where they are; this play signally depends on the audience entering a "willing suspension of disbelief" and accepting without question a Coleridgean universe where an inauspicously shot albatross means that the ship is crewed with shadows. It is pure imagination at play, art displaying its artifice. The play's dramatic drive might be anarchic and erotic, but its dress is that of a dandy: elegantly and decadently esoteric.

Such a play needs a beautiful set, and Marc Raszewski's design is most certainly that. It's the best I've seen in the Courthouse, which is notoriously difficult: theatre often looks makeshift there, as if it happens despite the space. But for Mysterium, Raszewski puts the Courthouse's cavernous height and awkward proportions to excellent use.

A line of wooden pews slashes obliquely across the playing space, signalling the deck's railings; on the far side is the sea, which generates a fair bit of smoke and blue light. To the left, racks of antique wooden specimen draws stack up to the ceiling, among a detritus of arcane objects (a bird cage with a skeleton in it, a display case for an egg, and so on). On the other side, a ladder leads up to a small alcove, which is often used as a playing space. Centre stage is a tall mast with a rope ladder. With Dori Dragon Bicchieri's sensuous lighting design, the theatre creates the sense at once of a sailing ship and a 19th century museum.

Lynne Ellis directs the play around and above the audience, as much as before it, taking full advantage of Raszewski's set. And she draws performances from her cast that match the extremities of the writing, which requires them to teeter on the edge of parody without ever losing emotional veracity. It's not an easy balance to strike, but all the actors manage to achieve the kind of intensities - erotic, manic, obsessive - that their characters demand, without falling into the merely ridiculous. This is a question of excess: linguistically, intellectually, emotionally, this play is excessive, and it demands excessive interpretations from its performers. And excess - intelligently judged excess, aware of itself as comic but still, in its frivolity, deeply serious - is what it gets.

The sensibility of Mysterium is pure Camp, even to its impeccable lineage (Gothic literature, mediaeval mystic arcana, 19th century trash novels). Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, Notes on Camp, defines Camp as the aesthetic sensibility which values artifice and a "proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naive". One thing Camp does, according to Sontag, is to propose a more complex relationship with "the serious": Camp "can be serious about the frivolous, and frivolous about the serious". Camp is esoteric, extravagant, and the antithesis of tragic. And Camp is, naturally, inescapably theatrical.

"One is drawn to Camp," says Sontag, "when one realises that 'sincerity' is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness". She's perfectly correct. Mysterium is, in fact, the perfect antidote to Howard's narrow Australia. Get out your opera cloaks, and get down there.

Picture: Francis McMahon in Mysterium

La Mama Theatre
Sam Sejavka

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