The Ham Funeral/Journal of a Plague Year ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Ham Funeral/Journal of a Plague Year

The Ham Funeral by Patrick White, Journal of a Plague Year by Tom Wright. Directed by Michael Kantor, designed by Anna Tregloan. Lighting by Paul Jackson, costumes by Fiona Crombie. With Marta Dusseldorp, Julie Forsyth, Robert Menzies, Lucy Taylor, Dan Spielman, Ross Williams and Matthew Whittet. Malthouse Theatre.

As Michael Kantor's first presentation as Malthouse artistic director, this double bill is a provocative signal of intention. It offers an alternative means of imagining Australian theatre, outside the narrowly nationalistic or topical concerns which have dominated the Playbox aesthetic since the early 1990s. And although I don't feel it's an unqualified artistic success, I left feeling more hopeful about Melbourne theatre than I have for many years.

For a long time, mainstream plays in Melbourne have been presented under various aegises: as bearers of social issues, education, political commentary or, perhaps least offensively, as mere entertainment. As for theatre itself, it has sometimes seemed to be the Art That Dares Not Tell Its Name, a shameful embarrassment that has had to be decently cloaked in more palatable imperatives.

So it's a relief to be offered works that place themselves unapologetically in the culture and history of theatre itself. The paradoxical effect of this is to make theatre immediately less parochial in its concerns, to engage its tentacular ability to grasp social, literary and philosophical concerns and to thrust them onto the vulgar carnality of the stage. It's an aesthetic that is far from apolitical, but this is a politics which doesn't earnestly explore "issues", in order to coax from them a masochistically satisfying (but temporary) inflammation of the liberal conscience. Rather, it's a politics which begins by attempting to address some of the complexities of existence.

These two productions, presented in repertory with an ensemble cast, look back to major movements in 20th century theatre: the existential theatre of Beckett, the absurdism of Arabal and Ionesco, the revolutionary theatre imagined by Artaud. It's a truism that Australian theatre has marginalised these influences in favour of naturalistic conventions, but it seems to me that the truth of that story is much more complex than a simplistic naturalistic/non-naturalistic division. Our theatre has also ignored naturalistic writers like Peter Kenna; and some of the significant playwrights of the '70s, Jack Hibberd and John Romeril, for example, were certainly influenced by White and his contemporaries.

I suspect that the work which has been most marginalised over the past few decades is any theatre which refuses easy sentiment and pierces, instead, to the marrow of complex emotion. Which is to say, a tragic theatre. There is something in the Australian psyche which flinches against such difficult surgeries, preferring instead the "relaxed and comfortable" vision of life that was so attractively peddled by John Howard. All the same, I perceive a great and increasing hunger for this kind of work, as the world has darkened over the past few years. This cathartic emotional affect is also difficult to achieve. The Ham Funeral shows triumphantly how it can be done; the Artaudian Journal of a Plague Year how easily the grandiose gesture can flail and miss its mark.

The Ham Funeral was written in 1947 but was not produced until more than a decade later; astoundingly, this is its first professional production in Melbourne. It emerges from the formally adventurous theatre which grew out of European modernism, exemplified by playwrights like Arabal, Beckett and Ionesco. Watching The Ham Funeral, it seems strange that it is not mentioned in the same breath as Waiting for Godot (which it predates by two years) or Rhinoceros. Part of the answer might be in its stubborn Australianness; from its poetic cadences to its irreverent eclecticism to its joyous vulgarity, it's a profoundly antipodean work. But in Australia, it was simply considered too odd, or too obscene. We do not have a good record with our best artists.

The Ham Funeral is a post-romantic work written by an artist deeply uncomfortable with his own romanticism. It's about a young poet (Dan Spielman), who lodges with Mr and Mrs Lusty (Ross Williams and Julie Forsyth) in a boarding house full of "everlasting furniture". Mr Lusty suddenly drops dead, and Mrs Lusty takes the opportunity to give a lavish feast, "an 'am funeral", in his honour. Mrs Lusty, a woman driven by incontinent appetites, attempts to seduce the young poet, with comically tragic consequences. There's a fair bit of Jungian symbolism - the house as the self, the anima behind the door, the carnal desires in the basement - but this is merely a single strand in a play which works on a multiplicity of levels. One of its major obsessions is the insufficiencies of words in the face of life, the question of how language might escape its own imprisonments.

White's theatrical language is superbly dynamic, and imbued with a fearless vitality. It's resonant with allusion, prefiguring not only the slapstick of Beckett and the absurdist freedoms of Ionesco or Arabal, but also echoing poets as bizarrely diverse as Arthur Rimbaud and Walter de la Mare. Ultimately, the sophistication of White's linguistic skills works to evoke feeling at its most subterranean and mysterious. For all its vulgar comedy - among many other delights, it features a terrific fart joke - this is a play which reveals above all the anguish of consciousness, the pain and release which underlies any honest moment of self-recognition, and the price of risking the barren self to engage with the beauty and violence of the world. It's the kind of work which moves you to tears, without being quite sure why.

Michael Kantor's production is a beautiful realisation of the play. It's notable for its clarity: in one sense, Kantor has merely presented the text as simply and elegantly as possible. But this is a deceptive simplicity, gained through some thoughtful problem solving. Anna Tregloan has designed a flexible but evocative playing space: the boarding house is represented by a stage with a row of curtained windows backstage which can be lit or concealed, and fronted by the bare floor. The stairs - the liminal place between rooms where various characters pause to utter their uncertain thoughts - are indicated by bars of light. A red curtain drawn back by the Young Man foregrounds the artifice of the play, just as the text does. There are moments of memorable visual richness: a lyrical glimpse of Dan Spielman and Robert Menzies in overcoats, running through the rain with their umbrellas; the landlord's relatives, boxed behind windows, grotesquely attired in pyjamas like characters out of Endgame.

But ultimately the success of the production stands or falls on the performances; in particular, on the roles of the Young Man and Mrs Lusty, since this play is almost a two-hander with some extra characters. Dan Spielman and Julie Forsyth are up to the task. Spielman, always a performer notable for his emotional fearlessness, portrays the solipsistic romanticism of the Young Man and its violent fracture with scarcely a missed beat. If sometimes he subtly falls into what look like actorly habits, we can forgive him for his unfudged clarity of feeling and intelligent irony.

Julie Forsyth is a comic delight, always just this side of grotesque caricature: on the one hand in incandescent rebellion against the bleakness of her life, and on the other imbued with a touchingly innocent longing. The violent climax of the play, an extraordinary scene of miserable sexual violence between Mrs Lusty and the Young Man, is played by both of them with a raw passion that makes it devastatingly tragic. They are well supported: in particular, Ross Williams, one of the more underestimated actors in Melbourne, portrays the silent landlord with a deft tragicomic touch, and Robert Menzies has some gloriously black comic moments. Max Lyandvert's sound, a mixture of pre-recorded soundscapes and live piano music, also deserves mention.

The same cast also plays Tom Wright's Journal of a Plague Year. For this production, Kantor capitalises on the cavernous spaces of the Merlyn Theatre to create a huge black canvas on which he projects a series of tableaux. The cast creates a series of dramatic or grotesque images, some of which are strikingly memorable: the black-cloaked narrator (Robert Menzies) emerging from darkness, illuminated only by the lamp he is carrying; a plague victim (Matthew Whittet) crucified on a moveable panel, tormented by disembodied hands; Nell Gwynne (Lucy Taylor) in busty Restoration garb, singing '70s pop songs.

The major problem with this work is that these images, however striking, never amount to anything substantial; they are grotesquerie without emotional force, and so can never approach actual horror or tragedy. The problem begins with Tom Wright's script, which merits some discussion.

The pretext for this work is supposedly Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the plague that struck London in 1665. Defoe's novel is a early example of fictional journalism; it purports to be the memoirs of a pious Protestant merchant, H.F. It's a somewhat disorderly narrative, but all the same told with a meticulous attention to detail - Defoe researched the public records, and items like the death figures or public health measures are set down with an almost bureaucratic zeal. For all his piety, H.F.'s manner is free of pompous moralising or overblown religiosity: he is a practical and materialistic man, recording a tragic human phenomenon with an insatiable and sceptical curiosity.

Aside from its 17th century setting, its quotes from Defoe and the theme of the plague, Tom Wright's version has in fact very little to do with the original. A Journal of the Plague Year is essentially about survival; Defoe is fascinated by the endless ingenuity of human resistances against both the plague and its catastrophic economic effects. The novel ends with a rhyme about the plague which "swept an hundred thousand souls / Away; yet I alive!" Wright's Journal, on the other hand, is about apocalyptic extremity and exploits a religious fervour that Defoe's text pragmatically eschews. Its actual genesis is the avatar of the Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud.

Some artists are perilous influences; they tend to be innovative geniuses whose work is so idiosyncratic that imitators without equal abilities can only seem mannered. I'm thinking of writers like Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins; among theatre artists, Artaud is probably the most dangerous. Howard Barker's Theatre of Catastrophe or the plays of Sarah Kane are successful examples of the contemporary application of some of Artaud's ideas; both are fiercely moral writers who launch full-frontal attacks on the humanistic tradition of reason.

One problem with Artaud is that he means it, and any artist who decides to pick up on his ideas had better mean it, too. Another problem is that the logical end of Artaud's idea of "absolute revolt" is Pol Pot and Year Zero (Pol Pot was, it must be remembered, educated in Paris). Like Rimbaud, Artaud insisted on the collapse of any boundary between art and life: thought and act were to be completely identified. He despised empty formalism. "If there is one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time," he wrote in The Theatre and The Plague, "it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames." He insisted on a carnal theatre, a theatre that reinstated the poetry that had been corrupted by modernity and reason, a theatre that "recovers the notion of symbols and archetypes which act like silent blows, rests, leaps of the heart, summons of the lymph, inflammatory images thrust into our abruptly wakened heads".

Wright, unlike Kane or Barker, is altogether too cerebral to answer this kind of visceral demand. The contrast with Patrick White's theatrical language is stark; where White is dynamic, tactile and supple, Wright is static and abstract. But the work suffers also in comparison to writers who shape the banalities of language, playwrights like Michel Vinaver or Thomas Bernhard: neither of them speak in generalities, where Wright seldom escapes them.

Oddly, for all its gestures towards unreason, Wright's text seems tame; it is much more orderly than Defoe, who is quite happy for most of his book to ignore the demands of chronology or even literary logic. The details of urban life that swarm in Defoe's text are filleted out in favour of apocalyptic religiosity, and events taken from the novel are simplified and exaggerated into grand guignol melodrama. One example is the scene about plague victims being nailed into their houses; the actuality, as reported by Defoe, was both more complicated and less absolute. The victims in fact had their keys taken and a watchman set outside their door: and they often tricked the watchmen and escaped out the back. I personally find myself more attracted by the subversion of the original tale. And the constant equation of women with infection and sexual delirium has more than a whiff of misogyny. I think what bothers me most is that Wright has what poets call a "cloth ear"; a problem closely aligned to the lack of tactility or carnality in his language. He might get away with a lot more if he had more intuitive sensitivity to the cadences of a line.

The text is organised in a kind of modular prison, with Brechtian signs traversing the stage signalling each month (it's only a matter of time before you start calculating that there are five months until December). Each month ushers in a different theme - contagion's genesis, evil visions, interpretration of dreams, the pit of death - which the actors duly illustrate. But perhaps where Wright most inverts his apparently anarchic intentions is at the end, when he encloses the narrative with a moral homily about the essential bestiality of human nature. This is, despite its crazed dress, humanistic theatre after all.

I can't say I was bored, even if sometimes I was impatient. There was enough visual interest and flashes of wit to keep me from wanting to lay violent hands on myself. I particularly liked the philosopher's chat show, where Hobbes, Artaud and others seated at microphones dispute the nature of reality. Robert Menzies as the narrator generates enough energy to keep it together, despite what sounds like an almost unperformable text, and the rest of the cast does its best, which is in moments more than enough. It's a shame that all this effort amounts to little more than a procession of images.

Despite my reservations, it is a breath of fresh air to see mainstream theatre with ambition and intellectual clout, and that takes itself seriously as an art. I have no doubt this shift in artistic direction will generate a lot of controversy; Helen Thomson's bitterly hostile reviews (here and here) in the Age this week are probably symptomatic. I also have no doubt that this new phase at Malthouse is the best thing that's happened there in the past decade; and as a theatre goer, I am hoping that this is only the beginning of a more generous imagining of the Australian stage.

Picture: Matthew Whittet in Journal of a Plague Year
Malthouse Theatre


sbs said...

Better late than never I hope... Thank you for this lively evocation of Defoe and his adaptor here. I had the pleasure of adapting DD's "Plague Year" for the radio (it went out not long before you wrote this entry, ie a long time ago) and am just now working on something else DD-related. The book itself is vastly underrated, a fantastic read, truly surprising, moving, strange and blackly funny at times. Cheers Alison.

sbs said...

ps my colleague Drew Pautz pointed me towards Heiner Muller's poem "A Hundred Steps", which for me is a perfect capture of that pathos in Defoe's work, sometimes sensational but always humane.