MIAF: Death and the Ploughman / La Clique ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

MIAF: Death and the Ploughman / La Clique

Alison's Festival Diary #4

Death and the Ploughman by Johannes von Saaz, translated by Michael West. Directed by Anne Bogart, with Will Bond, Stephen Webber and Ellen Lauren, SITI Company @ the CUB Malthouse. La Clique ... A Sideshow Burlesque, The Spiegeltent, Arts Centre Forecourt

Little Alison is getting very tired, but I'm sure nobody feels sorry for me. There are certainly worse ways of exhausting oneself. For me - and for many others I have spoken to - the Melbourne Festival is a rare feast, with at least a couple of events that will stay with me for a long time. You can't win 'em all, and I can't say that I've enjoyed everything I've seen, but as someone said to me, it's made Melbourne feel like an exciting place to be. Melburnians must agree - every show I've attended has been packed out.

One show I couldn't get to, but recommend, is the very charming Felix Listens to the World by the young Melbourne trio Suitcase Royale, which is on at the Fairfax Studio at the Art Centre in a double bill with Gilgamesh. Still a couple more events in my diary before I get my life back...

So, to some reports:

The text for Death and the Ploughman was written in 1400 by a minor German clerk, who had just lost his wife in childbirth. In the course of the poem, a Ploughman bereaved of his wife curses Death, demanding recourse from Heaven and revenge for Death's theft of his happiness.

What ensues is a remarkable dialogue in which the raging, grief-stricken Ploughman arraigns Death with the fundamental injustice of mortality. Death, the impersonal end of kings and peasants alike, asserts his justice and necessity: he has spared the Ploughman's wife the miseries of old age and decreptitude; he has taken her while she is still virtuous and pure, before she corrupts, as all womankind inevitably must; if he did not assert his sway, the world would be overpopulated.

Death, the ultimate realist and cynic, asserts that the Ploughman should just resign himself: the price of love is anguish, and if he wishes not to feel pain, he should not love. Human desire is all vanity and emptiness. The Ploughman, naturally enough, wonders why God had awarded him life, if the only way to survive it is to avoid all joy.

In the end God resolves the quarrel, awarding the argument to Death, but the honour to the Ploughman. The logic of what the translator Michael West calls "one of the most blasphemous models of piety in Western literature" is all with Death, but the emotional appeal is with the Ploughman.

The poem was transformed into a play by the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and after that picked up by the SITI Theatre Company and director Anne Bogart, who is a disciple of Tadashi Suzuki's theatrical methods and also of an acting process she calls "Viewpoints", derived from theories of post modern dance originated in the 1970s by choreographers like Tricia Brown.

These techniques are then applied to the adapted poem. At first the aesthetic looks promisingly stern: a black square outlined in white is delineated in the middle of the huge Merlyn stage, a bench at each diagonal corner. Behind the square is a huge photograph of some mediaeval cloisters. Death (Stephen Webber), a bureaucratic figure in a suit, bowler hat and umbrella, stands at the back. The Ploughman (Will Bond), in grey trousers and white shirt, stands at the front next to his wife (Ellen Lauren). In a few moments' mime, her departure to the arms of Death transforms her into the Woman, Death's other voice. The actors then work around a grid formed in the square by the sharp lighting design, and the bored spectator (me) can pass the time predicting where they would next place the bench, or which box of light the actor might next step into.

Most of the time, it is impossible to see what the abstract movements - some of them recognisable from Suzuki workshops - have to do with the text. These abstractions are unsuccessfully integrated with literal human gesture. Each movement is arrested, discretely separate from the next, which gives a strangled and conflicted feel to the stage dynamic but, for all its sharpness, the choreography seems curiously blurred. Aside from the comic sequences, it is like watching a slow, gestural equivalent of Tourette's syndrome. Stephen Webber (Death), clearly a considerable actor, is the only performer who seems to create an authority in space and make some sense of the movements.

What is surprising about this production, given its avant garde dress, is its sentimentality. It bears no stink of mortality (all those black and white squares are very clean) and it wholly lacks irony, a quality that is certainly corrosively present in the poem. This sentimentality is driven home by possibly the worst sound design I have ever heard: it is banally illustrative (mention of war brings gunshots and babies crying) and irritatingly obstrusive, like a bad film score. The lack of silence betrays a certain mistrust in the power of both spoken and physical theatrical language.

There was no point where I felt any emotional connection, however untraceable, with what was happening on stage; the ending, in which the Ploughman makes his peace with Death, is marred by a performance that is sheer mugging. It made me think of Milan Kundera's comment that sentimentality is, in fact, a absence of feeling.

It was a relief the following night, then, to flee the realms of high art for the 1920s surrounds of the Spiegeltent and see something wickedly and unabashedly entertaining. La Clique...A Sideshow Burlesque is a slickly orchestrated series of acts - comic, erotic, eye-poppingly grotesque or just plain beautiful - peppered with a goodly dose of wit.

It includes the funniest strip tease ever, a magic act where Ursula Martinez finds a red handkerchief in surprising places; Miss Behave, the clownish female sword swallower with a most flexible tongue; the acrobatic blonds from Poland, the Caesar Twins, for whom the phrase "shock-headed" seems to have been invented, and the gorgeous torso of David O'Mer, who has an extremely aerial bathtime which drenches the front row, despite the plastic thoughtfully placed over their laps.

Weaving through the show like a ghost of the Berliner Kabarett is the smoky voice of Camille O'Sullivan, who has her own solo show at the Spiegeltent. (Now, that would certainly be worth seeing.) La Clique is all extravagant sequins, impossible corsets, gorgeously naked skin and lots of water (the Caesar Twins have their own turn in a fishbowl). Hot, damp and sexy; you suddenly remember the word "risque". Definitely one not to miss.


Anonymous said...

Alison - I couldn't agree more with your critique of Death and the Ploughman. It was interesting to see the director speak of how she had seen a production of this text (the one which inspired her take) and closed her eyes in order to concentrate better on the words, which were not being supported by the action on stage. I felt a similar non-productive disjunct between text and image in this production. The sound design was clunky and obvious, and the lighting design messy and irrelevant. The attempts at "ironic" humour were hard to watch in an age when so many do it so well.

During the show, it seemed to me as though the audience was bored, but I realised at the end that many were actually transfixed. There were many that were clearly moved. As you have, I think, suggested, this may have been the effect of carefully timed and applied sentimentality (the prayer, the strings...) - I certainly felt this while watching the show. But, I have to say, it made me happy to see people enjoy this work, even if I could not, because it once again reassured me of one of theatre's strengths - its ability to create a unique relationship with every person in the audience. Theatrically, Death and the Ploughman was a bold offer - a very particular methodology and aesthetic rigorously applied and very different to other shows I have seen in this years festival. I think that many audience repsonded to this act of generosity in kind. Some people who got into this show also loved other shows which I have loved, finding in them the same resonances I had. I find that so exciting! One of the great things about an arts festival such as this is that it challenges one to question what it is that theatre is, how it operates, how it fails and succeeds to speak to you as an audience member. I have found myself having to re-imagine and articulate these things over and over to friends and peers in post show conversation.

For me, this festival has been the best to date - offering up a very broad range of experiences that have been entertaining and challenging in all sorts of ways. Showcase, Bloody Mess, Theatre du Soleil, Death and the Ploughman, Lone Twin, Small Metal Objects and so on. It is a carefully constructed mapping of the state of play in live performance today, and a testament to Kristy Edmunds and her staff's vision. I am looking forward to the final few days...

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I've spoken to several people who loved Death and the Ploughman. But it sure did nothing for me. You're absolutely right, Chris, about the depth and range of this festival; and for me it's sparked so many interesting conversations, particularly with people who have had very different responses to the same work. It's one of the things which is making Melbourne feel very alive at the moment - may the moment last!


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Alan - thanks so much for your most interesting contribution! Oddly, I was having a conversation last night precisely about this idea of the metaphor evolving from the material - partly in connection with Mnouchkine's work, and also with Bagryana Popov's work in Subclass 26A earlier this year - interestingly, also about asylum seekers - which was also a beautiful instance of theatrical metaphor and phsyical gesture evolving from the material that provoked the work.

DL said...

"Death and the Plowman " came through Seattle a while back and I gotta say I completely felt the same way as you . I *so* wanted to like it because I LOVE Anne Bogart and she is one of my heroes but man I was disappointed.

I got a feeling that she was angry with theatre or something so she was going to make us suffer to see it. But mostly i didn't even suffer. I just felt nothing and i felt it was abstract and didactic all at the same time !

I am going to see Cirque du Soleil in may for the first time and I am just trepidating !
Who is that guy on the comment above ? because he is smart and i want to read his blog !

DL said...

Did you see Bloody Mess and did you review it ?

My favorite show of 2005.