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!


Alan Knoepfler said...

Dear Alison

Wholeheartedly agree with both your critiques of Caravansérail and Ploughman. I was fortunate to have a moment to speak to Ariane Mnouchkine to thank her for a work that was both moving and illuminating. In the course of a conversation that included the way Soleil work as a company, she said that there are ideas and there are people, but in the end it is always about people.

The theatrical metaphors that were found and applied in Soleil's piece worked so well, for me, because they were never dissociated from their source. By a sophisicated process of distillation, these metaphors found a concrete and practical reality that allowed the work to breathe, to manifest an inner quality, and me to remain both sobered and entranced by both the detail and wholeness of the event, both on and off the performance space.

Her comments to me rang true because what was so powerful in Soleil's performance was that there was no schism between the content of the work and the interesting and surprising physical elements used to communicate the dilemmas and the difficulty encountered by these people who risk everything to make a better life for themselves.

When there is no separation between a language of theatre (the metaphors, the ideas, the frame on which we hang the content of a piece) and its sources (the content - the human dilemma), I find I begin to see and hear something. Something begins to work on me on many levels. The work of the Soleil company proved that this treatment does not limit the investigation, it does not lessen its dramatic impact or its humour. On the contrary, it enlivens because it brings me back to humanity, to my own human-ness, directly, with economy and without fussy "cleverness".

Too often theatre, in my own observation, gets bogged down by cleverness, by ideas of presentation that get in the way of the human essence within the work itself and which engendered it. I have seen it happen time and again as an actor working on a project. The elements of the 'soup' in rehearsal are interesting and necessary, but too often these elements are not distilled, the rigour in separating wheat from chaff has not really been worked. All theatre is work in process. There is never an end to investigation, to process, to research. The difference with Mnouchkine's work in this piece from many others is that she and the company have managed to distil the physical elements from the human source and the event begins to burn itself into you. You are then free to question the inner material, to see it, to apprehend its other realities, without the hindrance of a directorial filter of fussiness that blocks this communication. I am not against invention but Caravansérail makes me confront the important issue once again as a theatre worker: are we doing enough when we work in theatre to develop an idea through so that the physical elements find their reality from the source of the work? Or are we more often just pasting together the easy solutions, what merely looks cool, while losing track of what is actually begging to be released?

Theatre is one of the last platforms we have left to really communicate inner worlds, I think we have an obligation to use this platform thoughtfully and expansively, to make no apology in the act, no concession to entertainment, but only to entertain the inner nature of the work and how with imagination to give it substance enough to allow it to breathe in performance. The equation is not complete until the event has been witnessed by those that have not seen the work until the act of performance. And it is at that moment when work lives or dies.

It is interesting to note that when an audience keep talking about how something looks, how interesting the setting was, or the costumes, the techniques, or the acting, often there is a corresponding lack of discourse on the very essence of what was being investigated. Soleil's undertaking, with its grappling of human content and precise form, reveals a theatre that allows a discourse on what was inside the work, remarkable though the outside was. The discourse was not purely because of its contemporary significance and particular relevance to Australia's role in the way it treats asylum seekers, but much more fundamental and powerful than that. I believe what animated discourse was that there was a direct connection between the performance and us as audience. The connection was borne out of a practice, a distillation of inner substance and precise theatrical form, and this allowed its 'innerness' to live in me, to affect me directly. Most of the talk after the performances was subdued, thoughtful, enlivened, and more about what happened rather than how it happened. That to me is the success of this event and if I was an actor in this production, I would feel I had used my abilities in the best way possible.

To me, this was the essential difference between the Soleil and the SITI pieces.

Anne Bogart's work, while I admired the endurance and concentration of the performers, made me squirm with annoyance and boredom. Annoyance because it was a fantastically interesting and everlasting dialogue, the mother of all exchanges, marred by a physical style that got between the source of the work and myself. It ended being so predictable a style that I stopped listening, and a potentially compelling and engaging tale was killed in the act. Literally. It was so unfortunate because the piece fundamentally is all about the separation between what we know for a certainty (death) and what we desire (life). It couldn't get more elemental than that, it should have been totally involving, and yet to me it was mind-numbingly boring. The inner material of this piece could never penetrate the hardened shell of the physical form. I kept seeing technique rather than inner worlds, inner realities. Ultimately, I felt shut out of a language and a mind (of the author) as a human being, a human witness in relationship to what I was watching.

In the broader picture, however, works such as these offer different things to different people. No one critique can offer the last word. But it is what the works themselves offer to whoever sees them that creates value. For that alone, for bringing to Melbourne a variety of works that butt up against each other and create an inner discourse, as well as an outer one, I applaud Kristy Edmunds and the Festival organisers. It was also wonderful to see most events packed out. I feel Melbourne has been the better for it, and the discourse proves Ariane's earlier point: there are ideas, but finally it is about people.

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.