It Just Stopped ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 06, 2006

It Just Stopped

It Just Stopped by Stephen Sewell, directed by Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis. With Marcus Graham, Catherine McClements, Rebecca Massey and John Woods. Company B Belvoir St and Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn @ Malthouse until April 23.

Stephen Sewell is an anomaly, the leftist firebrand we have to have. His work occupies a cultural place analogous to that of Edward Bond's in contemporary English theatre, with whom he has a few things in common. Sewell has written nothing of the brutal power of Bond's early play, Saved, which remains a landmark in British theatre, and unlike Bond, whose recent work is more commonly produced in France, Sewell's work does find big stages and audiences in his home country. But there are teasing similarities.

Bond and Sewell share a belief (however contingent) in reason, and see theatre as a venue for dialectic argument. Indeed, since around the early 1990s Bond's plays have been dominated by the idea that drama consists of two ideologically opposed characters arguing with each other on stage. This is, to my mind, a recipe for deadly theatre; if nothing is going on beyond an arguing of the abstract idea, if language is not what people do to one another, but merely what people say, no amount of committed acting is going to make up its lack of theatrical dynamic. And it makes for theatrical conservatism; neither Bond nor Sewell approach the aesthetic radicalism of playwrights like Howard Barker or Sarah Kane, or even the potent realism of Franz Xavier Kroetz. * [see note below] But even so, Sewell's work doesn't sit quite comfortably within mainstream culture.

Much Australian left wing theatre - for example, that of David Williamson, Hannie Rayson or Michael Gurr - makes the locus of political conflict the family, a tradition which goes beyond Hamlet to classical Greek theatre. Sewell has mined this vein more intensely than most others: all his political narratives are also stories of familial betrayal. And it has to be said that next to these other Australian playwrights, Sewell's work has an energy and ambition, an unruly anger, which must be admired. Sewell might overwrite to the point of catatonia (the "short" version of Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America runs to 142 pages), his style and thought might be an undisciplined mess that amounts sometimes to no more than a rant, but he never settles for the merely anodyne.

At their best, his plays seek to access a tragic revelation of self through the stripping away of ideological blinkers to some kind of emotional or existential bedrock. That they fail to attain this is I think largely a function of their dominant dialectical structure. This is centrally the problem in It Just Stopped, a pallid and perhaps ultimately decadent continuation of Sewell's political explorations in plays such as The Blind Giant is Dancing, Dreams in an Empty City, Hate, and most recently, Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America.

It Just Stopped is a bizarre and sometimes foolish play, leavened with sparks of genuine wit and featuring some classic Sewell rants. It opens almost like a David Williamson comedy of bourgeois life, featuring a well-off professional couple, Beth (Catherine McClements), a radio producer, and Franklin (Marcus Graham), a music critic for the New York Review of Books, who live in a funky high rise apartment with a feature wall made of jellybeans. Beth makes jokes about Franklin's small penis and lack of sexual prowess, and he counters with jibes about the hypocrisy of her working for a right wing shock jock despite her supposedly liberal beliefs. So far, so much situation comedy.

One morning they wake to find that there is no power, no telephone connections and then no water; they are trapped 47 floors up with no elevator, no communications and no idea what is happening in the wider world. Is it some kind of apocalyptic disaster? Things take a surreal turn with the arrival of cardboard box magnate Bill (John Wood), a billionaire art connoisseur (not like Richard Pratt) whose attitude to life, business and art is cheerfully amoral, and his wife Pearl (Rebecca Massey). They offer Franklin and Beth a "business proposition", that they become Bill and Pearl's slaves: a model of the relationship between capital and culture, in which art is reduced to entertaining the rich.

Act 1 features an intermittent argument about art and politics between Franklin and Bill. Franklin is defending the Arnoldian notion of art transcending the grubby world of politics. Bill, who is, for all his rapaciousness, the true appreciator of art in these scenes, thinks these claims are a charming waste of time; he echoes Beckett's argument that art is just something that "passes the time". Bill is living proof that culture is not a force for moral good; he leaves his idiot child tied to a bedpost, in an echo of cruelties in Endgame or Lucky's debasement in Waiting for Godot. There is something incredibly depressing about seeing Beckett transformed, at whatever metaphorical remove, into the figure of an amoral capitalist: it expresses a crude nihilism which Beckett himself never embraced. (One hears his plaintive cry: "But I do give a fuck!")

Act 2 is like one of those tedious nightmares which bore rather than frighten you, with realities shifting beyond absurdity to unconvincing bathos and melodrama or, perhaps, low-grade horror. It is actually difficult to work out what Sewell thinks he is doing here. According to the program notes, you are supposed to understand that middle class people just go on in the face of disaster, like Winnie in Happy Days, pretending that nothing is wrong; Sewell has created a number of conflicting realities to mimic the neurotic denials of everyday middle class life. But to recall Beckett's aesthetic and philosophical rigor is to see more clearly how much the writing here fails itself.

Franklin is supposedly the model of an urbane American intellectual, the proto-fascist lurking inside his windy claims for the universality of art. He is emasculated (this is explicitly connected to his work as a critic) and juvenile, and supposedly represents the inner hypocrisy of contemporary Western (especially American) intellectual life. The problem is that you don't believe for a moment that a music critic for the New York Review of Books (however much one might want to argue with the aesthetic that journal expresses) would speak with such sophomoric naivety.

When, eventually, Franklin's worldview collapses into an impassioned cry to hear the suffering of the world beyond himself, the rhetoric is equally as empty, although I think you are meant to assume that it holds some truth value. But perhaps this emptiness is the point, given that the play ends with the old fantasy cliche of waking up to find it was "only a dream", that the entire evening's action was simply a psychic breakdown, a neurotic expression of middle class anger and guilt sparked (presumably) by the crash of Franklin's computer.

Which makes me wonder if, after all, this is a completely cynical play: its negation of itself lets the audience completely off the hook. Not that we got put on the hook in the first place. The last words of the play are "Tell me it's not real". Well, of course "it's" not real, even if the issues supposedly canvassed (global warming, incipient world war) are. Does It Just Stopped make us more aware of our denials and helplessness? It's hard to see how its comedy reaches much beyond the urbane satire of a play like Moira Buffini's Dinner. It never attains the bleak laughter that attends, say, Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Physicists, which in its portrayal of nuclear madness (the physicists are all lunatics locked in an asylum) accesses a true sense of absurd horror. It Just Stopped left me feeling, paradoxically, that all these issues are just, well, trivial.

The play is very slickly produced, with an impressively groovy multi-level set that thrusts diagonally into the audience. But Neil Armfield's direction is surprisingly banal, simply illustrating rather than realising the play. He sets the actors neurotically rushing up and down stairs or popping in and out from behind the feature wall; at one point, for no discernible reason, Beth takes all the objects out of her handbag and lays them all out in a row, and then, a little later, puts them all back. Gesture here seems almost like a physical version of Tourette's syndrome, a flurry of movement that fills up space but is otherwise meaningless. Likewise, the performances are sometimes so mannered that at times they are simply distracting. The whole seemed very much less than the sum of its parts, a lot of sound and fury and precious little significance.

But it's hard to see how the writing might permit the production to escape the trap of caricature. Sewell's work attempts to reveal the playwright as political thinker. A big problem is that thinking is not Sewell's metier; the arguments presented in his plays always seem bowdlerised, simplistic polarisations of more complex ideas. I suspect that his true power has always resided in the anarchic anger that erupts in the more poetic passages that pepper his plays. These are, in their cadences and apocalyptic vision, reminiscent of similar passages in the work of Peter Weiss; the difference in their effect lies in Weiss's much more radical approach to theatrical form.

Although Sewell situates his plays in contemporary political realities, he doesn't embrace the spurious authenticity of documentary theatre exemplified by writers like David Hare. There is enough of a poet in Sewell to insist on an imaginative dimension in theatre, even a sense of anarchy that seems often at odds with his concomitant belief in reason. One often feels, in a vague and unverifiable way, that Sewell's private psychological dramas are being staged for us as global conflicts. This may be no more than the necessary hubris of the writer; the problem is that it comes to us clotted and raw, a barely congealed mess of words. At its worst, it dissipates in the kind of nonsense seen in It Just Stopped, dressing up its intellectual pretensions with trinkets from Freud or a Marxism borrowed from John Berger, but stripped of Berger's sparely honest humanity.

A feeling of uninvolvement is underlined by Sewell's oddly utilitarian attitude towards the characters in his plays. Ultimately, they embody not themselves but opposing ideologies: the idealistic socialist Ramon versus the corrupted idealist Allen in The Blind Giant is Dancing; Talbot, the academic attempting to reveal truth, versus the corrupt careerist Max in Myth, Propaganda and Disaster; Franklin and Bill in It Just Stopped. Human relationships are presented as relationships of power, but this power is articulated rather than enacted by the characters. It creates a dissonance between language and act that seems analogous to the gap between Sewell's conservative aesthetic and his radical politics. Aristotle's subtle idea of the argument of the play being its plot is turned inside out: you get argument instead of a plot.

Perhaps as a result - because despite a lot of surface activity, nothing, dramatically speaking, is happening - the plays inevitably collapse into melodrama, having nowhere else to go. It's tempting to speculate that the irony that undercuts the melodrama in It Just Stopped expresses a kind of aesthetic despair, the recognition of an end point. For all his violent attempts to break out of it, Sewell has long seemed trapped in theatrical naturalism; ironically, given his often anti-US themes, it is a naturalism recognisable in many contemporary American models. It is as if his much exercised animus towards America expresses a frustrated fascination and love.

I should note here that Sewell's most recent play, Three Furies, is an anarchic cabaret based on the life of Francis Bacon; it could be (I haven't seen it) that this work represents Sewell's liberation, at last, from the model of didactic argument that has always crippled his poetic. If so, it might release the potentials so teasingly hidden in all his work.

* This is a careless observation on Bond's work, readdressed in the comments below.

Picture: Marcus Graham and Catherine McClements in It Just Stopped. Photo: Jeff Busby

Further reading:

Manifesto for a Progressive Theatre by Walter A. Davis
17 Ways of Looking at Theater by George Hunka


Anonymous said...

Brilliant! The most moving piece i have ever encountered. I had a revelation during and after the performance and experience such amazing emotions. This play made me question my purpose in life, but more importantly i questioned whats it all for? I contemplated suicide just thinking about how meaningless life was because this play reveals so many truths and frankly-We are all in denial. It helped me realise that we need to stop being so reliant on technology, and just step back and take a good look at our lives and work out what the fuck we are going to do to save ourselves. And the scary thing is as in the directors notes-students hundreds of years from now will study our civilisation and say 'what the hell were these idiots playing at? The have the knowledge that they are slowly exhausting non-renewable resources and screwing up the environment...and yet the whole world just carries on still burning fossil fuels because we are not at the point where we have no other choice.' Yo would be very foolish indeed to miss out on experience a piece with such clarity on human kind.

Alison Croggon said...

A revelation?! Well, who am I to say it isn't of the things that gives me hope for the planet is that people are different from each other.

Speaking of which, Sweden will be completely weaned off oil products in a few years, thanks to clever planning. Which shows that it's entirely possible, if the will is there. The reason why the will isn't there is that the profits of oil companies and western democracies seem to be very closely related. Something that isn't cavassed in this play at all.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison

I valued Sewell in his early days because his dramatic ambitions were so high that even if he never quite achieved them, he got close enough to make him worth seeing. His "failures" were far more interesting than the relative successes of many other Australian playwrights, but I didn't feel this play worked on any level for most of the reasons you articulated. One of the troubling things about the play's anti-US stance is that it ultimately seems to absolve Australian audiences from any complicity or responsibility for the global political and spiritual mess we're in. It seemed to be suggesting that change can't happen unless Americans purge themselves of their complacency and their illusions. It reminded me a bit of Williamson's play Sanctuary which also had a battle of opposing ideologies where an idealistic journalism student confronts a corrupt war correspondent who has sold-out by becoming an apologist for US global concerns. That play also annoyed me because it let us off the hook.

As a general note, I've noticed over the years that Australian plays (at least those I've seen) tend to portray idealists, or ideologically driven charcters, as pompous or corrupt or ineffectual or ridiculous in some way. The effect of this seems to imply that having ideals is pointless or should be treated with suspicion and disdain. It becomes an apology for ideologically bankrupt plays and a reassurance for audience members who want to believe that everything is fine, or at least, that change is impossible.

Alison Croggon said...

Abe, you're absolutely right, I think. More later if I can think of anything, but I've just had a bottle of wine and am a bit addled. Just wanted to say, yes, I totally agree; Sanctuary was bullshit. And there is a specifically Australian problem with idealism, which runs very counter to good old-fashioned Australian idealism. Much more complex of course than I can say at present.

Alison Croggon said...

A later comment: Re-reading Edward Bond, I think I've been absolutely unfair to his plays (although the more recent ones plays fit more what I described). Maybe I've been blinded by his essays, which are very didactic. But Bond's Lear, for instance, is a stunning, powerful and pitiless play which absolutely bears comparison with the best of Barker.

Sngtey said...

I should have read your review before buying tickets to the show! I am left leaning but am more inclined towards David Williamson's wit.

Unknown said...

I attended It Just Stopped at Belvoir St in Sydney last night and was prompted to write this after reading Bryce Hallett's review ( on the SMH Web site which is almost as simplistic and naive as the play itself. Unfortunately the SMH site does not allow comments to be posted so I scoured the Web and came across your review ... and decided to post the comments here.

This play is extremely simplistic .....

* global warming = bad.
* materialism = bad.
* american imperialism = bad.
* business moguls = egotistic and basically ... bad.

The director could have saved a lot of effort by putting some cardboard signs up at the beginning of the play with those messages. The play certainly didn't deal with the themes to any greater depth.

This is a shame as the actors themselves deliver a top rate performance. Indeed given the lacklustre material the performers - and by inference the direction and set design - did manage to keep me entertained.

But that's just not enough.

None of the characters developed during the play. They didn't really learn anything from each other or from their situation.

The only character who came close to changing was Pearl ... the situation made her go from passive to her baser more primitive self.

Which would be OK except we were given an excuse for that behaviour that was not related to either the plight or the other characters. The performance suggests that she is a bit of a boozer, had a few scotches on this occassion, and hence lost it.

Franklin basically didn't change .... his only real change was the shooting scene which was farcical and completely out of character. There was no way enough had happened between Bill and Franklin to justify it. Indeed the shooting scene was so ludicrous that I am going to give the playright the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an ad lib.

Beth didn't change AT ALL.

Bill didn't change AT ALL.

But none of the above compares to the final scences in the second act. What was real, what was not real? Did the world actually stop or was it a dream sequence as used by so many daytime soap operas. 'Dear audience, we've had you sitting here for an hour watching the world stop but really none of that happened it was just a dream and actually, they're having dinner and Franklin is having a breakdown. Want some tension now? Oh look Franklin has a gun ... well he would ... he's American right.'

The only other message the play attempted to transmit was that art critics (as represented by Franklin) are a waste of space. Perhaps the playwright felt putting that in would help counter the bad reviews the play deserves. Sorry Stephen Sewell ... that didn't work either.

As the audience politely clapped at the end of the play I was left with the feeling that the actors we're just pawns in a practical joke played on us by the playright and director. Were they sitting in the wings with broad smiles on their faces? If that was their aim ... 10/10. If they were trying to provoke thought and investigate issues ... 1/10.

Alison Croggon said...

I thought (someone told me) that the ending was changed in the Sydney production? No?

Unknown said...

Well ... I cannot say for sure that it hasn't changed in detail. But in substance it sounds very similar to the production you saw.

Without saying exactly what happened in case your readers do actually go and see this ...

... we are asked to accept that everything up until very near the end has been a depiction of Franklin's psychotic dream. So we accept that none of this actually happened.

But then the potential world ending calamity that has been the central cause of conflict and angst in the 'dream' actually occurs.

I mean ... come on .... it's a dream and then it's not ...

Alison Croggon said...

Aha - yes, it is changed (it's kind of reversed in the version I saw - the "it was only a dream" is a punchline at the end, and we accept the events of the play are "real", strange as they are).

Anonymous said...

I saw this last night, and was wondering what others thought... I quite liked the surreal quality - where are we? is this happening or not? but I found the treatment of the material a bit simplistic. There is nothing revelatory about the fact that environmental and humanitarian disasters occur, and will continue to occur, while we go about living our lives. But the play didn't seem to offer any constructive response to this - it seemed the only options were to earn as much as you can and live a superficial existence, or contemplate all the big issues and bawk at what to do about them. I found it hard to identify with the characters because of this limitation, for me it's much more about how to be decent and productive from witin the parameters of an ordinary life. I don't really relate to nihilistic despair or smug consumerism and that was really all that was on offer.

I also had difficulty taking the american characters seriously because their accents were so unreliable. I did like the australians though. Rebecca Massey, how funny is she?! deadset hilarious.

I think one of the cleverest aspects of the play was making the audience think you're in manhattan, and then finding out you're just down the road. An interesting comment on how readily importable american culture is.

That said, there were many many funny lines, and wry observations. I found it entertaining, but I wouldn't say it was particuarly moving or challenging or novel.

Worth seeing though. And I liked the big brushed steel B at belvoir.