Charcot / The Lower Depths ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Charcot / The Lower Depths

Charcot by William Glaser, directed and designed by Clare Watson. Lighting by Paul Lim, music and sound design Kelly Ryall. With Miriam Glaser, Chantelle Jamieson and Bruce Kerr (voiceover). Full Dress Productions at the Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall. The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky, directed by John Bolton. Designed by Katherine Chan, costume design Esther Hayes, sound design Gus Macmillan, lighting by Lisa Mibus. With Katherine Bradley, Jamison Caldwell, Gemma Cavoli, Jing-Xuan Chan, Sharon Davis, Soraya Dean, Patrick Flynn, Mick Lo Monaco, Tristan Meecham, Susan Miller, Christine Mowinckel, Eryn-Jean Norvill, Russ Pirie, Julie Wee, Thomas Wren and Ashley Zukerman. VCA Drama Company 2006, Victorian College of the Arts.

I'm getting tired of pleading dubious health. I seem to be playing host to a fascinating variety of gatecrashing micro-organisms, who trash the temple of my body and leave with nary a thankyou as the next team cheerily pulls up in their hotted-up station wagons.

All this is by way of excusing yet another double-barrelled and belated review; but it's true that a succession of colds have been cramping my style recently. My advice to those who would remain germ-free is (a) never have children and (b) if you do, and you can't give them back, lock them in a cupboard so they can't frequent public spaces, like schools or train stations.

But to get down to business... Charcot is the first production by Full Dress Productions, a new company founded by former MTC man David Frazer. And it is a very promising beginning.

Glaser's short (45 minute) play, his first venture into writing for theatre, briefly examines Professor Charcot's studies of feminine hysteria at the Salpêtriére asylum in 19th century Paris. Charcot was one of the foremost physicians of his time, and was famous for his demonstrations at the Salpêtriére amphitheatre. There his hypnotised patients performed their symptoms for an admiring public that attracted, as well as students such as Freud and Tourette, the cream of Paris' fashionable society.

Glaser is principally interested in the idea of madness as performance, how Charcot in fact elicited the symptoms of hysteria from his patients, who obligingly performed as he expected. The play is simply structured, cutting between conversations between two sisters, Margot (Miriam Glaser) and Henriette (Chantelle Jamieson), and their "performances" for Charcot.

Rich subject matter for a play, indeed; and I couldn't help wishing that it had been in more experienced hands. The script is very minimal, and adequate to its modest purposes: but it possesses little of the imaginative or lyrical excess that could really get under the skin of the themes it touches on, such as viciously co-dependent sibling rivalries or the extremities of sexual projection that the diagnosis of hysteria so often expressed in Victorian times.

What makes the show is the other theatrical elements, which are very impressive indeed. Clare Watson's striking design imaginatively exploits the amphitheatre of the Old Council Chambers. There are two playing areas: the first the bedroom of the sisters, a claustrophobic, lushly lit square set backstage, framed by black curtains. It is furnished by a pallet and a dressing table with a three-leaved mirror in which the audience is pallidly reflected, like watching ghosts.

When the sisters perform their hysteria they move frontstage to a larger playing space; their tiny room disappears and black and white images of a 19th century audience is projected on the black curtains while Bruce Kerr's mellifluous voiceover explicates their strange, repetitive movements.

The dramatic effect is heightened by a suggestive and sensual soundscape by Kelly Ryall, and an equally evocative lighting design. These frame the physically challenging performances by Miriam Glaser and Chantelle Jamieson to create a disturbingly fine piece of theatre. If only the words had matched the rest.

The Victorian College of the Arts graduate plays are worth seeing for several reasons: you get to preview the next generation of theatrical talent, the school has the resources to rehearse and mount large-cast plays and to do texts which are otherwise never done here, and they cost hardly anything.

Which is how I found myself at the rather nicely-appointed Dodds St Theatre watching Maxim Gorky's baggy monster of a play, The Lower Depths. Gorky's play is set in a doss house which houses the dregs of 19th century Russian society. The inhabitants are a range of degraded and struggling characters, either disenfranchised urban poor or those from bourgeois or even aristocratic backgrounds who have fallen on hard times. They seldom show each other any pity for their hardships, and mostly treat each other with cynicism and callous or even sadistic cruelty. This unremitting picture of human savagery is leavened by the entrance of Luka (Eryn-Jean Norvill), an eccentric old woman whose compassion brings a short-lived flicker of hope to those she befriends.

The brutal events of the play are interspersed with philosophical meditations on the virtues of truth and reality versus comforting illusions. Its unforgiving realism - especially the reasonless and unexpected unfolding of events - is initially striking, but Gorky can't escape the Russian disease of didacticism, and the play's dramatic urge seriously falters towards the end. Perhaps the most pertinent criticism of The Lower Depths comes from Chekhov, in a 1902 letter to Gorky:

You left out of the fourth act all the most interesting characters (except the actor), and you must mind, now, that there is no ill effect from it. The act may seem boring and unnecessary, especially if, with the exit of the strongest and most interesting actors, there are left only the mediocrities. The death of the actor is awful; it is as though you gave the spectator a sudden box on the ear apropos of nothing without preparing him in any way.

In the capable hands of John Bolton, Gorky's worst isn't so hard to bear: the company goes for it full-tilt in a somewhat Brookian fashion, dragging every last skerrick of theatricality out of what is mostly a rather recalcitrant text. The production looks lovely: Katherine Chan's simple and flexible playing space built on several levels economically suggests the lack of privacy and warren-like claustrophobia of the dosshouse, and focuses the eye to the performers, who are dressed in an eclectic range of colourful, over-the-top costumes by Esther Hayes, reinforced, in the more broadly drawn characters, with crude theatrical make-up.

The play has been cast with a free eye to gender: male characters are transformed into women, with no harm to the play, so far as I could see. It is performed with great brio, which means the first half flies by; and the cast even manages to make a decent fist of the rambling last act. A rather long night of theatre, but by no means unrewarding.

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