Eldorado / The Session ~ theatre notes

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Eldorado / The Session

Eldorado by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade, directed by Benedict Andrews. Design Anna Tregloan, lighting design Paul Jackson, music and sound Max Lyandvert. With Gillian Jones, Robert Menzies, Hamish Michael, Bojana Novokovic, Greg Stone and Alison Whyte. Malthouse Theatre until July 2. The Session written and performed by The Ennio Morricone Experience: Patrick Cronin, Graeme Leak, Boris Conley and David Hewitt, with Steph O’Hara and Stephen Taberner. Directed by Barry Laing, designed by Emily Barrie. Sound design by Steph O’Hara with Graeme Leak, lighting design Gina Gascoigne, sound consultant Kelvin Gedye. Malthouse Theatre until June 25.

When you enter the Merlyn Theatre under the dim house lights, you see before you a huge window built into a black wall that stretches the width and height of the stage. It's disorientating: with no lights behind, it acts as a mirror in which you see yourself and everyone else darkly reflected.

A black mirror is a fit metaphor with which to begin this riveting play, a parable about human self-destruction. Marius von Mayenburg presents a vision of humanity as desolate as that of WG Sebald in his novel Vertigo, when he speaks of the slow, inevitable conflagration of the earth: we consume all life on our planet with the creeping flame of desertification or the swift fire of war, leaving behind us a wasteland of ash.

Eldorado begins with a monologue murmured by the property speculator Aschenbrenner (Robert Menzies), who leans half-lit against the window, his voice artifically miked so we hear every inflection of his speech. He reports, seductively, tenderly, on the progress of an urban war. It is unsettlingly familiar: the language could be taken from any contemporary news report on the invasion of Baghdad or the destruction of Falluja. Only, it seems, this war is occurring in the same unnamed western city in which our suave businessman is living, not in some distant theatre of conflict in the Middle East or the Third World; this is a play which collapses perspectives of distance and time. It finishes with Aschenbrenner again, but this time he speaks as one of the dead: and now he tells us of a new life on Mars, of atmospheres artificially created by water, where humanity can find a new home. Like Aschenbrenner (whose very name conjures flame and ash), planet Earth is dead.

Bracketed between these two monologues is an epic family drama of the kind that Stephen Sewell attempted in Hate. But von Mayenburg, one of the new lights of contemporary German theatre, brings to this 2004 critique of post-industrial corporatism an emotional complexity and moral ambiguity that recalls the Brecht who wrote Baal. His spare, almost clinical poetic intensity traces a lineage from Georg Büchner to Brecht, through Caryl Churchill to Sarah Kane, who is his contemporary and whom he has in fact translated.

Anton (Greg Stone) is a real estate agent employed by Aschenbrenner, who in the opening scenes is sacked for fraud. When his wife Thekla tells him she is pregnant, he is unable to confess that he has lost his job, and instead rips off his wealthy mother-in-law Greta (Gillian Jones) by selling her expensive speculative apartments in the "government sector" that is currently under attack by insurgents, using the money to finance his household.

Greta is a woman who no pity for anyone, least of all herself. She has a young lover, Oskar (Hamish Michael), whom she treats with contempt, and who openly admits that he is with her because of her wealth, and she lacerates her daughter when Thekla despairingly gives up her dream (clearly her mother's dream) of being a concert pianist. She is played with a sick relish by Jones, who invests her with a compellingly predatory sexuality that suggests that Oskar's attraction towards her is more complex than mere greed.

Meanwhile Anton is living the life of a vagrant to keep up the appearance that he is still working, hiding out in hotels or in the country so he won't be seen. Every time he attempts to tell his wife the truth, it becomes at once farcical and tragic: it's the one time she doesn't believe him. Thekla herself is dealing with a neurotic music student, Manuela (Bojana Novakovic), who at first rejects her as a teacher and then demands to return.

Then disaster strikes: the insurgents take over the "government sector". Aschenbrenner is ruined, and resolves the situation "honourably": he hangs himself. Anton has a breakdown, crouching half-naked on top of a wardrobe in a nightmarish scene in which Greta and Oskar pound on the front door demanding their money, and the ghost of Aschenbrenner, locked in the wardrobe, beckons Anton towards his own "honourable" solution.

The moral culpability of each character is exposed early on, and yet none of them is without innocence. Even Aschenbrenner, the very model of a ruthless businessman, considers himself an honourable man and values integrity, as is evident in the sadistic contempt with which he fires Anton. Secretly aware of their complicity with their own abnegation, each character is riven by self-contempt and loathing. They are all monstrous and yet, strangely, illuminated darkly by a desire to love: but it is as if this love is stillborn, a possibility that dies in the air even as it is spoken, leaving only the cinders of language, a vocabulary of cruelty and unexpressed pain.

This poignancy is most evident in the young couple, who are given particularly strong performances in a production notable for its acting. Alison Whyte is an intriguing blend of brittleness and misplaced strength as Thekla, and Greg Stone is as desolatingly good as I've seen him as Anton, a man inhabiting the hollow shell of himself. The only thing alive in him his love for his wife and unborn child; yet it is this love which forces him to keep up the lie about his job, and the lie finally destroys his life. And yet, as Thekla despairingly recognises, he has in fact betrayed and abandoned her: if not sexually, as she imagines, through his retreat into madness and suicide.

These behaviours are directly recognisable: Mayenburg might be showing us the extremities of bourgeois banality, but they are not exaggerations. Greta's ruthless greed will be familiar anyone who has watched The Apprentice; Thekla's paranoid jealousy and self-obsession are the grist of Dear Dorothy columns everywhere. And anyone who has seen mental illness close up will know that the madness presented here is almost clinically accurate. Part of Mayenburg's boldness is in being quite literal about the phenomena he is reporting: he creates, as Marianne Moore has it, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them". The links between interior wasteland and exterior desolation are metaphorically very clear: these people consume everything, beginning with their own hearts.

Benedict Andrews, who also directs in Berlin at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz theatre where Mayenburg is dramaturg, directs Eldorado with a brilliant austerity. The idea that human beings are fish in an aquarium, a recurring motif in the text, is literalised in both the performances and in Anna Tregloan's design. We witness the play through the massive window as if it were a giant peepshow, which gives the experience a peculiar intimacy spiced with the discomfort of voyeurism.

For all its moments of breathtaking visual flair, the production is inflected with an admirable subtlety and focuses attention wholly on the text and performances. I was chiefly impressed by Andrews' orchestration, which creates such various rhythms out of von Mayenburg's poetic text that two and a half hours seems like less than half the time. He discovers a surprising richness in the simple convention of the window: with the help of lighting and a lot of apocalyptic smoke he creates claustrophobic domestic spaces, into which we peer, or we find ourselves looking out onto imaginary streets. The actors delineate nightmarish spaces of psychic and phsyical desolation in which the only fixed perspective is the unremitting horizon of the window.

Most of the action occurs jammed up against the glass, although gradually unsettling depths open behind the playing space. As the play progresses the window's initially pristine surface is smeared with human fluids - sweat, saliva - literal traces of the physicality of the actors; just as when an actor eats a lobster, the amplified sounds of its flesh being sucked out of the shell is a repugnant reminder of our carnivorous natures.

Perhaps the most beautiful trick is when, around 20 minutes from the end, gold foil leaves begin to fall onto the stage, glittering in the theatre lights and making a brittle rustling sound. This continues for longer than seems bearable, graduating into a soft, insistent torture. (And here I also ought to mention Max Lyandvert's beautifully textured and atmospheric sound score, which is at once unobstrusive and evocative.)

The production doesn't escape the "porsche effect". Such class throws into relief any moments that don't match its own high standards: a gesture that is a little too stagily self-conscious, for example, or a theatrical illusion (Robert Menzies, say, unhooking himself from a suspension harness) that is neither achieved nor usefully exposed. But these are just quibbles. This is a beautiful realisation of a significant play, and shows that the Malthouse is by no means resting on its laurels. Its ambitious programming is about placing this company in the frontline of international contemporary theatre, and a production like this demonstrates that it belongs there.

With The Session, on in the Beckett as the second play in its winter season, the Malthouse ventures into the realms of New Music and genre film. The Ennio Morricone Experience consists of some of Melbourne's best musicians, and they have garnered a devoted following over the past five years with their po-faced performances of Morricone's classic spaghetti western film scores.

The conceit of The Session is that a group of musicians and sound technicians is locked in a sound studio, recording a series of sound effects and musical scores for a "master tape". It begins and ends with the slamming of a door, and in between we are treated to high-spirited pisstakes of various New Music tropes (if I were more musically literate, I would have got more of the jokes) and ingenious sound effects, executed with increasing freneticism from an enormous variety of sound sources, ranging from conventional instruments, whistling and voice, to teaspoons of Eno in a glass of water or cabbages being struck with knives.

All these are recorded and mixed live, and here the performing skills of the Ennio Morricone Experience come to the fore: under Barry Laing's direction, they create a disciplined and witty choreography as they set up and perform each take. They do everything with absurd seriousness: they prepare to play a cabbage as if they were handling a Stradivarius. The tempo of the evening is exactly that of a working session, with intense bursts of activity punctuated by inaudible gossiping and jokes that are as tightly choreographed as the other parts of the show.

The master tape is finally delivered back to us as a surreal film score. It is the kind of film one might imagine occuring in the head of a genre film buff having a bad night's sleep after a highly spiced curry. I tracked detective movies, science fiction, samurai films and some serious Eastern European piece with a male vocal choir singing (one assumes for no reason) about boating, but I'm sure there was more.

It is great fun, if at 80 minutes perhaps about a quarter of an hour too long. But it is absolutely impossible not to think of Phobia, Douglas Horton and Gerry Brophy's witty take on film noir, which had a very similar set-up - it even featured a door - and which also involved these musicians. But Phobia, one of Chamber Made Opera's best shows, has a theatrical flair and cohesion that The Session is yet to find.

Top: Greg Stone as Anton in Eldorado. Bottom: The Session (Back, left to right) Boris Conley, David Hewitt, Stephen Taberner, Patrick Cronin and Graeme Leak; (front) Steph O’Hara. Photos: Jeff Busby

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