The Fall ~ theatre notes

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Fall

The Fall by Albert Camus, adapted by Michael Cronin from Justin O'Brien's translation. Directed by Emma Valente, with Drew Tingwell. The Stork Hotel, 504 Elizabeth St, Melbourne, until June 25.

Watching Drew Tingwell perform The Fall made me think of a Giorgio Agamben essay, Notes on Gesture, which I confess I only half understand. Agamben strikingly claims, at the beginning of a complex argument about the relationship between gesture, cinema and politics, that modern bourgeois man "has lost his gestures". Over the past century, he says, human gesture has degenerated to a series of tics and arrested movements similar to those Tourette noted when he first outlined his syndrome. Which is to say that in contemporary society, Tourette's Syndrome is the norm.

"An age which has lost its gestures," says Agamben, "is for this reason obsessed with them. For human beings who have lost every sense of naturalness, each single gesture becomes a destiny. And the more gestures lose their ease under the action of invisible powers, the more life becomes indecipherable."

These thoughts assailed me because Drew Tingwell's portrayal of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the abject lawyer of Albert Camus' story, is overwhelmingly about gesture. Tingwell employs a fairly limited repertoire: he most often points, jabbing the air with his finger; he puts his hands in his pockets as if imprisoning them; he spreads his arms; he picks up a glass and drinks; increasingly, he wipes his forehead or otherwise hides his face. This flurry of tics irritated me at first, and then, as Tingwell's performance drew me in, made me increasingly thoughtful.

The Fall is less than 120 pages long, but in that small compass Albert Camus makes a devastating critique of the moral decadence of bourgeois man. (Camus, one of my favourite sexists, is certainly not speaking of women). It is structured as a confession: his protagonist Clamence, whom we meet in a low dive in Amsterdam, was formerly a lawyer in Paris, the acme of good social conscience and personal and professional success. A humanitarian who often represented criminals for free, he was on the "right" side, arguing for human justice against inflexible judgement. He could, it seemed, get everything, including any woman, that he wanted. And what he wanted most of all was to be superior to every other human being. As long as he felt he surpassed all others, he was happy.

But then Clamence witnesses a young woman commiting suicide by throwing herself into the Seine and does nothing to help her, and his image of himself as a morally superior man begins to crumble. He is too intelligent (intelligence is part of Clamence's curse) not to understand what this reveals: that for all his protestations of love for humanity, he really doesn't love humanity at all. Everything he does is in the service of himself, his one true love, and to feed his desire for power over others; he has never really loved anything or anyone else.

As a "judge penitent", he seeks, by confessing his hypocrisies and failings in the Amsterdam bar, to gain the right to judge the world, thus lightening the burden of judgement on himself. But this too is only an expression of his desire for power and self-love: his vanity is so monstrous that even his self-destruction isn't too high a price to pay for it. And, aware even of this, he holds up this monstrous self as a mirror to others, so they too will discover within themselves the vanity of their own claims to moral goodness.

Yet even through his self-loathing, Clamence finds a means to justify his self-love. This is not a work about redemption; although Clamence can't help longing for it, he makes clear that even if he got a second chance, he probably wouldn't take it. "It'll always be too late," he says mordantly at the end. "Fortunately!"

Tingwell's performance of Clamence is, in every sense of the word, actorly: you never forget that you are watching an actor who is self-consciously performing a character who is, himself, self-consciously an actor. Tingwell's face is almost always neutral and watchful, his eyes cold and emotionless, creating an increasingly uncomfortable dissonance between his flailing hands, sketching out a febrile sociability, and his closed face. It is as if each of these channels of human communication negate each other, making Clamence, indeed, indecipherable.

For all Clamence's claims to being "natural", I think that Tingwell's performance draws its power in great measure from its lack of naturalness. His over-emphatic movement is the symptom, rather than the expression, of an inner emptiness: it is most tellingly through his gestures that Clamence reveals the deadly vanity of his bourgeois soul, the duplicity that hides between his words and his actions.

The novel is written as a long monologue, and Tingwell's text is a heavily edited version of the original work, in which the audience becomes Clamence's silent interlocutor. Inevitably in the transition to stage it loses some of the complexity of Camus' masterpiece, which is more ambiguous, less easy to pin down, than it seems here; but it generates its own compelling force. Emma Valente's production - framed appropriately by the attractive back room of the Stork Hotel - is absolutely simple. The staging consists of a table, a chair, a neutrally historical costume, the simplest of lighting. All your attention is focused on the actor and his text: and both reward it amply.

The Fall is the first in a season of Camus adaptations that will run at The Stork over the next couple of months. Future shows will include The Outsider and (mindbogglingly, in that tiny space) The Plague. Keep an eye out: if this production is anything to go by, they'll be worth seeing.

Picture: Drew Tingwell as Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall

The Stork Hotel


Born Dancin' said...

This year's Strangio adaptation of The Outsider is, I think, the same one that played at The Stork a year or two back - it was riveting. The Plague will be a three-hander which, as you say, is a bit hard to imagine in that space. Angels on a pinhead, and all that...

Nice post on gesture, by the way. I'll definitely have to read up on this Agamben character.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I think it is that production. I hope I don't miss it.

Agamben is definitely worth seeking out, particularly in how he attempts to rethink politics, outside the binaries of right and left. I've found him very illuminating and rather frighteningly prescient. I should have attributed that essay, btw: it is from a slim book called Means Without End: Notes on Politics. If you get hold of it and can work out what he's saying about gesture, get back to me...

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison!

First up, thanks for coming along to The Fall and for your insightful review here on this site.

Second up - how does it sit with you for an actor to repsond here to your comments relating to their own work? Not that I have any argument with anything you have written, mind you; in fact I found your review rather positive (ultimately at least in terms of myself!) and for that I thank you, and I certainly hope I'm not precious or overly sensitive. But I wouldn't mind making some comments about my perspective on my own performance (*shudder*!) in relation to what you have written, if that doesn't contravene any guidelines here. It might make for an interesting discussion...or it could very well just show me up as an ignoramus! Who knows?

Whatever the case, thanks again for coming to The Fall and for your review. I'll check in again in a couple of days and take it from there.

Drew Tingwell

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Drew - I've always thought that a response to a work ought to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one (as often they have seemed to be). You - and anyone else - are absolutely welcome to say and think what you like - within reason (ie, the laws of libel, for which I am responsible here). That's what the "comments" button is for. I'd be fascinated to hear your perspectives, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

I have to say I am always pleased when the artist him/herself turns up and puts in their two cents, and am pleased it's happening more often here. Despite appearances, I really am not arrogant enough to think I'm always "right"; and besides, I have never thought that being "right" is the point.

I am going to be out of the country for the next three weeks, but will check in myself when I can. So go for it!