Construction of the Human Heart ~ theatre notes

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Construction of the Human Heart

Construction of the Human Heart by Ross Mueller, directed by Brett Adam. Lighting by Rob Irwin, sound by Casey Bennetto. With Fiona Macleod and Todd MacDonald. The Tower @ the Malthouse until September 3

Physical pain, says Elaine Scarry in her groundbreaking study The Body in Pain, destroys human language. The problem is that, as Scarry puts it, "the act of verbally expressing pain is a necessary prelude to the collective task of diminishing pain".

Behind this is an assumption that we have a ready vocabulary for emotional suffering. And certainly, you can wave a hand at millenia of literary expressions of grief, loss and despair, or even at the stumblingly moving In Memoriam poems in the daily newspaper. But for all their expressiveness, can these millions of words really mitigate an iota of anguish?

For my part, my private nadirs have always exposed language - otherwise the DNA of my conscious being - as utterly useless. I have no doubt that the ability to articulate emotional pain is better than being unable to do so, and yet I have never quite felt either that therapeutic faith which underlies so many of our assumptions about human expression. A facility with language may even be counter-productive: language can be something to hide in, a means of denial as much as of admission.

This is the emotional and intellectual territory of Construction of the Human Heart, which is my first acquaintance with the writing of Ross Mueller. Where have I been? Mueller is surely one of the most intelligent, formally adventurous and emotionally brave playwrights now writing in this country.

On the face of it, a play that is about a play - worse, a play about two writers and a play - sounds like a sure recipe for unbridled narcissism. In Mueller's hands, it becomes a desolately moving meditation on human helplessness in the face of overwhelming grief.

Construction of the Human Heart is about a couple, Him and Her, who are haunted by two deaths. Her returns obsessively to the death of her mother, a relationship scored by unbridgeable absences and alienations. The other death is that of the couple's son. We never find out why he died, or even how old he was; but his death has triggered mechanisms of blame, denial and anger that really only conceal the utter devastation of his loss.

The play sets up a disarmingly simple conceit which, almost by the bye, also interrogates the formal conventions of theatre and writing. The stage in the Tower Theatre is simply a raised platform, the acting area delineated by white paint. On the stage are two chairs, each with a bottle of water placed beside them. We are, it seems, about to attend an informal public reading of a work in progress.

The actors, Fiona Macleod and Todd MacDonald, enter through the side door when the house lights are still up. They clear their throats, fiddle with their scripts, smile nervously at the audience and settle down on the chairs. They begin to read the first scene.

So far, so conventional. Then Him drops his script, the two start bickering and you begin to understand that Him and Her are partners and that they are reading Her script, which is written out of their personal lives. At this point I realised that the house lights had gone down. They had dimmed so gradually that, although I was expecting them to go dark, I hadn't noticed when it had happened. The transition from a public reading, where the audience is visible to the actors and to each other, to a formal piece of theatre, where we sit in the dark witnessing the action on stage, is cunningly imperceptible.

The effect is a potent sense of complicity between the audience and the actors: they have seen us as much as we have seen them. And this reinforces a sense of voyeurism as the actors move in and out of differing imaginative realities - the relationship they are enacting before us, and the script they are reading. A third layer is added by Casey Benneto's pre-recorded voiceovers, which boom increasingly baroque stage directions. They describe powerful visual and sonic elements that never eventuate on the bare stage, becoming at once cues for the audience's imagination and sly satires on theatrical convention.

The dynamic between the read script and the "real" play becomes increasingly more complex and more fraught. Is Her, as Him claims, really the one in control, the one who can articulate what happened and deal with her grief? Or is she as lost as Him, floundering in her grief as she uses her imaginative life to deny that her son is dead?

What becomes clear is how little these two people can help each other. As writers they both have a privileged relationship to expression, but even this doesn't help them communicate or even to understand the actuality of their
own pain. Even their love is not enough. "The land of tears," as St Expury says in The Little Prince, "is so mysterious".

In Brett Adam's hands, this complex script is given its full emotional and intellectual range. The stripped-down design and Rob Irwin's unobstrusive but effective lighting frame two extraordinarily generous performances. Neither Macleod nor MacDonald miss a beat: on them rests the human weight of the play,
the painful silences behind the words, and they meet the challenge with performances that articulate its subtleties and emotional power.

It makes superb, thoughtful theatre, which manages to be at once astringently intelligent and heartbreaking. And this stylishly minimal production, imported into the Malthouse after a successful season at the Store Room, is as polished as any I've seen.

Picture: Fiona Macleod and Todd MacDonald. Photo: Deryk Alpin


Chris Boyd said...

Physical pain, says Elaine Scarry in her groundbreaking study The Body in Pain, destroys human language.

I think Camus said something not unrelated: that extreme suffering takes away our taste for reading. Reading fiction, that is. (Not poetry!)

But I can't for the life of me find the source of the sentiment, let alone an exact quotation. Does it ring any bells with you, Alison? (Or any of your oh-so-erudite readers?!)

Sean David Burke said...

I saw Mueller's LTTLE BROTHER (with Lucy Jones)in 1998. Can't forget it.