Autobiography of Red ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 18, 2006

Autobiography of Red

Autobiography of Red, based on the novel by Anne Carson, devised and performed by Luke Mullins. Sound design and composition by Jethro Woodward, co-designed by Anna Cordingley and Adam Gardnir, physical text Leisa Shelton, light by Richard Vabre, video design by Nicholas Verso. Voices by Rob Meldrum, Mary Sitarenos and Alan Knopfler. The Tower @ the Malthouse until September 24.

Anne Carson is the arch theorist of desire. Her writings - genre-defying works of criticism, poetry and novelistic essaying - are passionate inscriptions of intellect, adumbrating writing as an act of love and love as an act of passionate imagination.

Given that Carson's poetry and fiction are also works of critique and that her critical work is profoundly poetic, I suspect that I think her real masterpieces are her critical writing. Eros the Bittersweet, her astonishing examination of classical conceptions of romantic love, was written in the 1980s and is closely related to her verse novel Autobiography of Red, which was published in 1998. In both she examines the phenomenon of winged Eros with a precise, ironic wit that eroticises thought, knowing and writing as acts of desire. For Carson, Eros embodies a geometry of lack and desire which is "poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence in its poles, love and hate its motive energies".

One can't fault Luke Mullins, then, for his ambition. To theatricalise such deeply literary work - to bring this multidimensional and subtle thought into the essentially cruder arena of the stage - is no small challenge. Perhaps what is most admirable about his adaptation of Autobiography of Red is how he manages to physicalise the text without compromising its nuance and complexity. He does this primarily by accessing the eroticism of performance, the dynamic of desire that - as another poet, Muriel Rukeyser, points out - vibrates between audience and stage, effectively translating what Carson does with language into the four dimensions of theatre.

Describing the "delightful activity" of the reader's mind shifting between levels of understanding and absorption in a romantic novel by the classical writer Longus, Carson quotes Montaigne: "My page makes love, and understands it feelingly". For Carson, the "imaginative effort" of a novel, "like the verbal innovation we call metaphor, is an erotic action, reaching out from what is known and present to something else, something different, something desired". The meaning composed is "a dynamic meaning, not a still point, that comes alive as the novel shifts from plane to plane..."

This seems like a fair description of the energies moving in Autobiography of Red, in which Carson creates a contemporary love story from the ancient myth of Geryon, the red, winged monster who is slain by Herakles in his tenth labour, and the subject (or perhaps, more accurately, the object) of a poem by the classical poet Stesichoros. Carson's novel is in part an arch literary joke, framed by critical disquisitions on Stesichoros which in fact illuminate Carson's own procedures:

… the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and some scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box.
In the narrative, which is among other things an exploration of the notion of the subject, Geryon is transformed into a contemporary boy who is sexually abused by his brother, and who is sure he is a monster. He begins his autobiography at the age of five, in which he "set down all inside things / ...He coolly omitted all outside things". At 14 he meets and falls shatteringly in love with the young hood Herakles, in "one of those moments / that is the opposite of blindness". Instead of killing him, as in the myth, Herakles breaks Geryon's heart. After a life of numbness ("there are no words for a world without a self"), he meets Herakles by chance in Lima many years later. Herakles has a new lover, and the encounter explodes in degradation and violence, finally releasing Geryon from the abjection of the rejected lover into flight, his full selfhood.

Mullins, one of the talented group of artists which orbits around Stuck Pigs Squealing, narrates this story through a mixture of stylised physical performance and pre-recorded audio/visual material. The first images of the performance - half-lit images of one naked male body raping another - herald the ingenuity and sensory power of the physical vocabulary that Mullins invokes throughout this solo performance. Carson's literary framing is hinted in the chapter headings, words written on boxes and signs on the set that are illuminated as the story moves from one "chapter" to another, but for the most part Mullins has wisely concerned himself only with the story of Geryon, the abused monster who learns to embrace his monstrousness and so gains the power of flight.

He has created a kind of theatrical aria which accumulates power as it progresses, reinforced by an evocative score and soundscape by Jethro Woodward. It makes the beauty of Carson's complex synaesthetic language rivetingly and sensually present:
It was the year he began to wonder about the noise that colors make. Roses came roaring across the garden at him.
He lay on his bed at night listening to the silver light of stars crashing against the window screen. Most
of those he interviewed for the science project had to admit they did not hear
the cries of the roses
being burned alive in the noonday sun. Like horses, Geryon would say helpfully,
like horses in war…
Such precise language requires a concomitant precision in performance, but it also needs an answering passion and emotional nakedness. Mullins is more than equal to these demands. As he progresses from impassioned lover to desiring and nauseated ex-lover to, finally, bitter but liberated self-knowledge, Mullins is riveting. In turn seductive, ironic, witty, broken or desolate, he embodies for us Carson's bittersweet paradox of romantic love.

The set looks beautiful, set against the stripped-back brick walls of The Tower, and is moodily and inventively lit by Richard Vabre, with moments where Mullins is holding a torch or lighting effects at crucial moments that imitate the explosive shock of a flashbulb (photography is a major metaphor through this piece). But for me the design is a major problem.

Anna Cordingley and Adam Gardnir have run the set the length of the Tower Theatre, with the audience facing the narrow stage. Mullins moves from one extreme end of the theatre to the other, from left to right. I presume that this inevitable movement across the stage is to reflect the text's obsession with the motion of time with a concomitant movement through space (the focus on time is reinforced by illuminated clocks either side of the stage which record the real time of the performance, almost exactly one hour, which dissonantly knocks against the stage time of a life story).

I was sitting a little to the right of centre, not so far from the middle, and for the first 20 minutes felt the distance; the necessity to lean to see and hear the performance impeded my absorption. The closer Mullins came, the more powerful the performance; I wondered if those seated at the other end of the theatre experienced a mirror-effect, losing intimacy as Mullins moved away from them. For a show of such delicacy, that depends crucially on the erotic dynamic between audience and performer, this seems needlessly alienating.

Mullins is the recipient of this year's George Fairfax Memorial Award, which he will use to create a new work with Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red makes me impatient to see what ensues from what is already a fascinating collaboration.

Picture: Luke Mullins in Autobiography of Red. Photo: Jeff Busby


JillWrites said...

I have seen Luke perform in two different productions Stuck Pigs has presented in New York, and for one I saw several of the performance dates. (I worked at that festival.) Each time, I was enthralled. He is versatile, for sure, but in my mind what sets him apart is his ability to initiate, develop, and play upon that very erotic dynamic with the audience of which you write. From your analysis it would seem that the design was detrimental to the full development of this performance element--and that's such a shame! To be held in his sway is one of the sweetest experiences in live theater I've had in the past few years.

Alison Croggon said...

That was certainly my experience, Jill! I guess Luke Mullins will be around your way in the next few months, given the Fairfax Award, and who knows? Maybe there will be a chance to see this show.

Chris Boyd said...

You have a higher opinion of Anne Carson than I do, Alison. I find her terribly inconsistent. At one moment breathtakingly evocative, aspiring, inspiring. Then, the next moment, banal beyond belief. So, I though Luke did an great job ironing out the peaks and troughs.

I was mightily impressed with the look of the piece, but wished I had sat in the front row. (It hurt my bloody neck!)

The sweep of the action reminded me of the travel of a focal plane shutter. In single lens reflex (SLR) cameras of a certain age and quality, the film is exposed by curtains. Let's say, for argument's sake, they travel left to right.

Depending on the shutter speed -- anything briefer than (typically) a 60th of a second -- the second curtain will start to follow the first before the first has completed its journey.

(This is why x-flash synchronisation requires a shutter speed of a 60th of a second or longer, so that there is a moment when the entire film plane is exposed.)

So, the film is exposed in a single left-to-right wipe. With me?

But, yeah, bloody ripper show. A real delight.

Alison Croggon said...

You have a higher opinion of Anne Carson than I do, Alison. I find her terribly inconsistent. At one moment breathtakingly evocative, aspiring, inspiring. Then, the next moment, banal beyond belief.

Yawks, Chris! That's a brusque and impatient reading. I'm not sure what you mean...Are you referring to how she works with various levels of language, shifting between the colloquial, the poetic, the critical and so on...? That's one of the things I like about her, and maybe I find it especially interesting in her long poems (like The Beauty of the Husband and so on). Though Eros the Bittersweet is such a brilliant book... "Banal" is not what I associate with Ms Carson: perhaps some work attracts me more than others, but nothing I've read of hers is less than good and it's always intelligent.

I shared a billing a few years ago with Anne Carson at Royal Festival Hall in London, so I got to meet her and see her read. Her readings are very funny, bringing out that dry deadpan that aspect what you're missing, maybe?

Anonymous said...

I watched it all the way over on the left, and actually really liked that the older he got the further away from me he got. Found it a really interesting take on growing up, on becoming who we are. Liked that some of the audience got to know him as an adult and some of us knew him as a child and lost contact with him as he got older. Like old childhood friends...

Chris Boyd said...

Are you referring to how she works with various levels of language, shifting between the colloquial, the poetic, the critical and so on...?

Nah, I find her "scraps of meat" mash-up writings invigorating. But she does need an editor, an Ezra Pound. It's her occasional dud metaphors in the 'proems'. She aims high, which is good, but sometimes misses her mark completely. So in consecutive lines you get toddler schoolboy Geryon "focusing hard on his feet and his steps" -- perfect -- and then you get "Children poured around him" -- lame/lazy/yuk -- in the very next breath. The secret life of stones (nice try) to the "intolerable red assault of grass" (better) to his his "eyes leaning out of his skull on their little connectors" (wot, like cartoon shock?!?!)... Now that's worth a 'Yawk'!

Alison Croggon said...

Ok, less brusque and impatient, Chris. But I still disagree here - simply because I don't think you can read Carson like this, ie, without taking into account the meta-metaphors of the text, if you like. Whatever she is, she is never lazy. Doesn't the image "children poured around him" uneasily foreshadow lava, the theme of volcanoes that permeate the text, so that if you think about it, it gives a sense of danger as well as drowning? And I rather like the second one that makes you yawp, strange and strangely comic. De gustibus non dispudandem!