MIAF: Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty ~ theatre notes

Friday, October 20, 2006

MIAF: Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty

Festival Diary #3

Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty by Richard Foreman. Direction, composition and design by Max Lyandvert. Lighting by Luiz Pampolha. With Benjamin Winspear, Gibson Nolte and Rebecca Smee, Voice by Helmut Bakaitis. Kitchen Sink @ The Tower, Malthouse Theatre.

Many moons ago a friend of mine, then an eager young drama student, read Richard Foreman's plays and decided he wanted to direct one of them. He wrote to Foreman asking for pointers, and received back a friendly, helpful and and deeply perplexed response: "Why on earth would you want to do that?"

It's a good question. My friend's production never got off the ground, as the actors rebelled; but composer Max Lyandvert has found some more amenable performers and has now directed three of Foreman's works: My Head Was A Sledgehammer, Now I've Got The Shakes, and Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty.

Having seen the last, I find myself turning over the question of how possible it is to do Foreman's plays. On the one hand, they exist as texts which anyone might perform, just as one might perform Moliere or Ibsen or Stein. But on the other, if anyone is a theatrical auteur, it is Foreman: how possible is it really to separate Foreman's idiosyncratic texts from his theatrical practice, honed over more than three decades?

In one sense, it's easy to see why you'd want to give it a go: Foreman's plays are funny, intriguing, multi-faceted and disturbing. Eschewing plot, psychology or "common" sense, they are like the best sort of nonsense poetry - Lewis Carroll, for example, or Edward Lear - in which language creates its own alternative reality, opening up the subconscious mind to unexpected and sometimes poignant perspectives on the world. Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre is perhaps the most successful theatrical expression of Baudelaire's maxim about poetry, that it must be "a debacle of the intellect".

On his website, Foreman explains his writerly process:

For many years I have created plays in the following manner. I write-- usually at the beginning of the day, from one half to three pages of dialogue. There is no indication of who is speaking-- just raw dialogue. From day to day, there is no connection between the pages, each day is a total 'start from scratch' with no necessary reference to material from previous days' work. ...

Every few months, I look through the accumulated material with the thought of contructing a 'play'. I find a page that seems interesting and possible as a 'key' page-- and then quickly scan through to find others that might relate in some way to that 'key' page.

The relationship is not narrative-- but loosely thematic-- in a very poetic sense-- even in simply an 'intuited' way. Often-- I can not explain why-- simply that one pages seems interesting in a yet undefinable way, if juxtaposed to other selected pages.

When I have forty to fifty pages, I consider this the basis. I then arrange the pages in search of some possible loose thematic 'scenario'-- which again, is more 'variations on a theme' rather than strictly narrative. I look to establish a 'situation oif (sic) tension'-- then imagining how the other pages somehow augment and 'play with' that situation, rather than leading to story and rersolution (sic).

As Foreman explains, even typos and spelling mistakes have their place - they might "indeeed" be an artistic decision. It adds up to a vision that is intensely idiosyncratic, something like a three-dimensional map of the processes of Richard Foreman's very interesting mind.

A clue to the difficulty of dividing Foreman's text from its theatrical process comes from New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley, for example, who comments that "the gnomic dialogue... as usual with Mr. Foreman, seems inspired when you're watching it and embarrassing when you repeat it". Foreman's scripts are only one aspect of a complex and evolving theatrical process (as an aside, for a voyeuristic peek inside Foreman's process, check out Foreman's new blog, in which he notates his evolving thoughts on his forthcoming production Wake Up Mr Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!).

Max Lyandvert's production of Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty takes the only possible approach: this is very much Lyandvert's vision of the play, and clearly bears no resemblance, despite the extensive Foreman quotes in the program, to what Foreman actually does on stage. And indeed, a photocopy of a Foreman production would be a lifeless thing. But it left me feeling very ambivalent, confirming rather than challenging my doubts; much as I hesitate to claim that Foreman's texts are impossible to reproduce, the challenges are considerable.

The play itself, written in 2001 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seeming triumph of the Free World, is not, despite its title, a "political" text. Its two characters, Fred (Benjamin Winspear) and Freddie (Gibson Nolte), exist in a Foremanesque universe of non sequitur - at one point Indians appear from nowhere on stage and run around - in which they alternately lament and celebrate the death of the huge ideologies that dominated the last century - Communism, of course, but also religion. Outside these intellectual safety nets, life, as Freddie says, is "cold and lonely". " So," he asks, huddling into a blanket, "how do I warm myself in this cold and lonely world?"

Their antics are punctuated by a Voice (one assumes the Author) intoning things like "Red Communism is dead, my friend" or "I wonder what I will think next?" Images such as half-eaten apples or boxes full of "permanently sealed documents" thicken the metaphoric mix. And there is a dog that is kept in a box, which reminds us, in Foreman's characteristic semantic play, that dog is "God" spelt backwards.

The dog perhaps epitomises my difficulty with this production. Lyandvert has replaced the dog in the box with a sex doll, which turns into a real woman (Rebecca Smee) complete with fetish mask and S&M bindings (she later becomes a kind of Social Realist angel in a bikini). This misogynistic imagery is nowhere to be seen in Foreman's text, and introduces a gendered savagery - Smee wavers between a sex slave, crawling around on stage on hands and knees, and sadistic Soviet dominitrix; at one point she steals Freddie's penis, marching off with the rubbery phallus held high.

It's hard to know what to make of this imagery: it obscures the dog/god twinning in Foreman's text (which at once parodies the idea of God and calls up, for instance, figures like Anubis) and it has none of the reflexive, self-conscious mockery, say, of the equally misogynistic portrayal of the junkie whore in Black Lung's recent production, Rubeville. I guess it equates the American Cold War paranoia of Communism with masculinist anxieties about women. But I couldn't shake the feeling that it was gratuitous.

Another problem was simply the age of the actors, who are too young to convincingly have been part of a time when it was possible to believe in the dream of communism. More elisions are created by the American accents, which vanish in odd moments when the actors briefly play themselves. These perceptual gaps are cumulatively obscuring, without really being addressed in the production: after all, there's no reason why they might not be fruitful, especially given Foreman's idea of a "spark gap" over which consciousness jumps when there is more than one thing happening on a stage.

The opening moment was perhaps the most effective: Fred sprays a mist of cleaning fluid in the air and scrapes a clear space in a pane of glass hitherto unseen, so that at first it appears as if he is cleaning the air, while the two performers repeat the opening two lines several times. It promises to be as maddening as some passages of Beckett's novel Watt (which is saying something). Although Winspear and Nolte's performances remain focused and energetic all the way through, the production lost me about twenty minutes in: a clarity of imagery in Foreman's text - which has, despite its complexities and non sequiturs, a certain elegant simplicity - is simply not translated into the production.

Lyandvert is an accomplished theatre composer, and so it's no surprise that the sound design - composed music and amplified sound - is very good, as is his design, fronted by glass panes in a reference to Foreman's practice of dividing the audience from the stage with a sheet of clear plastic. There's no doubt Lyandvert is a talented director, with a vision all his own. It leaves me wondering why he doesn't make his own texts, or instead, if he wants to work with Foreman's ideas, why he doesn't take up Foreman's open invitation to pillage his notebooks and take off from there.

Picture: Rebecca Smee in Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty. Photo: Brett Boardman

Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty (text, Ubuweb)
Wake Up Mr Sleepy! Your Unconscious Is Dead! (Richard Foreman's blog)
Ontological-Hysteric Theatre


MattJ said...

"Having seen the second, I find myself turning over the question of how possible it is to do Foreman's plays"

Well the man to ask in New York City is fellow blogger Ian W. Hill. Who has directing a ton of Foreman plays. Ian?

Alison Croggon said...

Well, like I said, I don't claim it's not possible - just this one didn't work for me. I'm very curious to hear of other experiences, of course.

Anonymous said...

Okay, yes, not only have I directed productions of eight Foreman plays (and there's one more I want to get to someday), but I produced three Summer festivals of his work (No Strings Attached I, II, and III, 1997-1999) where something like 25 directors interpreted 35 of his plays, so I see it as very possible to do Foreman, of course, though indeed a tricky thing.

Richard thinks of himself primarily as a playwright -- the direction and design are things he's fallen into doing because he couldn't stand what anyone else would do with his texts, and he still regards those aspects of his work as hugely inferior to his writing. He REALLY wants other people to do his plays, to continue their lives as theatre pieces outside of his own productions.

Now, as with anything in theatre, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and maybe with Richard, more often it doesn't. I think that out of the 35 shows I had in the ForemanFests, maybe 15-18 were at all "successful." Still, my own Foreman shows are the ones I'm proudest of of almost all my theatrical work, and the ones that feel the most personal, even more than the plays I've been both writer and director on.

Now I generate texts myself in a manner not dissimilar to Richard, texts I'm perfectly happy with -- so why do his shows and not my own texts? Well, my impulses as a writer and as a director come from different places, and with my own plays, the thinking that created them hangs so close to the text that I can't step back enough from it to direct it properly.

With Richard, the words come to me as if out of my own dreams, and I find myself drifting into his open landscapes, and completing them with what comes out of me -- they usually wind up more than a little autobiographical (the main characters in two of my Foreman productions have been named "Ian Hill").

I also find it better to work with his completed "plays" (just dialogue, of course) rather than the notebooks, because I find that the structure he imposes on the notebook fragments in ordering them to generally be "right" for the pieces.

I'm not sure what the secret is to directing Foreman and making it work. Probably it's in not worshipping the text nor imposing oneself and one's "style" onto it, but allowing yourself to join with it and meet it halfway -- the best productions I've seen done of Richard's plays have not been imitations of his style, but have wound up with some elements of it creeping in anyway, as if you are faithful to his text (even just as dialogue) you'll still have a "Foreman" play.

But until you see it work, I don't know that I could convince you of this, understandably.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ian

Thanks so much for your insights - they're very helpful (and rather moving). I find especially interesting your comment about how the Foreman plays you've directed become very personal. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Anonymous said...

I am still deciding if this was the worst or second worst play I have ever seen in my life. The title was misleading and it went downhill from there, all the way into a 120 minute hell. I would rather watch six hours of rock esteidford.

TimT said...

Yeah, it was awful! There certainly wasn't anything original about the production (All the modernist tricks have been done much better by other people). Or witty ('Dog' is 'God' spelled backwards never was a very good joke, and most of the other 'jokes' were just a repeating of cliches in slightly altered form).

Anonymous said...

I have just read a lot of other reviews from the SMH and New York papers from the original production, and conclude that you can be too clever for your own good. Alison's review above is the only thing on the 'net that has any ring of truth about it.
Not being a regular theatre goer, I nevertheless consider myself to be broadly educated and relatively well read. However, there was litte in this production that let me in, as it were; nothing for me to get a toe hold on what it was trying to say. A play that is all metaphore and, by the playwright's own admission, unconnected fragments of dialogue, is supposed to be thought provoking? It doesn't even suggest why I should be thinking about it. My final conclusion is that the title was a clever device to get bums on seats. Even "Godot" has a plot of sorts. Mike

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Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm misguided to read this review politically, since you mention that the play is not a "political" text. But I must disagree with Foreman that the collapse of the Soviet Union would imply the death of communism. Quite on the contrary! The real socialism of the Soviet Union was a 'lifeless thing', a photocopy of communist thought. Soviet Union was the death of communism as a living critique, as a constant negation of the existent, turning communism into a thing, a fetish, a State, a nuclear superpower. Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, communism is anything but dead, at last communism is alive again.

We could compare this to the death of Religion as a liberation of spirituality: "As soon as [spirituality] is interpreted as social obligation and defined by tabulated laws - as soon as Apollo the Organizer, God of Science, usurps the power of his Mother the Goddess of inspired truth, wisdom and poetry, and tries to bind her devotees by laws - inspired magic goes, and what remains is theology, ecclesiastical ritual, and negatively ethical behavior" (Graves 1986, cited in Moore 1990, Lovebite: Mythography and the semiotics of culture)

As soon as spirituality is liberated from its Religious form, it ceases being a Truth and becomes living communication. The same is true with communism: liberated from its authoritarian Political form, it becomes living, antipolitical communication - striving towards a radically decentralised, situated, non-mediated, living "common sense".