Review: The Damask Drum ~ theatre notes

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Review: The Damask Drum

Mishima in the City: Duets of Desire. 2: The Damask Drum, adapted from the plays by Yukio Mishima and Zeami, directed by Robert Draffin. Film by Ivanka Sokol, set design Ina Indira Shanahan, lighting design by Luke Hails, sound design and music performance by Jethro Woodward. Performed by Alan Knoepfler and Mary Sitarenos. Film acting, voices and stage business by Paul Robertson, Raffaele Rufo, Claire-Larisse Nicholls. Liminal Theatre, 70 Nicholson St, Abbotsford (between Gipps & Langridge St; opposite Sophia Mundi School) until November 26. Bookings: 9539 3669

With the international richness of the Melbourne Festival still fresh in my mind, The Damask Drum is a salutary reminder that we have our own visionary directors close to home. Robert Draffin has been working quietly in Melbourne, evolving his unique practice, for around three decades. And his production of Yukio Mishima's play, now on in an anonymous warehouse in Abbotsford, deserves to stand with the best of the work I saw at the festival.

In the countless productions he has overseen, Draffin has never been afraid of ambition. In 1991, for example, working with the young troupe Whistling in the Theatre, he created a magnificent six-hour adaptation of The Thousand and One Nights at Anthill (one of the small-to-medium theatres that disappeared in the Australia Council's last orgy of cultural vandalism). Or there was his epic 1992 Theatreworks production of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot. More recent work includes a celebrated production of Genet's Le Balcon at the VCA, where he has been teaching some of the young theatre artists who are putting so much zap into the Melbourne scene at present.

I confess, gentle reader, that it's been a long time since I've seen Draffin's work. More fool me. Like Peter Brook or Ariane Mnouchkine, he works with a committed ensemble of artists, creating the long-term relationships that are the core of great theatre: this particular production is the result not only of short-term rehearsal but of year-long workshops. Funded, perhaps it ought to be noted, by no one except the artists themselves.

Again like Mnouchkine and Brook, his work is deeply concerned with cross-cultural exchange: in Draffin's case, a long history of exchange with Asian theatre artists and practice. And as with Mnouchkine, entering his theatre is to be welcomed into a democratic social space where, until the performance begins, no distinction is made between artists and audience. When you arrive at The Damask Drum, you are ushered to a carpeted space at the back of the warehouse, behind the stage, with cushions, low tables and flowers. Where Mnouchkine provides dinner, Draffin makes you green tea.

And there, perhaps, the resemblances end. Unlike these two theatrical superstars, Draffin's company, Liminal Theatre, is not extravagantly funded; and Draffin's practice is all his own.

The Damask Drum is, in fact, the second instalment of a larger work, Mishima in the City: Duets of Desire, which aims to perform all eight of the plays Mishima adapted from the classical Noh canon.

Mishima's play updated Zeami's Aya No Tuzumi, which tells the story of an old gardener who glimpses a princess and falls obsessively in love with her. Mockingly, she gives him a drum made of damask, and says that if he can make it sound in the palace, she will visit him. Of course, the old man can't make any sound at all from the drum, and drowns himself in despair. After this, the "angry ghost" of the old man "possessed the lady's wits, haunted her heart with woe".

In Mishima's version, the woman, Hanako, lives in an apartment block opposite the old man, Iwakichi, and he has to make the drum sound above the city traffic: but the obsession, the mockery, the vengefulness of the old man's ghost and the woman's regret remain. Draffin has fused Mishima's and Zeani's texts to create a kind of collage, in which sound and song play as significantly as semantic sense.

When the plays were first performed in Japan in the 1950s, they were produced in a naturalistic style: a totally revolutionary decision in the context of the Japanese theatre of the time. Instead, in this production Draffin draws from a range of classical Asian theatre techniques, skilfully combining them with images projected from a hand-held cyclorama and an amplified sound score. Black-clad stage hands operate the projections, fabrics, mirrors, smoke and other stage business. This is certainly not Noh, but it's impossible to overlook its Noh ancestry.

The design exploits the length of the warehouse, seating the audience at one end. The set consists basically of a small stage made of black polished wood that is set immediately before the audience, from which stretches a narrow walkway to a door in the back wall. It's a free adaptation of the hashigakari, or bridge, by which actors sumptuously enter the stage in traditional Noh.

Jethro Woodward's soundscape is astoundingly good. It combines sometimes thunderous electronic sound with a collage of amplified voices that fill the space - mostly inhabited by one actor - with unseen people. The Asian orchestra and chorus are embodied in Woodward himself, who stands in the performance space, to the left of the wooden stage. He plays live electric guitar, singing some parts of the story.

The opening scene demonstrates the potency of the elements Draffin is exploiting here. The play begins in blackness, with Woodward bowing haunting melodies from his guitar. Very gradually, a dim light rises on the far end of the stage: a white figure is partially revealed in the distance. It seems to float in a globe of light through the darkness, like a ghost or a goddess, and moves towards us with hieratic slowness.

It is impossible to tell whether the figure is male or female until he is quite close: then you see it is a half-naked man (Alan Knoepfler), who is wearing a long, white, very full skirt that is held up on either side, like royal robes, by the stage attendants. He collapses before us face forward on the small stage, the skirt like a foaming wave that has washed him up from the darkness.

Knoepfler's performance of the old gardener devastated by obsessive erotic love is utterly compelling. He is on stage, mostly solo, for the whole play, and maintains without wavering the physical, vocal and emotional extremity of his performance. His body is the expressive site of his ecstatic torment and self disgust: he is in turn grotesque, abject, ennobled, despairing, tender. He is well met by Mary Sitarenos as the woman, whose entrance late in the show is almost as beautiful as Knoepfler's.

There are more than a few moments of breath-taking mise en scene in the course of this show. If it has flaws, they are of the kind that are hard to pinpoint: slight hesitancies, perhaps, that may manifest in an overdressed moment here or there. Its strength, as in the writing it is manifesting, is in its simplicity, the courage of both restraint and passion that underlies formal artistic beauty.

The Damask Drum is not only theatre that has poetry in it - which is one thing - but something rather more rare: a poetic theatre, working transformations rich and strange.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughful, informative assessment. Invoking Mnouckine and Brook to discuss Draffin's work and the performances of
Alan Knoepfler and Mary Sitarenos. is fully justified.
A rare experience ot total theatre. A great experience

Anonymous said...

I saw the Damask Drum last night and was utterly enthralled. Your review is perfect, I couldn't agree more, and I'm very excited by the work. So glad people are creating work such as this here in Melbourne!