Review: Black, The Ghost Writer, Ashes to Ashes ~ theatre notes

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Review: Black, The Ghost Writer, Ashes to Ashes

Black, created by Anna Tregloan. Sets and costume design Anna Tregloan, composition and sound design David Franzke, lighting design by Paul Jackson. Dramaturge Maryanne Lynch. With Martyn Coutts, Moira Finucane, Caroline Lee and James Wardlaw. Tower Theatre @ The Malthouse, until April 1.

The Ghost Writer by Ross Mueller, directed by Julian Meyrick. Design by Stephen Curtis, composer Darren Verhagen, lighting by Paul Jackson. With Margaret Harvey, Belinda McClory, Raj Sidhu and John Wood, Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre until April 21.

Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter, directed by Sam Strong. Design by Melissa Page, lighting by Danny Pettingill, sound by Rob Stewart. 45 Downstairs, Flinders Lane, until March 24.

I am beginning to think that one day soon I'll disintegrate into a cloud of written words: where once were real muscles and sinews and bone, a glistening collection of viscera and nerve and skin and fluids, you will find a kind of alphabetic mist. Words, words, words, as Hamlet said with such memorable impatience. How long can I keep on morphing between hack journalist, sort-of reviewer, genre novelist and even, now and again, real writing (I can tell the real writing because that's the stuff that really wipes me out) before I reach some kind of critical mass and implode?

Perhaps, like the decline and fall of the West, the worst has already happened and I am already my own linguistic hallucination, a kind of pixilated fallout, and just haven't realised it yet. Thank God for the theatre, say I, because at least it gets me out of the house and distracts me from morbid speculation. The irony being, of course, that my theatre-going generates the necessity for yet more words. Not, please note, that I am complaining; I mean, I really do believe that it's hard to have too much of a good thing, and I am on the hotline to God to arrange more hours in the day.

This week I saw three shows, each very different from the other but all of them, in different ways, about atrocity. Given my delicate state of imminent dissolution, I hesitate to say that I am going to "review" them. Take my responses as the ravings of a post-virtual neurotic, and cheer on the Singularity, when neuroplasty will give us all such miraculous brains that the idea of human limitations will be as quaint as cooperage or The Flat Earth Society.

Which is, I guess, a long-winded way of saying that I'm a bit tired, and I will do my best.

Of all the shows I saw last week, Anna Tregloan's Black is the only one that offered the unmistakeable satisfaction of an achieved work. But before I say anything about it, I'd like to consider briefly what it is. A big elephant stamp to the Malthouse for inviting into a main theatre, as part of a "mainstream" season and not as a "special" festival event, some of the preoccupations and vocabularies of contemporary visual art. Installations have been bog-standard visual arts practice for decades, but in the theatre world such ideas and explorations have been regarded as obscure experimenta that belong in dark studios inhabited by impossibly cool Andy Warhol clones.

Anna Tregloan has sometimes seemed to have a monopoly on design credits in Melbourne theatre, but she also has a rich history of performance installations, of which Black is the most recent. For what these divisions are worth - which is not very much - Black seems to me to be very much the work of a theatre artist. Tregloan has created a dynamic theatrical environment in which the movement of bodies in space - both of the performers and audience - is crucial. Here visual design, performance, sound, and written and spoken text are carefully woven into a coherent, if mysterious, whole.

The actual performance of Black is around 45 minutes long, and repeated in a loop for three hours, so the audience member can wander in and out and around it at will, and begin wherever and whenever he or she happens to be (I never worked out where the actual "beginning" was, I just noticed when it began to repeat). It is a work that revolves obsessively around the notoriously gruesome Black Dahlia murder in 1947, when the wannabe actress Elizabeth Short was discovered, cut in two and horribly mutilated, in a vacant lot in Los Angeles.

is not concerned so much with the murder, although the crime sits in the centre of its darkness, as with the fantasies that it inspired: the myths that grew up around Elizabeth Short (that she was a prostitute, that she had "infantile genitalia" that meant she could not have sex) and the many theories about her murderer, including the bizarre fact that within a month, more than 50 people had confessed to the crime.

Black begins with the disorientation of walking into darkness: at first, before my eyes adjusted, I could barely see my feet. I walked up the stairs into the Tower and almost felt my way along a black-draped tunnel, hearing the performance somewhere to my left, until I emerged at a kind of gallery above the performers. Some people stay here for a time watching, to be observed in turn by the audience below. Others make their way down the stairs again to a room below, a small gallery, where several objects repose on three suspended tables: three books frozen inside blocks of ice, piles of photographs of objects encrusted with crystallised salt, a collection of souvenir spoons. I couldn't help touching the iced books, which are slowly defrosting (you can hear the water dripping). The spoons, rather unsettlingly, jump every now and then. If you try to sort through the photographs, you find that underneath the top image is just a pile of blank photographic paper.

From here you turn into the main site of the performance. The initial impression is confusing: there are performers moving, speaking, they are saying things you only half hear, they are reflected in mirrors or windows so you can't tell at first if what you see is a real body or a reflection, whether it is here or on the other side of the window, and above, something is moving like a black wing. People are around the space, standing, sitting on chairs, on the floor, watching. Some are reading the texts on the wall, some are constantly moving, some are arriving, some are leaving.

I read the texts on the wall, which recount some of the hypotheses about who killed Elizabeth Short. (I noted particularly that one theory held Marcel Duchamp responsible). And, like a radio tuning in, I began to be able to understand what was being said. There are rhythmic percussive sounds, objects being struck or stroked, ocasionally something that sounds like a drill. The light is dim, the sound for the most part low; it makes you lean forward, immediately you are in the pose of attention, wondering what is being said, what you are looking at, and before long - it took me about five minutes - you find yourself paying total attention, wound further and further into the spectral realities that flow around and before you, a world of rumours, ghosts, reflections, bodies that disappear and bisect and double in the glassed windows, bodies in hysterical poses, fragmentary texts that recount the horrific mutilations of Short's body, or the history of bodies preserved in salt, or police dialogues or newspaper headlines, or that break startlingly into songs or screams.

It's a fascinating experience, beautifully realised with a meticulous attention to detail. For all the violence at its thematic heart, Black is a work that induces a state of meditative focus that is, somehow, gently compelling; it invites, rather than forces; you are at liberty, after all, to walk out at any time. The attention it provokes is involuntary, dreamlike and hypnotic, its multiple layers endlessly intriguing, a little, perhaps, like looking into the flames of a dark fire, but your reverie, however free, is more directed, more focused. And productive of much more thought and response than I can describe here. Go see it for yourself.

As its name suggests, Ross Mueller's The Ghost Writer also attempts spectral realities, but the aesthetic explored here is that of the well-made play. Ross Mueller is a playwright of considerable subtlety and power, as was shown in Construction of the Human Heart, which played a season at the Malthouse last year. In this new play, commissioned and developed by the MTC, I get the sense of an uncomfortable fit between private writerly ambition and the perceived demands of conventional theatre.

The ghost writer of the title is Claudia (Belinda McClory), who accepts a commission from her unreliable publisher father (John Woods) to ghost the life story of Brihanna (Margaret Harvey), an illiterate woman from a small country town whose four year old daughter Megan was murdered in circumstances that irresistibly recall the Jayden Leskie case. Claudia has an unexplained but serious illness, and is obsessed with the idea of death. She has a lover, West (Raj Sidhu) with whom she has a strange, disconnected relationship - they do not even know each other's names. But, as Claudia discovers when she begins to research Megan's murder, West is in fact the public prosecutor who unsuccessfully put Brihanna's boyfriend, Brian, on trial for the murder of the child.

Mueller uses this narrative frame to dangle a bewildering plethora of themes. He canvasses the morality of public justice; satirises the predatory nature of commercial publishing; asks us to ponder the nature of truth; examines love between mother and daughter, father and daughter, and lovers; looks at class issues in contemporary Australia, especially the urban/rural divide; raises the question of domestic violence; explores the conflict between baby boomers and Generation X and, of course, ponders the question of death. (I think I've listed everything, although there's a major preoccupation with writing and representation as well). It's a lot of freight for a conventional dramatic script, weighing it down more when these themes are heavily signalled, as when West agonises over the morality of his cases or when Claudia earnestly claims she's pursuing the "truth".

There's no doubting the craft of Mueller's text, especially notable in some striking monologues, but craft is never the whole of writing. While it has nothing like the theatrical deftness or formal curiosity of Construction of the Human Heart, it's actually quite difficult to pin down where the script goes wrong (although you can point to somewhere in the second act, when all the horses start galloping in different directions).

The Ghost Writer
seems to me like an "issue" play - drawing transparently on well known contemporary events, and signalling its contemporary social relevance - into which is jammed unhappily another kind of theatre altogether, one that is more concerned with the fluidity of interior states. Yes, one can point to Arthur Miller, but this play never quite attains that level of coherent integration. It's presumptuous to say so, but you can almost hear the workshoppy voice that said "hmmm... we need to bring out the social relevance more here..." or "I don't understand the motivation of this character".

And perhaps I have problems too with its genre edge. Mueller appropriates conventions from thrillers, detective fictions and ghost stories and it seems to me that, like many "literary" explorations in that direction, The Ghost Writer is too self-conscious to be class pulp. In good genre writing, serious subtextual concerns run along, as it were, with the enthusiasm of the classic conventions that are invoked or undermined in the work. In "literary" appropriations of pulp (I'm thinking, say, of Graham Swift's take on the detective novel in The Light of Day) the serious subtext is all on top. A pulp novelist writes a story about a murder mystery that reveals the human search for order and meaning in a godless universe; a literary novelist will write a novel about the human search for order and meaning in a godless universe, using the shape of the detective novel as a device. As a result, very few escape the odour of slumming it.

The Ghost Writer is, however, a better play than it appears to be in this production. Julian Meyrick's direction fatally slows down what ought to be fluid and swift transitions between scenes and, despite an abstract design, somehow over-literalises the text, so that it can seem clumsy even when it isn't. And the performances are puzzlingly not as compelling as they ought to be, although the ingredients are there: there are flashes of possibility in individual moments, in monologues from Belinda McClory and Margaret Harvey especially. In the end, despite all the talent that is abundantly present, you sigh and notch it up as just another MTC play. Which might be the root of the problem.

You might think, for example, that Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter would be a shoo-in as an MTC fixture, being arguably the most significant English-language playwright of the past few decades. But it is not so. I've had to wait a long time to see Pinter's 1996 play Ashes to Ashes in three dimensions, although it is one of his greatest plays (possibly, in Alison's eccentric universe, his greatest). And, although this is by no means an ideal production, it was a real pleasure to see it.

Ashes to Ashes is a menacing, traumatically dislocated dialogue between a man called Devlin (Simon Stone) and a woman called Rebecca (Sara Gleeson). It shows Pinter at his most icily precise, anatomising the subtext of mundane interactions until he summons the Holocaust into a middle class loungeroom. What has always amazed me about this transition is how Pinter manages it without the least sense of gratuitousness: by the time we understand the atrocity that haunts the centre of this play, it is absolutely embedded within the middle class reality we are also accepting as real. The connecting tissue between the two realities is violence, in particular a complex take on male violence against women.

Ashes to Ashes is also a play about the hauntings and displacements of memory, and requires actors who carry the marks of the past in their faces and bodies and psyches. Gleeson and Stone are too young for their parts, and it really does matter. Sam Strong's production is a little puzzling, in that the movement of actors around the space sometimes seems to bear no relation to anything. To be honest, I'm not quite sure that Strong has understood the play very well.

However, the biggest problem with this production is Simon Stone's performance, which carries no sense of menace at all; he is interrogative, puzzled, and generally rather blank (with a brief moment of rage). Sara Gleeson, on the other hand, finds an accuracy and focus in her performance that permits her to switch between differing states of impotence and power, forgetting and remembering, with a verisimilitude that makes up for her youth.

Despite its problems, I enjoyed the experience. The production is nicely set in the new downstairs space at 45 Downstairs, with a dramatic row of windows behind the simple elements of the set. And even imperfectly realised, it's still an astounding play.

Picture: Caroline Lee, Moira Finucane, Martyn Coutts, (Caroline Lee repeat) and James Wardlaw in Black. Photo: Jeff Busby


Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, I should be posting about two of these shows this week as wellhttp:...

Anonymous said...

Dear Alison,

Some thoughts on The Ghost Writer, but first to say that I’ve only recently clicked on to into your blog here, and am mighty pleased to make the discovery. Thanks for the inspiration and stimulation of your body of words and ideas that you share with us readers and, those of your posters too. I love the potential for diablog (and witty pomo wordplays), as already well-noted, or polyblog even, if you include the unscribed responses of your (many, I’m sure) readers who aren’t necessarily posting back, but maybe catalysing other conversations in other realms (eg the foyers noted).

And you’ve so inspired me, that here I find myself stumbling into blog world and posting myself for the first time. I hope it’s appropriate for me to respond to your review of the Ghost Writer, with some thoughts grown out of an energised and passionate conversation with a friend – the ideas, not necessarily all mine but a kind of coalescence of our dialogue. Please forgive my ignorance if that’s just not blog comment-posting etiquette. Well, here goes …

There’s a veritable Day of the Dead full of spooks and spectres in and around The Ghost Writer, but one in particular has been continuing to rattle me, for quite some time after the show - that unfashionable ghost of ideology that haunts this play like our Nic in The Others (which, come to think of it, is a most appropriate reference). Yep, those same old same old “others” - class, race and gender - lurk in here, demanding our attention, if only we could see them for what they are.

It’s hard for me to articulate my concerns, because these shadowy realms of the play made my experience of it murky and confusing. As in many a ghost story, structures, I believe, were not what they appeared to be on the surface. One part of me thinks I hear the whispers of Ross Mueller, The Ghost Writer Writer, trying to make some heartfelt ideological statements, perhaps about stolen Aboriginal children, about the relationships between black and white, but then a deeper, more subtle part of me suspects what I perceive could be good intentions, being Ghost Writ themselves by some other force, some other hand …. I’m just feeling the shaky ground of something other going on, and I’d love to know the answers to a few questions. It would be great if Ross or Julian were reading, and would like to join in and comment, because I’d love to hear their thoughts….

Why is Brihanna Aboriginal? Please don’t get me wrong here, Margaret’s performance was the highlight of the piece for me. But my question is, why, when we all know (or at least assume) that the “real” story (Bilynda and Jaidyn Leskie’s) is about a white family, why make the conscious decision to make Brihanna Black? I’d love to know the reasons for this, because for me, it’s effect is very profound. Even if it was a simple as Margaret being the best actor for the role - I think we still have to consider the implications of casting, particularly in this story, which is so loaded and fraught with social complexities and challenges that I’d argue a “colour-blind” casting would be impossible. Can I be provocative, and dare to make the suggestion, that perhaps, it was easier for this MTC production to give an illiterate-Woodstocks-at-10am-Horizon-smoking-woman-unable-to care-for-or-save-her-child, an Aboriginal identity? Could this have been thought somehow more audience-acceptable, rather than challenging the white, educated, urban, wealthy professional (WEUWP) audiences about the same traits in white culture? Why deliberately perpetuate such unhelpful negative stereotypes of Aboriginal culture, when these of Brihanna’s defining character traits, are actually, especially when seen in the Leskie case, products of class? Instead of offering a more benign symbol of black/white relations (which is what I suspect Mueller intended), The Ghost Writer feels to me to be quite sinister. In collapsing all the complexities of class-based social experiences, difficulties and tragedies into an (and I’m shocked to have to say this, but there you go) easier-to-digest-for-the-WEUWP-world “other” – race – it ultimately deceives its audience (and maybe its writer too?). WEUWP are let off the hook in having to examine anything about “our/their” system, to look for any cause or blame in “our/their” own behaviours – when the “problem” can be neatly wrapped up in Black. (Phew – a provocative and controversial call that one, I’m quite nervous to put it out there – but feel like it should to be raised). And, after all, a Ghost Writer is all about deception, about masquerading one voice for another…

I don’t for a moment want to be misconstrued. I’m talking Big Picture now. Of course the Aboriginal community, just like parts of the white community, faces problems – health, violence and lack of educational opportunities, for example. And these are often all the more potent for the Aboriginal community given the great damage done by the White invasion of their Country, massacres, the stealing of their children, and the widespread destruction of culture. What I am really writing about here is my fear of increased further damage done by an increasingly wealthy, insular, conservative dominant power that seeks a scapegoat in race, to distract us from the pervading effects of it’s class power over many people from many cultures, including white. But, simultaneously, we cannot ignore that real problems and injustices based on racial and cultural discriminations exist. It is just when the appearances of these problems are manipulated (Ghost Writ) by those in power, that my alarm bells start ringing like mad. How do we raise the questions of the broad problems of class inequalities that affect an ethnic and cultural spectrum of Australians, without that approach being hijacked by the One Nation kind of debate, whose project is to deny a compassionate openness to diversity, and to deny the disadvantages that are based in racial and cultural discriminations and maltreatments? And how do we honestly approach the real problems faced by the Aboriginal community, without blaming them for what are actually the results of White Ancestral actions and White current Government policies and attitudes? Many Indigenous leaders are highly critical of the current government’s abolition of ATSIC and the mainstreaming of programs and services for the Indigenous community which deny the specific cultural approaches needed to work with Indigenous people to solve these problems. This knot in The Ghost Writer is a perfect example of how our current government and systems twists the realities of social challenges for both the Indigenous Community and the Poor, with the appearances it wants to project, and the labels it suits them to use, of these situations. (Other classics are the “Muslim” label post 9/11, and the “refugee” label post “children overboard”). A masterful ideological sleight of hand that can both deny the problem up one sleeve, while presenting it with a flourish as a handy scapegoat from the other.

Again, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that Ross Mueller’s play or Julian Meyrick’s MTC production consciously intends to push a deliberate hardline neo-conservative injustice-denial argument. I’m sure that both Ross and Julian are compassionate, aware and sensitive individuals. But these are the questions and thoughts, the spectres awoken in me, when I contemplate my strangely unnerving experience of the work.

And as more questions like this rattle their chains, I wonder why I’ve not seen/read any reviews that raise these same questions (apologies if I’ve missed any) … What’s happened to ideological analysis in the theatre? I know it’s so 70’s and 80’s, but it’s also so everpresent – doesn’t go away just because someone’s wearing a different theoretical costume these days… Why aren’t we discussing these things? Are we afraid? … If so, of what?… well, maybe rocking our poor little evershrinking theatremaking boat … of wanting so much to support our likewise struggling colleagues that we don’t want to, or we’re too tired to, think and talk hard about what we’re making, or we don’t want to offend someone who might be our only next gig … when of course, the creation of a variety of works and their vibrant robust communal discussion and analysis is what might just keep us all fired up …. Sorry, I digress … moment of spiritual possession, or a visitation perhaps…

As I reawaken, the fog clears to reveal the body of a child who’s crying out to be the dramatic heart of this story. But the body, her voice and her story, is wrapped, bound so tight, so neat inside the white professional urban tragi-comedic drama – a minimalist designed neutrally coloured witty throw-away line shroud that masks the messy complex body that is really Australian Contemporary Culture. And when the child speaks, what does she say? If I remember correctly, it’s something close to “Don’t worry Mummy. It’s alright Mummy” (apologies if I got that wrong) – and I want to scream (of course, it’s a ghost story), because it’s not alright and I want us to worry. But the play’s ghosting of the ghost, wrapped in softness and humour, placates us all. It’s not alright to deny us the real consequences, on black, white, on all races, on the poor and any other minority, to deny the real consequences of greed, profit-seeking and cultural imperialism.

And then, there’s gender …. Claudia, the play’s Ghost Writer is an emaciated wraith, co-opted by the (her) Great White Father (GWF), to do his business. She, as once-marginalised woman, can be the GWF’s agent in re-packaging the words of the twice-marginalised (race and gender) Brihanna, and her previous client, Sandra Perlman. She acts like and thinks she’s made it in his world – the money, the address, the education, the success. But of course, she’s fooling herself. The male power-brokers of the WEUWP used her for their profits, and were left to continue their games after her death. That system, you could read, killed her. It certainly left her anonymous on the covers of her publications – again the double deception – the anonymous woman writer retells, rewords the story of another woman, and neither is left with their authentic voice or authentic presence in this world of the GWF money-making machine.

And yet, to my puzzlement, the predominantly female WEUWP audience laughed and clapped and laughed while they watched their own deaths. While they watched their own annihilation in their “own” world. How could this be? I hope it’s not because the Ghost Writer bewitched them into denial of their selves, and of their world’s, and their own complicities to injustice and marginalisation. I hope it was because they could remove the shroud and see the world for what it is, it’s deception and trickeries, for the sneaky disguise of comedy. I hope it was because they were being tricksters themselves, taking the shape of a smile while planning the exorcism.

And, of course, the last moments of the play, the GWF and his heir apparent take their space after the invisible death and memorial of their daughter/lover. Heir leaves, giving GWF his final grand moment. And what an odd jolting moment it was – I’m kicking myself I didn’t memorise it then and there – but in it’s self referencing to the machinations of writing and theatre itself, revealing a wry knowingness of the project (and by inference, it’s power) outside itself, perhaps we heard the voice of the real Ghost Writer speaking?

So … over to blog world – love to see some other thoughts and discussion around this …

Alison Croggon said...

Hi there, and thanks for the post - and my pleasure indeed.

Now, here's a confession. I too was disturbed by the casting, and on reading the play was intrigued to see that Brihanna is not written an Indigenous character. And I simply didn't know to address it without startling up a flock of geese along the lines of, what if Margaret Harvey was best for the part? Aren't you being racist yourself? without writing something as long as you did here. (I tried to think about the last time I saw an Indigenous actor on the MTC stage - maybe it was Sapphires?) And I also thought a _lot_ about the gender politics in the play as well (three female characters, one dead, one dying, one a murderer: two men, both survivors and commentators, however ironically played - Woman if Nightmaire Death-in-Life, anyone?) I thought the gender thing became if anything more problematic with casting Brihanna as Aboriginal; by introducing the race card it kind of highlighted the gender problems already there.

So I'm really grateful you've raised this point, and saved me the trouble of my own bad conscience. Your analysis seems to me to be pretty spot on (especially the point about WEUEP - love the acronym - applauding their own deaths). I do think it's a crucial point, and I too would be interested in any illumination on how these decisions were reached. Especially how conscious they were. Because they are at the very least deeply problematic.

That final line, btw, is:

"A couple of blokes in suits talking bullshit in a graveyard…
What kind of a final image is that?"

Which is supposed, I think, to undercut the gender stuff with an ironical twist. But does it? I'm not so sure... maybe just cutting with a blunt knife.

Anonymous said...

I think this gender analysis might be a tad simplistic, I hardly think you can call John Wood's character Williams' merely "a survivor and commentator". He was obviously the nastiest character in the play- consumed by money, to the extent that he published Brihanna's book in the end blaming the innocent boyfriend, despite knowing that it was false. Mueller did not make him obviously nasty and manipulative, instead allowing him humanity and humour. Something I think all characters were allowed in this play.

Also, I don't think Brihanna was "cast as aboriginal" I think she was an aboriginal actor cast as a white woman. There is lines referencing her as white= "white trash" etc.

For what it's worth...

Alison Croggon said...

No, I don't think anyone is arguing either of these things - that's a simplistic reduction that both Anon1 and I (perhaps you guys could use nom de plumes?) devoutly wished to avoid, and the fear of being misunderstood in this way is why in fact I didn't address either gender or race in my review. It's not easy at all: it's complex.

The question about the casting was not whether Margaret Harvey was good in the part or not; I think everyone agrees on the quality of her performance. It was whether, for that particular role, a "colour blind" casting was in fact possible. If casting Indigenous actors were routine at the MTC (we have yet to see an Indigenous Hamlet, our version of Adrian Lester, say), this question would not arise; if an Indigenous actor were cast in the McClory role, it wouldn't arise either. But the intersection of the role of the low-class illiterate woman and the questions that she raises with that casting is too easy a fit with community prejudices about Aboriginals for it not to be, at the least, discomforting, and to raise the possibility that something about class is being elided here. Theatre is an art that lives crucially, responds crucially, within a social context (even Ionesco, whom I saw the other night) and here, despite what were probably best intentions - again, if you read Anon1 properly, she wasn't traducing those - of the producers of this show, the context seemed to be a bad fit.