Review: The Season at Sarsaparilla ~ theatre notes

Monday, March 26, 2007

Review: The Season at Sarsaparilla

The Season at Sarsaparilla by Patrick White, directed by Benedict Andrews. Design by Robert Cousins, costumes by Alice Babidge, lighting by Nick Schlieper, composition by Alan John, sound design by David Gilfillan. With Martin Blum, Brandon Burke, Peter Carroll, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Alan John, Hayley McElhinney, Amber McMahon, Colin Moody, Pamela Rabe, Emily Russell, Dan Spielman and Helen Thomson. Sydney Theatre Company @ the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until March 31.

I have never sat among such a noisy audience as that which packed the Drama Theatre for The Season at Sarsaparilla last Friday night. It was like being in a high school assembly or among a flock of especially loquacious parrots. There was no hint of reverence, no sense that we were entering the Temple of Art for a dose of cultural self-improvement: rather, a diverse bunch of people of various ages were decked out in their gladrags for a night at the Opera House, in full and garrulous expectation of having an enjoyable evening. They were there, gentle reader, for pleasure.

I had to keep reminding myself that it was Patrick White who was causing such excited anticipation: the monstrously highbrow, improper Patrick White, whose works allegedly defeat all common understanding. (Why, he might as well be German). Moreover, he was to be directed by that ferocious enfant terrible Benedict Andrews, who debuted in Melbourne last year with a stunning production of Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado. While TN loved this show, others seemed to be affronted that such examples of "fringe" theatre should mistakenly stray onto a main stage. Critic Peter Craven, leading the charge of the slight brigade, claimed that Eldorado was so "resolutely anti-mainstream" that it was "excruciating".

So there I was, staring at a classic Howard Arkley brick veneer with a tiled roof and a screen door. In its dark windows the chatty audience members were reflected in ghostly rows, just as they were reflected in the huge window that made up the bulk of Eldorado's set. On either side of the house were ominous signs of fringey-type multimedia: two large screens, now blank. In the far left corner was a Hammond organ. But what a difference an Opera House makes! Everything seemed very mainstream to me.

But enough sniping. This is a magnificent production of The Season at Sarsaparilla, illuminating the complex textures of White's dramaturgy with some ingenious and bold decisions, and the cast moves with astounding suppleness between the play's vivid emotional contrasts. It's funny, heart-breaking and wise, and also, at every level, extremely intelligent. Like most of the Drama Theatre audience, I loved it; it rewards you richly while reminding you that theatre is, as Brett Whitely once said of art, a "difficult pleasure".

A scathing attack on the Great Australian Emptiness, The Season at Sarsaparilla is equally a shatteringly poignant paean to the life that beats within it. At its simplest it's a portrait of sleepy suburbia, woken to its repressed desires by the howls of a bitch on heat who is pursued by a pack of dogs (the "season" of the title). The action follows the mundane lives of three households over a few days: a young girl becomes pregnant and kills herself; another falls in love; a marriage cracks under infidelity; a man loses a friend; a woman has a baby. The sensual heat of desire, acknowledged, abused or repressed, shapes the entire action of the play.

White's ambivalence runs through the core of every character in the play. He makes merciless fun of the rigid respectability of Girlie Pogson (Peter Carroll) and her campaign against nasty "words" and other assaults by reality on feminine respectability; but equally, as with all his characters, he also reveals her essential innocence, the yearning that tremulously glows beneath her starched frock. Likewise, the blazing innocence of Ron Suddards (Dan Spielman) - "a decent fellow", as White describes him - is easily mocked, but it's Suddards who wins the girl from the would be writer Roy Child (Eden Falk).

You get the feeling that White isn't being ironic when he makes Judy Pogson (Hayley McElhinney) passionately defend the value of human decency against the sneers of "clever people" like Roy. Like Kafka, White understood the profound value of kindness; Roy Child is, as his name suggests, too young and too impatient to have learnt what it means, and his cruelty is a defence against its seduction into mediocrity. Even Roy senses that he will not become a true writer until he has acknowledged the tenderness that lives in Sarsaparilla, which is ultimately his own, and which he can neither accept nor wholly reject. As he says at the end of the play, "You can't shed your own skin, no matter how it itches." (That remark is, like everything else in this play, ambiguous: Roy's "skin" might refer to the discontented consciousness that drives him out of Sarsaparilla as much as it does to Sarsaparilla itself.)

White balances the tensions between the men and women very finely. The play is set in the women's domains, the houses full of consumer goods that the men march off to work every morning to pay for, and it's the women who haunt you. White saw, with an acuity which eluded many of his contemporaries, exactly how women were trapped by the mores of their time. He created some memorable portraits: Pippy Pogson (Amber McMahon), the tomboy being anxiously reined into the limits of her femininity; Girlie Pogson herself, and most of all Nola Boyle (Pamela Rabe), the slatternly wife of the night soil man Ernie (Brandon Burke).

Nola, given here a revelatory performance by Rabe, is the apogee of ambiguity; the personification of earthy sensuality, she is nevertheless infertile. For all her barreness, she is the pulse of life in the suburb, its generous, despised heart. Like Roy, she perceives the endless cycle of reproduction with a horrified clarity; unlike Roy, whose response is cruelty, Nola is stung into compassion. Yet the price of her knowledge is pain, and her fall and redemption expose an appalling loneliness: a close-up of Rabe's anguished face at a critical moment shows us precisely what it costs.

Nola's infidelity - portrayed here as a kind of rape - with her husband's "best mate", Digger Masson (Colin Moody), is the axis on which the play turns: it's the moment when young Pippy understands for the first time the darkness of adult sexuality, and the true significance of the howls behind the safe, identical houses as maddened dogs pursue the "hot bitch". To mitigate this horror, she can only retreat into the complacency of domestic animals, the cow-like Mrs Pogson or the passive contentment of the young mother Mavis Knott (Emily Russell). It's a bleak picture, but White gives his characters a stubborn, vital dignity that infuses the play with a strangely joyous illumination.

The Actors Company brings the play to rich life. Rabe's performance of Nola is a stand-out, one of the truly great stage portrayals, and her scenes with both Colin Moody and Brandon Burke are electrifying; but she shines among many achievements. You want to go on and on: every actor (including a couple of cameos from composer Alan John; I didn't know he could act as well as write music) is performing at a pitch and complexity that means you are teetering on the edge of the "perpetual slight surprise" that Coleridge demanded of poetry; you never know what to expect, but when it arrives, it has its own truth and inevitability. Still, I won't forget the Pogson family: Peter Carroll's Girlie, a wonderful mixture of true pathos and comedy, is a piece of inspired casting, and John Gaden as Clive Pogson is a great foil.

In his direction, Benedict Andrews invokes conventions that are instantly recognisable from Eldorado, if subtly inflected for this production. He plays intriguingly with alienating effects like miked voices and windows, using them to both displace and heighten the emotional textures of the text, and he invokes a sense of autumnal desolation with coloured leaves fluttering from the flies onto Robert Cousins' stylish set. His most inspired decision, however, is to locate the action within a single house. Where White specified that the action was to take place in three back yards, Andrews has the different families criss-crossing one kitchen, as we watch them through three huge windows. As in Eldorado - or indeed, Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Dernier Caravanserail - the audience members are enticed into a voyeuristic complicity, peering through the windows like nosey neighbours.

This sense of voyeurism is heightened by cameras dotted, Big Brother-style, inside the house. It permits us to witness moments of almost unbearable privacy: we see characters in grotesque close-up - eating dinner, showering, contemplating their reflections in the mirror - even as we watch them in the flesh on stage. If it were handled with less tact, this could become merely an irritating trick, but Andrews modulates the cameras with superb sensitivity, drawing us into horrified compassion with one shot, invoking disgust with another, heightening the comedy with a third. You will seldom see multimedia used to such precise and powerful effect as here.

This production makes very clear how the investment in the Actors Company has paid off for the STC. There is a certain subliminal sense of ease that can only be achieved by an ensemble, and it is palpable in the general quality of what happens between the performers on stage. As the company lined up for the applause that was their due, a large part of me sighed heavily. I just can't imagine such a production emerging from the rehearsal rooms of the Melbourne Theatre Company. Frankly, I'm envious of Sydney.

Picture: Peter Carroll and Pamela Rabe in The Season at Sarsaparilla. Photo: Tania Kelley.


Chris Boyd said...

it is palpable in the general quality of what happens between the performers on stage

It's also present in other STC productions, Alison, not just ones that involve the STC ensemble. Longer rehearsal periods help, of course, but it's really a spin-off of the company ethos under Robyn Nevin.

Incidentally, Alan John played one of the ambulance men in Neil Armfield's 1984 production for the STCSA... as well as doing the sound design there.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, you certainly sense an entirely different ethos. The mere fact of The Lost Echo (my huge regret from last year) tells you that something different is going on there!

David Williams said...

yes, I'll agree that this was a magnificent production, and the best of the (albeit small number) of Benedict Andrews productions I've seen to date. each of the elements i thought might prove gimmicky (the single house wired up for video, the cross-gender casting) in fact proved exceptionally well-conceived and integrated into the production. the language of the play felt strong and clear in a way i never thought might be possible (in my reading of White i've always thought of the langauage as spiky), especially based on the always interesting but far less successful productions of his plays i've seen in the past (Armfield's Cheery Soul, Night on Bald Mountain, and Bogdan Koca's expressionistic Sarsaparilla for Theatre Nepean back when I was at acting school). altogether fantastic. My only gripe was that the first half was so much better than the second (and i really wanted Rabe to break down differently at the end rather than follow and amplify the husband's collapse - she was great, but that moment felt weaker than the rest of her performance for me), and I thought the interior camera work could have been more interesting from time to time (but then again I do work with video artists all the time and so look at screen capturing of live action a bit differently...)

anyhow, great review as always!

thanks, David

Nicholas Pickard said...

I must admit to not being a fan of Andrews' work.
After years of watching him, I find that one thing always stands out for me... I never believe his actors.

Simple directorial structure is traded for sometimes less than impressive design and prop options.

The Lost Echo...
I am a big fan of Kosky's work from the first time I saw his Medea in Vienna.
If you are familiar with Kosky, The Lost Echo was a huge disappointment. The shock factor was lost for starters and the rest felt like a under rehearsed NIDA project.

Maybe we are spoilt, but the jury is still out on the Actors Company up here. It's very interesting to hear another perspective.

Alison Croggon said...

I've only seen two Andrews shows, both plays, and what struck me about both is how well he works with texts. They didn't seem gimmicky at all to me.

I saw all Kosky's Gilgul work in Melbourne, and a few other things (a brilliant production of Berg's Woyzcek) but aside from Boulevard Delirium haven't seen his work for years. What I've been told by the many people who did see it and have discussed it at length with me, not to mention the production pics, only makes regret bite deeper...but I will never know, of course, what I would have thought.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this blog site.

Having been battered and enraged by Mr Andrews' work before I was thrilled to see a piece by him that so powerfully moved me.

It was the first time I have seen the trinity of 'avante-g' tricks [mic the actors, put up a 'screen' between them and the audience and use cameras] function with such clarity and success to illuminate the lives we were watching.

As for the Actors Company, though it is still early days, I am far more positive about their achievements than Nicholas seems to be [cheers to his excellent blog too]and hope that this becomes Ms Nevin's great legacy to Sydney Theatre.

She is such a divisive figure here in Sydney and her company so derided that it is refreshing to have my negative thoughts challenged by your positive impressions. thanks.

Anonymous said...

For anyone unfamiliar with the play, the tripartite role of "the house" was completely obscure - though the possibility of a bording house containing all those lives was intriguing. Long before the penny dropped, the artificiality (or perhaps plain artiness) of the tech wizardry and the designer's denial of convenient access to what was going on had become more frustrating than illuminating. Perhaps forcing everything into one social unit enhanced the claustrophobia. But surely a design that acknowledged White's evocation of Plautus (the ancient three "houses" of the classic permanent set and the different social levels of A Funny Thing...) would have enabled the relationships to be far more convincingly acted out than the horrible dislocation in style imposed on each performance by the camera and screens and closed walls. Everybody in this show was unfortunately in thrall to the Benedict Andrews concept, not liberated by it: the play could have been far more touching and emotionally fertile. The effect of the artiness was to re-emphasise White's cruel superiority to his subject matter - though the reality (as you imply in your reference to Roy Child) is a deep compulsive affection for the inevitable inescapable trap that life has set Australians. I agree that the wierdness in parts of the text was reflected in the cinema organ and other effects, but the truths about the human condition which are its reason for existing were less well served. OK perhaps Patrick White in his parochialism cannot manage the compelling revulsion that makes Werner Schwab's Die Praesidentinenn and Volksvernichtung so irresistible, but they are plays of genius not spin-offs from a great novelist. What the production suppressed were the credible and truthful emotions brought out so tellingly by such performers as Peter Carroll (Girlie) and Pamela Rabe (Nola) which suggested to me that more air and space and less artful self-consciousness could have enhanced the results achieved by other fine actors such as Eden Falk (Roy Child) and Colin Moody (Digger Masson). The concept made the crucial ingredient of charm (which White would have disapproved) much harder to bring out, though it was the secret of Rabe's and Carroll's success. My suspension of disbelief and attention both wavered, and I think it was the choices made by the production rather than the quirkiness of the text or the skills of the actors that were responsible.

Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. I hadn't read the play before I saw it, and I didn't have any difficulty with the conceit of the single space. Perhaps that's just a kind of expectation about theatrical space?

That sense of constraint - yes, it was there - really fed this particular play, for me, which is after all about imprisonment; and (a common thing for me as well) the artifice heightened the text's emotional power. Sometimes apparent transparency isn't necessarily the most feeling way to go...