Review: OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament ~ theatre notes

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Review: OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament

OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament, devised and directed by Christian Leavesley and Phil Rolfe. Lighting by Paul Jackson, additional recorded compositions by Phillip McInnes and Brendan Noonan. With Amelia Best, Philip McInnes, Luke Ryan, Peter Snow and Katherine Tonkin. Uncle Semolina (& Friends), Beckett Theatre @ the Malthouse until May 27.

However you look at it, OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament is a mess. Some of it is a glorious, exhilarating, anarchic mess, and some of it feels rather like being locked inside a four-year-old maniac's bedroom. It seems to me like a show that is still gestating: but the beast is most certainly slouching towards Bethelehem to be born.

You can't fault Uncle Semolina (& Friends) on their ambition. The Old Testament gathers together the foundational sacred texts of our civilisation, and that it's a timely idea to examine them hardly needs saying. The "religions of the Book", Christianity, Judaeism and Islam, all draw from these ancient writings, and all three religions bleed along the faultlines of contemporary geopolitics.

The question at the heart of OT is how much this contemporary violence is encoded in the ur-violence of the Old Testament, which, with its bloody parade of betrayal, revenge, murder, incest, rape, divine punishment, jealousy, dire moralistic warnings and straight-out misogyny, sometimes seems like ancient Palestine's version of the Sun newspaper. As devisers Christian Leavesley and Phil Rolfe say in the program: if God really made man in His own image, what does that say about God?

This question is explored by enacting some of the key stories of the Old Testament. Don't look for any Cecil B. De Mille SFX here: this is the Bible for a post-capitalist, urban generation. Leavesley and Rolfe excavate the bric-a-brac of contemporary middle class childhood - Teletubbies, soft toys, dinosaurs, plastic buckets - and pile it around a ramshackle cardboard set that's a kind of nightmare kindergarten. Yahweh himself is a senile patriarch in a cardigan, snoring in the corner. It's notable that there are no design credits - although it's beautifully lit by Paul Jackson, this is a kind of anti-design, there merely to be the occasion for its own destruction.

My major feeling for around the first 20 minutes was creeping disappointment. The cast fills the stage with energy, but it seldom gets beyond a feeling that we're watching a series of drama exercises in story telling. (How do you perform all the "begats" in Genesis? Phone calls and clowning!) A feeling of theatrical stasis is reinforced by the dramaturgy, which reels out the stories as sequential, if fragmentary, episodes: once the comic novelty of watching Biblical scenes enacted with stuffed toys wore off, I began to feel that this was a one-joke show, and to think rather wistfully of the savagely beautiful grandeur of the King James Bible. Paradoxically enough, these early scenes seem too polite.

Fortunately, OT soon gets a lot ruder, and the second half of the show is an entirely different experience. The cast begins to access an Artaudian sense of the sacred, the delirium that infects the subconscious with the self-annihilating freedom of dream. The show starts to generate its own dark poetic as the objects are infused with a strange and sinister life, and all the performances become at once more focused and less predictable. In retrospect, it's hard to pin down where the show turns, because it is partly a cumulative effect, but it certainly coincides with two things: a rougher and more anarchic dramaturgy that runs the stories together, so that they fragment, overlap, bifurcate; and the theatrical excavation of the brutality of the stories.

The show is structured around five main stories - the Creation, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Cain's murder of Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel - and given a semblance of clarity with the help of text projected on the walls. Leavesley and Rolfe eschew a chronological or even orderly narrative, but OT generally works backwards, literally counting down to the beginning.

These narratives are interwoven with some lesser known passages - the filial jealousy of the twin brothers Esau and Jacob, for example, or the horrific dismemberment of the Levite's concubine, who after being gang-raped and murdered, is cut into twelve pieces and her body distributed among the twelve tribes of Israel as an exhortation for revenge. God (Peter Snow) eventually wakes up from his slumber and is both puppet and sinister puppeteer, exacting jealous revenge and capricious punishment, but his main characteristic is divine indifference to his worshippers; in Job's case, he uses human beings as wagers to get one over Satan. And then He disappears altogether, abandoning His flawed creation to its own violent confusion.

The use of toys generates a cumulative metaphorical point about God the Father's infantalisation of human beings, but it also suggests that God manifests as a human creation. As in the imaginative play of children, God is generated by our own desires; as Blake says, "all Gods reside in the human breast". "Play" in all its senses is key to this show. The cast - Amelia Best, Phillip McInnes, Luke Ryan, Peter Snow and Katherine Tonkin - performs with a physical and - perhaps more importantly - emotional fearlessness that makes the extremities they're exploring tangible on stage. And their performances are heightened by a very brilliant sound design.

As the show gets darker, it also gets funnier: among its highlights is a pitch-perfect vernacular rendition by Luke Ryan of Samson's first wedding, during which he slaughtered the entire wedding party, and a song that is (I guess) punk/Teletubbies fusion. But OT does much more than simply jam these ancient, bloodthirsty stories into a vernacular urban aesthetic; it creates theatrical moments that implode with a visceral, physical beauty, transfiguring its aggressively simple elements into potent catalysts of the imagination. In its best moments, it is - to use the appropriate vocabulary in all its senses - awesome.

OT explores - if, at present, a little vaguely - real and disturbing questions about the DNA of our culture which now seem especially pertinent. There are those, for example, who claim that Islam is "inherently" violent, while Christianity is not: a brief survey of the Old Testament's jealous and punitive God laying waste to whole populations even unto the seventh generation will surely put that furphy to rest (remembering, of course, that Armageddon and the Apocalypse are inventions of the New Testament). It would be nice to think that we're past all that now but, sadly, the optimistic notion of historical progress seems currently to be as big a myth as Yahweh.

Seeing OT was strangely synchronous with a blogger hoohah I've been following with stratospherically raised eyebrows: Time Out New York theatre editor David Cote, "sworn enemy of ignorant, paranoid, wasteful, culturally desolate, ahistorically pious middleamerican boobies", made some waspish comments about those of faithful persuasion, and straightway proved that hell hath no fury like riled atheists and believers scorned. I've been trying to imagine such a conversation in Melbourne theatre circles: perhaps I'm wrong, but I can't. I'm certain OT will polarise audiences, but I can't see it being picketed by outraged Christians. Sometimes I think there's alot to be said for good old-fashioned Australian scepticism.

Picture: Luke Ryan in OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament. Photo: Jeff Busby


Anonymous said...

It has been a bewildering few days over at my blog, where my waspish comments drews several beehives' worth of sniping and accusations of ignorance, elitism and intolerance. Most amazing: I have yet to get a post from an offended believer, but plenty of verbiage from supposed fellow liberals & agnostics outraged that I would dare not respect my fellow citizens' right to believe in giant supernatural beings.

TimT said...

There was nothing good about this play. For the most part it was an utterly stupid attempt to infantalise stories and myths that have stood the test of time. If there was anything vaguely satirical about the approach taken by the actors or the ideas in the staging, etc, it was delivered in a pathetically chaotic and juvenile manner.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi David - yes, the discussion was very weird that way. A kind of pre-emptive offence, maybe?

Tim - I take it you didn't like it?

TimT said...

Quite right. I am ticked off with this play particularly because I hastily bought tickets for my brother and his girlfriend, not knowing what it was like, and not receiving any help from the Malthouse staff. It turned out to be the worst choice I could have made; mostly my fault, but from now on I'm going to be avoiding the Malthouse like a plague. I have been to a number of events there, and all but one have been terrible.

Alison Croggon said...

De gustibus non est disputandum, Tim - I've such a different view. For my part, I've been thanking the heavens that we have at last a mainstream stage that is prepared to put on serious, adventurous contemporary theatre, and that showcases some of the diversity and talent in the wider theatre culture here. And it also feels like a fun place to be.

It's not always successful, of course (though my take on OT is obviously vastly differing from yours, it's the kind of show that I would expect to generate those kinds of responses). But the kind of work I see there reconciles me to being in Melbourne.

TimT said...

I've been thanking the heavens that we have at last a mainstream stage that is prepared to put on serious, adventurous contemporary theatre

I was thinking all of these things after seeing the play. Contemporary adventurous theatre by local and national Australian groups is a great thing to have. At the same time, I thought, the Malthouse clearly needs to stop being a medium for crap. It can't be too difficult to distinguish between the two.

But then, I don't even like the Malthouse as a building!

Alison Croggon said...

I guess we differ on the definition of "crap" there, Tim. (My personal idea of crap is something like the MTC's lifeless rendition of Entertaining Mr Sloane, or anything else that sucks the life out of art). I don't know what else you didn't like, or why, just that you didn't like it and feel pissed off, which makes it difficult to actually discuss.

As you'll know if you read my review, I wasn't uncritical of OT, which I thought had problems; but I think there's quite a lot going on there that's worthy of support. Including the aggressively anti-consumerist aesthetic which, I'm guessing, pissed you off as a theatre consumer. Fair enough, you paid for your tickets and perhaps you'd like to see some of that investment visibly manifested on the stage. But for my money, the pay-off for that kind of aesthetic is moments when the theatre manages to disable my expectations and reach into a kind of entirely vital experience that engages me at both conscious and unconscious, emotional and intellectual levels - for me, OT did that in the final scene, which I thought very beautiful, God creating the world in a bucket; or when it rained on stage; or the lamentations, or other times I mentioned. It didn't work for you, and I would guess for others, but a fair slice of the audience found that possibility exciting. There's no doubt that this kind of thing is risky stuff. And surely, even in the moments where it was merely indulgent, there was still evident skill in the performers or the sound or the lighting. Myself, I'm grateful that the vocabulary of "mainstream" theatre is being expanded past the tired (and meaningless) binary of "naturalistic" and "non-naturalistic".

TimT said...

I don't think I'm so cantankerous as to not discuss the play; and indeed this morning I'm certainly more inclined to look upon the whole experience philosophically.

I would posit that crap is a generous aesthetic, and that there are many, many different types of crap out there, from Andre Serrano's cheap religious sensationalism (in Piss Christ) to Spencer Tunick's concept-free conceptual art project (taking pictures of naked people for no reason at all). If I may resort to an art world metaphor for a moment.

I found OT crap simply because it delivered whatever satirical or philosophical content it had in a dreadfully inept fashion; the script and drama, so far as it existed, consisted of the actors using cheap ethnic stereotypes (the 'Bringa Bringa' telephone jokes at the start) and shouting; and the pathetically unoriginal attempt at satirising the Old Testament stories by resorting to a joke that was merely obvious (comparison to children's games and children's television). I'll grant that the most 'popular' way of receiving Biblical stories nowadays is through the rather unsatisfying medium of epics on television and in film: but this alternative is the best they could come up with?

Maybe others did find it interesting. Maybe it made them think, too. Well, there are many 'interesting' things in the world that 'make me think', but that doesn't make them worthwhile theatre. As a matter of fact, in comparison to any of the plays that I've seen in the last year or so, OT was probably the least theatrical and contained a positive surfeit of crap.

Alison Croggon said...

I had similar reactions to the bringa bringa telephone sketch (though I rather enjoyed the Playschool Esau, which was well performed and funny, maybe the only part of that bit that worked). Talking to others who felt similarly to you, I suspect that people lost patience when it was going around in circles (I felt its major problems were dramaturgical) and stopped watching. Which is a fair reaction, I think. As an audient, I'm prepared to be patient and watch to the end before I decide anything about what I think, but I have trained myself to do that, for my own reasons. I don't think it's compulsory audience behaviour.

What I liked about it wasn't that it "made me think", but that the theatre they made - later on in the show - was real theatre: raw, anarchic and powerful. I look for that unmediated experience in theatre, whether it's Shakespeare or Castellucci, and it's quite rare. And that was when - for me - the piece began actually to grapple with the power of the texts they were exploring.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to note that the very aspects of performance that isolated some audience members had a profound effect upon others. I think the decision to present these stories in a "pathetically chaotic and juvenile manner" allowed me to engage with them on a different level. Rather than simplifying the subject matter as a means of cheap satire, I felt this allowed the performers to portray the immediacy of a child's uninhibited reactions.
While I initially struggled with this performance style I allowed myself to experience it actively rather than letting conventional preconceptions get in my way. While I agree that not all of the episodes were successful, the strength of some made up for the weaknesses of others. I was completely surprised to find myself moved by many of the later portions of the show. I found Luke Ryan's emotionally exposed Job heartbreaking. At the centre of this nervous stand-up comedian was a simple question that belied its framing with the honesty of Ryan's delivery.
I commend this production for its bravery.