Review: The Season at Sarsaparilla ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

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, music by Alan John, sound design by David Gilfillan. With Martin Blum, Brandon Burke, Peter Carroll, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Hayley McElhinney, Amber McMahon, Jessica Marais, Colin Moody, Luke Mullins, Pamela Rabe and Emily Russell. STC Actors Company @ at the MTC, Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until February 16.

Returning to a show that you loved on first viewing can be a nervous experiment: will it live up to your memory of it? And what does it mean if it doesn't? If you are someone who re-reads books - and for me, the greater pleasure of books is in the re-reading - you can be certain that any shifts in response will be in your own perceptions. Crime and Punishment read at 45 is a different book to Crime and Punishment at 16; the words might be the same, but the imagination that animates those words has changed.

Not so with theatre, where every performance is, in a sense, for this night only. Theatre might have been invented to illustrate Heraclitus's admonition that you can't enter the same river twice. Place a show in a different space, with a different audience and a slightly different cast, and the variables spiral into infinity. So it's no surprise that the Actors Company production of The Season at Sarsaparilla, which I first saw at the Sydney Opera House almost a year ago, is a different show in Melbourne. But it remains just as impressive on a second viewing: this is a must-see, a magnificent realisation of Patrick White's theatrical vision.

Another, purely personal, problem with revisiting a work is that I've already said quite a lot about it. To avoid repeating myself, I urge interested readers to check out my earlier review, where I teased out my responses to White's play and Benedict Andrews' production. My major feelings still stand: Andrews' bold, contemporary attack on the script shows a director at the top of his form, and produces a powerful and lucid interpretation of White's fluid dramaturgy.

The differences between the Sydney and Melbourne productions lie in the nuance of space and performance. The Arts Centre Playhouse is a very different theatre to the letterbox stage of the Sydney Opera House, and Robert Cousins' set - a 1950s brick veneer on a revolve - looks a tad squashed. The major aspect I missed was a subtle sense of alienation created by the Opera House stage, as if the audience were looking through a giant screen; a set-up that, I realise now, rhymed pleasingly with the screens either side of the stage, where we see intimate close-ups of the performances. The Playhouse stage has a slight thrust into the audience, which compromises the screen metaphor.

However, this is a minor problem, as are the fluctuating sound levels, which will no doubt be resolved as the season progresses. There are very great pleasures to be had in this production, and the greatest of them are in the performances. In The Season at Sarsaparilla, we can see an ensemble at work, and it's a fine and rich experience. There is a rare fluidity and ease in the relationships on stage, and the performances in the show, which seem to me to have deepened since last I saw it, are about as good as you will ever see.

The first thing that strikes you is the depth of the cast: there are no weak performances, and no minor roles. Even the smallest part, like the disarming innocent Ron Suddards (Luke Mullins, taking over from Dan Spielman's role in the last production) glows with integrity and depth. And while the stage itself seemed a little constricted, the opposite seems true for the cast: there is a feeling of air around the performances, that permits the subtleties and nuances of White's text to breathe.

Certainly, I found myself more aware of the writing this time (and not always, it must be said, to the text's advantage): this production has been tightly focused, with small tweaks here and there that allow an almost unreal clarity to illuminate what is essentially a simple story about life in 1950s suburbia.

In an ensemble where everyone ought to be mentioned, it seems unfair to single anyone out, but there are a couple of great performances I'd be remiss not to note. Pamela Rabe is bewitching in the role of Nola, the slatternly wife of the nightsoil man Ernie Boyle (Brandon Burke); it's a courageously honest performance, poignant and tragic, and here driven by a throbbing anger that echoes the baffled, ambivalent anger of White's play. And in what is still one of the most inspired casting decisions I have seen, Peter Carroll plays the housewife Girlie Pogson. There isn't a trace of camp in this performance, which somehow evades caricature through the force of Girlie's loneliness, but there is a great deal of comic pathos. And Carroll has some of the best lines.

For all its comedy, this play lays bare the intense loneliness and essential innocence of all its characters. It is deeply moving, intelligent theatre, and beautifully realised. You'd be mad to miss it.


Chris Boyd said...

Perhaps inevitably, I wasn't as bowled over by the production second time around. I can't tell you how thrilling -- even a bit shocking -- that Sydney opening was... (I believe. Alison, you went to a performance a week or two into the run?)

Having said that, I feel like I got the play -- or, rather, got Benedict Andrews' gloss of the play -- in a way that I didn't last year.

Andrews largely ignores White's interest in class differences (the home of the business executive is sandwiched between the home of the man in retail -- on the right -- and the home of the night soil man on the left in the script) in favour of White's life-long interest in the roles that women assume, or are forced to play. (The men by and large "take the shapes that are expected of them.")

And casting is crucial here. (The pre-pubescent girl and post-menopausal woman are played by men.) Performances by Carroll and Rabe (in particular) help foreground the artifice of femininity.

I've gotta say, I found the production considerably looser than it was at the Opera House. Perhaps it's the space -- The Playhouse is death to most theatre -- perhaps it is post-holiday rustiness. I'm sure it won't take more than a couple of performances to tune.

I wondered, last year, if using three screens instead of two would have made more sense. One for each household. Maybe a big plasma screen in the main room. (Kidding!) But then vision mixing would have been critical.

Anyway, let me be the first to second your "you'd be mad to miss it" verdict! :)

Alison Croggon said...

I think we're almost on the same page here, Chris! Yes, I saw the Sydney show later in the season, with a very enthusiastic audience. Actually, I think this time I saw the flaws in the play itself more clearly, perhaps a consequence of seeing it twice, but also, I think, a result of the production's clarity. Roy Child's effusions, in particular, seemed a little creaky. Still loved it tho.

Anonymous said...

i saw the show this week, from the circle (with about 3 others - it reminded me of the inexplicably poor houses for 'Eldorado'. i thought the show as selling well here?).

your comments on the 'screen' experience at the opera house are particularly interesting. i agree with chris that the production pointed up the desperate inadequacies of the playhouse, right down to the awful brass railings and overdone 80s wood veneer cornicework of my balcony locale, which often meant i saw torsos and legs, but not heads, through the set's doors and windows. but i had the strange and not altogether inappropriate sense of peering into this scenario from a second-storey window (perhaps from behind a slightly parted venetian). i found it impossible not to identify, and thus be implicated in, Girlie's fascination with what was going on 'over there' (or in my case, 'down there').

incidentally though, my position afforded me a particular empathy with Pippy's desire to rise above her mundane and increasingly grotesque surrounds, when she appeared alone on the roof at the beginning of the second act. this was aided by Amber McMahon's performance - a portrayal of a child which i felt was posessed of a rare integrity. particularly in the first act, before her 'fall' into carnal knowledge, i experienced real insight into the sparkling, almost unsettling canniness of a child in that brief period when innocence still nurtures freedom (of thought, movement, action), but experience is beginning its first violent, tantalizing, mobilizing throes. this was particularly evident in her dealings with Digger, which glowed and glowered with the first, unnamable (and therefore untouchable, undeniable) stirrings of sexual awareness.

i became rapidly uninterested in Pippy, though, once she descended from the roof in plaits. i tried hard to accept her sudden shift into scholarly self-abnegation (reminding myself that White described his text as a 'Charade of Suburbia', and that i might have to accept some less artful character developments in the name of a higher cause), but unfortunately i found much of her text from this point on a little hackneyed, and just wondered how long it would take her to climb out of the introspective mire of adolescence. then again perhaps this wondering was White's aim.

back to Andrews. one thing that fascinates me about him, probably because it is not something i expect of a theatrical director, is his use of very specific visual tropes. glass screens and falling confetti come to mind, but i am not familiar with a lot of his work and i'm sure there are others. despite the distinct visual similarites in his structuring of 'Sarsaparilla' and 'Eldorado', i didn't find this at all jarring or repetitive (as others seem to have done).

on the subject of glass screens - in the form of windows in this production - it seems to me that a central thematic concern, or at least a formal preoccupation, of Andrews's is the nature of the act of 'watching' in contemporary culture - a voyeuristic obsession with 'observing reality', whether in the particularly deformed hyper-realism of most of our current theatre or reality television and the cult of celebrity (which is largely about the almost inevitable fall of celebrity back to ordinary, quotidian, makeup-less 'reality').

if my hunch is right, it's a theme that's brilliantly fleshed out by Andrews in the decision to stage the play through the 'frames' of windows and doors, as well as the multiple angles of both the in-house CCTV, and of our perspective on the house itself, as it conveniently rotates to reveal goings on through previous hidden windows, and most importantly 'out tha back'.

ultimately Andrews's decisions make me question the nature of my position as a viewer, a contemporary 'voyeur': one of millions. although, as you point out, there is an ironically alienating effect attached to this 'peering into' the personal space and stories of others not ourselves, ultimately Andrews engages me by not just letting me watch, but constantly reminding me that i am watching, peering, infiltrating. for me this awareness automatically raises the question 'why?'. why watch? why investigate when i could walk away both ignorant and innocent? what do i have to learn?

Girlie Pogson wants to watch, knows she has something to learn from the sensuous, crude, ruinous, joyous Nola nextdoor. she makes many oblique references to 'what's going on over there', but like many of us her voyeurism remains piqued, though never fulfilled, because her act of watching always remains incomplete. she is held back perhaps by the last lingerings of a moral code (a code almost completely dead for us), but more importantly by a fear of what she might actually see - remembering our french etymology here. instead of actually watching, and 'seeing', what is really going on in her own backyard - an old aussie expression which Andrews's cramped setting sets ringing with a particularly clanging resonance - Girlie averts her gaze back to the minutae of the domestic routine; and at an even further remove from the immediate truth, back through the Rosedale-coloured glasses of her past, when she was a girl...

Andrews keeps us at a distance, and while sometimes this alienates (and rightly so), at others it makes us yearn to see and to understand. and when, in rare moments, he actually 'lets us in', it is devastating. i think White would approve.

Alison Croggon said...

Lovely response, Ben. Thanks so much. I believe - anecdotally - that the show has been playing to sold-out houses, which is very encouraging (especially in the light of Eldorado, which I still find depressingly mystifying - one of the best shows in the past couple of years, imho). The empty seats would have been because they're not selling much of the circle, due to sight lines.

Anonymous said...

Something Ben quite correctly identifies is Amber McMahon's beautiful performance. Indeed, perhaps the greatest pleasure of attending all the Actor's Company productions, regardless of whether they fully succeeded or not, has been witnessing the flowering of one or two extraordinary performers. Amber being one and Hayley McElleney (sp?) the other. Whereas actors such as Pamela Rabe, John Gaden and Peter Carroll are as consistently good as one would expect, these two of the younger ones have grown exponentially. I am convinced this has only occurred because they have had the opportunity to practice and improve and learn through the constant work, along with having the inherent talent to grow. To anyone who denies the benefit of an ensemble company, I hold Hayley and Amber up as examples to prove them wrong.

Alison Croggon said...

Absolutely correct, Enthusiast. Those two have been wonderful to watch in every AC production I've seen.

I still don't understand why people are so sanguine about the ensemble: it seems crazy to me. If it ceases to exist after 2009, I will be very sorry: and I don't even live in Sydney.

Unknown said...

i have no truck with the 'AC takes away jobs from other actors' argument, or the more general anti-Sydney / anti-Nevin sniping. but nor do i think Nevinish is the saving grace of the australian theatrical landscape.

i personally don't feel the animosity towards it that some seem to - i've appreciated the work i've seen them do, certainly above and beyond anything produced on the mtc mainstage. but again this is hardly a cause for champagne-popping (though much of that happens i'm sure). if the sanguinity you describe has any reasonable justification, perhaps it is that the AC is frequently held up as the new model of theatremaking that the australian 'theatre industry' has needed for years, when in fact the model hasn't changed much at all structurally - extremely short rehearsal periods, and artistic vision existing at the mercy of the commercial pressures of a subscriber-based state theatre company (i just hit up the website, and a flashing screen alternates between '3 plays for $180', pictures of Ms Blanchett, and 'Win a trip to see Blackbird in Germany'...)

of course these sanguine feelings exist only in daydreamy comparison to european (and other, non-western) modes of theatremaking, and i understand that to a large extent this is beyond the control of the state theatre companies themselves - the embarrassing paucity of government funding (when compared to say germany or france or even our british mothership) and the difficulties of keeping a company afloat under such conditions was something Nevin was quite upfront about upon her resignation. but fuck it, why shouldn't we daydream?

i fully support the move towards an established company of actors working together over an extended period, and though i haven't been privy to most of the AC's work, i can clearly see the some of the fruits of the endeavour (for example in the development of young actors like McMahon, as discussed). and, importantly, i recognise and applaud it as a step in the right direction. but i can also understand a certain frustration with the lauding of it as the new hope of this tired land.

sorry, but 3 plays for $180?!! dear me...

Anonymous said...

Fair comment, Ben about ticket prices. I have no doubt that they are the bane of every artistic director's life. I understand the STC tried a 20/20 system for "Blackbird", 20 seats for each performance sold at the last minute for $20, but who know if that will prove viable in the long run. It's a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they don't scenario--on the one hand ridiculed for attracting big commercial names like Audi and Armani to defray costs, but on the other hand lambasted for passing so much of the costs onto the ticket buyer. With only 7% government funding as opposed to the 40 to 60 per cent that European companies receive, I think the alternative is just to give up and close the doors. Would that finally satisfy the STC haters? How long before they turn on Blanchett as they did on Nevin for the sins of being both talented and successful?

Alison Croggon said...

I'm with Enthusiast here, though I see Ben's point too - but is the Actors Company really seen as a new or radical model? Surely it's a rather older idea? The hype that surrounds it is of a piece with the scandal mongering and schadenfreude that it also attracts, both different sides of the same impatient coin and no measure, either positive or negative, of actual achievement. I think a more judicious assessment would focus on what the STC is achieving as a mainstream company in piushing the envelope for the state stages. The National Theatre in London is putting on Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, 450 characters and no dialogue: can we imagine a work like this being put on one of our main stages here? If not, why not? Isn't there something encouraging in literary management moving beyond the notion of "programmable plays"?

Ben, I understand completely where you're coming from re structure and process. But to be fair, the AC has had longer rehearsal periods (Lost Echo was three months, I believe and the average is six weeks, two more than the average MTC rehearsal) and other kinds of input into their processes that would not be possible without an ensemble. I think the advantages are clearly visible on the stage, and that the real problems have been in the programming and vision.

What I welcome is the STC's ambition. If the major companies don't embrace artistic ambition, what does that do to the zeitgeist? (Answers on the back of an envelope). I'm certainly going to try to get to all their works this year, which look genuinely exciting to me. Btw, it can't be $90 a ticket - it must be a price for doubles - I blinked and went and looked at the website myself. As a random booking, "A" reserve tix for Gallipolli were $50 each. Which compares quite well with the MTC's $68...

Alison Croggon said...

PS Forgive my Sunday morning maths - $180 divided by 3 is $60. About the same as here. Tho I'm still surprised by the Gallipolli prices.

Unknown said...

fair points all.

just to be clear, my mentioning the '3 tickets for $180' was not meant as a comparison to melbourne prices (i'm certainly not about to rush to the mtc's defence! perish the thought...). it just literally struck me as my first impression of the stc website, flashin' and all as it was.

enthusiast, i share some of your sympathy for the difficult balancing act required of state theatre company artistic directors. and Alison, you right rightly temper my hot-headedness with cool specifics re: rehearsal periods etc.

however i suppose part of the reason i joined the fray on this one is that i think we should be careful of branding as an 'STC hater' anyone harbouring concerns or suspicions (or indeed sanguinity) about the way the stc 'does business', or arguably is forced to do it. i don't at all mean to accuse either of you of doing so, but i have experienced this debate being 'shut down' with that accusation - that people must unthinkingly 'hate' the stc out of jealosy, or spite, or just good ol' lefty pessimism.

in a sense i suppose i'm being a devilish advocate, because i very much support the concept of the AC; but where is the room in the debate for the dissenting or differing viewpoint? and what might we learn from it?

as i mentioned in my original comment, i think that debate should absolutely include (or perhaps address itself largely to) the governments that almost completely fail to recognize and support the theatre as a key cultural institution and treasure. i genuinely don't want to keep wallowing in boring, repetitive sniping about funding, i genuinely wish i felt bolstered by Garrett/Rudd. but so far i don't, and the boring repetition of the argument doesn't alter its validity.

in terms of the question of the 'model', i think i was not entirely clear; i certainly don't think the AC model is radical or even particularly new, though it might understably seem so to some australians who've never encountered or even heard of the idea of an established company of actors/makers, so rare is it here. you're absolutely right that it harks back to older models of theatrical process. my point was that while it's a welcome step, the AC still pales in comparison to those older models, and extant contemporary ones, on indices of time, funding, and thus artistic freedom and vision.

Alison i'd be interested to know where specifically you've perceived the 'real programming and vision', and how these problems differ from the structural/financial limitations i'm trying to highlight.

ultimately, i join you in applauding this example of the stc's ambition (i think this was clear from my original comments), and i very much hope the ambition remains strong and headed in the right direction. because much more needs to change before the state theatre factories can truly call themselves companies again (Actor's Companies or otherwise) and before we are capable of considering, let alone staging, something like the Handke.

at the risk of it seeming impatient, i keep my hopeful toin untossed on the issue, and i very much look forward to the rest of their work this year ('Sarsaparilla' is an extremely promising start).

it's just that my hopes are curtailed by an awareness of how difficult such structural changes are in the funding climate we've discussed. perhaps the stc can't be blamed at all for that climate, but here we get into murky philosophical territory re: how individuals might (intentionally or otherwise) support and perpetuate a dominant system.

and there, for the moment, i'm out of my murky depth...

Alison Croggon said...

how individuals might (intentionally or otherwise) support and perpetuate a dominant system.

Ben, I think this question is important, crucial even. It pertains to what all of us do; me too. (Eg: Can I keep weaving a tightrope between msm demands and my own desires, or is something going to fall into the abyss? Well, we'll see...)

I hate the term "mainstream", it's so problematic it's almost useless, but I'll use it here as a shorthand. Is the choice simply between participating in a mainstream system and inevitably being compromised, or stepping outside the system and becoming invisible, safely ignored but infinitely pure? It's certainly the choice as has been given over the past couple of decades. I reckon that if that's the only possibility, we might as well give up now, and cede the main ground to those who want theatre to be relaxed and comfortable. Australians are brilliant at poor theatre, but there comes a point where it's diminishing returns - there should be a space for experiment on large stages, with large casts and money. My feeling is that of course it's possible to stretch the possibilities with some bold, supple thinking and plain old stubbornness, as we have seen at MIAF the past few years. Which is not to say it's easy, nor that anything is possible. But I will always be looking for open doors. I'd rather live in an interesting culture than in one that's half asleep.

As Christ said, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's". It's no use expecting a state theatre company to work like Grotowski. But I think it's fair, given that we all have some understanding of the fiscal problems involved, that we can ask it to now and then produce some interesting, even necessary work that contributes to the theatre culture, instead of just being another commercial theatre company. As state companies, they owe obesience to more gods than mammon.

I was very taken aback by some of the attacks on the AC, which claimed to be the kind of critique you're desiring to make but looked to me rather more the usual kind of complaint that is leveled at anything that looks like it's breaking the implicit ranks of the "mainstream" by expanding the vocabulary of theatre. I recognise the fortress mentality you're talking about as well, in which any criticism or discussion, however well meant, is considered to be hostile. On the other hand, sometimes this kind of discourse is hostile. And one of the depressing things about that kind of discourse is how debate then polarises, with no one listening to anybody. There aren't any rules - sharp critique can be useful and I have no time for the merely "supportive" - but in the end I suppose I would just like to see more informed comment from all spectrums of opinion. Much of it doesn't seem very informed at all, and is rather predicated on the media love of conflict, the basis of a "good story". But that's another issue.

I think those who complain that the AC has suffered from a lack of direction have a point. It's no secret that there has been a succession of ordinary directors there, and that the programming itself has been unfocused (the Moliere, by all accounts, was lightweight to say the least, the von Horvath was disappointing, The Art of War sounded like the sort of thing that gives me conniptions of tedium, etc). On the other hand, it's made at least two wonderful pieces of theatre - The Lost Echo (which I didn't see, out of sheer impossibility, but have seen lots of documentation and heard many reports, and will always regret I missed it) and Season at Sarsaparilla. To my mind, that's pretty good going. I know people expect the company just be brilliant from the go-get, but ensembles, if they are to be ensembles, take time to work out their practice. Let's be real: an ensemble like Mnouchkine's, which began over 30 years ago, makes a new work every three years or so, so two exceptional works over three years maybe isn't so bad, and certainly not a reason to scream at the STC that they're not being as good as Brook or Mnouchkine and therefore should get rid of the Actors Company altogether. But that's how a lot of critique is framed.

It makes me wonder whether any bold experiments - however we define "bold" here - can be maintained to any degree of permanence in the mainstream culture. And me, I hope they can be. Otherwise Australian theatre is just doomed to being eternally promising.

Anonymous said...

Alison you are right to point out the absurdity of comparing a new experiment like the AC (new in the sense no one else has attempted a resident ensemble here in a long time) to the much older, well established and very well funded European companies. I think perhaps if you had seen more than a couple of their productions, however, you might not be quite so quick to dismiss them as ordinary. You are right the Lost Echo was one of those truly extraordinary theatrical events, filled with images that stay in the brain for a very long time. And yes Jean Paul Mignon's efforts were not as interesting as one would hope, but to my mind there was much in Annabelle Arden's "Art of War" that worked very well. I think perhaps one of the difficulties the AC has created for itself is its own charter that requires every director to use all twelve actors in every production. That means either scouring the canon for plays with twelve plus in the cast, or devising a piece with that many. I hope in the future they loosen that rule, and allow some actors to either be understudies or just do classwork and start preparing for a future role rather than requiring every one to appear in every production. Like you, however, I find some of the vitriolic criticism troubling, to think that a dialogue cannot be conducted without resorting to childish comments of personal abuse about STC staff. I've stopped reading Nicholas Pickard's blog for that very reason--too depressing to think we live in such a culture.

Alison Croggon said...

Maybe you were the other person who enjoyed Midsummer Night's Dream, Enthusiast? I thought it rather beautiful - problems, yes, but so much to enjoy... but I seemed to be a little solitary in that.

I think you're correct about the 12 actors, it restricts the formal possibilities. I suppose everyone has to get a go?