Notes on The Serpent's Teeth ~ theatre notes

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Notes on The Serpent's Teeth

The Serpent's Teeth: Citizens and Soldiers, by Daniel Keene, directed by Pamela Rabe and Tim Maddock. Set design by Robert Cousins, costume design by Tess Schofield, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composer/sound design Paul Charlier. With Brandon Burke, Peter Carroll, Marta Dusseldorp, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Steve Le Marquand, Ewen Leslie, Hayley McElhinney, Amber McMahon, Luke Mullins, Pamela Rabe, Emily Russell and Narek Armaganian/Josh Denyer. STC Actors Company @ the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until May 17.


There is something about the act of theatre that can annihilate language. It can silence the critical voice that runs in the head, that background chatter that is continually questioning, taking notes, making impatient comments. Despite itself, that voice finds itself wholly absorbed in the present, its attention held, its sceptical distance destroyed. All sense of the passing of time vanishes.

It’s a rare experience, but that total absorption is what I seek in the theatre. And it’s what happened when I watched The Serpent’s Teeth, a diptych by Daniel Keene that opened last week at the Drama Theatre, performed by the STC’s Actors Company. When the lights came up at the end, I found in its immediate aftermath that I had nothing to say, that what I had just experienced had emptied my mind of anything so superficial as an opinion. I felt that the only proper reponse was to write a poem.

Yet it is probably true that I have never devoted so much thought to writing about a work of theatre. Ever since I heard, in the middle of last year, that The Serpent’s Teeth was to be programmed by the STC, I’ve been debating the ethical question of whether I should write about it. (Those interested in that internal debate can find it here: I would ask anyone who wants to attack me for writing about my husband’s work to consult this document, to save me the trouble of defending things I never asserted in the first place).

But in the end, all the laborious justifications fell away, swept aside by the theatre itself. More than anything else, I think this production is its own magnificent justification. Yes, my response – afterwards, if not in the intense experience of watching it – is conditioned by a certain personal pride. This is an ambition, a possibility, that I have believed in now for so many years – and not only in Daniel’s writing (I have long been aware, for example, of the austere integrity of Tim Maddock’s directing).

I know such work can call out of other artists their most serious and principled thinking, and permit the expression of their most ambitious art. I know this ambition is possible because I have seen it realised, but most often thousands of miles away from here.

But last week I saw it at the Sydney Opera House: a work of theatre in which every aspect held the others in a profoundly delicate formal balance, a work in which the differing disciplines of lighting, performance, direction, sound and text were each suspended in synthesis, bent towards a common desire.

At its most profound, theatre is always about the dissolution of the individual ego, which seeks instead a more permeable expression of its soul. The one and the many cease to oppose each other, and become the necessary elements of a complex, living dynamic. To achieve this is difficult: it is why failure is and must be part of the lexicon of theatre (“Fail again. Fail better.”) But on the rare occasions when this ambition is fully realised, it offers a brief glimpse of human possibility: a larger, more generous way of being.


“Beauty,” said Ezra Pound, “is difficult”. It is difficult to see, difficult to create, difficult to negotiate. Yet at its core is always something very simple: one human being perceiving with newly rinsed eyes the world that he or she lives in. Beauty is something that only belongs to human beings: it is an aesthetic order we make out of the chaos of experience, the vulnerability of truthfulness. There is always an ethical aspect to representation, a moral question in the making of beauty, which is why, when it is most terribly honest, it is sometimes considered neither ethical nor moral.

Beauty is what artists make. Very often the beauty they create is not considered beautiful at all: it is too full of human sorrow, human flaws, human danger and violence. Artists take the unbeautiful world and show us its beauties. In order to do this, they sometimes destroy our cherished ideas about what we consider beauty to be. That is as it should be: flux and change and ambiguity are all we will ever know of certainty.

Artistic beauty emerges from structure: artists make things. Daniel Keene has offered, in Citizens and Soldiers, two objects made out of words. They are sculpted with a stern, even fierce poetic, austere and plain and finely honed as a surgeon’s scalpel. They are two very different explorations of the formal possibilities of theatre, but each rhymes with the other to make a third thing: a diptych that meditates on different aspects of the price of living with war.

It is possible to read these plays and experience them as you might any other work of literature, as autonomous worlds made out of language. But they are plays, designed to be expressed by the breath and bodies of actors, to be choregraphed in the three-dimenional space of a stage. They are words written for theatre, designed ultimately to be written on the air and to vanish in their saying, into the past, into memory.

Citizens and Soldiers are plays about love. Not love as it is understood in romance novels or Hallmark greeting cards, but love as it is: the generous wound of need, the binding that draws people together, the anguish of the understanding that we are not alone, and that our fate depends upon others. It is love that makes one face more precious than another, that makes us understand that our private selves are embedded in other lives, that we are larger than we realise. In love lies the seeds of hatred and betrayal and sorrow; it contains all the trivial and mundane irritations of human relationship, the silences of what cannot be expressed, the gulfs that open between people, the desire that speaks across these gulfs but can never close them. The possibility of love is the only thing that gives me hope for the human race.

Everyone in these two fictions – one set before the wall that bisects Palestine, the other in an aircraft hangar in Australia where five families wait for the remains of their men to be flown home from war – acts out of love. A man takes his mute grandson on a long walk to swap an olive tree for an orange tree, a token of peace exhanged for a token of beauty. A woman seeks schoolbooks so her daughter can study. Each person present in the hangar is there because they loved the man who is now dead and must now face the anguish of his absence. And it is this difficult love that illuminates the tragedy and comedy of these humble stories about war, that gives them their meaning, that invites us towards understanding.

One can moralise about war, but these plays do not invite such moralising. It is impossible to moralise about love. It is too complex, too contradictory, too necessary. This is not art that seeks to moralise. It simply says: on either side of this stage, we are all human. All of us.


The central character in Citizens is a wall. It has been built hurriedly out of concrete blocks, a raw fact that bisects the world between here and there, ours and theirs. It looms at the front of the stage, defining a narrow strip strewn with rubble. The actors may only enter from the right or the left: all other choices are forbidden them. The wall has a voice that rises and falls. It might be surf or the low rumble of a hidden city. It might just be the wind.

It pulses in the light.


When we return for Soldiers, the wall has vanished. In its place is a cavernous, industrial space. We cannot see the ceiling. In the first play, we are confronted by the brutal, horizontal line of the wall. The second is dominated by a high vertical, the huge double doors of the hangar at the back of the stage, which the actors open and close, letting in sharp diagonals of light.

There is no sound except the actors' voices and footsteps and the metallic clang as the doors close.


Narrative here is about place. Light sculpts the narrative, binds it together, gives it meaning. It shapes time into the measure of a human breath. It carves the emotional spaces through which the actors walk, so we are aware of the darkness that surrounds them, of the shadows that stir in their hearts and spring behind each gesture of their hands. Light heightens the intimate vulnerability of their bodies, mercilessly illuminating every nuance of expression, and then it dwarfs their human measure, and they vanish into its harsh brilliance.


We are always aware we are watching a stage, on which actors are performing. There is no pretence otherwise. The few objects we see -- an orange, a shopping trolley, a toy plane -- become richly imbued with our attention. An orange is simply an orange, but it is also a metaphor. What that metaphor means is up to us.

We are watching a dance. In Citizens, it is a dance of bodies restricted to a narrow strip, "contained, pure, narrow, human", in which we briefly witness fragments of very ordinary lives: a married couple painfully squabble as they rest from an exhausting journey, or a man and his daughter journey to a funeral beneath an absurd yellow umbrella, or a young woman takes her injured dog to the vet in a cardboard box.

In Soldiers, we are watching a theatrical liturgy, a meditation on grief. The empty stage is stripped to its most essential elements -- actors, light, space. The space is alive: it breathes, changes, swells and shrinks. In one moment we are watching a man alone in a strip of light that knifes across the darkness. He is weeping. The single action of his grief fills the theatre:

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow...

In another moment, almost without our noticing, the stage inhales: before us is a chorus from a classical tragedy that echoes our own witnessing, that stands and watches as we watch. In each moment, a sense of absolute, razor-sharp spatial intelligence, a restraint that releases emotional pressure only when it is most telling, when it will break our hearts.

Echoes everywhere, fragments of our theatrical past: the ghosts of Beckett, Miller, Kroetz, Chekhov, flit across the stage and vanish.


It is not real: it is a work of theatre.

What is real is feeling. Every detail of voice and breath, each gesture, each step, is shaped into the communication of feeling. Within the stark formality of the direction and design is the discipline of the performances, and welling within each of those is a vast generosity, an ocean of tears veined with laughter.

We recognise each gesture, each expression, each voiced nuance of emotion. If we do not know what it is to live with war, we understand thirst and weariness. We might not have mourned a dead son, but we all understand loss. The performances enter embodied experience and pierce the membrane of imagination. We recognise, with pained delight, the shape of our own own sorrows. And our joys.


I haven't yet named anybody except the writer. This is a true ensemble production: there are no stars, nor even any major roles, and it is impossible to pick out a single aspect of production or performance without feeling that I am doing an injustice to the rest.

But credit must be given. Nick Schlieper's lighting design is revelatory: I am not sure that I have seen lighting so richly expressive, so deeply integrated into text, design and performance. Robert Cousins' stark staging eschews any hint of naturalism. He offers the integrity of a theatrical space, employing an absolute minimum of elements to maximum effect. As crucial as Cousins' spare vision are the acutely noted details of Tess Schofield's costumes and, in Citizens, Paul Charlier's unobstrusive but pregnant soundscape.

The performative depth of this production would not have been possible without the Actors Company ensemble. These plays are demanding, formally and emotionally, and the slightest misjudgement would smudge their delicacies. They give actors no time in which to establish character: they must be immediately present in all their fullness, or they will not be there at all. Only a group of accomplished actors who have worked together for years could attain the richness, complexity and emotional honesty these plays demanded. Perhaps for the first time, this production exploits the full capacities of this remarkable company.

Citizens and Soldiers are beautifully directed, by Pamela Rabe and Tim Maddock respectively; they reveal two different visions of theatrical possibility, each of which profoundly understands how the larger dynamics of space and time interact with the detail of performance and text. In each, the meanings and formal shapes of the plays emerge organically through the action on stage: nothing is inessential, nothing is signposted. Together, Rabe and Maddock have created a stern and deeply gentle beauty, a pure act of theatre that uncompromisingly reveals the impure complexities of human beings.

Pictures from top (left to right): Josh Denyer and Pamela Rabe in Soldiers; Peter Carroll and Hayley McElhinney in Citizens; cast, Soldiers; Steve Le Marquand and Marta Dusseldorp in Citizens; Brandon Burke, John Gaden and Steve La Marquand in Soldiers; Josh Denyer and John Gaden in Citizens. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Other views
Australian Stage Online
The Sydney Morning Herald
The Australian
Daily Telegraph
Nicholas Pickard (Sydney Arts Journalist)
Kevin Jackson's Theatre Reviews

Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
The Second Duino Elegy
by Rainer Maria Rilke
An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
by Les Murray


Jonathan Shaw said...

Thank you for posting on this, Alison. Of course it makes sense for you to write about it. I'm relieved that it's not just me who's never seen any of Daniel Keene's work before, and feel that I've been in the presence of a wonderful writer, but I'm unhappily in disagreement with you about this production. Perhaps it was because I was in Row B and the performances were just too big at such a close range, but I felt the plays weren't well served by the stylised acting. Especially in Soldiers, I needed much greater variation in how lines were performed -- from the naturalism of some to the high poetry of others, with a lot in between. From where I sat, a solemn sameness seemed to settle over everything (with notable, poignant exceptions mainly from Brandon Burke and Pamela Rabe), and I lost track of the shape altogether. I found myself yearning to see the same two plays in an intimate space.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jonathan - thanks for commenting! I prefer it when people have something else to say, rather than that feeling of things thudding into a thick silence.

I'm pretty sure that Row B wouldn't give you the full impact... I was in row J, which permitted me to see the movement of the whole stage, and it was very often like watching dance. From where I was, I was thinking that I haven't often seen theatrical poetry performed so beautifully and seamlessly, so perhaps it needed that distance. I found the shifts from heightened realism to pure poetry painfully true. I'm told that the show is brilliant from the back row. Hoping to get up there and see it again, from further back.

Anonymous said...


Thankyou for your notes on the serpents teeth. I also saw the production last Thursday.
I want to echo your observations on the act of theatre’s ‘annihilation of language’. For me, as I was aware of my speechlessness, and as the resonance of the event came to new power in the subsequent days, I was also aware of a roar of language coming from deep within. A language that perhaps I couldn’t recognise, perhaps many languages. The work called to a solitude in me, but something I felt more human to remember. Something that publicly happened that isolated this audience (and these characters) and and something that brought us together into a new place. As much as it annihilated language it was also language’s occasion.


Anonymous said...

And what was this 'new place', Slasher?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Slasher - thank you. Those are things that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to articulate, because they occur beneath the level of conscious thought, the place where language comes from, where meaning is molten and unformed.

A "new place", Sofia, might be the old place refigured or transfigured: language can rearrange the world by shifting perception. I don't want to put words in Slasher's mouth, but for me it is always about possibility.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Alison this is a remarkable piece of theatre, and a profound experience watching it and reflecting on it afterwards. The reviews I read were all maddenly superficial and faint in their praise, and I'm told the show is playing to tiny audiences. I hope your words get a wide readership.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean, anon, it was half full last night; i've never seen that at STC. and a slab left at interval. but the applause was warm.

Anonymous said...

So now I suppose the Board of STC will criticise the company for putting on a such a fascinating play...and Robyn Nevin for bringing Keene to Sydney...

Alison Croggon said...

I hope the STC gets some warm praise for actually taking a punt and leading the way, since this kind of theatre steps outside the usual subscriber vocabulary. Mr Keene has divided audiences all his writing life, so there's nothing new in that. I just hope that those who look for this kind of theatre - those, I think,who believe theatre can be an art - will realise they can actually find it at the Opera House...!

Anonymous said...

I saw it from further back than your row J alison and I didn't find it brilliant. I didn't leave at interval but I actually wish I had. It didn't reach me at all. I know there were some beautiful lines in there but they were delivered with such solemnity, such reverence, that they never seemed remotely connected to human beings. My brother-in-law has been over to Iraq twice and I was really disappointed in the pertrayal of the families in the second play. Everyone sounded the same and seemed to have some generic grief that I think bore no resemblence to the really complex you encounter when you actually talk to people who live with the possibility of meeting the returning bodies every day. It felt like the the writer was making everyone say the same thing. The actress who played the pregnant wife started to sound a bit real towards the end but by then I was mostly bored by the sameness. And to be honest a little mad at the writer for simplifying it all so much. It may be art but its got nothing to do with my family's experience of this war and it does not speak for me or to me. Just my opinion.
Ellen O'Brian

Alison Croggon said...

Fair enough, Ellen, and I'm sorry you found nothing there. Though the sense of sameness you complain about baffles me a little: there are so many turns of the crystal on different experiences of grief, both in the writing and the performance.

Anonymous said...

It's not so much the Board of STC that will criticise, but questions will get I understand it The Serpent's Teeth has sold appallingly (which of course has little to do with its artistic merits). But in the end the new artistic directors will have some hard decisions to make up here; they've inherited what looks like being a spectacularly disastrous season (financially speaking).

I haven't seen the show yet, my tickets are next week. A colleague went and didn't hate it, was just a bit perplexed I think.

But to the point, yes, I think Robyn Nevin will be criticised for programming the piece, by the commentariat anyway, even if it had received unanimous rave reviews. (No-one here has mentioned that even the normally mild [and supportive to the point of blindness when it comes to new Australian writing] John McCallum sunk the slipper somewhat in The Australian).

It's unfortunate but the way things go.

Alison Croggon said...

Neil, you may not have noticed that I've linked to all the reviews out so far, in strictly chronological order, including McCallum's; which struck me - forgive me John - as a rather poor review. Not because of his opinion of the plays, but because his opinion is so poorly observed and argued. It's difficult, I know well, saying anything sensible in 400 words, but I do think it's bizarre that a critic can see a show like The Serpent's Teeth and not even mention the lighting. And how could you miss, for example, Gaden's and Mullins' incredible performances in Soldiers, where suddenly you're in the middle of a Miller play? Or not see that these are actually epic plays? He is perfectly within his remit to think the work fails, but I found his observations surprisingly blind.

And I have to say that, half a week into its season, it seems a bit premature to be nailing the coffin shut. It's not quite a repeat of the Malthouse's experience with Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado, one of the more brilliant shows they've done, which drew very poor houses indeed. (The Malthouse, to its credit, knew it had a brilliant show, and immediately commissioned another Mayenburg/Andrews collaboration, Moving Target, which premiered at the Adelaide Festival this year). Anyway, your post made me track down the actual audience figures. The previews averaged 79 per cent capacity, dropping in the first week to an average of around 55 per cent - not good, but hardly disastrous, especially as pre-bookings pick up after next week to over 60 per cent. Nobody's panicking yet.

It beats me why "hard questions" would be asked if a show (not that I'm claiming ST is) were a unanimous critical hit ... And are Rock'n'Roll and The Year of Magical Thinking really doing that badly?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison for responding...all points taken. I'd hope STC won't benchmark themselves against Eldorado or Moving Target in box office terms, but of course that's not really the point. Your blog has in the past drawn attention to how absurd it is to reduce discussion of theatre down to sales alone (or for that matter festivals). But that's all I meant about critical's no sue if no-one goes. I've been subscribing, or at least attending, at STC for fourteen years, and you can sense that the company has to either change or risk withering on the vine (creatively speaking). I'm sure from what I read here and elsewhere that's true at MTC and other big companies too. The danger, if pieces like The Serpent's Teeth lose too much money, is that it scares everyone away from broader programming.

I don't know what the figures are but my understanding is that the Stoppard is selling well but isn't doing brilliantly and they really needed it to. And the subscriptions on the Kosky coming up are apparently very low so they'll have to sell a fair few tickets at 63 dollars a pop or whatever it is these days with web offers.

So I suppose it's in this light that the 'questions' get asked. If Robyn's last season loses a fortune the prospects of more offerings like The Serpent's Teeth seems remote.

And we'll get more Spelling Bee and Ying Tong.

(I was interested to read the review in the Australian, it did seem out of character.)

Anonymous said...

In answer to your query Alison, I was in the audience of "Magical Thinking" last night--truly one of the most extraordinary and moving theatrical experiences I have ever had, and the place was packed, and the audience sat awestruck for a long time after the curtain call. If you want to see an amalgam of a writer and an actress both at the zenith of their abilities, I urge you to go.

Alison Croggon said...

I know what you're saying Neil - it helps nobody if companies go bust. And we've certainly seen enough of that in Australia in the past. One of the things I love about theatre is indeed that necessary pragmatism - it makes it such an interesting and difficult prospect. Not quite like writing a poem in your garret, which has no such urgencies around it. (Mind you, I don't have a huge argument with theatre like Spelling Bee or Ying Tong - I like showbiz. Both were well done, and of course there's a place for that in the culture. It's only a problem if that is the only kind of work on offer).

Turning the ship around and educating audiences takes time - in Europe they reckon about five years. In Australia, companies are never given that much time. Which is why the Malthouse is such an interesting experiment - some very smart management means they are weathering the change. They haven't stepped back from their ambition to widen the vocabulary of mainstream theatre, and they are attracting new and younger audiences. The foyer these days is a good and buzzy place to be. It's a challenging task, because younger people are not subscribers, they treat theatre like they do concerts, and so they're mainly walk ups. If the more challenging work does take off at the STC, I doubt that it will happen in the subscriber base. It might be that the subscriber model has had its day, which is a huge challenge to companies which depend on subscriptions for cash flow. But I'm sure the STC has done its risk assessment and sums - they'd be perfectly aware of the predelictions of their audience.

Hi Zoe - I've heard that Nevin's performance is amazing. I wish I could see it - I'm not going to get the chance, sadly, unless it comes to Melbourne.

Anonymous said...

Yes you missed something very special--too bad since you were only a few blocks away at Serpent's Teeth!

Anonymous said...

I read the review by John M in the Australian and must say I agree with his misgivings. I was seated in row P on opening night and wished I could have seen the play(s) in a smaller space. The second piece repeated the same things over and over and I found the performances way to broad and one note (with a few exceptions).

The only moments Daniel's writing came alive was when it was delivered in a real and truthful way. Unfortunately the majority of the actors company project their performances in a very theatrical manner which lessoned the writings impact and impersonailsed it.

Nicholas Pickard said...

Of all the critics, this one from my colleague at the Daily Telegraph had me floored the most:

"ultimately this double bill fails to push any new boundaries"

You may not have liked this show, but of all the things you couldn't say about it, it was that it doesn't push new boundaries.

Absolutely extraordinary. Otherwise, the Telegraph's boundaries must be amazingly wide.

Anonymous said...

I agree Sydney Arts Journo - and I don't recall reading or hearing any claims that Serpent's Teeth was designed to 'push new boundaries' in any event. Why was he using that as a yardstick? I thought it was a classical piece of theatre, beautifully realised.

Anonymous said...

I suspect we've got another Lost Echo here - praised or at least admired by the theatre scene, greeted with confusion by others.

My mother and sister-in-law came with me and they were bored, to be honest. The first play wasn't 'about anything' and the second was 'repetitive'.

But what I loved was the climactic moments of both plays. It was classical, I agree anonymous. That sense of the intervention of the gods was so strong after such simplicity...and quite what these new gods were going to do, or bring...was a mystery.

Also, relating to some of the other comments, compared to the other three things the company's offered this year, this show is miles ahead.

Sof from Earlwood

(I should also say I'm friends with some of the cast and have worked at STC in the past - and I didn't pay for my tickets, which I know affects experience!)

Alison Croggon said...

It's a problem every artform here faces - the lack of literacy in the general public about the artform itself. And Australia is not alone: Nicholas Hytner, AD of the National Theatre, in the English Daily Telegraph today gives the English education system a huge serve: to wit:

Nicholas Hytner said the failure to provide children with an adequate education in music and drama was a scandal whose effects were being felt throughout the arts community.

He said it could take 20 years to put right, adding that arts organisations should not "dumb down" their productions to attract wider audiences.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Hytner said: "It is an absolute scandal, an absolute scandal. Every theatre in the country is really busting a gut with departments filled with fantastically idealistic and committed people trying to undo the damage which has been done by decades of neglect in schools.

"A generation have been deprived of the tools they should have been given to open a door [to the arts] that can otherwise seem quite daunting."

I think we have the same problem here. People don't know how to read the language of the theatre, something that's not helped by msm commentary, and so feel baffled and alienated. It's not their fault. But it's not the artists' fault either. I think it's a huge problem that all of us somehow have to address, if we care about the culture here. And it was certainly a major topic at the 2020 Summit!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison and all your posters. We're following the discussion here at STC and it's a pleasure to feel a work has actually been able to generate some diversity of opinion...surely exactly why we're here.


Anonymous said...

Good to see Tom Wright weighing in--it must be especially gratifying for him as one of the many people Nevin brought from the smaller stages onto the main stage to see Keene given such an impressive production thanks to her. His collaboration with Kosky on Women of Troy will be fascinating to see.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou to all posters. Sofia, twice i have gone to answer your question and found it very difficult to say what i mean. Perhaps this is to do with what Alison said about trying to put words to an inexpressible thing.

I have lately been thinking that this society understands grief in personal terms - the experience of loss seems almost fetishised (as is violence and acts of cruelty like reality tv) but is there a medium for us to experience our collective grief - the loss that surrounds us, that unifies us? As i was reminded that a night at the theatre can house such an event as an expression of public grief - it felt like an old place returning.
What made that so powerful for me is perhaps impossible to say, but it meant that the return was a return to something new. Meaning standing in the present.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison
Very interesting reading all these comments, having seen the play two nights ago and still feeling the resonances. A few posts have mentioned the performances being too overblown or a sameness in the delivery. I can't say I found that, but I did wonder why, in such a moderate-sized space all the actors were wearing mikes instead of using their natural voices. A few years ago you would have never seen that in the Drama Theatre (pre Benedict Andrews at any rate). Perhaps the amplification made it feel that way in some parts of the theatre. Do you know if it was a deliberate choice by the playwright/directors to have the voices amplified, or is it just that those actors don't have the vocal capability to be heard on their own?

Anonymous said...

Hi St Gen

In the first play the actors aren't using mikes, it's all 'unsupported'.

In the second play you'd have noticed that the miking enabled (sound designer) Paul Charlier to introduce a subtle echo-type effect that helps to emphasise the sense of the characters speaking in a cavernous, metallic hangar. They're not being used for audibility reasons, although if they help that's great.

It's an interesting general point, about actors needing the 'vocal capacity' to be heard unsupported. On the whole, the short answer is that we find nearly all actors can be heard, but that audiences' expectations and requirements are gradually becoming more exacting; it's as much an issue of sound quality as audibility.

The general movement towards the use of body mikes in my observation has been at the request and urging of directors, for effect rather than enhancement.


Alison Croggon said...

Catching up: Slasher, I think you've put your finger on something there. Perhaps it's simply that ancient idea of theatre as ritual.

Many thanks for that, Tom: yes, it's true that mics are used for different reasons, most often to treat the sound in some way. And St Genesius, I'm quite sure none of those actors have trouble being heard...!

Anonymous said...

the microphone debate is a small but interesting one, i think. it raises questions about what the act of theatre is, and what's unique about it - how important is the physical/visceral experience of the actual (i.e. unamplified) vibrations of the human voice in the audience's experience?

one of my teachers often used the word 'phonoaesthetic'. i think she saw it as the voice department's answer to the buzzword of the institution (and much contemporary theare practice), 'kinaesthetic', which in the training context referred to a reawakening of the awareness of the physical embodiment of aesthetics in the theatre (idea, emotion, thought as existing 'in the body'). though it sounded faintly ridiculous, and though for all i know she invented the word herself, she staunchly used the term 'phonoaesthetic' to refer to something nonetheless real - the variety of nuance and detail that the human voice is capable of producing, and how this aesthetic is received by the audience. she was keen to stress how much of the 'meaning' of theatre is communicated through the vibrations of the voice - through the actor's body, into the bodies of the audience, travelling through the air in between them, and echoing in the air around them all - even before the mind receives and processes the literal meaning of the words being spoken or sung.

she was, and i'm sure remains, deeply skeptical about the use of microphones.

it's interesting too to bear in mind that miking actors doesn't just change the nature of the sound ('digitalizing' the vibrations) but also the direction from which it comes - predominantly from the speakers rather than the source of sound, the human being producing it.

for those of us who believe (or want to believe) that theatre thrives most potently in the viscera, the decision to mike actors is one that shouldn't be taken lightly.

before my stick is too firmly embedded in the mud, i should say that i don't share my former teacher's hardline view, and i've experienced mikes being used to great effect - the haunting, fading echo of Gillian Jones's funereal monologue in last year's 'Exit the King' is just one of many examples. but for every creative, conscious employment of this technology to a clear artistic end, there seem to be several that are misguided or indulgent - Marie Brassard's digital distortions in 'Peepshow' seemed to me to be pushing all the right postmodern performance art buttons (which are increasingly technological rather than metaphorical ones) to cover what was otherwise a frustratingly, at times an offensively shallow piece of imagining.

a recent piece i performed in attempted a use of microphones that was in part symbolic (as far as the microphone represented aspects of contemporary media culture) but also for 'theatrical effect'. i remain undecided on the success or otherwise of those effects. for damage done to eardrums i can only apologise.

and while the specificity of ST's hangar soundscape sounds very effective (and i look forward to hearing it), i wonder if i'm wrong in thinking that a generic echo effect is becoming more common in moments of emotional tension on our stages - a kind of 'beefing up' of the sentiment, operating in a similarly filmic way to the didactic musical sound designs we've long had a distaste for.

i'm interested to know what Tom means by the distinction between sound quality and audibility, in terms of the audience's increasingly 'exacting' standards. despite his claims to the contrary (and this may be less of a trend at the STC than elsewhere) mikes are increasingly being used for no effect other than general amplification.

when quizzed about his frequent use of microphones after 'The Telltale Heart' here last year, in true expat style Kosky bemoaned the architecture of australian theatres, as compared to the older european houses, whose acoustics support the human voice to the extent that a whisper can be heard in every seat. (reminded here of the etymology of 'auditorium'). in australian theatres, Kosky said, subtlety is too often sacrificed at the expense of 'reaching the back row'. perhaps he's right, and thank god our Baz isn't prepared to sacrifice his subtlety.

but i suppose i'm interested to hear more in the dialogue about the subtleties that might be lost in amplification. i wonder what the acoustic considerations were in the planning of the MTC's new spaces? i can't say the red LED wall displays fill me with hope...


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ben - The amplification in Soldiers was very subtle to my ear: I believe the STC has some snazzy new sound system. I didn't have problems placing the sound on stage, which is often my biggest beef with mics. But the Opera House is notoriously awful with acoustics. Citizens didn't have that problem because there was that great big wall bouncing sound out into the auditorium.

Simon Phillips told me that the MTC won't know how the acoustics in their new theatre work in practise (they have all the theory, of course) until they put something in there. It looks promising though. Very seriously, it's a gorgeous space, like those lovely modern European theatres, with a real feeling of intimacy. And I'm assured that the LEDs will all shut down when the play starts...

Anonymous said...

Bad reviews are always blind. Good reviews are always insightful. Leave John Mc alone. He was not mistaken.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi RC - I'm not sure quite what you mean here. Of course John McCallum (a colleague of mine, after all) can't be mistaken - he is recording what he experienced. And by that measure, I am not mistaken either: what I wrote was what I experienced. The rest is called dialogue.

Anonymous said...

Alison, re-reading all the posts on this site and james Waites' about this production has made me think of the bigger question: what is the responsibility of artistic directors of major companies in programming work that has a slim chance of making its box office budget? I think it is fair to say that writers like Keene and Tom Wright are never going to be popular with a widespread general audience, and thus can never be relied on to actually finish in the black. However, both of them, and many others, write thought-provoking (if divisive!) work that deserves to be seen somewhere other than a co-op. But if ADs like Robyn Nevin are brave enough to support these works, they are pilloried for losing money. I wonder what others (and you) think is the right balance.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Carolyn - sorry to reply so late! I don't think there's any one answer to your question: it's always going to be contextual and specific to each company. The Serpent's Teeth, for example, is by a long way the cheapest show the STC has done for a while... and why the assumption that such work will never do well at the box office? There are a lot of box offices in France which tell a different story about Keene's work, where he is pretty much a mainstream playwright: even given cultural differences, it suggests that audiences can be found for this work.

The answer lies of course in smart management, which is why we so need good producers. They will assess risk, and program in a way where likely losses will be off-set by likely profits. Subsidised companies have a responsibility that goes beyond box office, and which is an obligation to their art - which is why I think the STC, generally speaking, is doing a better job than the MTC, even if the subscriber figures suggest otherwise. If companies are only going to be measured on commercial terms, why subsidise them at all?

The other issue is that much work won't make any money, no matter how successful it is. There's the famous story about Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass's most successful and popular opera. Glass and his company made a stunningly successful, totally sold-out world tour - they literally couldn't have done better - and still came home with a debt of $90,000 which they took a decade to pay off. This equation is why there's arts subsidy in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely. Too bad the arts got nary a mention in the Budget Speech...perhaps if someone writes a play called "Working Families" then like Pavlov's dog, Rudd and Swan will sit up and notice.

Anonymous said...
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Jonathan Shaw said...

Um, Alison, this may be teaching yo to suck eggs, but I think Affordable Teeth Whiteners might be a clever, flattering spambot.

Alison Croggon said...

I think you're right, Jonathan. Thanks, and dealt with.