Review: Blackbird ~ theatre notes

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review: Blackbird

Blackbird by David Harrower, directed by Peter Evans. Set and costumes by Christina Smith, lighting by Matt Scott, sound design by Ben Grant. With Greg Stone, Alison Bell and Georgia Flood. Melbourne Theatre Company @ CUB Malthouse, until August 16.

I might as well get the rave out of the way first.

I always suspected that this production of David Harrower’s Blackbird was going to be the highlight of the 2008 MTC season. And as I hoped, this is easily the best MTC production this year. In fact, it’s probably the best theatre I’ve seen under the MTC aegis since I started going to the theatre again four years ago. I’ll wobble further on my superlatives, and claim that Peter Evans has delivered one of the best-judged productions of a text that I’ve seen anywhere.

In short, theatrenauts, this is an awesome production of an awesome play. Blackbird is a contemporary tragedy that does all the things a tragedy is supposed to do: it hammers your heart open, tears apart your moral certainties and leaves you with the pulsating mess of human damage leaking blood all over your hands. Harrower stands aside from judgment and instead places our moral capacity in conflict with our human empathy, opening out the complexities of relationship and self in a way that refuses the consolation of false annealment.

And, as director Peter Evans does in this production, Harrower manages all this with an absolute minimum of fuss. This is not just naturalism, it is ├╝ber-naturalism: and it demonstrates that this much-maligned theatrical form is far from dead. Blackbird is basically a dialogue between Ray (Greg Stone) and Una (Alison Bell) which takes place in real time, a fact reinforced by the clock on the wall ticking murderously through the silences. There is only one (very effective) theatrical trick in this play: for the rest, it relies on raw nerve. Its artfulness is invisible: text, direction, performance and production are presented in one seamless whole, so that in watching it the separate elements disappear, subsumed in one irresistible act of theatre.

The action takes place in a spectacularly filthy factory canteen. Christina Smith’s set is in traverse, reinforcing the play’s intimacy: a thin strip of floor, mercilessly lit by fluorescents, lies between the audience. On one side is a grubby white wall with a clock, on the other a door with a broken window patched by cardboard. Upended plastic chairs, a broken, overfilled plastic rubbish bin and a litter of half-eaten hamburgers, crushed coke cans and other detritus complete the squalor.

As is well known, in Blackbird Harrower investigates the explosive issue of paedophilia. Ray is man who, 15 years earlier, had a three month relationship with Una which culminated in a sexual encounter in a boarding house, after which he panicked and abandoned her. At the time, Una was a bright, rebellious and precocious 12 year old. He was prosecuted and jailed, and has rebuilt his life under a new identity. But now Una has turned up at his workplace seeking - what? Revenge? Some kind of acknowledgement, some kind of closure?

What is gradually exposed through the play is how the past lives in the present for both of them. Ray has coped by totally erasing the past: he hotly denies several times that he is one of “them”, one of those men fatally attracted to children. No, this was a single moment of madness, a terrible mistake that almost wholly destroyed his life, which he has painstakingly built again from scratch: he will never transgress again. Una’s sudden unheralded appearance fills him with panic: he shoves her into the canteen, terrified that she will be spotted by his workmates, that the shame that he has until now kept so secret will spill over his life like the trash over the room.

Una, on the other hand, has never forgotten. She thinks about what happened every day, and the events – their relationship, the prosecution and trial, her notoriety, her mother’s condemnation – have warped her life. She is lonely, promiscuous, prone to relationships with abusive men. But what has most wounded her becomes less clear as they talk. Was it the exploitation of her own nascent sexuality by an older man who should never have violated her trust? Was it her social isolation, as a victim of abuse? The way the language of police prosecution erased her own experience, so that she can no longer make sense of what happened? The moral condemnation of her own family?

Harrower corkscrews their conversation deeper and deeper into tabu areas, without ever tipping over into easy condemnation or exculpation. Both Una and Ray are unreliable narrators, neither able to withdraw from and contemplate this defining wound of their lives. We don’t know whether to believe Ray when he says he is no longer sexually attracted to children. Una’s desire for revenge is undermined by her greater desire for Ray. The ambiguities are held in suspension all the way through the performance.

The success of this sternly undecorated production relies almost wholly on the actors, and in Greg Stone and Alison Bell (leavened by a brief appearance by Georgia Flood) Evans has a dream cast. These are two great, emotionally precise performances, elegantly mediating between the said and the unsaid. What both have mastered is Harrower’s truncated, spare language, the stuttering articulation that stumbles against what cannot be said, which flowers into painful monologues or equally painful silences before exploding into a cathartic moment of passion, violence and even perverse joy. The play is riveting in part because the balance of power continually shifts, and these emotional movements are faultlessly modulated. I'm not sure that I've seen either of these actors in better form.

Maybe the word for this production is unflinching. Evans’ version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf excavated, with a profound compassion, the pain embedded in Albee’s play; this production has the same kind of emotional courage, but goes much deeper. The devastating ending strips away all our skins of moral protection, leaving us with the unpalatable fact of unhealed damage. We are given no maps with which to navigate it, no place in which to hide from its implications. It reminds us of the unnegotiable complexity of human pain and desire. It’s brilliant, necessary theatre.

Picture: Greg Stone and Alison Bell in the MTC production of Blackbird.

This review did not, regrettably, appear in any form in the Australian.


Anonymous said...

I don't mean to pry, but may I ask how on earth did it *not* appear in The Australian?

Alison Croggon said...

The Australian has a general policy that if a new play has already been reviewed, it need not be reviewed again. Since the STC had already done the play, the decision was that the MTC production could be left uncovered. I think this is a mistaken policy, however much it's driven by the difficulties of lack of space (which is another issue and can't be blamed on the editor, whom I hasten to add is a good fellow). I argued hard for it, even more after I saw it...but obviously, didn't get anywhere. I think it's a real shame; this production deserves notice.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review Alison--I saw this in Sydney and loved the play and the performances but found the direction fussy and the sound-scape over-wrought, so to see a simple, pared-back version would be a treat.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I don't understand that policy of The Australian. If a production has already been reviewed, for instance the Bell Hamlet was reviewed in Sydney so wouldn't be re-reviewed in Melbourne. But an entirely new production, with a different director, cast and creative team such as with Blackbird, cannot possibly be considered the 'same' piece of theatre. Does that mean if King Lear is performed in Perth by one theatre company the Oz won't review a different production done in Newcastle? It's nonsensical.

Alison Croggon said...

St G, I agree, it makes no sense at all. I expect it's more brutally pragmatic than anything else. But quite, why review Hamlet at all?

Anonymous said...

See this play if you can. One of those rare moments in the theatre which will haunt you for years to come. Such a great script produced brilliantly. And two actors just going for it tooth and nail. Brutal, honest and simple. I'm going again - not least of all because the guy next to me felt the need to sigh or clear his throat or stroke his beard through the entire thing. Shame.

There is nothing quite like audience rage – I'm never as irrationally pissed off as I am in an audience when someone is ruining my theatrical experience and there is no way – other than passive aggressive sideways glances – to get them to shut the fuck up.

But see it if you can.

Anonymous said...

I saw this last night and thought it was amazing - my sympathy, empathy, rage, understanding and moral judgement shifted so many times in the space of the show I was wrung out by the end. But also inspired by the powers of a great production. So ridiculous of The Australian not to review it again. In reaction to the comment about the fellow audience member I'd like to add how *weird* I find MTC audiences (when I join them, which is - admittedly - rare). At least 3 people in the front row opposite us (the front row!) were asleep for most of the performance (in a play like this!) and a great number of the audience laughed (LAUGHED!) at a line which I found to be the most harrowing of the play. It wasn't funny, it was devastating and I could have died - with annoyance and with embarrassment for how the actors might have regarded it - at that moment. Similarly, the lights went down at the end and there was one of those infuriating people who clapped immediately, messing up that beautiful moment at the end of such an affecting work where you just sit with it, just for a breath. Sorry for the rant but it made me think, who are these people? And why does the MTC seem to attract so many people who just don't seem really that interested in what they are seeing?!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jessica - sorry to respond so tardily. The snoozing subscribers are a continual mystery to me too. Sometimes I go to a matinee performance (I'm rather fond of matinees) and look around in wonder at the sleepers. It's a very expensive way of catching up on the zzz. My theory is that they're husbands dragged along by keen wives for a bit of culture. I know my own father, bless him, falls instantly asleep in the ballet, and his wife now goes alone...

Anonymous said...

i saw an old codger at the opera a few weeks ago who was actually wearing an eye mask.

by the same token, a woman almost bent double with age grabbed and shook my arm fiercely after 'blackbird' while saying, in a european accent i couldn't pick, "best damn play we've seen in years".

she walked off without waiting for a response. i think she just knew i was in complete agreement.

Alison Croggon said...

Ben (my Ben, who was not attending the theatre with me last night - he has an active and various social life of his own) complained that the man next to him fell asleep in the first act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Which, given Williams' histrionics, is some feat.

Maybe that old opera codger just wanted to listen to the music? Odd though... that's a brilliant story about the old woman though. It's not age that causes indifference. Or at least, as I stumble through what's laughably called middle age, I hope it isn't.