Review: The Inhabited Man, Holiday ~ theatre notes

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: The Inhabited Man, Holiday

The Inhabited Man by Richard Murphet, directed by Richard Murphet and Leisa Shelton. Design by Ryan Russell, sound design by Jethro Woodward. With Merfyn Owen, Adam Pierzchalski and Leisa Shelton. Full Tilt and Rear Windows Ensemble @ Space 28, Victorian College of the Arts until July 26. Bookings: 1300 136 166

Holiday, conceived and directed by Adriano Cortese, text by Raimondo Cortese. Set design by Anna Tregloan, Sound design by David Franzke, lighting by Niklas Pajanti. With Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt. Ranters Theatre and Malthouse Theatre @ the Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until August 2.

The Inhabited Man is one of the more lush productions you will see this year. In fact, it was so lush that this 90-minute show was one of the worst struggles I’ve ever had to stay awake during a performance, only rivalled by Bruce Beresford’s spectacularly hamfisted production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra at a long-ago Melbourne Festival, when I pinched my thigh so badly I left bruises.

I was, I admit, seriously jetlagged. But my non-jetlagged companion actually did fall asleep, and was quite grumpy when I stopped him from slowly pitching forward into oblivion. (I was unrepentant: if I was going to stay awake - and I swear I did - so was he.)

And yet, for all that, it’s not easy to sift through what makes The Inhabited Man such a somnabalistic experience. For one thing, many aspects of this production, written and co-directed by the Victorian College of the Arts Head of Drama Richard Murphet, are deeply thought, theatrically beautiful and stylishly executed.

The show itself is an excavation of the interior world of a Vietnam veteran, Leo, now a security guard at the Springs Motel. Performed with a dogged earnestness by Merfyn Owen, he limps across the stage observing an Eastern European (Chechnyan?) couple in Unit 7 (Adam Pierzchalski and Leisa Shelton) who are acting strangely, and who transform into echoes of his own violent past. During the course of a night, we enter his oneiric, paranoid reality, where memories of the past meld into a rather confused present.

The visual aspects of this production are stunning. The stage is plunged into a thick darkness, with forms picked out by amber or flesh-coloured lights or wildly swinging torches. The wide stage is bare aside from some Francis Bacon-esque boxes that enclose the characters, and on which are projected black and white visuals – ripples of water, dogs barking, text. The larger structure, which represents the motel, can be turned at will. The mise en scene is always interesting and Jethro Woodward's soundscape is broodingly atmospheric. And the production features some excellent physical performances from Pierzchalski and Shelton.

In fact, everything is set up for a fascinating, nay, poetic theatrical experience. I shoot my problems with this production straight at the text, which simply fails to match the execution and accuracy of the other aspects of The Inhabited Man. For one thing, there is a lot of it, and while everything else points to a poetic, the text itself signally lacks the economy and impacted meaning of poetry. This becomes very clear in the moments when Owen sings: the music imports a poetic that is missing in the language, and suddenly the production begins to make theatrical sense.

The text is a strange mixture of the baffling and the literal. Much of it, oddly, sounds like a bad naturalistic play. On the one hand, we have a familiar story of a war veteran haunted by atrocities he has both committed and suffered, complicated by a childhood trauma involving his mother. It is uncomplicatedly earnest: there is none of the black humour that soldiers (or others in extreme professions – police officers, emergency workers, triage doctors) use to cope with their situation. Nor is it credible, though this is no doubt a function of its language too – I simply didn’t believe, for example, that Leo would effectively sell his baby son (nor that his wife would agree to it) because of the trauma of his war experiences.

Jammed against the past that haunts Leo is the present of the couple in Unit 7. Here I confess to complete bafflement, although I thought they might be Chechnyan terrorists (although why they would be checking into a country motel to further their nefarious deeds was unclear to me). Or they were projections of Leo’s fears of otherness or sexuality. Or they were some sort of movie.

Now, I don’t usually mind struggling with deferred meanings, but deferral is a delicate business which must hold within it the promise of deepening speculations. If you read a poem by Paul Celan, for example, its meanings might be immediately mysterious, but it communicates a complex set of feelings and intellectual allusions that can be elucidated and explored in subsequent readings. I didn’t catch any such sense of possibility in the language of The Inhabited Man, which remained resolutely monodimensional. And I suspect the slumber that kept sweeping over me like an irresistible wave was my brain’s way of coping with a lot of words that added up to a lot less than the rest of the production promised.

LAST year, Holiday was one of the indisputable gems of Melbourne’s independent theatre. It has the Green Room awards – five of them, in fact – to prove it. And its inclusion in the Malthouse Theatre’s 2008 season is a welcome chance for those who missed its initial season to catch up with a remarkable work. Ranters Theatre’s comic meditation on the mundane is exquisite theatre, a demonstration in three dimensions of the adage “less is more”. The premise is simple. Two men (Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt), strangers to each other, are lounging by a pool. They are clearly on holiday. They have nothing to do and, more or less, nothing to say.

Unlike Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (in which, as Kenneth Tynan said famously, “nothing happens twice”) something does happen during Holiday. We watch the two men become friends, in the strange confessional intimacy generated by being outside their usual defining social contexts.

Raimondo Cortese’s play consists of a series of inconsequential comic dialogues that slyly excavate anxieties about identity and desire, long-buried guilts and unacknowledged loneliness. The conversation is punctuated by long silences, in which Lum and Moffat stretch and stroll idly about the stage, or paddle in the pool, or stare vacantly out over the audience. And the longings beneath the dialogue rise to the surface in a series of baroque songs about love and despair, sung a Capella by the actors.

Holiday’s irresistible charm is generated by the moment-to-moment detail of Lum and Moffat’s performances. The show is beautifully modulated by Adriano Cortese’s impeccable direction: the silences, rich with subtext, are as compelling and complex as the dialogue. This stylised naturalism is heightened by a restrained and beautifully various soundscape by David Franzke, a subtle blending of baroque music, ambient noise and bird cries. The set features one of Anna Tregloan’s more stylish designs, a white box in which the accoutrements of vacation – a paddling pool, two huge, brightly coloured beach balls, a chaise lounge and a couple of chairs decked with towels – sit with a surreal clarity.

In its first season, Holiday was mounted in the cavernous space of the North Melbourne Town Hall, which permitted Tregloan to enclose the set in black curtains. This generated a further intimacy which I missed in the smaller space of the Tower. But it richly rewards a second viewing. Lucid, gentle, funny and unexpectedly moving, it remains one of the shows of the year.

The review of Holiday is published in today's Australian.

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