Review: The Lonesome West, The Time Is Not Yet Ripe ~ theatre notes

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Review: The Lonesome West, The Time Is Not Yet Ripe

The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh, directed by Görkem Acaroglu. Design by Emma Kingsbury, lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, sound design by Ben Grant, music arranged and performed by Caitlin French. With Luke Elliot, Ben Grant, Mark Treginning and Gemma Falk. Tiny Dynamite Theatre @ Theatreworks until September 21.

The Time Is Not Yet Ripe by Louis Esson, directed by Jane Woollard. Design and set painting by Amanda Johnson, lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle. With Kurt Geyer, Ming Zhu-Hii. David Adamson, Don Bridges, Melanie Beddie, Tom Wren, Grant Cartwright, Georgina Capper, Sharon Davis and Mike McEvoy. Here Theatre and La Mama @ the Carlton Courthouse until September 14.

There is an interesting, if elliptical, continuity between these two vastly different plays. One, Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West, was written in the late 1990s in Ireland; the other, Louis Esson's The Time Is Not Yet Ripe, a hundred years earlier in Australia. Both are black comedies which in different ways satirise the social and historical emptiness of a colonised culture.

There are parallels, as well as illuminating differences, between Ireland and Australia, even if they are rather more interesting than those outlined by The Lonesome West director Görkem Acaroglu in the program. (Acaroglu wins the prize for fatuous program notes for pointing out that "Ireland, like Australia, is an island surrounded by water. The Irish and the Australian's (sic) love travelling. Yet Australians, unlike the Irish, also suffer from the tyranny of their distance. The distance creates loneliness...a feeling of imprisonment, and often yearning and despair.")

Perhaps it's unfair to begin by criticising a program note; or it would be if the cliches expressed here weren't reflected in the production. Despite a couple of bravura performances from Luke Elliot and Ben Grant, McDonagh's play deserves a little more directorial sharpness: the production gives a sense that emotional complexities are here simplified, going for an easier, more clownish humour than the tragic comedy the writing aspires towards.

It's hard not to feel that Acaroglu might have been better off following up the common historical themes of colonisation and its legacies of concealed violence - the corpse in the attic about which everyone knows and nobody talks - and the cultural and personal amnesia that follows. As well as that sense of no-place - the conviction that life goes on elsewhere more richly and fully and meaningfully - that sucks the vitality out of any engagement with the present. This sense of displacement is, with its twin emotion, parochialism, the defining nostalgia of the colonised mind.

Certainly, McDonagh's black comedy, the final instalment of the Leenane trilogy he wrote in the 1990s, examines a kind of hell in which people are so brutalised they no longer recognise the realities of their own feelings. The Irish town Leenane becomes bleak portrait of contemporary Ireland, a consciously brutal counter-argument to the sentimentalised view of the land of poetically melancholic peasants larking about with shamrocks in quaint pubs.

A four character play like The Beauty Queen of Leenane (and Sam Shepard's True West, with which this play bears some affinities), The Lonesome West concerns two brothers, Valene (Luke Elliot) and Coleman (Ben Grant), whose sibling relationship is defined by vicious rivalry. Valene is a miser of Gogolian proportions, who conceals his hoarded poteen in a biscuit tin sealed by (re-used) tape and marks all his possessions, including his cherished collection of plastic Virgin Marys, with his initial. His violent brother Coleman has just murdered their father with a shotgun, and in order to prevent Valene going to the police has signed over the house to his brother.

The two characters who dream of something better are the young alcoholic priest Father Welsh (Mark Tregonning) and the foul-mouthed but innocent schoolgirl Girleen (Gemma Falk). Welsh is so ineffectual in his attempts to reform the village ("the murder capital of Europe") that no one gets his name right. Predictably enough, these two fail to survive the village - one drowns himself and the other goes mad. But it's a moot point whether the brothers have survived either: the worst, one senses, has already happened to both of them, and the long trail of mutual crimes between them is itself the result of unhealable damage.

How this play might situate itself in an Irish history marked by centuries of political violence and British occupation is beyond the scope of this review, but my bet is on a strong connection. It's probably worth pointing here to an essay I read recently about the early 20th century Irish revolutionary Ernie O'Malley, who has been heavily criticised as callous and unfeeling for his indifference to his brother's death. The Irish post-colonialist David Lloyd comments:

[O'Malley] writes with considerable cultural as well as personal insight in a long—and invaluable—auto-biographical letter from prison... about his middle-class Irish family and its inability to foster loving relations: “There was very little love in the family. I can honestly say that I never loved my parents, but I respected them.” Home life, he explains, “was none too congenial as its ties were never strong enough.” The sense of lack of affect is hardly unique to the O’Malley (or Malley) family in the Ireland of the time or for many generations since, and it would be valuable to have further study of the ways in which the intersection of Victorian values and colonial culture may have impacted the “structures of feeling” in Ireland at the time of the revolution.

This production aims for a sense of Irish authenticity, emphasised by the fiddler who plays Irish folk airs between or, at certain moments of emotional heightening, beneath the scenes. Given McDonagh's dialogue is written in Irish brogue, it would be difficult to perform without accents, but the violin blurs the anti-romanticising of the play (a broken fiddle might have been more appropriate). And it's certainly performed with energy and brio, bringing out the slapstick comedy between the warring brothers, if without a tragic sting. What emerges is a creditable but strangely underwhelming production.

The Time Is Not Yet Ripe is, on the other hand, a colonial oddity, like the paintings of misshapen kangaroos and oak-like gum trees that dot our galleries. Like the national argument about becoming a Republic - which, as Robert Hughes sardonically points out, has been hotly debated since the 1850s without our ever leaving the Monarchy - it demonstrates how Australian cultural amnesia results in a constant cycle of repetition. Perhaps the real (if somewhat depressing) virtue of this play is its demonstration of how little has changed in our mainstream cultural discourse. Even as things shift under the skin, the same repressive responses rise to counter them.

Esson's political satire was first performed in 1912 - five years before the October Revolution in Russia, two years before the outbreak of World War 1. Edwardian England was rife with new political ideas - a mood of public anti-Imperialism driven by the Second Boer War had seen the Liberals elected in a landslide, with Labour holding the balance of power.

Reading the literature of the time, it's fascinating to see how many preoccupations Edwardians had in common with us - feminism, republicanism, the endless question of national identity recur again and again. But with a few signal differences - the 20th century revolutions of Fascism and Socialism brought modern totalitarianism into being and left millions of corpses in their wake. Utopian belief is much harder to sustain in the 21st century than it was in 1900. And the political struggles of Indigenous people in Africa, Asia, America and here scarcely registered on the European map in Esson's time. Politics was a white man's burden.

Esson reflected the general European conviction that Australia was a "prose dull land" bereft of poetry (our first poet, the superbly named Barron Field, lamented Australia was "where Nature is prosaic, / Unpicturesque, unmusical, and where / Nature-reflecting Art is not yet born.") Esson the social satirist portrays a colonial society in which the present of elsewhere repeats itself here as farce, and in which a leaden inanition mitigates against change.

The occasion for the play is an election, where the Prime Minister Sir Joseph Quivington (Kurt Geyer) is defending his conservative government. The action revolves around two characters in rivalry for the same seat - Quivington's daughter Doris (Ming Zhu Hii), who represents a Woman's temperance party, and her fiance Sydney Barrett (Grant Cartwright), who is standing for the Socialists. Both represent repressive extremes at odds with The People, but in the end Woman wins with her mission to make politics, and everything else, more polite.

Jane Wollard's production takes on all the melodramatic cues, with varying degrees of success. There are a couple of wonderful theatrical conceits - Barrett's absurd speech, for example, in which he makes a call for more Egyptologists and poets, results in a stirring rendition of the Red Flag. Much of the time the artifice degenerates into shameless mugging, but there are very decent performances from Georgina Capper as the uptight Temperance activist Miss Perkins, Tom Wren as Tom K. Hill, an American investor, and Grant Cartwright.

Esson's insistence on an authentically Australian drama has made him an attractive figure in later periods of Australian theatre, but unlike, say, Oscar Wilde (whose wit this piece aspires towards) his work remains enclosed in its time. It bounces along painlessly enough, but all the same I felt sorry for the VCE students forced to believe that this play is anything more than a historical curiosity.

Picture: Luke Elliot (left) and Ben Grant in The Lonesome West. Photo: Ponch Hawkes


Anonymous said...

I could not disagree with you more Alison. The Time is Not Yet Ripe is a delightful, joyous piece of political farce. Lucky the VCE student who gets to study the text and have the chance to see this spirited and masterful production. Too rarely do we see such virtuoso from our local performers and even more rarely do we see a cast who are so clearly enjoying themselves - an enjoyment that is deliciously infectious.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Alison left her sense of humour at the door.

Alison Croggon said...

Y'all know that crrritics have no sense of humour. Sorry Anons (you do know that disagreement is ok, I won't get the out the blunderbuss if I know who you are, even with nom de plumes?) but this one leaves me a bit mystified.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison

It's unfair to suggest that critics have no sense of humour. I definitely saw you laugh on one occasion back in the early nineties. Just can't remember if it was at a play. (I think you saw some old person fall over in the street or some such.)

I'm seeing TTINYR today so I may post again with a comment that's actually relevant.

Alison Croggon said...

I may have smiled a couple of times in the past decade. It's hard to remember, when those muscles remain so unused. But I look forward all the same to your take on Esson. Just stay away from limericks.

Anonymous said...

People L'ill Miss Alison was rolling in her seat during Vamp, the worse the puns the more she laughed.

Alison Croggon said...

Eek. That's a bit mean, Anon 3; L'il Miss A likes to think she is invisible, a delusion embraced by most people in an audience. How can you pop my bubble like that? Mind you, that invisibility was hard to maintain if you happened to be the front row of Vamp last night, which luckily I was not.

Anonymous said...

My, the anonymous commenters have been baying for blood recently, haven't they? Use your own names, I say...

Anonymous said...

The play is dead.
The play really is dead.
The play is so dead.
It don't breathe no more.
Unless it's a new one.
And relevant.

Thus spake Rudyard Kipling.
Yes, "Africa (truly) is the white man's burden".

And seing plays with long blackouts is mine.

xox the baron

Anonymous said...

Jesus God Alison--you have maybe smiled twice in the past decade?? And you're now the critic for The Australian? Which I assume means reviewing all plays, including comedies? I'm doing one in Melbourne next year (won't say which) which we (and the rest of the world) think is wonderfully funny and a sheer delight. I'm now prepared for you to hate it. Hate using the coward's "anon" but under the circumstances must do so.

Alison Croggon said...

Don't worry too much on that account, Anon 4. I may well hate the play - who knows? But if so, it won't be because I'm incapable of smiling, and I will certainly say why as clearly as I can.

Now: if you're doing a comedy, let me introduce you to Mr and he should make friends.

Anonymous said...

Anon4, is your play directed by a man? Possibly even a young man?
If it is then I think you'll be fine.
The only "continuity" (elliptical or not) that i see between these two plays (TLW/TTINYR), Alison, is that they are both directed by women. Have you met Ms. Misogyny?

Alison Croggon said...

Oh yes, I loathe women. Meow Meow, for instance. Sarah Kane. Anna Akhmatova. Tanya Gerstle. Gale Edwards. Emily Bronte. Ursula Le Guin. Ariane Mnouchkine. Caryl Churchill. Lucy Guerin. Emily Dickinson. HD. Sappho. Helen Cixous. Lally Katz. Jasmine Chan. Margaret Cameron. Michelle Desbordes. All bloody women. Can't stand them, as you will see if you click some of the labels in the sidebar.

Now, perhaps we can stop talking about me (or rather, this bloggish projection of me) and instead discuss some theatre?

Anonymous said...

Golly, this is getting nasty. But fair enough. Ms. A kinda started it with the very mean-spirited take on Acaroglu's notes. Not really necessary. Obviously a bit upset about something. But why "attack" - and both these reviews pretty much amount to an attack - these Melbourne artists who are producing shows entirely under their own steam and putting a great deal of work and effort and obvious love into it? One needn't be graceless. As you say Miss A, we have the right to disagree. And disagree we should. And must. So maybe let the VCE students, and the rest of us, make the discoveries ourselves without such a (in my opinion - and its only an opinion) patronising and smug view. Sorry but that's how these read to me. I've seen both shows and, though I had my issues with the Lonesome West I really did enjoy the strange delights of a turn-of-the-century Australian farce. And if it's not quite Wildean then so be it. After all, comparisons are odious.

Anonymous said...

So you admit you have "favourites", Alison? Mirky territory for a critic. Surely you mean that liking some things some women do, and not liking other things that some women do does not amount to misogynny?
Do you like Sarah Kane et al or do you like their work? And do you, indeed, like everything the above mentioned do? And does liking what they do mean, in fact, that you are not misogynistic?
What a pretty pickle!

Anonymous said...

A discussion of the critic themselves/bloggish persona is a discussion of theatre - you influence opinion and theatre in this town, what you write here is part of the fabric of art in Melbourne, and I think that given you put so much work into your bloggish persona you should be rewarded with having a little shed light on you. Don't you?

Alison Croggon said...

I just think it's boring talking about "me". How about discussing whether or not, for instance, it's actually pertinent that both of these plays deal with post-colonialism? If you think Louis Esson is so brilliant, how about saying why? Why shouldn't he be compared with Wilde - he obviously wanted to be? He compared himself with Yeats and Synge, for god's sake. If Acaroglu's program notes in fact demonstrated some stunning insight into the play (or into the links between Ireland and Australia) how about pointing out why, and how they are pertinent to the play? Ie, how about taking theatre and art seriously, like I do?

Ad hominem attack is the refuge of those with no ideas, as is amply demonstrated here. If you actually came up with some ideas, I would love to discuss them with you. This kind of hamfisted character assassination is just bullshit. And not a little depressing. Theatre deserves better than this.

As for the dark whispers about "favourites" - it's called taste. My taste. This blog is written from my sensibility, which has been formed by all the things I've read and seen and loved. It sheds light all over me. I couldn't be more open. Perhaps you ought to try reading it. It is a critical blog, which involves making critical judgments. My critical judgments. They often have provoked very interesting discussions with people who disagree with what I have said. Not lately, sadly. Perhaps some people think I have become too "powerful". But that's bullshit too. The only power that I've ever had has come from writing as honestly and intelligently as I can about the things I see. If that's a problem for you, read something else.

Anonymous said...

This is becoming more than a little absurd. So, critics are no longer allowed to have favourites, tastes or opinions? Rubbish. As I discussed in a public forum on criticism last year, the judicial tendency is precisely the point of criticism - and precisely what's missing from the vast majority of arts writing in this country, which aims instead towards education of the reader or publicity (both assume ignorance and stupidity on the part of the reader). It seems the readers of this blog are becoming increasingly upset with the fact Alison is offering an opinion as opposed to lecture notes or advertisements. Discussion of a critic's personality has become tantamount to discussion of the work the critic writes about? Negative reviews are tantamount to an attack? (Reviews like this one that aren't even that negative, too, it seems - Alison has been much less forgiving in the past!)

And for the record, choosing to defend students on the ground that they're students, instead of intelligently discussing the merits of their work, does them few favours. You are choosing to defend them, not with a valid argument, but with excuses.

You people are, in no uncertain terms, nuts.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Matthew. Funnily enough, I think the least interesting aspect of reviewing is whether a critic "likes" something or not. What matters is whether a critic's response is accurate and informed and well-written. For the record, accuracy isn't about "opinion". If I get something wrong, I'm happy to correct it - I've never been afraid of being wrong and have no stakes in being "right" - but my liking something or not clearly can't be "wrong". That's nonsense, unless you happen to live in a totalitarian state.

I'm assuming the blog has attracted some newish readers recently, who are clearly unfamiliar with my work or with the concept of open discussion, and feel uncomfortable with both. And what I'm getting is that discussion, unless it's in certain rather narrow perameters, isn't allowed. Seen that hound before.

"Supportive" criticism is, as Matthew says, just special pleading, and does no one any good. Anyone who puts on work is working hard, that's taken as read. I know precisely how much work it takes to make something. And of course it's disappointing if it doesn't get the responses you hope. I know that as well as anyone. But that's the risk of putting something out in public; if you don't want to run the risk of someone not liking it, put it on in your kitchen. I don't have to come to plays, nobody's paying me to do this blog, and it takes a bit of effort getting there, because I don't own a car. (Why don't I own a car? Because I've been working full-time as a poet and novelist for 15 years and have never had the money). If I come to see a piece of theatre, I will pay attention and I will think about it, and I will try to write about it fairly and well. That's quite a bit of work in itself, btw. And I will listen to any ideas other people have about it, and always hope for interesting and stimulating discussion. That's the guarantee. I'm not obliged to like something, and actually as a critic I'm not even obliged to be fair - I just think it's desirable. I'm not here to shore up some bullshit cultural or intellectual cringe.

Is that enough about "me"? And yes, there's plenty of pap elsewhere, if that's what people want.

Anonymous said...

I like accurate description too, Ms C (though the film criticism of Manny Farber, with its countless inaccurate descriptions, is marvellous). To the extent that yours is a blog of record - certainly more than, say, mine - I can understand why you would emphasise accuracy and description. But (I have to say, I feel somewhat funny about writing 'but', because I'm sure you probably agree with what's coming next, and 'but' sounds somehow contrarian) surely opinions have their place on the record, too? Even if they don't, to the extent that criticism can be considered a public service (not in the sense of it serving as a consumer guide, of course, but rather in that of it serving as a sounding board for artists - another reason for honest - indeed, critical - criticism without fear nor favour), the importance of opinion, dancing as it must in perfect two-step with accurate description, cannot be questioned.

Not that you were questioning it, of course, in which case this comment is really rather pointless.

Alison Croggon said...

No, I'm not saying opinion doesn't matter: just that the broad question of "liking" or "not liking" something is pretty irrelevant, and that an opinion is not worth the ink or pixels it's written in if it is not informed and if it is not backed up with accuracy.

I've read plenty of critics I admire, but with whom I disagree. And serious disgreement can be in itself a mark of respect. There's a wonderful essay by Yves Bonnefoy about Paul Valery, for instance, where he interrogates Valery very sternly, and at the end comments: but of course, I can only disagree this much with his work because I so respect it.

Attention is the respect any critic must pay, perhaps a critic's only real obligation. And my critics could pay me the respect of actually reading and thinking about what I actually write, instead of resorting to snide and ill-informed comments about my alleged personal failings.

Anyway, I promise to stop being cross soon. I have work to do.

Anonymous said...

The best critics are always opinionated, and always have a particular taste that is evident. No one ever read Kenneth Tynan or Robert Brustein for their skill at even-handedness. I read this blog because I know that nine times out of ten I will disagree with what's here. Occasionally I feel so furious I'll find myself typing a response. That response has always been treated with respect and a good argument, which I enjoy. There's a deadly need for general agreement in the theatre community which stifles debate, and kills art. Art should provoke fury, passion, joy and possibly even the occasional throwing of small objects that can't really hurt should NOT provoke personal attack (although it does, alas). Ms Croggon's personal taste is there in every line she writes - and that's exactly how it should be. The personal sniping here - and elsewhere in other comments threads on this blog - is unnecessary and dull, and evidence that the Melbourne theatre scene is small and tribal. Or even, she whispered softly, parochial. If you want to argue with the model of 'good' theatre that's evident in Ms Croggon's blog, fair enough. If you call her misogynist or any other term of abuse, you merely look silly. Raise the level, folks. Argue a point.


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Jodi. Much appreciated.

Alison Croggon said...

A post put under the comments policy instead of here, where it would be appropriate. And my response.

Gorkem Acaroglu said...

I would like to comment on your review of The Lonesome West, which I directed. It does seem apt that you review my program notes when you only saw half the show and left at interval. I would like to propose that you state in your 'reviews' when you have seen a full show and when you have not.
11:30 AM, September 10, 2008

Alison Croggon said...

I beg your pardon, Gorkem: I did indeed watch the whole show. If you want some confirmation, you can ask Richard Watts, with whom I drank a whiskey afterwards and discussed what we had just seen. Whatever gave you that idea?
11:52 AM, September 10, 2008

richardwatts said...

I'll happily confirm that not only did Alison stay until the end of the show, at which point she, myself and my friend Cerise discussed the production in detail; but also that I saw her re-entering the theatre at the end of the interval, ready for the second half of the show.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of post-colonialism, it is your invisibility Alison, that gave me that idea. Thank you for providing an alibi, though of course, that was not necessary. I stand corrected.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Gorkem - I'm only too glad to hear I am sometimes invisible; though I believe I was quite visible to a number of people that night. But it's fair to say that I have been feeling a little too visible lately. At least in phantom forms.

Anonymous said...


now that I've seen TTINYR, some brief impressions.

The heightened style of the production was consistent and confident, but it felt inappropriate for the material. The mugging and physicality came across to me as a lack of confidence in the script, almost an apology or an attempt to hide the thinness of the material. It was like a pantomime at times and I thought the style killed more laughs than it provoked (at least on the night I saw it). This was a shame as the audience, while engaged, seemed to be wanting to enjoy it more than they really did.

I went with friends who said they enjoyed it, but we found ourselves mostly discussing performance style, not the content or ideas in the play itself.

To be perfectly fair to the play I would have to read it to assess its real merit, but my impression of it in on the night was that it's a fossil. There's a relentless cynicism that may have been confronting in its time - perhaps even a catalyst for impassioned argument - but in our time feels like it's pandering to a collective cynicism that most of us take for granted.

And the argument that most of us are conservative sheep when it comes to our voting habits didn't carry much weight when the alternative (in this case socialism) is presented as vaguely and inadequately as it is here.

The whole evening was like the linguini I had after the show. It had lots of sweeping colour and movement on presentation, but the tomatoes and the mushrooms were shouting at each another trying to drag attention away from the eggplant, and whatever relief in the way of texture or taste offered by the pine nuts was lost as they seemed to be hiding in the spinach (along with the garlic and the subtext). It didn't taste terrible, I just wished I ordered the veal.

I guess this is a very long winded way of saying that I think your review was spot on.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Troubadour, for your thoughtfulness. And that is maybe the most extended culinary simile I've read...!

I thought the politics in this play very problematic, perhaps most of all in its presentation of women in politics. Of course the temperance women were one half of the equation, and there was the argument that women would bring a refinement to politics as they were supposed to in the domestic sphere, but that was by no means the whole story. The first woman in Parliament was Vida Goldstein, and she campaigned for things like an end to child labour, equal pay for equal work and a basic wage. She was also a prominent pacifist. The women's suffrage movement embraced radical and conservative women, as feminism still does in fact, and at the time was argued against by, well, some of the same caricatures Esson portrayed in this play - women being trivial featherheads on the one hand, or on the other sexless puritan wowsers. Again, there are moments in its portrayal of Marxist activists where you see the zeal that in other places led to Mao's Cultural Revolution or the Terror under Stalin, and - more interestingly - the problems with the Revolution being led by bourgeois intellectuals with only abstract notions of what "working class" really meant in terms of actual people - but the more interesting and radical aspects of those politics are simply erased. Australia might have been a "worker's paradise", but it still wasn't (and isn't) much fun being from the underclass here. There's a pervasive myth that we don't have one really (well, aside from Aboriginals), which maybe started around then, and it just isn't true.