Review: Wretch ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 23, 2009

Review: Wretch

A prison is a place where people are watched, and know that they are watched. In these spaces, behaviour shapes itself beneath the pressure of the assumed gaze. Human action becomes, in a disturbing sense, pure performance. As the Abu Ghraib photos brought home brutally by implicating all who looked on them in the act of torture, there can be an uncomfortable element of sadism in the act of looking.

It's an irony of history that the man who first theorised total surveillance, the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was an influential progressive. The panopticon - the institution in which an inmate is watched all the time - has become the symbol of the repressive surveillance state; and yet Bentham opposed slavery, campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality and advocated rights for women. For all his humanitarian views, the chilly intellection in the idea of the panopticon makes mere brutalisation seem almost friendly.

Plays set in prison enact this discomforting element in the relationship between actor and audience. They derive their unsettling power from a meta-theatrical consciousness of the parallels between theatre and prison, heightening the awareness of the mutual confinement of the watchers and the watched, and dramatising the predatory gaze of the audience. This is true of plays as formally various as Athol Fugard's The Island, Jean Genet's Deathwatch or Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade. And Angus Cerini's Wretch is yet another.

Wretch is, in many ways, a wholly uncomfortable experience. Marg Howell's confronting design transforms La Mama, almost placing the audience inside the white box of the set. The friendly stairs are hidden completely, which radically changes the nature of the space: all that is visible is a floor and overarching ceiling of institutional white tiles, illuminated harshly by fluorescent lights.

The two performers are already seated on stage when the audience enters. When we sit down, we know we are as visible to the actors on the stage as they are to us, and their exposure is a reflection of our own: we cannot conceal from ourselves that our watching is active. As witnesses, guards, silent bystanders, we are implicated in this act of theatre and, by extension, in its social meaning.

The fictional conceit of the script - the co-winner of the 2007 Patrick White Playwrights' Award - is that it is visiting hour in prison, where a mother (Susie Dee, who co-directs this piece with Cerini) is visiting her criminal son (Angus Cerini). At first, as the banal conversation unfolds into an argument about cigarettes, Wretch appears to be a naturalistic piece enacted in real time, but this soon shifts into another, much more heightened register. Cerini's densely poetic text attacks language at its most brutalised and grotesque, and wrings out of it a starkly lyric beauty. The play itself sculpts experience into a single, unbearable present, where the past erupts in sudden psychotic shifts, beautifully signalled by Kelly Ryall's sound design and Richard Vabre's lighting.

The young criminal in Wretch bears striking similarities to the 15-year-old boy in Cerini's extraordinary 2007 show, Detest. Although they clearly ring fictional variations on each other, they are not the same man: the story in common with both is that of a young man who beats to death the killer and rapist of an old woman. Here the abjection of Cerini's brutalised character is, if possible, even more exposed: but this time it's seen in relationship to his mother, a former street prostitute who is suffering from breast cancer. She has had one mastectomy, and is facing another; but we know as well as she does that she is dying.

Possibly only Susie Dee - whom I last saw on stage 15 years ago - could match Cerini's style of extreme grotesquerie, which marries outrageous, even Hogarthian, caricature to a pitiable yet complex humanity. Slouched on stage, their bodies somehow deformed and twisted under the lights, Dee and Cerini are two tragic clowns, creatures whose abjection is so extreme, so humiliating, that our witnessing is painful. And yet they are stubborn, they make us laugh, and there are telling moments when the slyness of their understanding, their subversive humour, slide in and slash away any possibility of patronising pity.

This doomed pair confront each other, accuse each other, hate each other, humiliate each other. They reveal their brutalising histories, and we understand that both of them have always, from the moment of their births, been imprisoned: by lack, by cultural deprivation, by the inability to articulate their desires.

We know there is no redemption for either of them, just as there is no escape from our gaze. And yet, just as clearly, we see how much they love each other. There is no moral to this story (for which, more than anything, I thank Cerini); just the fact of their love, in the midst of so much ugliness. And the difficult act of looking.

Wretch by Angus Cerini, directed and performed by Angus Cerini and Susie Dee. Design by Marg Horwell, sound design Kelly Ryall, lighting design by Richard Vabre. La Mama Theatre until March 8. Bookings: 9347 6142.


John Branch said...

Your opening paragraph grabbed my attention, but I couldn't help questioning it. In fact, I was all set to dash off a comment pointing out that, if imprisonment implies surveillance anyway, why was it necessary to invent the panopticon, and why did this not happen until the 19th century? Doesn't jail frequently mean isolation, removal from the gaze of others? Then I saw your second paragraph, which introduces Bentham's invention, though it doesn't go very far toward answering my questions.

These are only quibbles about your opening tactic. Sorry but I couldn't resist...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John - fair question. In fact, before Bentham invented what was effectively the precursor to the modern prison (many 19th century prisons, esp in the US, were based on his ideas), people were basically locked in squalid dungeons, out of sight. This permitted all sorts of vice and brutality, and presumably also the corruption, when wardens lived by bribery (prisoners often had to beg from passers by for food). Bentham sought to humanely reform this unruliness with order, and the order was to brought about by surveillance, by everyone being in plain sight. The results, as with most good intentions, are mixed...