Reviews: Gatz, Clickity Clack & Aoroi, The Wonderful World of Dissocia ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reviews: Gatz, Clickity Clack & Aoroi, The Wonderful World of Dissocia

At first blush, the idea of reading the entire text of The Great Gatsby on stage seems intriguing. Rather than approaching F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel through the inevitable reductiveness of adaptation, New York’s Elevator Repair Service would, presumably, present us with the Real Thing in Gatz. All seven hours of it.

Novels are mostly read in silence, their imaginings populating the fluid stage of the mind, but there remains a child-like pleasure in being read to. All the same, writing for the stage has different imperatives to those of prose; as Peter Brook points out, speaking of the particular problem of writing for the theatre, words on the stage “are only powerful in proportion to what they create in the language of theatre”. An author “is compelled to begin at the very root – by facing the problem of the very nature of dramatic utterance. There is no way out.”

I suppose I arrived with expectations. Foremost was that this exercise would force the company to face the question of language in the theatre “at the very root”. How would they deal with the interior imaginings of prose in the exterior world of theatre? What would this exercise reveal about language on the stage? About theatre itself? And in the end, this is my disappointment with the show. Instead of bringing the novel to life, Elevator Repair Service turned it into a fetish object. Yes, every word, down to the last “and”, was there. Why it was necessary or interesting to do this escaped me entirely.

It begins promisingly enough. Louisa Thompson’s set is a hyper-realistic, dingy office (perhaps a business selling bonds, like Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway). On one side are shelves of dilapidated files, in the centre a desk with an ancient computer, to the back a windowed wall with a door, and a glassed reception area. A rumpled man (Scott Shepherd) enters with a take-away coffee and begins his working day. He hangs up his coat and turns on his computer, but it won’t start. He presses the reset button, takes a swig from his coffee, opens a file and discovers a battered paperback copy of The Great Gatsby. Out of boredom and curiosity, he begins to read it out loud as the office comes to life around him.

Stroke by stroke, the office workers become the characters in the book, the fictional reality gradually inhabiting the humdrum world of the office until it takes over entirely. This transition, which takes place slowly (some might say, unremittingly) over the four parts of the show, might have had more power if the world of the office had had more reality in the first place. I began to get twitchy in the first twenty minutes: the actions of the workers made no sense at all. Every gesture was incomplete: the performers opened files and closed them, they waved bits of paper in each other’s faces, they made inaudible phone calls. Shepherd kept pressing his reset button, but without waiting for the necessary time for his computer to reboot. (I once had a computer just like that). I began, even then, to wonder how deeply thought this production was.

Part of my impatience stems from having recently seen Daniel Schlusser’s Peer Gynt, which similarly posited two simultaneous stage realities, a mundane present and a fictional imagining. In this case, the relationship between the two realities was complex and shifting; both were highly stylised, but each had its own integrity, a quality emerging in part from some profound theatrical thinking about the source text and its relationship to the present, and by focused performances. The approach in Gatz seemed, in comparison, startlingly tame and unthought. The office world looked more and more like a gimmick which never paid off: it was abandoned early, with scarcely a glance back, and the novel took over. This sense of uncertainty was intensified by the uneven performances, which ranged from Gary Wilmes’s powerful evocation of Tom Buchanan to shallow and obvious parody which involved a lot of mugging to the audience.

By part two, the company was – with occasional meaningless office interruptions - “acting out” the novel. Shepherd read every word of the narrative, with the actors providing the dialogue, down to the last “he said”. (This particularly bothered me, and is part of what I mean by their fetishising the prose. Why not cut these phrases? The tautological joke was funny for ten minutes but soon became merely tedious: dialogue indicators in novels are designed to be invisible to the reading eye, necessary pointers that become wholly redundant on stage). I began to suffer from a strange sort of double vision: every action described in the prose was slavishly illustrated by the performers. I began to long for the actors to do something different from the writing, for a little bit of spin or wit. Or anything, really. But no. This went on for the next three thousand hours.

You have to admire the athletic persistence of the actors, and it must be said that Shepherd has a nice reading style, although with a tendency, forgivable perhaps, to lose himself in the hypnotic rhythms of the prose. To be fair, there were times, amounting to perhaps an hour or two of the whole show, when I began to see how this approach might make exciting theatre – but these moments were always the most dramatic parts of the novel, where the dialogue was closest to a conventional play. The theatre presented was, in the end, informed by wholly conventional ideas and never questioned anything, beyond some obvious grammatical jokes, about the qualities of written or spoken language.

What saved me was the novel itself, which remains as brilliant as it ever was. But Gatsby’s tragedy and the “foul trash” floating in the wake of the American dream remain all Fitzgerald’s vision. If anything, Gatz demonstrates how futile the idea of geekish fidelity can be on stage. Or how contradictory it is: this faithfulness, if it did anything at all, merely diminished Fitzgerald’s prose.

It was a relief, then, to see Rochelle Carmichael’s Clickity Clack and Aoroi, two short dance pieces presented at Theatreworks. They are backed by a miscellany of music, including the soundtracks from The Matrix and Donnie Darko, a strange mulch that I ended up enjoying more than I expected. Combining circus, black light puppetry and physical theatre, Clickity Clack is a witty take on the erotics of dress with some wonderful costumes – a skirt levitated by red helium balloons, a cut-out paper business suit with a huge bow tie – and some fun reveals. Aoroi seems to be a concept taken straight from a fantasy art website, with fairies creeping out from beneath a curtain, half insect, half human, to play their amoral and predatory games. Despite some muddy movement, which took the edge off a little, these are seductive pieces, with a touch of the exuberant embrace of popular kitsch that animates so much of BalletLab’s work.

Lastly, I made an unplanned visit to the STC’s production of The Wonderful World of Dissocia, Anthony Neilson’s play about the psychotic breakdown of a woman called Lisa Jones (Justine Clarke). There’s something brilliantly crude about this work: the first half is a subjective enactment of delusional reality, the second a starkly minimal picture of its consequences. The excess of the first half is characterised by over-the-top, cabaret theatricality, delivered through some first-class performances. Lisa’s journey through Dissocia shows us a world that, like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, is at once funny, disorientating and darkly violent, a place where words have their own sinister life, like the ambiguous smile of a Cheshire cat. The second half shifts to another kind of theatre altogether, a minimal and unsparing realism that is all the more powerful for its contrast to what has happened earlier.

Marion Pott’s production is beautifully modulated. She catches the surreality of the first half through some hilarious and inventive theatre-making (with the help of some truly eye-burning costumes by Tess Schofield and Nick Schlieper’s lighting). After interval, the grassy field that constitutes the first stage lifts to become the oppressively low ceiling of the second set, lit with a neon harshness. Lisa’s bed and bedside table huddle forlornly in the corner, and the various staff and visitors who interact with her – making sure she takes her medication, confiscating her Walkman, blaming her for her lack of responsibility – have to walk in and out for the length of the stage. These scenes were delicately handled and cumulatively very moving. I don’t think I’ve seen a more compelling evocation of the isolating loneliness and disempowerment of mental illness.

Pictures: top: Elevator Repair Service's Gatz; bottom: The Wonderful World of Dissocia, STC.

Gatz, from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Directed by John Collins, set by Louisa Thimpson, lighting design by Mark Barton, sound design by Ben Williams. With Scott Shepherd, Jim Fletcher, Kate Scelsa, Sibyl Kempson, Lucy Taylor, Gary Wilmes, Vin Knight, Frank Boyd, Annie McNamara, Ben Williams, Laurena Allan, Mike Iveson and Ross Fletcher, Elevator Repair Service @ the Sydney Opera House until May 31.

Clickity Clack and Aroi, directed and co-choregraphed by Rochelle Carmichael. Lighting design by Thomas Lambert, costumes by Rochelle Carmichael, Michael Kopp, Sera Carmichael and Christina Smith. Danced by Kathryn Newnham, Caroline Meaden, Alice Dixon and Michael Kopp. Liquid Skin @ Theatreworks until May 31.

The Wonderful World of Dissocia by Anthony Nielson, directed by Marion Potts. Set design by Alice Babidge, costumes by Tess Schofield, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, music composed by Alan John, sound design by David Franzke. With Kate Box, Justine Clarke, Matt Day, Michelle Doake, Russell Dykstra, Socratis Otto, Justin Smith and Matthew Whittet. Sydney Theatre Company, closed.


The Perf said...

I think we felt very much the same way about Gatz. In the end it seemed to me to do nothing at all with F. Scott Fitzgerald's work and became the equivalent of a labouriously read audio book. Which was, as you say, disappointing considering its rather exciting premise.


Jana said...

I am terribly curious about the relationship between the epic and the dramatic in an attempt like Gatz. Since I won't be able to see it before it closes, I was hoping you would illuminate.

I mean, it sounds like an idea that has to either fail, or discover something new. I expect it would fail in many ways. But I'm curious about what it discovers, and so far I haven't been able to find out. (Lots of usual reviews saying blabla it was great!, they read the whole novel!)

As of pressing the reset button without waiting for the time it takes to restart, I swear there are people who do it in real life *cough*

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jana - I know, it's such a petty detail - one among many - and then, there was so much petty detail in the seemed emblematic.

As for your question - no, I can't illuminate. I guess that to begin with, I don't think The Great Gatsby is an epic novel - for me, it's more at the lyric end of things, an elegy for the American Dream - and the only epic dimension was sitting in the theatre for that long. I would love someone who enjoyed it to tell me what they found in the production. Because, yes, lots of people have raved about it, and I remain mystified. It's not like I'm hostile to so-called avant garde theatre or non-dramatic modes of presentation.
I thought it discovered nothing, except that maybe prose isn't the same as theatre.

Yet there were people standing up at the end of the performance I saw, and I had absolutely no idea why. Even when I see a Williamson play and am unamused, as I often am, it's not like I don't know why other people are laughing. With this one, I had no idea why people were excited. My guess was that they were applauding the novel and the effort expended in performing. Maybe themselves for being there. Maybe that it had finished (the final half hour - which paradoxically might have been one of the more compelling parts - felt excruciatingly endless, as if Fitzgerald didn't know how to end it - which certainly isn't the effect in the novel - another question about the dramaturgical approach). But surely there have to be other reasons?

Jana said...

Well, to reduce multiple meanings of 'epic' to one, I meant the distinction between lyric, epic and dramatic art as defined by Aristotle. Dramatic relying on mimesis, and epic on narration. One being geared primarily towards empathy, catharsis; the other one towards story-telling, understanding.

Of course, modern novels, including Gatsby, has elements of both, and so does modern drama. But it seemed to me that, by putting a whole novel on stage, an interesting clash between the two may be revealed because they're kept in reasonably pristine form.

Anyway. It's all castles in the air. Haven't seen it, won't...

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I wish you had seen it, Jana. I would have been fascinated to know what you thought.

Bless Aristotle. I have to read him again, but I don't remember him making such exclusive equations... It's hard really to relate form to function in that way in relation to art, since art is always impure. (Does drama not provoke understanding or employ narrative? for example). I was thinking of the distinction between epic and lyric poetry, I guess, Homer and Sappho, which collapses into the modern novel (Joyce, epic and lyric, and before him, the Romantics with Lyrical Ballads). The Great Gatsby is hardly epic really because it's a domestic story, it's no War & Peace, but it still has epic dimensions to its metaphor. All that big stuff about the dark fields of the Republic. But that's the quality I'd think of as lyric. Whew. Categories are endlessly confusing, really, because art is never pure.

And no, none of these questions had anything to do with the production that I could see; unless they were reaching, in a very reductive way, towards Brecht's idea of Epic Theatre, where he speaks of reportage, of people telling. But here - in both novel and production - it's only one person telling, one point of view, so it doesn't really apply, the view is always enslaved by the author/narrator. The tension between the two forms, novel and theatre, narrative and drama, remained on the surface, as a given, something assumed. Perhaps this was the point, but if it was, it arrived very fast.

David Cote said...

I saw GATZ a couple of years ago in Philadelphia and thought it was stunning work: a complex machine with many levels that both trivialized and glorified the Fitzgerald text (you can do both, by the way, and still maintain your literary cred), and did astonishing things with the frame it establishes at the top. It was pure escapism that critiqued escapism at the same time. Naturally, I'm sorry to read your underwhelmed, even hostile reaction to what I consider a remarkable and rigorous literary adaptation. De gustibus… of course. There's no use in trying to challenge your points, but to allege that the piece is "tame and unthought" is giving too little credit to a company that is nothing if not process oriented and thoughtful.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi David - good to see you here. De gustibus, of course, but I remain genuinely puzzled; the premise interested me enough to make the trip to Sydney, after all. I would love to hear your arguments for what was made of the text on stage. Could it be that what was initially fresh in performance has become stale in repetition? But I still didn't get the tautology.

Matthew said...

This is hardly an original criticism, but you're focusing too much on the text, Alison. Demanding to know "what was made of the text on stage" denies the textuality of the production itself. (I am reminded of Jana's commentary on 3xSisters: the textuality of the production is much more important than the textuality of the text it's based on.) Gatz was a production that, I agree with David, was about escapism, identification with a piece of writing, and about the act reading in and of itself. None which, obviously, are themes of Fitzgerald's book. It was about the experience of art and its effect on our experience of the everyday. Maybe this is too obvious or self-reflexive a thing for the theatre to be interested in, but I don't think so. Well aside from the fact that certain sections of The Great Gatsby were interpreted in a way I didn't necessarily agree with (I, too, was rather too interested at times of what was made of the text on stage), I agree that the show wasn't perfect; but it absolutely wasn't intended to be an illustration or even an exploration of The Great Gatsby and its themes, and to criticise it on that ground, I think, is misguided.

Alison Croggon said...

Matthew, you've got me exactly the wrong way round. If you read what I wrote in the review, my focus isn't actually on the text, or its interpretation, but on the text in performance. I wasn't asking for an illustration of the book - my primary criticism is that mostly, and certainly almost exclusively for the final half, the performance was only illustrating the text, and for the most part with such banality I couldn't quite believe it. (Like I said, there were scenes where it worked for me, but they were the ones that were shaped most like a traditional play...) If it had indeed explored what it promised in the beginning (and what I initially thought it was going to do - ie, entangle its initial mundane reality with the imaginative fiction of the novel) then I would have been very interested. That aspect of it basically stuttered out and went nowhere. That's why I wanted the rhythms of the office activity to have more verisimilitude; it ended up looking like gestures towards office work, pretend work, which seemed at odds with the detailed naturalism of the set. I thought Scott Shepherd the most compelling performer precisely because he was reading (and in the end even Shepherd started "acting"), which meant he was the only performer (aside maybe from the sound engineer) inhabiting a literal stage reality; everyone else oscillated uncertainly in the conceptual fog.

Matthew said...

Oh, I would have loved to have seen it with you!

To be honest, I agree with a number of your criticisms; I was really attacking that one sentence in your previous comment, which I found striking. (I would have commented sooner had I disagreed more fervently with more of your review.) To be sure, the reality of the text far outweighed the reality of the office setting; this was one of my problems with the production, too. A missed opportunity.

Chris Kohn said...

I thought it was a fantastic show. I wasn't at all interested in the world of the office - the characters and the conceit were insubstantial at best and distracting at worst, but godammit for some reason it just didn't matter to me. In fact, there were quite a few things about the show that didn't gel for me, including most of the third act, where it slipped into a pretty straight theatrical staging of the scenes from the book with the occasional annoying "he said" and "she said." But that also wasn't enough to detract from the overall effect Gatz had on me. The show as a whole was outshone by Fitzgerald's text, but then again, wasn't that more or less inevitable? The central idea of a complete reading was, I thought, a stroke of genius, and was correctly followed right through, even where this choice exposed its own limitations. I have never seen this type of project attempted before, and now wonder why I haven't. Even though there were opportunities missed and odd choices made, I was never disinterested and I felt I was hearing parts of the story and language that I hadn't heard before in the times that I have read it. The conceit of the office setting and the use of sound design shifted and altered throughout the 6 hours in what seemed quite pragmatic and aesthetically incongruous ways, but again, as part of a durational work I was able to accept this lack of unifying aesthetic a unifying force of its own. And Scott Shepherd was commanding as the reader. It was a big, bold, endeavour that was always going to fail in some respects, but I loved it.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for that Chris - at last someone says why they liked it!

We're both talking about overall effect, I expect...for me it was all diminishing returns. But I get what you're saying here.

Chris Kohn said...

Yes - I feel that I saw many of the same failings as you, including missed opportunities for a more interesting conversation between written text and theatricalisation, but the strengths as I felt them engendered a far more satisfying experience overall. I feel it was largely due to how much I enjoyed the central performance and was drawn into Fitzgerald's world, both due to and in spite of how it was embodied. I felt "on side" throughout, perhaps due to my admiration for the single-minded ambition of the project and its (I felt) authentic engagement with its brilliant source text. So at times when things weren't quite working for me (and in such an conceptually pragmatic show this was fairly often) I just couldn't help liking it.

David Cote said...

I would just like to suggest (rather late in this discussion) that the superstructure is very deliberate and powerful. From Scott the office drudge's first cracking the book to the final section where (as I recall) he reads for 20 minutes or from memory, we see a complete and satisfying arc. The third act, where the book overtakes the "frame" and the narrative saturates the piece's theatricality in a more traditional form of literary adaptation is, I would guess, intentional. The "cooling down" with Scott, achieves closure and we're back to where we began. Which is sad and rueful and beautiful. So! I loved it too, and now I've been better able to articulate it. Thanks, Alison!

Alison Croggon said...

My pleasure, David - and thanks for that. I would never have assumed the superstructure wasn't deliberate ... it just seemed a bit, well, obvious to me. I think at the micro level, moment to moment, I wanted more presence and depth from the performances (Scott's performance - up to the point where he put the book down - had that quality for me). In a funny way, the text for me was kind of neither here nor there. It occurs to me that part of my response might be because I always listen to text with, as it were, a double ear, firstly as it's embedded in performance, and secondly as language on its own (a skill I developed so I could hear a play and separate its effect from the amplification or depth or whatever of actorly/directorly interpretation). It's an amazingly beautiful book, but I felt the theatre rested on the novel's amazingness, and seldom went beyond exploiting that (though of course, there were those moments where I was riveted). The book is great, yes; but in terms of the theatre, all I was left with was the "single-minded ambition" Chris describes which, yes, has its own charm, but for me wasn't enough to sustain the duration... In terms of anti-theatre, aside from local references, it didn't have the unexpected charm and sophistication and plain radical challenge of someone like Richard Maxwell, who blew my mind when I saw New York City Players a few years ago. But nice to have the raves explained...

brecht said...

Hey, have you guys seen this review of Gatz? It tries to address a lot of your concerns by locating the production within the frame of artistic modernism more generally, and the notion of found objects in modern art.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Brecht for that pointer. This is interesting: "Further, the production exposes how the culture has deadened its passionate critique by enshrining it." Does it do this by some kind of mimesis of that deadening, do you think? What I thought of as the fetishising of the text? If so, the reflexive dangers of that are considerable (ie, it risks simply restating that deadening, rather than making us aware of it). It had none of the theatrical extremity or philosophical inquiry I associate with Artaud, though maybe the association with Brecht is a fair one, in relation to the discussions of epic above. In order to pull the thing off, I think the staged reality - the reality underlying the fictions of the office and the novel - had to have more depth and compulsion, and for me it just didn't.

Maybe different contexts are at work here. The Great Gatsby, although it's widely studied and known, doesn't hold the same kind of cultural iconic status as it does in the States. And in the end, I guess that Gatz just didn't do anything revelatory for me in its questioning of theatre, and that may be to do with how much theatre I see that does - ie, theatre that eschews conventional character/narrative/drama, and works strongly off the bare and wholly committed presence of actors on stage.

E. Hunter Spreen said...

Hi Alison:

I'm coming to this discussion rather late, but somehow I missed when you posted your review.

I saw the show a couple of years ago - traveled to another state to see it and found it was well worth the trip.

I understand your point about the banality - there were times when I was shocked at how banal the production was but, without actually knowing process from the inside, I'd argue that it was deliberate. At any rate, what it did for me was highlight how banal the characters and the plot of the story itself is in spite of its lyricism. It's not that I didn't care about the characters, but their concerns certainly aren't commiserate with the quality of feeling and idealism evoked in the text. I found that the production highlighted that riff; it was a new way of looking at the text for me. The casting also highlighted that riff for me. At first, I thought the actress who played Jordon was woefully ill-equipped to portray her, but it became that difference and the deliberate ineptness of the portrayal that brought Jordon to life and at the same time, seemed a comment on her shallowness (so there is your Brecht, eh?).

I found the company was constantly reinventing ways of looking at their relationship to the text. It didn't always work, but for me, it did more often than not. Scott's last monologue brought me to tears. I loved the simplicity of the staging and of the delivery. The intimacy and beauty of the text and of his sitting simply speaking to us was quite lovely and not something I experience often enough in theater - unfortunately.