Review: Poet No. 7 ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Poet No. 7

Any play with "poet" in the title is going to catch Ms TN's attention, although I have to admit that poetry doesn't necessarily fare well on the stage. Some of the worst nights of theatre I've suffered through have been misguidedly romantic imaginings about famous (and satisfactorily tragic) poets. Oh, the sins that have been committed in the names of Akhmatova and Mandelstam...

Ben Ellis is, however, far too tactful a writer to do this to us. The poet of his title is nameless: he has reached a truly poetic state of anonymity, and has even forgotten his own name. When X, a character driven mad by war, love and psychotropic drugs, takes his hand in greeting, the poet is dismembered by a bomb. X runs in a blind panic through burning GM crops (grown for military purposes) holding the poet's hand. "and i realise", says X, "that i have been running / for several kilometers of corn / with a dead man's arm / still shaking my hand".

This fragment of poet represents the fragment of poetry that informs the structure of this play - the idea that the light of stars is, literally, the manifestation of different times. As X says, the poet tells him that "that star there / that's three million years ago / and that star there / that's four years ago / what you are witnessing / is all different times / converging upon you". For Ellis's poet, this is a sign of hope. Andre Schwarz-Bart's brilliant novel on the Holocaust, The Last of the Just, works with a similar idea - "our eyes register the light of dead stars" - but more bleakly. For Schwarz-Bart, starlight is the touch of death, the irrevocable past that is only now news to us, but which in our belated present we can we can neither enter nor correct.

Nevertheless, like Schwarz-Bart (whose novel has other resonances with this play, including a character who turns into dog), Ellis is concerned with a series of apocalyptic presents, at once individual and global. Poet No. 7 is a series of four interwoven monologues that come from different fictional times and collide in the present of the stage. The four voices are Ella (Edwina Wren), a librarian who has fallen shatteringly in love; Mark (Merfyn Owen), a corporate executive in love with a younger woman who is selling patented indigenous crops to a big US company; Gillian (Georgina Capper), a woman who investigates the deaths of isolated people and who has to deliver a eulogy for a dead woman, and X (Simon King).

Through these monologues, Ellis creates a fictional world a micro-step away from ours. Australia is torn apart by some undefined war, its indigenous berries patented and genetically modified by corporate interests to make deadly military weapons. And in this imagined world, as in ours, people fall blindingly in love and die alone in apartments to be discovered weeks later.

It is an ambitious work, written in a plainly poetic vernacular that segues to moments of almost surreal lyricism. And as part of the Arts Centre's Full Tilt program, it's given a fascinating production by Ellis's long-time collaborator, Daniel Schlusser. The disappointing thing is that the writing can't sustain the pressure of the production: for too much of the play, the production and text are working at cross-purposes.

The first ten minutes or so, before any words are spoken, are riveting. Meg White's design, a thrust with audience on three sides and the sound and light technicians visible at a raised desk on the fourth, is plunged into darkness. What we see is a series of shrouded shapes, briefly illuminated by deep amber lights that pulse up to an unbearable brightness and then at once sink back into darkness. Then there is a camera's flash, illuminating three performers in face masks and rubber gloves and a fourth lying on the floor, a corpse draped in a plastic sheet. As we watch the performers scrutinise and file the objects on stage, we begin to understand that this is a forensic investigation.

The performers draw plastic sheets off the shrouded objects and turn on lights, revealing a strange landscape of glass tanks with a miscellany of things inside them: stuffed animals, a plastic penguin stranded in a desert of sand, even a live white mouse. It's unsettling, sinister and mysterious. One performer (Simon King) is creeping around the edges of the stage, hiding from the others. Later we discover that he is X, at once marginal and central to the action, the character through which the emotional action flows through madness and violence towards forgivenness.

By the time the performers begin to speak, we are already in another world. The transition to the text, which is already fragmented, is confusing: it takes quite a while to work out that the four monologues are autonomous, even if (as we discover) related, and to sort out their various stories. For the next fifteen minutes or so, I found my concentration constantly shifting, and mostly away from the text: I was so busy watching the various performers (and, at times, the very sanguine mouse) that sometimes I forgot to listen to the text altogether.

Then it began to come together in a different way, and the voices in this richly detailed production began to resonate against each other and drive its splintered narrative. This generates moments of real theatrical power, a poetic suspension of everything except the present moment. And in these moments, the whole thing begins to flower as a wholly integrated work of theatre.

There's much to see here, not least some astounding performances. The actors are totally focused for the duration, bringing a coherence to their stage presences that binds their often inscrutable actions with a compelling intention. There are three sound designers - Darrin Verhagen, Martin Kay and Nick van Cuylenburg - that provide collectively an elegantly evocative sonic environment. And Kimberly Kwa's lighting design, which uses both theatre lights and found lighting turned on and off by the performers, is stunningly good.

All the same, I suspect Ellis's play might have been better served with a production that tried to do less with it, with minimal staging and without the meta-narrative that Schlusser weaves around it. A lucid introduction of the different monologues might have solved a lot of my initial confusion. But then, perhaps the text's weaknesses would have been more exposed: I'm not entirely sure it could sustain a barer production. In any case, I had to go away and read it afterwards in order to understand better what the play was doing.

It's by no means badly written, and it's an interesting and ambitious take on a difficult theme: or maybe more accurately, many difficult themes (it's kind of like Ellis is dealing with Everything That's Wrong With The World, refracted through intimate moments of passionate human interaction). But I think that the text has dramaturgical problems: the voices, despite their differing narratives, are all too rhythmically similar to generate the electrifying contrasts that otherwise might have more clearly driven the play's emotional arc.

What I missed most was the steely language and rhythms that are the heart of lyric, a certain torque in the language itself. There are too many lines like " i look at flowers and cry / once i cried for longing / now i cry for sharing the beauty", lines that signal emotional intention but are too poetically generalised to rise past the bathos of cliché. And Ellis's writing can fall jarringly into didacticism. As soon as the torque in the language loosened, it ceased to be amplified by the theatrical context, but rather disappeared behind it.

Which makes it a deeply interesting production to think about, especially given the contemporary arguments about the relationship between writing and theatre. And, for all my reservations, it's well worth a look.

Picture: Edwina Wren in Poet No. 7. Photo: Daisy Noyes

Poet No. 7 by Ben Ellis, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Meg White, sound design and composition by Darrin Verhagen, Martin Kay and Nick van Cuylenburg, lighting design by Kimberly Kwa, costume design by Jemimah Reidy. With Edwina Wren, Merfyn Owen, Simon King and Georgina Capper. Full Tilt @ the Black Box, Victorian Arts Centre, until June 20.


Ben Ellis said...

Thanks for an interesting and closely read review, Alison, as ever.

I appreciate your reservations and I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with them. I'm afraid that the nature of my disagreements might reveal some basic differences that we might not be able to bridge, too. Specifically, there are two areas of emphasis in your critique to which I'd like to respond. First, the question of the bathos.

What troubles me about the way you've approached the text is highlighted by your mentioning of Ella's bathos and generalised expression of emotion. If I had written Poet #7 as pure lyric or pure verse, then I think that your observation about the writing's quality would stand; but the speech is written for the stage. Here is a character - among other elements - whose emotional self-dramatisation differs enormously from the dramatisation I intend for her and for the audience. For the purposes of the play, a staged play, it's important for me to show a character who avoids precision; what happens to her in the story would not (have) happen(ed) had she been able to detail precisely her emotional workings: she stalks a man, for heaven's sake, and thinks it's love. Emotional articulacy would mean a character who would act very differently, who would be shocked at her own behaviour, and who would not take the actions that lead to the other events. A certain amount of specificity is required for the text to work, but emotional precision is for a reflection suited to reading on the page, not for the open kind of stage space that includes an audience.

If I was writing lyric, I would not have stood for the generalisations, but lyric this is not and not intended to be. It's a stage piece/play/drama, and the characters are deploying such generalisations to hide reality from themselves, to avoid precise self-knowledge. The idea was that the audience gets to see and to recognise this and what the consequences of this self-dramatising bathos is when the connections between the characters and the events they cause for one another finally become apparent. This is part of the ambition of the piece, I suppose. That I'm trying to provide interest for an audience in dramatising four characters who are not good at dramatising their own lives or at self-knowledge. That's why I wrote it as a play for voices and bodies, often indeterminate and elusive, and not as a steely lyric. Lyric is a particular pursuit of and in language, but this is written as drama. Granted, I've written a pretty fragmented and experimental drama, but it's not lyric and by concentrating upon that aspect when looking at the writing little else about it is seen. You might say that I'm trying to have my cake (emotional generalisations are in ) and eat it too (but they're not really MY emotional generalisations) - but think of it in terms of the difference between an act and the representation of an act and we might be getting somewhere.

Secondly, there's the question of whether the text can stand a barer production. Of the two productions I've seen, (the London and Dublin ones), the (by financial necessity) barer one in Dublin did hold up. Now, that may have been to do with using the same actors as from the London production six months earlier, so there was a familiarity that made it hum. I did change the beginning of the play for that production so that it began straight away with voices talking over one another before it settled into the singular character speeches. That seemed to make the whole thing then easier for audiences to follow (i.e. make it seem impossible to begin with, and then nothing afterwards is difficult a la voices coming from the urns).

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, Ben, for your response. It's very interesting, and very generous of you to post it.

And I think we may have to agree to disagree. Not that that's a tragedy, by any means; more the basis of civil society, as I see it...but I'll just tease out what I meant a little more, to clarify.

To be specific, I think you've misunderstood my usage of the term "lyric". You're quite right to point out that you're not writing lyric poetry, but drama. Although it's a term informed by poetry, from which it of course derives, I was thinking of lyric in its dramatic use - I'd suggest passages from Sophocles, bits of Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Heiner Mueller, as random examples here. I used that term because it's certainly where the play is living: it's fragmented, it's written in lines (like a poem) rather than sentences, it's working off elusive or contradictory emotional subtexts, its connections are lateral, etc etc. In my specific criticism, I am talking about a prosodic (rhythmic) quality as much as anything else, but I think that counts in drama just as crucially as it does in poetry. I think when dealing with questions of emotional/linguistic inarticulacy, prosodic energy is crucial: in a way, when dealing with impoverished language, it's all you have to work it into the heightening of dramatic language, and to render its ambiguities. The "steely" quality I mention is precisely to do with that prosodic quality, and is what sustains a line's ambiguity: the language, whether dramatic or poetic, has to be tough, it has to resonate in the ear and mind, and it's what can put the spin on cliche and turn it into something else. That has little to do with whether the meaning(s) is indeterminate - Ashbery, one of the greatest lyric poets around, is one of the great exponents of elusive, indeterminate poetry, but his best poems all have that toughness. And it's absolutely there in Pinter.

I guess it's inevitable that my inner poetry critic is going to enter into the questioning here, given the sort of play it is: but she's always there when I read (or hear) plays anyway. In your case, I did both, which led to some close reading...

Tony Comstock said...

Will your next post be about the police raids on Abby Winters?

Alison Croggon said...


Janet Watson Kruse said...

Dear Alison

I am a working Melbourne actor who has recently discovered your blog - I love it and disseminate the joys of your intellectual rigour and good writing among my network.

I recently saw a show which I think really deserves your attention. Prophet and Loss, at the Uniting Church centre opposite Melbourne Cemetery Gates is a beautiful piece of theatre, enhanced by some superb music. Jane Woollard has taken the fierce poetry from the text of Isaiah, and combined it with the emotionally intense stories of those bereaved in workplace accidents. There's real depth and intellectual rigour in the use of the poetic propehtic fragments, the stories are told with simplicity and emotional truth, and the form of the play is elegant and illuminating. Helen Morse is among the actors, and the soprano/bass combination of Nick Tsiavos and Deborah Kayser give an improviastional slant to Gregorian chant, a project they have been working on for 19 years.

It's only on this week Wednesday to Friday and tickets are tight, but I'd really love to read your thoughts on this intelligent and beautiful work.

I am not involved in the production, although I do know one of the producers. I actually went to see it twice, which is something I don't normally do!

If you happen to be concerned about the theological context, it's not confessional - it asks lots of questions with no easy answers.

Warmest regards

Janet Watson Kruse

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Janet - I've been in correspondence about this show, and - even more sadly now - just had to pass on it, as my diary was already too full. I'm very glad to hear a report on it, though. That's the bugger about theatre, if you miss it, you miss it. I hope it comes back at some stage.