Julian makes several criticisms of Age critic Cameron Woodhead’s and my responses (both the Australian notice and the later meditation on TN). Most seriously, he claims that our reactions are part of “our culture’s bizarre, unreadable and depressing attitude to Aboriginality”. In his view, “the evidence points … to a critical absence where a critical response should be: to a marked unwillingness to connect with the victim of the play.” Basically, both Cameron and I missed the point of the production because we are unable to empathise with the plight of Indigenous people in Australian society; which is to say, our responses were racist. I’ll return to this point, which has led to a fair bit of soul-searching on my part, later. Firstly, I’d like to respond to the criticisms Julian has made of my practice as a critic, some of which seem a little personal. I don’t presume to speak for Cameron.
Julian suggests that Cameron and I are part of a sterile and rigid matrix of ideas that will, sooner or later, spell the death of Australian theatre. He is more disappointed with me, because he has higher expectations. After saying (nicely) that I am one of the most intelligent people writing about theatre today, he says of my reviews: “partisanship is the essence of her craft. It is possible to say ahead of time what Alison will think of any show because her view of theatre is schematic, adversarial and assured. The result is opinions which label themselves as such, yet lack range in feeling and taste. This has always been a problem for Australian critics of quality, who are bottled-up in a theatre scene not big enough even to be called a pond.”
I don’t in fact know what Julian means by saying that my view of theatre is “schematic” and “adversarial”. (Assured, maybe, although anyone who reads me carefully will know that doubt is one of the poles of that dialectic.) Perhaps Julian really can tell ahead of time what shows I will enjoy, in which case he knows something that I don’t: but it is hardly true, as he seems to be claiming, that I only enjoy a particular kind of theatre. It’s a little hard to second-guess what he means here, but I’ll take my cue from his comments about his revulsion against a theatre of “bling and high technique” that eschews “simplicity and sachlichkeit (literally ‘sobriety’)”, and assume he means that I am a partisan critic who supports a theatre of spectacle at the expense of less showy but more truthful aesthetics.
Well, it's certainly true that I have enjoyed shows that exploit the spectacular possibilities of theatre, from Jersey Boys to Honour Bound, from Food Court to The Women of Troy to The War of the Roses (although that production seemed, if anything, to embrace qualities of simplicity and sobriety). But surely if I were simply a narrow partisan for that kind of theatre, I should have also enjoyed Bell Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Titus, Fall of Rome or Barrie Kosky’s production of The Navigator or the Malthouse production of The Odyssey? And I certainly would not have been so enthusiastic about the MTC production of Blackbird, which was as simple and sober as anything I’ve seen, or the recent production of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Tom Fool, or even Ranter’s defiantly anti-spectacular work in Holiday. I have pretty catholic, if not always populist, tastes. I admit, as a quirk of sensibility, that I prefer highbrow and lowbrow over middlebrow, but probably my most identifiable prejudice is towards good writing.
Further, Julian says that "a certain kind of diminishing power comes with being a critic - a petty power directors also court, so I recognise it - that is corrosive of disinterested thinking and the wider view." Perhaps. I always hope that my writing is at once interested (in the work it attends to) and disinterested. I can say in clear conscience, however, that I have never been remotely interested in “power”, unless it’s the power to spark a conversation. If power were what motivated me, I wouldn’t have started this blog, or I would have dropped it the moment the Australian job came along. I don’t find power – or at least, the power that Julian seems to be talking about – very interesting at all. I guess I’m rather Senecan on that question: it means very little, and it certainly won’t last, and I’d rather spend my energy in more rewarding pursuits.
It’s possibly not irrelevant here to note that I also inhabit at least two other worlds (not counting those private worlds which come with raising a family), both of which give me a status, even a minor international fame, which is much less ambivalent than the notoriety which comes from commenting rudely on other people’s work. In other words, I don’t need to do this work to gratify my ego. Priggish though it might sound, aside from my passion for the art of theatre I am motivated by the hope that a culture of conversation will take hold on the fragile soil here. I am glad the blog is regarded as influential – that is of course gratifying – but it’s a shame if it also means that the work is read less carefully, if its perceived status obscures the worth or otherwise of what one is actually doing. If anything, the blog’s success has sparked a nightmare scenario of my ossifying into a one-woman institution; and if anything makes me stop blogging, it will be that prospect.
For these reasons, I should be sorry if this argument is read as being simply about power, or even as adversarial. It’s not. It’s about disagreement. Even if it is not the case, I prefer to imagine that I live in a civilised culture, a culture where difference can be respected and is considered an enriching means of extending and questioning the self.
Which brings me to Julian’s central point: that my critique of The Birthday Party was primarily marked by a lack of attention to the Indigeneity of the cast that amounts to racism. This is a difficult charge to counter; and I should hate to think that was really the case. In my reviews of Indigenous productions – Black Medea, for instance, or Yibiyung, or The Man from Mukinupin - I’ve always tried to be sensitive to racial issues, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always successful. As any woman knows in attempting to explain the subtler ramifications of sexism, it can be difficult to register the nuances of prejudice if you haven’t encountered it yourself.
And it seems that here I failed; moreover, I failed in a way that is emblematic of wider problems in Australian culture. As Julian claims:
In shaping their responses, everything about The Birthday Party that is different, new, challenging and important has been swept aside. The result is an evasiveness which, if you didn’t know the show, might not be perceptible. Even if you did know the show you might be tempted to gloss over it as allowable, though strange. But if you cared about it, had felt Pinter’s cold, undeniable fingers close round your heart then this weird slipperiness is something that needs explaining.
I cannot unpack my thoughts on the show without discussing Australian theatre more broadly. Although it is a generalisation, it is one that captures something about the art form at the moment to say there is a hole where its heart should be. This is exemplified by Cameron’s and Alison’s reviews. They are incomplete, in an emotional and spiritual sense, and this speaks to a larger disconnection in the culture.
I am not at all sure how one can be a “complete” reviewer anywhere, let alone in the constraints of print media. Written responses to anything, from the overnight notice to the seriously considered book, are all, to one degree or another, partial. All the same, it’s fair to say that my emotional connection to this production of The Birthday Party was incomplete: my primary criticism of the production, in a mirror of Julian’s criticism of my comments, was that something was missing in the middle.
Contrary to Julian’s claims, I called the cross-racial casting “a rare and welcome example of main stage cross-racial casting” and later, in response to a commenter, expanded my thoughts: “I really don't think the cross-racial casting is an issue here, in any negative way I mean. It's the most interesting aspect of the production, it's thoughtfully done so it doesn't cheapen the play or the issues it brings to bear on the text, and it works, not least because it brings a brilliant new energy into the MTC purview. I'm hoping it brings local casting more in line with what goes on routinely, for example, on the BBC, which is light years ahead of us on this question. The idea had - and I guess this is what frustrated me - the possibility of bringing a tough and fresh angle onto Pinter's work. For me it just didn't get there - but it's not because of anything to do with the casting.”
The major sticking point is the comments on Isaac Drandic’s performance, which attracted criticism from both Cameron and myself; although I took it as probably a directorial decision, Cameron went with his guns ablaze for the actor himself. To quote Julian again: “I have … come to feel these critical judgements of his performance are harsh, unreasonable and perverse. Worse, they operate in such a way as to block traffic, fuddling the intended meaning of the show. His performance is used as an excuse not to look at the unsettling racial associations the action throws up. As a young, black, working-class man – and this description would apply both to Isaac and Stanley – empathy is withheld from him in an unnatural way.”
It’s only natural to want to defend an actor who has been so pilloried. But all the same, I find it hard to swallow the suggestion that these responses have nothing to do with the production, and everything to do with unacknowledged racial prejudice; that it comes from an "unnatural" coldheartedness that can only be explained by racism. As for a perverse lack of empathy for the real victims feeding into my critique of the acting: I think the actual victim in this play is the naif landlady, Meg, and I was knocked out by Pauline Whyman’s beautiful performance.
I think the argument comes down to different readings of the play. Certainly, in his defence of his production, Julian seems to be warping the play I’ve read, giving it a sentimental gloss that is so at odds with my understanding of Pinter’s work that it’s no wonder I missed the point.
Is Stanley, even performed by a “young, black, working class man”, really such a sympathetic character in the play? Is he really the “real victim”? I’d say that Stanley is an ambiguous character from the beginning, as this exchange in Act 1 demonstrates:
Meg: Am I really succulent?
Stanley: Oh yes. I’d rather have you than a cold in the nose any day.
Meg: You’re just saying that.
Stanley: (violently) Look, why don’t you get this place cleared up! It’s a pigsty! And another thing, what about my room? It needs sweeping. It needs papering. I need a new room!
Meg: (sensual, stroking his arm) Oh Stan, that’s a lovely room. I’ve had some lovely afternoons in that room.
He recoils from her hand in disgust, stands up and exits quickly.
Or this, a little later on:
Stanley: (quietly) Who do you think you’re talking to?
Meg: (uncertainly) What?
Stanley: Come here.
Meg: What do you mean?
Stanley: Come over here.
Stanley: I want to ask you something. (MEG fidgets nervously. She does not go to him.) Come on. (Pause.) All right. I can ask it from here just as well. (Deliberately.) Tell me, Mrs Boles, when you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself who exactly you are talking to? Eh?
This is classic Pinter dialogue, ripe with ambiguity and implied menace. The dialogue is laced with mingled sexual attraction and repulsion and an implied violence pulses beneath the text. Meg’s sudden fear speaks volumes: she really doesn’t know who she is speaking to. And as McCann and Goldberg make clear later, Stanley is somehow compromised by a secret mutual history that involves these two figures, although we never know what it is. He is not merely a simple working class guy. (If he is, indeed, working class, which I think is arguable).
My issue with Julian's production was always with the emotional tenor and interpretation of the direction. The production I saw smoothed out these disturbances: the relationship between Stanley and Meg was comfortably maternal, with any hint of incestuous perversion softened to a harmless joke, and Stanley never, at any point in the first act, generated any sort of threat. That simply seems to be at odds with the text. As I said, I could see the potential power of an Indigenous take on this play, but in this instance it never caught flame:
But - and for me it is a large but - there was something missing in the middle of the play… a sense of soft-focus permeates the tone of the whole production: the squalor of the boarding house… is here rendered with a respectable cleanliness. There are moments of sudden brutality, moments of discomfort, but instead of winding slowly up to a kind of stomach-twisting panic, they dissipate in comic relief. It's too easy in this production to read The Birthday Party as a kind of surreal comedy about "those" kinds of people - lower middle class, Not Like Us - because its real power, its merciless exposure of the dark animal impulses in human behaviour, is muffled. The sense of interior nightmare never takes hold where it counts, in the primitive caverns of the subconscious.
My first critical concern was with this play, not the director’s political intentions. To my mind, if the production had succeeded on this deeper level, its political intentions would have, blazingly, followed. But I don't believe this happened in this production, or at least in the performance I saw.
My racial blindness, says Julian, lies in two main areas. Firstly, I am remiss in not fully welcoming the implications of an Indigenous cast performing The Birthday Party. “You might get the impression from the reviews that cross-racial casting of canonical English plays went on all the time, instead of the reality, that it almost never happens. One contributor to the Theatre Notes blog suggested it might be a marketing strategy. But the implications are professionally and culturally profound. There are few more difficult playwrights than Pinter. If you can act Pinter, you can act anything. An indigenous cast nailing The Birthday Party is an indication that a new era in cross-cultural casting has arrived. It’s a shift from why (why cast Aboriginal actors) to why not (why not cast Aboriginal actors). If they can do the part, they can be in the play, regardless of colour or creed.”
On reflection, perhaps I could have said more about the fact of the cross-racial casting; but aside from welcoming it, the fact is that I didn’t out of a fear of seeming patronising. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Indigenous actors can do this play; of course they can, just as Iraqi or Russian or Australian actors can (or can’t). To suggest anything else seems, well, racist.
The other level of blindness is in the meaning of the play. This is trickier: in his essay, Julian is suggesting a rewriting of the class and racial structures in the original text along lines that rather shock me in their reductiveness. In Julian’s words: “In this production, everyone is Aboriginal except for Goldberg. So the action goes: a white man hunts down a black man, charms his landlady, seduces his girlfriend, then terrorizes, tortures and takes him away to a malign fate. When Stanley appears at the end of the play, ready to go, he’s physically OK but can no longer talk. It seems hilarious now but when I was rehearsing, I thought the meaning of all this would be too obvious. I hadn’t factored in Australia’s completely aphasic attitude to race.”
I’d suggest that it’s not so much an aphasic attitude to race as a familiarity with the play, which sets up its own expectations, and which is not exactly amenable to any simple top-down reading. As Pinter himself said, “In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an act of subjugation.” In the original play, the lines of power are not nearly so clear-cut, with the "superior" race at the apex of power: race and class cut against each other.
Goldberg might be the top dog, the wealthier man of a higher class, and, indeed, the locus of violence; but, crucially, he is Jewish. As Pinter well knew, he would be a man who was, no matter what his social or economic status, a target of the casual and vicious anti-Semitism in English culture (Orwell’s self-excoriating essay on covert anti-Semitism in Britain is a must-read on this one). McCann, an Irishman, is from another culture marginalised and discriminated against in English culture. It might have made more sense in Julian’s production for Goldberg to be Aboriginal. The play itself works against Julian’s professed intentions, and that’s why I didn’t read it in the way he desired.
I'll finish with a quote from Pinter’s Nobel speech, which perhaps best expresses the indeterminacy of his drama, its essential inhospitability to imposed interpretation:
Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.Julian Meyrick's full response is available as a pdf download on the MTC site.