Review: Life is a Dream, When The Rain Stops Falling ~ theatre notes

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Review: Life is a Dream, When The Rain Stops Falling

The most contemporary thing about contemporary art is its crisis...

The Accident of Art, Paul Virilio

It's always interesting to revisit a show, and doubly interesting when it's as fascinating as Daniel Schlusser's production Life is a Dream, an enactment of the 17th century Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca's famous philosophical play about the nature of reality. Theatre in its purest forms is flux made visible and plastic, a constant interrogation of the present through the conditionings of the past. (I mean this quite literally. Weeks or months of rehearsal, countless orchestrations of bodies, objects, sound, spatial arrangements, make every action a deliberate and conscious choice that, if it is to possess any life, must manifest in the now as if it were newly discovered: a paradox theatre can never resolve so much as embody).

Heraclitus, whose ambiguities and musical language make him a poet among philosophers, argued that: "On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow" (for the Greek scholars among you, "Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei"). Not so much that one can't step into the same river twice, which is Plato's interpretation, but that in returning to the same river, one will encounter other waters: the river remains what it is only through the constancy of its change.

Likewise with revisiting a work of theatre: the work's structure and identity remain constant, but the experience will be, in countless subtle ways, a different meeting, buffeted by variable currents. This change is, crucially, the condition of its vitality. In the case of Life is a Dream, focus inevitably shifts on a second viewing, and becomes more layered: what I said about its first season last year, with Company 08 at what was then the Victorian College of the Arts, remains true. (And since I hate repeating myself, that review contains a discussion of the original play and its relation to the performance which I'll not explore here).

Yet, wholly unsurprisingly, this incarnation is more conscious, more practised, and more immediately legible. As much as any evolution in the work itself, this is also because I was sitting close enough to the performers to hear their private dialogue, which was mostly inaudible the first time. Although in both cases the emerging power relationships between the performers was very clear, there was a quality to this inaudibility that I missed, a heightened sense of voyeurism that underlaid some of the work's strange unease.

Schlusser uses very little of the original play; it exists as shining moments of pure dramatic poetry that bubble out of the riveting banality of the performance on stage. He weaves fragments of Beatrix Christian's translation through what he calls "poorer" speech: a casual domestic conversation that establishes its own routine - boiling a kettle, tea making, instructions to comfort or to attack another performer. The conceit is that the performers are, like Segismundo himself, damaged adults abandoned by parental authority; they are caught in a traumatic repetition that attempts to restore order, clear lines of authority and power, where none existed in the first place.

This initial reality is established patiently and without any concession to dramatic artifice: there is no attempt to persuade an audience to empathy, no overt manipulation. The action on stage flirts constantly with the edges of boredom, but its apparent artlessness is belied by its careful orchestration. The stage dynamic escalates insensibly from a mundane if degraded domesticity to excesses of cruelty and desire with an action like breathing: it eddies in and out of crisis, gradually generating a concentration of energy until the poetry of Calderón's play becomes possible.

The power of this production depends crucially on the nine performers who, with the exception of Johnny Carr who plays the imprisoned Segismondo, are unable to escape our gaze. They inhabit the reality of the stage with unwavering concentration, hooking and keeping an involuntary attention with the depth and detail of their performances. When they shift seamlessly from casual spoken language to the startlingly beautiful poetry of Christian's text, it has both the shock of contrast and an underlying continuity.

The show's sense of unity stems from the central metaphor that is filleted out of the play and extended in performance - the figure of the abandoned and mistreated child. Here the fairytale mother is dead in childbirth, the father an absent tyrant; the child is betrayed by those who should have most cared for him. When Segismundo is brought out of his prison in chains, his legs and elbows agonisingly chafed and blistered, he is the embodiment of abjection. His suffering, according to the king, is the condition of the kingdom's security: he is the scapegoat for the king's fears and, as a result of his mistreatment, also embodies them.

Life is a Dream plays out the aftermath of damage: it's clear in the neurotic repetitions, the infantilisms of mutual dependency and the relentless scapegoating, as much as in the complex denials that are encapsulated by mundane routine. In particular, it illuminates how traumatic shifts of power are domesticated and normalised, just as after revolution the king - Napoleon, Stalin - restores the lines of authority that have been blown violently apart. Freedom glimpsed through the lens of revolution is, after all, terrifying, and perhaps there is something in the human psyche that craves the security of tyranny.

This production is in some ways deeply pessimistic: trapped in the damage of childhood, it suggests, we can never embrace either freedom or responsibility. Against this is posited a fragile hope in a possible ethics, Segismundo's statement that the good we do matters, whether it occurs in a dream or in reality. It offers no resolution: the production is simply a playing out of crisis. It's a crisis of art as much as it is of conscience, poising us, just as the performances do, on the razor-edge of contingency, between the ghosts of the past and the trash of the present.


THIS week I also caught Andrew Bovell's When The Rain Stops Falling, which finishes its MTC season today after a national tour. This production has been bouncing from festival to festival, with plaudits showering down like the torrents mentioned ad nauseam in the play itself. And I'm frankly baffled by the fuss.

The structure is an uncomfortable conceit that stretches Arthur Miller-style realism towards surreal ends. The writing is like a lot of the Australian brand of so-called magical realism, which employs an enervating faux lyricism to dress up what are essentially banal conclusions with some pretty imagery (in this case, fish and rain). The anxiously detailed plot (paedophilia, suicide, child murder, child abandonment, love affairs, fatal car accidents, all swimming in the thematic broth of climate change) is strung together by a bunch of increasingly unlikely coincidences, ranging across four generations of two families to trace the genealogy and resolution of psychic damage.

Yet for all this frenetic ambition, it nowhere strikes a true emotional note: all through the play, statement ("I'm going mad!") substitutes for the emergence of feeling. It's amazing how agonisingly boring this becomes: the falsity mounts to an almost hysteric over-compensation, which is perhaps most noticeable in the copious tears shed by various actors. And it's not helped by the leaden pace of the production, which delivers its holy truths with an earnestness worthy of George Lucas retelling the Christian myth in the Star Wars prequel. Repetitions are archly (and frequently) deployed to demonstrate the fatal connections across generations, but they function chiefly as a plot contrivance, rather than as a deepening of metaphor.

The design is stylishly imagined by Hossein Valamanesh, but in the end amounts to a parade of pretty tableaux unveiled to a neo-Glass soundtrack, which is at least played live. The performances, perhaps worn down after several seasons, varied wildly the night I saw them; Neil Pigot's bizarre decision to play both his roles as if he were an old man whose boots were full of water was intensely distracting, as were some very poorly rendered British accents. For the record, Yalin Ozucelik got his accent pitch-perfect, and Paul Blackwell's understated performance was a pleasure to watch, which provided some compensation for all the mugging.

Even more than its intellectual fuzziness - the issue of climate change, for example, is basically a kind of aesthetic wallpaper - its main lack is emotional precision, which would seem crucial in a work that is essentially about the life of feeling. Ironically, given its obsession with rain, it made me think of some lines of Ezra Pound's: "dry casques of departed locusts / speaking a shell of speech... / Words like locust-shells, moved by no inner being..." It gives the whole a strange air of being an imitation of something else.

Life is a Dream, adapted from Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Beatrix Christian, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Marg Horwell, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, special make-up effects by Dominique Noelle Mathisen, composed by Darrin Verhagen, stage management by Pippa Wright, produced by Sarah Ernst. With George Banders, Brendan Barnett, Johnny Carr, Andrew Dunn, Julia Grace, Sophie Mathisen, Vanessa Moltzen, Sarah Ogden and Josh Price. The Store Room until November 29.

When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell, directed by Chris Drummond. Desined by Hossein Valamanesh, composer Quentin Grant, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With Paul Blackwell, Michaela Cantwell, Carmel Johnson, Kris McQuade, Yalin Olucelik, Anna Lise Phillips and Neil Pigot. Brink Productions, presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company and Melbourne International Arts Festival, Sumner Theatre untl November 22.


Jason said...


That hurts. Good on you for not mincing words over something you clearly felt disappoints. But we couldn't have had more disparate opinions.

The Sydney Theatre Company production I saw of When The Rain Stops Falling earlier this year was deeply emotionally resonate. Not sure why you were left cold.

Can I say, in seeing a GREAT lot of theatre this year across the eastern seaboard and in New York I've sat through some really awful texts. This is not an awful play. It's a more beautiful Australian work than I've seen this year. And it deserves its place on Broadway next year and I hope it continues to bounce around this country so more people can see it.

An entertaining and honest review - but I wanted to give another side of the story. SEE IT IF YOU CAN!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jason. I know a lot of people loved this one, but I was really squirming.

Anonymous said...

Man, that response is so typical of the weird reaction to this play, Jason. It's an okay play - not the second coming of Christ.

I was bored bored bored. Who cares about that fucken fish? WHO CARES. And paedophiles, again? OH man.

I think Australians enjoy being bored.

David Williams said...

Hi Alison, I don't think that it's the performances being possibly tired that contributed to your boredom. I saw the play in Adelaide very early in it's original run, and found it ponderous, tedious, structurally transparent ( in an uninteresting way) and just plain dull. My comment at the time was that it was a monochrome play, accompanied by monochrome design and performances. I know that I wasn't alone in this, based on many conversations I had at the time. The fuss always baffled me as well.


Anonymous said...

Shocked and stunned, Alison, shocked and stunned!

WTRSF was my third play (I saw it in Sydney), and also the first one that I ever reviewed, so I guess I probably have a soft spot for it, much like I still think that my first cinematic treat, Sister Act, is a classic (and am not ashamed to admit it). I wish I could see it again to see if my reaction would still be the same.

I did have some reservations about it at the time, including the plot-contrivances/coincidences that you mentioned (though I had a “that’s slightly forced” reaction whereas you seem to have had a “oh come on, as if!” one.) If I had had the latter reaction I think I would’ve been bored as well – instead I didn’t even notice my butt getting sore in the seat, which is usually a good sign, especially considering the running time! Also, I recently read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Kundera was talking about there being “no meaning without repetition” which I’m not sure I entirely agree with, although it does seem to apply to WTRSF.

I’d be interested to know, Alison, whether you knew anything about the play before you saw it? (Such as the paedophilia, for instance.) A lot of the impact of this play would come from the “reveals” in it, I think. In fact, I’d probably be bored with it on a second viewing... Hmm.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks David - not that it matters whether others agree, but the general feeling among those I've talked to since seeing the show is a similar puzzlement.

Hi EP - I don't see how my response invalidates your experience, although no doubt it reveals something about the things I want from theatre. Emotional verisimilitude being a major component. I think the contrast between this and Africa, which much more humbly and with utterly devastating effect explored some of the same areas, was all too stark.

And no, all I knew about the play when I saw it was what was in the publicity material. I saw the reveals coming a mile off.

Cuckoo said...

Glad you reviewed this, as I wanted to know what you thought. As a scarred veteran of many bad MTC productions, I begged off this one when my wife and her friends (one of whom works for the MTC) went to see it. I have to stress that they are the kind of people who will bend over backward to find something good to say about any new play, new art, etc. But they came back home speechless and shaking their heads. "Excruciating" was my wife's comment (and she NEVER uses strongly critical language) - she confessed to literally pinching herself to try to stay awake.

Liked what you say about being able to guess the reveals. After my wife saw 'August Osage County' (another one I wisely avoided), she came home and started telling me the plot; without any effort, I was able to anticipate all the reveals. It's just telemovie plotting.

Jake said...

"The falsity mounts to an almost hysteric over-compensation" - that sums up the AFI-nominated movie Blessed, which Bovell co-wrote. Indeed the symptoms described are so typical of Australian cinema that I read this review with a sigh of relief.

tom said...

WTRSF really does seem to totally divide audiences! I'm a defender. I think it's easy to tear down writers who are interested in structure in the musical sense. They don't invest in the open, messy, 'liveness' that (probably rightly) has been seen as the saviour of local theatre but want to set up fugal, sonata like patterns which carry emotional weight not simply via the actors' performances but through the arrival of imagery and resonance. For example, for me the appearance of the red dressing gown at the end of the play was incredibly potent and moving. I'd love to write more but have to run.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tom - it certainly does divide people! For the record, I wasn't missing a sense of "messy liveness" here. I love the strict musical structures employed by (say) people like Beckett or Foss or Bernhardt or Genet or Vinaver or whoever... Aside from what I thought were heavy-handed symbolic gestures (the dressing gown reminds me of that clunky monologue about Diderot) what bothered me was the naivety of the poetic. No resonance happened for me because the notes struck were generalised and imprecise.

To take a trivial example: the refrain of people preparing for a visit by washing the walls, taking all the furniture into the middle of the room, painting the room and replacing the furniture - maybe three days' hard work for one person, I would say, and the house would stink of paint; but in this play all this work took place in a single morning. Which tells me that this recurring scene could not be "real", and so I cease at some unconscious level to believe in the reality of the stage.

This is not simply pedantic (though it's pedantic as well) - it's about the necessity for imagery to make concrete sense, at however many removes (and they can be several levels of imagining between a given physical reality and the reality of a piece of writing). It's as true of Vallejo or Ionesco as it is of, say, Emily Bronte. It's that literal fibre that makes a poetic reality muscularly alive, and it was constantly missing for me in this writing. Like another great writer of lyrical prose said, God is in the detail.

I'm sorry if this isn't clearly explained, but it's the sort of thing better poets than I am take whole books to elucidate.

Anonymous said...

Oooh I know exactly what you mean! I love you, Alsion Croggon. A reality is not realism...

Jetsetting Joyce (MEL: HOT OR NOT) said...

Oh, I'm sorry that you didn't like When the Rain Stops Falling. Because out of the three MTC productions I saw this year (August: Osage County, God of Carnage) this one was my favourite. I thought it was beautiful, engaging, surprising, imaginative and thought-provoking.

Jetsetting Joyce

They Call Him Balosh said...

I didn’t see the production of WTRSF but I read the script a couple of years ago and what struck me about the writing – apart from the contrivance of the plot, the tiresome and obvious over-use of ‘symbolism’ (WE FUCKING GET IT!!! you find yourself screaming six pages in) – was the almost total lack of humour. This always makes me suspicious. The tone felt so reverential, serious and self-important that I imagine seeing a production of this play would have been like going to church. Whenever I went to church as a child I always felt a strong urge to get up and defecate on the altar. I don’t think I could have seen this show without wanting to climb up and piss all over the stage.

Jason said...

Settle down, Balosh. The spirited debate is great, but a significant piece of creative effort - no matter what you think of it - doesn't deserve to be urinated on.

Alison Croggon said...

Er...right. I'm all for a continent audience, Balosh, so it's just as well for everyone concerned that you didn't see the show.

Anonymous said...

I'm incontinent, but it's medical. Can I come?

Alison Croggon said...

But of course. Unless you clamber onto the stage, of course, which might cause dismay.

Ethel Malley said...

Careful Alison. Never mind climbing onstage. We in the audience sooner fear the actor's descent. For lo! THE CURSE OF BOVELL is at work internationally! Inflated self-importance is the order of the day!

from today's TIMES (London):
The Times November 25, 2009

Actor Ian Hart faces police action after lunging at member of audience

Chris Smyth and Sarah Hajibagheri

Gerard Earley was so impressed by Ian Hart’s performance in the West End that he got to his feet to applaud. Ian Hart was so unimpressed by Mr Earley that he ran from the stage to scream threats at him.

Ignoring the appeals of John Simm, his co-star, the actor lunged at Mr Earley, whom he accused of talking during his performance.

When Mr Earley protested that he had not been talking Hart launched into a furious rant and had to be restrained by ushers. Hart, who says that he does not enjoy the relationship between performer and audience, could now face police action.

“I was very scared. He was standing up and leaning over me,” Mr Earley said. “I felt threatened when he started screaming and I couldn’t make out what he was saying — he was pretty feral at that point.”

Hart refused to comment on the incident yesterday. He said that he would continue to appear in Speaking in Tongues, Andrew Bovell’s play about adultery and betrayal, in which he plays three roles.

Theatregoers said that they were shocked at what they described as an unprovoked attack at the end of Monday night’s performance at the Duke of York’s Theatre. During the second half Hart pointed at Mr Earley and told him to “shut up” even though other audience members said that they “hadn’t heard a peep” from him.

“We were confused as to why he had made such an unprovoked comment. We shrugged it off as perhaps part of the script as he was still in character,” Shiama Balendra, 21, a medical student, said.

“Then as the cast did their bows and the curtain fell, Hart did not take his eyes off [Mr Earley]. It was really unnerving.”

Mr Earley said: “I thought he was going to jump down but John Simm put his arm up to stop him. Then he just ran off the side of the stage. He came back out and ran at me. I’d sat back down by then and he was screaming and shouting, incoherent with rage.

“He was saying, ‘You’re disrespecting me, you’re not respecting the other actors’. I said, ‘You must be mistaking me for someone else’, and he just lost it completely. Spittle started flying out his mouth and the ushers were holding him back. I was very scared. He was standing up and leaning over me.”

Another audience member said: “Hart’s eyes were lit up and he was lunging towards [Mr Earley] but two ushers appeared from nowhere and were restraining Hart. They grabbed him back. The guy was leaning away from Hart.” According to Ms Balendra, Hart told Mr Earley: “I’ll slap you if you do that again — is that clear?”

Hart went backstage only after Mr Earley was persuaded by a friend to agree that he had been talking.

Mr Earley said that was so shaken by the incident that he had to “sit down in the street” on the way home and took yesterday off work. “I’ve contacted the police about the procedure for reporting assaults,” he said. “I haven’t ruled it out.”

Mr Earley, from South London, is a regular visitor to the theatre and chose the performance as a treat for a friend who had arrived from Turkey. “Ironically I wanted to see it because Ian Hart was in it,” he said. “But I am not a fan of interactive theatre.”

The play’s producers refused to comment.

Last week Hart told an interviewer that he did not like theatre acting. He said: “I simply don’t enjoy the process; I don’t enjoy the relationship between the audience and the actor ... I find it hard work.”

Alison Croggon said...

Gracious! That takes risk to a whole new level. Though maybe it was having to play Professor Quirrel what did it to his mind.

I'd risk it all to see John Simm on stage, all the same. I have a bit of a crush on John Simm.

Christine B said...

Oh, yeah! John Simm gazing ponderously out a fake window might be worth seeing!

Karl Miller said...

Hi Alison!

I'm in charge of reading all the NYC reviews for WTRSF (for and so I thought I'd dig through your archive to see what you thought. I haven't seen the show and I'm trying to decide if I should.

But a larger point ... Seems to me WTRSF falls into the Too Clever By 3.14159 category. All the NYC reviews talk about the play's structure, it's use of repetition, concentric plots, non-linear plots, motif, etc. In other words, the math and mood of the piece, not the story or emotions engaged by it.

Copious "reveals" work the same way. The play unfolds for you, demonstrating itself according to the private, patented geometry of the playwright; it doesn't give you anything to risk losing or caring about. The comments here alternately report fascination with the plotty pyrotechnics or boredom born of wanting to care, wanting to track a feeling that rises above the level of a mood.

Am I wrong in thinking a lot of contemporary plays do this? I feel like I've seen this left-brain bias a lot.

Anywho, keep up the great work, Alison. Um ... i guess I'll think of you when it rains? or something?


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Karl - I gather it's doing well in NYC. It did well here too. You never know, you might like it. But yes, it's quite safe.

Anonymous said...

Alison, I found your review so refreshing and insightful---I saw the play at MTC last year and while it had some beautiful moments and ideas, it felt as though it was a bit contrived. I guess I just wanted to say...thanks-love the boldness!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Anon.

Anonymous said...

I know this is coming a bit late to the party but this show just opened in Brisbane.

I absolutely hated it. And everyone loved it. Cheering and applauding. Three curtain calls. I was furious.

Hollow. Superficial. Dull.

The smell of theatre, where none existed.

Thank you so much for your review, Alison. And for expecting the best.