Review: Dying City, Do Not Go Gentle... ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 09, 2010

Review: Dying City, Do Not Go Gentle...

Christopher Shinn is rightly lauded as one of the most powerful and accomplished playwrights now working in the US. Like his compatriot Will Eno, his work in his country of birth is more often honoured in the breach: his first play Four was rejected by every US theatre he sent it to, before it premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1998 and established his growing British reputation. Dying City premiered in London in 2006, a year before it received a New York production. Shinn's most recent play, Now or Later, premiered at the Royal Court two years ago, and despite four and five star ratings has yet to receive a production in New York.

In a recent interview, Shinn suggests that this reluctance to embrace his work is not, as he once thought, because of an increasing conservatism in the US theatre scene, so much as a cultural denial of emotional pain and tragedy. "It's not so much that they understand and then reject the work, but that they never actually experience it in the first place," he says. "That's much scarier to me than conservatism. Denial and negation are very hard, if not impossible, to undo."

Watching this play hard on the heels of Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone at the MTC, it's difficult not to speculate that there might be similar denials here: why, in the work available from the US, choose Ruhl's work, or indeed JT Rodger's Madagascar, over a play that is not only vastly better written, but also more intelligent, more honest and, crucially, more moving?

Dying City is an elegant and powerful foray into contemporary naturalism. It moves between two different times: the night of the departure for Iraq by the volunteer soldier Craig (Brad Williams) and an evening and morning just over a year after Craig's suicide overseas, when Craig's gay twin brother Peter (also played by Brad Williams) unexpectedly visits Craig's mourning wife, Kelly (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley).

It opens with an understated scene that is heavy with unsaid tension: Peter's arrival provokes Kelly's inarticulate distress. At first it seems that Kelly's grief is sparked by his resemblance to her husband, and by how his unscheduled visit echoes the way the military turned up to tell her of his death. But as the play progresses, it gradually reveals an altogether darker emotional landscape that reaches beyond its domestic setting into a damning critique of a militarised, misogynistic society, and the media-saturated anaesthetisation that is both its cause and effect.

This critique is folded into the dialogue, as part of the emotional action rather than a didactic lesson, and so attains an increasing emotional power as the play progresses. Shinn weaves his argument into a lament for an increasingly decadent, anaesthetic culture, with allusions to America's great literary tradition - Melville, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner, O'Neill - cutting against the ironised poverty of the present.

Peter is an actor, who on the night he visits Kelly has just walked out of a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night after a homophobic comment by another actor; Craig has joined the military to gain a tertiary education, and is halfway through a thesis on William Faulkner. Yet the love of both brothers for their cultural heritage is truncated, betrayed by a violent present. This present is most potently symbolised by the twin images that have dominated the US in new century: the Abu Ghraib photographs and the events of 9/11 which is, as Craig says, writing from Iraq in 2004, "already a punchline".

But here these images of extreme violence have their correlatives in the minutae of domestic life, manifesting in irretrievable pyschic damage. Kelly is a therapist, part of a profession that holds out the promise of "closure" in the face of trauma. But as becomes clear, her professional skills are of no use in dealing with her own trauma. She is unable to face the reality of her marriage, and instead takes refuge in television crime series that hold out the promise of a death that is "symbolically reversed". Rather than face the pain that is crippling her, she is fleeing it: she is in the middle of moving house and has even changed her phone numbers so she won't be pursued by her husband's doppelganger and the horror of the memories his presence evokes.

For all the significance of the ideas Shinn is exploring, this play is never heavy-handed. And its poise is reflected in a concomitantly elegant production by Matt Scholten, which simply permits the emotional life of the writing to emerge. Kat Chan's cardboard box set manifests the transiency of the characters and is beautifully lit by Tom Willis. What counts in a play like this is the performances, and it's worth seeing for these alone.

Ellerton-Ashley and Williams are both remarkable, doing full justice to the nuance and suppleness of the writing. Williams's double act as Craig and Peter is a bravura demonstration of the actor's art: so complete is his transformation between the two characters you wholly believe they are different people (my daughter thought at first that they had in fact cast twins). The dialogue emerges from potent silences, in which the loneliness of the characters becomes almost palpable. Highly recommended.

Patricia Cornelius’s high anticipated Do Not Go Gentle... also opened last week at Fortyfive Downstairs. The winner of the 2006 Patrick White Play Award, this is another play that has struggled to find mainstage production here, despite what would seem to be its ideal provenance: not only is it a play that appeals to older audiences, it shapes its unsentimental tragedy with an appealing dose of comedy. Certainly, seeing the high-calibre cast in Julian Meyrick's lyrical production, which includes Paul English, Terry Norris, Anne Phelan and Malcolm Robertson, it makes you wonder if the best of what is generally called "mainstream" is, for the most part, lurking in independent theatre.

Cornelius borrows her title from Dylan Thomas’s poem, Do not go gentle into that good night. Perhaps the most beautiful villanelle written in English, Thomas’s poem celebrates the vivid life of old age, pressed hard against death: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”. Likewise, Do Not Go Gentle… explores the flare of vitality that reaches a desperate intensity in the face of death, through seven characters who live in an old people’s home.

The central character, Scott (Rhys McConnochie), is obsessed with the tragic heroism of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, a race he lost to the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and which ultimately cost him his life. In Cornelius’s hands, this expedition becomes a metaphor for the long defeat that is life itself, moving with a poetic suppleness between entries from Scott’s diary and the mundane details of life in an institution.

She evokes with unsentimental compassion the confusions and longings of old age, or, in the case of Bowers (Pamela Rabe), a younger woman suffering from premature Alzheimers who doesn’t remember her own husband, of tragic memory loss. Scott’s story provides a narrative spine from which emerges the stories of the various characters. Most powerfully, this double reality becomes a theatrical metaphor for the uncertain world Cornelius’s characters inhabit, with the white wastes of Antarctica a potent image of desolation.

Yet, like Thomas’s poem, the play is primarily a celebration of life. Cornelius’s characters, like the actors who play them, are funny, angry and defiant, and out of the poverties of their situation create a richness that is its own meaning. The play isn’t wholly successful: there are scenes where the conceit of the double reality isn’t sustained, and Cornelius’s poetic language loses its tension, falling into the merely literal. But for much of its length it makes riveting and moving theatre, and Meyrick's production generates some moments of breath-taking theatrical beauty.

The opening scene is spine-tingling: Maria (Jan Friedl) shuffles onstage in dressing gown and slippers, opens her mouth and sings a glorious aria, while behind her six anonymous figures, dressed in thick arctic gear, march onto the stage, each leading the other like the figures in Breughel's painting The Parable of the Blind. It recalls Walter Pater’s insistence that all art aspires to the condition of music, yearning towards the mysteries of what can’t be expressed in words, and is as moving an image of mortality as I have seen in the theatre.

It can be great watching older actors on stage, and unsurprisingly this all-star cast elicits excellent performances, given an extra power here by the age of the actors. Malcolm Robertson is at his gritty best as Oates, haunted by the suicide of his son, and Anne Phelan as the increasingly uninhibited Wilson, making up for a life of self-abnegation in a late love affair, is comic and poignant. As Scott, Rhys McConnochie gives a moving portrayal of an ordinary man with huge dreams, breaking against his failed life.

Marg Howell's design exploits the wide space of Fortyfive Downstairs, using its windows beautifully: the stage is bare save for a collapsing ceiling at once end, baring it to be a space of imagination. Meyrick's direction moves the scenes swiftly between their shifting realities, using the whole of the space and its view outside to generate a sense that the stage has no borders. I found myself haunted by this play for several days after seeing it: it doesn't attain the elegance of Shinn, but it possesses a direct poetic honesty that lifts it past its flaws. Certainly, this production has an undeniable beauty and power, and I suspect it will be a major hit for Fortyfive Downstairs.

Disclosure: Ben Keene, who composed the music for Dying City, is my son.

A shorter version of the review of Do Not Go Gentle... was published in today's Australian.

Pictures: (Top) Zoe Ellerton-Ashley and Brad Williams in Dying City; (bottom) Pamela Rabe in Do Not Go Gentle... Photo: Jeff Busby

Dying City by Christopher Shinn, directed by Matt Scholten. Designed by Kat Chan, lighting by Tom Willis, music by Ben Keene. With Zoe Ellerton-Ashley and Brad Williams. Hoy Polloy, MIPAC, Brunswick, until August 21. Bookings: (03) 9016 3873.

Do Not Go Gentle... by Patricia Cornelius, directed by Julian Meyrick. Designed by Marg Howell, usic and sound design by Irine Vela, lighting design by Richard Vabre. With Paul English, Jan Friedl, Rhys McConnochie, Terry Norris, Anne Phelan, Pamela Rabe and Malcolm Robertson. Fortyfive Downstairs until August 29. Bookings: (03) 9662 9966.


Andrew Wood Acting Studio said...

Good to know about Shinn. I somehow picked up a copy of Four a few years ago, and it didn't really get my attention. I'll have to take another look.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio said...

Although I do have to say: Will Eno? Not so much. I found Tom Paine to be thin, and another play I read of his, something about the the mental health profession...did nothing for me.

Alison Croggon said...

Dying City is a really beautifully constructed play. Very American, in the best sense of the word. And I like Will Eno! For some reason he's been done a fair bit here - the MTC did an excellent production of Thom Pain, and there have been a couple of indepedent shows as well. I enjoyed all of them!