MIAF Diary #7: Opening Night ~ theatre notes

Saturday, October 23, 2010

MIAF Diary #7: Opening Night

Finally, in its last week, the Melbourne Festival has warmed up. Quite literally - there's no doubt that a couple of balmy nights help light up the body electric. But more importantly - at least for an arts festival - there has been a sense of event. This week has been full of shows that made you want to go out and talk afterwards. The major place is to be is Seventh Heaven, the pink fluoro tent outside the tarted-up Curve Bar at the Arts Centre. It's like an incoherent vision of an '80s gay nightclub, complete with Ikea fittings and a mystifying neon installation, apparently a kind of magic portal, that seems to be pointing to the art gallery. Nothing looks more disconsolate than its angel kitsch abandoned in the rain. But even Seventh Heaven was jumping this week.

Even so, there have been complaints. The constituency that comments on TN has been complaining about a a feeling of corporate blandness in some of the work, and more crucially, about a lack of a sense of community. A festival is, after all, much more than a series of events: it also generates what binds these events together, the glue that we call culture. Meanwhile, Robin Usher, a reliable litmus of the conservative commentariat, is complaining in today's Age about the lack of a glittery festival event, like Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, the centrepiece of this year's Adelaide Festival (my review of that opera here).

I think Usher's comments are a tad mean-minded - there's been no lack of spectacle, after all - although he might have a point about Sheehy's programming attempting to please everyone (though what's wrong with that, in a public festival?) And seriously, Usher can't complain about the lack of work that seeks to transform an artform on the one hand, while on the other condemning Tomorrow, In A Year, which certainly has change on its agenda, and provided the kind of controversy a festival needs. And, contrary to Usher's report, I've heard a bit of "wow": notably around Stifter's Dinge, which has been unanimously praised by those fortunate enough to see it, and Bill Viola's video installations.

Certainly, this is the first time I've seen Usher calling for work that "breaks new ground" or is "designed to change people's ideas about what an art form can achieve" - as I remember, during Kristy Edmunds' residency he was implacably opposed to anything that even smelled of formal experiment. But, after years of reading Usher's articles, I think he must be anchored to his principles - when the weather shifts, he hauls up his anchor and moves elsewhere.

More on all this when I wrap up next week, but thank god people are arguing. Now to my reports, which will be trickling out over the next few days, as I catch up. You'll have to excuse my slowness; I'm a little tired, but plan to discuss everything I saw, if not always at length.

A brief summary of my week: on Wednesday and Thursday I saw, respectively, Ivo van Hove's Opening Night and Hotel Pro Forma's Tomorrow, In A Year, both of which are consummate festival shows, and both of which have produced a lot of comment, disagreement and, in the case of Hotel Pro Forma, outraged tweeting. The anger Hotel Pro Forma has engendered is frankly amazing - I confess I don't quite understand it. Me, I was engrossed...but more of this tomorrow.

I took time out on Thursday afternoon to see one of the VCA grad shows, Daniel Schlusser's The Hollow, a riff on Agatha Christie and Cluedo which I recommend to anyone looking for some genuine experimentation. And last night, I dropped into An Anthology of Optimism, which was the sorbet on the week's various fare. Today I'm heading to Epi-Thet, a sound installation at North Melbourne, before I see the closing night extravaganza, Seven Songs to Leave Behind. But now to Wednesday night's show.

I suspect I might have enjoyed Ivo van Hove’s intriguing production of Opening Night a lot more if I hadn’t seen John Cassavetes's film. Van Hove claims not to have seen the film, working, as with a traditional play, directly from the text. This begs a few questions about the genesis of the show, which for me were not answered by the production. Although I saw the film quite recently, my memory of the script is far from photographic: all the same, it's clear that van Hove has by no means stuck to the original script. He has changed major characters and scenes, sometimes in the interest of theatricality, sometimes for reasons that are less easy to divine.

The film itself – a brilliant backstage study of the process of creation – is often given surprisingly short shrift in the Cassavetes canon, although it shows Gena Rowlands, one of the great divas of the cinema, in one of her great roles. Rowlands's performance was what I couldn't forget, no matter how hard I tried - and believe me, I did try - as I watched the play: it is the heart of the film, and the expression of its meaning. Take away her pain and complexity, and you're effectively left with an avant garde version of an Alan Ayckbourn backstage comedy.

Opening Night follows the leading actress Myrtle (Gena Rowlands in the film, the excellent Elsie van Brauw in the play) during the process of producing a play - in the film it's during an out-of-town tryout before a Broadway opening; in the play, they're rehearsing. Myrtle, a woman “of a certain age”, is struggling to animate a role about a woman attempting to come to terms with getting older. She can't make the writing live (one suspects that it is because this naturalistic play about an alcoholic, aging woman with a trail of ex-lovers and husbands behind her is actually not that interesting). But she is also afraid that if she succeeds, she will be typecast as an older woman.

One night after a performance, a young fan, the unstable 17 year-old Nancy, is killed in a car accident. Myrtle begins to be haunted by Nancy’s presence, permitting Cassavetes to create an an increasingly spooky and beautifully ambiguous portrayal of artistic possession. As Myrtle says, after one genuinely frightening scene in which Nancy beats her up in her apartment, she has herself summoned Nancy, because this is what actresses do. In an excruciating scene, she visits Nancy's family to offer her condolences, a childless, glamorous woman hovering over the mute pain of Nancy's family.

As Myrtle flirts with the edges of insanity, it becomes clear that Nancy represents not only her younger self, but the daughter she never had in her single-minded pursuit of her career. Most importantly, she is the anarchic self, the unknown Other, that all artists summon in the act of creation.

Gena Rowlands’s compelling and fascinatingly complex performance of Myrtle’s destructive act of creation sails so close to the wind it’s traumatic to watch. Elsie De Brauw, who plays Myrtle in this production, is clearly an accomplished actress, but she doesn’t get close to Rowlands’s fragile, razor-sharp edges. And while it quickly becomes evident that van Hove’s adaptation isn’t about exploring the traumatic heart of Cassavetes’s film, it's hard to see what it offers in its place. He gives us a surprisingly crude, pop-psychology adaptation of the story. Without having read the text, I can't help wondering if it's because Cassavetes is a better film-maker than scriptwriter.

I was especially troubled by the interpretation of the women. Van Hove has made the playwright Sarah (Chris Nietvelt) a figure of fun, a fussy middle-aged woman in too-high-heels, and significantly, the same age as as Myrtle (in the film, she is 20 years older). It means that Myrtle's panic becomes mere petulance: ridiculously, she won't even admit her age, in the face of being challenged to do so by a woman who looks younger than she is. In the film, she is denying something more difficult - the old age that is not far ahead in her future, and her inevitable death.

Most concerning is how van Hove reduced the delicate and troubled Nancy into a porn avatar of teen sexuality (what was with the nipple-pinching?) Meanwhile, Myrtle is presented to us as a post-sexual woman: the men keep assuring her that they love her, ad nauseam, but - again, in sharp contrast to the film, where they are genuinely bewitched - they are just attending to the fragile ego of a woman whose sexual attraction has faded, manipulating her and jollying her along for their own purposes. It seemed to me that what in the film is a network of ambiguous and fascinating and, above all, self-sufficient relationships between the various women, is transformed in the play into a series of portrayals of femininity as functions of male desire. A whole layer of subtlety and ambiguity was missing for me.

On the plus side, Van Hove’s adaptation is theatrically spectacular and beautifully performed by a first class ensemble. It gives us some familiar tropes of contemporary post-dramatic meta-theatre: the on-stage cameras with feeds to live action projected (with surtitles) onto screens around the stage, glass doors that transform into mirrors, live video of the foyer, and so on. From the auditorium, we get a side-on look to a huge backstage area, complete with costumes, stage crew, and make-up tables, that bleeds into a stage area. A bank of spectators is actually on stage, performing as the audience.

A lot of the meta-theatrics are, oddly enough, somehow flattened out by staging rather than filming them. Cassavetes masterfully exploits the ambiguity of film, so sometimes we aren't sure whether Myrtle is performing a role in the play or is just behaving weirdly. Somehow, in the act of watching theatre, this ambiguity is almost completely lost. While the naturalism of film can make it possible to forget the artifice of performance entirely, in theatre not forgetting that we are watching performance is at the basis of its poetic, its exhilarating suspension of disbelief.

This makes Myrtle's wicked intrusion of some aspect of her real life into her public performance - as when, for example, she calls one of her fellow actors by his real name on stage - much more interesting in the film than it is on the stage, where it becomes just another layer of performance. Even the mediation of the cameras - supposedly a documentary crew - does little to create the filmic dissonance. You wonder what it might have been like, for instance, if the actors had used their real names and played themselves, instead of fictional characters. But that would have been a different - and maybe more profound - exploration of theatre.

Where this show works brilliantly is in its comic ironies: the final scenes, when a dead-drunk Myrtle acts the final scenes of Sarah's play with her anarchic interpolations finally absorbed into her performance, are exquisitely performed, and very funny. When van Hove approaches the serious questions in Cassavetes’s script, he takes refuge in jokey melodrama. He is clearly no mean theatre-maker; but in this show, his virtuosity has a hollow core.

A version of this review appeared in Friday's Australian.

Photo: Elsie de Brauw and Fred Goessens in Opening Night. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Opening Night by John Cassavetes, directed by Ivo van Hove. Set and lighting by Jan Versweyveld, costumes by An d'Huys, video design by Marc Meulemans. With Elsie van Brauw, Jacob Derwig, Daan van Dijsseldonk, Lien de Graeve, Hans Kesling, Lien Wildemeersch, Fred Goessens, Eelco Smits, Serve Hermans, Chris Nietvelt and Hadewych Minis. Melbourne International Arts Festival, Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until tonight.


Jason said...

A wonderfully, enviably thoughtful review, Alison.

As you say, I imagine seeing the film does ruin the experience somewhat. I hadn't seen it, and enjoyed this production very much.

That a 140-minute, intermission-free melodrama performed entirely in a foreign language held my unwavering attention is quite an achievement in itself. It's a terrifically clever and quite affecting drama.

Now I'll have to go and see the film...

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Jason! And yes, get that film out on DVD!

Anonymous said...

Thankyou so much for directing my attention to this film.