Review: The Hollow, The Bedroom Project ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Review: The Hollow, The Bedroom Project

Ms TN spent most of last week in her bathchair with smelling salts taped under her nose, which partly accounts for the belatedness of these reviews. But it's also because Daniel Schlusser, who directed The Hollow, and The Rabble, who created The Bedroom Project, are among our more restless experimental artists. The work of both is an on-going interrogation of theatre, and consequently they make shows that are quite difficult to write about. Not many hooks, see, and those that are offered tend to be illusory.

Schlusser's relationship with the VCA has been a fruitful one. A trilogy of projects - A Dollhouse, Life is a Dream and Peer Gynt - took classic texts and applied extreme theatrical pressure, resulting in some of the most interesting theatre that Melbourne has seen over the past three years. And, intriguingly, after tackling Ibsen and Calderón, he has turned to... Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie? Well, maybe it's not unlikely; not only does theatre feature as a major trope in much of Christie's writing, but her novels, which have now sold in their billions, have been widely adapted into hugely popular plays, screenplays and television dramas.

The Hollow is one of Christie's Hercule Poirot novels, although she left Poirot (as Schlusser has) out of her stage adaptation. It has the usual Christie motifs. Like almost all her detective fiction, it creates a fantasia of upper middle class England, with a cast of privately wealthy characters who are imprisoned in a belljar (a hotel, a country house, a village) noxious with repressed desire. In The Hollow, Poirot arrives at a country house to find a murder scene which he initially believes, because of its obvious contrivance, is a poorly judged joke by his hosts. The surprise twist is that what is set up as an obvious falsehood is in fact the actual case: the mousy wife of a glamorous and unfaithful Harley St doctor has murdered her husband.

It's unfair to Christie to say that her novels are little more than a series of cleverly turned tropes, but it's is one reason why she remains so enduringly popular. Her characters are not quite stereotypes, but they are instantly recognisable, with enough wit and authentic feeling in their portrayal to plump out their legible outlines, and the predictability of the outcome - the solution of the crime - is satisfyingly played out against the variables of character and class, until a proper order is at last restored.

The forward momentum of her crime fiction exists in the continually delayed moment of satisfaction, the moment when the crime that threatens the gleaming surface of her characters' lives is dragged out into the open air and expiated through its rational explanation. Detective novels are perhaps the popular fiction par exemplar of the Enlightenment: they shimmer with the promise of rationality dragging out and vanquishing the murderous monsters of the id.

Schlusser makes of this a theatre that is almost entirely a formal investigation of the tension between artifice and authenticity. Unlike the other three productions, this is not a show that brings profundities to the surface. It's more a kind of gothic pantomime, disinterestedly lifting generic rocks in order to poke the wriggling uglinesses of the English class system that Christie's novels reveal.

Its near two hour duration is a hypnotic and often comic unravelling of the events that led to the crime: or, to be more precise, the non-events in between the events. It is mostly a series of apparently unstudied moments, which puts the audience in the position of naturalists observing human behaviour. These scenes are offered to us raw, seemingly without mediation: we witness half-heard conversations, unhurried domestic routines, inconsequential games, punctuated every now and then by a sudden flurry of activity that leads to a tightness of focus: a quarrel, a dance routine, an infidelity.

Effectively, The Hollow is a theatrical exploration of frustration. Delayed satisfaction is the entirety of its dramatic mechanism: all the way through characters are holding cigarettes, calling for matches that never arrive until the final moment, when an actress showily lights and inhales. The characters of The Hollow circulate on stage in little whirlpools of private activity that seems to lead nowhere, constant eddies of tension and relaxation that slowly and inexorably wind up the tension to the single moment of truth: the murder, stripped of its theatrical falsity.

These mundane moments are fractured by elements that are both sinister and absurd - monkey masks, rubber ducks, rabbit traps - that prevent this apparent naturalism from being merely illustrative. The distinctions of privilege, threatened by the crime, are brutally enforced, as is particularly clear with the servants; the maid is humiliated, the butler ends up as a parody in blackface. The murder itself is genuinely disturbing, a sudden moment of messy authenticity in what has been a continuous exhibition of artifice. It's richly ironised, of course, by our knowledge that we are watching a work of theatre: what occurs is a sudden shifting of key from one kind of theatrical contrivance to another, the second generating a moment of genuine affect.

Schlusser orchestrates these spiralling energies with a fine attention to the respiration of the stage, its choreography and rhythm, teetering on the edge of boredom with a finesse that for me intensified the fascination. The set, a kind of stylised abstraction of Edwardian decor, continually transforms: often you don't see the mechanism, so objects and people seem to appear and disappear of their own accord, as if the stage itself is malign. Its irrational evolutions and surreal excess reminded me rather of AES+F's photographic series, The Feast of Trimalchio, which was here for the Melbourne Festival. The Acting Company 2010 perform more than creditably, although Elizabeth Debicki as the naif murderess made wonder what might have happened if all the cast could have generated her unstudied, exact presence.


If Melbourne has an equivalent to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it surely has to be The Rabble. A loose collection of artists who have been making theatre in Melbourne and Sydney for several years, they are producing some of the most densely serious performances and provocations seen here recently, valuing the "direct and serious and heartfelt" in a way that rebukes any shallowness of response.

Theirs is a high-risk altitude, and - as with their last show, Cageling - it doesn't always work for me: innocence might segue into naivety, or fruitful ambiguity into a sudden jarring obviousness; sometimes there seems to be no invitation into their meanings, and what should be a refusal of ease simply locks the audience out. Yet for all that, it's impossible to deny that The Rabble's explorations can produce astonishingly powerful creations that vibrate unsettlingly in the mind long afterwards.

Their work unabashedly expresses a post-romantic nostalgia for innocence and beauty, and touches an oneiric strangeness that leans on the verge of consciousness, vibrating in the liminal state between waking and dream. Perhaps, as much as the Pre-Raphaelite twilight, they belong with the Symbolists: this work expresses delirium, perversion, corrupted purity, erotic ambiguity, an almost mediaeval sense of the hieratic.

The Rabble's performances have often seemed as much installation as theatre, and so it's not surprising that The Bedroom Project should have found a home at Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts. The Bedroom Project is first of all a series of installations in five different rooms, constructed by Emma Valente, Kate Davis and Dan Spielman. They are all weird memory boxes: in one, The Glass Mattress and The Silver Sword, an oval ring is suspended above a grubby mattress, from which sweep metal bars that enclose the bed rather like a strange bird cage. The room looks as if it is the site of an obscure ritual: a number of octagonal fishtanks are placed around the mattress, each half-full of white wax or watery milk, on top of which floats a silver dagger.

The Room of Regrets is another bedroom, with a disembowelled mattress, again with a construction suspended above it: this time a kind of curtain made of individual sheets of toilet paper joined together with metal rings, each marked with orange and yellow stains, suspended from an ovoid ring. An art deco dressing table with large mirrors is cluttered with jars, an electric jug, a teapot and heaped with salt, which is also scattered on the floor. A third room, Pink Dreams, is simply a corridor illuminated by shifting red light. The floor is covered with a thick layer of feathers; on the walls hangs a crude skull mask made from cardboard and from the ceiling are suspended white nightdresses.

Inside the Mattress is so full of smoke you can barely see the walls, although a single torch illuminates a dim spot on the wall. In the centre you can make out a many-sided construction that seems to be a drinking fountain. The final room, Tonics and Poisons, is the biggest and is mostly empty: at one end is a kind of low, white altar with a fountain trickling out streams of blue water. Suspended above it is a bright yellow, intricately constructed hanging made of marigolds.

In performance, with the help of a complex soundscape of subliminal electronic sounds and ambient natural noises by Tommy Spender, all these spaces are animated into environments of dream. This is work that is inescapably feminine (as opposed, say, to being about the feminine); it's impossible not to think of Christina Rossetti. The audience is divided into three and led separately into different galleries, where each witnesses interlocking performances by Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman. How you experience it depends in which order you encounter the rooms: I was in The Glass Mattress room first, followed by Inside The Mattress, and lastly The Room of Regrets. The audience joins for the final part of the performance in Tonics and Poisons.

The Bedroom Project is a love story: "Isabella and Irena are lovers. Isabella has killed a bird. Irena has killed Isabella." Imprisoned in their solitary sublunar worlds, Miltins and Sassman, dressed in Pre-Raphaelite white nighties, enact mysterious rituals that express desire and alienation, hatred and love. During the first three parts, we can overhear the performances in the other rooms, which generates an increasingly unsettling sense of absence: as those overheard sounds - cries, crowd noises, impassioned declamations - explain themselves when we witness them, they become the more inexplicable.

The performance is at its most powerful when it is suspended in mystery, when, as happens often, an extraordinary theatrical image - a half-seen figure groping along a wall, a bandaged woman cursing as she violently hurls handfuls of salt on the floor - seems to knock on the door of meaning, without quite entering. What text there is is often jarringly obvious, pushing us towards a narrative that is the weakest part of the work. It could be that it might be more fruitful for the company to explore the etiolations of a poet such as Mallarmé than the crude neo-Romanticism they use here. But equally, it might be that the articulations of language are simply too crude for the ambitions of The Rabble: the text exposes a sentiment and obviousness that the other aspects of the performance, especially the visuals and sound, gloriously transcend.

Pictures: top: The Hollow. Photo: Jeff Busby. Bottom: The Room of Regrets, The Bedroom Project. Photo: Marg Horwell

The Hollow by Agatha Christie, adapted and directed by Daniel Schlusser, Set Designer Romanie Harper, Costume Designer Zoe Rouse, Lighting Designer Megan Fitzgerald, Sound Designer Nick McCorriston, Stage Manager Shayndle Grinblat. Performed by Alicia Beckhurst, Francesca Bianchi, Paul Blenheim, Zoe Boesen, Dean Cartmel, Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Dent, Tom Hobbs, Christopher Ioan Roberts, Renae Shadler, Jack Starkey-Gill and Cate Wolswinkel. Victorian College of the Arts Drama and Production schools, Grant St Theatre. Closed.

The Bedroom Project, created by Emma Valente, Kate Davis and Dan Spielman, performed by Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman, sound by Tommy Spender. Linden Centre for Contemporary Art. Closed.

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