Review: Song of the Bleeding ThroatReview: Don Parties On ~ theatre notes

Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Song of the Bleeding Throat

On a mild summer evening in the ivy-clad courtyard of The Eleventh Hour's headquarters in Fitzroy, it's not difficult to think that you have suddenly been transported to a different era. The lawn is studded with marquees; a door behind the temporary bar opens teasingly to a private house with shuttered upstairs windows, which you can't help but imagine must look like something painted by Bonnard or Vuillard. Even your host, artistic director William Henderson, could have stepped out of a daguerreotype.

Maybe it's Europe circa 1912, before world war and revolution wracked the planet, when a disparate bunch of radical artists were creating something that would be called "modernism". Only it's Melbourne 2011: a different place, a different era. Given the present sense of social urgency, perhaps it's not surprising that so many artists are looking to the modernism that flowered as the anxieties of its times thickened and convulsed, picking up the threads of experiment and discovery and attempting to make something new of them. Certainly, this investigation is a crucial part of The Eleventh Hour's eclectic, intelligent theatre, and why they're one of Melbourne's must see companies.

This time, instead of reworking classic texts, The Eleventh Hour presents a new play by David Tredinnick, who is better known as an accomplished actor. Song of the Bleeding Throat is described as a "burlesque", meaning its older sense of comic parody rather than strip-tease. And it's a fascinating beast indeed. Tredinnick is parodying ideas, in particular some of the formative 19th century notions behind contemporary Britain and America. His burlesque features such notables as the historian and social commentator Thomas Carlyle; his wife, Jane Welch (and their dog Nero), Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth and the Statue of Liberty.

The text is foremost a torrent of words. Tredinnick has created a bizarrely Beckettian collage out of quotations and almost-quotations from public figures ranging from PT Barnum to Marx: statements about empire and revolution jostle with domestic intrigues, fancies, poems and obscene malapropism. The language of high oratory or Romantic poetry is continually exploded by the decay and weakness of the body: Carlyle (Richard Bligh) is tormented by his bowels, Welch (Anne Browning) is a drug addict, Nero the dog (James Saunders) is beaten within an inch of his life, Lincoln (Neil Pigot) is dying (or dead). The only personage who seems above all this bodily flux is Whitman.

Each phrase is buffed to a dark lustre. Everyone speaks as if they all wrote out their thoughts in a goose-quill before uttering them. It's about as far as it is possible to get from the conventions of contemporary theatre: this is a text that has little truck with ideas of character or narrative. Its characters are symbols, mouthpieces, carefully constructed puppets - parodies, as Tredinnick claims. But parodies of what? There are all the obvious answers - they parody the vanity of intellectual achievement in the face of death; the selective consciousness of heart-stirring cries for liberty and revolution that ignores, say, those who happen to possess black skin; the tragic gap between ideal and reality (the play itself is prefaced by a quote from the greatest pragmatist of them all, Josef Stalin).

But most of all it seems to me that it parodies language itself. Language, which promises so much, here collapses inward on itself, revealing a pile of rubble that stinks of death, or is anerotically absorbed in the cultural body. The production often forbids us easy access to listening: Nero stutters, the Carlyles speak in Scots accents. Even its visionary clarities decay: Whitman's magnificent "I sing the body electric" becomes a narcissistic anthem in the musical Fame. The only recourse at the end is the solitary voice, Whitman's "song of the bleeding throat", which is cut off in mid-sentence.

This density of meaning and linguistic relations means that if you don't pay close attention, you will soon be quite lost. Even if you do, it's easy to feel that, as Lincoln says at one point, "I’m trying to blaze a way through this swamp". The weight of this orotund 19th century language, almost completely unleavened by contemporary brevity, often lies heavy. The danger of employing this diction is that it attenuates the work's political clout: what do all these words have to do with Now?

If it's anything, Song the Bleeding Throat is an overtly political work, at once exploring and mocking the formative nationalism of our time, US patriotism. Through the figure of Carlyle, a major Romantic essayist and thinker, it picks up European revolution and imperialism, connecting these ideals to the hopes and betrayals of the brash democratic exercise in America. Yet this is an oblique tracing, more a kind of animating of ghosts which still colour the assumptions behind so much public speech.

I find myself oscillating between feeling on the one hand that the text rings its changes very successfully, and on the other thinking that all this luxuriant excess of language ends up obscuring itself, that there is, in short, too much of it. (Certainly, coming from a school that prefers poetry of the theatre to poetry in the theatre, I think there's a little too much poetry). Its ideas are in fact often presented with an unsettling clarity, but the whole seems too much jostle. I suspect that there is a myopia of focus, an obsessive close-up attention that forgets the larger architecture of the play's argument and diffuses its point. It's common to claim that less is more, and it's not always true; but in this case, I think it might have been.

Perhaps the only director in Melbourne who could tackle a text like this is Brian Lipson, whose theatrical imagination is as baroque and elliptical as the playwright's. The production is as finely polished as the text itself: it features astonishingly disciplined and, frankly, riveting performances from its cast, although Neil Pigot as Abe Lincoln is the stand-out. The alienations in the text are realised in the theatre with a playful theatricality: in the first half, the three characters are formally placed as in a portrait (the staging is in fact based on a famous portrait of the Carlyles at home), with Nero - an English shepherd dog in the painting - becoming a working class lad in a cloth cap. In the second half, in a stunning coup de theatre, the entire space is reversed, and the audience finds itself looking up at the death bed of Lincoln.

There is no moment that doesn't feel utterly worked, down to the least gesture: even the twilight shading to darkness through the windows outside. And it glints with a dark humour that segues to sheer playfulness: when Carlyle decides to light a spill from the fire, for instance, and irritably summons the dogsbody/author to crouch behind the empty mantelpiece with a lighter. There are theatrical moments which are as good as anything you'll see, seriously, but somehow it meanders, creating palpable longueurs. I kept thinking of a necklace, a string of marvellous pearls with no string. And yet, again, this isn't wholly true.

It's often very funny, but underneath the whole is a vein of pure seriousness that harks back to those 20th century modernists, in particular the formalist experiments of Piscator and Meyerhold. Maybe my reservations exist in its timeliness. It was odd to watch this play last week, as the popular revolution in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East lit a more violent flame beneath the pieties that Song of the Bleeding Throat explores. Suddenly these ideas - democracy, revolution and their betrayals - seem invested with more urgent feeling and moment than seems adequate to burlesque. But then again, the song of the bleeding throat is precisely what is consciously elided in the play: its concern is with everything that silences that song. In any case, this is certainly an intriguing work, uncompromising and painstakingly realised, and worth seeing for that alone. Definitely not for those who like their theatre on a plate.

Picture: Neil Pigot as Lincoln in Song of the Bleeding Throat.

Song of the Bleeding Throat, by David Tredinnick, directed by Brian Lipson. Design by Brian Lipson and Alexis George, costumes by Alexis George, lighting by Niklas Pajanti and Nicola Andrews. With Richard Blight, Anne Browning, James Saunders and Neil Pigot. The Eleventh Hour, 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy, until February 12.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Review: Don Parties On

Every time David Williamson writes a new play, the Australian theatre world launches into one of its favourite games. It goes like this.

There's a flurry of pre-publicity in which we hear, again, that Williamson is our best-selling playwright, a "national myth-maker" who takes the pulse of our times and touches the receptive hearts of the masses. We hear that "the critics" are unkind and out of touch with ordinary folk, and that the only reason people dislike his plays is because he's too popular. We hear that the theatre world is continually chanting that "you can't have naturalism on stage". Preferably, somewhere in the middle of this, someone mentions Barrie Kosky.

Then a good chunk of the theatre community gets dressed up to the nines and heads off to the premiere. The play occurs. Some people laugh. Some people leave at interval. A sizeable proportion of the audience applauds rapturously. Another sizeable proportion emerges in various states of crankiness and flees for a debriefing session over a stiff drink.

Then the fun begins. Some critic, bristling with righteous fury, writes a slashing review of the Williamson phenomenon. Said critic is in turn accused of general nastiness, humourlessness and elitism. Williamson fans point once again to the box office. Various right wing pundits weigh in to opine about Williamson's leftiness. Various left wing pundits complain about his lack of leftiness. Someone (often it's me) says something plaintive about art. And everyone, his or her expectations satisfyingly met, has a marvellous time.

Lather, rinse and repeat.

So it is with Don Parties On, the sequel to Williamson's 1970s mega-hit Don's Party, which opened at the Melbourne Theatre Company last Thursday. And here's my contribution to this particular circle of Hell.

In Don's Party: The Sequel we meet the central characters from the first play 40 years on, as they gather around Kerry O'Brien for the ABC telecast of the 2010 election. As Williamson says in his program note, he's doing a Seven Up on his fictional characters. Baby Richard (Darren Gilshenan) is now a Generation X advertising executive with marital problems. Don (Garry McDonald) is still married to Kath (Tracy Mann), who brings up a decades-old infidelity every two minutes or so. We hear that Don finally did write his novel, which sank like a stone after offending all his friends, and is the cue for some self-referential jokes about commercial writing not being proper art.

Don's mentor Mal (Robert Grubb) and his sharp-tongued wife Jenny (Sue Jones) have divorced, and Jenny has subsequently built a political career. Cooley (Frankie J. Holden), as lascivious as ever, has turned into an obscenely rich right wing lawyer with emphysema, and is married to a patient woman with a social conscience, Helen (Diane Craig). There's a sententious grand daughter, Belle (Georgia Flood), who watches Twilight DVDs and calls herself a Greenie, and Richard's lover Roberta (Nikki Shiels), a redhead whose histrionics are apparently explained by her Italian genes.

At the beginning of the play, Don and Kath are, once again, preparing tidbits for an election night party. Mal turns up early and asks Jenny along, to Don and Kath's dismay, as they haven't spoken for decades after a disagreement about Twisties. Meanwhile there is much rhubarb about Richard, who has left his wife for Another Woman. Richard's daughter Belle is displeased. Richard's wife makes a suicide attempt and ends up in hospital, and is promptly forgotten until the end of the play. Cooley turns up with an oxygen bottle and mask and his wife Helen, and lusts after the grand daughter until he has to put on his oxygen mask.

The actors watch 30 seconds of Kerry O'Brien and then mute the tv for some expository dialogue about the good old/bad old days. There are in-jokey references to Play No. 1. Richard turns up and makes the entire audience wonder how a whiny, hysterical boy-man could possibly be holding down a mega-buck job in advertising. There are revelations, a couple of heart-unwrenching confessions and some reheated scandal. Belle overhears it all and is displeased. Richard's lover turns up in high heels and low-cut dress and has conniptions. Belle is displeased again. And so on. And on.

Well, I practically went to sleep writing that. Williamson's great gift is that he is incapable of surprise. He is at once so popular and so reviled because he knows exactly how to meet the expectations of his audiences. It creates a dilemma for me, because I hate repeating myself; so forgive me for pointing to some earlier essays. In 2004, when Williamson announced his retirement, I wrote an essay on the Williamson phenomenon which basically sums up my responses to his work. You might also be interested in my review of Peter Evans's sparky production of Don's Party for the MTC in 2007, which incidentally features the same designers and the same set - for this production, Dale Ferguson's hyper-real evocation of a 1970s Lower Plenty house is updated to 2010.

In the 2004 piece, I discussed how troubling it is that state theatre companies, forced to make commercial decisions by their financial bottom lines, are so anxious to bruit Williamson as not only a best-selling playwright - which he undoubtedly is - but as a great playwright - which he emphatically is not. Harry Kippax did Australian theatre no favours at all when he compared Williamson to Chekhov. And this claim to artistic quality is my beef about Williamson, although the beef is smaller these days.

One of the things that seems clear in this round of the Williamson Game is that the theatrical conversation has shifted markedly. For instance, it seems (even more) ridiculous to claim that naturalism isn't allowed, when so many young companies are exploring it themselves. And I can't get too exercised about state companies making commercial decisions, given the paucity of their subsidies; although it could be I'm just tired of the argument. And really, who cares? Nobody said that people will be shot if they like going to Williamson plays. Some people merely objected when Williamson was promoted as the ne plus ultra of Australian theatre.

Recently, some defenders of the Williamson oeuvre have begun to say that Williamson is not a naturalistic playwright, a la Chekhov or Ibsen, but more a playwright of heightened social satire, a crafter of comedies of manners. This is in fact a much more accurate placing of his work, but it means that one has to assess him in the company of Sheridan or Feydeau or his contemporary Alan Ayckbourn, all masters of stage business. One of the things that has puzzled me for years about Williamson's reputation is that he is such an inept theatrical technician. Popular, as these other playwrights demonstrate, doesn't have to mean bad; but in the Dan Brown-Charles Dickens continuum, Williamson is definitely thumping the tan.

In Don Parties On, all his writerly clumsiness is writ large - the dire expository dialogue, the stereotypical characters, the almost neurotic repetitiveness, the constant machinations of getting people on and off stage. Much of the dialogue - the pronouncements on baby boomers, greenies, Australian politics and so on - in fact sounds as if it's been cribbed from some of Australia's more active political blogs. The people-moving is about as clunkily done as I've seen - characters are constantly announcing that now they must go into the garden to show each other photographs of their children, or to the bedroom to check on someone hysterical, or to the study to watch a DVD, so that two or three people can be left on stage to reminisce or reveal something shocking. Alternatively, you get rows of frozen actors standing on stage watching as two or three others do their dialogue.

Robyn Nevin's direction makes as decent a fist as is possible of this stylistic rubble - I left feeling that it could have been a lot worse. The actors fail to make the characters credible, but it's hard to blame them given that they are all written as walking cliches; although Sue Jones gives some feisty life to the character of Jenny. But for me, there was no escaping the creeping numbness as the evening wore on.

Naturalism this certainly isn't. Considered as a comedy of manners, it lacks the grace, wit and formal mastery that gives the form its champagne fizz. A direct comparison with Don's Party starkly demonstrates how stale Williamson has become: the lively colloquialism of the original, its chief virtue, has long leached out. This really is zombie theatre, devouring the brains, not only of its audience, but of its own playwright.

Yes, some people love it. The guy next to me, for instance, was having a super time: he kept up a running commentary and walked out happily humming the Credence Clearwater Revival song that is the subject of one of the running gags. As always with Williamson plays, it will continue to please those who like his work and annoy everybody else. He's still making the box office go ka-ching, and as long as people keep buying tickets, companies will keep programming his work. And there it is.

Picture: Don Parties On. Top row, l-r: Frankie J. Holden, Garry McDonald. Bottom row: Sue Jones, Diane Criag and Tracy Mann. Photo: Jeff Busby

Don Parties On, by David Williamson, directed by Robyn Nevin. Set by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Matt Scott, sound by Russell Goldsmith, costumes by Jennifer Irwin. With Diane Craig, Georgia Flood, Darren Gilshenan, Robert Grubb, Frankie J. Holden, Sue Jones, Garry McDonald, Tracy Mann and Nikki Shiels. Melbourne Theatre Company, Arts Centre Playhouse, until March 8.

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