Review: The End, The Dream Life of Butterflies ~ theatre notes

Monday, March 07, 2011

Review: The End, The Dream Life of Butterflies

The catastrophe of the body is never far away in Samuel Beckett's writing. Mortal, decaying, risible, smelly, full of inconvenient humours and vapours and needs, the human body steps forward in all its poignant obscenity. It's the eternal answer to human hubris, a tube of flesh which serves only to transform nutrition into dung. So too in The End, one of several novellas Beckett wrote in the 1940s that presage, in theme and often in phrase, many of the later works that generated his fame.

Written with Beckett's characteristic stylistic parsimony, The End is an exquisite work of prose. It's clearly an earlier work, since it permits itself flourishes - notably a subtext of Christian symbolism - that Beckett pared down in his later work. It shouldn't be surprising that this first person monologue translates into stunning theatre, but somehow it is: Beckett is such a purist of form that his prose gives the impression of needing nothing except the page and a reader to generate its full imaginative life. What could a performer add to this?

Robert Menzies provides one answer in this gem of a production at the Malthouse, not so much adding to Beckett as embodying Beckett's story for us. Directed with perfectly judged restraint by Eamon Flack, there is nothing here aside from the performer, the words and the dimensions of the stage. This is theatre stripped to its most essential, radiating a sternly focused power, which beautifully folds the exposure of performance into the emotional duress of Beckett's story.

The set (there is no design credit aside from the lighting, and the set was reportedly posted to Menzies) consists of a wall with a door in it and a floor on which there is marked a cross in white tape. At the beginning, Menzies enters through the door and slowly, with a sense of loathing and reluctance, makes his way to the cross and places his feet on it. Once he is on the cross, he expressionlessly examines his audience, those who have come to witness his crucifixion: at last, he speaks. Teegan Lee's minimal lighting design - there are, I think, four cues in all - shapes the space around him, at once imprisoning and exposing the actor, and at last creating a darkness without perspective in which Beckett's ghost flickers and vanishes.

The story he tells is of the adventures of a homeless man who has fallen from better days. He tells us of his peregrinations after he is thrown out of a charitable hostel, in a suit that is too small for him, his own clothes having been burnt. He has a bowler hat, a tie, "blue, with kinds of little stars", a small amount of money. He knows that "the end was near, at least fairly near". He drifts through the city, recounting his various places of lodging; he is cheated by a dishonest landlady; he sits by a horse trough. He encounters his son, a businessman in the city and an "insufferable son of a bitch". He meets a man he had known "in former times", who lives in a cave and offers him shelter. Like Christ, he exits the city on an ass, but instead of celebration he is greeted by small boys throwing stones.

Unable to stay in a single place for any length of time, Beckett's anti-hero ends up living in a shed in the back of a grand house, hiding in a boat he has adapted to keep out rats, and begging for a living. The story finishes with a vision of his floating downstream into the sea, crushed by the hugeness of the natural world, "the sea, the sky, the mountains and the islands", and "then scattered to the uttermost confines of space".

As well as its subtextual Christ, the story echoes an ancient Irish poem, Buile Suibhne (The Madness of Sweeney), which recounts the travail of an Irish King who is cursed with insanity. Crazy with fear, he can't stay in a single spot but leaps from place to place in the wild "like a bird", homeless and lost, and at last is killed by a cowherd as he is "eating his meal out of the cowdung". As the poem says, "Wretched is the life of one homeless, / sad is the life, O fair Christ!" In The End, Beckett transforms this abject mythical figure into its contemporary version: a filthy, half-mad homeless man, eking out the tiny details of his life invisibly on the edge of society.

Which is no more than to say that although this is a short work, it encompasses whole worlds. Menzies' performance brings every nuance of this story into present life: its tragedy, its beauty, its obscenity, its humour. Most of the time the lighting focuses on his face and his hands, which are almost cruelly expressive. The performance gradually builds up to the desolate beauty of its finale, attentive to the crucial detail of each moment: it's Menzies at his unafraid best, straddling both grandeur and humility, pity and revulsion. Unmissable theatre.

It's perhaps unfortunate that I saw The Dream Life of Butterflies, the new play by Raimondo Cortese that opens the MTC's 2011 Studio season, the following night. It certainly suffers in direct comparison: another example of minimal theatre, this production demonstrates what happens when a text exposed to the demands of performance lacks the largeness and profundity of Beckett. Well, we can't all be Beckett, and life would be very dull if we were.

Still, it's a long time since I was this bored in a theatre. I don't have a long acquaintance with Cortese's work: the first thing I saw was Ranter's Holiday in 2007, which I liked very much indeed on both viewings. Holiday gave us two men (Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt) who encounter each other at a resort. They are strangers, they don't know each other at all, and their conversation consists of inconsequential ramblings, punctuated by a cappella baroque songs. I thought this exquisite, buoyant theatre that beautifully exposed the fragility of human relationship.

The next was Affection, at the Arts Centre, which featured friends on a couch, making inconsequential conversation. I thought this didn't work so well: where this conceit worked brilliantly between strangers, it lacked nuance and fire when it came to expressing relationship. I had similar reservations about Ranter's offering for the Melbourne Festival last year, Intimacy, which seemed to me even more mannered. Cortese, I felt, was in a stylistic rut; so I was curious to see what he did when he was working purely as a playwright, away from his collaborative ventures with Ranters.

Well, The Dream Life of Butterflies is about two sisters, Vanessa (Natasha Herbet) and Zelda (Margaret Mills). They sit around, on benches this time, making inconsequential conversation. The difference here is that underneath this inconsequential conversation there is a plot: these sisters are reunited after a long estrangement, and we gradually get to hear about their lives, the reasons for Vanessa's long unexplained absence, and that Zelda has been raising Vanessa's son during her absence. There is a lot of affable smiling, pace Lum and Moffatt, a lot of idle chit chat that (I suppose) reveals the distances between these sisters as well as their desire to renew their relationship. Anastasia Russell-Head introduces the three acts of the play with some baroque music on a harpsichord, again reflecting the Ranters productions, although I couldn't really work out why.

The story that emerges is as banal as the dialogue which reveals it, and there's no chance here of communicating the woundedness we are presumably supposed to feel. The Dream Life of Butterflies seems like a marriage of avant garde theatre and mainstream "well-made" plays that turn on emotional revelation for their power, taking the worst of both worlds and placing them in a universe of edgeless tedium. The play runs mercilessly along the same catatonic rhythm for more than 90 minutes, with never a variation.

Cortese has a weirdly Tourettian idea about what subtext is: he seems to think it has independent life that goes on underneath spoken language, like an underground river that bears no relationship at all to the exposed geography above-ground, with occasional eruptions into bald statement. More interestingly (as in, say, Pinter's or Mamet's plays) subtext works as a complex disturbance of conscious language, a retreating and gathering of meaning that intensifies its complexity and significance as the surface action evolves. Silence isn't simply space that must be filled up with a bland narrative.

I certainly don't understand Cortese's one-size-fits-all aesthetic. If this is supposed to be uber-naturalism, I couldn't believe the characters, who seemed like automata, and I didn't believe the plot, and I certainly didn't believe the end. Perhaps it's a sophisticated joke on us all, but I missed the punchline.

I can't blame the performers, who both shaped what they could out of this strangely emotionless text. And Marg Horwell's set frames the performances with stylish cool. I think director Heather Bolton's decision to do a Ranters on the play is a mistake, because it heightens the imaginative poverties of this text; but on the other hand, it's hard to know what else she might have done with such excruciatingly mannered dialogue. Deeply puzzled on this one.

Picture: Robert Menzies in The End. Photo: Jeff Busby

The End, by Samuel Beckett, directed by Eamon Flack. Lighting design by Teegan Lee, stage manager Bec Allen. Performed by Robert Menzies. Belvoir St production, Malthouse Theatre. Until March 11.

The Dream Life of Butterflies, by Raimondo Cortese, directed by Heather Bolton. Set and costumes by Marg Horwell, lighting design by Jenny Hector, stage manager Julia Smith. Lawler Studio @ MTC Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company until April 2.


DS said...

Interesting to read your review of The Dream Life of Butterflies. I went to the reading MTC put on last year as part of the Cybec readings, and my response was exactly the same as yours. It felt like a very, very long night, largely because everything was pitched at the same emotional level the whole way through. I thought that maybe it was a factor of it merely being a reading rather than a performance, so bought myself a ticket to see the play during its current run, hoping that some enlivening spark might have been added to it between now and then. Reading your review and the one in The Age, I'm beginning to wish I'd saved my money. Which brings me to the question of how works benefit from the process of the reading itself. I was curious at the time that there was no opportunity for the audience to give their responses. Of course, you don't want the situation where writers feel obliged to feed the audience exactly what they want, as happens these days so often in films, but I would have thought some attempt to garner the feelings of people who'd turned up to the reading might have been in order. It was suggested at the reading that anyone with something to say were welcome to speak informally with the writer and/or director at the bar afterwards, but this seems to me to be something that would discourage the more honest audience response that an open forum promotes. (I know Parnassus Den in Sydney has a audience discussion after their readings and while it can be pretty brutal for writers, it does ultimately help the play.) I suppose what your review has made me ask in terms of the development process is- What's the objective of the reading process if those involved aren't going to explore the audience response to a play as part of that process?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi DS - you sound like the best sort of theatre patron. You might find something there that I didn't.

Interesting point you raise about the reading: I suspect the most important part of a reading is the chance for a writer to hear his/her words in an actor's mouth. I'm not sure about audience response, although I'm not saying it can't be useful; it also can be so contradictory that it can be confusing. Ie, although this left me absolutely cold, and frankly depressed, I've read others who clearly found it very rewarding. There's no such thing as a singular audience response, hence the danger of writing for audiences. But of course, it's more complex even than that...

me said...

Personally I find open feedback sessions no help at all, in fact quite the opposite. How is a bank of opinion helpful in any meaningful way? Far better for specific questions and specific people being asked those questions. This isn't choose your own theatre adventure and lets face it, if you want to have feedback for a writer, perhaps you could write the play you would like them to write? But which would then be the play you would have written and the question becomes would you like me to come along and ask questions of you assuming that you haven't already asked those questions yourself?

I mean have you thought about this or what about doing that? Really? Wow! That's just amazing, I mean I spent all those hours and laboured over all those words and you mean to tell me I missed that bit?

DS said...

Then I guess the question is, Why have readings in front of a paying audience if writer/director/whoever isn't interested in audience response? I wouldn't expect a writer to wholly re-write their play on the basis of a few comments from the audience, anymore than I'd expect a writer to wholly re-write their play on the basis of the responses of a critic. But, at the same time, theatre is a shared experience - as David Hare referred to it, a place where play and audience meet - so I'm not sure what's to be so feared from discovering what the audience (who, let's face it, tend to attend readings because they love theatre and not because they want to dump on the playwright) think about a play? Sure, like Alison said, the primary purpose of a reading is for the author to hear their words in the actors' mouths. But if that's all you want from the process, then why invite an audience to come along as well? It seems like a wasted opportunity to open a play up to the audience's experience but then not bother to gauge something of their response to it. Plays don't exist without audiences, and it seems to me that a writer might want to know if what they're trying to communicate is actually being communicated or not.

Anonymous said...

There are many technical advantages to having an open reading, but all with a mind to ignoring these advantages at the last possible moment. For me, in the delivery of the writing the audience must be an other audience, the technique an other technique, and the language an other language. The elisions of the theatre’s temporality demand a wilderness of sounds so a wilderness of ears may catch it. Not what any participant knew before entering. Though there are slow and quick works, hot and cold labours, to me the ‘central fire’ informs the creation – that is the fire, then the diligence of remembering and imagining. The manifest advantages of the ‘discourse’ should not drown out the wordless inquiry into the work’s privacies. And therefore hands held around its being written.


me 2.0 said...

The MTC probably realised they could get some cash to have readings, plus they could get cash coming from the door money for these readings, plus they get to commit to putting the play on (without actually doing so), and any other number of reasons.

If the play is about the relationship between the audience and the play, this doesn't mean that the playwright has to hear what they have to say individually does it? It can and does mean they can hear that audience respond at certain moments.

Just like 'collaboration', play readings are a construct used to create an illusion around what we do to justify it. It also gives people in positions of authority/bureaucracy/management the idea that they are actually doing something or helping anyone.

Maybe the reading is actually more about the company and less about the playwright yes?

Alison Croggon said...

It seems worth pointing out that the MTC did, in fact, put the play on after the public reading. Personally, I think it's a fine complement to a company's work to do play readings, and they can be great events in themselves. I seriously doubt that they turn a profit. It's so easy to call bad faith.

And maybe there are playwrights who don't find readings incredibly useful, but I don't know any.

Alison Croggon said...

...and thanks for the other comments, all. Keith, I so agree with what you say about "the wordless inquiry into the work’s privacies". One of those most interesting tensions in theatre.

Chris Kohn said...

Responses to me 2.0:

"The MTC probably realised they could get some cash to have readings"

I don't think there's much money in public readings, possibly some corporate and/or philanthropic money out there, but only enough to pay or the activity itself. It can be a worthwhile activity, so it's worth finding some money for.

"If the play is about the relationship between the audience and the play, this doesn't mean that the playwright has to hear what they have to say individually does it?"

I agree with you on this point. Some readings I have worked on, the playwright and I have decided to ask for responses, others not, depends on the context and the process for that project. I generally avoid Q and As as a format though; it is rarely the best option, as one or two people usually dominate, and they may not be the ones with valuable stuff to say.

"Just like 'collaboration', play readings are a construct used to create an illusion around what we do to justify it."

Couldn't agree less, here. Collaboration is a great word for what I do in the rehearsal studio, or in the theatre, or on the phone, or skype, or whatever. No-one made me use that word. I'm a bit tired of it from overuse, but it's still one of the better descriptors. No illusion there. And readings, like all tools, are defined by how you put them to use. Sometimes you don't want or need them, sometimes you do.

"Maybe the reading is actually more about the company and less about the playwright yes?"

Why would anyone (including the playwright) want it to be about the playwright??!! Ideally it's about the progress of the work (or the idea). Also, if you work on the assumption that a public reading can benefit the progress of a work, then I can't see why a company wouldn't proudly own it is apart of its annual program of activities. That's not self-serving or illusory, it's good practice and good relationship-building.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more about the dullness and banality of this play.
Why, why, WHY? I say to myself. And the contrast with Beckett is apposite. Perhaps Cortese thinks he is doing a Pinter? The notes on the programme suggest there might be something of this, but instead of plumbing the depths of what's unspoken this play crashed on its nose an inch below the surface.

Bettina said...

I just returned home from seeing Cortese's work (the dream life of the butterflies). I was really bored and by the end of it i thought what a waste of time. I think that the rest of the audience felt the same way - everyone was very quiet when the play ended and there was a sense of "what was that about?". the play has no climax, no peak, it is just a flat dialogue - I am sure I have heard better stories for free on a cafe. the best part was the music. even the musician looked bored while waiting for her turn to play. terribly boring play. dont waste your time.

Onomatopoeia said...

I essentially agree with what you mentioned and said about Dream Life of Butterflies. I also attempted to puzzle out how it might have worked better, and thought the premise would have suited a shorter form.

Sometimes it is really difficult to review things you really don't like.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Largely agree, although I imagine the play might have been a different beast had Bolton not directed it so slavishly (and inappropriately) in Ranters style. It'd be a great shame if Cortese's work continues to be pigeon-holed in this way. His earlier stuff, especially Features of Blown Youth, wasn't like this at all.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron - perhaps a different kind of production might have helped, although I can't see how it would have got around the essentially static script. Yes, I hope Cortese starts exploring different approaches and forms.