Review: The Plague Dances, Boy Girl Wall ~ theatre notes

Monday, April 23, 2012

Review: The Plague Dances, Boy Girl Wall

From outer-edge indie theatre to main stage is an crucial and delicate transition for any company. One of the best things that has happened in recent years is the opening of both the Malthouse and - more recently, with the Lawler Studio programming - the Melbourne Theatre Company to productions by independent companies. One of the highlights of last year's MTC program was in fact an indie import from Queensland presented as part of the Education Program - Letitcia Caceres's production of Debbie Tucker Green's Random, starring a transcendently good Zahra Newman. This year, as part of the same program, they've brought another Queensland gem, Boy Girl Wall from the Escapists. More of that in a moment.

The Plague Dances: L-R Genevieve Fry, Ida Duelund-Hansen, Lisa Salvo, Ben Hoetjes (masked), Karen Sibbing (masked), Esther Hannaford (masked). Photo: Jeff Busby

The chance to make this transition with a degree of institutional shelter is one of the major legacies of Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong's helming of the Malthouse - they instituted the Tower residencies that permit independent companies to explore their practice over a long rehearsal time, and to introduce their work to a wider audience. It gives these smaller collectives the chance to show the very qualities that make them notable, rather than filing them down into something more marketable or conventional. The results - Black Lung's anarchic Tower season, Hayloft's Thyestes, My Darling Patricia's Africa - are their own justification.

It's good to see that Marion Potts is continuing this important project. Four Larks, the latest Tower residents, have been making waves around town for some years now. Resolutely independent, entirely unfunded, they have put on shows in back sheds and abandoned stables in the inner suburbs, gaining a loyal following with their meld of bravura visual theatre and indie folk music. The ambition of their work is palpable, its lush sensuality utterly seductive. The Plague Dances, the work created for the Tower, demonstrates both their strengths and their weaknesses in equal measure.

It's a tribute to the charm of their theatre, and perhaps also to the blazing innocence of their ambition, that you are prepared to cut Four Larks so much slack. When they are good, they are very, very good. In its most memorable moments The Plague Dances demonstrates again that this is a company of striking originality. But if Four Larks is to evolve into one of the notable companies-about-town, the equal of their predecessors, they have a mort of work to do. Aspects of their work are still very uncertain; and nowhere is this clearer than in the writing.

As with their earlier shows, such as Peer Gynt and Undine, Four Larks - Mat Diafos Sweeney, Jesse Rasmussen and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, with Marcel Dorney - have created a hybrid opera/theatre work, driven by physical performance and, crucially, their inventive acoustic music. The powerful moments in The Plague Dances are undeniable: when the choreography, music and visual elements click and work together, they create vividly memorable theatre. But theatre is much more than spectacle, however sensuous; and these qualities are let down by conceptual fuzziness and naive dramaturgy.

This time, rather than making an adaptation, they have chosen to write an original work. Drawing on accounts of the Black Death in the Middle Ages, the company has cobbled together a fairy tale of religious sexual repression. Their play/opera is about the mass outbreaks of psychosis, in which people sometimes literally danced themselves to death, that occurred frequently in mediaeval Europe. Here the Plague Dances become a metaphor for the denial of desire, and especially of the feminine body, and the anarchic consequences of the "return of the repressed".

As with their earlier work, Four Larks are aiming at a kind of total theatre. The experience begins as you wend your way upstairs, with tufts of grass installed by the stairs, and continues as you enter the space. Underfoot is tanbark, and there's an overwhelming smell of fresh hessian, from the cushions placed about on the steps that, for the most part, replace the chairs. The space is all wood and amber lights, made to look like a cross between a barn and an ancient forest, its eaves hung by designers Sebastian Peter-Lazaro and Ellen Strasser with a riot of stylised branches. It's an immersive environment that is intended to provoke all the senses, and it does.

The play itself is rather more conventional. In the midst of the devastation of the Black Death, a small religious community under the stern Christian leadership of a Priest (Kevin Kiernan-Molloy) remains untouched by the disease, at the price of total isolation from the outside world. The play's action is sparked by the arrival of a stranger, Hannalore (Esther Hanneford). Despite general suspicion, she is permitted to stay; when famine lifts in the village, she is even celebrated as a blessing from God. However, this changes rapidly when a plague of St Vitus's dance is unleashed on the village population. It's unclear what sparks this hysteria: there is a hint that it is ergot poisoning, as there's a mention of rye rotting in the fields. But in any case, for the purposes of the drama it's clear that the agent of infection is Hannalore.

This is where I started to become confused. The story is neither fantastic enough nor precise enough to write about easily: too much of the thinking is vague, and it seems wildly ahistorical to little purpose. Such episodes of bread-borne psychosis are not, after all, confined to medieaval times - there was a famous outbreak in France in 1951, traced to "cursed bread", which killed four people. If the Plague dances are a disease, this undermines their dramatic function as hysterical expressions of repressed sexuality. If they are a kind of communal hysteria, it's not very clear why: hints of paganism wind around the argument about sexual repression, but mainly function as cues to visual spectacle.

The company retreats to an investigation of the primitive, which drastically simplifies the complex world of mediaeval Europe. The argument of the play is almost Manichean, posing clear oppositions of God and the Flesh, male religious repression and feminine sexual rebellion, Christianity and paganism, in agonistic struggle. For all the earth on the floor, the edges seem a little too clean, a little too familiar, casting the strangeness of the past in recognisable contemporary shapes. Sometimes the musical choices are jarring in the same way - a bluesy solo seems, for all its theatrics, weirdly anachronistic. They are prompts to contemporary readings, but it's unclear how this fable resonates in a contemporary world.

Bergman's The Seventh Seal or David Harrower's Knives in Hens show how effective this exploration of an imagined mediaevalism can be in a modern work, and how hauntingly it can speak to contemporary times. The sheer obscurity of the symbolism of a painter like Breugel suggests something of what is missing here: a sense of opacity, both fleshly and linguistic, and, perhaps especially, the sense of the grotesque body, vulnerable to decay, disease and death. The most effective summonings in The Plague Dances emerge from powerful conjunctions of choreography, music and mise en scene; but mostly we get generalised hints, just as the lyricism in the text tends to the pretty rather than the profound. Despite a program reference to Mikhail Bakhtin's notions about the carnivalesque, there's not much sense that the ideas in play have been thought through with rigor.

This particularly tells in the dialogue, which too often is wooden, and is simply overwritten - a show of this kind needs the sparest, most poetic of texts. Here the innocence that is such a potent aspect of Four Larks's theatre-making falls into naivety: it becomes merely a curious tale. All the same, its exhilarating moments of theatre-making carry the show: Four Larks justify their place in the Tower, but to my mind, only just. It's the stark contrast between what they do so well and what they do badly that makes the experience frustrating. "Ah," as Browning's Andrea Del Sarto said, "but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?" Well, heaven awaits.

Lucas Stbbard in Boy Girl Wall. Photo: Al Caeiro

In contrast, Boy Girl Wall, a solo show by the Escapists now playing at the Lawler Studio, completely fulfils its own ambition. The show turns on the high energy performance of Lucas Stibbard, who plays the narrator and all the characters, including inanimate objects, binding the story together with a hefty strand of meta-commentary. Matthew Ryan and Lucas Stibbard have concocted a script that is basically an avalanche of surreal wit; it's a continual linguistic slide between differing levels of reality that feels like a cross between Will Eno and the Mighty Boosh.

It's a simple tale of two people in unsatisfactory circumstances - the feckless Thom, wannabe astronomer, and children's illustrator Alethea - who live next door to each other, but who have never met. Their romantic meeting, after a series of absurd misadventures, is finally engineered by chance, circumstance and the connivance of architecture. The robust comedy is leavened with a sense of kooky wistfulness that never turns into the merely sentimental.

Jonathan Oxlade's set is a giant blackboard, and Stibbard draws most of his props - a pillow, a clock - as he needs them. Various incidental characters are sketched in rapidly, in the performance equivalent of skilled cartooning. Stibbard executes the show at an extreme pitch that seems unfeasible, but sustains the pace with barely a wobble for over an hour.  It's part of the MTC's Education Program, and is perfect for a young adult audience: unpatronisingly intelligent and wickedly funny. Recommended.

The Plague Dances, devised by Mat Diafos Sweeney, Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, Jesse Rasmussen and Marcel Dorney. Design by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro and Ellen Strasser, lighting design Tom Willis. With Adam Casey, Matt Crosby, Ida Dueland-Hansen, Genevieve Fry, Esther Hanneford, Benjamin Hoejtes, Kevin Kiernan-Molloy, Lisa Salvo, Karen Stibbing and Emily Tomlins. Four Larks at the Tower Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, until April 29.

Boy Girl Wall, by Matthew Ryan and Lucas Stibbard, directed by Matthew Ryan, performed by Lucas Stibbard. Realised by Matthew Ryan, Lucas Stibbard, Neridah Waters and Sarah Winter. Set and costumes by Jonathan Oxlade, lighting by Keith Clark. The Escapists at the Lawler Studio, MTC Theatre, until May 4.


Emily Sexton said...

Gosh I would love to see Four Larks connect more closely with their local arts community, and embrace the rigorous potential that surrounds. Make no mistake, I've tried - in two different roles now - and I just reckon their practice would benefit so much from participation in a broader debate.

Chris Boyd's review seems to agree:

Guys, if you're reading this, please do get in touch!


Alison Croggon said...

I'm sure you're right, Emily. There's so much potential here, both in the company itself and in the surrounding conversation...

Alison Croggon said...

Here's a live link to Chris's review, for those interested.

Chris Boyd said...

Jordan Vincent's review (on her blog) is well worth a read. Informative and thoughtful.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Chris. Interesting to get a dance critic's perspective.

Unknown said...

Rigor is one word, cohesion is another. I enjoyed so many aspects of this production but not the sum.

The tension between the surrounds, the music (from folk whimsy to blues) and the movement was overlooked to reach fever pitch by way of pace.

You used the word pretty and I couldn't agree more. The problem, despite all the soil on stage and talk of the sins of the flesh, is that Plague Dances never got dirty, nasty or ugly enough to threaten the body.

David Maney said...

That was me above.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Dave - thanks. Yes, quite.

big sook said...

but what are their strengths and weaknesses?

Alison Croggon said...

Did you read the review?

Anonymous said...

I Like turtles. This performance is awesome!!!!