Review: Pompeii, LA ~ theatre notes

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Pompeii, LA

Warning: here be spoilers

From medium to medium, the real is volatilized, becoming an allegory of death. But it is also, in a sense, reinforced through its own destruction. It becomes reality for its own sake, the fetishism of the lost object: no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of denial and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal.... 

Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard

America is burning. In Declan Greene's new play, Pompeii, LA, there is no reality except death. Everything that exists is simulation: LA is the imaginary city whose representation has become so much more real than the city itself that it has devoured its original referent. The City of Los Angeles evaporates in the toxic dream-machinery of Hollywood: all that remains are the volatilised hallucinations of corporate capital, in love with its own terrors, which it stages again and again on the dreaming screens of the American Empire. Earthquake, volcanic eruption, environmental desertification, murder, accident, psychic breakdown, economic disaster, the annihilation of meaning. What are you so afraid of?

David Harrison, in Pompeii, LA. Photo: Pia Johnson

Pompeii, LA is Greene's most ambitious work yet. Here are obsessions familiar from his earlier work - the apocalypse of the individual in Moth, the B-grade Hollywood camp of Little Mercy, the self-consuming fetishes of 21st century trash culture of A Black Joy. Green's discontinuous text is rendered through the spectacle of Matthew Lutton's direction to create a work of theatre that compellingly expresses, through a glass darkly, the present cultural moment. 

In the opening sequences, reality shifts from scene to scene, even from sentence to sentence, generating an increasing sense of vertigo as it becomes clear that there is no original "reality" from which these scenes depend, no ground on which this narrative can stand. The scenes are all "back stage", at first posing as the banal realities behind the fantasies of Hollywood: Judy Garland (Belinda McClory) in her dressing room with her make-up artist (Anna Samson); a cast rehearsing a scene from a disaster movie, in which one of the stars (Luke Ryan) storms out.

Yet these scenes quickly lose their moorings: the make-up artist tells us a story about returning home to her murdered boyfriend (is it real or a story from television?); an older actor who has "paid his dues" (Greg Stone) enacts an uneasily hilarious monologue about love with a horrific subtext of paedophilia, which ends with him grotesquely kissing a television. Actors change costumes in front of us to become other characters, reality retreats into an infinitely receding hall of mirrors. Each moment is serially revealed as fantasy, leaving the audience nowhere to rest.  The only thread linking these scenes is a constant iteration of dread: What are you so afraid of?

This apparent chaos nevertheless has a strange sense of continuity, the source of which only becomes clear in its second half. Pompeii, LA is in fact a dance of death. This is not the logic of surreality but of hyperreality, the term Jean Baudrillard coined in the 1970s to describe a world in which representation no longer bears any relationship to the real. This hyper-mediated universe of representation, generated and brought to critical mass by corporate capital, references only itself. As "signs are exchanged against each other rather than against the real", it creates a catastrophe of value. You can see the symptoms of this catastrophe in political discourse around climate change, for example, where what matters is not scientific evidence but the power of rhetorical assertion, or in the dazzlingly absurd spectacles of the recent US election, which perhaps reached their apotheosis when Clint Eastwood harangued an empty chair at the crucial moment of the Republican National Convention.

In Pompeii, LA the reality under question is that of the individual, the defining myth of contemporary America. Greene portrays this self as a collection of traumatised fragments, coming to life like zombie memories of half-forgotten television shows that have colonised the space where meaningful relationships might once have existed. At the last the individual coalesces as a shattered body necrotising in a hospital, trapped in a materiality emptied of meaning, and especially of any meaningful relationship. Staging these ideas as live performance, rather than through the all-consuming seduction of the screen, makes their dislocations and cruelties coldly articulate.

David Harrison (L) and Tony Nikolakopoulos. Photo: Pia Johnson

As Greene and Lutton explain in their joint program note, the Hollywood child star super-narrative (enacted through the lives of Judy Garland, Jonathan Brandis, Macaulay Culkin, Lindsay Lohan and so on) is the embodiment of the cannibalistic fetishes of capital. "A young life [is] enumerated as pure capital, inflates rapidly, then declines just as fast..." And this itself becomes representative of the excesses of western consumerism, "a livelihood inflated to the point that it can no longer support itself". The desertification of the real is dramatised in the ultra-commodification of the individual, sacrificed for our mass pleasure on a billion screens. In the spectacle of these celebrity implosions, we see the flickering reflections of our own emptied, commodified selves.

For all its complexity, the play is boldly and simply structured: it moves from the sinisterly apocalyptic world of the hyperreal, understood afterwards as a nightmare of the traumatised unconscious, to the desert of the real, rendered as hyper-naturalistic, fragmentary scenes in a hospital. The two halves of the play are divided by the spectacle of a smashed red Porsche, being inspected by traffic police as they photograph the wreckage and remove the mess. As with everything in this production, we only witness the aftermath of disaster. The worst has already happened.

The unnamed child star (David Harrison) only comes fully into focus as a character in the final scenes: in the first half he is mainly a peripheral dogsbody, lurking at the edges of his own nightmare. The other actors now become the faces around him in the hospital: a doctor (Tony Nikolakopoulos), a nurse who photographs herself with the sleeping actor, a man dying in the bed next to him. His reality is an anguish of pain, terror and loneliness as his body deteriorates, punctuated by the artificial days and nights of hospital routine.

The performances, in particular Belinda McClory and Greg Stone's, are riveting, at once grotesque and naturalised, finding the more-than-real extremity in the stereotypes they are portraying. Lutton's production is impeccably orchestrated, exploiting David Franzke's sound design to shift seamlessly from dramatic time to simple duration, as when we watch actors sweep shattered glass up on the stage. Nick Schlieper's design meets the boldness of the writing, sweeping from the spectacular to the intimate, and uses the space of Merlyn as well as anything I've seen there. It's dark, pitiless theatre, obscenely and bathetically comic, that enacts how apocalyptic America plays out its neuroses through the spectacle of the individual. Not to be missed.

Pompeii, LA, by Declan Greene, directed by Matthew Lutton. Set and lighting by Nick Schlieper, costume design by Mel Page, composition and sound design by David Franzke. With David Harrison, Belinda McClory, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Luke Ryan, Anna Samson and Greg Stone. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, until December 9.

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