Review: Wild Surmise, I am the Wind ~ theatre notes

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review: Wild Surmise, I am the Wind

Last week I saw two adventures in theatrical poetry. Malthouse Theatre literally brought poetry into the theatre with Jane Montgomery Griffiths's and Marion Potts' theatricalisation of Dorothy Porter's poem-novel, Wild Surmise. Meanwhile, in the Collingwood Underground Carpark, young independent director Sapidah Kian gave us the Australian premiere of I Am The Wind, a recent work by one of the most poetic theatre writers alive, Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse.

Jane Montgomery Griffith in Wild Surmise. Photo: Pia Johnson

As a result, I've been brooding about theatrical poetic for days. I've been wondering about writing and form and poetry and plays and everything. So first, a stumbling attempt to describe what I mean when I talk about poetic in the theatre.

Theatre is an inherently poetic medium. An actor on a stage is not only herself, she is also like herself: she is herself and not herself, a breathing physical presence who is also translated into a metaphor. This doubleness, a simultaneous alienation and immediacy that operates in both the audience and the performer, is the tension that drives theatrical poetic. Shakespeare exploits this double knowledge when he has Edgar lead the blind Gloucester to the edge of an imaginary cliff in Lear, knowing his audience will be as moved by the exposed pretence - there is no cliff, only a bare stage - as much as by Gloucester's inward transformation.

In this famous scene, Shakespeare exposes the mechanics of theatrical imagination as brutally as any writer of the post-modern stage: he foregrounds the consciousness of a reality created entirely by language, designed to be enacted; and at the same time, through exposing the tricks of the stage itself, he questions the very provenance of that language. Likewise, Beckett, surely among the most stringent poets of the stage, never lost sight of theatre's metaphorical engine, the stark image of humanity that is an actor on a stage in front of an audience. Every line of Beckett's works as simultaneous critique and exposure of these theatrical and ontological realities. These realities are represented, the process through which art alienates a thing from itself so it becomes like itself, and at the same time are enacted in the present moment as an immediate reality. (HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something? CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!)

What makes theatrical poetic different from a poem qua poem is the theatre itself. The language occurs as a physical enactment, as performance in a specific, witnessed space. Edgar's description of the "fiend" that led Gloucester to the cliffs of Dover, who "had a thousand noses, / Horns whelked and waved like the enraged sea", may be a fancy that in fact defies imagination - how does one imagine a thousand noses in a single face? - but unlike the character of Gloucester, the audience knows that it doesn't exist. Underneath that knowledge is a deeper consciousness, one that the playwright deliberately and delicately brings to the surface of the text: that all this performance is pretence, that Gloucester is an actor whose eyes have not been torn out and who knows very well that he has not been at the edge of a precipice. This overt falsity in turn exposes the truth of the interior precipice the actor reveals to us in the persona of Gloucester: he is a man physically and mentally mutilated, tortured to the edge of madness. This ambiguity, this dance between the real and the unreal, between tangible physical and emotional reality and deliberate illusion, is maybe why we call a play a play.

Of course there are no borders in art, but form has its own imperatives.  A poem, unlike a play, is its own environment. The poem is much freer than the play, it can go anywhere it desires. A poem is words and nothing else. They may be words written to be said out loud, they may be words that become visual abstractions or are as attenuated as notes in a musical composition, but nevertheless its realities are created and destabilised primarily by language itself. Sarah Kane's consciousness of the instabilities of stage and performance is what makes 4:48 Psychosis a theatrical work rather than a poem, and, for all its melodrama, it's the lack of this consciousness that makes Dorothy Porter's Wild Surmise a poem rather than a theatrical work.

Jon Fosse's I Am The Wind is, on the other hand, a theatrical work that demands the freedoms of a poem. Like Beckett (and also like Daniel Keene, with whom Fosse has often been twinned in Europe), Fosse strips theatrical language down to its barest essentials. Rhythm and image become aspects of encounter, enactment and exchange: they are energies that drive the language into the present moment of performance. I Am the Wind was co-commissioned last year by the Young Vic and the Theatre de Ville, the Parisian equivalent of the MTC, and before a successful French season was presented (to much Anglo Saxon puzzlement and hostility, judging by some of the reviews) in London. For all his international reputation, Fosse is almost never done here: this Public Front/Turtle Lab production of I Am the Wind is the first time I've ever seen a Fosse play in the flesh.

Kian's lucid direction belies an ambitious production. It's impressive how much of its ambition is realised, despite the problems - bleeding ambient sound, echoey acoustics, etc - of using a non-theatrical venue. Kian and her designer, Zoe Rouse, set the action in a kind of installation, a fountain of coloured ropes in the centre of one area of the carpark. The audience is seated in a semi-circle one deep, but the production takes advantage of the open space to create an effect of estrangement rather than intimacy. There is a subliminal, throbbing sound design by Chris Wenn (its menace supplemented by the sometimes felicitous ambient sound of trains passing overhead) that heightens the action, and an effectively brutalist lighting design by Matthew Adey.

Sean Goss and Luke Mulquiney as The One and The Other make a highly creditable fist of this very challenging text. Fosse's philosophical fairytale about two men in a boat heading out into deep water is told in stylised, repetitive dialogue that is written with a careful attention to how rhythm can deepen meaning. This is hyper-conscious writing, in a high modernist tradition that can be traced to Beckett: its simplicities are almost dazzling, in how they prismatically fracture meaning. The play is concerned with the opacities of language as much as its transparencies, "the things that people hide with what they say / The things maybe they don't even know about themselves".

I found the performances compelling, especially in how their physicalisation reflects the stylisation of the language and in their attention to Fosse's rhythms, but I suspect there is more to be found in this text. There are hints of a humour in the dialogue, for example, that could dispel the slight earnestness of the performances: sometimes a sparkling surface will illuminate surprising depths. This production is well worth a visit, and not only for the rare chance to experience Fosse's writing.

Unlike I Am The Wind, which forces a virtue from its poverty, Wild Surmise has all the resources of the main stage behind it. With Anna Tregloan (design), Paul Jackson (lighting) and Jethro Woodward (sound), Potts has put together a classic Malthouse design team. The stage certainly looks beautiful: it's bisected by a glass wall covered with pages from a notebook, that are serially removed by the performers to litter the floor. Back stage is a mirror, in which the actors contemplate their reflections. The set is an analogue for the distance between the two married characters Alex (Jane Montgomery Griffiths) and Daniel (Humphrey Bower).

Alex, an astronomer, is obsessed with two cold bodies: the frozen moon Europa and the charismatic but emotionally cauterised astronomer Phoebe. Her neglected husband Daniel, a disillusioned poetry academic, finds he has cancer at the same time as he discovers her infidelity. In narrating their emotional transformations, Porter unashamedly jams elements of soap opera against lyrical narrative as she explores the pain and loneliness of her two characters. Their explorations of their inner lives are a way to discuss different notions of truth -  especially science versus art - and different kinds of love. Porter creates a veritable mosaic of quotes from famous poems, but the dominant image is from the beginning of Dante's Divine Comedy, the classic rubric of midlife crisis: "Midway through the journey of life / I found myself in a dark wood / for the straight way was lost".

For all the passion described here, I missed the bold theatrical risk that occurred when Montgomery Griffith attacked Sappho, or in the explorations of Hypatia II, which I saw in a showing at Monash University. Wild Surmise seemed to me a whole lot safer, whatever scare quotes might accrue around "poetry". Perhaps this is because the action occurs on familiar ground: it takes place in Carlton and Fitzroy, among the university-based intelligentsia of Melbourne's inner suburbs. Or maybe the erotic and emotional danger of the text is absorbed into the language when it is retooled as drama, as if the theatre becomes a kind of emotional and aesthetic muffler. I'm not quite sure.

There's no arguing that Wild Surmise is impeccably directed, and beautifully designed and performed; but, aside from those moments in which Porter's excoriating emotional honesty becomes directly dramatic, it's not a theatrical text. I suspect that this is why, despite everything that is going on in the poem, I found myself mostly unmoved. I'm not convinced that the diction of this poem really transfers into theatrical language; Porter activates energies that have little to do with theatre, and her poetic excess, which works perfectly well on the page, too often renders on stage as redundancy.

Porter's formal restlessness in Wild Surmise reaches out of the lyric poem towards the novel: the language tends to the implicit past tense of contemplation, rather than the present tense of performance. Not, as Seinfeld might say, that there's anything wrong with that: but at odd points while I was watching Wild Surmise, I wondered why a desire towards the poetic in theatre should engage with this text, rather than, say, a play. Not that I've been averse to poems on stage in the past: Anne Carson being a case in point. But maybe Carson, a poet intensely aware of the ironies of literary performance, is inherently a more theatrical writer than Porter.

Potts and Montgomery Griffiths, to their credit, don't pretend that the poem is anything but a poem: the show really creates a three-dimensional frame in which the poem may be movingly recited. For many people, this was more than enough: but a part of me kept wondering: why? Why did this work demand to be done in this way? It wasn't clear to me at all. Seeing Kian's stylish poor theatre production of I Am The Wind two nights later focused the question. Theatricality isn't grafted onto Fosse's language: it's in its DNA, at the very moment of its conception. Unlike Porter's poem, Fosse's writing activates the stage, the audience and the performers. It's not just poetry in the theatre. It's poetry of the theatre.

Wild Surmise, based on the verse novel by Dorothy Porter, adapted by Jane Montgomery Griffith, directed by Marion Potts. Design by Ann Tregloan, sound by Jethro Woodward, lighting by Paul Jackson. With Humphrey Bower and Jane Montgomery Griffith. Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, until December 2.

I Am The Wind by John Fosse, translated by Simon Stephens, directed vt Sapidah Kian. Sets and costumes by Zoe Rouse, lighting by Matthew Adey, sound design by Chris Wenn. With Shaun Goss and Luke Mulquiney. Public Front and Turtle Lab at the Collingwood Underground Carpark, until December 1.

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