15.xi.2007. The Petty Traffikers: The Chosen Vessel
Direction: Stewart Morritt. Cast: Chloe Armstrong, Joe Clements & Margot Knight. Design: Peter Mumford. Lighting design: Felicity Hoare. At Theatreworks, November 1-18.
The bush gothic may be the simplest way for the baffled settler to come to terms with this land, and seems to me to have remained the central axis of the Australian experience of the country (in its raw, unpaved, unlawned form). It's an Australia seen, perhaps, through the eyes of the tourist, the aesthete, but also a psychogeographical image of a genuinely frightening place that one shouldn't spit in the face of. There is, outside the grid and the lawn country and the sublimated aspirational monsters, a real grim, mourning old land. In Barbara Baynton's stories, though, the women have to cope with the land and the men, who treat them with an almost medieval violence, and an unchecked, irrational disregard that borders on hatred, not tempered by any society, any mores.
This production opens with A Dreamer, a classic gothic tale of a hostile nature imbued with all sorts of vaguely supernatural forces. It follows the journey of a young pregnant woman to visit her mother in the bush, fighting a storm, a river, and an entire country of men not to be trusted. In Squeaker's Mate, the most famous in the collection, a woman paralysed in an accident has to watch as her husband brings another woman in the house and lets the property go to ruin. Finally she's avenged by her dog. The final number, The Chosen Vessel, is a cat-and-mouse thriller of a woman left alone in her home, with only her small child, and a passing swagman: over a course of a day and night, he visits, leaves, stalks, rapes and kills her. The final third of this little number completely shifts perspective to an outsider, a member of the theatrical choir, who watched passively from the distance. This moment in the story most remarkably echoes the formal tools of Croatian romanticism of the same period: a young woman is sacrificed on the altar of unfair society only to live eternally as a nightmare in the collective (or individual) consciousness. The shift in the story represents the transition.
The quality of the text transpires from this production, and is probably why I didn't leave before the end. The stories were separated by fairly long breaks, giving us ample time to wonder over the director's solutions, shake our heads in confusion, but always go back in again. The Chosen Vessel, more than anything I've seen in my life, is a failure of direction. At times it felt that, every time an artistic choice had to be made, it was a wrong choice.
Two out of three pieces, A Dreamer and The Chosen Vessel, are adapted (although paraphrased may be a better word) as spoken pieces with movement, in which every word of the text is pronounced as well as enacted. This seemed an interesting decision, and was certainly successful in moments of peace, psychological games, and terror; the spoken word gives a nice rhythm to stage action and superimposes the interior world of the characters as another layer on the stage. Since the set is quite gorgeous, and the lighting beautiful, some static moments are absolutely thrilling: the finale scene in A Dreamer, or the swagman slowly circling the house in The Chosen Vessel. Any faster movement, however, is completely buried under the shower of words, and hampered by a need to enact every metaphor, every image from the text; from the branches of gum trees to lightning, from creaking doors to moonlight going dim. The literalness is most striking: there was no way these people were going to let the limitations of theatre prevent them from enacting the story down to a millimetre. If the character has to run for miles and miles, in the limited space of Theatreworks she will run in circles. If the character has to nearly drown, she nearly drowns in a bathtub full of water. If there has to be a galloping horse, there is a bright red bike, and it will, also, circle around the stage. Halfway through the performance, I realised I was in the middle of a radio drama. That is, a radio drama as I imagined them as a child: people added to voices, trees added to the rustle of leaves and tubs of water added to splashing noises, all on a black background.
Squeaker's Mate, least successfully, is paraphrased as a sort of mime. Sparse dialogue replaces incessant narration. The pleasant rhythm of the text is lost. An attempt is made to narrate through images, not words, still apparently painting every comma of the text. The horrific story of the crippled woman – which may have benefited from the third-person voice – completely dissipates through some very flimsy performances: Joe Clements as Squeaker is a comic figure, rather than a monster, Chloe Armstrong is a Terry Richardson mess without the stylish decadence, and Margot Knight should not be forced to mutate between a woman and a dog. I cannot imagine the acting inventory needed to pull that off and inspire absolute terror in the audience; frankly, I am not sure that anyone in the world could have done it. Instead of terrifying, it left us feeling vaguely embarrassed for witnessing such a clumsy theatrical solution.
Consistently, the greatest flaw of this production is a complete overuse of metonymy where metaphor would have been better suited. Whenever a theatrical substitute for a non-performable element had to be found, the substitute was clearly mimicking the form, rather than function. The tree falling onto Squeaker's wife to break her back, for example, is a short, thin branch of eucalyptus, when recreating the effect of size and weight would have worked better for the scene (as it is, a strong woman collapsing under a thin piece of tree is hardly verisimilitude). Drowning in the bathtub was an unconvincing farce (and I say this as a person who immoderately loves bathtubs on stage). A ranger will find the dead woman's body in The Chosen Vessel and draw a white chalk line around her! A gesture of absolute nonsense! The entire focus of the play until then had been to re-create this living, breathing bush around the flimsy manmade dwelling: to then draw white, urbane lines in what we had imagined as thick, gothic, ominous grass, assaults our suspension of reality at exactly the wrong point.
We understood, however, that the entire structure was internally incoherent with the choice of music in Squeaker's Mate. Mid-piece, Second Woman, in an act of frivolous home-overtake, turns the radio on, and The Smiths' Girlfriend in a Coma plays. This song doesn't fit the play in mood or intent, only in motif: it's a satirical, but warm, tongue-in-cheek portrait of an abusive boyfriend. As such, it's not neutral enough to be simply ignored, and, if we imagine the emotional effect that the piece had been building by then as a precarious cathedral, the cathedral suddenly and irrevocably starts to shatter. As the same piece finishes, and woman/dog murders the Squeaker, an even less fortunate choice of music is exercised with Who Let the Dogs Out. But by now the cathedral has been well and truly crushed.
If The Petty Traffikers 'have a reputation for mounting successful stage adaptations of Australian literature', as The Age claims, I wouldn't know. I'm still new here. Literary adaptations, it seems, too often suffer from being appreciated more as a text, than as a living piece of theatre, praised for the worrrrds and the poetrrry, their production flaws conveniently overlooked. This production may well tour many a school around here, and convince many a child that theatre is dead. I still cannot decide whether The Chosen Vessel is an interesting failure, worth seeing, or merely an uninteresting one. Barbara Baynton's short stories, mounted here, do appear to be fine writing, and the performance may be enjoyed as a radio drama with pictures. But who am I fooling?