On accents and other forms of realism: a mini essay.

1. A few weeks ago, my review of Hoy Polloy’s production of Fin Kennedy’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found appeared on vibewire.net:

“Two of the things ostensibly most cherished in a work of art are battling throughout the Hoy Polloy's production of Fin Kennedy's How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. On the one hand, the universal relevance of the questions and answers presented. On the other, the evocative and resonant portrayal of a time and place.

In translating art, be it literature or a play, one has a peculiar problem of deciding just how much local colour to keep, how far to stray from literalness. While in cinema unintrusive conveying is relatively easy, in literature this may require a catastrophe of footnotes; and in theatre, naturalism.

The entire first act of How to Disappear… is an agony of accents and costumes, wrung and turned and stretched down to an inch of its life by a relentless pursuit of verisimilitude. It takes the second act to realise that no, this was not obligatory. The play doesn't dictate realism, quite the contrary, the text itself is a nightmare of confused faces, hallucinatory places, contradicting motives. It is as set in London as it could be in Sydney, or on the Moon. That the second act almost redeems the first is due to its rebellion from the style of the production, the fact that Hoy Polloy allow it to be something other than British television. For the entire first act, we are progressively more confused: if this is objective life, what is going on? In which order? Why are characters such clichés, and how can this Mike the Deus Ex Machina character be taken seriously by anyone? What should we feel, why?

In this naturalistic hell, it is good to ask why do it in the first place. It is, for one, immensely hard. Film has free access to the recognition, to the synthesis of memories and associations, endlessly triggered by details: the scenery, the facial traits of the local populace, the gesture, the weather, the textures, the sounds. The play, creating the world anew in the black box, must conspire with the audience to allow for the sparse staging elements to stand for the world of details the audience may not even be familiar with. We need to work together. And so, the first act of How to Disappear… is one big effort to distil a quotidian London from the strange string of events, semi-realistic costumes (but recognisably slack Australian tailoring), and shaky accents which travel the British Isles in order to accumulate credibility.

Hoy Polloy: How to Disappear…, Melbourne (Au), 2008. Photo: Tim Williamson.

I am highly against theatrical acting in accents. I imagine that deftness with accents is bread and butter to local actors, but it helps neither the play nor the acting to have them stumble around Commonwealth as if in a farce. All the usual problems are present here: the acting suffers, the sense of inconsistency abounds – why does everyone feel the need to try on an Irish accent? – and, most importantly, it creates a high wall between our time and space, and that of the play, with the result feeling a bit like sitting in front of some imported BBC show. I left the theatre wondering why it made me feel so little. The text was so strong. As a person who once thought about disappearing herself, I thought I would feel its breath on my neck. Instead, its energy was dissipated in a hopeless chase of details.

And why? When a play is showing a mirror to its context, and skilfully breaks reality down into minuscule details, like Ranters Theatre recently did with The Wall, there may be a rationale, but if a play is already striving towards a universal message, why not try to bridge the gap, climb the wall?

David Passmore probably gives the most consistent performance, both in mood and accent, holding the play together with his omnipresence on stage. Michael F Cahill's performance is of equally high standard, but the remaining three actors struggle to represent an entire world of strange, half-hallucinatory yet unmistakably British people. And who can blame them?”

2. Quoting the above in toto should contextualize the comment made by John Richards, also quoted in toto:

Despite that fact that this reply may give your “review” more importance than it warrants, I feel compelled to correct you on a couple of points. As a recent viewer of this production my estimate of the number of accents used is that there were only two Irish accents (the Priest and the Nurse). While there were a couple of American accents, one Scottish and one Ukranian, the majority of accents were English. I wonder what you would have said about Hoy Polloy’s Shining City, set in Dublin – perhaps too many English accents?

“It is as set in London as it could be in Sydney, or on the Moon.” The play is specifically set in London and Southend, nowhere else. Neither Sydney nor the moon have equivalents to Southend and its world-famous pier. It would be interesting to hear the playwright’s opinion of altering its locale to these inappropriate settings.

3. This is a belated response, due to personal reasons of all sorts. I wanted to have space to think breezily about the questions of setting, verisimilitude, and theatrical devices. I would encourage further comments, because I’m not an old conservative with opinions set in stone. None of this should be very smart, nor new to anyone who dedicated five minutes to the same question. I am simply replying.

4. The theatrical reality is built from stratch, just like no world is pre-given on the white sheet of paper. Faced with the impossibility of total re-imaging, theatre resorts to the more or less intelligent employment of few selected objects, sign-posting with more or less precision. The economy of theatrical time means that a play simultaneously builds a reality, and tears it apart to show how it leaks, how it creaks, what it is made of. It builds a cathedral out of signs, and tears it down with a few precise blows.

5. It seems erroneous to me to consider the choice setting to be a simple tick of a box. A play, first of all, can never be set in (eg) London, not even when it’s set in London. Unless it’s literally produced and staged in London, and even then it is a complicated operation. A play is set in a black, abstract space. The Southend pier cannot be brought into this space, no matter how pure our intention, it can at best be re-created on a blank canvas. There is no less artifice, therefore, in putting London into the play, than in putting in Sydney, or the Moon. The play is always primarily in a non-place, built from scratch.

The theatre audience enters the theatre always somewhat aware of stepping into a different place, always prepared to look for signs. Keeping the play within its city limits is the easiest of the options, because the objects and ideas do not need to be transferred far, and because their meaning is familiar to the audience. The farther out we move (in cultural, rather than necessarily geographic terms), the harder it becomes to bring the right objects, right ideas, and convey the right space/time. Subtlety is lost depending on the attention to detail demanded: if a sign needs to be understood, it may need to be literalized to the point of banality. Consider, for example, the difficulties in conveying Eastern Europe to Australia. It is normally done with permed blonde girls, tasteless white or pink skimpy attire, strong accents, frequent smoking, references to communism or poverty. These are not signs found within an Eastern European theatre production to denote hereness. Depending on the transfer within time, the signs may be: packaging and brand names, slight accents, a picture on the wall, or complete lack of costumes.

In Union Theatre House’s production of Attempts on Her Life, the space evoked is an underground station. Michael Magnusson, however, saw a vague airport lounge instead. This is in no way a flaw in the set design, but a simple consequence of our different experiences, and the images we recognise. Was our understanding of the production in any way impaired if our mind substituted one cold, impersonal space with another? Certainly not. In Young Vic’s production of The Good Soul of Szechuan, critics have lauded the modernisation of setting, from a hungry early-20th-century China to the modern, capitalist Szechuan. However, the only signs within the stage design are modern cement factory uniforms and equipment, signs in hanzi, and the engulfing bare plywood that the entire theatre appears to be made of. To a different eye, the stage may well signify Hunan, or Guizhou instead; or Taiwan of the 1980s, or 1950s Japanese factory employing only Chinese workers. Would it be possible that the set designer is making a complex reference to these locales and the working conditions? Of course. We happen to be concluding: Szechwan; but there is nothing in black box that unmistakably says so.

Union House Theatre: Attempts on Her Life, Melbourne (Au), 2008.

Young Vic: The Good Soul of Szechuan, London (UK), 2008.

6. There is, at the same time, more to these signs than simple place-or-time-making. ‘Eastern Europe’, as described above, also means, depending on the eye of the beholder: poor, uneducated, prostitution, traditional femininity, war scars never heal, we should restrict immigration, etc. Combined with theatre’s economy of signs, this is dangerous semiotics. To control the general shape of meanings created in the black box means taking full notice of the multiple resonance of the few objects placed inside. I have witnessed the confusion of European spectators when faced with the portrayal of Australian middle-class torpor and delusions in Don’s Party: swearing, casual attire (shorts! singlets!), and anti-elitist attitude made the class profile of the characters rather murky to the continental eye. Many spent the evening trying to detect whether the conflicts stemmed from different social standing of various characters.

Yet this flexible sign-posting can also easily be played with. Can we produce a classic play without ersatz costuming? Numerous independent theatre continue to do so, with smart costumes that follow the general shapes of times, rather than insist on silk stockings and layered petticoats. Looking into a sparsely furnished black box, mind easily adopts associative logic, finding resonance with small details. A lamp here, a table there, a lacy parasol and hair tied up, and Chris Goode’s Sisters have been fully 19th-centuried. Music is another imprecise clue: Gypsy-sounding music can convey Romany culture enough for our purposes; it is not uncommon to employ classical music mismatching both era and locale, to stand for history; and a modern soundtrack has hardly re-situated a 19th-century play into yesterday.

Hayloft Project: Spring Awakening, Melbourne (Au), 2007.
Photo: Jeff Busby.

In The Good Person of Szechuan, a few interesting choices of this kind were made, with different levels of success. Cross-racial (or blind) casting was employed, although – and this is significant – most viewers would probably notice a South-Asian and an African man first, and only then realise that the entire remaining population of Szechwan is Caucasian. Here is an example of a sign that can easily be ignored if treated right: suspension of disbelief in the black box regularly allows us to watch actors of all shapes and colours; the same way in which we do not object to differently-built and –looking people playing family members. The cast of The Good Person have been sufficiently homogenised in acting for their racial differences to appear no more significant than those of a classroom of children.

Refusing to cast only East-Asian actors does not, pay attention, relocate the good person outside Szechuan; the choice of accents nearly does. Judging from past treatments of Russianness and Middle-Easternness, it would not be unreasonable to expect an Australian production to demand faux-Asian-English lilt from everyone involved. The British production, quite the contrary, makes most of the cast don a lower-class-British accent – as if their poorness is not sufficiently alluded to in the play. Prostitute Shen Te, notably, speaks in one of those good-natured, television-poor sort of stretched, slow, womanly accents, roughly of the Northern English kind, switching to proper theatrical enunciation whenever tough male cousin Shui Ta appears. The variety of local colour complicates the question of locale very much, but this is not all. The semiotic resonance of this teeming mass of naturalistic British poor, helped with Jane Horrocks’s melodramatic acting (which in this case may be a consequence of accent, rather than vice versa), unfortunately results in the entire production looking rather kitchen-sink to anyone acquainted with the British tradition of social melodrama. The resultant play loses Brecht’s epic, sombre qualities and turns into a pretty dire politicking soap-opera, doused in preachy moralism and cheap sentiment. (Even getting a good Brecht play right requires a merciless lack of pathos.)

Young Vic: The Good Soul of Szechuan, London (UK), 2008.

The sign language of the text remains the one set hardest to tinker with. It is not merely a joke here, a poignancy there. Classical plays are full of clever quips that don’t automatically enthral today’s audience, and social cues that go unnoticed. Translation flattens local colour, time murders references to current affairs. Too often, everything in a production has been fine-tuned except the text. In Goode’s Sisters, an excellent restoration of a text, two country officers argue over the meaning of escalope; is it meat, or a kind of onion? One is probably better off not knowing that, in the original text, they were confusing two Caucasian dishes, cheharma and cheremsha. This argument is not about cuisine, but commanding respect for being worldly, experienced.

The Pain and the Itch, recently staged by Red Stitch Actors Theatre, is a play clearly set in California yesterday morning (as long as yesterday morning is also Thanksgiving). The text points it out relentlessly, with references to those lower-class people who voted Bush situating it rather precisely in between the parliamentary and presidential elections; and the production responds by sticking a thick American accent on each and every actor. Inky, a Reagan-era satire of American consumerism recently seen at Theatreworks, treats the same genre accordingly. The problem, in this case, is that no matter how bravely Australian actors pursue their accents – and they do it quite well, relatively speaking – I have not yet witnessed a play in which the actors aren’t obviously putting most of their focus into accents. In The Pain and the Itch, there is a noticeable point towards the last third of the first act, when everyone finally relaxes and starts acting first, and speaking second. In How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, that moment never arrives for most of the cast. In Inky, the production is greatly helped by the delicious Kellie Jones in the title role, first, who acts like she was born backstage, and the focus of the play, second, which is a sort of Fight Club for girls before a satire of manners.

Gate Theatre and Headlong Theatre:
Sisters, London (UK), 2008. Photo: Simon Kane.

The purpose of this quick, upper-class Californian dialogue, may I suggest, lies less in poetical treatment of the rhythms and vocabulary of the language, and more in illustrating the breezy, lite verbose yet hollow communication even intimately connected persons engage with. Making a witty, effortless and fundamentally meaningless exchange of quips sound heavy, rehearsed, focused on, betrays the very reason why the dialog is on stage. And in a resonant black box, where every small sign and gesture is replete with meaning, this is big stuff. The audience can see which way they should suspend belief, but it turns into theatre where too much work is required from the auditorium.

7. Simply speaking, there is no one sign for time, place, emotion or moral. From the clues given, the audience patiently builds the cathedral. The suspension of disbelief can work wonders: in independent theatre groups, we accept young actors playing elderly roles; in established ensembles, we let middle-aged actors play youths. Cross-racial casting leans on this capacity of theatre to favour performative over objective reality. Theatre-makers, even playwrights, can learn to harness the multiplicity of signs generated in this make-believe. Genet’s girls can be played by boys, Srbljanovic’s children by grown-ups.

8. It seems to me that to argue that ersatz accents are required for a play to stay in Southend and London is akin to demanding poor accents in Szechuan, as if to stop Brecht’s characters from inadvertently getting wealthy. It seems suspiciously like a lack of trust in the play itself to demand verisimilitude in an environment where it is near-impossible, to preserve something that may never risk getting lost. Chekhov’s plays are never less Russian for not being performed with thick immigrant accents – just avoiding the comical clichés of the multicultural soap that we are now familiar with. Had How to Disappear… been played in a moonscape, would it be any less set in London? Perhaps it even would (although the spectator who concluded that the play was a Sci-fi piece set on the moon would be a very unusual person indeed). But would it speak any less of London? I doubt.

The Pain and the Itch was originally presented by Red Stitch with most of the play acted in underwear. At the very end, when the characters have been completely exposed in their bickering, hollow human littleness, they finally appear dressed, coiffeured, proper. I know this because we were told. However, I saw a different play. Bruce Norris, the author of the play, had found out about the underwear, and complained to the company, which decided to have the actors wear plain black clothes instead. The effect, suffice to say, was completely lost. Compared to the harm done to the play with the forceful employment of accents, I would not say that the underwear took much away. If anything, it strikes me as strange that the author himself would have so little faith in his play as to consider that his characters could be undressed with a simple directorial decision. In our stoic black box, painted red for the occasion, there were more than plenty of road signs pointing that the play was not about a near-nudist family. Just like we would never conclude that these wealthy Americans lived in a brothel. That Inky is set in a half-apartment, half-boxing ring did not make the audience tear its hair out in confusion: it was the play itself that was both a document of quotidian life and a boxing match.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre: The Pain and the Itch,
Melbourne (Au), 2008. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson.

What all the plays mentioned have in common, and I myself have only realised now, is being productions of successful texts from far away: either in time, space, or mindset. The reasons why Inky is a thoroughly successful play, while The Good Soul of Szechuan somewhat schmaltzy and spineless, are more complex than my little essay can dwell into. However, it is this faithfulness to the effect, rather than the external form of the play, that separates a good theatrical moment from a merely decent one. To be careful, but not literal, is all I can recommend. To stay on the safe side of brave, would it not be possible to learn from the way independent theatre approximates costumes and set, and approximate accents in order to protect the actors’ expressive range (the way Tory Rodd sort of did in How to Disappear…, speaking in that polite, closed upper-middle Australian English)? Are there not more than two ways to go?

How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, by Fin Kennedy, directed by Paul King, Sound design by George Bisset.With Michael F Cahill, Glen Hancox, Helen Hopkins, David Passmore and Tory Rodd. Hoy Polloy Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Melbourne (Au), 23 May – 7 June 2008. Season ended.

The Pain and the Itch, by Bruce Norris, directed by Gőrkem Acaroglu. Design by Anna Cordingley. With Sarah Sutherland, Daniel Frederiksen, Brett Cousins, Andrea Swifte, Terry Yeboah, Erin Dewar, Oregen Guilloux-Cooke and Fantine Banulski. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne (Au), 30 April – 31 May 2008. Season ended.

Inky, by Rinne Groff, directed by Jacquelin Low. Set design by Emily Collett. Costume design by Doyle Barrow. With Kellie Jones, Eleanor Howlett and Roderick Cairns. Original music by Wintership Quartet. Theatreworks, Melbourne (Au), 22 May – 8 June 2008. Season ended.

The Good Soul of Szechuan, by Bertolt Brecht. Translated by David Harrower. Directed by Richard Jones. Set by Miriam Buether. Costume by Nicky Gillibrand. Light by Paule Constable. Music by David Sawer. With Steven Beard, Linda Dobell, Gareth Farr, Adam Gillen, Shiv Grewal, Jane Horrocks, Merveille Lukeba, John Marquez, Sam O'Mahony-Adams, David Osmond, Susan Porrett, Sophie Russell, Liza Sadovy, Tom Silburn and Michelle Wade. Young Vic, London (UK), 8 May – 28 June 2008.

Sisters, by Anton Chekhov. Adapted and directed by Chris Goode. Design by Naomi Dawson. Lighting design by Anna Watson. With Gemma Brockis, Catherine Dyson, Julia Innocenti, Helen Kirkpatrick, Tom Lyall and Melanie Wilson. Gate Theatre in co-production with Headlong Theatre, London (UK), 5 June – 5 July 2008.

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