Liminal (Theatre and Performance): Oedipus – a poetic requiem

A version (with rather off formatting of Ted Hughes) has appeared in Laneway Magazine.

Liminal (Theatre and Performance) is a strange beast in the Melbourne theatre eco-system. In this city, where most theatre is produced for free and funding is at best flimsy, independent theatre-making is a long session of musical chairs, and a person who can get a large number of people to collaborate for a longer period of time something of a rarity. Another rare thing in this city, sadly but logically, is an independent theatre practitioner past a certain age: while we certainly have established mainstream theatre artists, there is simply not enough security of livelihood on the theatre margin to sustain long-term artistic inquiry.

As Alison Croggon has noted, Liminal, with their sense of collective, long-term collaboration, defined aesthetics and a clear sense of tangent and purpose, are comparable to the visionary ensembles that are lushly funded in, let's say, Europe, and heralded as creative laboratories, those raising the roof beams for the future. Ariadne Mnouchkine comes to mind, or Needcompany. In Melbourne, needless to mention, this is not quite the case, and Liminal tend to teach their devoted audience much about the suburban architecture of Melbourne, as we wander the back streets of Abbotsford or Brunswick, looking for the right warehouse or private house where their performances take place.

Based on Ted Hughes's poetically mighty re-working of Seneca's Oedipus, this is a production of which completely contradicting things can be said with total plausibility. It has a grand vision, fantastic ideas, excellent human and textual material, powerful execution, and yet it fails to work the way one expects it to. There is a touch of too-much and a touch of not-quite: velvety enunciation and somewhat heavy-metal make-up give Oedipus a little bit of easy slickness it doesn't need, while choreographic and vocal syntony collapses in moments that wouldn't matter if the performance didn't strive for microscopic precision. Liminal makes theatre full of sound and image, minutely choreographed motion and voice: to experience it in a suburban garage, in a glitchy execution with props collapsing, video and sound occasionally malfunctioning, fails the desired total immersion. The tight intimacy of the space works, and doesn't: a larger space may have relieved Oedipus of some of its visceral potency, but some airiness could have sharpened our senses, slightly irritated as they were by the physical discomfort of crowdedness, of feet pressed against backs, shoulders rubbing, imperfect angles. Hugely ambitious, Oedipus burns under its own magnifying glass.

Partially, though, there may be an internal failure of rhythm and intent. There is not so much a sense of meandering, as a lack of progression until it kicks into the splendid end. Oedipus starts in high-strung tone, and keeps it, unwavering, until the very end. The result, rather than creating horrorific tension, creates monotony. While four Jocastas toss and turn in the agony of loss, blame and fault, the audience, in minute steps, gets bored.

But if I focus so much on the shortcomings, it's because Oedipus is, overall, stuff of giants. Classical tragedy is already thick with re-telling, with memory, but in this version only detritus of the original events remains. Any recognisable characters are shed for a mask of Oedipus and a chorus of four women in black, who less narrate than reminisce, re-live, mourn and wail. Everything has already happened, and on stage there will be only inconsolable mourning, only senseless rage and self-pity. Spitting mouthfuls of exquisite text – a text with a fine pedigree indeed – they bathe their bodies, voices, and the entire black box in gorgeous monochrome film, Ivanka Sokol's flickering shadows of cloudy skies, streets, woods, faces. Just like in their previous work, Mishima's The Damask Drum, there is a sense of reiterative, traumatic, short-circuited memory in these confused blurs of film, the orchestrated imprecision with which they slide up and down bodies reduced to black dress and white skin, white shadows of trees in the black box. Physical movement is nearly perfectly directed: four women merge together and fall apart, assuming distinct voices only to drown into a writhing, wriggling mass of lean limbs and wild hair. And the text, broken between mouths and personae, is the most exquisite piece of writing I have heard on stage, angular and translucent and raucous and spiky.

At the very end, Claire Nicholls has five minutes of most accomplished theatre one is likely to see in Melbourne this year. In a move characteristic of the production, a nameless black-dressed woman repeats a monologue of a slave, recounting how Oedipus blinded himself. Only a faint carbon-copy of an event, yet brought to life with such visceral urgency – as she screams, she is helpless, senseless chilling despair;

Suddenly he began to weep          everything that had been
Torment suddenly it was sobbing       it shook his whole
Body and he shouted                  is weeping all I can give
Can't my eyes give any more        let them go with their
Tears          let them go      eyeballs too      everything
Out            is this enough for you you frozen gods of
Marriage     is it sufficient            are my eyes enough

From this point on we are in theatre heaven, although it required a jump-start. And here is the problem. While flawed, imperfect, the act of critique becomes hard when what Liminal does is systematically rare, rarely systematic, and totally unsupported. And when such senseless acts of beauty go unnoticed, in Brunswick garages.

Melbourne Fringe Festival. Oedipus – a poetic requiem. Liminal (Theatre and Performance). Director, dramaturge and set designer: Mary Sitarenos. Performers: Ivanka Sokol, Jo Smith, Georgina Durham and Claire Nicholls. Moving image: Ivanka Sokol. Masks: James McAllister. Photography: Sarah Enticnap. 72 Edward Street, Brunswick (garage), Sept 30 – Oct 12.

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