1. Almost by accident, I came across the following story:
In [the Serbo-Croatian war in the early 1990s], for the first time in history, the tactic of rape became a strategy. Soldiers took women from their homes, from UN or Red Cross or refugee convoys, and put them in the so called “rape camps.” Young girls, daughters taken from mothers, mothers taken with their daughters. They were systematically raped until they got pregnant; then they were released from the camps, but in a late stage of pregnancy when it is too late for legal abortion. These women came to Zagreb, the Croatian capital and second refugee stop. Newspapers were filled with their stories: what to do with the unborn conceived in such terrible circumstances. The word “children” was avoided. –Sanja Nikčević. Rape as War Strategy: A Drama from Croatia
I am not sure what a good artistic response to a story of this kind would consist of, but I am not convinced it would of a woman raped in a locker, vomiting on the floor, as in The Women of Troy, a field trip into abjection. Rape camps are a different story to the holocaust, and neither is the digital photography of Abu Ghraib an instance of banal evil: both, instead, are illustrations of the primordial excess, the glee of violence. Barbaric, sweet and sticky and ecstatic, just like the pre-historic wars were, but not mechanical, not absent-minded, not jogging suits, not plastic bags. In confusing the two, I am increasingly convinced the Kosky/Wright production misunderstood its role, and took part in the creation of gore, in titillation. It was competing with the images, trying to find a new angle, perhaps (although I doubt) re-sensitize us: in that respect, it was all about the internal audience equilibrium of emotion and revulsion. If there was any genuine banality there, it was the guilty banality of spectatorship, banality the audience may have been attempting to exorcise through submission to ever more disturbing images. And the point at which these images we are creating to ourselves become more excessive, more disturbing than anything likely to occur in real life, we are making a form of very simple, primary-coloured pornography: images for emotional masturbation.
To try to reduce the pain of others to the interchangeable familiar images, Baudrillard’s circular simulacra, is to deny them their particularity, to reduce them to symbols pointing at our own, limited experience that they sit squarely outside of. Far from being an exercise in sympathy, observing extreme suffering, arising from extreme consequences, is a deeply alienating experience. There is no more distant other than the person undergoing a pain we cannot even imagine, in circumstances profoundly distant from ours. By drawing on our bank of images, The Women of Troy gets implicated in another, more complex story.
2. The political in the theatre, it has been noted, does not consist of topics, but of modes of perception, of sign usage – theatre as a refuge from and an opposition to the information-conveying of the mass media that shapes our common reality. “It is a fundamental fact of today’s Western societies that all human experiences (life, eroticism, happiness, recognition) are tied to the consumption and possession of commodities (and not to a discourse)”, writes Hans-Thies Lehmann in Postdramatic Theatre. “This corresponds exactly to the civilization of images that can only ever refer to the next image and call up other images. The totality of the spectacle is the ‘theatricalization’ of all areas of social life.” The citizen becomes defined by spectatorship.
If fiction and reality merge, it is not because, as is often deplored, we mistake news for invented imagery, but because the act of communication has been eroded by the separation of the event from the perception of the event. There is no longer an accountable sender, and an accountable receiver, connected through communication, just pure, mass transmission of information, Thus the continual presentation of bodies that are abused, injured, killed through isolated (real or fictive) catastrophes creates a radical distance for passive viewing: the bond between perception and action, receiving message and ‘answerability’, is dissolved. We find ourselves in a spectacle in which we can only look on.
Two productions the 2008 theatre season is ending with are both, in their own ways, questions of reaction and response to images of the unpicturable. Both are equivocally successful, but these are difficult, worthwhile attempts. Both exemplify the tendency of postdramatic theatre to withdraw from the reproduction of images into which all spectacles ultimately solidify, shifting instead towards non-emphatetic theatre understood as a situation within the totality of our world. The energy curve of the performance eschews the dramatic arc, and turns calm and static. That both of these performances “have nowhere to go” after the explosive start can only be seen as a formal error if we are expecting drama of the pain of others, employed to make us feel familiar feelings.
“[In] a theatre that is no longer spectatorial but instead is a social situation (…) a reversion of the artistic act towards the viewers takes place. The latter are made aware of their own presence and at the same time are forced into a virtual quarrel with the creators of this theatrical process: what is it they want from them? The aesthetic object hardly has any substance any more but instead functions as a trigger, catalyst and frame for a process on the part of the viewer. Logically, the spectators get the theatre they 'deserve' individually through their own activity and willingness to communicate. Following visual art, the theatre turns back to the viewer.”
3. Since contemporary European theatre is my cup of tea, particularly when it leans towards intellectual, formally clever, or Germanic, I had high hopes for the Red Stitch production of Christian Lollike's The Work of Wonder (original title: The Wonder: The RE-Mohammad-TY Show), staged by Andre Bastian. I was expecting to like it in the face of a whole disapproving world. Instead, I left East St Kilda aggravated, yet confused about the core of its failure. If nothing on that stage added up, was the text, the milieu, or the director to blame?
As it usually happens when a production does not, in any way, speak to me, I tried to view it with all sorts of different eyes; perhaps it speaks to someone else. Finally, I found my clef browsing through video clips of a Danish production of the same play. The Work of Wonder is staged as a chaotic talk-show, of that semi-intellectual poseur and attention-seeker kind Europe abounds with; different characters are broadcast in on a large screen, and there is a great deal of dancing to rock music. And suddenly it worked. The long exposition about 9/11 being the greatest work of art, with the counter-argument that the famine in Africa is greater, more artistically coherent, larger number of victims, no set beginning nor end…, was now a mirror of another, self-satisfiedly smart-arse society; and every time the Hollywood actors interjected to tell us that, when we want to hear a story about others, we really want a story about ourselves, we had to agree, then look down in shame because it was exactly what we were getting.
There is a cohesion between the stage action and the audience Weltanschauung in this configuration that allows for Lollike's extremely complex decision to change tune in the last quarter, and suddenly present us with a carefully enacted pain of others. An American woman whose fire-fighting husband is missing; a Chechen schoolboy hostage; a Somali woman in a rape camp; and Mohammad the terrorist. Having had to agree, theoretically, on the moral incongruity of pain spectatorship, we are suddenly getting our work experience.
My introduction of a production by means of another production was, perhaps mainly, to absolve playwright Lollike. I would not dare insinuate that there is one right way of doing this play (or any other) – merely that the Red Stitch incarnation was an exceptionally confusing failure to make sense. It is a reasonable assumption that Bastian could not communicate his intentions to the actors, but a greater problem is that he does not seem to know, or care about, his audience. It would be very difficult for any group of Australians, and particularly the Red Stitch audience (which is only a slightly more left-leaning MTC crowd), to relate to the supreme cynicism with which Central Europeans, having spent the 1990s with bloodshed on their doorstep, observed the carnivalesque combination of schmaltz and military porn that poured in through the US media after 9/11. The collapse of the Twin Towers, in this country, was taken very personally. The sense of identification was incommensurate, perhaps, but nonetheless real, and distinctly opposed to the smirking distance Mitteleuropeans assumed, allowing for quick dissipation of compassion once neo-cons started orchestrating minor world wars. As a result, Stockhausen's statement in 2008 Melbourne sounds eerie, charmless.
Lollike's is a cynical play looking for a cynical audience. Red Stitch's is a sentimental audience looking for emotional cues. In the last, semi-serious quarter, there is palpable relief in the audience as the sentimental catharsis finds its centre, not merely against Lollike's intent, but quite consistently undermining any other organisational logic that may form in the production. More unforgivably, Bastian locates the intellectualizing cynicism of the first part entirely in the disaffected world of clubbing juvenile artists, alienating the uncomfortable. In doing so, it fails on all fronts. It creates a play that leaves our predisposition for emotional porn shaken but solid, and outsources the discomforting hypocrisy entirely into the world of some other, unlikeable others.
4. The main aspect of The Bell Shakespeare / Queensland Theatre Company co-production of Heiner Műller's Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome, which has by now travelled the country, is its nonchalance. For a work of theatre in which limbs are constantly shed, blood spurted, and heads offed, it is shockingly lightweight. In the words of the inimitable Alison, it comes close to jolly japes about mutilation.
Earlier this year, mourning over an off-mark treatment of a dramatic text, I was reprimanded for not accepting the authorship of the director, a constructive criticism if there ever was one. Leaving aside Shakespeare, leaving aside Műller, leaving aside Elizabethan theatre and leaving aside Bell Š, shedding layers of context, culture, intent, what remains is an unusually interesting production. It is, strangely enough, the most Australian theatre piece I have ever seen.
Műller is one of those dark dudes whose work is infinitely performed in Europe, but who doesn't grace local stages often, putting him in the honourable company of Ionesco, Kane, Srbljanović, Genet. There is political, historical and moral complexity in his work, little cathedrals of thought, that may be too teethy, too disillusioned, too detached for this same 2008 Melbourne that cannot bond with Stockhausen. And the audience is not to be ignored. I have noticed that I react differently to the same theatre production depending on the milieu, depending on the publicity that coats it, the introduction notes, geared to different theatre-goers. What looked, in Zagreb 2008, like an intelligent, playful take on epic story-telling, looks, in Sydney 2009, like a danger of four hours of feelgood. If up-to-date cynicism fails in Red Stitch, how would East German, pre-1990 pessimism fare?
Instead, the Bell Š/QTC production manages to shape a fully local version of the same spirit, turning heavy disillusionment into nihilism lite. In the most insightful review to date, Alexis Harley notes that Anatomy Titus is, above all, a sabotage, a commentary on the inappropriateness of Titus Andronicus as an aesthetic achievement. Bell Š goes one step further: it is a sabotage of the viewing experience, in a way that is, for once, neo-Brecht for the local climate. If The Women of Troy is a highbrow employment of the aesthetic spirit of Rotten.com or Vice Magazine, Anatomy Titus is Verfremdung of Rotten. There is no gore catharsis: there is only gore alienated. It is stupendously inconsistent, with such consistency that it needs to be taken as intentional. The theatricality is brought in and dismissed, in moments of elevated acting, in verbatim employment of stage language; but so is the pared-down sobriety that would give modernized dignity to the same inappropriateness. If, instead of women, men are raping men with blue eye shadow, this is to de-sentimentalize the victim-woman and, in Harley's words, “to avert the terrible possibility that the rape may, to our porn-jaundiced eyes, seem sexy”. We are miles away from the locker and the vomit. What we get are a bunch of relaxed, playful young men enacting cartoon violence and pronouncing Elizabethan verse, with the same nonchalance with which, in other parts of the country, they will make jokes about the suffering of some coloured, distant people over barbecue, yet take the inconsequential melodrama of their own society seriously. The stretch between the insular she'll-be-right-mateship and the vague imperative of historical empathy are jammed into a beautiful image of contemporary Australian confusion.
There is no solace of beauty on this stage, no comfort of lyrical coherence. Just the futile, circular enactment of futile, circular violence, both rendered shabby and meaningless as a result. The play opens in a plywood box covered in gigantic red stains. As the bucket of fake blood is smeared across actors' bodies, as we come to expect each stain to be matched with a slaughter, the historical repetition of bloodshed is paired up with its repetition on stage, on this set, night after night; and then a moment of silliness, a gollywog doll or John Bell as Titus with a chef's hat, will shatter any cloud of sombre reflection this may have sparked on the purposefulness of our theatre-going, of our spectatorship. Blood-drenched books used as the only prop, apart from a plastic bucket of blood and a few kitchen items, reinforce the point. Larrikin irreverence at its disturbing finest. This is theatre strongly aligned, perhaps unexpectedly and perhaps accidentally, with the critique of the society of spectacle.
5. This brings us to another interesting question: was this an intentionally smart reading of Müller, or just my maverick reading of the production? Much of the local criticism has interpreted the production as the inability of a major company to make dark, visceral theatre. In a parallel universe, in 2006 Croatian National Theatre did a first mainstage production of Kane's Crave in the country. Visual data look promising enough, yet the reviews were uniformly negative: the stage was too big, the staging was wrong, there is a right way of doing Kane, this wasn't it. Considering that, technically, there isn't a right way of doing Crave, the sum of criticism could be summed up as a lament from the indy-minded: Sarah Kane is ours. A major theatre, the logic goes, has no freedom of interpretation. A radical playwright is re-invented as an untouchable classic.
Coupled with the shocked negative reaction by more conservative critics, in both cases, two sides are united in disapproval of this bridging of worlds. Quick dismissal closes an important argument, that of the place of invention within major theatre companies. Whether the Bell Š audience appreciates the point is another question altogether. Although, considering the numbers the company attract, and the variety within their audiences (that comes with numbers), I would imagine that enough audience members would understand the stage goingons, that the production is speaking to someone the way The Work of Wonder could not.
More importantly, its programming opens up the possibility that Anatomy Titus will contribute to the cultivation of another mainstream theatre audience, something this country badly needs.
The Work of Wonder. By Christian Lollike. English translation by Greg Hanscomb. With Dion Mills, Meredith Penman, Tim Potter & Chris Saxton. Director: André Bastian. Choreographer: Peta Coy. Set Design: Peter Mumford. Lighting Design: Stelios Karagiannis. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, 19 Nov – 20 Dec.
Anatomy Titus: Fall of Rome, A Shakespeare Commentary. By Heiner Müller. Translated by Julian Hammond. Director: Michael Gow. Design: Robert Kemp. Lighting design: Matt Scott. Composition and sound design: Brett Collery. With John Bell, Robert Alexander, Thomas Campbell, Peter Cook, Scott Johnson, Nathan Lovejoy, Steven Rooke, Christopher Sommers and Timothy Walter. Bell Shakespeare and Queensland Theatre Company. Malthouse Theatre, Nov 26 – Dec 6.