There was every reason to believe that the STC production of Martin Crimp’s The City would be one of the events of the year. Crimp is one of the best currently active English-language dramatists, whose collaboration with director Katie Mitchell has seen his reputation steadily grow over the past 10 or so years. His writing is sharp, chiselled, musical and nuanced both emotionally and linguistically: Crimp is a trained musician and a French translator, and has a fantastic ear for phrase. In the tradition of Beckett and Pinter, his is dramaturgy of undefined anxiety, wrong emotions on stage (while the right ones are always round the corner), of language as a clutter of knives, rather than a bridge between souls.
War of the Roses at the Sydney Festival in January, the paramount theatrical event of 2009, sparked extraordinary interest in Benedict Andrews’s work. A director dividing his time between STC and the Berlin Schaubühne, Andrews seems to be able to translate the Germanic theatrical tradition (intellectual, formally explosive and rigorously political) into a form that fits organically into the contemporary Australian theatre: formalist but simple, stern but light, unsentimental but beautiful. Andrews’s work brings fresh air, but never looks out of context. Having directed Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life for the STC in 2001, and a number of playwrights of similar mind, from Ionesco to Mayenburg, Andrews seemed the most exciting choice of director to tackle The City, Crimp’s companion piece to The Country (presented by Red Stitch in Melbourne in 2005), which premiered at the Royal Court only last year.
In a tense marital conversation, Clair (Belinda McClory) tells Chris (Colin Moody) about her chance meeting with Mohamed, a famous writer, whose daughter wore pink jeans and was taken away by the nurse. Chris, in response, tells her of his working day, his swipe card not working, possible lay-offs, the terrible Janette who will swindle her way up the corporate ladder. In the following scene, Jenny (Anita Hegh), a nurse, comes in to ask if their children could not play in Clair and Chris’s garden. She is their neighbour, her husband a war doctor somewhere far away, she cannot sleep from the noise. This is old Crimp territory: threatening subtext, unresolved bubbles of anxiety, wars locked outside our private garden. From one short scene to another, the stories start to loop and weave and bleed into one another: Chris’s high-school colleague has become a supermarket employee, working in the butcher’s section. Two scenes later, Chris, now laid off from work, arrives dressed in a white deli outfit. Symbolically important gifts make circles around the room. The dialogue and dramaturgy fail to solidify the characters into singular beings.
Andrews’s production is set on the happiest and the rarest of all stages, a longitudinal one, on which a wide black staircase, like a stadium, or the mirror of the audience space, has the characters climbing, walking, balancing on the edge, uncomfortably close to the spectators. The mise-en-scene is deliberately vague, sharply, self-consciously imprecise, yet the skill is always on show. Entire grand pianos appear and disappear, while the actors talk to each other from the sides of the black staircase, only their heads showing. Clair gets upset when Chris draws back from her, unconsciously, during a conversation; yet Colin Moody the actor has done no such thing. Ramin Gray’s fine production of The Ugly One, which succeeded The City at the Royal Court Downstairs, was built out of such meticulous avoidance of representation: his actors ate, drank, and played multiple characters without ever doing so. Here it is, a moment where Andrews introduces a small crumb of a continental theatre trend, or a pose, into the Australian theatre with great subtlety, almost as if setting a scene for his future work. (It is a gesture that ambitious artists in small cultures often resort to: trying to build modernity into the history of Yugoslav drama, Krleza’s Glembay cycle wrote an entire chapter of excellent late 19th-century drawing-room realism in an interlude between his expressionist plays: the former had to seep into the cultural subconscious before the latter could use them as productive compost. Indeed, only with Brezovec’s work since 2001 has Krleza’s expressionism been successfully staged.)
However, if the production doesn’t lack focus, it lacks breadth. The strength of The City, in the true Pinter fashion, hinges on creating a sense of oneiric, all-encompassing menace, in which the anxieties of marriage and parenthood conflate with the horrors of faraway wars. I have written previously on the way this anxiety played itself out in the in-yer-face theatre of Sarah Kane et alia, using Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life as a pretext: a decade later, our anxiety grown stronger and firmer, The City shares many of its most incisive traits with Michael Haneke’s Caché. The careful architecture of The City encompasses the psychological terrors of the domestic and the neighbourly, the political terrors of the wide world, and the foggy terrors of a writer’s imagination. Unfortunately, Andrews’s mise-en-scene strengthens the formalist, self-aware aspects of Crimp’s text at the expense of the framing realism. It detracts, not from its intelligence, but from its emotional impact. The result looks, somewhat unfortunately, more like a performance essay than a rounded theatrical production. That the titular city is the imaginary world of the writer’s imagination does not come as quite the frightening surprise, and when Belinda McClory says so, this explanation irons out the inconsistencies in the narrative far more than it ought to. Failing to give an emotional skeleton to the piece, Crimp’s text ends up looking like a poor man’s Pirandello. Well put together, but somewhat hollow.
Stories of writers’ inner worlds seem to be a thing de jour, if one is to judge from the proximity of this production to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. As a fellow writer, well-acquainted with the phenomenon of characters falling out of cupboards, of being distinct but structurally inconsistent creatures, of changing gender and character like a costume, I don’t think the stuff is necessarily as exciting as these writers seem to think it is. Certainly, invented people have their own fragile, amorphous but powerful existence. They steal traits from your best friends and sometimes looks uncomfortably like yourself. But on its own, this cross-dressing game can only hold so much interest. We all invent people as we go: my stepdad’s wife is not the same person as my mother; my ex-boyfriend’s former girlfriend is not me. Without real situations to frame this fragility of interpretation, all that remains is a threadbare, rather ornery hall of mirrors. Enough for an essay, indeed. Not enough for a work of art.
I should close by adding that I am being a wilful nitpick. The City is a quality production of a quality play. However, Andrews lets down both his own strengths and Crimp’s complexity in a production more faithful to a single idea that the playtext, perhaps, wants to be. While excellent in many aspects, it is not unmissable the way many of us had hoped it would be.
The City. By Martin Crimp. Director: Benedict Andrews. Set Designer: Ralph Myers. Costume Designer: Fiona Crombie. Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper. Cast: Anita Hegh, Belinda McClory, Colin Moody. Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay. 29 June – 9 August 2009.