I am about to burn all my bridges and praise theatre I have never praised before. But we all grow older and up. Two shows currently playing in Sydney are exemplary for what Sydney likes to do: straight plays, if not television. Things that, we smirk from Melbourne, are not quite theatre.
Indeed, both are adaptations of dubious philosophy. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, at Belvoir Downstairs, is Robert Couch’s adaptation of the 1865 short novel of the same title by Nikolai Leskov. The transposition, in this case, is informed by the existence of no less than three film versions, numerous other stage adaptations, and at least one famous opera (by Shostakovich, recently revived by Opera Australia). Elling, at Sydney Theatre Company, is based on a 2001 Norwegian film (!), itself an adaptation of Ingvar Ambjrnsen’s novel. Pamela Rabe is directing a stage adaptation, originally by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Nss, then translated into English by Nicholas Norris and further adapted by Simon Bent (why, it makes you wonder, must the English add another layer of pruning to translated texts?). Suspicious pursuits!
It was already Goethe who complained that, as soon as they read the book, the audience of then wanted to see the play: the transposition of story across mediums, that completely failed to notice that medium was, even then, the message. (Without launching into a rant, that the narrative of Don Quixote was undivorceable from the novel-ness of Don Quixote; that one cannot turn Bukowski’s poetry into a play – although the additional question in this case is: why bother?) In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag raves against the sanctity of content:
…which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.
I am a habitual Sontag-disciple in this matter; I believe that the theatre must be theatre first, and say something later. Yet both of these productions, these theatrical mongrels, are terrific, and absolutely worth seeing – something akin to Humphrey Bower and Jess Ipkendanz’s The Kreutzer Sonata at La Mama in 2007, a re-working of Tolstoy’s short story for one voice and two instruments. An adaptation that ought to have miserably failed was instead an astonishing artistic success, one of the finest experiences I have ever had in the theatre.
I am not sure how the formalist in me justifies the tremendous enjoyment to be derived from both Lady Macbeth and Elling, but I suspect it has something to do with story. None of the two are flawless works, but you forgive them even if you notice, because you’re taken along with the narrative. The limitations of the stage, unaddressed as they may be, become invisible as the stage itself vanishes behind the story.
Psychology has made a claim that we human beings love stories because story is the fundamental organisational element of our consciousness. In simple words, we make sense of the world by telling stories to ourselves (and, indeed, the fundamental product of schizophrenia is the inability to construct a coherent narrative of one’s own life). Some artistic forms are better suited to this task, called epic for this very reason: novels, short stories, epic poems. Some not so much: painting, haiku, tragedy. However, human mind is wired to look for a narrative even in the least likely places; and it is comical but not entirely wrong that many works of art are seen to fail when they provide too strong a narrative framework for the viewer, offer too little resistance to the story-telling mind (Jack Vettriano’s painting; pre-Raphaelite didacticism; Bukowski’s poetry; Hollywood movies; the realistic novel – depending on your elitism of choice). In this duel of the urge to narrate with the fickle narcissism of form, victories are sometimes unpredictable. While Aristotle clearly separated dramatic from epic arts, suggesting that theatre is inherently flawed as a story-telling vehicle (and I second that, except in the case of radio play), Brecht has revolutionised theatre by disagreeing. Not too long after, a generation of writers proved that the novel could well exist without telling a story at all.
To return to the matter at hand: the qualities of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk lie in Joseph Couch’s excellent direction of the narrative material. Robert Couch’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s slim novel is pruned and stream-lined into a tight, breathless ride through the 19th-century Russia. It is as simple a story as they get: Katerina, an abused country wife, a childless slave in her own house, is seduced by a labourer. A woman who was, until then, resigned to a life of complete misery, she latches onto this unexpected source of bliss, and serially murders her way into freedom, trying to keep this love in her life.
It is interesting to find a character of this sort in the intersection of the work of three men: the novelist, the adaptator, the director. (Joe Couch notes: it is as if Leskov stumbled upon her heroine subconsciously, never understanding her motives.) This production, however, is singularly compassionate, and explores her amour fou with an essayistic clarity of thought. Without a single superfluous line or gesture, Couch builds a picture of Katerina, clutching onto a love affair that has become the sole source of meaning in her life. The macabre second act, in which her lover turns against her, is a tight and astute image of attraction turned rage, devotion turned self-annihilation, and joie de vivre turned madness.
Edwina Ritchard, Amy Kersey and Jason Langley’s many secondary characters build a varied, rich world around the two main characters in the tiny Downstairs space. For once, Russians are not played as English people: all characters possess a rounded, fully-fleshed emotional life. Kersey’s Aksinya is not a cockney maid we have come to expect from less culturally literate productions, but a brisk, yet compassionate, peasant woman. Alice Parkinson is extraordinary as a woman whom life has treated so badly as to reduce her to an animal presence, bare life on stage. She shivers and mutters, groans and sings and dances; yet she is not a caricature, but a tragic character whose actions, however extreme, are always understandable.
What could very easily have been a tedious night out is instead a riveting experience. The theatrical perils are enormous: the entire second act tries to enact a long march across Russia on the minuscule Downstairs stage. In the easy-going, frivolous Australia, the entire point could have been so easily misunderstood. Yet the emotional intelligence of the production completely overcomes the technical obstacles, delivering a gripping, utterly absorbing tale.
The story with Elling is slightly different. A Norwegian comedy instead of a Russian tragedy. Another worrying adaptation trajectory, yet another success of theatre as straight-forward story-telling. Played by the exquisite Darren Gilshenan and Lachy Hulme, Elling and Kjell Bjorne are two lunatics given a council flat, a chain-smoking social worker, and a couple of months in the real world after a lifetime of confinement. If they screw badly enough, Frank will be only too glad to return them to the mental asylum.
The humour that Elling weaves out of this initial situation is as deliciously Scandinavian as it is un-Australian – which is also what makes its final triumph more interesting. The first thing to keep in mind is that the two characters are genuine, bona fide crazies. Kjell Bjarne is a 40-year-old virgin, constantly masturbating and without a clue about the world outside psychiatric institutions. Elling is a well-spoken agoraphobe who conflates his mother with Virgin Mary, possesses a baroque and complex sense of guilt for having outlived her (unlike Christ), and manages to regularly convince the infinitely more low-brow Kjell in the normality of his particular worldview. Reidun, the pregnant check-out chick from the apartment upstairs who becomes Kjell’s romantic dalliance, and the seedy poet Alfons, who befriends Elling out of aesthetic interest in the mind of a madman, are no more conventional human beings, and certainly not immediately likeable.
In front of the comedy of manners that ensues, Sydney audience looked genuinely confused: reluctant to laugh at insanity, at the intellectual and emotional underdevelopment of a pregnant working-class girl, even at the ruined career of a once-famous poet. The stakes are too high, firstly, and secondly, there is never anyone to laugh with. Indeed, in the entire first act, the only scenes that properly elicited laughter were those in which someone was clearly upholding normality (such as when frustrated Frank forces Elling to overcome his phobia and answer the phone).
Keeping in mind our quest for the coordinates of Australian humour – which is, sadly, looking more and more like textbook bully humour – another rule seems to assert itself: Australian humour shies away from the strange-without-resolution, otherwise known as farcical. Scandinavian humour, like in Elling, thrives on unconventional relationships (compare and contrast Kitchen Stories, exempli gratia), which deepen and grow without either of the characters capitulating in front of the differing opinions or behaviour of the other. Looking at the Sydney audience, trying to put my finger on why their engagement with the comedy was failing, the missing link seemed to be, I am sad to report, acceptance. Not tolerance – one tolerates a rash, tolerance is the ability to ignore, and a person on stage is not there to be tolerated – but acceptance of the unreconcilable difference. The audience seemed unable to get their heads around the fact that Elling was not going to be ridiculed out of his agoraphobia, nor Kjell Bjarne shamed out of public masturbation.
By the second act, however, all was resolved. The laughing curve, which dragged on the floor for most of act one, shot up immediately after the interval, and the play ended as an unqualified success. Yet there is no qualitative difference in the execution between the two acts, nor is the second half any more conventional. Quite the opposite: Elling runs off with an evil plot to become a famous poet by planting poems in sauerkraut packets, all whilst jealously plotting to keep their pregnant neighbour away from Kjell. Yet, it seems, by now the audience has thawed towards these mad people. The climax – in which Reidun goes into labour after a night of drinking and smoking, Frank assures them that a night of drunken debauchery is the normal way to celebrate childbirth, and Alfons opts for friendship at the expense of his writerly fame – is emotionally satisfying without being facile.
Again, Gilshenan and Hulme are supported by terrific supporting performances. Yael Stone, in particular, gives great richness to the range of women Elling and Kjell encounter. Directed confidently, but without frills, Elling is a terrific theatre experience. Just like with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the focus is solely on telling a story. Neither of the two productions does anything to make a case for theatre as something distinct from prose or television. Yet they both confidently assert, in these often narrative-dislexic times, the timeless importance of some plot and characters.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Written by Robert Couch. Adapted from the novella by Nikolai Leskov. Directed by Joseph Couch. With Alice Parkinson, Conrad Coleby, Don Reid, Edwina Ritchard, Celeste Dodwell, Amy Kersey and Jason Langley. Belvoir Downstairs, July 2 – 26.
Elling. Based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen. Stage adaptation by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss. Translated by Nicholas Norris. Adapted by Simon Bent. Director Pamela Rabe. Set Designer Michael Scott-Mitchell. Costume Designer Tess Schofield. Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper. Sound Designer Max Lyandvert. With Darren Gilshenan, Glenn Hazeldine, Lachy Hulme, Yael Stone, Frank Whitten. Sydney Theatre Company, May 30 – July 18.