I do need to preface this comment by noting I am writing it from behind the opaque screen of a 38°C fever, and that I saw Pornography as the swine flu was comfortably settling in. It was, however, a remarkable theatrical event, for many non-obvious reasons.
1st non-obvious reason: demonstrating that an artists’ festival is not a punters’ festival
Pornography was the first MIAF 09 show to really polarise the audience. You wouldn’t know this from the mainstream press, of course. The artists and the theatre-makers hated it with a passion, calling it trite, facile, lazy, not trying hard enough, and a Brett Sheehy show. All for a reason. Kristy Edmunds has worked very hard on turning MIAF into an artsts’ festival, and artists come to MIAF expecting to see courageous, bold and innovative developments of their art shown, demonstrated. You could trace the reverberations of particular acts in the local performance for years after: Jerome Bel in Attract/Repel, Societas Raffaello Sanzio in glimpses, Forced Entertainment across the board.
As is becoming clear, that’s not Brett Sheehy’s idea of a festival. Pornography is not theatre-maker’s theatre. It’s people’s theatre. In that respect, the equivalent of last year’s Romeo & Juliet (and therefore likely to win the people’s vote this year.) To every outraged theatre-maker in the audience there were at least two exhilarated punters from the eastern suburbs, clapping themselves numb. Again, it would be easy to snark at the theatre-illiterate plebs, but that’s not what’s going on here. In this year’s festival, Pornography features as the prime example of well-made theatre: disciplined, taut, contained, focused and effective. While it is true that it breaks absolutely no new ground, formally, narratively or conceptually, therefore leaving the part of the audience that shows up with notepads and pens in a state of dismayed disappointment, it is undeniably a very well realised theatre piece.
The only complaint I have heard from the other side of the barricades, which we may term The Hawthorn Side (with a tinge of irony), has been linguistic: why has it been done in German? We would have preferred it in English. Why not bring an English production?
2nd non-obvious reason: elucidating arcane questions of translation in theatre
Let’s revisit the pedigree of Pornography: a play by Simon Stephens on the subject of the London bombings of 2005, it was certainly written in English, and there is certainly a three-way translation going on in having it performed in German and re-translated into English via surtitles on three sides of the stage, but no one seems aware that the play was commissioned by that same Hamburg Schauspielhaus, which also, naturally, gave it its first production. The question of authenticity is turned upside down if you hear Stephens himself:
It couldn’t, says Stephens, have been written for the British stage. For a start, the subject was too raw: “It was so soon after the event. I would have felt guilty about fictionalising something very real. But writing for a German theatre freed me up.” It also allowed Stephens – who usually tells heartfelt, formally conventional stories – to experiment. Nübling is a characteristically German director: “I believe in theatre being the art of images,” he says, “not only the art of texts.” And so, says Stephens, “if I had written a play with a unified narrative, cogent characters and a three-act structure, he’d have fucked it up anyway.” None of the dialogue is attributed to any particular character – it’s up to the director who says what.
There’s a whole set of explanations for why Schauspielhaus Hamburg would do so: first, German theatre is director-oriented (or production-oriented, if you so wish), and is interested in seeing what different directors do to the same texts. While English theatre is terminally text-focused, always trying to find newer and fresher plays and voices, most European theatre will revisit plays and playwrights with great frequency, since it’s the particular take on the material that is really what makes theatre. This is why a non-emerging (or non-star) playwright, so to speak, could be held in such interest. (The contrast with Abbey Theatre’s Irish production of Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus is striking: the production adds so little to the extraordinary text that it’s hard to see it as anything other than words on stage, and hard to imagine why seeing another production of the same kind would be a significantly different experience.)
Secondly, with about 150 publicly funded theatres presenting around 5800 productions a year (of which about 360 world premieres), German theatre industry is a big market constantly looking for new material. The question of why Germans would be interested in a London story strikes me as odd, presupposing a cultural insularity that just isn’t there in Germany. After all, I don’t walk the streets of Melbourne (as I well could) wondering why Royal Shakespeare Company would be interested in such quintessentially Slavic stories as Uncle Vanya, do I?
The translation (of words, bodies and theatre into German) here reminds us, simply, of the process of imperfect translation that always already occurs in the theatre, which is metonymical and metaphorical in its core, which always traces real world on the sides of a black box, outdoors into indoors, past era and foreign countries into locals, mismatching ages, accents, general demeanour. Since theatre, unlike cinema, cannot ever vaguely pretend to be showing unadorned, unadulterated reality, than certainly this imperfect translation becomes one of its main charms? Brueghel’s imposing Tower of Babel, the vast backdrop to the Hamburg Pornography, is one such imperfect translation of an idea: the multicultural confusion of languages and intents, causing the failure of a grand idea (or is it just vain and presumptuous?) is as good a metaphor of the London Olympics/bombings as it is reductive and silly; but certainly it takes an outside eye to draw that parallel in such simple terms?
3rd non-obvious reason: proving Peter Craven wrong
Pornography is a production for Hamburg’s Schauspielhaus, the equivalent of MTC or STC: big, well-funded public theatre with a subscriber base, production exchange/touring arrangements with other such theatres, a core ensemble of 20-40 actors, an opera and possibly a corps de ballet. This is not, in other words, a work of a lone genius in a cave: it is a big-balled production, bringing to the citoyens of Hamburg new hot writing, in style. The equivalent of the Pamela Rabe’s God of Carnage; Benedict Andrews’s The City; or the Apocalypse Bear Trilogy. It demonstrates very well what the standard good mainstream theatre production in Europe looks like, and in our city, chronically starved of decent mainstream, it is no wonder that the audience was so pleased. If half of all theatre in Australia looked like that, we would have nothing to complain about.
The whinging artists about town should probably consider that all successful formal experimentation relies on an educated audience. Pornography breaks no new formal ground, true, but it revisits the existing playing space for theatre with crisp, elegant matter-of-factness, demonstrating the poetic advantages of non-naturalism, anti-realism, metaphor, symbolism, metonymy, and so forth, to anyone with a working set of eyes. It must have done more for the form than the rest of the mainstream fare together, this year in Melbourne, and it has done so by explicitly shitting on Peter Craven’s recent argument for what-is-wrong-in-the-Australian-theatre. So explicitly, in fact, that we can trace it point-by-point.
Straight? NO. Classical? NO. “Showed what theatre could do rather than what could be done with the theatre”? NO. Naturalistic and muted? NO. “Delivered, on the note, without distortion”? NO ( Nübling had changed the text, rearranged the order of the episodes, and plastered a whole Babel at the back of the stage, hey). Indeed, it had many more of the qualities that for Craven exemplify theatre “too narcissistic to grow up”. Ugly-ugly aestheticism? JUST ABOUT. “Demolition site with its smeared body fluids and blood spitting”? Sounds correct. “Cut-and-paste postmodern tinkerings”? Can I mention that Tower of Babel again?
The paradox is, of course, that Pornography, with its invisible light switches, its puzzle symbolising the woes of multiculture, its Coldplay singalongs, its classroom stage space standing indifferently for houses, offices, school yards, and swanky restaurants and THEREFORE blatantly middle-fingering naturalism, has immense and palpable appeal to the same middle-of-the-road taste Craven is speaking from. It is no wonder whatsoever Craven himself reviews the production so glowingly; and yet the workings of this production seem completely lost on him, working in a frenzy to prove that it is not because, but despite, the anti-realism that Pornography is such a lovely night at the theatre.
All of which strikes me as deeply ideological, but also really, really funny.
Pornography. Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg. Written by Simon Stephens. Director Sebastian Nübling. Set Designer Muriel Gerstner. Assistant Set Designer Jean-Marc Desbonnets. Costume Marion Münch. Music Lars Wittershagen. Lighting Roland Edrich. Dramaturgy Nicola Bramkamp & Regina Guhl. Cast Marion Breckwoldt, Katja Danowski, Juliane Koren, Hanns Jörg Krumpholz, Jana Schulz, Daniel Wahl, Samuel Weiss & Martin Wißner. The Arts Centre, Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 15-18.