It is tempting to be extra generous to Michael Kantor in his last year of tenure as the artistic director of the Malthouse. “Elizabeth: Quasi per caso una donna”, a Dario Fo romp with the great Julie Forsyth in the title role, might have indeed been his swan song. Unfortunately, if the rest of his departing 2010 keeps the same tone, Melbourne will remember him as a purveyor of “gratuitous camp”, as Cameron Woodhead so aptly summarized his own opinion of Elizabeth in The Age.
I would like to illustrate the problems of this production by referring you to “Moi… Lolita”, a chart-topping French pop song from 2000. The video depicted the then-14-year-old Alizeée as a country girl in a skin-coloured skimpy dress, taking money from a man, getting a bus with her little sister, dancing in a discotheque surrounded by much older men, while the little sister is having a cocktail in a corner. She sings, very approximately, It’s not my fault if when I’m about to give up I see others, all ready to throw themselves at me’
My question is: how long does the average citoyen d’Australie (or another Anglophone country) last before getting very upset about this sexualisation-of-the-youngest business? I would guess not long. Try. Time yourselves. Let me know.
There is an essential seriousness at the bottom of the Anglo heart, still one foot in Protestantism, that makes it very hard to accept that this is just a pop song for a million kids to dance to all over the world. It is a seriousness about the meaning of life, but also about its semiotics, and it particularly comes to the fore in camp, the most English-speaking of aesthetic sensibilities.
Yes, pace Susan Sontag, camp is aestheticization of life, a kind of artifice, quotation marks around life, and yes it works through attenuation or exaggeration of surface – but, it seems to me, there is a melancholic disavowal at its very heart. Camp is a way of doing something and not doing it at the same time – either because you appear to be achieving the opposite (Sontag notes the camp taste for the androgynous body), or because you are overdoing it so much that you must be just pretending – and if its weighty mannerism completely eclipses its content, it is only because the content is somehow pushed away (too painful, embarrassing, or denied). What is disavowed, of course, is a matter of utmost seriousness. Homosexuality tends towards camp for this reason – it is an unprosecutable version of itself. There is something clumsy and unachieved, unaccomplished at the heart of camp, wrapped in glad-wrap of self-protection from failure. Julian Clary is obviously camp, but so is any Englishman who declares love in every possible way, from the most sarcastic to the most bombastic, without ever doing it simply and directly. Camp revels in the sentimental, notes Sontag, and it seems to me that this sentimentality is an equivalent of the melancholia of disavowal. Sentimentality is not-quite-feeling, just like melancholia: something is idealized, mourned, but never properly felt because it has been lost before it was had. (Judith Butler, if I may interrupt myself learnedly, finds melancholia both in homosexuality and in homophobia: the rage in homophobia is the fact that masculine heterosexuality has had to disavow its own homosexual side.) And the essence of every perfected camp pose is deeply tragic. So if it’s a mannerism, it is a mannerism because what’s at stake is too serious to be addressed directly.
It is a common mistake for the Anglophone to misinterpret any exhibition of wild emotion or manner as camp: but without self-irony of the disavowal, it is not camp even if it looks like it. It is melodrama at times, flamboyance or megalomania, wild farce, etc. There is a morbid darkness at the heart of the Spanish culture that makes its excesses fascist before campy; and a joyfulness at the heart of the Italian culture that makes it illiterate in self-irony. Dali is therefore not camp; neither is Dario Fo.
Can they be campified nonetheless? That one can love a Tiffany lamp or Art Nouveau or Sagrada Familia in a camp way is undisputable; but Elizabeth shows a number of problems that arise when one decides to interpret a play campily, against its grain.
What would “Moi… Lolita” look like in a genuinely English version? We do have a good equivalent already: Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time”. A much less literal rendition of the same, with the 16-year-old nymphet in a schoolgirl uniform, singing something allusive but indirect; textbook camp. But the spelling out of ‘Lolita’, the dancing and the older man giving her money would be too strong elements to keep, precisely because the issue at stake is taken too seriously to be treated so playfully, in such a shamelessly silly way.
Elizabeth is a play in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, which is to say a proto-farce, and the ontological position of every farce is that life is too silly to do anything but laugh with it. There is no seriousness at its bottom: it comes, if it does, as an addition, a U-turn. Dario Fo’s humour, like most Italian humour, is a humour of wild exaggeration, of physical comedy, of whirlwind language, spinning at a vaudeville level at which nothing is sacred. Fo injects satire into it, but this is a cosmic sort of satire: satire of power, masculinity, ego – not of this or that person.
Kantor’s Elizabeth moderates this cosmic silliness into something apparently only marginally different, but what it actually does is weigh the text down, inadmissibly and unforgivably, with the disavowed seriousness of camp. Instead of a joyful romp, it becomes a heavy-handedly melancholy, semiotically weighty thing. The problem is not that there is an interpretation per se: the problem is that it fails as a piece of theatre.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing to say about Michael Kantor is that he seems to be capable of only a very narrow expressive range. Save for the extraordinary Happy Days in 2009, all of his work sticks to the same stew of camp singing, heavily applied Satire, sprinkled with poignancy until we all feel five years old. Too many of his works have looked like an educational poster: this is your FUN, this is your SOCIAL RELEVANCE, and this is your MORAL. Unfortunately for Kantor, the dramatic mechanics of Elizabeth cannot withstand such treatment.
I have rarely seen an English-language production of plays of this kind that understands and honours their lack of seriousness (the most recent was probably The Bourgeois Gentleman, a VCA student work ’09 and a delicious, hyper-silly rendition of Moliere). They tend to turn out pompous, spacious and verbose: the frivolity becomes camp, but they are too long to sustain the effortful artifice of camp without growing tired, boring. Similarly, Elizabeth suffers from too much space between the notes, literally: the silences, the bare stage, the criminal lack of movement (coming back from Europe, it was comparatively mesmerizing how little the actors moved). Lofty room is given to paraphernalia: the dialogue, the words, the plot. As humour withers from Elizabeth, it becomes embarrassingly obvious that a farce has little plot, no characters, no message and neglectable depth. It’s a tragic failure if its chain of events don’t elicit laughter, for it is a form that doesn’t attempt much more (just like “Moi… Lolita” is a pop number, not a call to sexual revolution).
Julie Forsyth realizes a wonderful Elizabeth: old, bogan, energetic and paranoid, she is a beautifully original creation. However, in too many moments she is literally the only thing moving on stage, while some insignificant bit of dialogue is being delivered. It’s telling that the most successful moments in the play (and there are a few, evenly scattered throughout the production), are those in which the stage is animated: the operatic exit of Donna Grozetta, the revolving set. Had there been more simple silliness, the denouement might have actually punched with poignance. Instead, Kantor squanders his seriousness: no moment for a note in minor key is wasted, and almost the entire second act sentimentally elegiac – before the queen has even died! By the time Fo is about to make his one serious point, our ability to empathize with a farce has been so severely wrung that we could comfortably sit through a treatise on Hiroshima, complete with a crying choir of disfigured toddlers, and make mental supermarket lists.
Elizabeth is too long and too inconsequential a text to be camped up like that. By ignoring its farce, Malthouse gets a show full of theatre, but without drama, shiny artifice disguising no serious issue. In my more awake moments, I imagined a provincial Italian theatre running away with the script, making scatological jokes and filling the stage to the brim with business. I even imagined how wonderful the play might have looked in Butterly Club, in a cabaret version. If Elizabeth makes the text look bad, I am still convinced there is a worthwhile play at its bottom. It just requires a production less worried about its meaning.
Elizabeth: Almost by chance a woman [Quasi per caso una donna: Elisabetta], by Dario Fo. Translated and freely adapted by Luke Devenish and Louise Fox. Director Michael Kantor. Set and costume designer Anna Cordingley. Lighting designer Paul Jackson. Composer Mark Jones. Sound designer Russell Goldsmith. Dramaturge Maryanne Lynch. Apr 3 – 24.