Oh, Sydney. We may all know that Melbourne is the hub of independent theatre in Australia, but Sydney remains the elusive haven of mainstage. It has its fancy-looking Opera House shows, after all, and it has the supposed highlight of domestic mainstream, the Sydney Theatre Company (run by the glitterati Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton; home, until recently, of the one actors’ ensemble in the country; the commissioner of Benedict Andrews; the soothe for the discerning middle-class theatre-goer). It makes big-stage, big-cast, big-ambition work that the parochial Melbourne only dreams about. So why is it, then, that I come back from NSW once again disappointed?
One of each, this time. A local production that aims at decent middle, and a touring hit. STC’s production of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, and Vesturport – the Icelandic company that commissioned Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for a version of Woyzeck that Malthouse Theatre bought in earlier this year, a touring phenomenon (considering the generally low profile of Icelandic theatre) – with their Ten Days on the Island show Metamorphosis. Both troubling, with a troubling consistency.
The Wonderful World of Dissocia
While I respect Anthony Neilson’s writing, it is a strange idea that writing can stand on its own on stage. Dramatic writing is eminently plastic, its abstraction and openness molding very quickly once it’s embodied in voice and movement. Sitting in Wharf 1 in Sydney, wondering where the magic had gone and how come I hadn’t noticed the clunkiness of the dialogue, I remembered Susan Sontag’s warning to the critic: apparently, concern was expressed over the intrinsic qualities of Marat/Sade, all based on the fact that it opened without making a noise, once upon a time in Poland, before Peter Brook.
In an article for The Guardian in 2007, Neilson’s advice to young playwrights was: don’t be so boring. “Boring the audience is one true sin in the theatre.” he continued, going back to things like plot, suspense, spectacle. While most theatre cannot outspectacle Cirque de Soleil, “The spectacle we can offer is the spectacle of imagination in flight. I’ve heard audiences gasp at turns of plot, at a location conjured by actors, at the shock of a truth being spoken, at the audacity of a moment.” Indeed, when disliked, Neilson’s theatre is criticized for moral ambivalence paired with sensory gluttony: too little ethics, too much feeling.
Having seen his work in London, I wouldn’t be surprised if Neilson was particularly prone to failure in other people’s directing hands. What makes some of us sound like a cult is intransmittable in writing alone. Although officially credited as a playwright, Neilson’s working process involves long rehearsals with actors but barely any script. Slowly, using the bodies and the voices and the space and the moment in time at his disposal, a performance thing is put together, usually shaping up right until the opening night. Were the English culture not so interested in the playwright at the expense of any other theatre artist, it would be easy to call him a deviser, a conductor of experiment: as things are, playwright and director is all I will claim. A good Neilson production is not only smooth as butter, with no friction between the actor and the role, the plot and the esprit du temps, but also comes across as a rollicking, bustling iceberg in the best sense of the mixed metaphor. Slowly wound-up to match the precise moment in time, there is nothing timeless about it. Being carefully attuned to the moment, it knows exactly when to hit and what with. As the audience, we get the strange feeling that the production is rummaging through our heads, manipulating us, telling us lies we want to hear, coercing the response it wants, like that old boyfriend who knows how to poke at the guilt and the paranoias. One feels vulnerable, exposed, frightened, seduced, and yet, coming out of the theatre, like after a randez-vous with a swindler or a manipulative parent, you could not quite say what happened and how the hell you’re shaking on the bus stop on the verge of tears. This is done with subtle, subtle means: a semblance of normal dialogue; hints that may not mean anything at all; threats we choose to ignore. The writing doesn’t have the placelessness and timelessness of Pinter, because it’s not poetry. It’s some sort of superbly meaningful prose, working through psychology rather than language. Says Neilson again (and local playwrights, do take note):
“There’s a lot of poetic dialogue around. Some people like it, but I’m suspicious. Poetic dialogue, done badly, leaves no room for subtext. A lack of subtext is fundamentally undramatic.”
Having said this all, what Sydney Theatre Company is currently showing is not really a decent-looking Neilson show. It has all the signs of an ailing classic produced out of obligation, rather than need. The Wonderful World of Dissocia is structured like a highly-contrasted diptych: the Alice-in-Wonderland fantasia of the first half rapidly gives way to bleak social realism of the second, which our, until-then-blissfully-wandering protagonist, Lisa Jones, spends bed-bound in a psychiatric clinic. If the first act was an anxious, but thrilling song and dance (for every industrious council employee arriving to the crime scene to be beaten, anally raped and urinated on instead of Lisa, there was a pair of merry insecurity guards or a Disney-cute Swiss clockmaker), if we were increasingly concerned about the stability and safety of the wonderland, then the second act, unrelentlingly realistic, impermeable to fancy, was nearly unbearable in its precise depiction of the psychiatric ward routine (a mute abbreviation of repeated pill-taking, back-rubbing, sleep-falling and chart-marking that a person deemed insane has for a life). Any happiness to have escaped safe out of the sex-mad and violent Dissocia – with or without the missing hour – should wilt at the sight of the dreary routine of a terminal madwoman.
I say should, because none of this happens. Marion Potts’s direction is a strangely uncommitted business. There is not enough contrast between the acts to unsettle the expectations, to play the way Neilson envisages. The first act thoroughly fails to exhilarate and upset: it can neither draw the brio from the actors to make Dissocia a genuine roller-coaster, nor ground their characters and situations in enough of an echo of reality to create that anxious recognition of something not-quite-defined. If it eventually builds suspense, it is because underneath Kate Box’s ditzy Britney we recognize the brain-dead Bondi blonde (I dare suggest), and Michelle Doake’s local councillor Dot is a version of that same earnest lady that forgives library fines. Most performances, however, are rooted in television or theatre: where we should discern the real-life subtext of Lisa Jones wandering airports and dark alleys, we discern nothing but simulacra. It is also singularly thrifty with audio-visual tricks: the quiet sound and sparse light of the first half don’t contrast the second half enough (in Neilson’s Royal Court production in 2007, the stylized acting and continuous noise in the first act was contrasted by placing the hospital room in the second act in a box, the audience seeing it through a screen, a distancing effect amplified by microphoning the actors). The acting keeps even tempo (monotone, we could say), and even the otherwise excellent Justine Clarke ends up missing the point: what made London’s Christine Entwisle so poignant as a victim of mental illness was the apparent composure, avoidance of the very wide-eyed delirium that Clarke’s Lisa keeps in both Dissocia and hospital. So, while the first act feels like an indulgent prelude to the anticipated drama of the second, the second drags like an uncertain, glib epilogue to the first. Without the hold on our emotional pulse, Dissocia‘s simple plotting and the simple language don’t have the weight necessary to keep us interested.
An imperfect Neilson is still a treat in the antipodes, still a decent night out. But for those of us who expect magic, sheer magic, it is not enough.
Vesurport’s Metamorphosis, on the other hand, is the sort of theatre blockbuster that likes Sydney on its CV. Having seen a version of their Woyzeck at the Malthouse, I was curious to see whether the Icelandic stage folk were a true breed of genius, a curiosity, or in the right place at the right time, and how much Nick Cave was to blame.
The factoid that escaped me at the time was that Vesturport are a physical theatre company of the Splintergroup kind. Their version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is rather more athletic, rather less verbose, than your usual unearthing of a classic. One morning, when Gregor Samsa wakes from troubled dreams, he finds himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin, and expresses his distress by climbing on furniture, falling through floors, and being poetically backlit in bed. In the beautiful two-storey set, his room furnished at a 90-degree angle (opening onto the audience not the fourth wall, but the ceiling), this Samsa crawls around the house, down banisters and over the furniture. Although this production seems to feature the matinee cast (no Gísli Örn Gardarsson – the Vesturport mastermind – donning the Samsa suit), the ensemble still performs with rare beauty. Edda Arnljótsdóttir, Jonathan Mcguiness, Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir, and Björn Thors exhibit that beautiful acting grounded in physical gesture that still hasn’t migrated from Europe to the Anglosphere. Although I’ve heard a few miffed comments on the high pretention of the expressionist exaggeration, how beautiful to see stage presence that wastes energy! So, on the level of execution, it is all rather beautiful. Yet Metamorphosis is also a tad predictable, not because the insertion of movement is trite – there is nothing more profound than the human body moving – but because the text illustrates the acrobatics, and vice versa, without ever colliding into synergy. Like Splintergroup’s lawn (the two shows are extremely similar in discourse and execution), the performance never makes good use of all the elements it has assembled on stage – if anything, our local lawn comes across as the more imaginative, more magical of the two, because its internal inconsistencies, prejudices and immaturity are worn on its sleeve. The inconsequentiality of the equation dank apartment/Queensland/astro turf/Kafka still amounts to more than the Tim Burton sort of baby expressionism.
Interpretations of Kafka have been so numerous because all are possible: from Freud to Franz’s personal anxiety. For Vesturport, Metamorphosis is a domestic tragedy spilling over into the public, a case of political informing the personal. With a touch of unexpected, moving tact, the fears of the Samsa family anticipate the holocaust with such subtlety that most of the audience probably didn’t notice – and how else could one possibly treat the holocaust today?That Gregor’s family cannot accept the abnormality of their domestic re-arrangement becomes an image of tragic blindness when their lodger indignantly moves out, proclaiming that “the time will come when we will clean the vermin from our society.” From costume hints to acting moments, the invisible hand of the totalitarian society swelling outside the family house is always present.
However, Metamorphosis is a story too simple to adorn with spectacle and not lose some of the sharp, abstract poetry. Apart from rebuilding it from scratch, there is little that a stage version can add to the classic, which begs the question why do it in the first place. As much as it is amusing – and perhaps very interesting for whoever in the audience wasn’t familiar with the story, bless them – the pretext to make the work in the first place seems somewhat flippant. For all the physical prowess and set gorgeousness, even the final scene, a glibly beautiful garden that opens for the relieved family once Gregor has dropped dead, it never amounts to much more than anxiety with acrobatics.
My impression, post-week of very ordinary mainstream, is that Melbourne’s impression of STC may be fundamentally skewed by the fact we get only the highlights touring. Ambitious middlebrow is an excellent thing, of course. But let’s admit when it fails.
The Wonderful World of Dissocia, by Anthony Neilson. Presented by Sydney Theatre Company. Director Marion Potts. Set Designer Alice Babidge. Costume Designer Tess Schofield. Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper. Composer Alan John. Sound Designer David Franzke. Movement Consultant Fiona Malone. Fight Consultant Scott Whitt. With Kate Box, Justine Clarke, Matt Day, Michelle Doake, Russell Dykstra, Socratis Otto, Justin Smith, Matthew Whittet. 18 April – 23 May, Wharf 1, STC.
Metamorphosis, Vesturport Theatre & Lyric Hammersmith, presented by Sydney Theatre Company. By Franz Kafka, adapted by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson. Music Nick Cave & Warren Ellis. Design Börkur Jónsson. Lighting Björn Helgason. With Edda Arnljótsdóttir, Jonathan Mcguiness, Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir, Björn Thors. Presented in association with Ten Days on The Island. 22 April – 2 May, Sydney Theatre.