Tag Archives: classics

Schaubühne: The Enemy of the People (not quite a review)

Ein Volksfeind. Photo credits: Arno Declair, 2012.

Something more needs to be written about Thomas Ostermeier’s work, if purely because he has been a formative influence on contemporary Australian theatre. Ostermeier is the major influence on Australia’s two most prominent directors of classics: Benedict Andrews (through his work at Berlin’s Schaubühne), whose Australian productions have replicated the Schaubühne aesthetic (possibly to the point of plagiarism, but then, the question of plagiarism in theatre is a fraught one); and Simon Stone (through the influence of Andrews, but not just). However, I don’t quite have the capacity to do that in this text, which will limit itself to a short list of notes on Ostermeier’s new work, a version of Ibsen’s Ein Volksfeind / The Enemy of the People.

1. THE PLAY
I have seen two productions of Ein Volksfeind in Germany this year (the other was by Theater Bonn at Theatertreffen), and neither quite hit the bull’s eye. On the surface, it is a play written for 2012: a study of greedy capital compromising the common good, and the entire society with it. Dr Thomas Stockmann discovers that the spa baths, the motor of development and prosperity of his small town, are contaminated by the waste from the local tannery, and poisoning, rather than curing its visitors. As he tries to mobilise the public, however, he discovers that everybody has an interest to protect. His brother, the town mayor, is more concerned about the effect on the local economy. Hovstad and Billing, his friends journalists, are eager to break the story until the financing of their paper is threatened. The townspeople don’t want to lose business to the neighbouring towns, which are building their own spas. His own family is uncertain.

However, Ibsen’s analysis of the social ills is so of his time and so particular to him, that the play starts to hiccup just when it seems it might deliver some great insight into the global banking crisis. Ibsen, the great liberal of the 19th century, has Stockmann proclaim that the individual is always superior to the multitude, that this society corrupts, that the truth cannot be the truth of the masses, too easily swayed by demagogues. “A minority may be right; a majority is always wrong.” And –

“…the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.”

But Ibsen is also, constantly, a playwright interested in people shaped by their social vices. Stockmann is a vain man, a stubborn man. His brother an astute politician. His friends journalists, Hovstad and Billing, media opportunists. Only Stockmann’s daughter keeps a clean record of idealism, but this is her low social stakes talking. Like all other Ibsen’s plays, so is this one not really about politics, but about people. It has characters looking for an ethical peace of mind, not for social change.

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theatre at the limits (reviewed: Theatertreffen 2012, namely: John Gabriel Borkman)

John Gabriel Borkman, Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdtsen.
© photo William Minke.

THEATERTREFFEN (THEATRE MEETING) IS NO ORDINARY THEATRE FESTIVAL. EVERY YEAR, A JURY OF CRITICS SELECTS 10 BEST PRODUCTIONS IN THE GERMAN LANGUAGE (FROM AROUND 400 NEW PRODUCTIONS FROM GERMANY, AUSTRIA AND SWITZERLAND). IT IS THE OLYMPIC EVENT OF GERMAN-SPEAKING THEATRE.

Since German theatre culture is perhaps the most robust in the world, attending Theatertreffen is a special treat. However, it was an unexpectedly ambiguous experience: high in standard, but surprisingly unsurprising.

Theatertreffen showcases an engaged, innovative, provocative theatre culture’s mainstream—large city theatres with ensembles, repertoires, bureaucracies—not performance art, live art or anything truly wacky. It is director-driven, conceptually sound, courageous, but still ‘theatre theatre.’ To the outside eye, the Theatertreffen experience is perched funnily somewhere between Kunstenfestivaldesarts and whatever a festival of Australian state theatre companies would look like: simultaneously bold, lavish and predictable. After watching the 10 plays repeat each other’s affectations, the experience started to look increasingly like a long joke on director’s theatre.

The Theatertreffen blog number-crunched the tropes and found: 9/10 plays addressed the audience directly; 7/10 involved shouting where it was not logically needed; 6/10 used film, and 7/10 microphones; 5/10 featured some form of nudity; 4/10 real children; 3/10 puppets or animal costumes; 3/10 running water; 3/10 had actors attack the set with paint; 3/10 were extravagantly long (www.theatertreffen-blog.de/tt12/allgemeines/theatric-o-meter/).

A sense of a transgressive folklore transpired, one in which nudity, multimedia, breaking of the fourth wall and self-reflection have long become convention—but also one with unexpected blind spots. I did not anticipate that Theater Bonn’s Ein Volksfiend (Ibsen’s Enemy of the People) would generate so much buzz just for casting a Middle-Eastern actor in the main role. Similarly puzzling was the excitement over Münchner Kammerspiele casting a woman in the role of Macbeth. The way Volksbühne’s Die [s]panische Fliege was singled out simply for being a comedy was alarming, to say the least. Additionally, there was a tendency among both the public and the press to term many works as ‘installations,’ merely, it appeared, because of the absence of set changes. The folklore, progressive or not, seemed to be in a rut.

There was much quality, but not much surprise. Münchner Kammerspiele’s Cleansed/Crave/4.48 Psychosis was a delicate and clean work, revealing the progression of Sarah Kane’s writing from narrative excess to introspective monologue, but also her constant return to a small set of obsessions: torture, desire, love. Thalia Theatre’s Faust I+II was a self-reflexive but good-spirited, storm through every gimmick of post-dramatic theatre, complete with a theoretical lecture on the significance of it all (a woman in gala dress announced: “Good evening. My name is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This work of mine, Faust, is a pinnacle of German literature. We know that today.”) International Institute of Political Murder re-staged an hour of Rwanda’s genocide-proselytising, shock-jock radio program in Hate Radio, an effective work in the classical tradition of political theatre.

john gabriel borkman

John Gabriel Borkman, Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdtsen.
© photo William Minke.

However, the one work that towered above the rest was the 12-hour production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman by Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdtsen, a work of such admirable excess and courage that this review will now devote itself to it entirely. All of Berlin tried to get a ticket for what Twitter termed “9/11 of theatre—there is no way back.” Borkman was unlike anything I expect to see again soon, and its singularity more than made up for the homogeneity of the rest of Theatertreffen.

It was, unsurprisingly, a bloody, gory, fanciful Ibsen text reduced to a few key phrases, guilty of almost every cliché listed above. An unrushed, postmodernist improvisation around a few key themes of Ibsen’s text (sexual repression, Oedipal complex, inter-generational violence, middle-class shame). Alienation was employed to the extreme: the set, a two-storey bourgeois house, was fully furnished with two-dimensional, cardboard furniture. All sounds were pre-recorded and amplified to cartoon-like effect. Performers in full grotesque costume and masks moved like large wooden dolls, miming imprecisely to dialogue wired through the speakers (mouthed live by the director in the back of the auditorium, as it gradually became clear).

This was Ibsen as Artaud-meets-South-Park. Where Ibsen’s Gunhild and Ella Borkman have an understated verbal tussle for the affections of young Erhart Borkman, Vinge’s sisters instead engage in a prolonged, puppet-limbed physical fight, throwing cardboard armchairs and grandfather clocks at each other to exaggerated sound effects.

But infantile it ultimately wasn’t. Borkman relied on the expectation of a theatre situation, as opposed to the more flexible durational performance, to discipline audience behaviour and thus focus our attention. We sat, dear reader, in orderly theatre rows, for 12 hours, leaving only for food, water and toilet, and rushing back in to see where the performance had gone. And it went everywhere. The initial anti-realistic excess had both ample time and drive to grow whichever way it found space, with the unpredictable, fluid energy of extended improvisation.

Despite the frequent promises to the contrary, I have never seen true chaos in the theatre, not until Borkman. Twitter buzzed with accounts of what new events had happened on each night. Stage fights turned into prop fights with the audience. The fourth wall was bricked up (taking 40 minutes to complete). An interminable “casting for Münchner Kammerspiele” turned into an army of actor-zombies being led by the director to storm the auditorium. (Afterwards, while washing stage blood off ourselves in the toilets, we witnessed an annoyed critic loudly demanding to have her expensive skirt cleaned by the theatre company.) Referencing the number-counting scene from Kane’s Cleansed, Vinge counted for hours, to many thousands, with occasional interludes into decimals. The set was repeatedly damaged. Some audience members were kidnapped. The Volksbühne security was on patrol, sounding alarms more than once. Amid the chaos, however, were moments of technical and narrative beauty: Erhart playing a computer game made entirely of moving cardboard sticks; a lifesize, flying 2-D helicopter; the drawing room which came off the house and sailed away like a raft.

German audiences are customarily prepared to engage, but Borkman built an exceptionally free rapport with its audience. We threw pieces of the set back at the performers. We freely snapped photos with our smartphones. We brought in beer and energy drinks. We walked around, peering into back spaces, moved seats, organised drinks and food delivery. Dozens of people outside waited for hours for seats to be resold. Around the 11th hour, Vinge threw packets of crisps at us, which we shared in a brotherly fashion, having by now become a settled community. After so many hours together, sitting among plastic cups, in sweaty heat, this was less a theatre than a party situation. What I had until now only read about—theatre as communion—came to life, surprisingly, serendipitously, as Borkman used every technique of durational performance, but barred the audience from the usual cool, detached comforts of such performances: the right to stand, walk around, leave.

Twelve hours in, after all the technicians had gone home, and only a video screen and Vinge were left on stage (groaning: “This is not over! I will not leave!”), the bleary-eyed audience finally stood up and applauded—until the very fact of applause became the end in itself, allowing us to tear ourselves from our seats and go home. It was 4am, and we were elated, exhausted and smelly. It was like leaving a techno party: an arts event we co-made, not simply witnessed, an arts event that had physically exhausted us. It revealed that the modes of engagement of classical theatre survive nowadays perhaps more in music events than in contemporary theatre.

Borkman was certainly the most tweeted, discussed and written about of all the Theatertreffen performances. While a distinct heir to German Regietheater, its pure excess made it slip out of grasp of analysis—apart from underlining the ecstatic, collective nature of the experience, critics have all resorted to simple, albeit incredulous, summaries. Whether it represents the future of theatre is still hard to say, if only because 12 hours can only be an exceptional investment of time. But, as Declan Greene, my guest at Theatertreffen, said months later, having finished his tour of the European theatre festivals, Borkman is by far the most exciting theatre work of the year.

Theatertreffen 2012: Münchner Kammerspiele, Gesäubert/Gier/4.48 Psychose, director Johan Simons, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, May 4-5; Thalia Theater, Faust I+II, director Nicolas Stemann, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, May 12-13; International Institute of Political Murder, Hate Radio, script, direction Milo Rau, Hebbel am Ufer HAU 2, May 16-18; John Gabriel Borkman, directors Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller, Trond Reinholdtsen, Völksbühne im Prater, May 5-19; Theatertreffen, Berlin, Msy 4-21, www.berlinerfestspiele.de

First published in RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 17. All rights reserved.

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The Wild Duck: The Slapified Ibsen (review/essay)

Here, a disclaimer: if you have liked The Wild Duck, that is your prerogative and I respect it. If you are going to disagree with me, please do not suggest that I hate all Australian, Melbourne, mainstage, or theatre theatre, because I don’t. Also don’t bring up anything along the lines of: we must support our artists/the general audience needs no reason to avoid theatre further/I am mean and/or envious which makes me look bad. I have taken considerable time out of my schedule to write this, in hotels in Malaysia and sublets in Berlin, because it nagged at me, as an intellectual problem.

I was very disappointed with Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck (at Malthouse, on loan from Sydney’s Belvoir). After it received very positive reviews and many awards from a variety of sources, I expected a masterpiece. After Thyestes, I expected a masterpiece. The Wild Duck is a competently executed production, it is good, but I believe it isn’t even very good. Its underpinning dramaturgical logic is questionable, it talks down to the audience, it has nothing to say about Ibsen’s original, and whether it succeeds in its intended effect largely relies on the audience not having any familiarity with the play.

I suspect there are two underlying reasons why I disliked The Wild Duck. Firstly, I have not seen much Melbourne mainstage work in 2011; hence, I am not used to its largely poor level of execution. The mainstage theatre I still see I hold to as high a standard as I can muster. Secondly, I re-read the play a few nights before seeing the work. I am pretty sure that did not make me Stone’s intended audience. I did it strategically, however: I wanted to see an interpretation, not a play. since The Wild Duck has been billed as an interpretation, as done after Ibsen, I didn’t want to be distracted by the plot. This is not only a perfectly legitimate way of viewing theatre, it is also the one that is in order when we watch classics informedly.

Simon Stone, and in fact many Australian theatre directors, often explains his position within theatre as a sort of evangelist, a priest of classical prophets. He has read and found these plays, and he would love to bring them to the general public, is how he often speaks in interviews and program notes. He will do what it takes to bring them closer to the average man, because he wants to convey the beauty of the classics. But Stone appears to understand these works primarily as stories: not even moral or philosophical tales, but stories as in complex plots which, by compacting time and space, bring a story format to salient moral quandaries of their time.

However, that is not all that a classical play is.

A classical play is important because of its role in its time. Specificaly, Ibsen’s plays are important for many more reasons than pure story-telling. They are important because (in no particular order): Ibsen brought realism to theatre *, dramatising the Norwegian bourgeois class and its moral quandaries; he focused on moral quandaries that were salient in his times, particularly the many questions of equality within families (wives, children) and that of truth, and how long-held lies and secrets corrupt both public and private organisations, families and the state likewise; because many of his moral quandaries were not at all discussed at the time, and his dramatisations were speech acts in their own right; because he was a great innovator of dramatic language, simplifying and liberating the stage from oppressive, long monologues and introducing chatter and conversational language to the stage.

* Placing the Chekhovian gun on the wall, I would like to remark here that Ibsen has been a long, unsurpassed grandfather influence to much too much British (and in one remove Australian) drama: condensing the great moral questions of our time to a two-hour dinner party sometimes appears to be the only structuring logic the average (not fine, however) Anglophone playwright has known since about the 1950s.

The British theatrical tradition, to which Australia is heir, holds dearly the belief that the text contains everything, and that the director’s role is to ‘honour the text’. But this really is not, and cannot, be the case: the theatre, as we know from Peter Brook, is a moment in space and time shared between the performer and the audience. A play is of its own space and time, but the performer and the audience are often from another. The moment of theatre, the original moment that made this play an important play, cannot be recreated ad infinitum until the end of time, at any corner of the globe. This is why interpretation is such an important part of what theatre is: every staging is an interpretation, a translation/betrayal of the text, which was always only a pretext, in order to re-create the moment of mitspiel or co-play of performer and audience by any means necessary: the theatrical moment that is the essence of theatre.

Like any translation, a theatrical interpretation ages and needs to constantly evolve: there is not a definitive interpretation of any play whatsoever. Patrice Pavis, the great father of contemporary European dramaturgical theory, perhaps puts it most eloquently in his book Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture:

For a long time criticism of the classics and interpretation of mise en scene have acted as if time had done no more than cover the text with layers of dust; in order to make the text respectable, it was enough to clean up and get rid of the deposits which history, layers of interpretation, and hermeneutic sediment had left on an essentially untouched text. This phantasmatic image of the classical text could develop not only into an attempt to reconstruct archeologically the historical conditions of performance, but also into a modernization of performance style (classics in modern dress, gadgets alluding anachronistically to contemporary life). In each case, ‘dusting’ the text entails an idealist assumption according to which correcting classical language is all one needs to do to reach the level of the dictional world and of the ideologemes reduced to an objet fixe, a mixture of ancient and modern times.

Pavis, the theorist of postmodernism, remarks that dramaturgs and directors have resisted this notion:

Alain Girault has noted that ‘the dusting operation implies an idealist philosophical notion of the permanence of man. “Dusting” is finally “dehistoricizing”, denying history (reducing it to surface reflection, to “dust”).’ Refusing to ‘dust off involves an assumption of historical displacement, shocking the audience with the consciousness of a formal separation which corresponds to a separation of distinct world views, Brecht notes that, after the mise en scene of Schiller’s Robbers, Piscator told him that ‘he had looked for what would make people remark on leaving the theatre that 150 years were no small matter.’

Or Antoine Vitez:

Either one leaves the dust and continues as before – the Comedie Francaise has been gathering layers of dust for a long time and masking the dust with a new layer of wax – or one can try something else. One can do more than simply remove the dust; one can alter the object itself. A vase that has been miraculously preserved can always be useful. A play is quite different. The object itself is fundamentally transformed, even if the text remains completely intact. We can no longer read it in the same way as those readers for whom it was written. What we read is a kind of memory; this consists of making distorted elements reappear to our present life – in fact, the correspondence between individual and social body.

Pavis again:

What appears to be important in the reading of the classical text is the ability to historicize the dust, instead of ignoring it or covering it up. This practice is quite close to translation, which provides a version of the source text in the language of the new reader, who then has a choice: between a translation-adaptation that, in order to avoid slavishly copying the text to be translated, transposes the text into its new cultural context; and a more literal translation that, at the risk of a feeling of strangeness and idiomatic shortcomings, preserves something of the rhetoric and world view of the source language. Like translation, reading the classics is always accompanied by a loss of meaning, or rather by the destruction of whole facets of signification.

A classical text contains two kinds of ambiguity or indeterminacy: those programmed into the work, the kind that brings complexity to it, and those that arise out of the unforseeable modifications in the circumstances of reception: hints about class and status and morality that don’t work anymore, because we live in a different time. The first ought to be preserved, the second not so much. Finally, Pavis gives a simple rule of thumb to interpretation:

If the mise en scene can, in a new concretization of the text, suggest new zones of intederminacy, organize possible trajectories of meaning between them, the classical dramatic text may recapture the glow tarnished by the passage of time and by banal interpretations. This phenomenon of recycling grants the classical text a perennial life by founding this life, not on permanent and unchanging significance, but on change and adaptation.

I hope this has explained both the crucial role that interpretation plays in the theatre, and why I was so keen to see The Wild Duck as an interpretation of a text.

However, Stone brushes all of this aside, and reads Ibsen as the writer of great family potboilers. His admiration of Ibsen is ex tempore, so to speak: he sees in them the themes of our time, structured by Ibsen’s dramaturgical skill into crafty stories, that have a vitality and finesse of structure that is still current today, and only need to be rescued from their 19th-century language and setting, and lo and behold, we have a contemporary play. Dusting, in other words. Vigorous dusting.

And so the contours of his approach emerge: Stone’s interpretations of Ibsen (as well as of Chekov) works have been increasingly faithful to the point of literalness (and somewhat reminiscent of the works of Thomas Ostermeier at Berlin’s Schaubuehne). This approach culminates in The Wild Duck, which has had a more thorough dusting than any Stone production so far. The play has been modernised; specifically, Australianized.

Herein lies the first problem with this production: in order to achieve the contemporary-Australianization of The Wild Duck, Stone has simply re-written the entire thing. It has not been lovingly restored, not even just bleached of every reference to Europe and the 19th-century – it has become a contemporary Australian play following the same general story line.

From five acts, it has been condensed into less than 90 minutes. New scenes have been added, with no correlation to the original. Characters have changed significantly. A great deal of characterization relies on entirely contemporary-Australian circumstances: the character of Hedvig is the typical product of the Australian private school system, and her parents quite concerned about paying for it. That kind of thing. The only thing intact is the rough outline of the story itself.

Stone has always done that, every one of his productions was a thorough re-writing, but The Wild Duck shows the crucial influence of Chris Ryan, who first collaborated with Stone as a co-writer on Thyestes. Where Stone’s work simply streamlined the dialogue and modernised the language (in an almost imperceptible way), both Stone/Ryan adaptations feature entire new scenes, of a Tarantinoesque quality: not just modern but pop-cultural, not just moving the plot along more swiftly but replacing filler scenes with specifically Australian, vernacular, urban boy banter. But Thyestes was methodical: every scene of the play was replaced by a quiet moment before or after the actual event. This was a courageous decision, it asked the audience to work for the meaning, and trusted them to do so. The Wild Duck is less systematic: most of the scenes are there, but many (especially in the second half) are purely made up. Many of the new scenes are purely expositional, explaining things that remained unsaid in Ibsen’s work: the specifics of the Ekdahl family ruin, Gregers Werle’s love life, and a post scriptum to the play. These are Stone/Ryan flights of fancy, redundant, chief vehicles by which this Wild Duck distances itself from Ibsen, and, also, inelegant.

This tactic of modernization by re-writing is really quite brutal. It purges Ibsen of everything but plot. More than an update, it is recontextualised and thoroughly made-over to comply with contemporary sensibility. It is basically a remake, of the kind practiced by Hollywood. As a strategy, it is not at all subtle, and it simply cannot be called interpretation. Nothing has been left to interpret. No evidence has remained of any interaction between a director and a text. The director has not tackled the text from any angle, because he has not had to. He has literally written himself out of having to deal with someone else’s work. The potentially difficult, unruly, resistant text, a text requiring directorial work and patience and research, has been replaced with its own pliable, submissive clone. I have previously suggested that Stone’s problems with Baal stem out of this practice of not actually reading the dramatic text, but re-writing it to suit his directorial vision, and I think, based on The Wild Duck, that it was a correct observation.

To interpret a text by making your entirely own version of it is not automatic theatrical anathema; of course not. However, the second and chief problem with this Wild Duck is that it does not simply translate the text into a contemporary Australian play, it reduces the original by doing so. Every interpretation makes choices of focus, but each good one broadens or deepens or re-focuses our view, and enriches our experience of the original in some way. This one doesn’t: it does not broaden or deepen or strengthen Ibsen in any way. It doesn’t reduce the play simply in length, number of characters, lines of dialogue. It reduces it thematically, in scope. It makes The Wild Duck narrower and shallower.

Stone/Ryan simplify or altogether remove a great deal of Ibsen’s text and subtext: the sociological complexity (key force in all Ibsen’s work); almost everything to do with class and money. Characters are simplified, and with it their relationships: Gregers Werle’s blind belief that relationships must be based on honesty is excised, bereaving of motivation the one character moving the plot. In Ibsen’s play, Hjalmar Ekdahl is a tragic anti-hero whose weakness of character only gradually becomes apparent: intellectual vanity, self-aggrandisement combined with self-pity, depressive tendencies. He is quite similar to April and Frank Wheeler from Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, people who need to be tragic, not small failures, if they cannot be great successes. Ibsen’s Gina Ekdahl treats her husband’s fury at her sort-of infidelity with an ironic, tongue-in-cheek deference, which is simply beautiful to read. Stone’s couple is largely undefined, fairly nondescript bar their Australianness. The allegorical comparison of Hjalmar’s beautiful melancholy to the defeatist behaviour of wild ducks is likewise lost.

Keith Gallasch has analysed the relationship of this dramatic text to Ibsen’s Duck in great detail already, in Real Time. I am not going to do the same work once over, so please read his analysis if you are not convinced by my short summary. I agree with Gallasch’s meticulously argued conclusion: the new play is thinner in concept, weaker. Ibsen wrote a play about the weakness of human character, about its inability to face the truth, and about the way we rely on telling ourselves lies about who we are in order to get through life. Stone and Ryan have written a play about divorce.

‘Remake’ is not the right word for this sort of appropriation, but it is closer and more correct than ‘interpretation’. Of interpretation, I saw very little. The play has been greatly simplified in order to match its time and place, and Simon Stone’s entire interpretive guiding logic seems to be modernization; making it relevant again (re-relevantisation?). Unfortunately, that is just not enough. No theatrical interpretation ever has tried to make its text anything other than relevant to its time and place: modernization cannot be the sole aim of an interpretation. That is very much confusing the bathwater for the baby.

And then, Stone achieves the modernization by removing a great deal of nuance and depth from Ibsen, most of its larger, philosophical undercurrent – effectively emphasising the melodrama. And he does it by adopting the easiest approach possible: total rewrite.

And finally the Chekhovian gun shoots: because Ibsen became the guiding spirit of so much contemporary English-language drama, with his era-unravelling dinner parties, this new text, by Stone and Ryan, becomes just another contemporary Australian play about how divorce damages children, not at all different in form from anything that might have been written afresh in 2011. Does it work? Well, people have enjoyed it across Sydney and Melbourne. It has the triple bonus of being an easily digestible contemporary play, of being well-written, funny and moving, and of somehow being a 19th-century classic at the same time, making one’s enjoyment of it vested with self-interest and perceived virtue. It shows us ourselves in full minute detail, and pulls us apart in a fine plot. This is why I prefaced this review by noting that there is nothing wrong with anyone enjoying this production: it is very consciously designed to be enjoyed, and it is skillfully executed to do so.

However.

However, there is more to theatre than just craft. There is interpretive and artistic ethics. There is no method to this interpretation, no discernible philosophy, no systematic dramaturgical approach, nothing but the imperative of ‘making it relevant’. It makes us see ourselves in Ibsen, but at the expense of a great deal of complexity in Ibsen. It does not reveal anything new, hidden in Ibsen’s work. It does not find contemporary relevance in Ibsen – it finds Ibsen in a contemporary story. It says: Ibsen is like us. It does not say: we are like Ibsen. It does not make one understand Ibsen better.

(And I suspect it does not make one understand Australia better either, because, however well translated, it is still a story from another time and place. The plot is still gripping, but teenage suicides and bastard children, family secrets and loss of bourgeois face are not themes of our day and time.)

And as interpretation, it fails. I thought long and hard about the equivalent sort of move I could draw a parallel. It is not quite pastiche, and it is not parody either. It is a simplifying analogy, rather, driven by a certain kind of evangelical, popularising impulse (and here the second Chekhovian gun goes off!). It is this:

But it is also, in another way, this:

Both are valid things to do, but can you see my point? Neither image offers an interesting new interpretation of Christianity, even of the tradition of visual interpretation of Mary and baby Jesus, per se. To do that, we need to go at least to Leonardo da Vinci. Or Wim Delvoye.

None of this may be perceptible to a person unfamiliar with Ibsen’s Duck. They might simply enjoy the story, and their own enjoyment of it. Since there is a great dearth of well-made stories about contemporary Australia, The Wild Duck, like The Slap, provides a necessary mirror to our society, however distorting, however illusory. And it seems quite clear that this production has been designed with that kind of audience member in mind, just like those African, evangelical Jesuses.

However, a production that simplifies in order to get the audience on its side is a production that patronises its audience. To an informed audience member, it says nothing new, nor interesting, about Ibsen, Norway, or the world. In Pavisian terms, no new zones of indeterminacy have been suggested. The work has been overexplained, simplified, narrowed, betrayed beyond all requirements of translation.

It remains competently made theatre, and one that achieves what it sets to achieve: turn Ibsen’s Wild Duck into a contemporary Australian play. However, like with Thomas Ostermeier, I do not see any validity or value in this approach. In order to give it any more credit, I need to be convinced that Slapifying Ibsen is a worthwhile aim in the first place.

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RW: The Dollhouse

The Doll’s House

0. NORA
I have seen two versions of this play just recently: Anja Maksić’s LUTKINA KUĆA/ZMIJA MLADOŽENJA (Doll’s House / Viper Groom) at Eurokaz in 2008 (here’s the account), and Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubuehne production (called NORA) on DVD in 2010. I am not unusual in that. Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House – which I may occasionally refer to as ‘Nora’ in this text, because that is its officially unofficial name in Europe – is the most performed play in the world. Even in Australia, a place fairly meagrely serviced with theatre by any global measure, there are doll’s houses springing up at universities, at Fringe time, at arts festivals (e.g. Mabou Mines’ DOLLHOUSE at Brisbane Festival 2006). This is a play staged for show, not for servicing the text. There is hardly anyone left today who doesn’t know this play, doesn’t know that Nora Helmer is the childlike wifey of a Norwegian banker Torvald, doesn’t know that she ends the play by slamming the door that leads out of her marriage, doesn’t know that this was a scandal on stage when it premiered. The Doll’s House is a play with a cultural significance that goes far beyond its pure literary value, and for this reason the text itself is distinctly unimportant to the productions of this play. The audience is not here for the plot. We know the play well. We are here for style. We are here to see how this particular creative team will grapple with the conundrum that is this text. We are here to see how she will solve the technical problems particular to the play (the changed condition of women, which largely neutralises the weight of the ending), and how she will claim her space in a very crowded arena of interpreters.

This is our ground zero, in the discussion of this work. This is a play that a director chooses in order to make a personal statement – not in order to honour the playwright. Western culture has already done that.

1. DANIEL SCHLUSSER
Everyone who is anyone seemed to be there at the opening of Daniel Schlusser’s THE DOLLHOUSE, a semi-revival of the work he made in late 2007 with VCA acting students (although ‘on’ them might be a better choice of words, the way choreography is done ‘on’ bodies). It was a praised work then, and a pocket-sized one on top. It was also the first work Schlusser had done in Melbourne in a long time, having come back from Germany not long ago, and the first of a series that would shake Melbourne’s theatre theatre scene up. From it followed: LIFE IS A DREAM in 2008, revived in 2010, THE ZOMBIE STATE in 2008, PEER GYNT and POET NO. 7 in 2009, THE HOLLOW in 2010, and MACBETH just recently, but at Monash (raise hands ye who have seen it, and tell us what it was like).

Schlusser has attracted a devout following in these years*. There are very few theatre theatre directors in this town that could be classified as architects, as opposed to construction workers or builders. Apart from Schlusser, and by-now-expat Kosky, only Liminal Theatre’s Sitarenos and Draffin, and to some extent Marcel Dorney and Jenny Kemp (who use original text) come to mind**.

To some extent, there isn’t enough straight theatre in this country for radical interpretations to get desirable (on which I wrote here), and to an extent we are lacking the deep understanding of classical texts, their context, their impact, their importance, their critiques, their successors, in order to be able to read radical interpretations. We are all lacking this knowledge: the directors, the audiences, the critics.

Schlusser’s work, however, has gained traction despite its hermeneutic complexity, because he has made it a hallmark of his style to make works on at least two, sometimes six or more, levels. Almost every work of his I have seen has had the ability to function both as an extremely intelligent deconstruction of a canonical text, and a sort of freeform, chaotic stage event that one can appreciate, in a way similar to how Forced Entertainment’s BLOODY MESS could be appreciated, without having even the most general idea of how it related to any text at all. His version of Calderon’s Life is a Dream was, on the surface, a story of six siblings trapped in a basement their entire life, reminiscent of that year’s paramount tabloid story, who make up power games to fight boredom. His version of Ibsen’s troll fantasia Peer Gynt was a bogan wedding rehearsal, followed by a boozy house party. If you knew the text, each one of these productions was an absolute feast of intertextuality, with classic quotes reduced to non-verbal detail (Peer Gynt playing with some onions in the corner of the stage for about five seconds), but if you didn’t, you still felt embraced by the event. A certain kind of obscure, unfriendly hermeneuticism which is so often a quality of postmodernist theatre direction was here annulled.

But there are deeper qualities to Schlusser’s method. While turning Peer Gynt into a bogan party comes with a series of beneficial effects – shortening and rephrasing the text, finding surprising contemporary cultural equivalents for what are often alienatingly different circumstances of the original text – these are effects that are, on their own, enough to gain an Australian director the label ‘auteur’, and their importance might be highly overstated.

More interestingly, reducing the time of the work means reducing the entire play to a single situation, and this has allowed Schlusser to make some extraordinary statements about the source texts, far beyond a simple transposition. To place Calderon’s text into a basement of wild, unsocialised children is to locate the Baroque European court at the very extreme of incestuous, isolated idleness. Similarly, his PEER GYNT shed the frills – the ships, the trolls, the pyramids, the asylum – to become a story of a very immature little boy, fed the lines of his life by his mum and his girlfriend, at a party where nothing anyone does can really matter. It re-played the grand drama of the original play as soap-operatic melodrama, and found emotional hollowness in every utterance kept on stage. This movement semiotically sideways is in Schlusser’s work always surprising, but meticulously judged.

A consequence of this move sideways is that the text habitually stops being the vessel of truth, both of life generally, and of the true meaning of the performance, and turns into a voiced delusion: a game played by basement-bound children in LIFE IS A DREAM, or an invented adventure of a boy nobody is taking seriously in PEER GYNT. It is entirely legitimate to appreciate Schlusser’s productions as illustrations of how we use fiction to give grandeur, drama, height, to the banality of our reality.

Then there is the extraordinary quality to the performances he elicits. Schlusser is, like no other director I know, capable of stopping the actors from acting, and settling them into a long-lasting low-performativity timbre, in which they are indistinguishable from stage hands (but there are also never any stage hands here – everyone is part of the show). This has made the entire PEER GYNT, and large stretches of his other shows, look like improvisation, or the pre-dramatic beginning – you know those few minutes at the very beginning of a certain kind of performance, in which the actors arrive, fumble about, speak to each other in a low voice, settling into the stage? – of a dramatic performance. This kind of performance creates a constant, durational, low-intensity buzz, and is interesting to watch the way a street corner is interesting to watch. The energy of the stage swells and subsides, pockets of intensity build in corners, gigantic storms occasionally sweep the entire space, and sometimes the action is as dispersed as the shaking of leaves on a tree. It lends itself to being observed as rhythm, or patterns of energy, and is accessible through all sorts of swarmy, crowdy and weathery metaphors. Since everything important happens as detail, sometimes inaudible conversation, one becomes engrossed, and focused in a way that is really rare in our contemporary world. This is not TV or cinema focus, and not really a theatre kind of focus either. Rather, an anthropological, ethnographic, fieldwork sort of focus.

I have never found time to write a reflection on Schlusser’s last big work, a version of Agatha Christie’s THE HOLLOW. I will have to make a longish aside for it here, because that work showed a real evolution in these very qualities. Schlusser condensed the entire crime, investigation and revealing of the murderer to a single, long garden party, in which everything that happens in Christie’s crime happened, in a linear fashion, one event after another, on a large large stage, with a large large cast. Apart from showing the entirely non-tragic, inevitable mechanics of Agatha Christie’s world – an interesting intervention into the standard dramatic composition of her oeuvre – it was the first time that anthropology came to my mind as an apt metaphor for Schlusser’s poetics. The killing of John Christow was presented on this stage with an engaged disinterest comparable to the way the killing of an antelope would be depicted in a nature documentary. But it seemed that Schlusser was starting to play with re-introducing dramatic performance and stage effects into his weathery work, to exciting effect; and the slippage between levels of unreality had by now assumed a baroque complexity.

Another thing worth noting before we continue is that Schlusser’s large-cast works have a poetics distinct from his small-cast works. Whether this is intentional or not I am not sure. The height of performativity differs, and with it the entire experience. In all of his productions so far, Schlusser allows his performers to play with the original text, to chew on it and spit it out at times. The effect is often that of play-acting, sometimes that of voicing a role only semi-consciously. However, the rule of thumb has been, the smaller the cast, the longer and more weighty the text. Interestingly, it is as if Schlusser doesn’t trust a small swarm to hold the audience’s attention as well as a large swarm can. Whatever the reason, large-cast performances hold all of the qualities I have been discussing better: they are less theatrical theatrical, and more like nature documentaries, than his small works, which are remain more focused, less loosely paced, more tied to the original text, more dramatic, and quite simply less unusual and inventive. THE DOLLHOUSE is one such small- cast work.

2. RESTRAINT AND EXCESS
Schlusser writes, in his notes, about restraint and excess being the core of this particular dollhouse (I would love to be able to consult his notes further, but I am writing this from a hotel room in Nagoya, far away from my desk). I missed the original, 2007 production on which this short remount is based, so I cannot compare, but the current, 2011 production is one dollhouse centred around consumption, gratification, and people’s ability to resist their urges.

Australian theatre, interestingly, is not hugely concerned with consumerism (is it because it is too ungenteel a topic?, or is it because theatre is for rich people?), but this is a recurrent question for Schlusser. PEER GYNT, THE ZOMBIE STATE and THE HOLLOW had at their core money, what money can buy, and how one’s ability to buy things affects one’s social value and self-worth, in a contemporary reality largely pinpointed as Australian. More than anything, Schlusser is concerned with what we might call class, but understood more deeply, as the effect of a certain kind of monetary power on the psyche. Similarly to Christos Tsiolkas, Schlusser is interested in what we might term the essential, profound amorality of contemporary Australian society – a certain absence of core values produced by atheism, Australian national narrative, and what many people I speak to call ‘the effect of the Howard years’. Both of these story-tellers are prepared to go beyond sparkling drawing-room satire (from David Williamson’s uneven oeuvre to Hayloft Project’s excellent DELECTABLE SHELTER, and dig into the moral barrenness of lives in which plasma-screen TV becomes a measure of a great deal more than one’s disposable income.

When we meet them, Nora and Torvald have been very successfully transposed to contemporary Australia – Torvald has just got a promotion at the Macquarie Bank (Australian bank known for its aggressive investments – for those of my foreign readers, because every Australian knows Macquarie Bank). Nora is a yummy mummy, living a life of shopping and parties, with sidekick Dr Rank. The simple patriarchy of 19th-century Norway has become a more complicated story: Nora is a sex kitten alright, but Torvald is now the PlayStation husband, performing his masculinity through absence and silence, playing shoot ’em up games from an Eames armchair for most of the play. If Ibsen’s Nora had to be a chirpy little lark for a husband who treated her like a child (monitoring her candy intake, among other things), and if their marriage functioned as a happy game of pretend-domination and performed immaturity, Nikki Shiels works hard on being a sex dolly, offering a range of pornographic services in order to get her husband’s attention away from the computer game. This is not a household based on honesty, but two people’s unspoken fantasies of the other sex welded into a marriage. But Australian contemporary masculinity is a complex thing, lined with taciturn violence, where aggression is expressed more often as subdued undermining than paternal reprimanding: caught with marshmallows, Nora is seated in the Eames chair and made to gorge on them, while Torvald makes her repeat “nobody likes a chubby mummy”.

Everything here, be it sex, money or lollies and jobs, becomes a transactional good, a reward, a bribe: excess comes to signify happiness, and deprivation is meted out as punishment. There is a capitalist logic to this emotional world, very similar to that of Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, in which all love and all sex are simply transactions that raise or lower the characters’ social standing. But where Franzen shines a very harsh light on the Lambert family, Schlusser keeps his stage pastel-lit, in a way both ironic and earnest, critical and gentle. The constant gratification, an eternal present tense of morality, creates a household engaged in an ongoing party (another Schlusserian constant): the apex of the production is a beautiful, wordless celebration of gifts bestowed upon the house guests by Nora, with Torvald’s money, a choreography of Christmas lights, to the music of Sigur Ros. It is a seductive, pleasant fantasy world, and there is a surprising sweetness to this production. Even when Mrs Linde and Krogstad, whose emotionally honest romance provides a strong counterweight to the emotional candy floss of the Helmers, decide to let all secrets be spilled, they do it in a well-meaning spirit “I’ve been here for three days… nobody talks”.

Nikki Shiels. Photo: Marg Horwell.

For all the meta-frills and naturalistic banality, you can see this is a very faithful rendition of Ibsen’s play, and as such perhaps a lesser Schlusser work, certainly for my taste. The transposition is accurate, the interpretation convincing and intelligent. Still, it is a remount of an early work, and it anticipates rather than further developing the extraordinary theatricality of PEER GYNT or THE HOLLOW. There is a lot of acting here, a lot of text delivered in a fairly straight way, and we have by now seen Daniel Schlusser attempt and achieve more. I am much tougher here than I would be with almost any other Australian director, because Schlusser operates in another league entirely, and should continue to do so. It often feels here that the text is used as a crutch, to fill the stage (the swarm is too small) or to give shape to the performance – and I understand that this is a ludicrous thing to write, but I count on enough people to have seen PEER GYNT to understand what I mean. For all its merits, THE DOLLHOUSE is still reasonably conventional theatre, and Schlusser’s good name in my books is largely due to his other works. But, as I said earlier, there is a distinct separation between his small- and large-cast works, and this was a small one.

3. LOU SALOME AND THE ENDING
I had never quite believed in Ibsen’s ending of The Dollhouse. Nora’s final transformation from chirpy doll to emancipated woman seemed mechanical and too sudden, like a dramatic device with no grounding in realistic psyhology, until I read Lou Salomé’s interpretation of the play. Salomé, an early Freudian, wrote an exquisite psychoanalytical analysis of Ibsen’s female characters. In her interpretation, which I found eye-opening, Nora is a woman who not so much acts in someone else’s story, as stretches the limits of her own fantasy until she can no longer believe in it. Replacing one father figure with another, she responds to perceived love the only way she knows: by building her identity as an object of joy, as a happiness-bringer, a 19th-century manic pixie dream girl (this Natalie Portman in Garden State). According to Holly Welker, “MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up, thus their men never grow up.” This is as good explanation as any to the dynamic of the Helmer marriage. Salomé:

Helmer’s joy in merriment and loveliness is, at the same time, the ordinary person’s aversion to struggle and seriousness – to anything that could disturb the aesthetic comfort in which he enjoys himself and his existence. The apparent moral rigor that helps Helmer gain prestige, his need to appear blameless and to keep his dignity unblemished – all this self-control in daily life ultimately arises out of the same egotistical perspective on pleasure.

For Nora, love requires a certain sacrifice of self, and according to Salomé she does gain strength through this sacrifice, to the point that, when she realises that Torvald is not prepared to do the same for love, she resigns from the game. For Salomé, Nora’s final disappointment in Torvald is akin to a loss of God, a total demystification. Her love is revealed to be a hoax, the object of her love unworthy of it. (Note that there is a mystical quality to this kind of love, something femininity has not yet gotten divorced from – Pauline Reage’s Story of O might be read as the Holy Testament of this worldview. It is also deeply, deeply romantic – something Elfriede Jelinek picks up on in her sequel to Ibsen’s play, What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband.) Salomé:

What all the worries and experiences of the entire recent past had not taught her is not accomplished in one instant: she suddenly sees life as it is, as it stands before her in the shape of Helmer, an ordinary person, who is tormented by fear and selfishness. All her life and her thought were concentrated in him, it was in him that her life took on its truth and self-evidence – it could be demystified and destroyed only in him. (…) Something strange and immense occurred in her. All her slowly awakened strength and independence, everything that she had so humbly and zealously collected as a present, a gift of love – her entire, inner being – now rears up and fights its way free from this love in an enormous protest.

When Nora slams the door to the dollhouse of her 19th-century marriage, she is not going anywhere much. She cannot work, she will never see her children again, it is a suicide in more than one sense. This was an entirely unrealistic ending at the time it premiered, an unexpected coda to what was until then a simple bourgeois story of drawing-room intrigue. It is said that women stood and applauded, and men sat in shock. What happened on that stage was staging of something impossible. It was performing a dream, a Marina Abramović moment. This was the original effect of The Doll’s House that cannot be replicated anymore. The technical problem of The Doll’s House today is how to credibly stage this ending, how to give it the devastating impact it had then. The underlying assumption of tragedy is, thankfully, no longer possible. A woman would be leaving a marriage with children, off to a menial job (or three) and – in Australia at least (as opposed to, say, Iceland) – a world in which single mothers are still routinely assumed to create somewhat delinquent children. But still, this is not a tragic ending anymore. So Schlusser resuscitates the alternative ending, one that Ibsen had to provide for actresses that refused to perform the ending: an awful dialogue in which Torvald shows Nora her peacefully sleeping children and asks how she could possibly leave them, her dear little angels. No, she couldn’t, she decides, and stays.

I cannot quite make up my mind about the ending to this production. It strikes some false notes with me, but also some scintillatingly right ones. In retrospect, it looks quite smart. At the time, however, I was unconvinced, in particular by Kade Greenland’s Torvald, whose anger I found neither convincing nor frightening. Ostermeier’s NORA, for all its banalities, managed to create an enormous sense of physical threat, fear and loss of faith – when his Nora shoots Torvald in her Lara Croft costume, I understood why she would. When Schlusser’s Nikki Shiels comes out in a tracksuit and has a long protofeminist dialogue with her husband, whom she has now decided to leave, the production is, at least on the opening night, at least for me, hitting between the keys for the first time of the evening. And yet, upon her suggestion that they give back their rings, here is Torvald saying “I paid for both”, in a moment of majestic truth. Here is a man whose morality exists as righteousness, and whose righteousness is based on the money he earns, and who reacts instinctively to insult – in one line. Then, revealing a real, blonde sleeping child pierces your heart, because no child was until then visible on stage. And yes, this is an incredibly hard scene to get right – but it is also the scene on which we judge the success of any interpretation of this play. When Torvald hugs his daughter, the possibility of him having just acquired another songbird is terrifying, but the text has been largely kept, and a mother, however irresponsible, would today probably not be getting out of a marriage without her children. Is this a passive-aggressive, inconsistent, emotionally manipulative man, a product of contemporary patriarchy? Perhaps. Is this a woman who speaks like she knows what she wants, but doesn’t really? Or is she a woman who chooses yet another sacrifice of self, in the all-too-short moment of reflection as she is walking off the stage? Perhaps. It was not clear. After so much precision, I suddenly saw the interpretation missing its mark.

I understand and share Schlusser’s suspicion towards Nora’s emancipation. I cannot quite shake off the impression that modern-day Nora still ends up in a territory closer to the owlish disintegration of self announced in Story of O than in a fulfilled feminist dream. But this confusion that women’s lib has brought us is grasped so uncertainly by this ending, which itself would need to be less confused if it were to pinpoint it properly. This is a very minor criticism of a work which is extraordinary on so many levels – but the effect of a work of theatre is largely in its landing.

* of which I am a somewhat-member; the tone of this review will hopefully explain how and why
** although I am speaking here as a person who has managed to miss every single production by Four Larks and Mutation Theatre, please bear with this gap in my knowledge

SEE ALSO (and disagree with me, because Daniel Schlusser’s work ought to be discussed more than it presently is):
Alison Croggon’s review
Cameron Woodhead’s review

The Dollhouse, adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Tiffany Abbott, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, sound by Martin Kay. With Nikki Shiels, Kade Greenland, Edwina Wren, Josh Price, Daniel Schlusser and Cate Bastian/Gabrielle Abbott. Fortfive Downstairs, September 15-25.

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RW: Thyestes

I have seen some very good theatre recently in a very short succession: not more than 3 weeks apart, I saw what I think are likely to be the best three shows in Melbourne this year. These are Tamara Saulwick’s Pin Drop, version 1.0’s This Kind of Ruckus and Hayloft Project’s Thyestes. I’ve been meaning to dedicate a great deal of time to each one of them, but life keeps getting in the way. (I’ve been badly unwell.) But let’s start with one.


Mark L Winter and Chris Ryan. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Fortunately, Thyestes sold out as it opened, and so did the short extension to the season. I have to say I was very, very pleased: not just because it is excellent theatre which deserved to sell out, but because it absolved me from the responsibility to write quick praise in order to promote the show (the silly burden which all reviewers feel, however small their readership). It’s given me time to really consider its propositions.

I’ve been tossing it left and right in my head for weeks now, Thyestes, and it only gets better as I do. It is possibly the best work that either Hayloft or Black Lung have done so far, and certainly among the best two or three we will see in Melbourne this year, local or international. It deserves a return season. Most importantly, it is both brave and bold, and highly accomplished. Last year, when I got cross with Cameron for dismissing Hayloft and Black Lung’s 3xSisters (for lack of accomplishment where there were many ideas), I did it because I thought it was important to encourage courageous formal and conceptual inquiry. I was worried Hayloft Project might, as many young theatre-makers have before them, settle for the limited set of achievements they have been praised for early on, rather than grow as artists, a path that’s always much less readily rewarded. 3xSisters was a courageous experiment in theatre-making, on a scale rarely attempted by Melbourne’s self-funded independent theatre, and even if its accomplishments were rough and probably not entirely intended, a year on it still remains fresh in my memory as a very good theatrical work. Had it been a film, I dare say it would have been amply reappraised in the years to come. Being theatre, the best I can hope is that blogs will keep it unforgotten.

Thyestes is a whole other story, a project as radical as it is rigorously put together. If with 3xSisters the beauty was in the chaos, here I am in no doubt that the creative team were in full control of the final result, that every effect was intended. It demonstrates tremendous growth for Simon Stone, Mark Winter, Thomas Henning and Anne-Louise Sarks (who have all worked on 3xSisters). Chris Ryan, whom we have encountered in Hayloft’s Platonov and The Promise, but whom I – perhaps unfairly – didn’t see as a theatre-maker prior to Thyestes, turns out to be an excellent creative collaborator in his own right. But most impressively, and as the weeks went by I kept underlying this point in my mind with a mental marker, what strikes me as significant about Thyestes is that its own aspirations are so much higher than that of its own context. It’s a theatre show by young theatre-makers, produced in Malthouse’s fringe Tower space, and it shames most mainstage theatre in the city. Yes, many eyes were eagerly awaiting the opening night, but Stone and his creative team would have gotten high praise for much less.

Hayloft’s version retells Seneca’s dramatisation of the Greek myth (or, rather, the history of the house of Atreus, since the story spans three generations of sons) through a very simple dramaturgical frame. So simple and clear, indeed, that there are exactly two moments of surprise in the entire evening. The first is the beginning, when the surtitles rattle off the summary of the scene (Thyestes and Atreus are convinced by mother Hippodamia to kill their half-brother and heir to the throne), and the screen lifts on a traverse stage to reveal three young men in contemporary clothing, listening to music and having a casual discussion about girlfriends, sex and a flight to Guatemala. The second is in the middle, when the count jumps from scene 6 to 14, the murder of Atreus. The conceit could not be simpler: the surtitles propel the narrative, but it is the in-between moments we see, mundane conversations; brotherly rivalry; games of ping-pong. So simple, indeed, that the day after I saw it I was considering dismissing Thyestes for imaginative poverty.

For, let’s be honest, there is only so much Tarantino the world needs, and Tarantino himself is productive enough to satisfy the demand. The day after I saw this production, I was wondering mainly if it was apparent to everyone else how much debt Thyestes owes to Reservoir Dogs. The ghost of 90s cinema, its casual gun-toting, pop-cultural referencing and drawn-out, banal conversations haunts the oeuvre of Black Lung (whose Thomas Henning and Mark Winter have had significant creative input on both Thyestes and 3xSisters), appearing in the most unlikely places like some terrible rash: see Mark Winter’s bit of 3xSisters (via Scorsese).

Since every generation comes of age during a particular fad, so did our generation, perhaps, internalise Tarantino the way neither the previous nor the successive have: one for being too old not to be critical, the other because Joanna Newsom and The Quirky Indie Cinema appeared. And, fifteen years since Pulp Fiction, how much does it matter? What traumas are we tackling when we deal with such subject matter as friends shooting each other in cold blood, while Roy Orbison is playing? Mainly cinematic ones, I suspect. It is a kind of violence, cool and detached, ironic, swift, that very few people have ever experienced – I, for example, never. And while I see some of the appeal, the aesthetic appeal, and while I understand that some tropes get engraved in our collective young minds at ages too young to argue – I wonder: how does the generation of the Quirky Indie Cinema understand something like Thyestes? Does it have a relevance for them, does it stand alone as a meaningful artefact, or is it simply an incomprehensible set of images, point of reference lost? And without the reference, is there a purpose for these tropes?

Another possibility is that the drawn-out banality of the conversations (brothers reminiscing about childhood, long descriptions of sex, discussions on Roy Orbison) assumes a macabre shimmer because of what we know happens before or after: that a semiotic polyphony, shall we say, appears between the text and the subtext (semiotic and not just semantic; that we see two things at once). This certainly happens. But in itself, it is insufficient as argument of quality. If this was all that Thyestes did, it would be a fine, but not a great work.

Then, however, in Richard Sennett’s writing I came across this:

The difference between the Roman past and the modern present lies in what privacy means. The Roman in private sought another principle to set against the public, a principle based on religious transcendence of the world. In private we seek out not a principle but a reflection, that of what our psyches are, what is authentic in our feelings. We have tried to make the fact of being in private, alone with ourselves and with family and intimate friends, an end in itself.

(…) Under the modern code of private meaning, the relations between impersonal and intimate experience have no clarity. We see society itself as “meaningful” only be converting it into a grand psychic system. We may understand that a politician’s job is to draft or execute legislation, but that work does not interest us until we perceive the play of personality in political struggle. A political leader running for office is spoken of as “credible” or “legitimate” in terms of what kind of man he is, rather than in terms of the actions or programs he espouses.

Because this psychological imagination of life has broad social consequences, I want to call it by a name that may at first seem inapt: this imagination is an intimate vision of society. “Intimacy” connotes warmth, trust, and open expression of feeling. But precisely because we have come to expect these psychological benefits throughout the range of our experience, and precisely because so much social life which does have a meaning cannot yield these psychological rewards, the world outside, the impersonal world, seems to fail us, seems to be stale and empty.

I want to leave these paragraphs for now.


Mark L Winter, Thomas Henning and Chris Ryan. Photo by Jeff Busby.

In the program notes, Stone writes:

These myths are real. They have repeated themselves endlessly throughout history with minor changes in name and location. They continue to repeat themselves in our time. They are not distant representations of the vagaries of a time gone by. The fascinations of the Greeks and Romans are barely different to our contemporary obsessions. The epic dimension is misleading: on closer inspection even the most absurdly epic tale of incest, murder, rape, infidelity, transmogrification or resurrection reflects something within us waiting to express itself. The Greeks had the courage to make their metaphors extreme, unsettling and almost indistinguishable from reality; the Romans had the brazenness to bring these images from off-stage to centre-stage with a terrifying realism. Artaud had nothing on the Romans.

Consider the irreconcilable difference between this proposition, which Thyestes by all means proves, that the horror of the Greek myth is extratemporal, and the shadow of datedness over Tarantino. What to do with it? On the one hand, after years of contemporising classics by, exempli gratia Thomas Ostermeier, it’s reasonable to ask why we contemporise. Is it just to give vividness to an ancient text or story, to do justice to a classic? There is a certain binging quality to Thyestes that I’ve also found in Ostermeier’s Nora and Hedda Gabler, an overabundance of things, of set, of contemporary slang, of clothing articles, of holes of incongruity sewn up. The effect is curiously akin to television – no suspension of disbelief is necessary.

But neither this is the right answer. The key piece of puzzle, instead, is in Chris Ryan’s role as the multiplicity of women in the show. His performance as the uber-realistic, Green-bag-carrying wife, or violated bride, is not just a masterly demonstration of how little acting has to do with physical attributes, and how much with illusion. (Although it is a bona fide metamorphosis, yes.) What is interesting, instead, is that there are no women on stage. Not only does this pull the mythical universe tighter together into a boyish world of rivalry and revenge; but it also shuts it from any external ontology. Or, put more simply, there is no public realm in Thyestes: it is a sealed private world.

Perhaps this will demonstrate my theatre-viewing naivete, but there are productions, usually terribly naturalistic ones, in which I can just about picture the outside world. In which the materiality of the stage does not win over the evocative descriptions of those events somewhere else. Thyestes is one of them: between the screen lifting and falling, my mind was whirling between the public and the private realm. Why?, I don’t know. Because the stage was so suffocatingly private, is my guess. Because everything happening was a kind of game with no consequences, in which all that mattered was the dynamic between two, sometimes three people, and in which rules were written by boys, the way Tarantino’s films happen in a boy-universe. If all women were played by a man, this was an aesthetic and political choice. Not only was it less gruesome to watch sexual violence inflicted on a male body playing female, but having a female body there would have, I suspect, broken the illusion. A female presence, body, voice, would not have played by the same rules, would have exposed the game for the banality that it is. (It makes more sense to me, now, while so many such films and plays and books feature no female characters whatsoever, and why, when they do, the women are caricatured into the extreme or left as vacuous enigmas – think Motoko Kusanagi, Ramona Flowers, the Bride.) It was interesting to note that Ryan played girlfriends and women that assumed caring and matey roles, rather than sensual or sexual; the nagging question being, after a while, whether this is an accurate depiction of Australian women (someone, somewhere, noted that Australian culture is hyper-masculine, posing problems for expression of femininity for both women and men), or another way to lessen the feminine quotient in the show. (The second question is whether this is a ludicrous question.)

A circular semiology opens here, with the 90s cinema, Thyestes, the Greek myth, and the reality it points to (Robert Graves refers the myth of the House of Atreus to actual sibling kings and a throne dispute) all pointing to each other, all signifying one another, all cases of a boy-universe, in which women are just colourful background, like a deck of collectable cards, the possession of which positions the players hierarchically, into relative winners and losers. The point being not that Thyestes is the male equivalent of a chick flick (dude-play?) – which it certainly is – but that Tarantino’s universe is an apt place where to translate the myth of the House of Atreus.

When Sennett writes about the fall of the public man, the ontological shift he refers to (between the Roman for whom the home was a place for reflection on the public world, and a baby boomer for whom it was a coccoon), is the shift between tragedy as Commonly Understood (as a public event, shall we generalise?), and whatever happens in Thyestes. The ugly underside of Thyestes, which I suppose is where its emotional impact hides, is a private sordidness which has become unanchored in any sort of public life. (Something similar happens to certain kinds of American indie, say Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Todd Solonz’s films, in which violence and suffering have lost any relationship to grand ideas, purpose, or even audience, and instead float in a landscape of outer-suburban nursing homes, endless freeways, squalid rental apartments. Such stories are that harder to bear for the complete absence of grand narrative that could underpin the enormity of the horror they depict.)

The story could go on: some critics have written about Nietzsche, some about Heidegger, some about Benjamin and Bernhardt. It is, certainly, a production that can bear the weight of all these interpretations. Like any truly interesting work of art, it only gets better on rereading.

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RW: The Trial, sociologically

What is it?
Franz Kafka’s well-known novel of the trial of Jozef K. by an organisation he doesn’t know, for a crime he is not aware of, in a stage adaptation by Louise Fox. Directed by Matthew Lutton, the next wunderkind on the block: Lutton has directed a number of things in Perth, as the artistic director of his company, ThinIce, as a mainstay in the Perth Festival, has been regularly working in Sydney (including directing The Duel, based on Dostoyevsky, and The Mystery of the Genesis for STC in 2009), but has so far worked in Melbourne only once, in 2008, when he directed Tartuffe for the Malthouse, as a last-minute replacement for Michael Kantor. By and large, The Trial is his Melbourne debut.

Is it good?
Yes, very much so. I am tempted to call it a very Sydney kind of quality, but I won’t, lest it puts Melburnians off. It’s an exuberant, highly energetic production, which marries a great text (Fox’s adaptation is snappy, clear and often hilarious, without any lapses into unwarranted, un-Kafkan lyricism) with a great young team. The cast is excellent: Ewen Leslie’s abilities are not particularly stretched by the demands of his character, but Hamish Michael, Rita Kalnejais and in particular Belinda McClory (whom we don’t see in Melbourne often enough!) clearly revel in the chance to play a large number of roles, often within the same scene. It’s a very playful production, one that has more ideas than form or concept, but most of the time it’s an absolute joy to behold. In Melbourne, we often get bogged down in a terrible literal sourness: we like to condemn shows on ‘unevenness’, which often means an excess of ideas. Sydney is more forgiving of that, and also less interested in all those evenly boring productions that Melbourne abounds with at certain times of the year. I do recommend it, highly.

What does it do?
It amps Kafka up into a whirlwind of sexed-up, clamouring absurdity. Much of this effect is achieved through reduction: the novel is condensed into an intervalless 2-hour, single-set, rotating-box farce of a sort, in which seven actors embody a swirling panoply of characters. The uncertain paranoia of The Trial is given a perfect theatrical embodiment: recycling sets and actors is enough of a theatrical convention that the constant repetition of place and person strikes the audience as eerie and claustrophobic, but also, somehow, understandable. As the set is repeatedly stripped of stage props to reveal only more (bare-backed) set, it embodies without comment a conspiracy theory that both is and isn’t correct. After all, seeing through the illusion of reason rarely provides any consolation to Kafka’s characters.

More theoretically, please.
At times, this production is more hysterical than tragicomic, which leads me to believe that Lutton is not as familiar with his source material as one would wish. Franz Kafka’s world, immensely coherent across his oeuvre, is a world of mad bureaucracies. Long before Max Weber defined bureaucracy in sociology, Kafka’s protagonists were trapped in worlds run by nameless and faceless organisations, in which the person delivering the death verdict or the execution was merely following the orders of some distant superior, worlds in which the cogs turned seemingly by themselves, with no decision-making ever taking place, and no way to interfere.

A bank clerk in the Austria-Hungary, one of the earliest bureaucratised empires, Kafka knew the logic of this system well: in a bureaucracy, there is no discretionary power, no personal responsibility, and no accountability. While his work was often understood as a premonition of the industrialised execution of Jews in the Third Reich, and of the Soviet terror, it is just as applicable as an allegory of those capitalist sagas in which one wrestles with customer service, welfare agencies, call centres in India, or tries to extract personal responsibility from a corporation after an industrial catastrophe.

Bureaucracy is the basic form in which production takes place today – of goods, services, and governance. Kafka’s genius was in recognising and giving a literary life to the moral catastrophe that this state of affairs is. If nobody can be held responsible for anything, not even for violence, then tragedy cannot exist, because tragedy hinges on personal choice. What remains is a sort of tragicomedy, only partially legible to its protagonists: things happen that are sometimes terrible, sometimes fortunate, often simply funny. The difference between opaque and clear vanishes: to see through the conspiracy of the trial is no more meaningful than seeing through the conspiracy of the outsourced call centre: the reason why it exists is not the reason why it makes us suffer. The ultimate revelation is as banal as the exposed plywood set. We exit the realm of the tragic, and enter the statistic, the merely quantifiable, the heartlessly rational.

Kafka’s works are often phantasmagoric in a way which is deeply un-lyrical: his sentences are short, his words simple, his eye unsentimental. Yet by the end of this production, Jozef K. is sobbing hysterically, his death accompanied by a violent stage rotation and deeply distressed music, which leads me to believe that this crucial quality of Kafka’s work was completely missed by Lutton. In the end of the novel, remember, Jozef K. not only accepts his execution, but is embarrassed for not having the strength to perform his own execution. The very last sentence of the novel reads: “It was as if the shame of it would outlive him.” Why is this important? Because the former solution is easy; the latter more difficult. It is gratifying and safe to read the gulag in The Trial – a prophesy of evils we recognise as such, committed by people other than us, whom history has already condemned.

Kundera has repeatedly argued that Jozef K., right from the beginning of the novel, acts like a guilty man – which is to say, a man who internalises his accusation. To stage him as a heroic rebel is to miss the Kafkan subtlety altogether: Jozef K. is not so much a brave fighter for justice, as one who goes through the motions, deeply unsure of his own innocence when faced with the external consensus. This is the universal condition of the man before the Law; only action heroes and psychotics can disregard the Law completely (and there may be a psychotic lurking inside every action hero, if we are to trust Alan Moore). Jozef K is a man who believes in the world that executes him. This is the complication that makes Kafka a great writer. (It also makes me wonder how much more exciting Leslie’s performance could have been, had he had the freedom to play a morally torn man, rather than just a romantic misfit of sorts.)

However, Lutton abundantly makes up for this slightness of reading by the sheer exuberance of this production. It may be a work built on sheer instinct, but Lutton’s instincts are often spot on. Hyperbolic exaggeration (somewhat naively) restores some of the crucial elements often forgotten in the conventional interpretations of Kafka. For example, artist Titorelli’s CHECK young admirers, played by the entire male and female cast, are literally crawling into his studio through every door on stage, scratching the walls and cat-calling. This gesture befits the material perfectly: many gloomy interpreters of Kafka completely fail to notice the humour permeating his work, humour part-Jewish and part-Czech, absurd (but not clownish), black (but not bleak), and not so much self-deprecating as self-deriding. Lutton’s Trial has plenty of humour, of the best kind. The production is also brimming with a ridiculous eroticism: there are whippings and undergarments and sexy nurses everywhere. The usual reduction of Kafka to an ascetic priest-like creature is completely absent.

However, this re-interpretation opens up questions it doesn’t answer. It faithfully keeps the priest’s story of a man wishing to gain entry to the law (known as the ‘Before the Law’ parable, and the single most famous part of The Trial). However, not only does the parable sit awkwardly within the performance, suddenly shifting the register from grotesquely humorous to mystically simple. It also sits awkwardly within the novel itself. Why? Because it isn’t necessarily meant to be there. Max Brod, Kafka’s friend who posthumously compiled The Trial from the fragments of Kafka’s writings, was the person who made that decision. Brod, while a dear friend, was also the most famous misinterpreter of Franz Kafka, assigning him the status of saint, infamously purging his biography of evidence of brothel-attendance, and providing us with the first accounts of Franz as a spiritual, almost religious writer (Walter Benjamin would dismiss Brod’s interpretation as kitsch). “Before the Law” was the only part of The Trial to be published during Kafka’s life, as a separate short story. As such, it is a perfect little gem of brutal absurdism. As a penultimate chapter to a complex novel, it swings its overall tone strongly, perhaps too strongly, towards the mystic. It’s often taken to contain the essence of The Trial, but that probably has a lot to do with its crisp, succint tightness – as befits a short story. Lutton’s production, which greatly avoids the perfunctory mysticism, clearly doesn’t do it consciously enough to recognise these contradictions. (I will point out here that Cameron Woodhead, in his review in The Age, very predictably fails to understand the complexity of the issue, bemoaning the farce and praising the parable. As if seriousness, as opposed to humour, denotes Art.)

Conclusion?
This lack of understanding is enough to bar The Trial from being called a masterpiece. It’s a youthful work, its flaws gaping open. However, as a young director’s work, it is among the best and most promising Melbourne has seen in a while. It shows a remarkable new talent, and a great theatrical instinct, in Matthew Lutton. It is also an absolute joy to attend: funny, crafty, and almost impeccably executed. Most importantly, as Alison Croggon picked up, there is an honest truth in this project, which alone makes it worth seeing. With no holding back, the artistic team has clearly catapulted itself right in the centre of a text and a problematic they may not quite have a grip on, but were determined to tackle with all their capacity. This refusal to play it safe is too rarely seen to be missed.

The Trial. Adapted by Louise Fox from the novel by Franz Kafka, directed by Matthew Lutton. Set designer Claude Marcos, costume design by Alice Babidge, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Ash Gibson Greig, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas. Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until September 4. Sydney Theatre Company, September 9 – October 16.

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Review: Desire, psychoanalysis, and Sappho… in 9 fragments

First on the general qualities of this work. Sappho… in 9 fragments premiered the Stork Hotel in 2007, before getting picked up by the Malthouse, tidied up and restaged by Marion Potts, the incoming AD thereof. A monodrama, written, conceived and performed by the fierce Jane Montgomery Griffiths, a Classics scholar in her own right. It’s not so much a voicing of Sappho, nor a dissection of her work, as it is a performance with the missing poet at its centre. How much do we know with certainty about this highly esteemed poet from Lesbos? Very little, as no reliable historical accounts of her life have survived, and her work in fragments only. Sappho is a sealed safe, but Griffiths gives voice to her nonetheless: her loves, her rage and indignance at various interpretations (always by men), be they pictorial or textual. In her hands, theatre performance becomes an act of reading, thinking, imagining.

Jane Marion Griffiths. Photo credits: Jeff Busby.

Second on its high quality. Sappho… in 9 fragments is first-class theatre, and if there is a show this year that should be seen by a wide audience as a demonstration of what moneyed theatre should do, then this is the one. It is made out of good ideas, of smart solutions. Naked, skin-headed Griffiths emerges from a glass tank filled with ambrosia, which slowly leaks throughout the performance, creating a honey-coloured pond on the floor until all that remains from the glorious poet is a tray of meat. Anna Cordingley and Paul Jackson’s set and lighting design marries absolute minimalism of means with a thorough clarity of signification: it is a high achievement of a design sensibility particular to Australian theatre. Griffiths’s words – combining an original narrative, literary scholarship, historical observations and free translations of Sappho – build a text that is intelligent, witty, full-bodied and highly dramatic. Her physical presence is extraordinary, bringing to life a stage creature that is soft and hard, strong and sensitive, sometimes raging and sometimes completely paralysed.

Third on its aesthetic lineage. Sappho… is a classic work of high post-modernism. Sappho is an author singularly bereft of a voice, and Griffiths’s scholarly dramaturgy revels in weaving and slashing through approaches and interpretations, less and more facetious misreadings. There is no unified Sappho at the end of the show, but this is not a tragedy. Rather, Sappho becomes a mirror to the world. She remains a ghost (angry, desiring, doubting, polite), and despite the stage presence of one undressed woman, her presence is immaterial, her agency only in bringing forth the multiple fragments out of which she is constructed. I have not often seen works of this kind on Melbourne stages, and I suspect it’s because they require deep familiarity with a subject, which can only be attained with time. Our theatre-makers are notoriously young, and dramaturgs, the one profession usually engaged in deep research, are not a frequent presence in our theatre companies.

Fourth on its philosophical lineage, and those interested in a pure review can stop reading now. Sappho… (just like post-modernism itself) echoes many of the psychoanalytical ideas about desire, but also, interestingly, about women. Of all the twentieth-century ideas about women, this may be the most consistently expressed one: woman as a lacuna, as a set of poses to be adopted, roles to be played. The female as the second sex: made, not autochtonous. The woman as the seen, not the seer; the spoken-of, not the speaker. As the object of desire, an empty vessel, to be filled at will. The language, the symbolic order, interprets women rather than letting them speak. Hence the importance of stylisation in the definition of femininity: fashion, make-up, hair, bodily poses. Without them, what is a woman? Is there some sort of primordial femininity behind the dyes and the paints and the frills, just waiting to come out – as some feminists have claimed (the moderate ones)? Or is there no woman to speak of until one becomes one, as other feminists (Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler among the most well-known) have argued? As the object of desire, as the first and foremost object of desire, a woman cannot have a voice, does not exist but as an empty vessel. (This idea is very nicely expressed in Christopher Nolan’s film The Inception, in which Leonardo Di Caprio explains the logic of dreams to Ellen Page, the designer of dreams: “If you create something secure [like a bank vault] the mind automatically fills it with something it wants to protect.” Is the feeling of being loved, but not seen, not immediately recognisable to the reader? For being desired as a projection of the other person’s desires? As a safe for their most intimate thoughts and feelings, but not their own?)

At this point psychoanalysis splinters between being helpful to feminism, and being supremely unhelpful. On the one hand, it is asserted that all seeing is masculine, that all desire is male; women artists explore this status as objects of desire, knowingly. On the other, is this not a consolidation of an ontology which may be universal, but is not necessarily unavoidable? When Germaine Greer bemoans female artists as self-indulgent and even, paradoxically, auto-objectifying, what underlines her critique is the sense that not much is to be gained by insisting on the gender split between those who desire, and those who are desired; that the line is not carved in stone. The interpretative dilemma is real: on the one hand, women are still afflicted by illnesses in which the body acts out what the language (the symbolic) cannot express: hysteria once, anorexia today. On the other hand, there are more varities of female life today than when Freud was compiling his discoveries.

Sappho is a perfect woman as case study: revered, admired, analysed, voiceless. A perfect empty vessel, and precisely for that reason an excellent appearance of a secret, a hole in the centre of the symbolic order (quot Zizek). What interests me in Griffiths’s work is the way the speaking subject is primarily the object of desire, and rarely its owner. When she speaks as Sappho, she is the voice of someone whose subjectivity has undergone torturous interpretative transformation: she is a multitude of analyses, not a voice. When she speaks as Atthis, a young woman object of Sappho’s poems, in a contemporary incarnation as young admirer of a successful actress, her attraction is overwhelmingly the reflection of the actress’s attraction to her. The dramatic resolution of the quandary of Sappho in a self-conscious, awkward character of a young woman desired and then abandoned seems to me the weakest dramaturgical aspect of the work. After an exploration of the missing female subjectivity, we return exactly where we started: to the woman as object of desire. It is as if the entire twentieth century has taught us only to embrace this desire, not to master it for ourselves. In this sense, Sappho… in 9 fragments strikes me as conservative, and unsatisfactory.

I can broadly agree with Greer: there must be something beyond the acceptance of woman as the eternal object, beyond pole dancing, lipstick feminism, Sex and the City. The most striking comment on this came to me from the unlikely source: Judith Butler. Despite her reputation as the philosopher that negates femininity, she often returns to this simple idea that desire is empowering, transformative. In one interview, Butler criticised the notion of political lesbianism:

“I always hated this saying that feminism is the theory and lesbianism must be the practice. It desexualizes lesbians. I became a lesbian at the age of fourteen. And I didn’t know anything about politics. I became a lesbian as I wanted somebody very deeply. “

I remember the effect this statement had on me when I first read it: a woman speaking simply about ‘wanting someone’ was so unlike anything I had heard women say. So much of the feminist project seems to have become about fending off desire, through initiatives against sexual harassment, objectification, pornography, and so forth. Sappho… may be just that: a fending off. What a strange conclusion from a work about a poet who wrote about love herself, who wrote about desire long before women became the ‘hole at the centre of the symbolic order’. (But was it before? Here is that problem with classics: one is never sure. I may be committing just such intellectual violence.) I wished for more, or for something else. Perhaps I wanted to see 9 fragments of Judith Butler.

Sappho…in 9 fragments, written and performed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. Staging by Marion Potts, set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design Darrin Verghagen. Malthouse Theatre. Runs until August 21.

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REVIEW: The Threepenny Opera

The always-vexing question of the ‘right’ way to do a playtext is particularly vexed when it comes to Brecht; to stage Brecht is almost invariably to fail Brecht.

While Brecht’s influence on modern theatre cannot be overstated, mainly through his theory of Verfremdungseffekt, theorist Brecht coexists with Brecht the dramatist and Brecht the theatre-maker, and those among us who assume that the three are always in agreement imbue Bertolt with a Godlike infallibility, and his words with biblical weight. The reality is more complicated. Brecht’s works did not always achieve his theatrical goals, his plays have worked against his intentions, and while much of the program he set for the new theatre (disrupting the illusion, mobilising the audience’s morality, the use of technology, truncation of catharsis, etc) has been the key force propelling 20th-century dramaturgy, he has not always been the one to find the answers to the questions he has posed. Moreover, the effect and effectiveness of Brecht’s theatre has changed with time: his influence has been so thorough that few of his formal inventions have the same freshness today, and the political milieu of 2010 is thoroughly different from what it was before the World War II.

Finally, Brecht the technician and dramaturg has always been undermined by Brecht the epigrammatist. The strength of Brecht’s writing is in his one- and two-liners: ‘what is robbing a bank, compared to founding a bank?’, ‘Would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?’, ‘unfortunate is the land that needs heroes.’ There is no opportunity for a good aphorism that Brecht would not use – his epic theatre, in a sense, is an epigrammatic theatre, intended to kick us about with little paradoxes – even when the totality of the work around the two-liner doesn’t hold too well as a result. This is the problem with his musical works: how could a man like that not enjoy a form that is terminally fragmented between songs and prose, a form in which every fifteen minutes one gets to put an accent on the last verse?

The Threepenny Opera was Brecht’s first blockbuster, a huge hit despite the shambolic way in which it was made – or perhaps precisely because of it. It is Brecht at his least cohesive: a plot taken from John Gay’s 1727 opera, a plot only loosely translated into Victorian London slash Weimar Berlin, with characters launching into songs often completely disconnected from their theatrical situation. It was shaped significantly by the strong creative input from everyone involved in the first production, and John Fuegi (perhaps exaggeratedly) credits Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s lover at the time, with good 80-90% of the text (for which she received a pittance, as is often the case with career-minded men). The day before it opened, the whole crew proclaimed a looming disaster. Instead, it became an overnight success. Brecht himself couldn’t quite admit that the bourgeoisie was enjoying his scathing, subversive critique of their moral universe. But the bourgeoisie hummed the catchy tunes, loved the dark humour: the epigrammatist won by a mile.

This is why it’s difficult to talk about a success or a failure of a production of The Threepenny Opera. Who decides? Can we judge it by the amount of alienation and political commitment it shows? Brecht had read Marx by the time it opened, in 1928, but it would be another full two years before he first tries to sketch the principles of ‘epic theatre’. We cannot really demand from the works of a young man to demonstrate the thinking of the old, not even with theatre’s peculiar understanding of temporality (which is to say, a play is always atemporal to a degree, as it exists now as well as then). How can we judge it by the extent to which it fulfils a program it probably never fulfilled?

Eddie Perfect and Paul Capsis. Photo: Garth Oriander.

Michael Kantor’s production, currently playing at the Malthouse to sold-out houses, has all the usual flaws and merits of a Kantor production. It is no different in style and execution to his many other productions, and this may be its one salient failure: it doesn’t demonstrate an attempt to grapple with the peculiarity of the material as much as give us more of Kantor’s usual concoction of elements. From Peter Corrigan’s mannerist set to the uneven cast (which includes cabaret performers and trained singers of diverse skills), it is an impressionistic rendering rather than a smooth dramaturgical machine. It is gratuitously camp; it is soft on piercing critique and hard on vague gesture.

Kurt Weill’s score is delivered intact by Victorian Opera, generously, for Weill’s music is still bliss to the ears. Anna O’Bryne as Polly Peachum is a revelation, a gorgeous singer and a fierce actress, giving a raw, rude sanguinity to an often neglected role, while Paul Capsis’s majestic Jenny steals every scene (including many in which Jenny doesn’t appear). Eddie Perfect, on the other hand, grows croaky towards the end, and plays a Macheath with vile temper, rather forgetting any sense of fun – but then, it is fair to assume that Perfect was not cast for his vocal abilities. The greatest failure is, without a doubt, the set and the costumes (and I confess to feeling alarmed by this statement: what does it mean when so much of the production hinges on the way the stage is dressed?). There is no point in discussing the way Raimondo Cortese’s precise translation, which re-sets the play into contemporary Melbourne, clashes with the outrageous, no-era costuming, or how the faux-constructivist panel sits meaninglessly behind a set designed, awkwardly, unnecessarily, distractingly, as a boxing ring (demanding the rope pulled down for certain fourth-wall-breaking songs, but not for others). I did not detect any intention for making a coherent statement, against which incoherency could be judged a failure. The rare moments in which the production pulls together (such as the grand repeat of Mack the Knife before the interval, and Mack’s icily cynical pre-hanging speech) do not so much underline the confusion of the rest, as simply look out of place.

In this city, we have spent too much time lately discussing the finer points of camp, and the departing AD of the Malthouse is largely responsible. We have discussed its moral backbone, its stylistic variations, its humour, its targets. Enough. Can the Threepenny be campified? Demonstrably, it can. Does it improve? No, but neither is it particularly harmed. If you take Lotte Lenya’s words seriously, that it is the “subtleness behind the obviousness that gives strength to The Threepenny Opera”, then it ought to be admitted that there is not a lot of subtlety in this particular production, not in, above, or behind it. Perhaps a stronger directorial hand would have wrestled some poignancy into this wild, unruly text. Perhaps we would have seen through our modern-day bourgeois morality. These aren’t the right questions to ask. What we have, instead, is a somewhat perverse celebration of the criminal underworld, with singing and lavish dresses. That cutting, mean Berliner humour has been blown up into something a little farcical, a little broad. Does it matter? Only if you have serious expectations from yet another Kantor camp operetta. And only if you are serious about this whole business of staging Brecht ‘right’.

On the other hand, the production has sparked some soul-searching on the part of the GP (which is how those who go to the theatre lovingly refer to those who don’t). As non-GP, I am both surprised, puzzled and pleased. Perhaps this is exactly the theatre we need. Or deserve. I suspect Brecht would see the humour.

The Threepenny Opera. By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Text: Raimondo Cortese. Lyrics: Jeremy Sams. Director: Michael Kantor. Conductor: Richard Gill. With: Casey Bennetto, Paul Capsis, Judi Connelli, Jolyon James, Melissa Langton, Amy Lehpamer, Anna O’byrne, Eddie Perfect, Dimity Shepherd, Grant Smith, John Xintavelonis. Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre, May 28 – June 19. The season has officially sold out, but more tickets may become available closer to each performance. Check the Malthouse website for updates.

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Life… is a Dream.

Seeing a progression in someone’s work the wrong way around is always intriguing for the possibilities it offers for misreading, or overly simplifying. Having seen Daniel Schlusser’s Peer Gynt before Life is a Dream (a remount of which has just closed at The Store Room – but bear with my lateness, for I am working hard), it is easy to see a history, kernels yet to be developed. Foucault warns against this, asking to do a genealogy instead. Well.

Life is a Dream premiered in late 2008, and appears to set up the framework for the complex theatrical text (as in weaving, textile) that Peer Gynt, in early 2009, became. It inserts Calderón de la Barca’s baroque dramatic text into a layering of fantasies. It removes all but scraps of text, which appear not as the truth of the performance, but its final point of unreality – a relatively consensual game played by children trapped in a room. It settles on a relaxed, thinly performative mode. The reality of the stage is paramount, tactile, driving all else: the whole performance timed to a whistling kettle. The performers are sometimes characters, sometimes calling each other by their name. It is playful, smart theatre.

Back in 2008, the premise would have been clearly recognised as a reference to Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who, it had just been discovered, had sexually abused his daughter for 24 years, keeping her locked up in his basement, together with the three children born out of the affair. The children have since become subjects of psychiatric study, as they grew up in total isolation from social reality – the eldest was 19 when they were released. These are the children of Life is a Dream: a posse of completely unsocialised human beings, their mother gone, making up their world as they go along. The dynamic between them is subtly realised, and often mesmerising to watch: we realise that some children are barely able to speak, but some have a patchy sense of the world, and they use this epistemological high ground to dominate the others. At most times, however, theirs is a mini-society set up according to a completely nonsensical premise: the mother is dead, the father was never there, there is someone to blame, and someone to punish.

Schlusser uses the kettle (constantly boiling water) as a theatrical clepsydra. Between endlessly recurring cups of tea, we get a sense of the terrible, maddening boredom of the basement, the despair and the physical frustration of confinement, and the physical and psychic aggression that builds up and can only be relieved through ever more inventive games. In one, Sophie Mathisen directs and choreographs the story of the Sleeping Beauty on herself and children. In another, Calderón’s play is played.

The layering of dream and reality in Life is a Dream is perversely disfigured: Segismundo, a confined prince, is released into the Polish court. Waking up in society for the first time, he kills and rapes and is drugged and returned to his tower, and told the previous day was just a vivid dream. However, a revolting gang frees him and he wins the throne, sparing the father who had imprisoned him, marrying off secondary characters; still unsure of whether this part is dream or reality, but convinced that even in dreams we have to behave honourably. Yet, in Schlusser’s basement, Segismundo may have been imprisoned in the corner toilet his whole life, or only for the duration of one game. He may be liberated for good, or just until another game starts. We don’t know. What we do understand, as the kettle boils again, is that there will be a lot more time to waste.

At the end of 2009, the Fritzl case withdraws as the first interpretive prism, and the filthy room could now be a sealed and forgotten nuclear shelter, an aftermath of war, or submerged under the melted glaciers. The tragedy is no less clear, but its meaning is more generalised.

One of the things that have always intrigued me about Life is a Dream has been the questionable relationship between what we see and what we know, or a certain doubt in the reality of reality, that Baroque shared with our age (or certainly the post-modernity pre-9/11). There is not only the similarity of stories to judge from: the skepticism of both Life is a Dream and, say, Matrix. It’s also the delight in surfaces, in excessive decoration, in motion as opposed to stillness. * What seems to connect the periods is the general acceptance of affectation and mannerism as self-evidently and widely appreciated. (Now, we could generalise further, we have entered a period more akin to rococo. Subtler, gentler, but equally, if not more, mannerist. Wes Anderson, in this interpretation, would be the Watteau of our age.) The comparison also looms over as a threat of future insignificance, incomprehensibility, the overly stylised baroque literary style is near-impossible to read today, in almost any European language. What’s more, few care. Bound-up in looking up its own arse, comparatively little of the period has survived in literature as important for the canon.

While Life is a Dream is as baroque as 2008 gets, it is a comparatively clean, tidy and elegant production, and I have to say I preferred the bewilderingly complex Peer Gynt. Perhaps it comes with familiarity with method: the layering of realities, the sense of anti-performative, real time and space that anchored the stage overburdened with worlds, the accumulation of detail, the snippety use of text. Life is a Dream is tied together with a good knot, but it is far less exciting once we can read what is inside, or even predict what will come next. And some things are not as well executed: the use of music (a moment of Nick Cave, and the threatening bass of Massive Attack’s Angel that closes the show) is strangely dysfunctional, neither integrated with the subtlety of the total, nor incongruent enough to be ironic. (Compare with a burst of soap bubbles at the end of Peer Gynt, a brilliantly off-handed gesture to manic stupidity.) There is a resolute rhythm, and a purposeful meaningfulness to much of the dialogue that lets the production lean slightly too much towards a sit-com: a sort of feigned casualness that is shredded away in Peer Gynt. But this is what I mean by ‘tidy’ and ‘clean’.

Finally, there is a thin film of melodrama in the conceit: the basement, the tragedy, the poignancy of it all. The loveliest improvement of Peer Gynt on the formal skelleton of Life is a Dream is the exquisite lightness it brings to very much the same philosophical inquiry, same existential despair. It manages to create the same desolation, the same absurdity and grief, by making a puzzle out of the most banal, most inconsequential elements: a wedding rehearsal, a game of Fußball, plastic chairs, soap bubbles. It doesn’t signpost its intentions with trip-hop. It smiles as wide as nothingness.

I wonder what comes next.

*For a long time, I very firmly associated Calderon’s play to the general weirdness of Shoujo Kakumei Utena:

Life is a Dream, adapted from Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Beatrix Christian, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Marg Horwell, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, special make-up effects by Dominique Noelle Mathisen, composed by Darrin Verhagen, stage management by Pippa Wright, produced by Sarah Ernst. With George Banders, Brendan Barnett, Johnny Carr, Andrew Dunn, Julia Grace, Sophie Mathisen, Vanessa Moltzen, Sarah Ogden and Josh Price. The Store Room, November 18-29.

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RW: Happy Days

People who don’t go to the theatre often wonder why theatre enthusiasts are, well, such enthusiasts. The answer lies in the rarely achieved bliss of the curtain call: the actors on stage, the audience in commotion, the physical and emotional synchronicity of the long applause. It is one in a hundred, but that’s the magic of theatre. And it happened on the opening night of Happy Days (all those historical accounts of 40-minute curtain calls may start to make sense now; it is not the time, not a sporting achievement; it’s the intensity, and the mystical quality of the reaction). Complete strangers stood up without any prior agreement, looked at each other, and asked: wasn’t that incredible? The physical dissynchronicity of the standing ovation. The way one felt like crying, except that it wasn’t possible (not among the people, not in the communal, generous moment of shared appreciation); the way one sat down feeling stirred, incoherent. Meeting someone who shares your favourite book has some of the same effect: you are united through an experience that is deeply personal. People never cry together reminiscing over favourite novels; they smile, nod, separated by silence, but united in the source of the silence.

Julie Forsyth in Happy Days.

In other words, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which has just opened at the Malthouse, is an extraordinary theatrical experience.

The 20th-century housewife is a figure of astonishing resonance whose full significance we could easily explore for the next hundred years before we exhaust the topic completely. The combination of post-war neo-traditionalism of ideals, realised across the media, in fashion as much as in suburban sprawl, combined with that strange, but common belief that the absence of hard, concrete oppression equals freedom, resulted in the most terrifyingly well-realised image of obtuse, happy misery. Up to that point, the obvious misogyny of most societies meant that women’s life was construed and self-explained as one long toil: there is nothing particularly chirpy about the advice given to daughters in Biedermeier, in the Jesuit unforgiveness of the etiquette manuals or the phrenological quackery of guides to Girls Not To Wed. Afterwards, structuralism and Camus made us see compulsion in what had up to then seemed most blatant absence of restrictions. In that pocket, not more than twenty years, between the end of the Second World War and the sexual revolution, rises the iconic housewife, stirred and blow-dried into marzipan perfection, smiling her tragedy away.

It was not necessarily the worst destiny for a woman there had ever been. It was, however, the most poetically atrocious. From the Dickensian chimney-sweepers to the Islamic janjicari, I cannot think of any systematically screwed demographic group that bore such wide smiles. Tele-wonder Man Men, a retrospective of the 1960s, can still dig deep into this well of sugary sadness, sadness kept willfully at bay. On the local theatre front, My Darling Patricia valiantly tried in Politely Savage in 2006. But Happy Days teases out something of the cosmic grimness of the image better than any other work of art I’ve encountered so far; realises, perhaps, for the first time the universal resonance of the smiling house-keeping slave. (Outside, that is, Betty Friedan.) That it looks so fresh, after all this time, suggests we have only started poking our noses into the problematics.

The plot, if one can call it so, is wrapped in a grotesque both comic and drab, that reveals Beckett’s debt to Kafka. Winnie, a woman of about fifty, is buried up to her waist in scorched earth. Unable to get out, but with a bag of beauty gadgets to keep her occupied, she carefully parcels her time between two demonic bells, one for waking and one for sleep. Willie, her man of about sixty, hides in a hole just outside her field of vision. Willie grumbles, reads the newspaper, and occasionally retorts – all of which delights Winnie immensely. She is, you see, living in the best of all worlds. In the second act, Winnie now buried up to her chin, and still smiling, still talking, but now unable to carefully keep herself busy with nail filing, hair combing, praying, and looking wistfully at the gun in the bottom of her bag. Finally approached by Willie, dressed in his Sunday best, Winnie nearly bawls with happiness – she can finally see him.

There is a macabre clockwork to Winnie’s routine of body management, of hair curling and hat donning and parasol waving, the minute tick-tock of narcissistic busywork – narcissistic not because inherent to Winnie’s personality, but because it is all so centred on physical upkeep. It recalls the terrible routine of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, who over 210 minutes walks from one room to another, scrubs bathtubs, shops for groceries, mends buttons, lifts lids, stirs soups, flours schnitzels: the Sisyphean absurdity of her days is so heart-wrenchingly, grittily hypnotic that, when she starts making mistakes, the viewer is immediately aware that the magnitude of the disturbance in her life must be enormous. Similarly, the nail file and the parasol are quite literally Winnie’s crutches against sinking, her only weapons against the stillness which would equal absurdity. I have repeatedly encountered the notion that Happy Days is not only a cheerful play, but one of Beckett’s most cheerful. This is a grave confusion of terms. There is not a trace of either optimism or genuine happiness in Winnie’s leaden, ebony-white refusal to despair. In fact, the stern genius of the play comes from recreating closely that terrible despair that each one of us must have felt, at times, looking at women in our lives who were, in every aspect, insanely invested in their miserable lives, but whose astronomic tragedy was tempered by the fact their predicament was also fairly average. If retelling Happy Days crushes me, it is because it brings to mind a grandmother who spent a decade grumbling at a mute grandfather; a mother who smiled one such leaden smile for my entire childhood; girlfriends with hair graying in teenagehood who chirped: I have nothing to complain about. Not for nothing did Beckett qualify his writing choices in Happy Days by saying: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”

In The Corrections, his masterpiece on the modern family, Jonathan Franzen’s mater familias, Enid, is one such stupendously optimistic character. What appears clear, though, as the novel progresses, is that, stuck with an abusive, demented husband who refuses to either die or accept treatment, Enid’s predicament is so dire that her relentless optimism is the equivalent of pulling herself out of the water with her own hand, Munchausen-like. A purposeful tunnel vision as the only hope for survival. Franzen, however, gave Enid a way out. In the disturbingly upbeat final paragraphs, Albert has succumbed to dementia and uses the occasional presence of mind only to attempt suicide in numerous laughable ways; Enid, on the other hand, uses his final immobility, this long-awaited ready availability of her husband’s body that has evaded her all her life, to tell him, again and again, how much he wronged her, how right she was, how much better he should have treated her, and grows stronger and more optimistic. Once he’s dead, Enid “felt that nothing could kill her hope now. She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.”

If Happy Days avoids any such baroque resolution, it is a function of its time. I was reminded, again and again, of Tristan Tzara’s post-World War One program: No pity. After the carnage, we are left with the hope of the purified humanity. Yet Tzara’s dada, reacting to the Great War, was in many ways stern and moralistic: it had a program, exclamation marks, conclusions. Winnie and Willie represent no purified humanity. Beckett is post-hope. After the Second World War has proven that tragedy-come-around is a very bleak farce, neither moralism nor optimism is appropriate. There were no manifestos after Auschwitz. Happy Days is resignation without resolution, strength in absurdity, absurd strength. Sisyphean in the sense Camus intended.

The Malthouse production, I am tempted to say, is predictably masterful. Trapped inside Anna Cordingley’s abstractly organic set, suggesting the bureaucratic, industrial horror of early expressionism (and winking another wink at Kafka), the characters’ situation is measuredly hopeless, without a trace of slapstick. Julie Forsyth and Peter Carroll are among the finest living Australian actors, and are directed with enormous subtlety by Michael Kantor. Peter Carroll delivers his seven lines impeccably, while Forsyth’s blabbering Winnie is an exquisitely balanced creation, simultaneously genuinely cheerful and genuinely desperate. While Malthouse’s earlier Optimism, a re-working of Voltaire’s Candide, was greatly similar in intent, it wavered uncertainly between hollow comedy and heavy didacticism. Happy Days, instead, is perfect: neither too sour, nor too bitter. Its tragedy is pastel-coloured.

Yet there is nothing predictable about perfection, and it should be appreciated as such. As Chekhov would say: Reader, I’m in raptures, allow me to embrace you!

Happy Days. By Samuel Beckett. Director Michael Kantor. Set and costume designer Anna Cordingley. Lighting designer Paul Jackson. Sound Russell Goldsmith. With Peter Carroll and Julie Forsyth. Malthouse theatre, July 3-25. Belvoir Street Theatre, November 4 – December 16.

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