30.xi. 2007. La Mama presents: The Kreutzer Sonata. A Night Train Production. Based on a story by Lev Tolstoy. Adapted and performed by Humphrey Bower. With music and dolls by Jess Ipkendanz. And lighting by Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist. Season ended.
2.xii.2007. Malthouse Theatre: A Large Attendance in the Antechamber. Written, designed and performed by Mr Brian Lipson (and Sir Francis Galton). Tower Theatre, 20 Nov-9 Dec 2007.
The appreciation of anything, let alone art, depends to a great extent on the milieu of the said thing, and to assign genius or divine inspiration to something that touched you personally may be a myopic gesture in confronts to the entire world outside your self. On the other hand, to try to control the dynamics of the performer-audience relationship is a mad desire: I enter theatres immersed in deep thoughts on the implications of the safety discourse on children and women; putting together a manifesto on the need to accept risk in public space or how not all flirting is harassment; irritated by newspaper articles; in love; after a domestic argument; with a layer of anxiety stirring deep inside me after having just witnessed something violent (a car crash, a tax break); or having heard a beautiful piece of music that has left me vulnerable and ready to crack open, like a castle in the sand or a soufflé. How do you account for the possibility of all of that?! That Zeami dedicated sixteen books to this relationship is not a coincidence (Zeami whose father was able to reach both the court audience and the peasants through his complete mastery of nô). The magic of art is in it being, really, a dialogue. It speaks to you, you respond back. We could argue: hence Jérôme Bel now, and not those people doing the same twenty years ago. The audience is different, and it matters.
Another problem, as usual, is posed by the programming as it is currently in these lands, with not enough time to think if one wants to write in time to reach the audience. This is my old lament: if theatres in English had a repertoire, not merely a performance schedule, there would be less need to immediately assign stars or hats or thumbs up or down to particular little shows, and more time to engage with the ideas, themes, references and implications of particular works, in conjunction with other works. It would be possible to say, I came in thinking about the lyrics in folk music, and the play then made me think, dot dot dot. Is there anyone in this country that gets paid to write on theatre with a lungful of idleness? With the simple joy of writing on theatre? Without the ratings at the bottom or an agenda in the headline? On film, yes and profusely. On visual arts, easily. But on theatre?
Sonata and Antechamber arrived, in pair, after a couple of weeks of mediocre theatre, and how do I even begin to separate my experience from this context? There are other, superficial connections: a lone man on the stage; Humphrey and Brian knowing each other in person; most importantly, both works somehow connected to the existential problems of a nineteenth-century man. Would my opinion of them be different had I seen them in the opposite order? Would it be different had I been reading Dickens or Austen, not feminist rants on the exclusion of women from the nineteenth-century industrial city (complete with praise for the anti-flirt clubs of the 1920s)? Of course it would. So, instead of bending over text in order to justify why one left me shivering, and the other puzzled and slightly irritated, would it be possible to use the audience-art dynamics positively, and argue? For what else there is to do, once you're confronted with competent theatre? We're not here to watch, nod, and mumble, yes, well done; that's good lighting; that's nice delivery of volume and void. Imagine reading Dostoyevsky and going, hmm, that's good sentence structure.
The Kreutzer Sonata was an immensely delicate theatrical handling of a very sophisticated piece of literature. It seemed so easy, so effortless; and so does the Sistine Chapel, mind you. It was made out of nothing, it seemed at the time. Ether. Some Tolstoy and some Beethoven. One man with a voice, one woman with an electric piano and a violin, and a voice herself. Some dolls. Two chairs. Very little movement. Not a word too many. A man speaking, a woman accompanying on piano and violin, harmoniously complementing each other, never a note nor a word out of sync, I wondered if they were married more than once. And, two minutes into the show, nobody in the audience was breathing anymore. That theatre hypnosis, that sense of acutely aware immersion into unreality, descended upon us more completely than I had ever felt before. One man and one woman, holding us on their palm like a perfectly still raindrop.
Lola at Australian Stage very accurately compared it to being read to and, indeed, I spent a lot of time afterwards wondering why in the world this wasn't bad theatre when I myself kept thinking of radio. More specifically, of bedtime radio stories.
(My parents, very unusually for our time and place in society, read to me a lot, before learning to rationalise their energy and recording their greatest hits on audio tapes. Later I discovered the 19:45 (7.45p.m.) bedtime story on Croatian radio, and taped them instead. Originally simply read by a number of rotating people with trained voices, I returned to the 19:45 bedtime story some years later, nostalgically, only to find it corrupted by special effects, multiple voices, and – shock and horror – attempts at acting. Perhaps this is why, to this day, I am unimpressed by plays for voices and yet, to this day, my more romantic friends and I occasionally read to each other when bed-sharing occurs, on summer holidays and intercontinental visits.)
In retrospect, there was so much potential for failure, and the biggest success of Sonata may have been even more in what it avoided than in what it achieved. There was no attempt to enliven the form by speeding up, adding physical movement, by caricaturing minor characters, by removing the gravity and adding the farce – all things that Bell Shakespeare's atrocious The Government Inspector did recently; it was all most restrained, yet it was the most engrossing piece of theatre I had seen for a long time. There was, most significantly, no Russianly-pronounced English. Even the matryoshkas appeared delicately, just a little touch of recognition that this is a Russian story. But was it theatrical? There was movement. The story of the train passenger's tale unravelled, so dolls appeared, out of a suitcase, out of Bower's pockets, illustrating different characters. They were never put away, simply left standing on the little stage, in the corners, surrounding Bower, just like, when being told a story, one is introduced to a growing set of faces, names, behaviours, who don't simply disappear, but accumulate in the corners of the room. There was music, and the incredible harmony of music and spoken word, and there was the climax – much before the wife is murdered – with the dolls and Bower and Beethoven all rising high, with the protagonist pleading,
What is music? Why does it do what it does? They say that music stirs the soul. Stupidity! A lie! It acts, it acts frightfully! Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not feel, to understand what I do not understand, to have powers which I cannot have.,
and with yours truly in tears, devastated, amidst a shivering audience: feeling what?, and why?, the same confusion, the same unexplained shower of emotion. Why? How did they do what they did? I don't know. Was it theatre? It had to be theatre. Even if we argue that it was story-telling on stage, that it was a spoken-word performance, it brought a classic alive, in the way I never thought possible. It didn't make us indulge into our ability to appreciate dead nineteenth century worrrds, it rendered, with great effect, one man's attempt to grapple with meaning of art, love and life.
It served to remind me, ultimately, of high art, not in that dead, impotent, Robin Usher sense, but high art as Beethoven and as Tolstoy. High as in achievement, as in something done so well there is no point in doing it ever again. The more I thought that night, the angrier I got. I am a fan of both 19th century psychological realism and late baroque. While I dropped classical music for marital reasons, I abandoned Russian realism since moving to Melbourne for the sheer problem of beauty: used as I was to Zlatko Crnković's excellent translations that seemed to find the shared Slavic heritage for every word translated, that had me weeping over the resounding beauty of my own language reflecting in Dostojevsky, I could not imagine ever reading Russians through English. Instead, I decided, I would read all those Anglophones in original.
That night, I remembered my first visit to England, and the acute feeling I had then that the entire world is mistaken: that there is nothing that this country has given to the world of much consequence. Unwrapping the bundle we call world heritage, and excluding Shakespeare (who successfully presented some pertinent themes of his time in form that's still universally used), what art has been given to us by the Angles? Turner, yes, I thought. Some excellent literary modernism. But the rest, it seemed to me, was a bundle of affectation and cliché, or hobbyistic; short stops between more significant epochs and movements; Edgar Allan Poe between Goethe and Baudelaire. Detective novels! Landscape painting! Witty dialogue! That Oscar Wilde, really, is a writer of fairy tales, that Jane Austen's oeuvre was chick lit before its time (chick lit itself being a quintessentially Anglophone genre), and let's not forget the time I forced myself through Lady Chatterley's Lover (granted, in an atrocious translation, but one straight out of its time) and came out dismayed at the very thought of having to have sex ever again. D. H. Lawrence being a sort of pre-Raphaelite with a differing agenda. The easy moralism of Dickens, the emotional dishonesty of Wilde, the preponderance of quick wit, of nice turn of phrase, at the expense of genuine, you know, attempt to grasp meaning, to tell a truth. And all this, I thought, would not be such a huge issue – because would Croatia fare better on the scales of universal dharma?, no – were it not for the arrogance with which the English dismissed the entire non-Anglophone world, opting instead for the endless placid self-referentiality, which infuriated me while I was there. Why, I was thinking all night, have I been trying at all? I could have been reading Gogol, I could have been reading Stendhal, I could have been reading Balzac, Hamsun, Goethe, Chekhov and Chinese contemporary literature. I could have been re-reading Tolstoy, good grief, or some other of the Russian giants. Sonata reminded me of how much we owe to these writers, people one doesn't read simply to be able to use a nice phrase later, in conversation, during dinner parties; people one reads in order to understand life. In order to become a better human being.
I was very angry that night. I was, in my mind, denouncing table manners, smart tailoring, proper essay format, punctual clocks, and everything else I could somehow relate to the stale, polite Englishness that barred this/that civilisation from engaging in pursuit of truth and beauty with the brio of one Lev Tolstoy, or Ludwig van Beethoven.
And by now, dear reader, you may be predicting the problems encountered when two days later I witnessed A Large Attendance in the Antechamber. Oh, it's quality theatre again! Oh, the timing is right, the lighting works, the amount of seating is well-judged, all the theatrical trends are spot-on – the form is played with, the characters rebel from the author, the set collapses at the end – and it is by no means boring. Sir Francis Galton is impersonated by Brian Lipson to full effect, in a little box that makes him look deliciously funny. But to what purpose? I walked out asking myself and everyone else: why did that show exist? What gave Lipson the urge to create it? What did it want from us?
The logic of Antechamber, narrative, emotional, was opaque. There was not necessarily any need for the audience to be present: it was structured as Lipson's fight with Galton, for Lipson to explore his own engagement with Galton. When it ended, it ended due to the logic of this battle, not necessarily because the audience reached a stopping point. I, as an audience member, did not feel I've come to the end of the paragraph. To me, it was all getting murkier and murkier, harder and harder to follow, until it collapsed. Do you argue with a giant such as Tolstoy in here? Maybe you should. Maybe the careful pushing of buttons that Sonata achieved, pushing us up the ladder of paranoia (this man will kill his wife), then distracting us with Beethoven, love, faith, meaning of life, so that finally death hits us from a completely unanticipated angle, maybe that's something that postmodern form-destroying theatre should be capable of. Or learn.
It felt undecided: there was a man giving an honest lecture of his ideas, but trapped in a tiny box, dressed in a ridiculous costume, a man turned into a farce. What do you do when a farce is on eugenics? What was the purpose of Antechamber? To make the audience squirm, for sure. To make us think, oh-this-Galton-fellow, he had uncomfortable ideas about eugenics. Was that such a great leap of intellect? Was it meant to be? Was I meant to be shocked? Was I expected to be holding the Victorian male in much higher esteem before entering Tower Theatre? Was I expected not to know that the nineteenth-century Englishman also invented the concentration camp, and think, instead, that it was a fine and venerable creature? Would an honest engagement with Galton, as I think, involve getting under the skin of an emotionally poor human being in an emotionally poor civilization, stripping it down, feeling the soft bits, letting it out? I think so; and I think there are artists who do that within the twentienth-century form: Brecht, Kane, Lally Katz. As a farce, instead, Antechamber was in an emotionally very slippery place: it was provoking a hearty laugh on these silly people who, haha, had in them the seed of everything rotten about the twentieth century. How funny. How quaintly problematic. Let's be witty about it.
The simple fact that it was, fundamentally, a show about Brian Lipson was problematic in its own right. That it wasn't a show about Sir Francis Galton, the ultimate man of Victorian England, was another. While Sonata was an honest theatrical engagement with a text that honestly explored, without holding back, the problem of existing as a nineteenth-century male, Antechamber was a mannerist non-grappling with the same non-grappling Victorian male, who preferred to make maps of pretty girls and drink bloody tea to engaging with another human being. If Galton was alive today he'd be renovating. He'd be train-spotting. Bush-walking. Having any of the myriad pointless hobbies, all of which seem to require inelegant clothing, that the Angles are so dedicated to, and that most other peoples have no need for, because they have healthy sex; talk to their neighbours; tell their partners they love them; drink their alcohol without a sense of guilt; and go out with their underage children late at night. (If poked only a little bit more, I'll break into a rant on anti-flirt clubs.)
Antechamber is still a show worth seeing, for the stagecraft, for the ideas, for the unexpected; and because going to theatre is a life-affirming act, while watching televised sport is not. It is by no means unintelligent, boring, or incapable of making one think lots of interesting thoughts later; but you do understand that I feel an obligation to include this paragraph, this ultimate act of thumbs-up, because the theatres in this country have performance schedules, and not repertoires?
on Kreutzer: Lola MacMillan's review at Australian Stage Online;
Alison's review at Theatre Notes;
Cameron's review in The Age;
Michael Magnusson's review at OnStage Melb;
some background info from the ever-wonderful Chris Boyd at The Morning After.