In Melbourne in 2006, Alison Croggon suspected she may not have liked Gareth Ellis's script of A View of Concrete half as much without Lauren Taylor's direction. In Sydney in 2008, I think she got it right. In Zagreb in 2005, I walked out of a derelict factory, seeing a nightmarish production of Family Stories, ready to call it one of the world's best plays. In Sydney in 2008, it is a curious experience to watch the same piece of writing deflated into a pancake. None of the two would have survived in the playtext marketplace had the Sydney productions been their first shot at glory. While the brilliance of the second play still saves the Ride On production, making it a pleasant night out, the decency of the Belvoir Downstairs staging doesn't camouflage the writing in the first as great, which its Malthouse premiere may just had done.
Apart from marketplace chance, the two plays don't quite intersect, but they do give each other a little bum rub on their way. Both, despite being totally genre-deviant, come astonishingly close to apocalyptic drama. More specifically, both are concerned with the disruption of self in a world turned upside-down.
The self exists in partnership either with God or a philosophy that denies or accommodates Him. It is no wonder that, after every period of upheaval, the search for a new self, and a new ordering principle, begins. The entire history of the twentieth-century art has been a pendulum of discarded hopes. The fascisms of the first post-war period, as the strategy of adjustment to previously unimaginable violence was to appropriate it as something vast, irrational, yet intrinsic to human nature. The self, in this case, found solace in the superhuman agglutinated mass speaking straight to the natural order, the mass as the image of a single man. The absurdisms of the second post-war, on the other hand, in Bodin's words, replaced the 'theatre of character' with a 'theatre of situation'.
Protagonists, who understood the zeitgeist, stepped back into the chorus. To be a victim became the identity of the day, and the term guilt was unheard of.
However defeatist I may sound – and I am wary of implying too strong a nihilism in Srbljanovic's work, as she is a well-known political activist – there is a strong backbone of this sentiment in both plays. “It is not so much that the self needs a God, but that it cannot stand alone,” continues Bodin. In the absence of an extrinsic unifying principle, the uncertain self will react by trying to restore unity. This can happen through the acceptance of the rupturing element, as in Futurism, or through idyllic autism, as in Miranda July, or through the cathartic extrapolation of the shaky self onto the entire world. Apocalypse.
The methods of doing away with solid ground are multiple: social catastrophes (in particular extensive warfare, mutations, linguistic degradation, or great changes of the mores), natural disasters (usually coupled with social change), drugs, ESP and other forms of mental fiddling (such as in Phillip K Dick's work), or destabilization of foundational truths (such as Behold the Man, in which Christianity turns out to be one deranged man's idée fixe). In each case, the protagonist is taking down the whole set and chorus with her. There is more to it, the micro-reasons of the popularity of apocalyptic stories. Now mostly categorized as a sub-genre of SF, apocalypse is, of course, a quintessential Christian genre. The Apocalypse was written at the end of the first century to console the early believers during a time of persecution; a fairly typical imagined punishment of the oppressor, transferred into the future, and into the hands of an external figure. There are still traces of this sentiment in the glee with which we watch disaster films. However, the explosion of apocalyptic SF in the twentieth century takes it to a whole other level. The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, not trivially, refers to it as the holocaust theme, speculating it may be the biggest sub-genre within SF, and charting its ascent from the end of WWI. Apocalypse or holocaust, it is a family quite different from dystopia, which presents fairly stable stages of degenerate societies, and is generally a critique of normative beliefs and ideals, taking them to their extreme, but logical end. Apocalypse is an image ordered by the logic of a distressed psyche. In other words, dystopia is political, while the apocalypse religious.
Neither of the two plays is a proper, cathartic apocalypse, although one wants to be, while the other looks it. A View of Concrete, by Gareth Ellis, written in Melbourne in the noughties, follows four characters as they drug themselves unconscious, their paranoias and manias escalate, and a fifth invisible character is conveniently killed at the point of climax, all on the backdrop of a world collapsing under environmental stress. The animals, we learn, are committing suicide, and there are ever fewer hours of daylight. However, while this play looks like it's playing by the book, a genuine apocalypse would require a genuine destabilising method. The environmental chaos isn't one, as it is only brought up in passing, as a kind of frill. Neither is there a true collapse of social order, described as your quite ordinary Saturday night in many a juvenile circle; if taking speed is meant to signal the end of the world, I live in the Middle East, not merely East Brunswick. And, most crucially, there has been no foundational truth shattered, because that would require introduction of abstract thought, which Australian dramatic writing has notorious problems with.
There is an opening, though, towards the end of the play, when Jacquie shouts into the sky (which is where God normally lives), and I very roughly paraphrase: How do you live when there are no certain truths? There we go. That's our answer. The grand tragedy behind A View of Concrete is postmodernity.
Immediately the entire play is revealed to be a very inadequately dressed-up today. While everyone, not just the occasional bemused passer-by to Neighbours, has long been aware that the documentation of suburban existence doesn't really provide thrilling stories, there are more elegant ways to solve this problem. There are ways to add drama more subtle than putting the end of the world outside the door. The four distressed characters are now recognisable as very ordinary locals, and their paranoias and manias quickly revealed as rather trivial preoccupations of suburban adolescents. The girl dieting to shrink into a fairy, thus, becomes an ordinary infantilised female, escaping from sexual and intellectual maturity into a dream world of fairies, eating disorders and childhood memories, like countless young Australian women. The root of this behaviour being linked more to the sheltered suburban upbringing, and a particular method of child-rearing (pin-pointed in a blinkably missable moment when she takes enormous offense at being patronised), than to the tough existence of a holocaust survivor, linking her mania to drug abuse or social chaos is absolutely senseless. The same is true for the other three characters: suburban cynicism of children who don't believe in reality because they never fell off a tree masquerades as the tough nihilism of a drug dealer; the crisis of domesticated masculinity, finding outlet in the paranoid surveillance of the foreign, male neighbour, and the feminist crisis of control gained at the expense of controlability, structured power in a world unstructuring itself, are both real and worth exploring, yet are very clumsily stretched to be now drugged psychosis, now apocalyptic despair, now sexual deviation, now outrage over dead animals…
I don't think this is spatio-temporal narcissism. I think it's the unwillingness, widely present in Australian writing, to get close to anything dark, uncomfortable, or evil. Suburban misery can stand on its own terms as long as the writer uses a sharp pencil, as A. M. Homes elegantly proves. The motivation for this end-of-the-world story is not to explore anything, but to add a bit of grit in what would otherwise be afternoon television.
Had this bucketful of small-minded problems been abandoned at the door, there would be no problem with A View of Concrete's style, which is that of soap opera. I always wanted someone to make a soap about a society completely alien to ours, with people endlessly plagued by small problems completely beyond our comprehension. But then it wouldn't be an apocalyptic story, but a dystopian soapie. As the play stands, without a single good thought, character development or narrative twist, just endless repetition of trivial intrigues, all we have is a linear murmur of quotidian behaviour, but taken excessively seriously.
Family Stories, on the other hand, is knee-deep in things dark, uncomfortable, and evil. Four children play house with dramatic endlessness, as the father tortures the family, the mother tortures the family, and the son or daughter usually kill them both. There are signs throughout the text placing the story in a particular spatio-temporal moment, Belgrade of the mid-1990s: references to political events, parroted newspeak, a particular kind of misogyny. On the other hand, Srbljanović isn’t doing realism, play-within-play: in the oft-quoted stage notes, adults need to play the children, with lines of dialogue that often jump register into complex adult thoughts, and appear, in each new game, with real scars from the previous death. All of the possible readings that Nataša Govedić, Croatian theatre critic, offers could be as valid: on the one hand, the game of house as infernal punishment, with children living through their crimes in infinite repetition, not unlike Tantalus; on the other, the dead adults channelling the trauma of their children, themselves infantilised as a self-protection from social responsibility. The play opens with Nadežda, the retarded child, playing in the sand pit, and closes with her confession/demonstration of killing her parents with an accidentally activated bomb. As she tells the story, she blows up the set and the children, suggesting that the whole play is told from her perspective, as expiation or biography. Her delirious monologue is one part apology, one part farewell note, and one part a “shattering inventory of children’s sins” (Govedić):
I won't ever again . . . sit at the table with dirty hands, dog-ear the pages of books, mix up the newspaper, shout slogans, ask for money, cry when I hurt myself, tear holes in my stockings, fall in love, spit out the soup, take money out of your wallet, scrape my knees, nibble on the marmalade, cheat in school, talk about politics, act sick when Papa belches, demand my inheritance, ask for help, want my own house, plan my future, wish for my own life, have my own opinions, seek progress, happiness, freedom, and peace, grow up, marry, and have children . . .
Family Stories is the mirror-image of in-yer-face theatre, particularly similar to Sarah Kane’s Cleansed for the way it interweaves domestic cruelty with external violence. However, while in-yer-face counted on numerous devices to destabilise parameters of realism, take God down, from extreme graphic violence to different apocalypse methods, in Srbljanović’s Serbia of the 1990s normality is an atavism the society barely remembers. There is no need to invent complicated catastrophes (they’re out there), are there is no need to potentiate the disruption of self (staying sane is already hard enough). The symmetry is real, though, the connection not merely invented. In-yer-face was born out of the guilty neurosis of Western Europe facing the global collapse of values – which resulted in wars in less stable points, such as ex-Yugoslavia – from the position of relative comfort.
Srbljanovic's play, in a sense, completely ignores volume to focus on the line. Not having to explain, to invent, or to justify the surrounding madness, she merely describes the effects. Instead of solid, tactile bodies of characters, plot, context, issues, all we have are the joints, the points of intersection, of friction. Like a short story that rushes through the immense on a couple of pages by illuminating the points of highest pressure, so Family Stories brings out the brittle, hard edges of a society. This is artifice at its most chiselled splendid (because the line is what art starts with, yet lines don't exist in real life). The transformation of the child mind that Family Stories paints is so extreme that it is near-abstract in contrast to normal life, and it can truly stand for things as abstract as hell.
For that reason, staging Family Stories with less geopolitical solidity may bring it closer to the Australian eye. Staging it as a Beckettian docudrama, which is what Ride On did in Griffin Theatre in Sydney recently, flattens the big questions into a simple shock (as reported from the program notes: “Wake up!”), and alienates the themes rather than bringing them closer. As long as we can see recognisable children on stage reacting to a set of events we do not fully recognise, in a foreign country with a name and language, our safe distance allows us to feel, primarily, compassion for the tortured children. And this is one of the themes, yes, childhood gone wrong. However, Nadežda’s closing repentance suggests that Family Stories is an exorcism of hatred towards one’s flawed parents. This is something immediately recognisable to Srbljanović’s domestic audience, living in a world where all families are unhappy the same way (as she said in an interview, we are a generation “that cannot set their parents on fire, but cannot live with them either”), but perhaps a more complicated thing for an Australian audience to grasp, already working through a barrage of confusing signs.
Instead, the simple naturalism of RideOn’s production turns it into an apocalyptic story, with somewhat unfortunate consequences. It is certainly a more successful apocalypse than A View of Concrete, however reluctantly: the self is genuinely transformed. But the non-identification (fortunately tempered by adult cast) appears to shift the Australian reaction towards compassion and pity, not unlike that type of near-pornographic child-abuse fiction that seems to blossom these days (as exemplified by Kevin Jackson’s review). Apocalyptic fiction, of course, is pornographic by default: but there is a difference between the religious pornography of the exploration of the self, and the smug imaginative violence over another being. Just like the early Christians were inflicting eternal suffering on their Roman prosecutors by reading The Apocalypse, Sydneysiders could punish little children in Belgrade.
More curiously, it also becomes an unsettling, Beckettian parody of children’s television, a dark side of normative family happiness as the mass media would want. But the universal darkness of Srbljanović’s text is compacted, tamed. The abstract, again, is lost.
Is there a conclusion? A View of Concrete is not that great, and Family Stories not that bad. Both are done a disservice by being staged as relatively straight theatre, because the delivery changes ever so slightly the message. What the latter loses in profundity, the former doesn’t gain in credibility. It is not a failure of craft, not unless we’re viewing direction as something smarter than pottery. Just a failure of Sydney independent theatre to make magic. Which may be read as a religious complaint on my side, but then, where would theatre be without religion?
A View of Concrete. MPower Youth Productions. Written by Gareth Ellis. Directed by Laura Scrivano. With Andrew Bibby, Katie Fitchett, Alexandria Steffensen and Damian Walshe-Howling. Belvoir St Theatre Downstairs, Sydney. 5-23 November 2008.
Family Stories: Belgrade. A Ride On Theatre and Griffin Stablemates production. Written by Biljana Srbljanović. Translated by Bojana Novaković. Directors Robert Kennedy and Bojana Novaković. Producers Esti Regos, Joanna Fishman & Bojana Novaković. With Richard Gyoerffy, Tanya Goldberg, Brendan May & Phaedra Nicolaidis. Design Simone Romaniuk. Lighting Verity Hampson. Sound Design Max Lyandvert. Griffin Theatre, Sydney. 18 October – 8 November 2008.