Tag Archives: Benedict Andrews

QUERY: what kinds of theatre experiences have you had?

Andrew Haydon’s last post, on what may be Nicholas Hytner’s ultimate right-wing play, has made me think about the kinds of experience one can viably have in the theatre (or outside the theatre, geographically speaking, but in a performance). This because Haydon’s post is concerned, on the outer edges, with the dangers of enjoying a play that has no moral core, or one that is dubious at best.

It’s that old Brechtian problem, on the one hand – followed through by the phalanx of post-Brechtians, who more often than not misunderstood Brecht’s original query. How does one make political theatre (which is to say, theatre that makes people do things)? Or, what happens with our social conscience once we’re in there, and what once we’re out? And what about the unintended results? What if the moral of the story grates against the audience’s sensibility? What if it insults them with simplicity, or offends with a controversial surface hiding a complexity?

These questions are as old as art itself – Aristotle is already asking and answering them. But theatre has been changing recently, moving into another kind of audience experience, and the question of effect is coming up again, with new material to work with.

I started off, fresh from reading about Castellucci’s Dante trilogy and Jan Fabre, by trying to taxonomize, in the simplest terms, the kinds of effect that theatre can have on me.

1) There is, of course, the simple enjoyment of a text – which to me is by far the simplest of them all. It’s the pleasure of being read to, in many ways, the pleasure of radio and of listening to certain kinds of pop/folk/rock music. A lull punctuated with moments of strong empathy (or humour, or aesthetic enjoyment of a well-made phrase). This is a very common effect of much theatre that strives towards literary qualities: this is how I experience a great deal of Beckett (especially late, wordy) this way, but also most monologues, Anita Hegh’s Yellow Wallpaper, performances by Humphrey Bower, the garden-variety radio play, or Abbey Theatre’s beautiful Terminus. (Not all wordy plays work their magic successfully, of course: these are the shiny examples.)

What bothers me here is that, first, the ‘being read to’ aspect of this enjoyment is fairly serious – I often find myself in a state of light hypnosis, and the soporific effect means that afterwards I often can’t tell whether I thoroughly enjoyed the experience or was bored to sleep (indeed, as much as I enjoyed Terminus I can no longer recall the first thing about it). The second problem is that, although so much theatre seems to have this outcome in mind, it is in no way specific to theatre and, were it its only raison d’etre, we would have discarded the form long ago. The third is that there is no moral aspect to it: it is a sensuous pleasure, as tactile as having a bath. Yellow Wallpaper may have had a feminist point of some sort – but all I remember is the pleasure of listening to Anita Hegh crone herself into madness.

2) Perhaps now is the time to do away with those audience experiences I think of as unsuccessful.
2a) is the technical, critical experience of someone who either makes or judges a lot of the same, who looks at the execution, the skill, whether any new ideas are brought in, whether they are developed well, what the shortcomings are, where the dramaturgy could be tightened, what useful solutions could be appropriated. This is a thankless and joyless way of experiencing a work of art, and the reason why so many artists hate theatre, music producers cannot listen to music recreationally, and literary editors watch sit-coms in their spare time.

2b) on the other hand would be the detached experience of a narrative artefact, which I relate to drawing-room plays (particularly the ‘relevant’, ‘current’ and British kind). I am pretty sure these days, particularly in Anglophone countries, students are taught in school to read literature this way, and it scares me shitless. It means watching a play with the kind of focus one usually applies to reading a newspaper: the story narrated represents, in a condensed form, some kind of real occurrence (therefore can be more or less accurate), the journalist can bring in a more of less pronounced bias (which can therefore be detected as either broadly liberal or conservative – for those are the options available to journalists), and the article is phrased in such a way as to offer a conclusion, a moral or a solution to the problem (which can be translated into this or that effect in the real world, with which we can agree or disagree, based on our own personal ethics). Finally, depending on the prominence of the article (where in the paper, what paper), the article can have an effect on the public opinion (which can therefore be assessed as beneficial or dangerous for the society).

The problem with this reading is, simply, that art is not journalism, and that the criteria of accuracy, bias or political effect do not apply. Or, they do to the extent to which any theatrical work also has an informational role in our lives. But this approach forgets every other reason why we experience art: fun, pleasure, catharsis, hearing stories, and turns it all into sheer learning. So what happens with a sci-fi or fantasy story, or a musical with only the faintest relationship to reality? It must become a guilty pleasure, I suppose. Which may be the other side of the 2b) coin.

3)Theatre as the movies (or dinner & theatre). The lower-brow form of the above, and about as common, depending on a cinematic theatre production (for example, an upbeat four-hander involving one adultery, one misplaced diamond necklace, one murder and a number of witty remarks); the default form of enjoyment aimed at by Brecht’s kitchen theatre and everything serious people don’t like. Also: musicals and most stand-up comedy. For two or so hours we are thoroughly diverted from our lives, distracted from being aware of our relationships, our shortcomings and limitations, our bodies. An exercise in transcendence common to all good stories. When it’s over, it is over – the only way to recreate the experience is to find another, equally good story. The same won’t do. Except in the case of circus, in which the adrenaline rushes back and forth just the same each time.

4)Then there is that form of high empathy, ending in shall-we-say catharsis (but it doesn’t need to: Brechtian theatre has managed to wrestle the audience without it). It happens with cinema as well, but not as strongly – so much so, that I wonder if it doesn’t deserve a separate category. This is one of the strongest emotions art can provoke, very specific to theatre as an artform, and certainly one of biggest reasons why I go to the theatre. It’s quite distinct from just any empathy with just any human story, in which (as Salinger and Kundera have both noted) one is crying in the stalls deeply moved by being deeply moved by such a deeply moving human story, and therefore assured of their own depth and sensibility (all the better if the weeper can personally relate). It is that intense, heavy and complicated tangle of emotions which can be perceived as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, but are mainly just complicated. I have found Brecht-informed theatre to be particularly good at producing this effect: Brecht’s own Mother Courage, Kantor’s last production of Happy Days, Andrews’s War of the Roses or Sasha Waltz’s Medea have all had that effect on me. I suspect it’s what Alison Croggon referred to as ‘grief’ in regards to Barrie Kosky’s Women of Troy. In cinema, Lars von Trier achieves the same effect (and von Trier owes a lot to Brecht). Quite apart from our usual misunderstanding of Brecht as cold and unemotional, I would say that he was among the first to understand the theatrical power of pushing the audience through a quick succession of highly diverging emotional states, until a moral and affective disorientation of sorts if achieved: very rich and language-less at the same time.

It is the point where theatre most closely resembles ritual. It is collective, for one thing: the sheer emotional assault on each spectator means that your individuality cannot be contained, your sense of self capitulates and spread over the surrounding seats. The other thing is that it cannot be verbalised easily. It often results in rapturous applause, and yet audience members cannot talk about it later. It makes one think, though. Its effect lags – like one of those very deeply affecting dreams. It is possibly the strongest effect that ‘traditional’ theatre can have, but I have also found it in Tanztheater, and in a lot of postdramatic theatre. I also suppose this effect can be to some extent induced, as in horror films and theatre, or by incorporating obscene or abject elements.

5)Theatre as text. Postmodern theatre, highly referential, can consciously work to create that detachment that critics and practitioners often feel. The smarter such theatre is, the more pleasure an audience member can get from reading it as a series of references to other works, other concepts, to ideas. It provokes an intellectual, rather than emotional engagement. Performance essays, conceptual dance, and anything with a stronger formalistic bent can work this way. Rather than gushing with feeling, in these works one reads the stage like a visual essay, and one leaves feeling smarter, fuller, more conscious of the world. Works that strive for this effect can let signs be signs – such as in Wooster Group or Elevator Repair Service, in which a cup of coffee is primarily ‘a cup of coffee’. Like any pomo art, it depends enormously on the general education of each audience member – some Castellucci works, for example, are nearly meaningless without the right frame of reference.

6)Games or experience. There is a transformative quality to a lot of contemporary performance that is based around the audience: not merely interactive, but working on the audience. The stage itself can be completely empty, the effect entirely performed on the audience’s bodies. Bettybooke’s brilliant en route and numerous other audio tours, site-specific this or that, durational theatre, being blindfolded, having a one-on-one performance in a hotel room, children’s theatre, and even works of Jerome Bel, a wide gamut of contemporary theatre seems particularly interested in being an experience, the way climbing up the Eiffel Tower or bungee-jumping, a walking tour of Melbourne or a gig is an experience. Much children’s theatre is so too. And whatever insights you are supposed to glean through the experience (about yourself, about the world, whether you’re meant to come to terms with your prejudices or feel liberated, lengthen your attention span or genuinely experience boredom, or just play – as in Panther’s Playground), the constellation of signs, or the depth of your emotions is secondary to the experience of having had an experience – it is the only kind of theatre that can lay a legitimate claim to changing its audience. It seems to me unwise to even differentiate between a 15-minute thing in a booth or an 8-hour durational event: what happens in both situations is that, unlike in the ones above, one is made acutely aware of oneself – your body, your voice, your entire life – and of the situation one is in – the theatre, the seats, the building, the city. At its best, the effect is deeply empowering and somehow wisening. I have sat through 3-hour explorations of boredom which resulted in an almost religious ectasy. I have climbed laneway walls in Melbourne wearing headphones, feeling that the entire city was mine. I have done and said things with complete strangers that felt absolutely natural – and yet, of course, my entire life was transformed by doing so.

Is there anything that I’m missing? Even excluding all those half-experiences, in which nothing satisfactory happens, is there anything missing from this list? I have excluded happenings, for example, because I’m not entirely sure whether there was a political aspect to them that would separate them from being just an ‘experience’. I haven’t overtly included visual theatre in any category, because I’m not sure there is a particular kind of experience associated with it. I suspect there is a lull of imagery as well.

I am interested in this because we so often seem to discuss the moral, emotional etc effects of theatre (or any art, for that matter), yet it seems to me we have not fully figured out how theatre (or any art) actually affects us. In particular, some of you may know that I’m very interested in pornography. Well, pornography is often subject to ludicrous statements on its effect on people all the time, and often equally ludicrous defences (I happen to think pornography is experiential, rather than semiotic or a work of non-fiction). I first ran into this knowledge gap when trying to define the experience of consuming pornographic artefacts, which I thought was much less reflexive, or self-reflexive, than literature would have it, and much more interesting.

It also crops up in political theatre, for example. What does it mean for theatre to be political? Is it supposed to rally the masses, or just toe the liberal party line? What is a right-wing play? When should the masses rally? At the opening night, or three years later? Is Doll’s House a political play? And then obscenity. What is offensive in theatre? How does it offend? Who does it offend?

The other is that the same theatrical work can be a complete success or a failure, depending on what interpretive frame we’re applying. A 7-hour performance installation can have zero semiotic content and wasteful dramaturgy, provoke no emotion, and yet be a magnificent experience. One man’s unengaging play can be another’s brilliant essay into the techniques of staging. There are ways of seeing, I’m sure, that need to be learned before we can properly understand certain works.

I am hoping to get a few additions to my categories. So this is an open call. Your help would be most appreciated.

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RW: The City

There was every reason to believe that the STC production of Martin Crimp’s The City would be one of the events of the year. Crimp is one of the best currently active English-language dramatists, whose collaboration with director Katie Mitchell has seen his reputation steadily grow over the past 10 or so years. His writing is sharp, chiselled, musical and nuanced both emotionally and linguistically: Crimp is a trained musician and a French translator, and has a fantastic ear for phrase. In the tradition of Beckett and Pinter, his is dramaturgy of undefined anxiety, wrong emotions on stage (while the right ones are always round the corner), of language as a clutter of knives, rather than a bridge between souls.

War of the Roses at the Sydney Festival in January, the paramount theatrical event of 2009, sparked extraordinary interest in Benedict Andrews’s work. A director dividing his time between STC and the Berlin Schaubühne, Andrews seems to be able to translate the Germanic theatrical tradition (intellectual, formally explosive and rigorously political) into a form that fits organically into the contemporary Australian theatre: formalist but simple, stern but light, unsentimental but beautiful. Andrews’s work brings fresh air, but never looks out of context. Having directed Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life for the STC in 2001, and a number of playwrights of similar mind, from Ionesco to Mayenburg, Andrews seemed the most exciting choice of director to tackle The City, Crimp’s companion piece to The Country (presented by Red Stitch in Melbourne in 2005), which premiered at the Royal Court only last year.

Colin Moody, Belinda McClory in Sydney Theatre Company’s The City by Martin Crimp.
Photographer: Emma Furno

In a tense marital conversation, Clair (Belinda McClory) tells Chris (Colin Moody) about her chance meeting with Mohamed, a famous writer, whose daughter wore pink jeans and was taken away by the nurse. Chris, in response, tells her of his working day, his swipe card not working, possible lay-offs, the terrible Janette who will swindle her way up the corporate ladder. In the following scene, Jenny (Anita Hegh), a nurse, comes in to ask if their children could not play in Clair and Chris’s garden. She is their neighbour, her husband a war doctor somewhere far away, she cannot sleep from the noise. This is old Crimp territory: threatening subtext, unresolved bubbles of anxiety, wars locked outside our private garden. From one short scene to another, the stories start to loop and weave and bleed into one another: Chris’s high-school colleague has become a supermarket employee, working in the butcher’s section. Two scenes later, Chris, now laid off from work, arrives dressed in a white deli outfit. Symbolically important gifts make circles around the room. The dialogue and dramaturgy fail to solidify the characters into singular beings.

Andrews’s production is set on the happiest and the rarest of all stages, a longitudinal one, on which a wide black staircase, like a stadium, or the mirror of the audience space, has the characters climbing, walking, balancing on the edge, uncomfortably close to the spectators. The mise-en-scene is deliberately vague, sharply, self-consciously imprecise, yet the skill is always on show. Entire grand pianos appear and disappear, while the actors talk to each other from the sides of the black staircase, only their heads showing. Clair gets upset when Chris draws back from her, unconsciously, during a conversation; yet Colin Moody the actor has done no such thing. Ramin Gray’s fine production of The Ugly One, which succeeded The City at the Royal Court Downstairs, was built out of such meticulous avoidance of representation: his actors ate, drank, and played multiple characters without ever doing so. Here it is, a moment where Andrews introduces a small crumb of a continental theatre trend, or a pose, into the Australian theatre with great subtlety, almost as if setting a scene for his future work. (It is a gesture that ambitious artists in small cultures often resort to: trying to build modernity into the history of Yugoslav drama, Krleza’s Glembay cycle wrote an entire chapter of excellent late 19th-century drawing-room realism in an interlude between his expressionist plays: the former had to seep into the cultural subconscious before the latter could use them as productive compost. Indeed, only with Brezovec’s work since 2001 has Krleza’s expressionism been successfully staged.)


However, if the production doesn’t lack focus, it lacks breadth. The strength of The City, in the true Pinter fashion, hinges on creating a sense of oneiric, all-encompassing menace, in which the anxieties of marriage and parenthood conflate with the horrors of faraway wars. I have written previously on the way this anxiety played itself out in the in-yer-face theatre of Sarah Kane et alia, using Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life as a pretext: a decade later, our anxiety grown stronger and firmer, The City shares many of its most incisive traits with Michael Haneke’s Caché. The careful architecture of The City encompasses the psychological terrors of the domestic and the neighbourly, the political terrors of the wide world, and the foggy terrors of a writer’s imagination. Unfortunately, Andrews’s mise-en-scene strengthens the formalist, self-aware aspects of Crimp’s text at the expense of the framing realism. It detracts, not from its intelligence, but from its emotional impact. The result looks, somewhat unfortunately, more like a performance essay than a rounded theatrical production. That the titular city is the imaginary world of the writer’s imagination does not come as quite the frightening surprise, and when Belinda McClory says so, this explanation irons out the inconsistencies in the narrative far more than it ought to. Failing to give an emotional skeleton to the piece, Crimp’s text ends up looking like a poor man’s Pirandello. Well put together, but somewhat hollow.

Stories of writers’ inner worlds seem to be a thing de jour, if one is to judge from the proximity of this production to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. As a fellow writer, well-acquainted with the phenomenon of characters falling out of cupboards, of being distinct but structurally inconsistent creatures, of changing gender and character like a costume, I don’t think the stuff is necessarily as exciting as these writers seem to think it is. Certainly, invented people have their own fragile, amorphous but powerful existence. They steal traits from your best friends and sometimes looks uncomfortably like yourself. But on its own, this cross-dressing game can only hold so much interest. We all invent people as we go: my stepdad’s wife is not the same person as my mother; my ex-boyfriend’s former girlfriend is not me. Without real situations to frame this fragility of interpretation, all that remains is a threadbare, rather ornery hall of mirrors. Enough for an essay, indeed. Not enough for a work of art.

I should close by adding that I am being a wilful nitpick. The City is a quality production of a quality play. However, Andrews lets down both his own strengths and Crimp’s complexity in a production more faithful to a single idea that the playtext, perhaps, wants to be. While excellent in many aspects, it is not unmissable the way many of us had hoped it would be.

The City. By Martin Crimp. Director: Benedict Andrews. Set Designer: Ralph Myers. Costume Designer: Fiona Crombie. Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper. Cast: Anita Hegh, Belinda McClory, Colin Moody. Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay. 29 June – 9 August 2009.

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