presented by the New Theatre, August 2014
There’s a lot going on in Hilary Bell’s deceptively simple Bedtime Mystery, not least of which the gripping plotline, but more importantly the questions the play brings to the fore about human behaviour. None of these are answered satisfactorily (if that’s your thing), or if an answer is attempted, it raises further problems.
The deepest questions touch on the vexed issues surrounding depression; with the potency of the “wolf” motif throughout looming just out of reach, just a stone’s throw from the more familiar image of the Black Dog found in the discourse du jour. For those who may have family, friends or who suffer from it themselves might find these kinds of symbols useful. In my case they are inadequate, only a partial representation of the “swallowing” effect a foul mood can have. For in the end, one is solely responsible for their thoughts and feelings, and especially the actions which may follow. The poetic image of the outside Wolf or Dog as a manifestation of the darkness we feel denies our own culpability and ability to control our choices. But that’s just me.
It may be that Bell is pointing to the deficiencies of questions surrounding ‘intrinsic evil’ (to borrow a phrase from the Currency House blurb), by framing it in an almost supernatural tone: were perpetrators of heinous crimes “swallowed” or possessed by otherwise inexplicable darkness would this exempt them? Or does this merely exempt us as a society from a tacit complicity in criminal behaviour?
This is the microcosm that the play presents, and the blame shifting that occurs surrounding the family and events of the play echo all manner of sophistry we might hear in the public discourse surrounding violent crime. The play is set in Tasmania and writ around the time of the horror of the Port Arthur shootings in 1996. It was said ad nauseum that was the day “Tasmania lost its innocence” (with the usual hand wringing speculation on the murderer Martin Bryant as “monstrous”). To set the record straight, this was far from the first of violent crimes committed in the area, it’s what we don’t talk about which is most revealing about the denial of our collective social conscience. I refer to the massacre the Tasmanian Aboriginal people and theft of their land by what amounted to the governing power in the day.
We as a nation are in the process of reconciling these crimes and I mention it in the context of this play because it relates directly to the notion of taking responsibility for our past actions. We may have committed them in the shroud of colonialism, a kind of formative cultural innocence – but we cannot deny them forever.
This production is aided enormously by the performances, and we will break tradition by examining the cast in some detail. The work they do is a significant element in the impact of the play, both drawing us in and repelling us to complement the script.
If you haven’t seen or read the play, plot spoilers may follow. It is at its heart, a mystery, so I recommend seeing it for the greatest impact.
At the centre of the piece is a nine year old child Lizzie Gael played by Maryellen George. Her portrayal is a conundrum, nearly pure innocence with flickers of childlike mischief belying the horror of what she is accused. When she refers to the “wolf” – it is a truthful fear of being swallowed up. More horrifying is that no-one wants to listen. This contradiction of guilt and naivety is a very nuanced performance that betrays the surface of childish simplicity.
The surrounding adults give almost no indication of a response to these cries for help. They will see her in the simplicity of appearances and facts. The eponymous wolf of her imagination is nothing to be taken seriously, instead they lurk and linger around the edges of what for Lizzie is the explanation they so desperately seek. The exasperation builds from the parents in the face of their daughter’s litany of explanatory secrets and lies. Lucy Miller and David Woodland give a truthful and moving account of this mounting tension and frustration and guilt shifting and eventual estrangement as they consistently fail to find an answer. Only in the final moments do we get a sense that the Wolf is real, with the darkness now consuming the parent as it did the child.
Peter McAllum brings his mellifluous vocal skill to the role of the Police Detective undertaking the thankless task of assessing the young girl’s guilt or innocence. The tensions in his characterisation – manifested from the early scenes where he’s almost bullying Lizzie inside a gaol cell, to their final scene where he’s far more soothing and gentle toward her, having taken an adoptive parental role (if not in officially, at least symbolically on behalf of the state) – capture much of what the play is asking us.
I don’t think there’s much value in the question most of this play’s commentariat seem to be drawn to about “inherent evil” and such. Reading the various responses and even promotional material surrounding the play it’s a recurring theme. Maybe there is such a thing, and maybe there isn’t. The debate will go on for years to come as it has for millenia past. More pressing, as raised by the rather frightening picture of the girl Lizzie taken away from her parents, and condemned to a life of confinement and misery – if an otherwise innocent child commits a crime – what can we do about it? Our systems of justice and rehabilitation in this context seem woefully inadequate.
This play is a dark path, but one worth exploration. Powerful performances highlight a difficult, compelling script and the play is as good as its reputation precedes.
Wolf Lullaby, By Hilary Bell, featuring Maryellen George, Peter McAllum, Lucy Miller, David Woodland. Directed by Emma Louise. Playing at the New Theatre until September 13th 2014.
Saturday June 14, 2014
I was privileged enough to duck across to the Seymour Centre for something of a unique gathering of playwrights – there have been a few similar gatherings over recent months and years but this was unique in the loose formality of the structure of the event, such that it enabled a much wider scope and was driven towards empowering the playwright voice.
To elaborate: separating this and previous gatherings is that non-playwrights were discouraged from attending. That is to say – certain industry folks who may have liked to come were asked not to prior to registration. I found this confusing at first but I retrospect it might have hampered the flow of discussion had known producers been present.
I say ‘might have’ – there is no way of knowing but this was very much about enabling the lowly playwright to have a proper chat, and regardless of their intention, someone with a position of programming power (or veto) might alter the course of discussion simply by being present. In any case the outcomes of the three-hour session should be published in some form down the track, so it’s not as though we were plotting a world takeover or anything like that. Much.
Another major difference was in the format. Rather than the set-piece of “established” industry writers helming a panel-style discussion (like every other writers’ event, everywhere), we were given the opportunity to set the agenda on the topics we each thought were important. A list of twenty or thirty sessions were compiled based on suggestions by the group, and those who found that topic interesting could split off into sub-groups for set half-hour chin-wags, or come and go between conversations as we pleased. It was a bit rough-and-ready but on the whole allowed for more robust and inclusive debates.
The sessions I attended included one about theatre-for-social-change (in fact I was able to host this one); followed by a dense chat about how we can engage in a constructive debate about craft and the hottest subject of the day by far – writing what we “don’t know”. Hopefully more comprehensive notes will be available but for the purposes of reportage – here’s the gist.
The Big Question for writers in 2014 seems to revolve around issues of cultural appropriation: when is it OK to write about cultures outside our own experience? How can we do this in an era so tangibly fraught with racial tension, systemic abuse of white-privilege and in some cases wholesale war-on-other? Particularly contentious is the question of Aboriginality. What can a non-Aboriginal writer do in terms of representing the Aboriginal experience in their work?
I don’t have all the answers but what I have been able to do is listen in to a lot of conversations about the nature of exclusion and vilification in Australia 2014.
I will say this. Aboriginal Reconciliation is not an abstract idea. It’s an ongoing process, and every day we must work at it in some fashion. As artists and theatre makers the onus is on us to bring it to the rest of the community through our work. Let me be clear: the process of Reconciliation is not a means-to-an-end, it is the end in itself. So rather than worrying about whether what we’re doing is right or best just know that we can’t do nothing. If we make mistakes (and we will) we must learn from them. That too is part of the process. And most of all – without putting too fine a point on it, whatever it is we do – just don’t be a dick about it.
With that in mind there are a few tips I have managed to pick up about the vexing issue of writing the “other”. Please be assured, I use the word advisedly…
Don’t let your character’s “otherness” be their defining characteristic. There is no singular experience of being Muslim any more than there is of being White. Think of your own life, would you like someone to define you by any one of these characteristics? “Oh he’s the mentally-ill writer.” It’s debasing, not to mention clunky and clichéd.
Nakkiah Lui wrote a very good account of how this kind of thinking can actually enable the kind of racism we are trying to be rid of. I feature in the comments section with diminishing patience but the upshot is that by defining “otherness” through the specific lens of white-male-normative paradigms, we will perpetually stay in this false binary logic of “us-and-them”.
There is a paradox at play here. Which is of course that Aboriginal Cultures do have a very specific set of experiences, through millennia of shared knowledge, familial systems, the time and place in which they are born, not to mention the acute dispossession of land (et al) suffered over the last two hundred and twenty-eight years. This are not things you can sort of guess about. So do the research. Find out the protocols, talk to the people about what you’re trying to do, be prepared for the fact that you might have it completely wrong.
While Lui’s point remains – let’s not define her work by her inherited culture – at the same time it’s not something we can just forget. So make your character Aboriginal if you want, just don’t make it all they are.
I saw Jada Alberts’ play Brother’s Wreck at Belvoir recently which crystallised a lot of the debate for me – it’s a tremendous piece of writing and a really well-made work of theatre – the core truths of the play are universal, yes it’s about a specific time and place, and the family it surrounds are Aboriginal and this is evident by various references in the dialogue (“blackfellas” etc). But the difficulties it presents for the central character could be the same as any young bloke. There is an epidemic of young men in Australia facing an inability to deal with grief and anger and this is something to which we can all relate. Yes it’s a story about an issue particular to young Aboriginal men. Or men in remote areas, or working class families. I have a brother too, and thus it could be me.
As such it’s a moving work that captures a lot of humour and tragedy of Australian life, acknowledging without dwelling on the characters’ heritage and background. “It’s all about the suburb you’re from” … says one character, cheekily mocking the middle class origins of the bloke opposite. In this moment we are shown just two refractions of the diversity of the Aboriginal experience. I don’t want to say too much more for fear of spoiling some of the play. All I can really suggest is try and catch it before it’s over.
I will try and write up about some of the other sessions I was able to catch a bit later on.
WHY TORTURE IS WRONG AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM
presented by The New Theatre, June 2014
This 2009 post-modern farce by Christopher Durang features a highly sophisticated stupidity unique to the realpolitik of the U.S.A. – the venomous satire managing to out-do itself at every turn, ridiculing a world that already verges into calamitous absurdity. What more can be said to ridicule the kind of culture in which the purchase of aerosol cheese is a regular event? The play is beyond parody, veering between darker and darker shades of reality in all the colours of the nightmarish rainbow. Blood Red. Jaundice Yellow. Pustular Pink. Bourgeoisie Beige. Paranoid Purple.
The script is rife with zingers, clangers and WTFs. Admirably cast for deliciously over-the-top Yankee accents with soap-bubble portrayal of its slimy inhabitants delivering a mile-a-minute comedy with a lewd edge, shrewdly leading us down into the rabbit hole of bad-to-worse choices that seem to define the modern psyche of the U.S. Media cycle: Sex and Ammo, War On Terror, Axis of Evil Marching Band, Sarah Palin on Fox News. It’s worth noting the timeline of the play’s inception, post-Bush, post-Guantanamo, post-Abu Ghraib, the writer demonstrates a immeasurable disdain for the politics of patriotism and the rhetoric of war, acidly venting at the feverish media participation in the perpetual mythology of heroism.
Nothing is unscathed here, music, film and theatre jokes abound, slut-shaming, pornography, racial profiling, sexual violence, alcoholism all feature in Durang’s repartee. It’s not a play for the faint-of-heart, but rather one that rails in a delirious snarling bout of Theatrical Tourette’s. This production delivers with spades, folding in pop-culture motifs with the self-awareness of the script, like the TV-Studio set or casually visible vocal warm-ups between scenes suggesting a host of hidden ironies and inter-textual wit. You can spend hours unpacking all the subtle references and meta-gags at play, or just strap yourself in for a whirlwind tour of outrageous and kinky myth-busting.
Dangerous writing, almost certainly offensive, and wicked. If you like Homeland, you’ll never look at it the same way again.
WHY TORTURE IS WRONG AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM
by Christopher Durang
Directed by Melita Rowston, featuring Peter Astridge, Romy Bartz, Ryan Gibson, Terry Karabelas, Alice Livingstone, Ainslie McGlynn and Annie Schofield
Playing at the New Theatre until June 28,
Caveat: this is not a response to Jana Perković’s recent essay published at AustralianPlays.org, rather a post I have been thinking on and drafting for some weeks, now revised to incorporate some of the arguments presented there as they will parallel, contradict and crossover my own.
So here’s the thing.
Playwriting has a serious branding problem in this country.
Let us be clear. Within the performing arts world – nothing could be further from the truth. Outside the immediate community? Not-so-much. Talk to a non-theatregoing punter at the cafe or local gym and when you say “I’m a playwright” watch their eyes glaze over. Drop in at a Writers Festival, and check the percentage of theatre based events in the programme.
Not many, if any.
Even our very own National Playwrights’ Conference has shrivelled down to just a “Festival” of just a few days. Fifteen years ago when I attended it was a full two-week run of readings, workshops and forums, late-night talkfests and croaky morning coffees. There was an actual intensive Studio where any aspiring writer could pay a reasonable fee and spend a week refining their craft. There was even a talent show (I did “The Lorax” with no rehearsal in front of Australia’s finest directors and never worked again).
These days we turn up and by the time we’ve had a chance to introduce ourselves the thing is almost over. Everyone politely says their goodbyes and trundles off home in time for Masterchef. Whatever the outcomes, next week’s event will pale in comparison to the seeded friendships, passionate debates and drunken midnight passes made at playwright festivals of old. The culture surrounding these events is somehow more corporate, cleaner, dare I say afraid-to-get-its-hands-dirty.
Even the grungy hipster cousins to the mainstream events are leaning into a kind of industry-savvy paradigm. The same people on the same panels, modelled off a tried and true format of topical discussion, where a group of “experts” talk around the same subjects for an audience who are there to listen, and ask questions, not contribute. Top-down leadership, just like we were taught in school. Rinse, repeat.
Programming these events has become like a rote system, where anything unpredictable or out-of-the-box will be sidelined as too-hard-basket. Shunted to the graveyard slot, or worse, ignored in favour of a more popularly-cultured audience sensibility. Comedy Debates, Dating Shows and Spelling Bees at festivals devoted to Emerging Writers. So long as those emergent are in the audience, not on show…
The trend to pad out our festivals with high-profile-names belies the belief that we have what it takes to lead our theatres into a new era. It says deep down, despite the hundreds of writers and new works cropping up around the country, we need to be reassured by the lucky industry few that we’re doing OK, to pat our hands and say “you can do it”. These fawning invitations to speak on expenses-paid panels expose a nerve of inadequacy that is perhaps self-fulfilling. By defining our successes on the terms of those ahead of us we admit defeat to the status quo. For there is no success in the shadows of expectation.
Which brings me back to Branding, and That Article
The points raised by Ms Perković in this essay are many and varied, with each worthy of its own detailed response. I just want to allude to a few in the context of where I see the problem for our writers. I agree with some, am sceptical of others, and dispute the remainder – but on the whole, am glad to be provoked by her thesis. There is a lot more to it than this of course and I hope to return to the subject soon.
The first and most difficult premise is, as Perković states in section 5:
“Australian theatre is Western theatre and the dramatic text at its heart is a highly specific form, a product of socio-historical forces. “
Leaving aside the obvious rebuke about the Euro-centricity of this statement for one moment, it’s worth teasing out some implications here.
Theatre is not a language of words, it is a language of conventions; that knowingly or otherwise the vast majority of Australian playwriting falls within an historical discourse of creative form but in particular the industrial infrastructure which surrounds how and where we meet with an audience. For example the convention of the Apocalypse, met with such disdain, is a part of a chain of theatrical tropes that date back to Oedipus Rex or the pestilent City of Argos, through to Beckett’s scorched landscapes or the claustrophobic bunker of After The Fall. You will need to know all of these forms intimately before tackling that particular setting in your work. It’s why the example resonates, more often than not you’re writing in the convention of cliché.
This being said, Western Theatre is everything from Aeschylus to Albee – you could spend twenty years reading and not be fully informed on tens of thousands of variations in between. What Perkovic refers to are the dominant Western conventions, namely the tragic principles of the Ancient Greeks, the high farce of Moliere / Wilde, the realism of Ibsen / Chekhov, the return to the epic didacticism of Brecht and the loosely bunched absurdist experiments of Beckett / Kopit (et al). Not to mention Shakespeare.
These are layered conventions, each experiment driving the next. You need to understand the principles of Greek Tragedy before you can tackle Godot, and so on.
But more importantly, socio-historic forces are happening right now. Lest we forget there are active movements within Australia to re-shape the way we define ourselves, through Reconciliation, through acknowledgement of diversity and a broad shake-up of systems of democratisation, social justice and law-making. Cultural influence is not static, and neither are our systems of expression. For Australian Playwrights to sit and take-instruction from our past is to deny the potential of our influence on the future.
This is what I mean about our fear of irrelevance, our reliance on established systems to ensure our place. It’s heavily conservative, a desperate cry for acknowledgement from our cultural forbears. One only need glance at a list of leadership roles at our major playwriting institutions – almost every one has made their career in a country other than our own. This is not parochialism, it’s a fact – and one that influences every detail of our industry from the false neo-realism Ms Perković laments to the top-heavy systems of management our MPA’s lurch from year-to-year. Conservative Programming, conservative plays.
As I stated at the top of the article, we have a branding problem in Australian playwriting. The audience thirst for rich, original entertainment has never been higher. We’re educated, media savvy and cashed-up. But the public conversation about theatre says nothing about what audiences can expect. Look at the publicity on any current play - it will talk about what the writer is trying to explore or achieve, the actor’s names, maybe something about the director, it’s all inwardly focussed and frankly, audiences don’t give a shit. They want to know what’s in it for them.
When I look at the marketing for our festivals it’s the same. How can we expect to attract audiences when we’re so insecure about our work we have to constantly push how fantastic we are?
I dunno. Seems a bit… desperate for attention?
If we want to have people take notice of our work we need to be ready for them to be offended. This means stop advertising ourselves as beautiful, and start owning it. Perković really hits the nail on this when she talks about the Australian identity being trapped in the polite, especially in bourgeois circles.
I’m not saying we need to be rude, but… be ready for anything.
more to say on this later.
see you at the Seymour next week…
SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION, May 2014
For those unfamiliar with Howard Barker’s work, it’s an unusual blend of narrative and image theatre into a stricture of social commentary and investigation. It’s not simply plotline-with-tidy-resolution to keep us in attendance until home-time. That is not the nature of his work. There is a story, and stakes are raised, and characters are tested – to be sure, but any ensemble presenting will be met with the severest of inclined text, each level providing steep challenges; layering complexity of language, subtlety in characterisation, clarity of metaphor, boldness of costume and design, fluidity of composition, philosophical reach, truth-seeking, wickedness in humour… The kinds of things one expects from a powerful night at the theatre.
On a technical level – these are the multiple competing texts found in theatre which make the form so compelling for artist and audience alike. A three-dimensional canvas of word, sound, voice, music, gesture and image to shift beneath such tectonic elements as plot, setting or character. The story is a cracker, but the challenge of the artistry is found in the underlying tensions in form, the convex mirrors enable its imagery to take on a kind of megalithic cultural significance. Objects may seem larger than they appear. A great play such as this is not merely a set of events, or a set of characters, or even a set of ideas; it is a blueprint for a visual and aural and verbal assault on the mind and soul of its audience.
To say “this is a good play” or “it is well done” is not enough. To say “I could have been better” is just shallow (disclaimer: one should announce when one auditioned for the play at hand, but was refused! Alas). Let us be clear – quibbling about issues of performance style, vocal technique or lighting design will be on the agenda for some, but amount to a selfish vindication of the critic’s role. We will not flatter the artist with a false praise either, but admire their ambition. There are difficulties in a play as complex as this. They can be overcome. The ensemble, on the night I saw the play, are still rising to the challenges of the language. It is a muscular script and demands slavish attention to enunciation, tone, rhythm, and detail. Nothing less will suffice or it will beat you down like a Greco-Roman wrestler with a grudge. Certain scenes are spectacular in delivery, others are still finding their depth and lustre but I have no doubt this will happen – such is the commitment of the cast. Let us not dwell but instead focus on a far more resonant concept – that of value.
“Value” is not an idea to throw around lightly in the arts – despite publicist’s best intentions it is not a well-priced ticket or the discounted laksa-and-a-show (for which the Old Fitzroy is famous) – we must abandon such pettiness (however delicious and affordable) when we speak of such things. Value for audiences is found simply because the art is there. We may value some art higher than others, we may see a particular work as representing a set-of-values and thus pass a moral or aesthetic judgement on it. Lord knows there’s plenty of that going on. But these amount to “I am a better artist” or “he does not occupy a prominent enough position” (and so on) precisely the point that Barker is attending; to engage with art one must seek value outside the frame as well. It is there, it is poetic, therefore it has value.
To extrapolate: the painting at the centre of the drama, one single frame, contains multitudes of values for its audience. It has value as a thing of beauty, demonstrating mastery of technique, and years of training one must undertake in the discipline. It has value as an historical document, capturing the moments of the battle it depicts, the pain and suffering of war. And it has value as a unique object, an individual expression of the artist, unlike any other.
That it is also imperfect does not matter. That it does not satisfy all the requirements for its entire audience does not reduce its value. If anything, the opposite, it inspires discussion, philosophy, it makes us weep or tingle as it dials into new paradigms. Imperfection is in fact art’s defining grace.
The controversy surrounding the events of the play are apparent when these values compete for prominence. Each character places a different weight on different aspects of the work, to the point where the artist is literally sidelined and we are left with a kind of clinical dissection of meaning, of the art-as-social-construct. Such as it is with an audience of fifty, at an opening night, with fifty sets of competing evaluations reflecting fifty people’s reaction to a particularly complex set of ideas and representations thereof. Look Further. In the face of a political evisceration of public funds for Creative Industry (see last Tuesday’s Federal Budget) – where is the independent, self-funded theatre sector on the scale of things-we-think-are-important?
Do we value something more or less when we know it is run by volunteers or those who are paid to be there?
Art is in fact so influential that political power will perpetually attempt to control and dominate its will. Yesterday’s Doge of Venice is today’s Board of Directors or Australia Council, slaving for their corporate sponsor masters, ensuring ______ is prominent enough in the frame, that ______’s friend gets a particular role. This is nothing new, the corrupt influence of the powerful over the artist has peppered history, even shaped it. Let us be adult about it. Even critics become notable because they are favoured by certain companies, reputations gather reputations and we celebrate fame while our most revolutionary talents die starving, unknown, ignored.
Through the annals of time we have become so obsessed with the notion of artist-as-philosopher-shaman we have forgone much of the value of the art. We are less concerned with the art than we are the personality behind it and as such the Value of art has suffered. Witness shrinking coverage in mainstream press. Witness increasing “profile” type coverage consistently replacing in depth discussion of context. Audiences will turn up to see a play purely on the basis that ______ is in it, and this is a perfectly acceptable corporate strategy to engage a significant box-office return.
PLAYS WILL HAVE LINES OR SCENES CUT BECAUSE THEY MAY BE OFFENSIVE TO THE POLITICIANS OF THE DAY.
Witness the Australia Day fiasco at the QTC just a few months back.
This is not Moliere vs The Catholic Church in 1664.
This is not Diego Rivera vs the City of New York in 1933.
This is Australia 2014.
And art is still being consistently devalued to the point of simplicity, a transactional tool for profit. An apolitical distraction for the masses. But as the play aptly demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.
If you have any doubt about this please engage with the discussion below. But first, go and see this play. It’s a brutal, sexy, and confrontational mud-wrestle between art and language, with some of the most visceral and funny dialogue on offer. It’s not perfect, but who cares, it’s a rare chance to see and hear one of the great moderns in flight from one hell of a cast and as a great man once said: “the supreme vice is shallowness. Everything realised is right.”
SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION by Howard Barker
presented by Tooth And Sinew and SITCO
directed by Richard Hilliar, featuring Lynden Jones, Mark Lee, Peter Maple, Brendan Miles, Lucy Miller, Katherine Shearer, Jeremy Waters and Nicole Wineberg. Playing until May 31st at The Old Fitzroy Hotel
The 1999 film Cradle Will Rock directed by Tim Robbins explores the history of art and political censorship, including a fictional account of the Musical of the Same Name and the aforementioned Diego Rivera scandal in the City of New York.
See also PEN International http://pen.org.au/ an organisation dedicated to freedom of expression and which lobbies for the release of imprisoned writers and artists worldwide.
NOT THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
Belvoir St Theatre, April 2014
It’s possibly the best kept secret in showbusiness that directing a play is 1) the easiest job in the world and 2) essentially an act of fraud. Just turn up and give them a script, preferably one that’s pretty good, and if the actors are worth their salt you’ll walk away looking like some kind of Sorcerer of Magick. Never mind set and costume and whatnot the real work is in the wrangling of the bag of cats that passes for what’s known in the industry as “talent”. Actors are notoriously shallow, fickle and hopelessly insecure. I should know. I’ve spent twenty years trying not to become one. There’s a special kind of egomaniacal joy in the moments backstage, or in rehearsal, a sense of self-importance and swagger that can only come from something so utterly meaningless as Art.
Difficult to explain, but I’ve seen actors threaten to refuse the stage without their jacket. I once shouted at a technician for not playing the correct warm-up music in the ten minutes just before the house went live (and that was just in the past month). Because although there are literally thousands of us walking the streets of any given city the show is quite impossible without us and as we know all too well, to paraphrase Mr Coward: it simply must go on. And this show does, for a quickfire 80 minutes or so of a play about a play within a play that may or may not have played out but for the concerted efforts of the cast who in rehearsal for two plays play out a joyful body of work. So altogether there’s three plays in one. I think. Possibly four. It’s complicated.
As the beleaguered Bob Menzies (he’s *very good* in this show) explains in the opening salvo of the production this may not be the play you turned up expecting to see. The Parry Estate refused permission to perform the originally scheduled production as advertised The Phildelphia Story – but fear not, because the minds at Belvoir have crafted a forensic theatre verité depicting the goings on behind the scenes, a real insight into the delicate art of programming and rehearsal, the intricate process behind the magic of show. The careful development, the incremental choices which build throughout to become a work-of-art, all is laid bare. The actors are playing themselves (they’re all *very good* even if not much “acting” is required) – and while Writer/Director Simon Stone does not (lamentfully) feature as himself, it is clear he is taking great risk in exposing his much-lauded process of adaptation to the microscope. And for this I salute him.
It’s all so very, very true to life. A fascinating study for any student theatremaker or person-on-the-street to enjoy, a veritable verbatim open-house and we thoroughly recommend you go and see it for yourself.
The Government Inspector by Simon Stone and Emily Barclay after Nikolai Gogol Instead of The Philadephia Story by Philip Barry after His Wife (Not The Episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air which goes by the same name), devised with the cast. Directed by Simon Stone (if that is his real name), featuring Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Robert Menzies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone, featuring music by Stefan Gregory.
rating: *Very Good*
*warning* contains occasional use of gold flutter.
Three microphones, three male voices, a tale of a time gone yet just within grasp of living memory, and by making this reach we might peer further back into the years before, centuries perhaps, of Hamlets, MacBeths, Bottoms, Falstaves and Cassieia. This kind of theatrical telescope into the past can reveal all manner of insight into the word as spoken – alive again in the prism of Gielgud’s particular vocal method.
The text is by arrangement of Bob Ellis, weaving the anecdotal with the classical, the casual aside with the musical, and the historical with the modern. It is easy to cast yourself adrift in the sea of pentameter in this whistlestop steamboat cruise, a sampling plate of Elizabethan delights.Yet just as this rhythm starts to wash across there will be a change in tone or shift in tempo, or a phrase out-of-time to crash you back into the experience anew. The passing comment comparing Henry VIII’s brutal treatment of adulterers with the Taliban springs to mind – such is Ellis’s turn of phrase he perhaps matches the mentor for imagery, without letting his careful segues take the limelight from through some of the Bard’s most memorable characters and the scenes which some lucky actors might carve their likeness into the sandy shores betwixt the tides of time.
For as we well know theatre is such an elusive game, and only the rarest of us have ever caught Sir Gielgud in full recital mode (I am not one such creature) – but this might be as close as you can get, three voices in carefully trained mimicry of his style, each finding their own truth or bouncing off the other. It is a stark contrast with the Shakespeare of today and such an important historic counterpoint that is a must-hear for any student of the craft to fully comprehend the significance of the shift toward the conversational tones that are du jour. There is a cultural memory here -or perhaps one from watching BBC dramas in discontented wintry schoolrooms – but the marked and pointed vocality of Sir Gielgud is a kind of lightning rod for today’s casual emphasis toward the everyday. It’s highlighted with some archival footage of one such black and white film – a monologue of the lean and hungry Cassius, imbued with such epic intensity, barely a facial twitch with cross the screen, it is all in his eyes, and that voice – one cannot help but submit to be slain by the voice.
Gielgud cuts a fragile enough figure onscreen and is thus difficult to picture in the kind of commanding presences we have come to expect of today’s romantic casting we will often see in leading roles. There exists no footage of his stagecraft (not even for ready money) so one must imagine, and with a little help from the talents of Messrs Clarke, Burke and Ellis, now one can. The staging is of such simplicity our imaginations are forced into the kind of overdrive Shakespeare’s language will dictate. No flourishing sets or modernist imprimatur – Ellis remarked in a post-show conversation this is a “counter-revolution” against the kind of auteur Shakespeare we have come to know of late. And we enjoy as much, but to fully comprehend what we have won with such expressionistic leaps and bounds one must also take account of what we have lost. Which is, sadly, Gielgud’s particular emphatic approach to each and every word, then in sequence to the grander epic emotional reality of the world he would inhabit. To have glimpsed it is a revelation in itself.
Part rehearsed-read, part archaeological archive; “Anthology Theatre” is the term being used for this approach to a nostalgic review of a theatre icon – in homage to his muse William Shakespeare and fascinating vignette into the style with which Sir John Gielgud approached his immortal words, and such, his life. For the serious theatre historian, student or casual listener it is a vital piece of the tenuous lineage now some several thousand years in the make, for the art of live performance is one best handed on face-to-face. It is the second such arrangement of these scenes and fragments of note, the first in 2013 being The Word Before Shakespeare down at The Bondi Pavillion some windy Tuesday eve. My understanding is there are several more in process, all similarly themed or named from hitherto unheard of Ludlum Trilogies; The Olivier Expansion, The Shaw Revolution, The Beckett Tautology, The Milligan Conundrum, The Scott Morrison Dancing Bear Show…
And So On…
The performances are intermittent so keep an ear out. The next reading for Gielgud is this Sunday April 13th at the Hughes Gallery Sydney. Further details here. Featuring Simon Burke, Terry Clarke and Bob Ellis. Recommended.