FACE TO FAECES
WARNING THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS
“I have no original ideas.” Anyone doubting the veracity of Simon Stone’s recent explanation of why he’s so prone to adapting other people’s texts should go and see this droning, bloodless take on Ingmar Bergman’s film Face To Face. The production is ill-advised and ill-conceived, lacking in tension, complexity or depth. It’s not for lack of trying. Messrs Stone, Upton and Wright have made some effort to contrive convey the tale of an outwardly happy woman’s psychological decline and redemption; what a marvellous thing to aspire to unpack the strange pressures of being an attractive professional female in today’s world – or maybe just This Is What A Crazy Woman Looks Like. As writ by men, adapted by men, directed by men. Thank You Captains Patronise.
Fool me once. I had similar misgivings about Stone’s explanation for Strange Interlude- it being a woman’s story and so forth. At the time I put these aside and looked for the positives. I’m not so sure anymore. So many plays or films are out; this could be adapted from actual women’s stories, not some Svengali intellectualisation of what must be going on deep within the mysteries of She but an Actual Woman with Ovaries’ Experience. Asking too much? Apparently. These aren’t women’s stories, they’re stories about how it’s ok, we understand chicks are total whackjobs, so we’re expressing our sensitivity towards women’s issues by making these psychodramas where the madness of women is exposed and we demonstrate that men must do what must be done before women might not know what to do with themselves.
The thought of these three affluent white males conspiring to determine how such a story might be told is jarring at best, and at worst, actively nauseating. A couple of vignettes: a) man at dinner with woman drunkenly comments on her breasts. She gives him her phone number (NOTE TO SELF TRY THAT NEXT TIME); b) an attempted rape is abandoned because “she’s too fuckin’ dry”. Later she laughs it off and reveals she wanted him to go through with it (YEP MEN WROTE THIS QUEASY YET?). While the innocuous staging of such moments is perhaps the most shocking thing about them, I’m not sure that it’s a man’s place to tread the path of trivialisation when it comes to sexual assault. Regardless of your intent. And let’s assume for a second that the minds behind this theatrical ingrown toenail are on the level, genuinely wanting to talk about women’s mental health through the theatrical form. Why this play? Why now? Without knowing the arcane secrets of pitching and programming which got Stone directing two shows within several months dealing with loveless, mentally unstable women and the men who care; at some point during those decision processes we can safely assume the phrase “I want to do this” came up. Twice.
And here’s the rub: “I have no original ideas” is just one of the eyebrow-raising comments Stone has made doing publicity for his shows. The latest epigrammatic “theatre texts have no literary value on their own” caused a minor storm in a hiccough on the social medias when the comment (echoed at the time by STC Director Andrew Upton) was published in the lead-up to the play. What are we to make of these remarks? Well a pinch of salt for starters, given Stone’s tendency for public quips that are less than thought through. But if in fact he is referring to the theatrical value of performance (something I rank above literary value), as I suspect; then it is the director adding to the script which enables a greater truth to be found. In a nutshell, the principle espouses that the value of theatre texts is in their being spoken. They are written to be spoken aloud, enacted – and it is in this process that a text can truly come into its own. A script can adopt entire new sets of values this way, and this value is found in theatrical forms such as subtext or composition. In other words – actions speak louder. Good writers understand this and leave the dialogue ‘open’ for actors and directors to add subtext on their own.
Unfortunately, in this case nothing is added to the script by having it staged. The play is bereft of action. Dialogues occur with contrived movement to make things seem dynamic – with nothing relevant to the thematic content to create a powerful composition (almost certainly the strength of Bergman’s career). At one point the ensemble merely sit and listen to music. The same problem occurred in Interlude as well with entire scenes portrayed in a virtual tableaux – and by adding nothing in terms of mise-en-scene the result is a tensionless series of lamenting conversations. If the content of these conversations as written hold no literary value, what value is there in staging it so uncritically? We’ve seen all these tricks before.
The theatrical value of course is found in the earnestness of the performance – and earnest they are, almost to the point of a complete lack of tonal variation within some of the speeches. It’s this-is-the-emotional-state-I-am-feeling type stuff – but the trick with long speeches is to coach the actors out of simply giving over to the intensity of the emotion. Startling moments of intense anguish are fine but audiences crave a counterpoint, because madness does rationalise, it does talk to itself, it doesn’t actually know that it’s insane. Understanding how to get actors to deliver this doublethink is how to reach the complexity required for a text like this to work. And there is none. She’s fucked up. End of story. This is a cardboard cut-out of emotion, delivered with photorealistic intent – but there is nothing behind it. No matter how experienced the actor you must identify and draw out the intricacies in madness. It is this that allows an audience to extrapolate and learn from the characters’ experience. Otherwise we are looking from the outside in (the hallmark of this production) and the result becomes an exercise in academia. Actors of the standard we are used to seeing at the STC can portray any emotional state you might want – but even the best demand direction, so that difficult emotional scenes don’t get washed out by monotonic shrieking and we can engage with the subtleties.
If the text has no inherent value and you add virtually nothing to it, one must ask the inevitable. Why would you want to do it at all? The emotional climax certainly beckons as one of the key moments when the play, like a sleeping elephant rouses momentarily and shuffles its feet. But any empathy or intrigue is washed out and sterilised by the cavernous void passing itself off as a set design and unfortunate glass screen betwixt us and the actors. Could you make the one interesting scene any less accessible? Whatever fine acting may have been occurring up there was diluted by the cleverness of the problem solving, and although I knew when to feel moved (they brought in the minor chords, see) it was cold as the proverbial dip in the Fjord, I felt nothing. Why this play? Why now? A fascination with Bergman doth not make a good reason for the level of expense going unspared. When I was an undergraduate theatremaker I was enamoured with the likes of Jim Jarmusch. What a guy! I actually wanted to be him, would you believe… Does this mean I wanted to reproduce his filmography for the stage? You bet!
Of course I saw quite early that filmic and theatrical composition are totally different animals. When writing for film one takes on an utterly different language to surround the dialogue, because any writer worth their salt knows that frame-by-frame the meaning of the words can warp and swell according to the context of the staging. So when you write for film you write visually. Every close-up, every hand held pan, every dolly becomes a part of the composition, the dialogue, the rhythm of the work. Then there’s the editing process, a chance to recreate the story once again. So when we say “texts have no literary value of their own”, it’s kind of true, because meaning and subtext is created in how it’s delivered. Writing for theatre has no such luxury, as such we must write with enough space for the subtext to grow in rehearsal, that the actors and director can explore the nuances and reinterpret. Composition can add to or change the meaning but we are working outside of the medium that made Bergman such a powerful artist. So whatever your intentions, not understanding this is the road to Hell. For a play about such difficult, deeply held emotional states (and nothing else) is it too much to ask to put it up in a way that actually lets the audience in?
I have no objections to experimentation, or adaptations, or translating film to the stage, and I would rather see an artist try something new and fail than do something obvious and safe to succeed. Unfortunately this is not risky, nor does it succeed. Good intentions can only go so far, some shows belong in small theatres; and surely, with our current arts media if this was one, it would get the lack of recognition it deserves.
Face To Face, by Ingmar Bergman, adapted by Andrew Upton and Simon Stone, featuring Humphrey Bower, Mitchell Butel, Kerry Fox, John Gaden, Wendy Hughes, Anna Martin, Jessica Nash, Queenie van de Zandt and Dylan Young, playing at the Sydney Theatre until September 8th.
Entry filed under: Inside Theatre PROCESS, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: Andrew Upton, Anna Martin, Dylan Young, Face to Face, Face To FHumphrey Bower, Humphrey Bower, Ingmar Bergman, Jessica Nash, John Gaden, Kerry Fox, Mitchell Butel, Queenie van de Zandt, Simon Stone, STC, Sydney Theatre Company, Wendy Hughes.