04/07/2011 at 3:21 pm 3 comments

presented by Company B Belvoir, June 2011

I have always maintained that the most cogent critiques about art come via the art itself – a theory which may explain why (unfortunately) few stage practitioners will bother to engage in the essay style short-form criticism that makes up the majority of theatre comment on the interwebs and occasional news broadsheet. A mere thousand words is inadequate when one’s ideas about the form reflect a full complement of overt and internalised sensibilities that can only truly be expressed in the unique metaphorical context of live performance. Critics will invariably cast their aspersions or approvals on the various aesthetic or cultural merits of any given work but these comments are secondary to the actual creative conversation happening between artists at all levels who seek to change or improve the conventions of theatre. That is the real battleground; between the traditional and the experimental forms of theatrical language. Everything else is academic.

So on the surface of it we have a play in which the author seems to eviscerate himself on the stage and ask the same of his cast. But then, what artist can claim to have done otherwise? Success may only be measured against the cruel yardstick of risk, and this play; a vicious dissection of happiness takes all the raw nerves and pulls at them until the thickest of skin is flayed, the most collected mind becomes unraveled and the loosest of heart-strings wound tight and tuned to a pitch that screams in lust for life and echoes unrequited against a wall of pain. The risk is irresistible, not only for how Chekhov’s laments about art, hubris, humility and fame still cry out to us – but for the actors who must put so much on the line to make every tiny moment build, who batter us with ideas, emotions, laughs and sudden jolts of pathos. A net is woven most craftily in the ensemble scenes through the quickstep rhythm that it feels at times like a bombardment – wave after wave of contrasting hilarity and trademark Chekhovian awkwardness – from every side. To see this play is to see half the play – like the rising moon above the lake – to see it all would ruin the effect of the landscape. One simply cannot focus on everything at once.

A play within a glass box within a play about art & writing, about fame, about the pedestals of idolatry and finally about the grinding pits of everyday ennui when those we love come crashing off them. Director Benedict Andrews has a knack for marking each act with a unique style to accent the content of the script; fusing the experimental with the melodramatic and the naturalistic with Brechtian dislocation – not seamless by any means (and nor could it be if it had tried) – the production revels in the little in-jokes, the self-awareness that demonstrates post-modernity existed long before the term got popular. And speaking of popularity – one cannot help but stretch the mind around the diametric goal-posts of the exclamatory “Theatre is dead” diatribe from Kostya which sets us a beautiful stylistic arm-wrestle to pick sides from. It’s no secret that Chekhov enjoyed himself picking apart the corpse – and Andrews’ adaptation is equally unrelenting in mockery. It felt as though he was looking at me through the mirror (and not just because where I was sitting I could see the director on the edge of row C stage right so if I happened to be focused on centre stage – there he was in the background) – it happened that a set of strange coincidences let me into the vision of The Seagull so I felt not only Andrews but Chekhov gazing back through him. Little things like having had a bit of trouble at university for protesting against student fees. Like using a mysterious pseudonym. Like how I have spent time escaping from the city at a fibro shack near the ocean to recuperate and go fish and maybe get some writing done. Like how on the way to the theatre I had my earphones playing and a cover version of the Bowie song Fame came on and I thought to myself “I must put that in a play”… Like knowing I can never write what’s popular and as a result may never know if my work will live happily ever after, like being a slave to an unrequited passion for ideas that seem to run away for bigger things.

That’s the real metaphor here, for art: it’s love that doesn’t know itself, or knows itself too well. I commented last year that The Seagull was highly relevant to a Sydney audience which is hooked on a culture of social pages and glory by association, that mainlines celebrity exaltation and wallows in the false everyday “reality” façade of soap-opera television. This production has given me so much more reason to keep my focus on what I’m doing, both creatively and critically; to never give up. Fuck fame. Fuck reputation. Fuck success. Fuck fear. It’s the Art that matters. Here’s looking back at you.

The Seagull, by Anton Chekhov, in a version by Benedict Andrews; featuring Emily Barclay, Bille Brown, Gareth Davies, Judy Davis, Maeve Dermody, John Gaden, Anita Hegh, Terry Serio, Thomas Unger, David Wenham & Dylan Young. plays until July 17.

Entry filed under: Inside Theatre REVIEWS, Stuff I Like, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

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