CRITIC WATCH: I’ll Be Watching You

16/04/2012 at 4:03 pm 1 comment

EVERY BREATH

presented by Belvoir, April 2012.

If you were wondering just how conservative and cynical Sydney Theatre reviewers could be, in a stunning display of collective knee-jerk “gotcha” criticism there’s been a veritable whitewash of disdain over the latest offering upstairs at Belvoir St. While the production is certainly flawed (name a play that wasn’t); the readiness with which the fingernails came out to pick away at it is more shocking than anything the show has on offer. It’s been some of the most vicious venting we’ve seen from established critics in some time, which is fine (opinions being like arseholes). But we don’t know what kind of a fool, having seen a plague of Benedict Andrews’ productions on Sydney stages in recent years; would go and see one that is actually written by him as well, and then read it as a conventional piece of narrative. Are you all mad or just obtuse?

So, at the risk of flagrant hypocrisy (recounting the plot is the lamest possible way to respond to a piece of theatre) I will summarise what this play involves; because it’s not anything like the customary linear narrative one finds in the traditional theatre. It operates in a psychic space, that of fantasy, in which the oppositional forces of Chris’s intense shyness and her need to be wanted play out in her imagination. The resulting scenes are so preposterous that the mind boggles how anyone could see them as anything but an imagined set of circumstances. Within this framework we are then given layers of fantasies within fantasies, fables within daydreams within meta-narratives. Meanwhile the traditional story-structure is but a skeleton; perhaps the biggest mistake in the writing is that it offers the pretense of dramatic tension, allowing the audience to think they are watching a straight-up play. It’s not as though Mr Andrews doesn’t understand drama, it’s just that he isn’t particularly interested in it.

So the torpid response from the usual suspects (not known for following experimental work that much) with whiplash commentary from an uber-conservative perspective; mindlessly aping the view that good theatre fits in a certain box, behaves a certain way, and is there to please and entertain. Perish the thought that entire movements have been underway for decades now exploring image-state theatre, post-dramatic theatre, installation and live art, spoken word, dance & movement (the list goes on), outside the relatively narrow conventions that have long stained our domestic product with their family-drama-by-numbers mentality. Critics seem to have been under the impression that Every Breath was in that mould; conventional, traditional, safe, with a big reveal at the end about some long-held family secret. Somehow, after over a decade of challenging our perceptions of the canon Benno was supposed to be writing something normal, was he?

While the text signals a gentle mockery of these kitchen-sink narrative conventions, the more interesting material beckons when Andrews charts his characters into the spectrum of their various vulnerabilities. If you have seen anything from Andrews’ previous productions, the themes and motifs are not new. Sex is front and centre, as are voyeurism, art & audience; in strange detached vignettes of meditative sophistry or folk-tales otherwise unrelated to the action. The most obvious parallel is between the vulnerability of artmaking and the sexual vulnerability of the central figure.
From Diana Simmonds at Stage Noise:

The thing about enfants terrible, however, is that infancy is only passing attractive. Eventually – preferably sooner rather than later – the brat must grow up. If not, then the phenomenon becomes arrested development and when sex is involved, it tends to mean masturbation and lots of it. Not that there’s anything wrong with masturbation per se but like anything else on a stage, it must have meaning.

MUST. HAVE MEANING. GOT IT?
Or perhaps it’s too much to ask to contemplate the fairly obvious symbolism depicted in the masturbation scenes of the vulnerability of desire. These are the most personal and secret moments nobody would want another person to see or know. Ms Simmonds’ review skimmed over the content like a water-insect, refusing point-blank to engage with the text beyond glibly recalling the Greek references as “fashionable”, preferring to nit-pick about narrative missteps (again, conservatism at play). The snarky segue from the Marx commentary in the program to *SNAP* “if it were not for the wanking one might think invoking Marx were merely wanky” *snigger*… Cop that you petty bourgeoisie leftist turd!

One hesitates to explain that while absent from the script itself, it’s (again) pretty obvious that the Marx references in the program are about his theory of alienation. It’s not complicated. The relationship (imagined or not) between the insecure security guard and the five people who are her employers is inherently alienating. There are distinct class-separation issues… There’s no way these people would invite her into their family. Not these stuck-up tools, of that I am certain. So she imagines a life where she is included.. Who hasn’t looked through a window at their humdrum workplace and imagined a life less ordinary? Some of us even acted on those dreams, at the risk of being ridiculed, and some of us still go against the grain, despite the power infrastructures and systems that tell us to fit in.

Despite reports to the contrary, for the curious (and open) minded there are plenty of symbolic images to buttress the sparse wall of the storylines; these occur in the text as well as visual cues. Windows, mirrors, glass towers, hollow island mountains, twins, the parallels of art and life (see Leo’s monologue about the Moebius Strip) … for those bewildered by the set; it’s Two Giant Black Mirrors can you see through them? Can you see past the trickery? They create the key symbol of the play: Art and Life reflect each other, the audience “only ever see themselves.” Leo says this about his critics and we can safely (or not) assume this is pretty much a direct response to Andrews’ own detractors over the years. So it’s a little self-referential aside that he’s successfully tempted these erstwhile theatre writers to focus mostly on the wanking, with very little attention paid to what makes the pool run deep. There are enough of these insider jokes to bemuse, but one really wonders how so many critics managed to miss the gag entirely. A self-reflexive set of mirrors, endlessly reaching back to a place we can never go. That is what it feels like to make art, always just beyond your grasp. But one supposes everyday critics, without the fresh memory of what it feels like to create might not recognise that intense not-knowing, and be able to embrace it a-la John Keats’ concept of negative capability and just go ahead with it anyway.

To not know fear is to not know life. And like it or not, this is a play about fear, privacy, and what it is to be vulnerable. Ask yourself what your reaction says about you, after all, it must have meaning.

Every Breath, written and directed by Benedict Andrews, featuring John Howard, Shelly Lauman, Eloise Mignon, Angie Milliken and Dylan Young. Playing at Belvoir St Theatre until April 29th, 2012.

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Entry filed under: CRITIC WATCH, Criticism FAIL, Inside Theatre REVIEWS, New Work, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

“PUT THIS INTO CONTEXT” critic watch: NO GENDER – NO AGENDA

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