18/04/2013 at 12:24 pm Leave a comment

presented by Merrigong Theatre Company, Griffin Theatre Company and Hothouse Theatre, April, 2013

Previews are special. The uncertainty, the danger, the risk that’s unique to any other performance, as artists and performers hand over their careful creations to an audience blind, like first-time lovers. Things go wrong. The creators’ anxiety is at its peak – which as the work is tested, moment by moment to win or fail – exuding a palpable crackling energy that only comes with a rare blend of sheer uncertainty and the courage of letting go. We have referred to this phenomena before in response to another intimate production at Griffin bearing a mix of magic, mythological and contemporary motifs. It is especially fraught in first-performances of a new play. Any new play is a confronting thing to perform, let alone one as touching and personal as this. It is known. Paraphrasing from the program notes: Van Badham conveys a great deal of her own heartbreak, hope and fear into the writing, something acknowledged by Lee Lewis that we are “deeply indebted to her” for it. Indeed.

That debt must extend as well, to Lewis for her work in translating it to the stage, and to the performers who countenance such evocative and cathartic material with their craft. At times vivid, direct, erotic, ridiculous, insouciant, tragically naive or hideously proud – always committed and yet somehow slightly one-step-removed from the text. A tricky balance that accedes to the paradoxes of the text that are simultaneously ancient tales and very much the here-and now. The echoes of Theseus and Ariadne into our lives today, and the threads of action-consequence that travel into the labyrinth of milennia past. How much of our own anxiety and pain are a part of this cycle of mythologising men (or women) into heroes, from presupposing an inevitability of love or lust or loss? Badham’s script portrays an acceptance of culpability for personal distress, owning it, laughing at it, unequivocally sharing it – with a sophisticated ear for irony and trademark wit, she manages to fashion the Myth of the Minotaur (referenced in the title of the play) into her own original tale, now subverting the hero-figure, now recognising the allure. This is more than merely a modernised adaptation of myth in the traditional mode of Anouilh (or even TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party based on elements of Alcestis), as the epic is embedded to the tale in equal measure as it is historically removed. Altogether a different process and form to what we are accustomed to in the recent glut of adaptations. But perhaps that is an issue for another day.

The innate paradoxes are also apparent in the staging. From the opening seconds there’s a nod and a wink to the oral traditions of the lyric poet #notaeuphemism – as the tale is writ like a novella and much of it spoken in past tense. This allows for a concurrent distance and immediacy of the action, both drawing us in and keeping us at bay. This duality of form is a very tricky business to make work and often fails in the hands of lesser performers but these two manage to keep us sublimely in-the-moment despite the overarching and constant reminders that yes, we are watching a play. Yes, it’s a tale we all know, and yet we don’t know. Yes it’s a fable of modern horror, yet it’s imbued in the conventions of romantic comedy as well. Yes, it’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, yet devastatingly honest. But most of all, simply “Yes”.

THE BULL, THE MOON AND THE CORONET OF STARS. Written by Van Badham, featuring Silvia Colloca and Matt Zeremes. Directed by Lee Lewis.
Playing at Merrigong Theatre until April 27, and Griffin Theatre from May 2 – June 8


Like (nearly everyone in this business of show) I have known Van Badham for a number of years as peripheral comrade, occasional drinking buddy, fellow-radical and increasingly prominent thesp. One might even go so far as to cite her as ‘influence’ – having sat in a number of audiences to which she has been asked to espouse her thoughts on modern politic, radical thought or drama (or all of these at once). Although her plays are not often produced in full (at least in Sydney) I have admired the passion and intellectual vigour she brings to her craft for some time.

With this in mind, I went in fully prepared to hate this play. This is mostly selfish, since when I first heard of its existence it was in the wake of my own work being shortlisted (see also: rejected) for the same Playwriting Australia Script Workshop round in 2012. Having been turned down for the workshop but nevertheless encouraged to continue with the scriptwriting I was naturally curious as to who was being given such precious support – one of these plays being The Bull, The Moon and The Coronet of Stars . Hence the immediate pang of intense artistic jealousy and dislike – I thought (knowing nothing other than the title) another fucking adaptation she’s gone over to the dark side.

I mention all this to draw out the concept of critical relativism, in the context of this work it’s a strange and bewildering place for a writer to behold. It never fails to amuse when critics claim ‘objectivity’ or refer to the ‘journalistic legacy’ like they’re stepping up on some marble-gilt pedestal every time they knock off their four-hundred word plot summary. Bullshit. I could make some claim of balance but it would be a lie. Fact is, when I see the work of someone I know and like I want them to succeed. As it happens, this play was developed and supported at the expense (HA!) of my own fledgling attempts to make my way in this industry, my own play which alludes to Dionysus and Pan (coincidence, I assure you – they are very different works). With industry support so scarce it’s pretty normal for all writers to secretly snarl at each others’ success. This is the natural order of things and an unspoken rule of rivalry, however absurd (let’s be clear- the submissions are read blind, and Ms Badham has worked and sacrificed for her successes). Recognition feeds the ego as much as a lack of recognition feeds the id… It’s well documented. See Matisse and Picasso (at the Lapin Agile, Martin), Tzara and Joyce (Travesties, Stoppard), Hemingway and, er… Everyone else… But I digress, perhaps that is an issue for another day.

Modern criticism is in flux. I don’t really think in objective terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ theatre like you’ll find in the papers and mainstream blogs. This is not a new phenomena, critical studies have been epistemic for some time (the idea being that there is no specific set of objective knowledge or conventions that a critic must begin from). But most critics have a journalistic background, so cannot be expected to work in terms other than the narrow set of reader expectations that their editors impose. They should not be blamed for this but merely taken with a grain of salt that the limitations such an approach brings to our critical culture. And let’s not use “word-count” as an excuse anymore, folks. It is, frankly, laziness that limits a critic’s ability to engage with the work on its own terms. One might even say close-minded conservatism. The kind of pre-supposing of expectations: the mix of peer-camaraderie and petty-professional-jealousy I referred to earlier.

Watching this unfold on the stage I found it very easy to set aside these expectations, simultaneously finding a huge amount of empathy for its author and the characters she created. The opening section detailing the mutually seductive qualities of Marion and Michael, the slow motion emblazoned collision of the fated lovers is something we all remember. Adults behaving as teenagers should, knowing they know better but doing it anyway. The brutal isolation of Marion’s abandonment had me weeping. I’m a very private person and this touched a nerve. In the second half, as the romance unfolds between Marion and Mark, I wept again. In a good way. It’s so easy to isolate ourselves in the aftermath of pain. To swear we’ll never love again – the universal self-fulfilling prophecy. Afterwards, it was as though some yoke had been removed. I don’t know. It’s hard to say, but just days later I found myself making awkward and hesitant steps towards opening my heart again. Come what may, as the song goes…

So this was my starting point to analyse the play – the re-opening of possibility. The cure for heartbreak. The breaking of self-imposed shackles. The reminder that we’re all human, no matter how distantly we flee. Yes I wanted it to succeed and no I wasn’t going to let professional jealousy cloud my judgement. I’m not completely stupid. If there were major flaws in the play or production I would have mentioned them. But it didn’t matter. I felt *cured*. Any criticism I might have, however hamfisted, would be dwarfed by the emotional impact I have felt in the subsequent days.

A few days later at an author-talk Van said the play was a response to Thyestes that poisonous cup of Senecan revenge-tragedy which brutalised audience emotions circa 2010. I didn’t know this at the time of watching (I knew very little about the play besides the title until the night of the preview)- but I felt it. So yes, it’s another fucking adaptation but one which is a very sophisticated thought-out creative argument in the context of years and years of fucking adaptations. Centuries of fucking adaptations – I’d warrant It’s a part of the artistic conversation that’s bringing new work in the context of the old, looking to make sense of the present through the past, as opposed to dragging up the past to try and fit into the now. I have referred to this before: art as criticism in an ongoing conversation between artists as superseding the more formal essay-style criticism found on blogs and the very back of newspapers.

It’s why I write plays. It’s why I perform, produce and direct. Why I disdain any critic who sits on the sidelines. To be a part of that conversation, started millennia beforehand and carried on by all artists and writers since for us today, and for those yet to be born. Every new play is a criticism of what comes before, and a call for what might come next. This play is no exception.

Entry filed under: Inside Theatre REVIEWS, New Work, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , , , , , .


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