10/10/2013 at 2:58 pm Leave a comment

Damn. Missed it again.

August marks four years of writing about theatre on this site, an unremarkable fact besides it also being something like twenty-one years of watching theatre as an audience and making theatre as an artist. As critic I’m a total noob, but I understand the language of theatre as well as anyone. It’s translating back into Anglais that’s the tricky part…

Via the throes of rehearsal and recovery for a little Fringe Show last month I have neglected the discipline of writing. But, having seen a few shows on Sydney stages since July, and weighed in on the tempest surrounding the no-adaptation-is-an-island debate, mouthed off at Arts Ministers and Editors alike, done the usual unpaid work at the usual festivals and entered/been rejected from the usual collaborative theatre callouts. Business as usual but Oh and I started my own business… but I digress. Perhaps that is a subject for another day.


Most recently it was the wild, raw, disparate and sexy Crack Festival and (the conservative and sterile) Miss Julie but before that were The Maids, Persona, Moving Parts and Friday – each a new work or new translation for the stage, each rife with sharp and thought provoking dialogue, and each portraying a precise grand narrative much broader than the sum of its parts. In terms of style, the ‘professional’ companies brought minimalist productions of a two-or-three hander dealing in themes of self-discovery, betrayal, child-abuse, death, and had barely a single moment worth mentioning. Only an attempted suicide by a child-beating salesman with cancer (I kid you not) brought an actual chuckle from this audience member in this highly professional, detailed, finely-tuned production. Ditto Persona, although without the laugh. That’s not to say they weren’t well-done. Just fucking morbid and introspective. Not my cuppa.

I tweeted my review of Miss Julie (harking back to my days as digital copywriter “if you can’t say it in eight words or less, don’t bother”) as thus: “Men! Dogs! Women! Cray! Cock! Tits! Bang! Blood!” I have not read the Capital C Crrrrtiiiics on this play but can’t help wonder if anyone noticed it has an almost identical plot to the universally hated “Every Breath”? Only without any sense of expressionism or intrigue. Just dour hyper-realist representation of a Mack-Truck Cliché. Fine work from the cast but playing for laughs when the character is a pig is probably a sign of an actor looking to score points amid a dearth of substance. If this is the world we live in it does not ring true.

On the other hand the premiere of Friday at The Old Fitzroy Theatre was loose, flawed, with a cast of about sixty, plenty of wit and more than a few belly laughs and snap. It could have used a bit of dramaturgy to curtail its sprawling Shakespearean ambition (think lots of gratuitous sub-plots, comedic interludes and bawdy one-liners). What it lacks in craft it makes up for in gusto and good-old-fashioned CRAIC, in the fine Australian tradition of taking the piss. Nuggets of pure gold amidst an uneven satire make it worthwhile… but more about this in a moment.

What strikes us vividly is the contrasting ambitions of the productions. One is trying to make something big and new, the others trying to be like something old. Note: who gets the funding, who gets the support, who gets all the added publicity and hype? What does a playwright do, anyway? As the key question coming out of the Crack Theatre Festival, as stated in the excellent slice of meta-criticism Kids Killing Kids “Why here? Why Now? Why You?” With the ramshackle SITCO production of Daniela Giorgi’s play this question was a pleasure to explore. With the fine-tuned professionalism of the others, we are left in the wind. NFI*, as the saying goes.

Persona attempting to emulate what is cited as “one of the greatest films of all time” (an entirely pointless observation) – putting what was in all likelihood a fascinating filmic concept in 1966 onto the stage in 2013 is bold enough, but this audience found nothing much to be added. Technically brilliant is the show, but I wanted a lie down. The transliteration into theatre from cinema meant we lose so much of the idiomatic Bergman filmic technique that it is reduced to story. Persona only hesitatingly broke new ground. On top of this, the use of a child in the opening sequence was hugely problematic in a show which (when it finally got going) dealt with full-on sexual content, including graphic descriptions of sexual assault on two small boys by the central character. Sorry. Spoilers. The boy does not return until the curtain call and while he opens the show (reading a book through binoculars while a clock tick-tocks for nearly five whole minutes) – one has to ask: What is he doing there? What possible greater artistic function can he serve, and how can that justify what amounts to a breach in duty of care, touring this show over and over with such explicit sexual content. I was not intrigued, not even impressed.

What does a playwright do, exactly? If it’s just coming up with intriguing is she/isn’t she/will he/won’t he plot lines then what progress have we made since a certain Scandinavian genius rattled all the critics cages and set a new precedent for drama circa 1898? Moving Parts – a fine example of a clockwork universe on stage – deftly represented by Friels and McGonville on stage in a tight sequence of dialogues which ratchet the tension and stakes until there’s nowhere to go but into the realm of the absurd. And so the aforementioned suicide attempt becomes fodder for a rather macabre diversion into comedy. But the clockwork universe (in which years, decades of events past conspire to influence the micro-decisions of the now) collapses when Roy declares an intention to take his own life. The stakes – his shop, his life, his pride all fall to oblivion in that moment, and while the choice was palpable in Friels’ portrayal of a man with nothing to lose – the writing suffers and the metaphor muddied in the process.

I submit the idea that a playwright brings a world into existence, and the *writing* element is merely a frame through which one can peer into that world. Thus these adaptations are new windows into the same world, which can only be viewed *between* the dialogue. The director’s role is to fill the frame with a tinted glass or crystalline lens with which to view the frame anew. Think of Chekhov or Pinter or Beckett- with multitudes of ideas contained in silences. There is no *rewriting* silence. The authorship of those moments is absolute and all a director or adaptor can do is provide the echo of the walls which surround. So the question for any playwright, adaptor or collaborative team is this: is the work telling us about the world of the play, or telling us more about you?

Do playwrights tell us about themselves? Or about the world they live in? A little bit of both, one hopes. But it’s the audience that fills in the gaps. And it’s the value of an idea that we take home, irrespective of the quality of its expression. Never forget it.

PS my eight word review of The Maids as follows:
“Once in a lifetime performances. Saw it Twice”

More about this later.
*No Fucking Idea

Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.


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