Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Serpent's Teeth

The Sydney Theatre Company presents the STC ACTORS COMPANY in THE SERPENT’S TEETH, two plays by Daniel Keene CITIZENS & SOLDIERS at The Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House on 24th April 2008.I mention this date so precisely because something rare was happening, for the first time in a long time in the theatre in Sydney I felt that the relevancy of the plays were immediate and concerned my life vitally. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Headline for the day was ‘The going just got tougher. ”It concerned “families on modest incomes” needing to be shielded from the increases to Petrol, food stuffs, electricity and rents. As I watched the people in CITIZENS cross their empty landscape, I wondered uncomfortably “How tough is tough? (especially when you look at the advertisement for a certain Bank in the back of the STC Program inviting those of us “Who Have Gone Far, to Go Farther with our own Private Banker). The Brechtian parallels were too guilt making, to deal with fully. Then the second play opening on the eve of ANZAC DAY (Australia’s big War Memorial Day) SOLDIERS, made the experience even more confronting. This theatre was as alive as Today’s Headlines.

In the years to come when we look at the archival photographs of this production we will be in awe of the LOOK. The Set Design by Robert Cousins assisted by brilliant Lighting by Nick Schlieper is simply magnificent. (Costumes by Tess Schofield also lend subtle support.) This Design not only looks good it is a very effective tool in the storytelling. Perhaps the best element. No, the Sound Design/Composition by Paul Charlier is also greatly evocative.

These two plays have ringing contemporary issues. CITIZENS, the first play, is set against a fabricated cement block wall forced down stage close to the front. The acting area is a narrow passage way covered in pebble waste from the wall .It is monolithic and had deliberate imaginative reverberations, for me, of the Israeli West Bank Wall. Pamela Rabe making her debut as a Director at the STC has prepared a production of some real promise. The Lighting and Sound Design she paces deliberately and patiently to create atmosphere and a sense of passing time. The contrivance of the writer is to have vignettes of characters in pairs or threesomes play out their hopes and agonies as they traverse across it from one side to the other .It begins with the squeaky sound of a wheel barrow off stage and then the entrance of an old man, Rasid (John Gaden) pushing a barrow carrying a root trussed orange tree sapling, accompanied by a young boy. They stop and rest, talk and move on. There follows other groupings: An old man and his daughter traveling to a funeral under a bright yellow patterned umbrella; three young men collecting stones from the debris of the wall with sling shots in hand; a pregnant woman and husband wheeling their property to hopefully a safer place for the birth of their child. It reminded me of a Brechtian device. It also reminded me of a Peter Handke play THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER where people cross a village square for an hour. We watch and endow these characters with history and meaning. That text has no spoken dialogue and there were times when you wished that these characters in CITIZENS had less or none. When I stated that Pamela Rabe had made a “promising “debut I mean that Ms Rabe knows this Company of Actors well and has elicited a set of performances that reflected a more considered set of choices then what we have habitually expected of them. They appear to have been challenged by one of their own (Pamela Rabe is a member of the Acting Ensemble usually) that was not content to settle for their usual offers. It was exciting to see Peter Carroll offer a really wonderful physicalisation; Brandon Burke offering a subtler vocal and physical creation other than his usual uncouth brutaliser; Eden Falk giving a straight forward clear unfussy reading of a straight forward youth etc. It was “promising“ only because it fell down in the emphasis of expression of the text. The actors erred on “gilding the lily” both in textual and physical delivery. They still felt tempted to theatrically point the moments. In saying after an exhaustive walk across the stage “we have a LITTLE way to go”; or anticipate and then hold a physical take on spilt water for an unnatural length of time is not to trust the writing and worse to underestimate the audience to do its own thinking. Putting it together as a co-collaborator. The actors wore their hearts and nerves on their sleeves instead of trusting that their knowledge and observation from the rehearsal would be enough to allow it to be expressed simply and with restraint. When Peter Carroll sings his text in what seems to me an old John Gielgud style from the 1930’s where sound is of more importance than sense or truth and is joined by other cast members in a similar rendition of the text, or where the physical responses to textual clarity are overplayed, then maybe the Director is not in full control of the performers because this text, I think, needs to be more simply expressed, Daniel Keene’s text needs to be trusted. To quote Kenneth Tynan the acting does not need to “seize you by the lapel and yell secrets into your ear; humanity itself, not the romantic individualist ,is what it is seeking to explore” Real people rather than the actor’s tendency to give us life as melodrama. Ms Rabe’s work is on the verge of solving the piece, it just requires more courage from the actors to withhold so that the audience can endow and experience it with them instead of being told what to think and feel. We are asked to watch them instead of sharing with them. This play has a European sensibility. It has observed the human condition at “the wall” and felt pain and desolation. It simply asks us to look at what life is for some people and for us to make the connection. There is a touch of sentimentality in the acting. Don’t you find when the emotion is too strong, we, as a Culture have a tendency to deflect it into sentimentality to make it easier to deal with?

Certainly one felt this need to deflect from the emotional mirror that SOLDIERS was asking of its audience. The audience grasped for laughter in the early stages of the performance I attended to avoid the content of the play. Every swear word was a release the audience seized upon to make things less difficult to endure. How do we respond to watching families gathering for the imminent return of dead soldiers from a war zone? (How more pertinent now with the death of Jason Marks in Afghanistan?) It is an uncomfortable place to be. What Daniel Keene has to say, the comforts, the conflicts, the grievings are uncomfortably relevant (especially on ANZAC DAY EVE).

The Acting Company knew that the play was important in airing such diverse viewpoints. They loved their writer and their scenes and text and they showed us how much. Tim Maddock (the Director) seemed to have lost control of this outpouring of love and sense of responsibility, for the play diminished into an exhausting performance of emotional states. The text got buried beneath the actor’s need to show us how to feel. The Actor is a story teller. They are there, we trust, to tell us a story not to demonstrate their feelings. Unfortunately these actors let the text become secondary to their truthful but overpowering feeling. The text became wearisome, the poetry incomprehensible. The text was Sung.

The play began well with a large black space (a hanger) a small door opened and a powerful white light pierced the gloom, John Gaden as Tom Lewis entered, sat on a chair and wept powerfully and noisily. It had the power of Greek Tragedy. He silenced himself. Stood up and exited. Closed the door. The profundity of a Greek Theatre Primal Experience left us in nervous anticipation. Unfortunately, what followed was sentimentality and glowering symbolism. The pushing of huge hangar doors open and shut (to show us the brilliant lighting Design presumably). Actors entered and exited. Later actors stood together on two immobile trailers in a sculptural arrangement and stared at two other actors draped on the floor. A little boy ran round the stage with a model aeroplane and buzzed the grieving Aunt interminably. It lacked restraint. It lacked the dignity of the Human trying to function under great duress. It did not give the audience space to begin to imagine and participate with them. The actors wanted to show us what the emotion was. What we should be feeling. This powerful text became an exhausting mire of actor’s love. It was “sung “with operatic orchestration of choking emotion.

Glimpses of what I felt was needed came from Marta Dusseldorp but she had not enough to do to lead the company and no support with her partners to imprint the style. Luke Mullins and Ewen Leslie likewise were impressive and showed the way. One longs from this company a Helen Weigel or a galvanizing Olivier to take the work to another place. The Actors Company seems to be too egalitarian in its respectful ensemble. The Tall Poppy trembles??!!! All of these actors are gifted, we trust, and of the best potential in their profession but no one in the company has led the way. Each company member must have the potential individually, otherwise why are they there, and we are left unsatisfied as an audience. With Cate Blanchett joining the Company in The War of The Roses will we see that ingredient that seems to hold this Company from becoming the Must SEE of our dreams?

THE SERPENT’S TEETH by Daniel Keene is sign of a maturing Company. The choice to place it in the repertoire and give it such resources begins to intimate that our Artistic Directors and the Organisation they are leading are believing that their audiences are wanting more than Entertainment. This production does not succeed but it needs to be supported because it augurs well for our future. Our times on stage. The venerable English Critic Michael Billington wrote recently that the ideal theatre experience has wrapped up in it, three E’s. ENTERTAINMENT. ENLIGHTENMENT. ECSTASY. With consistent challenge in the repertoire, for all of us concerned, this will happen. It requires Time, Courage, Respect and Audacity.

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