Sunday, June 1, 2008

Stoning Mary

Stoning Mary a play by debbie tucker green at the SBW STABLES THEATRE presented by FROG BATTLESHIP supported by Griffin Stablemates.

When we enter the space thirteen actors are standing in a flat straight line across the widest part of the Griffin stage. The walls are black. The floor is black. There are some bricks full and whole, strewn across the stage. Later are revealed a few precast plastic chairs with metal legs. The people on stage are cheaply dressed. The clothes of the “working poor” (Maybe Target or K Mart).The lights dim down in the auditorium and a projected slide appears on two walls. “THE AIDS GENOCIDE. …THE PRESCRIPTION” Later another projection for another scene says “A CHILD SOLDIER” and later still: “STONING MARY” The actors make stage adjustments and some begin talking. A WIFE and a HUSBAND and an ego for each. They seem to be very agitated. Strained with tension and fear both physically and vocally. They reveal that dying has come sooner to their relationship than expected and that they have a prescription for only one of them. Their frustrations with each other erupt out of them. Unpleasant and hostile. They appear to be in a right good Australian barney, frightening and on the edge of violence (It reminded me of the world that the play of THE BOYS belonged to). The Egos assist by giving us descriptions of what the characters are doing eg looking up to the skies etc as if reading a film scenario. In the next scene MUM and DAD talk about their SON. They are afraid of him. They blame and argue with each other for that occurrence. The Son has done something. Later he appears with a gleaming machete / hatchet in his hand by his side. These parents agitate each other and reveal an angry and desperately unhappy relationship. These first two scenes swap in and out with each other. The Suburban mayhem of dysfunctional relationships are accurately familiar. Then, thirdly we are presented with an oddity for an Australian suburb: that of a pathetically embittered conversation between AN ELDER SISTER and A YOUNGER SISTER. It is odd because the younger sister is apparently going to be publicly stoned to death. The verbal relationship rings true but the actual threatened event does not. It seems to be so far fetched in an Australian setting. The first two scenes we know only too well to have happened in recent history in our Australian suburbs. So I am bemused. Finally another couple have another tense debate about a prescription and then THE YOUNGER SISTER (in a black out) has her hair shaved off (presumably). It finishes with a last projected slide that says “IT RAINS”. Complete Blackout.

The audience on Opening Night applauded enthusiastically and called the actors back for a second call. And certainly the actors had displayed a virtuosic verbal dexterity and a passionate commitment, if somewhat overwrought, to charge the atmosphere in this small space with enough emotion to deserve such a response. However, on reflection the acting prowess is not enough compensation for the writing.

After the performance I read the program notes by the Director, Lee Lewis, to be told that this play is not set in Australia but in Africa. Oh, then, THE ELDER SISTER AND THE YOUNGER SISTER scenario now has a believable context, my bemusement was slightly alleviated. (Excuse my ingenuousness.) On talking to my fellow audience they too had had no clue that this was the case. If clues are in the text, production (I notice there is no Designer credited) or direction than it is so oblique that it was negligible to my experience of the performance. (I subsequently re-read the play as well and found my complaint substantiated.) It is a concept / conceit on the part of the writer. It is like looking at most Turner Art Prizes and having to read an essay to have the work explicated. Don’t you think the performance needs to stand on its own? The London critics seem to have got it. So is it the production that hasn’t found a way to make that clear to the audience?

Lee Lewis says in her notes “debbie tucker green is one of the most exciting and important contemporary playwrights on the planet”. Saying that does not make it so. The planet is a BIG place. And how well read are you? Is this the play that you wish to persuade us with about debbie tucker green? I certainly find the FORM in which she is writing promising: the attempt to write in a poetic pseudo verbatim language, a kind of contemporary poetic rap speak. (And when you read her other works, she seems to have got it down) but the CONTENT??? Is it enough to tell us how angry and nihilistic she is about a hard and cruel world to leave us in a stew of guilt and impotent despair? debbie tucker green has only written half a play. The one she has written is only 65 minutes long so she had time up her sleeve to go further. Is it not one of the great peculiarities of the Performing Arts that not only can they show us the world but it can also show us how to live in it. How to act civilly in it, how to find our humanness in it? It seems, for this writer, making a statement is enough. I don’t think so. Exciting, important playwright? Not yet. Not on the basis of this work. Promising verbal poet, I can concede.

Timing I guess is everything. And the programming of this work comes in my experiential journey in the theatre this year after a whole set of similar nihilistic doom and gloom works; MOVING TARGETS; THE KID; THE SERPENT’S TEETH; SALOME; even COLDER and I have just have become a little weary of going to the theatre to be confronted and sometimes verbally assaulted with a world that I reel in everyday anyway and offered no ways of behaving to help me have hope and do something positive for a better world . I feel this could and should be one of the contributions of the Performing Arts. If the curators of these seasons could look at variety of visions for its patrons it might help.

Nevertheless, let me point out that this project is the result of a CO-OP of Artists who are presenting this work with no real prospect of even a poverty wage re-imbursement. The contribution and skill and passion of all these people should be an object lesson for the hostile critics of artists around Australia who see them as spoilt lay-abouts leeching off the welfare of government. STONING MARY is an interesting and certainly provocative contribution to Sydney’s and Australia’s cultural fabric. Without these artists passions we would be the poorer. Thanks for the provocation. Much admired.


Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. I'm enjoying your blog.

I especially enjoy the descriptions you give of your experiences in the theatre. Your forensic eye is a valuable addition to our theatre culture.

One thing I wanted to point out is that the playwright of 'Stoning Mary' stipulates that the play must be performed by "white actors" and is set "in the country in which it is performed". It isn't set in Africa.


Anonymous said...

Technically that is so. And if so then the STONING MARY sequence is really off kilter and has no truth for an Australian setting. It really is peculiar writing then. Or is it just an unthought through conceit of the writer?

Kevin J.

Anonymous said...

None of the sequences has any truth for an Australian setting. That's the point. Local couples don't have to fight over AIDS meds. Local parents don't have to lament the loss of their children to the military. Local women don't get stoned to death. But African families have to deal with these nightmares everyday. By insisting that the actors be white, and the play be set locally, the playwright is trying to put us in the Africans' shoes. She wants us to feel these things by witnessing them happening to people like us.

I think it works. It works as a piece of writing, but it works even better on stage when you see anguished white faces, and hear the lines delivered in your own accent. Yael Stone, in particular, is superb as Mary. You can read news reports about girls being stoned in Africa, and fleetingly imagine how awful it might be to be subject to such a legal system, but nothing brings it home quite like she does.

Anonymous said...


I went it saw this last night and actually found myself totally emersed in the performance. I did however wish that the story line was a bit thicker so I could watch it untangle a little longer.

I think more than anything it was the text and how it was worked - but the cast did a fantastic job. Didn't find myself overly concerned with the when and where, but now that you mention it...
Although I think what Steve mentions works as well.

"I have just have become a little weary of going to the theatre to be confronted and sometimes verbally assaulted...."
Strongly agree with all this..Am curious to know what you would program if it was you in their position??

Bella x