Sunday, August 24, 2008

Saturn's Return

SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY present WHARF 2LOUD; SATURN’S RETURN by Tommy Murphy at Wharf 2.

“Write what you know.”


In almost every biography one has read about the great literary figures this "write what you know" is a constant mantra of advice. This is what Mr Murphy has gone on to do so well. Beginning with TROY’S HOUSE a “story of a group of teenagers at the end of their schooling”. STRANGERS IN BETWEEN about a young boy fleeing his home and attempting to discover who he might be in the alien world of a big city: Sydney’s King Cross, and confronting his relationship with his family through the demands of his brother. HOLDING THE MAN, an adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s memoir about two male lovers and their fate in the early year’s of the AIDS epidemic and the effect it had on that community of family and friends. Now, as the writer himself approaches the age of 30, he chronicles for his generation "Y" (and the rest of us) "a major rite of passage" that many astrologers consider "to mark, the 'true beginning' of adulthood, self-evaluation independence, responsibility, ambition, and full maturation." The return of Saturn in our astronomical history occurs approximately every 29.5 years. Astrologically Saturn being “associated with time, challenge, fear, doubt, confusion, difficulty, seriousness, heaviness, unwanted burdens, and hard lessons “as well as some positive things ‘such as structure, significance, accomplishment, reflection, power, prestige, maturity, responsibility and order.”

In SATURN’S RETURN the principal character Zara, in a comfortable long standing relationship with Matt, is dealing unconsciously with the return of Saturn into her astrological chart (he too). At the end of the first scene Zara is confronted with the need to re-evaluate her response to Matt’s declaration of “I love you”. She hesitates. He notices. She denies it. “They kiss. They move towards sex.” But there is “ NOISE. NOISE. NOISE.” It could just be the terrible plumbing in their apartment building (as it is in Schimmelpfennig’s ARABIAN NIGHT,co-incidentally playing at the Stables Theatre) or a metaphor for change, a cleansing coming.

The rest of the play, short five scene episodes, deal with the couple’s journey through this patch of living. It deals mainly with Zara’s decisions and journey, and the consequences on herself and Matt. This is about a couple of “middle class, energetic empowered Sydneysiders.” A hedonistic life of sex drugs and partying has been lived. Matt has just entertained his young nephew with a creative “playschool” game of make believe and building: a rocket ship and uniform; the remains of it lying around. Zara returns home and in the debris of playtime they talk of junkies, plumbing, sexual threesomes, sex on drugs, yoga, candles and petals, bathing together, saving for a house deposit, cancer, dementia, their car (tank, bomb),soundproofing, recycling, pot, Blue Mountains weekend sex idylls, parental divorce, grey nomading: all the concerns of a generation. Generation Y in 2008. The play bends a little with time and realities and ends up back in the playschool of a certain middle class life style where TIME and CHANGE need to be addressed, on a “playschool boat on a “playschool ocean”. Zara makes a decision and steps out of the playschool boat to…??!!! This is a very neat play. It may be just a little too neat but it certainly is a fairly charming and interesting new addition to the cannon of Australia’s dramatic literature.

David Berthold in the AFTERWORD of the printed text gives a very erudite dramaturgical breakdown of the play. As he does in his introduction to the Currency Press Introductions to Tommy Murphy’s two previous plays: STRANGERS IN BETWEEN and HOLDING THE MAN. This is Tommy Murphy’s and David Berthold’s eighth collaboration. It has been almost exclusive. And maybe Mr Berthold should remain the dramaturge and not also the director of the first production of the works because what he and Mr Murphy know about the play is not obvious in the production. (I found it so at the original showing of STRANGERS IN BETWEEN at the Stables years ago.) It is staged but not as carefully directed as it could be. The knowledge that the collaborators have is too second nature for them and so I found the directing in action on the stage makes assumptions about what is clear to them but maybe not to the audience watching it for the first time. The playing of the material is just not careful enough. It tends to skim where it should reveal. It makes too many assumptions of clarity where it is most dense and needs gentler explication.

I found the style of performance that Leeanna Walsman (as Zara) and Matthew Zeremes (as Matt) were playing in, in the first scene, confusing as well. It was on the night I attended fairly actorly. It appeared artificial and I could not discern whether it was deliberate or not. It appeared that they were acting in a representational style. Not that they were Being the characters but rather that were Representing the characters. Were mouthpieces rather than real people. Ms Walsman tended to talk at her fellow actors; her reactions seemed to be contrived and obviously rehearsed. In fact I thought it was robotic. (In Mr Murphy’s diary on the STC website he actually at one stage considered that, as an option: that Zara was a robot! April 16th 2007). Ms Walsman did not think her text to motivate either her verbal or physical responses nor did she really listen to the other actor except for cues, either pre-determined story points or literal cues. The vocal colour was very limited and the pitch and volume stayed in a fairly narrow expressive usage (a consistent over projection, a kind of elocution.). Mr Zeremes seemed bewildered as how to react to her offers. It appeared awkward. This was brought into focus when Socratis Otto appeared as Brendan in the second scene. This actor created a believable human being. Brendan demanded empathy from me. It was not a satiric representational style it was a heightened naturalism. This did not impinge on Ms Walsman’s playing style seemingly blithely unaware of the offers being made to her, however, in contrast Mr Zeremes found an ease and a comparatively less mannered delivery and response in the work with Mr Otto. Something real was in transaction and had a believable cause and affect that I could read as an audience member. I saw this on the play’s second performance and there was an uneasy feel in the audience on how to respond. The actors were not in control of us they were oblivious to our presence.

The set design (Adam Gardnir) looked as if it were executed on a shoe-string budget;some clever surprises built in but essentially it looked cool, bleak and uninviting. The lighting (Luiz Pampolha) was similarly cool. The sound a feel of retro trendy (Basil Hogios) After the recent presentations of GUILT FRAME and MANNA, the Wharf 2Loud program returns to the more conventional work of the STC. Certainly, it is the most accomplished writing I have seen in this space at this stage of development.

“A bewitching playwright of startling originality” says Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton. Well, bewitching maybe right, but on this outing I wouldn’t claim it as original, unless you mean "created personally by a particular artist". If you mean inventive or novel you are probably pushing it. As an empathetic social observer of a particular strata of the middle class constituency one could say so, of generation “Y” much like David Williamson was, is, for the “baby boomers”. There is the difference. Maybe the originality.

Playing now until 6 September. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.

5 comments:

Jasmin said...

I loved the on-page potential of the opening scenes - especially the role-play/sex-fantasy scene in the Orbit Lounge - but after that things seemed to fall apart very quickly. Scenes seemed to be pretty much unconnected to each other [I'm still wondering whether the Amsterdam scene was real or as fake as Ms W's wig] and I'm not sure what makes you say this play is neat. It seems a fragmented, incoherent mess to me.

What was the boat ride? What happened to the baby? I cared more about that than the characters.

The sheepish smiles of the actors at the curtain call suggest to me they also feel this emperor has no clothes...

As for the acting - which I agree undermined that first scene - I'm pretty certain the acting is not the result of a chosen style. It seems to me to be the inherent result of casting Ms Walsman and Mr Zeremes. Her vocal work has [in my experience] always been flat, dull and unexpressive. This seems to stem from her forced attempts to create volume. Mr Z seems to enjoy a very spare style of performing. The blank canvas on which the audience is free to project their own response. It bewilders me as all I take from his work is the character's lack of engagement. When he spoke John's 'I love you' towards the end of "Holding the Man" I thought it without any conviction. Similar things here - Zara didn't say 'I love you' and it didn't really seem to bother him - but just made him a little curious in a minor sort of way.

Which was maybe a bit more than I felt in the end.

jason said...

Tommy is often heralded as the voice of our generation. Big shoes to fill but no-one can dispute his talents. But in this case I feel someone might have needed to gently push him and his collaborators back onto the track they seem to have lost sight of. The audience looked confused and alienated. Bored even? Why, if it was as great as all the critics are saying was I even looking about at the others watching the play?
It felt like an unimportant piece of theatre.
I wish somebody would commission tommy to write something political. Play school only entertains most people until they can walk.

Anonymous said...

I'm so relieved to read that you too thought Leeanna Walsman's performance was rigid and lacking depth. As a Gen 'Y' I found it very hard to relate to her. Unfortunately she was not warm and engaging and I was expecting more.

Anonymous said...

I am so pleased to hear that others found this play to be disappointing after reading many positive reviews in mainstream media.

Being in my mid-20's I felt completely misrepresented and oversimplified. The last thing we need is more people believing that all 'gen y' is concerned with is hedonistic distraction. Sex, pills, and pseudo-philosphy.

In a strange way this play almost re-inforced that it's ok to be one of these shallow, vain, uber trendy young things because it's all part of a normal stage of life you will one day shed.

I think this generation’s lifestyle, concerns and neurosis are much more complex and even noble than what appeared here and I wish sometimes we could be represented with a bit more respect.

The scene I actually did enjoy was in the hotel with the Dutch whore. I found it to be quite touching and subtle.

The acting of the lead female was emotionally impenetrable. She showed no compassion for the character she performed, so neither did our audience. Had she not been so camp, perhaps this would have been a more engaging play.

Anonymous said...

Saturn's Return is a one big yawn - a play that requires a serious rework and whose ending falls flat leaving the audience with an akward sense of "is this finished". It is without question a waste of a ticket and over hyped. The acting is solid, but clearly such performances are undermined by the poor content they have to work with. While it came from the experimental stream at the Wharf, it does at least in the first 15 minutes show a small promise of hope of being engaging and taking you as the audience on a journey. This, sadly, is not the case. In summary, don't waste your money...see something else.