B SHARP presents KILLER JOE by Tracy Letts at the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.
There has been a BUZZ around this production. I made sure I got there despite my schedule and the uncommunicative Box Office at Belvoir. I rang twice, hung on twice for almost ten minutes and finally walked to the theatre, the day before, to get my ticket. Now isn’t that dedication to my pursuit of a good time?
Part of the reason why, may be the reputation of the writer. Tracy Letts, an American writer, is the new flavour of the year. His play, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY first presented at STEPPENWOLF Theatre in Chicago opened last year on Broadway and has won a stream of prestigious awards: eg Pulitzer prize 2008 and the Tony Award 2008.
(It will be presented at The Melbourne Theatre Company next year. [Not on the Sydney horizon yet! Poor old Sydneysiders, by the time the big and latest “hits” get to us, if they ever do, the zeitgeist has swallowed them up and the world looks back at us and laughs: "You culturally deprived suckers, you!" How is it we get left out of the contemporary "red hot" loop? I mean ROCK AND ROLL came to us late from Melbourne, years after its international debut. THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA?, seen years ahead of us down there in frosty Melbourne. FROST/NIXON been and gone in Melbourne. No sight of it in Sydney. AHHHH, what is the problem? The leading Company in Australia is where? Look at The South Bank Art Precinct stretching conveniently from Federation Square across the city with amazing Art facilities to the Malthouse and you might have an inkling of a Community / Government that values the contribution that a healthy and an international contemporary ARTS Community can give its citizens. Even the title of the Sydney Festival in contrast, say to Adelaide and Melbourne ARTS Festivals is worth noting.]) Forgive the digression.
As I said there is a buzz about his production. Well lets see why. This Director (Iain Sinclair) has decided that this play might work well if we follow the wishes of the writer. Lets set it with the Set and Costume design, where the writer sees it. Lets encourage the actors to investigate the Texan dialect, both its sounds and rhythms, and lets give it a go. Lets not set it in the desert of South Australia or the miasma of the Queensland boondocks with those Aussie sounds and rhythms, which I think I can do. And now, lets attempt to follow the written instructions of the writer and see what eventuates. If he suggests a near state of complete undress lets try it. If he suggests violence lets do it. And lets do it at some level of full throttle commitment. Etc, etc. Lets trust, that the writer knows how to make his play work, and treat him as GOD. "In the beginning there was the word and the word "should" be made flesh." Holy Toledo, it works! Oh Wow!!! It is like some someone has found the pot of Gold. TRUST THE WRITER. Let’s not rewrite him to fit our skills. Let’s expand ourselves to match this particular man’s vision of the world. Not everything needs to be set in Australia for us to identify with. We do have television. We do go to the movies. I believe the world can be both universal and particular at the same time. I / we are not dummies. So at the risk of sounding facetious, congratulations to the KILLER JOE artistic company for the courage to accept the challenge of the WRITER. Imagine the Australian version of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. It’s set in Texas for a very good reason. And you know what. I /we get it. Mr Sinclair does to.
There is a feel of veracity (for most of this work) and a tempo of risk that is palpably present in the space. It is quite exciting to be in, for an audience. We were not going to be allowed to be passive observers. It looks right (set and costumes by Luke Ede) . The lighting (Matt Cox) takes risks of being “Authentic” in atmosphere. The sound, unfortunately, (Jake Phillips) has good effects but poor engineering. (Maybe the engineering system was eaten up by the requirements of the music presence of a live band (The Snowdroppers) but it was a kind of diminished noise and the effects were not very well developed. It seemed to me that the same storm happened every time, over the passage of weeks in the narrative, both the lightning flashes and the sound!!!
The actors had a general energy of drive, highly staked characters. They had a go at the dialect and it was a fairly even success rate of achievement, nothing drew to an attention of doubt -there was at least, a consistency. From the dynamic entrance of Sharla (Anita Hegh) naked except for a T-shirt, scratching her privates to the menace of Killer Joe Cooper, (Christopher Stollery) one is thrown into, without a single second of apology an uncompromising world of "rednecks" and a family on the edge of a kind of culturally permitted insanity.
Christopher Stollery, maybe, taking some cues from Javier Badem, and then adding some dark fantasies of his own, creates a memorable scary “mother fucker”. Mr Stollery does not hold back and there is never a false move from him. I’ve never seen him better. Mr Stollery keeps this world alive for our imaginings. He leads this company well. While most of the rest of the acting is good, it is not completely satisfying. The character journey of Sharla is quite a twisted trail, and I was not really interested in the character until almost too late. Mr Letts has given opportunities for clue giving earlier than ones seized by this actor. Maeve Dermody (Dottie) does not quite have the theatrical energy of the rest of the company. There is something more going on than just mere intellectual diminishment. (I was also distracted at the detail of a bare hand handling of a long heated dish coming from the microwave. Both the bowl and the lid were handled without burning the flesh. A very strange anomaly in a production that emphasised the reality of its details. A cloth or gloves!!) On the night I saw it Mr Josh Quong Tart (Ansel) and Mr Robin Goldsworthy (Chris) seemed to be overstating their choices. I tended to read accurate characteristics or in acting terms “secondary activities” (Nose scratching blinks and other physical tics, dirty underwear, wet clothes because of the outside rain [well Mr Quong Tart was wet, Mr Goldsworthy must have had an umbrella!!]) They were external indications, glued on rather than motivated from the psychological needs of the character’s internal life. It became slightly irritating, mostly because it was just a fraction short of convincing. It was been shown to me rather than experienced. These actors were acting. This was not real like I had almost convinced my senses to experience. Oh, bummer, I am in a theatre.
Besides the work of Chrisropher Stollery what really keeps you going is the fabulous story skills of Mr Letts. The twists and turns, the rise and fall of tensions, the black and often unexpected humour are surprising and hypnotically addictive. When you read his other texts: AUTUMN:OSAGE COUNTY and even a more freaky story BUG you are reminded of the dazzling writing of Martin MacDonagh (THE PILLOWMAN etc). This is very witty and scary stuff. The essence of great story telling.
The Director Iain Sinclair is fairly well on the mark in his approach to this play. More discipline with his actors and a less cerebral wrapping around the text would probably less inhibit the result. The "essay" in the program about Terror and/or Horror is maybe a bit over the top in your real concerns with this play. Here is a great story. Here are a collection of crazy people. Just get on with that. This may be reminiscent of Sam Shepard (CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS, BURIED CHILD, TRUE WEST, A LIE OF THE MIND) but Mr Lett’s poetry and thematics are secondary, it seems to me, arguably, to his intentions. Mr Sinclair is just a little too well organized, the playing of his production is too particular, too neat. It has not the real danger of “apparent” spontaneity. There is a careful strain to details (Look at the film of ATONEMENT and see where too much ART kills a story.)
I had a good time but I was not completely convinced. Most of the rest of the audience I was with were. (Hey, what a party pooper. I didn’t like the band interruptions to the impetus of the story for instance. I would have probably cut them, but then it is an interesting idea. (After all Sam tried it with A LIE OF THE MIND, and unfortunately, it sunk, in practice, that production too!!)
This is, once again another outstanding piece of theatre that is a CO-OP production. Take note major funded houses. It's cheaper and much, much more exciting. A pity the artists aren’t paid.
Playing now until 2 November. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.