Sauna Productions & inc.studios in association with B Sharp present the Australian Premiere of QUEEN C by Laura Ruohonen, translated by David Hackston. At the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.
"Sauna productions was founded in 2004 by Yvonne Strzechowski and Ona Nurkkala with the aim of bringing Nordic theatre to Australian audiences." Their partner in this enterprise "inc.studios was established in 2006 by actor/producer Nicole da Silva. inc.studios aims to bring contemporary stories from across the globe to Australian audiences. Its focus is on creating more roles for women both on and off the stage." These aspirations are honourable and one could add that it is also a way to provide opportunities for themselves to practice their own performance crafts. Two of the named founders of the Production Companies have cast themselves in principal roles, including the role of Descartes, which presumably could be played by a man.
It is a very interesting choice of play. This production introduces a Finnish author, Laura Ruohonen, who I have never come across before and it is exciting to have a widening of one's contemporary Dramatic Literature experiences. The Producing Companies have also had the perspicacity to invite one of Sydney's more adventurous and accomplished freelance directors, Kate Gaul, to work with them on the presenting of this material to the Sydney audience.
Kate Gaul in some of the pre-publicity material is quoted as saying that "The biggest challenge though, is that if this play was performed in Europe people would already know who the character was and they would bring their own knowledge of history to the production." (Sydney Star Observer.) Kate Gaul goes on to say that the Sydney audiences lack of knowledge of the life of Queen Christina of Sweden may be some obstacle to the full appreciation of the play. This is a fairly accurate prediction. The play by Ms Ruohonen is written in metaphor and does assume that the audience has some grasp of the facts that she plays poetic games with.Kate Gaul goes on to say that "the play creates an allegory around the details of Christina's life". In my dictionary an allegory is "the figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another; a presentation of an abstract or spiritual meaning under concrete or material forms " or "a symbolic narrative " or "an emblem." Because the "concrete" of Christina's life is assumed by the writer in this text it is relatively difficult to follow the in and outs of the journey of the play: "a synthesis of inner and outer worlds." In this experience, ignorance of Queen Christina's life is not bliss.
On top of the textual problems that Ms Ruohonen gives us, Ms Gaul gives a brilliantly conceived production full of a wonderfully imaginative theatrical vocabulary both in styles and gestures. The production "is conveyed through movement, music, the use of puppetry, and live multimedia". It is dense with "a constantly and rigorously inventive production ". (SMH -Stephen Dunne, 1st Dec.)" The Set and Costume design (Kate Shanahan) is wondrously invented and dexterously executed. The statements in the costume design providing a cornocopia of invitation for the audience to metaphorically solve. The multi set changes are swift, and on the night I saw it, flawless, in the transitions. The Lighting Design (Verity Hampson) is as usual both exciting and sympathetic to the action of the play. Most stimulating and arresting of all is the Composition and Sound design (Daryl Wallis). This is a very extensive and inventive score. Beautiful and supportive to the production. I don't think there is a moment in the performance where the sound is not creatively present. Again in other notes we are told "The play is surreal."
Well, then why doesn't it work in the theatre?
For my guest and I, in the theatre, this was truly a surreal experience. For without a knowledge of Christina's history, the text is a mystery of poetic weaving. The production compounds the number of dilemmas that we had in participating in the experience - too much to deal with. Surreal, in that the production and play seems to be "the expression of imagination uncontrolled by reason,and seeking to suggest the activities of the unconscious". (Like Strindberg's A DREAM PLAY.) QUEEN C needs a factual reality for us to begin the journey in this production. This does not happen.
However, neither the writing nor the production would have been impenetrable if the performers had been up to the demands of the work. None of the actors have the vocal or physical skills to express the complexity of the ideas/narrative of the text or really meet the demands of the director's super structure. All these actors seem to me to be way out of there depth. Viva Blanca and Natalia Ladyko represent the masculine and feminine elements of the queen. They exist on stage, beside each other, all of the play. Viva Blanca as the male - suited Christina has most of the responsibility. Unfortunately, Ms Blanca has neither the vocal flexibility in the sound of her instrument or the ease to use that instrument in expressing the language and arguments of the character: it is a blather of unpleasant noise with no real intellectual arc in the speech's dramaturgy. Co-herency textually is a hit and miss experience, it is mostly miss. Physically, the choice is mostly hands in the pockets swagger. Ms Ladyko has less to do and say and comes off best of the two queens. Nicole da Silva gives the most coherent performance. But what does the cross gender casting of Ona Nurkkala as Descartes set out to achieve? (Other than to give the actress something to act.) Descartes comes out of this production as a naughty ill child. If this play is only "an adult fairytale" then this may be acceptable but I suspect it is something more. Genevieve Mooy, an actress I generally admire, was unable to keep the play afloat by herself and then was tempted, and transgressed into some over the top gestures that just did not become comprehensible. All the men in the cast were inadequate in their roles. One seemed to be superfluous! All the actors are "enthusiasts", admirable in that way but not expert enough to tackle this work. It seems to be a case where the producers of this production in the casting of the work have made some errors of judgment. A case of "vaulting ambition oér leaping itself to fall on the other side." (Although there is a teasing note in the Sydney Star Observer pre-publicity article that intimates, perhaps, that even in Europe this play has mystified audiences.)
The historic figure of Queen Christina has indeed become "an icon for feminists and gay and lesbian artists." Christina was educated as a Royal Prince, heir to the throne of Sweden, and brought up to lead an army, and the dilemma of an educated thinker and a powerful woman in the Seventeenth century, led Christina to abdicate and pursue a life of intellectual enlightenment across Europe, ending in Rome. Her sense of her own sexuality was controversially and publicly explored by her, and because of who she was, left relatively immune to the period consequences. (Death.) The 1977 play, QUEEN CHRISTINA by Pam Gems, deals with her history in a much more co-herent and (then) contemporary way. (1977 feminism: duty versus biological urges). The pre-occupation of Gems in the using the life of Christina is different in emphasis to Ruohonen and is still, well worth reading, even today.
For those of you who have never seen the Greta Garbo film it is a must. In today's terms it is a fairly silly romantic melodrama, but Miss Garbo and her director (Rouben Mamoulian )were very intelligent subversives and one can read through "coded" acting some glimmers of the true story of the Queen's disposition and dilemma. (Besides there are some very famous moments of screen acting history that you CAN savour, especially the long last lingering shot of Garbo sailing from her homeland after her abdication.) There is also another film called THE ABDICATION with Liv Ullman as the Queen. With these experiences QUEEN C might be more penetrable for you. But I had all of these and a recent bio-graphy in my memory and failed to grasp the play.
It is a vital contribution by these two companies Sauna Productions and inc.studios to choose and introduce new writers to the Australian audiences. There mission being Nordic writers. However the responsibility of doing the writer justice is as equally vital. Ms Ruohonen remains a mystery to me.
The inventive direction of Ms Gaul still leaves me curious as to what she will do with her own company's (Siren Theatre Company) production of RICHARD 111 at Carriageworks in May, 2009.
Take your own chance. Mr Dunne in the SMH enjoyed it. So might you.......
This is a Co-Op production.
Playing now until 21 December. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.