Vassily Sigarev a contemporary Russian writer has had three of his plays presented in Sydney: PLASTICINE (2000); BLACK MILK (2002) and now LADYBIRD (2004). Each of these plays deal with the desolation of parts of the Russian society in the era of Putin’s government. The lower depths of the very recent past time. Some commentators have, in an attempt to define Mr Sigarev’s niche, suggested him as the contemporary Gorky or Dostoyevsky. This may be somewhat premature. Certainly in the “world“ of his plays there are some similarities but the qualities of the writing have yet to verify the accuracy of such comparisons. Historically, dramatically each of the translated plays (In this case Sasha Dugdale, with “Localised [adaptation] by Ian Meadows and the cast”) that we have seen, have not necessarily developed "LADYBIRD lacks the panoramic vigour and range of his BLACK MILK or the novelty, tension and psychological astuteness of PLASTICINE." It seems to me that LADYBIRD is the lesser of the three plays we have experienced. The weakest, and there is a sense of the writer been stuck and in a mode of repetition. If you have seen either of the other two plays, as far as the writing is concerned, there may be no reason to see LADYBIRD. If you haven’t seen any of this writer’s work then do go. There is an observation of a world in an “exotic” locale registered with “a grim humour and brutality” that is sometimes, even in this production, evocative and sympathetic to the people living in it. Flawed but basically raw. Although Michael Gow’s THE KID had more impact for me last year at the Griffin.
In the squalor of a run down apartment block on the outskirts of a Russian city, next to a graveyard, the living and the dead exist in close proximity. Who are the dead? Dima, the principal character, declares early in the play: ”We’re the dead”. Dima (Ian Meadows), a nineteen year old boy is having farewell drinks with some of his friends before joining the army which will likely take him to Chechnya - at least he will be relatively well paid. Slavik (Eamon Farren), a twenty two year old heroin addict; Lera (Sophie Ross), a twenty year old, using prostitution as a way to survive and also deluded by the most obvious scam of on-line shopping; Yul’ka (Yael Stone), the cousin and eighteen, a middle class kid with the will and cruelty that the relatively sanctioned position of wealth and education can give some, slumming it for a day; Arkasha (Adam Booth), a low rung Russian mafia dealer in black market goods; and The Waster (Slava Orel), Dima’s father, aged fifty, and tragically mired in desperate and irredeemable alcoholism. The farewell party is a depressing unravelling of the consequences of the collisions of this unprepossessing group. A “bleak dispatch” from a ruined and anchorless place.
On the page, this is a grim, more or less, piece of Russian naturalism. This production, directed by Lee Lewis, has, with her artists, explored several different ideas to propel the work. Firstly, Ms Lewis with her Set Designer, Justin Nardella, have created a set, an acting space, that appeals more as a very sophisticated Art Installation than practical space for the staging of the play. It attempts to conceptualise and present a metaphor of the sordid world of the play. A spectacular cascade of rubbish of all kinds spills down from the upstage, left hand corner, a heaped pile of black gleaming metal stones dominates the area. On it are several, maybe six or seven, activated TV screens. The AV artist (Andrew Wholley) has organised independent images of on-line shopping programs, newsreel and a lot of faded static. There is also a filmed, silent sequence of an expurgated scene from the play (that if you don’t know the text you may not notice and certainly won’t make cognitive sense of, although it is a fairly startling and corrosively ugly part of the written play - the murder and robbery of a house bound old woman by one of the party goers). As art in a gallery space it is very impressive. (The lighting (Luiz Pampolha) is exquisite in its framing of the image and in working with the illumination of the actors.) As a functional set design for this play it seems to pose staging problems that are not always solved. The clambering necessities that some of the actors are required to navigate are often precarious and, for my part unnecessarily obfuscating in serving the text’s narrative clarity.
In the foyer of the theatre, in some of the interviews and publicity for the production, some of the actors talk of the exploration of a style of acting that is not “performative” but rather a real world, real life sensibility. Ms Ross (as Lera) is the bravest in this attempt to investigate this idea. However, in the flattening of the dramatic intentions of the translator, and one presumes the original writer, the style of talking “naturally” transmutes the information in the speeches into blurred and gabbled broadcasts of sound. The dramatic narrative is not clearly elucidated. It takes some time to catch what Lera is on about. Having read the play, I caught some of it, but some of my fellow audience, afterward, had to have the narrative lines translated for them. There is undoubtedly a truthfulness to the character, in the sense that it sounds like a real person in conversation, but as Lera is a stranger to most of us, neither her inarticulate ramblings or character tics are embedded with us, so as in real life when a stranger fails to communicate, one tunes out. Ms Ross is amazingly convincing as a real person but in the context of the theatre and the kind of writing that Mr Sigarev has constructed for his play, with the translator, the clarity of conveying detailed information to the audience either as story or character in any decipherable manner is sacrificed. The observable passion and inhabiting by Ms Ross of Lera is no substitute for responsibility to Mr Sigarev or the paying audience. This is an attempt at ultra realism. It does not work as storytelling. Mr Farren seems to be bewildered by the complexity of presenting an addict with such little text. He squirms about the space allowing the sweating gluing of the set metallic stones to his body and face to do his work for him - this is an addict that in a little time is desperate enough to rob and murder to ease his need. (I don’t think so!) While Mr Orel does well as a narrator’s voice, the drunk Waster is not believable.
This ultra realism attempted in the speech work is subverted by the production with a lack of consistent attention to visual detail. In this experiment of discovering a mode of speaking the text, the parallel sense of ultra realism in the physical characterisation seems to have been neglected. Lera talks of having "this rotten tooth" and that "When I get this money, I’ll have a posh filling and bridges made of platinum or whatever". Yet Ms Ross flashes a mouthful of sparkling white and healthy looking molars. A dentist would seem to be low on her order of priorities. Similarly Mr Farren and Mr Orel presenting addicts of the most desperate kind have heads of hair, at least on the afternoon I saw the performance, that would be the envy in gloss and health of most people and very excellent models for shampoo products. Do not these actors have make up skills? It is this sense of carelessness that is irritating and undermines my belief in this company’s investigation of presenting a real world on stage instead of the “performative” or theatrical one. Sometimes it feels as if it is the condescending choices of middle class westerners slumming it with selection to create, only half heartedly, the degradation of this world. Recent Russian cinema is mostly unflinching in its depiction of this side of the Putin Society. (Even the Australian TV News bulletins have not shrunk from the hideous reality that the Department of Child Society (DOCS) have revealed of late as part of our own lifestyles in the perimeters of Sydney society.) What we get is Art Gallery Installation. The costumes (Alice Babidge) go some way to creating a world that one could believe but it is not enough if the actors neglect to develop a make up to support the world they say they inhabit. (Maybe they had a casting session for a movie the next day. Or am I being to cynical? Or demanding?)
The exception to this and the reason to see this production is the charismatic and thoroughly convincing creation of Dima by Mr Meadows. The shaved head, the costume and its wearing and the whole hearted imaginative belief in the character and his world along with Dima’s aspirations and revelation of his motives in such a hell hole of decay and depravity is mightily moving. The scene between Dima and the strangely morally corrupted eighteen year old Yul’ka is spellbinding in its truly abhorrent twists and turns. Ms Stone as Yul’ka is also truly mesmerising in this duologue. The coldness and the evil calculation of a lost and despairing soul that only has sadistic malignancy as a way to satisfy her reason to exist is scary to watch. It speaks to the tragedy of some of the lost youth of contemporary culture around the world and presages a terrible possibility of a future of ‘robotic’ emotionally stunted terrorists inhabiting our society. The contrasted innocent and hopeful soul of Dima on the verge of flying away like the ladybird but been tempted to suicide is Greek in its siren call. The story development is a relief.
The creation of Yul’ka is an example of this writer not being on his best “genius”. The turn in the character is under prepared for and no matter how effective, is essentially melodramatic in its conception. The use of the ladybird imagery is also sentimental and flimsy and more than slightly arbitrary and incongruous, especially in the physical environment Mr Nardella and Ms Lewis has provided for us. How any living creature could survive in it is questionable. It is part of the tragedy of the source of the play.
All in all I was bored by this play, because, Mr Sigarev had not moved on from his other work which I had already seen. It lacked the need to vary and extend himself as a dramatist. It suffered from “repetitive strain injury”. I was bewildered by the production that lacked consistency in its investigations of form. I was excited by the scene between Ms Stone and Mr Meadows, and positively moved by the work of Mr Meadows. Both these actors were nominated as Best Newcomers to the acting scene in Sydney last year and this work validates such observation.
Playing now until 12 April. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.