Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Our Town

SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY presents Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

I saw OUR TOWN in the highly celebrated off-Broadway production in New York earlier this year directed by David Cromer (closed September 12th after 566 performances - a record, at the 199 seat Barrow Street Theatre). A few years ago I saw a production by Lee Lewis at the NEW THEATRE . It has been a part of my consciousness from my early youth. So, sitting in the Drama Theatre the other night I wondered what would my experience be.

The scale of the New York production gave the appearance of a community theatre version in the equivalent of a local School of Arts, it even had a large cast of 21 or so. That the Sydney Theatre Company production was prepared for a distancing, letter box shaped, proscenium arch and an obvious theatre design, no matter how understated, the lighting gave it away, and a much smaller cast of only 14 actors, was, initially disorienting. Theatrical, in contrast, to the realism of the other. But within minutes of the disarming simplicity of the opening of the Stage Manger’s (Darren Gilshenan) conversation with us, I was comfortably, warmly present. This is indeed a great play. No matter the number of times I have seen it or however recent it was, it still has that ability to create the ever elusive quality that we long for: ‘magic’. Transcendent belief occurs.

Thornton Wilder, in the old Penguin edition (1958) of a collection of three of his full length plays: OUR TOWN; THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH; THE MATCHMAKER tells us, “OUR TOWN is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante’s PURGATORY). It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and space. The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are ‘hundreds’, ‘thousands’ and ‘millions’. Emily’s joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents – what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living, and who will live? Each individual’s assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner. And here the method of staging finds its justification –in the first two acts there are at least a few chairs and tables; but when she revisits the earth and the kitchen to which she descended on her twelfth birthday, the very chair and table are gone. Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind –not in things, not in ’scenery’. Moliere said that for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

“It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” The minute daily ordinariness is the drama of this play. The recognition is so easy and the task that Mr Wilder gives us by stripping his stage of scenery and props, is, for us to fill in the novelistic details with our own imaginations, our own memories, our own lives. In every seat in the theatre there is a different Our Town flashing in each individual theatre-goers mind (if you are there of your own volition, I supposed.) The daily rise, the daily footfall of the denizens of the town, milkman and paper boy, the church going, the choir practice, the baseball games, the town drunk, the town gossip and other eccentrics, the familiar marriage games of give and take between the sexes, the birthdays, the milk shop sundae, the courting, the weddings and ultimately the dying, the graveyard, the cycle of our ordinary lives are given to us by the delicate threading of the Stage Manager to embroider a cloth that becomes a portrait of our town. My life, your life, everybody’s life in all times.

Mr Wilder takes us on an exploration of the “cosmic in the commonplace”.

One of my indelible memories of this play from a production way, way back in my life, maybe the Genesian Theatre in the sixties, is of the crowd/procession of large, unfurled, black umbrellas at the funeral in Act three. The ominous beauty strikes such a welling of compassion and sorrow for the frailties of the human condition that the soul is forever touched. Still and forever. In this production the grouping arranged by the Director, Iain Sinclair recaptures that discovery. That Mr Sinclair and , indeed, Mr Cromer of the recent American production, take liberties with the staging of this last great act by creating a coup de theatre, (against the instructions of Mr Wilder as per the above paragraph) in introducing a fully composed set (Pip Runciman) and costume design (Jennifer Irwin) of an early twentieth century household, on Emily’s requested visit as a spirit to her parents house, is forgivable, in that the interpolation has necessary chutzpah (!), that creates great emotional wallops of impact and does not blur the intended experience of Mr Wilder, if not, otherwise, over complicating it (Mr Cromer’s version wins, for it also had the smell of coffee and bacon and eggs- aromatic impulses that further flooded the memory tunnels). Both productions have made other re-writings, some less or more successful, depending on one’s prejudices.

The company of actors led indefatigably by Mr Gilshenan are an ensemble of equal vision and effort. A lot of these actors have appeared in other work by Mr Sinclair and the company feel of trust in each other and the director was palpable. I loved the Mrs Soames of Toni Scanlan, the steadiness and subtlety of Christopher Stollery’s Dr. Gibbs and the journey of Maeve Dermody as Emily Webb particularly. Ms Dermody, who I have seen in other work directed by Mr Sinclair seems to have found a confident space to expand her instincts in in the Drama Theatre. It worked seductively and convincingly.

The lighting of Mr Schlieper was sometimes a tad to orange/warm but illustrative and supportive of the production. Steve Toulimin acting as a period ‘foley’ sound artist in the wings captured a sense of playful invention that supported the score of Paul Charlier.

All of this work under the intelligent, considered and faithful vision and guidance by Mr Sinclair gives OUR TOWN the great respect it deserves to breathe and reveal the qualities that make it a classic of the American theatre, if not world theatre. It is a Pulitzer Prize Winner. If only the production team working on Eugene O’Neill’s A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT had been as trustful earlier in the season. Mr Sinclair has developed a reputation for his dramaturgical rigour with the writers he works with, and the quality of the work he produces as must see theatre is proof of the dedication (THE SEED, BEYOND THE NECK, KILLER JOE, HURLY BURLY, LORD OF THE FLIES).

James Waites regards TOT MUM as the chronological closure to the great arc of American theatre in The Sydney Theatre Company’s season this year but I count it as an Australian text, hybrid it may be. Sam Shepard’s TRUE WEST will be the book end clincher for me. I have high expectations of it.


James Waites said...

Fascinating review Mr Jackson and yes I think you are correct about Tot Mom - it was an Australian gig - I didn't think of it that way. I was going to comment on your writing on Fool for Love - particularly your knowledge of Shepard's work. I learned a lot. I look forward to your review of True West!

Swampy said...

I have to say - I saw this STC production of 'Our Town' a few weeks ago and I was bored sh!tless. These characters were not written to yell at each other nor bear invective in the fashion of the late C20th yet that is what we were given. I've read the play several times but had never seen it. I don't think this was the production to reveal it to me. It struck me as a production by people more interested in their own ideas and careers than the play and any audiences's response to same. There was some good work being done on stage by certain actors but the production as a whole let them down. A couple of good ideas do not a good production make and God knows the STC is guilty of that sin time and time again and this is no exception. A very disappointing and dull night in the theatre.

Anonymous said...

Indeed Our Town in a good play. I was just wondering this 'magic' that you felt, after subtracting Wilder's contribution, how much remains - that strained residue - can be interpretted as Sinclair's talent?

Did you find the style of acting adopted in this production endearing? Was it also adopted in other productions? Is it how Wilder would have envisioned it?

Kevin Jackson said...

For Swampy and in reply to banburi: OUR TOWN.

Both the recent Cromer production in New York and the Sinclair production for the STC seemed intent to avoid what might in the cruelly cynical world of 2010 be called 'sentimentality', i.e. overt sentimentality. For me they played against my fond memories of other productions but still created impact and a poetic transcendence.

The actress playing Emily in New York, for instance, was often brusque and extremely forthright in a very contemporary sense, aggressive with a liberated dominance, opinionated. It is what I felt about some of the acting in the Sydney production as well, for instance, both Mrs Webb and Mrs Gibbs seemed to play their family scenes with a contemporary aggressiveness.

Yet after reading the OUR TOWN again, and on reflection, I felt that the tough puritanical streak of the need and will to survive in the Great Depression was present, and was reflected in, for example, Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH, both the novel and the Steppenwolf production of the play, which I saw on Broadway, and have that stoic edginess about the characters and in the playing. OUR TOWN was written in 1938, THE GRAPES OF WRATH in 1939 (WAITING FOR LEFTY - Clifford Odets, 1935 - although city/urban has some pretty understated and tough emotional tones as well), a time of great hardship for the Our Towns in the countryside and Mr Wilder seems to have some of that observation. I would excuse the production emphasis as Stoic Puritanism. This relatively restrained approach was also the hall mark of Mr Gilshenan as the Stage Manager.

In an essay, THORNTON WILDER AND HIS PUBLIC by his brother, Amos Niven Wilder (1957), I came across this quote: "…rigour rather than indulgence appears also in the ethos of his work. If there is, indeed, a large charity in his portrayal of life and much gaiety, yet no one should miss the uncompromising severity that accompanies these. There was an iron in his outlook, some combination perhaps of granite from Calvin and the worldly wisdom from his cherished Goethe... This combination of generosity of spirit with austerity is far from sentimentality…". Is this what Mr Cromer and Sinclair were striving for?

My memory of the play in my youth was one of much more emotional sweep. It probably suited the times and the mood of the zeitgeist, my mood - the 1960's, a much more optimistic time. Sentimentality was more digestible than today, perhaps, and welcome, which if underlined now might undermine the human universality, the aptness of the play for 2010, that for me, still evidentally, affected my experience of these two more emotionally contemporary readings. The more restrained tones gave the play its fit for today — post 9/11 and the Great Financial Crisis and amidst Iran and Afghanistan. It gave me nostalgia for a more transparent world that had a kind of selfless and simple honesty at its core and not sentimental, weepy or sad. Rather, a kind of inspirited heroism in the face of life with all of its awful simplicities and complications.

Kevin Jackson said...

History shows us that plays can shift in and out of acceptability. The recent Rattigan and Coward revival/hits in London demonstrate this. But truly great plays are timeless and adapt to the world's temperament no matter what the 'colour' and can be played to fit the times and not be diminished. Neither of these two recent productions diminished the play or the writer's intentions. Different in tone, to my memories, but, still culturally resonant. Mr Wilder triumphs no matter the directorial liberties and will always, I believe in the case of OUR TOWN, THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, (and dare I add?) THE MATCHMAKER, because I would canonise these plays as GREAT!!

I am an admirer of the work of the artist, Iain Sinclair. If I had a reservation, it would be that a hard line of intellectualism sometimes prevents his work from fully relaxing into its life voice as living work inhabited by other contributing artists and audience in a 'dance' of exchanged breaths. I could see the effort that some of the actors were making to stay within the direction inspiration - not distracting but perceptible. This was true of KILLER JOE as well.

It is highly displeasing to imply that any of these artists would subvert their integrity for self serving purposes. Every individual sets out to do the work well. It is not easy to achieve and certainly Mr Sinclair searches in honouring his playwright above his own ideas, more so than some others practicing regularly in the Sydney scene. But then, that view will be determined by the individual prejudices of the viewer.

That the STC has not pleased some of its audience might reflect the relative inexperience or youthfulness of some of the directors given that central task by them, than deliberate misplaced ambitions of the artists themselves. A better balance between the mature and developing aesthetics of the guiding artists may be a better respite for the curating of the STC seasons. There is no doubt that the response by the Sydney audiences to the Steppenwolf’s, wholly conventional, but exceptional production of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, is some signal to the other side of the art practice that we, the audience, crave, in the midst of much form and style development we have subscribed to, or not.

Meyerhold always believed that to please the whole audience might signify a failure. Debate was more than desirable, for him, it was necessary.