Wednesday, July 20, 2011
The White Guard
Sydney Theatre Company and Commonwealth Bank present THE WHITE GUARD by Mikhail Bulgakov. In a new version by Andrew Upton at the Sydney Theatre.
On a recent Wednesday morning on my way to the university after another job working in Surry Hills, I decided to get out of the bus and go to the Fox Precinct markets to but some flowers and some organic/gourmet food stuffs and browse. It struck me, on this early winter day, what a lucky life I led. That I could leave family at home in the morning and know, definitely, that in eight hours time I would return to that home, after taking an unplanned excursion to a marketplace, buy some unnecessary 'goodies', without stress. Buy anything I wanted, do anything I wanted. That the loved ones that I left at home, after their chores etc would also be more than likely , at home, as well, at the end of the day.
I reflected what it must be like in Baghdad. I reflected what it must be like in Pakistan, in the Middle East. I reflected what it must be like in so many other places that I knew, only through television, where no one in that family could be sure that one's world would hold constant in that 8 hours. In that 24 hours, that week. War and personal destruction a constant constancy.
I had been working on a gathering of scenes from an Australian play THE TOUCH OF SILK by Betty Roland, a recent American play, TIME STANDS STILL by Donald Margulies, a short one act play by Simon Stephens called A CANOPY OF STARS (from a collection of nine one act plays called THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN), and BIRDSONG by Rachael Wagstaff from the Sebastian Faulks novel of popular fame. Some others as well of similar theme. What struck me was all these plays dealt with the catastrophe of war. The warriors themselves in these devastating places, and, especially, the home- fire spaces where the insidious 'collateral damaged' were weathering out the after affects of war. Ms Roland's play is set in country Australia in 1928 and concerns the 'collateral' effects of war on civilian extended families and the returned soldier. This is true of the 2009- 2010 international plays of Margulie, Stephens and Wagstaff. Horrible, fully-listed casualties of the web of war fall-out are delineated for us through an exquisite glass darkly. The power of these texts are palpable, even if they are spoken from a foreign country, another cultural perspective, they still bring the experience to our lives in vivid context because of the human and common content.
I wondered why the contemporary Australian playwright had not found their play about the Australian experience concerning our present war obligations and consequences. Everyday the newspapers record the newly dead and the grieving presence of our Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition with the bereft families. Beyond that patriotic (jingoistic?) appropriation for the press and political approbation, we hardly hear, if ever, of our war casualties and their physical or psychological hospital battles at home. We never hear of our Australian wives, children and extended families and their civilian 'war injuries' as they struggle with the new reality of their daily situation.
Now, whether this is the result of our Defence Department's information control (or is it censorship?) that prohibits or precludes the research into such stories by our writers, or simply that our theatre organisations just do not believe it is box office and so deny production of written Australian projects engaged in this contemporary issue, I cannot discern.
Maybe the Sydney Theatre Company can enlighten us with the result of their programming of the amazing, beautiful,and, in contrast to the usual Australian theatre content, the daring of Daniel Keene's THE SERPENTS TEETH; CITIZENS AND SOLDIERS? Was the response a box-office prohibitive? (why has the MTC not scheduled it? He is a Melbourne son, after all). Is this material too difficult for the Australian theatre goer? They won't come? No money return? Is that it? Hmm? Is that a moral reason for not including it? Or, is that last question, an inappropriate one? Morality in the arts and what it decides to reveal for the audience in it's looming zeitgeist? Awakened or anaesthetised audiences?
In this mood, while watching the Sydney Theatre Company's production of THE WHITE GUARD by the great Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, two speeches jumped out of me and began this cogitation:
Firstly, from Alexi (Darren Gilshenan) in Act One Scene One:
"…I looked out ...In the shadows, behind the fog I saw the enemy. Our real enemy. Petlyura? No. He is just one insignificant wave of blood, and behind him - yes, louder, yes, fiercer, more desperate and destructive, the Bolsheviks, yes …but even still further behind, from deeper in the shadows, I saw another enemy, the real enemy. The enemy hounding all these pawns on at us. Flinging men and blood at us. This modern world. This world hates us for our past, our tradition, our strength. This world of every man for himself and damn the rest of you; this gaping, grasping, endless stream of envy and hatred we've unleashed. And those are the real enemies we face, deep in the shadows. This modern man with no name, no past, no love. This desperate hate-filled man born of loneliness and frustration. This man with nothing to be proud of, nothing he is part of ... There is a tide rising against us, and all we all know and all that we define ourselves with will be eradicated. Bigger than Petlyura, bigger than Bolshevism ... it is the future and I hate it. Either we will bury it or it will bury us. That is the battle we are fighting, gentlemen." (P32 of the National Theatre play publication of the Andrew Upton's new version).
Breathtakingly modern and passionate in the mouth of Mr Gilshenan.
Secondarily, from Lena (Miranda Otto), Act Three, Scene Two :
"QUIET ! Down. Both of you. Fighting. Fighting. Tearing at each other over 'Russia' and the 'will of the people' and daring … to invoke my brother's name in your defence? My brother's memory? How dare you pollute it with … take your civil war out of my house and leave us alone, to honour the memory of our brother who was NOT a soldier first and foremost, actually. Who did NOT die in some honour of the White Guard … In fact, who was killed in a pointless battle, over a pointless squabble. Over a pointless, stupid, tussle for ... what? A country? A country? What is that? To fight over?
Murdered. Murdered, that's what he was. Murdered by a world gone mad with ... mad with. This.
This. Exactly this." (p.98-99 of the National Theatre play publication of Andrew Upton's new version).
Strikingly modern and arresting coming from the only female character in the play.
I was moved powerfully by these speeches. Enough to look them up. Can you begin to comprehend my consternation and awe when I looked at the only other translation that I have of this play, by Michael Glenny for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production in 1979, to find this as the translation of Alexi's speech in Act One Scene Two :
"The fact is, as I sit here amongst you all, I'm obsessed by one thought: God, if only we could have foreseen all this earlier! Do you know what this Petlyura is? He's a myth, a black fog. He doesn't exist. Look out of the window and see what's there. A snow-storm, shadows, that's all ... there are only two real forces in Russia, gentlemen: the Bolsheviks and us. And these two forces will clash before long. I see even blacker times ahead. I see ... well, no matter. We can't stop Petlyura. But he won't stay for long. And after him the Bolsheviks will come. That's why I shall go and fight. Against my will, but I shall fight! Because when we come face to face with them - then we shall see some fun. Either we shall bury them, or more likely, they will bury us. I drink to THAT meeting, gentlemen! " (P24 of the Eyre Methuen play publication).
Then of Lena's speech in Act Three, Scene two ( Lena does not actually have a speech, just some scattered lines within the arguments of others):
"I see now! Alexi's dead!" Later:
"Look at his face. Look at it. In any case, I don't need to see his face. I knew it, I felt it when he left here, I knew it would end like this!" Further:
"Larion, Alyosha's dead. Yesterday you were sitting at table with him - remember? And now he is dead." Again, briefly:
"And what about you? You were his senior officers! His senior officers! You all came home, but your commanding officer was killed..."
(p68-69 of the Eyre Methuen play publication).
In the latter case, of Lena's speech, you can see that Mr Upton has entirely invented, created an entirely original speech that does not have any real basis as translation but is truly a new version that does seem, to me, fulfil a contemporary aspiration for my culture in my time. I was moved enough to note it and check it out.
Similarly the former transcript of Alexi's speech, reveals the Upton Alexi speech as a grand contemporary extrapolation from the narrower more period politically concerned vision of Bulgakov, that, now, humanistically speaks to the broader cultural perception of today. It is noble, inspiring. It is not ,of course Bulgakov. It is Upton. It is not 1926, Russia. It is 2010, Great Britain, and by default, Australia. It is not a translation. It is an adaptation. A new approximate. "A new version".
I don't mind in the least. The Bulgakov purists may, and perhaps rightly so. But what surprises me is that Mr Upton who can write so passionately about war and have such inspiring observation, needs to couch them, within the reputation and the work of another writer. These original writings, expressing such inspiring and comforting ideas could, I am sure, just as well, stand strongly, in a wholly original play by Andrew Upton. Does he really need the Bulkgakov original to cloak his writer's voice in?
Subtly, Mr Upton has done this with his versions of HEDDA GABLER, THE PHILISTINES and THE CHERRY ORCHARD as well. Versions, adaptations that have the Upton stamp - contemporary point of view, extended appropriation. Gentle additions, expansions that digress from the Ibsen argument or observation, or creates a different Gorky or Chekhov characteristic, that changes the actuality of the original.
These are violations of my own sensibility of varying intensities of agony which I bear, but, obviously are not, for his commissioning agents or directors. And what do I know, anyway? I ponder: was the general popular and particular critical response to Mr Upton's RIFLEMIND so afflicting that he has not created whole again? Where is his next play that does not have the superstructure of another writer's work and familiar cultural cloaking approval?
To follow up on James Waites latest blog of 13th July, 2011: "Sounds Australian: Now and Again", it seems to me that THE WHITE GUARD that Mr Upton has penned is a considerable new Australian work. Similarly, Benedict Andrew's version of Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL (the writing not the production). The Australian sensibility is terribly present, to some ears, in these works. And surely, Mr Jonathan Gavin's THE BUSINESS is a spectacularly original work, just pushed onto the stage, much to prematurely, it needs, needed more than three drafts to start with, and possibly a steadier production/director's hand.
New, new Australian plays are being done and are coming to all of the venues. BULLY BEEF STEW at the PACT, recently, was very interesting and for my money, an important progressive work. The STAINLESS STEEL RAT, by Ron Elisha, at the Seymour Centre, in a bold enterprise led by Wayne Harrison, with all of its flaws, exhibited enough wit - audiences were genuinely laughing out loud with huge guffaws of pleasure - to make a positive impression.
So, guys, cool it, it is happening and in the way that wilful fate decrees. The timing has been, for some of you, imperfect, but your needs, even of your having to sit through some bad Australian plays, undoubtedly, to equal the so-called bad international plays, that this season you have so far endured, that at the moment you say you prefer to sit through, will be met.
To encourage your wants, I saw Ian Wilding's new play THE WATER CARRIERS at MTC, this week and felt it was a terrific new Australian play, a very imperfect contribution from this writer, that gave us the very funny and acidic QUACK last year at the Griffin. Mr Wilding is no disappointment (he has a commissioned work being premièred at NIDA later this year, as well).
Back to THE WHITE GUARD: Mr Upton as director of The Sydney Theatre Company's production of THE WHITE GUARD seems to have a much better handle in staging then he exhibited last year, on this same stage, with his disastrous LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. But then, with this, he has had a model with the highly praised production of his text by Howard Davies at the National Theatre, London in March/April last year to give him some hints. It is sadly interesting to see here, that the flagship Australian company (or the pretender), the Sydney Theatre Company, with, even one of the Artistic Director's of the company, at the helm, both as writer and director, could only afford/budget 14 actors for the production in contrast to the 24 or so (with two musicians) in the original in London.
Mr Upton was eager to show off this work. For it is in this compromise, in this depletion of of body numbers that we see some impediments to some of Bulgakov's intents in this production. The sheer chaos and spectacular crisis of fleeing, disruptive humanity in the reaction to the explosions of the unpredictable affects of a live war zone is missed.
In compensation this testosterone driven company of mostly young men, bluster and shout and behave - I understand that all the actors were, gently, electronically boosted, to help compensate for the horrors and terrors of this theatre's notorious acoustics, hence some of the noise(?) - generally like Aussie larrikins, (the usual ANZAC soldier characterisation), pretending to be a large Russian and German cohort, depending on the scene and army they are impersonating, robustly singing and dancing folk and period war songs to create theatrical distractions from necessary scene changes. Or, to give an attempt at Russian authenticity, stamping feet, standing on furniture, swilling willy-nilly vodka, with generalised comprehension of what that may be, instead, of a dramatic end expression of nations and their men involved in miserable war. Hollow blow-hardisms, instead of men and families, in this case the domestic world of the Turbins, swamped and permanently tainted and damaged by the first hand experience of war. Deep pain and shock. Living in an unpredictable evolving war zone. Not having a sing-a-long piss up around the fire.
The attention of the details of the chaos is slight and underwhelming in its "Bulgakovian" sweep, especially when compared to the psychologically detailed examinations of Sergei Tcherkassy's 2010 production of FLIGHT - Bulgakov's other great war play, at the National Institute of Dramatic Art* (NIDA), where he had some 40 actors at his behest. Mr Tcherkassy (from the St Petersburg Drama Institution), certainly, knows the pains of his country's history and heritage, and gave grave and thoughtful, specific direction to his young Australian actors to find the truthful means to capture and express it. It was meticulous and never generalised and 'whoopee'.
What is also missing, because of the difficulty of the multiple casting necessary with this limited company size, is the ironic comedy of some of the play. Bulgakov, if you are familiar with his short stories, A COUNTRY DOCTOR'S NOTEBOOK or his scabrous novella BLACK SNOW (a delicious satire about Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre - adapted for the stage in a truly marvellous comic play, by Keith Dewhurst) has the combination of the detached scientific mind of a doctor accompanied with an intelligent but pained sense of the irony of being a living organism with brains and sensitivities, in a finite and humanly frail world. Chekhov, too was a doctor with a comic flair for the observation of life in Russia.
The audience, maybe not able to catch it, in this production as they sorted out that that actor is now, someone else, a German not a Russian, and he is funny not serious. Oh, right,look he is wearing a beard and different hat! There is comprehensible bewilderment for large chunks of adjustments for our imaginations, and the detail of comic form is not adequately grasped as speedily as should be. The play's necessary momentum sweeps on, and does not wait for the slow of wit or inattentive laggards. It is, of course a Director's job to make even the most witless member of the audience to be attentive and never be laggard - a job that requires practised mastery. To follow Tyrone Guthrie's maxim: "That a director should be an ideal audience of one". A beginner approaches such a big play at the very big risk of possible failure.
Miranda Otto (Lena), representing the feminine aspect of mankind, dominates her every scene with deeply felt insights and growing and dawning pain, that are expressed elegantly and deftly, lightly, with a sublime physicality and vocal expression. Her inner life is deep yet that depth is transparent, for all to pierce, to read. It is a surprise to discover that her actual stage time is so limited, for her accumulative impact is memorable, indeed. Mind you, the dress/costume, designed by Alice Babidge is an enormous asset to the affect of the characterisation created by Ms Otto- its material movement mesmerizing.
Darrenn Gilshenan (Alexi), also scores impressively, especially in the first act. Dale March (Larion), grows perceptibly and impressively throughout the play and makes great affect in the last act. Patrick Brammall (Leonid) while having the presence and the possible romantic edge does not bring the power of a soldier at war into any heroic belief - too literally a comic foil in the directorial expression of this complex man.
The most insightful performance and subtle arc development, for me, was the work of Richard Pyros as Nikolai, who in the last act impresses the horribly humiliating ridiculousness of man at war with his wounded body and, probably soul, aching for invisibility in a distressing predicament of being half dead and, so, consequently, tragically only half alive. Death has touched, but, tauntingly, not taken him. His cowering, aching suffering his tender to absorb. It is he that brought the relevance of this play to my life in Sydney, in the context of surrounding contemporary world events. I had a weep. Powerful and modestly understated.
Unlike the bombast of Cameron Goodall as Viktor, who mistakes the commitment to full-on energy for good acting. Mr Goodall needs Ms Charmian Gradwell, as the voice coach, to hector him, if he cannot take the note, that the barrage of explosive plosive "p"and "b" in words: these choices draw attention to the actor and his technique and are not the subtle drawing of characteristics or character (see my blog post on Vs.Macbeth!) that he imagines.
The set design by Alice Babidge is extremely impressive in its movement in scene change. A sense of epic and surprise is terrifically executed. I quibble with the narrow shape of the Turbin household, stretched thinly across the width of the proscenium arch, resembling a hallway or passageway, that appeared to be camped in by a dispossessed family. The problems of staging the bookend scenes of the play were made difficult with this resolution to the design.
Lighting by Nick Schlieper, outstanding as usual. The bomb and cannon explosions in the war scenes by Steve Francis suitably shattering, bone shaking. Alan Johns music scoring and arrangement are great, although the amateur decision to sing one more beautiful verse of Russian song at the curtain call was a temptation that should have been avoided. An atmosphere of the school concert demonstrating good work by these young people, rather than enhancing the final moments of a well earned dignity for the play and mankind was achieved. It diminished what we, the audience had to take home from this play.
I was moved by the accumulative power of the play and was glad to have seen it, however, approximate it was to Bulgakov's original text. MADAME ZOYA'S APARTMENT or an adaption of Bulgakov's great, and some say best work, the novel, THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, of which I have read many, might be a possibility sometime, before time catches up, I hope.
Or how about THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN or an Australian play about our contemporary war collateral damage in our neighbour's backyard. Art can shape and/or influence history. Sometimes. Ask Beaumarchais.
*I should as well declare, in the context of this review, that I am at present a member of the teaching staff at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) - Kevin Jackson.