Wednesday, November 16, 2011

God's Ear

God's Ear - Trailer from Anne Brito on Vimeo.

Pursued by a Bear and The Reginald Theatre, The Seymour Centre present GOD'S EAR by Jenny Schwartz in the Downstairs Theatre at the The Seymour Centre, Sydney.

A week, and I have read the very satisfactory new Jeffery Eugenides novel THE MARRIAGE PLOT. Began Gillian Mears' FOAL'S BREAD. Re-read Kenneth Lonnergan's LOBBY HERO - 2001, (The New York times having suggested that it may be the best American play of the first decade of the millennium); David Hare's and Howard Brenton's play PRAVDA - 1984, because the principal character has shadows of Rupert Murdoch, that might make it topical to revive today; SERIOUS MONEY by Caryl Churchill, because I thought the money issues may be still relevant today as we follow the path the history of the 1929 Crash has left for us - beware 2012 ! (but I found too difficult to read - gave up, again!!); and prior to attending the production, re-read Harold Pinter's, NO MAN'S LAND.

And why do I write the above? Because, besides the drudgery, mostly, of newsprint and magazines, it has been a week indulging in language. Well written, deliberate use of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters or scenes or acts of plays. Especially, constructions of word symphonies in the case of the playwright. For, in the playwriting, not only is it the choice and considered order of the words for meaning, it is also for the effect of the cadence of choice of the words for the sound and music effects of communication, beautifully orchestrated with deliberate signals to efforts, speed, rhythms and eloquent silences, for the actor and his voice, that is part of the amazement, when close reading (just as it is in reading poetry).

The power of the master playwrights in pursuit of the laying out of a kind of  musical score, a proposition of organised argument, that the poets of the theatre toil over for the director and actor to humbly, solve and complete, with action for an audience in the theatre, maybe part of the wonder that Shakespeare wondered, when he wrote, "What a piece of work is man". And, although, I do not suggest that any of the above works are Masterpieces of the Ideal Play, they are examples of a great tradition and honourable objective of the craftsmanship of the writer of plays.

After a long Saturday of friendly, extended relationship chores, it was with some trepidation that I travelled to the Seymour Centre to attend the theatre. Trepidation because I was tired and knew nothing of this play or anything much of this artistic team and there was a double-bill of Kubrick films on Channel 22.

GOD'S EAR by a young American playwright, Jenny Schwartz, turned out to be an invigorating literary bath - immersive. One, more delightful because it was unexpected. perhaps, and like a bath, the experience became a little tepid by degrees, as the ninety odd minutes passed by, but still exciting to attend to, to discover.

A married couple have lost a child. The play deals with the aftermath that that event has had on them and the surviving sibling. A story, a theme that is not unfamiliar to any regular theatre goer. The David Lindsay - Abaire 2007 play, RABBIT HOLE, filmed with Nicole Kidman this year, being one recent parallel story. But what distinguishes this telling is the startling linguistic inventions of Ms Schwartz in her telling. The grief of this kind of tragedy, may perhaps defy the use of real language to fathom. So she suggests, mostly, convincingly. The grief of these three people, Mel (Natasha Beaumont), Ted (Julian Garner) and their very young daughter, Lanie (Victoria Greiner) is such that language for them has become a tangle of doggerel expressions, utilising rhymes, "catch phrases, banal chatter, non sequitors, puns and cliches", lists and lists of seeming stream-of-consciousness connections. The language spills out of them as if to obfuscate the deep, deep despair of the loss. It makes a noise to cover the empty possibility of all enveloping silence. Long, long streams of noise, for, on the other hand, a silence of hopelessness may never cease its hold.

"His pupils are unreactive, they said.
He doesn't withdraw from pain, they said.
The next two hours will be critical.
Or was it crucial?
Or was it critical?
Or was it crucial?
He's in critical condition, they said.
Survival, they said.
His chances of survival.
They said, low."


"And you'll swoop down and save the day.
And I'll bend over backwards and light up the room.
And we'll thank God.
And God will bless America.
And with God as as our witness we'll never be starving again.
And the fog will lift.
And we'll see eye to eye.
And the cows will come home.
And we'll dance cheek to cheek."

With such language it is not surprising to read that Edward Albee, the American Master Playwright would say of GOD'S EAR: "a provocative, adventuresome, beautifully written play." But it is not only in the language but, too, in the surrealistic interpolations of imaginary characters: The Toothfairy (Gael Ballantyne), a Transvestite Stewardess and GI Joe (Kieran Foster), and two free-fall drug (alcohol) assisted beings: Guy (Cameron Knight) and Lenora (Helen O'Leary), areas of exploration that Mr Albee has gamboled in, often and richly.

In a sculptural white set of low walled curves (Jo Lewis) contrasted with colour of stark bleached blues and crispness of colour definition with the lighting (Matt Cox), dressed in clean, clear and crisp costume (again, Jo Lewis) the actors manage the text with admirable accuracy and clarity. The surmounting of this text is no mean feat and it was thrilling to hear it delivered at such musical capacities: Pitch, Pace and Volume. And sense. The technical demands are fiendish indeed. Jonathan Wald, the director has taken great care with the language challenges, and drilled these performers well.

But such is the verbal gymnastics that the high stylistic achievements of the company sometimes supercede the emotional variety. Mr Garner gives  a superlative performance in balancing the cerebral necessities of the language demands with the deep emotional pain of Ted and its creeping journey during the storytelling. His arc of storytelling is subtle, but, clearly delineated. On the other hand, although impressive, Ms Beaumont while circumnavigating her way through Ms Swartz's verbiage, pitches her emotional life staggeringly deep at the outset of the play and hammers at it relentlessly, too consistently,  with little variation, throughout the night. Her character's journey does not progress much and it is tiresome for the audience to have no release, to have no other emotional observation to make of Mel. Her character is in stasis for most of the night.

This lack of shading by Ms Beaumont, gives Ms O'Leary as the crazy drunk, Lenora, no competition in winning the audience's empathies, as the other major female character and the relief is palpable in the long last act scene, that she shares with Mr Garner. Similarly the comic work of Mr Foster in both his incarnations are first rate in relief contrasts. Mr Knight is intriguing as Guy.

The music, the singing side of the production does not really gel and needs more development. The sound design by Steve Toulmin is suitably ethereal, music-box like and edgy in the field of stream-of-conscious dream scape of the play.

GOD'S EAR  is a pleasurable surprise, especially for those  of us who love language and hearing actors relishing of it. The play's subject matter is 'heavy' as some may say, and may give you pause. But I had a more than satisfactory evening, although the brain got more massaging than the heart. This balance that Ms Swartz demands is a mean feat to achieve with this remarkably difficult text but worth catching and worth noting.

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