Belvoir presents EVERY BREATH by Benedict Andrews in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir Theatre, Surry Hills.
EVERY BREATH: To summarise. I admired the actors and creative crew very much. I thought the play was poor. I thought it was hardly a second draft. I am stupefied that it is on the Belvoir stage at this stage of its development. I cannot admire the director's efforts on and about this work.
I am very, very upset for all those first play writers who don't even get read let alone staged.
Can I suggest to the Belvoir Artistic Team that the Jonathan Gavin's BANG, which your company curated for the Downstairs Theatre a year or so ago would be a wonderful choice, particularly, if the same Director (a woman) and Actors could be called upon to retrieve it. I am certain that many other artists out there could similarly guide the Curatorial Committee at Belvoir to other plays worth time and budgetary attention as well, for the Upstairs as well as the Downstairs Theatre.
If you care to read on, do. I was stimulated to such a state, as I see other writers/bloggers have been, that there is some indulgence going on below. It has been a kind of therapy.
EVERY BREATH is a new Australian play by the highly lauded theatre director Benedict Andrews. It is his first solo play as a writer to be professionally produced. We did see a joint playwriting effort in 2009, MOVING TARGET at the Opera House Studio, a work compounded with Marius Von Mayenburg for the Adelaide Festival of that year with Mr Andrews and a troop of Australian artists. We have also seen over the years Mr Andrews adaptations and appropriations of other writer's work. Works from highly esteemed artists: Shakespeare, Chekhov, White, Albee, Calderon de la Barca, Beaumarchais, Strauss, Crimp, Kane, Koltes, Beckett, Churchill, Williams etc. Plays used as 'tools' for his aesthetic vision and overview of the theatre as an ART form - if not always an apparent shared conversation with a general audience, and least of all, as an entertainment.
Jason Blake, the critic for the major newspaper in Sydney, begins his review of EVERY BREATH (the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday, March 30th, 2012) by saying: "For my money, Benedict Andrews is one of the most exciting theatrical talents to emerge from this country in the past 20 years. Plenty of other people do to..." He experienced the writing , "wince worthy passages", and the direction of EVERY BREATH as "hard going" and found "here (the) cast uncertain, unconvinced and occasionally unsure ....with a problematic Set Design...". So wondrous was the event on opening night that Mr Blake concludes by saying: "Most galling of all is that EVERY BREATH gives those who think Sydney's theatre scene is being held hostage by auteur-wankers a clip full of told-you-so ammunition. You can hear the dinner party braying already: ‘The Emperor has no clothes!’" (by digression, I think it is marvelous that Mr Blake in the one review gets the opportunity to praise and [perhaps] damn Mr Andrews - hilarious! Who needs Ms Simmons and her SHIT ON YOUR PLAY blog, when the mainstream have taken the lead so unexpectedly, so spleenishly, so splendiferously?!) Even Dianna Simmonds in her usually more decorously opinionated theatre blog, STAGE NOISE gets into a similar act - a hive has been stirred, indeed!
Mr Blake obviously does not get to a dinner party very often, work commitments, I presume, because, what is amusing is that not only the diners at the dinner party tables but the other hoi polloi who may have their dinner at the Uni, McDonalds or Chinatown cheap eateries or coffee shops in the suburbs, or hovels in the cities (even subscribers at their Book club meetings), have been, if not "braying", suggesting, discussing (?), yes, discussing, that, despite what the critics and theatre company season curators have been telling us for the past few years of one of the “most exciting theatrical talents to emerge from this country in the past 20 years” that the Emperor does not have any clothes, for years. For years. And years and years - but, not 20? Surely, not? Not 20!
Mr Andrews on Playwriting:
In 2010 I spent the European summer in Hamburg and was preparing several upcoming productions. One afternoon, I put the directing preparations aside and began to write what would become my first play since earlier efforts at school and university. I didn't set out to write a play. I'd been working on a volume of poetry and perhaps that occupation helped to pry open a long-bolted door in my imagination. The writing came upon me like a fever, and I wrote two plays in quick succession. The first is LIKE A SUN, a sprawling epic about an alpha male and the collapse of his world. Before that play had cooled, I began to write a second play: EVERY BREATH. I wanted to write something more deliberately condensed and crystalline after LIKE A SUN's relentless digressions. EVERY BREATH is more of a thriller, a chamber piece…One presumes that Mr Andrews then gave the Artistic Team at Belvoir a copy. They read it. They read other proffered options and in a season of 14 choices felt that this was ready to go straight to the main stage for the subscribers and the world at large, a must have and must see. A World premiere from Benedict Andrews. I can imagine that for this artistic team, reading this manuscript must have been like watching a script the rise like a sun (a miracle of nature), and they, the artistic team, were left heaving with every breath from the excitement of this play, that was, possibly, an alpha and omega of theatre literature genius and before they cooled down from that fever of their insight, booked it, before their world collapsed (what if the Old Fitz Tamaramas had snaffled it?), 'bagsed' it before anyone else could. Belvoir at the cutting edge of theatre practice still, again. For, otherwise,"we may end up with the worst tendency of Australia culture making - self-congratulation masking lazy work and appropriation." (quote from interview with Benedict Andrews - Belvoir web site.)
For from the subscription brochure spin: "EVERY BREATH is an extraordinary debut written by a theatre-maker at the top of his game. Darkly funny, sweetly eerie, and strangely familiar. This is what happens when prosperity gives us the license to see the world as we want to see it."
Indeed, this is what happens when prosperity gives us the license to see the world as we want to see it. Prosperous Belvoir. 'Cool' Belvoir.
To see the world as we want to see it.
We want to see it.
To see it.
Want to see.
Just what did the Artistic Team see? Certainly, it seems, the play's authorship, the name of Mr Andrews. Reading the text, thanks to the relentless assiduous vision and practice of Currency Press, there is not much to go on that I, as an avid reader of play texts, would have found to attract my attention and declare:
A Short Play: THE CRUELTIES OF THE CURATORIAL COMMITTEE - Some Darkly Funny Moments In Time.
A small room. Coffee cups, wooden paddles ,old sugar packets etc.Bottles of water. A single new play play text on the table, with the author's name clearly in view. Some coffe rings dried on it as well.Stacks and stacks of unread manuscripts around the walls head height or more. Four iPhones and a iPad or two, lit up and engaged now and again by all.
Three men and a woman. 'Cool' clothes that look as if they have been found in an op shop, but really bought from a top of the line fashion store - with the look: grunge, but expensive.Skinny pants, woollen patterned vests over primary coloured shirts, sleeves rolled up.collars skew whiff. Beards and scruffy hair for the men.Well groomed for the lady. Heavy, black spectacle frames, each more 'speccy' than the other, as if the men are in a competition for the 'coolest' look, one with clear lenses and one a set of groovy sunglasses. Other props, to allow actors to reveal 'secondary' activity - their subliminal attitudes. Only one of them dares to smoke.Ashes into a satchell bag.
A: "EVERY BREATH is ready for next season. Don't you all agree?"
B: " Let's get further drafts, before we go forward, remember the mess we got ourselves into with that play by that Russian guy last year, in January, last year?"
A: "Which one?"
C: "Can't pronounce the Russian name..... Gawking , I think."
B :"Yeah. Ummm .... Anyway, remember the difficulties of rehearsing an incomplete second, or was it third draft?"
A: (With determination) ".But, you know, EVERY BREATH, it feels good, it is strangely familiar. You know, all that trendy Greek myth reference shit. It makes you all tingly. You kind of feel smart, hearing those strange yet familiar names, don't ya?."
D. "Sweetly eerie. That's the tone you get when you hear all that old Greek shit."
A: "I just loved that movie about the 300."
D: "Nah, TROY was better. It had Brad Pitt and that blonde Irish actor... umm? (BEAT) Great if we could get them to be in this.
A: "Draw the young crowd."
D: "Be good for bums on seats."
A: " It adds such depth."
B: "Reminds me of Duncan from Adelaide's stuff."
B: "You know, Neil had some of his plays downstairs and some of it has been at Old Fitz."
A: (Vaguely) "Oh, yeah."
C: "There is a spareness -"
A: "Perhaps, Beckettian depths?"
C: "And a puzzlement of possible menace -"
A: "Perhaps, the sinisterisms of Pinter?"
D: "There is a lot of sexual tension and abuse."
A: "Just love Sarah Kane, don't you?"
C:"And surreal conversations."
A: (Scrambling here for suitable references) " Churchill and Ionesco."
B: "But it is thin, fairly thin on the page, don't you think?".
C: "I s'pose, but when 'Benno' moves it from the page to the stage as the director - maybe the clarity is going to be in the juxtaposed post dramatic imagery, [*see my post on GROSS UND KLEIN for explanation] that will pull it all into a crisper dynamic. He must see it with that kind of visual depth. You've got to see this text with the usual visual imagery that 'Benno" conjures up. He must see it in his head, he wrote it after all.WE just can't imagine it."
A: "And 'Benny' is great at that - remember THE WAR OF THE ROSES?"
D: "I don't like Shakespeare much. I didn't see it."
B: "You're kidding, right?"
D : (Searching to cover his faux pas) Oh, that's right I was still living in Melbourne then. Couldn't afford to come up. Heard it was fully sick." (D answers Iphone. Improvise restaurant date conversation).
C:"Seeing it on the stage will be different".
B :"He is directing it as well, isn't he?"
A :"Who else could bring this stuff to the stage?"
B : "Search me."
C: "OK. Good."
PALPABLE RELIEF FROM ALL.
B: "But, what about those last nine or ten pages of monologues?"
B: "From my experience with new writer's, I would've thought that the character monologues for Leo, Lydia, Olivia, Oliver and Chris at the end of the text as we have it, were still a writer's exercise of character stream-of-consciousness, to find the voice of the individuals, to create the dramatic scenes."
A:"I guess. ... Is that a writing technique?"
B: "Benedict is going to get us further drafts, right? ... Or, not?"
C: "Hey, the post dramatic imagery that 'Benno" has put in, with each of the other characters masturbating on stage to accompany each speech will be sensational, trust me. Specially the totally outrageous coup with Olivia fingering herself while chanting "Chris", Chris a hundred or so times till she comes. It will have a dynamic affect on the audience. They will never forget those speeches. Never."
B : "I'm not sure. It'll really depend who the chick is playing Olivia, I reckon. She'll have to be really hot."
A: "Don't be a Cassandra."
B: Ok, if the siren call of Benedict and EVERY BREATH is so strong to you others, I'll back off with my silly warnings, ah, worries."
B: " What would I know? I probably would have agreed with most of the critics in the 1950's that WAITING FOR GODOT was a lot of rubbish."
THE REST LOOK AT HER.
B : "Yeah, I would've. So, forget about me and follow your own fates."
D: (Putting down iPhone) "Let's do it. I've gotta pick up the dragon up for dinner. Traffic will be shitty."
C : "The furies won't get us. ... Joke. .... Remember before we were Belvoir we were Nimrod St and Nimrod, from the Greeks, is a great and daring hunter and will protect us from the enemy."
A: "God, sometimes you're wanker."
D: "EVERY BREATH is no Trojan Horse. ... Got'cha! ... Come on I gotta get to the chariot to get to dinner through the fucking traffic or she'll kill me."
SLOWLY FADE TO BLACK WITH SOUND TRACK FROM MAIN THEME FROM THE CECIL B. DEMILLE : THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.
Leo, the writer and father figure of the family group, at the end of a long story, telling about his first published work: "I always regretted letting it be published in the university magazine. I was too desperate. But I'd give anything to possess the spontaneity again. To taste that again. To have no reputation. No name. To feel the future in front of me like a bright meadow or an open sea…" Further, from the Writer/Director's program notes: "Working on great plays with great actors is what I value most, and a source of constant inspiration and renewal... All these experiences in the theatre inform my writing, but the task of writing is solitary and singular. It might stem from an overheard conversation or a nagging image. Then, I have the sense that somewhere inside me is a room or a field, and in that room or on that field is a person or a knot of people and I need to listen to what they say and make a transcript. The play grows from this" Earlier: "When I was writing the play, I never thought about what it was about per se." There speaks the writer. And, I mean Benedict, of course, not Leo.
The published text is a puzzle. The production further compounds and underlines it. "In the theatre, I want to experience the strangeness, complexity and fragility of life" says Mr Andrews. In the theatre we, the audience, do too. And all we need are some clues to translate it. That is the Director's task, usually. An architectural lid (Set and Costume Design, Alice Babidge) complexly manipulated by a set of silver chains by a fairly sophisticated set of computer cues, to create various abstract sculptural images, revealing and reflecting a slippery (seemed dangerous when wet) black gloss square pool shape ( the pool empty of water, actually -a metaphor, they can all walk on water, like Jesus?! Really empty.) is not at all a clarifier of the experience of this text, rather a relieved distraction, especially when supported by the terrific composition by Oren Ambarchi and the trickery and beauty of Nick Schlieper's Lighting Design.
The naive staging of exit and entrances in this multi-scened play - almost screenplay length scenes - sometimes were longer than the actual scenes. I sought meaning in this staging, mostly on the perimeter edge of the empty pool, but, ultimately just thought it was inept.Perhaps that is the intention. The post deconstructed style. It shouldn't look too proficient or easily understood. It's very clumsiness or laziness or inexperience is a calculated artistic statement?
The year before last, I visited the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art gallery in Paris and entered a huge, dirty, white space, towering palatial walls and floor, with some scrunched paper debris along an edge. That was the art. Another, was in a huge space, again white, with a plug hole, a real one, cemented, roughly, into the floor. It, too, was the art. You know, I was flabbergasted, shocked, but gradually stimulated to such a state of outrage, that I just began to laugh, and felt something like, admiration at the sheer audacity of it. Mind you it’s been a long time since Marcel Duchamp’s FOUNTAIN, hasn’t it? I am so far behind the times. Maybe I am a fossil and just don't see or get the genius of Mr Andrews? If I live another fifty years maybe I'll realise it. Maybe. If this staging technique is a deliberate act to create an affect on me, I have to say it is one of debilitated boredom and complete disenchantment. Boring, boring and boorish.
I admire the actors enormously. Such was their commitment to the play on Sunday last (8th April) that I became quite curious about the play in the first twenty odd minutes and began to think, "What were all the critics talking about?" I was concluding "This show must have settled in. All the technical bugs sorted out. Because this is quite interesting. Phew!" But then, no matter how focused and clever the actors, the content of the text just became too ludicrous to believe in, no matter the efforts of the actors.(Darn and drat!). John Howard and Angie Milliken, both returning to the stage in Sydney after a long break from it (sadly missed), both tireless and admirably skillful, honest all the way through, even wading through, what for me, became just twaddle.Thick, thick twaddle. Twaddle. Dylan Young coping well as Oliver. Less so, Eloise Mignon as Olivia, and not at all, Shelly Lauman as Chris. Shelly Lauman, for the second time in a year, (AS YOU LIKE IT) in this theatre, playing a man, this time even more complexly for her, a man/woman. The problems of the actions of the character and the psychological substance of this role would defeat almost any actor, I reckon. It has defeated Mr Andrews and he is the writer and the director. Full praise for these actors and the work they put in too keep this work afloat. Mr Andrews has left the country, I hear. Leaving his fellow collaborators to carry and recreate for the audience 7 or 8 times a week. It must be hard to do.
Recently I saw David Cronenberg's latest film A DANGEROUS METHOD about Jung practicing the Freudian technique of "The Talking Cure" on an hysteric patient, Sabrina Spielrein. This cure, usually now with a couch, has become standard practice. This text from Mr Andrews, preoccupied with sexual fantasy - many couplings, even games between naked brother and sister, multiple solo masturbations, consideration of the hermaphrodite sexual conundrum, and its possibilities , laying on his back looking at the stars, seemed likes an endless means for Mr Andrews to experience the talking cure. I hope it has released him from some of the febrile nightmares of his subconscious. The fever that was released for him while writing the play been cooled down. But why the Belvoir thought it would be interesting for an audience, or why Mr Andrews thought we might be interested, I cannot fathom. At least not in this version of it. Neither the writing nor the directing.The reading or seeing.
Thank god we didn't get to see LIKE A SUN,"a sprawling epic" which Mr Andrews even feels is a "relentless digression". EVERY BREATH this "crystalline, chamber sized thriller” is long enough, even if he thinks it is condensed! "Deliberately condensed. With deliberation (?) condensed!
At $63, which included the program/play, I felt that the artistic company ought to be paying us for the analysis we might give to this patient's case. I can't guarantee a cure, of course, and feel sure that I would pass this patient on to someone more easily interested. For I was not and we could barely applaud the actors for their efforts however valiant they had been.It was excruciatingly exhausting.
Now that Mr Andrews has brought it up: If you are interested in the hermaphrodite as a contemporary dilemma, may I recommend the novel MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides. It will cost you about $29. And, if you are interested in the yin and yang of the universe with its stars in the sky and much, much more metaphysics, enclosed in a real thriller, may I suggest you read Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 - it even uses the Chekhov anecdote of the introduction of a gun into a story (that it must be fired) that Mr Andrews quotes too, - and it will be about $32. At a total of $61,for these two novels, you will have change for two Icy Poles, one for each book, and many, many, many hours, days even, of thrilling entertainment - not a trying one hour, twenty minutes at Belvoir Upstairs.
Forget EVERY BREATH. Stay home and read some great literature.Those writers knew what they wanted to say and had the craft to communictae it to us.