Monday, April 9, 2012

Time Stands Still

Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Fishy Productions present TIME STANDS STILL by Donald Margulies at the Darlinghurst Theatre.

TIME STANDS STILL by Donald Margulies, written in 2009, is really a terrific play. Having read it last year, it is great to see it on our stages in Sydney. Contemporary theatre writing concerning burning issues surrounding our daily lives are rarely aired, if written at all, in contemporary Australian dramatic literature (unless they present lots of opportunities for sex i.e. UNDERBELLY). This play concerns the lives of two characters who work and have survived in the war zones of the world, and the cumulative cost, the personal “collateral damage” that that they might exact. We see their lives tailored beside the watchers and the selectively blind of the privileged people, living in the relative peace of a city like New York, like Sydney.

“Mr Margulies is gifted at creating complex characters through wholly natural interaction, allowing the emotional layers, the long histories, the hidden kernels of conflict to emerge organically. Throughout, his dialogue crackles with bright wit and intelligence. Although TIME STANDS STILL is deceptively modest, consisting of conversations among just four characters, the range of feeling it explores is wide and deep.” - Charles Isherwood, New York Times.

“There's a mournful tug beneath the surface of TIME STANDS STILL, but the material is also colloquial, lively and inquisitive without being preachy. This is a work that asks a lot of questions – chiefly about how much guilt and responsibility over wartime tragedies individuals can carry without going mad – while maintaining enough humility to know that they can't answer them. Instead of pontificating, the characters bicker, accuse and snipe, but they also defend one another, often tenderly. They also come across as believable relics of old-school, hard-core journalism, principled individuals who have also poured too much of their hearts into what they do.”- Stephanie Zacharek, New York Magazine.

TIME STAND STILL has four characters, three old friends and work comrades: photojournalist, Sarah Goodwin (Rebecca Rocheford Davies); James Dodd (Richard Sydenham) a freelance journalist and her partner of eight and a half years, both recently returned from a war conflict zone; Richard Ehrlich (Noel Hodda) a photo editor and publisher; and a younger, new member of this group of friends, Mandy Bloom (Harriet Dyer), an event planner and pregnant partner to the much older, Richard. We have with three of the protagonists, deep shared work and emotional histories and then the dramatic myth breaker and generational enlightener, meeting over a year. What is interesting for me, in the writing of this play, is the ease that mighty subject matter of contemporary moral debate is raised, discussed and then not really resolved. Issues e.g. “The New Cinema of Cruelty” - how horror films are a good barometer for the political climate of their day; the desensitising of the community by modern media and internet access etc. The play raises the issues to a verbal consciousness in the mouths of these characters, issues that I struggle with on a daily basis, sometimes talk about, and, then, like the characters in this play, have the daily mundane tasks of just making a living, move in and push them to background white noise. Not resolved but part of my collected burden of living in the 21st century.
James: The thing is, I KNOW the people they put on stage… I KNOW them, I've LIVED with them, both of us have. So seeing them turned into anthropologic curiosities, like dioramas in a museum, bathed in Caravaggio light with, YOU know: hallowed, Persian-sounding music… Fake sentimental shit that passes for truth! People TRICK themselves into thinking they're having an authentic experience when it's completely manufactured! Hell on earth made palatable – PACKAGED – as an evening's entertainment!

Richard: But people are SEEING it, though, right? I mean, isn't that encouraging? They want to be informed?

James: THESE people don't need to be informed … THEY read the paper, They listen to NPR … The ones who SHOULD be seeing it, the MUJAHIDEEN and the Taliban, let's face it, don't get to the theater much. So it's that favorite lefty pastime: preaching to the choir! They sit there, weeping at the injustice, and stand at the end shouting: “Bravo!” conGRATulating themselves for enDURing such a grueling experience, and go home feeling like they've done something, when in fact all they've done is assuaged their liberal guilt!

Richard: What're you saying, these stories are off-limits to anyone but people like you who have been on the front lines?

James: No, of course not.

Richard: They shouldn't be told at all?

James: I don't know, Richard, I don't have the answers.”
Indeed, these characters do not have the answers, and Mr Margulies does not take sides and "...what we get is the assiduously impartial but clarifying confrontation of the existential dilemmas that confront all of us." ( - John Simon, Bloomberg News). It leads us to interesting discussions in the foyer, on the street and in the car on the way home. Theatre that is comprehensible, intelligent, well crafted, both serious and comic and mightily, gently provoking. Stuff to take home and have consciously and unconsciously grafted onto, into your life.

So this is a good play well worth catching.

The production at the Darlinghurst, Directed by Kim Hardwick on a meticulously real Set Design by Lucilla Smith, that not only has a feel of authenticity but a true measure of this difficult stage space, is good and relatively clear. Ms Smith backs up again with a set design solution as good, but different as her design, last year for THE LIBERTINE. This one well constructed by Michael Watkins. Both on next to no budget, I presume? The company of actors give an ensemble of playing that is admirable, but generally, metaphorically, “revving in sand”.

The problem lies in the under articulation of the emotional and physical dilemmas of the principal character, Sarah Goodwin, by Ms Davies. This role is a great role for an actor – one that is layered with so much going on that the baring of oneself and the identification and revelation of the self in the role is demanded and essential for the full impact of the play to be felt. The role requires, as all the great roles do, surrender to the truth of the experience of the character. Ms Davies seems to have an intellectual comprehension of some of this truth but tends to emotionally and physically generalize it, and then, internalise it much too much. She rarely uses her whole instrument to express it – I have grave doubts about the necessity this Sarah has for that support stick when walking, for instance. Ms Davies' performance seems to sit in her imagination, in her head and privately felt, not viscerally expressed. The role has the potential to cover a craft range from A to Z. Ms Davies gives us A to perhaps I.

There is a resigned placidness to Sarah's situation, here, and the gradual addiction to danger that informs her life decisions is hardly addressed. We do not see her growing emotional agitation with having to virtually stand still in a peace zone of what the rest of us call, normality. We do not see her realisation that war and its environment has provided a purpose to and for her life, a realisation that is reinforced by her by the absence of danger. Sarah needs it to function optimally. The experience in the women's prison is pivotal, for it is there she understands, completely, that the life that she is being inveigled too, is where danger has been switched off like a stage light, leaving only drab scenery around her and unbearable lifelessness. Like the men in the film THE HURT LOCKER there is only one world that will make sense for her, and that is the world of the war zone, of the humanitarian struggle and crisis. It is there that she will find her life worthwhile again. Not in family and having children for her, but, in the witnessing of the reality of the great tragedy of being human – the necessity to record for her civilisation, that, we have, as a species, a penchant to destroy each other. Violently.

It is not just the limited expression of the truth of this role by Ms Davies that inhibits the performance it is also one of presence. The New York performance reviews glow in the performance of Laura Linney – an actress that radiates and expands herself into the characters she creates filling the work with subterranean dynamics beyond the obvious superficialities of the opportunities in her writers' creations. This is, of course, what marks out the leading actors of their generation. It is odious to compare, but for me this power of presence is what is mostly missing from Ms Davies work.

Mr Sydenham has a difficult task, then, to spark into the heat of the relationship between these two well-welded people. There is not enough coming back from Ms Davies reading of the role of Sarah to permit him. When his character, James, is given centre stage and has the accelerator under his control for the momentum of the play, he certainly takes it and lifts the play into a stratosphere of dynamic energy (the first of the Act two sequences, for instance). It is also revealed in the sparring that happens between Mr Hodda and he. Both these actors have a measure of the 'presence' required for the play to really take hold. Mr Hodda is comfortable and wise in his contribution if not quite the Editor of a New York magazine – a more ruthless sense of the 'war zone' of the publishing business would give more edge to the long past relationship between he and Sarah, I reckon.

Ms Dyer gives a comic edge to her work and his aware of the possibilities of Mandy in the dramaturgical structure of the writing, but for me, the performance is far too knowing technically. Ms Dyer sits outside it – almost in a presentational, musical theatre style, drawing attention to her effects of characterisation. It lacks true spontaneity and true connectivity with the other actors. It is a charming performance but it is calculatedly performed, not lived. There was some indication of this, also, in her work as Ms Eynsford-Hill in the recent production of PYGMALION at the Sydney Theatre Company, and can almost be caricature rather than character unless checked. This performance sits, thankfully, on the right side of the fine line of believability. Just. The writing of this character by Mr Margulies is a great asset for that belief.

A very, very good play with a comfortable company under careful if not inspired direction, in a good design.

I saw Katie Pollock at the same performance and I remarked that her play, A QUIET NIGHT IN RANGOON, seen last year at the New Theatre, approached, with a female character at the centre, world issues, that similarly provoked a reality check to my life and deep discussion amongst my friends who saw it.

When will see the Australian war stories of today? Did the Australian Defense Forces just prevent access to recent investigations to war zone events from being made available to the Australian, taxpayers public knowledge? I did see the healthy returning heroes last night on TV NEWS at Townsville Airport, but not any of the injured. Lots of excited fathers and slightly bewildered children and loving spouses. Healthy propaganda, I guess. The writers of the United States and the United Kingdom lead the way in their culture confrontations over the issue of war and its affect. Their recent dramatic literature - resonant with them. It is a tragic state of our arts when the nearest I can come to knowing anything of these stories is through these two other cultures. But then, our governments may not encourage that kind of open examination of the big issues of our times. The recent axing of the Queensland literary prizes and the continued stress to the ABC and their ability to create drama through lack of proper funding is just taken for granted by us.

Ignorance is a kind of bliss, I guess.

Thanks to Fishy Productions and the Darlinghurst Theatre Company for the opportunity of seeing this work.

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