National Theatre, South Bank, London in a co-production with Headlong presents the World Premiere of THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble in the Cottesloe Theatre.
I saw this production in London, in early January, 2013.
THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble is a co-production between the National Theatre (NT) and Headlong. This play is the follow-on of the partnership between Ms Prebble and the director Rupert Goold of the Headlong company, that created and presented ENRON, firstly at the Chichester Festival and then on transfer to the Royal Court Jerwood Downstairs Theatre and, subsequently,to the Noel Coward Theatre, in the West End, in 2009. I saw ENRON, in the ill-fated production on Broadway, in 2010.
Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair
-Andrew Solomon, from The Noonday Demon, 2001.
THE EFFECT is a play for four actors and is set in a research facility for a large pharmaceutical company studying the efficacy of a new drug regime in pursuit of relief for depression. Two volunteers, who are being paid to do so, two Triallists, not known to be sufferers of depression, Connie (Billie Piper) and Tristan (Jonjo O'Neil) meet over the first exchange of their urine to the Doctors. They begin the trial and are measured closely, with brain scans etc for the benefits of the drug-given regime, as it escalates and processes over the time of the research. The rules for the trial are strict but these two, whether it be because of the drugs or not, find themselves in a burgeoning affair, catapulted into sexual intercourse after a tap-dancing wooer seduces all, to the tune "I've Got You Under My Skin". Both of these volunteers have emotional baggage and history - she, a part-time psychology student with a teetering outside relationship; he, a free wheeling wastrel not anchored by any firm view for his life's future. What complicates the matter is that Connie suspects that one of them may be on a placebo, and as they try to ascertain as to whether their 'love' for each other is the result of the drugs or otherwise, strain and paranoia sets in: to darkening abysses of hell!
In classical times, when such things were properly understood, Eros was considered a god whose divinity transcended our human limits, and who therefore could be neither comprehended nor represented in any way. I might, as many before me have attempted to do, venture an approach to this daimon, whose range of activity extends from the endless spaces of the heavens to the dark abysses of hell; but I falter before the task of finding the language which might adequately express the incalculable paradoxes of love.
- Carl Jung.
Supervising the trial is a psychiatrist, Doctor James (Anastasia Hille), employed and directed by another doctor, Toby (Tom Goodman-Hill), representative of the pharmaceutical company undertaking the trial. The complication here is that, once, upon a time, not to distant, these two met at a convention and had a love affair, and we learn that Dr James, is herself susceptible to episodes of depression. Her last bout may have being triggered with the breakdown of their relationship.
Love is merely a madness; and, I tell you, deserves as well as a dark horse and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punish'd and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too.
Shakespeare, AS YOU LIKE IT.
The play tackles some big subjects: love; the role of placebos in medicine; the ethics around research been done by commercially biased interests and their ability to read the results accurately, objectively; when reading the scientific-babble, neuroscience literature about the brain, contemporaneously - just how much do the scientists really know of it? how much should we believe "the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry"? ; whether depression is reaching epidemic status and is simply a chemical imbalance in the brain which the pharmaceutical companies can relieve; or, more simply that depression is a normal, natural state that the super sensitive have always experienced - a natural part of the human condition rather than illness, and that neuroscience does not have the right to be the ultimate arbiter of any human activity; if pain can be relieved, should medication be a safety valve to be able to endure, accepting that it cannot cure, rather just dulling, temporarily the symptoms?; are the after effects worth the risks?
So, here we have two love stories wrapped within a big contemporary debate on issues of great import. Here is an example of the kind of writing that I find so rarely in Australian playscripts. Particularly, of late. Big ideas entwined in an ordinary rom-com mode. Serious, romantic, comic and tragic. Challenging. Intelligent. Researched!
Rupert Goold (we have seen some of his work: SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR) has directed this work in the round in the Cottesloe Theatre, with an immersive set, by Miriam Buether (the second set of her's I have seen in this visit: IN THE REPUBLIC OF HAPPINESS, at the Royal Court, being the other), the audience sitting as if in the waiting room of the clinic, surrounding the actors and their spaces, with some projection design to enhance the science and its explications - not too much - on the surrounding walls and floor, with lighting by Jon Clark and music by Sarah Angliss and sound design by Christoher Shutt.
The performances are gripping and in this small space totally enveloping, Ms Piper and Mr O'Neill travelling through the travails of 'love' and its consequences, and Mr Goodman-Hill anchoring the debate for commercial science balancing the love debris with Anastasia Hille's remarkably detailed and ultimately, dreadfully moving Dr James, from objective clinician to fragile depressant to surrendering survivor. Ms Hille's work is amazing, surrounded by an ensemble of near flawless immersion and support.
The little we know about love does not transcend simple observation, and the little we write about it has been written better by poets and novelists. But of greater concern is the fact that psychologists tend to give progressively less attention to a motive which pervades our entire lives. Psychologists, at least psychologists who write textbooks, not only show no interest in the origin and development of love or affection, but they seem to be unaware of its very existence."
- Harry Harlow, American psychologist, 1958.
One can only hope that Sydney gets to see this play, sooner, rather than, later. Lucy Prebbles a writer of some skill and importance. THE SUGAR SYNDROME, ENRON , THE EFFECT. What's next?
P.S. ENRON is to be seen at the New Theatre in the coming months. It is a mammoth undertaking and I wish that company the best, but, like the New Theatre's artistic management, I agree, it is too important a play not to be seen in Sydney. Too big, I guess for the Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir and their budgets?
Workhorse Theatre Company presents the Sydney Premiere of THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT by Stephen Adly Guirgis at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst.
THE MOTHERF**CKER WITH THE HAT by Stephen Adly Guirgis directed by Adam Cook at the fringe venue, the Tap Gallery, is a terrific night in the theatre. Following on from the recent ONE SCIENTIFIC MYSTERY OR WHY DID THE ABORIGINES EAT CAPTAIN COOK? the Tap Gallery - a really quirky space - is suddenly the place to see some really good theatre. I highly recommend it to you.
What is amazing is that this young Independent theatre company: Workhorse Theatre Company, have secured the rights to this recent Broadway hit play (2011), written by one of the most exciting writers around, Stephen Adly Guirgis.
What is this? The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Belvoir not have it on their radar?
This is not, however, the first play we have seen from Mr Guirgis in Sydney: Belvoir did, in their Downstairs venue, a few years ago, curate a production of JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN (2000), directed by Wayne Blair; and Tony Knight when he was running the Actors Course of Study at NIDA, found (he reads plays, as well!) and caused a student production of THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT (2006), directed by American, Mel Shapiro, to be. Both these plays, if you saw them, have prepared you well for the emotional linguistic roller coaster treasure of this experience. THE MOTHERF**ER ... however is even smoother ... cooler.
Further credit, to the enterprise of this young company, Workhorse, ought to be noted, that they have found Adam Cook, recently returned to Sydney after eight successful years running the South Australian Theatre Company (SATC), and engaged him to direct the project. What the STC and Belvoir had no work for Mr Cook? - peculiar. Odd, indeed. Workhorse have some astute artists at the helm it seems. Fingers on the pulse. It is a reward for us, that they do, I can assure you.
THE MOTHER F**CKER WITH THE HAT is a contemporary play dealing with five people in the deep end of addiction and recovery programs. This is an examination not just of the drug addiction of legal and illegal substances that one might pre-suppose, and, certainly, that is part of the issue at hand in this play, but, more daringly, its an examination of the contemporary disease of sex addiction. MOTHERF**CKER, like the recent film, SHAME by Steve McQueen, with Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, addresses that dilemma, where the need for sex is confused and read as an expression of love but may be nothing more than lust, where the thrust of the "dick" is the drive for the affirmation of being 'alive', a kind of life, from both sides of the human animal dualism.
What is impressive about this play is the uncompromising humanity of the characters and the handling of the incidents of their lives. This play is a comedy for anyone but the trivial. It is a drama without the sugar coating of sentimentality. The text is rendered with warmth and humour presenting an astonishing vision of the endless human capacity to persevere - and to risk it all - in the name of 'love', laying bare the infinite longings and inevitable weaknesses of the human heart and the corroding contemporary influences that lead to huge delusion in this brave 'new' world.
It is, also, one of the most robust language juggles of contemporary vernacular and street talk you will have heard for some time. It sounds culturally and ethnically spot-on accurate and is 'poetry' of a flowing kind that everybody from the street rap-hipsters to the most articulate audience will be thrilled by, rejoice in. An oral torrent of contemporary references in sparkling, surprisingly juxtaposed witticisms and musicalities that are an electrifying jolt, stimulating joy of theatre writing, at its best. Remember the startling slam we had with the arrival of Mr Mamet in the 1980's: GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS? Well, here is the latest and newest blast from the US. It is so spot on, that quoting it may be too 'hot' a controversy - so said the New York Times reviewer - ha, ha. In Australian terms, Lachlan Philpott, is the nearest playwright poet in recent Australian writing that I can make some qualitative allusion too, to compare: COLDER; SILENT DISCO; TRUCK STOP - different, but just as smart and devastatingly accurate.
Jackie (Troy Harrison) is just out of prison, involved in a program of recovery from addiction, under the watchful eye of his sponsor, Ralph D (John Atkinson) and cared tangentially by Victoria, (Megan O'Connell), Ralph's wife. The principal problem for Jackie is that he is in love with and having a full-on relationship with Veronica (Zoe Trilsbach), a still hard hitting 'live' addict, and, in his conflicted dilemma seeks help from a cousin, a childhood friend, Cousin Julio (Nigel Turner-Carroll), who tells him that he both hates and loves him. The play, as David Carr in a New York Times article (June, 2011) observes, is one that Mr Guirgis "saw addiction and its discontents as a good prism to observe people in extremis" and that the recovery program might be perfect as a construct to aid, but that the people in it, maybe not be quite so much - the tragedy of being an animal with a consciousness, having the aspirations of the angel but the needs of the animal. Big Time.
Mr Cook has taken great care in assisting his company of actors through the obstacles of the demands of the text. He has, sensibly, insisted that the particular dialect be observed - and, this certainly delivers the text in top gear for musical affect, and, thus impact (Dialect Coach, Jonathan Mill). He has also encouraged the actors to the 'latin'-like temperatures of the ethnic culture of these characters and the energy histrionics, the sexual power, pays off in that audacity and its consistency (I reckon a further 10% ratchet up would even be better). This production works particularly well in this tight space and the force of the explosive and virile collection of humanity pushes at the audience in a very visceral way - the temperature and humidity rises as the night goes on. The three set locations are as realistic as the modest budget of this company can make them be, designed with quick shorthand clues of difference, by Dylan James Tonkin, in scene changes tightly drilled by Mr Cook. The lighting is efficient (Kim Straatemeier) and the sound (Marty Hailey) maintains the sensibility of the work and keeps it afloat in those scene changes. There is no interval and the growing momentum of the story, with all the volatile twists and surprises of the work, benefits from that. There is no let off.
Mr Harrison as Jackie is a powerhouse of concentration and detail, movingly driven to disaters; Mr Atkinson, as Ralph D the focused sponsor but flawed man, grows in dimension as the play unravels; while Mr Turner-Carroll as Cousin Julio, following up on his recent work in THE GREENING OF GRACE at the Darlinghurst Theatre, balances an outrageously comic-serious creation by Mr Guirgis with delicate and sophisticated finesse. Ms Trilsbach, as Veronica draws a fine arc of struggling humanity and leaves one caring and wondering of her future.
This is another sign of the growing quality and integrity of the fringe, Independent work we are seeing around the less interesting work of the two major players in town. Check out the LENNY BRUCE: 13 DAZE UN-DUG IN SYDNEY 1962 at the Bondi Pavilion, as well.
Welcome back to both Mr Guirgis and especially, Mr Cook.
Run, don't walk, to get to see this production or let your fingers do the walking, as they say. The Tap Gallery is small space and it is a short season. It is right across the road from 'our' new Darlinghurst Theatre in Palmer St. on the corner of Burton St.
P.S. There is, once again, no biography of the writer in this program. It is so consistent an omission in the Sydney Theatre scene that it appears almost, a policy. Shame. Even, more woeful in this instance, is that the inside credit page has all BUT the writer credited. Unbelievable. The writer in this city seems to get no recognition, no respect.
Sydney Opera House presents 3: The Composers. ARVO PART: A Sacred Journey in the Concert Hall.
Last year in early May, I attended The Composers program, STEVE REICH in Residence. A Celebration, curated by Yarmila Alfonzetti for the Sydney Opera House in the Concert Hall and had a very exciting and bliss filled experience. So, The Composers 3: ARVO PART, A Sacred Journey, raised some high expectations, as well, for a similar time. And, although the composer, unlike last year when Mr Reich was present and in charge, Mr Part was instead, represented by Tonu Kaljuste and The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.
Avo Part is an Estonian composer, born in 1935, and is a composer of sounds, music of minimalism. The spaces between the notes are as important, it seems to me, as the music notes themselves. He uses a pared-down set of musical elements to yield a kind of ethereal, fuller overall effect of delicate but powerful sounds. Part's musical apprenticeship was subject to the cultural prescriptions of the Soviet bloc, and its preferred aesthetic of 'socialist realism'. His music of the 1960's uniformly demonstrated a fascination with predetermined schemes and musical processes: a fascination noticed (and shared by Steve Reich), among others. And it was after leaving the USSR in 1980, that the Russian Orthodoxy faith, to which he had converted began to be expressed through the sacred music he began to produce, most pronouncedly.
In this concert, the sacred music featured: MAGNIFICAT (1989); 7 MAGNIFICAT ANTIPHONS (1991); CANTUS IN MEMORY OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1989) and ADAM'S LAMENT (2009). The Estonian Chamber Choir was led with great concentration, beauty, and, I, especially, was moved by the SALVE REGINA (2011), accompanied by musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Well known works such as SPIEGEL IM SPIEGEL (1978); TABULA RASA (1977) and FRATRES (1982) were also given.
This concert left one in a place nearer 'heaven'. A place where contemplation of the spiritual mysteries of our creation could be contemplated. A special night. It was a let down to come back to this earth and the bus ride home.
I had also attended the concert, the night before, given by the Sydney Youth Orchestra in the Studio at the Sydney Opera House and appreciated the compositional level of difficulty that the music of Arvo Part makes. As with last year, the benefits to these young musicians working on such music of such demand, revealed what a remarkable experience for their developmental journeys it must be to have this opportunity.
P.S. As a note for the producers, I do not believe the projected images, and especially the dropping of the artificial snow flakes and gently fanned clothing of the violinist during the Spiegel im Spiegel were a necessary element in the presentation of the music. Rather a ham-fisted reality that, visually, was trite, even kitch, beside the real beauty of the musicianship on stage.
seriousboys presents GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS by David Mamet at Theatre 19 (the old Darlinghurst Theatre, Potts Point.
From Anne Deane:
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS by David Mamet (1983), is a very violent play:highly charged, vividly concentrated and bloody with verbal slaughter. This is RESERVOIR DOGS with filofaxes, THE WILD BUNCH with staplers. It is also the most perfect example of Mamet's black comedies, satirising the iniquitous back-biting mores of the times. Its violence resonates in every line, straining the boundaries of the printed page, spilling out in meticulously controlled arias of anxiety and panic. To the salesman in this play, fear is the motivating factor. Willy Loman's hold on his career may have been precarious, but his anxieties were at least only fully realised at an advanced stage. In Mamet's Darwinian nightmare, fear is an omnipresent: it is a permanent pollutant that can never really be eradicated. For these men, there is no rest, only exhaustion. They live on their nerves, anxiety fuelling adrenaline already in overdrive. [A].
RAT-A-TAT, RAT-A-TAT, CLATTER -CLATTER, KABOOM-KABOOM, WHOOSH, KA-BANG, KA BANG. One hears and feels imaginatively the shaking and physical, rattling threat of, perhaps, one of the Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) trains, launching, lurching past us on the overhead tracks, as we sit bewildered, shocked at the adrenalin machismo driven energy of the effects and acting of this production - a crazed alpha-male train running un-braked across the tracks of Mamet's words, text. Not de-railing, but, not taking on any, many, passengers, either. Those passengers getting on, that get on, surely, know the play, come with pre-knowledge of the 'time table' of the text. Have an outline of the journey - its stations and sights/sign posts. The others just sitting there, feeling the wind and wondering what the "fuck' was that about?
Composer and Sound Designer, Marty Jamieson hurls this production with the actors, the seriousboys company, under the direction of Marcus Graham, onto an empty grey walled space, with the lighting hanging, poised, visibly over all, reverberating, echoing savagedly throughout the auditorium. KA-BOOM: the lights come up and two actors, Barnaby Goodwin (Shelley Levene) and Brett Heath (John Williamson) stand upstage facing each other, profile to the audience and begin an electric sound clatter of the text. It sets up the "run-away-train" pace, the unvarying loud volume of the textual delivery, with the irritant blast of much unvaried vocal pitch, that concludes after only an hour, yes, just one hour, for this performance - a world record time, I should imagine, for this play. A Fast Track journey!
It has been a visceral experience, for sure, if not a storytelling one. Feelings, from being played by the appeals to our sense subjective responses to the effects of the production stylistics, commanded by Mr Graham, dominate any detailed speech-act , objective knowledge of the machinations, mechanisms of this detective story, this psychic plumbing of desperate individuals, this cultural evisceration of the United States at a particular time in recent history.
Of, even today, still, I reckon - hence, its classic status.
In this production, each of the actors, more, and hardly ever less, bang out the scenes in what, I guess, is based around the Meisner technique of impulse. Each word, phrase and sentence building to paragraphs of pursuits of objectives, drawing, coming from the actor's impulse, built from the given circumstances of the context of the scene. It is a legitimate approach to the work of Mamet. Mamet being a 'control-freak' around the orchestration of his text, through massive instructions to the actors, by his challengingly abundant use of syntax to achieve that. Mr Mamet is notoriously difficult to play at speed, because of that design of his work. So dense is the thicket of the syntactical clues on the pages to play Mr Mamet's texts that, the best music parrallel that I can make analogy to, is to look at the notation marks of the scores of say, Rossini or Mozart. The famous line in Peter Schaffer's play, AMADEUS, from the Austrian Emperor to Mozart, "Too many notes", could just as easily be transposed to Mr Mamet as, "Too many syntactical marks." No wonder the chinese whispered remark of Mr Mamet's declaration of, "Just say what I've written, and do what I've written, and nothing else is necessary." In other words, just 'close read' him (any good playwright), battle through the textual clues - it is tedious work, never more so than with Mr Mamet, but of course, in the end, of unbounded value - think them out, not feel them out, and you will have most of the solution to the writer's intent.
However, the impulse to do, to gesture, to speak must be built from the response of the character, characters, one is engaged with. It is not just the speaker that is vital for the story to be read, but, in my estimation, the active listening of the listener, that is of paramount importance, for the audience, to be able to understand what is happening between the characters, other than impassioned indulgence from the verbaliser. The listener is more important in the scene, than, even the speaker, I say. Time after time, in this production, the actor speaking was rushing through his text, not reading the effect of the action that they had made on the character they were talking too, and not constructing their argument, their impulse, from that information. The audience hearing the speaker, look to the receiver, to see what the impact has been, and either the character-listener will reply, or, will still be 'thinking' out his choices, offering an obstacle for the speaker to overcome, to use. It is from this reaction, this registering - look at anything Meryl Streep as put on film, to see what I am talking about - this silent impulse, that the speaker takes as his cue to continue, or not. It is this interaction that teaches the audience how to receive the work, to understand what is happening.
The impulse of the work from the speaker, in this production was mostly inadequate for it was rarely coming from the observation of their protagonist. It was anticipated, learnt energies of expression. Unthinking, mechanical rat-a-tat-tat. Mostly emotional parroting, little real thinking going on, just recitation. There was not enough communication between the protagonists. Most of the time, few of the listeners, the verbal passives in the scenes, registered any complex receiving of information, or presented active thought pursuits/obstacles in reply.
Or, was it because of clumsy staging decisions, I could not read them? (the Opening scene, for instance.)
Most difficult to believe as an active collaborator in his scenes was the work of Joe Addabbo who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, but, hardly acting with the others, 'giving' to the other actors, maybe, but 'taking', building his performance from them, never, not at all. He simply parroted his way through his scenes blithely underwhelmed by anything the other actors, even the audience, was offering him. It was a very much, "Watch me act" performance.The others could have put their 'undies' on their heads and nothing would have derailed the blind ecstatic joy that this performer was having in this role, one iota. He wouldn't have seen it or be able to use it. No real impulse work going on here, just learnt instruction and habit from rehearsal. And, as he was playing, Richard Roma, a central figure to the drama, this created a great big hole to the veracity of the reality of the production.
Hunter McMahon (George Aaronow); Nick Hunter (James Lingk); and Anthony Taufa (Baylen - the small detective role) were, relatively, anchored and alert to the others in their scenes to construct a collaborative performance. Ivan Topic (Dave Moss - one of the other central characters) struggled to clarify his postures as character in the production.
There is no interval, here, and this two act play,with three scenes in the first act, set, originally, in a booth at a Chinese restaurant, and the fourth scene, the second act, in a continuous time action, is set in a ransacked Real Estate Office somewhere in Chicago, during a police enquiry into a robbery, not indicated with any helpful design elements, except one chair.
Leslie Kane, an expert on the work of David Mamet:
This is a play about power. This is a play about guys, who when one guy is down ... the guy who's up then kicks the other guy in the balls to make sure he stays down. Much of the success of this award-winning play (Pulitzer Prize - 1984) issues from its distinctly robust and electrifyingly vital language, at once rhythmic and ribald, elliptical and illusory, comic and corrosive. Indeed, as John Gross correctly noted (Tragedies of Good and Bad Manners, Sunday Telegraph, 26th June, 1994) "GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS" lives above all through its language, in which inspired elisions and explosive invectives are peppered with "perfectly timed verbal feints and body blows". [B]
It is not just the speaking of this language that is meaningful, it is the personalised thought processes of the actors in character that is essential as well. The thoughts built from the registering of spoken text and gestured actions. This production at the tempo, speed, that it is played at, does not give much opportunity for that to be read, if, it happens at all.
Further, Leslie Kane:
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS is one of the finest post-war American plays, it has been characterised as a "sardonic, scabrous and really brilliant study of a human piranha pool where the grimly Darwinian law is swallow or be swallowed"; "a savage microcosm ... (of) the urban jungle"; " death in the capitalist food chain"; "one of the most exciting verbal concoctions of the modern theatre"; and a dramatisation of "the Tocquevillian connection between the public self - the hurlyburly of those caught within a business-as-sacrament world - and the private self -the anguished characters' inner reality. Its four real estate salesmen have been labeled everything from "jacketed jackals" to "pedlars of false dreams", "predators preying on susceptible prospects", 'pitchmen caught in the entrepreneurial act", and "fast-talking bottom feeders" whose brand "of gutter English [is] caustic enough to rust pig iron." [B].
If you get off on the after affect of the alpha male sense of uncluttered charismatics, and/or you have some pre-knowledge of the play, you may enjoy this production. I have seen better and more rewarding productions of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSSS than this one. Still, the language is, if caught in the experience, breathtakingly abrasive and thus stimulating even in this train wreck of a production. It is only of an hour in duration, as well.
P.S. No Set or Costume or Lighting designer were indicated in the program. A shame because it looked great. Crisp and clean.
No biography of the writer, either, in the program. seriousboys, just one more of the Sydney theatre companies, ignoring the inspirational source of their work.
1: DAVID MAMET'S GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. TEXT AND PERFORMANCE. Edited by Leslie Kane. Studies in Modern Drama, Volume 8. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1817. Garland Publishing Inc - 1996.
A. The Discourse of Anxiety by Anne Deane.
B. Introduction by Leslie Kane.
2: DAVID MAMET IN CONVERSATION, edited by Leslie Kane. The University of Michigan Press - 2001.
3: GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS by David Mamet.Methuen. London - 1984.
Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company in association with Sydney Comedy Festival presents LENNY BRUCE: 13 DAZE UN-DUG IN SYDNEY 1962 by Benito Di Fonzo at the Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach.
I was 14 when I read, nightly, about the 'depravities' of Lenny Bruce in the Daily Mirror (The Sun was the other nightly newspaper, but, by far the less sensational, and so, much less interesting and memorable - it does indicate my own Catholic/catholic attraction to sin, doesn't it? ). I was 16, when similarly, I read, avidly, in the Daily Mirror, on the front pages, about the shocking language depravities of Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? directed for the Old Tote Theatre by John Clark. I was 20 when foul mouthed homosexuals shockingly 'cavorted' on The Playbox Theatre, Sydney stage, in Mart Crowley's THE BOYS IN THE BAND (three members of the cast, in the later Melbourne season, had a magistrate, find obscenity charges proved, though 'the charges are so trifling', and, so, did not record a conviction, but was later directed by the Supreme Court to impose fines - the Supreme Court!). I was 21 when Alex Buzo's Australian play, NORM AND AHMED, had 'Norm' say on stage, during the action: "Fucking boong!" - the actor, then, subsequently charged and convicted of using obscene language in a public place (for different reasons, I remember the sensational scandal around Alan Seymour's ONE DAY OF THE YEAR, in the newspapers - when Aussie theatre, iconoclastically, made front page news!). I was still 21, maybe, 22, when HAIR, (Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot) blasted its way onto the stage, with anti-establishment 'bombs' delivered in the staged visibility of drugs, rock and roll, language, a kind of staged chaos, and, even, nudity, at The Metro Theatre, Kings Cross - the building still stands, as does the Director, Jim Sharman. These are some of the early, vivid memories, I have, of the confrontations in the theatre with society over censorship and obscenity - all begun with the Lennny Bruce furore, for me.
Time has spun, and hurtled on, and last night I watched a new Australian play: LENNY BRUCE: 13 DAZE UN-DUG IN SYDNEY 1962 by Benito Di Fonzo, expediting the Daily Mirror stories of my impressionable youth and the exciting 'rumour' of his dirty language, foul mouthedness. The next night I attended David Mamet's explosion of "language", GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1983) e.g.:
You fucking stupid cunt. YOU, Williamson ... I'm talking to YOU, shithead ... You just cost me SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS. (Pause.) Six thousand dollars. And one Cadilliac. That's right. What are you going to do about it, asshole. You fucking, SHIT. Where did you learn your TRADE. You stupid fucking CUNT. You IDIOT. Whoever told you you could work with MEN.
Two nights later I saw THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT by Stephen Adly Guiris (2011) - and that's just the title, so you can guess as to what the rest of the play might be vernacularised with !!!!? and there has not been any public furore, not a squeak. Just what that may reveal of our times depends on your personal context.
Lucinda Gleeson, the Director of LENNY… tells us:
Times have changed. Cocksucker and motherfucker are now not so offensive. It was as only late as 2003 that Lenny's obscenity charges were posthumously dropped after serious lobbying from a collective of comedians and free thinkers.
Mr Di Benito, in his play, as he says, "loosely distorted" from the book LENNY BRUCE:13 DAYS IN SYDNEY by Damian Kringos, augmented by several years of national and international, personal research and interview, explores the notion of
what is dirty and what is clean, what is truth and what is myth. Filth, like truth, is in the eye of the beholder - maybe that's all that Lenny was saying. They're just words.
Maybe, Lenny Bruce is simply a purveyor of ordinary words describing natural things - and it's just that some of these natural things have to do with sex, and that sex, for some odd cultural reasons are shrouded in secrecy and, or, shame that make people blush and shun there validity and usefulness to define, and want to ban them? Frank Zappa is quoted in the program when he sang, "What's the ugliest part of your body? Some say your nose. Some say your toes. I think it's your mind." Lenny never saw himself as a comedian, he, rather, saw himself as a philosopher. Lee Gordon, the producer of the Lenny Bruce Australian tour, got it right when he advertised the shows as being "For free thinkers only." Bruce was a comedian, but also a social critic and satirist - he, certainly, was a whistleblower for his society:
If something about the human body disgusts you, the fault lies with the manufacturer.
You can't put tits and ass on the marquee! ... Why not? ... Because it is dirty and vulgar? ... Okay we'll compromise. How about Latin? Gluteus maximus pectoralis majors nightly ... That's alright, that's clean, clean with ass, I'll buy it. ... Clean to you schmucks but dirty to the Latins!
Let me tell you the truth. The truth is what is, and what should be is a fantasy. A terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago.
Life is a four letter word.
... it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy would just go on television and say " I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet" and if he'd just say, " nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger" to every nigger he saw, " boogie, boogie, boogie, boogie, boogie", nigger 'til nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six year old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school - from Julian Barry's screen play for LENNY, the Bob Fosse film (1974), starring, Dustin Hoffman.
A company of four actors, three of them: Lenore Munro, Damien Strouthos and Dorje Swallow play some fifty roles in support to Sam Haft as Lenny Bruce. Impersonating a jazz band, live, is just one of the many wonders of this energetic, inventive and tireless group of performers. Each of them have startling, theatrical and comic moments in the limelight and are the cause for much admiration. Each, are outstanding as individuals, and, as part of an ensemble - an always wished thing, but not often achieved when begining any theatrical enterprise, adventure. Mr Haft, beginning a little shyly, on the night I saw it, gradually, escalated into a centred and overwhelming performance of willing possession, not just, simply finding the template for the patter and searing wisdom of this thinker, but, also, let us see, understatedly, the pain and anguish of someone who could see the world only too clearly, as most great comedians seem to be able to do, and, suffered, as a result of that Cassandra-like "sight", as, again most great comedians seemed to have done before and after him. The climatic singing of the song "ALONE" sad and dreadfully confronting. Lenny Bruce died of an overdose in 1966, at the age of 41 - four years after this Sydney debacle.
The Set and Costume Design by Andrea Espinoza, is versatile and practical for the required action of the play. However, I reckon, from my memories of the time, it could be even grungier- shoes sticking to the carpet degradation, sweat and airless smoke filled vistas and clothing, all a lot more seedier, nasty, in comparison to the OH&S rules of today. Nate Edmondson created his usual, if this time, slightly over illustrated Sound Design, while the Lighting Design, Kim Straatemier, was sometimes fudged, casting shadows etc, and, on my night, under ready in the operation - pulling us out of the realities we were meant to be immersed in.
Mr Di Fonzo has written a work that dips into many forms of theatre genre, and, in that, it reminded me of the forms embraced, of the wide ranging techniques used by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy in their ground breaking, biographic, THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY (1970). Lucinda Gleeson, the Director, guides us through direct monologue, reportage, impersonations (comic and sometimes, otherwise), musical pastiche, burlesque, melodrama and pathos/bathos etc with a steady hand. The production pacing is fairly breakneck and requires real 'bit-in-the-mouth' savage turnings to keep the show balanced and clear. It sagged occasionally, the use of tape recorded moments of the actual events, for instance. And, it is while listening, in the theatre, to those, that I began to pinpoint a reserve I had to the night. I felt the weakness in the writing revealed itself, unerringly, then.
Mr Di Fonzo, being a journalist, was still too faithful to the years of research he had "un-dug" and so kept the work too often restricted within the journalistic/documentary frame work (even, to insisting we hear the lost tape of the Wintergarden performance - an amazing stroke of inquisitive sleuthing, no doubt about it) and not shaping its possibilites, with the more poetic license of the playwright part of himself, to focus on, not just the tragedy of a single man in Sydney for 13 unlucky days/daze in 1962, but to underline the breadth of the tragedy of a man with the sight capacities to advise his society, but been not believed, even worse, denigrated and despised, reviled for that vision, collapsing into the crutches of addictive pain reducers, leading, ultimately, to a humiliating dependency, to self destruction. The possibility of telling of the mythic proportions of this modern man in our recent times, within and expanded to the outline of the classic blueprints of yore seems to be an opportunity that may have been missed?
LENNY BRUCE: 13 DAZE UN -DUG IN SYDNEY 1962, is a continued marker to the quality of the standard of work that Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company has produced in this last twelve months. It is worth seeing. And could you be at a better sited space than at the Beach at Bondi? Restaurants, parking and a world famous view of the great Pacific Ocean. A growing rival to the quality of work elsewhere in the city. Consistently good. The awkward stage, itself, probably limiting the possibility of progress - then, that is true of most theatre spaces in this city, is it not?
P.S. Just like last time with CUT SNAKE, the last show with Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company, the performance began very late, much after the advertised time:15 minutes, or so, after the advertised time.
"Oh, fuck!", as Lenny might have said.
"Not again. There goes my bus. A late return home. Later, than planned. Fuck, fuck, fuck", is what I said as I ran in the storm up to Campbell Ave. The rain had only just began. Given, that if the production had gone up on time, I may have not got drenched to the bone.
"FUCK! O.M.G., you surfer dudes, you."
Time has seen my language expression change since I was a good Catholic boy of 14 reading the Daily MIrror.
subtlenuance presents THE POLITICAL HEARTS OF CHILDREN at the Tap Gallery, Downstairs, Darlinghurst.
Paul Gilchrist and Daniela Giorgi are the founders of this company, subtlenuance. THE POLITICAL HEARTS OF CHILDREN is directed by Mr Gilchrist and produced by Ms Giorgi, and is made from the actors' own stories.This project began by gathering an ensemble of actors and then teaming them with a writer. The writer's guidelines were simple: take an anecdote from the actor's childhood and make it 'stage ready'. The possibilities were appetising.
THE PERFORMERS: Kathryn Schuback; Mark Dessaix; Stephen Wilkinson; Kelly Robinson; Carla Nirella; Rosanna Easton; James Balian
THE WRITERS: Victoria Haralabidou; Katie Pollock; Benito Di Fonzo; Didem Caia; Kimberley Lipschus; Alison Rooke; James Balian
In this art gallery space downstairs at Tap Gallery, the actors sit on chairs in a set of generalised lighting states, and tell the stories contrived by the writers from the actors intimacies of memory. The actors met and talked with the writers. The writers then went away and wrote a monologue based on those discussions and Mr Gilchrist has directed the actors singularly, and either let the pieces be monologue or be bits woven, entwined within each other. It is, generally, an easy experience, some more than others, given, that the monologue, is for me, a fairly tiresome genre. But, there is one really remarkable, totally engrossing, story. It struck me as to be a fairly interesting piece to observe and contrast with all the other efforts.
One of my definitions of what is an actor is simply: an actor is a storyteller. Watching this program I began to think about what is acting and what is storytelling.
James Balian has written his story and performs it himself. Mr Balian is an Armenian Australian, born in Iraq and came to Australia in 1969. His story is set in Baghdad during the coup led by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, deputised by Saddam Hussein, when he was a young boy. It tells of his emergency visit to a dentist during the actual coup and his childish awareness of the neighbourhood, family and personal 'adventures' during and after this time. It tells of the presence of soldiers in jeeps with brandished weapons, of 'disappearances' of people around him and finally his own family's escape, leaving all possessions behind, from this creeping and ever present fear, and arrival in Australia. Besides, the subject matter being so different from the other work it is told so matter-of-factly with such unemotional clarities and gently wry tangents that I was compelled to listen and became completely imaginatively immersed in its telling and its revelations. Mr Balian does not give much impression of being an experienced actor but the telling was riveting. It was apparent that it was been spoken from a real experience. One could see the story through his communicated words with one's ears. It was vivid, one was held in a moving thraldom of concentration. This was classic storytelling. It did not appear to be written or spoken with absolute certainty - it appeared to be partly, improvised, in the moment, within a very loose framework. Discovered in the evolution of the remembering, of having to think it out clearly. It resulted in an experience that all actors should aspire to: to have an audience still and focused in the progression, word by word, of the story.
In contrast the other work was, relatively, that of actors 'acting'. They were manipulating a scripted story, based around, maybe, a personal memory of their own, so kind of personalized, but structured, shaped by a writer, in language and syntax contrived by the writer, to whom the basis of the story is second hand. By the time of telling to this audience, the work we heard and saw was more or less technically recalled and played, twice removed from the original impulse, rehearsed such that it appeared more often than not, as 'acting'. More or less proficient but standing beside the work of Mr Balian, pretended. Skilfully, but, transparently pretended.
Mr Dessaix had more sympatico truths than not is his story, but, not always - the actor sometimes overrode the storyteller. Mr Wilkinson had fun with his material, although not aided by its directorial breakup. Finally, however, it was the story content of the others that began to pall over the 90 minutes. We were being, mostly, entertained instead of reached with revelatory truths. The actual subject matter of their stories, hammered home, unconsciously, the safe, relaxed and comfortable life that they all had had as children. The political hearts of these children being so benign and painstakingly unchallenged and unchallenging - so self-centred in baths of recalled emotional banalities, structured in writing forms that had nothing truly arresting, or, adventurous in them to give us aesthetic arrest. Form and content being much too predictable.
For me, the title of the program, THE POLITICAL HEARTS OF CHILDREN was met only once, with the tale told by Mr Baldian.
VHS Productions presents ONE SCIENTIFIC MYSTERY OR WHY DID THE ABORIGINES EAT CAPTAIN COOK? by Victoria Haralabidou at the TAP Gallery, Darlinghurst.
ONE SCIENTIFIC MYSTERY OR WHY DID THE ABORIGINES EAT CAPTAIN COOK? is the debut play of Victoria Haralabidou. This new Australian play was selected for the 2012 National Play Festival in Melbourne.
Set in contemporary St.Petersburg we find a young woman, Doosia (Victoria Haralabidou) naked and preparing to jump out of a window of an apartment into the snowy winter night. This apartment is occupied by two Australians. Rhys (Aaron Jeffery), returning home finds this stranger and prevents her inclination. He discovers his fellow Australian, Ben (Dallas Bigelow), nearly naked in an unconscious stupor. While helping Ben recover, Doosia and Rhys begin a conversation of revelations drinking coffee, red wine, vodka and tea with clumps of bread. The two, unconsciously seek and find, through the climatic and moral fug, their damaged humaness, in a world dominated by money, sex and alcohol - surrounded by a land of physical brutality and fear.
This text is fabulously naturalistic in its minutia, and dares to seemingly ramble on and on about nothing, literally, conversations about nothings, in varying cyclic rhythms and volume controls. It is, of course, the language patterns over this ninety minute one act play that reveal the mesmerising writer's intent and cleverness. Sometimes the talking gradually peters out to stark silences. Silences. Lengthy silences. But, loud with inner turmoil: angry, despairing, but yet not extinguished. The characters groping for comforting signs of light and life from each other - fellow strangers.
This tiny theatre has seats on three sides, surrounding a starkly depressed dining/kitchen space with 'crummy' furnishings, with rooms situated off stage on either side of the audience - action takes place out there as well. This design by Antoinette Barbouttis makes the best use of this space that I have ever experienced here. The lighting is low, almost just the wattage bulb of the real central lamp, creating states of light and semi-darkness - naturalistic glooms and struggling impoverished yellow colours contrasted with a window permanently lit in a kind of midnight blue blackness and moving patterns of falling snow. It is directed by Iain Sinclair, his steady visual control guides his two principal actors through the text and their interactions with startling naturalness.
Ms Haralabidou (also, the writer) is hauntingly hypnotic in her physical and vocal creation. Speaking in English and Russian there is a fearless striving for ultra reality. It is a very striking performance, wholly possessing every detail. Mr Jeffery, returning to the stage after a hugely successful television bout of work, matches Ms Haralabidou moment by moment, who, as Rhys, takes us on a spiralling trajectory of bewildering grief and despair to a place of transcendant sadness. His physical scale is dominating, powerfully attractive, and, yet delicate in its inner radiating fragility, its breathing pain. These two performances have depth, maturity and a lacerating control and are played beautifully, like two instrumentalists in concert duet. There seems to be a palpable trust of safety and challenge going on between them. Mr Bigelow gives useful support to the scenario, if, not as yet fully realising the potential of the role. The resolution to the play is enhanced by its realistic restraint - no sentimental choices here, but, still one of warming fortitudes and hope (I was reminded of the writing of Vassily Sigarev: PLASTICINE (2002), BLACK MILK (2003) and LADYBIRD(2004)).
This is a very sophisticated piece of writing, supported by wonderful acting, directed with a theatrical sureness, and, even within the modesty of the production values, and the space itself, a production I recommend highly. This play, ONE SCIENTIFIC MYSTERY OR WHY DID THE ABORIGINES EAT CAPTAIN COOK ?, introduced in Melbourne at the National Play Festival last year, I am surprised that it was not curated for principal theatre production. This is a debut play of some accomplishment, as performed by this company. (The title is provoking, one way or another, isn't it? - and I'll let you plumb, and discover, its meaning.)
Belvoir presents CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF by Tennessee Williams in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills.
Please view the Belvoir promotional clip, above, before you begin this 'epic' entry. (oh, Puleeease, even if it is tongue in cheek, it epitomises some of the attitude in approaching these works that give me an artist's, even, moral, pause. Or, is it just my generational elderliness showing, here? I am just not hip.)
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF by Tennessee Williams (1955) is another production of a classic American work directed by Simon Stone for the Belvoir Theatre. STRANGE INTERLUDE by Eugene O'Neill and THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller were presented last year.
Mr Williams in the publication of the text has a quote of dedication or inspiration on his title page:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light!
Dylan Thomas - Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.
Considering the above quote, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, maybe, is pivotally swung on and around the character of Big Daddy.
Big Daddy and Maggie are two of the most complete characters Williams has ever created. ... He is the play's hero, a big man of violent emotions and a lust for money, food, love and integrity. Like Williams' own father on whom he is modeled, Big Daddy has little rapport with his son, but he loves him and that's why he hurts him... .
- Richard F. Leavitt
All work is autobiographical if it is serious. Everything a writer produces is sort of his inner history, transposed to another time.
- Tennessee Williams.
Amanda Wingfield (THE GLASS MENAGERIE): "The past keeps getting bigger and bigger at the expense of the future."
So, in the week before opening this production, when the actor playing Big Daddy was forced to withdraw (we have been told, because of ill health), Marshall Napier, was engaged to take over, and played, with book in hand, on the opening night. I thought I would give time for Mr Napier to settle into the run. Big Daddy being so important to the Tenneesee Williams conception.
Tennessee Williams from his MEMOIRS (1972):
People are always asking me, at those symposia to which I've been subjected in recent years, which is my favourite among the plays I have written, the number of which eludes my recollection, and I either say to them, "Always the latest" or I succumb to my instinct for the truth and say, "I suppose it must be the published version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.
The play comes closest to being both a work of art and a work of craft. It is really very well put together, in my opinion, and all its characters are amusing and credible and touching. Also it adheres to the valuable edict of Aristotle that a tragedy must have unity of time and place and magnitude of theme.
The set in CAT never changes and its running time is exactly the time of its action, meaning that one act, timewise, follows directly upon the other, and I know of no other modern American play in which this is accomplished.
However my reasons for liking CAT best are deeper than that. I believe that in CAT I reached beyond myself, in the second act, to a kind of crude eloquence of expression in Big Daddy that I have managed to give no other character of my creation."
The original published text of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1954) had Tenneesee's original third act, as well as an adjunct, the so-called Broadway Version. In that edition of the play Mr Williams has a Note of Explanation. He talks of the importance of the dangers and values, of a highly imaginative director upon the development of a play (more of that later). The director of CAT was Elia Kazan, who had also directed A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1947) and CAMINO REAL(1953) (later, the film BABY DOLL (1956) and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1959)).
... It so happened that in the case of STREETCAR, Kazan was given a script that was completely finished. In the case of CAT, he was shown the first typed version of the play, and he was excited by it, but he had definite reservations about it which were concentrated in the third act. The gist of his reservations can be listed as three points: one, he felt that Big Daddy was too vivid and important a character to disappear from the play except as an offstage cry after the second act curtain; two, he felt that the character of Brick should undergo some apparent mutation as a result of the virtual vivisection that he undergoes in his interview with his father in Act Two. Three, he felt that the character of Margaret, which he understood that I sympatized with her and liked her myself, should be, if possible, more clearly sympathetic to an audience.
It was only the third of these suggestions that I embraced wholeheartedly from the outset, because it so happened that Maggie the cat has become more steadily charming to me as I worked on her characterization. I didn't want Big Daddy to reappear in Act Three and I felt that the moral paralysis of Brick was a root thing in his tragedy, and to show a dynamic progression would obscure the meaning of that tragedy in him and I don't believe that a conversation, however revelatory, ever effects so immediate a change in the heart or even conduct of a person in Brick's state of spiritual disrepair.
However, I wanted Kazan to direct the play, and though these suggestions were not made in a form of an ultimatum, I was fearful that I would lose his interest if I didn't re-examine the script from his point of view. I did. And you will find included in this published script the new third act that resulted from his creative influence on the play. The reception of the playing-script has more than justified, in my opinion, the adjustments made to that influence. A failure reaches fewer people, and touches fewer, than does a play that succeeds.
It may be that CAT number one would have done just as well, or nearly, as CAT number two; it's an interesting question. At any rate with the publication of both third acts in this volume, the reader can, if he wishes, make up his own mind about it.
But, even this new Broadway act re-written for Kazan was censored by the authorities (the elephant story was removed - too vulgar for the sensibilities of the time!) The play, as it was seen however, still won the New York Drama Critic's Award and the Pulitzer Prize (1955). Tennessee Williams was extremely unhappy with the screen script (1958) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives, adapted by Richard Brooks and James Poe (directed by Richard Brooks), as was latterly, Mr Newman, as it removed almost all the homosexual themes and revised the third act to include a lengthy scene of reconciliation between Brick and Big Daddy. When CAT was revived for the stage in 1974, Tennessee Williams revised the text once again, and it is this version that has been universally accepted as the one that the writer approved, and has been the one used in all of the Broadway revivals since. (N.B. the above published Notes of Explanation were written in 1954, twenty years before Mr Williams made his major revision to the play text in 1974.)
Simon Stone has elected to do the original 1954, third act, as his first directorial decision with this mighty play.
His next directorial decision is that the play is to be given in Australian accents. I regret this as much as the many other critics have, concerning this production. Most of the critics have been silent about that directorial dialect change which Mr Stone and the Belvoir artistic company have made consistently, with, for example, the O'Neill and, particularly, with the Arthur Miller play (don't forget PRIVATE LIVES), previously, but have been moved enough to note that the musical cadences of the Mississippi dialect that Mr Williams writes in, is such an integral part of the poetic truth of the Williams text, that to place it into the characteristic shapings and rhythms of the Australian dialect is to diminish the impact of the writing and that a protest should be made (!)
John Shand , the Sydney Morning Herald, February 27th, 2013:
Thankfully Simon Stone's production restores the playwright's bleaker version, which compounds the potentcy and resonance or it should.
Stone's other pivotal directorial decision was to use Australian rather than Mississippi accents, while leaving the slang and place names rooted in the South. Such practices have become commonplace, supposedly to allow contemporary audiences to "relate" to a work. Classics by definition, are timeless, and to feel obliged to grease connections is to patronise.
I loved Mr Shand's assertion that "...to grease connections is to patronise."
I agree entirely. Although, I believe, no less, that the dialect that Mr Williams' works in, and is such an integral part of his writing, its truth and poetry, I, also, reckon that Mr Miller writes his theatre prose with just the same accuracy of musical ear as Mr Williams (different, but just as vibrantly true and poetic) and the damage to the work, e.g. THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN, by transposing it into Australian dialect was just as crucial to the quality of that received work in the theatre. At Belvoir we have had consistently less than more of the greatness of the classics they have presented - and there have been many classics in their canny seasonal repertoire - part of the reason I attend that theatre, my reverence for the quality of the writer. Although, as interesting as some of the work has been, it has, in my experience, never been able to register higher than good, as compared to great, because of their artistic condescensions to us, the audience, around the dialect choices (one is presuming that the actors they are using have the requisite skills to use the specific dialects, of course).
I am in a state of wonder about the choices of dialect that the Artistic body at Belvoir will make about the Tony Kushner ANGELS IN AMERICA. Will it be in Australian to help us ''relate'' to the work, all the historical characters and place names intact or, will they, with Mr Kushner's permission, have it as ANGELS IN AUSTRAYAH?
Mr Stone in the program bangs on about a justification of this choice, which he has consistently made with each of his versions of the American classic for Belvoir:
... And the poetry of their voices comes not from an incidental or idiomatic musicality, it comes from the characters' deep insistence on declaring the truth of their human experience. William's famous lyricism is the music of truth, not of accent or location or period, and that's how he created classics.
It is, I believe, that the music of truth of the spoken text- is always situated - in the accent, location and period. I say, that the vocal expression of these characters in Mr Williams' and Mr Miller's play does depend on the location and period, it is the root soil of the characters' truths, their context. I, also, understand that part of the characterisation any actor gives, certainly begins with the shapes required to be made in the mouth to make the sounds that form the words, phrases, sentences, speeches and are based around the given circumstances of the play's world, the where and the when of the character's circumstances - the instrument placements (tongue, lips, soft palate, jaw, breath effort, etc.) are integral to creating the truths that are spoken by the characters, and not just their vocabulary or speech tempos, rhythms, if one wishes to capture the truth of these men and women, the timeless quality of these classics.
It is interesting to note that Mr Stone in his attempt to create that resonance in his Australian version of this text, has, as is usual, taken on the role of author and re-written some of the material (with permission, of course?) to achieve that. Big Daddy in this version has, for instance "fucking" liberally interpolated into his speeches ("Crap", is the usual choice in the actual text) - it, of course, goes some distance to help us to identify this property on which he lives: "twenty eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile", as an Australian property owned by an Aussie bloke I can "relate" too. As opposed, to say, to my relating to Burl Ives' Big Daddy in the film, which, of course, I have never before questioned. I had "related", big time, even as a teenager, to Mr Ives. I understood Big Daddy as a classic archetype of human experience, even with the American accent, that, I then "related', unconsciously, sure, to my Australianess, to my uncle "Bonzer", nee Clive. - a Kokoda survivor. My mother's brother. I knew some Big Daddy's, or, at least, men of that kind of macho charisma.
Or, is this, just a generational problem? This culture of the youth being a visual one rather than an aural one? - so I am told. As Mr Stone is only 28 do strange sounds obfuscate the classic quality of the play as written, for him? Why that American sound ought to be strange considering the propensity of the American Culture he has probably observed around him, I can't fathom. Did he never see DALLAS, one of Australia's favourite TV shows? Not know J.R. the big daddy of that series? Hey, I'm just trying to figure it out. And I am not sure if that poetic allusion to the "valley Nile" or any of Big Daddy's vocabulary would be found coming from the mouth of any of the farm/landowners, I know in Australia. Oh, well, I just pay to see the choices, not make them.
I believe that Mr Stone is a highly creative, imaginative director. My response to his production of THYESTES is evidence of my appreciation of that strength. It is interesting to note that THYESTES, was a completely new Australian play, based upon the writings of Seneca - Seneca's work was, according to most academics, not written to be performed. Mr Stone in the mise en scene for this production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is as similarly virtuosic in his directorial/design choices, as in all his other work: THE PROMISE; THE WILD DUCK; NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH; STRANGE INTERLUDE; DEATH OF A SALESMAN; and FACE TO FACE. But, it also carries most of that other works' problems as well, in, that often the visual inventions/stagings have little to do with the text at hand, and often bury the intentions of the playwright in favour of clarifying the objectives of the director. I would say that all of those classic texts have been re-authored with the life experience and needs/wants of Mr Stone. He seems to be carrying so much personal cultural baggage/'cringe' that the weight of those preconceptions make it hard for us to see the original work of the playwright he is using and we mostly see, re-born in front of us, the needs/intentions of Mr Stone, over and above the source of his usage, the play by Mr Arbuzov, Mr Ibsen, Mr O'Neill, Mr Miller or the film script of Mr Bergman. He re-authors and re-shapes, often ruthlessly, the material visually, and, as we know, textually, to make his point-of-view work, his needs seen.
As Tennessee Williams says in his notes in the 1954 published edition of CAT:
PERSON - TO - PERSON.
Of course it is a pity that so much of all creative work is so closely related to the personality of the one who does it.
It is sad and embarrassing and unattractive that those emotions that stir him deeply enough to demand expression, and to charge their expression with such measure of light and power, are nearly all rooted, however changed in their surface, in the particular and sometimes peculiar concerns of the artist himself, that special world, the passions and the images of it that each of us weaves about him from birth to death, a web of monstrous complexity, spun forth at a speed that is incalculable to a length beyond measure, from the spider mouth of his own singular perceptions.
It is a lonely idea, a lonely condition, so terrifying to think of that we usually don't. ...
And later, in his notes to the explanation about the Broadway act three that he wrote for Mr Kazan:
Some day when time permits I would like to write a piece about the influence, its dangers and its values, of a powerful and highly imaginative director upon the development of a play, before and during a production. It does have dangers, but it has them only if the playwright is excessively malleable or submissive, or the director is excessively insistent on ideas and interpretations of his own....
The dangers are immeasurably more possible if the writer is dead and unable to protest and/or his legal representatives are not there to protest. It is surely the responsibility of the director to interpret the material on the page - and, that is all the material that the author has caused to be published in those pages as his blue print to understand the writer's objectives and needs in writing the creation - to put all his creative and interpretative energies like a laser beam of searching to find a way to understand and deliver the writer's objectives, to excavate and reveal why this play of 1954 is regarded as a classic. This is not your property to edit, without permission, I'd have thought. And, so, there is immeasurably, even more danger when the director has an excessively passionate belief in his own agendas and pursues it by smashing the blue print of the play and re-configuring it for his own advancement. It is then, rather, appropriation of the writer's property, isn't it? Taking the MONA LISA and drawing a moustache on it, as my statement?
The way to solve this is not to represent your production as a play by the writer: Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, for instance, but as an inspiration for your own life vision, if you are unable to write one yourself from scratch. I, of course, have no real objection to seeing this "auteurs'' work, it is has been an exciting conversation to have in the theatre going experience in Sydney. I just wish, that he would accept that that is what he is doing, and not allowing the audiences to go on believing that they are seeing the Classic written by the author without any of his adulterations.
The set design that Mr Stone has elicited from Robert Cousins, presents us with a bare black floor stage, with a curtain of coloured, crepe ribbons cutting across all the space, three quarters of the way back from the front stage edge. During the first act a revolve brings on racks of contemporary clothes and a myriad of shoes for Maggie, in act one, to choose to dress in, in a frenzy of activity during her long scene/monologue with Brick. There is no furniture for either Brick or she to sit or rest on. He hobbled with a crutch and glass. Maggie wheels on a standing mirror to look in. There is no liquor cabinet for Brick to raid, just bottles wheeled into the space by the revolve which Brick on crutch with a glass in hand, like Maggie with her activities - dressing, undressing, shoeing, de-shoeing - has to chase, on the revolving wheel, to gain.
Later, a mattress bed with white sheets and pillows that need to be made are thrown on. The revolve is rarely still, the actors are forced to walk on the spot not to be revolved off the stage action - it is an olympian sport for the actors and the audience and it is a considerable distraction, diminishing the possibility of hearing the language, poetry, intentions of the text with real clarity. Actors appear and disappear through the scrim of crepe, sometimes cleanly, sometimes entangled. A full set of trestle-like tables and chairs are brought onto the space, and set up by the actors and micro-phoned crew, in theatre blacks, clearing away all else, for the birthday scene with Big Daddy in act two. For this act, the revolves stays still, there is a possibility to hear the conversation and the structures of argument and revelation written by Mr Williams. After the interval, the crepe wall has been demolished and stored at the back, and the bed is brought back to the stage in decrepit state and the revolve revolves, slowly, now, but, ceaselessly, during most of the act (check the SHIT ON YOUR PLAY post for further comment on the revolve action).
The lighting is 'brutal' in its colour choices (Lighting, Damien Cooper), with none or little of the colours of the writers' directions. The naturalistic soundscape with logical sources indicated by the writer, are absented and substituted and blown apart here, with loud blasts of glorious classical music, much like the choices Mr Stone had made, for instance, with THYESTES and THE WILD DUCK productions - a familiar trend, often observed elsewhere from other auteurs, especially in the cinema: making a statement to contrast the visual drabness to the aural glory of the sound of the music - usually of ecstatic celestial religious expressions (composition and Sound design by Stefan Gregory). This is a deliberately ugly, down market look to the world of Mr Williams original conception - it presents a grubby image and cool bleak colourings. The costume designs (Alice Babidge) are low tier market choices, contemporary K-Mart or slightly up-market St Vinnie's store an inspirational source - and/or fashioned to highlight a caricaturing of the physical presence of the characters - deliberately presenting blithely unaware people - people with no taste or sense on how to use their money. An Australian landscape filled with figures of arid poverty of all kinds - a kind of cynical degradation of the world of the actual play.
Needless to say that every clue written by Mr Williams, in the 1954 published edition of the play, which Mr Stone is using, as to the class, intelligence and sensibility as reflected in the deliberately long design notes in the text are ostentatiously ignored by Mr Stone and his creative team. Mr Williams being dead - cannot protest. Did the actors protest? These great roles are challenging enough without having to transpose the given circumstances to somewhere in Australia - just when is it, I wonder? Where is it? The Riverina? Victoria? Tasmania? Did they have a particular location in mind? and still have to use the nomenclatures of the text environs, and find the biographical details for the lives of these characters who speak so particularly in an un-Australian way and justify it to personalise belief to begin to tell a truth for this Australian sound version. This play is rooted in the traditions of the Actors Studio, Elia Kazan, a famous director from that Strasberg version of Stanislavsky' teaching: THE METHOD. It is painstakingly obvious the authentic detail of the writer and the approach of the director were in harmony for the film of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and, later, on the under appreciated comedy film, BABY DOLL; Kazan's work approach with THE METHOD detail further epitomised in the great naturalistic film, ON THE WATERFRONT. Williams and Kazan were a partnership, as much I will presume to say that Chekhov and Stanislavsky were on their collaborations. Each influenced the other in attempting to create a new approach to art making. Just how much time did this company, led by Mr Stone, have in discussing and making all those adjustments to honour the play as writ in their cavalier switch to help us Australians to "relate" to the play and appreciate its classic stature?
Jacqueline Mckenzie (SEX WITH STRANGERS) and Ewen Leslie (RICHARD III; and recently, the film DEAD EUROPE) are two of my favourite actors. I look forward to everything they do and they gave committed performances. But they appear to be either miscast or misdirected in this work. Both, with strained conceptions of their characters, with little or no chemistry between themselves. They have bent the material into reasonable images but they lack the imaginative entry into the Maggie and Brick and their relationship that has made this partnership, classic. Both the actors appeared bewildered. The directorial decisions of the first act (that blasted revolve and all that invented extraneous activity) certainly did not give them the space to deal with the textual situation that Mr Williams had given them to explicate. I was bewildered, if they weren't. Lynette Curran, playing Big Mama, deals with a character written with withering emotional viciousness by Mr Williams (tt reminds me of Chekhov's lack of restraint in his portrait of Natasha in THREE SISTERS) and surmounts the visual grotesquerie of the design, to hold us with moments of sympathy. Similarly, Rebecca Massey and Alan Dukes hold their own human interest as the rivals for Big Daddy's attention, as well. On the night, I went, the best performance came from Marshall Napier as Big Daddy, who despite or because of the Australian context delivered a riveting performance of a dying man, raging against "the dying of the light" and attempting to lead his son into the light of living, before it is too late. Physically and vocally Mr Napier muscled his away through all the paraphernalia of Mr Stone's vision and delivered a creation of courage, balanced with a great sense of integrity to the character written by Tennessee Williams.
Friends of mine were keen to know what I felt about the work. The marvel of the iPhone had them texting me at 10.40pm as I hit the Belvoir Streetscape to get my re-action. They were even surprised that I had stayed past the interval. I always do (well, nearly always). The people about me did not. I spread out a little in the second half in Row G. I texted back, "A GREAT, GREAT play surviving a 'pygmy' vision. Misconceived. Misdirected. Miscast. Another great play reduced at Belvoir instead of expanding, and taking us into the life of possibilities that great classics can give us."
Meeting up for dinner a few days later, we had an excited discussion. I laid out my case for a production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.
This is a gay play written by a gay man in 1952-1954. In the Belvoir program essay by Gabrielle Bonney, ON WILLIAMS:
In the late 1930's Williams had accepted he was gay. He had a series of relationships with men until the spring of 1948 when he fell in love with Frank Merlo.They were together 14 years until alleged infidelities and drug abuse on both sides ended their relationship.
Both men were unafraid, personally of their relationship or declaring it and lived a public life together as best they could with continual social, political and medical discrimination pressures, with threats of 'treatment' of an official illness of psychological mania, either in a hospital or prison. They and others, stalked by fear from their ordinary fellow citizens. A rare courage indeed. They were in a privileged circle of creative artists, undoubtedly, but still challenged the 'straight' world around them, full on. This play, no less, being one of those confrontations. Two stories from Tennessee Williams' MEMOIRS:
Parties in the fifties. I remember how Irene Selznick, daughter of that awful old Louis B. (Mayer), used to invite me to socially prestigious dinners at the Pierre and say, "Ask Frankie to drop in afterward."
"Tell her to go fuck herself," was his invariable and proper remark when I relayed these insulting invitations. Again in this context, I remember when Jack Warner entertained me and Frankie in his private dining room on the Warner (Brothers) lot. He was bullying some subordinates who had appeared slightly late for lunch.
Frankie stared at him with an expressionless fixity which Warner finally noticed.
"What do YOU do, young man?"
Without a change of expression and in a loud, clear voice, Frank replied, "I sleep with Mr Williams."
Jack Warner may have dropped his fork but Frank didn't blink an eye as he continued to stare steadily at the old tyrant.
Tennessee Williams says he has more of his own truth in this play than in any other he had written up to that time. He had found a man, Frank Merlo, to support him as a partner in a physical relationship. They found a kind of sanctuary with each other. He saw about him other men (and women) in denial of their true selves, destroying themselves with self hatred and fear: Thornton Wilder, William Inge, Carson Mc Cullers, three of his great fellow writers; Clifton Webb, Charles Laughton, Montgomery Clift, three actors among many. I believe this is a play where he calls for the tolerance of the homosexual life. A daring thing to do in 1950's America. Well, anywhere, really. Still, in most places, it seems. Ask our government. Ask the Pope.
"All work is autobiographical if it is serious. Everything a writer produces is sort of his inner history, transposed to another time."
Brick is the central character. It his journey we must follow. It is a very difficult assignment for any actor, for he is more talked too than talking. The ability to listen accurately and register the depth of the despair in his life is the mighty challenge. Brick carries the arc of the play, just as Blanche, another Tennessee "outsider", carries the arc of STREETCAR. Big Daddy is regarded by Mr Williams as his most naked incarnation. Maggie is a cat of his affection, liking.
In the extensive writer's notes for the designer, we learn of the kind of plantation home in the Mississippi Delta that the play is set. We learn of the exterior "where" of the home, the interior "where" of this bedroom even down to the 'immediate where" particulars. This particular room where Maggie and Brick are hauled up in…
hasn't changed much since it was occupied by the (original) owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello. A pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together. In other words, the room must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon.
In the centre of this room "...a big double bed... ." This bed then is the bed that these two gay bachelors expressed a life time of tenderness in. This is the bed that Maggie and Brick must share. It is indeed a truth of some symbolic power that Big Mama underlines, in her blissfully ignorant way, when in act one she asks Maragaret about the reason for Brick's drinking:
Big Mama : Don't laugh about it! - Some single men stop drinkin' when they git married and others start! Brick never touched liquor before he- ! ... Something's not right! You're childless and my son drinks!
(.... She turns at the door and points at the bed.) - When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there, right THERE!
This bed inherited from those happy gay men, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, by Maggie and Brick, then, is a central symbol and its presence needs to radiate throughout the play. Even in all the MGM iconography for the film version of CAT it is the ornate bed that frames all the publicity material, for even they understood the truth of the bed, even if it were a symbol of a different meaning in that cleaned up heterosexual emphasis of the story. In Mr Stone's scenography it is an ordinary piece of furniture, not always present, it is a prop, not a symbol at all - certainly the company of actors do not seem to absorb the Williams' meaning and communicate it.
Brick, in my reading of the play-version that Mr Stone is using, is, a homosexual man, at least a bi-sexual man, unequivocally. And one of the terribly tortured ones. Trying to drown the pain and sense of guilt in liquor. Maggie recognises it in the relationship that Brick has/had with Skipper. She has known about it, probably, from the start.
Maggie: It was one of those beautiful, ideal things they tell us about in the Greek legends, it couldn't be anything else, you being you, and that's what made it so sad, that's what made it so awful, because it was love that never could be carried through to anything satisfying or even talked about plainly. Brick, I tell you, you got to believe me, Brick, I DO understand all about it!
Big Daddy, too, has always known it, but kept his disappointment hidden. But now having stared down death, or he thinks he has, he needs to talk to his son at last and warn him:
Big Daddy: I'll make a bargain with you. You tell me why you drink and I'll hand you one. ....
Brick: ... I'll tell you in one word.
Big Daddy: What word?
Brick : DISGUST. ...
Big Daddy: What are you disgusted with ? ....
Brick: ... Have you ever heard the word 'mendacity' ? ...
Big Daddy: ... Don't it mean lying and liars?
Brick: Yes, sir, lying and liars.
Big Daddy: Has someone being lying to you? ....
Brick: .... No one single person and no one lie ...
Big Daddy: Then what, what then, for Christ's sake?
Brick : - The whole, the whole - thing ...
Brick and Big Daddy know that Brick has been lying to himself for a long time.
Big Daddy begins to talk truths to is son :
Big Daddy: ...What do you know about this mendacity thing? Hell! I could write a book on it! .... Having to pretend stuff you don't think or feel or have any idea of? Having for instance to act like I care for Big Mama! - I haven't been able to stand the sight, sound, or smell of that woman for forty years now! - even when I laid her! .. regular as a piston ...
Big Daddy intimates that Brick should not lead a life of lies, that he will come to regret it, as he has done, on the door step of death, when regrets are not worth having. That he understands the world and is not judgemental about the different life choices. That he should just step up without scruples and take what he wants.
Big Daddy: Life is important. There's nothing else to hold on to. A man drinks is throwing his life away. Don't do it, hold on to your life. There's nothing else to hold on to. ... I let many chances slip by because of scruples about it, scruples, convention - crap. ... All that stuff is bull, bull, bull! - It took the shadow of death to make me see it. Now that shadow's lifted, I'm going to cut loose and have what is it they call it, have me a ball! ... I'm going to pick me a choice one, and I don't care how much she costs, I'll smother her in minks and choke her with diamonds and hump her from hell to breakfast HA AHA HA HA HA!
Big Daddy will "rage, rage against the dying of the light !"
Big Daddy: ... You started drinkin' when your friend Skipper died.
Brick: What are you suggesting ? ...
There follows a long note from Tennessee Williams for his interpreters:
Brick's detachment is at last broken through. His heart is accelerated; his forehead sweat-beaded; his breath becomes more rapid and his voice hoarse. The thing they're discussing, timidly and painfully on the side of Big Daddy, fiercely, violently on Brick's side, is the inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow between them. The fact that if it existed it had to be 'disavowed' in the world they lived in, may be at the heart of the 'mendacity' that Brick drinks to kill his disgust with. It may be the root of his collapse. Or maybe it is only a single manifestation of it, not even the most important. The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man's psychological problem. I'm trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent -fiercely charged! - interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as great a deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and as deeply as he LEGITIMATELY can; but it should steer him away from 'pat' conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience. ...
The following long conversation is, as Mr Williams suggests for Brick a "virtual vivisection", a close examination of his life and his pain that has led to such an impasse with Maggie and all his family and the fleeing to drink - to alcoholism.This second act duet between father and son is indeed true :" That I believe in CAT I reached beyond myself, in the second act, to a kind of eloquence of expression (of truths) in Big Daddy that I have managed to give to no other character."
Brick: Oh, YOU think so, too, you call me your son and a queer. Oh! maybe that's why you put Maggie and me in this room that was Jack Straw's and Peter Ochello's, in which that pair of old sisters slept in a double bed where both of 'em died!
Big Daddy : NOW JUST DON'T GO THROWING ROCKS AT - ... I've seen all things and understood a lot of them, till 1910. Christ, the year that - I had worn my shoes through, hocked my - I hopped off a yellow dog freight car half a mile down the road, slept in a wagon of cotton outside the gin - Jack Straw an' Peter Ochello took me in. Hired me to manage this place which grew into this one. - When Jack Straw died - why, old Peter Ochello quit eatin' like a dog does when his master's dead, and died, too!
Big Daddy: I'm just saying I understand such -
Brick (violently): Skipper is dead. I have not quit eating!
Big Daddy: No, but you started drinking.
Maggie needs to hold onto Brick because of her fear of poverty, if not her loyalty.
Maggie: BRICK, Y'KNOW, I'VE BEEN SO GOD DAMN DISGUSTINGLY POOR ALL MY LIFE ! - That's the TRUTH, Brick! ... Always had to suck up to people I couldn't stand because they had money and I was poor as Job's turkey. You don't know what that's like. Well, I'll tell you, it's like you would feel a thousand miles away from Echo Spring! (his particular brand of whiskey) - And had to get back to it on that broken ankle ... without a crutch. ... So that's why I'm like a cat on a hot tin roof! You can be young without any money but you can't be old without it. You've got to be old WITH money because to be old without it is just too awful, you've got to be one or the other, either YOUNG or with MONEY, you can't be old WITHOUT it. - That's the TRUTH, Brick. ...
Maggie tells Big Mama:
My family freed their slaves ten years before abolition, my great-great grandfather gave his slaves their freedom five years before the war between the states started.
And like Scarlet O'Hara, this cat, Maggie, this Southern Belle will not "as God is my witness, eat carrots again." having once prowled and seduced Skipper and let Brick know of that ruthless conquest, Maggie puts a new action into being, having hidden the liquor she lays Brick, who is in a drunken stupor, on the bed of Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, centre stage, and to the dying groans of Big Daddy from offstage, attempts to seduce her husband, perhaps, to make a baby. The lights dim on a mystery.
What are the chances? My friends and I debated. We still do, when we meet.
I protested to my friends at the end of the food night, "I could not see Mr Leslie invest in the tragedy of a gay man of a certain kind - the self-loather, the different, the 'outsider' - the bewildered man. I did not see a gay man, I did not see even a bi-sexual man. This performance was, for me, the struggle of a straight man. I do not know if Ms McKenzie's Maggie, knew the fundamental truths of her husband's nature and overwhelmed by her "avarice, avarice, greed, greed!" pursued Brick to their bed with cat like ferocity - a cat on a hot tin roof that was determined when thrown off would be on her feet - with a baby and money to insure her old age."
"Mr Stone had not cared for the writer's gifts enough and was too occupied with his own gifts to help us see Tennessee Williams' play clearly'', I concluded.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is great play. It survived this odd production at Belvoir. I have seen the film. I saw the Wendy Hughes, John Hargraves version for the Sydney Theatre Company, ages ago. I saw Kathleen Turner and Charles Durning in 1990 on Broadway. I saw the Schaubuhne version at the Adelaide Festival a few years ago. I saw James Earl Jones, Adrian Lester and Sanaa Lathan in an all African-American/West Indies version in the London West End in 2009.
This play, no matter the production is a classic of theatre writing. And to miss the opportunity to see it, is to miss too much of what makes life worth while. When, in Sydney, will we get to see it again?
Collide and Griffin Independent present the World Premiere of GIRL IN TAN BOOTS by Tahli Corin at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.
Some girls in an office, take 'pity' on one of their workmates, who has no apparent boyfriend, who wears tan boots, and send a post to an internet site in a throw away newspaper (aka Mx), an invitation for GIRL IN TAN BOOTS to meet an admirer, MAN IN GREY SUIT, on an innercity railway platform for a 'date'. The girl wearing her tan boots does so, and disappears. Disappears altogether. The police are called in and an investigation begins. An entanglement of guilt and embarrassment from the perpetrator/girls ensues. A mother grieves. A police investigator 'tumbles' down a metaphoric/magic realism Alice-like hole of her own and, ultimately, disappears, too!
GIRL IN TAN BOOTS is a new play by Tahli Corin. BUMMING WITH JANE, by Ms Corin was presented in 2008 Downstairs at Belvoir. That work, like this one, was also produced by Ms Corin. The lights come up on a bland beige carpeted room with pale duck egg blue walls with little furniture. Two doors, one to a clothes closet, the other to the hallway of this apartment (Set Design, Katren Wood). This set allows other locations to be endowed. The pragmatic lighting states by Tegan Lee helps this to happen.
A lugubrious woman, who we discover is a police detective, Detective Carapetis (Linden Wilkinson) in a lengthy dumbshow attempts to leave for work, but has to return several times, as she has forgotten 'stuff': for instance, to feed her (somebody's) cat, and another, oddly, ultimately, her present case files, which she drops, splaying them all over the floor. Whilst picking them up Carapetis becomes aware of us and begins a conversation, "stepping' through the fourth wall convention, to us, the audience, concerning her present case, and in "flash back action" tells this story, and the history and statistics in her area of speciality: Missing Persons. The play, 80 odd minutes later, closes with the detective, removing her cover clothing to reveal a mirrored-sequined top and in several flurries of coloured glitter disappears in front of our eyes.
We meet a quartet of young women, the girls from the office who have set this hoax into action: Katie (Madeline Jones), Lucy (Francesca Savige), Mandy (Zindzi Okenyo) and Antonietta (Sara Zwangobani) seemingly written, and certainly played as satiric comic caricatures and thumb-sketched types, of a generation of 'air heads' who obfuscate the police inquiry, who only, under pressure, falteringly, help to reveal the story that led to the disappearance.
Finally, we are introduced to the distressed 'mum' (Odile Le Clezio) of the 'disappeared', who plunges psychically into instinctive feelings of despair about the fate of her daughter. Even to the dreadful premonition of the girl's death.
Is this play a Midsommer Murder who-dunn-it?
Is this play wanting to engage with the Raymond Chandler tradition (THE BIG SLEEP) of the crime investigation being narrated directly to us, albeit, here, with a less than witty Philip Marlowe type gumshoe, succumbing to the same kind of world weariness?
Does this play wish to make us seriously aware of the statistics around unsolved citizen disappearance in our present society?
Is this play a satiric comedy about a certain Generation-Y sense of entitlement and their lack of acceptance to the consequences of their actions?
Is this a moving melodrama concerning the experience of the survivors around the loss of family members?
Is this play, a piece of sleight-of-hand magic realism (there are magic tricks subtly integrated in the action: Bruce Glen, Magic Consultant) with meta-physical overtones?
It could be all of this. It could be.
But the uneveness of tone in the writing, or, is it the failure to integrate all these elements into a satisfactory whole, by the writer and/or the director, can leave an audience, at the conclusion of the performance, more than a little unsatisfactorily, bewildered. I was. My companion was. We tried to de-brief each other about what the play was saying. Even, what happened? We agreed that the play was mildly entertaining, especially Ms Okenyo - a strikingly poised, delicious hoot; the acting was fairly attractive, especially Ms Le Clezio - cumulatively moving to real heartbreak; and although Susanna Dowling had managed to stage this work with competence: entrance/exits/use of props/placement of music etc., it seemed to lack directorial skill, and or, insight into how to organise and shape the performance of the text to give the audience a clean and clear comprehension of all those parts as a whole. Is it the writing that has failed us? Is it the directing that has failed us?
Simply, it was in bits and pieces, when we saw it. We tired to figure it out. I will conclude that I have been intrigued, enough, to really cogitate about this play and the production, before attempting to write. But am still confused.
I'll leave it to you to figure out.
P.S. It was, by the way, a pleasure to see six women strutting their stuff on stage. I only wish it had the satiric wit and political savvy and theatrical clarity, of say, the all female cast in the 1936 Clare Boothe Luce play, THE WOMEN (film version, 1939) or, Caryl Churchill's, 1982 TOP GIRLS. Beggars cannot be choosers, I guess.