Monday, April 20, 2015

Elektra / Orestes

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Belvoir presents, ELEKTRA / ORESTES, by Jada Alberts and Anne-Louise Sarks, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills, 14 March - 26 April, 2015.

In less than an hour, Belvoir Theatre, under the Direction of Anne-Louise Sarks, presented her and Jada Alberts, truncated version of two major Greek plays, ELEKTRA and ORESTES. A member of my audience expressed astonishment that this had happened. He wasn't sure, however, whether he had been gypped or not. Still, it was just after nine o'clock as we hit the pavement together and we both agreed we both could get to our homes for the last part of the REDFERN NOW telemovie, before going to bed.

Says Ms Sarks:
ELEKTRA / ORESTES is a play about family. It is a play about grief. And violence, and love and regret. These are themes that will resonate as long as humans are on this earth.
We've brought this play into 2015 and into the family home.
We've placed Elecktra and her long lost brother Orestes in the kitchen. In this production the epic bumps into the domestic, and through that collision we can begin to recognise ourselves inside this extreme story.
One wonders if we wouldn't have recognised ourselves, if this production had been set in the original era, setting and play. I mean, being in a 2015 kitchen and recognising the domestic similarities, (a tap, sink, a juicer, clothing etc.) to my everyday life, didn't necessarily make this story, told by Ms Alberts and Sarks, any more accessible for me. There did not seem to be any logical justification. None of the motives for bringing the play into 2015 and the family home, none of them, made anything that happened in this production at all credible to my daily life experience of modern Australia. Rather than drawing me into a theatrical experience, it kept me out, with a pained, disconnected, objective eye-view.

I just kept 'bumping' into, in this Belvoir domestic setting, into strange questions, whilst sitting in the theatre, as I had become, quickly, disassociated from the action of the play as it enacted, and was reduced to just watching the actors speak and move about the stage. Wondering why in 2015, Klytemnestra (Linda Cropper) had not been arrested for the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, put on trial and jailed? Why was she as free as a lark? What had secured her freedom? I just kept wondering whether ICAC needed to review our police and justice system, in Sydney, Australia? Certainly, Elektra (Katherine Tonkin) knew about it, she never shuts-up about it. So did her sister Khrysothemis (Ursula Mills), and Oerstes (Hunter Page-Lochard), for that matter, as we find out, did too. For God's sake, Klytemnestra, admits to the crime. She even confesses the reason: that it was an act of revenge for the murder of her eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Mother's grief, mother's revenge for infanticide, no matter what period in human history, it seems a reasonable motive, even if the resultant extreme action is hard to justify, especially, in this day and age? Isn't it? She would be incarcerated somewhere in our prison system for sure, wouldn't she be?

That Elektra is so furious (jealous?) that her mother had then begun a relationship with Aegisthus (Ben Winspear) while her father was away, and this fact used by her as a scourge to accuse Klytemnestra, to humiliate her, and declaimed, often, as a reason, the reason, for murdering her, and that Klytemnestra, in her own defence, doesn't mention the fact that her husband, Elektra's father, after eight years at war, had returned with a concubine, Cassandra, to live with them - in a modern menage-a-trios - I felt was letting her case for justification of motive down. I mean let's go back to the start of all this suburban mayhem in Sydney, why hadn't Agamemnon been arrested for the murder of his daughter Iphigenia? This is the late 1990's when this began, in a democratic and modern Sydney, isn't it? That's what Ms Sarks wants me to believe. The modern, white, module kitchen, with minimal kitchen gadgets, near empty cupboards, certainly tried to make me believe that it was, it, designed by Ralph Myers, with some trendy minimalist neon writing art on the walls. I mean, why hadn't Agamemnon been at least institutionalised when he, to justify his murderous deed, the killing of Iphigenia, claimed it was a sacrifice to the gods to speed his journey to war? A sacrifice to the gods? Really? What god? What 'cult' was he involved with to sacrifice a human being, let alone his own daughter? Really, in 1997? How did he get away with it? How did he get away, out of the country, with that defence for child-murder? Why wasn't he immediately arrested when he returned?

I was not able to accept and go with the Directorial decision of setting it today, in this adaptation, production, of the ELEKTRA / ORESTES source plays. All Ms Alberts and Sarks had done, beside gutting the poetry and debate of the plays - giving us a Disney-dumbing down of it all - was put the characters in modern dress (Costume Design, Mel Page) in a modern setting, with a few contemporary textual cultural joke-tweaks, without adjusting the circumstances of the original play to a modern milieu of crime and punishment, ethical beliefs - everyday modern law and order procedures. The whole intellectual rigour revealed its self as a fairly superficial effort in its adaptation ploys. It was still the ancient Greek story (without those ancient pranksters, the Greek Gods, around) in mod dress. It made a farce of the original mechanisms of the cultural source of the play and could not be accepted as a truth of contemporary Australia. I could not begin to recognise "ourselves inside this extreme story", as Ms Sarks suggests, I would.

One appreciated even more the achievement of a great writer like Eugene O'Neill and his appropriation of this story in his epic play MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA - Homecoming; The Hunted; The Haunted (1931). All the elements, in the O'Neill, of the original, had been thought through and adjusted to fit the times of the American Civil War and made sense of the possibility of the actions of the play in that era.

Boy, was I further bewildered, confused, at Belvoir, when the Composer and Sound Designer Stefan Gregory, began this version of these famous cultural texts, which he underlined further, during the night, with melodies from a German opera, Richard Wagner's, Der Ring des Nibelungen, 'The Ring Cycle' (1876), as the motifs for this Australian/Greek story! Themes from the score of ZORBA THE GREEK (1964), by Mike Theodorakis, would have been more apt and contemporary, perhaps? What world am I in, German? Greek? Australian?

The dialogue, the words of this play had a pleasing quasi formality about them, if not made to work confidently by many, any, of the actors (Ms Cropper having an intelligent and supported technique to try, but was not consistent enough). Although, on the other hand, the dialogue spoken by Mr Page-Lochard, as Orestes, in the second play, seemed to portray an improvised text of modern jargon and banalities that was a verbal contrast to the rest of the language of the other players, as to make it a very conspicuous and incongruous choice. Brecht used a technique of allowing the actors to personalise some of his classic texts, by transposing it to their daily usage/paraphrasing, to help the actors to familiarise themselves to the 'meaning', but always led them back to the language of the writer - Mike Leigh, Quentin Tarantino, similarly, does so. It seemed to me that Mr Page-Lochard had, explored with Ms Sarks, the personalising/owning of the language intentions, but had not got back to the textual qualities as written, that the others were dealing with. It was very odd, disconcerting, to hear this privileged (though damaged) young man, Orestes, speak in such a stylistically different and socio-economically contrasting manner to the others of this household.

I was taken with the principal writerly conceit of utilising simultaneous action in the two rooms, first in the dining room, and then, courtesy of a revolving stage, in the kitchen - it is an old literary trick - best used, I remember by Alan Ayckbourn in a three play, three room comic epic called THE NORMAN CONQUESTS -Table Manners; Living Together and Round and Round the Garden (1973). The dramaturgical possibility of tension in the second scene, play, of ELEKTRA / ORESTES had enormous potential. However, one felt only the potential of this writers' ploy because this company of actors fudged the commitment, with mostly, indifferent acting, and with five different acting formulations to solve the problems given to them by the writers and director.

Ms Tonkin, as Elektra, was dressed slovenly in tracksuit and hoody, bare-footed and careless to appearance, obviously indulging the privileged life of a spoilt, wealthy woman, demonstrating her boredom, her ennui, with an uncouth, 'moaning', whinging attitude, and flairs/flares of petulant adolescent behaviours. Ms Tonkin compounded that visual image with a use of the text in an extremely generalised emotional blur. There was no care to use the word by word construction of the writing to build Elektra's arguments, to tell the story the writer had given her, happy to, instead, to bawl the text as emotional noise. Was this behaviour of Elektra, or representative of Ms Tonkin's skills? Why was Elektra upset could not be clearly appreciated by the audience who mostly received only approximations of her dialogue to decipher, and through a 'noise-screen', a mess of generalised emotional indulgences.

Ms Mills, so impressive last year in KRYPTONITE, tended to demonstrate the life of Khrysothemis : when she was tired she walked/'acted' tired; when she was thwarted she 'acted' thwarted; when she was illicitly engaged with Aegisthus, she 'acted' illicitly engaged with Aegisthus! It was very making the familiar strange, very Brechtian, very Verfremdung (as they say), shaking us, the audience, out of a passivity or acceptance of the world on the stage. I certainly sat up to watch an actor 'ACT' - it was a very odd set of decisions, that Ms Mills and Sarks, used to reveal the character. I did think it would have been easier just to 'be': tired, thwarted, illicitly engaged, with a belief system that we, the audience, could then endow for her. The work was cartooned and of a completely other-worldly style to the other performers.

Mr Winspear, as Aegisthus, played bored 'playboy' with less interest than was required for us to read into his offered choices, the possibility of a live human being with any stakes in the story/plot. Ms Cropper, as she had done with her work recently at Belvoir, e.g. NORA, played with a sophisticated approach to her character with a skilful language intelligence. However, even she began to falter in effort and seemed to give-up the battle, worn out, perhaps, to finally play with a kind of perfunctory gesture, as she moved centre stage to be shot (melodramatically), as she had had little active support to match her work as the play moved into the Orestes room - it is hard to create a reality all by yourself, especially a reality that Ms Sarks attempted to place in a domestic kitchen, just like our own, in the year 2105, with knives, guns and lots of blood and no telephones!

Mr Page-Lochard, as Orestes, began well in the guise of the Messenger, and initially I felt a tremor of hope that Ms Cropper would at last have a performance to bounce off, play with, unfortunately, as I indicated earlier, Mr Page-Lochard had what sounded like improvised contemporary 'street- talk', dialogue, in the Orestes 'kitchen' act, which did not match or meet the language energy, or stylistic force of his protagonist, Ms Cropper/Klytemnestra, and so, ultimately, failed to really connect with Ms Cropper's offers, and failed to create a bloody vengeful son, or, even a convincing dynamically conscience riven individual. The last scene, staged by Ms Sarks, the murder of Klytemnestra had, for me, a vague hint of the the flair of a bad Douglas Sirk melodrama (with the Lana Turner real life trappings, conjured in my mind), though, really, not enough to have me get on board. The gesture of the Sirk style was timed too late for me to take it as meant. Was it meant? Probably, not. Just me desperate to make some joy from the night.

The Greek dramatists of the original works, left the killings off-stage, leaving it to the imaginations of the audience to invent the chaos and power of murder. Unfortunately, Ms Sarks decided to bring them onto the stage, and Mr Page-Lochard had the very difficult task of bringing a verisimilitude to a stabbing of many, many 'stabs' to an upturned onstage body, under the kitchen sink - and what resulted, with the audience I was with, was a giggle-fest - it reminded me of the famously deliberate Hitchcock gambit in the film TORN CURTAIN (1966), where he had Paul Newman attempt to kill a Russian cold war thug, which was 'demonstrating' for us, just how difficult it was to actually kill someone. It took some time and many methods. I remember the audience in the State Cinema, too, getting the giggles - that, I think, was Hitchcock's intention (watch it with friends, it is amazing), but not necessarily Ms Sarks' intention. The climatic murder of mum with a gun was just as ineptly staged as the first of her lover-boy.

Look, I don't know why the acting from these very highly credentialled actors - and usually, much admired by me - is so disparate and strangely odd. Is it that the play text was not ready for these actors to grapple with early enough for them to begin to safely craft a performance? A unified collaboration? Was the rehearsal effort focused on the writing of the script and exploration of styles, leaving the actors, relatively marooned in their thwarted creativity time? Only the company can dissect what has happened.

The night I attended there was less than a third of a house present to watch this production. The centre block with a sprinkling of a few of us on the sides. Word-of-mouth was out and about, I guess. It was the second show in a row that I had attended with a small audience at Belvoir!! I bought my ticket, oddly, at the invitation of the Sydney Theatre Company, who had noted, I guess, by the shared metadata of my transactions with the Belvoir Theatre, that I had enjoyed KRYPTONITE, with Ursula Mills, and might, similarly, enjoy seeing her again, at Belvoir. I simply had to use the code word of 'Easterbunny', to be able to buy a ticket for only $45.00 instead of the usual, $72.00. I did. Not many others had - what did they know that I didn't? You know I did know, but enjoy the theatre too much not to go, and who knows, I could be surprised. I am sometimes accused of being a contrarian. But like the gentleman I met as we left the theatre wondered if I had been gypped: $45.00 for the ticket, $7.00 for the program, a total of $52.00. The play just under an hour, it was more than a dollar a minute. You know, it just wasn't a quality dollar spend I'm afraid. Gypped then, sir.

Three Greek dramatists: Aeschylus, in his trilogy called THE ORESTIA, treats the Electra and Orestes story in THE LIBATION BEARERS and EUMENIDES (458 BC); Euripides, with his ELECTRA (422 - 416 BC) and ORESTES (408BC); Sophocles in his ELECTRA (c.425 - 410 BC). It would be a treat to see these plays on stage. Being some of the foundation texts of Western culture, it would be great to see, enjoy their relevance, relatively, faithfully, albeit, trusting that I, and the audiences, have the necessary intelligence of perception to relate without dumb-downing the texts and transporting the times, that, in this instance, (as it did with the STC UNCLE VANYA, set in he 1960's Russia, a few years ago) prove to be very superficial textual adjustments to the new period.


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