Sunday, September 4, 2016


Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents GLORIA by Benedict Andrews, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 26 August - 8 October.

GLORIA is a play by Benedict Andrews. Says Mr Andrews in his note in the program: '"GLORIA depicts an actress in the grip of an emotional breakdown.'  Performing, onstage, Gloria cannot distinguish her 'play' role from her 'life' role. Through fraility, both become entwined and a personal calamity ensues.

This production of GLORIA, by the Griffin Theatre Company, Directed by Lee Lewis, is an incredibly ambitious one, considering the technical demands of the writing by Mr Andrews, with its many scene juxtapositions of imaginative leaps back-and forth in time through a scrambled writing play construct, that is further compounded by the complicated techniques that Ms Lewis has taken to present the work (remember her visual ambition with RUPERT). These technical Directorial offers are sometimes so overwhelming that they can distract one from the thrust of the writing.

This is especially, the dominating Audio Visual offers , Designed by Toby Knyvett, projected onto many screen surfaces - both, background to the story and, partly, recorded narrative of Gloria's journey, which is not always successful as in-the-moment story-telling. The action of the live play slowing down for pre-recorded emotional indulgence rather than compelling story-telling. The long monologue for the WOMAN towards the end of Part Two is an example of performance tediousness - satisfactory emotional acting but which results in awful, static storytelling! (I supposed it had been recorded some time ago as it did not seem to be on the same 'wave-length' of the night's performance energy - indulgently, out-of-joint - it took forever.) As well, all of this action is supported by a very present (sometimes intrusive?) 'cinematic' Sound Composition by Steve Toulmin. The Set Design, by Sophie Fletcher is enormously complicated and almost unwieldy in its many traction demands, because of the tiny stage space of the SBW Stables Theatre - and your seating position may give you an entirely different experience of the production, as sight-lines are often hindered by the 'machinery' of it all. The Lighting Design by Luiz Pampolha is a versatile and attractive contribution to the production, and considering the many difficulties of the space and the demands of this production, maybe an act of creative 'genius' - one can only be full of admiration for its, relative , and accurate detail.

However, whatever the confusions of the text or the production itself, it can be - was for me - an exciting night in this tiny theatre. And, it is because of this very audacity of Ms Lewis' visual ambition (whether it all works or not, and who knows? it may, with a settling time experienced), and, most especially, because of the leading performance.

In the SBW Stables Theatre we bear witness to an incredibly exciting performance from Marta Dusseldorp as Gloria. In all the deliberate literary chaos of Mr Andrews' playwriting structure and the sometimes obfuscating organisation of seven actors in the stage 'furnishings' in this cramped space, with a Compositional  sound 'weight' that can overwhelm clarity of information, Ms Dusselpdorp, with a deeply immersed sense of the character's journey and a remarkable stage presence with all the honed skills of a 'classic' actor, demarcates a commitment and clarity to every moment of every scene that she is engaged with. The personal surety of this actor illustrated by her commanding focus is the 'life buoy' for the audience in the teeming offers of the production style, for she delivers with every gesture - physical (elegant) and vocal (mesmerising) - a promise of clarity and  the reward of an earned 'wisdom', for us who pay strict attention, in trying to un-puzzle the work we are watching. One latches onto every moment from Ms Dusseldorf and it is rewarding in its craftsman's cluing - it has the' beauty' and ultimate thrill of solving a complicated mathematical problem - we are made to feel 'Sherlock'-like in our riddling of the events of the writing. Ms Dusseldorf is magnificent. The reason to go. After an absence from the theatre with her involvement with other media - especially, television - it is a wonder and a gift to see her live on stage again, at last.

The other actors of this production seem, relatively, to be slightly 'under-cooked' by the Director in their contributions, which are, however, good, competently efficient. Chloe Bayliss, plays her characters' function well, while Meyne Wyatt appears not always certain as to what is going-on. (I wonder, how difficult it is to begin a play as a wandering voice-over?! Neither sight nor sound [text] able to be pin-pointed by the audience to be able to get on board with the play or persona. It leaves Mr Wyatt in a kind of nether-land.) Even the usually reliable and impressive Huw Higginson signifies a bewilderment inside the work, indicated, for me, by an 'actorly' vocal delivery of his responsibilities, in both halves of the play, that sits oddly in his communication to us - is he real or just a puppet/symbol? It is not clear what the answer is from the Direction of the acting at present. The basic  questions in staging a work of Who are they?, Where are they? When is it? did not seem to have sufficient agreed upon clarity of purpose from the overall team of the cast - or maybe, as I suggested earlier, that will settle down as they become used to the playing in the production's stage management demands, which they also have to 'perform' - it is a high demand from the Director.  Pierce Wilcox is useful in all of his incarnations, while Kristy Best does not give us much dimension, and young Louis Fontaine is simply a young child actor, caught-up in a whirl, swirl of activity - his character dimension is his youthful appearance.

GLORIA is a writing achievement - remember Mr Andrews' EVERY BREATH at Belvoir ?! - this is a considerable development - even if it concerns a phenomenon that has often been examined many times before, and maybe of an interest to a very limited percentage of the population - other (indulgent) artists - and could be suggested, is a kind of pre-occupying navel-gaze for the arts. (Remember LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT, earlier this year?) Mr Andrews, himself cites, alludes to John Cassavetes' film OPENING NIGHT (1977), with the staggeringly great Gena Rowlands and then we have had Darren Aronofsky's examination of the brittle line of sanity a creative artist may walk, in his BLACK SWAN (2010) - it seemed to me there were, as well, some visual allusions to REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) in this production; Alejandro Inarritu's BIRDMAN (2014) is a more recent visitation; whilst another memory of this subject matter is a personal favourite: A DOUBLE LIFE (1947), Directed by George Cukor. Ingmar Bergman has famously covered similar territory in his career output, as well: PERSONA (1966). GLORIA, in fact, now that I think of it, has a kind of  flavour of the Scandinavian, 'television-noire' about it - and, that is not to its detriment!

Despite claims by Ms Lewis in the program notes that "GLORIA is not a portrait of an actor, it is a portrait of us [Australians], one we are desperately trying to deny", and that, "Sometimes it takes an Australian on the other side of the planet to have enough distance to see us for what we are becoming", the overwhelming take-away of this play and production is what Mr Andrews concludes in his note in the program:
GLORIA is a kind of demented love song to the theatre and to actresses in particular ... [who] must possess the boundless play of children, the frenzied imagination of a poet, the forensic mind of a detective, as well gigantic hearts.
This is what Ms Dussledorp delivers triumphantly.

A 'State of the Nation' play it is not. But, then, Ms Lewis has thought this of many other plays, she has curated and directed, for the Griffin, as well: A RABBIT FOR KIM JONG-IL and REPLAY for instance - but saying it is so does not make it so. Reading this play one sees the deeply personal examination of an artist in crisis not a nation in crisis - to say so, no matter some of the images of the video design of this production layered onto it: street riots, fighting, modern war reconnaissance, seems to be drawing a very long bow to claim the play is about the nation.

MYTH, PROPAGANDA AND DISASTER IN NAZI GERMANY AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICA (2003), by Stephen Sewell (well, most of his plays, really), THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD (2009), by Damien Millar,  and the recent TRIBUNAL from the Fairfield based Powerhouse Youth Theatre, all productions that began life on the SBW Stables stage, by the way, are what I would define as 'State of the Nation' plays. We are waiting still in  2016 for that 'State of the Nation' play and GLORIA by Benedict Andrews is, unhappily, not it.

New Australian theatre writing seems oddly reluctant to write about the big issues of our nation - or is it that the 'gate-keepers' are afraid to schedule them - not box office sureties? The questioning, the debating of our country's moralities not, necessarily, guarantees of 'corporate' profits? Style and fluff triumphs over substance? Bread and Circus in our times our 'censored' diet? The announced  seasons for next year's delectation from our theatre companies so far seem the same old, the same old safety first. (Malthouse season, in Melbourne arrested my attention, though.) Even our revue artists are reluctant to touch the 'sores' of our nation: check out the Sydney Theatre Company's BACK TO BITE YOU to see what I mean: harmless fun to swallow along with your drink from the bar!

Go and see GLORIA to see a 'great' performance by Marta Dussledorp. The Best of this year, I reckon (so far!) Too, to admire the courage and ambition of Ms Lewis. And, if you can find the 'State of the Nation' play in it all, it will be a bonus.

See what you can make of it. Maybe I am just a dullard of perception. Worth debating.

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