Friday, October 20, 2017

No End of Blame

Photo by Kate Williams

Sport For Jove Theatre Co. and Seymour Centre present, NO END OF BLAME, by Howard Barker, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. October 12 - October 28.

Sport For Jove have taken on British playwright, Howard Barker's 1981 play NO END OF BLAME: Scenes of Overcoming.

Ideas plus entertainment can equal art.

Howard Barker writes plays that are robustly muscular in content (ideas!) and language usage (literate!). 'Challenging', might be a word to describe them. He calls his great catalogue of work: The Theatre of Catastrophe and since 1988 has run his own company: The Wrestling School to do his plays that most others won't. The National Theatre did produce SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION, not too many years ago, nothing else. Barker is still writing and has been since the early 1970's.

In Sydney we have rarely seen his work: THE LOVE OF A GOOD MAN; THE HANG OF THE GAOL; VICTORY, at the Sydney Theatre Company (Directed and starring Judy Davis); SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION, at Belvoir (starring Lindy Davies); WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN, at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (an adaptation of Thomas Middleton's play), Directed by Kate Cherry; whilst I Directed NO END OF BLAME, way back in 1983 for the New Theatre - I mean, how cutting edge were we? (How I would love to direct THE CASTLE).

His plays, usually, are connected to historical events. NO END OF BLAME, follows the lives of two Hungarian artists, one an internationally revered (feared!) political cartoonist: Bela Veracek, known as 'Vera' (Akos Armont), the other a painter, Grigor Gabor (Sam O'Sullivan). We meet them on the battlefields of the Austro-Hungarian Campaign, at the fag end of World War I, follow them into a near decade of Lenin and Stalin's USSR, then, to Great Britain throughout and after World War II, into the early 1970's.

Barker has contempt for 'messages' in the theatre, declaring he is not trying to influence anyone, instead proposing scenes that have no unified aim to response, rather giving us scenes that are complex, ambiguous and unstable, trusting that we will understand metaphors and not expect his theatre to be a place of literalness - he is famously, fascinated by contradiction. An audience cannot be comfortable with their identification of the characters in any of his plays' journeys, for Barker is more than likely to challenge your usual comfortable, first-impression middle class mode of reading a play or a character and categorising it or them (which, maybe why his theatre company is called "The Wrestling School"?!). His characters, his scene choices for his story, his subject matter, are not written to make it easy for you in the experience, doing all, whilst employing a pre-dominant view of the world that is essentially tragic. That 'tone' is not always a 'popular' choice (especially in Sydney). That tragic mode, though, liberates his language from banalities and returns 'poetry' (muscular poetry) to the speech of each of his creations. But be assured that he has a provocative sense of ironic and cultural humour to 'hook' you in, even though it is often coloured through a prism of sorrow. A sorrow for the follies of his fellow human beings. Of man repeating himself. Of man hopelessly flailing about with the aspirations of angels but with the 'pathetic' habits (needs) of animals.

This production is a major piece of work, amazingly 'built' by Sport For Jove (of the vibrant Independent Sector of the Sydney Theatre offerings), that is in production values equal too anything we have seen from the major companies this year. Damian Ryan, the Director has collaborated with Melanie Liertz to find a large, functional set and costume design solution to the many locations of the play spanning some six decades of history. They have also inveigled two contemporary cartoonists, Cathy Wilcox and David Pope, and artist, Nicholas Harding to illustrate - illuminate - with their creativity the projected background images for each of the scenes and its narrative. Fausto Brusamolino manages in the tight space of the Reginald Theatre to provide a Lighting Design to support the action of the play with avid sympathy and care for the projected images. Alistair Wallace has developed a Sound Design with atmospheric music (sometimes, too loud?) and sound effects.

This play written and performed originally with a company of nine men and three women, is, in this production performed by a company of eight , that attends with a conscious alertness to gender parity - one of the 'urgent' political developments of our contemporary scene - with four men and four women. It works seamlessly and rewards the actors (especially the women), and the audience, with stimulating challenges of intellectual adjustment. The decision to have only eight performers makes for heavier demands on all the actors who, besides, having the responsibility of creating and 'inhabiting' the 'life forces' of almost sixty characters of the play, also, are complicatedly involved with the multiple and immense scene changes. This company is heavily and vitally tasked to bring this play to its audience.

One intuits the energy and commitment of this set of collaborators to Howard Barker's vision in NO END OF BLAME. It can be a major strength that sweeps the audience into the experience, though it, on opening night, did give, to some of us, the appearance of an over zealous urge to point out solutions (messages) - a kind of limiting, earnest didacticism contrary to the intentions of Barker in each of the scenes of overcoming. Instead of trusting us, the audience to be immersed in its contradictions, its ambiguities - 'stewing' in it, finding it for ourselves. (The nervousness of the actors, the adrenalin so obviously 'pumping', sometimes gave the work a sense of it coming from a 'missionary' pulpit - Jesuitical in its certainty of clarity - of its importance!)

The passion of the actors for their solutions to their character and the realistic dilemmas that they find themselves in, sometimes squeezed out the 'cultural' comedy written with Barker's usual merciless irony. Was it a fear of creating, playing, caricature, perhaps?, that unbalanced the effect of Barker's constructed affects, for with study you will find that this use of irony is one of the strengths of Barker, in most of his plays. There are so many 'heavy' ideas going on in the play (all his plays), that any production does need to give the writing's levity room to breathe more luxuriously. It is, I believe a necessary theatrical relief for any of his plays to be a bearable night in the theatre - it reminds one of the argument that Chekhov, the Writer, always had with Stanislavski, the Director, about whether his plays were comedies or dramas. NO END OF BLAME could be funnier in the experience of this production.

Each actor has found a sound ensemble support for each other's work whilst also having moments of individual achievement: Lizzie Schebesta in her moments with ILona and her verbal desires in the park with her two men; Bryce Youngman, with his cartoonist, Mik; Angela Bauer with her life class model, Stella; Amy Usherwood in every offer she gives - it is very exciting work - especially her Ludmilla and Kenny; Danielle King, especially, in her first scene as Bobbi Stringer; Sam O'Sullivan, vivid in his work as Grigor (the painter) and in his appearance in the English newspaper scene - his is a central performance that helps to focus the scenes he is present in. Akos Armont, as Bela, is boldly brave but too often becomes belligerently bellicose in his energy efforts in every scene he is in - it is an amazing commitment  but it lacks a sense of arc judgement, there seems to be little deliberation of choice for restraint - a careful gradation of effort from scene to scene. Sometimes the emotional effort, complicated with the dialect work smothers verbal clarity. The performance becomes an endurance of admiration but is wearying in its consistent, relentless overwhelming effort - sameness. Less maybe more.

Bela Veracek, (inspired, partly, on the career of Victor Weisz, known as 'Vicky'), who embraces the craft of the political cartoonist, making quick art: "Dries quick, speaks quick, hurts", triumphant when "I stirred the police, (and) therefore I touched the truth" is caught in the paradox of the incongruities of the freedom of expression for the artist. Barker in NO END OF BLAME reveals the disabling of the truth speakers in the interest of the need for ideological government of society, for the good of that society, whether it be under communism or capitalism, where ideas of 'responsibility' counts more than freedom or even honour.

Sport For Jove brings another charged production of a play of ideas and poetry. Worth seeing - recommended, especially for the serious theatre goers.

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