Friday, November 16, 2018

A Cheery Soul

Sydney Theatre Company presents, A CHEERY SOUL, by Patrick White, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 5th November - 15 December.

A CHEERY SOUL, is an Australian play by Patrick White, written in 1963. It is a re-visit to the suburb of Sarsaparilla, first introduced to us in Mr White's 1962 play, THE SEASON AT SARSAPARILLA.

Next year is the 40th Anniversary of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), and A CHEERY SOUL was its first production in 1979, Directed by Jim Sharman, upon the invitation of John Clark and Elizabeth Butcher who were the founders/creative artists of the first season of the STC. It starred Robin Nevin as Miss Docker. Ms Nevin re-iterated that character for the STC, in 2001, under the Direction of Neil Armfield, so that this new production, Directed by Kip Williams with Sarah Pierse, as Miss Docker, is a third go-at-it for the STC audiences. Belvoir, the New Theatre have produced it as well.

Miss Docker (Sarah Pierse) is being forced out of her long time accommodation - she will be homeless. Mr and Mrs Custance (Anthony Taufa and Anita Hegh) offer a room in their house, determined to do a good deed for the woman who gives her time and advice to the community so generously. Miss Docker, this Cheery Soul, causes a kind of 'havoc' in the Custance household, and is moved on to the Sundown Home for Old People (Women), and despite - because of - her cheery presence, blithely, causes 'havoc' again. None of its inhabitants can escape her kindness. Nor can the church congregation and its pastor, Rev Wakeman (Brandon McClelland) and his wife (Nikki Shields) - in fact the Reverend dies from his effort to cope with the presence of Miss Docker in his congregation. Miss Docker finishes wandering in the cemetery, near the crematorium, being 'pissed' on by a dog - the 'dog' and 'god' referencing not neglected by the writer.

The play begins in a quasi realistic style but once Miss Docker's move to the Sundown Home begins, in the second act of the play, Mr White's play shifts gear and morphs into a kind of gathering 'surreal-gothic' of a deliberate non or anti-realist style. We move from conversations between individuals to a a combination of conversational exchange with a choral vocal mode of narrative and observation development. Design-wise the denizens of the Old People's Home are presented by Alice Babidge, as satiric exaggerations in costume and wig, (premonitions of the mother figure in Alfred Hitchcock's PYCHO in that scary house on the hill), and in this production performed by a mixture of same sex actors: Emma Harvie, Anita Hegh, Tara Morice, Monica Sayers, Shari Sebbens, Nikki Shields, and men as women 'in drag': Jay James-Moody, Bruce Spence, Anthony Taufa.

In a week where a research project has revealed one in four Australians experience an intense feeling of being alone - a great number being widowed women - so that the Victorian Government is contemplating the establishment of a Ministry of Loneliness, based on a model in practice in the United Kingdom, A CHEERY SOUL, can have a visceral resonance for some in our community.

This production of A CHEERY SOUL, by Kip Williams, brings with it the dominant form explorations that he has been pursuing in the last few years.

He has, firstly, perforce of the experience opportunities he has been 'gifted' with, honed an admirable skill in the marshalling of his actors in dynamic military-style about the stage, whilst insistingly engaging the actors with the extra responsibilities as stage managers, scene-furniture and props-shifters, to produce 'miracles' of stage transformations seamlessly and decorously. In this instance, with the added aid of the whirls of the double revolves of the Drama Theatre stage, spinning in opposite directions (not so profusely or obviously used, perhaps, since the Robin Lovejoy production of Shakespeare's RICHARD II, in the very Opening Season of the Drama Theatre in 1973). This epic stage movement skill mode began noticeably with his work on UNDER MILK WOOD, (although, those of us who saw it may remember Mr Williams' NIDA production of a single voiced Samuel Beckett play, in which he employed some 40 actors), and has been polished through his further work in LOVE AND INFORMATION, CHIMERICA, THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI and the recent six hour adaptation of Ruth Park's THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (particularly, dazzling, it was, in the first play).

After an artistic break, in his production of THE HARP IN THE SOUTH, Mr Williams, secondly, returns to explore his interest in integrating, for theatrical evocation, the use of video and live camera action to highlight his dramaturgical ideas of/for the play, in combination with the live stage action. In this instance, with his Designer, Elizabeth Gadsby, and Video Designer, David Bergman.

It is all projected almost at 'Cinerama' scale across the wide back wall of the Drama Theatre stage, sometimes in pinhole cameo silent movie style portraits, or live action with a combination of colour and black and white palettes, with, seemingly, an intentional homage (or not) to the skill of the famed graphic film credit artist, Saul Bass. It is indeed often very beautiful and inventive, although the images are often visually 'blocked' to full view for the audience (it will vary as to where you are seated in the auditorium), by the concrete set pieces whirling in front, on the stage.

To achieve this Directive conceit there is a visual intrusion of cameras and camera operators in full view of the audience (though, they become, gradually, 'invisible' - and less objectionable - similar in effect to the pupeteers performing in a Japanese Bunraku performance).

This is all accompanied by a grandiose, sometimes bombastic, score from Clemence Williams, that does much to distract us from the scene change action, if not have us reminisce about recent music support in the Marvel Comic cinema repertoire.

However, the theatre technique of theatrical 'close-up', where the actor directs his experiences face and body forward for the audience to 'read' and 'endow' is distractingly interfered with by forcing the actor to turn profile, in their climatic storytelling journey, and to, instead, direct his emotional life to a camera on the side, to be projected, limitedly, usually only in facial close-up, onto the back wall, editing out the peripheral body language, that with a great actor, along with the depth of the truth communicated from the 'soul' of the actor through his/her eyes, is the epitome of their vulnerable skill, so that the 'live' performance becomes, rather, a distanced, be-headed, deadened one, at projected scale on the back wall of the space - I sometimes had images of the head of Robespierre, recalled, with his famously roving eyes goggling around in the basket, after being guillotined at the climatic time of the French revolution! The exploration of cinematic effect, by Mr Williams and his collaborators, in the live space of the theatre, grossly undermines the theatre actors' skills, and, somehow, rather than scaling up the impact, cools it to objective observation instead of visceral experiencing. The chance of audience catharsis with the actor in the moment is 'scientifically', 'technically', diminished, appropriated by the Director's camera. Mr Williams, obviously, has never experienced the joyful ambition of the actor's practice of his theatrical skills, in contrast to the different techniques, and joys, of the challenge for the cinematic 'lens'.

There seemed to be, on the night I saw the play, a lack of a variety of musical tempo to the rhythms of the text, it all, rather, played, conducted to the dictates of the 'machinery' of the production: revolves, cameras, costume changes (indeed, meeting the actors after the performance one was aware of their exhaustion, after, perhaps, a long technical preparation in the theatre. They were, vocally, relieved that there was no matinee on the following day). The actors' instincts, appeared to be intruded upon by the necessary adjustments that they had to accommodate to facilitate the production conceits, when they ought to have been in unfettered symphonic (poetic) flight inspired by Patrick White's writing.

As well, the greater part of this text is Voice driven. The company of actors engaged by Mr Williams on this production are all actors of skill, but considering the demands of Patrick White's ambitions, one wonders if the actors had been auditioned for their vocal gifts. Choral speaking in a play is infamous in its challenges and generally avoided, and here, in this production, which requires them to take up this 'gauntlet', the combined sounds made by these actors are unmusical, especially, in tonal range, and not sufficiently conducted to the 'horrendous' discipline needed to achieve clarity of just plain word delivery. It was all muffled - vocal entries mistimed, appearing to be uncertain - and merely a communicated 'gist' of images and author's intentions - little communal incisive specificity.

One wonders whether the voice qualities of the actors were considered with the Voice and Text Coach, Charmian Gradwell, in the casting decisions, and whether time was found to prepare, rehearse, the chorus of voices in their individual and choral responsibilities. The late and lamented Cicely Berry, the famous voice teacher-coach at the Royal Shakespeare Company, was tirelessly opinionated about the vocal time needed for such work to be able to be solved for contemporary audiences. It seemed time had not been sufficiently given for the actors at the STC to be able to, with a second-nature possession, deliver the skills necessary - unlike the time that seems to have been given to solve the Directorial visions of the necessary stage craft required by the Director, for it to work well. For, in my experience on the night, it was the imprecision of the choral oral communication that turned this time spent in the the theatre to one where the Cheery Soul became a Dreary Soul - one's focus was defused into the tedium of not hearing musically, or, with clarity, great swathes of the text and shifting concentration to a divided attention on distracting visuals as some way to compensate, to keep oneself entertained. It became exhausting.

One wished that Mr Williams was more concerned with content communication than to form/style communication. The time required to do both is what Ariane Mnouchkine, or Robert Wilson, or Robert Lepage have. Is TIME (which, generally means, money) the essential problem of why A CHEERY SOUL, relatively, fails, at the Drama Theatre, at present?

It was interesting to have conversation with a younger generation of artists after the performance, who had never seen the play before (or, even read it) to ask me why A CHEERY SOUL was regarded as an Australian classic. They thought it was boring, they got the point at the end of the first act, and could not comprehend the need of another two hours in the theatre, since nothing of real interest arrested their appreciation, or interested them. They earnestly suggested that there had to be better plays to be doing than A CHEERY SOUL, even in the Australian historical repetoire. They were, literally bewildered, and I wondered whether it was just a generational nostalgic reverence for Patrick White, especially by those artists that knew him personally, that provoked so many productions of this famous novelist's playwriting.

The conversation gave me pause.

Recently, I had read again THE TREE OF MAN (1955) and introduced myself to the great THE TWYBORN AFFAIR (1979) - now there is a content resonance for our contemporary times - and was left excited and enhanced from time spent with a great and perceptive artist. One's world is changed after time spent with a Patrick White novel - as difficult as they can be (my special favourites are VOSS (1957) and RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT (1961). Never was I ever seduced into that state of mind with any production of any Patrick White play - I, always, sit outside of the content to appreciate the artists trying to solve the work as theatre, and, occupy my time as to whether they have or not succeeded. One is never immersed in the stage world - or, at least I have never been. Is Patrick White a Henry James - a great novelist who has ambitions in the theatre and fails as a playwright? Harbouring an ambition outside his strengths, comprehension of form requirements, his true instincts as a creative story-teller?

Any production of A CHEERY SOUL must be driven by the performance of the Miss Docker. It is she that must hold our interest. Apparently this figure at the centre of the play had appeared in an early short story, written by Patrick White while he and his partner for life, Manoly Lascaris, were living on their 'farm' in Castle Hill. She was based on a person in their community. Patrick White was not an easy person to know, I understand. David Marr's biography: PATRICK WHITE: A LIFE (1999) tells us so, amongst much else. He appears to have had a distinct and active 'bullshit' meter and he would be, could be, merciless in his opinions and behaviours towards his 'targets'. His observation and distilled version of that woman in the persona of Miss Docker is unrelenting in its precision of skewering enthusiastic 'goodness'.

That, under the direction of Mr Williams, Sarah Pierse, creates a figure that asks for empathy, at many turns, diminishes, for me, the dynamic unconscious cruelty of a self-contented person of unquenchable belief in her 'christian' conceit of the rightness of her aired opinions and actions  believing it to be a 'goodness', a 'kindness', acts of 'truth-telling', coming from a source of love. This mollifying of the portrait of a woman who creates so much havoc in the lives of the others around her in her community (even a death) makes her too soft centred and removes the stringency of the merciless 'cruelty' of her choices. It diminishes the skewering of the type of person written and reviled by Patrick White. Miss Docker needs to be blithely carefree, careless, about what she does and says. She has no pity for others she believes are 'fragile' in their life choices and 'corrects' them ruthlessly, she has no qualms at all. And, after all, White, ultimately, has the dog/god piss on her as she roams the landscape of the crematorium, probably blowing with the ashes of the recent dead.

It is the enthralling fascination of 'villainy' that makes the Duke of Gloucester in Richard III, or Edmund, in King Lear, powerful, that gives those plays their thrilling spine. So it is with this Cheery Soul, otherwise she is diminished into a repellant bore who asks us to 'understand' her relentlessly. Miss Docker is not 'human', she is a steely zealot. She, really, does not give a 'fuck' of what you think of her for she knows she is right. She should not become a figure to whom we give sympathy but rather someone we want to avoid. Beware of those bearing gifts! Especially those who bear them with a missionary zeal of righteousness. Sarah Pierse gives a titanic performance, it just seemed to me, wrongly emphasised.

The best of the other actors are Anita Hegh, Jay James-Moody, Monica Sayers, Shari Sebbens.

Some of us talked about the STC as the producers of the best contemporary 'drag' shows in Sydney, what with the spectacular appearances of Jay James-Moody, Bruce Spence and Anthony Taufa in this production, and the double lip-sync by two actors as Judy Garland, and a sailor suited Barbra Streisand in this show. (Garland, Streisand, where did they come from? One wonders to what end? To cover a costume change? Or, because the Director can do what he wants? I wondered whether Patrick White would have weathered it?) Add the recent all female casting of ACCIDENTAL OF AN ANARCHIST at the STC and some of us could be considered to be right.

Ha, ha, ha.

Over it? I might be. You?

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