|Photo by Clare Hawley|
Siren Theatre Company and Seymour Centre present, THE MOORS, by Jen Silverman, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, City Rd, Chippendale. 6th February - 6th March.
Ah, THE MOORS.
I saw this production of THE MOORS, a play written by young New Yorkian, Jen Silverman, several weeks ago. It is a production from Siren Theatre Company, Directed by Kate Gaul.
THE MOORS, what to write?
Ponder, ponder, ponder.
What was my response? I have found myself in turmoil. Not in any negative manner but in a turmoil of a whirl buffeted by this contemporary take on THE MOORS. I have a history with the Moors - though I have never been there myself.
I came to this production understanding that the moors of the title were the Yorkshire Moors. The Yorkshire Moors, in my imagination, are wind swept valleys and steppes swathed in heather. Rain clouds of a tempestuous temper, weighted, oppressive and yet exhilarating. Clothes, cloaks (heard gear) all straining and fighting the passionate, violent airs of the scenery to try to maintain sapien decorum - Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon running across the (studio) scenery in1939. It, all emanating from the wilderness and wilds of nature whirling about the oppressive religious constrictions of the household of the Bronte family of Thornton and Haworth, on the Yorkshire Moors. Nature and nurture in high conflict producing in the 'rub' the inspirational imaginative gothic romantic literature that holds sway in any mind of worth and joy. I was brought to the moors (Or, at least the Hollywood back-lot version of the Moors), by the Hollywood films of the Bronte Sisters' novels, particularly JANE EYRE (1943), by Charlotte Bronte and spectacularly, WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), by Emily Bronte.
My imagination, however, was burnished into 'colour' visions when, at school, when WUTHERING HEIGHTS, was the novel prescribed for our final year exams for our Leaving Certificate (LC, we called it). WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1847), became the bible of my intense preoccupation - my 'good' Catholic, religious teachers (my English teacher, Brother Christopher, was also, ironically, our Religion Teacher, at the time), probably, had no idea of the flames of rebellion and passion that were lit by the study of this novel, that were to become the first steps on the pathway to my 'liberation' from the Christian Gentleman that I had, all my little life, otherwise been groomed for. Or, did he know? (MACBETH was our play text!)
The characters of the novel, contrasted, for instance, by the simpering and relatively bloodless virtuous, Isabella and Linton, to the tempestuously romantic (thrillingly gothic) Cathy and Heathcliff, situated in the landscape of the wild, wild moors were burnt indelibly into our imagination and aspiration for a kind of happiness - no matter the pain (Oh, but that is very, very Catholic, isn't it? - check out my blog on LA PASSION DE SIMONE.) The final moments of entwining rose bushes from the graves of the heroine and hero, Cathy and Heathcliff, represented the utter satisfaction that the difficult, the 'other', and this what my 'nature' was beginning to become aware of about its differences, will survive beyond time and place. ("Buzz off, Ms Austen. If we are going to be different, be rude about it," I reckoned. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE; EMMA, great, but bring on the gothic disruptors.)
Then, shamefully, I must confess, reading the novel of JANE EYRE, for the first time only a few years ago, I was ignited to great surprise and admiration of that heroine, who had always been the 'lovely' version allowed by the soft glowing talents of Joan Fontaine and the glowering Orson Welles and the Censorship Boards of the times (1943). I was ignited to the surprise and awe that Jane in the raw hand of Charlotte Bronte, spoken in the novel as a first hand autobiographical telling, was an uncompromising, thrilling, 'Monster' of will and determination (my excited view!), unsettling the world about her - who was all the more GREAT because she was a woman in an oppressive world where the only way to redeem a character of this kind in the Victorian Era, was to have her die, or, enter a convent, or, disappear mysteriously as a governess to Europe or, the New World, or, to go into a madhouse, or, worst of all: MARRY. (Jane chooses marriage, but it is to a burnt-out, blinded husk of manhood, taken, maybe, under-her-wing as one might a wounded pet.) Following, closely, JANE ERYE, was my reading of Anne Bronte's THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, and just its very title should give some shivers of iconoclastic expectation. When, becoming aware of the life of their brother, Branwell, the strength of these sisters who were all educated to be Governesses in the Households of their Betters, becomes magnified intensely. The Bronte Sisters are icons of rebellion and survival.
Surrounded on three sides by seating is a reflective surfaced revolve - Set Design, by Kate Gaul - with a long set of diaphanous drapes, behind on the 'fourth wall' - very Kate Bush-looking, for they will billow and billow wildly on dramatic cue. The revolve is employed very niftily to keep the propulsion of the wordiness of THE MOORS afloat and 'cool'.
On it we meet the people of the play. The first dominant is an efficient young woman in a lemony-yellow dress (costumes, by Eva Di Paolo, of varying conviction), with her blonde hair wound tightly in a mid-Victorian fashion. Her name is Agatha (Romy Bartz) and she is a writer, and has been in a letter exchange in search of a Governess for her younger less organised sister, Hudley (Enya Daly) - a young fantasist in pursuit of her unique writer's voice - does it ever come? Some thirty-five or more letters have been exchanged with Emilie (Brielle Flynn), the prospective Governess, who believes she has been intimate with the man of the House, Branwell. Unfortunately, Branwell is not fit company and has been installed, hidden in the attic. Emilie has been writing, flirting, with Agatha. Emilie on discovering this shocking truth, has to confront, perhaps, her same-sex attraction. Both, Agatha and Emilie, do. The sexual dynamics of the MOOR heats up in a very 2019 way.
The household staff, we meet, is played by one person, 'Marjory'-upstairs, who in the flash of a costume change, becomes 'Mallory'-downstairs (Diana Popovska), with two conflicting trajectories: one of them is pregnant, the other has typhus! Latterly, we discover that she too has kept a diary- journal of the events of the house in a very Dr Jeckyll/Mr Hyde kind of way - and on this evidence may end up being the best writer of this company.
These hapless sapiens burdened with the curse of being animal with libidos to follow and fulfil - 'go forth and multiply' - create a kind of havoc with their instinctive lives, on the moors, and because they have been 'cursed', as well, with what some call 'a big brain', they have devised a moral code that becomes a throbbing thing called 'conscience' that leads them to unconscionable torture - pain. This is the essence of the human element of this household on THE MOORS. Suffering, sex, suffering.
However, in this house, as well, there also lives a Dog, Mastiff, (Thomas Campbell) who has, like Snoopy, in Peanuts, the gift of the sophist. He has an eagerness to teach the meaning of it all, of life, of the great existential questions, and comes across a Moor-Hen (Alex Francis), who takes to listening (out of fear? and instincts to survive?) They develop a kind of relationship driven by cerebral disquisition. Moor-hen barely able to keeping up. Mastiff, becoming more and more self-possessed with his intellectual superiority, has the elegance to talk Big Ideas while choosing a perfect green grape from a beautiful bunch in a bowl that seduces the moor-hen into a place of trust and repose.
But they are, both, let us not forget, of the animal kingdom, and it all ends with the Darwinian urge to kill, asserting itself. The brightest, no matter the insightful insights he 'spouts' as incontestable 'truths' and guides for our future survival, is also, in the 'scheme' of things a ruthless killer - it is an intrinsic part of his DNA inheritance. The survival of the fittest. The black feathers stuck with blood around the mouth of Mastiff may be the most shocking entrance in a play you will see this year - it certainly outplays anything recently described in the telling of THE ILIAD, by Homer, and you know of its infamous poetic injuries and glories - hours and hours of it.
The world of THE MOORS of the Brontes, without ever being directly referenced to, is tossed upside down, and the writing gift of Ms Silverman supersedes one's objection of being tricked by the subverting of my/our Gothic Romantic memory inheritance to create something new. (A New Genre?) It is the bare brazen consistent cheek of the writing that wins one over. Like the STUPID FUCKING BIRD adventure from Aaron Posner, last year, THE MOORS yields an amazing time in the theatre. THE PLAY IS THE THING. And, once again, it dazzles.
There are problems with this production. The acting is good but extremely uneven in quality. At the top of the heap is Thomas Campbell in a virtuosic turn as the dog speaking of god. Thomas Campbell - the Charles Laughton of this generation, the new Simon Russell Beale of the English speaking world? is so, in my mind, without any doubt. Romy Bartz, similarly, has mastery of her tasks if not the same intellectual bravado. Their performances are two further reasons, after the writing, to make a point to see this production.
While, at the bottom of the 'heap', Enya Daly, in a key role as Hudley, reproduces her comic skills that we have seen in all her other work, from REVOLT. SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN, to her time at Drama school (NIDA), in a production of TWELFTH NIGHT. All her offers tend to rely on her comic stand-up skills, rather than that of an interrogative actor searching for truths in range. (I have the same concern with the work of Annie Stafford.) This 'habit' is nakedly realised in the choices that the Director and the Actor has made in the manner of delivering the 'hip' songs, singing routines. It is inconsistent in style and is distracting of purpose.
If you know and love the Brontes, you will get the cleverness.
THE MOORS, By Jen Silverman, is more than interesting.
P.S. If you are from a crippled literary heritage and know not the Brontes - get cracking - I promise you will, if you have wisdom, gain entries to being more alive in your past, present and futures. These women, the Brontes, will open doors for you - they have done, and are still doing, revolutionary things, after each new reader, has finished one of their books. Climb-up on their shoulders and look at the vistas they are pointing out to.