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points of departure, confrontation & engagement

keith gallasch: interview, paul grabowsky, 2012 adelaide festival

Isabelle Huppert, A Streetcar Isabelle Huppert, A Streetcar
photo Pascal Victor - Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe

Warlikowski’s Streetcar, featuring leading French actress Isabelle Huppert as Blanche Dubois, is a version of Tennessee Williams’ play, but it is not A Streetcar Named Desire. It is rather a 21st century response to a 20th century classic. Why did you select A Streetcar for your festival?

A combination of things. I’m a great admirer of Krzysztof Warlikowski. In Paris a couple of years ago I saw a production of Angels in America that he did with his Polish company, which I think was TR Warszawa at the time. He has an incredible theatrical vision which we haven’t seen in Australia, an unusual dramaturgical and directional style. And when I heard he was collaborating with [Canadian theatre-maker] Wajdi Mouawad on this production that was going to star Isabelle Huppert, I thought that seems like a very strong team. It’s a production that’s been very controversial in Paris. The French and some international critics haven’t liked it but, you know, I suspect that’s got more to do with the fact that Warlikowski doesn’t shy away from fundamentally altering things. It’s a Streetcar the likes of which English-speaking audiences would not have seen before—not just because it’s in French but because of the way he does it. He doesn’t necessarily remain in any slavish way true to the text. It takes its point of departure from Tennessee Williams’ play and to a large degree is created out of it but I wouldn’t say for a moment that this is a rendition of that play.

Isabelle Huppert is an actress who takes enormous risks.

Reason alone to see A Streetcar. Her performance is a tour de force. It really is all about her and I think Warlikowski has created a real star vehicle for Huppert. That’s why I chose it. The Adelaide Festival shouldn’t shy away from controversy and this man is a very important contemporary theatre maker.

Les Ballets C de la B’s Gardenia is truly a work about transformation, co-created with a theatre director and drawing on a drag community. It has a real cultural specificity about it. Is that what grabbed you?

It’s very moving. I saw it in Avignon. I talked to Frank Van Laecke, the director, and to artistic director Alain Platel (see interview). They gave me a bit of background on the piece and how they worked with these men (and woman in the case of Vanessa Van Durme). Frank talked about how at the very first rehearsal he’d asked these people to bring with them an object from their lives that meant a lot to them. It was almost like a therapeutic process they went through to break through to the level of performance that I think this show really demonstrates. As you would know from drag shows, it’s often very much an amateur kind of theatrical experience and whilst it might have its amusing elements you’ve got to accept that it is what it is—people having fun and, at the same time, making a statement.

Gardenia, Les Ballets C de La B Gardenia, Les Ballets C de La B
photo Luk Monsaert
There’s sometimes an element of pathos to drag.

I think Les Ballets C de la B has inverted that kind of paradigm. It’s about discovering the beauty within. So where a lot of drag does sort of end up marooned on the reef of pathos and rarely moves beyond it, this definitely breaks through that and in the end I think we are really exhilarated from the journey that these people have made, not in the Priscilla pop way. The thing about Priscilla is that those guys aren’t actually drag queens—they’re actors pretending. These guys in Gardenia are the real thing.

The music is just gorgeous. Most of all it’s an interesting work, but is it dance? Well I’ll leave that to people to make up their own minds. There is certainly some dance in it. The young Russian in it is amazing—he’s an incredible dancer but he doesn’t even move much. We’re not aware of just how wonderful he is until about a third of the way through the show. So, Gardenia is really a piece of social observation and I think that’s always been an element of Alain Platel’s work as in La Tristeza Complice (RT24, p4) which was the first piece of his I saw—at the Adelaide Festival in 2000. That put a whole lot of people from different social and racial backgrounds onstage together, suggesting that the stage is a level playing field. I feel that over the years Platel has really distilled that social vision and that this work, about a very specific group of people, is at the same time very much of a piece with the general tenor of C de la B’s work.

The Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó’s production, Hard to be a God, is another work in which reality and theatre appear to merge. In the interviews I’ve read he’s emphatic that the show is very real (real people, real trucks) but ultimately the artifice of theatre is still there. No one is hurt, the blood is fake but there’s a lot to be said about human trafficking and the very nature of theatre.

That’s right. The performers are actors. We mustn’t assume for a moment they’re the actual people but I’d have to say that in their willingness to really unpack the brutality of that world, these performers are doing us a great service. While we’re aware that human trafficking is a very bad thing, probably very few people probably are aware of just how bad it is, that it is insanely cruel and the people behind it are psychopaths. Their level of inhumanity is appalling. Have we learned nothing from the lessons of the 20th century or prior about the depths to which we can descend? And here’s a group of actors who are able to cope with that on stage. I’d say this is a piece of Brechtian theatre actually because while there’s this dreadful story going on it is framed by another story—an angel is sent by god to observe these people but with instructions not to get involved. And again, music is used to break up the unremitting sadness and intensity. So all of a sudden after what appears to have been the rape and murder of girl X, she’s onstage singing third harmony in a rendition of some Western pop song. Music is used in a very ironic way. There is this absolutely ironic thread that runs through the piece.

I think of the way the word ‘irony’ is used in a book like The Great War and Modern Memory (2000) by Paul Fussell. He talks about the effect of the First World War on the imagination and how, really, the only word or one of the words to describe the experience of that war is irony because it’s so counter to everything that we would expect. This is a very subversive piece of theatre.

Hard to be a God Hard to be a God
photo Márton Ágh
And the venue is the old Clipsal factory in Bowden.

Another layer of irony. The play’s set in a pantechnicon, enacted on the back of a truck. That’s, of course, where all this trade takes place, on trucks. And the other thing about Hard to be a God is that it’s also about the relationship between a criminal gang and the politics of the extreme right. So here’s something else which, again, some Australian audiences may not be totally aware of—the very nasty re-emergence of the far right happening right now.

Another work it’s good to see in the program is the Bernstein Mass, which has to be one of the great hybrid works. It’s got everything. Are you staging this as a concert or a music theatre work?

He wrote it as music theatre and that’s the way we’ll be presenting it. I don’t think it would stand up that well as a concert work actually. Bernstein is so theatrical. He describes his Mass as music theatre; he says it’s a piece for dancers, singers and musicians. Its musical span goes from work that really does lean towards his more serious symphonic composition on the one hand to things like Candide or West Side Story on the other: you’ve got to create a context in which all of that makes sense.

We’ve brought together the two major advocates for the work in terms of recent recordings. The American gospel singer Jubilant Sykes performed it with conductor Marin Alsop with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra [Naxos CD] and the other big recording done recently was by Kristjan Järvi with the Absolute Ensemble [Chandos CD]. Sykes and Järvi have never done it together before and I think it’s quite wonderful that we’ve managed to get these two people both of whom have really championed this piece.

It is amazingly accessible and very beautiful. Some of it sounds so Broadway and other passages, like the meditation for cello, sounds like it comes from the Jewish musical tradition, but the whole coheres.

It’s selling very well. We were surprised. It’s an ecumenical work by a Jewish composer, albeit a very liberal Jewish one, based around the text of a Tridentine Mass of all things—not just a Catholic Mass but the conservative Catholic Mass. Then it’s interspersed with songs by Stephen Schwartz. This is very much a work about faith but it really is also asking what faith is. It’s being directed by Andy Packer from Slingsby, a wonderful local theatre company who do incredibly beautiful work, generally for young people. He’s been assistant director on various productions for South Australian Opera and I think he’ll do a wonderful job.

It’s good also to see The Caretaker in the program—a reminder how powerful Pinter’s work can be.

It’s the epitome of the well-made play, Keith.

Yes, but when it was first produced critics weren’t sure at all whether it was a well-made play or not. There’s no classic exposition, there are no obvious back-stories. The audience really has to work and I think that’s one of the great reasons for reviving it, to show just what supremely clever writing it is about power play, brotherly love and dependence. The form is quite amazing.

You’re right. When I called it a well-made play, I guess I was referring to the way it’s staged. It’s a very fine example of very fine English actors dealing with a classic English text directed by an inveterate English director.

You also have Sydney Theatre Company’s Indigenous work Bloodland (see p32) and a new work from Sydney’s Force Majeure, Never Did Me Any Harm.

Never Did Me Any Harm will be unveiled at the Sydney Festival. We co-commissioned it with the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals. It’s inspired by The Slap—I’m reluctant to say “based on” as there’s so much about Christos Tsiolkas’ novel around at the moment. Kate Champion is a really important maker of dance theatre. We also co-commissioned Bloodland. As you know, I’m very interested in and have a fair bit to do with Indigenous work. I think it’s essential for Australian festivals to invest in it. We need it. Our culture needs it and what good is a festival if it’s not getting on board?

In the works you’ve asked me about, there is a kind of through-line that’s about where art stands in relation to various contemporary issues. Art needs to be seen at these times as attacking causes full frontally in a way that the audience can really get. If art is too obscurantist, then it’s going to put up some kind of smokescreen between it and the audience. While sure, there’s art that depends to a certain extent on obscure language and its delivery system, I think the work I’ve chosen for this festival is very contemporary, it’s very dangerous work to some degree. But there should be no doubt from an audience point of view about what they’re seeing. And then they’re in a position to make a considered judgement about it. People need to feel like they haven’t been left outside the discussion.

Adelaide Festival, March 2-18,

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. 12-13

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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