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off to the meta-theatre

keith gallasch: sydney performance

Heather Mitchell, Jane Harders, Hugo Weaving, Justine Clarke, Geraldine Hakewill, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Sydney Theatre Company Heather Mitchell, Jane Harders, Hugo Weaving, Justine Clarke, Geraldine Hakewill, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Sydney Theatre Company
photo © Brett Boardman

Resident Belvoir director Simon Stone contributes to the debate with a substantial program note for his remake (I’ve decided to borrow that term from the movies here by way of apt if somewhat indirect analogy) of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. He has little to say about the play and much about theatre’s long and undeniable history of adaptation and borrowing—and, one would like to add, wilful plundering and bowdlerising. Surprisingly, despite the considerable success of The Wild Duck and Thyestes, Stone feels the need to mount an argument for his practice, seeing himself as sustaining tradition while at the same time renewing it in terms of our own milieu. Fair enough, but it’s not the fact of such engagement with heritage but whether the result is a gain, an exceptional work in itself. Not only that, but it has to have said something significant about the original itself to make its mutated resurrection worthwhile. I hope for that much.

sydney theatre company: les liaisons dangereuses

The set for the Sydney Theatre Company production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an elegant, aristocratic city apartment, of a style originating in the late 18th century and sustained, if less ornately, into the present by the French bourgeoisie and their betters. The costuming, with its expensive, fashionable formality, likewise suggests past and present, if in a more but not too contemporary vein. Alan John’s music equally evokes classical restraint and a moody jazz-inflected modernity. Consequently Sam Strong’s production doesn’t quite live up to the press release claim that he would “acid-wash a familiar story, stripping it back to its essential layers in the intimacy of the Wharf 1 Theatre.” Instead, the overall ambience, if free of frills and courtly etiquette, suggests a cool balance between now and then, impressionistically accentuating historical similarities with regard to upper class indolence, sexual license and corruption.

Hugo Weaving as Valmont finely grades the viscount’s progress from rampant seducer to a man trapped, by love, in his own plotting, if without defining his character as distinctly as, say, he did so memorably with the doctor in Uncle Vanya. Black suit and white shirt in increasing dishabille signals singularity of purpose, lack of ostentation and decline, whereas his co-conspirator, La Marquise de Merteuil is attired (masked even) in a series of elegant gowns. With exquisite near-stillness, Pamela Rabe exudes power and determination, delivering to perfection the Marquise’s rationale for her behaviour—her very vulnerability as a woman in a patriarchal society. It’s significant that she is the only character in the play who reveals a back story, and although it’s Valmont’s dilemma and his death that generate some climactic empathy, it’s the Marquise who epitomises the moral complexities and ironies that Hampton summons out of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel of 1782.

This is a straightforward production, safely realised, letting fly the wit inherent in Hampton’s writing and neatly treading the play’s thin line between grim comedy and bleak social commentary. The experience set me thinking that perhaps the play has passed its use-by-date (in form it feels faux historical) or that the casting of 30-somethings as Valmont and La Marquise, closer in age to their young victims, might have been more meaningful and more disturbing. A much more contemporary context than Strong has offered is also conceivable, one further removed from the 18th century than the director has taken it.

belvoir: every breath

Shelly Lauman, Dylan Young, Every Breath, Belvoir Shelly Lauman, Dylan Young, Every Breath, Belvoir
photo Heidrun Löhr
Benedict Andrews’ stature as a director is in no doubt—his production of Botho Strauss’ Gross und Klein has been a huge success in Sydney, Paris and London, adding to a long list of achievements. In turning to playwriting he has to reach the very benchmarks he has himself established as director, not least when directing his own writing. Every Breath is sparely scripted, cinematic in the brevity of its dialogue and scenes (along with frequent ungainly blackouts) and dominated by an overtly symbolic set design (as if the dysfunctional family the play centres on is likely to be crushed by its wealth as embodied in architecture).

On the page, the play reads as an intriguing screenplay, but on the stage it feels cumbersome, short on words if strong on images, scenes expiring before gaining momentum and performances, whatever their individual merits, lacking ensemble cohesion. That doesn’t mean that Every Breath was entirely lacking. The scenario in itself is worth addressing (before being tossed out by some critics as, in effect, class warfare).

A naive young security guard, Chris (Shelly Lauman), protecting a well-off middle class family facing an unspecified threat, finds himself the object of each member’s projections, not least sexual. He obligingly has sex with everyone, but learns that such relations are limited to the house, to the point where, in a dream he recounts, he experiences himself—or herself—as an object of display. It’s not clear after a while what gender Chris is: it depends who is fantasising. In the end that includes us too (as if it hadn’t all along) as Chris, on a new security job in an empty building and freed from the burden of projections, strips naked alone centrestage. Shortly before this, the father, Leo (John Howard), gives up his writing from which he has become alienated; Olivia (Eloise Mignon) the daughter discovers she can write (if only to create on ongoing fantasy around Chris); while her twin brother Oliver (Dylan Young) is desperately bereft; and the mother, Lydia (Angie Milliken), although revealing more self knowledge than the others, longs too for Chris’ return. This curious aggregation of monologues at the play’s end is more satisfying than much of what has gone before.

Andrews prefaces the playscript with a quotation from Karl Marx explaining the notion of alienated labour. Alienation takes multiple forms in Every Breath: the father whose writing and others’ perception of him no longer make sense; the wife whose loss of a job, “the threat” and Chris have unanchored her, “hollowed her out”; the daughter whose twinness has denied her a sense of difference; the brother who is shy of his sexuality until the security guard arrives; and Chris, the only literal labourer in the scenario, refused identity by the projections of others, until he seizes solitude. He remains a worker not in control of his labour—but what would it be to own ‘security’? As a kaleidoscopic refraction of alienation the play is at its strongest and strangest.

Every Breath bears a broad resemblance to Marxist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s fantastical Teorama (1968), an almost metaphysical foray into alienation in which a young man (not Andrews’ she-he) enters the life of an upper-class family, has sex with all of its members and leaves them to face crises of identity—the father, for example, hands over his factory to his workers and wanders off naked. Perhaps in acknowledgement of Pasolini’s influence, Andrews has the father in Every Breath declare in his final speech, “Before [Chris] came to us my writing had become a factory. Now he’s gone I’ll send the workers home. I’ll unplug the great machines, shred the files in the filing cabinets. I’ll open the gates so anyone can come in and take what they want.” Every Breath is an intriguing work, perhaps only at the first stage of its development in whatever form. Regardless of the production’s failings, the excellent low-key performance by Shelly Lauman as Chris lent the work coherence and gravitas.

belvoir & force majeure: food

Emma Jackson, Kate Box, Food, Belvoir & Force Majeure Emma Jackson, Kate Box, Food, Belvoir & Force Majeure
photo Heidrun Löhr
Food, written by Steve Rodgers and directed by Rodgers and Kate Champion, is an amiable, intimate fable about aspiration and self-belief focused on two sisters who bond anew. The elder one, Elma (Kate Box), a talented cook (who has given up on finding a male partner), is prodded by hapless younger sister Nancy (Emma Jackson) to transform their humble cafe into a restaurant, aided by an enthusiastic Middle-Eastern immigrant, Hakan (Fayssal Bazzi). Success ensues, but so do complications: Nancy encourages Hakan to court Elma, which he does, out of feelings of sympathy and obligation, but not attraction; overcome by his inauthentic behaviour he leaves. In a cathartic finale, the sisters have to face some incredibly grim truths about themselves and their relationship.

The spare plot is thickened with gently choreographed playfulness (with food or wrestling), not always discernible projections onto a wall of copper cooking pans (or home movies magically manifesting inside saucepans) and informal movement that arises out of the everyday—such as escapist showering and limb-tangling drunkenness. Projections also assist Hakan who, in a stylistic swerve for this production, addresses us directly with a slide show of his lovers (“a string of one and three-night stands”).

Hakan’s jokiness and joyousness, his comic mangling of English and a poetic inclination steer the characterisation towards stereotype, but Bazzi undercuts it by adroitly capturing the man’s sense of failure and loss. Kate Box is admirable as Elma, blunt, wounded and withdrawn (“I’ve disappeared...I can no longer see myself”), and then released, while Jackson subtly reveals a slowly maturing Nancy, an unlikely, but believable agent of change.

belvoir: strange interlude

Strange Interlude set, Simon Stone, Belvoir Strange Interlude set, Simon Stone, Belvoir
photo Heidrun Löhr
I can’t call it a cyclorama, it’s too sculptural for that, too firm, and the label is demeaningly functional. Robert Cousins’ design for Strange Interlude and Damien Cooper’s lighting of it suggest some eternal, enveloping emptiness in which characters hover as if hologrammed, likely to evaporate, but digitised, seen more sharply than reality might ever allow. It flows smoothly on the horizontal, ignoring the theatre’s right-angled corner walls, and in a subtle curve pours down onto the floor where it appears, at some unimaginable time, to have set. Together Cousins and Cooper have created a stand-alone artwork akin to the elusive new media artefacts of the likes of James Turrell. But it works even better with people inhabiting it as they oscillate between exterior engagement and interior musings, these delivered as easeful asides that, for the most part, work quite effectively (Groucho Marx famously quipped in Animal Crackers in 1930, “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude”). Objects too—a low timber jetty, an electric train set assembled by a child—have a heightened presence in this seemingly ephemeral space in which decades pass.

It’s a pity that this updated version of O’Neill’s 1928 play doesn’t improve the melodramatic plot even though it renders the characters and the dialogue more plausible (and in some cases much more interesting), radically trimming the number and volume of novelistic asides and offering the performers some fine opportunities. For all the apparent modernity of the language and design, the play remains rooted in its essential datedness. So, it’s an interesting curio on which considerable attention has been lavished to some good effect. It is very funny, exactly because the original is melodramatic; but Stone and his performers manage to maintain the emotional ugliness of the scenario while letting the improbabilities fly by as if utterly plausible, so that we feel we are laughing with, not at.

Emily Barclay, Mitchell Butel, Toby Truslove, Strange Interlude, Belvoir Emily Barclay, Mitchell Butel, Toby Truslove, Strange Interlude, Belvoir
photo Heidrun Löhr
Emily Barclay rightly dominates the first half as Nina Leeds, a petulant, brittle child-woman who has lost her lover to war, her will to live diverted into promiscuity with wounded soldiers, then a wrong marriage and infidelity. She’s less central in the second half, a pity, where loyalty and resignation, played out by Barclay with cool elegance and stillness, dominate, even though her soul still belongs to a long-dead soldier. Instead, we watch the men in her life crumble. Doctor Ned Darrell (Toby Schmitz), an authoritative rationalist sinks into self-pity after having fathered a child with Nina, whom they pass off as her husband’s—the impotent Sam Evans (Toby Truslove in a rich performance of boyish jocularity mutating into drunken, egocentric assertiveness). Completing the despairing trio is novelist Charles Marsden—Mitchell Butel exquisitely realising the transformation from severely repressed mother’s boy into a bitterly alert would-be lover of Nina).

One of the most effecting scenes is between Nina’s son Gordon (Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke) and Darrell. The boy hates the attention the doctor lavishes on his mother, while Darrell, faltering inadequately, attempts to form a relationship with his son. Schmitz captures a sense of depressed helplessness at the loss of both love and child, emotionally locked-in except when with the unresponsive Nina. Bakopoulos-Cooke’s Gordon is observant, blunt, determined and self-contained, his wariness of Darrell at once realised as cruel and comic.

Strange Interlude was a well-received stream-of-consciousness experiment in 1928 (it won the Pulitzer prize for Drama) and it remains one now, updated as much as it can be here. Rewarding design, adroit adaptation and fine performances can’t make it something it isn’t, but it is strangely watchable, not least for its marvellous scenography.

sydney theatre company: under milkwood

Paula Arundell, Cameron Goodall, Helen Thomson, Sandy Gore, Bruce Spence, Under Milk Wood, Sydney Theatre Company Paula Arundell, Cameron Goodall, Helen Thomson, Sandy Gore, Bruce Spence, Under Milk Wood, Sydney Theatre Company
photo Heidrun Löhr
I was 13 when I played First and Second Voices in a high school production of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood (directed by Adelaide man of the theatre Myk Mykyta). Like Jack Thompson and Sandy Gore as the Voices in the STC’s stage account of the radio play, I performed the lines from a mix of memory and reading from a hardbound copy of the script. My young brain simply wasn’t up to the mind bending task of accommodating a seemingly vast prose poem. Perhaps it was the case of older brains in the STC production, or simply a storytelling device, which worked so well. When we were addressed directly, the effect was magical: Thompson’s opening lines spoken on a dark, bare stage, the delivery lucid, the poetry unforced, as he moved slowly to the edge of the stage, taking us gently into the dream world of the Welsh village of Llareggub.

In my copy of the play, the sexy bits had been marked for deletion by the deputy headmaster; needless to say, although sensing the pervasive eroticism of the play, I didn’t understand quite a few of those bits, whereas I know now that, as unlikely as it seems, she certainly did. Kip Williams’ direction preserves all the magic I still recall of the play, reigniting for me its passion, sensuality, playfulness and ghostly chill. Wisely, Williams avoids too much literalising, sustaining the integrity of the radio play’s capacity to generate potent images. Costume changes are minimal, the Voices flow around the villagers, vividly revealing more than we see on stage. Performers slide an armchair, school desks, a bed and Organ Morgan’s organ on and offstage with apt ease, or transform from one character to another in a second or two with a change of hat or unfurling of long hair. No-one adopts a Welsh accent, and the poetry still sings.

The sense of ensemble is strong, everyone shines in this dynamic village of the living and the dead: Drew Forsythe alternating between the benign Reverend Jenkins and the womanising Waldo, Paula Arundell between the licentious Polly Garter and the lovelorn but eternally virginal Myfanwy Price and Mae Rose Cottage (“You just wait. I’ll sin till I blow up!”), Helen Thomson realising sundry idiosyncratic women including the ghost of Rosie Probert (in one of the production’s most affecting scenes), beloved of Captain Cat, beautifully played by Bruce Spence. When not doubling as a village gossip, Spence pairs with Forsythe as the hilariously sad Mr Ogmore and Mr Pritchard, the late husbands of the tyrannical Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard. Sandy Gore drops out of Second Voice to create this daunting figure—an interesting touch that makes Second Voice more a part of the village fantasia. In terms of consistency, it’s an odd gesture since First Voice is offered no such opportunity—not that it would be welcome. However, it does raise the issue of the deployment of the Voices. Thompson and Gore wander through the action or often stand, sometimes awkwardly, to the side of it. I suspect there are opportunities for further integration.

The stage is bare save for the flow of people and furniture, but as day breaks three sets of flower-potted windows appear upstage, through which we see a naturalistic horizon of water and low lying hills, the landscape brightening into bristling daytime and then subsiding into the twilight and night of ghosts—gliding out from between the windows—and ever returning dreams. The apparently simple design by Robert Cousins (set) and Damien Cooper (lighting) lends a painterly aura of solidity and transience to the half-dream world of Llareggub. Likewise, Alan John’s compositions for the songs of Polly Garter and Mr Waldo raise the play’s poetry to an even more transcendent level—particularly with the organ’s Bachian counterpoint to Arundell’s marvellous singing, amplifying at the same time Organ Morgan’s profound love for the great composer (at his wife’s expense). Forsythe’s lamenting baritonal account of Mr Waldo’s childhood is equally moving. Having the composer playing the role of Organ Morgan at his organ onstage lends particular power to these scenes and the mood of the production throughout.

Kip Williams’ Under Milkwood is true to the spirit of Dylan Thomas’ creation: it is wildly funny, tender and melancholy, poetically voiced without force in our own accent and everyday dress inventively deployed (costumes Alice Babidge) and, above all, plays out as an hour and 40 minutes of delicious dreaming we take away with us into our own night.

Sydney Theatre Company: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, writer Christopher Hampton from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, director Sam Strong, performers Justine Clark, Geraldine Hakewill, Jane Harders,James Mackay, Ashley Ricardo, Heather Mitchell, TJ Power, Pamela Rabe, Hugo Weaving, set Dale Ferguson, costumes Mel Page, lighting Hartley TA Kemp, composer Alan John, sound design Steve Francis; STC Wharf 1, Sydney, April 5-June 9; Belvoir, Every Breath, writer, director Benedict Andrews, performers John Howard, Shelly Lauman, Eloise Mignon, Angie Milliken, Dylan Young, set design, costumes Alice Babidge, lighting Nick Schlieper, composer Oren Ambarchi, sound design Luke Smiles; Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, March 28-April 29; Belvoir & Force Majeure: Food, writer, co-director Steve Rodgers, co-director Kate Champion, performers Kate Box, Emma Jackson, Fayssal Bazzi, design Anna Tregloan, AV, lighting Martin Langthorne, composer, sound designer Ekrem Mulayim; Downstairs, Belvoir Street Theatre, April 26-June 3; Belvoir, Strange Interlude, writer, director Sam Stone after Eugene O’Neill, performers Akos Armont, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke alternating with Callum McManis, Emily Barclay, Mitchell Butel, Kris McQuade, Eloise Mignon, Anthony Phelan, Toby Schmitz, Toby Truslove, designer Robert Cousins, lighting Damien Cooper costumes Mel Page, composition and sound design Stefan Gregory; Belvoir Street Theatre, May 5-June 17; Sydney Theatre Company, Under Milkwood, writer Dylan Thomas, director Kip Williams, performers Paula Arundell, Ky Baldwin, Alex Chorley, Drew Forsythe, Cameron Goodall, Sandy Gore, Alan John, Drew Livingston, Bruce Spence, Jack Thompson, Helen Thomson, designer Robert Cousins, costumes Alice Babidge, lighting Damien Cooper, music Alan John, sound design Steve Francis: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, May 26-July 7

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 22-23

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

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