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Benedict Andrews: self, style & vision

Keith Gallasch

Pedro Calderón de la Barca's’s 17th century Spanish classic, Life is a Dream, is a play I read long ago and itched to direct. It's a remarkable work, sparely written, sharply imagistic, richly dialectical and, above all, curiously contemporary. A number of Australians directors had it on their wishlists in the 70s and 80s, but it’s rarely been done. Jean Pierre Mignon did it in Melbourne and now Benedict Andrews and Beatrix Christian have freely adapted it, without ever dimming its hermetic essence, for Andrews’ production for the Sydney Theatre Company.

Life is a Dream is the tale of a prince of the Polish court, Segismundo (Joe Manning), locked away from birth in a cave by his father, King Basilio (Frank Whitten), because of a prophecy that as a ruler he would wreak havoc and murder. That the adolescent does so on his release is the brutal pivot of the play's delirious spinning between the real and the fantastic, for the prince is drugged and convinced that his embrace of power has been a dream. The metaphysics of 'life as a dream' hover eerily over these plot machinations and the oedipal dynamic between prince and king provides another over-arching tension. An entwined secondary plot of a woman, Rosaura, fighting for her honour (the wonderful Paula Arundel, striking in masculine disguise and mezzo musicality) offers striking parallels with Segismundo's plight. She too is constrained by the power of others, by courtly and gender codes, she too is palpably dangerous. The king, caught between fear and compassion, between superstition and logic, has put not only the life of his son at risk (should he now have him executed for murder or locked away again?), but his whole kingdom, as the issue of inheritance threatens civil war and invasion.

Indeed it's the king as social scientist, working logically from a false premise and creating the very monster he lives in fear of, that links the play with our own times and with the body of work that Benedict Andrews has cogently built in his 2 years with the Sydney Theatre Company–a feat astonishing for its rarity and vision in Australian theatre.

Life is a Dream comprises another in the Andrews’ works for STC focussed on the bewildering complexities of the construction of human identity, the others being La Dispute, Attempts on Her Life and Mr Fireface and, in some respects, even the farce Mr Kolpert, where in an indifferent society identity and motivation are reduced to acts of violence that assume a relentless, consuming logic of their own. At a time when we are daily faced with issues of genetic engineering, bionics, robotics, race and ethnic cleansing (the final act of the Andrews-Christian The Three Sisters evokes the Serbian-Bosnian war), it is vital to be see works which continually pose questions (and frightening resolutions) about identity (as engineered, as fiction, as embedded in or beyond culture).

As in those other productions, the design here conjures a tightly framed world that one way or another suggests a laboratory (even as glittering as this one is, a marble-walled corporate office foyer with its huge central airconditioning vent). The effect in Andrew’s productions (regardless of the designer, but most effectively, as here, with Justin Kurzel) is often of peering into a horizontal slot or looking at a wide screen, a tightly focused view of the world, often with no point of obvious access or exit, correlating with unpredictable outcomes and moral confusion in a claustrophobic world that prefers containment.

That wisdom prevails in this grim fable is not due simply to optimism (in this case, the king deciding to again test rather than execute his son) but also the Kaspar Hauser-ish capacity of the deprived prince to understand and utter the essence of his plight (King: You repel me. Segismundo: You who made me, repel me."). to catch the contradictions of courtiers and to recognise beauty when he sees it. Joe Manning plays Segismundo with the requisite mix of brutishness, flashes of psychotic power, moments of painful insight and tenderness. Outside Manning, Arundel and Whitten (the perfect, nervy embodiment of strength and doubt), the ensemble playing is neither quite as physically nor vocally taut nor as evenly cast as I’ve come to expect of Andrews, but the production is always vigorously paced, suspenseful and sensitive to the Calderon’s strange poetry and vision–a fine addition to the body of work Andrews has created for STC.

It's entirely appropriate then that Andrews’ production of Beckett's Endgame for the STC in the 2003 Sydney Festival will mark his exit from the company. He’ll later do the Brecht-Weill The Threepenny Opera for Company B at Belvoir Street. The rest of the 2003 STC program looks tame without Andrews. Along with Barrie Kosky, Michael Kantor and Jenny Kemp, Benedict Andrews is one of those rarities among Australian theatre directors, an artist with style (a hated term in this country but it's vitally about the honing and perfecting of an idiosyncratic theatrical language) and vision (a persistent and personal working through of a set of significant questions).

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Life is a Dream, adapted by Beatrix Christian & Benedict Andrews, director Benedict Andrews, design Justin Kurzel, costumes Fiona Crombie, lighting Mark Truebridge, sound design Max Lyandvert; Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, opened Sept 5

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. web

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

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