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violations: sex, history, form

keith gallasch: recent sydney performance

Joel Edgerton, Cate Blanchett, A Streetcar Named Desire, Sydney Theatre Company Joel Edgerton, Cate Blanchett, A Streetcar Named Desire, Sydney Theatre Company
photo Lisa Tomasetti
a streetcar named desire

It was with some apprehension that I went to see the Sydney Theatre Company’s A Streetcar Named Desire. First, would Cate Blanchett be too young and temperamentally too strong to realise Blanche DuBois’ fading beauty and emotional fragility? Secondly, did an actor as able and inventive as Blanchett need an exotic import like Liv Ullmann as her director? Or was the choice simply a signal of psychological seriousness and world’s best practice? Thirdly, the word was out that the production was going to be conventionally staged. What could we possibly learn from that?

I’d watched the opening scenes of Charlie Kaufman’s film New York Synecdoche with amusement as a director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) daftly cast Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman with a young Willie and Linda in an otherwise straightforward staging. I’d read Daniel Mendelsohn’s caustic account of Natasha Richardson’s 2005 performance as Blanche in New York with “the sexless glow of an Amazon, or given her coloring, perhaps a Valkyrie” (“Victims on Broadway II”, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, Harper Perennial, 2009). In trying to up the gender wars ante in the Blanche-Stanley conflict Richardson and her director, Mendelsohn complains, had reduced the woman’s vulnerability and altogether eliminated the potential for sexual frisson between the protagonists—a key element of the play for him and so evident in the Elia Kazan film with Vivienne Leigh and Marlon Brando.

At one level, I needn’t have worried about Blanchett. Once again, her capacity for transformation was evident in the overall conception of the role and in myriad details. Her Blanche is driven by a nervous energy that is always on the edge of exhaustion: a quivering alertness alternating with distracted inwardness. Bursts of posturing, over-confident lying and angry self-defense increasingly weary her until, fractured, confession and withdrawal ensue. This stripping away of the Southern belle facade is amplified by the ‘undressing’ of Blanche. Ullmann and Blanchett rightly make much of Blanche’s relationship with her clothes, in the end leaving her with even less dignity than we might expect—exiting abject in petticoat and bare feet. Another image, seen twice, that disturbingly complements this descent has Blanche, still and silent, squatting on the floor with a piece of cloth draped over her head, cutting out a world she can no longer handle. Perhaps it’s this imagery that Liv Ullmann, with her experience of the film world of Ingmar Bergman, brings to Blanchett’s interpretation of Blanche—a complete psychological demolition of the woman and concomitant physical weakening.

Joel Edgerton’s Stanley in the opening performance didn’t seem interpretively distinctive but looked right and by the second half the rolling momentum of his psychological and physical assault on Blanche, and its roots in her overheard reference to him as an ape, is fully felt. As for any sexual play between this Blanche and Stanley, I didn’t detect it, and the rape was a rape. This might not satisfy Daniel Mendelsohn should he see the production when it bravely tours to New York. Blanche and Stanley here are simply antagonists, the complexity of the production residing in the woman’s condition. Certainly there’s no concealing the danger that Stanley embodies—a capacity for blind physical violence, against men as well as women—and a community that hypocritically abides it and for which Blanche is sacrificial victim.

Blanchett’s performance is admirable, above all, for conveying a palpable sense of Blanche’s suffering and her limited self-awareness, but I was left wondering what could have been revealed by a more inquiring director. Ullman’s production looks like one that could have originated on Broadway at any time since the play’s premiere. On the positive side there’s the fidelity to Tennessee Williams’ very particular sense of light and sound in Nick Schlieper’s lighting, sharply contrasting the moonlight and dark in which Blanche hides with, for example, sunlight blazing through a window, while Paul Charlier and Alan John do film score justice to the writer’s desire for a sound world which includes music largely heard only by Blanche, and ourselves. The kind of ‘magical realism’ that Williams was aiming to achieve is, then, partly realised if not forthcoming elsewhere.

The set design emphasises the limits of the production. Ralph Myers (whose wonderfully expressive designs for Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky sometimes evince an architectural sensibility, as in the thrusting rooms in Act 2 of Lost Echo) places atop of Stanley and Stella’s humble 1940s apartment a giant, oppressive block of 50s modernist construction that fills the upward balance of the stage, as if perhaps to highlight a world that has moved coolly on from these downstairs melodramatics. However, the apartment setting itself looks not simply like a poor American home but a standard American stage set. As well, there’s an uncomfortable feeling of facing a pronounced fourth wall, of peering into rather than sharing a world (amplified if you’re some distance from the stage) where the actors, for the most part, play to each other across the stage in a self-contained world. This is at a time when stage acting is in a fascinating period of transformation with much gestural and spatial play and a return to, or radicalising, of older conventions of performance in more direct relation to the audience.

If grateful to have witnessed Blanchett’s performance, not least in the final stages of Blanche’s decline, the residue of feeling about the production was of over-familarity, of museum mustiness that blunted the threat that A Streetcar Named Desire can still doubtless deliver. We are quietly reminded of this not in the passages of high passion but when Blanche is tempted to seduce the boy collecting newspaper money or the silent moments when she covers her head.

Kim Vercoe, David Williams, This Kind of Ruckus, version 1.0 Kim Vercoe, David Williams, This Kind of Ruckus, version 1.0
photo Heidrun Löhr
this kind of ruckus

It’s a quick trip across town, from Tennesee William’s 1947 at Sydney Theatre to version 1.0’s 2009 at CarriageWorks, but not a lot has changed—the violence perpetrated by men against women is still the issue, but the way of playing it is light years away. Version 1.0’s mixed media and performance modes have cast a widely admired ironic and revealing light on contemporary politics, but in This Kind of Ruckus the company inhabit a reverie confabulated from their own raw materials instead of their customary drawing on government reports, Hansard and the media.

The outcome is a large scale looping reverie of motifs, strange tales, fragmented encounters, unlikely cause and effect, missing links and a dense layering of metaphors. There’s little that’s literal. The outcome is a work of peculiar beauty, like a half-remembered dream, part-nightmare, replete with oddly aestheticised violence and not a little humour. “It was funny, in an ugly kind of way”, I heard someone say.

This Kind of Ruckus is like a Freudian dream theatre: images repeat, split, multiply, condense, mirror themselves; figures appear in new guises; narratives fragment, skip beats; episodes re-play with new variations, some obvious, some distant. Suspended screens appear to duplicate the live action below, but are as likely to contradict stage conflict with images of fond intimacies. The screens reveal memories of distress and trauma but also images of wish fulfilment.

The performing space itself transforms, multiplying meanings. Initially a huge curtain, lit red, looms over the audience with the cast lining up as cheer leaders, locked into position, ready for the “1, 2, 3...” Instead they abruptly sit and chat, one vigorously telling a story of two women on a Saturday night drive witnessing city street violence and fantasising vigilante action on behalf of endangered females—until they’re disabused by a sinister policeman. The storyteller is joined by another of the cheerleaders and together they ogle the men in the audience, making lewd offers. Actually, they’re mimicking male behaviour; a dismissive male cheerleader states the obvious: “You haven’t got the balls.” The curtain is gone, revealing a wall and floor of quilted bubble wrap, suggestive of a padded cell or, a dance club, a therapeutic space. Above is the screen, to either side, tables with rows of alcoholic drinks which the performers consume regularly with an escalating sense of bingeing, especially by the women.

The opening scene is indicative of the metaphorical layering and shifting which are the show’s modus operandi: the image of an unspecified sporting function mutates into a storytelling bout, into some calculately confusing gender role shifts, and then morphs into a “this is theatre” mode and offers an ambiguous performing space in which a seated man stares at a woman sprawled on the floor, possibly unconscious, perhaps lifeless. A victim of violence?

Before the curtain closes when the cheerleaders return for their oranges at half time, the audience has had printed into its consciousness a series of images and episodes. Central to these is the man watching the woman on the floor. We’ll see the same couple in conflict but intimate on the screen, and then undergoing counselling in this padded room. The counseller negotiates the man’s approach to the woman, constraining him according to the woman’s response (“He was pretending not to walk but he is walking. It’s a bit creepy.” “He feels tall, toweringly tall.”) She’s wounded, volatile. He’s accommodating, but has nowhere to go. Our empathies swing; we’re deprived of context.

In a parallel scene in the second half, when wall and floor have disappeared to make way for a large space down which the performers can hurtle as if in a race (sport again?), a man approaches a woman. An escalating, grating score suggests the location as a dance club. He draws very close, moves about her, touches her cheek, her arm. She does nothing. He touches her breast. She waits then briskly walks away. He shivers, rejected; he shakes with body-consuming fury. Elsewhere in the performance, the same figure has quietly repeated a few questions to a woman that suggest the controlling personality that underlies jealousy. We make the link. Later images are more overtly suggestive of violence: blood smeared across faces and torsos, male and female. The man who stared at the floored woman, now sits bloodied, naked to the waist, at the same angle, but now in the distance. We guess at the cause, the event has gone missing. Her blood or his? We guess, we weave.

In This Kind of Ruckus version 1.0 has studiously avoided making documentary theatre, instead conjuring suggestive images of the triggers for and aftermaths of male violence against women. Some of these are blunt and a few surprisingly literal (a court scene in which a victim’s humilation is intensified by a female defense council). Most are more complex, ambiguous even. Likewise, the framework for the show appears to be rooted in sport, but it’s cheerleaders we see, not players, in an unglamorous rendering of a mere fragment of the spectacle.

Once sport was thought of as a means for sublimating sexual desire but we see it now as locus for sex, violence and corruption. This Kind of Ruckus might have been ‘inspired’ by a spate of sports-related sexual violence but it’s not an investigation of that phenomenon—which has included the desire of team members to witness each other having sex with the same woman in the same room at the same time. This show essentially operates at a more atomistic level—the couple. The second half, for example, opens with the story of a woman terrified into having sex with her partner after she’s told him the relationship is over. The following morning they have breakfast as if nothing has happened and she never sees him again. The other members of the cheer squad quietly imply she triggered his threatened violence, as does the defense lawyer later on.

Other than sport, it’s dancing—noisy, ruckus-y, lewd, limp and falling-down—and alcohol consumption that provide a mutating framework for the show’s sexual violence, not as causes per se but amplificatory, suggestive of an inescapable loop of the forces at work in the nightmarish arena that version 1.0 has created. With its distorting single figures, blurred couple action (sometimes glimpsed through bubble wrap), spare scenography and projected video diptyches, This Kind of Ruckus recalls the febrile visions of Francis Bacon.

The company, with guest Arky Michael, performs with great no-frills conviction and ever intensifying ensemble strength while Gail Priest’s dense, pulsing score (breaking glass and riot melded with dance beats) and Sean Bacon’s haunting live and pre-recorded projections provide motifs that not only heighten the show’s dream sense but anchor its wilder flights.

Barbara Spitz, Florian Carove, Poppea Barbara Spitz, Florian Carove, Poppea
image courtesy Sydney Opera House
barrie kosky’s poppea

If you love Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea (1642) you have to put much of it out of mind to enjoy Barrie Kosky’s re-working of the opera as vigorously entertaining, comic to the point of silly, sometimes aptly repulsive music theatre. All opera is music theatre but not all music theatre is opera. ‘Theatre’ is writ large in this production. It’s not that the music is secondary in any way, but rather that its realisation is infinitely more theatrical than even the most progressive of 21st century opera productions (even New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in search of new audiences, has mounted a new Tosca set in an industrial warehouse and replete with blow job for Scarpia). This Poppea has been created for and is rooted in the theatrical capacities of performers Kosky worked with in Vienna and even where they are stretched by the music (Cole Porter no less a challenge than Monteverdi) they bring it into their own range, entirely in character. Beatrice Frey as a tall, Shelly Duvall-ish Octavia ascends in falsetto to the top note, reaching it with a cracked screech—funny, without any sense of parody and apt for the empress’ frustrations.

Elsewhere Kosky redistributes musical passages to pointed psychological effect. Seneca (Florian Carove), the playwright-philosopher adviser to Nero (Kyrre Kvam), is played as mute, his tongue having been torn out as prelude to a forced sucide. Nero, hovering over a bloodied Seneca awash with blood in a bath tub, sings his erstwhile tutor’s lines as if knowing precisely what he would argue. It lends Nero a sharper intelligence, intensifying the sense of danger he embodies along with the ambivalent feelings as he embraces and then bluntly tosses aside Seneca’s body. Fittingly, Kvam’s singing is the closest to operatic.

The physically sexual intensity of the production is evident early on when the erotic play between Nero and Poppea (Melita Jurisic) has the emperor behind his mistress, his hands tightening around her neck in an act of sexual strangulation, grimly counterpointing opera’s breath-based, orgasmic soaring. Later there’s cunnilingus (to “Anything Goes”), Nero briskly rapes Ottone (Martin Niedermair as Poppea’s former lover) and Poppea cuts Nero’s chest. The emperor’s court is joyously and dangerously decadent, making actual what was only suggested in the opera.

Ottone, quite unlike the furiously angry man in the Monteverdi, is played here as a love lorne, lugubrious intoner of Cole Porter songs while looking like a sailor refugee from Fassbinder’s Querelle de Brest. He plots with Nero’s wife, Octavia, to kill Poppea with the help of the latter’s servant, Drusilla (Ruth Brauer-Kvam)—now infatuated with Ottone. An exotic, Theda Bara-ish presence in the court, her vocals inflected with a husky Eastern-European twang, Jurisic’s Poppea is sensual, self-possessed and single minded in her ambition, but the physical centre of the production is Drusilla, a joyful dynamo whose dancerly speed and contortions recall Meow Meow at her most excessive. Amor (Barbara Spitz), the god of love, on the other hand is a languorous observer, a droll queen, not the cute devil-cupid of some 20th century productions.

The final duet, shared by both the opera and this music theatre confection—when the emperor has, remarkably, forgiven and banished the plotters—is as affecting as ever. Poppea’s dark mezzo underlines and entwines with Nero’s lilting tenor. Love has unexpectedly weathered the rampages of lust and perversion even in Kosky’s grimly hysterical 21st century rendering. Compared with The Lost Echo and The Women of Troy, Poppea is Kosky-lite and his idiom now more than familar if never less than fascinating—especially as realised by such formidable performers.

the rameau project

While Barrie Kosky preserves the essential narrative of Monteverdi’s opera, the principal characters and some of the music, Nigel Kellaway’s approach to classics of any kind is very different and, in Rameau, more demanding if you’re not familiar with the source material. He has high expectations of his audience. In a season of three free performances in one of the voluminous CarriageWorks tracks, The opera Project presented a new music theatre work after the 18th French composer with whom Kellaway feels a particular affinity.

The centre of this work was not a Rameau opera (these have recently found new favour in major productions in Europe) but Genet’s play The Maids supplemented by texts from other sources and a strand of petulant satire that had Kellaway on the phone to Cate Blanchett negotiating an unlikely collaboration. The text-based scenes were punctuated by pieces largely from Rameau cantatas scored by Kellaway for two violins, two cellos, double bass, piano and singer Annette Tesoriero, who doubled as the maids’ Madame, voice-off and elegantly fulfilled a range other functions. The small ensemble was particularly effective, neither emulating a period feel nor, thankfully, sounding like a 19th century chamber group. Tesoriero’s lucid singing made the Rameau a double pleasure. As for what the songs were about...none of the luxury of Opera House surtitles here.

Compared with previous opera Project productions Rameau was efficient, a meticulous, upgraded work-in-progress showing, no mean achievement given the late replacement of Regina Heilmann (called away on a family matter) by Nikki Heywood with script in hand. Over a number of productions, Kellaway and Heilmann have developed a mutual playing idiom, somewhat Brechtian, intoned, almost dancerly and most memorable in their take on George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in The opera Project’s Another Night: Medea, 2003 (which drew in part on Clerambault’s cantata Medee, 1710). Passion in this manner of playing is palpable, but tautly framed, indeed operatic. Heywood broke the mold, countering the arch, strutting imperiousness of Kellaway’s maid with nuanced responses and a felt emotional collapse, at the same time avoiding conventional psychological realism. Kellaway’s maid departed like a strangled diva, deprived of her aria.

Rameau confirms Kellaway’s esoteric vision—musically scholarly, literary, in love with the cut and paste of building idiosyncratic works out of others’ classics. It’s a modus operandi he shares, broadly, with Kosky, and one which faces the inevitability of likewise becoming itself ‘classical.’

the duel

With the Elevator Repair Service’s seven-hour ‘reading’ of Gatz still resonating pleasurably in mind and body, a visit to the ThinIce/Sydney Theatre Company production of The Duel (from an episode in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov) proved to be a bonus. Tom Wright’s adapation dextrously interweaves direct storytelling with adept dramatisation played out in designer Claude Marcos’ wide, shallow box of a room emblematic of the closed circuit of social relations and codes that one man will rupture, if only for his own moral salvation. Like postmodern dancers, the actors stand about, observing and then suddenly slipping in and out of storytelling or acting as required. Played very close to the audience, the performances are realised with an absorbing, intimate intensity by Luke Mullins, Renee McIntosh, David Lee Smith and Brian Lipson. Lutton’s directorial hand is assured. It would be good to see more of Perth’s ThinIce in this kind of welcome co-production in a period, at last, where more and more shows cross state borders as well as the boundaries of form.

the city

Benedict Andrews’ meticulously faithful account of Martin Crimp’s The City precisely captures the playwright’s ambiguous tone. Crimp appears to be the inheritor of the early Pinter idiom, not in his silences but in the signifiers that refuse be nailed down and the threats that come with their instability. Characters are constantly uncertain of the topic of conversation or their position within it and seek clarification—the apparent banter of social comedy quickly turning dark when characters can’t read intentions. Crimp calculatedly extends the resulting verbal ambiguities (about love, family, identity, war, vocation and storytelling) into physical reality when a small girl, the daughter of the principal characters, Clair and Chris, suddenly appears dressed identically to the nurse, Jenny, who is the family’s neighbour. At this stage, Clair, a translator and would-be novelist, suspects (as we do) that she might be inventing her own and her family’s reality.

Much more than a postmodern conceit, this scary bleed between worlds real and imagined runs through this short (80-minute) but remarkably dense work. The very notion of the city shifts about restlessly, one moment a cruelly adaptive market economy and uncomfortably cosmopolitan, the next a model of a writer’s inner world, elswhere the scene of war. The neighbour Jenny confides an account of a “secret” war (where her husband is a doctor): “the city has to be pulverised so that the boys—our boys—can safely go in and kill the people who are left—the people, I mean, still clinging to life.” Director and cast wisely eschew literally enacting the anxieties prompted by these uncertainties; the tone, not least in Belinda McClory’s finely idiosyncratic performance as Clair, is close to social comedy and all the more chilling for it. Characters are distracted, suprised and indifferent by turns, and like the verbal dancing, it’s hard to tell which way things are going, like Chris’ happy transformation from businessman to supermarket butcher.

Ralph Myers’ set almost looms over the audience, mirroring the seating rake in a series of giant carpeted steps (an abstracted city garden) requiring the performers to make their moves often with great effort, amplifying, if too awkwardly at times, the real challenges of meeting each other and negotiating already problematic communication.

Lots in Space, UNSW/NIDA Lots in Space, UNSW/NIDA
photo courtesy NIDA
nida: lots in space

Melbourne director Peter King has been NIDA’s inaugural artist-in-residence for six months this year, bringing together first year actors, students from NIDA’s open program, the McDonald College of Performing, UNSW Performing Arts and the UNSW Faculty of the Built Environment to collectively create Lots in Space. The outcome was an engrossing epic, true to the director’s architectural passions, flowing from the Parade Theatre foyer up the UNSW Mall, moving from installation to installation, and back to the theatre for a performance.

On the mall we glimpsed, through glass, figures in a halting abstracted Renaissance dance descending the Law Library stairs. Further on virtual water tumbled spectacularly down a raked square on which actors played out an excerpt from Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (c1621). Around a corner a huge moon and scrolling text filled a vast facade below which performers danced, then led us back down the mall, completing a circuit of some 10 installations. In the theatre, images from the promenade recurred alongside further excerpts from Middleton’s play, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Pericles and, hugely projected, Eistenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

The almost ritualistic ebb and flow of large numbers of performers was dotted with microcosmic moments of intense drama of manipulation, oppression and sudden release. If at times a bewildering collage (a treasure house for keen quotation identifiers and cross-referencers), Lots in Space displayed organisation, collaboration and commitment of a high order. The young actors were impressive and the promenade installations revealed a confident engagement with powerful projection technology. Lots in Space was an apt celebration of UNSW’s 60 years and NIDA’s 50, when it needs to be looking to the demands of a diversified performance sector in the 21st century.

Sydney Theatre Company (STC), A Streetcar Named Desire, writer Tennessee Williams, director Liv Ullmann, performers Cate Blanchett, Michael Denkha, Joel Edgerton, Elaine Hudson, Gertraud Ingeborg, Morgan David Jones, Russell Kiefel, Jason Klarwein, Mandy McElhinney, Robin McLeavy, Tim Richards, Sara Zwangobani, musician Alan John, set designer Ralph Myers,?costumes Tess Schofield, lighting Nick Schlieper, sound designer Paul Charlier; Sydney Theatre, Sept 5-Oct 17; version 1.0, This Kind of Ruckus, performer-devisors David Williams, Danielle Antaki, Arky Michael, Jane Phegan, Kym Vercoe, video artist Sean Bacon, sound artist Gail Priest, lighting Neil Simpson, devisor-dramaturgs Deborah Pollard, Yana Taylor, Christopher Ryan; Performance Space, Carriageworks, Sept 3-12; The opera Project, The Rameau Project, writer, director, composer Nigel Kellaway, performers Nigel Kellaway, Nikki Heywood, Annette Tesoriero, dramaturg Bryoni Trezise, lighting Simon Wise; Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Aug 20-22; The Duel, adapted by Tom Wright from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, director Matthew Lutton, performers Luke Mullins, Renee McIntosh, David Lee Smith and Brian Lipson, designer Claude Marcos, lighting Damien Cooper, sound design Kingsley Reeve; Wharf 2, STC, opened June 9; The City, Martin Crimp, director Benedict Andrews, performers Georgia Bowrey, Anita Hegh, Belinda McClory, Colin Moody, Gigi Perry, set designer Ralph Myers, costumes Fiona Crombie,?lighting Nick Schlieper, composer Alan John; Wharf 2, STC, opened July 3; NIDA and UNSW, Lots in Space, director Peter King, designers Matthew McCall, Kate Robert, Aron Dosiak, lighting Sarah Kenyon, Richard Whitehouse, UNSW Mall, Parade Theatre, Sydney, July 21

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 44-46

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

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