Friday, May 31, 2013

On The Bodily Education of Young Girls

On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls (Fraught Outfit) runs at Melbourne Theatre Company from May 30 – June 9 2013. Adapted from the novella by Frank Wedekind, directed by Adena Jacobs.

I guess it’s fitting that the next piece I saw after I wrote that long piece on adaptation was itself an adaptation. I was in Melbourne for academic purposes, and took the chance to catch up with the preview of the latest offering from the exciting MTC Neon program, On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls. This piece by Fraught Outfit has its roots in Frank Wedekind’s 1903 novella Mine-haha, a strange, surreal account of a very bizarre boarding school.

I have a little familiarity with the original novella, having encountered it tangentially in the course of my doctoral research. So I guess this review comes with a disclaimer of sorts, because my perception of this text comes not only via the novella but the specific academic lens through which I was looking at it. My interest in it comes because of its relationship to a sub-genre of pornography: the boarding school porno. These are often set in all girls’ boarding schools, where girls either sexually initiate each other or are initiated by a teacher or authority figure. (Seventeenth century French pornographic text L’École Des FillesThe School for Girls – is one such text. It was among the first pornographic works to be translated into English, and there’s a fascinating passage in Samuel Pepys’ diary where he talks about buying it, masturbating to it, and burning it.) The single sex boarding school, which is supposed to be this repository of chastity, in fact becomes this site of incredible sexual activity.

Mine-haha is not porn, but it draws on this literary lineage. Younger girls are taken under the wings of older girls. They’re only taught a select range of subjects – music and dance among them, as demonstrated in this production – and are taught to “think from the hips”, an obvious riff on this tradition of the pornographic boarding school. Eventually, they are conscripted into performances that fund the school, very young women innocently acting in sexually charged performances for a voyeuristic audience. This audience is presumably male – suffice it to say that the dominant gaze in porn is always male – and there is a fascinating section where a caged woman rails about her plight, which has led to very interesting feminist readings of the text. It’s a short text but a fascinating one, and one which could be and should be very rich in performance.

Unfortunately, I just really didn’t feel On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls. Sure, the basic ingredients were there – the bizarre boarding school where they only teach a couple of subjects, the strange performances – but it felt empty. The sinister overtones of the original were largely missing. There was a moment right at the beginning of the show where the lights came up brightly on the audience, perhaps reminding us that we were part of the play, spectators of the girls’ show, but this was really the only suggestion of overt voyeurism we get. Likewise, the show the girls put on is definitely weird, but there’s none of the sense of exploitation that exists in the novella, which I think is key to the text (especially when reading it against a pornographic tradition). It’s certainly not especially erotic. I am sure it’s meant to be allegorical, but if you asked me to identify what its meant to be allegorical for...? Female power play, I guess? Maybe? It’s really hard to tell. There are also none of the proto-feminist bits, and I found the elision of these a bit sad. I had high hopes for that particular element of the text in performance.

This is a wordless piece of theatre: the story is told entirely through movement, music, and costume. I’ll be the first to admit that non-verbal theatre isn’t exactly my favourite form ever, but I don’t think that’s what my problem with On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls was. To me, it didn’t seem like it knew what it was trying to achieve. If you asked me to identify what the point of this show was, I don’t think I could do it – whereas if you asked me to identify what the point of the novella was, I could talk from a while about the different readings that could be applied. Perhaps I’m just too used to reading this text against the pornographic tradition, but to me, it felt like it missed a lot. I’m not averse to someone doing a Simon Stone on Mine-haha –that is, taking the text, “corrupting” it, and finding new meanings – but I really couldn’t find a lot of meaning in this one at all.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

When Does A Text Become A New Text? Simon Stone, EL James, and Crossing the Textual Rubicon

“’ far as pure ideas are concerned, 1884 was the end. We were expecting the worst... but that didn’t happen. Against all expectations, recycled ideas were working.

‘But isn’t it the way they are told?’ asked Havisham in her not-to-be-argued with voice. ‘Surely the permutations of storytelling are endless!’”

-          Jasper Fforde, The Well of Lost Plots


Quoted in a long article in The Australian about the current trend of adapting the classics, Simon Stone claims that his works “are closer to an original play than an adaptation”, and that “every play ever written is a rewrite of something”. He openly admits to cannibalising classic texts, reworking and remaking them and creating new texts. He stands in contrast to some of the other theatre makers interviewed in the article, including Andrew Bovell, who exhorts people to “write your own plays and stop effing around with everyone else’s”. He also earns the ire of the journalist, Rosemary Neill, who has also penned a terse editorial in which she describes Stone’s attitudes as “self-serving nonsense”. A (false, I think) dichotomy is set up between adaptation and new work, between refurbishing overseas texts and new, uniquely Australian stories.

Debate over adaptation has been going on for ages and I have no doubt that it will continue to go on for some time. It’s a complex debate with many dimensions, but from a narratological perspective, the one that interests me in particular is this idea of textual boundaries. When does a text stop being a text and become a different, new text? How far do you have to change a text before it is not that text any more? What is the point where an adaptation becomes a new text? To borrow a quote from Michel Foucault in his essay What Is An Author?:

“What is a work? What is this curious unity which we designate as a work? Of what elements is it composed? Is it not what an author has written? Difficulties appear immediately... A theory of the work does not exist, and the empirical task of those who naively undertake the editing of works often suffers in the absence of such a theory.”

The dichotomy set up between adaptation and new work seems to suggest that the two are a binary, two sides of a coin – and thus in competition with each other – when it would probably be more correct to place them on a spectrum. All texts are arguably on some level derivative. What is unclear is at what point a text like the ones created by Stone shifts toward the new work end at the spectrum.

Stone is right when he notes that shameless idea-stealing is a part of theatre’s history: the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre would not exist without it. Many canonical plays are technically adaptations. Or are they? Romeo and Juliet has its roots in Arthur Brookes’ 1562 poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet, which itself probably has roots in a novella by Matteo Bandello. Does this make it an adaptation? Or is it something else? And is Stone doing the same thing when he, say, takes Death of a Salesman and changes the ending?

The question at the crux of this debate is, I think, authorship. I find this interesting, because in modern literary criticism, the author is the arguably the least important figure. (Listen to pretty much any academic moan about how irrelevant the authorship question is in the study of Shakespeare and you’ll hear what I mean.) Nineteenth century Schleiermachian criticism was deeply worried about the author, prescribing a hermeneutic method wherein the reader basically became a detective, combing texts for evidence of the author’s true intentions. In the twentieth century, New Criticism brought the text itself into the foreground, and this in turn was supplanted by the reception aesthetic, where the reader became the central concern. Foucault asserted that the author was more a function than an actual person, and in 1968, Roland Barthes famously declared the author dead. However, almost fifty years later, authorship on the stage seems to be a matter of great angst, the question of who writes or creates a text deeply vexed.

Even a cursory examination of the question of authorship and the stage (and I don’t pretend to be making anything more than a cursory examination here) shows us that theatrical authorship is already more complex than in a written text. Instead of there being a direct line that goes author à text à reader, in the theatre, there are filters laid on top. There are more mediators: playwright à director à actors à audience. You will note that the text does not appear in this second schema, because which text is the fixed text? We could argue that it is the script, the written text provided by the playwright to the director. However, because the play is an inherently performative form, the text can never be wholly experienced on the page. It must be performed to become an object of consciousness for the audience, and so it must pass through director and actors. There are a number of subjectivities in play here: to get to the audience, the playwright’s text must pass through a number of interpretations or readings. The director in particular becomes a figure who is both author and reader: at what point does the director’s reading of a text change the text itself? (We could veer off in a very Derridan direction here and start talking about how the theatrical text has no centre and how the play is quite literally play or jeu, but I’ll spare you that longwinded and probably pointless tangent.)

And so we get these confused textual boundaries, because the theatrical text is not fixed. It is fluid, and must by its nature be subject to a middleman’s reading to be realised. Can we call the printed script the text when it can never be fully realised in that form? Does each production constitute a new text? And if so, what barriers must be crossed for one text to become an entirely different one?

The word “faithful” is often used in conjunction with adaptations. There is a sense that the director has been loyal to the author’s intention, and has endeavoured to communicate this audience. What Simon Stone appears to be doing is essentially going rogue, rejecting this idea of faithful adaptation. He is not averse to changing the meaning of a text, to the extent where he argues that he is creating a whole new text. By claiming the position of primary author, Stone seems to be crossing a sort of textual Rubicon: if there is a line between old text and new, he is figuratively arguing that he has stepped over it. He is declaring his intention more important than that of the original author: “corrupting” texts and twisting them into something different. Roman Ingarden argued that the author was the source of the text, but that the meaning was intersubjective, transcendent of author, text, and reader. But what happens when that meaning is explicitly changed, as in Stone’s practice? Is that the point when it becomes a new text? Is what Simon Stone does imposing a reading (albeit an aggressive one) on a text, or is he creating a new text (albeit a derivative one) altogether?

This rewriting of a classic text is hardly an unusual literary phenomenon. In an example from my own academic field, Jennifer Crusie’s book Maybe This Time is a rewriting of Turn of the Screw, reimagining James’s terrifying novella as a light-hearted contemporary romance novel. Crusie’s intentions are clearly vastly different to James’s: she owes a textual debt, which she openly admits to, but, like Stone, obviously claims Maybe This Time as a new text, with herself as author. This practice is arguably more appropriation than adaptation: instead of attempting to translate a text through a new lens for an audience, it takes elements of it to create a new text.

The key difference, of course, is the names. Crusie’s book is not called Turn of the Screw, nor is it sold as such. Stone admits that the titles are a marketing technique, then handwaves it away, saying that titles are largely irrelevant. This seems to be at the core of the problem people have with Stone’s work: he is using the names of famous authors to mobilise audiences, but what he is presenting has more to do with himself than those authors. (And, by extension, he is making royalties off it.) It could be viewed as breaking faith not only with the author but with the audience, who came to the theatre to see Tennessee Williams but came away with Simon Stone. This creates a kind of authorial battle: who has the authority (pun intended) to dictate what a text’s meaning should be?

I’d be really uncomfortable with suggesting that directors had to even attempt to be loyal to an author’s intentions. Just because an author meant to say something in a text doesn’t mean they actually do, and it’s quite possible that meanings and readings exist in a text that the author was completely unaware of. We ditched Schleiermachian criticism a century ago for a reason. However, on the other side of this is the question of the audience, who has come to see one text but may end up with quite another. Simon Stone is well known enough now that people will see his shows on his own merits: having “Simon Stone after” on a theatre program may be a bigger sell for some people than the author’s name that comes after. He has become an authorial brand in his own right. But is he a sort of EL James to Tennessee Williams/Eugene O’Neill/Henrik Ibsen/etc’s Stephenie Meyer? Is what he does sort of like creating alternate universe fan fiction – and then marketing it under the moniker of the original?

I actually find this comparison to EL James quite a useful one (though I’m not sure if Stone himself would particularly like it). I’d like to be very clear that I’m not making an equivocation between the quality of James’s work and Stone’s – far from it – but in terms of textual appropriation, there are some similarities. James took Meyer’s characters, replaced vampirism with sexual dominance, substituted repeated sex scenes for repeated episodes of abstinence, and created a new text. At first, it was openly derivative – Master of the Universe was Twilight fan fiction – but then she simply changed the names and published it as Fifty Shades of Grey, a new text in its own right. Its roots in Twilight are obvious (even if one didn’t know about its literary history, I’m pretty confident a reader of Twilight who read Fifty Shades would be able to pick it), but it has an entirely remade dialogue and structure. It is not Twilight – it is something else – but it is not not Twilight either. I’d argue that Stone’s practice is not dissimilar: his The Wild Duck, for instance, remakes dialogue and structure. It is not The Wild Duck but not not The Wild Duck either. It transforms Ibsen’s text into something new and different (and, in this case, genuinely excellent).

Perhaps this question of ‘excellence’ is the key. One of the threads running through both pieces in the Australian is that adapting or appropriating rather than striving to create a new story is lazy or easy. In her editorial, Rosemary Neil writes,

“...let's not pretend that this director's penchant for reworking classics that have a proven track record is as courageous or important as a creating a new, powerful play with no track record.”

I’m not particularly interested in disputing this. However, does it matter? How much does the audience actually care about the courage of a text’s creator, as long as the end result is excellent? How much does it impact their enjoyment? I wouldn’t claim that it doesn’t impact it at all. Again, EL James provides a useful reference point here. Many readers find their enjoyment of Fifty Shades mitigated because they believe it to be an unethical reworking, unfairly capitalising on the popularity of Twilight. On the other hand, Fifty Shades of Grey is the fastest selling book of all time, so clearly it’s not bothering that many people. On the whole, I don’t think the amount of effort exerted by the author ultimately matters that much to a substantial amount of the audience. What does matter is the text and their own enjoyment and appreciation of it. And as his popularity shows, audiences are largely appreciating Stone’s work.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (Scarecrow Theatre) runs at the Tap Gallery from May 29 – June 1. From the short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, adapted and devised by Jonathan Dunk and Travis Ash.

I’m not sure if there’s a name in the canon that’s more terrifying than Dostoyevsky. Whether fairly or unfairly, ol’ Fyodor has acquired a reputation for being scarily super dense. I remember the first time I had to read him – I was an undergraduate, and the name alone intimidated the hell out of me. A shadow of this fear haunts me still, so I was a little apprehensive about going to see The Dream of a Ridiculous Man at the Tap Gallery, an adaptation of Dostoyvesky’s final short story.

My fears were baseless. This is clean, clever, engaging theatre.

I think a big part of the reason people are so scared of Dostoyevsky is the fact that his books are enormous. Seriously, if you drop Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov on your foot, you’ll probably break your toes. An enormous book would seem to signal a big story: one that is complex and dense. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man definitely deals with big stories (in the fifty minutes of the show, we witness the rise and fall of a whole new civilisation) but it is, at its heart, about something very simple and very small: the fears and feelings of one man on one night. This short story – this small story – works beautifully on the stage.

(Warning – here there be spoilers. Read at your peril.)

When we meet our nameless protagonist (played here by Travis Ash), he has just decided to kill himself. He has spent dinner with a bunch of friends who were talking passionately about something (he can’t remember what) and he says nothing, feels nothing: he has nothing in the world besides his conviction that he is a ridiculous man. He has been thinking about suicide for some time, but has only just made the resolve that tonight will be the night when he encounters a little girl. She is desperate for his help. He refuses and returns home, but her plight has awakened something in him that he has not felt for a long time. He falls asleep and has a dream. In the dream, he does commit suicide (in a heavily weighted moment of symbolism, shooting himself in the heart instead of the head), and he finds himself on a whole other planet with another race of people: an unspoiled one. But nothing can remain pure for long...

An explicit tension between knowledge and feeling drives this piece.“Knowledge of the laws of happiness has become more important than happiness itself,” laments the protagonist. In the unspoiled world of his dreams, it is the act of telling the first lie that precipitates the fall. Truth, rather than happiness, becomes the ultimate goal, and because of this, happiness becomes virtually impossible. When he decides to kill himself, the protagonist has reached such a state of apathy that he is not happy, but he is content. This dream inspires passions in him – elation and despair – and he can no longer feel nothing. He at once aspires to happiness and is cognisant of the fact that it is impossible, placing him in an impossible double bind. In effect, he discovers the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism – duhkha, or all life is suffering – but at the same time, discovers life’s inexorability and irresistibility. Even if the battle is futile, he must have hope. He must feel. He must live.

This is obviously quite a philosophically complex piece –the summary above only begins to touch on the many questions it raises – but this production by Scarecrow Theatre is lucid and intelligent. I found Ash’s performance as the protagonist a little one-note at first, but as the piece progressed, he really hit his stride. This might be a small story, but it is such a complex piece of drama. It would be an incredibly easy piece in which to get bogged down, but Jonathan Dunk has directed this piece with a light but precise touch. It is thought-provoking without being dense, managing to be both gritty and hopeful without becoming either dire or cheesy. Most of all, it is not pretentious, which is what I was most afraid of. It is dexterous, lucid storytelling.

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man has only a short run at the Tap Gallery, but it is definitely worth seeing. If nothing else, in less than an hour, it manages to span the creation and destruction of a universe, which is pretty impressive. I’m certainly looking forward to the next offering from Scarecrow Theatre. If it’s anything like this show, it should be very exciting indeed.


Friday, May 24, 2013

By Any Other Name

By Any Other Name runs at the Sidetrack Theatre in Marrickville from May 22 – June 1. By William Shakespeare, devised and directed by Tristan Carey and Samantha Cunningham.

I can’t say I was particularly excited by the premise for By Any Other Name. In this reworking of Romeo and Juliet, all the Capulets are women and all the Montagues men, with homosexual relationships the norm in their world. The relationship of Romeo (Jasper Garner-Gore) and Juliet (Sophia Scarpellino) is thus doubly taboo: not only are their families enemies, but their sexual attraction to each other is perverse. I'm not especially intrigued by the notion of heterosexual desire as incredibly transgressive, but I tried to go in with an open mind. I think there’s a lot of interesting work that can be done with queer readings of Shakespeare and other Renaissance plays, so while I didn’t have high hopes for this particular conceit, I was more than prepared to give it a chance.

Sadly, it does not work at all. Not even a little bit, despite the solid efforts of some clearly talented actors (especially Clementine Mills as Tybalt, who is sadly underused).

The biggest problem is its dramaturgical laziness. If you’re going to go with this all-Montagues-are-men/all-Capulets-are-women thing, you’ve got to a) commit to it, and b) really, really think through the implications. Although Shakespeare’s text has been significantly modified, with large chunks cut out or replaced with original dialogue, one thing that has not been changed is the pronouns. Considering that the play was based on the idea that the genders stick together and there’s a battle of the sexes thing going on, I found this a very curious choice. It not only de-emphasised this gender divide, but it confused it, raising questions which it never even attempted to answer. (This is not to say that changing the pronouns would have fixed the problem - far from it - but they certainly contributed to the confusion.) These questions should have been fundamental to the play, and yet I feel like they were glossed over. What did it mean to be a man in this world? What did it mean to be a woman? How is it that Paris (a woman) could ask for Juliet’s hand in marriage and have that granted by Juliet’s father (a woman), while Juliet and her mother (both women) had no say in it? How was power constructed and bestowed? This could have been a really interesting way to consider the differences between sex and gender, or to highlight questions of gender and performativity, but these opportunities were missed.  The world of the play was really not sufficiently established.

The all-male-Montagues/all-female-Capulets conceit also meant that some of the actions in the play took on new, very loaded connotations, and these really were not adequately explored. For example, Romeo kills two people in the show –Tybalt and Paris. Normally, these characters are men, which makes sense when located in a culture of male violence. In this version, they were both women, and Romeo’s murder of them created a stark contrast to his loving and tender relationship with Juliet. Tybalt’s death in particular is highly stylised man-on-woman violence: Tybalt has just violently stabbed Mercutio, but Romeo, without a knife to hand, beats her to death with his bare hands. Her pleas for her life are distinctly feminine and deeply discomforting. The implications of this could be fascinating – is Romeo’s violence against women a way of lashing out, considering his own transgressive attraction to one? – but they are never explored. Not at all. It felt like no thought at all had been given to any of the implications of this new world order beyond the fact that it made Romeo and Juliet’s love all the more forbidden. And even this notion was not adequately explained – all references to Romeo’s former love, Rosaline, are kept in, complete with female pronouns. Considering that there’s a large chunk of original dialogue added in the early section of the play where Benvolio professes his queer-and-thus-socially-acceptable love to Romeo, you’d think the fact that Romeo was already in love with a girl would be something that got addressed. But nope. Likewise, in the director’s note, the directors/devisors make much mention of the current hot button issue of marriage equality. Surely, in this world where being straight is so unacceptable, it would be nearly impossible for Romeo and Juliet to get married...? But the fact that their marriage looked so unlike the other marriages of their world got no mention, despite a few homilies on marriage being delivered in the original dialogue.

I found By Any Other Name incredibly frustrating because there are such fascinating opportunities for queer readings of Shakespeare and it passed them by completely. Arguably, the Renaissance play is inherently a queer text: we must remember that when originally performed, all the roles would have been played by male actors, thus queering the already taboo love of Romeo and Juliet. We could apply the work of theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – her work on love triangles as exposing homosocial desire, for example. There could be fascinating theatrical readings of the homosocial bonds between Romeo and Paris, and, perhaps more particularly, Romeo and Mercutio. But these intriguing possibilities are all passed by. Let’s take Mercutio (Annie Schofield) as an example. In this production, she is female, but she is firmly aligned with the all-male Montagues. She’s given a large chunk of dialogue where she talks about how she basically rapes gay men and turns them straight... despite the fact her best mates are a bunch of gay boys. For what effect...? I don’t know. (This rant ends with her flashing her vagina at the terrified Montague boys. My theatre date and I both turned to each other and mouthed, “I’m Old Gregg!”) Then the violence between her and Tybalt is overtly sexualised – they kiss, and they fight. For what effect...? None that I could see. Perhaps Mercutio, existing outside the Montague/Capulet dynamic, was supposed to be pansexual? But then what effect did that have on her relationships? What implications did her gender identity have on her bond with Romeo? Not that many, as far as I could tell.

There are so many interesting directions that a queer reading of this play could go in, but none are in evidence here. It seems to be a random assortment of thoughts thrown together with no cohesion or thought. The original dialogue is intrusive and at odds with the rest of the show: it’s not only linguistically awkward, but thematically awkward. Characters launch into bizarre sermons at the drop of a hat for no apparent reason. Additionally, the cut of Shakespeare’s script is very strange – there were some very odd choices made about which bits to keep and which to cut. Several speeches from Shakespeare’s original were kept in that are really functionally unnecessary to the modern audience – speeches like the Friar’s, post Juliet’s death, which were intended to explain to the peasants in the audience what had happened, as it would have been very difficult for most of them to see the stage properly from their vantage. It made the play drag a lot – at nearly three hours, it’s way too long. About a quarter of the opening night audience left at interval, and I didn’t blame them.

There are some elements I did find interesting which could have been further developed. For example, in the balcony scene, most of Romeo and Juliet’s dialogue is replaced by the lyrics to love songs – among them, What’s Love Got To Do With It, Eternal Flame, and I Don’t Want To Miss AThing. I thought this had the potential to be a fascinating comment on the ubiquity of love – a kind of literal manifestation of the idea that “I love you” is always a quotation – but it’s never really explored again. Perhaps the reason that By Any Other Name lacked cohesion and did not seem to have any underpinning thought was because it was trying to do too much. The show really would have benefited from a far more focused approach.

One thing I can say I loved about the show was the Prince’s pants, though I’m not sure why they were quite so sparkly. I also quite liked Dino Dimitriades' set, which was stylish and functional. Unfortunately, I had reservations about pretty much every other aspect of the show. There’s so much potential in queer readings of Shakespeare, but it is not realised here: this is a mishmash of ideas about love, marriage, and sexual orientation that maybe aspires to be bricolage, but ends up simply being a mess.

(Also, why did everyone have a pet rock? I get that there was that speech about pebbles added on at the end, but... why?)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Removalists

The Removalists (Tamarama Rock Surfers) runs at the Bondi Pavilion from 14 May – 15 June 2013. By David Williamson, directed by Leland Kean.

If there is a canon of Australian plays, then The Removalists is certainly part of it. Set in 1971, David Williamson’s iconic meditation on police brutality and domestic violence is brought vividly to life in this revival at the Bondi Pavilion. It is sharply realised and blackly funny, making the audience deeply uncomfortable even as they laugh. And yet, given the fact that is canonical and set in the past, it is a frustrating piece of theatre. Has anything actually changed?

The story is a familiar one (certainly to the many HSC students who have been made to study the play, anyway). It is Constable Ross’s (Sam O’Sullivan) first day on the job. He is lectured about what it really means to be a policeman by his new sergeant, Sergeant Simmonds (Laurence Coy) who has apparently not made an arrest in 23 years on the job, when two women, Kate and Fiona (Caroline Brazier and Sophie Hensser respectively), come into the police station. Fiona has been battered by her husband Kenny, and when the two policeman, assisted by a removalist (Sam Atwell), come to her apartment to help her move out the furniture she has purchased, they encounter –and batter – said husband (Justin Stewart Cotta), to the point where it seems that the villain of the piece almost becomes the victim.

This is a deeply unsettling piece of theatre, and this production does not shy away from that at all. The battered wife manages to escape from her abusive husband, and for that, we should definitely be glad, but this story feels like a subplot. The primary plot is about violence between men: specifically, police and criminals. Both stories unfold as the removalist watches on. He functions as the outside world, uncaring and unchanging, as long as he gets to knock off on time. Black comedy is a troubling genre, because it can be hard to know quite what it is making fun of. In The Removalists, no one is mocked. We laugh because if we don’t, then we’ll have to cry. Beneath the jokes is a deep and horrifying story, made even less palatable by the comic treatment.

Leland Kean’s revival of David Williamson’s play has maintained the setting. This is very much 1971, with Errol Flynn movies watched on wood panelled televisions and police reports written (or not) on typewriters. In his author’s note in the program, Williamson notes that this choice highlights how little has changed between 1971 and today, especially as regards domestic violence. I agree with this point, but would also note that the setting risks creating a sort of fantastical distance between the show and the audience: painting a picture of how things were “back then” as opposed to now. (This is a matter for the individual audience member to decide: I interpreted it the former way, but deal enough with interpretations like the latter in my academic life to know that such a reading is possible when dealing with texts set in the past, even if that past is relatively recent.)

All six performers did a great job – I must especially commend Justin Stewart Cotta as Kenny, who is probably the best at acting injured I’ve ever seen – but I felt like the project of the revival could have been a little more clearly defined. The text doesn’t necessarily have to have an overt mission – Williamson’s script is a comment, not a sermon – but at times, I wasn’t exactly sure where this production was going. If it was to show how little attitudes towards women have changed, then it definitely succeeded, but what about all the differing politics of masculinity in the play? Putting Kenny in an AFL jersey was a nice touch (reminding one of Williamson’s 1974 Meanjin essay, where he talks about Kenny as “a great fucker and a great fighter”, someone who takes pride in his ability to absorb pain, as well as making a pertinent comment about the treatment of footballer’s wives today) but at times, I feel like there needed to be more nuance to the attitudes of the male characters towards the other men in the play. This is especially true of the lackadaisical Sergeant Simmonds: sure, he was trying to impress Kate with his brutalisation of Kenny, but is that all there was to it? Whence comes his strange hypocrisy, offended at Kate’s adultery at one minute, talking about the call girls he frequents the next? I feel like there could be quite a fascinating exploration of different modes of masculinity using this text, but in that respect, this production didn’t quite get there for me. (However, this might be a function of the text rather than the production: The Removalists is very much an observation, and thinking about it in terms of a “message” is a fraught practice.)

That said, this is a very, very good revival of Williamson’s classic text. While maintaining the play’s 1971 setting might have limited some avenues which could be explored, Leland Kean has directed a lean, taut production that really packs a punch (dark pun intended). It is the kind of show that makes you deeply uncomfortable watching it because some elements of it are so familiar: how often have we been the removalist, willing to ignore something horrible so it didn’t interfere with our lives?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Young Idea

The Young Idea runs at the Genesian Theatre from May 4-June 8 2013. By Noel Coward, directed by Laura Genders.

Genesian Theatre’s production of The Young Idea is a very enjoyable, if somewhat unadventurous, interpretation of the play that kickstarted Noel Coward’s career. It is the theatrical equivalent of sherbet: frothy, fun, and sweet, if ultimately a little insubstantial.

This play, written when Coward was 22, is the story of siblings Sholto (Lachlan Edmonds-Munro) and Gerda (Anita Donovan). They are the children of George (Matt Jones) and Jennifer (Kerry Day), who have been divorced for a very long time. Jennifer, a novelist, lives in on the continent, while George lives a peaceful life in the English countryside with his second wife Cicely (Dearbhla Hannigan), judiciously ignoring her numerous love affairs with young men, including Roddy (Carlin Hurdis). Sholto and Gerda are determined to reunite their parents, and are prepared to go to any lengths to do so. Given that this is Coward, it is hardly surprising that hilarity ensues.

This is not Coward’s best play by any means, but it is still great fun. From a literary history perspective, it’s fascinating to see the seeds that would one day grow into Hay Fever and Private Lives (see here for my review of Belvoir St's Private Lives last year). George and Jennifer are the prototypes for Elyot and Amanda, two people that can’t stand each other but ultimately can’t stand to be without each other. Coward clearly learned over his career not to mask the truly interesting story – the relationship between George and Jennifer, in this case – behind other, less interesting facades: we do not learn very much about Sholto and Gerda as people during the course of play, other than that they desperately want their parents to hook up again. If we read Sholto and Gerda as the protagonists, The Young Idea basically becomes the Gossip Girl of the 1920s, a drama set against a hyper-privileged society, with Sholto and Gerda as the prototypes for Chuck and Blair, manipulating everyone around them to get what they want. (Thankfully, unlike Chuck and Blair, Sholto and Gerda do not hook up. Given the whole sibling thing, that would be weird.)

Laura Genders has directed a deft, clever production. It would be easy to let the production grow static, relying on Coward’s writing to speak for itself, but that does not happen here. There are some visual gags in here that are screamingly funny – there is one moment with Claud (David Ross) in the first act which I won’t spoil here that is absolutely side-splitting. While this show is not terribly ambitious, it is dynamic. Genders has drawn some great performances from her actors. While I found Edmonds-Munro and Donovan as Sholto and Gerda a little too doe-eyed at times – I wanted to see a bit more of a differentiation in the way they acted around other people versus the way they acted when they were alone – I really enjoyed the performances of Jones, Day, and Hannigan as George and his two wives. Jones was suitably dry, Day cutting in response, and Hannigan’s acerbic portrayal of Cicely was great fun.

The one thing that I did find a little puzzling at times were the costumes – two minor characters appeared to be in deep mourning in the first act for no apparent textual reason. But this is a very minor quibble. The Young Idea is in no way experimental, nor does it push any boundaries, but it is a whole heap of fun. It won’t change your life, but it will make you laugh. I had a great evening seeing it at the Genesian. Recommended.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Something Natural But Very Childish

Over at Australian Stage, I reviewed Something Natural But Very Childish, the debut production from Sydney Independent Theatre Company in their new role as resident company at the Old Fitz. Really interesting show - you can read what I thought here.