Saturday, October 26, 2013

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights runs at the Phoenix Theatre in Coniston from October 16 – 26 2013. By Steen and Erifilli Davis, based on the book by Emily Bronte, directed by Anton Johannssen.

I don’t review a lot of community theatre, but there’s something about the Phoenix Theatre in Wollongong which compels me to write about it. Last time I was there, I saw what might have been the best worst production of Hamlet ever. This time, when I went along to see Wuthering Heights, I was treated to a masterclass in how not to adapt a book for the theatre. The subtitle to this production could have been Page to Stage: Don’t Do This.

Full disclosure: I know a little about adapting books for the stage. I’ve had a few adaptations staged, perhaps most notably my first effort as a teenager, Dracula at the Roo Theatre Company in Shellharbour, and Sense and Sensibility for Free Rain Theatre in Canberra, for which I was nominated for a CAT award. This isn’t to say that I’m brilliant at it or anything, but I have read and thought about it a lot, so I have some pretty strong opinions on the matter.

The first thing that needs to be understood in the process of adaptation is that what works on the page will not necessarily work on the stage. The two media are innately different, and when adapting a book, you need to distill the text, finding the key moments in the story and emphasising their theatricality. The narrative techniques you need to use are often quite different, because the way we experience these two types of text are quite different: using Wuthering Heights as an example, if you were reading the book, you probably wouldn’t sit down and consume the whole book in two hours.

(Though this production is more like three hours. Guys, don’t do that.)

When you’re adapting, you want to be faithful to the text you’re working from (unless, as I discovered ten years ago, you’re adapting Dracula, in which case most adaptors basically throw the book out the window and do whatever the hell they want). But what you absolutely cannot do – what is theatrical suicide – is faithfully reproduce huge chunks of the text onstage. It doesn’t work. Not only does copy-pasting demonstrate a remarkable lack of understanding of the text you're adapting, you are going to end up with a script totally unsuitable for theatre. What you want to do is to be faithful to the plot and the characters, insofar as that is possible, and to the spirit of the text. Where you can include parts from the original, good. But if you rely too heavily on following the book, then ninety-nine times out of a hundred you are going to end up with an epic mess where the pacing is all screwed up, the structure is incredibly weird, and it’s mind-numbingly dull. (Trust me. You should have seen the disaster that was my first draft of Sense and Sensibility.)

This production of Wuthering Heights proudly boasts that it has been approved by the Bronte Society (is that a thing? I did not know that was a thing) as a faithful adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel. However, that does not make it good theatre. In fact, it makes it pretty bad theatre. As it stands, Bronte’s novel is not a natural fit for the stage. You have that whole story-within-a-story thing with the multiple narrators: Nelly’s story sits inside Lockwood’s one (and apart from the IT’S ME, YOUR CATHY incident immortalised by Kate Bush, Lockwood’s story is hella boring). Then you have that last third or so of the book where it’s all about Earnshaws, Lintons and Heathcliffs Generation Two: Electric Boogaloo, and how Heathcliff is super mean to them all. And then there’s the fact that Emily Bronte SHATTERS the show don’t tell rule. She mostly pulls it off, but having people tell other people about way more interesting stuff that happened elsewhere is violently anti-theatrical. We want to see the interesting stuff first hand! That’s part of the fun of theatre!

Because of its slavish (a word, I might add, that the actors do not seem to know how to pronounce – it does not rhyme with “lavish”) adherence to Bronte’s text, this adaptation by Phoenix Theatre’s artistic director Steen and his collaborator Erifilli Davis falls flat on its face. It is way too long, glosses over the most interesting parts, keeps most of the boring bits in, and cripples itself in its effort to maintain the double narrator conceit present in the book. Is it faithful? Yes, mostly. Is it theatrically interesting? Not really. Because here’s a little secret about Wuthering Heights: no one cares about Mr Lockwood. No one really cares about Nelly. There’s a reason the young Cathy/Linton/Hareton triangle is largely excised from most adaptations, and even when it’s not, no one – NO ONE – wants to focus on their dramarama for very long (AND DEFINITELY FOR NOT MORE THAN AN HOUR).

What people care about and remember from Wuthering Heights is the towering, obsessive, almost demonic love of Catherine and Heathcliff, and if that’s not the centre of your adaptation, then you’ve got something wrong. (Even Heathcliff: The Musical starring Cliff Richard managed to do this, although Catherine did not figure in my favourite part, where Heathcliff sailed around the world exploiting the people of Africa, India, China, and the Middle East, making me utter the phrase, “I want to write a post-colonial critique of this,” for the first and only time in my life.)

When I think back on this production, I won’t remember Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship. It was pretty bland, insofar as a relationship which includes phrases like, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” can be bland. There are things I will remember, like the fact most of Heathcliff’s lines appeared to be delivered via CAPSLOCK OF RAGE and that he greeted a surprising amount of people by pushing them over. I will remember that there were inexplicably three different actresses playing Nelly Dean. I will remember that it had more false endings than the third Lord of the Rings movie. I will remember Heathcliff dying in a pose that looked like he died in the middle of either an epic game of shadow puppets or of a lobster impersonation. I will remember that Hareton looked like he was about to audition to be in Fall Out Boy and was apparently completely incapable of doing up his shirt until he began how to learn how to read (when he presumably read A Beginner’s Guide To Buttons). And, more seriously, I will remember some of the actors, because I think there’s some talent in this cast.

But what I will remember most of all is not the delicious Wuthering Heights-ishness of it all, and that makes me sad. I’ll remember what a good example it was of how not to adapt a text for the stage, and the pitfalls we can fall into when we try too hard to be “faithful”. 

(Although thinking about this show did make me realise that Avril Lavigne's Sk8er Boi is totally a modern interpretation of Wuthering Heights. Think about it.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Love Field

Love Field (bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company) runs at the Tap Gallery in Sydney from October 24 – November 2. By Ron Elisha, directed by Michael Dean.

It was the shot heard around the world. John F Kennedy slumped in the car next to his wife Jacqueline, whose designer clothes were suddenly covered in blood and viscera. Only hours later, as the world reeled, his deputy Lyndon Baines Johnson would be sworn in as the 36th President of the United States of America.

The premise behind Love Field is a relatively simple one: what happened on Air Force One between Jacqueline Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as they flew back to Washington together with JFK’s body? What did they say? What could they say to each other? This sounds like a fascinating conversation – and for brief period during the hour-long show, it is – but sadly, the execution in this play is sadly lacking. Love Field feels like the playwright read both their Wikipedia pages and then wrote Jackie Kennedy/LBJ shipper fan fiction.

This is not to say that there is an obligation for the conversation to be as close as historically accurate as possible (we cannot know, after all, what happened between these two). I’d go so far as to say that there’s not even an obligation to be emotionally accurate, if you’re trying to tell a story bigger than the two people involved in it – which, when there is a nation involved, you think you might be. But a lot of this show felt like, “oooh, here is this fact about one of the characters! how can I possibly shoehorn this in?” And it didn’t feel like it was trying to tell a bigger story than the two characters either, despite the constant references to the office of president. (In the program, playwright Ron Elisha writes that the play is a part of a triptych about the male psyche. I can’t say that I saw much of that in evidence.) It was about these two people on this plane in this extraordinary situation, and what they said to each other. Which leads us back to the question of emotional accuracy: if you are going to tell a small story about two people, even if that story has global consequences, then it needs to be emotionally believable.

bAKEHOUSE are lucky enough to have two very, very fine actors cast in this piece: Ben Wood as Lyndon Johnson and Lizzie Schebesta as Jackie Kennedy. (Schebesta is, to my mind, one of the finest actresses working onstage in Sydney today.) They try to chart the emotional journey of these two characters in a believable way. They really do. And to an extent, they succeed. You feel for LBJ, the big boy from the South who has spent his whole political life characterised as a hick and who feels terrible about how excited he is to be President. You feel for Jackie, the confused widow who is desperately grieving for her husband and simultaneously enraged at him for his philandering. But they are hampered by a script that takes them into some really, really bizarre and confusing places, not allowing for real organic emotional development.

I think the problem with the script is essentially that it can’t decide what it wants to be or what it wants to do. One of the key questions I think should always be asked when putting on a show is, “why this play? why here, and why now?” I can’t answer any of those questions when it comes to Love Field. It’s not really a political play, but it’s not really a personal one either. It sits uneasily between these two poles in a kind of theatrical no man’s land. It didn’t really make me think, and it didn’t really make me feel that much either – full credit to the actors that it made me feel as much as it did. I think that, with some redrafting and workshopping and focusing, there could be a script worthy of Schebesta and Wood. Love Field, in its current form, is not that script.


I reviewed Compass at Australian Theatre for Young People over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here. (Spoilers: I thought it was clever, funny, thought-provoking theatre for kids.)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Kids Killing Kids

So I reviewed this show over on Australian Stage, and you can read all my thoughts on it there. (Spoilers – I thought it was remarkable.) But there was one point in it that I wanted to expand and riff on a little, because it touches on my own academic area (extremely tangentially, but still).

I’m fascinated by the process of reading/watching/consuming a text in general, and what that means. There’s this assumption you get a lot with popular texts that the readers (term used for ease, though obviously this includes viewers and other consumers) blindly imbibe meaning and mimic the text. The obvious rebuttal to this is the existence of fan culture, which by definition demonstrates an active, critical, and imaginative engagement with a text. It has been argued that fan practice is largely driven by three things:

1)      The symbolic richness of the text

2)      The inherent limitations of the text

3)      The degree to which the text can be appropriated and/or reconstructed by the reader. (Lanier & Schau, 2007, 327)

The fact that Battalia Royale garnered such a huge fan following is something I find completely fascinating, because it is just not something you see in theatre at all. I think this is often to do with the ephemerality of theatre, which speaks to both the second and third points on the list above. The transmedia aspects of Battalia Royale, which had a longer life than the show itself, probably mitigated this (in this sense, it would be interesting to look at its fan practices alongside something like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, or Such Tweet Sorrow, the all-Twitter production of Romeo and Juliet that Mudlark and the RSC did a few years ago). But what is also fascinating – and what the academic in me would love to know more about – is how those who wanted the show shut down conceptualised the fan community. There’s a tendency to treat fans of popular texts as if their reactions are uniform and banal, but the diversity and creativity of fandom belies this. To borrow a phrase, “...the community of fans creates a communal (albeit contentious and contradictory) interpretation in which a large number of potential meanings, directions, and outcomes co-reside” (Hellekson & Busse, 2006, 4). I can understand how seeing audiences cheering at the murder of the high school students is deeply, incredibly, viscerally disturbing – but how is this reconciled with the creative impulse of fan culture, which seeks to constantly renegotiate meaning?

I don’t have any answers to these question – this is very much on the fringe of my area of academic expertise – but these are issues I find so intriguing. There’s an argument that mass culture and popular culture are different entities, mass culture characterised by passive acceptance of a text and its intended meaning and popular culture characterised by active appropriate and reinterpretation, transforming meaning and usage (Lanier & Schau 325). I’m not especially enamoured of this distinction – I don’t think “mass culture” in this sense actually exists – but when thinking about Battalia Royale, it’s quite interesting. Some critics of the show seem to have pigeonholed it in this “mass culture” box, worrying that the audience will blindly imbibe it. The presence of such an active fandom shows, however, that it is clearly “popular culture”: any “intended” meaning it might have had was being constantly renegotiated, both within the fan culture and night after night in performance. I found it so fascinating that the writers were consistently being asked what the political context of the show was, when perhaps that question might have been asked more fruitfully of the fans. Just because an author intends to politicise a text, does not mean that the reader will read it politically, and by the same logic, even if an author intends no political meaning, the reader may well find one – and Battalia Royale seems to have been a text which resonated on a political as well as personal level.

This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that I found the sections of Kids Killing Kids dealing with fan culture absolutely fascinating. The way people read, consume, and use texts is so, so interesting – and idiosyncratic, something which is regularly glossed over and which is one of my greatest sources of academic annoyance. If this show ever gets a second season, I would love to hear more from people who saw Battalia Royale as to how the show affected them.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


I reviewed Hamlet (for the third time this year!) at Belvoir St. And it was absolutely incredible. You can read what I thought here at Australian Stage.

(And if you want to know what I thought of my first two Hamlets this year, here you go: Hamlet, A History and Kupenga Kwa Hamlet.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hay Fever

Hay Fever runs at the New Theatre from 10 October – 2 November 2013. By Noel Coward, directed by Rosane McNamara.

When I was in London recently, I was lucky enough to catch one of the final performances of Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End, starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. It was the most wonderfully enjoyable show: fizzy and frothy and funny and just gorgeous. When I was thinking about it afterwards, I realised that it was not really that substantial: Private Lives deals with love in some interesting ways, as I discussed in my review of the Belvoir production of the same show last year, but overall, it’s not going to be the show that changes your life, you know? But that doesn’t matter. It is what it is, and this particular production was like a glass of champagne – wonderful and crisp and light and leaving you feeling a bit merry for quite a while afterwards. It was the kind of show that went straight to your head.

What it also was – or, at least, felt like – was effortless. And that is where this production of Hay Fever at the New Theatre falls down. I don’t want to compare this show to the high-profile, high-budget one I saw in the West End – that would be totally unfair – but on this point, I think it’s illustrative. When you can feel the cast trying oh-so-hard? when the wheels are showing? when you can see the sweat beneath the sparkle? Comedy – especially champagne comedies like Coward’s – do not work so well.

Comedy is notorious for being one of the most difficult of the dramatic arts, and this need for effortlessness is, I think, one of the reasons why. Wit isn’t as witty when you can see the witty one working at it. And that is what happens in this production of Hay Fever: it’s funny, but it’s laborious. Coward’s script is so brilliant that it’s still a terribly enjoyable couple of hours at the theatre, but it lacks the fizz and the froth that it really should have.

This is particularly true of the first act. The scenes where the Bliss family – mother Judith (Alice Livingstone), father David (James Bean), son Simon (David Halgren), and daughter Sorell (Jorja Brain) – are talking together before their guests arrive feel like really hard work. The words and the jokes were there, but they didn’t quite make it to the level of “witty banter”. The actors all felt a little uneasy in their skins, especially the younger two. The timing wasn’t quite right (although I should note that this problem was mitigated somewhat as the show progressed). It was still funny, but it was also a bit awkward – especially because I think some of the cast were struggling a little bit with their accents.

The second and the third act pick up a lot. I’m not sure whether the actors managed to get their groove back after a flat start or whether this is a larger problem, but it certainly feels like a different show after interval. The greater stage time allocated to the Bliss family’s houseguests is a big part of this – everything suddenly becomes a lot snappier when the characters are interacting one on one. I’d like to especially commend Tess Haubrich as Myra Arundel, who was fantastic the whole way through the show. She absolutely owned her role and lit up the stage whenever she was on it.

If you go and see this production, I think it would be pretty hard not to enjoy it. It’s difficult not to enjoy Coward, even when you can see the cogs turning. With some tighter direction and some snappier, punchier interaction – and maybe a week’s extra rehearsal? – I think this could be a really great show. As it is, it’s good fun, but it’s not quite champagne.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Floating World

I reviewed The Floating World at Griffin Theatre over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here. (Spoilers: the show is spectacular.)