PROLOGUE: In Australian theatre the best one-act dramas happen offstage and aren’t nominated for awards. When Left theatre critic Alison Croggon published a profile of playwright Joanna Murray-Smith in the Australian, blood soaked into the newsprint. Croggon called her plays “soapy” and suggested that Murray-Smith, from a Left-aristocracy family, may even be popular, which is a bad thing, and possibly right-wing.
Left critic Peter Craven counter-attacked on Crikey saying it was “a hatchet job” and that “Croggon’s piece is an odious piece of work and has caused widespread dismay”. Craven made a sly observation which cut deep: “At the same time you do wonder at the motivation. Alison Croggon can’t stop herself from saying that the Australian playwright who vies with Joanna Murray-Smith in terms of how much his work is performed overseas is her own husband, Daniel Keene.”
This review appeared in Quadrant‘s July edition of 2008.
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From her blog Croggon returned fire and then did a Lady Bracknell: “In such moments, I remember that I am an artist first and a critic second, and that I am interested in the art of theatre, not its tawdry politics.” The retreat to civility and cucumber sandwiches was shortlived, for she re-emerged to call Craven a “Lilliputian literary intellect”. After this there was silence on the battlefield as Croggon packed for the 2020 Summit. Curtain and applause. An immaculate little playlet which was dramatic, concise, sharply written and very entertaining.
I could have seen The 39 Steps in Melbourne, and would possibly be now writing an enthusiastic review; instead I chose to see the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Serpent’s Teeth by Croggon’s husband Daniel Keene. When I booked, before the play opened, it seemed a good choice. Keene is a Melbourne playwright who has been writing for over thirty years and though he is widely produced in Europe this is the first time his work has been staged by the STC. Seduced by the publicity machine, I made the wrong decision. The Serpent’s Teeth is two one-act plays, Citizens and Soldiers. On matinee day there was a cheerful and animated buzz of conversation running through the audience before the first play began.
Across the full length of the stage of the Opera House Drama Theatre designer Robert Cousins had placed a brick wall. Keene’s notes emphasise its symbolism: “erected to protect those who built it and to exclude those who could not stop it being built”. Though the location is obviously Israel this is not stated: “In an age of almost unlimited ability to communicate, the wall is a chasm [sic] of silence across which no dialogue is possible.” From the other side of the wall came occasional ominous noises from the pesky neighbours.
Citizens is peopled by the Actors Company in old clothes and wearing Arab-sounding names. Meant to evoke comparisons with Beckett and Brecht, it was old-fashioned 1930s political theatre which replaced brave proletarians with brave Arabs. There is no connected narrative, actors entered from right and left and performed small, dull, vignettes. This museum piece was meant to be (a) serious, (b) modern and (c) used to showcase Keene’s writing skills. Within a minute of the play starting the audience got the idea, Wall Plus Arabs = Victims, and then endured forty-five minutes of repetition.
First Rasid (John Gaden), pushing a wheelbarrow, accompanied by his grandson Tariq (Josh Denyer). In Rasid’s wheelbarrow is a young olive tree. He pauses and drinks from a plastic bottle of water. Throughout the play the pretend Arabs fixate on these water bottles like shopping-mall adolescents. The olive tree is being taken to the village on the opposite side of the stage where they have orange trees but no olive trees. Later Rasid returns pushing his wheelbarrow, which now holds an orange tree, towards his village which has olive trees but no orange trees. This is meant to be significant. The sight of Gaden pushing his laden wheelbarrow (atop this page) had me itching to call the bomb squad.
Finally they exit and to our right, after a long pause, an old man and his daughter come on. This is Basim (Peter Carroll) and Hayah (Hayley McElhinney). Basim is a crotchety grandfather (Paul Keating at sixty-five?) with a heart of gold (not Paul Keating). He is on the way to the funeral of his brother, who he has not seen for twenty-seven years and who he hated, but “News of a death is always an invitation.”
Amongst the entrances and exits are three young men, chorus boys from West Side Story, come to pick up stones for an afternoon of rock throwing. Also onstage are Aziz (Steve LeMarquand) and his pregnant wife Layla (Marta Dusseldorp). They are moving with their possessions to the other village and sound like a squabbling inner-city couple which, stripped of Arab names, is what they are. Middle Eastern marriage may not be quite as cosily familiar as Keene, and the actors, imagine.
The actors are on automatic pilot playing clichés. No one is interested in observing and representing real-life Arabs and the real political situation is not examined. No rockets fly over the wall into Israel. There is no Hamas or Fatah or Hezbollah and not a mention of Islamic terrorism. I guess the photo in Saturday’s paper of the Fatah amputees, who had their legs shot away by Hamas, was just a mirage.
Yet something illuminating and important did happen on that stage that afternoon. It concerned two characters, Safa (Amber McMahon) and Habib (Brandon Burke). It was a very simple scene. Safa enters carrying a large cardboard box. She meets Habib, who comes from the opposite side of the stage, and they talk. Inside the box is her dog, a “not fully grown” Alsatian—calling it a German Shepherd might have raised some interesting memories. The dog was hit by a car and Safa took her to a hospital where she was sedated, now she is carrying her to a vet in the next village. They talk and then Habib turns and accompanies her on her journey. (editor’s note: the Islamic contempt for dogs and the cruelty that inspires is captured in this clip. Warning, many will find it deeply distressing)
How many people saw this play in manuscript? How long has multiculturalism been part of the Left orthodoxy? Over thirty years? And still it has not really touched the lives of the Left elite more than providing them with grievances and exotic food. It seems that not one of the people connected with this production knows that dogs are bad and impure creatures in the eyes of Islam and that their treatment in Arab territories is not always pleasant. Here is a play, a political polemic performed in the heartland of Australia’s cultural Left, and no one has the slightest knowledge of real Arabs, their religion or their customs. A Sydney taxi driver might have been able to put them straight. Taking a dog into a Middle East hospital would have produced enough drama for a real play. (editor’s note: Islam’s contempt for dogs and the cruelty that inspires is captured in this clip. Warning, the video is deeply distressing)
Between exits and entrances the wall was used for a light show which destroyed any idea of the time scale in which the events were taking place. Classic plays are routinely ripped apart and rewritten by our theatre companies, yet director Pamela Rabe, an experienced actress, inflicted boredom on us by treating a decidedly inferior product with awed respect. Probably the reason that the players and the STC are so lacking in taste and can’t distinguish pretentiousness and cliché from art is that they are overawed by politics and overseas success and accept any nonsense so long as it is packaged in Left platitudes.
Finally there was much noise and dust and a helicopter appeared ominously above the wall. That was the idea. What happened was loud noise and bright lights and dust but the lights were only banks of stage lights, not a helicopter, and this was more or less repeated as the conclusion of the following play. I thought of the wall around the Warsaw Ghetto, to keep the Jews in, and the merry-go-round installed on the outside of that wall which played during the uprising and spread cheerful music as thousands were exterminated. There was some applause, though near me audience members resolutely refused to clap.
After interval there was a different sort of hum from those of the audience who returned. Gallows humour; for one noisy group was joking about how bad could it get. We quickly found out. Soldiers is set in another country in which Keene is a foreigner—Australia. It is also about another group of whom he knows nothing—soldiers’ families. Five young men have been killed in the Middle East and the action, in between poetry readings, takes place amongst family members who are awaiting the arrival of a plane carrying their bodies.
The set, also by Robert Cousins, was the inside of a huge hangar. Director Tim Maddock used the open space to stage groupings of his characters which had entirely no relevance to the drama. It seemed he was staging publicity shots, not making a play. At one point nearly all the cast climbed aboard several trolleys lying around and pulled serious faces while someone else talked on and on. When the hangar door slid open a great blast of light cut into the darkness and laid a narrow highway of brightness across the stage. It looked good, once, but it was done over and over until all you wanted was for the wretched door to shut fast and forever.
Keene’s idea of ordinary Australian men is dated and, like certain feminist bullied PC male playwrights, his women were genetically engineered drones. The boy Jack (Josh Denyer), whose father had been killed, played about the stage with a toy fighter plane. It was charmingly done and he ran about making engine noises like Christian Bale in the film Empire of the Sun. Childhood is dead. Around me the ten-year-olds I see resemble catatonic ghosts plugged into iPods.
Daniel Keene’s distaste for this country is advertised on his website in a morsel of Australiaphobia which has a truly wonderful Left whine:
Yes, Australia has always been and remains an eternal purgatory for anyone who thinks; it is hell for anyone who acts upon what they think (if that thinking is in any way opposed to the mediocrity of thought that the culture is founded upon and continues to defend). What I write, I write despite the accepted culture. I am in a constant state of animosity towards the culture I live in. This animosity is not sustainable: it is too exhausting, emotionally and intellectually.
Interestingly, the central character, Tom Lewis (John Gaden) is one of the first theatrical representations of the Baby Boomer as an old man—though I am not sure that Daniel Keene actually understood this. Before now an old man on stage has automatically made us think of someone born before the Second World War. When a decrepit actor droned on about war our mental soundtrack played Vera Lynn. When Tom Lewis speaks we are hearing Baby Boomer banalities. When he talks of “all those bloody uniforms” and states that “maybe they actually died for no good reason at all” we know we are in the presence of all the foolish Left platitudes of his generation. The words Keene approvingly gives him are of those who have not suffered a new thought to enter their heads since the 1960s.
Keene is popular in France for he shares the prejudices of the ’68 intellectuals and is an exotic, a writing kangourou. One dollop of French praise for his writing is condescending and funny: “The dramatist, living as he does on the other side of the world, has certainly been strongly influenced by European theatre. In [his play] Terminus, Daniel Keene even quotes Richard III.” Keene himself says things that would be pretentious in frog and are seriously silly in English: “When I am making love to my wife I am both male and female.” Confusing, uncomfortable and possibly illegal in Iran.
Given the conventional Left attitudes on stage, what the actors needed was a group hug before holding hands for a bracing rendition of “Kumbaya”. Instead they talked, talked, talked using words which, delivered with utter seriousness, moved from the heights of pseudo- Hallmark poesy into the pit of parody. Lines such as “the hammer of my tears / on the anvil of your blood”, “He falls towards me / through the high air” and “We are strangers / in a new and darker world” would have been camp and memorable if exchanged by Bette Davis and Claude Rains in a 1940s melodrama. In this short play, which felt as though it wasn’t going to end until mid-2040, they were pretentious decorations.
When relief finally came, after more engine noises and a serious group stare from the assembled cast, there was polite applause and a rush for the exit. Catherine’s (Pamela Rabe) last line had been about learning “to live with emptiness” and we knew exactly what she meant. Out in the sunshine there were loud critical voices as I walked towards the Quay. The customers, many of whom were surely STC subscribers, were savage and direct. “I was going to kill those women to get away.” “Anticlimax on anticlimax.” “It tended to go round in circles.” “Atrocious.” Unfortunately, they were probably reacting to the boring and conformist theatre they had endured, not its neolithic-Left politics.
The Serpent’s Teeth by Daniel Keene played at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre from April 24 to May 24, 2008