On the importance of being Kosky

Controversy does not sell theatre tickets, or books. Affirmation does. Theatre managements and publishers encourage controversy to trigger affirmation. Lion-hearted Christian objects that a Jesus-hating play is insulting, degrading, immoral. The delighted director rings his publicist. The play’s defenders leap forward to denounce Christian and claim the work is confronting, provocative and brave. Result? The cash registers sing as lemmings rush to the box office. Buying tickets affirms that they are progressive, broad-minded and rational. Christian’s objections publicised the play directly to those who used it to affirm their allegiance to Left conformity. Readers are warned not to try this at home, for when it comes to dissident works the Left affirmation process goes into reverse to prevent sales.

Productions by director Barrie Kosky have been deliberately crafted to trigger this Pavlovian response. He offends knowing that any protest will stimulate elite support and affirmative ticket sales. For maximum effect Kosky applies schlock and shock to classic works like an R-rated games maker. Though he stated that “Euripides is the Greek playwright that I love most of all” his Sydney Theatre Company production of The Woman of Troy demonstrated why he was not hired to direct the opening ceremony at the Athens Olympics.

Following the Greek victory in the Trojan War, Cassandra, a virgin played by Melita Jurisic, stood like Kosky’s other captured Trojan women on a reinforced cardboard box facing the audience. She spoke gibberish then mimed an encounter with an invisible Greek penis which swam upwards from her crotch to her mouth and then she ate it—still miming of course. In the audience a woman and a young girl left the theatre. Groups of students, from posh girls’ schools, remained.

Emptying her mouth of tasty mimed penis, Cassandra talked some more before the menacing guard, wearing a half-mask thing on his face, borrowed her for a spot of unwilling sexual intercourse. There was so much hitting and shooting and with Jurisic playing two other characters I forget if he punched her at this point. He pushed her into a metal cabinet and slid in after her. Hopefully behind the closed door the two actors were peacefully chatting but we all charitably assumed rape. She emerged from her ordeal to stand again on her cardboard box. And vomited. It left a solid mess on the blue carpet for the rest of the show.

Though these women of Troy lacked strapped-on penises and there was not even one giant gilt penis in sight it was very Barrie Kosky. The absence of his usual props may not have been due to taste. Another Kosky production was on at the same time at the Melbourne International Arts Festival and they were needed there. From 2012 Kosky will be Intendant of the Komische Oper, Berlin. Perhaps when that happens his increased orders for strapped-on penises will stimulate the global economic revival in Asian sweatshops.

The STC’s Wharf 1 Theatre is at the end of an old pier which runs into the harbour. At the street entrance you walk up some steps and follow a long dull corridor to a single theatregoer-unfriendly space with a bar and restaurant and plastic seating overlooking the water. The theatre is on a level above. To get there you turn your back on the view and climb more stairs to an even duller waiting area. It would be much improved by a little innocent incendiary and some rebuilding. 

Euripides’ The Women of Troy was “adapted” by Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright and directed by Kosky. Tickets were $60-plus for the ninety-minute play. The program, expensive advertising for $10, had a note by Tom Wright informing us that the play is the concluding work in a trilogy in which “[t]he three-part theme rumbles like a ghost through the surviving work”. Having diagnosed Euripides’ play with supernatural indigestion the two adaptors threw away his script and used the standard Kosky prescription for a playful horror fest. 

The theatre seats were covered with dust cloths. The back wall of the stage was made up of metal lockers lying on their sides. Only a few of these had doors. The carpet on the stage was faded blue and had many depressing looking stains. A warning of what was to come, for bodily leakages are a Kosky trademark.

After more talk Cassandra was loaded into a cardboard box and wheeled away. Before this happened the box was sealed by silent villains, aided by a distraught but helpful Robyn Nevin, with packing tape and staples. Nevin had been pushed on stage at the opening of the play standing on the trolley and draped in black. She quivered a lot while transmitting NIDA emotions. The reality of violence makes this sort of play-acting look both phony and dated. Claiming to be Hecuba, Queen of Troy, her voice, unnecessarily miked, was that of a prim girls’ school headmistress as imagined in an Australian period film. Her acting and that of the other players was finally irrelevant. Everything on stage was about Kosky.

Lots of voice, violence with sound effects, and minimal interaction between the posturing players. Kosky staged the piece as a radio play with vomit. If you remember a long-running ABC radio program called The Listening Room, which often combined words and modern music with unflagging boredom and brain-dulling seriousness, you will get the idea.

To seriously criticise Robyn Nevin as Hecuba Queen of Troy we needed to see the advertised play, Euripides’ The Women of Troy. That play calls for acting. Kosky is neither a playwright’s director nor an actor’s director; other people’s words do not seem to interest him and he is afraid of actors and what they themselves could bring to a part. What he manufactures is a vehicle for a star—himself. What the playwright has crafted and its enrichment by actors and a good director bringing it to life is cast aside for something far less interesting and far more inconsequential. Kosky moves actors about and places them in different poses, he introduces appalling dialogue to shock, he plays with lighting effects and completely loses creative contact with the text. It’s all about Barrie. The idea that the life of the play might come from within the characters and their interaction with each other negates the trivia he deals in. He does not comprehend that the soul of a theatrical piece lies inside the actors and not in a strapped-on penis or, in this case, a mouthful of pretend vomit.

Nevin performed a number of monologues and conducted some stilted conversations using the poor text. She was stood on a box and some actresses—more domestic-violence Stepford Wives than women of Troy—came on. Each was provided with a cardboard box to stand on and each had unpleasant makeup of blood and bruises. Offstage a telephone rang and there was the dull murmur of a television. The women, now doing Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp after-dinner entertainment, sang at times. It was a relief when they were badly treated, stuffed into cardboard boxes and wheeled away. Counting them off, like the green bottles in the song, each little death brought the end of the play a little closer.

Several times there was the very worst foul language. No, not those words, they are the usual everyday expletives that one expects. The play used the two worst words to be heard on a modern stage—man and men. It is extraordinary how much venom actresses can pack into them.

The meanness and unpleasantness on stage had nothing to do with Euripides and everything to do with Kosky and Wright’s grotesque additions. An example of their authorial playfulness, something about women’s bodies being punctured by men’s bayonets to provide more holes for them to rape—the language was more explicit. Limited, sordid and finally sickeningly obvious. I don’t think Kosky quite gets this, by seeking to ever increase outrage he becomes predictable. When the pregnant princess entered, Melita Jurisic with padding, the only thing we wonder is will she be kicked or punched? “Krump” (sound effect), it was a punch in the not yet born. Though the punches were obviously phony, they still took your mind completely off the flowing words and sinking plot.

The child Astyanax, played in alternate performances by child actors from television commercials, waved sweetly to Nevin before being taken offstage to be thrown from the ramparts. He returned on the squeaky trolley in yet another cardboard box with two small holes at one end from which protruded his legs overcoated in red gunk. Yes, Nevin opened the box, reached in to caress his body then spread high her arms, now dripping with red stuff which globbed to the floor—try keeping a straight face during that!

Here, as throughout, the adaptation had little to do with the original text and in fact was a contradiction. In Euripides’ play the child is borne back on his father Hector’s shield. His executioners are digging a grave for him and they have washed the body before returning it to the women to prepare for burial. Euripides’ play has layers of intelligence and richness of characterisation completely ignored by the Kosky–Wright collaboration.

Kosky is a commodity, a commercial product used to castrate classical or much-loved works to achieve maximum offensiveness in order to draw attention to himself. By offending those who love theatre, and dead playwrights, Kosky gains elitist approval which translates into more work. While he has often escaped elite criticism for fashionable offences against the canon he has sometimes been on less solid ground when his mischief is applied to original works which, lacking either audience familiarity or classic structural solidity, even more clearly demonstrate that the Kosky approach is crude, distractingly overdecorative, and pointless. Perhaps it was inevitable that Kosky’s camp rebelliousness, which may have never been anything more than violent and sexually crude decoration, has turned to clownishness. Familiarity with Kosky’s work breeds neither respect nor outrage but giggles.

Kosky plays for educated philistines who, with babbling and erudite appreciation, applaud the maiming of beauty. In Simon Leys’ essay “An Empire of Ugliness” (in The Angel and the Octopus) he recalls being in a café with a radio playing. Suddenly Mozart replaced the blare. There was a universal moment of puzzled discomfiture before a patron walked across and deftly retuned the radio to blare and thus returned life to normality. The analysis Leys offers explains the taste, energy and enthusiasm of Kosky and the reason for his successes in Left elite theatres:

At that moment the evidence hit me—and has never left me since: true Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognising beauty; they recognise it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere, immediately, and with a flair as infallible as the most sensitive aesthete—but for them, it is in order to be able better to pounce on it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness … The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us is probably the saddest urge of human nature.

How wonderful to be Left; there you can get away with anything. The techniques of vulgarity, maximum offensiveness, and crudity which Kosky employs are off-the-shelf decorations which are very easy to apply. The original text is unimportant, for once you have chosen the glass beads and gewgaws the words can be tormented into any shape. Let me demonstrate.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a late Victorian play about a man who is Ernest in town and Jack in the country. Dead simple. Act I and Ernest is hiding his secret identity of Jack the Ripper in the West End. When the play moves to the Manor House, Woolton, in Act II he becomes Jack the county abattoir owner. Changing the Ripper story from the East to the West End allows for some sliced-up duchesses to be wheeled around in Act I.

By the time we get to the second act it looks a bit like this:


The stage represents Jack’s county abattoir. On the back wall are hanging slabs of meat. The pillars which frame the main doorway are, of course, tall gilt (guilt?) penises.


Miss Prism was an abortionist (this fits in with the disappearing child theme) who now works in the abattoir. Perhaps Robyn Nevin in a blood-stained butcher’s apron with baby arms and legs protruding from various pockets. The play is not about the baby found in a handbag but an inefficiently aborted baby who lived.

Canon Chasuble wears a skullcap on his greasy lanky hair with a yarmulke around his shoulders and exaggerated Jewish caricature nose mask. He also wears football shorts, socks and boots and carries a football.

Jack and Algernon wear ball gowns—one white, one black. They have strapped-on male appendages.

Cecily, Jack’s ward, is an emaciated waif with shorn hair. She wears a concentration camp uniform and works with Miss Prism in the abattoir.

Lady Bracknell is a brothel keeper in dominatrix gear. Her daughter Gwendolen, the business manager of the brothel, wears a tailored black business suit with strapped-on breasts and carries a mobile phone at all times.

Merriman, the butler, wears evening dress and sunglasses and brief swimwear on the outside of his trousers. He is very young and this suggests a homosexual relationship with his employer.

The text is meddled with, some madrigals and negro spirituals are added plus an occasional touch of moaning to cover quiet bits. Fine tuning would add bodily fluids and solids at inappropriate points and a note in the expensive program saying how much I admire and respect Wilde’s work. QED.

Back on stage Nevin, who until recently was the Artistic Director and CEO of the Sydney Theatre Company, was finally crammed into a cardboard box. Did I imagine it? As the packing tape locked her in was there really a collective sigh of contentment from the unemployed actors in the audience? Oh, I almost forgot, before this happened Arthur Dignam, who had played a Voice Off through a speaker box dangling over the stage, came in driving a motorised wheelchair. He drove it very well and I was surprised when he got up and walked for the curtain call.

After all this brutality and blood the cast smiled and waved and the audience applauded. Subsidised theatre has produced philistines on both sides of the footlights. Kosky had done his best to offend and desecrate and even as his cast literally stepped over vomit and gore to smile and bow the audience applauded. A civilisation is destroying its treasures to the sound of many hands clapping. And Mr Christian, in paragraph one, has stopped going to the theatre.

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