Three-sided stories

At 5 a.m. at Hobart airport I come face to face with a sticker, on the neck of an expensive guitar case, which reads “Reduce Greed”. On the plane, two men sitting beside me are going to the mainland for a butchers’ conference. I’m flying in to see the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Moonlight and Magnolias, which sounds interesting, chiefly because it is the first stage play directed by the film-maker Bruce Beresford.

On stage is a traditional three-walled set. This is the plush, golden-wooded office of David O. Selznick (Patrick Brammall). Huge windows take up most of the back wall and through them we see the imposing colonnaded frontage of the Selznick studios. The producer is making Gone with the Wind and has closed down production for desperate want of a good script—which is what Beresford should have done.

Into his office Selznick brings scriptwriter Ben Hecht (Nicholas Hammond) and director Victor Fleming (Stephen Lovatt). For five days the men are locked in Selznick’s office, eating bananas and unshelled peanuts, and writing a new script. Hecht hasn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster so the convoluted story is acted out by Selznick and Fleming. The mutual loathing of Hecht and Fleming results in verbal skirmishes and fighting. Occasionally Selznick’s secretary, Miss Poppenghul (Marg Downey), appears and disappears.

The farce is heavy handed. The play is heavy with words. The matinee audience laughs politely—perhaps determined to get value for spending from their disappearing pension funds. Brammall and Lovatt act the women in the play—dully. Footballers in drag are funnier. It’s a lot duller when the Ben Hecht character bores for liberalism about the ethics of Scarlett slapping little black Prissy. It’s even worse when he bores about anti-Semitism in Hollywood. It seems almost cowardly to be doing a meaningless 1930s anti-anti-Semitism number when modern anti-Semitism is doing good business on university campuses only a tram ride away.

The script isn’t fun and it’s hard to imagine actors at the first reading rocking with hysterical laughter at the witticisms they would have to deliver. Much of the problem is that the words are stale.

We are all film buffs now. What Moonlight and Magnolias offers for more than $50 I could find in most op-shops for $1.50 in the thrown-out collections of memorable quotes from the books which clog the film sections of bookshops. It doesn’t help the players on stage that the $10 program prints some of the best lines which are then repeated in the play.

The only time I really laughed was at a rude joke about Dostoevsky.

In this compilation play the essential ingredient is missing—the sexy dame. Sitting in my seat I do a Walter Mitty rewrite of the play—for free. Instead of popping inconsequentially in and out, Miss Poppenghul becomes its star. The dowdy secretary, pushed to help with the re-enactment, glows as Vivien Leigh. In the real play there is a line or two about Miss Leigh’s breasts. In my rewrite, instead of talking, the director shows us. Now that would have woken up some of the elderly men drowsing in the audience. For good measure I add in a zillion tap dancers for a Busby Berkeley number and Moonlight and Magnolias becomes a hit, not this miss.

Beresford had seen the play in New York some four years ago and was impressed, he says, by “the way in which [Ron] Hutchinson captures the creative passion of the three men. To me, this insight, so wonderfully expressed, lifted the play from the genre of farce (not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that) to another level entirely.” The subtlety vanished between NY and the MTC.

What makes this play a little worse than boring is that it was such a waste of Beresford.

On the way out the audience passed through a foyer display of Johnny O’Keefe memorabilia. In a glass case was an early scrapbook with a glued-in business card: “Johnny O’Keefe, 2 Lyons Street, Dover Heights, Ph. FU6239.”

Moonlight and Magnolias had a conventional three-sided set which was grand and opulent. The next play was an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis at Hobart’s Theatre Royal. When the fire curtain eventually went up the set was again a conventional three-wall affair. It was the interior of a poor, northern European house seen on two levels. On the ground floor a front door on the right opened onto a living room. On the far left a staircase led upwards to the second level where there was a landing and another room. It was a sombre storybook setting painted with muted colours. The only thing different from normal was the perspective of the upper room. We saw the landing at the top of the stairs. We saw the door which opened into the young man’s bedroom. But the audience didn’t look into the bedroom, we looked down onto it. What should have been the far wall was the floor with a bed, a mat, and furniture seen from above. Our first sight of the young man was a writhing shape in a narrow bed which had itself changed into an imprisoning cocoon from which he struggled to escape.

While this was happening invisibly above their heads, on the ground floor mother, father and daughter moved stiffly acting out people living lives of frigid conventionality and routine. They were jerky wind-up toys carrying out inflexible daily routines. They could have been the inmates of a carved Swiss cuckoo clock, figures intended to pop out to show the time or the weather. Upstairs the mechanism was malfunctioning. Gregor Samsa, their son and brother, was turning into a great gross insect. The young man did not physically change, for us, but his horrified family saw, smelt and heard the creature we did not.

Around Gregor’s room were gashes in the walls. These became hand- and footholds for the young man as he turned and somersaulted and wound his way around the set. He climbed from bed to lamp to table, sheltering his new and inexplicably changed body behind bits of furniture.

There were five performers. Their names were Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as the Father, Edda Arnljotsdóttir as the Mother, Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir as the Sister, Gísli Örn Gardarsson as Gregor Samsa, and Jonathan McGuinness as two visitors to the house. The production is a collaboration between Vesturport of Iceland and the Lyric Hammersmith from the UK. The play was written and co-directed by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson.

There was taped music throughout by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis which, played on a variety of instruments, captured the atmosphere and changing moods of the play. Sound designer Nick Manning gave the music its own role within the ensemble playing.

Börkur Jónsson’s set was as flexible as Gardarsson’s body. It was a complicated puzzle toy, changing and transforming itself during the play. It did not always behave itself—which may have had something to do with the size constraints of the Theatre Royal for the travelling set—but it was an engineering pleasure. A lamp telescoped into nothing, bed and furnishings swung back into walls. Solid props, which the young insect man clambered around and hung from, became insubstantial items as Mother and Sister went around his room brutally demolishing and denuding the set, throwing out the furniture and turning his refuge and nest into a bare cell. The bedroom floor, walked on and used as a trampoline, dissolved as the insect man burrowed through it to emerge through the ceiling of the room below.

The performers astonished. Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir, the Sister, changed from a young girl to a young woman—seamlessly. It just happened. Edda Arnljotsdóttir, the upright, rigid, poker-backed Mother, flew gracefully (almost) across the dining table. Gísli Örn Gardarsson was a voice in the dimness of his room as his contorted body looked for peace in unlikely acrobatic positions.

Near play’s end a window high in the ceiling fell dramatically open and released a torrent of water and falling rain. A short curtain at the side of the window stretched as the insect boy wound and entangled himself in it until it reached from the flies almost to the very floor of the stage. Hanging upside down and entangled in the curtain he died. His death released the long-delayed outbreak of spring. The back wall of his room fell away, revealing a paradise of picture-book bright flowers and, though the set refused to co-operate we got the idea, a swing should have appeared for the girl to ride on as the parents strewed petals over her.

The retold Kafka story was dark and relationship-exploring within a theatrical construction of beauty and terror. In this Metamorphosis the young man changed into a bug, the girl changed into a woman, the seasons changed, the parents’ lives changed, the set changed. Everything combined to produce dreamlike theatre.

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