Stages in the night

Our Town played at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, from September 18 to October 30.
The Trial played at Wharf 1 from September 9 to October 16.
Fool for Love played at Belvoir Street Downstairs Theatre from September 30 to October 24.

On it rushes. The most often produced play in America, they say. Fresh and small-town pleasing as always. It’s Act Three and we’re nearly at the end. Emily Gibbs née Webb (Maeve Dermody) is standing centre stage and tears run down her cheeks. The lights catch the falling drops as they tumble from her chin onto her clothes. We’ve watched her across the years as child, young lover, and now married woman dying in childbirth. Getting here we have sampled the simple delight that being in a theatre can give a whole audience. Together we are experiencing the fizzing and utterly good-natured atmosphere that links us when we are all taking pleasure from what is happening on the stage. It’s one of those times when strangers smile idiotically at each other. This was the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Our Town, and that was the feeling. We love it, though more often it’s a display of audience participation that our play-makers have come to despise.

Set designers can throw up a Disney castle or concentration camp barracks, even represent (probably) Melbourne’s ghastly Federation Square, send pretend passenger trains and ocean liners roaring across the boards, or leave a duck punt bobbing in the black shallows stage left. But the finest illusion, the best theatrical trick of all, hasn’t to do with expensive helicopters, staircases, chandeliers or even flying nannies but is an empty stage. George Abbott, the really great Broadway director and play-fixer, didn’t allow audiences at bare stage run-throughs of his plays because, “They can imagine more than you can possibly give them.” He was right, again. In 1938 Thornton Wilder set Our Town on an empty stage. Director Iain Sinclair has generally left that stark setting intact and offered a straightforward reading.

It began when the Stage Manager (Darren Gilshenan), perched bedside the proscenium arch when we entered, introduced us to the work in familiar words, “This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder,” and pointed out the geography of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, on May 7, 1901, “just before dawn”.

There was Dr Gibbs (Christopher Stollery) returning home after the birth of twins to a Polish mother “in a cottage over the tracks”. Waiting for him over here was Mrs Gibbs (Susan Prior) in her kitchen. Over there was newspaper editor Mr Webb (Josh Quong Tart) and Mrs Webb (Anita Hegh) and here the two young lovers Emily Webb and George Gibbs (Robin Goldsworthy). There was Mrs Soames (Toni Scanlan) who would enjoy herself so much at their wedding. And of course Simon Stimson (Frank Whitten) the town drunk and organist with the hint of something else: “Some people ain’t made for small-town life.” Frank Whitten’s makeup was reminiscent of Walt Whitman to suggest what is being suggested. If you have been here it is all fondly familiar. A play set in a Republican-voting town in the early part of the twentieth century. Affectionately drawn characters, strong story, loving portrayal of the USA. In the background glorious sound of modern Left critics and America-haters gnashing teeth.

The third act prepares itself with the curtain up and chairs being carried and placed on stage as audience members chat and resume their seats. Actors enter and take their places. If you know that you are seeing the cemetery and the dead it’s quite moving. Behind me they are talking about “survivorship”. I Google it later, and wish I hadn’t. The lights dim and the Stage Manager again takes control and points out the dead: “Here’s your friend Mrs Gibbs.” There will be a funeral and resignation about death, and young George throwing himself on his wife’s grave, and her tears, centre stage with the lights burning down.

Thornton Wilder was in revolt when he wrote Our Town:

Toward the end of the twenties I began to lose pleasure in going to the theatre. I ceased to believe in the stories I saw presented there … Yet at the same time the conviction was growing in me that the theatre was the greatest of all the arts. I felt that something had gone wrong with it in my time and that it was fulfilling only a small part of its potentialities.

Wilder’s revolt took him closer to the audience, finding value in innocence and simplicity. Other playwrights in revolt have turned against audiences. The program prints a few lines of father-love from Our Town then adds some father-hatred from the 1999 play American Beauty:

Ricky Fitts: Want me to kill him for you?
Jane Burnham: Yeah. Would you.     

Our Town is as moving and as touching as it ever was and it’s been a fine STC production. Wilder saw the best that was on offer, in his time, “but at heart I didn’t believe a word of them”. Ditto for a Sydney performance of The Trial.

The production fell out of the Perth-based ThinIce performance company and is another pulpit lecture given within our conceited and ever more trivialised national culture. From the $10 program wafts pretentious and self-inflating sanctimony. ThinIce, it says, with the relentless migraine-drumming vocabulary of an Australia Council press release:

incubates and presents unique performance projects that exceed the common expectation of what is possible in theatre in Australia … ThinIce is designed to support the productions of Matthew Lutton. Under his leadership the company works with eclectic and forward-thinking artists to create performances that break artistic boundaries.

That’s the equivalent of Meg Ryan faking it in When Harry Met Sally, and too many timid and conformist talents are saying, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

The Trial had a season of bliss at the gloomy Malthouse in Melbourne in August and then on to the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf. A heady c.v. for ninety minutes of dull predictability. Written by Louise Fox and directed by Matthew Lutton, this “version” of The Trial has something to do with Orson Welles’s film and Kafka’s novel—I’m not sure in what order they should be written. It’s a contribution to our second-rate theatre. An ideologically unchallenging forum which sniggers when it should be serious, as here, and is afraid to treat those things which should be exposed as charlatanism—academic Australian history writing and the “let’s pretend we are black” Aboriginal culture for just two suggestions from a full menu of Australian cultural absurdism.

When we take our seats at the Wharf there is on the stage a simple set showing two fabric-hung walls of a room with doors at either end. On a bed is the outline of a bump covered by blankets. My guess is that this is Josef K and that in a minute a policeman will come through one of those doors. On a bedside table is a telephone. As the house lights dim the phone rings and I’m wrong, it’s two policemen who enter, one by each door. The phone goes unanswered.

We have wandered into Chapter One of How Not to Write a Play. There is, by the way, a good book on theatre with that name written by the New York critic Walter Kerr. This Trial comes direct from Platitudeland, where bad plays start like this. The waiting actor under the blankets, those menacing men, we have seen this before. They neither surprise nor make us wonder who they are or what is happening. We know this immediately—and audiences come to the theatre already knowing so much. If you want to talk to us you should rise to our level. That ringing telephone no one answers is a cliché of bad theatre. It only happens in plays. Off stage real people, and probably these actors, are phoneaholics. To see how a telephone can haunt a drama try the ringing (and answered) telephone at the beginning of the film A Town Like Alice. That phone scene haunted my childhood memories.

Setting the play in the present or recent past (the telephones have dials) was more bad thinking. The very first thing a real Josef K would say would be, “My God, what’s happening to me? This is so Kafkaesque.” The second thing he would do would be to take one of those telephones and dial for an ambulance-chasing rights lawyer he had seen doing an illegal immigrants and gay marriage soft-shoe shuffle on stage at a local writers’ festival. You don’t have to have read The Trial or seen the movie, “Kafka” is tattooed into the flesh of our culture. To erase Kafka from our present and perform as though he never was is limiting, and almost dishonest. The Trial is the time in which it was written. A period setting would have allowed the playwright to comment about what was coming in the red century ahead. The play could have looked forward to communism, Nazism, and the totalitarianism of my local council. Paradoxically, it would have been more contemporary if set in the past. Law and the church (Catholic again) are the old-fashioned targets of this production. In our rights-obsessive present tense these are not the pillars they were when Kafka was writing, and this attack on them is unfocused and archaic. John Gaden in soutane had wandered in from another era, and one the author and director had obviously never experienced. In a debased culture even hatred comes second-hand.

It’s mediocrity interpreting genius, as if those who put together this play have picked up a book in a foreign language and tried, unsuccessfully, decoding it with a dictionary and guessing the bits they don’t understand. There is a dissonance between the original Kafka and the “version”. Imagine a previously unknown Pacific island now found to be peopled by elegant coconut-matting-wig and knee-breech-wearing barbarians, fashions they adopted in the mid-eighteenth century from a lost French expedition.

In the opening chapter of Kafka’s book the policemen disarrange the photographs of another lodger, Miss Bürstner. In Louise Fox’s version they meddle with her knickers. The underwear is waved around the stage for an audience laugh. It’s as foolish as Bell Shakespeare and probably inserted for the same reason. No one cares in the least about the text they are disfiguring. There is neither respect nor affection. The Trial is just a product for transforming into their usual mixture of second-rate theatre performance. John Gaden plays Josef K’s landlady Mrs Grubach in drag—dressing gown, slippers and head scarf. Later he will scamper around the stage in underwear (male). Lutton’s 2008 production of Louise Fox’s version of Tartuffe at the Malthouse was the same old drag and same old crumpled male flesh. Then it was Barry Otto, now it’s John Gaden. Nothing new here. Spike Milligan destroyed a bad adaptation of Goncharov’s Oblomov he was acting in and nightly created a performance masterpiece because he was mad and a comic genius. There’s no Milligan in this cast and where intelligence should shine Lutton inserts sad blowsy drag, tarty knickers, and Benny Hill cloned chases. The cheap denigration of a masterpiece. This is what a dying civilisation looks like from the inside. It can’t be serious, it can only giggle as it destroys the foundations on which it stands. It has no idea what waits outside.

The novel has a lot of characters which the play copes with unsuccessfully by having the cast play multiple roles which leave you wondering who is who. There is John Gaden in drag—Mrs Grubach; John Gaden in his underwear—a flogger; John Gaden in a suit—a lawyer; John Gaden in something else—a judge; John Gaden in a soutane (!!)—the church. You wonder when the people who put this thing together last saw a priest in a soutane or remember when clerics were people of authority. Theatre audiences are fairly familiar with Gaden’s work. It would have been more interesting if some of the younger actors had been given these show-off parts to deal with rather than the second-rank policemen and whatever. Hamish Michael, for instance, seemed interesting but under-used.

The stage sexuality is limp, playfully cheeky and never erotic: hidden actors flutter wall hangings from behind to simulate an episode of sexual intercourse, funny men in underwear, females who lure—that sort of thing. The women are comic dominating, not sexy. Miss Bürstner is played as a dominatrix—a Simpsons’ Madame Lash playing the girl next door. The overall effect is without genuine passion, and there is a reason why the actresses so easily slip into playing male roles.

In the nineteenth century Henry Irving introduced spectacular stage settings and remade Shakespeare’s plays. His reworking of the texts gave him better parts. The audiences loved it. In his film of Richard III Olivier tinkered with Shakespeare’s text and produced a great role for himself. These worked because they increased the actors’ roles and made the stories stronger for their audiences. When directors dictate instead of collaborating they twist and turn the stage about, treat the actors as marionettes, and can lose track of the most important element of theatre: the story telling. They forget that the audience wants to know “What happens next?” Directors’ theatre is a deadly complaint in less than modest practitioners who see productions in terms of static scene illustrations and are easily distracted into playing with their playbox toys.

The Trial is set on a revolve. The set and the revolve become the leading players. A door is revealed which has been hidden. The bed is carted off. The curtains which hid its walls are stripped away. The revolve turns and we see the back of the set, it spins as the human cast chase beside it. The room comes into view. There is one person there. The revolve spins and there are two. Its spins and … But you get the idea. And this has nothing to do with the story. The director is hiding the holes in the script. He’s the conjurer who diverts our attention as he makes four aces magically appear. But they are the wrong cards, there is no magic, the aces are clubs, no rabbit in a hat, nothing much at all. Josef K is dying. There is blood at his feet. The revolve turns, he is gone and only the blood remains. If only we cared. And we should have cared. But we have not been concentrating on the actor but on the revolve. I’m left wondering how they clean up the mess before the evening performance. Then the actors bound onstage with the smiling self-assurance of telemarketers selling a dodgy Gold Coast holiday. The audience applauds, and it’s over.

To take one man’s achievement and turn it into crap is lousy. If you want to write silly, direct silly, act silly—fine, go ahead. You don’t have to destroy something far greater to do so. On the journey across that thin ice from cinema/book to stage, Franz Kafka fell through the icy crust, and wasn’t seen again.

In another room a play is being performed. It’s a small room. It’s actually the dungeon space at the Belvoir Street Theatre. There are a few rows of seats. We are almost within touching distance of the actors. This is a marvellous space for playing. If the play is good the results live in your memory. It’s the sort of space that works for the Three Sisters just as it works here for Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love.

The audience isn’t young, but seems younger than you see at the main subsidised theatres. They seem old enough to have been drawn to this ninety-minute performance, as I have, by the playwright’s name.

The set is a motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert where May (Emma Jackson) and Eddie (Justin Stewart Cotta) bash out their off-on relationship. Enter Martin (Alan Flower) as an innocent, intruding visitor.The Old Man (Terry Serio) watches, plays and sings, and sometimes talks with the actors. Fiery offstage ending. Shepard’s stage direction stresses that “This play is to be performed relentlessly without a break”. It’s real and unreal. It’s also twenty-seven years old. The director, Imara Savage, writes that she has directed the play “unapologetically and fearlessly”. She writes of Shepard, “He asks us to venture to the abyss and then to hurl ourselves right off.” Imagine a play director in 1968 mumbling that sort of stuff about a play written in 1941. His mum would have laughed and contemporaries would have wondered what he had been smoking.

This small space is old-fashioned, it’s like gathering around a flickering fire to be told a story. It’s also modern in that we are so used to cinema close-ups that we like being close to the actors (but unacknowledged by them) to stare into their faces. A moment, a simple interchange between Eddie and Martin about his being late, allows us to enjoy the changing expressions that break over Alan Flower’s confused face. It’s a good memory to carry away which probably would have been overlooked in a normal-sized theatre.

Once the direction faltered, and that was at the very end. It’s dramatic stuff as the scene fades away while the Old Man sings. The production lost its nerve and the mood was destroyed by projecting meaningless and distracting images of childhood on the stage space. Shepard’s writing and the acting were both strong enough to have carried the moment without decoration.

Walking away through the tense Sydney night there is more drama in the streets than any we see on our safe stages. Here are images more searing than any stage director can come up with. One night, not long ago, it was an elderly woman with suitcase lost at a table among the kids in a busy McDonald’s—she could have been staring out of a Manet. Tonight, it’s a group of boys in a row pissing against an office building as their girlfriends swoop in and out of the pools of shadows around them. A Hopper painting, with real threat.

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online.

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