deep inside the box

jonathan marshall: richard murphet’s
the inhabited man

foreground Merfyn Owen, The Inhabited Man

foreground Merfyn Owen, The Inhabited Man

THE BOX IS A POTENT ORGANISATIONAL STRUCTURE IN RICHARD MURPHET’S THEATRE. CUBES, WHOSE INTERSTICES FORM AN AMBIGUOUS ENCLOSURE AROUND A CHARGED SPACE OF EMOTION, LIGHT AND SET, FREQUENTLY REPLACE METAPHORS AS JUNCTURES BETWEEN FORM AND MEANING, BETWEEN WHAT IS REPRESENTED BY THE PROJECTED FILMS AND WORDS WHICH MOVE ACROSS AND WITHIN THESE REALMS, AND WHAT THEY MIGHT ALLUDE TO WITHIN THE PIECE ITSELF OR IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD. THE BOX IMPLODES SPACE AND AFFECT INWARDS, AND EXPLODES THEM OUTWARDS, PRODUCING HERE AND IN PREVIOUS SHOWS A KIND OF NESTED, OVERDETERMINED PSYCHIC “HABITATION.”

Reviewer Alison Croggon (http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com), more concerned with textual cohesion than myself, found the dramaturgical links within Inhabited Man difficult to read or to relate to specific positions on war, terror or Vietnam. It seems to me though that it is this model of the theatre as a series of inhabited boxes which provides the logic for Murphet’s oeuvre. Inhabited Man revolves around the psyche, memories, fantasies, desires and fears of Vietnam-veteran-turned-security-guard, Leo (Merfyn Owen)—himself a composite of mechanism (cane, artificial leg), flesh (his painful stomach and bowels) and voice (song, groan and a gargling, sing-song monologue). Although the text is rich in political and psychoanalytic readings of the battle scarred psyche, it is this motif of disturbing habitation that organises the piece. Just as Owen’s songs, his increasingly straining, operatic monologues inhabit a stage construct wrought from two adjacent cubes—the almost Bauhaus looking architectural frame which serves as the motel room number 7 Leo observes, and the cube of white light within which he rests—so the warrior subject is figured here as inhabited, disjointed, a kind of haunted house of memories and horrors. These habitations trace their way through his ghastly visions of Vietnam (notably a key traumatic memory of pulling the head from a boy’s body caught in mud) to those of childhood (a twinned memory of the mother pulling tapeworms from Leo’s anus).

The point is that, as historians of the psyche like Klaus Theweleit have asserted, although specific psychological defence mechanisms and their disordered, traumatised forms arise within specific conflicts—Vietnam, World War II, the “War on Terror”—they are not unique to these, nor can they be attributed to these conflicts alone. Vietnam was a novel battlefront in terms of how closely white Australians had to deal with an Asian population which included allies and enemies. This confusion of friend and foe, and the unconscious racial fears and horrors which they could unleash, finds its origins in the very constitution of the Western human subject, and not in the wars themselves. Like Theweleit, Murphet sees this figure’s status today as the product of a failure of paternalism (Leo’s own father is significantly absent, while his own inability to father is writ large) and of maternalism (mothering becomes associated with horror, muck and self-mutilation). The inhabitants of room 7 seem to offer a transcendence of this state through technology—to become cyborg—but here too the masculine habitant ends by using technology to blow his body into abject, fleshy remnants which recall Leo’s own missing leg.

Leo’s subjectivity has only apparent boundaries, its spaces, lights and sounds (including a wonderful, bassy score) exceeding and layering the boxes which inhabit the stage. In the same way the problems of how to heal individuals and society, of how to construct a human who would not be subject to these horrific urges and patterns, lies beyond Leo and indeed the theatre itself. Inhabited Man is a dense, beautiful yet traumatising dramaturgical essay.

Rear Window Ensemble, The Inhabited Man, text, co-direction Richard Murphet, co-direction, performers Leisa Shelton, Merfyn Owen, design Ryan Russell, sound Jethro Woodward, lighting Jen Hector, performers: Merfyn Owen, Adam Pierzchalski; Arts Centre, Full Tilt, July 15-26

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 8

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008
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