wanted: playwrights, dead or revived

john bailey: melbourne performance

 Baal, Malthouse & STC

Baal, Malthouse & STC

SIMON STONE CREATES HAUNTED THEATRE. NOT HAUNTING THEATRE (THOUGH IT CAN BE THAT). AND NOT THEATRE THAT HAS MUCH TRUCK WITH THE SUPERNATURAL, THOUGH I WOULDN’T GO SO FAR AS TO SAY THAT HIS IS A WHOLLY SECULAR OR MATERIALIST AESTHETIC, EITHER. BUT LIKE MANY OF HIS CONTEMPORARIES, HIS THEATRE IS SHADOWED BY RESTLESS SPIRITS AND THIS IS NOWHERE MORE EVIDENT THAN IN THE DIVIDED RESPONSES TO HIS RECENT PRODUCTION OF BERTOLT BRECHT’S FIRST FULL-LENGTH PLAY, BAAL.

The reactions to this production have canvassed the spectrum from rave to rubbish; on Alison Croggon’s Theatre Notes blog, the play produced one of the longest series of comments to date, with much passion displayed by respondents. It often came down to its writer: was there enough Brecht in here, or too much? And which Brecht? If this is the least ‘Brechtian’ of his writings, what can we do with it? Can we tackle Brecht from a post-Brechtian position, or is he inextricably embedded in the firmament of Western theatre?

It was Derrida who coined the term ‘hauntology’ and, while only a minor part of his critical theory, it’s a concept that has been picked up and developed in other areas, most notably musicology. For Derrida it was a notion used to explain the lingering presence of Marx in the post-Marxist era—an age which has seen the death of the Communist project, but which is still haunted by its echoes. The spectre of Marx is neither living nor dead; or, we may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.

Brecht is dead. Long live Brecht. A canon-related demise, perhaps. If, as Nietzche argued, a being is only defined at the point of death, when the possibility of becoming something else is reduced to zero, then poor Bertolt is as stiff as a plank. It’s hard to think of anything new that the writer could become. We’ve picked at, held up and turned over every scrap of his corpus. At best, a new production can aspire to the level of autopsy.

The point here is that Stone should be able to do whatever he pleases with the body of Baal, but his liberal reworking of the original is troubled by the elusive spectre of its progenitor. It’s a problem that unsettles so many adaptations of modern classics—we know what this text has to mean, so why is the voice of its author just a faint distraction at the edge of hearing? You can do what you want with your source—it’s the postmodern age, after all—but make sure the “spirit” of the original is firmly contained. It’s a criticism that’s been levelled at Kantor, Andrews, Lutton: they’re dressing phantoms in fancy robes, only serving to remind us of the death of the authentic, original voice.

And so this Baal is haunted by what it’s not. Stone reimagines the barbarous, adulated poet at its centre as a misanthropic rock god celebrated by the very society against which he pits himself. In this vision his descent into squalid self-gratification becomes a retreat into narcissistic solipsism; everyone in his world becomes a fractured mirror on his own psyche. Theatrically, it’s a potent interpretation: Stone establishes a recognisable onstage world before flipping a switch and taking us into an utterly different mode of being, in which ‘character’ (already a loosely applied concept here) is not just destabilised but liquidated.

It should be effective stuff. But there’s that spectre that won’t be laid to rest: what about Brecht? Why should it matter? I don’t think the playwright’s original text is all that much chop (neither did he, in the end). So why should it matter where he exists in all of this? It’s a question that hovers around Beckett too, and Chekhov, and Ionesco. I don’t think it should, but I don’t know what to do about it. Call in an exorcist.

Real TV’s recent production of British playwright Debbie Tucker Green’s Random was anything but haunted—it’s as fresh a piece of theatre as I’ve seen in years performed with a vitality that exceeds containment, with an immediacy that’s bracing. It’s difficult to believe that the script wasn’t written specifically for sole performer Zahra Newman, at times seeming almost as if it’s being written at the moment of utterance. It might be the unfamiliarity of the material, which traces a tragic day in the life of a British-Jamaican family of four; it’s a corner of London life that I can’t recall having been represented on Australian stages. But credit should really go to Newman’s performance, which I found jaw-droppingly acute. Her command of four distinct voices seems measured down to the micro-tonal level; even the simplest of gestures here conjures both character and the world in which they exist. Director Leticia Caceres has honed the piece to a fine point: there are no slack moments or unnecessary embellishments.

Random was presented at Brisbane’s WTF (World Theatre Festival) this year before a season with Melbourne Theatre Company. I was intrigued to see the Melbourne season located within the MTC’s education program. Certainly, it’s a piece that will easily resonate with teens and, quite likely, inspire many to delve deeper into theatre. But it’s also a piece that deserves to be seen by a broader audience. I hope it’s allowed to live on.

Somewhere between these two productions is Laurence Strangio’s version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. It should be a dead play—it’s been worked over by so many student productions and university syllabi that it’s taken on the air of a museum piece. But Strangio’s production was an unexpected delight, both carefully judged and imbued with its own irreverent spirit.

This Six Characters… was an event. For all its self-referential meta-theatricality, Pirandello’s original is still a play. Strangio adds further layers which both problematise and extend the work’s conceit: here we are witnessing two actors and a director prepare for a reading of Six Characters in Search of an Author, before they are interrupted by six actors playing the six characters. The production widens the frame of its ur-text to encompass the site of its staging (quite literally, as it seems every nook of La Mama holds a secret in this work). The performers themselves are integral to the production’s meaning—it’s hilarious to watch Natasha Jacobs complain that Caroline Lee is too old to play her, while casting playwright Adam Cass as the director eventually takes on extra significance when that role shifts towards the ‘author’ of the play’s title.

It’s the integration of the audience that probably invigorates this piece, however. There’s no limp ‘audience participation’—rather, there’s no erection of a fourth wall to begin with. On the night I attended audience members were happily talking to actors throughout, anticipating events, making in-jokes, praising bits of direction. There was still a play occurring somewhere in there, but by acknowledging the essential artifice of the whole shebang we were invited to investigate it from the inside, rather than dissect it as a preserved fossil of another era. Pirandello is dead, for sure, but for two hours here I quite simply forgot that he’d ever been alive.

Baal, writer Bertolt Brecht, translators Simon Stone, Tom Wright, director Simon Stone, performers Brigid Gallacher, Geraldine Hakewill, Luisa Hastings Edge, Shelly Lauman, Oscar Redding, Chris Ryan, Lotte St Clair, Katherine Tonkin, Thomas M Wright, set & lighting design Nick Schlieper, costumes Mel Page, composer & sound designer Stefan Gregory, presented by Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company; Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, April 2 – 23; Random, writer Debbie Tucker Green, director Leticia Caceres, performer Zahra Newman, designer Tanja Beer, composer & sound designer Pete Goodwin, presented by Real TV, Melbourne Theatre Company; Lawler Studio, MTC, May 3 – 13; Six Characters In Search of an Author, based on the play by Luigi Pirandello, concept, direction, adaptation Laurence Strangio, performers Adam Cass, Dean Cartmel, Caroline Lee, Alicia Benn-Lawler, Clare Callow, David Pidd, Natasha Jacobs, Karen Berger, Gabriel Partington, Carmelina Di Guglielmo, Josie Eberhard, lighting design Bec Etchell, design consultant Dayna Morrissey, puppets by Johannes Scherpenhuizen; La Mama Theatre, May 11 – 29

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 35

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 June 2011
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