A smash of a different kind

James Waites: The opera Project, El Inocente

Nigel Kellaway,  El Inocente

Nigel Kellaway, El Inocente

Nigel Kellaway, El Inocente

If you think of a Handel opera as something akin to an excellent German car model, then El Inocente resembles the aftermath of a car smash where the fragmented bits are creatively reassembled, somewhat Frankenstein-like given the mad results. Or, with the campery involved, should that be Frank’n’furter?

The Burgermeister here is of course Nigel Kellaway, our avant-garde’s own Colonel Sanders/Krusty the Clown, all Bumptious Bravado, Buggery and Baroque, who decided some years ago that he wanted to cut up the tuneful bourgeois meal we call opera into tiny bits before devouring and then regurgitating it with relish in front of a paying public. ‘B’ is the new ‘D’ cup that runneth over in the consuming passion we call cutting-edge theatre, where a whole lot of B for Brawn, Brains, Braggadocio & Bullshit is laid at our table in a bedazzling feat of D for Deconstruction.

I know this for a fact because a couple of hours before the final performance of El Inocente I drove straight through an intersection and into the side of a flash BMW. I staggered into the Performance Space (a bit like a stand-up comedian in search of a skit) only to walk back through the experience under the august helmsmanship of the bewigged Burgermeister himself.

El Inocente collides the spirit of the baroque (more exactly the music of Handel reconsidered by Richard Vella) with the tragic tale of an innocent girl who could well be Erendira from the famous Marquez short story. In the very least, Kellaway admits the ‘fabulist’ story-line has a South American literary influence.

Collaborating closely with Kellaway in the creation of this new work are performers Regina Heilmann, Katia Molino and Lynn Murphy; composer Richard Vella; Simon Wise on lighting design and production; with Melita Rowston and Paul Cordeiro assisting. Most have worked with him before, along with several other substantial talents, on this series of productions exploring the nature of the artform we call opera.

One attends a Kellaway event with a very real sense of anticipation. He has been one of the leaders of our avant-garde for at least 15 years and in that time participated in the creation of some astounding events. Among them I would include his work with Sydney Front (The Pornography of Performance, 1988; Photocopies of God, 1989; Don Juan, 1992), The Nuremburg Recital, 1989; This Most Wicked Body, 1994 (a 240-hour performance marathon involving among others restaurateur Gay Bilson, and in a shorter version at the 1998 Adelaide Festival). He also directed for the Song Company the opera, The Sinking of The Rainbow Warrior (1997) and has worked with a range of other companies including Stopera, Stalker and Urban Theatre Projects.

Since 1997, he has been working on this series called The opera Project. With co-founder Annette Tesoriero and dancer Dean Walsh, they began with The Berlioz – our vampires ourselves, a production I still think to be one of Kellaway’s best ever works. It was successful because the story was played out in the actions, the action vivified the story. Even the overt campery had a vital role to play.

Remarking on the inspired convergence of dramatic idea and physical gesture in that work, I noted that Kellaway had “never shied away from risks and on many occasions he has been punished for the results. While never less than imaginative, it is understandable that not all the experiments would hold.”

El Inocente is perhaps most fairly viewed in that light.

For days since seeing the last performance of El Inocente, I have been struggling with what to say. It is easy to be smart and parody Kellaway’s felicitous imagination and taste for over-the-top imagery (see my introductory paragraphs).

But scouring through dozens of pages of commentary and reviews of his many works I see few have ever been able to adequately grasp what is actually going on. That’s fine when we like the work—praise rarely demands (certainly from the artists) the same level of critical interrogation (they’re just so relieved someone liked it!). But when a new production seems less successful than others we have seen, it’s quite a daunting challenge to speculate: why?

Having only a short time earlier just missed killing myself and possibly several other people, I could not be sure whether I had been professionally alert enough to pass judgement on this work of art. Was I paying enough attention? Was I really there? The short answer of course is: If the production had enough going on, it would have insisted itself upon even the most distracted imagination. It did not.

What characterises this latest production is the heavy emphasis on story-telling. Large slabs of the action are literally read by the actors sitting at a long table. These segments actually hold most of the key elements in the narrative which, if enacted, would be seen much more clearly and convincingly to push the story forward.

The displacement might have been deliberate but, so disorientating is it for the audience in this instance, we leave the theatre wondering if we have actually seen anything true. The secret to the art of the stage lies in its 4 dimensions—actor/audience/ time/space. Despite thousands of plays written over the centuries, words are not a ‘core promise’ when budgeting for a work for the stage. Even in Shakespeare, the words decorate and dance upon the ever forward-moving ‘pattern action.’ While comparing one with the other can prove illuminating, it’s not what people say on stage that counts, it’s what people do.

We are convinced of a work’s veracity because we see the events enacted. We have all experienced bad theatre and wondered why it made so little impact. Denying the audience living breathing ‘evidence’ of what happened is, unwittingly, an attempt to deny the existence of time as a fundamental component of the artform. And why call on time if you don’t need it?

Okay, the material has been ‘deconstructed’, but in this context what is that supposed to mean?

Deconstruction is a very powerful tool which calls on a philosophical system to be judged by its own terms. It is based on the idea that no system can embody ‘absolute truth’ no matter how often this claim is made. And the only way to test the authenticity of such claims is to turn the internal critical mechanisms of the system (such as they are) on the system itself. Inevitably the system’s grandiose claims at infallibility fall short, and the relative nature of all truths is the only truth confirmed.

To apply such an endeavour to a genre, as in ‘opera’, is not so different to the current meaning of ‘deconstruction’ in the fashion industry where it indicates the showing of seams, flaunting rag-bag assembly and op-shop scraps posing as haute-couture. The theoretical ‘application’ really means ‘applique’. What we have in both the frocks of Michelle Janke and El Inocente is collage—show and tell, an endeavour of a much lower intellectual order.

I am also bothered by the claim that The opera Project is a project. It implies that some useful by-product exists outside or alongside the actual works produced. If project implies progress, how do we explain that the final work is so much weaker than others in the series? What are we, those of us in the stalls, meant to have taken away from this research experiment?

This work identifies itself as brave, radical and cutting edge. Unfortunately, it’s bogged down with formalist cliches—quotation, parody, dislocation, collage, collision, distancing, camp.

To return to the car crash, vehicles are made these days to crumple on impact. So even when one does run straight into a late model German vehicle, there is actually very little impact on one’s own body. I drove straight into that car at a considerable speed, but I felt almost nothing. The shock was absorbed by the design components. That is how it was with El Inocente. It made almost no impact, almost no lasting impression. This is a far cry from The Berlioz, which still lives in my body/mind.

A few days earlier I witnessed an incident on the Jerry Springer show that will also remain burned in my memory (alongside the Mike Tyson ear-bite which I saw live—the still shots were not able to capture the full horror of this momentary descent into the animal kingdom!). On Springer was a man who had, after being turned away by the medical system, cut off his own penis in a desperate attempt to have a body that even faintly resembled the woman he felt himself to truly be.

It wasn’t the theatricality of that gesture which stuck me as so extraordinary (he had rushed from the family dinner table and hacked it off with a steak knife). It was his preparedness to face his ranting and abusive wife and family, Springer himself, Springer’s ‘doctor’ (a PhD in TV journalism, I think), and a hostile and mocking studio/world-wide audience.

El Inocente is about a young girl, Helena, also forced to suffer at the hands of society (personified by her cruel grandmother and the many men to whom she is sold for sex). But never once during the production did I feel for her or her predicament. This man who cut off his penis had suffered so much in his life that nothing more could hurt him. He had moved to a new level of existence beyond pain. He went on the show clearly in an act of revenge, to humiliate his wife and family in front of the rest of the world to expose them for what they were. It was an extraordinarily courageous, dare I say it, cutting-edge performance.

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 31

© James Waites; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001