Absurdly real

Sarah Miller

Stephen Whiley, Crispian Chan, Striptease

Stephen Whiley, Crispian Chan, Striptease

Stephen Whiley, Crispian Chan, Striptease

It’s a mad, bad world all right, and yet here in Australia we’re living high on the hog (in a manner of speaking). So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised about the current Perth-based resurgence of interest in Theatre of the Absurd. BSX-Theatre, the youth initiative of Black Swan Theatre Company, has just completed a double bill comprising Striptease by Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek and Mountain Language by Harold Pinter. Prior to this, BSX director Matt Lutton directed Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna, while independent performer/director Marta Kaczmarek recently performed Beckett’s Happy Days at the Blue Room Theatre. She’s also planning a production of Ionesco’s The Chairs in 2005.

As anyone interested in performance will know, ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was a term coined by critic Martin Esslin for the work of a number of playwrights mainly from the 1950s and 60s. Given John Howard’s nostalgia for that golden time of blue skies, white picket fences and happy families, it seems only fair that we also remember the other determining characteristics of the era: post-war trauma, refugees, McCarthyism, totalitarianism, cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Paradise for some. A living hell for others.

Absurdist playwrights share the view that humankind inhabits a universe whose meaning is indecipherable. Human life is precarious, meaningless and without any kind of surety. We are perpetually bewildered, troubled and obscurely threatened. In formal terms, the Theatre of the Absurd was also a rebellion against conventional theatre. In fact it was anti-theatre: surreal, illogical, plotless and without dramatic conflict. The ultimate realism perhaps? In First World communities, we watch the horror of life in other places from the comfort of our living rooms. It’s a bit like going to the theatre, but what have we learned and how should we act?

In Striptease, 2 men arrive on stage as if hurled by a violent, unknown and unnameable force. They are wearing identical suits and ties and carrying matching brief cases. They don’t know why they’re here and don’t understand why they can’t leave. They don’t know their crime and no one will speak to them. Sound familiar?

What differentiates them is their respective responses to arbitrary detainment. Man 1 (Crispian Chan) is adamant, Buddhist-like in his refusal to act. He is determined to sit quietly and await his fate, no matter what the provocation. Man 2 (Stephen Whiley) is restless, aggressive. He wants to know his crime and confront his captors, whoever they might be. Each time he protests or attempts to leave, a giant mechanical hand enters and will not leave until a piece of clothing is sacrificed. Slowly, each man is divested of his clothing, until they are handcuffed together in their underwear. Simultaneously the walls draw closer and closer together, so that by the end of this short play, the almost naked, trembling protagonists are left with literally nowhere to go, no place to be and nothing to say.

Pinter’s Mountain Language was written in response to the conflict between the Kurds and the Turks in the late 80s. Once again we are confronted with troubling, horribly familiar images. The mountain people are no longer allowed to speak their language. Their world has been invaded and is under the control of an unnamed and brutal occupying force. In an almost black space fitfully illuminated by the glare of white searchlights, hooded and bound prisoners are menaced by large (actor) dogs. Protest seems futile. ‘Language’ is forbidden. Little more than a powerfully extended image, with a poignant but restrained sound design by Ashley Greig, Mountain Language painfully evokes our present time. There is no resolution and no happy ending.

Nineteen year old director Matthew Lutton and his young cast have created mesmerising theatre of great value. It’s just a pity it’s so goddamned relevant.

BSX-Theatre, Striptease, writer Slawomir Mrozek; Mountain Language, writer Harold Pinter; director Matthew Lutton; Dolphin Theatre, University of Western Australia, June 10-19

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 13

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004