Classic incursions

John Bailey on new works from Eleventh Hour

Fiona Todd, Peter Houghton, King John

Fiona Todd, Peter Houghton, King John

Millennial visions too often prove disappointing, and it is perhaps for this reasons that onlookers are reluctant to historicise theatrical movements at the start of a century. It does not take a prophet, however, to see that Melbourne’s first years since 2000 were characterised by a flurry of activity, especially in the formation of new theatre companies promising original structures, novel interpretation and dynamic programming. In a short period, we saw the coalescence and cross-pollination of the now-stalwart Red Stitch Actors Theatre stable in St Kilda, The Store Room venue in Fitzroy North (recently settling into a curatory stance), the consistently strong [email protected] team, The Eleventh Hour group in Fitzroy and the related, though more anarchic mass of The Hoist, Theatre in Decay under Robert Reid’s guidance, and several more. What distinguishes these troupes from the constant turnover of fast-fading projects is the intensity of their idealism, the high number of productions put out in a short period, and the quality of work produced under such pressure. Moreover, though many have maintained a constant presence in Melbourne’s calendar, even those who may have appeared to succumb to the inevitable entropy, have proven able to continue their mission at least until the current moment.

The Eleventh Hour recently returned after a hiatus of 2 years with a pair of works presented under the broad title The Shining Sun is Up. The phrase is taken from a line near the conclusion of the first of the works, but in reality there is little to tie the twinned selections beyond the superficial. This is not meant negatively: the company has here created a pair of productions deeply worthy of consideration, but each could certainly stand alone as a valuable take on an established text.

The Crucible

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would seem an odd choice, done to death by high school drama classes everywhere. Even those unfamiliar with the original work are probably aware of both the metaphorical themes and the historical import of the play; though The Eleventh Hour’s précis focuses on significant, sometimes canonical works by ‘great’ authors, there would appear to be little The Crucible could offer that has not already been absorbed into the common critical literature which accompanies it. As it turns out, the company restores several scenes deleted from the play since its initial production, and the outcome centres not on the usual allegorical reading of the text (treating the witchhunt as a straight symbol of McCarthy-era US politics) but as a complex psychological drama that goes beyond the socio-political.

The company suggests that much of the internal struggle faced by the protagonists of The Crucible is symptomatic of the marriage breakdown suffered by Miller during the play’s writing, but if this is indeed the case, this production wisely avoids psychologising the work as a simple roman à clef. Instead, dramaturgical attention has been paid to the subtle realisation of character motivations and intentions, and a rare level of sympathy is offered towards the oft-maligned character of Abigail Williams (Nicole Nabout). Equally, John Proctor (Peter Houghton) is presented as a fierce and at times fearsomely unforgivable figure. Apart from some arresting vocal soundscapes which occasionally hover over scene changes, however, The Crucible never quite manages to move beyond the position of expertly-produced drama to become a genuinely original and challenging comment on a contemporary classic.

King John

King John is a more overtly ambitious rendering of a text bearing the connotative epithet ‘lost’, and makes good any claims for the company’s valuable contribution to Melbourne’s current theatrical climate. The producers point out that (as far as they know) Shakespeare’s play has never been performed in Australia, and this alone should be enough to pique the interest of theatregoers. Rather than relying on novelty, however, the forgotten work is articulated through a fictional rendering by World War I soldiers and nurses holed up in a military hospital. Less a framing device than an interlocking of two distinct dramas, the conceit works wonderfully as the audience takes on a kind of double-consciousness, extracting Shakespeare’s tale from the often hilarious and sometimes moving play staged by the wounded. Their stories are never unwelcome intrusions, but their own situations (on crutches, wheelchair bound, romance blossoming) act as both provocative comment on the unfolding drama and entirely enjoyable alternative to the sometimes stiff original text.

Peter Houghton’s officer is for much of the piece blindfolded by a gauze bandage, and upon its removal pauses before curtly confirming his permanent blindness and soldiering on as the King of France. Fiona Todd’s nurse erupts as an increasingly histrionic grieving mother (Lady Constance), hinting at maternal longings confounded without shoehorning an unnecessary plotline into proceedings. In this way, the drama of the Great War soldiers advances gently but thrillingly alongside the ostensible subject of the evening.

Eleventh Hour, The Shining Sun is Up: Part 1 – The Crucible, Arthur Miller, Sept 8-Oct 1, Part 2 – King John, after William Shakespeare, Nov 10-Dec 3, direction/composition Anne Thompson & William Henderson, performers Nicole Nabout, Shona Innes, David Tredinnick, Fiona Todd, Peter Houghton, Evelyn Krape, Christopher Brown; The Eleventh Hour Theatre, Fitzroy

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 41

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

1 December 2005