Gender play-off

Jonathan Marshall: Melbourne Festival

Willem Dafoe, The Hairy Ape

Willem Dafoe, The Hairy Ape

Music theatre was a common element in 2 of the most striking shows of the 2001 Melbourne Festival, The Hairy Ape and 2Pack. The New York-based Wooster Group’s The Hairy Ape sold out months in advance, due largely to Willem Dafoe playing the lead. Many spectators were therefore surprised to find themselves at something resembling a physicalised radio play, or a percussive, almost rap-style performance of early 20th century American working class patois. Those who walked out did not however follow Eidos: Telos discontents in phoning talkback radio.

The Hairy Ape had considerable acoustic power. Dafoe’s guttural tones modulated between sharp assaults and almost liquid intermingling words. The industrial set comprising a 2-storey metal grid emphasised the violence of Elizabeth LeCompte’s direction. The design also established a New York studio feel in the otherwise cavernous Merlyn Theatre. This was classic postmodern Brecht. The deliberately intrusive microphones and constant amplification of the text ensured that one was never simply lost in the drama. Rather one reflected on how things came about on stage, both aesthetically and narratively.

Eugene O’Neill’s play seems at first ideal for such an approach. It is vitally concerned with working class identity, the role of the unions, and class distinctions. O’Neill’s tale of a disenfranchised ship’s furnace stoker is however problematic. It brilliantly captures workers’ fears regarding technology. Yank’s peers have become slaves to the iron machines of capital. Yank/Dafoe is literally enmeshed in the production’s technologies, a microphone permanently strapped into his paw. To become free, one must regain control of one’s physical labour and body. O’Neill alternates between eulogising Yank’s brute physical prowess and showing how his faith in these muscular, self-punishing values turns him into the hairy ape he has been likened to.

Class solidarity is only possible for O’Neill if the muscular working class expels femininity. The world of the play is divided between hyper-masculine working class men possessed of an easy male camaraderie, and a divided upper class of effeminate men and women. It is the intrusion of a tremulously voiced upper class woman which shatters Yank’s fraternal below-deck paradise.

LeCompte’s staging presents O’Neill’s text as an acoustic object to be critically worked upon in the space. This leaves one free to reject the author’s dubious gender politics. The absence of even the possibility of female workers in this representation of a period characterised by a massive female workforce and women’s increasing political and social visibility (the so-called New Woman, suffragettes, socialists like Rosa Luxembourg etc) is troubling though. LeCompte offers no commentary beyond casting the same performer (Kate Valk) as both the naive female upper class intruder and the ape to whose deadly embrace Yank finally surrenders himself. This might suggest that the association between physical strength, masculinity and working class identity is not as strong as one might otherwise imagine. Despite such flaws, The Hairy Ape is a compelling, complex production. Given the long history of post-WWII reinterpretations of Brechtian theatre (Heiner Muller, Elin Diamond, Peter Brook et al) though it is hardly the radical work it continues to be hailed as. This is the sort of production Playbox and MTC should be doing.

O’Neill’s implicit gender politics are reversed in the latest piece from Melbourne circus-theatre company Dislocate. Where O’Neill’s same-sex community evokes a working class paradise violated by a new Eve, playwright Michael Gow’s script for Dislocate’s festival show, Risk Reduction, suggests that homosocial relations are the problem, more a male angel menaced by a comic Lucifer here. In Risk Reduction we meet performer Geoffrey Dunstan as a fearful office worker whose body is cleaned and dressed by his personal servant, Rudi Mineur as Mr Muscle. Their relationship is illustrated by a beautiful acrobatic sequence, Dunstan affectionately and intimately manipulated by his companion. It is again the intrusion of femininity—this time in the form of Kate Fryer as a photocopy assistant—which disturbs this male idyll. Dunstan’s homosocial introversion however is here represented as pathological. His salvation occurs when he rejects Mr Muscle in favour of a return to heterosexual society, gathering the courage to act on his (normal) desire for the woman.

Mine is definitely a more subtle reading than Risk Reduction is designed to elicit. The work is primarily a caricature, boldly painted using episodic acrobatic sequences and simple dramatic scenarios. We meet Dunstan’s paranoid-neurotic stumbling through a park at night, helpless outside of his hermetic work and domestic environments. Fryer swoops down upon him from the rigging. Her black cockroach suit and panto-villain laugh are a joy. Risk Reduction is great fun for adults and children, but Gow’s simplistic narrative lacked the wonderful, mad complexity of the John Romeril text for Dislocate’s Acronetic (2000). Risk Reduction is a comparatively slight work, more of a crowd pleaser.

Belgian company Hush Hush Hush’s 2Pack provided a needed correlative to these festival productions. Belgian-Algerian director Abdelaziz Sarrokh has worked with Alain Platel’s Les Ballets C. de la B. Platel’s influence was visible in 2Pack’s structure as a chaotic series of impressions taken from an evening in the life of an ethnic working class community manifest on stage. The set comprised 9 cubicles stacked on top of each other as in the ghettoised high-density housing one finds from Ghent to LA (or Melbourne). A bar in a ground-floor corner, action spilling out of it onto the main stage. The area in front of the flats came to represent both the streets on which the inhabitants socialised on as well as a space in which their troubled dreams were enacted.

2Pack mixed Expressionist ideas and choreographic fragments with hip-hop culture; Pina Bausch’s dance theatre meets freestylin. A well-selected score of phat classics acted as the characters’ projected mental jukebox. B-boy styles and dance-offs sat alongside suggestions of personal histories of sexual abuse, the physical manifestation of racial pressures and other themes. The production was eminently accessible with these devices and pop-culture references, while still being challengingly abstract and dense. At one point a woman’s inchoate psychic pain led her to wrap herself in knots and stuff white balls into her mouth as she executed an angrily ecstatic, arching, operatic, melodramatic solo. Multiple social constraints were alluded to, energising the production. Hip-hop was revealed as a cultural amalgam which produces art from conflict. An old skool track of Ice T cautioning listeners not to be fooled into believing the Gulf War is about freedom, but about imperialism at home and abroad, took on chilling relevance in light of the destruction of Afghanistan.

2Pack was moreover the only Melbourne Festival production to effectively dramatise women’s lives. The sexual freedom of one woman, objectified by a man who gazed at her and provoked her with his tongue, became a source of both her liberation and oppression. She found ecstasy in her sexual provocations, yet it was she who later retired to her flat to muse on her scarred sexual consciousness. The women were indeed amongst the strongest performers, moving beyond the classic B-boy stylings which the men excelled at, gesturing towards flamenco and athletic modern dance. One tall, taut woman revelled in going head to head with the others, employing a distinctive, low, acrodance style. The combination of tightly choreographed sections with improvised play-offs eventually exploding the entire dramatic structure, made 2Pack the best of these 3 shows, yet even it could not compete with the Greenaway-meets-Cunningham, postmodern ballet-opera of Ballett Frankfurt’s Eidos: Telos.

The Hairy Ape, by Eugene O’ Neill, Wooster Group, director Elizabeth LeCompte, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, Oct 19 – Nov 3; Risk Reduction, direction/text Michael Gow, performers/devisers Kate Fryer, Geoffrey Dunstan, performer Rudi Mineur, North Melbourne Town Hall, Oct 24 – Nov 3; 2Pack, by Hush Hush Hush, director/performer Abdelaziz Sarrokh, State Theatre, Oct 24-27.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 8

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

1 December 2001