Indeterminate realities, comic truths

Keith Gallasch: Interview, Sarah Giles, Perplex

Sarah Giles

Sarah Giles

Sarah Giles

Fresh from her success directing the opera double bill His Music Burns for the Sydney Chamber Opera in the 2014 Sydney Festival (see review), a radiantly cheerful Sarah Giles tells me she started young. At 15, with some fellow students she “directed a ludicrously ambitious production of Kafka’s The Trial, the Berkoff version. I fell in love with theatre.” With other successes, Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One at Griffin and a much extended season of Mrs Warren’s Profession at the STC, where she has mostly directed, Giles is making her mark in Sydney theatre

She also cites key influences including Penelope Nunn at the South Yarra Ballet School—“an eclectic group of kids came out of there including dancer Alisdair Macindoe, actress Chloe Armstrong and my brother who’s now in fashion.” Giles went to Melbourne University, did an arts degree “and got involved with Union House Theatre and Susie Dee, a brilliant woman who continues to be an extraordinary inspiration for a lot of people.” She directed shows at university and then independent productions: “I acted in a show with White Whale Theatre with David Mence—brilliant, brilliant mind. He wrote a zombie schlock horror sequel to Macbeth that sounds bizarre but was fun and we took it to Edinburgh. I got back from that in 2007 and I’d decided I didn’t want to act, I wanted to direct. I think that was about control.

“I did some shows at La Mama and assistant directing with Peter Evans at the MTC. He was so generous with his time and with his insights. He was a real mentor and he’s developed into a friend over the years. So that was my first experience in a professional company and after that I auditioned for the NIDA Directors Course, got in and moved up here. This was in 2008 and I did the course with Egil Kipste who used to be the casting director at STC and had worked with Disney as well as with German director Peter Stein. We had the most wonderful chaotic year.”

At NIDA Giles directed Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies and, for her graduation piece, The Bald Soprano: “I had fallen in love with the Absurdists when I saw a production of The Chairs with Paul Blackwell, Julie Forsythe and Marg Downie when I was 16 years old. It just seared into my brain. I was so proud of my Bald Soprano. I’ve never seen an audience laugh so hard. I’ve always loved comedies and been drawn to them. That really sealed my deal with comedy.”

After working with Red Stitch in Melbourne and for Griffin Independent a few years back she directed Matt Cameron’s Ruby Moon (2011) and in the same year Money Shots, both with STC’s Next Stage, and Mariage Blanc (2012), which she describes as, “a wonderfully inventive, completely mad Polish play by Tadeusz Rosewicz.” It was adapted by Giles and Melissa Bubnic, “a very funny writer from Melbourne who now lives in London. Then I directed Mrs Warren’s Profession in 2013.

“The common thread for me is exploring ideas through comedy. It’s not comedy for comedy’s sake. Comedy is one of the most powerful forms with which to explore almost anything.”

Giles’ comic sensibility was vividly evident in her direction of the first stage version of Gyorgy Kurtag’s …pas a pas … nulle part in His Music Burns (see p16). With the baritone Mitchell Riley (in a finely tuned performance at once funny, sad and despairing) and conductor Jack Symonds, Giles focused on “trying to get as close to the text as possible,” aided by how closely text and music work together in Kurtag’s score. She was also aware that the work “could be really heavy-handed and bleak.” I tell Giles that the production amplified that sense of being in the theatre, moments of boredom, of reflection, horror, terror. She concurs, “It’s like an illness. You’re trapped. You can’t get up and leave.” But we also laugh at the protagonist, and at ourselves.

I ask what attracts her to the plays of Marius von Mayenburg. His Eldorado was produced at Malthouse in 2006 and Moving Target in 2008, both directed by Benedict Andrews. “I spend a lot of time reading comedies and the minute I laugh out loud I know a play’s good. I read The Ugly One when I was at NIDA and it was the first play I’d ever read where I felt like someone had really hooked into a way of delivering a message to an audience not simply through what is said but how it’s said and the form in which it’s said. In Ionesco form and content all function together, but this was some of the first contemporary writing I’d read that was very funny and with a very bleak, very dry, very truthful sense of humour. A bit like Todd Solondz’ film Happiness. Another writer I’m in love with is David Gieselmann who wrote Mr Kolpert and The Pigeons.

“The other thing that drew me to The Ugly One was that I understood exactly what it was speaking about: the impossibility of being an individual within society. People sometimes think it’s a play about beauty and what we look like. That’s just the vehicle.

“I met Marius when he was visiting Sydney. We had a beer and he mentioned a play he’d written called Perplex. He sent me the English version. The first read was quite a fuzzy experience but it got more and more clear as I read it. I laughed out loud. It’s more cerebral but has more heart than The Ugly One. It’s a profound play. It moves me to tears. There’s a very beautiful ending. The thing I love about it is that it’s essentially about reality and what better form to explore that than through the theatre? [It’s roots are in] plays like Stoppard’s The Real Thing, to a certain extent The Maids and to a massive extent Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. The premise is simply that none of us lives in a shared reality. My memory of this interview will be very different from yours. It’s something we don’t often think about and it’s evident in the disconnect [of being involved in] stupid things like Facebook and phones. People are not even in reality.”

Perplex is an extreme reality test for performers and audience. The press release from the Schaubühne (where the play was first produced directed by von Mayenburg before many productions across Europe) describes it as “like slipping on a metaphysical banana peel: …A couple, Eva and Robert, come home after a holiday. The plants look mysteriously different and a letter informs them of the disconnection of their electricity supply. Enter Judith and Sebastian, friends of the couple, who were meant to have taken care of things in their absence. However, they turn out to be the rightful occupants and throw Eva and Robert unceremoniously out of their home. A short while later they both return, but this time, after a change of outfit, they are an au-pair and the son of the second couple” (http://www.schaubuehne.de). But there is worse to come, and far more surreal. Giles is particularly taken by the existential power of the ending, where one of the characters asks, “Who cast me?” In von Mayenburg’s plays there’s a dramaturgical self-awareness in which the line between theatre and reality is a blur.

But strange as Perplex becomes, I ask Giles, does it need a surreal staging? She is adamant, “To pack a punch, you don’t want to blow the proverbial load of the play by having the people looking as if they’re bonkers from the word go. It’s about setting up an established reality for the audience to hook into and then allowing that to shift. They’re not going to walk in and see a deeply abstract avant-garde set from Renée Mulder, who’s resident here at the STC. We’ve worked together a lot.”

Expecting that Giles would be moving onto other productions after Perplex, I was surprised to hear that she’s entering a period of discovery with the help of the Mike Walsh and the Gloria Payten & Gloria Dawn Foundation Fellowships which will take her to Berlin’s Theatretreffen festival, Brussell’s KunstenFestivalDesArts and New York: “I’m just desperate to see a lot of theatre. Works of international significance do travel to festivals here but not often enough. We have one major opera company in the country. It’s not enough and many shows are not affordable. The only way to do it is to travel.”

Giles is also looking forward “to developing projects that I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time but I’ve not given myself time to do. I left NIDA five or six years ago and I’ve pretty much been working consistently. And it’s a lovely moment to pause for a second and just reassess. Without wanting to sound too serious, it feels like there might be a slight shift in my career. The little foray into opera was just so enlightening and there are so many I’d like to direct. It’s just got me. And I’m really interested in looking at other forms. I’ve got some mad ideas.”

Sydney Theatre Company, Perplex, writer Marius von Mayenburg, director Sarah Giles, 31 March-3 May

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 42

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

24 February 2014