multiple maps of the imagination

douglas leonard: brisbane festival theatre program

Three Sisters, Chekhov International Theatre/Cheek by Jow

Three Sisters, Chekhov International Theatre/Cheek by Jow

Three Sisters, Chekhov International Theatre/Cheek by Jow


three sisters

Declan Donnellan’s luminous production of Three Sisters showed us how to look at Chekhov afresh. There was so much sheer brio in this saddest of plays—about three sisters from pre-revolutionary Russia who can contemplate happiness in the past, the future, but never the present. When I went, there were a bunch of Russians occupying a half empty theatre. They understood. It’s life. The doll’s house brought out at the beginning for Irena’s name day eerily evoked associations with Ibsen’s play, especially for Brisbane audiences who recalled Mabou Mines’ magnificent festival production of A Doll’s House in 2006.

In contrast to Ibsen’s pejorative take on role playing and childishness, however, an interlude in the first act that focused on the name day celebrants—mesmerised by a spinning top—conveyed not only the spontaneity and self-abandon pervading the moment, but the centrifugal force of Donnellan’s direction. His production turned on a seductive balance, highlighting these exuberant and positive qualities with a delicacy that only compounded the social tragedy. The superb ensemble likewise created an electric field, a dynamic gestalt rather than the solipsism of individual characters sometimes critically attributed to Chekhov as a precursor to Becket.

Designer Nick Ormerod’s non-naturalistic deployment of chairs and tables seemed swept up in the swirling force of this production. Deftly rearranged by the cast for the scene changes, they coalesced as if by magic, until, jumbled together, they came to represent a larger metaphor for things falling apart. We gained a belief from this production in the strength that the sisters summoned from each other at the end, however bereft they were, and despite all the implicit ironies for our own times.

the kingdom of desire

The Kingdom of Desire was a lavishly mounted production, a superb blend of Beijing Opera with Western theatre in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in feudal China and performed in Mandarin with English surtitles. In any language, this was stimulating and accessible theatre. The Contemporary Legend Theatre of Taiwan has moved away from traditional minimalism and subject matter to explore the freedoms of the contemporary stage. Exotic from a Western point of view were the expressive forms of singing, chanting, hand gestures, face painting, elaborate costuming, acrobatics and martial arts. The interesting result, however, was a heightened realism that easily translated across cultural barriers. This admixture included delightful elements of clowning that bracketed even the lead actors in a Brechtian way. The company might be seen as restoring to Western audiences an enjoyment of lost elements of their own traditions—the popular forms of vaudeville, pantomime and melodrama. Fifty year old actor/director Wu Hsing-kuo as Macbeth received rapturous applause when he somersaulted backwards from a huge height in a death scene reminiscent of Kurosawa’s 1957 film, Throne of Blood. Beat that.

the grand inquisitor

From total theatre to Peter Brook’s empty space—a brightly lit, bare stage. Brook directed long-time collaborator Bruce Myers as raconteur/performer of Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor. Christ has returned to Earth at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and has been condemned to death as a heretic. If Marx denied that he was a Marxist, then Christ would have to deny he was a Christian. Interrogating the still and silent figure of Christ (Joachim Zuber, seated downstage on a stool), Myers’ Grand Inquisitor has a measured intensity that never flags as he paces, advances and retreats while pursuing his labyrinthine argument.

The Inquisitor, ideological policeman for any totalitarian regime, argues that Christ has cursed mankind with the intolerable burden of free-thinking, pre-figuring TS Eliot’s remark “mankind cannot bear too much reality.” Brook, by presenting Dostoevsky’s parable in the theatre, made me aware of a dimension I hadn’t grasped reading it. That is, it is the intensity and authenticity of Christ’s (Zuber’s) listening rather than his silence that causes the Inquisitor’s inner unravelling, and his bidding that Christ go free on pain of never returning. The Inquisitor argues with unassailable logic (after all, he has history on his side), but Brook subtly demonstrates that, while philosophy demands our entire mind, listening demands our totality. This was the revelation of Christ’s kiss of peace, and the chill implication in Myers’ last line: “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man sticks to his idea.”

theatre, community, constituency

Queensland Theatre Company’s The August Moon and Eugene Gilfedder’s The Fiveways had mirroring concerns, but differed widely in approach. The August Moon had as its subject matter the effects of cyclone Larry on the far north Queensland community of Innisfail, while Gilfedder’s piece took on a different kind of natural disaster—the storm of development engulfing local communities, landmarks and history in the inner suburbs of Brisbane. Writer/ directors Adam Grosetti and Jean Marc-Russ reported the community they visited verbatim, for sensitive reasons, while writer/director/composer/pianist Gilfedder was on home ground, speaking to, and on behalf of, his own constituency. He could speak as he liked. Both productions interestingly turned round this question: Who is speaking? And on whose behalf?

the august moon

This was more fraught for the QTC production. Looking for the story behind the one reported death of a man at the August Moon Caravan Park, the writers found there was no story, and the whole thing was a beat-up by the press. As self-styled ‘Gonzo journalists’, they interviewed the brother and sister owners of the caravan park who felt unfairly put upon, another elderly resident and the barmaid who looked out for the deceased man. So far, so forensic, but aware that in a postmodern world narratives are suspect, they proffered themselves up as contaminated evidence. They inserted themselves as characters into the ‘script’, the ‘script’ became a ‘score’ to be manipulated along with other media, and actors could only ‘stand in’ for real life people. Or sit down. The actors were seated on a revolve stage reading transcripts of the interviews in the metaphorical eye of the storm, but the exciting possiblities of the reconfiguration of the Billie Brown Studio as a panoramic theatre in the round were not realised. This production became confused in its own metatheatrics, and in the end spoke for no-one. A pity, because underlying I suspect was a compassionate motive, not an exploitative one.

the fiveways

Presented as a free event in a car park in West End, surrounded by developers’ cranes, and close to one of Brisbane’s historic fiveway intersections, The Fiveways, a Brisbane Festival commission, was brilliantly located with its scaffolding and street party atmosphere—kids, cushions and lots of meet and greet—within the totality of inner-city West End as mise en scene. The set design was classic Footrot Flats; a figure of progress out of control, Harlequin as a patchwork jockey somersaults through randomly and literally brings the house down at the end. Madam Butterfly (Li, the Chinese Takeaway Lady) meets Mo McCackie (three inebriated punters from the TAB) meets the devil (Wright, the developer), who of course had all the catchiest tunes. The uncanny figure of the The Goldfish Girl, a soulful soprano, loosely defines as the spirit of place. Two tuxedoed piano players completed the ensemble and played as if themselves possessed by the ghosts of silent film accompanists sent back to save their old stamping ground.

The political message was perfectly clear but, like Peter Brook, Gilfedder is interested in a Theatre of Myths, where the audience might draw many different layers of meaning. Gilfedder’s plangent, Sondheim-like score was likewise hauntingly evocative, especially in the interludes. He has said that he tries to give expression in his work to the “semi-ecstatic stillness in Australia.” But there were also European influences here. The absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco confides that his plays have their origins in two basic states of consciousness, “an awareness of evanescence and of solidity, of emptiness and of too much presence.” This seems to speak to Gilfedder’s deceptively populist Gotterdammerung. And in the figure of the Goldfish Girl, it was truly as if the beauty of the objects of Surrealist desire had become convulsively alive through dreams. Gilfedder is possessed by his amour fou, and speaks for the angels.

2008 Brisbane Festival: Chekhov International Theatre/Cheek by Jowl, Three Sisters, writer Anton Chekhov, director Declan Donnellan, design Nick Ormerod, Playhouse, QPAC, 29 July-Aug 3; The Kingdom of Desire, director Wu Hsing- Kuo, QPAQ, July 23-26; The Grand Inquisitor, from Fiodor Dostoyevsky, director Peter Brook, adaptation Marie-Hélène Estienne, Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, July19 – 26 July; Queensland Theatre Company, The August Moon, writers Adam Grossetti, Jean-Marc Russ, director Jean-Marc Russ, designer Bruce Mckinven, lighting David Walters, composer/sound design Brett Collery, cinematic theatre design Brad Jennings, Steven Maxwell, Billie Brown Studio, July 17-Aug 9; Fiveways, director, composer, writer Eugene Gilfedder, design Jonathon Oxlade, lighting, David Murray, choreographer Neridah Waters; West End, July 31–Aug 2

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 6

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008