Naturalised noir

Jonathan Marshall

Ian Scott, Anne Browning, Slow Love

Ian Scott, Anne Browning, Slow Love

Ian Scott, Anne Browning, Slow Love

Writer Richard Murphet notes in his introduction to Quick Death (1981, in Performing the unNameable, Currency Press with RealTime, 1999) that where most scripts are concerned with “What is it about?” and “Why?” his work focuses “on those thrilling questions—When? and How?”

Slow Love could be seen as an Australian avant-garde classic, enjoying the rare privilege of entering its fourth staging. The text consists of a series of instructions which make up over 100 short, cinematically-framed, enigmatic scenes—mostly without words—which explore various romantic, erotic and affective permutations between 2 men and 2 women. For example, woman 1 sits on a bed and looks right before man 2 rises, topless, from the bed behind her. After blackout, this scene is repeated, but with man 1 walking in on them.

Murphet’s approach opens a rich vein of interpretive possibilities for both audiences and directors. The scenes hang in a dissociated realm where it becomes apparent that both the characters and the audience craft their lives from a limited number of possible actions and outcomes. Virtually all of the worlds sketched by Murphet have been scripted before in film, television and romantic literature.

Murphet’s strongest cinematographic reference is film noir. Chamber Made Opera director Douglas Horton describes the 1983 Anthill version, directed by Jean-Pierre Mignon, as having a “Bette Davis/African Queen” feel, while the cast of the Australian-Flemish co-production (director Boris Kelly; Belgium, Holland & 2002 Adelaide Festival) were clothed in chic, black garb. Horton however has consistently refused to stick closely to extant staging conventions (The Chairs, Teorema). Far from having film noir’s dark, sharply defined contrasts, this production is closer to the grubby, smudged pathos of Ken Loach films. The cast are dressed in drab, loose-fitting, down-market clothes, while the set is reminiscent of a building under demolition. Undressed, mismatched window frames are laced together to produce 2 open work rooms, while a squat, ugly, black wall defines the stage wings. The lighting too exudes lower-class dejection, yellowing mists filtering through, or garish red and blue spots stabbing out like at a cheap nightclub.

The effect is to remove Murphet’s treatment not only from its stylised origins, but also its stylish ones, placing the performance in a world of petty jealousies and fragmented, unsatisfying relationships. Where earlier productions tended to deflate social expectations of romance by the unremitting portrayal of its classy, fictional origins, Horton’s version is a portrait of sad characters whose gestures only barely manage to evoke such models as Davis and Bogart, against which their own lives are unfavourably compared. Murphet notes that where younger casts have played Slow Love as if the characters were beginning their journey into romance, these figures now seem jaded—in Murphet’s words, they are “haunted” by love and its fictional images.

The general grubbiness of the production is also enhanced by the use of cinesonic samples, with grabs from television advertising and other fragments screened onto semi-occluded, on-stage sets, or mulched-out in Stevie Wishart’s live electronic score. The music is indeed the most perplexing element of this production, the sound abruptly leaping from extended string-produced drones (which Wishart creates by reinventing the hurdy-gurdy as an angular, Steve-Reich-style, avant-garde instrument) to beat-heavy drum’n’bass (which seems rather inimical to characters’ moods and actions). Wishart’s score is highly engaging in its diverse palette (almost Enya-like vocals, Laurie-Anderson-style violin doodling, semi-improvised processed samples) but it seems pegged to the cumulative effect of Murphet’s text as a whole, rather than anything in the scenes themselves. The music therefore exists almost entirely parallel to the staging, instead of providing much in the way of keys or entries into the work, or even an overt sonic dialogue with the performance.

What is one to make then of this production overall? I myself was rather disappointed. Not having seen Murphet’s works in performance, I was expecting the sharp chiaroscuro of film noir, “played (as the introduction to Quick Death states) cleanly, clearly and accurately.” Horton and Wishart by contrast have deliberately muddied the look, feel and sound of this aesthetic. Nevertheless, by doing so they produce a work which, despite its drawbacks, demands careful attention to the slight, enigmatic nuances separating ‘natural’ performance from the highly evocative tendrils which link it to romantic fictions as venerable as the Renaissance serenades Wishart briefly drops into. Earlier, slicker takes on Murphet’s script may, in the long run, prove preferable. None of those associated with this production however are content to allow either this script or performance practice in general to remain static. I therefore put Slow Love down as a fabulously brilliant, challenging failure, and fervently look forward to more such works—successful or otherwise.

Chamber Made Opera, Slow Love, writer Richard Murphet, director Douglas Horton, music composition & performance Stevie Wishart, design Trina Parker, lighting David Murray, performers Anne Browning, Beth Child, Mark Pegler, Ian Scott. Malthouse, June 21-29

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 6

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

1 August 2002