Political king hit

Jonathan Marshall

Falling Petals

Falling Petals

Falling Petals

Playwright Ben Ellis’ latest biliously nasty satire reads like a manifesto on what relationships theatre can realistically and effectively have with the world. Since Tampa and September 11 critics have been crying: “Where are the plays on these subjects?” It’s like the ongoing call for The Great Australian Musical, or the now thankfully past calls for The Great Australian Play. Far from suggesting an effective response to contemporary politics, such demands stem from an attempt to enclose these events, to place them within a ‘Great’ fiction like All Quiet on the Western Front, and so enable us to move on, happy in having given them literary voice. Such an approach however, is inimical to theatre. The theatrical worldview is one in which things remain in a state of flux, in which change is continuous and final victory is elusive—or even illusory.

It is no coincidence that Bertolt Brecht worked in theatre, because a truly theatrical response to reality is necessarily systematic. Even the heroes of classical tragedy do not act alone. Their actions are dictated by a thousand forces embedded within the cosmic dramaturgy. The ‘Refugee Crisis’, important though it is, will not be ‘solved’ without addressing the myriad broader issues which brought us to this pass, from the inequities of international global capital to the changes in the nature of individual political engagement.

Judged in this context, Ellis’ work is a tour de force. His imagination is so profligate that he refuses to close off any of the wild exchanges that bubble away in this theatrical world. The depression of rural Australian society; a degree of self-interest and implicit fascism that makes even Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros seem kind; disease as a blight on human compassion such as makes The Plague seem humanistic; a denunciation of the innocence of children which surpasses Lord of the Flies; all of these worlds career madly together in a Swiftian comedy that combines the pessimism of 1984 with the violent, comedic lyricism of Brave New World. In short, both the weakness and the strength of Ellis’ world is its incredible richness, the many plays that collide within it. Like Terry Gilliam in Brazil, Ellis is unsure even how to conclude this work, offering at least 3 possible endings. The dark excesses of his writing represents a more realistic response to contemporary events, reflecting deep, structural changes in emotional life which have no single cause and which leave nothing untainted. Rather than The Empire Strikes Back, this is Alien, where the lack of genuine altruism among the victims makes them as guilty of their own fates as those explicitly in power. The disenfranchised of rural Australia fervidly mouth the doctrines of right wing economic determinism as they desperately fuck to the tune of the destruction of the world; a futile attempt to emulate their masters.

The dramaturgy of Falling Petals is as tautly ugly as Ellis’ dialogue. A world of graffiti and torn cardboard, the stage resembles a nasty, run-down backwater from the start. Aural bleed-through and fine grit compositions rise underneath the performance until the final heart of darkness emerges—which, as even Kurtz knew, was always to be found at home. Hanson country as a self-destructive, right wing Congo for our own times.

Falling Petals, writer Ben Ellis, director Tom Healey, lighting Daniel Zika, set & costume design Anna Borghesi, sound David Franzke, performers Paul Reichstein, Caroline Craig, Melia Naughton, James Wardlaw, Melita Jurisic, Playbox, Malthouse, Melbourne, June 27-July 19

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 7

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

1 August 2003