shocking symmetries

keith gallasch braves recent theatre in sydney

Simon Stone, Martin Csokas, Catherine McClements, Robin McLeavy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Simon Stone, Martin Csokas, Catherine McClements, Robin McLeavy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Simon Stone, Martin Csokas, Catherine McClements, Robin McLeavy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

THEATRE CAN BE FRIGHTENING, EVEN WHEN IT’S FUNNY AND THEN ESPECIALLY SO. VERSION 1.0 AT THEIR MOST BAROQUE AND WITH FINELY TUNED ENSEMBLE PLAYING GAVE US DEEPLY OFFENSIVE AND UTTERLY UNTRUE, A REALLY SCARY IF WICKEDLY COMIC ACCOUNT OF THE SURREAL AUSTRALIAN WHEAT BOARD OIL-FOR-FOOD PROGRAM SCANDAL (SEE P37). ELSEWHERE IT WAS EUTHANASIA—SHOWN IN GRIM DETAIL—IN THE SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY PRODUCTION OF DON DELILLO’S TENSE FAMILY DRAMA, LOVE LIES BLEEDING; MARITAL PATHOLOGY IN COMPANY B’S WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?—A CLASSIC PLAYED HERE TO A NEW LEVEL OF PHYSICAL EXCESS; AND GENETIC ENGINEERING IN DR EGG AND THE MAN WITH NO EAR, PRETTILY DONE WITH PUPPETS AND PROJECTIONS BUT FULL OF DIRE WARNINGS.

In all of these there’s a sense of entrapment, of finding ourselves looped into unwanted symmetries—like the genetic engineering we both desire (to improve the quality of life) and fear (the monsters it might make of us), the euthanasia that will improve the quality of dying but could excuse murder, the family that nurtures us but whose deeply embedded games keep us from ourselves.

love lies bleeding

In Don Delillo’s Love Lies Bleeding, an aged man on a drip sits in a wheelchair on a bleak American desert landscape beneath the harsh moon-like glare of two huge halogen lamps. He is so still he could be dead, or a dummy, as in one of those verisimilitude sculptures that used to spook us in art galleries. Shortly his double, very much alive, is wheeled on, recalling his first encounter with death as a child and musing on one of his failed marriages, the partners “living in the same skin” and “wishing each other dead in a car crash.”

But this exchange between Alex the artist and Lia his young wife, his fourth, who pushes his chair, turns out to be in the recent past. The play’s present focuses on the man as we first saw him, a comatose stroke victim. However Lia is convinced he is still responsive, noticing among other things his small tics at the approach of a storm. But his third wife, Toinette, and their son, Sean, have arrived, determined to put the old man out of what they perceive as his misery. What unfolds is a protracted argument: Lia in opposition, Sean determined, Toinette going along with the plan but losing her resolve. It’s the ready-made abstractions that mother and son trot out in justification for killing Alex that astonish the young woman, while we wonder if the son is acting out of compassion or a desire for vengeance, for a “life spent waiting” for a man now “holding us back.”

Sean eventually persuades Lia that the deed must be done and sends her walking in the desert. Her acquiescence is not really understood until late in the play. The deed itself however is gruesomely careless: the morphine is past the use-by-date, the euthanasia method taken from uncertain instructions on a website and the symptoms of dying difficult to detect. This waiting is painful. The body slumps.

We move forward in time. Lia is speaking at her husband’s funeral: she “refuses to tell stories.” Her memory of Alex, she says, is of his being, not anecdotes. We return to an earlier time, but with the knowledge now that Lia finally came to accept: “Alex could have gone on forever, I could not.” And then we loop further back to the play’s opening when Alex can still speak and utters the words that Lia most likely refused to hear: “I’m running backwards.” It’s a speech of deep despair from a man losing his sense of self, but it’s finally leavened with humour that Lia might have mistaken for undying spirit.

Love Lies Bleeding is a dream-like morality play, wisely staying short of nightmare, written, directed and performed without sentimentality or melodrama and tempered with occasional black humour (including the curtain call in which the dummy, a very real actor, stands and takes a bow). Paula Arundell’s portrayal of Lia is wonderfully subtle, the initial aura of new ageism giving way to wisdom. Benjamin Winspear brings a poetic animation to Sean’s unswerving sense of purpose; Robyn Nevin carefully reveals Toinette’s growing sense of doubt and, in the little we see of him, Max Cullen plays an essentially quiet, fading Alex with finesse. Little is glimpsed of the difficult younger man we hear about or, a fault with the play, of the artist and his practice. The great strength of Love Lies Bleeding is, as you would expect, in the poetry implicit in the writing and the idea that a coming together of divergent personaiities can yield change that, even if a tad mismanaged, is nonetheless as it should be.

who’s afraid of virginia woolf?

It was a pleasure to be able to enjoy another demanding American play shortly after seeing Love Lies Bleeding. In Albee’s classic love looks close to dead. The vicious co-dependency of Martha and George is a relationship nonetheless, but the symmetry is broken when Martha reveals the secret of their (actually non-existent) boy child to some young late night guests (well on the way into their own marital knot). Martha has betrayed the trust implicit in the fantasy she shares with her husband and, in the course of an overnight binge of drinking and cruel game-playing, a vengeful George (already deeply humiliated) ‘kills’ the son, eliminating a key part of the couple’s relationship.

The power of the play resides in the accuracy of Albee’s heightened rendition of the strategies of everyday dialogue. We observe with growing anxiety and fascination the interplay of Martha’s direct, vulgar assaults and George’s snide commentary on how she speaks and thinks. From the outset neither can give way to the other, they are locked in a pattern of escalating asymmetry until it momentariily collapses, when the words give out, into physical violence and sexual betrayal. Inevitably talk starts up again, but will the relationship ever be the same?

Benedict Andrews and cast get the language games right—and the bigger games too, like “get the guests” and “humiliate the host.” Martin Csokas is particularly effective as George, combining a sense of embittered interiority with a veneer of extroversion. Csoka’s low toned, laidback delivery is occasionally reminscent of Richard Burton’s intoning, without being at all imitative, and he is able to pull off an unbelievably quiet, fast and threatening sotto voce. The only thing I missed was sufficient marking of the occasional sense of intimacy and knowingness between George and Martha when they mutually acknowledge their game playing.

As is to be expected of Andrews, the production speaks to us on many levels. The stylish all-sheen-and-surfaces set by Robert Cousins is a loungeroom in black leather, chrome and two walls of glass. In the first act the glass is behind the performers, in the second it is between audience and performers, the characters appearing as if caged specimens and the glass, table, floor, walls literally awash with their spit, alcohol and a mountain of melted ice cubes which George earlier emptied over the glass table. Sodden, they climb the furniture and slip and slide on treacherous surfaces—the mess of their psychological abjection given its physical correlative.

Once again continuity of vision, embodied in direction and design, is the hallmark of Andrews’ work, the revolving set echoing the same team’s design for The Season at Sarsaparilla (RT78, p11) and the director and designer Anna Tregloan’s glass wall in Eldorado for Malthouse (RT74, p42). Although I found the musical underscoring of the climactic argument undervalued the power of Albee’s dialogue and although I was not always convinced by Catherine McClement’s brittle depiction of Martha (some requisite vulnernability seemed missing), the relentless drive of this Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the image of a social world drowning in itself made for a grimly satisfying experience.

Dr Egg and the Man with No Ear

Dr Egg and the Man with No Ear

Dr Egg and the Man with No Ear

dr egg & the man with no ear

Like steampunk, if minus the punk, this “modern day fable” for 7-12 year-olds is sci-fi in a retro-ish setting. A man crashes his bicycle, has his ear eaten off by a bull terrier and slips into a profound depression—he sorely misses his ear but is incapable of doing anything about it. Daughter Vivi seeks out Dr Egg, a bald-headed Edwardian scientist type (cf Rolf de Heer’s Dr Plonk) who will grow an ear for the father from a slice of the girl’s body. The result, however, mutates into something else, with a life of its own.

The show is full of striking images—the splendidly frocked Snake narrator, clever alternations between the performers and small puppet versions of themselves (which the actors manipulate), multi-layered design (parallel performances in front of and behind the screen that flies in and out of the Constructivist proscenium), large-scale projections that effectively evoke travel across landscape and city, an elaborate old world scientific laboratory, and witty puppeteering in the genetic engineering of a tomato with a fish and, not least, the new ear that sprouts legs. The magic is reinforced by an onstage solo musician, Biddy Connor, who provides effects and an engaging score from, among other things, percussion, toy piano and vocals.

While all this seems clear enough—a reasonably simple story and ample spectacle—the show sometime feels quite complicated and the transitions from performers to their puppet selves slow and elaborate. The tale is framed by the Snake narrator—appearing first as an animation, weaving through foliage, and then as a glittering human version who has to then elaborately shed her frock. It makes for a very slow start not to mention introducing the (possibly complex) question of why a snake, while a certain moral heavy-handedness seemed already evident—“a story of human folly”, Snake declares—for a show apparently about the complexities of choice in the age of cloning. Annie Lee (from the Kransky Sisters) eventually manages to engage as the reptile, although the headmistressy diction amplifies the show’s retro tone and evokes a quainter theatre for young people of days gone by.

The one-dimensionality of Dr Egg himself—in no way able to represent any of the virtues of genetic engineering—is worrying, and not the fault of performer Colin Sneesby. Although Dr Egg and the Man with No Ear is not a play of character complexity (the father is deeply depressed but invested with just enough gravitas by Brian Lucas; Vivi with feeling and pragmatism by Lara Tumak), the issues are complex. Some of this is conveyed—the new ear creature is a living thing and cute, dammit—but insufficiently because that word ‘folly’ seems to hang pre-emptively over the whole enterprise. Snake asks towards the end, “Who is to blame?”, and you wonder, ‘For what, precisely?’. For a daughter’s concern for her suffering father? The narration and the portrayal of the scientist suggest a crime has been perpetrated, the story however suggests something else. I was confused, as were the youngsters around me. This is a play then not about choice, but a wrong choice—and what other is available to Vivi in her world? Oddly, the writer Catherine Fargher, is no stranger to the complexities of biotechnology whether in her account for RealTime of working with tissue culture (RT65, p17) or in her witty performance, Biohome (RT 75, p 34).

Although theatrically sophisticated and expertly realised as such (director Jessica Wilson), Dr Egg and the Man with No Ear is weighed down with message and the mechanics of production. Fargher’s writing ranges from flat to incisive to droll—“Why exercise when you can simply mutate?” The performances are good though a little more complexity all round wouldn’t go astray. Re-worked, better paced and made less internally contradictory, Dr Egg and the Man with No Ear could enjoy a long life as a relevant and magical work for our time.

Sydney Theatre Company, Love Lies Bleeding, writer Don Delillo, director Lee Lewis, performers Paula Arundell, Max Cullen, Robyn Nevin, Benjamin Winspear, Shaun Goss, designer Fiona Crombie, lighting Luiz Pampolha, composer Paul Charlier; STC Wharf 2, July 12-Sept 1; Company B, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, writer Edward Albee, director Benedict Andrews, performers Martin Csokas, Catherine McClements, Robin McLeavy, Simon Stone, designer Robert Cousins, costumes Alice Babidge lighting Niklas Palantji, sound design Jeremy Silver; Belvoir St Theatre, Aug 8-Sept 16; Dr Egg and the Man with No Ear, concept by director Jessica Wilson and writer Catherine Fargher from a story by Fargher, performers Annie Lee, Brian Lucas, Lara Tumak, Colin Sneesby, designer Jonathon Oxlade, animation Jamie Clennett, composer, musician Biddy Connor, composer James Wilkinson, lighting design Phil Lethlean, producer Performing Lines; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, July 25-27

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 36,

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

1 October 2007