the ghosts of bad blood

john bailey on hélène cixous as playwright

 2007 VCA Graduating Company’s production, The Perjured City

2007 VCA Graduating Company’s production, The Perjured City

2007 VCA Graduating Company’s production, The Perjured City

HÉLÈNE CIXOUS IS ONE OF THE HEAVYWEIGHTS OF FRENCH FEMINIST THEORY, BUT TO CURTAIL HER CV THERE IS TO SELL HER SHORT. IN HER HOMELAND, SHE’S A PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL, POET, LECTURER, CRITIC AND, SURPRISINGLY, PLAYWRIGHT. PERHAPS THEY DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY THERE. IT’S HARD TO THINK OF AN EQUIVALENT POLYMATH WITH SUCH A HIGH PROFILE IN AUSTRALIA. THEN AGAIN, VIEWING HER EPIC THE PERJURED CITY, IT’S NOT CERTAIN THAT SUCH A PROLIFIC OUTPUT IS NECESSARILY OF UNIFORMLY GREAT QUALITY.

The Perjured City was originally created for Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, though, so subsequent productions will inevitably suffer in comparison. After attending the four and half hour version mounted by the graduating students of the VCA’s School of Drama, all I longed for was to see how Mnouchkine could have adapted such a sprawling, unwieldy work. Its ambition far outweighs its realisation, but sometimes an ambitious failure can thrill more than a modest success.

The work is a Greek tragedy shaped around a contemporary horror. During the 1980s, the French National Centre for Blood Tranfusions knowingly administered HIV-positive blood to thousands of patients and it was years before any kind of justice was even hesitatingly advanced. Cixous gives voice to those who suffered most by relocating the real-life events into a quasi-allegorical otherworld, a twilight graveyard into which the grieving mother of two children arrives. They have died from the bad blood; she seeks a settling of the ledger. Amidst the denizens of the cemetery she calls forth the three Furies of legend who have lain dormant since the days of the Greeks who needed them most—the guilty doctors are dragged into this netherworld to face trial and, perhaps, retribution.

That’s the bare bones of it. Cixous doesn’t pare back her text, however. The Mother soon slinks off into a shadowy penumbra as other voices flesh out the story. The dead children themselves are reanimated as ethereal ghosts, beautifully rendered here through the use of magnificent and heart-achingly evocative puppets. The doctors are given leave to voice their own situations, motives and excuses—mostly successful, though one scene ranks among the most ham-fisted and clumsy attempts at meta-theatricality I’ve seen as a character finds himself literally lying atop the grave of Shakespeare. The Bard would be turning in his.

There are many ideas submerged in this production to warrant further investigation. But why did Cixous produce such a gargantuan monster of a piece? If Theatre du Soleil’s others works are anything to go by, the answer is obvious. It’s not so clear whether companies with smaller budgets, monetary or otherwise, can bear the burden of such pieces.

The VCA production was a relatively spare one. The set was minimal, consisting of red-dyed ropes forming a circus-like series of netted ladders and trapeze-like structures around an austere forum—or, perhaps, agora. For the most part, this is unchanged for the entire duration of the work, though its closing moments are all the more breathtaking for their unexpectedness. After a typically Grecian moment of death and destruction is wrought upon the text, we are transported into a celestial afterlife wherein some kind of hope seems possible, and a sudden darkness is lit by a proliferation of coloured stars whirling around the audience’s field of vision. It’s an unforeshadowed moment of beauty—if not sublime, at least something like it.

It’s doubtful that most of these graduates will have the opportunity to perform such a grand, heroic work again in a long time, if at all. And even less certain is the possibility that local audiences will have the chance to see Cixous’ text produced again in a live context. For all its flaws, then, The Perjured City was still a production that left an indelible impression, and one worth savouring for its rarity.

The Perjured City, Or The Awakening of the Furies, writer Hélène Cixous, translator Bernadette Fort, director Kirsten von Bibra, music Elizabeth Drake, design Jeminah Reidy, costumes Jessica Daley, lighting Whitney McNamara, puppet design Lachlan Plain, performers 2007 Drama Graduates, VCA School of Drama, Space 28, Melbourne, May 29-June 9

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. web

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2007