Theatre of the face

Jonathan Marshall

Stephanie Miller, Robert Meldrum, Wounds to the Face

Stephanie Miller, Robert Meldrum, Wounds to the Face

Stephanie Miller, Robert Meldrum, Wounds to the Face

In 1862, the French physiologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne attempted to render transparent the soul and emotions of man by mapping physiognomic movement through electro-stimulation of compliant subjects’ facial muscles (including professional actors). But in using electrical probes to mould such expressions as “Lady Macbeth’s malice”, Duchenne de Boulogne displaced the “truth” which he sought to reveal behind the mask of flesh. The face remained a mysterious combination of involuntary responses, sculptural and performative artifice, and over-determined symbolic expressions derived from the history of art, literature, myth, culture and political rhetoric.

In contrast to Duchenne de Boulogne’s experiments, Howard Barker’s Wounds to the Face purports to reveal nothing. Rather, it provides a layered exploration of the ambiguities enfolded within the values of physiognomic beauty, ugliness and expression. There is no dichotomy here between the “false” plastic surgeons who ply their skills according to the dictates of perfectible beauty and the “true” revolutionaries who seek to liberate the ugly, to maim the former elite and hang the surgeons. This is not a world in which the “good” mother who indulgently stands by her war-wounded son is set against the “evil” fiance who flees, repulsed, when confronted with the son’s physiognomic death. As Keith Gallasch wrote of the playwright’s Victory: “Barker can portray…[a character]…with the values of Margaret Thatcher”, but in the next moment demand we attend to the horrors of her personal miseries and unfulfilled desires (RT61, p12). There are no heroes or villains here, only mortals with their flesh mired in the clay and make-up which one woman spends the entire production obsessively applying to her anxious visage.

Jess Kingsford has worked with Howard Barker in London and her direction is deeply indebted to this offshoot of the British repertory tradition. There is a toughness to the performance, a firm physical poise and subtly intense declamation which recalls Steven Berkoff’s reinterpretation of Shakespearean and Greek tragedy. The unrepentant poetry of speech and tautly placed bodies manage to embody a sense of commonplace physicality and British working-class language. The rediscovery of the popular in the high art of Jonson, Hogarth and others within British theatre of the 1960s and 70s infuses this production with an unrelenting force and an even, muscular pacing. However, unlike Berkoff this does not lead to an ambivalent valorisation of masculinity versus a horror of the feminine. In terms of performance, it is the relatively fresh female faces represented here which give the production its quiet dignity and restrained sexual allure.

It is indeed a bold dramaturg who stages a work concerned with physiognomy, since the subject sharply focuses the audience’s attention on the actor’s craft. Kingsford and her cast respond to this by eschewing excessive facial gesture and melodrama. Despite the pitch-black absurdities and horrors mounted on stage, which include the treacherous duplicity of lover and tyrant alike, the straight faces of these performers recall glassy ponds, disturbed only by slight ripples or calm waves of expression. Each performs more than one character, further highlighting the ambiguity and multiplicity of these visages.

As a result, the rare tight constrictions of muscle or sudden convulsions of the zygomaticus major become brutal performances, harsh articulations of the pragmatism of Narcissus during the revolution, or the pain of the surgeon transformed into a portrait of fear. Cutting away the face does not reveal truth, only more bloody flesh.

Black Box Theatre Company, Wounds to the Face, writer Howard Barker, director Jess Kingsford; Theatreworks, Melbourne, June 17-July 4

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. Onl

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

1 August 2004