I have been seeing a show a night for the past week with just one more before the 2012 Sydney Festival is over for me. I am grouping some of them here, as they kinda go together. Besides I need to get back to my real job – the bank manager in my brain is hassling me. I have seen more of this festival than I have for quite a while. All of it has been interesting, some of it quite special, with the home-made fare more impressive than the imported.
Certainly more stylistically and formally advanced. Others may hold a different view, depending on what they have encountered. I did not see Babel, for example, which was greatly admired by many. But as dance, I wonder if it could have possibly been better than Paul White and choreographer Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon? Can one make such a comparison when Babel is, I gather, epic and complex; and the Paul White solo, while making huge technical demands on the body, so very simple and spare? It doesn’t matter, the point to make is that Anatomy of an Afternoon is, among other local works premiering at this festival, a fine and fascinating take on the Nijinsky’s Afternoon of the Faun. And first-class festival fare.
So to the comparisons I can make:
Beautiful Burnout – one of the overseas shows I have seen – is about boxing. It clearly pairs up neatly in the programing with I’m Your Man, also about boxing, playing Downstairs at Belvoir. Except that the imported gig comes off second best. Beautiful Burnout is presented the National Theatre of Scotland, which brought the highly-regarded Black Watch to a previous Sydney Festival. It has more of a conventional story-line to it than I’m Your Man, as we follow the journey of one young boxer’s progress in the ring, paralleled by his relationship with is mother. What it’s like for her to be the mother of a young man who participates in such a violent sport. All this seems kind of ‘so what’ until the end – where the son is injured so badly he will never recover. In the saddest twists of fate the mother gets her son back.
It was not until this surprise turn of events that properly I engaged with this Beautiful Burnout (Seymour Centre), and by then it was too late. Having seen I’m Your Man (Belvoir Downstairs) at a dress rehearsal, I knew already how evocative a story set in a gym can be. And this local show is quite simply more imaginative, the performers go a long way further into the physical enactment of the world of boxing, and its use of technology is more precise and more advanced. Formally its just a groovier work if art, and it packs a bigger punch.
Similarly when it comes to the rendition of great classics, Thyestes – orginally from Melbourne’s Hayloft Theatre – goes way beyond Cheek by Jowl’s imported Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Tis Pity is a Jacobean tragedy written around the subject of incest: the lovers in this instance are brother and sister. And by today’s standards, the realisation of this four hundred year old text is pretty hip. Hip enough for those who know the John Ford 1630 (approx) text well enough to baulk at the production, sensing a certain grandeur has been sacrificed in this ‘modern day’ reading. That said, however groovy the staging is, it looks rather old-fashioned (up there with one of Bell Shakespeare’s better productions say) compared to this Thyestes – created by Melbourne’s Hayloft Project. Though it must be said Tis Pity is wonderfuly realised with some very fine performances. It certainly achieves the goals it sets out for itself.
Premiering 18 months ago as a commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse, Thyestes takes us further than anything else we’ve seen so far in what is clearly more than a trend, we could almost call it a movement, that has been pursued by Barrie Kosky, Tom Wright, Benedict Andrews in Sydney and a whole swathe of theatre makers in Melbourne, particularly those involved with the Hayloft Project and Black Lung theatre companies. Hayloft being founded in 2007 by the director of Thyestes, Simon Stone. Those engaged in this new way of making new work like to take a written script, sometimes a famous classic, and utterly gut it before rebuilding it into an entirely different shape – with the view that, in its new form, it will speak more boldly to today’s audience. It’s a movement that casts aside our traditional respect for ‘the author’ or redefines who the author of a theatrical text might be.
Of note here is the connection between many of the Melbourne artists involved in this new way of making and the theatre school at the Victorian College of the Arts: under the tuition, among others, of Richard Murphet and Lindy Davies. Given the edgy quality to their theatre-making since graduating, it’s worrying to hear that the school’s approach to learning is under threat now this previously independent school has been subsumed by the octopus arms of Melbourne University. Hey guys, don’t try to fix what ain’t broken. Get your hands on Richard Murphet’s Platform Paper No. 28, The Rise and Fall of the VCA.
This Thyestes is not a treatment or update of 1st century AD Seneca play, but rather a fresh reading of the broader package of Greek myths from which that Roman Classic was born. In terms of text, the official script has been reduced to a few lines of summary which runs past our eyes in red electronic lighting before each scene. Then what we get on stage is lights up on one, two or three actors, depending – riffing on the essence or spirit of that summary. Those actors are Thomas Henning (Thyestes), Mark Winter (Atreus) and Chris Ryan (Chrysippus, Aerope, Aegisthus and Pelopia).
Even if you know the original story-line well, it is difficult at times to identify just who is playing whom, especially in the case of Chris Ryan, who not only embodies four characters, but makes no attempt disguise his masculinity when playing his female roles. I think that is a problem for (us) average thinkers, viewers and readers. Of course Alison Croggon had no problems of that sort – and so I urge any of you who are still reading (especially those intending to visit the production) have a look of Alison’s brilliant review – see here!
After our quick read of the scene summary, lights come up on some form of partly improvised play. These scenes in themselves are fabulous, and the trust the actors have in each other leads tremendous daring. Henning, Winter and Ryan, with director Simon Stone, should be congratulated for this. This is theatre of a distilled purity that we have not seen since the 1970s when Grotowski’s ‘poor theatre’ ideas inspired, Rex Cramphorn, in particular, to trim their theatre making down to the absolute basics. The acting here isn’t anywhere near in the league of Grotowski’s own disciplined troupe, but it is still hugely exposed. Exposure of the actor as ‘being’ – not just in a ‘role’ – to me is the basic thrill in attending theatre, and here we get it in spades.
I’m not going argue for and against whether theatre makers are allowed to trash a classic text, because nowhere here – in the script or the program – is there any reference to Seneca. And we have been through this before on this site, especially in the discussion which followed my review of The Business - and across the city in the wake of discussions concerning (in my view) the less successful Baal. The question here is: to what extent do the performed scenes compliment or elucidate each particular scene summary. Some are absolutely on the money, especially the final scene, where we get to see Thyestes eat a dinner made of his own baby sons (in spaghetti blog). That in fact is the only scene where the summary is literally enacted Others are pretty nifty and apt, but not all are easy to relate to the written introduction to the scene.
We shouldn’t have to read the program notes in advance to understand or enjoy a play. In this case the notes from director Simon Stone are very helpful to the slow coaches like me, and reading them makes me want to go see the production again. Just to suck up what I missed.
What I would say to those involved in this new way of making work is that the more time you spend researching and reshaping an old Greek myth into a postmodern embodiment, the more likely you are going to leave your audience behind – unless you are very particular and precise. A good example of what can go wrong would be Matthew Lutton’s engaging and beautiful production of Tom Holloway’s Love Me Tender at Belvoir a couple of years back. Holloway’s script drew heavily on, and then radically transformed, the story of Iphigenia. It was said by some close to the production that you did not need to know the original story for the production to make sense. But that wasn’t true. Too many exited that show somewhat bewildered. I, in turn, vaguely familiar with the Iphigenia story, had a wonderful experience. I was doing a lot of explaining in the foyer, but that shouldn’t be required.
At one of those excellent 1980s Adelaide Festivals I mentioned recently, a leading edge Japanese director described what might be a useful technique for this current bevy of myth-busters. He said would give his actors a generic theme – maybe get them go away and pick an emotion privately that would drive a given scene. They would letter return, act out the idea in the form of actions: and then the director would describe what he saw. If it was not what they had intended, they went back and did it again. I am not explaining this well – but the result was that, between the various comings and goings, back and forth, like the adjusting of a camera lens, the intended narrative was brought into increasingly clearer focus. This happens in writing prose, especially criticism: because I feel or think something while I am writing it down is no assurance that those thoughts or feelings have been translated effectively into the words I choose to put down on the page. If I leave the draft for a day and then come back to it, often a lot of what I thought was there just isn’t.
I do think something like this has been interfering with the full progress of some of these shows – certainly so in Love Me Tender, and I think also in Baal and Thyestes. Too many in the audience are being left behind. Even if we loved the show, I’m fairly sure we are missing more of the work’s content (as intended) than its makers think. I don’t think dumbing down is necessary – but just a reminder here that theatre is made for the audience to enjoy. And if the artists involved are also having a good time, at the same time, then all the better. But no more than that. But don’t for one minute, dear theatre makers, presume that what you know and feel is being passed on.
My enthusiasm for this production of Thyestes stalls there. I can’t call it a masterpiece because too much of it is unclear. But I can enthuse about this production not just for its boldness, but also for the direction it suggests theatre making in this country is heading. At least this strand of it. I can say quite confidently that this production of Thyestes, with others I have mentioned here, are signposts. Being a revival of a production first seen in Melbourne in 1010, we are not only getting to see truly wonderful show here, but also an important missing link in the evolution in this bold new form of theatre making.