• 27 Oct 2008 /  Reviews


    Last week I attended two sobering events. One was director Barrie Kosky’s production of Euripides’ The Women of Troy at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf One. The other, the next day, was a meeting at the Museum of Sydney for artists and others with a concern or interest in arts practice relating to the subject of the atomic bomb testings at Maralinga in South Australia. Both dealt directly with the aftermath of war.

    Two thousand five hundred years ago, in 415BC, Euripides scalded his home-town audience with an unflinching attack on the indifference of his fellow Athenians to the suffering of the citizens of nearby Melos. Just the year before, it’s not only that the Athenian army had thoroughly defeated the island in battle; but, in the wash-up, slaughtered every single male, and enslaved every female and child. What was doubly outrageous about the action of the Athenian army was that this brutal reprisal was enacted as ‘punishment’ for the Islanders’ ‘neutrality’ during this late phase of the crippling Peloponnesian War.

    Unable to speak of the matter directly, Euripides relocated his drama to the semi-mythological city of Troy. The first two works in what was a trilogy of plays have not survived, but the third – The Women of Troy – asks us to consider the aftermath of a war from the point of view of the surviving women and children. Co-adapter of the text for this production, Tom Wright, reminds us in his notes that there would have been many Athenian citizens watching his play concurrently enjoying the fruits of that pillage in the form the recent influx of fresh free domestic and farm labour.

    In typically unpredictable Kosky fashion, we have an ‘extremist’ theatrical event: in this instance, short, pungent, grueling, attenuated by great moments of aural beauty (the music/singing). Ultimately we are served an uncompromising physicalisation of the play’s ant-war theme. There are enough visual references to Abu Ghraib prison for us to forced to recognize that we are also looking at war in our own time. It is a testimony to Kosky’s profound appreciation of the core nature of art, that he is able to frame violence within an aesthetic that reminds us that it is beauty that holds the world together. Not brutality or force…

    It is really quite an awesome work for the stage where it seems almost disrespectful to begin pulling it apart to highlight individual achievements. So much foyer talk about theatre is usually about ‘the play’ or ‘so-and-so’s performance’, or walking out ‘singing the set’. It is high praise to say that doing so here makes me feel uncomfortable.

    A great work of art speaks entirely for itself.

    Robyn Nevin as Hecuba, Queen of Troy, with Jennifer Vuletic (background): Photo by Tracey Schramm

    On the other hand, it would be discourteous not to single out some highlights, tradition being what it is. We have Robyn Nevin back at last, for example, unencumbered by management duties, giving fully to her role Hecuba – Queen of Troy. It takes courage at this point her career to give herself over to requirements of working, not just on this fierce play, but under the baton of Mr Kosky. It’s a spare and humble and resonating performance. I wrote a little while back of the ‘x-ray effect’ of good theatre: and I can see Nevin cringing under the onslaught of her character’s predicament. Coiled like a frightened victim-child familiar to abuse, yet fearful that even worse – beyond her imagining – is likely yet to come.

    It’s an especially generous performance when you appreciate the space Nevin allows for the younger Melita Jurisic to ‘do her thing’! Jurisic is an extraordinary actress who, it appears, can’t help but work at the very frontier of her imagination. She get to play three roles: Cassandra, Andromache, and the beauteous Helen herself. That Jurisic is able to take us to such far off places, physically and emotionally, and yet never stray from the core themes of the text, is testament to her gifts of an actress. She must surely be one of the most extraordinary, bold and idiosyncratic, working on this planet.

    Melita Jurisic as Helen with Robyn Nevin: Photo by Tracey Schramm

    Among all of literature’s famous types, I admit to a special fondness for Cassandra. She who is blind yet can see too much. She who shouts warning, only to be ignored. It would be ridiculous to say I identify with her situation, but I do ‘feel for’ her predicament. Why otherwise would I ‘bang on’ endlessly, the way I do. My other favourite ‘persona’ is little Oskar in Gunter Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum. Banging away literally, but perhaps morally compromised himself? And no-one taking any notice. Dear me, the plight of the freelance journalist. I must write a letter about this to the SMH!

    It has surprised me that few have mentioned the work of the production’s third main actor: Arthur Dignam. A scary voice of anonymous ‘authority’, grave and heartless over the crackling loud speaker for the bulk of the play. And then turning up in an flash electric wheelchair (read mobile throne) as Menaleus, not only leader of the Greek forces who have turned up to thrash Troy (it took them years), but as the cuckolded husband of Helen. Talk about vicious and unforgiving. I could not praise Dignam’s characterization more highly in describing it as one of the creepiest I have ever witnessed in the theatre. A chuckle here, a cheery toss of the head there: meanwhile feeding bread crumbs to the enslaved women, their half-naked bodies mired and bleeding, as if they were mere pigeons in the park. As they say in the classics: ‘Revenge is best served cold”.

    Then there’s the choir, the chorus, the ‘ordinary’ women of Troy represented by Natalie Gamsu, Queenie Van De Sant and Jennifer Vuletic. In his own program notes, Kosky refers to the extensive music Euripides included in the original performance, suggesting tht ‘over half’ of it would have bee sung. Here we get madrigals and songs from John Dowland and Carlo Gesueldo, Mozart, Bizet and Slovenian folk songs.

    Queenie van de Zandt, Natalie Gamsu & Jennifer Vuletic with Robyn Nevin: Photo by Tracey Schramm

    It’s a wonderful design (sets and costumes) by Alice Babidge too: very locker room. A kind of a male jock porn setting – which is totally right for this sickening fable. It gets very freaky when you notice, who knows when it starts, a certain black muck oozing out of a high point on the right of the set. Is it crude oil? What are we fighting for anyway? Damien Cooper keeps moving up the ladder of eminence with every show he lights: here it is, not surprisingly severe and cold and unromantic.  And in the sound department, we have design by David Gifillan, with Daryl Wallis in view of the audience on live keyboard.

    it is not surprising that, early in the season, some audience members found the production a bit hard to take – and felt the need to exit. It is sad that this far into our theatre’s culture evolution, say since the overturning of the British matinee model in the 1970s, that there are still people who pay good money – possibly on a regular basis – who are are not prepared to give up the notion that the art they pay to see intended to do only one thing: which is to reinforce the social values they already hold dear. Or otherwise, in the very least, distract them for a few hours from daily life’s run-of-the-mill worries.

    What is amazing is that so many weeks into the season, you still have people walking out of this show. The night I was there, about twenty left.  On other nights, it’s been up to thirty. Just in dribs and drabs through out the entire event: at some point they’ve had enough. Where do these people live? I mean mentally. Is it not enough it know that if this is a Barrie Kosky production then you are up for for something that is certainly not going to be tame? Have they not been reading the papers or listening into dinner party chat for th past five  weeks sinc the show opened – not to have some idea of what attending this production was going to involve. How cocooned are these people? or willfully blinkered? Ultimately: how undeserving were they of the privilege offered them? I have little respect for them, and indeed not a lot of patience. Why not hand the tickets over to the kids or their more open- minded neighbours.

    This is without getting into the far more complex question of why such people feel the need to flee such a work. A work that is, like ‘Guernica’, ultimately very beautiful. What is it about their lives that thet feel so compelled to cling to? To the extent that a show like this threatens them? What are they refusing to let go of? What is it about sitting in front of this production that poses such a threat? And, yes: how can they not see the sorrowful beauty in it, like walking through a graveyard and reading the messages on the headstones.

    While The Women of Troy had just closed in Sydney, the good news for Melbourne readers is that the show opens at Malthouse on 6 November. Go to this, the Malthouse site for more information.

    Meanwhile, my next piece will elaborate on the meeting I went to about Maralinga; and the way a fascinatingly diverse group of artists are driven, by whatever, to take up this subject in their work. There is some incredible stuff going on. I know I am behind schedule with my work still, since getting back from the bush. The truth is, each post makes it own demands – and sometimes it takes more than a couple of days to put a piece together. I am hoping my regular readers will exercise some tolerance here: for better or worse, I prefer not to let a piece go until I am more or less happy with it.

    That said, I expect I will catch up with myself and what’s going on in Sydney town over the next few weeks. On another front, I am currentyl reading Fiona McGregor’s book, Strange Museums, about her trip to Poland with AnA Wojak – a journey which allowed them not only to see a lot of that country from unexpected perspectives but to present some for their amazing performance art on the way.

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