Monday, 18 August 2014

Postcard from Perth 31

The Seagull (Black Swan)

A friend and fellow-actor told me an old theatre joke the other day about the four-second version of The Seagull that’s based on the first and last lines of the play: ‘Why does Masha always wear black?’ ‘Because Konstantin shot himself.’

Described by Chekhov himself as ‘a comedy’, the play itself is singularly lacking in jokes. The opening night in Petersburg is one of the most famous disasters in theatre history: expecting a farce, the audience laughed in all the wrong places and booed at the end, and Chekhov fled the theatre vowing never to write a play again. Stanislavski’s production in Moscow two years later was an equally famous triumph, but the great director (who also played Trigorin, opposite a young Meyerhold as Konstantin) turned the play into a tragic love-triangle and transformed it into the standard-bearer for his own brand of stage naturalism (a transformation later scathingly criticized by the vehemently anti-naturalist Meyerhold). As drama, however, The Seagull is equally lacking in what we normally think of as dramatic action or even dialogue, at least if the latter is defined as speech that has some kind of performative effect or even moves the plot along. People talk and act, to be sure, but their words and actions have little bearing on the overall course of events. Instead they seem collectively mired in a kind of quicksand in which their every move only seems to sink them deeper in a process of inexorable and interminable catastrophe.

Rather than seeing them as comic or tragic, perhaps it’s more useful to view Chekhov’s plays under the category of irony (which Kierkegaard following Schlegel argued was in any case the form of consciousness proper to modernity, aesthetic or otherwise). In this light, it’s precisely the failure of the characters to speak or act effectively that renders them faithful to the conditions of contemporary existence. Another way of saying this is that Chekhov wrote tragicomedies of situation rather than tragedies of character or comedies of manners. He could almost be called the inventor of sit-com, with the word ‘sit’ in this case being used as a verb as well as a noun, if you’ll pardon the pun. (In fact he’s one playwright it’s almost impossible to stage without using chairs; I’ve been in a couple of minimalist productions of The Cherry Orchard myself that almost completely dispensed with them, but I still ended up at some point either sitting or lying on the floor.) Viewed as a master of irony, Chekhov paves the way for Beckett, and Larry David after him. Like Seinfeld, The Seagull could almost be described as ‘a show about nothing’, in which, as Kenneth Tynan said of Waiting for Godot, ‘nothing happens – twice’. In a sublime inversion of melodrama, Konstantin even shoots himself twice offstage – the second time successfully; and the melodramatic action of Nina’s seduction, pregnancy and abandonment by Trigorin likewise happens offstage in the two-year interval between Acts Three and Four. (Chekhov took things even further in this direction with his next play Uncle Vanya by having the title character attempt to shoot the Professor and miss in the failed climax at the end of Act Three.)

However you choose to classify it in terms of mood or genre, The Seagull is a transitional work – in Chekhov’s oeuvre and in the history of theatre. It stands at the crossroads between nineteenth-century melodrama, naturalism and Symbolism, and points beyond them to the twentieth century and the so-called theatre of the absurd. The title alone suggests an obvious precursor in Ibsen’s Wild Duck; but in Chekhov’s case the use of avian symbolism is characteristically ironic, as are the openly theatrical references (most obviously to Hamlet) and arguments about theatre, writing and aesthetics generally that crop up throughout the play – with Konstantin as a young struggling Symbolist locked in an artistic and emotional fight to the death both with his melodramatic actress-mother Arkadina and his popular realist-rival Trigorin. In fact Chekhov’s use of meta-theatrical or 'post-dramatic' irony in The Seagull incorporates a kind of prophetic critique of its own subsequent performance history. This is one of the reasons it remains such an iconic work for playwrights, actors, directors, companies and audiences today.

Kate Cherry’s new production for Black Swan has a beautiful simplicity for me because it’s essentially staged in a completely traditional way. As such it’s absolutely Chekhovian because it reveals the outlines of the play with such poignant and clarity and mostly allows it to speak for itself without extraneous commentary. This is a far cry from Benedict Andrews’s version at Belvoir a couple of years ago (with Judi Davis as Arkadina and David Wenham as Trigorin), which convincingly transposed the play to a contemporary Australian beach-house – a production which was itself a kind of homage to Neil Armfield’s even more typically homely and minimalist version (with Gillian Jones, Richard Roxburgh, Noah Taylor and Cate Blanchett) at Belvoir a decade earlier. Ironically these productions in the very act of stripping away accrued layers of sentimental performance traditions and conventions were less Chekhovian insofar as they staged a kind of stylistic intervention on behalf of Chekhov himself – the latter being scrupulous in his avoidance of any direct aesthetic, social, political or moral statements or judgements (again unlike Ibsen) regarding his characters (most of whom vociferously take positions of their own on every topic under the sun). For the same reason, I found some of the anachronisms in Hilary Bell’s otherwise smoothly playable translation – such as Trigorin’s very twentieth-century invocation of ‘human rights’ in his great diatribe about writing – struck a wrong note for me, especially given the otherwise very nineteenth-century staging; and I found myself missing some of the play’s more conventionally theatrical soliloquies and asides to the audience which had presumably been discarded in the interests of naturalism (but for me enrich its formal complexity and charm).

In contrast, by presenting the play otherwise complete with its nineteenth-century ‘Russian’ trappings (at least as seen through the lense of a certain ‘Anglo-Chekhovian’ tradition) Kate and her designer Fiona Bruce succeed in evoking a shimmering aura of lost innocence that made me laugh and weep at the follies of the figures onstage, their pretensions, delusions and desires. The moment of directorial and scenographic ‘intervention’ comes in Act Four with the unexpectedly Symbolist staging of Nina’s fleeting return-visit to Konstantin as a kind of vision, hallucination or dream (depending on your point of identification): the flimsy stage-curtain ‘walls’ of the house parting as the miniature outdoor stage by the lake from Act One flies in as a platform for their brief reunion – all as if ‘dreamed’ by the dying Sorin, who lies somnolent in his wheelchair at the edge of the stage, like a sleeping soldier at the edge of the frame in a Piero della Francesca fresco of the Resurrection. Here the nostalgic heart of the production seemed ironically to lie with Konstantin and his modernist desire for ‘new forms’, rather than Trigorin’s realism (or Arkadina’s taste for melodrama) – indirectly confirming what Chekhov himself said of Konstantin, that he is ‘a victim of his own talent’ (a typically cool clinical diagnosis that could incidentally be applied to so many ‘modernists’, then and now).

Of course loss of innocence is one of the things that this play is fundamentally about (Seinfeld and Godot notwithstanding). The comedy and tragedy of Nina and Konstantin falls essentially beneath this rubric; Arkadina and Trigorin have passed through it, and emerged world-weary and a little the-worse-for-wear but essentially intact on the other side, to compulsively deal out their own damage to others (the same is true to a certain extent of Dorn, for me the character in the play who most resembles Chekhov himself). Underlying this however is a darker undertow of familial damage, acknowledged or otherwise: Nina and her offstage ‘tyrant’ father; Arkadina’s abusive treatment of her son (mocked among other things for his ‘shopkeeper’ father, who is barely mentioned and never directly named – although Konstantin presumably suffers the humiliation of bearing his surname); Dorn’s unacknowledged parentage of Masha (explicit reference to which was cut from the end of Act One after the first production and never restored); the evident neglect of Masha’s own unwanted child with Medvedenko in Act Four; and the loss of Nina’s child with Trigorin. This too is a vein that runs through all four of Chekhov’s great plays, each of which features a family crippled and even immobilized by damage, denial and loss. Against this (and arguably growing directly out of it) is set the theme of lost or unrequited love: Konstantin for Nina (and beyond her, his own mother); Nina for Trigorin (a loss also suffered by Arkadina herself, even though she ultimately ‘has’ him); Polina for Dorn (whom she similarly ‘has’ without really ‘having’ him); Medvedenko for Masha; Masha for Konstantin; and so it goes on. It’s a tragi-comic chain of desire that Chekhov himself knew intimately (as he did the experience of having a physically and emotionally abusive father). 

In this regard, the revelation for me in this production is Rebecca Davis’s luminous Masha (which brings me back to the opening joke, in which Masha is the prime target in her capacity as the emblematic Chekhovian character). Black-clad, and with expressively sculpted face and hands as pale and forlorn as slivers of moon, her transformation throughout the play from lovelorn but laughable Pierrot to hunched-over, hollowed-out creature of fate runs the gamut of Chekhov’s ever-changing moods and genres – from comedy to tragedy and from melodrama to absurdity – and provides the emotional through-line of the play. In another, very different production, I’d cast her as Konstantin; in this production, she’s his appropriate reflection. As such, it’s a show worth seeing for her alone.


The Seagull is in the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theate Centre of WA until 31 August.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Postcard from Perth 30

In the Belly of the Beast

Reflections on Performing, Repetition and Ozu’s Floating Weeds

I haven’t written for the past few weeks because I’ve been in the belly of the beast, performing in Barking Gecko’s production of Jasper Jones in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre. We do an average of nine shows a week, evenings and matinees, often both in one day; so I haven’t been able to get out much or see anything else; and it’s neither appropriate nor possible for me to review the show itself. In fact I haven’t been able to lead much of a life at all outside the theatre. The fact that I still have one (albeit ‘on hold’) is a testimony to the long-suffering patience of family and friends; not to mention the impact on body and soul of perpetual takeaways, late nights (followed by early mornings if there’s a 10am schools matinee), lack of regular exercise or indeed any kind of routine or control when it comes to balancing one’s existence.

This is a familiar scenario to anyone who works (or knows someone who works) in the theatre. This year I will have done four shows pretty much back-to-back come November. Some might think this sounds like a dream-run; to others (perhaps those with partners and children) it might sound more like a nightmare. The reality is that both are true. At least the shows are all in Perth; the year before last I spent almost six months living and working away from home between Sydney and Melbourne. Even working in Perth, though, I’m not really ‘here’, most of the time; not all of me, at any rate. As my former partner once said: ‘You’re not having an affair, but your work is your mistress.’ It’s no wonder so many actors end up living in bed-sits, chronically single and/or alcoholics, regardless of career success. I attribute the fact that I haven’t (yet) to luck; education; diversity of skills, work and income; the patience of loved ones; and an obsessional personality. In other words, ‘there – but for the grace of God/fate/my parents/my unconscious – go I’.

Last Sunday I had a night off at home with my beloved and we watched a DVD: the great Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu’s late masterpiece Floating Weeds (my wife’s choice, not mine). Superbly acted, strikingly shot with Ozu’s unique eye for visual composition and pace, and told with his customary grace, charm, economy, patience, delicacy and paradoxical combination of lightness and profundity, it’s the story of a travelling Kabuki theatre company who visit a seaside town, where the leading actor and company manager Komajuro has a former lover and teenage son whom he hasn’t seen for twelve years. He’s kept their existence a secret from most of the other members of the company, including his leading lady and jealous partner Sumiko; and the boy himself has been raised to believe that Komajuro is his uncle. The film is by turns comic, romantic, ironic and tragic, and ultimately has a calm wisdom and resigned acceptance about the inexorable realities of time, fate, character, life and art. I’d never seen it before, and it instantly entered my pantheon of films about theatre (from Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis to Resnais’ recent meta-theatrical contribution to the genre, You Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet – not to mention a crucial strand in Bergman from The Seventh Seal to Fanny and Alexander). In contrast to all of these, Floating Weeds (the phrase itself is a Japanese colloquialism for actors) is at once a humble genre-piece (in both the literary/cinematic and art-historical sense of the term – I’m thinking of the great Flemish genre-paintings of domestic and working-class life from Breughel to Vermeer, as well as their Japanese counterparts) and much, much more.

Of course it’s no surprise that the genre of theatre-movies speaks to me with a special poignancy. I wonder though if there isn’t something more universal about their appeal. In part, it’s because they pay homage to theatre as a precursor to cinema itself. It’s almost as if there’s an inherent nostalgia in the way one art form or medium reflects on the other, like a child reflecting on the image of a parent. I use the term ‘nostalgia’ advisedly, with its original Greek sense in mind, which a dear friend and mentor once reminded me always involves pain (algos) – specifically the pain associated with a longing to return home (nostos). As such, it’s an existential condition for which theatre offers a unique form of solace, providing a kind of substitute family or community for anyone who’s ever been bitten by the bug, even if only for a transitional stage in their lives, while for some of us this stage of transition becomes a permanent form of life. As the great humanist psychologist Maslow argued, the need to belong is fundamental, and deeply entwined with the need for love. Perhaps this is why the image of the family troupe of travelling players in literature and film maintains such a hold on us; its counterpart in theatre from the Oresteia to Osage County being the family itself in all its dysfunctional glory.

To return to Floating Weeds: it’s clear that for all Komajuro’s genuine love for his ‘real’ family – i.e. his former lover and their son – the ‘substitute’ family of theatre is in fact his primary attachment, despite its personal and emotional dramas (in particular his fiery relationship with Sumiko), economic and financial unreliability (audiences are drying up and the company ultimately runs out of money and has to leave town), declining social status or relevance (his ‘nephew’ mocks Komajuro’s work for its dated aesthetic) and artistically dubious quality (the glimpses we see of their performances suggests they are tired and somewhat mechanical). In short: like Sumiko herself, theatre is a harsh, demanding, fickle and possibly unworthy mistress, and the fact that we remain in her thrall may have less to do with artistic integrity or dedication than habit, conditioning, addiction, masochism, Stockholm syndrome or some other form of personal or psychological dependency. It’s not for nothing that theatre has long been called ‘the second oldest profession’ and actors ‘floating weeds’. So why do we do it? And why do at least some people still go?

About a week into a theatre run (or once the show has found its feet) I’m assailed by a sense of existential crisis which (it suddenly occurs to me) echoes the words of Shaun Tan’s ‘Stick Figures’ (admittedly something of an idée fixe in these Postcards): ‘Who am I? Why am I here? What am I doing here?’ The screws are twisted tighter by the sense of being caught in a blind, repetitive, meaningless mechanism which is perhaps not unrelated to what Freud calls the ‘repetition compulsion’ – and beyond it the death drive – and which he also notably defines as ‘the desire to return to an earlier state of things’ in words that unmistakeably recall the mechanism of nostalgia itself. The text-book image of this desire, drive or compulsion (described in the essay ‘Beyond The Pleasure Principle’) is that of the child repeatedly throwing and retrieving an object attached to a piece of string in and out of its cot while uttering the vocables Oh! and Ah! – which for Freud suggest the German words Fort (‘Gone!’) and Da (‘There!’). Is it too much to read into this primordial game of repetition – through which the child achieves symbolic control over the imaginary loss of a real object – not only the prototype of language (performative or otherwise) but of theatre itself as a ‘show-play’ (as in the German word Schauspiel) in which words and actions staged in the present simultaneously become the representations (or what Freud in German calls Vorstellungsrepräzentänzen – ‘idea-representatives’) of something fundamentally absent (their content or meaning)? This dialectic of presence and absence is to my mind constitutive of theatre – certainly in its dramatic-fictional form, and perhaps even in the case of so-called ‘post-dramatic’, non-representational performance as well. But that’s a subject for another Postcard.

The concept of repetition (compulsive or otherwise) is in any case integral to the act of performance, and perhaps even to performativity and the Symbolic order in general (as philosophy and psychoanalysis have shown); closer to home, it’s no accident that the French word for ‘rehearsal’ is répétition. What redeems and relieves this necessarily repetitive aspect of performance (both in rehearsals and during the run of a show) is the simultaneous and paradoxical impossibility of achieving repetition itself, at least in its pure form. Philosophically and in principle, there’s a necessary difference at the heart of repetition; and in practice onstage, every performance is different, as every actor knows. You can never step into the same river twice, as Heraclitus is said to have said; and as Kierkegaard ironically demonstrates in his book Repetition by having his narrator experimentally attempt (and fail) to repeat a series of experiences on a return trip to Berlin (including a visit to the theatre). In the same work, however, the narrator paradoxically affirms the task of repetition (as opposed to ‘recollection’) as the essence of what he calls ‘the ethical’ as a mode of existence; and Nietzsche makes a similar claim in his doctrine of actively willing ‘the eternal return of the same’, transforming a seemingly nightmarish vision of cosmic determinism into a joyful and ecstatic act of individual affirmation. In a sense, the actor’s embrace of the impossible task of repetition – show after show, and even moment by moment – ‘repeats’ this act of affirmation and in doing so produces its own kind of differential freedom. Indeed there’s even something therapeutic about this acceptance of necessity. Perhaps freely choosing, ‘repeating’ and actively putting to work one’s own unconsciously determined neurosis is the closest thing there is to a cure. This is one reading of the lesson of Ozu’s film, which ends with Komajuro choosing his artistic life with Sumiko and theatre rather than settling down with his former lover and son.

Perhaps it’s in a similar (if less dramatic way) that in the closing week of a show I experience a kind of dialectical reversal in relation to my earlier second-week existential crisis, and find myself embracing the task of performance again and ‘finding it’ as if for the first (or the last) time. Or maybe it’s just that I’m on the home stretch. In any case, I start to feel that there’s something strangely comforting about the entire routine of performance, offstage and on – which includes heading into the theatre at a certain time, arranging oneself and one’s belongings in the dressing-room, changing into one’s costume, greeting one’s fellow cast-members, doing a physical warm-up side by side with them onstage, getting the half-hour/fifteen-minute/beginners’ calls from the stage manager and getting into position backstage. Then the performance proper begins, including the entire backstage routine – which for Jasper Jones in my case includes quick costume-changes for five different characters, waiting and listening for cues at multiple entrance points, and even adjusting the set for different scenes and lighting effects – all of which become part of the task of telling the story, quite apart from the onstage business of remembering lines, moves and ‘blocking’ (a word and concept I have to confess I still resist). Eventually the whole thing becomes a single, continuous dance into which I insert myself night after night. By week three of the season, it’s all body-memory, which leaves my mind blissfully free of noise in order ‘be there’, ‘in the moment’, and hopefully fully present to the other actors and the audience.

This quality of ‘presence’ or ‘being-there’ is essential to what might be called the fundamental ontology of theatre. From the point of view of the actor, it’s the existential counterpart to what audiences experience as the phenomenon of the former’s ‘stage presence’. As I’ve mentioned before in a previous Postcard, I believe it’s this circuit of mutual presence that connects actors and audience, and generates that sense of communion which is (to paraphrase Walter Benjamin in his essay on ‘The Storyteller’) the spark at which we warm our shivering lives. As such, perhaps the communion of theatre is a microcosm for any genuine community, just as a theatre company (by which I mean an ensemble of artists, even if it only subsists for the duration of a single production) perhaps offers us the image of a fully functional family or society; and an actor (at least in the sense of an autonomous, multi-disciplinary artist who freely exercises all their physical and mental skills and faculties) even foreshadows the possibility (however partially realised) of being a fully formed and liberated human being. Perhaps this is all just fantasy. Or perhaps it’s one answer to the questions posed earlier: ‘Why do we do it? And why do people still go?’


Jasper Jones closes tomorrow night (Saturday August 9). Humph starts rehearsals next week with Black Swan for Laughter on the 23rd Floor. He looks forward to spending some time with his family on the odd evening or Sunday.