Monday, 14 March 2016

Postcard from Perth 49

Perth Festival [2]: Claire Cunningham, Guide Dogs, Give Me A Reason to Live; Simon Stone, The Wild Duck

Among the selection of shows I saw at Wendy Martin’s inaugural Perth Festival, those that stood out of for me were not the large-scale multidisciplinary spectacles – impressive though these were – but the more intimate and thoughtful works that explored the theme of empathy and its importance in art and everyday life.

Glasgow-based disabled performer Claire Cunningham was artist-in-residence at the festival this year, presenting two performance works – Guide Dogs and Give Me a Reason to Live – as well as holding workshops and participating in the Sunday Series of Conversations. I saw Guide Dogs at Victoria Hall (former home of Deckchair Theatre Company and now run by the Fly By Night Musician’s Club) in Fremantle; it was also performed the following week in Burt Hall at St George’s Cathedral.

A grandiose former parish hall from the goldrush era, Victoria Hall was always a problematic theatre venue, but an ideal location for this show. It was staged in traverse for a small audience at one end of the hall, with two blocks of seating (cushions on the floor in front, chairs at the back) embracing a circumscribed performance space, almost like a church hall gathering or community meeting. At one end of the space was an archway through which audience and performer entered. At the other end, steps led up to a raised dais with a collection of homely display items on shelves including cups and saucers, books, objects and figurines from various religions. In the middle of the audience on one side composer and musician Derek Nesbit sat behind a harmonium; in the audience opposite him the stage manager sat at her desk. Screens on both sides displayed a running caption-transcription of the show for deaf audience members (or anyone who couldn’t follow some of the audio material); and an Auslan Sign interpreter to one side of the dais also translated the show.

The text consisted of narration and songs (Cunningham is an accomplished singer as well as a choreographer and dancer), and excerpts from audio interviews with research subjects from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and with diverse disabilities, speaking about the connections and tensions between these aspects of their identity. As such, Guide Dogs is a kind of documentary or verbatim theatre work, but one with a very personal edge, and a uniquely theatrical form which is derived from its subject matter, and in particular the performer’s own body, as well as her own beliefs or non-beliefs. Cunningham herself identifies as an atheist as well as being disabled, and finds herself personally and politically challenged by certain religious interpretations of disability. This is especially the case with traditions that consider it as a symbolic form of moral or spiritual affliction, on the basis of which one may find oneself discriminated against or even excluded (as in certain forms of Hinduism or Buddhism) – or from which (in Salvationist religions like Christianity for example) one may or may not be ‘healed’.

However Guide Dogs is no anti-religious or political diatribe. Cunningham is no Dawkins or Hitchens, but conducting a genuine inquiry into what William James called ‘the variety of religious experience’ – and disabled experience as well. In other words, this is a psychological inquiry, and perhaps even a spiritual one; and it became increasing clear that she was placing herself (and us) under the microscope as much as her research subjects. For me, this was most movingly manifest when she asked people in the audience – disabled and able-bodied – to publicly answer the question: ‘What do you love?’ Answers as various as ‘swimming’, ‘grass’ and ‘my dog’ attested to our common humanity, regardless of our beliefs, or even our abilities.

During some of the musical interludes and interview excerpts, Cunningham also performed a series of dance or movement sequences, all using or involving the crutches that are integral to her own mobility. These sequences included a series of increasingly elaborate tasks, which progressed from carefully moving up and down the steps carrying tea-cups, to lowering and raising herself to and from the floor, dispersing the inverted tea cups around the space, and balancing on them or walking across them on her hands and feet. There’s something mesmerising about watching someone create a unique choreographic language in response to the particularity of their own body rather than trying to replicate any assumed ‘standard’ or traditional dance phrases or techniques. More broadly, I had the sense of someone negotiating their own unique life-journey, and even performing it as a kind of staged ritual.

At the end of the show (as at the end of James Berlyn’s festival show I Know You’re There) we were invited to stay for a cup of tea and a chat. I didn’t feel the need, but left reflecting on the origins of theatre and dance in religious rites, and the form of communion that attends the witnessing of all live performance.


Give Me A Reason to Live, which I saw at PICA two weeks later, is an altogether darker and more demanding work. Inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch – many of which (like other religious paintings, especially in the late Middle Ages) contain disturbing allegorical images of beggars, cripples, poverty and deformity – it’s also a harrowing memorial to the systematic extermination of the disabled by the Nazis, and a critique of social and economic policies today that value certain forms of ‘reason’ or even ‘life’ over others. These range from welfare cuts motivated by the alleged need for ‘austerity’ to the utilitarian morality that subordinates the needs of minorities in the name of ‘the greater good’, and are currently sweeping the so-called developed world, from the US and Europe to Australia.

Lasting about forty minutes, it’s a rigorously concentrated work. Essentially, Cunningham begins huddled in an upstage corner, and works her way slowly backwards downstage, while performing a series of increasingly demanding and excruciatingly elongated movement-sequences using her crutches – the latter becoming a more and more precarious form of support or extension for her body.

Karsten Tinapp’s lighting is tightly focussed, piercing the space and Cunningham’s flesh with strips of light and surrounding her with chiaroscuro-like darkness. Meanwhile her progress is accompanied by Zoe Irvine’s sound design, which incorporates the heavenly motet Nesciens Mater by the French Renaissance master Jean Mouton and (at the climax of the show) Bach’s haunting chorale Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt, which is sung by Cunningham against the back wall while suspending herself aloft on her crutches for what seems an agonizing eternity.   

This is a piece that – without literally speaking – speaks for itself. As in all great religious art, there’s no sentiment here, and no false sense of martyrdom or redemption. Alongside the fate of the disabled, I thought of all the victims of fascism and persecution, past and present – and specifically, the victimization of the body, its reduction to the status of an abject object, yet one still compelling our visceral sympathy, right up to the moment of its extinction.  Conversely, perhaps the failure of empathy is one definition of injustice itself. If so, it’s a failure that continues to mark our century as much as the preceding one.

In any case, I found it difficult to join those in the audience who rose to clap and even cheer at the end of Give Me A Reason To Live. However I silently applauded Wendy Martin, for programming Cunningham as artist-in-residence and placing such serious and intimate works as these (and I Know You’re There) at the heart of her inaugural Festival – works that aren’t just about celebration and wonder (in the usual jargon of festivals), but that provoke thought, meditation, sorrow and even pain.


I was also grateful for the opportunity to finally see Simon Stone’s version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, albeit with a mostly new cast. First staged at Belvoir Street in 2011, this is a production that hails from what is now a previous era in the company’s (and the director’s) work, but it’s one that arguably made his name and launched his career in Europe. Indeed it’s possibly his most economical, emotionally accessible and formally distilled work (at least of the half-dozen productions of his I’ve seen), although for me it doesn’t match the sublime, furious intensity of his earlier Thyestes (also co-written by actor Chris Ryan, along with fellow-actors Thomas Henning and Mark Winter, and also involving this revival’s assistant director Anne-Louise Sarks as dramaturg).

Written by Stone and Ryan ‘after Ibsen’, The Wild Duck obviously owes much of its communicative power to the fiendish dramaturgical genius of the original play – and it must be said to the emotional honesty of the performances. Stone is a discerning and demanding director of actors, placing them in abstract but spectacularly effective stage environments and exposing them (and us) to a kind of naked truthfulness that can be both harsh and beautiful, ugly and tender.

In this case, the set (designed by Ralph Myers) is a glass box with no furniture, in which the actors (wearing body-mics) are arranged in a series of vignettes which have been extracted, sliced, diced, rewritten and in some cases extrapolated from Ibsen’s play. To some extent, this has the effect of making us doubly conscious of the fact that we are watching a framed and heightened, second-order version of reality – Ibsen via Stone, as it were – but perhaps surprisingly it doesn’t alienate us from the characters or their emotions. In fact if anything it intensifies our sense of their helplessness and the pathos of their situation as the infernal machine of Ibsen’s dramaturgy inexorably grinds out their fate.

The plot is reduced to six core characters (seven including the duck, who appears onstage throughout, unlike in Ibsen’s original), and the whole thing rockets to its devastating conclusion and aftermath in 75 minutes with no interval. In this regard, it almost functions like a kind of x-ray of the original play, revealing the latter’s bones and sinews, but also its vital organs, and above all its beating heart.

Like much of Ibsen's work, The Wild Duck is about family secrets and their catastrophic revelation by an interloper, whether well-intentioned or otherwise. More broadly, it's about the paradoxical effects of what one character in the original play (who is cut from this production) called (in most English translations) 'the life-lie'. In the case of Stone's adaptation, some of the irony that pertains to this notion is (so to speak) 'ironed out', in the interests of dramatic momentum and intensity. This runs the risk of making the play more melodramatic than the 'drama of ideas' that we normally associate with Ibsen's social realism; on the other hand it tightens the screws considerably, and reveals a more psychological tragedy driven by the irrational forces lurking beneath even the most apparently 'well-adjusted' domestic arrangements. 

Starkly punctuated by Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and Stefan Gregory’s sound design (which ranges from Bach solo violin to thrash guitar), the action effectively takes place in a kind of no-man’s-land – virtually the only props are a laptop, a mobile phone and a gun – which creates an abstract theatrical bridge between Ibsen’s world and our own. Proper names remain the original Scandinavian ones, but otherwise Stone and Ryan’s dialogue is in a contemporary Australian vernacular which lends itself to an almost anti-theatrical, cinematic verism in acting style, supported by simple but carefully colour-graded contemporary costumes by Tess Schofield. Indeed this juxtaposition of abstract staging and naturalistic writing and acting is a trademark of Stone’s productions – and perhaps more profoundly underlines his evident preoccupation with the way in which the heightened reality of tragedy invades the humdrum of everyday life.

Credit is also due to Anne-Louise Sarks – like Stone, until recently a resident director at Belvoir as well as being his former collaborator and successor as artistic director with their company The Hayloft Project, and now also directing in Europe – for re-rehearsing this production. Special mention should also be made of the new cast-members, including Airlie Dodds as Hedvig, Richard Pyros as Gregers, Steve Rodgers as Hjalmar and Katherine Tonkin as Gina, all of whom – along with original cast-members John Gaden as Werle and Anthony Phelan as Ekdal – anchored the work in a level of emotional truth that’s rare in mainstage theatre. Indeed it’s fascinating to see a production (and indeed a classic play) reborn like this – and a testament to Stone’s abiding vision for the work, as well as his notion of classic adaptations in general. It also provided another fine example of the theme of empathy that lay at the core of this year’s Festival.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Postcard from Perth 48

Nicola Gunn, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster; James Berlyn, I Know You’re There

Perth International Arts Festival and Fringe World 2015 have come to an end, and the city settles back into the torpid pleasures of late summer. Shortly the regular seasons of local theatre companies, venues and arts organisations will grind back into gear, but for now it’s time to sit back and take stock of the past few weeks (ideally at the beach, in a park, or with a glass of wine in hand).

PIAF’s unoffical theme this year was ‘empathy’. According to incoming director Wendy Martin (in an interview on Radio National) it’s not one she chose in advance, or even thinks is necessarily part of the current zeitgeist. Nevertheless one can’t help feeling that it reflects her artistic personality and preferences; and it was certainly reflected in the shows I chose to see (and enjoyed the most) during Festival time.

Perhaps there’s something about empathy (Aristotle’s ‘pity and terror’) that’s fundamental to aesthetic experience; if so, it’s something that art has uniquely to offer us, in the form of a collective imagining of the lives of others, forms of otherness, and other possible forms of existence. Whatever the case, a festival is a timely opportunity to step outside our habitual selves – a time of ek-stasis – and imaginatively (or literally, in the case of one of the works on offer at PIAF) ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’.


Melbourne-based Nicola Gunn’s Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster was programmed by PICA in the last week of Fringe World and the first week of the PIAF. Athough it wasn’t officially part of the main Festival, it unquestionably deserved to be in terms of artistic finesse, content and significance. Indeed it arguably spoke to the topic of ‘empathy’ more directly (and more subversively) than any other Festival work I saw.

Nicola is one of the most original and distinctive devisor-performers in the country. Her last work to visit Perth, Hello My Name Is, had a season at The Blue Room as part of Fringe World two years ago. I saw it there, and subsequently at APAM in Brisbane, and loved its anarchic and deliberately clumsy interactive style. Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster is a considerably more refined work and the satire has a much sharper edge. Once again, Nicola makes herself the primary target, but this time instead of playing the role of a fictitious community-centre facilitator ineptly hosting and sharing a series of half-baked activities with the audience, she plays herself as a performance artist, reflecting on a recent experience she had while out jogging in a park in Ghent.

This reflection takes the form of a monologue, delivered while doing a highly choreographed physical exercise routine accompanied by the eponymous ghetto-blaster, which remains on the floor downstage throughout the show. The audience is directly addressed – and even during one delirious sequence climbed into, over and on top of – but for the most part the relationship and space between us is rigidly demarcated.

This is a work about the role of the artist (or indeed any of us) as a member of society, and in particular about the ethics of intervention – whether as a personal, political, social or artistic tactic. Specifically it’s about what to do when you see someone throwing stones at a duck; apparently that someone is another stranger in a strange land, although this appearance and the assumptions behind it are progressively undermined. It’s also very funny (Nicola’s clown-persona is irrepressible, even when playing herself), but also surprisingly challenging, especially when the layers of self-reflexive irony become more morally compromising.

What were Nicola or the stone-thrower really doing in that park in Ghent? Is any of this true, or is is a kind of parable – or even meta-parable on the venerable theme of ‘throwing stones’? And if so, what or who is cryptic aim of its parabolic ‘throw’? Like Ibsen’s wild duck, the one in Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster is also (if you’ll forgive the pun) a kind of floating signifier, hinting that more than one character in the play may be ‘sitting ducks’ – including the audience as well as Nicola herself. This is made gloriously manifest in the final image of the show, when ‘the duck itself’ makes an elaborately costumed appearance surrounded by a spectacular sound-and-light display.

My only reservation was the extent to which the whole piece seemed to hover for me between a genuine ethical inquiry and a (somewhat gratuitous) satire on the pretensions of performance art. I felt this most in the closing sequence, which (enjoyable as it was) felt like the ending to another (and for me less interesting) show. However, it’s also perfectly possible that I was missing the point, distracted by the spectacle and drifting away on the river of my own reflections.

Nicola’s work has clearly evolved into a formidable and multidisciplinary critique of society, art and performance itself – including the ‘performance’ of everyday life and its rituals. Mention should also be made of her collaborators: Jo Lloyd’s choreography, a mostly abstract aerobic workout with movements or gestures that fleetingly and almost coincidentally seem to align with the text; Kelly Ryall’s minimal, deadpan ghetto-blaster soundtrack; and the combination of Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and Martyn Coutts’s AV design, which together slowly saturate the piece with colour and transform it into something increasingly heightened and intense. Nevertheless, all are harnessed to a singular artistic vision and form of self-experimentation. I can’t wait to see what she does next.


Local Perth-based devisor-performer James Berlyn’s I Know You’re There is a much more direct, open and intimate ‘intervention’ by an artist into his own life, the life of his family, and by implication our lives as well. Kudos-points are due here to Wendy Martin for taking on and commissioning this as a PIAF show after seeing a creative development showing when she arrived in Perth a year ago.

James has a background in dance, education and community work as well as participatory, solo and one-on-one performance, and brings a wealth of wisdom, experience and self-knowledge to bear on everything he does. He also has a wonderfully warm, direct and unassuming performance style, which is very different from Nicola Gunn’s cooler, more ironic and confrontational stage persona. I’m tempted to make a generalisation about the difference between Perth and Melbourne, but I won’t go there, except to say that (as James suggests in the show itself) perhaps it’s no accident that his artistic and personal temperament has found a home here.

I Know You’re There was performed in the upstairs rehearsal room of the State Theatre Centre for a small audience seated around a table. We were surrounded by four semi-translucent screens made of crumpled and taped brown paper – which also served as the predominant design material for the show. James greeted us personally one by one on entry, maintained continuous contact with us throughout the show, invited us at various points to participate and even collaborate, and to remain and chat afterwards while he served us tea and biscuits (a homely interaction ritual which interestingly was also employed by PIAF artist-in-residence Claire Cunningham at the end of her show Guide Dogs).

The substance of the work is the discovery of events that occurred in James’s family two generations ago, and their possible implications for him and his father, who as James says had to perform that role by more or less making it up as he went along. It’s also the story of an artist’s journey, as a performer and as a man. More specifically, it’s about the impact and reverberations of war, separation, loss, death and illness (however defined) on that family and that artist. As such it’s an enactment of what the Greeks called anagnorisis or realisation – and perhaps an act of acceptance as well.

The beauty of the work lies in its delicate form, as fragile and malleable as the materials from which it’s made – brown paper, family history, artist’s body and soul. This form consists of words and reflections, making things out of paper, moving and dancing. Crucially, the work is made collaboratively between James and ourselves; and ultimately its substance is shared too, because we are continually invited to let it resonate with us, in terms of our own lives.

Credit should also be given to the rest of the creative team: director Jim Hughes, design consultant Zoe Atkinson, script consultant Alison Croggan, sound designers Late Night Shopping, and (crucially) recordings made by James’s father of himself playing Beethoven and Bach on the guitar – recordings which he made and sent home to his family while he was at sea. Once again, there’s a sense that I Know You’re There is profoundly collaborative – and that the title itself has many meanings, and acknowledges many senses of ‘being there’ on the part of its collaborators.

This is a courageous work that crosses traditional boundaries between art and life, performer and audience, performance and performance-making. In every sense, I knew I was there.


Humph’s reviews more Perth Festival shows in his next Postcard.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Postcard from Adelaide

Go Down, MosesThe James PlaysThe Young King

I’ve just returned from a whirlwind weekend at the Adelaide Festival, seeing three stylistically very different shows about a legendary Jewish prophet, three medieval Scottish kings and a wholly imaginary fairytale prince. All three deal with biological issues of descent and parentage, and beyond this pose more properly symbolic questions about legacy and legitimacy.

In a post-traditional and globalised culture, these questions tend to be understood in terms of individual or social psychology. Stories about kings, queens, princes, princesses, dukes and duchesses are reinterpreted as stories about parents, children, siblings and relatives; while kingdoms, realms and territories become the external and internal landscapes of the body or the psyche. Even in the case of Moses – a religious prophet-leader (rather than a king) who leads a deterritorialized people out of exile and back into the ‘promised land’ of redemption from slavery – there’s a tendency (at least since Freud) to understand this story in psychological and even anthropological terms in the context of a single, unified theory of collective humanity.

Romeo Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses (created with his company Societas Raffaello Sanzio) takes this tendency to extremes and then explodes it. I saw the show last Friday night at the Dunstan Playhouse in the Adelaide Festival Centre after a three-hour flight from Perth (further addled by the two-and-a-half hour time-difference) – all of which added to the delirium of a work which (as a friend who also saw it observed) was as much about time-travel as anything else.

Castellucci makes theatre that refuses to submit to the logic of narrative or even coherent imagery, but instead unfolds its ideas according to a dramaturgy of pure sensation. Here, this dramaturgy takes the form of a series of tableaux (‘scene’ is not quite the right word), which could effectively be presented in any order, and mostly progress extremely slowly (if they can be said to ‘progress’ at all). Each tableau has its own (often spectacular) visual-spatial design and collection of moving (and occasionally speaking) bodies, and is graced by sublime lighting and Castellucci’s signature use of (frequently deafening) sound. Set and lighting are designed by the director himself (he has a background in stage design and painting), while the music is composed by his regular collaborator Scott Gibbons. These tableaux all take place behind a translucent scrim, which lends a ghostly aura and a pictorial quality to the action and figures that appear and disappear in the space beyond.

In Go Down, Moses the idea being unfolded is not so much the ‘idea’ of Moses himself as that of his maternal abandonment. In a way this is the counterpart of the idea of paternal abandonment as it appears in the Oedipus myth or the Old and New Testaments. Castellucci however focuses less on the archetypal child-hero’s subjective experience of being abandoned – or even the existential or spiritual condition of abandonment or exile – than on the unthinkable anguish of a mother who (for whatever reason) abandons her child.

This is initially developed in a contemporary scenario involving a woman who is first seen (in excruciatingly slow and gory detail) collapsing in a public toilet and bleeding heavily post-partum. She is next seen being interviewed by a police detective about the whereabouts of her baby (an interview which leads nowhere as she gives only cryptic answers to his questions), and is subsequently seen undergoing an MRI body-scan. The baby meanwhile is glimpsed in a brief tableau writhing and crying inside a black plastic bag which has been left in a public garbage dumpster.

This scenario is counterbalanced by the show’s final, most protracted and slow-moving tableau, which is set in a cave and involves a group of naked early hominids (wearing prosthetic ape-like heads). One of them, a female, is seen burying a dead baby beneath a stone and grieving; she then submits to sex with one of the males; finally she picks up some kind of ochre, faces the audience and makes a series of expressive hand-prints on the scrim as if it were the cave’s ‘fourth wall’, followed (somewhat ludicrously) by the letters ‘SOS’. The group then leaves, and after a pause the aperture of the MRI machine appears at back of the cave; the ‘original’ contemporary mother emerges, explores the cave, finds the dead baby beneath the stone and then the anachronistic message on the scrim, which is slowly illuminated and then fades into darkness.

These scenarios are interspersed with two more abstract tableaux. The opening one involves a group of men and women (in elegant but subdued mid-twentieth-century clothes) wandering and posing thoughtfully in an empty space, making mysterious hand-gestures and occasionally stopping to touch and examine each of their number in turn as if performing some kind of measurement or palpation before miming the action of inserting or plunging themselves into that person’s chest (the action being accompanied by an appropriately visceral sound-effect). The second abstract tableau (repeated twice) involves a huge white horizontal cylinder which appears downstage at floor level behind the scrim and begins to rotate (with a deafening noise). A black clump of hair then descends slowly from the flies until it comes into contact with the cylinder (which is now rotating at high speed) and is suddenly and violently wrapped around it. I found this ‘infernal machine’ (as my friend who also saw the show called it) – and especially the moment when it catches the clump of hair – strangely terrifying: a kind of dystopian vision of industrial-scientific technology absorbing or consuming the last remnants of human or organic life.

It’s easy to see Castellucci’s work as a kind of theatrical equivalent to the cold misanthropism of Kubrick; the same friend even described Go Down Moses as ‘2001 in reverse’. Castellucci’s preoccupations however seem to me much more theological (or perhaps post-theological), at least judging by the shows of his I’ve seen so far: Genesis: From the Museum of Sleep, On the Concept of the Face of the Son of God and an adaptation of Hölderlin’s Oedipus which was partially set in a nunnery and featured a Tiresias in the guise of John the Baptist, Creon as the Apostle Peter, a Jocasta who resembled the young Virgin Mary, and Oedipus himself as a female Jesus. Evidently, Castellucci uses the inversion of gender, and the invocation of the feminine, as a form of aesthetic and historical disruption and provocation. As such, his work can be read as having a political as well as a religious dimension; perhaps a more relevant precursor in the context of Italian cinema would be Pasolini.

For me though there’s ultimately something slightly clumsy and even demonstrative about Castellucci’s theatre, in comparison with the great filmmakers mentioned. The sheer visual and aural impact of his work on our senses is literally awesome, but in the end I’m left feeling a little nonplussed, or at least none the wiser, in relation to the ideas being unfolded. It’s almost as if these ideas – maternity, abandonment, exile, history, and even the idea of theatre itself – are somehow reduced and flattened out in the process of their unfolding. Perhaps that’s precisely the intention: to liberate us from the ancient meanings, preserved and transmitted by tradition, that these old ideas contain, and which otherwise continue to enslave us. Or perhaps there’s another, more allegorical way of re-reading and re-staging these old ideas: one which renews them by reading and staging them, as the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘against the grain’.


The next day, I embarked on The James Plays trilogy: nearly eight hours of rambunctious and unabashedly middle-of-the-road historical drama, with a few nods towards the more ‘adult’ titillations of HBO-style TV costume-drama, whether historical or fantasy-fiction inspired (from Vikings to Game of Thrones).

Rona Munro’s three plays – James I, James II and James III – about three generations of eponymous medieval Scottish monarchs were jointly commissioned and first staged by the National Theatre of Scotland, the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Edinburgh Festival in 2014, and directed by the NTS’s Laurie Sansom. Plays and productions have now been revised and revived, and boast an ensemble cast of twenty (this show must have cost a fortune to tour), rousing music (live and recorded), energetic staging, choreography and fight direction, rock’n’roll-style lighting, and Jon Bausor’s elemental but effective costumes and set. The latter features a gigantic sword stuck in an otherwise mostly bare floor, and an upstage drawbridge surmounted by a smaller raised platform-stage. This is flanked by two banks of raised seating for a second, smaller onstage audience which mirrors the larger one in the auditorium of the Festival Theatre: a device which cleverly serves the action by making it at times seem more visibly public (for example during the rowdy Parliament scenes in James III) and at other times more private and even intimate (at least for those sitting onstage, as I was for James II – arguably the most ‘interior’ of the plays, both literally and psychologically).

The original staging of the trilogy in Edinburgh coincided with the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, and there’s an overall sense of timeliness to the plays’ grappling with questions of political autonomy and legitimacy. One thinks for example of the global resurgence of nationalism and regionalism today, or the challenging of traditional institutions and structures of power around the world. More specifically, James I grew up as hostage in England (specifically as a prisoner of Henry IV and then Henry V) and began his reign in Scotland still under English control; James III was killed by rebels not long after the death of Richard III. The James Plays thus form a kind of contemporary counterpart to the story of the Wars of the Roses as told in Shakespeare’s History Plays, and in many ways mirrors their preoccupation with questions of lineage and succession.

Ultimately however (as with Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 – not to mention The Godfather) there’s a family drama at the heart of these plays, which deal with questions of psychological as well as political inheritance. This is most acutely the case in James II, whose hero (like Moses) is abandoned by his mother and hidden in a box; spends much of his youth in captivity (again like Moses and indeed his own father); and struggles in manhood to reconcile his better instincts (friendship, loyalty, peace, justice) with the pragmatics of power as well as darker, more destructive impulses (fear, envy, hatred, rage). In the end, blood will out, and the play culminates in tragedy, with James killing his self-destructive cousin William Douglas in an outburst of spontaneous violence, which was arguably the dramatic climax of the entire trilogy.

James I by contrast is a more straightforward story about the education of a King (and his Queen) into the necessary ways of politics; while James III (for me the weakest in the trilogy) loses focus and traction, its central character a self-indulgent narcissist who ultimately fails as a king, husband and father, and increasingly cedes power (and dramatic interest) to his wife and son (the future James IV). In the end I wasn’t sure what this final play had to add to the emotional arc of the trilogy – or had to say in terms of its political message.

Perhaps we needed a James IV to complete things: a final two-and-a-half hours of personal and national redemption leading to a Treaty of Perpetual Peace (albeit short-lived) with the new Tudor King of England, Henry VII. I’ve no doubt Rona Munro has it in her; she’s a fine playwright who understands politics and psychology, and knows how to alternate between humour and tragedy, heightened language and rough, everyday speech, in a manner reminiscent of Shakespeare himself. In fact there were times when I felt that the broad brushstrokes of the production and performances didn’t quite reflect the finer nuances of the writing. All in all though there was a sense of all the theatrical elements working in harmony to tell a story from a particular history, geography and culture that forms part of our own background and embraces our common humanity, with all its flaws and flickers of glory.


Sadly I can’t say the same for The Young King, which I saw the following afternoon before flying back to Perth. Adapted by Nicki Bloom from a rather rambling story by Oscar Wilde (not one of his best) for South Australian company Slingsby and directed by Andy Packer, this show didn’t achieve lift-off for me, despite some fine atmospheric music by Quincy Grant and an ambitious production and design concept, which included elaborate interactive and immersive experiences for the audience before we entered the performance space and after we left it. Perhaps it didn’t help that the whole thing took place on the commercially abandoned fifth floor of the Myer Centre in Rundle Mall, in what was formerly an indoor amusement park called Dazzeland (no traces of which now remain). In short: the sense of disenchantment that pervaded the building was difficult to dispel.

The Young King tells the story of an heir to the throne of a mythical kingdom. Conceived from the union of his princess-mother with a humble woodlander, the baby is stolen by the old king her father, raised by a goatherd, and eventually brought back to the palace when the old king is dying. The night before his coronation, he dreams of the origins of his royal robe and the jewels for his sceptre and crown in the sufferings and labours of his oppressed people. The next morning, he rejects the robe, sceptre and crown, choosing instead his goatherd’s cloak and staff and a coronet of thorns. 

In comparison with The Happy Prince or The Selfish Giant, The Young King feels like a sententious and cumbersome pastiche of traditional fairy-tale elements, and despite the playwright’s attempt to condense things (and to replace the overtly Christian ending with a more ecological one about returning to one’s roots in nature), I felt she didn’t do nearly enough to transpose the literary nature of the original to a more theatrical form. The same goes for the staging and performances, which seemed mostly stuck at the level of recitation, despite some (rather token) use of shadow-puppetry and object theatre in an effort to augment things.

In short: unlike both Go Down Moses and The James Plays, The Young King failed to tap into that archetypal layer which is the essential foundation for all fairy-tales, myths, legends and stories about kings and prophets – or to find a theatrical form in which to express it. To be sure, it’s a newly commissioned local work rather than an international blockbuster, and is based on a second-rate story by a Victorian aesthete rather than one drawn from the Bible or the pages of history – but beyond that, I sensed a reluctance to engage with this kind of folkloric material beyond the level of sentiment or whimsy. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a deeper reluctance on the part of our national psyche to come to grips with those layers in our cultural heritage – Anglo-Celtic, Judeo-Christian or otherwise – which underlie who we are and where we’ve come from. Until we do (at the risk of sounding prophetic), we’ll never grow up or forge our own sense of identity – which is what all these stories ultimately have in common.