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.

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