Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Postcard from Paris 2

Les Trois Soeurs by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov, Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe

I’ve been an admirer of Simon Stone’s work since his early productions of Spring Awakening and Platonov with The Hayloft Project in Melbourne, and especially his extraordinary production of Thyestes in the Tower Room at the Malthouse in 2010 (which is being revived at the 2018 Adelaide Festival).

A meteoric rise followed with further productions at Malthouse, Belvoir Street, STC, MTC and overseas. Stone’s version of The Wild Duck in particular made an impact around the country and in Europe, and he himself later adapted it into his first feature film, The Daughter. After engagements in Europe with companies ranging from the Toneelgroep Amsterdam to the Young Vic, he’s now an associate artist at the Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris; and last weekend I was there to see his new French version of Three Sisters – a production that was originally staged in German at the Theater Basel in 2016 and revived at the Berlin Teatertreffen earlier this year.

In recent years, Stone has developed his own distinctive approach to the work of Ibsen and Chekhov, rewriting them in a contemporary idiom, taking increasing liberties with structure, plot, character and dialogue and unapologetically crediting the result as ‘by Simon Stone after Ibsen/Chekhov’. He encourages his actors to adhere to an almost cinéma vérité performance-style, and then frames or encloses them in spectacular sets, often sealing them off behind glass and equipping them with high-fidelity body-microphones.  This further liberates them from the need to ‘play to the audience’, and heightens the sense of denial or entrapment that is entirely appropriate to the characters, as well as situating the audience as voyeurs, somewhat uncomfortably observing lives that (at least on the surface) might well be our own.

As with Stone’s previous adaptations, the action of Les Trois Soeurs is transposed from fin-de-siècle Russia (or Norway as the case may be) to the present-day overdeveloped world (Europe, Australia, it hardly matters). The setting also shifts from a provincial family home in a military outpost to a family holiday house some hours’ drive from a nameless city. It’s a trim, somewhat soulless modernist two-storey chalet of wood and glass, designed in dazzling detail by Lizzie Clachan and featuring everything that opens and shuts including a cluttered kitchen, a piano in the living room, and a working shower in the bathroom upstairs. The floor-to-ceiling windows are of course crucial for the audience to witness the action inside.

Chekhov was a master of dramatic irony, especially when it came to events and sounds occurring offstage (laughter, a band playing, trees being cut down, a duel, a gunshot). Stone inverts this by having the ironies unfold even more cruelly in front of our eyes: characters have sex, take drugs, use the bathroom and even kill themselves in full view of the audience while their partners and siblings elsewhere in the house remain blithely unaware. 

Crucially, the set also rotates, thus enabling the actors to move around the house as the ingeniously choreographed action demands. In the first two Acts these rotations occur during transitions that more or less correspond to ‘scene changes’ (though these don’t really exist in Chekhov) and are accompanied by Stefan Gregory’s moody soundtrack (and a group sing-along of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ in the living-room at the end of Act Two); in the final Act the house turns slowly but continuously throughout, which gives an added sense of inevitability as the play approaches its climax.

The three sisters and their brother, together with their partners and hangers-on, make three fateful visits to this privileged getaway over the course of the three Acts (Stone truncates the architecture of the play as well) and the same number of years. In the first Act (as in the original) it’s a year since father died, and they’ve come to the house to celebrate the youngest sister Irena’s birthday, but also to scatter dad’s ashes near the house he designed and built himself.  In the second Act, they’ve come there to celebrate Christmas, only to discover that their brother André, his wife Natasha and their newborn child have moved in. And in the third and final Act (a kind of conflation of Chekhov’s Acts 3 and 4) they’ve come to pack up the house before it’s sold.

The house itself thus comes to be a major character in its own right: a metonymy for the dead father himself, as well as being what Bakhtin would call a chronotope or ‘time-place’ which is visited at times of symbolic transition during which reflection takes place, truths are told, impulses acted on and life-or-death decisions made. It’s a familiar device in ensemble-plot-driven cinema and literature as well as theatre (the weekend getaway, the group/family reunion) and helps to justify some of the heightened emotions that Stone’s adaptation wrings from Chekhov’s somewhat more enervated original.

In comparison with these changes to the setting and structure, Stone’s character embellishments are relatively minor.  The youngest sister, Irena (a luminous Éloise Mignon, who was also played Hedwig in Stone’s Wild Duck and Anya in his version of The Cherry Orchard with the MTC), is an intellectually and emotionally frustrated idealist in search of meaning through community work and a string of unsatisfying relationships. She’s surrounded by an entourage of male devotees that includes her wealthy and tormented on-again-off-again boyfriend Nicolas (Laurent Papot), his unstable narcissist rival Victor (Thibault Vinçon), who can’t resist waving his gun around and firing it (an echo of Uncle Vanya); and her devoted alcoholic uncle Roman (Frédéric Pierrot) who (as Stone makes explicit in his version) had an affair with Irena’s mother and is possibly her natural father. The middle sister Masha (Céline Sallette) is a depressed novelist unhappily married to Théo (Jean-Baptiste Anoumon), an indefagitably cheerful teacher who tolerates being humiliated by his wife because he adores her and blames himself for the fact that they can’t conceive a child (another extrapolation from the original). The oldest sister, Olga (Amira Casar), is apparently the happiest with her lot: as in Chekhov, also a teacher, childless and apparently single (but in fact a lesbian in a stable but unseen relationship, as she reveals to her surprisingly shocked siblings late in the play). Their brother André (Éric Caravaca) has been turbo-charged by Stone into a feckless addict whose weakness for drugs, gambling and his gold-digging girlfriend Natasha eventually leads him to lose everything, including access to his children and the family’s ownership of the house itself – Stone here foreshadows The Cherry Orchard by having André sell the house to Natasha’s wealthy new husband (who plans to have it demolished) in order to pay off his debts). There’s also Herbert or ‘Bob’ (Assane Timbo), a gay optician and friend of the family (a witty conflation of the somewhat underwritten roles of Rodé and Fedotik in the original); and Alex (Assaad Bouab) – no longer a military officer temporarily stationed in the town, but a neighbour (the son of a local mechanic) whose wife (as in Chekhov) is mentally unstable, and whose affair with Masha provides a brief but doomed flicker of happiness for them both. 

The major character-arcs and relationship-plots depart from their prototypes most significantly in the final Act. Masha tells her husband and siblings that she and Alex are leaving for Brooklyn, but Alex then reneges at the last minute and decides to stay with his wife and daughters; Olga and Uncle Roman reveal their secrets; and (the most dramatic change of all) instead of being almost casually killed offstage in a duel, Nicolas steals Victor’s gun because he believes Irena doesn’t love him and shoots himself  (a regression to the more Ibsen-like ending of The Seagull) – with the added twist that (unlike Chekhov) this suicide happens onstage in the upstairs bathroom while all the other characters are offstage desperately looking for him.

It seems specious to complain (as some Parisian critics have done) that Stone’s adaptation is unfaithful to the letter or spirit of the original. In fact many of the changes he makes to the plot come from other Chekhov plays; it’s almost as if he’s written a new addition to the corpus based on a kind of Chekhovian DNA. Notions of what is or isn’t ‘Chekhovian’ are often obscured by performance traditions, which are worth clearing away in order to reveal what might lie beneath the dust. The meaning of a work, as Walter Benjamin argued, is not fixed but continues to reveal itself in future interpretations. Watching this production, I had the feeling that this might be what it was like to experience Chekhov when it was first performed: reflecting the world of the audience back at them, in all its shocking banality.

To be sure, we live in a very different world from that of Chekhov’s time. In this respect, the original play is a kind of prism through which Stone is able to present his (and to some extent his generation’s) experience of contemporary existence – mediated as that experience is (at least for those of a certain social class) by a given canon of theatre, film, music, literature and philosophy. Admittedly, one feels at times as if one is trapped in a kind of Simon Stone universe, which owes as much to Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen as it does to Ibsen or Chekhov (the chain of influence is too obvious to require further commentary). But that is surely the case for any interpretative artist who has something to say, and chooses to say it using texts with which they have an elective affinity.

In fact Stone’s preoccupations have been remarkably consistent over the years, as is evident in his choice of texts (and rewriting of those texts). Suicide is an obsessive motif; characters grapple with sexual or existential anxiety; and suffer from symptoms of hysteria or depression, especially around questions of masculinity or femininity; but then, who doesn’t these days? To be sure, these are themes already to be found in Ibsen and Chekhov (hardly surprising as they are the inventors of modern drama); but in Stone’s adaptations they are given a contemporary inflection.

As such this reading of Three Sisters draws a compelling parallel between the ‘lost generation’ of Chekhov’s original and Stone’s own ‘millennial’ generation. Both are children of a failed or unfinished revolution: the period of reform in 19th Century Russia that degenerated into terrorism, reaction and finally violent revolution; and the period of the 1960s–70s which has (so far) been followed by a similar (if uneven) course of development around the world (currently arrested in a prolonged period of crisis with no clear outcome yet in sight). Whether it will likewise give birth to the monstrosity of a successful revolution, or whether we can keep faith with the task of a permanently unfinished one, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the portrait of collective despair in Les Trois Soeurs rings powerfully true.


Les Trois Soeurs by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov runs until 22 December at the Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Postcard from Paris

‘Patrice Chéreau: Staging the Opera’, Paris Opéra Garnier; Janacek, From The House of the Dead, Paris Opéra Bastille, directed by Patrice Chéreau, conducted by Esa-Pekka-Salonen, with Willard White, Erik Stoklossa, Stefan Margita, Ladislav Elgr and Peter Mattei.

This autumn the Paris Opera is paying tribute to the great opera and theatre director Patrice Chéreau with a revival of his production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead at the Opéra Bastille, together with an exhibition devoted to his work, ‘Patrice Chéreau: Staging the Opera’, co-presented with the National Library of France at the Bibliothèque-Musée of the Opéra Garnier, and a cycle of video-screenings at the Studio Bastille of the operas he directed in their entirety. Last weekend I was lucky enough to be in Paris and took in a screening of Das Rheingold, a visit to the exhibition and a performance of From the House of the Dead.

I was in my early twenties when I first saw the controversial 1976–1980 Bayreuth Ring cycle directed by Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez that was filmed by the BBC in 1980 and broadcast on the ABC in 1985, and it remains a definitive experience for me in terms of the staging of Wagner, and indeed opera and theatre generally.

The uncompromisingly modernist composer-conductor Boulez (who in 1952 had denounced any contemporary composer who did not understand the ‘necessity’ of serialism as ‘irrelevant’) had been invited by Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang to conduct the ‘Centenary Ring’ (so-called because it marked one hundred years since the first production by Wagner himself). Boulez asked the relatively inexperienced 32-year-old Chéreau to direct the cycle after Ingmar Bergman, Peter Brook and Peter Stein had all turned it down. Indeed Chéreau almost did likewise as he was left with only four months to stage the entire 18 hours of music-drama that make up the four operas in the cycle. Nevertheless he set to, and with the support of Boulez embarked on what became truly ‘the Ring of the century’.

The controversy that ensued even before opening night was as much about Boulez’s conducting – which stripped away the varnish of tradition and demanded chamber-music-like clarity in place of the slower speeds and thicker textures favoured by previous conductors – as it was about Chéreau’s directing. The latter encouraged an intimate, emotionally connected and physically expressive acting-style from the cast that complemented Boulez’s laser-like approach to the score.

Most controversial of all however was the staging (created in collaboration with Chéreau’s regular set designer Richard Peluzzi and costume designer Jacques Schmidt), which set the operas broadly during the era in which they were written – the rise of industrial capitalism – but also incorporated deliberate anachronisms that extended back into the eighteenth century and forward into the twentieth. In the very opening scene of Das Rheingold, the Rhine was represented by a huge hydroelectric dam, on which the Rhine-Maidens loitered in the guise of nineteenth-century prostitutes, while Alberich lurked beneath them like an overcoat-wearing tramp. In subsequent scenes, the Gods were dressed like decadent periwigged aristocrats and the dwarves like oppressed proletarian miners; and when Wotan stole the gold from Alberich it was packed into clear plastic bags like trash, or a consignment of heroin. The prevailing atmosphere (enhanced by André Diot’s lighting design) was one of penumbral gloom and impending destruction; the over-arching theme that of greed and the lust for power in conflict with the forces of nature and love.

Chéreau’s preoccupations (like Wagner’s) were both psychological and political; indeed his interpretation was not imposed but inspired by a scrupulous attention to the text (and supported by Boulez’s equally scrupulous attention to the score). In fact the whole (mostly French) creative team accomplished an even more thorough ‘de-Nazification’ of Wagner than had been attempted by Wolfgang and his brother Wieland Wagner in their own previous post-war productions, which had used abstract sets and lighting in order to purge the works of their associations with German nationalism and pseudo-medievalist folklore.

Seeing all this anew on a big screen, I was overwhelmed by the sheer force of Chéreau’s vision. I was also riveted once more by the performances: the twisted German Expressionist physicality of Heinz Zednik’s crow-like Loge; the simple dignity and fierce outrage of Herman Becht’s Alberich; the pathos of Matti Salminen’s Fasolt, his giant puppet-hands hanging impotently beside him; and the morally conflicted Wotan of the great New Zealand bass-baritone Donald McIntyre.

Chéreau’s gift was to see The Ring as a deeply human tragedy, in which all the characters emerged as flawed but complex and ultimately sympathetic creatures, regardless of their social class or allegorical status as gods, dwarves or humans. This arguably made him more of a philosophical humanist than an aesthetic modernist. It certainly differentiates him from many of his postmodern followers in so-called ‘director’s theatre’.  


The exhibition ‘Patrice Chéreau: Staging the Opera’ at the Opéra Garnier describes a chronological journey from Chéreau’s formative years to his first experimental opera stagings of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri at Spoleto and Tales of Hoffmann at the Paris Opéra Garnier; the watershed Ring cycle; Berg’s Lulu (again with Boulez, and set in the 1930s); Mozart’s rarely-staged Lucio Silla; Berg’s Wozzek (conducted by Barenboim and featuring a semi-abstract set by Peduzzi consisting of mobile geometric cubes); a monumental Don Giovanni and radically minimalist Così fan tutte; a renewed collaboration with Boulez on The House of the Dead immediately followed by a return to Wagner with Tristan; and finally (in the last year of his life) Strauss’s Elektra (with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting). Archival images and documents, interviews and rehearsal footage are complemented by video selections of key passages from many of the productions.

The first section of the exhibition situates his work as a director in the context of his abiding interest in visual art, especially painting. Both his parents were artists and acknowledged mentors for the young Chéreau, who was deeply influenced by the allegorical and apocalyptic works of Bosch and Brueghel: the latter’s painting of The Blind Leading the Blind is alluded to when the Gods enter Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold, and the image of a human chain of folly is repeated in the staging of other operas (as it was by Bergman in the closing shot of The Seventh Seal). He was also drawn to Romantic painters like Géricault and Goya, especially the former’s Raft of the Medusa and the latter’s Disasters of War; and the influence of both is visible in Chéreau’s staging of groups, crowd scenes and images of collective catastrophe. Even more telling was his fascination with paintings attributed to the pseudonymous early 17th Century Neapolitan Monsu Desiderio, whose apocalyptic landscapes and ghostly ruins clearly influenced the ambience and set design for the Ring; and Brünnhilde’s rock in Die Walküre was redesigned during the season to resemble the cliffs that loom over the 19th Century Swiss Symbolist Böcklin’s mysterious Isle of the Dead. In short: a preoccupation with allegory, disaster, ruins, the grotesque and macabre marks Chereau’s visual imagination from the start, and complicates any simple reading of him as inspired solely by humanist psychology or even politics.

Wandering through the rest of the exhibition, I was struck by the relatively small number of operas Chéreau chose to direct, and by his protean approach to staging and design. Nevertheless there were continuities: an ongoing refusal of conventional wisdom about individual works or characters, and significant collaborations with particular artists, including Peduzzi, Boulez, Barenboim and singers (especially women) with an interest in exploring complex roles – including Gwyneth Jones (Brünnhilde), Teresa Stratas (Lulu) and Waltraud Meier (Eva in Wozzek, Isolde and finally Klytaemnestra in Elektra).

Throughout the exhibition, documents and footage attest to Chéreau’s ambivalent relationship with opera itself, his insistence on its theatrical nature (which he described paradoxically as ‘more theatrical than theatre’), his relentless focus on textual as well as musical fidelity, and his detailed attention to emotional and physical connection, movement and the body. A central installation focuses on Chéreau’s rehearsal process as a director, especially when working with singers. Notes from rehearsals insist on the necessity of singing and acting as if not knowing in advance what the character is going to say or do next; and rehearsal footage shows him continually on the floor with performers (choruses and crowds as well as soloists), touching them, manipulating them, moving with them and communicating using his own body as well as words. Chéreau’s own ongoing experience as an actor is evident here, but also his commitment to visual-spatial, kinesthetic and tactile forms of expression. An unforgettable instance of this (shown on video in the final alcove of the exhibition) is the performance of Teresa Stratas as Lulu when she meets her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, her body arching on the end of his knife until she comes to rest upside-down on her hands and feet like a spider, and then remains there frozen until the end of the opera.


Chéreau’s production of From the House of the Dead was originally staged in Vienna in 2007 and conducted by Pierre Boulez. It’s been revived in Paris by Chéreau’s former assistant Peter McClintock and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The production is a fitting testament to Chéreau’s work, and in some ways a culmination of his approach to opera and its underlying philosophy

Janacek’s final opera is based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel about the four years he spent as a political prisoner in a Siberian labour camp. The opera is an ensemble work in three acts (90 minutes without interval) that eschews traditional protagonists or plot in favour of a series of scenic tableaux, each punctuated by a different prisoner’s story of crime and punishment, which has essentially come to define what remains of their identity.

The abrupt juxtaposition of scenes, choruses, monologues and random events (fights, beatings, humiliations, occasional acts of compassion or distraction – the nursing of an injured eagle, or a crude pantomime put on by the prisoners) mirrors Janacek’s musical language, which consists of jagged and repetitive phrases, sometimes shrilly mocking but at other times full of aching beauty. It also reflects the meaningless routine of existence inside the camp – an existence from which there is no hope of release for most of its inmates except in death. Or rather, as the title indicates, it is as if they are already dead.

Chéreau had his own fascination with Dostoyevsky (whose eschatological vision must have appealed to him much like that of Bosch or Breughel); in fact he had recently given a public reading of Notes from Underground in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. To stage the opera, he went back to the novel in order to flesh out Janacek’s terse libretto, which consists of extracts from Dostoyevsky rearranged in a kind of collage.

He also augmented the cast of 19 singers with 16 non-singing actors, and used improvisation to develop action, characters and relationships. The result is that the actors move more or less indistinguishably among the singers (most of the cast from the original Vienna production reappear in the Paris revival). This crowd of mostly nameless figures remains almost permanently onstage, occasionally exiting or entering through temporary gaps that appear in Richard Peduzzi’s set of towering grey faceless walls that embrace the stage (once more recalling the cliffs in Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead) and shift position minimally between the Acts. Otherwise the prisoners are effectively immured in an abstract architecture of pain, the severity of its lines and forms heightened by Bertrand Couderc’s stark lighting design.

Costumes by Caroline de Vivaise are basically drab, worn-out contemporary street-clothes, except for the odd visiting Russian Orthodox priest, or the prison guards, whose uniforms are unidentifiable. Chéreau and his designers also took inspiration from photojournalist Luc Delahaye’s harrowing book of photographs Winterreise, taken while travelling across the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. The result is a visual world which evokes the gulags and death camps of the 20th Century as much as it does the labour camps of Tsarist Russia – and beyond these, the military prisons and detention centres that still exist today, even under the jurisdiction of so-called democracies. A particularly pitiful scene involves the prisoners (who are all male – the only women who visit the camp are the commandant’s wife and a prostitute) entering in various states of undress after washing in the river; the lack of shame in their nudity recalling countless similar images.

Despite that fact that what is being represented is a form of ‘mass’ experience that reduces individuality to its barest outlines, several characters, micro-narratives and performances stand out. The African-American bass-baritone Willard White is noble and understated as Goriantchikov, an aristocratic political prisoner and new arrival at the camp. Eric Stoklossa is a touching and clear-voiced Alieia, the young Tartar prisoner who saves Goriantchikov’s spectacles when the latter is stripped and beaten at the order of the camp commandant, and who is later taught to read by the more well-educated older man. Baritone Stefan Margita gives a haunting performance as the aggressive Louka, who was sentenced for killing an officer in the army and eventually dies of fever in the prison hospital. Tenor Ladislav Elgr is a physically and vocally compelling Kouratov, who murdered a rich German for stealing his beloved Louisa, and later goes mad. And finally in Act 3 there is a stand-out performance from the great Swedish baritone Peter Mattei as Chichkov, who in a massive 20-minute monologue tells the story of how he murdered his wife because she still loved another man who boasted (falsely) of taking her virginity (and who in a final twist of fate turns out to be the dying Louka).

Esa-Pekka Salonen directed a terse, incisive reading of Janacek’s wrenching and often brutal score, which even includes the sound of the prisoners’ chains as percussion instruments. But above all the production belongs to the late Chéreau, whose unflinching gaze penetrated to the depths of this bleak work and conveyed its fundamental message of compassion and survival.


From The House of the Dead closed on December 2 at the Paris Opéra Bastille. The exhibition ‘Patrice Chéreau: Staging the Opera’ runs until March 3 at the Opéra Garnier. Patrice Chéreau died in 2013, aged 68.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Postcard from Adelaide 

Hotel (OzAsia Festival); Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Symposium, ‘Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural’

I was in Adelaide last week for the Australian Theatre Forum. While I was there I saw two shows at the OzAsia Festival: Hotel by Singapore company W!ld Rice and The Dark Inn by Japanese playwright-director Kuro Tanino. I also attended ‘Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural’ – a ‘satellite symposium’ organised by the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network.


Hotel is a five-hour, two-part production that premiered at the Singapore Festival in 2015; I saw Parts One and Two at the Dunstan Playhouse in the Adelaide Festival Centre in a single afternoon-and-evening marathon with a dinner break between the two parts. It’s an epic work of inter-cultural ensemble theatre, directed by the company’s founder Ivan Heng and co-artistic director Glen Oei, written by resident playwright Alian Sa’at and Marcia Veerstraaten, and featuring a multi-racial cast of 14, including Chinese, Indian, Malay and mixed-race Singaporean actors.
The structure of the play consists of 11 ‘scenes’ – discrete one-act plays really – set in the same unnamed luxury hotel room in successive decades over the last 100 years of Singapore history. It’s a brilliant conceit, as the hotel room becomes a metaphor for the city itself as it passes through one regime after another: the British Empire, the Japanese Occupation, post-war independence, separation from Malaysia, Lee Kwan Yew’s authoritarian ‘democracy’, and finally the post-LKY, post-GFC and post-9/11 surveillance-state it remains today.
Crucially, the dialogue alternates between multiple languages – including Cantonese, Tamil, Malay, Japanese and English (often more than one is used in the same scene) – simultaneously translated and projected on screens above and either side of the stage. This linguistic layering and framing reflects the shifting (but always racially tinged) stratification of Singapore society from one era to the next: the dominant class and language shifting from English to Japanese to Chinese; the Indians occupying the lower-middle ranks; and the indigenous Malays at the bottom of the hierarchy.
In terms of its material, then, Hotel is very specifically ‘made in Singapore’. However, as the play goes on, and stories and characters (or their descendants) from earlier scenes reappear or intersect in unexpected ways, the city’s history becomes indistinguishable from that of the increasingly globalised world – most pointedly so in the penultimate post-9/11 scene, when a Muslim Malay family who’ve just checked in are targeted as terrorists. And in the final scene, when a Chinese man dying of cancer chooses to spend his final months in the hotel room, it comes to stand for life itself: a ‘transient’ space in which we are all ‘guests’.
The play continually shifts in focus from broader historical, social or political themes to more domestic, individual, corporeal or spiritual dimensions which exceed all forms of national, racial, cultural, linguistic, religious and even sexual/gender identity. For example, at the climax of one of the funniest scenes in Part Two, a ‘straight’ US ex-serviceman decides to let himself be fucked by a mixed-race trans-woman who reveals that despite going through with hormone therapy she decided to keep her penis on the scheduled day of the operation (in defiance, respectively, of her Catholic mother and the rigid binarism of her medical team). And in one of the most poignant moments in the show, the son of a Japanese military officer and a Malay former comfort-woman kneels before his long-lost mother and apologizes to her for the atrocities committed by his adoptive country – 40 years after he was taken from her as a baby by his father in the same hotel room and shipped back to Japan (a heart-rending earlier scene in Part One).
The wide-ranging script was apparently generated by the actors doing their own research for each decade/scene, and then improvising plots, characters and dialogue – all which of was then shaped and refined by the playwrights. This creative process accounts not only for the breadth of the material, but also for the sense of connection and ownership that emanated from the cast. Conversely (and perhaps inevitably) I found some of the writing a little broad-brushstroke; and the same could be said of some of the performances – which (perhaps ironically) didn’t always avoid a degree of ethnic stereotyping (exuberant Indians, domineering Chinese, submissive Malays, etc). Staging, lighting and music also felt a little unimaginative and even clunky at times; the relentlessly musical-theatre-style scene-changes (accompanied by documentary-style video projections) becoming increasingly didactic and repetitive as the show wore on. I felt I was watching an intentionally ‘mainstream’ production, at least in terms of its aesthetic. Perhaps its makers didn’t want to alienate their audience artistically while challenging them in terms of political, religious and sexual content. One must also be mindful of context: this was a production made for a Singapore audience, as opposed to one in Melbourne or Berlin.
Despite these reservations, I found the whole journey immensely entertaining and at times deeply moving. As is often the case with large-scale ensemble productions, I loved becoming familiar with each of the actors and following their individual journeys through their multiple roles. Some of the older, more experienced performers were more capable than others of fully and truthfully inhabiting and fleshing out their roles – a challenge given that most of the characters had only one scene to establish themselves. Nevertheless I found it easy to forgive occasional weaknesses in the writing, staging or performances because of the diversity of stories, genres, voices, faces, bodies and levels of skill.
The audience in the Dunstan Playhouse was predominantly white, middle-aged and middle-class. They seemed to enjoy themselves too, and to ride the show’s ups-and-downs. In the dinner break between Parts One and Two, I left the Festival Centre and wandered over to the Lucky Dumpling outdoor Asian food market nearby. It was a completely different crowd: much more diverse in age, class and cultural background.
I wondered what it would take to get a crowd like that into the theatre to see Hotel.


The next day I was back at the Festival Centre for the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Symposium ‘Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural’: two days of keynote lectures and roundtable discussions expertly co-curated by Malaysian-Australian performance maker and dramaturg Lim How Ngean and Australian independent artist and thinker David Pledger. It was a demanding, occasionally frustrating and always thought-provoking two days that left me chewing on the question of what dramaturgy or the dramaturg might be or have to offer performance-makers today.

David led with a keynote, ‘Operating Systems in Concentric Circles’, loosely defining ‘dramaturgy’ as ‘how something works’. He applied this to the dramaturgy of his own performance company Not Yet It’s Difficult, which he described as operating in ‘concentric circles’ from an initial creative idea and team of core artists, extending to a further ‘circle’ of experts in relation to the initial idea, and then to further ‘circles’ of artistic and non-artistic colleagues who might provide further input and feedback. He then extended this notion of dramaturgy from the sphere of creative practice to larger ‘concentric circles’ like culture, society and even democracy; criticized the isolation of theatre and performance from these broader ‘circles’ of practice and reflection; and specifically advocated for a creative dramaturgical intervention in relation to democracy itself, in an era when the latter has become systematically distorted by the ideology of neo-liberalism. This ambitious prescription for political dramaturgy was illustrated by examples from David’s work as a curator, such as the use of ‘body-listening’ as a form of facilitation, and the structural inclusion of young people as instigators/provocateurs (or ‘free radicals’) in the biennial Gold Coast conference-event ‘2970°: The Boiling Point’.

In the first roundtable discussion that followed, ‘The Public(s) and the Arts’, the three speakers were Shawn Chua, a Singapore-based researcher and artist; Rachael Swain, co-artistic director of Broome-based inter-cultural dance theatre company Marrugeku; and Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Singapore theatre company Drama Box and a Nominated Member of Parliament – which (as he explained to me afterwards) means he is appointed specifically to represent the arts constituency and is able to vote on all except budgetary legislation (in itself a remarkable advance on Australia when it comes to the significance of the arts in society). Shaun delivered a nuanced account of recent ‘participatory’ performances in Singapore, including a sly critique of participatory-performance ‘tours’ that enrol the audience-participants as ‘extras’, and advocating a dramaturgical ethics of ‘friction’ in order to make ‘rough’ work that exposes contradictions rather than ‘smoothing them over’. Rachel told a powerful story about dramaturging a solo indigenous dance performance in an outdoor recreation venue for a remote Aboriginal community, and then gave further examples where tensions emerge and have to be negotiated between artists and communities (especially over issues of territory). And finally Heng Leun spoke of the dramaturgy of community engagement in the context of participatory performances in public spaces, referring to his own use of live game-show formats in public housing zones, parks and cemeteries, and the installation of an inflatable pop-up venue that is both open and semi-closed in order to accommodate the needs of the work, the rights of the public and the exigencies of the law in Singapore (where public gatherings are tightly controlled by the state).

I began to sense that for many at the symposium ‘dramaturgy’ referred not only to the work of a particular individual (‘the dramaturg’), but to a more diffusely located and shared form of reflective and creative practice – and even beyond this, to a latent or inherent quality or structure in the text or performance itself. Moreover, the entire session led me to reflect on the ethics and politics of dramaturgy – and even to think of dramaturgy as an ethical and political practice.


That night I met up with some Adelaide friends for an Asian meal. They included a novelist and poet, a musician and former academic, and two teachers. We didn’t talk about dramaturgs or dramaturgy – at least not directly. The former academic – a German scholar – quoted Brecht: ‘Grub first, then ethics’. I thought about Brecht as a dramaturg and theorist of dramaturgy – one who perhaps understood more deeply than anyone the ethics and politics of ‘how theatre works’.


Day Two of the symposium began with a keynote by Singaporean researcher and dramaturg Charlene Rajendran entitled ‘Difference and Aesthetic Agency – Dramaturging Choices for Change’. This provided a sweeping overview of the work of three major Singaporean director-dramaturgs (who, she acknowledged ironically, were all Chinese, as well as being all male). She also spoke suggestively of the work of the dramaturg as involving a practice of ‘deep listening’ and ‘active presence’, and invoked the mythical figures of the familiar spirit or trickster-god in Malay folklore, accompanying, questioning and occasionally provoking the theatre-maker to a new level of political consciousness. I thought of the Fool in King Lear, speaking truth to power at a time of crisis – and of how the figure of the dramaturg rose to prominence in German theatre after the catastrophe of the Second World War, when artistic and political roles and responsibilities were being reflectively interrogated across the board. Perhaps in this context the dramaturg could even be considered a kind of therapist or catalyst for change.

The roundtable that followed, ‘Difference and Deference – The Question of Culture’, picked up on these themes, specifically in relation to working across cultures and communities. Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at (one of the co-writers of Hotel) spoke about representing inter-cultural experience in his plays, specifically in reference to inter-marriage across cultures and religions. Australian actor, broadcaster and producer Annette Shun Wah spoke about her organisation Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and its progress in developing and promoting the work of Asian Australian performers and playwrights across the industry (a theme picked up in her brief ‘firecracker update’ at the Australian Theatre Forum the following day). And South Australian theatre maker Edwin Kemp Attrill, artistic director of Act Now Theatre in Adelaide, described his work in interactive and participatory theatre, in particular using Augusto Boal’s technique of ‘forum theatre’ with oppressed communities such as the disabled, LGBTQ, young people, migrants and refugees.

The symposium ended with a discussion facilitated by David, Charlene and How Ngean, including everyone present and inviting more personal reflections on the question of dramaturgy, the role of the dramaturg and what these terms might mean in various contexts. A Singaporean artist who runs a play-space for children had an epiphany about being ‘a dramaturg of her own life’ in relation to her own inter-cultural marriage, and summarised her position on dramaturgy with the motto: ‘let art do what art does’. I confessed to my own misgivings about conventional script-dramaturgy, in the context of being employed by companies and organisations as a dramaturg, and then feeling as if I was collaborating in a process whereby playwrights lost their original vision. And a Malaysian writer, editor and producer vented her frustration at listening to all this talk about ‘dramaturgy’ and ‘Asia’, as she remembered similar discussions in Australia in the heady days of the early 90s, and wondered what had been achieved since then. Perhaps, she suggested, we needed to apply a little more ‘conceptual rigor’ to the dramaturgy of our own discussions!

Despite these misgivings and frustrations, I came away from the symposium with the sense that dramaturgy has a new meaning in the context of theatre-making today, especially in regard to inter-cultural, cross-artform and collaborative work. This was the tentative frame of mind with which I would approach the Australian Theatre Forum the next day – about which more in my next Postcard.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Postcard from Adelaide

Schaubühne Berlin Richard III, Barrie Kosky's Saul

As a friend and colleague remarked to me when we met up to see a show at the Adelaide Festival Centre on Saturday night, there’s something about the Festival here that feels more like a national (and even international) convergence of audiences and artists than any other festival in Australia. Perhaps Perth is just a little too far away for people from the eastern seaboard to make the journey; Melbourne feels a little too much like a festival-city all year-round; Sydney doesn’t need a festival in order to be a destination-city for work or pleasure; and Brisbane and the other smaller or more regionally-focused festivals are…well, just a little too small.

There’s also something about Adelaide itself – the size, the layout, the weather in March, the proximity of public space (especially the river and parklands) to the main venues, the bon vivant culture – that makes it an ideal setting for an arts festival. Whatever the reason, there’s a sense of the city coming together to celebrate itself and the arts – a sense, in short, of festivity – that makes it hard to resist joining in, if one has the means to do so.

I add the last qualification advisedly, as whenever I make it over here (which is almost invariably at Festival-time) I can’t help noticing the ‘other side’ of Adelaide – and perhaps of all cities with which one isn’t overly familiar: the sense of a massive social divide between the haves and have-nots. In Adelaide this is accompanied by an indefinable but sinister undertow, which is partly fed by urban mythology and partly by the city’s peculiar status as somewhere midway between miniature metropolis and large country town, with little in the way of a surviving industrial base to employ its (increasingly) non-working class. As such, it has something in common with Perth, now that the mining boom has come to an end and the ensuing recession is having a visible impact on the streets. As I walked the ravaged CBD en route from my comfortable digs in east Adelaide to the Festival venues and their mostly well-heeled patrons, I couldn’t help feeling a little haunted by some uncomfortable questions about who is invited to the feast, and who is left outside the door.

Nevertheless, arriving at my first destination, Her Majesty’s Theatre, to see the Schaubühne Berlin production of Richard III on the Friday night of the Festival’s opening weekend, I picked up on an extra air of excitement and expectation around this, the first under Neil Armfield and Rachel Healey’s tenure as joint artistic directors. There’s a sense of guiding artistic vision that recalls Barrie Kosky’s legendary Festival in 1996 (back in the days when it was still a biennial event, and all the more attractive as a pilgrimage because of that); along with perhaps a slightly broader mainstream appeal; and (most importantly for me) some irresistible theatre.

Thomas Ostermeier joined the artistic directorate of the Schaubühne Berlin in 1999, and since then the company has acquired a reputation as perhaps the most trend-setting theatre company in that most theatrically trend-setting of cities. As another theatre colleague of mine pointed out in the foyer, Richard III is the latest in a series of re-definitive re-stagings of the classic masterpieces of ‘bourgeois drama’ (Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov) by Ostermeier and others at the Schaubühne over the past fifteen years. Several of these have toured to Australia, including Ostermeier’s versions of A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, An Enemy of the People and Hamlet. The latter, like Richard, was translated and adapted by playwright and regular Ostermeier collaborator Marius von Mayenburg and featured Lars Eidinger in the title role.

I didn’t see Eidinger’s Hamlet, but from what I’ve heard his performance as the ‘mad’ Prince foreshadowed many aspects that characterise his version of Shakespeare’s crippled psychopathic King. Perhaps most notable is his use of extemporization – or perhaps a musical term like ‘decoration’ or ‘embellishment’ would be more exact. The Shakespeare text (in von Mayenburg’s German translation) is delivered as written (and translated back into English surtitles projected upstage) but is frequently interrupted by Eidinger, who repeats lines in English, or stops to read the surtitles in mock-astonishment, or breaks into an Eminem lyric, or delivers improvised one-liners, or even (at one point) leads the audience in a mocking chant of abuse directed at one of the other characters. He also moves freely (and at times seemingly on impulse) between the stage and the auditorium, exiting and entering not only through the wings but also the side-doors that lead to the foyer, or lurks in the semi-darkness around the outskirts of the seating, like a spider permanently lurking in the corners of the mind.

Eidinger has an animalistic physicality which, together with his powerful physique and anarchic stage persona, makes him resemble a rock-star as much as an actor. This is supported by the central feature of Jan Pappelbaum’s set design: a retractable microphone dangling from the ceiling, which Richard uses like an announcer in a boxing match whenever delivering a soliloquy or aside. Florence von Gerkan’s costume design for him similarly includes a boxer’s protective leather head-brace and boxer’s tape strapped across his knuckles, together with a padded hunch visibly strapped to his back and one outsized padded shoe to give him an exaggerated club-foot.

All this contributed to a thrilling sense of Richard’s theatricality, his punk-like disregard for propriety (stripping down to nudity in the Lady Anne wooing scene, and again in the later battle scenes), his confronting rapport with the audience, and his increasingly unpredictable and unhinged relationship with the other characters – and ultimately with himself. For Ostermeier’s (and von Mayenberg’s) version of the play is not so much a political study in tyranny, or even a psychological study in anti-social personality disorder, as it is a philosophical study in solipsism – the belief that the mind is the only reality, and the logical consequences that follow. It’s as if the production took its cue from Richard’s line in the precursor play to this one, Henry VI Part 3: ‘I am myself alone.’

German tradition has indeed long understood Shakespeare’s characters through the lense of Romantic irony as embodying the existential predicament of ‘absolute freedom’. As such, Eidinger’s Richard is more of a Dostoyevskian nihilist for whom ‘everything is permitted’ like Stavrogin or Ivan Karamazov than the familiar paranoid twentieth-century dictators to whom he is usually likened. This becomes more apparent in the second (and for me more revelatory) half of the show (which runs for two-and-a-half hours with no interval), when Richard assumes power only to find himself entering a kind of nightmare from which he can no longer awake, gradually becoming his own double and ultimately suicidal enemy. As such, he comes more and more to resemble Hamlet, who would count himself ‘a king of infinite space’ were it not that he has ‘bad dreams’.

As for his deformity (clearly a theatrical artifice rather than a realistic impediment), once he becomes king it is artificially constrained and corrected by a corset and neck-brace, as if the fulfilment of his wishes in the form of absolute power became the ultimate form of imprisonment within his own consciousness. Indeed there’s something both terrifying and pitiful about his transformation in Act IV when he dips his face in a bowl of whitewash and becomes his own death-mask before wooing Queen Elizabeth for her daughter’s hand; or lies on the table and moans like a child for ‘a horse…a horse…’ before hitching himself by the leg to the microphone cable and being hoisted up like a joint of meat on a butcher’s hook in the final image of the play.

Perhaps inevitably the rest of the cast and production seemed somewhat eclipsed by this central performance. Strong and complex secondary characters – particularly the women of the play – were given short shrift, almost as if they were more like emanations of Richard’s mind rather than fully-fledged characters in their own right. Jan Pappelbaum’s split-level set design – basically a rough façade with balcony, steep stairs and a fireman’s pole – kept the action circulating; Sebastian Dupouey’s video projections of silhouettes of birds in flight onto the façade between scenes reinforced the ambience of swirling dread; Erich Schneider’s lighting design was almost clinically cold (the most conspicuous light being the one installed in Richard’s microphone which sculpted his face with an eerie glow whenever he spoke); and Nils Ostendorf’s live downstage drumming (supplemented by an aggressive techno soundtrack) added to the sense of a perverse circus or nightclub act gone wrong. Special mention should be made of the grimly humorous use of Bunraku-style puppet-schoolboys as the two hapless Princes in the Tower – their puppet-corpses later delivered to a trussed-up King Richard in his neck-brace and corset looking more and more like a puppet himself.

In short: the whole production was an object-lesson in theatrical craft servicing a single-minded and rigorous artistic conception, and a central performance which felt like one of the handful I’ve seen in my life that in some sense re-defined for me not only the role in question but acting itself.

We don’t see (or make) work like this often enough in Australia. We should.


From one mad King to another: Barrie Kosky’s fully staged production of Handel’s oratorio Saul is probably the defining coup of Armfield and Healey’s program (all performances sold out within days of its announcement last year). Originally conceived and presented as a Glyndebourne Festival production in 2015, it’s here remounted in collaboration with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the State Opera Chorus, and conducted by Melbourne Conservatorium-based early music specialist, keyboard performer and scholar Erin Helyard (who makes a spectacular stage appearance at one point on a miniature revolve while playing the organ like Handel himself – or indeed Barrie in one of his earlier theatre productions). The remount still features the British baritone Christopher Purves in the title role, along with (of course) the original costume and set design by Katrin Lea Tag, lighting design by Joachim Klein, and choreography by Otto Pichler, all regular collaborators with Barrie in his capacity as intendant at the Komische Oper in Berlin and elsewhere.

The rest of the cast includes a hauntingly voiced counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey as the future King David; stalwart tenor Adrian Strooper (a member of the Komische Oper ensemble) as Saul’s son (and David’s devoted friend) Jonathan; gilt-edged soprano Mary Bevan as Saul’s daughter Marab; thrilling Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig as her sister Michal (for me giving the standout musical-dramatic-comedic performance of the night); Australian tenor and cabaret artist Kanen Breen (in full artificial bare-breasted drag) as the Witch of Endor; and versatile tenor Stuart Jackson in the composite role of the High Priest, Saul’s herdsman Doeg, his cousin and commander-in-chief Abner, and the Amakelite messenger who brings David the news of Saul and Jonathan’s death in battle – all of which he encompassed in the guise of an impishly camp, Bacchic master-of-ceremonies.

Barrie is a master at staging deliciously and deliriously surreal extravaganzas which celebrate Eros in all its polymorphous possibilities; but his vision also provides apocalyptic glimpses of the chasm of catastrophe into which we fall when Dionysus is denied – or given full sway. If his Urtext is The Bacchae, then his horizon is the Holocaust. However he is also (as he calls himself in the program note) ‘an extravagant minimalist’, at least when it comes to the layout of the stage itself, which is generally open and uncluttered in terms of set or furniture, so as to allow for maximum focus on the bodies (and voices) of the performers. His special talent is for striking physical images and collective movement; in opera, this lends itself especially to the staging of the choruses. As such, he remains true to the German operatic tradition of Bewegungsregie (movement-direction) as practised by his precursor Walter Felsenstein (the founder of the Komische Oper).

Saul provides ample opportunity for his vision and stagecraft to exercise themselves because as an oratorio it lacks inherent physical or dramatic impetus. Instead it’s more like a series of magnificent musical numbers (and corresponding emotional states) without sufficient narrative or thematic connective tissue between them to constitute a satisfyingly continuous or internally coherent experience without some form of radical directorial intervention. In fact Handel’s operas suffer from a similar lack of dramaturgical flow, in comparison say with Mozart’s – though this arguably has as much to do with the librettos as it does with the music (Charles Jennens, the librettist of Saul, was no Da Ponte). Barrie’s theatrical and thematic preoccupations – which focus on the body as means of expression and subject-matter – therefore have plenty of space to inhabit and animate what would otherwise remain dramatically inert.

In fact the most striking feature of Barrie’s staging in Saul is the use of crowded tableaux vivants or ‘still lives’ – whether composed of brightly lit and costumed human bodies or the more traditional arrangements of food, flowers and domestic possessions which we associate with the period (and especially the art and architecture) of the Baroque from which the oratorio is drawn. These tableaux are arranged on and around two huge (literal) tables which, themselves inventively rearranged from one scene to the next, are the only stage-furniture in the show. They evoke an age of economic and material bounty (at least for the ruling classes), but also of religious and political reaction and absolutism, against which renewed social, artistic and intellectual impulses towards freedom were already striving (and can be heard in the music itself).

Barrie’s interest in the work however is less political or historical than psychological and archetypal. Saul’s ‘madness’ – much debated by Biblical scholars, theologians and psychologists even today – here becomes the divine punishment visited on one who resists or attempts to over-regulate his own (fundamentally sexual) impulses. This is not the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, which is a punishment for blasphemy and pride, or even of Lear, which has more to do with the abuses of power and injustice. It’s more closely related to the madness of Pentheus in The Bacchae – and in Barrie’s surreal imagination leads to a similar de-naturing (and eventual dismemberment). Saul’s aggressive envy toward David as a rival talent, warrior and future king is thus a twisted form of narcissistic sexual jealousy – in contrast with his son Jonathan, who loves David but is willing to share him with his sister Michal (unlike their sister Merab, who rejects David because of his inferior social class even more emphatically than her father does). As such, Saul becomes a perverse family saga which resembles Pasolini’s Teorema, with David as the angelic object of lust whose beauty destroys a dynasty.

The most striking image of all in this production occurs when Saul visits the Witch of Endor (here represented as a kind of Tiresias complete with ‘wrinkled dugs’ as Eliot describes him in The Waste Land) on an empty plain of black rubble, and suckles on his/her teat in order to summon up the ghost of the prophet Samuel within himself (the role is here sung by Saul himself as if in a form of demonic possession). The same empty black plain is then filled with the corpses of the Chorus of Israelites who have been slain in battle by the Philistines – among them the decapitated bodies of Saul and Jonathan, their heads sitting in the rubble beside them, in a direct echo of the severed head of Goliath which sat there in the rubble, illuminated by Joachim Klein’s Carravaggio-like lighting, as the opening image of the opera.

Purves is marvellous in the title role, vigorous and expressive in voice and action, and fully embraces Barrie’s highly physical interpretation of the role’s demands. In an interesting parallel with Eidinger’s Richard III, this ‘mad king’ also breaks out into extemporized speech during the opera while the other characters continue singing – underscoring the sense that madness also involves a kind of aesthetic ‘break in form’. Personally I didn’t feel this device worked as well as it did in Richard, possibly because it felt more like a gear-change into naturalism which seemed a little weak in comparison with the ritualised nature of the rest of the production, and the work itself. At times (particularly towards the end of the show) I also felt that perhaps there was a little too much Bewegung for Bewegungs sake, in comparison with the shattering moments of stillness when the mis-en-scene was at its most eloquent.

Musically and (for the most part) dramatically, though, this Saul was a triumph, and the audience responded accordingly when the curtain came down, even more than they did with Richard. Mad kings, psychopaths, narcissists…perhaps there was some recognition of the times we live in.