Friday, 30 March 2012

Review: '121'

EARLY WORX in theatre and art, Higher Ground, 23 - 26 November 2011. Directed by Charles Sanders.

What do you get when you combine over-sexed youths with the greatest poet in the history of the English language? 121 is emerging Adelaide theatre company EARLY WORX’s answer to their own theatrical riddle. It is one of those answers which makes you wish nobody had bothered to ask the question in the first place.
            Ostensibly, 121 is the story of two rival poets (Jordan Fraser-Trumble and Tom St Jack) and their various romantic trysts with ‘dark lady’ Kate (Brittany Plummer) and ‘fair friend’ Henry (Phillip Harker-Smith). The dialogue (with the exception of a handful of incongruous four letter words) is drawn from William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, most notably the 121st of the play’s title. Much of this dialogue is incomprehensible, sabotaged either by the actors’ lack of projection or the often punishingly loud sound design by Chris Donoghue. The young performers, mostly Adelaide College of the Arts graduates, provide scant insight into Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the sonnets do similarly little to ameliorate the play’s paper-thin plot and flabby dramaturgy.
The aesthetic is that of a contemporary r&b music video and, although the play runs to only sixty minutes, there are long lapses in dialogue which allow for extended, noisily-soundtracked moments which don’t further the narrative but seem designed, rather, to titillate or – at a greater stretch – to shock. Director Charles Sanders uses the word ‘romantic’ in his programme notes and most people asked to describe Shakespeare’s sequence of sonnets in one word would, I imagine, use the same word. It is odd, then, that 121 seems almost proudly unromantic in its conception, more a quick, unsatisfying fuck in a pub toilet than a home-cooked meal for two. What makes this dearth of sentiment stranger still is the fact that the four actors speak Shakespeare’s words with the kind of pouty reverence which inexperienced performers always seem to think canonical texts require but, invariably, proves theatrically lethal.        
In fairness to EARLY WORX, it is difficult to imagine how Shakespeare’s sonnets could be comfortably shoehorned into a dramatic narrative, in much the same way ‘jukebox’ musicals never quite succeed in bundling in all the required hit songs without stretching everybody’s credulousness to breaking point. The company seem to instinctively know this and their response is to attempt to crowd out the narrative flaccidness of the play by filling 121 with as much youthful excess as they can think of: binge drinking, drug overdoses, bizarrely uncontextualised violence and reams of gratuitous (and very unsexy) sex.
By the time hundreds of pieces of paper were cascading onto the stage from the ceiling as red lights flashed in time to a rock song played at a volume which would have pleased Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, I felt utterly besieged and about as far away from the litheness and lyricism of Shakespeare’s sonnets as it seems possible to be. There remains a great deal of speculation around the sonnets – to whom their dedication refers, whether or not they are autobiographical, or reveal Shakespeare to have had homosexual affairs – but 121 neither effectively engages with these enduring mysteries or with the literary ingenuity and importance of the poetry itself. In the end, EARLY WORX’s production is merely ‘full of sound and fury’, as the Bard put it elsewhere, ‘signifying nothing’.         
An edited version of this review appeared in dB Magazine, 30 November 2011.

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