Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Review: 2016 Adelaide Festival - theatre

Go Down, Moses: Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, direction, set, costumes, lighting Romeo Castellucci, music Scott Gibbons, text Claudia Castellucci, Romeo Castellucci, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, 25-28 Feb; The James Plays: National Theatre of Scotland, National Theatre of Great Britain, and Edinburgh International Festival, writer Rona Munro, director Laurie Sansom, design Jon Bausor, lighting Philip Gladwell, Adelaide Festival Theatre, 26 Feb-1 March; The Country: Stone/Castro, writer Martin Crimp, director Paulo Castro, design David Lampard, lighting Daniel Barber, State Opera Studio, 8-13 March; Deluge: Tiny Bricks, writer Philip Kavanagh, director Nescha Jelk, design Elizabeth Gadsby, Plant 1, 8-13 March.

Photo: Guido Mencari

In Go Down, Moses, Italian auteur Romeo Castellucci reconceives the Book of Exodus’ story of Moses, liberator of the Israelites, as an elliptically sequenced dreamscape that ‘transfigures the various moments of the life of Moses’ [program]. Each such episode is filtered through a stridently contemporary aesthetic, narrative causality eschewed in a startling weaving together of deconstructed mythologies and mise–en–scenes almost overwhelming in their vivid, painterly composition.  

In a prologue of sorts that commences while the house lights remain up, well-heeled visitors to an art gallery move about purposelessly. In the seeming absence of anything to look at, they begin to objectivise each other in an eerily impersonal exchange of touches and what look like measurements based on various body lengths (perhaps the cubit, the ancient unit that appears in the Bible, describing the distance from elbow to fingertip, is the reference point). The movement is abstracted and unsettling, recalling the grim history of institutional attempts to classify individuals into discrete races and character types. A repeated gesture, something like the thrusting of a knife, periodically scatters the visitors, who nonchalantly regroup in different parts of the space, the memory of the earlier violence forgotten or suppressed. 

One member of the party finds a reproduction of Dürer’s masterpiece of observational art Young Hare on the floor and affixes it to the wall as if to say ‘there – now you have something to look at’ (Castellucci is, in his own way, saying the same thing, both acknowledging and ironising our voracious relationship to his art). Unmoved by the painting, the visitors saunter off, Scott Gibbons’ elusive soundscape of muffled pops and clicks giving way to the roaring of an industrial turbine, the gigantic, captivating object – the one the gallery visitors, and we, the audience, have been waiting for? – having materialised during a blackout. Three women’s scalps, long hair trailing down, descend slowly from the ceiling, their ensnarement by the turbine’s rotor a profoundly unnerving inevitability (the sequence is, superfluously, later repeated without meaningful variation).

The drone of the turbine extends, momentarily, into the third scene wherein a young woman (Rascia Darwish) occupies a remarkably lifelike toilet cubicle, from which we are distanced by a scrim that remains in place for the duration of the work. Bleeding below the waist and in visible pain, the woman stuffs toilet paper between her legs and chaotically veers from the cistern to the sink, smearing the walls and mirror with her blood. Hemorrhaging after having given birth in secret, this is Castellucci’s Jochebed, mother of Moses, filtered through a contemporary lens that sees emoticons projected onto the scrim throughout her ordeal – a withering, if rather gauche, statement on our technologised indifference to suffering.   

We are provided a brief glimpse of the baby’s fate – alive, put in a plastic bag and cast into a dumpster, reflecting the Biblical narrative in which Moses is abandoned on the banks of the Nile – before the woman is questioned by police (English surtitles accompany the Italian dialogue). Even allowing for the implausibility of such an interview occurring prior to medical treatment, this scene’s relative naturalism vexes, and feels overly self-conscious in its calculated, unimaginative appropriation of the conventions of the police procedural. It becomes interesting only when the woman’s refusal to reveal the location of her baby – an unthinkable dereliction of feminine duty, in the eyes of the detective (Sergio Scarlatella) – gives way to apocalyptic ramblings (‘there are animals all over the floor, they live in the same world as us’) and prophet-like declarations (‘we have meat to eat and we are sated but we are slaves’).

At the conclusion of the interview, the woman is placed in a CT scanner. As the platform slides into the tunnel, penetrative resonances are unavoidable given the significance of fertility in Castellucci’s reimagining of the Moses myth (a second baby, as well as heterosexual intercourse, feature in the final vignette). In an astonishing coup de theatre, the woman emerges into a vast, exquisitely rendered prehistoric cave replete with opening that looks out onto a crepuscular, star-flecked sky. The mind, as mathematician John Playfair remarked when he saw the strata of the angular unconformity at Siccar Point, ‘grows giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time’.                

Sacred choral music, contemplative in tone but resounding in volume, accompanies the arrival of a group of early humans (actors in prosthetics) who, manifesting the woman’s vision of sated slaves, consume a meal of dried meat prior to burying and, briefly, mourning a stillborn baby. Their balletic, slow motion movements are observed by a second group of humans, a competing tribe perhaps, who gather at the mouth of the cave. Two of the cave dwellers copulate, bringing to mind the doctrine of original sin, the Biblical Fall that Genesis tells us corrupted all human nature. 

And yet the act, on reflection, feels cyclical rather than foundational, connecting these early humans across the gulf of deep time to both their ancestors and descendants. They have a message for us, scrawled in red pigment across the wall of the cave – SOS – that ripples through the space and time that separates us from them. The presence of the woman, our avatar, collapses temporality, spatiality. 

We have, by this point in the evening, already heard Empire Jubilee Quartet’s take on Wade in the Water, the Negro spiritual whose lyrics (wade in the water, children/God's gonna trouble the water) reflect the Israelite slaves’ escape from Egypt. But Castellucci’s most distinctive manoeuvre is to project the Moses myth beyond its established associations – its primacy, namely, as a symbol of African American emancipation – towards what he thinks of as ‘our incorporeal slavery’, that of ‘people exiled from being’ [director’s note]. 

Seen through this lens, all of humanity is subject to different slaveries: not physical and economic bondage à la the 19th century slave trade, but, for instance, helpless attachment to technology (the emoticons) and the perpetuation of gender-based oppression (one obvious reading of the pulverised scalps). Then there are those slaveries that exist beyond the physical world: subconscious drives, and a form of race memory – Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious – that links us to the early humans depicted in the final sequence. Seen in this way, the function of Moses is not so different from the Biblical myth: as a figure of salvation who can lead humanity out of servitude and into the Promised Land. What might it say about us that Castellucci’s Moses remains, for all we know, squirming unfound within an overflowing dumpster beside a forgotten byroad?

Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
The James Plays, a cycle of historical dramas written by Rona Munro and directed by National Theatre of Scotland Artistic Director Laurie Sansom, also assay the nature of complex inheritances from a distant time populated by beings that feel (at least superficially) like our psychological kin. The plays, first performed in Edinburgh in 2014, dramatise three generations of Stuart Kings, variously enthusiastic presiders over a feudal, fragmented 15th century Scotland.

In the first, The Key Will Keep the Lock, James I (Steven Miller) returns to Scotland after 18 years of detention in an English prison to an impoverished nation beset by factionalism. His long exile and bookishness make him the subject of suspicion (‘what sort of a king is brought up reading books and writing poetry?’) but his dutifulness and patriotism – he quickly marries Joan Beaufort (Rosemary Boyle), daughter of the 1st Earl of Somerset, and decries the financial rapaciousness of the English – wins grudging respect in a volatile parliament (though not enough, of course, to prevent his assassination).

In the second play, The Day of the Innocents, James I’s heir (Daniel Cahill, in place of an injured Andrew Rothney) – known as Little Red Face on account of his conspicuous birthmark – becomes King of Scots at just six years of age. Acutely aware of his tumultuous inheritance (‘I have dark blood like snakes under my skin’), the boy is plagued by nightmares and seeks respite through friendship with an older boy, William, the future Earl of Douglas. Douglas’s powerful family, however, led by the mercurial Balvenie (Peter Forbes), has designs on the throne, an ambition unlikely to be jeopardised by an infantile king driven to hide in a box, fearful of fulfilling his dark fate. ‘You’ll grow to be a monster,’ James is warned. In this world – where ‘god can take our lives in an hour, in a minute’, as John (Ali Craig) puts it in the third play – survival, let alone success, demands it.

The cycle is completed by The True Mirror, the longest of the three plays, in which the flamboyant James III (Matthew Pidgeon) leads a parliament increasingly ill-at-ease with his profligacy – he wants £60,000 to see the cathedral at Amiens for inspiration for the European style court of his fantasies, and a choir (‘just forty or so’) to follow him everywhere, so as to ‘cushion every moment with something beautiful’. The Queen, the prudent Margaret of Denmark (Malin Crépin), begins to steady the ship of state by taking control of the court’s finances. ‘This whole country,’ she tells him, ‘is like a house we’re trying to hold together with our bare hands’. The King’s excesses, both fiscal and sexual (he takes a mistress, the first to appear in the trilogy, and has dalliances with numerous men), take on paranoid (‘I’ve long suspected I’ve been surrounded by liars’) and, finally, hubristic dimensions.

The first play is the slightest of the three, reducing the courtship of James I and Joan Beaufort to pure soap opera, the machinations of 15th century Scottish feudalism to, for the most part, little more than a suitably alien backdrop for comedy overdependent on fish out of water-isms. The four nooses that overhang the stage during the first scene prove a red herring, presaging only Munro’s consistent difficulty in organically working up tension out of the drama. The Day of the Innocents is a significant improvement, in that it at least has an absorbing character arc at its centre, as is the final play, the most stylistically diverse of the three, which introduces some invigorating contemporary accents in Jon Bausor’s otherwise firmly period costume design, and which sees a commanding performance from Pidgeon as James III. The trilogy as a whole (able to be viewed in Adelaide in a single sitting, albeit with multiple meal breaks) benefits from a strong ensemble.

The texts themselves are problematic, tending towards the blandly expository. Munro and Sansom seem so frightened by the idea of a single audience member losing track of events for even a moment that everything is spelt out to the letter in the manner of a crude ledger. The result is staidness, a flattening absence of intrigue or subtext, and unwelcome recourses to ‘edgy’ language and soap operatics to artificially enliven proceedings. In contrast to the plays’ publicity, their nearest TV counterpart isn’t Game of Thrones or House of Cards, both fine exemplars of long-form cable TV drama, but the soapy Tudors. 

As with that series’ creator, Michael Hirst, Munro has been upfront about taking significant liberties with the historical record – perfectly admissible in the name of populist entertainment – but the real problem is the paucity of psychological depth: few, if any, of these characters seem motivated by anything except generalised longings for sex or power, and none, until we meet James III in the final play, The True Mirror, exhibit a compelling personality flaw. Death comes and goes, usually offstage or antiseptically stylised, with few aftershocks. However cheap human life may have been in the 15th century, it’s strange, and ultimately distancing, that grief and guilt – those mighty catalysts of Shakespearean tragedy – are in short supply. 

The only theme to really emerge over the trilogy is the loneliness of governance (‘the king has no friends’) but its treatment is insufficiently nuanced to prove insightful. Its claim to contemporary resonance is staked, mainly, on Munro’s use of demotic language, but there is little in the way of universality here: these plays may usefully synopsise a neglected period of history but no amount of colloquialisms, however tunefully rendered, can disguise their essentially hermetic concerns (initial reviews picked up on the trilogy’s timeliness in light of the then-current referendum on Scottish independence, but even that localised reverberation has already died away).

It can all, perhaps, best be summed up in the centerpiece of Bausor’s set: a gargantuan sword embedded, Excalibur-like, into the stage. For such an overwrought statement, it’s surprising how quickly you forget it’s there.

Photo: Daniel Purvis

British playwright Martin Crimp’s The Country (2000), like its thematically-linked successor The City (2008), is a tense study in Pinteresque menace that combines an ambiguous narrative with a fascination with language’s ability to conceal and distort.

A middle-class couple, Richard (Nathan O’Keefe) and Corrine (Jo Stone), have relocated from the city to a converted granary in the country. He’s a doctor, she a neurotic housewife who outsources the care of their children to a nanny. Richard claims to have found a young woman, Rebecca (Natalia Sledz), unconscious by the roadside, and has brought her back to the house. ‘She’s not going to wake up,’ Richard tells Corrine ominously. She does, and punctures both Richard’s story – she claims he, a fellow drug addict, moved to the country specifically to be with her – and Richard and Corinne’s fantasy of a rural idyll (‘the land, the stream, the beautiful house’).

Uncoiling in a predictable, stuttering rhythm, Crimp’s dialogue, like Pinter’s, is rife with elisions. Verbal obfuscation and aggression draw a permanent veil over unspoken thoughts and accusations. Each conversation, held at cross-purposes and thick with unaddressed questions, has an excruciatingly contrived feel. An additional, meta-theatrical layer is also present: ‘The more you talk the less you say,’ Rebecca tells Richard, in what doubles as a comment on the playwright’s method; ‘There’s a limit,’ Richard observes, ‘to what we can say – what we can achieve with words’.

Less elliptical than the later The City, a play that marked Crimp’s further move towards a more ‘post-dramatic’ style, The Country remains nonetheless abstruse. Rebecca disappears without explanation, her relationship to Richard still mysterious, and we are left to assemble Crimp’s myriad clues – embedded in, for example, a motif around cleanliness and purity, and the involvement of unseen character Morris, Richard’s superior – that point to Richard and Corrine’s complicity in removing the tainting Rebecca from their immaculately constructed lives.

Director Paulo Castro has, rewardingly, defied the naturalistic trend established by previous productions. The house, in a design by David Lampard, is an abstracted mess of exposed woodwork and torn wallpaper, and reflects the play’s transmutation from a British to an Australian setting in its surrounding expanse of grass replete with woodpiles and scattered branches. The interior of the house, viewable through slats that frequently obscure the actors and, puzzlingly, require them to stoop in order to access the lawn, is a jumble of furnitureless, cubicle-like rooms duskily lit by Daniel Barber whose cinematic, ever-shifting design makes intensive use of side lighting. The music, combining the brooding post-rock of Melbourne band Fourteen Nights at Sea with a short, astringent piece for cello and violin by Johann Johannsson (in Adelaide for the Festival’s experimental music program Unsound), effectively amplifies the prevailing mood of unease. The cast are restrained and balanced, if occasionally lacking in volume when within the house, and happily refuse the script’s occasional invitations to melodrama.

The production is not without its missteps: the presence of a lifelike toy cat is a redundant quirk, and Castro’s decision to omit between-scene blackouts in favour of continuous action throws up some odd stage pictures, such as when we see Richard piling branches into the house for no discernible reason other than to metaphorise the dissolution of his and Corinne's pastoral sanctuary. Nevertheless, Crimp's unjustly overlooked play—and this taut revival—compellingly bear out the old paradox that an idyll can only exist once it’s passed.

Photo: Che Chorley


Out of a vast Perspex box emerge ten actors, each buried to their waist – in this case by hundreds of white foam cubes – like Winnie from Beckett’s Happy Days. A weave of multiple, mostly partnered narratives begins immediately and the audience, seated in the round, starts to snatch at the threads: disparately-skilled gamers playing a first-person shooter; a man enthusing to friends about his conversion to Baha’ism; an army whistleblower divulging classified information to ‘a crazy white-haired Aussie who can’t seem to stay in the same country for very long’. Most troubling is a disturbed man in a crowd, his anxious writhing periodically plunging his whole body back beneath the sea of cubes as he spouts religious-hued nonsense. ‘So many people,’ someone says, ‘so much noise’. Suspended above the box is a sculptural web of subtly pulsing LED lights, redolent of the transmission of data through fibre optic cables or the neural pathways of the brain. Sporadic power surges produce visual and sonic flare-ups that punctuate the intermeshing narratives below.

Deluge, presented by Tiny Bricks in association with Brink Productions, dramatises information overload – or, more precisely, what is known as continuous partial attention – through the simultaneous unfolding of five ‘micro plays’. Playwright Phillip Kavanagh’s text, three years in gestation over multiple creative developments and a rehearsed reading at last year’s National Play Festival, is musical in its construction, employing, for example, counterpoint and crescendo. Each play forms a sort of melodic line that shifts in and out of harmony with the others. Sections of the whole, although rarely sustaining the same mood, recall the self-containment of a symphonic movement. The dialogue never exactly doubles up but rather overlaps, making for some fascinating instances of textual and, sometimes, thematic congruence. 

Kavanagh’s motifs are established quickly and vividly: religious compatibility (‘different flowers blooming in the same garden’), the problem of making sense across barriers of space and culture (‘we’re all saying the same thing but no-one’s stopping to translate’), and the impact of globalisation on human relationships (‘I feel connected to everybody as though they’re distant family’). A further theme, which implicitly links violent video games with American war atrocities (specifically, the infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ incident exposed by WikiLeaks in 2010), left me feeling uncomfortable in its underexplored implications.

Deluge’s piecemeal nature, large cast, and brief running time of just fifty minutes (wise, given the assaultive effect of its storytelling mode on audiences) provides little scope for nuance on the part of the actors. Nonetheless, the young cast – all recent Flinders University Drama Centre graduates – does well to maintain clarity amidst Elizabeth Gadsby’s restrictive set and the text’s non-linear sprawl. Nescha Jelk’s direction is canny, adding pleasing dramaturgical texture – in, for example, the positioning of the actors in relation to each other, and their manipulation of the foam cubes during moments of heightened tension – to Kavanagh’s dense script.

But what of the deluge’s human cost – the drowned and the drowning? The polish of Kavanagh’s text – and perhaps too the production’s swamping, maximalist approach to design – prevents us from engaging passionately with this question. As verbal music realised through an impeccably wrought structure, Deluge is an impressive achievement but one that comes off, ultimately, as a triumph of form over feeling.

 Edited versions of these reviews appeared in RealTime issue #131, Feb-March 2016.

You can read my report on Adelaide Festival 2016's dance program here.

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