And this week at the theatre … I walked out of the latest MTC show, Jonathan Biggins’ Australia Day, at interval. Our national day is politically and culturally contentious, and probably always will be, but Biggins’ coarse populist satire about a rural town council preparing for it left me cold. Rare moments of sharp wit struck like lightning – only to illuminate swathes of low-hanging caricature, thunderous simplification, and the diaphanous grey mediocrity of unimaginative dialogue. Of the performances, only Alison Whyte as an ambitious greenie, and Valerie Bader’s turn as indomitable head of the Country Women’s Association, held my attention. It wasn’t enough to lure me back. Still, this is NOT a review, and I do take into account my punishing last month of Comedy Festival reviewing, which has left me rather demanding of laughland. For another view from someone who saw the entire show, my colleague Elly Varrenti’s glowing review for The Age is here. Chris Boyd’s equally sickening approbation in The Australian may be found here.
Meanwhile, on the independent scene, I went to Revolt Melbourne twice last week, first to see Broken Mirror perform Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine, viewed through the prism of domestic violence, and later to a one-off evening hosted by Eagle’s Nest Theatre, in collaboration with German company Theatre in der Westentasche. They assayed an obscure snippet from Federico Garcia Lorca in Spanish and English, as well as a German play from Annette Neulist. Thoughts below.
Hamletmachine, Adapted from Heiner Muller, Broken Mirror, Revolt Melbourne, 12 Elizabeth St Kensington, Until May 12.
Heiner Muller is the most significant German dramatist of the 20th century after Brecht, his Hamletmachine a dense, incantatory, post-modern engagement with Shakespeare.
Muller ruptures traditional conceptions of character and narrative. The piece is composed through a series of oblique monologues open to a wide variety of interpretations; the role of performance in determining its length, emphasis and style is much greater than in a traditional play.
The formal beauty of Muller’s language belies the ugliness he seeks to admit. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia echoes with the recent past – totalitarianism and global capitalism, the machinery of war, the scourge of domestic violence.
The last frames Broken Mirror’s powerful and richly articulated, hour-long version. Director Douglas Montgomery employs an ensemble of three male and three female actors. It is wreathed in multimedia, brutal choreography and physical theatre, choric delivery and histrionic display.
Muller’s already broken text is spliced again with voice-overs of domestic abuse stories. Such bald representation seems at first glance inimical to the drama, but is cunningly used to shape the mise-en-scene.
A rare tale from a male victim of domestic violence inspires the sight of three Hamlets tortured into women’s clothing. In one meta-theatrical intrusion, Ophelia’s powerlessness is channelled through three female actors at an audition, being tormented by male directors hidden in the audience.
It’s a rigorous and imaginatively realised ensemble performance, seething with sexual menace, gender reinforcement and subversion. Quibbles persist. There are occasional moments of overacting, and the domestic violence stats flashed up at the end are superfluous: the meaning behind those facts, their essence, has already been shown.
Dialogue with Bunuel, by Federico Garcia Lorca; Chernobyl, by Annette Neulist, Eagles Nest Theatre and Theatre in der Westentasche, Revolt Melbourne, April 29.
I went to this avant-garde collaboration between Eagle’s Nest Theatre and German company Theater in der Westentasche for one reason. They were performing a rare work of Lorca’s, in English and Spanish, without surtitles. As avid theatregoers will know, Marion Potts will be directing Blood Wedding in a few months. She is planning, so far as I know, to use precisely this gambit.
Dedicated followers of arts news will also be aware that my friend, the critic Peter Craven, had an implicit shot across Potts’s bow in his recent opinion piece for The Age. Understanding the language, Craven maintains, is integral to the theatre. By all means have performances in languages other than English, but if you don’t have English surtitles, you’ll be ripping the audience off. As an audience member: “You may depart with a very vivid sense of the kind of theatre you are watching – but if you want to know and feel what’s going on you need the words”.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Take the second piece in this Australian-German joint venture, Annette Neulist’s Chernobyl. The play inspired in me the same appal I sometimes get listening to operas sung in English translation: I wished, with mounting fervour as the show dragged on, that I could not understand the words. Whatever stark poetry might have been there in the original German did not survive the voyage.
A stylised dialogue between three figures – Man, Nature and The Sorceror’s Apprentice – it takes the Chernobyl disaster and weaves a repetitive elegy, backed by photographs from the ruined city of Pripyat, now being reconquered by elemental forces.
Leaving aside Phil Zachariah’s unhinged overacting, and the fact that it was more a rehearsed reading than anything else, the lack of rhythm and linguistic dexterity in Rachel Croucher’s translation made me want to scream. The central mantra, chanted with infuriating regularity throughout, is: “Don’t walk on the moss”. Had it been said it German, or Russian, or some other language I don’t know, there’s a chance it would have possessed the sinister, sorcerous effect it was intended to have. Certainly, the strongest part of the performance, an introductory song in … was it Russian? … attained an ineffable sense of grief, grief as a form of drudgery, that seems to permeate, say, boat songs from the Volga, and other Slavic folk music of that kind.
As for the Lorca, why Shakespeare speeches were thrown in with convulsive physical theatre I have no idea, but they sat in strange company. Dialogue with Bunuel was clothed in an accumulation of non-verbal performance: furious dancing and weird ululations breaking, at length, into beautifully spoken Spanish, of which perhaps the only words I understood were “Bunuel” and “poesia”. That the dialogue was repeated in English, or parts of it were, did not diminish the dark power, the voluptuousness and mystery, of Lorca’s poetry recited in his native tongue.
In fact, mystery is crucial to feeling and knowing in the theatre, and in no playwright more than Lorca, whose own fate remains shrouded in it to this day. Lorca’s influential essay ‘Theory and Play of the Duende’, proposed as much. He argued it was duende – itself an untranslatable word referring, among other things, to the sprites of death and the earth – that provoked the deep, almost spiritual response to certain forms of art. “All that has dark sound has duende”, he wrote, “that mysterious power everyone feels but no philosopher can explain.”
To Lorca, art was a struggle with mortality, performance a sort of magic. But you do not have to believe in magic, not really, to agree with him.
Curiously enough, I read Patrick White’s Voss this week. There’s a crucial scene where Voss, the German explorer of the title, reads a poem in German to a roomful of people who do not speak it. Here is the immediate reaction:
He closed the book rather abruptly.
‘What is it Mr Voss?’ Mrs Bonner asked. ‘Do translate for us.’
‘Poetry will not bear translation. It is too personal.’
‘That is most unkind,’ said Mrs Bonner, who would pursue almost morbidly anything she did not understand.
Not long after, the intellectual, obsessive young Laura Trevelyan claims to have understood the poem ‘in a sense, if not in words’. Voss is intrigued:
Without intending it sardonically, he smiled and asked: ‘If you have not understood the poem by words, how would you interpret it?’
Laura Trevelyan frowned slightly.
‘You yourself have made the excuse that must always be made for poetry,’ she replied.
And so it must. It amuses me to think that Craven would play at being Mrs. Bonner (for a fee, of course) but he has, and I don’t doubt for a moment that his true feelings on the subject are more complex.
Of the Eagles Nest Lorca, I can only say that duende was there in the room, and it was the Spanish, as much as anything, that summoned it in. I do look forward to seeing Potts’ production of Blood Wedding, surtitles or no, but perhaps, when it comes to words in translation and performance, I should leave the last one to Laura Trevelyan:
“Words”, she says, “are only sympathetic when they are detached from their obligations.”