Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Griffin Stablemates: The Cold Child (Das Kalte Kind) by Marius von Mayenburg

The Cold Child (Das Kalte Kind) presented by Clare Rainbow and Griffin Stablemates. Translated by Maya Zade. Directed by Anthony Skuse. Set and costume design by Dane Laffrey. Lighting design by Verity Hampson. Sound design by Kim Benware. At SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross. Season ends August 5.

There’s a beguiling theatrical imagination at work in this production that’s every bit as charged -- as superheated -- as the sexual frustration which threatens to destroy each and every character in Marius von Mayenburg’s play.

The frustration is born of fear, I think. Fear of rejection. Fear of loneliness. Fear of loss of authority and influence. Fear of loss of desirability. Fear of vulnerability too.

The fear within Lena (Helen Christinson) is so strong that it manifests itself before her eyes. Within the structure of the plot, these tiny terrors of hers are like a switching device -- a spin-the-bottle randomiser -- that provokes unpredictable but equally heated responses from the equally messed-up people around her.

Helen Christinson as Lena (click on the image to enlarge)
Production photographs by Brett Boardman

The first manifestation happens after an incident in the women’s toilet of a bar where Lena has gone to vomit, having drunk herself stupid to insulate herself from her father’s vociferous badgering. ‘Daddy’ (Peter Talmacs) wants her to abandon her Egyptology degree to do some real work... like book keeping!

Partly undressed -- having vomited on herself -- Lena comes face to face with Henning (Guy Edmonds, left, click on the image to enlarge) who gets his kicks by exposing himself or quietly masturbating while listening to women in their cubicles. Understandably, Lena freaks out... and is much more than merely grateful to the man who comes to her rescue: Johann (Douglas Hansell).

In that moment -- when Johann’s fist connects with Henning’s face -- Lena becomes Johann’s. That was our marriage, she thinks to herself, afterwards. Here, reality (such as it is) blurs with a flashback in which Lena flees a rapist, crawls naked beside a highway and is rescued by a besuited man in a luxury car -- who covers her nakedness with his jacket -- and takes her away. She falls into dreamy, content and (relatively) safe unconsciousness, lying on plush upholstery as they drive into the Freudian night.

Is it a nightmarish sexual fantasy? Or a terrible memory? Von Mayenburg doesn’t specify. Anthony Skuse’s direction is similarly elusive. Not noncommittal, I hasten to add. Just brilliantly, shiningly ambiguous. For Lena, it doesn’t matter whether the attempted rape happened or not. Her fear is so deep-seated -- it has been with her so long -- that it is real to her. It is a tangible part of the blasted landscape of her psyche. And it’s one she’s come to rather like, perhaps. A fractured 21st-century fairy-tale built on ultraviolence.

Her knight in shining duco, Johann, has just been rejected by his girlfriend Melanie. He proposed marriage. She refused and, instead, called the relationship off. Johann is happy to have Lena replace his heartbreaker... he occasionally slips and calls Lena ‘Melanie’. (Then, later, he does it to spite her.) Johann even presents Lena with the same ruby engagement ring. At that moment, another terror intrudes. The ring box becomes a grenade in Lena’s hand.
“In von Mayenburg’s nightmarish, melodramatic, sadistic and masochistic world, the only other driving force of any note is hatred...”
In von Mayenburg’s nightmarish, melodramatic, sadistic and masochistic world, the only other driving force of any note is hatred. It’s the one true passion. The abiding passion. The Family Value. It’s the essential repulsive force in the family nucleus. Daddy hates his elder daughter’s independence; ‘Mummy’ (Diana McLean) hates Daddy’s bullying.

Family friends Silke (Catherine Terracini) and Werner (Ryan Gibson) treat each other with utter contempt. Silke throws beer on their cold baby, in a pusher, to taunt Werner. She tells him: other people would have thrown the glass in as well. Cruelly, she goes off with Lena’s new husband to humiliate Werner... just as Johann goes off with her to hurt Lena.

The cold child’s fire-and-ice mother Silke (Catherine Terracini)

This isn’t a turgid, Sewellian tragedy, though. It’s a blackly funny erotic farce. It’s more French than German; viscously but not unrelievedly evil; it’s as breathtakingly sick and light-headed as François Ozon’s film Sitcom. It’s also reminiscent of Jules Feiffer’s mass hysteria-inducing play Little Murders.

The only felicitous match-up in von Mayenburg’s play, teams Henning-the-flasher with Lena’s underage sister Tine (Claire van der Boom). Henning, however, is unlikely to fulfill the rampant Lolita imaginings of the bright eyed Tine, who calls his bluff -- and drops her underwear -- as soon as she encounters him.

As enjoyable as this script is, the great delight of the production is what Skuse and his cast make of von Mayenburg’s writing. The characters hit the ground fully-formed and running. They take some catching up, in fact! From the second they storm on-stage, they’re utterly in their skin... and, it must be said, in (and out of) some fabulous clothes, courtesy of designer Dane Laffrey.

This is such a different experience to Benedict Andrews’ imaginative but relentlessly grim production of von Mayenburg’s recent play, Eldorado, at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre last month. There was no room for emotional or sexual heat in wartime Eldorado. Money and success were more important than life itself.

In Andrews’ production, the action was set behind glass, nine huge panels of it. And for the first hour, all of that action happened in a strip, barely a metre wide, running the length of the window. The fourth wall was made of glass. The actors had to be amplified.

Like von Mayenburg’s writing, Andrews’ direction was varied and episodic, and rarely anchored to reality. It was coolly exhilarating... an intellectual mad-mouse ride. But still oddly detached. It had -- as the cast sang at one particularly Lynchian moment -- a heart of glass.

In the tiny Stables Theatre, Skuse’s production can’t help but be liquid and molten in comparison. But if the actors were intimidated by the task set them -- even Mummy drops her rammies at one stage to use the on-set toilet -- there wasn’t a flicker of apprehension. Not a flicker.

Von Mayenburg’s women are, on the whole, better formed than his men. They’re more complex, more interesting, more divided. The men have their themes, their melodies, and they don’t deviate much from them.

So it’s no slight on the men in the cast if the women, one and all, eclipse them totally. They’re dramatic danseurs... there to do the heavy lifting while the women dazzle us with their twisting, blindingly-fast kicks and fouettes.

And, one and all, the women are amazing. Christinson, McLean, Terracini and van der Boom. In terms of work-load, Christinson carries the show. She bares all, emotionally. But all four have cracked open their roles. All four blaze away.

Van der Boom reminded me of Frances O’Connor when she made her pro stage debut. And O’Connor was, no doubt, the best stage actor of her generation.

Diana McLean, immensely poised as ‘Mummy’

McLean is immensely poised, a definition of grace under fire. She revels in the role of wannabe widow.

And Terracini is constantly on the brink of detonation from go to whoa. Rather than being tiring to watch, the struggle-made-visible is energising.

This is a fringe show in name -- and perhaps crew and cast wages -- only. It’s thrilling, engrossing, stylish, effortlessly erotic and quite deliciously exasperating.

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Anonymous Kim said...

"Van der Boom reminded me of Frances O'Connor when she made her pro stage debut. And O'Connor was, no doubt, the best stage actor of her generation."

To use a somewhat inappropriate footy analogy, Frances O'Connor up to this stage of her career is not fit to carry Cate Blanchett's jock strap.

I saw El Dorado in Melbourne and I didn't think that production or script worked at all. I think Mayenburg is interesting enough to keep an eye out for, but he seems (at least on the strength of El Dorado) a long way short of being a fully formed talent.

Hopefully The Cold Child is a step forward in that direction.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

I doubt you would say that about Frances O'Connor if you had seen any of her stage work, Kim, especially her early stuff with the MTC.

I agree, it's a "no contest" on screen -- apart from a glimpse of O'Connor magic in AI (of all places), her gifts haven't translated at all well to film -- but having seen both O'Conner and Blanchett on stage many times over the years (from Cate's debut at La Mama, when she was a 20 year-old art history student in the late 1980s, through her brilliant Ophelia at the Playhouse in the '90s, to the STC show that went to Broadway last year), I emphatically disagree with your jockstrap bitchslap. :P

On-stage, O'Connor rules.

As for von Mayenburg, I'm intrigued. The Cold Child was written three years before Eldorado. Seeing it, I was left wondering if Benedict Andrews had missed the point/humour of the new play...

No matter, the play on at the moment is a lot more fun and better realised. And, hey, I was happy to see both, even if Eld was only a qualified success. He's a young writer with a wild imagination. And one to watch.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Kim said...

I saw Frances' early stage work. I saw her graduate year on a performance day at WAAPA where she clearly wasn't the best actor of her class, let alone her generation. I also saw her MTC debut (in Grapes of Wrath I think) where she emoted so badly she was almost impossible to understand.

The next thing I saw her do at the MTC was The Herbal Bed where she was pretty good, but I wouldn't say magical, so let's agree to disagree.(Anyway she's doing pretty well for herself so what do I know?)

I also wondered if El Dorado had a comic tone that was missed in the production. I think I read a review of an overseas production somewhere that described it as a comedy of manners, but it certainly didn't play that way in Andrews' staging (which I'm sure added at least forty minutes to the script's running time).

5:59 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

You're made of stern stuff, Kim... you couldn't pay me to attend a performance day... Shudder!

Grapes wasn't her finest hour, you'll get no fight from me on that point. That was the one with Rachel Griffiths in it, no? And Jeremy Sims was the best thing in it -- cos he folded his arms, shut his mouth and stood still!

But The O'C did a few productions for the MTC before that. Can't think. Blabbermouth, certainly. (One word: supernova!) Kidstakes too? (I'm thinking Queen and I or Six Days With the Queen or some tripe, but I'm dreaming!) Anyway, there were a few things in which she lived up to my rave.

which I'm sure added at least forty minutes to the script's running time

Funnily enough, Eldorado rates as one of Benedict's fast shows! His Endgame, for the STC, had audience members ritually disembowelling themselves with boredom... forty minutes, I swear, before a f^&*ing word was spoken.

His Julius Caesar -- brilliant as it was -- was unconscionably long. Agonizingly slow.

It would be good to read von Mayenburg's script and try to imagine it as a "comedy of manners".

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Kim said...

I honestly can't remember if Rachel Griffiths was in Grapes of Wrath as it was a pretty forgettable evening all round. I agree with you about Jeremy Sims being the best thing in it.

I didn't see Blabbermouth. I saw Kidstakes and I honestly can't remember much about O'Connor so that means she probably didn't suck.

The other time I saw her was in Lady From the Sea where she played one of sisters and I remember thinking at the time it was unclear whether she was playing the older sister or the younger sister as her performance didn't have any consistency. My impression was that she was playing emotional states, rather than a character, and there was no sense that one scene was informing the next.

Anyway, that was over ten years ago and I'm starting to feel uncomfortable picking on her. I met her once. She was very warm and likeable and I certainly don't resent her success.

As for Benedict Andrews, El Dorado was my first encounter with him and it'll take some pretty good word of mouth (and maybe a bit of alcohol) before I give him another shot.

12:15 AM  
Anonymous Mic said...

Wot on earth are rammies?

3:13 AM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Rammies are old lady undies, bloomers. It's a word my mother used to (laughingly) use.

According to the wonderful Macquarie Australian Slang Dictionary, it's an abbreviation of "round me houses" -- the rhyming slang for trousers. Go figure! A usage first recorded a century ago.


4:58 PM  
Anonymous Aubrey Mellor said...

Thanks for terrific review of Skuse's production. Claire Van der Boom, brilliantly spotted by Chris. Frances O'Connor impeccible in MTC's Lady Windermere's Fan. Cate Blanchett equally so in Michael Gow's Sweet Phoebe (STC/Playbox. And dont forget Rachel Griffith's great stage work.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Aubrey.

I'd have to give line honours to Robyn Nevin over Frances O'Connor in Lady Windermere's Fan. Robyn's cameo as Mrs Erlynne was amazing.

And, yes, Cate and Colin Moody were terrific in Sweet Phoebe.

Funnily enough, it was another doggy play, Pete Gurney's Sylvia, in which Rachel Griffiths showed us exactly what she is capable of. Remember her brisk, ebullient, excitable, shaggy dog? (I was sure she'd modeled her performance on her own little mutt Spuntina!)

It was the best and most complete performance we'd seen on a stage from Griffiths -- and best thing pre Six Feet Under -- all the more impressive given her workload in 1996, before the play. She had the yapping, nuzzling, butt-sniffing, tail-chasing routine down pat.

Tell me, Aubrey, is it Clare or Claire van der Boom? It's spelt both ways in the programme -- Clare in the cast list and Claire in the bio -- annoyingly!

I reckon she has a rare shine. Apart from Frances O'Connor, Rebecca Macauley certainly had it. (Probably still has it!)

7:35 PM  
Anonymous aubrey said...

Thanks Chris,
I finally confirmed it from Claire herself - yes, her first name does include the 'i'. And congrats Chris: you are in the select few who got her surname right - including the important lowercase bits - van der Boom.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Thanks for confirming that Aubrey... I hate getting names wrong!

6:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

To help you get another name right next time - it is Ron Vawter, not Vorter. (from your Brian Lipson bit).

I wish I'd got to see this. I absolutely loved Eldorado. Despaired at low attendances. Felt that Benedict really got the point of the text. Exept, perhaps for Ashenbrenner (sp?) Laughed all the way through (although, I admit I had to keep it contained as most in the audience were very quiet.)


Chris Kohn

5:18 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Of course it bloody is! I'll fix that up. Thanks Chris. (The misspelling was in some programme notes and -- silly me -- I didn't check... assuming everyone's as 'anal attentive' as me.)

I know it's hard to tell from this post -- and the cut and thrust of the comments -- but I thought Eldorado was a blast. Really exciting. I wanted to see it again, late in the run, but didn't have a chance. I was unaware that it didn't do well at the box office. Shame.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

If you've landed on this page looking for Jase from outta space (i.e. JASEfos) or an MP3 of his song with Claire van der Boom (aka Claire Sky) -- 'Do What U Want' -- check out Jase's myspace page. You can download a mix of the song there.

1:26 PM  
Blogger HolidaysForFun said...

Is this movie famous?

3:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah -- it's a play!

4:55 AM  

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