Saturday, September 09, 2006

Sydney Theatre Company: The Lost Echo by Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright

The Lost Echo by Barrie Kosky (writer, director, music director and pianist) and Tom Wright (writer/translator). Stage design by Barrie Kosky and Ralph Myers. Costume design by Alice Babidge. Lighting design by Damien Cooper. Choreographed by Lisa O’Dea.

Performed by the STC Actors Company, Paul Capsis and second year NIDA drama students. Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay. September 9. Season ends September 30.

Back to back, the two parts of The Lost Echo run from one in the afternoon until 11 pm. Take out the two hour break between parts and a standard interval apiece, and you’ve still got upwards of seven hours of theatre. That’s about half a Ring Cycle in stage time. And, start to finish, Kosky is present -- conducting the action from the keyboard -- in his round, one-person pit.

The climax of seven hours of stage time...
(Photograph Tania Kelley, click on the image to enlarge)

The first full day was a family-and-friends occasion. The Sydney Theatre was jammed with playwrights and producers, actors and acolytes, opera and theatre directors, dance-makers and designers. And, of course, the odd parasitic critic. I could tell there were a lot of struggling artists in the audience... my program was stolen. Along with my notes. (It will take a team of cryptographers a lifetime to decipher them, I swear.)

Barrie Kosky’s relationship with the Sydney arts community has been an uneasy one -- more uneasy, even, than his relationship with the rest of country -- but his Ovidian extravaganza was received with rapture: tumultuous ovation after tumultuous ovation until the standing, stomping one at the end. This from the city that roundly booed his Nabucco for Opera Australia. (The same production, incidentally, later won a standing ovation at its premiere in Melbourne. It didn’t really deserve either response!)

Melbourne, of course, has seen much more of Kosky since his pro debut in the latter part of the 1980s. And Melbourne’s also seen the best of him. His Gilgul company -- which took up residence in a derelict motor workshop in Carlisle Street, East St Kilda -- was responsible for two of the most extraordinary theatre productions the city has had the privilege of hosting: The Dybbuk (1991) and Es Brent (1992).

Melbourne has learned to tolerate Kosky’s excesses. Just.

Here, though, the premiere audience delighted in what are fast becoming Kosky-cliches. But more of those -- a lot more of those -- in a moment.

The Lost Echo takes a dozen of the stories told by Ovid in Metamorphoses -- though not necessarily Ovid’s versions of those stories -- and brings them to licentious, bawdy life. The stories are mostly about intense love -- sometimes an intense and arrogant love of self -- and intense lust. These overwhelming feelings -- and the spin-off emotions of frustration, venegance, envy and so on -- change those that experience them. In Ovid, the transformations are literal.

The other thing to note about Ovid is that -- unlike Shakespeare, say -- there are no ‘just’ outcomes. The gods are bastards. Crass, casual, brutish, vindictive, peevish.

The first scene of the first part of Lost Echo is simplicity itself. Like the first low notes of Das Rheingold. The curtain slowly rises to reveal a small, Mozartean white sofa and John Gaden on an otherwise empty and dark stage... “There was a boy,” he says. “Son of the sun...” The curtain keeps rising to reveal a crane hook looming above.

I initially took Gaden’s character to be Ovid, telling the story of Phaeton in the third person. But he was Tireseus. The blind seer.

Here, at the origin, Kosky demonstrates that a body in space, a voice and some words, a single light and a resonant silence are stuff out of which one can conjure ever-expanding universes. But Kosky’s too impatient for evolution -- for genesis -- he wants big bangs and revelation.

Barely half an hour into the day and some butter-blonde blow-up doll Marilyn lookalikes shimmy on, with hole-mouths gaping and red-raw sausage-penises dangling. (Just like Kosky’s 101 dalmation dicks version of King Lear for Bell Shakespeare Company with ‘Mad About the Boy’ replacing ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’.)

Jove (Peter Carroll in formal gear and grotesque make-up) looses a glorious arc of urine on the adoring Marilyns -- who lap it up more or less literally -- and Offenbach’s Barcarolle strikes up for the first of many times. We also get an old opera aria, a Riverdance routine, a couple of Cole Porter songs, one from Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern... you name it. The entire fourth quarter is a setting of Schubert’s Winterreise... (If that sounds vaguely familiar, you’re not wrong. Kosky’s Der verlorene Atem [The Lost Breath] for Schauspielhaus Wien ended with Schumann’s Dichterliebe performed in its entirety.) Kosky is nothing if not eclectic. Unless it’s eclectic and undergraduate.

Deb Mailman plays a horny, bum-fluffed boy willing to service any virgin desperate enough. In a pants-wettingly funny scene, Mailman bends a compliant girl over, spits on operative bits for lubrication and rogers her from behind in a rooting routine that wouldn’t look out of place in A Clockwork Orange. Moments later Juno (Pamela Rabe, like the queen of the night in a cocktail frock) slips in some spilt sperm. Ick!

Juno wreaks vegeance on one of her husband’s innocent conquests
(Photograph Heidrun Lohr, click on the image to enlarge)

As crass as these scenes sound -- and indeed are -- they are quite dignified compared to later set-pieces. (Lots of red raw prosthetic penises being rubbed until they bleed.)

It’s easy enough to excuse Kosky by drawing attention to the ancient roots of his perverse vaudeville. It’s as old as Aristophanes, king of what I call Aristophallic humour. But it’s hard not to suspect Kosky’s motives. It’s as if he doesn’t trust in the stories he is telling, their resonance in this godless world. It’s as if he doesn’t believe in the power of the word, written or spoken. Doesn’t trust acting. Doesn’t even trust drama. Doesn’t trust the theatrical medium he has used and abused so fruitfully for the last 20-odd years.

Yes, these particular stories are infinitely less complex than the stories of his Exile trilogy, with their accreted layers; they’re less natively musical. But if you have a full-time ensemble of actors at your disposal -- accomplished, fearless, multi-talented human beings -- why try to make a porno cartoon musical?

An ensemble like this one -- even augmented with a score of second year drama students from the National Institute of Dramatic Art -- can’t help but act, with commitment and passion. Amber McMahon is stunning in a variety of roles. Gaden, likewise, though his role has considerably less scope. Rabe is deliciously snakey and vindictive. Hayley McElhinney, arguably, has the most raw ability of the entire group. (She was far and away the best thing in Mother Courage and she was in the mute role!)

There’s so much to write about, here. Big picture and small picture. I was intrigued, for example, that Kosky and Tom Wright changed the story about Tiresius’s encounter with Jove and Juno. In the original, Tiresius is asked to settle a domestic dispute. Which sex gets the most pleasure from love? Jove says women, Juno says men.

But here, the question is turned on its head: which sex gets the most pleasure from sex?! No wonder Juno blinds Tiresius for answering that women do! (It’s a reflection on Jove, dear reader, not all men!) In the original, Juno’s punishment just looks churlish. (Of course women get off on love more than men!)

Wright’s translation is servicable rather than inspired, though there are some utterly indelible passages such as Callisto’s line about preserving and embalming memories.

And, it must be said, that the awe and goodwill built up in the first three quarters of The Lost Echo isn’t entirely squandered in the barely relevant meanderings of the final section. We still walk out amazed. Delighted. Even a little bit transformed.


The Cherry Orchard adapted by Andrew Upton (January 2006)
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley (February and April, 2006)

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Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Er... I don't get the final sentence, Chris, given the previous sentences. How did delight, transformation and amazement happen? Also, the gods in Shakespeare hardly do just endings: it was Shakespeare who wrote "as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods".

Looking forward to seeing this one myself.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Fair question, Alison! Perhaps my review ends where it should begin. :) I'm not sure I can give you an entirely satisfactory answer.

There's euphoria, certainly, on both sides of the footlights, from the endurance aspect of it all.

The gory/story-telling is a little like discovering Grimm versions of sanitised childhood fairytales, too.

Despite Barrie's best efforts, the words and the plain truth of the acting carry far more weight than the anarchic stage business and music. In the midst of true believers -- perhaps he didn't expect to find them in a flagship theatre company -- Kosky looks like an agnostic.

Did you see Opera Australia's new Lakme a few months back? It was directed by a theatre director. My hunch was that the guy didn't believe in opera. Thought it needed tinsel.

Oh, and one final point... Shakespeare's outcomes are overwhelmingly just and enlightened compared with Ovid's! (As long as we ignore Lear and Othello and...) Even when the outcome is horrific, there is some kind of realisation of wrong-doing. No?

I hope you get to see Lost Echo... Sounds like you are planning to. We can debrief.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Ah. No, Ovid is not in the business of making morals. The Gods are most certainly amoral, and always were - but I'm not sure, even given the quatrains that wrap up the tragedies, that Shakespeare is any more in the business of making morals and when you think about it, he is just as cruel as Ovid. Edmund dies looking at the corpses of Goneril and Regan, refusing to undo his order to kill Lear and Cordelia, and remembering that he was well loved.

6:38 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

PS Thinking over, how can you separate the commitment of the performances from the direction? If it is true of all the performers, and not just one or two exceptions shining out from a struggling ensemble, it is most certainly a function of the direction which permits such commitment. In which case, the Kosky agnostic among a bunch of "true believers" doesn't make sense.

Very curious about this piece.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

how can you separate the commitment of the performances from the direction?

Not so hard, really. You could put a baton in my hand and put me out the front of the Berlin Phil and they'd make me look good. :)

I've been mulling over this for some months. I had a similar (though considerably less intense!) reaction to John Bell's Romeo & Juliet as you, but I had much praise for several cast members. Even the ensemble as a whole. Yes, I hated what they were asked to do, but they did it with commitment and skill. (And when they work with other directors, like the recent very fine production of The Tempest, their true colours are there for all to see.)

It's much harder, surely, to diss a director that has worked with (and on) an ensemble for more than a decade, as John Bell has with the Bell Shakespeare Company, than to have a go at Barrie Kosky. Bell has created a pretty good mob. (Do you remember how bad they used to be? How much they massacred the verse in the early years?!!)

Yes, Bell himself has directed some shithouse productions, and some goodies. But... but... Either we have to distinguish (as, I think, the Germans do) between the mise en scène side of stage direction and the actor/coaching side of it... Or we need to ameliorate our judgements! No?

5:40 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

The performances in Bell (and let's remember, I only saw half the show) were pretty uneven, ranging from wonderful to bad, which is true of all the shows I've seen of that company.

However, if you get a true depth of ensemble performance, I reckon that some of the credit - without taking credit away from the performers - has to go to the director, because that's part of his/her job.

Yes, I'm hoping to get to Sydney to see this. It just looks too exciting. Not sure, given current bank balances, how I'm going to do it...but as ever I live in hope.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having worked as a director I'd like to chip in with my ha'penny's worth. To prescribe strict demarcations as to whose job is whose is pointless in a field so essentially collabrative as theatre but as a rule of thumb the director takes care of context and the actor takes care of performance. It's my job to be as precise as possible in defining the 'problem' and the actor's job to solve it.

This is not to say that I haven't suggested something to an actor that has made their performance more nuanced or dynamic but equally I'd have to admit that just as frequently an actor has suggested something to me that has better shaped my direction.

As much as I love being credited for somebody elses work the truth is when it comes to your Rabes, Stones, Menglets, Komans etc a prudent director gets out of the way.

7:26 AM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Nicely put.

The Germans distinguish between personenregie and inszenierung. The first is, in a sense, the direction of the actors. Inszenierung is the staging. Increasingly, directors are concentrating on inszenierung -- and 'Konzepte' -- at the expense of personenregie. (Hmm. Maybe this is the best case for a full-time acting ensemble.)

Would you (or anyone) care to comment on David Freeman's idea that performance can -- and should -- be a very sophisticated improvisation?

5:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taking up your invite...

My working practise relies very little on improvisation and my knowledge of Freeman’s work is non existent so take everything I say with a bucket of salt. What I have observed over the years though is the troubled relationship that many actors have with the notion of artifice. In rehearsing or more generally in discussions about the craft the common shorthand that actors will use is ‘finding the truth’ of a situation or a character. That the theatre is so obviously a manipulation of ‘the real’ presents an arresting contradiction that sometimes an improvisory approach attempts to assuage. Let me be a little schematic here: The actor’s business is to be ‘real’, ‘to tell the truth’ yet this activity takes place in a highly artificial environment. Thus the very technique employed by which the actor projects character becomes suspect and an inhibition to revelation. Improvisation can then be seen at times as a solution that injects a moment to moment reality with in the confines of an artificial environment that threatens the actor’s mission. It is in such instances that my patience with improvisation wears thin as I personally have no problem with metaphor or artifice. However I understand that not all improvisory practise attempts to settle this dilemma and like you I’d love to hear more from practitioners that have made improvisation a large part of their artistic life.

8:51 PM  
Anonymous AK47 said...

We always say - oh you've got to listen to the other person. That's true. But you've also got to have the ferocious energy of communication, of searching for words, so that the text becomes -- not some eloquent beautiful poised thing -- something that's fought for.

The text is the best the character could do at the time to get out of the situation. They're trying to survive the play. Because that's all we do. I'm trying to survive this scene with you now. And there are fifteen thousand things going on in my head at the same time. And that's what we tend to miss out on, on the stage. And that's a pity.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Forgive me for bangin’ on about David Freeman, Anon. But he puts his finger on another of theatre’s paradoxes. He speaks about the challenge for actors performing Shakespeare and the need for what he calls spontaneous inevitability. But, really, those challenges are just an extreme example of what all actors performing fixed texts face: making scripted exchanges seem spontaneous. Which is, I guess, why I’m asking about improvisation.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

The process of a director like Peter Brook (good doco by his son on the DVD of the 200 production of Hamlet) depends on improvisation. The point is to find a way of being mentally and, importantly, physically only where you are - akind of ontological question, I guess. If it happens, it results in amazing performance. And Brook is certainly responsibel for making the environment where such things can happen, which was really my point about the responsibility of directors.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Sadly, having had a good hard look at my finances (well, a good short look) I realised I can't spend a grand on theatre tickets. Damn. Why did I forget to get rich? So my deathless thoughts on Kosky will have to remain unthought. I'm sure you're devastated, Chris...

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you say Chris about spontaneous exchanges is I think quite correct and really at the end of the day whatever gets the actor ‘there’ sort of has my vote. What Alison says about Brook and his process and his responsibility for creating the environment is correct as well (I’m starting to sound a little school marmish, forgive me). However that does not in my opinion allow critics to continually use phrases such as ‘so and so extracted an extraordinary perf from such and such’. One beauty I read was ‘John Bell’s and Adrian Kiernander’s Queen Margaret was… (superlative forgotten)’ Poor old Anna Volska the flesh puppet who just happened to be mouthing the words the evening that critic was in! I joined this thread in an attempt to redress somewhat what I perceive to be a fairly widespread characterisation of the actor as passive vessel of the director’s command. My experiences both bruising and delightful have always argued the opposite.

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Chris, I'm sitting in "my" call centre and flicking through the blogs wanting to see what the wrap for the year is from you and Ms C (ah the glamour of being an artist in this country) when I stumble over your review - and revised comments - of The Lost Echo. I know you really liked it but I did want to pick you up on a kind of subtextual commentary in that review about the fact that Barrie repeats himself. Picking you up is a bit strong, it's just that I heard that from a huge amount of people over that production (as well as The Lost Breath and even as far back as his Lear). Maybe it's just because I'm a director myself and nervous of such observations but I find the repetitions and developments of ideas across a range of productions (or as Barrie puts it "a body of work") really interesting. It's something I first noticed with Neil Armfield when I realised that, with The Masterbuilder he had abandoned the shiny-black-floor, white light aesthetic for something different (and much less even). That turned out to be a stylistic investigation that climaxed (in my book) with the amazing ensemble year in which Company B did the revised Tempest, Hamlet and the totally unforgettable Blind Giant. Like you, I have been an avid watcher of Barrie's work since the late 80's and there are certain themes to which he returns; boxes, mutilation, bodily fluid, shoes, penises, schlock, vaudeville etc. Given. But let me ask you this: What is the difference between that and being able to walk into the Tate Modern and say, from two rooms away, "there's the Rothko!", or the Matisse, or the Mondrian..? You get my point. To me, putting Barrie amongst those artists (and indeed Neil) is not a long bow. They have a palette, like anyone, they have preconceptions and questions that haunt them and which they use their art to interrogate. That is who and what they are. I sometimes feel that repetition is used like a stick to beat people with (actors and designers as well). We all know what happens when theatre is not driven by such passion and vision.

Lucky for me that I am not a critic. I often wonder what I would print about the shows that I see, but for me The Lost Echo was a work of unqualified wonder which demanded surrender from me as an audience member. I didn't understand everything in it, but fortunately I didn't need to in the way in which I think I would have were I a reviewer. Like you, I was stunned by that simple opening and then thrilled when the "sex dolls" came in. It was visceral and mad. Barrie lurched us from tiny to huge, silent to deafening, erotoc to repulsive so quickly and deftly that I felt (really) physically dizzy at times. The total sadness and reflectiveness of part 4 left me devastated, even whilst I wet myself at Paul Capsis' interjections etc etc. The point I guess I am making is that some of that work - of his work - defies analysis. Going again to visual art, I could rave for hours about the line in Michaelangelo's Pieta, positioning yaddah yaddah but nothing can explain the surge of sorrow and empathy I experienced on the two occasions I have been lucky enough to be in a room with it. It is total. So it was for me with Echo, considered as a whole work of art. Sure there were bits I could pick at but why bother when the whole is so eminent, so visionary and so overwhelmingly moving? Leaving all these personal responses aside, do you think that as a critic it is possible/desirable to give yourself over to the work in the way in which Barrie demands or is that critical detatchment thing always going to factor? Question may be clumsily worded but I mean it philosophically rather than personally.

I'd be interested to know what your response to this is.

tom healey

9:51 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

The thread continues here...

10:24 PM  

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