Sydney Theatre Company: The Lost Echo by Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright
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.
OTHER SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY REVIEWS:
The Cherry Orchard adapted by Andrew Upton (January 2006)
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley (February and April, 2006)