Dying City by Christopher Shinn (Hoy Polloy, MIPAC)
Production photographs by Tim Williamson, used with permission
The streets were wary like they are in winter, their lights dim and church-like as I made my way to the Mechanics Institute Performing Art Centre on Sydney Road.
Dying City by Christopher Shinn was playing there.
The theatre itself has a strange atmosphere, maybe because of its name. You expect a schoolmistress to step out and pull you into line. I’d seen the actress Zoe Ellerton-Ashley play brilliantly in Gary Abraham’s wonderful play Something Natural, but Very Childish, so I was looking forward to this. She was already on set, lying disconsolately on a beige, suede sofa, surrounded by a wall of removal boxes – obviously on the verge of departure or moving in. As she lay there in a deep worry, her brows knit, her eyes glazed; we tiptoed past her.
Every shuffle felt guilty.
When the lights come on, the tenseness of the woman on the sofa escalates. We hear the buzz of the interphone. A bright male voice rings out. She tiptoes towards it and writhes in an agony of indecision. Will she press the button?
A young man finally bursts in. He has been trying to contact her for so long and she has not answered his letter. Far from being her private S and M instructor, he is blithe and confiding. We realize gradually that he wants to share the tragedy of his brother’s accidental death in Iraq. He suspects the military of covering up something more sinister. He wants her close, even to have a child so his brother lives on. We are not told how - probably artificial insemination. He is her husband’s gay twin brother after all. Follows a long interchange were he tries to convince her to grieve and reminisce in his company. Then, the direction creates a clever, swift change of lights. Kelly’s hair comes down and we are in the past. In a mesmerising piece of acting, the gay brother has become the straight brother. I even wondered if it was not another actor. The choreographic smoothness of his entries and sudden disappearances are deceptively simple but magically directed by Matt Scholten. We discover through several painful scenes that since their wedding, he loved her no more and had shoved off to war with a curt goodbye.
Then in the Hades why is she, a year later, still in an agony of grief while ineffectually trying to move on (as she painfully admits to her husband’s gay brother)? With one of the many faultless sound effects, why does the ring of the interphone remind her of the ring announcing her husband’s death? Has she not heard that interphone ring for a whole year, even by the postman or the milkman? Time must have stopped its relentless course. We are in the throes of a Greek tragedy. Why did the director whip up the actress in such a dramatic frenzy with such overblown theatricality? Does she not even scratch herself one wonders? No. Her pose is even more dramatic when she is in the kitchen making tea.
It felt such a waste of a talented actress.
Zoe Ellerton-Ashley (Kelly) and Brad Williams (Peter/Craig)
We are prodded on to share her angst. Andromache walking on the rampart looking at her husband Hector being killed by Achilles does not have more constant, unforgiving intensity. But even Andromache had to brush her hair or embroider flowers on a cloak to take her mind off things. In Dying City, locked in an even keel of pathos, the woman stuck behind her rampart of removal boxes sees her Hector die in a loop as she stares at the TV. But why should she be so distraught when her husband’s emails (which his brother artfully discloses to her) reveal he was probably unfaithful? Didn’t she guess that, when he left her in total indifference more than a year ago?
She explains the circumstances of her husband’s death to herself by seeing Law and Order over and over again on TV. This may be an example of female idiocy, but seems a poor trick to explain the much-more-complex story of a sick or dying society. A private cigar is sometimes only a cigar and not a wider simile. The brother’s happiness at his brother’s political turn of heart is more understandable. They were finally reunited in a common horror of the war before the straight one died. But their contrary belief on the validity of that war tells a tale of two cities, not of a dying one. And why does the surviving twin harp after a widow, who is only a widow in name? Doesn’t he know he is the only one to receive any redemptive emails? Is this supposed to represent the lies of American society? But the Americans’ behaviour is not unbelievable, it is sadly human, all-too-human, perversely so in terms of Abu Ghraib. The characters’ meaningless emotion and human inconsistencies make the choice of an intimate metaphor to illustrate the Iraq War and American society ill-judged and ineffective.
Hatred of women and misogyny is as good a subject as another, but if you want to humiliate and belittle a woman, her behaviour has at least to be believable. The director’s drive to create drama at any cost, on a constant crescendo, gives the female character a spurious, floating presence. By wanting to express too much, she ends up saying nothing. She is robbed of humanity, even a pathetic humamity. The feminine in her has a starched, stilted, totally unbelievable voice. What woman would behave like that? Even a splendid actress cannot save this extremely well written allegory on society by a cultured and clever writer who seems to have more literary references than emotional maturity. Attacking the feminine may be fashionable today. Yet, the wars fought to defend women or a woman seemed to have more meaning than the wars over petrol. This seems to me an explanation why even an excellent actress can’t shine through a character that is treated like meat and behaves as stupidly as a meat axe.
All this pent up emotion, pressing, pushing against us left me strangely aloof. Catharsis does not happen on command even if you are in the Mechanics Institute.
The direction was obviously in sync with the writer. Pulling in opposite directions results in a messy cocktail, but in this instance you wished Scholten had resisted Shinn a little more! The stage directions were economical and fluid. Simple and revealing, they supported the play and created the scene changes magically - yet I felt robbed.
The cruelty of wanting to share his grieving with his brother’s wife pounded a masculine view irrespective of her state of mind or heart. Just as the play pounded on its hapless viewers.