Monday, November 22, 2010

August Strindberg’s Creditors — a new version by David Greig

Of all the writers and artists in history, the one I’d most like to see on Dr Pamela Connolly’s Shrink Rap sofa is August Strindberg. Married and divorced three times -- there were a couple of actresses in there too, poor fool! -- and as mad as a cut cat. He waged war against Ibsen for feminising the stage and, less unreasonably, for allowing his women to dance about on their men’s graves singing hallelujah. Strindberg wanted fair fights... he wanted Ibsen’s men to have the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

Dion Mills and Brett Cousins in the first scene of Creditors
Photograph © Jodie Hutchinson, used with permission.

Funnily enough, Ibsen had one of Strindberg’s self-portraits on the wall where he wrote. He joked, late in his life, that he couldn’t write a word without Strindberg glowering down at him.

Of Strindberg’s great naturalistic ‘confrontation’ plays, I’ve always preferred this play, Creditors, and (to a lesser extent) The Stronger to Miss Julie and The Father. The clumsy inclusion of class differences in the latter plays makes them look dated, more like a Lorenzo da Ponte opera libretto for Mozart than a psychodrama.

A passing familiarity with the early plays (The Father 1887, Creditors and Miss Julie 1888, The Stronger 1890) brings with it a number of automatic spoilers: the reveal of identity, for example, and Strindberg’s inclusion in the action... usually as a character named Adolph!

But if you’re a newcomer to this play -- and I haven’t betrayed any of those surprises so far -- you might want to see it a second time.

Scottish playwright David Greig (known here for Yellow Moon, Outlying Islands, The American Pilot and others) has taken a literal translation of Creditors and refashioned it as a script worthy of Neil LaBute. It’s as harrowing as The Captive by Proust too, if you’re the pathetic/possessive type.
... I haven’t entirely decided if Greig’s version is good Strindberg, or even if good Strindberg is possible 122 years on, but it’s definitely impressive and thought provoking...
I haven’t entirely decided if Greig’s brilliant new version is good Strindberg, or even if good Strindberg is possible 122 years on, but it’s definitely impressive and thought provoking. It’s feminist, too, in an accidental way.

Having been raised on Man Made Language by Dale Spender, and the rest of the canon, I found the argument in this play about the Male Protection Racket quite fascinating. Gustav (Dion Mills) argues, instead: it’s an escort racket... i.e. that first husbands are a means of escaping the stifling environment of family. (And that reminded me of Head On, a fairly recent and very powerful Turkish/German film about a suicidal young woman who opts to marry a decrepit stranger, at her own expense, so that she can hold hands with boys -- for starters, heh! -- and not have her nose broken by her brutally ‘protective’ brother.)

On the whole, this is a strong production too, though director David Bell and the cast (particularly Kat Stewart and Brett Cousins as wife and husband Tekla and Adolph) urgently need to address the gaping contradiction between Tekla’s book-throwing tantrum in the middle scene and her appearance as a thoughtful, fair and intelligent woman in the last. They’re not irreconcilable.

Strindberg understood:it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say. (And that in itself is remarkable, because Strindberg the man was a complete slave to his impulses and would, one imagines, be entirely incapable of saying something critical to his wife without it erupting into a paroxysm of passion. Yet Strindberg the artist knew enough about himself, about humanity, to see that another person -- cooler and more evolved than himself -- could deliver the exact same message to his wife and have it heard and absorbed and accepted.)

“What my nature demands” is the catchcry in this version, reminiscent of “it’s beyond my control” in Dangerous Liaisons. Of course what strikes us about Tekla -- that she’s a thoroughly modern missy -- might have struck Strindberg’s audience as appalling. Her very honesty about her need for other men, to flirt with and more, is admirable to us. And might well be monstrous in the time he wrote.

But in defending The Father (I think) after it had been rejected by a couple of producers and publishers, Strindberg wrote that in the fullness of time the rejecting producer will see that the play “contains the future” -- even if the wise still think it mad. Touche.

One of the best lines in Creditors drew laughs on opening night, though was played perfectly straight. [Spoiler alert, skip to the end of this par.] Gustav, the ex husband, compares his rediscovery of Tekla to the tasting of wine -- “a wine of my own bottling”-- years after laying it down. She was an inexperienced new wife, then. He now finds her complex and mature. I thought this a brilliant and apt metaphor.


Creditors, a tragicomedy by August Strindberg in a new version by David Greig. Directed by David Bell. Set and costume design by Loren Whiffin. Lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis. AV/sound design by Brett Ludeman. Red Stitch Actors Theatre. November 19, 2010. Season ends December 18.

My official [i.e. marginally less ranty!] review of Creditors is in today’s [Monday November 22, 2010] Herald Sun.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Cackling like a macaque: Carlee Mellow in Expectation

UPDATE: Shirley McKechnie’s review is on-line, here.

Carlee Mellow is a superstar, a commando, someone I’d happily watch cleaning her teeth and expect to leave inspired. So, if she wants to cackle like a macaque, or prance around like a barbie doll in invisible high heels with a giant bag on her head, or sing backwards like an extra in a Twin Peaks red room dream sequence -- and she does all of those things in Expectation -- hell... I’m there.

I’ve gotta say, I prefer Diva Carlee -- hula dancing to a Donizetti aria, which she did at fortyfivedownstairs eight years ago -- to Grand Mal Carlee (which she played for Gideon Obarzanek in this very Town Hall) but a solo show from Ms Mellow is a once in a half decade thing, at best.

Promo image: Igor Sapina

This one... I found rather frustrating. (No, not like that!) (Though personally, I would have preferred if she’d kept her togs on and danced in a backless dress instead.)

Anyway, here’s the short [i.e. marginally less ranty] version...

In theatre -- in any art -- there’s a scalpel thin line between ‘open-ended’ and ‘noncommittal’. An image can evoke different things to different viewers -- a fine thing -- or anything to anyone... which is not so good.

To me, Expectation is about silhouettes and the ‘dark side’ of things, both literally and metaphorically... of planets and people. There’s an extraordinary moment late in the piece when Carlee Mellow has her back to us, the sweep of her repeated gesture is hidden, and the dance is revealed through the skin of her back, in her very musculature. [Here’s where I wanted backless... instead, she drops the lot... and leaves us in the dark. Metaphorically too.]

Elsewhere, thanks to the visual and aural genius of Bluebottle, Mellow appears as a mirage of radiant energy, pivoting and jog-shuffling in a haze of infrared light and infralow beats. Her mad singsong voice, later, is turned to a shimmering aurora of pipe organ sound.

As much as there is to admire and enjoy and be utterly dazzled by in Expectation, there’s not quite enough structure or coherence to hold the atoms together let alone engage our hearts and minds, which would transform a fascinating (and occasionally baffling) work into a great one.

Expectation. Choreographed and performed by Carlee Mellow. Music composed and performed by Kelly Ryall. Designed and produced by Bluebottle [Ben Cobham and Frog Peck with lighting operator Tom Rogers and Bosco Shaw]. Unfortunate non-backless costume design by Doyle Barrow. Dramaturgical consultant: Margaret Cameron.

Part of Future Tense at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall. Tuesday November 9. (Season ends Sunday November 14.)

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Evocative and provocative: Something Blew by 2ndToe Dance Collective

The last 2ndToe season at Theatre Works was a pro-am affair, with one half performed by the collective, the other performed by secondary students who worked with the pro dance-makers. The ‘pro’ piece was ambitious but overwrought and messy. The ‘Am’ stuff, while simple, was disciplined and powerful.

After the jump is my Herald Sun review of the latest season, Something Blew... cos Luke George asked so nicely. I probably should add, up front, that the season is now closed, so don’t get your hopes up.

Something Blew -- a revised version of a piece first seen last year -- sees 2ndToe at its absolute best. There’s a real sophistication in the staging, and evidence of an instinctive and exciting theatrical imagination. It’s an hour-long physical theatre piece about hooking up, making out and breaking up; about love, sex, commitment and its death...

Photograph by Samuel Nicolausson

It begins with a barefoot bride (Emily Ranford) standing in an elaborate white dress, complete with veil and train. The elegant bridal party stands in a line against the wall behind her. Over the next several minutes the bride is cling-wrapped. Mummified. Turned into a cocoon. It’s an often-seen gimmick of late, but it works miraculously well here. First the gentle movement of the bride’s fingertips is restricted then, eventually, everything except her breathing is stopped.

The piece then fractures into spin-off stories -- from past and future -- perfect shards in a magnificently-lit kaleidoscopic whole. The metaphors are well calculated, both evocative and provocative.

Something Blew isn’t especially memorable choreographically, but the quality, intensity and unity in performance -- by the entire cast of eight -- more than compensates. It’s an extraordinary achievement from an indie company. Do see it.

Something Blew. Directed and choreographed by Adam Wheeler and dancers. Lighting design by Rose Connors Dance [a bloody talented individual, BTW, not a company!]. Costume design -- and we're talking serious couture here -- by Chloe Greaves. Sound design by the ingenious Alisdair Macindoe. Dramaturgy by Luke George.

Presented by 2ndToe Dance Collective and Theatre Works. October/November 2010.