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reworking language for the theatre

john bailey: the eleventh hour; angus cerini


Richard Bligh, Anne Browning, Song of the Bleeding Throat, The Eleventh Hour Richard Bligh, Anne Browning, Song of the Bleeding Throat, The Eleventh Hour
photo Ponch Hawkes
IN HER 1977 ESSAY “MODERN THEATER DOES NOT TAKE (A) PLACE,” JULIA KRISTEVA SOUNDS THE DEATH KNELL FOR THEATRE AS A PLACE OF COMMUNALLY CONSTRUED MEANING, AS IT MAY HAVE BEEN FOR THE GREEKS AT LEAST. “MODERN THEATER NO LONGER EXISTS OUTSIDE OF THE TEXT,” SHE WRITES, AND WHILE SUCH A STATEMENT MAY SOUND ODD GIVEN THE FERTILE FIELD OF NON-TEXT-BASED THEATRE THAT HAS FLOWERED IN SUBSEQUENT DECADES, KRISTEVA’S POINT IS THAT THE PROBLEM OF LANGUAGE—OR ITS ABSENCE—HAS TAKEN THE PLACE OF THE SHARED SACRED AS THEATRE ONCE EMBODIED IT.

It’s impossible to think about the most recent productions by Angus Cerini and The Eleventh Hour without considering their relationships to language. Both are intensely written, almost manic embraces of the wild possibilities of words; both, too, subject the idea of theatrical language—the grammar and vocabulary of performance itself—to a rigorous pummelling. Yet while each offers a provocative feat of linguistic acrobatics, their end results are of quite a different order.

the eleventh hour: song of the bleeding throat

The Eleventh Hour has long displayed an admirable ability to excavate the depths of canonical texts; rather than dressing up old works in frilly new garb, the company’s best work drills deep into the possibilities suggested by the plays themselves and returns to us these unearthed discoveries in intriguing, engaging assemblages. Song of the Bleeding Throat is a first for the group: an original play written by regular company member David Tredinnick and produced with the same incisive attention to detail which has marked Eleventh Hour’s previous adaptations.

Tredinnick’s script is a tissue of quotations, to steal Barthes’ phrase; a dense interweaving of historical sources and fictional dialogue staffed by an array of real and imagined figures giving voice to these borrowed lines. Its first half centres on the domestic world of Thomas Carlyle, here a buffoonish caricature whose foils include an anxious, narcotic-ridden wife and a deadpan dog with natural urges that threaten his master’s preferred life of the mind. The often troubling philosophical rants of this key proto-modern man—tracing thought-paths of colonialism and individualism—are thrown into relief by his painful constipation and the constant trips to the toilet; this vein of scatological humour runs throughout the work.

The second half of the work presents us with Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed, visited by his assassin John Wilkes Booth and poet Walt Whitman. Again, these historical figures are turned inside out, becoming mouthpieces for racist comedy, ironic self-promotion or a trembling instability of character. It’s reminiscent of a fine tradition of American post-war fiction that tears the guts out of similar iconic personages and repackages the corpses as excrement-stuffed scarecrows—an irreverence that here makes for provocative and entertaining viewing.

It doesn’t always work, though. The sheer dexterity of the wordplay makes great demands of its audience, and at times ideas are lost in the barrage of language. Director Brian Lipson frequently plays up the carnivalesque pyrotechnics of the production’s physical and visual aspects while obscuring the intellectual threads that wend their way through the script; ultimately we find ourselves scratching at the wall of words to glimpse what, if anything, might lie beyond. The rewards aren’t obvious, but that stymied search for something of value might just be the point. It’s certainly a memorable struggle.

 Ben Grant, Peta Brady, Save For Crying Ben Grant, Peta Brady, Save For Crying
photo Vikk Shayen
angus cerini: save for crying

As linguistically gymnastic but far less confounding, it took me some days to recover from Angus Cerini’s Save For Crying, easily one of the most impactful productions I’ve witnessed at La Mama. Just as unexpected was a realisation that this astonishing, sui generis work is still recognisably a play: there’s a strong narrative arc, distinctive characters, a unity of place and constancy of thematic concerns. At the same time, not a single element of this work seems an unconsidered legacy of any theatrical tradition; those elements which may resemble classic theatre-making are anything but conventional, instead appearing as if invented for the first time.

Luv and Alfie (Peta Brady, Ben Grant) are a straggle-haired and blank-eyed pair living in some squalid nook; daily they venture out to try to raise a few dollars for a meal and are regularly terrorised by the vicious Ratspunk (LeRoy Parsons) who relieves them of their money while abusing and degrading them. All the while they speak a curious pidgin, a language of abbreviated or reconfigured phrases with its own musical cadences.

So far, so Pinter. Alfie and Luv’s precise situation is never made obvious. There are strong hints of disability, but also suggestions of institutionalisation, mental illness, homelessness and addiction. Ratspunk’s nature is equally problematic—petty thug or shared projection? State sanctioned overlord or evil angel? He’s a fascinating character. He wears a shiny headdress of black feathers which is both menacing and ridiculous; as a figure of violent power, he is also ironically someone just as oppressed as his victims. To complicate matters he is played by an Indigenous actor. But Ratspunk uses his blackness as a weapon—his marginalisation is recognised, which puts him in a more potent position than those who can’t define their own disadvantage.

Cerini takes us far beyond the confines of Pinter, however; just as comparisons with Beckett or Ionescu prove limiting here. The intricate, carefully constructed language of the piece works not to alienate its audience or make strange this world but something rather opposite. Its rhythms and odd logic bring us into this world rather than situating us as cold observers. While the diction leaves us unable to locate the exact circumstances of Luv and Alfie’s predicament, it’s in this that we become more like them. There’s a little humour in the piece, but for the most part it’s a deeply humanist love story centred on the heart-rending connection between two people. They’re not outsiders. There is no outside.

Lighting, set and costume are all exquisitely accomplished here, creating a perfectly formed world from the inside out. So too does Cerini’s direction possess its own well-executed grammar. Violence is represented through sound rather than direct action; sexual violence through stylised postures. Both are even more terrible for what isn’t shown.

Where Song of the Bleeding Throat tears pieces from a history of discourse and pastes them together to produce a burlesque of the act of speaking itself, Save For Crying comes closer to building language from almost nothing. One is deeply, darkly critical, while the other is constructive and, in its way, animated by a fierce hopefulness. Eleventh Hour’s work seems to me closer to the profane—a reminder that the language of great thinkers and men of state is not that of the mundane world we live in. Perhaps more interesting to me is Cerini’s reproduction of the sacred theatre, in which through the act of watching—individually and communally—we share in the meanings of what we see before us.


The Eleventh Hour, Song of the Bleeding Throat, writer David Tredinnick, director Brian Lipson, performers Richard Bligh, Anne Browning, James Saunders, Neil Pigot, design Brian Lipson, Alexis George, costumes Alexis George, dramaturg William Henderson, lighting Niklas Pajanti, Nicola Andrews; Eleventh Hour Theatre, Jan 27-Feb 12; Save For Crying, writer, director Angus Cerini, performers Peta Brady, Ben Grant, LeRoy Parsons, lighting Rachel Burke, set & costumes Marg Horwell, composer Kelly Ryall; La Mama Theatre, Melbourne, Feb 18-Mar 6

RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 33

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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