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Tragedy not as true as melodrama

Jana Perkovic, Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, Menagerie

Edwina Wren, Josh Price, Menagerie, Daniel Schlusser Ensemble Edwina Wren, Josh Price, Menagerie, Daniel Schlusser Ensemble
photo Sarah Walker
Many Australian theatre directors look towards the practices of European directors’ theatre—textual freedoms, visual lavishness, multi-sensory semiotics—for inspiration. However, Daniel Schlusser is one of only a few who understand that the full promise of Regietheater is not to dress up a play, but to articulate an argument.

Schlusser’s recent work has methodically explored the emotional subconscious of the theatrical canon, situating the importance of each classical play in its resonance with ongoing societal neuroses. Unlike the often intellectualising Germanic Regietheater, Schlusser’s is emotionally highly literate theatre. While it dissects the individual and collective psyche with an analyst’s knife, it never disputes the legitimacy of feeling, never simply dismisses the irrational.

At the risk of over-simplifying, the unifying method of Schlusser Ensemble’s work is to reduce a play—the psychology of characters, interpersonal conflict, the plot—into pure, physical metonymy. Whittled down to its most rudimentary theme, it is then re-built as devised, durational, anti-theatrical performance, bearing superficially no resemblance to the original work, and hardly any to theatre. This production uses Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie as a pretext to focus on the crucial question in the interpretation of Williams’ oeuvre: the closeness of his art to his life.

In Schlusser’s hands, the actors only half-wear their roles (the Southern accent comes and goes), the characters lose the plot and wander on stage engaged in very private games with one another, and the stage loses the theatre as everyone forgets to perform to the fourth wall. The performance loses theatrical expressiveness: characters articulate themselves only through the lowest forms of communication: gesture, verbal cliché, banter, the low-end detritus of our culture. And yet, dense intertextual play permeates every banal detail: for those who know their Williams, the references are rich.

It is not metaphor: the stage has its own, physical meaning. In Menagerie, Edwina Wren’s Laura wears a single rollerskate. This does not simply represent physical disability, but literally shortens one of her legs. Her collection of glass figurines becomes eggshells, so much easier to break. The tenement flat in Depression-era St Louis is transformed into a shack in what might be New Orleans post-Katrina. When Jim, the potential suitor, is introduced to Laura, they are physically locked into the Wingfields’ shack by the hopeful, curious, near-giggling family.

The Glass Menagerie is a slim work and Schlusser Ensemble is done with its storyline within the first 35-40 minutes. The remaining 35-40 are spent expanding on the connections that Williams’ first play presaged, and the rest of his oeuvre so richly entangled: those between Williams’ plots and the real events of his life. Echoes of real people manifest in recurring characters (Williams’ sister Rose, lobotomised and schizophrenic, but dearly loved, in Laura, the shy virgin with a disability in Glass Menagerie), and the often professed affinities between Williams and his exquisite female characters. Laura refracts into Rose; Laura’s mother Amanda into the mater Williams, former southern belle smothering her children with needy love; Tim’s colleague and Laura’s tentative suitor Jim, the straight man who plays with these hurting people, into Tenn’s real-life lover Frank; narrator Tim into the observer Tenn, and into Brick, the homosexual husband of Maggie the Cat (on the hot tin roof); and finally, Maria St Just, Williams’ fag hag, best friend of 35 years and conscientious executor of his estate, into Maggie, a character originally based on her.

Schlusser Ensemble zooms in on the mutual cannibalisation of Williams’ life and art, but not as a pure intertextual exercise. As Maria accuses the playwright of having staged her suffering, as Tenn recreates his loneliness and vulnerability in dozens of fictional women, as beautiful, aloof men continuously reject needy, shy, men and women, what is revealed is not merely Williams’ attempts to exorcise trauma through writing, but the sheer emotional weight of that attempted transfer, and the impossibility of catharsis.

Everyone in this world is queer, in the sense that everyone has attachments, passions, sorrows that cannot be fully articulated in language as we have it. Gay men. Lonely women in love with gay men. Ageing beauties in a patriarchal world. Sensible nurses attached to traumatised children they care for. Poor people grown rich, and rich people grown poor. Siblings who love each other even though they cannot help each other. There is much sorrow on this stage: the sorrow of Williams’ oeuvre compounded with the sorrow of his life. On the surface, it is laughable, ignoble suffering—but only because our culture (certainly Williams’ at the time) did not afford it legitimacy.

Judith Butler understands melancholia as ungrievable loss, as a feeling that cannot be consummated because language lacks the words to legitimise it. For Butler, unlegitimised, ‘queer’ lives result in unlegitimised, unmournable deaths, such as the deaths of the AIDS pandemic. A queer tragedy does not exist, there is only farce.

In Schlusser’s Menagerie, just as in Tennessee Williams’ work and life, all characters grieve in a muted, unconsummated way: through role-playing, partying, sexual frustration, plumes of euphoria and dysphoria and deep friendships. Trying to find a language for their experience creates strange aberrations, responses that are not right, that seem cheap and clichéd misidentifications (like Williams’ own with the cultural image of the suffering woman). That is why it is a stroke of brilliance to fill the soundtrack with exemplary wannabe-trailer trash cliché Lana del Rey.

Menagerie respects its characters’ ignobleness. In a certain way, the production is a beautiful gesture of empathy with the often excessive gay party culture. It asserts, simply, that sorrowful lives go on, because tragedy is not as true as melodrama, and because we will always rather live to be a laughable cliché than an honourable corpse. It ends with a hopeful, consoling image of the cast huddled safely on the roof of the shack, in life vests. The hurricane may be coming, but they are used to doing it tough.

Melbourne Theatre Company, NEON: Menagerie, Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, director Daniel Schlusser, Lawler Theatre, Melbourne, 16-26 May

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 42

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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