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Emily Milledge, Pier Carthew, Story of O, The Rabble, Neon Emily Milledge, Pier Carthew, Story of O, The Rabble, Neon
photo Guy Little
Critics lamenting the conservatism of Australia’s mainstages will often end their complaint with a shrug and a dark comment about how their audiences will all be dead soon, anyhow. Ageing subscriber bases can only be played to for so long, goes the logic, and sooner or later a more progressive—read younger—audience will have to be found. It’s a Pollyanna-ish suggestion, I think. It equates youth with experiment, risk, innovation, when of course a young audience can be just as reactionary as any other. But more importantly, it ignores the structural conservatism of large companies that need to appeal to a broad base, that rely on familiarity as a marketing tool and that by necessity must at least in part consider a play as a product.

This is one of the reasons why Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent NEON season of independent theatre was met with such welcome. It’s not just that the works produced were radically unlike anything the MTC typically programs (though they were). It’s that these works really were afforded an astonishing degree of independence within the structures of the institution—they weren’t teased and cajoled from above into something they weren’t, or subjected to review and reform by outside eyes. Each of the five companies given a spot in the season was trusted to produce something that wouldn’t bring down the MTC’s walls, and the outcome taken as a whole was one of the most exciting developments in Melbourne’s theatre scene in living memory.

The Rabble, Story of O

It’s odd to remember that all of the works in NEON were inspired by somewhat canonical texts or writings by playwrights who wouldn’t be out of place on a mainstage—Tennessee Williams, Frank Wedekind—given that what we saw in every case was so far from a ‘play.’ The most striking response to a written classic was The Rabble’s Story of O. The company has in the past had much success turning novels into live works, but to use the word ‘adaptation’ in these instances would be a mistake. If theatre, as it’s often said, is a living thing, then The Rabble treats any narrative in the same manner, and their work is a violent wrestling match with the seething, squirming being that is a story.

To faithfully adapt Anne Desclos’ pseudonymously published erotic novel would be a fool’s mission, in any case. The story follows a woman willingly entering into a state of sexual slavery at the behest of her lover, who introduces her to a mysterious world of submission, violence and humiliation. The short work was written as a kind of love letter to Desclos’ partner, himself fascinated by the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and Desclos made clear that the events it describes exist as pure fantasy, with no base in the waking world. It is this, as much as the abjection of the acts it depicts, that makes a stage adaptation seem close to impossible—The Story of O’s power comes in the electric arc that is sparked when words are divorced from their referents.

The Rabble’s Story of O handles this problem with brio. From the outset we’re reminded that words are themselves a weapon. Jane Montgomery Griffiths as the sadistic Sir Stephen lectures the audience on the Lacanian notion of language as phallic tool, with a nod to Susan Sontag’s essay on Story of O which applies the same reading, and from here on the disjunct between the symbolic world of words and the materiality of the body becomes deeply problematised. O desires to become nothing, pure object, no ego, but when this is played out by live actors the pure fantasy of self-annihilation loses the sense of transcendence the original novel gives it and proves a far messier fact.

Mary Helen Sassman is a fascinating O. Almost silent throughout—apart from a genuinely shocking moment of spoken refusal—she somehow becomes more real, more situated as the rituals through which her character suffers become more outlandish. The figures who surround her are just as jarring: Dana Miltins plays Jacqueline, the model O in turn inducts into the cycle of submission, but is herself seven months pregnant, bringing to the role a surfeit of life in a climate of suspended death; Griffiths’ Sir Stephen is both the architect of O’s dissolution and a curious absence of character in her own right.

The Hayloft Project, By Their Own Hands, Neon The Hayloft Project, By Their Own Hands, Neon
photo Pia Johnson
Hayloft Project, By Their Own Hands

The Hayloft Project’s By Their Own Hands is just as much concerned with absence and presence—here, it is the story of Oedipus and Jocasta that is subject to a kind of inversion. That which could never be shown onstage in the Greek tragedies is laid bare, while the lofty power of the spoken utterance is gradually eroded from within.

The work is divided into three parts, each employing a different theatrical language. The first is a genial piece of storytelling in which the events of Oedipus Rex are related to the audience by the two performers, Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks (featured in Women + Performance 2). There’s no acting, per se, and setting and character are summoned by the viewer’s imagination. It’s an amiable (if extended) sequence that’s a contrast to the terrible tale it describes.

The second sequence traces the same story through a series of stark, almost silent images, returning to the stage the terrible visions of sex and death that underscore the drama. This is the stuff that words alone cannot conjure, but in their sheer materiality neither can they be integrated into narrative, which after all works to order, to make sense of such things.

The final sequence is something other—a series of short, intimate conversations between Oedipus and Jocasta that eschew both the sense-making narration of the first third and the world-destroying spectacle of the second. It’s a clever kind of theatrical dialecticism, and one that doesn’t entirely satisfy since it seeks to open up cracks in that most familiar of stories rather than seal them up.

These are only two of NEON’s first series of excursions, but they’re a ways from anything an audience expects of the MTC. If there’s a more potent argument for the continued programming of such a bold experiment, I’d like to see it.

See Jana Perkovic’s review of Daniel Schlusser Ensemble’s Menagerie, also in the NEON season, in RealTime 115.

Melbourne Theatre Company, NEON: The Rabble, Story of O, after Pauline Reage, creators Emma Valente, Kate Davis,director Emma Valente, designer Kate Davis, 27 June-7 July; The Hayloft Project, By Their Own Hands, directors, performers Benedict Hardie, Anne-Louise Sarks, design Marg Horwell, lighting Matt Scott, composition Kelly Ryall, dramaturgy Carl Nilsson-Polias,13-23 June; The Lawler, Southbank Theatre

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 41

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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