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Matt Prest, Lee Wilson, Whelping Box Matt Prest, Lee Wilson, Whelping Box
photo Heidrun Löhr

The product of intensive team work, overlapping responsibilities and a range of skills, four artists, working without writer or director, put paid to the notion, once again in the ascendancy, that theatre is foremost the realm of writers—as argued by David Williamson in the STUDIO cable TV series Raising the Curtain, as well as letters-to-the-editor writers hostile to the recent cut-and-pasting of classics by young male directors.

Certainly the great achievements in writing for the stage over thousands of years can never be undervalued, even if it’s not at all clear that we are enjoying such greatness in our own era. Some of the most potent authorship across the last decade in Australia has come in the form of adaptations of classic (and some not so enduring) works by Kosky, Wright, Andrews, Strong, Lutton and others in a tradition that goes back at least to the 1970s; I recall my surprise, and delight, at encountering Charles Marowitz’s “free translations” of plays by Shakespeare at London’s Open Space Theatre in the mid-1970s. Marowitz has been a critic, a collaborator with Peter Brook (another provocative adaptor) at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the co-founder of Encore Magazine, director and playwright. He was part of that 60s and 70s explosion of performative experimentation that opened theatre up to new possibilities—many of them now well-integrated into the mainstream.

Of course, not all contemporary performance works are models of radical cogency, just as many stage plays fail to meaningfully cohere though abiding by the well-thumbed rulebook of tradition. Equally, ‘deconstructed’ classics offer little if they don’t tell us something about the original as much as about ourselves.

The fear among playwrights and the directors who support and often nurture them, is that writer-free (in fact, that’s not always the case) contemporary performance and the emergence of a so-called ‘directors’ theatre’ have reduced the opportunities for good, new plays to emerge in an already small market. Justifiable paranoia, you might think. Meanwhile theatre, in the broadest terms, from the mainstream to burgeoning live art and digital ventures (see review of Kumuwuki), continues to mutate in fascinating and sometimes worrying ways—for example a skill-less DIY dimension in some live art. The debate about the status of the playwright is beyond resolution. Meanwhile cable television has opened up remarkable opportunities for some of the same writers, not a few who’ve become co-producers of their own material. But the screen is not the stage.

performance space, whelping box

Matt Prest, Lee Wilson, Whelping Box Matt Prest, Lee Wilson, Whelping Box
photo Heidrun Löhr
Two men, heads masked with tightly bound packing tap bound aggressively towards each other, restrained by sprung leashes that pull them back at the point where skulls might crack. This violent image of humans behaving like fighting dogs in training is central to Whelping Box, the creation of Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters of Branch Nebula and fellow contemporary performance makers Matt Prest and Clare Britton, performed by Wilson and Prest with ruthless vigour and wit.

Prior bouts of training include exercises in which one or other of the men is taught to endure pain (a ‘massage’ with a rusty shovel), to trust his teacher while blindfolded or, critically, not trust at all. The irony is that this all takes place in a large whelping box—a device used for the nurturing of puppies—the audience lining its internal perimeter. Although care seems to be taken, nurture ranks low and our proximity to the performers induces anxiety for them and, at times, ourselves.

The box is cleverly designed to be at once wall, platform and resonant chamber. The two men breach it, running and leaping simian and dog-like around and above us, at one stage naked, thrusting pelvises defiantly at each other, cocking legs as if to mark out territory. The miked box amplifies the thump and skid of bodies, scarily enlarging our sense of their power. The box cannot contain this raw masculine energy which is also clearly cultivated for violence. This tension is a key to the show’s dialectical dynamic—a mix of manipulation and exuberance, risk and play, grim comment and literal and quite lateral parody.

Whelping Box commences with Wilson wielding a long pole with a light at its end which Prest puppyishly pursues, running furiously in circles and then finally joining his master in a war-like dance. After the mid-show leap into anarchy, which includes the spraying of biscuit rewards over the audience, a passage ensues in which the men tie themselves to each other with a long twisted strand of clear tape that is bound around waists and thighs (men in the audience reached nervously to safely cup their genitals). A fearsome tug of war follows, actual competition, a display of strength which is almost sculptural in its moments of taut stasis and near snapping point.

The final stage of the show transforms into idiosyncratic mythmaking—fantasies of the masculine self. In an inversion of the opening scene, Prest as a glittering magician with an almost feminine aura leads a feral dandy Wilson with the tip of his bliss-inducing wand, accompanied by a bee-like buzz and a soaring, wordless soprano sound score. But this moment of transcendence is mere respite before the testosterone finally kicks in again and loud, joyful and thankfully harmless chaos ensues.

In its celebration of masculine physicality, Whelping Box breathtakingly delineates the pleasures, pain and contradictions of play, initiation, bonding, competition, risk and self-mythologising. Within a carefully choreographed framework, Wilson and Prest repeatedly push themselves to the limit, testing their bodies in sustained acts of endurance, living out the very condition they have committed to celebrate and critique.

Like the stage design, Jack Prest’s sound score is enveloping, eerily punctuating and pumping up the action in a quite non-literal manner. A curious design element is a large illuminated square (like an inverted light box) hovering over the action, morphing from one colour to another and slowly descending to the floor where it finally appears to take the two men with it. Did it indicate not so much the demise of masculinity per se, but the condition’s endurance to the end of light and time? What remains so vividly in my consciousness is Whelping Box’s vivid evocation of the complexities of intimate male behaviour (if barely homoerotic) built around physical drive, even at a time when that behaviour can no longer be ascribed to men alone and when the demise of the male of the species is the subject of random sci-fi-ish speculation. (See RealTime TV interview with Wilson and Prest, including footage from the show.)

belvoir, private lives

Zahra Newman, Toby Schmitz, Private Lives, Belvoir Zahra Newman, Toby Schmitz, Private Lives, Belvoir
photo Heidrun Löhr
Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1927), which American theatre writer John Lahr once described “as perfect as an art deco curve,” is given a right rumpling in Ralph Myers’ contemporary rendering. The setting is a style-less hotel room-cum-patio-cum-foyer space (with oddly scaled elevator access) of the bleak modern variety. Muzak and Phil Collins (“In the air tonight”) ominously supplant the genteel music of the 20s. Elegance in gesture and fashion are pretty much absent and Amanda (Jamaican-born Zahra Newman) is played, with tough, energetic verve. The French maid is brutally rude rather than snooty (a very funny Mish Grigor). Precious British accents give way to unmannered voices if too often at the expense of the inherent rhythms of Coward’s dialogue. Languid, sensual intimacy abounds but so too does palpable physical violence, such that the play’s forgiving ending cannot atone for Elyot’s misogyny—verbal and physical. But he is forgiven because Private Lives is a fable of redemption born of accepting difficult love; it’s a genteel farce with heart and a handful of psychological insights and a happy ending. An attempt to turn it into something more serious on the one hand, and more physically funny and far less genteel on the other, is risky but very interesting.

While some have seen Myer’s Private Lives as a worthy, vigorous, very Australian response to a rarely seen theatre classic, I felt that, short on style, it hadn’t found the right contemporary idiom or setting with which to do this comedy of manners justice. It was often obtuse at the expense of subtlety, although the extreme decline of Toby Schmitz’s Elyot into extreme dishabille and abjection compensated somewhat for his underlined sinning. In sync with our reality TV times the lives in this production didn’t seem private at all. With feelings overtly and often very physically expressed, the sense of an inherently repressed culture out of which Coward’s wit and sarcasm erupted to the surface without doing too much damage goes missing. The deco curve is broken in Myer’s nonetheless bold attempt to introduce new generations to an enduring work, albeit one tied more than many to its era, as is often the case with comedies of manners.

sydney theatre company, signs of life

Aaron Pedersen, Heather Mitchell, Signs of Life, Sydney Theatre Company, Black Swan Theatre Company Aaron Pedersen, Heather Mitchell, Signs of Life, Sydney Theatre Company, Black Swan Theatre Company
photo Lisa Tomasetti
Tim Winton’s Signs of Life is set in an isolated, drought-ruined property, home to Georgie (Heather Mitchell), an elegant middle-aged woman living with the ghost of her recently deceased husband—an apparently ne’er do well but loved hippie. Two other isolates, an Aboriginal brother (Aaron Pedersen) and sister (Pauline Whyman), turn up in the night when their car breaks down. They contrive to stay on, seeking a place by the now empty river where their late, silent father once stayed. In a rare moment of openness, he had revealed to them an affinity with that country although not belonging to it.

Like their father, the siblings are rootless. The brother, Bender, angrily declares that they are without stories, clan or place. “I’m put together from spare parts,” he says. He is an itinerant worker who has removed his sister, Mona (suffering the effects of foetal alcohol syndrome), from an institution where she had been incarcerated for killing her child while drunk. He’s intelligent and funny, quick with the killer quip; the sister blunt and unpredictable; each exudes a peculiar energy, part threat, part determination, indicators too of potential, but not dramatically developed in Winton’s writing.

Initially Georgie entertains no hope for the future of the property, symbolised in a failed olive orchard and the empty river, but by the play’s end she has let go of her husband’s hapless ghost and offered to share the property (which she has no real evidence of owning) with the siblings. Given that there’s little intimacy between the woman and the pair, beyond having heard each other’s stories, and given the absence of rain, the ending is irritatingly sentimental.

Signs of Life is theatrically naive. It’s partly and incompletely narrated by the central female character; it’s awkwardly constructed and directed (not least in the underdeveloped exchanges with the walk-on, walk-off ghost); and the dialogue, laden with exposition, is at times uncomfortably literary. Aaron Pedersen gives a vibrant performance as the brother, although coming close in the writing to yet another quick-witted oppressed Aboriginal, and Whyman brings a rawness to her role that suggests palpable danger—which makes her sudden sense of well-being at the end less than believable.

Performance Space, Whelping Box, co-creator Branch Nebula (Lee Wilson, Mirabelle Wouters), Matt Prest & Clare Britton, sound Jack Prest, producer Performing Lines, Carriageworks, Oct 25-Nov 3; Belvoir, Private Lives, writer Noël Coward, director, designer, performers Mish Grigor, Eloise Mignon, Zahra Newman, Toby Schmitz, Toby Truslove, costumes Alice Babidge, lighting Damien Cooper, composer, sound Stefan Gregory, Belvoir Upstairs, Sept 26-Nov 11; Sydney Theatre Company, Signs of Life, writer Tim Winton, director Kate Cherry, performers Heather Mitchell, Aaron Pedersen, George Shevtsov, Pauline Whyman, designer Zoe Atkinson, lighting Jon Buswell, composer, sound Ben Collins, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Nov 7-Dec 22

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 33

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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