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Two actors or one, or none, is fine

Stephen Carleton: Brisbane Powerhouse, World Theatre Festival

All That Fall, Pan Pan Theatre, courtesy World Theatre Festival All That Fall, Pan Pan Theatre, courtesy World Theatre Festival
We are in a post-philanthropic funding regime with this year’s World Theatre Festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse—Wotif founder Graeme Wood’s generous million dollar bequest lapsed last year—but a rich line-up of work from around the world is still evident. The change this year, though, is in the large number of one or two-handers, and a higher than usual ratio of Australian co-producing credits for the international work. The pieces I saw were stand-alone productions from Ireland and New Zealand in which the monologue featured strongly.

Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall was originally a 1957 BBC radio drama, so accordingly no bodies on stage—Ireland’s Pan Pan Theatre win the gong for low-cost touring overheads! The piece is pre-recorded. Pan Pan have made their reputation at this festival over the years by taking canonical texts and throwing them against a wall, reinfusing them with punk or pop sensibilities (I am Oedipus and A Doll’s House being prime examples). This is the most reverent of the productions I have seen the company offer. The Beckett estate’s notorious insistence on adherence to authorial intention notwithstanding, Pan Pan have embraced the radio play form and transported it to the live stage with a warm and elegiac interpretation of this text. The experience is largely a spatial and aural one, of course, but visuals are not altogether neglected. We enter to a room of rocking chairs and a massive wall of lights that, perhaps like the domestic fireplace it is substituting for, actually generates heat when fully charged. The seats are placed at odd angles on Ikea children’s mats (you know the ones: the cityscape, dark grey roads, primary coloured houses and public buildings) so that we are actually having to look at each other sometimes uncomfortably closely. Shut-eye provides the only private refuge. The chairs have skull-print cushions on them. So we have images of death, routes through the city, but also of comfort and the domestic hearth.

The writing is beautiful, and one of Beckett’s most near-naturalistic pieces. Central character Maddie Rooney is taking a walk from her rural home to an urban (Dublin) train station to meet her husband at the end of his Saturday workshift, and then the pair return home. There is no plot as such; nothing really ‘happens’ to Maddie along the way—she falls in a ditch, takes a lift on a passing tractor. It is almost a picaresque conceit, and as the garrulous Maddie embarks on her journey, narrating her cranky stream-of-consciousness all the way, I was put in mind of Joyce’s Molly Bloom and her iconic “stepping out off the page into the sensual world” walk from outer Dublin’s Howth’s Head. There’s an Irish literary baton being passed on here.

Actors provide the soundscape while it is a bucolic one—cows, bulls, sheep—but as Maddie nears the city, an industrial track takes over. The train is delayed, a deluge falls, husband and wife return home sodden and philosophical, ruminating over mortality and what it means to be corporeal, sentient beings. It is a deeply meditative live theatre experience—hypnotic in its simplicity. I found myself asking whether it was necessary for us to be in a theatre listening to this piece designed for the radio. I think the answer is yes. The work has stayed with me and got my writerly brain ticking about audience proxemics. It’s a fine accomplishment—an affective and effective experience of Beckett—and another feather in the cap for director Gavin Quinn and the company.

The stage monologue features heavily in 20th century Irish theatre. Brian Friel, Tommy Murphy and Frank McGuinness have all used the monologue within multi-character pieces, and in the first decade of the 21st century Conor Macpherson, Marina Carr and Mark O’Rowe have ensured that this most literary of theatrical approaches has meant that ‘the playwright’ has remained central to Irish contemporary performance even where s/he has fallen out of vogue in other industrial contexts, including our own here in Australia. Stefanie Preissner steps into this tradition squarely with her full-length one-person testimonial and is most obviously influenced by O’Rowe, whose Terminus (2007) was memorably brutally lyrical. Solpadeine is my Boyfriend is, like Terminus, written in rhyme. Where Terminus is less tethered to structured scansion, Solpadeine errs heavily toward the metered rhyme. It is at its strongest when, like the proverbial good waiter, you do not notice that s/he is there. There were some cloying moments when the piece veered toward Pam Ayres to service a looming couplet. The direction was also ham-fisted and literal at times. But the story itself is engrossing and disarmingly candid, and is told unflinchingly by writer-performer Preissner.

Cork girl Stef moves to Dublin to study drama. Evidently moving from Cork to Dublin carries the cultural bias of a Northern Australian moving to Sydney or Melbourne (I say that as someone who did); vowels need to be contorted into compliance, regional provenance apologised for in the interests of ‘fitting in.’ Stef finds a boyfriend, Steve, who is by all accounts a bit of an arsehole. She suffers extended bouts of depression—with or without him—and self-medicates with Solpadeine, a European equivalent, we are told, to Panadeine Forte. The piece is a genuinely stirring (and frequently hilarious) rumination on depression and self-sabotage in the realm of personal relationships. Is Preissner picking up the literary baton passed on by Joyce and Beckett? Probably not. But she’s a terrific autobiographical storyteller and a talent to watch out for.

Black Faggot was fun. It’s a sketch-based montage of monologues and duologues centring on the theme of Polynesian (mostly Samoan) characters coming to terms with homosexuality in New Zealand. Iaheto Ah Hi and Taokia Pelasasa play all of these men—and women—ranging from the closeted football jock stumbling ‘accidentally’ into Auckland’s gay bars to the young Christian boy praying his queerness away, to the Samoan mama dealing initially not so well with her son’s gradual emersion from the closet, to a Cultural Studies lecturer providing a semiotic reading of orientalist consumption of Pasifika sexuality in his paper “Cracker wanna Poly.” Some sketches are hilarious, some bawdy, even smutty. Cultural stereotyping is both satirised and indulged (there are Samoan jokes about Tongans only being recognisable when they smile—showing gold fillings being the gag that Australian audiences may not switch onto. The performances are arguably better than the writing, but the show has a terrific heart and did a great job in delivering in-yer-face queer politics to an audience that even here in Brisbane (where there is a huge South Sea Islander population who don’t always make it to the theatre) found its mark.

See Kathryn Kelly’s review of other World Theatre Festival.

World Theatre Festival 2014, Brisbane Powerhouse, 13-23 Feb

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 36

© Stephen Carleton; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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