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an endless dance of death and yearning

john bailey on recent melbourne performance

Alan Knoepfler, The Damask Drum Alan Knoepfler, The Damask Drum
photo Kat Soutar

Mishima’s story, adapted from a Noh play by one of the form’s originators (Zeami), is of a narrative simplicity that belies the deeper emotional resonances it eventually generates. A man, Iwakichi, is tricked by a cruel woman who gives him a drum and tells him that, should he beat it loudly enough that she hears it from her bedroom, she will be his. The drum’s skin, he discovers, is made of damask, and no matter how hard he beats it no sound can be produced. Despairing, he kills himself but the weight of his anger and desire transforms him into a demon, the literalisation of the woman’s crime, haunting her for all eternity.

It is through the stunning precision of both production and performance that The Damask Drum sounds so loudly for its audience. Light is tangibly, if sparingly employed to both illuminate and limit our senses. Beginning in near total darkness the imposing figure of Alan Knoepfler, a naked and muscular torso emerging from a cloud of billowing skirts, slowly seems to coalesce before us. A pale wraith writhing, seething, spitting his story and gripped by forces beyond our ken, he holds our focus with an almost alarming vocal and physical confidence. The unfolding tragedy he relates is scored by Jethro Woodward’s effects-laden live guitar, like a heavy and mordant Neil Young on a very bad trip, and elliptical and uncertain snatches of grainy film drifting across suspended panels.

When the object of the ill-fated Iwakichi’s desires finally joins him in his half-death, she comes as the kind of oni or spirit entirely appropriate to Japanese mythology, her kimono eventually expanding to cover most of the visible playing space, an ogrish empress who has become, very literally, her victim’s world. But his haunting subsumes her, too, and the endless dance of death and yearning between the two makes for unforgettable theatre.

requiem for the 20th century

The scale of ambition behind Theatre @ Risk’s Requiem for the 20th Century is either its triumph or its unmaking, depending on where you stand. In a sense, any project which seeks to survey and represent an entire century (or even, in this case, only its first half) is a monumental folly. But I found in this case a work whose internal logic seemed aware of its own insufficiency, and which utilised this as a source of motive power.

There are two competing narrative forces driving the work. The first is a love story in the classic realist mode: Cassandra and Red, kept apart by history’s vicissitudes, personal failings and tragic misunderstandings, chart a course that ends in a small moment of reunion by telephone across the oceans.

Against this narrative, driven as it is by the logic of conventional drama, is the historiographic stream of the work, which seems to work against it. Requiem doesn’t engage in capital-H history as an exercise in sense-making, producing a narrative development to very real events matching the fictional drama. Instead, it offers history as iconic moments with little, well, point. Figures from Archduke Franz Ferdinand to Walter Benjamin, along with Brecht, Hitler, Rasputin, Dali, Nellie Melba and many others crowd in only to disappear as quickly. It’s history as catalogue, not story. They’re shown, but not explained. They’re often cartoonish or badly drawn. Which, to me, seems an aesthetically appropriate choice.

History-making, as any half-alert Australian is aware, is an ideological practice, and in choosing a kind of picaresque, even carnivalesque approach to history, Requiem problematises such official histories without denying the possibility of historical understanding. It’s a deeply dissatisfying work, in this way, setting itself a task it cannot achieve; and this is exactly its strength.

apolitical dance

Not Yet It’s Difficult’s most recent work seems diametrically opposite to Requiem. Where the latter work is a taxonomy of historical detail that revolves around a hollow centre, NYID’s Apolitical Dance is abstracted to the extreme. It purports to examine the effects of conservative power on real bodies, but it does so in a purely physical, decontextualised manner. The performers are bodies without identity, in a space without location or time. They are beaten or electrocuted, they march drills, they dance to moronic music, they abuse themselves and each other. But unlike earlier NYID productions, the work doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts.

Some elements seem recycled from earlier works—the extended sequences in which performers throw one another head-first into large padded panels was employed to far greater effect in the company’s exquisite Blowback from 2005. Where that piece was a complex and imaginatively assured meditation operating on numerous ontological levels, Apolitical Dance seems rarely to connect itself to anything beyond the moment of performance. Or it does so in a disappointingly restricted way. I found the final sequence, in which a game of Aussie Rules football is enacted while a Nazi anthem provides a musical backdrop, almost laughable. Perhaps, given the work’s title, this is all intended: movement as an ironic retreat from politics. Then again, given the company’s history of highly sophisticated and engaging work, I expected a little more. (See also Christopher Scanlon, “Lost in Translation “, p43.)

for samuel beckett

I’ve long been a bit of a skeptic when it comes to productions of Beckett; not that I dispute the mastery of his rich and very entertaining writing, but it seems his legacy has often been so strong as to offer a hindrance to new, more relevant forms of theatre. The milieu of Beckett’s postwar Europe provided the fundament for a mode of writing which commented on the world in new and urgent ways, but that Beckettian silence and all it entails seems less appropriate now that it has become canonical. I’m all for messy, polyphonic theatre, which says too much rather than too little, which forges through postmodern chaos rather than looking back to the cresting wave of High Modernism which is Beckett.

Eleventh Hour Theatre’s For Samuel Beckett is as fine a production as I’ve seen. The bulk of the evening is a performance of Endgame, preceded by a series of texts which either inform or were informed by Beckett’s developing aesthetic (a reading from Joyce’s Ulysses; a Bach violin solo; a Buster Keaton film he penned entitled One Week). But these contextualisations don’t really add to the evening in a vital, necessary way. Interesting, but more along the lines of Further Reading or a disc of DVD extras. It’s a relief that the ensuing Endgame is of such an impressively high calibre. The cast, especially Peter Houghton as Hamm, are all able to draw out the subtlest connotations of the writing. Best of all is the way directors William Henderson and Anne Thompson have keyed up the comedy in Beckett’s writing, which is often dependent on finding a rhythm much snappier than that usually effected by those distracted by the pauses.

Eleventh Hour have forged an outstanding reputation for keen-eyed adaptations of classics, and with the exception of the seemingly extraneous additions bookending the evening, this Endgame had me thinking that perhaps there might still be many reasons to pay Beckett that occasional visit.

The Damask Drum, text Yukio Mishima and Zeami, adaptation, direction Robert Draffin, sound design Jethro Woodward, performers Alan Knoepfler, Mary Sitarenos, film Ivanka Sokol, Liminal Theatre, Abbotsford, Melbourne, Nov 15-26; Theatre @ Risk, Requiem for the 20th Century, Volume 1, writer Tee O’Neill, director Chris Bendall, set & costume design Isla Shaw, sound design Kelly Ryall, lighting design Richard Vabre, musical director Victor Bizzotto, New Ballroom, Trades Hall, Melbourne, Nov 17-Dec 3; Not Yet It’s Difficult, Apolitical Dance, direction David Pledger, Arts House, Meat Market, North Melbourne, Nov 28 - 2 Dec 2; For Samuel Beckett: Endgame, writer Samuel Beckett, directors William Henderson, Anne Thompson, Theatre, Fitzroy, Nov 25-Dec 9, 2006

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 41

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

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