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Adelaide Festival: No pastoral refuge

Ben Brooker: interview Paulo Castro, director The Country

Jo Stone Jo Stone
promotional image courtesy Stone/Castro
Adelaide audiences are no strangers to the work of British ‘post-dramatic’ playwright Martin Crimp. Geordie Brookman, currently Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, has helmed two of Crimp’s major plays, Attempts on Her Life (2008 for STCSA) and The City (2012) for former independent company nowyesnow. Curiously, however, it is Crimp’s adaptations—of Molière’s The Misanthrope (STCSA, 2011) and Botho Strauss’s Gross und Klein (Big and Small), (STC 2011)—that have been most enthusiastically taken up by the majors. The Country, a companion piece of sorts to the cryptic, less immediately accessible The City, has been only sporadically produced, for example by Melbourne’s Red Stitch in 2005.

As with The City, The Country is a nonlinear exploration of middle class ennui; the fillip, however, is that the neurotic couple at its centre, Richard and Corinne, evince the old maxim about the portability of unhappiness by relocating from the city to the country only to find themselves entangled in a mystery involving a young American woman apparently found unconscious by the roadside in the middle of the night. One can only surmise that the play’s relative conventionality has worked against it, that its idiom–lying somewhere between a plot-driven thriller and a Pinteresque exercise in sublimated menace—has made it a hard sell.

It is, in any case, now being presented for the Adelaide Festival by Stone/Castro, the production company of Portuguese-born, now Adelaide-based director Paulo Castro and his partner, actor Jo Stone, who will be performing the role of Corinne alongside Nathan O’Keefe as Richard and Natalia Sledz as Rebecca, the young woman. I spoke to Castro during a break in rehearsals, our unlikely surrounds the recently renewed St Barnabas parish church in Croydon, an inner suburb of Adelaide. Castro, in characteristically energetic fashion, sweeps a table clean as soon as I arrive and hastily assembles a model of David Lampard’s set that has clearly been kicking around for a while. Nevertheless, its bold abstraction is clear: a disintegrating house with multiple levels and telescoping rooms, no furniture (just a door that seems to have been repurposed as a table) and disconcerting irruptions of the surrounding countryside. I remark to Castro that the set seems to affirm UK critic Michael Billington’s contention that the play is “an assault on the pastoral myth.”

“Exactly,” he says. ”We wanted something conceptual, not a naturalistic house. Because here are two city people who think it’s a good idea to move to the countryside but it begins to consume them. It’s very metaphoric: the relationship at the centre of the play has fallen apart, so I said to David, the house should be falling apart too. We also decided very early on not to use furniture. There are no chairs, there’s no carpet. For a set designer to hear that…! We talked a lot about the Volksbühne in Berlin and the designs there, very big and architectural, often opening up onto room after room after room, back, back, back and open doors. I said to David, why don’t we create something like that?’

“We’ve been working on the set and lights for two months,” Castro continues. “So even before we started rehearsals we all knew exactly what set to expect and the lighting is very important because Daniel [Barber] is quite experimental; we don’t have general lights. Everything will be very lateral, lots of floor lights, and very cinematic. Atmospheric. Between the five scenes there are no blackouts—we show everything—because I like to direct what is between scenes, how the characters get from one moment to another. It’s something I experimented with when I worked on Benedict Andrews’ play CADA SOPRO [Every Breath] in Portugal. I found it creates much more tension.”

“You have a reputation,” I say to Castro, “as a director in what might be called the contemporary European tradition, as someone who puts production dramaturgy at the centre of your process. I’m wondering, though, if The Country has challenged that. As Jo has said [see video interview], in Crimp’s work it is the unsaid that creates the space; but it seems to me that The City, for example, is much more ‘finished’ than The Country.”

“I prefer,” Castro tells me, “to be on the floor, generally, to work up the production through improvisation and so on. I would say there wasn’t much room for that with this text. Everything has been very calculated during rehearsals because that’s how Crimp has constructed The Country—unlike Beckett, say, it’s never just conversation, there’s always much more going on. Each scene you feel the characters want to say one thing, but say another. At the beginning of the rehearsal process we spent a week around the table talking through this stuff, which is an unusually long time for me. Because Crimp hides so much in the text, there is so much to discover. It has a lot in common with, for example, contemporary Nordic writers like Jon Fosse, or the work of Thomas Bernhard, where you need to discover all the background of the play and the characters. We’re rehearsing here in this big church hall so one thing we did was to get each character to confess to God, alone. That was the key with which we were able to unlock the personality of each character.”

The production’s most recent development has been the almost 11th-hour securing of Melbourne post-rockers Fourteen Nights at Sea to provide the score (remixed versions of two pre-existing songs); otherwise the project has had a long gestation. Says Castro, “Ever since Benedict did The City (Sydney Theatre Company, 2009), I’ve been wanting to do this text, so it reaches back a long way. I was thinking about doing it then, but Jo and I have been delayed by other projects—movies and dance theatre and other things. We wanted Stone/Castro to go back to our roots: Jo’s are in acting in the theatre, mine in directing plays, that’s my form—contemporary writers. And I’m quite shocked why the big companies haven’t picked up this text more often. I don’t say that it’s better than Beckett but it is not inferior at all."

Adelaide Festival 2016, Stone/Castro, The Country, State Opera Studio, 7-13 March

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016 pg. web

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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