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Between evasion and overload

Ben Brooker: The Country; Deluge

In divergent ways, two works by local independent companies at the Adelaide Festival, Stone/Castro’s The Country and Tiny Bricks’ Deluge, both probed, with discomforting results, the difficulties of communication and meaning-making in an information-saturated world. That both took place away from the Festival’s CBD hub in desolate, warehouse-like venues heightened the alienating effects of each play’s depiction of the debilitating uses of language: too little, or too much.

The Country, Stone/Castro Productions The Country, Stone/Castro Productions
photo Daniel Purvis
Stone/Castro, The Country

British playwright Martin Crimp’s The Country (2000), like its thematically-linked successor The City (2008), is a tense study in Pinteresque menace that combines an ambiguous narrative with a fascination for language’s ability to conceal and distort.

A middle-class couple, Richard (Nathan O’Keefe) and Corinne (Jo Stone), have relocated from the city to a converted granary in the country. He’s a doctor, she a neurotic housewife who outsources the care of their children to a nanny. Richard claims to have found a young woman, Rebecca (Natalia Sledz), unconscious by the roadside, and has brought her back to the house. “She’s not going to wake up,” Richard tells Corinne ominously. She does, and punctures both Richard’s story—she claims he, a fellow drug addict, moved to the country specifically to be with her—and Richard and Corinne’s fantasy of a rural idyll (“the land, the stream, the beautiful house”).

Uncoiling in a predictable, stuttering rhythm, Crimp’s dialogue, like Pinter’s, is rife with elisions. Verbal obfuscation and aggression draw a permanent veil over unspoken thoughts and accusations. Each conversation, held at cross-purposes and thick with unaddressed questions, has an excruciatingly contrived feel. An additional, meta-theatrical layer is also present: “The more you talk the less you say,” Rebecca tells Richard, in what doubles as a comment on the playwright’s method: “There’s a limit,” Richard observes, “to what we can say—what we can achieve with words.”

Less elliptical than the later The City, a play that marked Crimp’s further move towards a more ‘post-dramatic’ style, The Country remains nonetheless abstruse. Rebecca disappears without explanation, her relationship to Richard still mysterious, and we are left to assemble Crimp’s myriad clues—embedded in, for example, a motif around cleanliness and purity and the involvement of an unseen character, Morris, Richard’s superior—that point to Richard and Corinne’s complicity in removing the tainting Rebecca from their immaculately constructed lives.

Director Paulo Castro has, rewardingly, defied the naturalistic trend established by previous productions. The house, in a design by David Lampard, is an abstracted mess of exposed woodwork and torn wallpaper, reflecting the play’s transmutation from British to Australian setting in its surrounding expanse of grass replete with woodpiles and scattered branches. The interior of the house, viewable through slats that frequently obscure the actors and, puzzlingly, require them to stoop in order to access the lawn, is a jumble of furnitureless, cubicle-like rooms duskily lit by Daniel Barber, whose cinematic, ever-shifting design makes intensive use of side lighting. The music, combining the brooding post-rock of Melbourne band Fourteen Nights at Sea with a short, astringent piece for cello and violin by Johann Johannsson (in Adelaide for the Festival’s experimental music program Unsound), effectively amplifies the prevailing mood of unease. The cast are restrained and balanced, if occasionally lacking in volume when within the house, and happily refuse the script’s occasional invitations to melodrama.

The production is not without its missteps: the presence of a lifelike toy cat is a redundant quirk, and Castro’s decision to omit between-scene blackouts in favour of continuous action throws up some odd stage pictures, such as when we see Richard piling branches into the house for no discernible reason other than to metaphorise the dissolution of his and Corinne's pastoral sanctuary. Nevertheless, Crimp's unjustly overlooked play—and this taut revival—compellingly bear out the old paradox that an idyll can only exist once it’s passed.

Deluge, Tiny Bricks Deluge, Tiny Bricks
photo Che Chorley
Tiny Bricks, Deluge

Out of a vast Perspex box emerge 10 actors, each buried to their waist—in this case by hundreds of white foam cubes—like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. A weave of multiple, mostly partnered narratives begins immediately and the audience, seated in the round, starts to snatch at the threads: disparately-skilled gamers playing a first-person shooter; a man enthusing to friends about his conversion to Baha’ism; an army whistleblower divulging classified information to “a crazy white-haired Aussie who can’t seem to stay in the same country for very long.” Most troubling is a disturbed man in a crowd, his anxious writhing periodically plunging his whole body back beneath the sea of cubes as he spouts religious-hued nonsense. “So many people,” someone says, “so much noise.”

Suspended above the box is a sculptural web of subtly pulsing LED lights, redolent of the transmission of data through fibre-optic cables or the neural pathways of the brain. Sporadic power surges produce visual and sonic flare-ups that punctuate the intermeshing narratives below.

Deluge, presented by Tiny Bricks in association with Brink Productions, dramatises information overload—or, more precisely, what is known as continuous partial attention—through the simultaneous unfolding of five ‘micro plays.’ Playwright Phillip Kavanagh’s text, three years in gestation over multiple creative developments and a rehearsed reading at last year’s National Play Festival, is musical in its construction, employing, for example, counterpoint and crescendo. Each play forms a sort of melodic line that shifts in and out of harmony with the others. Sections of the whole, although rarely sustaining the same mood, recall the self-containment of a symphonic movement. The dialogue never exactly doubles up but rather overlaps, making for some fascinating instances of textual and, sometimes, thematic congruence.

Kavanagh’s motifs are established quickly and vividly: religious compatibility (“different flowers blooming in the same garden”), the problem of making sense across barriers of space and culture (“we’re all saying the same thing but no-one’s stopping to translate”), and the impact of globalisation on human relationships (“I feel connected to everybody as though they’re distant family”). A further theme, which implicitly links violent video games with American war atrocities (specifically, the infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ incident exposed by WikiLeaks in 2010), left me feeling uncomfortable in its underexplored implications.

Deluge’s piecemeal nature, large cast, and brief running time of just 50 minutes (wise, given the assaultive effect of its storytelling mode on audiences) provides little scope for nuance on the part of the actors. Nonetheless, the young cast—all recent Flinders University Drama Centre graduates—does well to maintain clarity amid Elizabeth Gadsby’s restrictive set and the text’s non-linear sprawl. Nescha Jelk’s direction is canny, adding pleasing dramaturgical texture to Kavanagh’s dense script in, for example, the positioning of the actors in relation to each other and their manipulation of the foam cubes during moments of heightened tension.

But what of the deluge’s human cost—the drowned and the drowning? The polish of Kavanagh’s text—and perhaps too the production’s swamping, maximalist approach to design—prevents us from engaging passionately with this question. As verbal music realised through an impeccably wrought structure, Deluge is an impressive achievement but one that comes off, ultimately, as a triumph of form over feeling.

Adelaide Festival of Arts 2016: Stone/Castro, The Country, writer Martin Crimp, director Paulo Castro, design David Lampard, lighting Daniel Barber, State Opera Studio, 8-13 March; Tiny Bricks, Deluge, writer Philip Kavanagh, director Nescha Jelk, design Elizabeth Gadsby, Plant 1, 8-13 March.

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016 pg. web

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

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