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Directors + playwrights: the living and the dead

Benedict Andrews replies to Louis Nowra

Leeanna Walsman & Nathan Page, La Dispute Leeanna Walsman & Nathan Page, La Dispute
photo Tracey Shramm
Editor’s introduction

Just as the arguments prompted by Richard Wherrett’s National Performance Conference speech seemed to be thinning out, playwright Louis Nowra added another perspective to Wherrett’s “crisis” in his essay “The director’s cut” (Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 3).

While Wherrett sets out to evoke a malaise and suggest tough solutions, Nowra is more analytic. Like Wherrett he sees Australian “theatre as drifting without much of a purpose”, but he offers more than an absence of humanist vision and funding spread too thin as reasons for the condition. Nowra argues that a new generation of directors (who, like Wherrett’s targets, lack humility) do not engage with living playwrights, and that filmmaking draws other potential directors away from the stage (“the real reason for there being more women directors is not so much a deliberate policy, but the natural process of filling a vacuum left by young male directors”).

Yet again anti-humanist postmodernism—which has had nil effect on mainstream theatre in this country (save being railed at by David Williamson)—is the whipping boy. By tackling only the classics (the authors are dead and untroublesome), Nowra writes that “young directors are saying they are the authors of their productions.” Who are these young directors, what are the works they actually tackle, and, more to the point, if they are at fault, how many are there—enough to constitute a crisis? Hardly.

Of innovative directors, Barrie Kosky is the easiest target, directing theatre and opera classics since leaving behind his collaborative Gilgul Theatre Company venture. Who else then? Surely not Michael Kantor, a provocative director who has committed himself to a steady output of new Australian plays and music theatre works, nor Jenny Kemp who alternates directing her own works with classics (Marivaux for example for MTC), new works (Joanna Murray-Smith’s Nightfall) and collaborations with dancer Helen Herbertson. What about Benedict Andrews, Resident Director at the Sydney Theatre Company, the director Nowra uses as prime example of the problem? Nowra is curiously oblivious to Andrews’ association with playwright Beatrix Christian in the 2001 Sydney Theatre Company season on 2 projects—her new play, Old Masters, and a re-working of Chekhov’s Three Sisters (yes, a classic, but adapted by Andrews and Christian). It’s hard to think of key Australian directors who are not working with living playwrights.
Nowra blunders badly when he tries to portray young Indigenous directors as the good guys: “Interestingly, this is not a feature of emerging Aboriginal directors such as Wesley Enoch who, in shows such as 7 Stages of Grieving and The Sunshine Club, is determined to tell stories about his people by working with Australian writers.” In fact Enoch wrote both shows, the first with performer Deborah Mailman and the second on his own (the composer was John Rodgers). And what about his Black Medea for the STC and Grace for Kooemba Jdarra. Of course, he has directed plays by Nowra and Kevin Gilbert, but let’s not see Wesley Enoch as somehow different from his adventurous peers.

Once again, the problems facing Australian theatre are dealt with inadequately and misleadingly. Nowra admits admiration for Andrews’ directing, but bewails his lack of humility when producing a classic play and his alledged failure to work with living playwrights. Benedict Andrews replies. KG



I enjoyed Louis Nowra’s article “The Director’s Cut” because it steered the recent banter triggered by Richard Wherrett away from bitchier, subjective terrain into a discussion about ideas and values.

Louis also raised significant issues about the relationship between director and writer which I feel beg response. Given the article’s idealising of several established directors versus its anxiety about young directors, I feel compelled to offer an alternative point of view.

The theatre, it seems, is haunted by the dead. At the core of its practice is a fundamental tension between the present and the past, between the living and the dead, between the written and the read. This tension necessarily spills over into questions of authenticity, authority, and interpretation. The dead want to keep living, they keep coming back, to speak to us, but with whose voice?

The actor embodies this tension. Robert Menzies, a great Australian actor with a unique relationship to both classical European texts and new Australian writing, once remarked to me on the strangeness of the stage actors’ role. Where else in life could someone claim that at a certain time every night they could know exactly what they will be feeling at any given moment? For instance, that as Oedipus at approximately 10.25 each night for the run of the STC season last year, Robert would play a man driven to the limits of guilt and despair choosing to rip out his own eyes rather than see the light. And night after night, the actor will convince us, the audience, that we are witnessing this terrible and beautiful event for the first time. And indeed we are and we are not, at the same time. This is the doubling act of the theatre that Artaud wrote of, its shadowy presence.

Theatre is a kind of exorcism. Oedipus, like Hamlet, will not die. These characters keep coming back through new bodies, so new audiences can bear witness. Seneca’s re-telling of the primal myth was written around 500 years after Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy. Around 2000 years later, Ted Hughes translated Seneca’s text and created a new version that contained the bloody language knots of his poetic genius and our century. When Barrie Kosky directed Hughes’/Seneca’s Oedipus for STC last year he also created a new text. I saw the production several times because I was attracted to its intelligence, rigour and the relentless nature of its poetry. By confining the action, to a small scaffold, Kosky created the equivalent of a filmic close-up, an x-ray into the hallucinations of Oedipus, the puppet show of his unconscious. The power of this production was built upon a love of the playwright’s language and an awareness that as one of the core myths of Western civilisation the Oedipus myth, like the Sphinx’s riddle, cannot be forever solved. It remains a knot to be worked over by the actor. So, nightly confined on a crude stage for 2 hours, Robert Menzies would begin again, raise his ghosts and civilisation’s plagues. It is finally only the actor who brings theatre into play, who makes any communion possible between his/her body onstage and our bodies in the audience. To quote Ted Hughes, “It has never been my illusion that the theatre should belong to the writer. The theatre belongs to the actor...”

I am interested in the meeting point between a written text and the living body of the actor. I am also interested in the impossible conversation that occurs when working on a ‘classic’ text. I love the process of taking words and ciphers on a page from another culture and epoch, and translating them over time into the bodies of the actors, into something living and current. I like this exchange across centuries, this archaeology into the languages and thought processes of civilisation, this interrogation of what it means to be human. It seems to me that the theatre is precisely the place where these exchanges can still take place.

I am not interested in museum theatre or a received notion of approaching a given writer. Whether approaching a text that is 2000 years old or 2 days old, as director I strive to discover the text for the first time, to x-ray its insides and release its mysteries and demons. I try to explore (with and through the text) ideas about what it feels like to be alive, to ask questions about power, sexuality, death, love and other wonders. I search for very personal connections between my self and the work. Otherwise it is a dead thing.

So I was a little disturbed to read Louis Nowra’s recent statement that “many young directors want to tackle a classical text because it is easy to stamp their authority and ego on a canon piece by dismantling it and interpreting it anew.” This seems to me to be an alarmingly cynical view of the motivation behind the work of young artists and a shallow understanding of the reasons why a director might choose to engage with a classical text. Theatre is not an easy place. It demands intellectual rigour, emotional nakedness, and febrile imagination. As a director, I work on both contemporary texts and classical texts. I work with living writers and dead ones. I do not breathe some sigh of relief as Louis Nowra might imagine when working on a classical text as if I were suddenly free to dance on the playwright’s grave. Each project is demanding and all consuming and I enter it with questions and fantasies I want to explore with the community of people I work with and the audience who will watch our work.

There are reasons why classical texts keep coming back and directors and ensembles keep exploring them. When I think of plays I consider to be great classics, I love them because they are bigger than me. They have come through time like shards in an archaeological dig, full of secret lives, messages, and codes. This is why a director can return to Hamlet or King Lear several times during his/her life. The material is rich, dense and elusive enough to provide new challenges and glimpses over time. The renegade Italian director Romeo Castelluci speaks of the kind of awe an ancient text (in this case The Oresteia) inspires: “I wanted…a text before which I would have to bow, absorbing its mystery, and shaking from ‘contact’…”

I fear Louis Nowra is subscribing to a rather cheap, worn cliche of Director’s Theatre when he proposes that certain directors are concerned only with directorial authorship rather than the authority of the text. This notion is in danger of setting up a hierarchical schema that says Playwright sacrosanct, Director servant. I am not sure that this rule leads to the most exciting theatre. It seems to place imagined constructs of fidelity ahead of the desire to make engaging theatre. Hinting at a more open and braver idea of theatre-making, playwright Beatrix Christian said recently that “a play-script isn’t literature, it’s one limb of that deeply complex, mysterious and volatile organism called theatre.”

Translating any text to the stage is a process of interpretation and therefore a political act. When we represent ourselves onstage we address our assumptions about who we are and what we value. In rehearsal we work through the language and ideas of the playwright and transform words on a page into actions and emotions to be felt by the actors and the audience. Unlike an essay, novel, poem, or the frozen time of film, theatre is made only through living bodies in real time. The written language forms a skeleton of ideas and emotions which are brought to life (or made into the act of theatre) by the physical utterance of the actor, the spatial constructions of director and designers, and the reception of audience.

When I think of productions of ‘classics’ which have thrilled me, it has been clear that the director has worked with the material to release its life for a contemporary audience—the radical deconstructions of the Wooster Group towards O’Neill and Chekhov, Heiner Müller’s production of Brecht’s Der Aufhaltsame Aufsteig des Arturo Ui, Castelluci’s visceral retelling of Giulio Cesare, Peter Sellars’ contemporary political takes on Sophocles and Mozart, Stephen Daldry’s An Inspector Calls, Eimuntas Nekrosius’ recent Hamlet, or Kosky’s production of Mourning Becomes Electra. They each contain a tension between the written language and the theatrical language. They follow the text but reveal unexpected readings, hidden corners, or blow away received assumptions to reveal the writing afresh. This I consider to be faithful to the writer and the play. It is an imaginative engagement and trust which I would wish for from any writer (living or dead) who believed in the continued life of the theatre.

Louis singled my production of La Dispute by Pierre Cartlet de Marivaux as being indicative of “a young director establishing his authority over the writer.” While on the one hand calling the production “fascinating and riveting”, he also argues that it was a “perverse distortion of the original text” which would have left anyone who didn’t know Marivaux with a “wrong” impression of his work. While I find it lamentable that our theatre culture has not permitted us to have seen other comparable productions of Marivaux’s plays, I do not feel it is my responsibility as a contemporary theatre director to create a museum version of his work based on a finite, Platonic notion of how his work is supposed to be played. I think the Comedie Francais are probably already doing a good enough job of that.

I do believe however that my production was faithful to this particular (and peculiar) Marivaux play. I also cannot divorce myself from the history of my own times in making the play. The production was created with an acknowledgment of the horrors of the 20th century—the experiments of Nazi concentration camps, the orphanages of Ceaucescu’s Romania, and the state sponsored stealing of generations of Indigenous children. It shifted the question about who is more treacherous in love, male or female, into a contemporary anxiety about the nature or artificiality of sexuality, the processes of language and subjectivity, and our ability to accept or deny difference. I did not impose these things upon the play. They were written into the 19 short scenes by Marivaux in 1744. I believe that the supposed dispute about fidelity of the play’s title (which remains unresolved and ambivalent) was not Marivaux’s primary subject matter but a smoke screen, a gilded frame in his mirror box.

La Dispute is a problematic play for Louis to single out in a discussion about textual fidelity. It was a notorious failure with Parisian audiences at its 1744 premiere at the Comedie Francais. It played for a single night and was confined to the dustbin of history and academia until Patrice Chereau’s legendary 3 and a half hour production in 1973. The play has since found a modern audience 250 years since its failed premiere.

La Dispute is what Richard Wherrett might term a ‘minor classic’, but it comes as a perverse and fantastical document from the Enlightenment which has the ability to speak across and of history, to provoke questions about the history of Western subjectivity, and engage with Sydney audiences in 2000.

Louis makes another very upsetting statement in his article. He says, “In fact, theatre itself is not inspiring young directors.” He claims that most would prefer to direct film because it is an “exciting, sexy” medium, and implies that those working in theatre are simply filling a vacuum left by an exodus of (predominantly male??) directors to film.

Theatre and cinema are different mediums. One is certainly not sexier than the other. As a ‘young director’, I choose to work in the theatre. I am not killing time until a film shoot. I love working with actors and writers in the theatre. I am in love with its particular imaginative and technical demands. I like the time to play and question that theatre gives me, without the need for an extensive and expensive technical apparatus. I like the privacy of rehearsal and I like sitting in the audience watching live actors. I love the impermanence of theatre. It is live. It disappears. It can only be held in the memory.

PS This is a worry. I just did a spell check and my laptop did not recognise the word MARIVAUX. It suggested MIRAMAX.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 23

© Benedict Andrews; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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