Our Man in Paris Ben Ellis reports that the Comédie-Française has effectively banned Peter Handke's plays from its repertoire, after it was reported that he assisted with Slobodan Milosevic's funeral arrangements. Ben translates the Le Monde article:
"I am happy to be close to Slobodan Milosevic, who defended his people," the author is reported telling the Nouvel Observateur for its April 6 edition.
The decision to pull a production scheduled for the first half of next year was taken by Marcel Bozonnet, the general administrator of the company, saying that his blood ran cold when he read the article and that Handke's pro-Serbian politics remain "an outrage to the victims".
Handke's politics have literally caused riots since the early 1990s. In 1997 he released A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, a short, hallucinatory book which argued that the Srebrenica massacres never happened, and in 1999 he gave back the 10,000-mark Georg Büchner literature prize money he had won in 1973 - and left the Catholic church - because of his opposition to the NATO attacks on Belgrade.
Unlike the My Name is Rachel Corrie controversy, the Comédie-Française is up-front about its decision - no shilly-shallying here. "Even if the work isn't a piece of propaganda," says Bozonnet, "it offers the author a public visibility. I don't feel like giving it to him... I understand the position of those who differentiate the work from the author, but for the moment, I just can't resolve that myself."
The question remains: is it right to ban artistic works - in this case works of unarguable artistic merit - because its author holds distasteful political views? Bozonnet, to his credit, puts his finger on the dilemma, and takes responsibility for his subsequent decision, but the decision still makes me profoundly uneasy. It will be interesting to see what happens.
Friday, April 28, 2006
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
And while I'm being immodest...
Theatre Notes is chuffed this sunny Anzac Day to see that we're featured as a Top 10 Theatre Blog on the Top 10 Sources site. And I'm in good company - regular readers will see a few familiar names there. Champagne and cucumber sandwiches to us!
Saturday, April 22, 2006
Daniel Keene must be in the zeitgeist this weekend. He turns up in two newspaper articles - one an interview in the Financial Review with Chris Boyd, and in a John McCallum essay on Brecht and Beckett in The Australian. To wit:
The great inheritor of Beckett's tradition in Australia is playwright Daniel Keene, now based partly in Europe. Keene writes similarly minimalist, formal poetic pieces that richly evoke a depth of lived experience that the naturalistic drama - now transferred to film and television and therefore unnecessary in the theatre - cannot begin to represent.
As in Beckett, Keene's short plays are powerfully condensed but are haunted by sometimes terrible experiences in which a kind of tenderness is found in the most abject situations. The text of one of them, The First Train, is on the web at www.danielkeene.com.
In it, an old cobbler works on children's shoes as he tells the story of a boy hidden by his mother and told not to come out until she returns, during what we assume to be the first round-up of Jews by the Nazis in his home town. He hears the departing train go past his hiding place. His mother never comes back, but the old man we are watching at his gentle craft must be him.
Which is all very nice. But: "now based partly in Europe"...? And in the Financial Review, which talks about his French popularity, the intro says: "Despite now living in France, the prolific playwright hasn't forgotten his roots".
May I be permitted a little puzzlement? As a quick reconnoitre of my sidebar will confirm, Mr Keene is my husband, and is most usually seen haunting Coles Supermarket in downtown Williamstown; the photo adorning the interview is, ahem, of our front verandah. It may be that I am unusually obtuse, but I hadn't noticed that he wasn't here. (It's ok, Chris, I know it's a sub-editor's error and nowhere hinted in the actual article...and here let me point to the much more in-depth interview on Chris's blog.)
As for me, I guess I'll be moving to the States as soon as I hit bestsellerdom. Any day now - my first fantasy novel, released in the US in hardback last July, came out in paperback last month and has already sold out its first print run. If it continues to sell like that, my financial future will look a little brighter than it does at present.
I did some adding up and figured that The Gift (The Naming in the US) must have sold almost 50,000 copies altogether so far in Australia, the UK and the US. And that's only Book One...! (Book Three is out here next month, you closet fantasy fans...) Obviously, it's New York, New York for me and Paris in the Spring for Daniel...but maybe we'll just settle for Williamstown.
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Comedy Festival: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, devised and edited by Jon Haynes, David Woods and Jude Kelly, directed by Jude Kelly with Ridiculusmus, David Woods and Jon Haynes. Malthouse Theatre until April 30. A Porthole into the Minds of the Vanquished written adn performed by Tamlyn Henderson and Warwick Allsopp, direction by Ansuya Nathan and Tony Taylor, musical direction/keyboards by John Rutledge. Regent Room @ Melbourne Town Hall until May 7. From Bombay to Beijing by Bicycle written and performed by Russell McGilton, directed by Kimberley Grigg-Pierzchalski, music by Alan Griffiths. 45 Downstairs until May 7.
Sometimes I wonder if festivals are what Melbourne has instead of a culture. The arts calendar seems to wander from one festival to another, oscillating between feast and famine like a cultural bulimic. However, the Comedy Festival is one of our success stories, growing out of the innovative comedy scene of late 70s Melbourne to become one of the big three in the world. With 230 events under its frenetic umbrella, it's more than usually impossible to know what to look at. These are the chance sightings your fearless critic made before a virus grabbed me by the jugular and dragged me down into lowland...
The Importance of Being Earnest is a glittering chandelier of a play, one of my all-time favourites. While it's hard to miss Wilde's wit and flair, it's less easy to see the toughness, even the bleakness, that underlies his dazzling nonsense. Ridiculusmus's anarchic interpretation reminds me how resilient this play really is, how Wilde's sure sense of theatricality and dramatic structure survives - even gleams the more brightly - under the British duo's disrespectful treatment.
Oscar Wilde is the patron saint of camp, the aesthetic of pure artifice. As Susan Sontag comments, camp is "above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation - not judgment. Camp is generous... It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it is not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.)" Camp is not the opposite of serious: Wilde was, after all, the most serious of artists. But it's his unmalicious laughter at the passionate superficiality of human beings that gives this play its irresistible buoyancy.
The play itself is a brilliant conceit, and much more than an elaborate excuse for a bad pun. Not a single character in it is in the least credible: each one of them, from the various Ernests to Lady Bracknell, is an utterly conscious being, wholly aware of his or her own subtext. As Gwendolen says, the vital thing is style, not sincerity.
In the comic couplings of the various pairs of lovers, Wilde acutely sketches romantic love as egocentric projection: the Lacanian admonition on the impossibility of actual love is here given theatrical body. The attraction of Ernest (whether Algernon or Jack) lies in his name, not his person. Its charm exists in the sensational imaginations of Cecily and Gwendolen, and both of them are completely conscious of their own egocentricity (Cecily even writes her own love letters to herself). That Jack does indeed turn out to be Ernest - that his lies were in fact the truth - does not disturb Gwendolen's satisfaction, since, as she observes sagely, her Ernest is "sure to change".
Wilde's observation that human behaviour is a profound playing of roles ("To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up," says one character in An Ideal Husband) makes this play particularly apt to Ridiculusmus' treatment. The two actors, Jon Haynes and David Woods, play all the characters, helped with some intelligent direction and ever more ingenious costume changes.
From the start you are not allowed to forget that you are watching actors pretending to be someone else, which creates yet another layer of performance to those already woven into the play. The stage is an over-the-top collection of Victoriana, every square inch a nightmare of chintz and chi-chi, and all the stage business is transparent to the audience. Sound cues are mostly controlled by the actors, using a cd player with a remote control, and characters are indicated by costume changes.
At the beginning the costume changes create lengthy pauses that are fully exploited for their comedic possibilities, as David Woods dons the butler outfit or Jon Haynes becomes (to the accompaniment of the Ride of the Valkyries) Lady Bracknell in full sail. Once the conceit is established, the switches become more and more inventive, using hand puppets and other devices, until by the end a wig or a shirt is enough to suggest a whole character.
Ridiculusmus releases the play's erotic anarchy: the sexual games which bubble beneath the surface of Wilde's text are given grotesque and hilarious articulation. That one so willingly suspends disbelief in the face of such flamboyant artifice says as much for the energy of the performances as it does for Wilde's play.
A Porthole into the Minds of the Vanquished is another two-hander by two extremely accomplished performers, Tamlyn Harrison and Warwick Allsopp. Apparently the script is based on text messages the two have exchanged since 2001. That explains the man who is trapped inside the mobile phone, starving to death.
They have created a surreal cabaret, supposedly a peek inside the minds "of the vanquished", whoever the vanquished are. Although the show includes satire (of television quiz shows or talk-back radio, for example) they go way beyond parody into an alternative reality created solely by language: surreal linguistic and sonic juxtapositions give birth to new forms of life, like the paypacket porcupines, or percussive eyeballs evoked by vacuum-packed squids. It's associative comedy like that of the Goons, creating its own absurd narrative-defying logic; but it has sinister, even viscerally disturbing, undertones.
What makes this show is the razor-sharp performances. Henderson and Allsopp are outrageously talented: they can act, sing, dance and even play the squid. They're ably backed by John Rutledge on keyboards, who gives them the requisite atmospherics.
From Bombay to Bejing by Bicycle is another self devised piece, this time a solo show by Russell McGirton, economically directed by Kimberley Grigg-Pierzchalski. As the title suggests, it's about his adventure holiday in which he rode a bicycle from Bombay - known these days as Mumbai - to Beijing.
It was a fruitful trip, since he also wrote a book, Yakety Yak, about his experiences, which were various and often comic (to hear about, if not to experience). The hour-long show is narrated as if in a hallucinatory delirium - it opens with his Indian doctor saying cheerily, "Congratulation! You are having the malaria!" and from then on it's a mad ride through McGirton's memories.
In between nightmarish treatments with giant injections and prescriptions for health that include drinking his own urine, McGirton summons up a cast of 20 characters. They include his father and a cartoon British officer, who are perhaps the bullying superegos that sent him on this masochistic odyssey in the first place. He tells of violent encounters with the local wildlife, explores the comedy of cultural incomprehension and breaks up with his girlfriend. And there's the obligatory diarrhea sketch, which rivals Billy Connelly's excesses.
Like most travel stories, it's more about the traveller than the country he encounters. It is a surprisingly intimate tale, inventively theatricalised, and narrated with considerable physical bravura. And, yes, it's very funny.
2006 Melbourne Comedy Festival
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Julian Meyrick. Designed by Stephen Curtis, lighting by Matt Scott, composer Max Lyandvert. With Alison Bell, Christopher Gabardi, Jennifer Flowers and Pamela Jikiemi. STC production at the Melbourne Theatre Company, Playhouse @ the Victorian Arts Centre until May 13.
It is almost impossible to think about Doubt without being aware of the context in which it is written - that is, post-9/11 America. John Patrick Shanley's play is the first in a proposed trilogy (part two, Defiance, has recently opened at the Manhattan Theatre Company) that examines troubling dimensions of contemporary US society. And it obviously struck a few chords: it's garnered rave reviews and is the most decorated play on Broadway, with 24 awards to its name.
However, outside this context it's hard not to feel a little puzzled by this reception. There are things to admire in Doubt, to be sure; it's a skilful piece of playwriting, sparely written and solidly structured. But there's no getting away from the fact that it's a very old fashioned play, a naturalistic, linear drama that wouldn't have raised eyebrows 40 years ago. One can't help wondering if American theatre is really as conservative as this play seems to demonstrate.
Julian Meyrick's production is perfectly adequate to the writing, presenting the play as cleanly as possible; although, perhaps inevitably, it can't quite escape the smell of mothballs. Stephen Curtis' set - a stone wall diagonally bisecting the stage which neatly opens to slide in or out an office or a garden - is atmospheric and efficient, and beautifully lit, and there is little to complain about in the performances, which are honed by a previous season in Sydney. We are given a perfectly respectable example of well-made drama.
Doubt is set in a Catholic school in New York in the 1960s, where the principal, Sister Aloysius (Jennifer Flowers) is certain that a young priest, Father Flynn (Christopher Gambardi) is sexually abusing one of her pupils, Donald Muller, who also happens to be the school's first black student. Aloysius shanghais the innocent young nun Sister James (Alison Bell) into keeping an eye on Flynn, and when Sr James reports that Muller has returned from a private visit with Flynn upset and with his breath smelling of alcohol, Aloysius thinks that she has got her man.
Doubt is one of those finely judged dramatic arguments in which it is possible to empathise with every point of view, and the question of doubt is worked in several ways through the characters. The play opens with a sermon from Fr Flynn (he has a gift for down-home folksiness) in which he speaks of doubt as a possible basis for community, perhaps inverting a contemporary American truism that it is the things we are certain about that bring us together.
In Aloysius, doubt is a double-edged quality: she lectures the young Sr James on the necessity of scepticism, while entertaining within herself no doubts about the guilt of the the priest. Aloysius, played by Flowers with a nuanced crustiness, has all the best jokes: she does a good line in dry wit. And in Flowers' powerful portrayal you can see the concern that underlies her reign of terror over her charges: she has no time for sentiment because it's a cruel and unfair world out there. Her harshness is a symptom of how keenly she feels the responsibility of her position.
In the same way, one can see the justice of Aloysius' admonition to Sr James that innocence is irresponsible, while deploring how she strips the younger teacher of all her joy in her vocation. The young teacher is anguished by Aloysius's deliberate shattering of her hopeful world; she cannot live with the doubt that keeps her awake at night, and chooses after some struggle to believe the priest, who has perfectly innocent explanations for his behaviour. Fr Flynn himself, a representative of the younger, hipper Vatican II as opposed to the old-fashioned values Aloysius represents, clearly has doubts about his own conduct, but on the other hand is smugly secure that the male hierarchy of the Church will protect him from Aloysius' accusations.
When Aloysius calls in Muller's mother (Pamela Jikiemi) to discuss the issue, it introduces yet more moral complications. Mrs Muller reveals that Muller is gay and is regularly beaten by his father. She has sent him to this school because she believes that because of his "nature" he will be killed in the public school system, and because it is a way out of the black ghetto. In a curiously American formula, she is prepared to sacrifice her son to the priest, if that is what it takes, in order to save him.
Flynn himself is both charming, the image of a young, popular teacher, and a smugly sexist bully. Christopher Gabardi gives him, one suspects, a touch less subtlety than he might; his was the one performance of the night that had a feeling of limited repertoire. The audience is never given any clue whether Flynn is guilty of not of the crimes he is accused of, which supposedly leaves us exquisitely poised on the horns of dilemma.
Doubt is a play artfully designed to produce exactly the kind of discussion I have just given it, which is I think a large part of its problem. Shanley outlines his theme, illustrates it from several angles through his characters, and leaves the audience to decide for themselves. The major topic of discussion will inevitably be whether or not Flynn is guilty of sexual abuse, but in fact that question is irrelevant to Shanley's ends, just as the absent child in the play is a tool for everyone else's moral agonising. The point Shanley is making is that doubt has value, and, most importantly, that doubt can be a means of binding a community.
This is ultimately a soft-centred view of doubt that perhaps appeals to the post 9/11 liberal American community which is, after all, dealing with an excess of certainty among its political leaders. Even our doubt can draw us together and be a means of comfort! This glosses over a lot, to my mind: though to be fair Shanley himself subtitles the play "A Parable" and in the play has Fr Flynn comment: "You make up little stories to illustrate. In the tradition of the parable. ... What actually happens in life is beyond interpretation. The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion." Which is all very well, but doesn't really explain the strange hollowness that was, for me, the play's major after-effect: a sense that the more I thought about it, the less there was to think about.
It's interesting to compare it, for example, with Terence Rattigan's 1948 play The Browning Version, with which it has some thematic resonances and which, to my mind, is a far superior work. A naturalistic play literally set in a drawing room, The Browning Version examines the cost of homophobia, and is at once more subtle and more harsh than Doubt. Without reaching beyond any of the aesthetic or social conventions of the time, without even mentioning the words "homosexual" or "deviant", it painfully exposes the grim economies of human cruelty. There is an excess in Rattigan's play, a sense that the characters are more than tools illustrating a dramatist's intention, which seems to me a major lack in Doubt.
At no point does this play expose the molten emotional core of the crime which is at the centre of its plot. It carefully steps around it, concentrating on the moral dilemmas faced by each of the characters. But without any real sense of what's at stake - whether it's Aloysius's unjustified smearing of an innocent man's reputation, or the life-long damage caused by child sexual abuse - Doubt's moral "theme" remains just that: an abstract idea.
Picture: Jennifer Flowers and Christopher Garbardi in Doubt
Thursday, April 06, 2006
It Just Stopped by Stephen Sewell, directed by Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis. With Marcus Graham, Catherine McClements, Rebecca Massey and John Woods. Company B Belvoir St and Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn @ Malthouse until April 23.
Stephen Sewell is an anomaly, the leftist firebrand we have to have. His work occupies a cultural place analogous to that of Edward Bond's in contemporary English theatre, with whom he has a few things in common. Sewell has written nothing of the brutal power of Bond's early play, Saved, which remains a landmark in British theatre, and unlike Bond, whose recent work is more commonly produced in France, Sewell's work does find big stages and audiences in his home country. But there are teasing similarities.
Bond and Sewell share a belief (however contingent) in reason, and see theatre as a venue for dialectic argument. Indeed, since around the early 1990s Bond's plays have been dominated by the idea that drama consists of two ideologically opposed characters arguing with each other on stage. This is, to my mind, a recipe for deadly theatre; if nothing is going on beyond an arguing of the abstract idea, if language is not what people do to one another, but merely what people say, no amount of committed acting is going to make up its lack of theatrical dynamic. And it makes for theatrical conservatism; neither Bond nor Sewell approach the aesthetic radicalism of playwrights like Howard Barker or Sarah Kane, or even the potent realism of Franz Xavier Kroetz. * [see note below] But even so, Sewell's work doesn't sit quite comfortably within mainstream culture.
Much Australian left wing theatre - for example, that of David Williamson, Hannie Rayson or Michael Gurr - makes the locus of political conflict the family, a tradition which goes beyond Hamlet to classical Greek theatre. Sewell has mined this vein more intensely than most others: all his political narratives are also stories of familial betrayal. And it has to be said that next to these other Australian playwrights, Sewell's work has an energy and ambition, an unruly anger, which must be admired. Sewell might overwrite to the point of catatonia (the "short" version of Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America runs to 142 pages), his style and thought might be an undisciplined mess that amounts sometimes to no more than a rant, but he never settles for the merely anodyne.
At their best, his plays seek to access a tragic revelation of self through the stripping away of ideological blinkers to some kind of emotional or existential bedrock. That they fail to attain this is I think largely a function of their dominant dialectical structure. This is centrally the problem in It Just Stopped, a pallid and perhaps ultimately decadent continuation of Sewell's political explorations in plays such as The Blind Giant is Dancing, Dreams in an Empty City, Hate, and most recently, Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America.
It Just Stopped is a bizarre and sometimes foolish play, leavened with sparks of genuine wit and featuring some classic Sewell rants. It opens almost like a David Williamson comedy of bourgeois life, featuring a well-off professional couple, Beth (Catherine McClements), a radio producer, and Franklin (Marcus Graham), a music critic for the New York Review of Books, who live in a funky high rise apartment with a feature wall made of jellybeans. Beth makes jokes about Franklin's small penis and lack of sexual prowess, and he counters with jibes about the hypocrisy of her working for a right wing shock jock despite her supposedly liberal beliefs. So far, so much situation comedy.
One morning they wake to find that there is no power, no telephone connections and then no water; they are trapped 47 floors up with no elevator, no communications and no idea what is happening in the wider world. Is it some kind of apocalyptic disaster? Things take a surreal turn with the arrival of cardboard box magnate Bill (John Wood), a billionaire art connoisseur (not like Richard Pratt) whose attitude to life, business and art is cheerfully amoral, and his wife Pearl (Rebecca Massey). They offer Franklin and Beth a "business proposition", that they become Bill and Pearl's slaves: a model of the relationship between capital and culture, in which art is reduced to entertaining the rich.
Act 1 features an intermittent argument about art and politics between Franklin and Bill. Franklin is defending the Arnoldian notion of art transcending the grubby world of politics. Bill, who is, for all his rapaciousness, the true appreciator of art in these scenes, thinks these claims are a charming waste of time; he echoes Beckett's argument that art is just something that "passes the time". Bill is living proof that culture is not a force for moral good; he leaves his idiot child tied to a bedpost, in an echo of cruelties in Endgame or Lucky's debasement in Waiting for Godot. There is something incredibly depressing about seeing Beckett transformed, at whatever metaphorical remove, into the figure of an amoral capitalist: it expresses a crude nihilism which Beckett himself never embraced. (One hears his plaintive cry: "But I do give a fuck!")
Act 2 is like one of those tedious nightmares which bore rather than frighten you, with realities shifting beyond absurdity to unconvincing bathos and melodrama or, perhaps, low-grade horror. It is actually difficult to work out what Sewell thinks he is doing here. According to the program notes, you are supposed to understand that middle class people just go on in the face of disaster, like Winnie in Happy Days, pretending that nothing is wrong; Sewell has created a number of conflicting realities to mimic the neurotic denials of everyday middle class life. But to recall Beckett's aesthetic and philosophical rigor is to see more clearly how much the writing here fails itself.
Franklin is supposedly the model of an urbane American intellectual, the proto-fascist lurking inside his windy claims for the universality of art. He is emasculated (this is explicitly connected to his work as a critic) and juvenile, and supposedly represents the inner hypocrisy of contemporary Western (especially American) intellectual life. The problem is that you don't believe for a moment that a music critic for the New York Review of Books (however much one might want to argue with the aesthetic that journal expresses) would speak with such sophomoric naivety.
When, eventually, Franklin's worldview collapses into an impassioned cry to hear the suffering of the world beyond himself, the rhetoric is equally as empty, although I think you are meant to assume that it holds some truth value. But perhaps this emptiness is the point, given that the play ends with the old fantasy cliche of waking up to find it was "only a dream", that the entire evening's action was simply a psychic breakdown, a neurotic expression of middle class anger and guilt sparked (presumably) by the crash of Franklin's computer.
Which makes me wonder if, after all, this is a completely cynical play: its negation of itself lets the audience completely off the hook. Not that we got put on the hook in the first place. The last words of the play are "Tell me it's not real". Well, of course "it's" not real, even if the issues supposedly canvassed (global warming, incipient world war) are. Does It Just Stopped make us more aware of our denials and helplessness? It's hard to see how its comedy reaches much beyond the urbane satire of a play like Moira Buffini's Dinner. It never attains the bleak laughter that attends, say, Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Physicists, which in its portrayal of nuclear madness (the physicists are all lunatics locked in an asylum) accesses a true sense of absurd horror. It Just Stopped left me feeling, paradoxically, that all these issues are just, well, trivial.
The play is very slickly produced, with an impressively groovy multi-level set that thrusts diagonally into the audience. But Neil Armfield's direction is surprisingly banal, simply illustrating rather than realising the play. He sets the actors neurotically rushing up and down stairs or popping in and out from behind the feature wall; at one point, for no discernible reason, Beth takes all the objects out of her handbag and lays them all out in a row, and then, a little later, puts them all back. Gesture here seems almost like a physical version of Tourette's syndrome, a flurry of movement that fills up space but is otherwise meaningless. Likewise, the performances are sometimes so mannered that at times they are simply distracting. The whole seemed very much less than the sum of its parts, a lot of sound and fury and precious little significance.
But it's hard to see how the writing might permit the production to escape the trap of caricature. Sewell's work attempts to reveal the playwright as political thinker. A big problem is that thinking is not Sewell's metier; the arguments presented in his plays always seem bowdlerised, simplistic polarisations of more complex ideas. I suspect that his true power has always resided in the anarchic anger that erupts in the more poetic passages that pepper his plays. These are, in their cadences and apocalyptic vision, reminiscent of similar passages in the work of Peter Weiss; the difference in their effect lies in Weiss's much more radical approach to theatrical form.
Although Sewell situates his plays in contemporary political realities, he doesn't embrace the spurious authenticity of documentary theatre exemplified by writers like David Hare. There is enough of a poet in Sewell to insist on an imaginative dimension in theatre, even a sense of anarchy that seems often at odds with his concomitant belief in reason. One often feels, in a vague and unverifiable way, that Sewell's private psychological dramas are being staged for us as global conflicts. This may be no more than the necessary hubris of the writer; the problem is that it comes to us clotted and raw, a barely congealed mess of words. At its worst, it dissipates in the kind of nonsense seen in It Just Stopped, dressing up its intellectual pretensions with trinkets from Freud or a Marxism borrowed from John Berger, but stripped of Berger's sparely honest humanity.
A feeling of uninvolvement is underlined by Sewell's oddly utilitarian attitude towards the characters in his plays. Ultimately, they embody not themselves but opposing ideologies: the idealistic socialist Ramon versus the corrupted idealist Allen in The Blind Giant is Dancing; Talbot, the academic attempting to reveal truth, versus the corrupt careerist Max in Myth, Propaganda and Disaster; Franklin and Bill in It Just Stopped. Human relationships are presented as relationships of power, but this power is articulated rather than enacted by the characters. It creates a dissonance between language and act that seems analogous to the gap between Sewell's conservative aesthetic and his radical politics. Aristotle's subtle idea of the argument of the play being its plot is turned inside out: you get argument instead of a plot.
Perhaps as a result - because despite a lot of surface activity, nothing, dramatically speaking, is happening - the plays inevitably collapse into melodrama, having nowhere else to go. It's tempting to speculate that the irony that undercuts the melodrama in It Just Stopped expresses a kind of aesthetic despair, the recognition of an end point. For all his violent attempts to break out of it, Sewell has long seemed trapped in theatrical naturalism; ironically, given his often anti-US themes, it is a naturalism recognisable in many contemporary American models. It is as if his much exercised animus towards America expresses a frustrated fascination and love.
I should note here that Sewell's most recent play, Three Furies, is an anarchic cabaret based on the life of Francis Bacon; it could be (I haven't seen it) that this work represents Sewell's liberation, at last, from the model of didactic argument that has always crippled his poetic. If so, it might release the potentials so teasingly hidden in all his work.
* This is a careless observation on Bond's work, readdressed in the comments below.
Picture: Marcus Graham and Catherine McClements in It Just Stopped. Photo: Jeff Busby
Manifesto for a Progressive Theatre by Walter A. Davis
17 Ways of Looking at Theater by George Hunka