Review: Realism, Travesties ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review: Realism, Travesties

Life, as you may have noticed, sometimes has a way of behaving as if there is a grand (or at least modestly intentional) design, as if behind the scenes there is a puppeteer pulling the strings, cackling wildly and shouting, "There SHALL be purpose!" The fact that this seeming order spirals out of human narcissism is by the bye. As Hamlet said, Madam, I know not seems. Appearance is all.

And thus it was that the god of theatre reviewing - a little known deity called Apogoitefsi - arranged for me to see Tom Stoppard's Travesties at the Sydney Theatre Company and Paul Galloway's Realism at the Melbourne Theatre Company on successive nights last week. (Don't even think about my carbon footprint over the past fortnight: I am doing penance, and planting trees as we speak...) Both are comedies about the revolutionary artistic movements of early 20th century Modernism. Both are fascinated by the Russian Revolution, although one features Lenin and the other (sort of) Stalin. And both, in their different ways, make very enjoyable theatre.

Travesties premiered in 1974, but it still seems the fresher play. It is Tom Stoppard at his brilliant best, a champagne confection of intellectual jokes underlaid by a serious questioning of the relationship between revolution and art. Realism, winner of last year's Wal Cherry award, is a premiere of a new Australian play and is a backstage comedy of a much more conventional stripe. It's hard to think that either play could have been given better treatment in its staging: in the case of Realism, the production glosses the flaws in the text, showing its virtues to their best advantage.

Aside from The Year of Magical Thinking, which is in any case an STC production, Realism is the first show this year that bears out the promise of the MTC's new incarnation. It reveals a playwright with a considerable gift for comic dialogue and an intimate knowledge of the stage; but it is first of all an act of theatre. The text is the occasion for the other artists - director, designers, actors - to shine in performance, and everyone grabs the spotlight and runs.

The play is set in Stalinist Russia in 1939, as a nervous bunch of actors rehearse a play written to celebrate Stalin’s birthday, horribly aware that a wrong step could mean deportation or death. Worse, a famous footballer with no experience of acting has been cast in the title role, and the director has gone missing. It's really a backstage comedy packed with theatrical jokes, in the tradition of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval.

Joseph Stalin, General-Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party from 1922 until his death in 1953, oversaw what must be the most massive project of social engineering in history. The numbers are dizzying. It’s estimated that Stalin caused the deaths of at least 20 million people (some argue the figure is closer to 40 million). This includes perhaps a million executed by secret police in purges, 12 million in labour camps, and 7 million peasants starved in famines caused by forced collectivisation.

Artists notoriously suffered under Stalin’s regime. What had been a thriving avant garde culture in the early years of the Revolution was ruthlessly decimated as the Soviet State cracked down on formalism and ambiguity, counter-revolutionary sins that were eradicated in favour of the bleak utilitarianism of social realism. Among the prominent casualties were the great novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (who wrote some of the most bitterly funny satires of Stalinist society), the poet Osip Mandelstam and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose revolutionary theatre was written out of history after he was arrested and executed by the secret police.

As Orlando Figes records in The Whisperers, a history of family life under Stalin that was recently banned in Russia, the effects filtered through to the most mundane levels of social intercourse, breaking the bonds of social trust: anyone, from one's own child child to a casual work acquaintance, could be an informer. Driven by shame and fear, Soviet citizens internalised the regime's imperatives, even when they were victims of them. "No other totalitarian system," says Figes, "had such a profound impact on the private lives of its subjects."

Although we are told this is the case, Realism doesn't really explore this aspect of Stalinism. Galloway's characters are all remarkably unguarded; even when the playwright Babelev (John Leary) discovers that the footballer Glemov (Stephen Phillips) is a friend of KGB head Beria, it doesn't shut him up, and the garrulous actors are shocked when they discover a potential informer in their midst, although by 1939 such a discovery must have been routine. For the sake of the comedy, the interior lives of the characters on stage are much the same as the average contemporary westerner.

All the same, you accept the conceit, if only because of the energy of the performances and the ambition of the production, directed with a near-faultless eye by Peter Evans. The play itself is structurally solid, if marred by an over-anxious desire to explain. This creates dud moments where nothing much is going on, and a sense of clunkiness in the flow of the action. But I liked the reflexiveness in the writing, its willingness to make jokes about itself (an actor complaining to another that she has upstaged him is, for example, upstaged as he complains). And Galloway has the gift of a first-class cast, led by Miriam Margoyles as the senior actress Nadia, who fully exploit its comedic potential.

More interestingly, Realism is an exploration of Meyerhold's theatrical practice. (Spoilers follow: anyone interested in seeing this play should stop reading now.) It begins in a naturalistic style, which is neverthless soaked with a subtle formalism: actorly stances or groupings signal a heightened state of theatrical reality, and Stephen Curtis's apparently naturalistic set, with its flywheels and faux mechanics, is in fact a tribute to Lubov Popova's constructivist design for Meyerhold's 1922 production of The Magnanimous Cuckold.

The first overt shift occurs when the actor Dinsky (Grant Piro) gives another actor a demonstration of Meyerhold's physical training system, Biomechanics, which, with its strange mixture of heiroglyphic Egyptian gesture and Tai Chi, is much stranger and more beautiful than you might expect. Suddenly we are watching pure performance, the actor's rhythmic body moving in space, and its power reduces the audience to silence. But the real coup de théâtre occurs when the stage transforms without warning into a Meyerholdian production, a stylised play-within-a-play that enacts the story of Meyerhold's life. This is much more than a gesture; although it occurs perilously late in proceedings, the production holds its nerve and carries the action through. It's bold, spectacular theatre.

Realism lacks the intellectual confidence to play robustly with its ideas: it is still about them, rather than of them. But nobody could accuse Tom Stoppard of a lack of intellectual confidence. Travesties, one of Stoppard's best plays, is all dazzling conceit.

Stoppard's imagination was sparked by an unlikely historical confluence during World War 1, when Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Vladimir Lenin simultaneously took refuge in Zurich. The play is filtered through the unreliable memory of Henry Carr, a minor consular official who starred as Algernon in an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest, put on by a company that was managed by James Joyce. In the wake of the play, Joyce sued Carr over money owed on some tickets he was supposed to sell; then Carr counter-sued Joyce, claiming that he had spent a lot of money on his trousers. And then Joyce sued Carr for defamation, although that action was thrown out of court.

It's not hard to see why this improbably comic story fascinated Stoppard. And nobody else could have exploited it with such verve: the script romps joyously through a pastiche of Wilde's play, with Tristan Tzara (a bravura performance by Toby Schmitz) playing Ernest to Carr's Algernon. Dialogue breaks out in limericks or music hall song like some surreal version of Tourette's Syndrome. It is, as is always said about Stoppard, enormously clever: clever enough to demonstrate that "clever" and "glib" are not synonyms. At his best, Stoppard is all Wildean surface, polished to a brilliant profundity: and here he is at his best.

Underneath the froth is a serious question about the uneasy relationship between art and revolution. Although Tzara and Joyce were both, in different ways, revolutionary artists, they were products of bourgeois culture; Joyce was famously indifferent to politics, and even claimed, in a paranoid moment, that the world war was a plot against his novels. "You're an amiable bourgeois with a chit from matron," Carr says to Tzara. "And if the revolution came, you wouldn't know what hit you." ("That's what we have against this society," responds Tzara, "that it has a place for us in it...")

There are ominous hints of the Russian Revolution's later persecution of Modernist artists in the dogma that all art must be social critique. But in this little bubble of time, before these famous names became cultural and political monuments, everything is up for grabs: the utter nihilism of war rages in the background, and art is - can't but be - a nonsense. Even if it is, as a coach once said of football, a very serious nonsense.

Richard Cottrell, who directed an unexpectedly disarming play about the Goons a couple of years ago, directs a superb production for the STC. Jonathan Biggins in the central role of Henry Carr leads a brilliant comic cast, all walking the uneasily hilarious line between cartoon and parody (none of these characters, except possibly Carr, are at all real: they are products of Carr's unreliable memory, phantasms of his romantic imagination - at one stage he recalls Lenin as a blond Scandinavian). They are, basically, functions of text - both Stoppard's and the source writings behind it. The stage - a revolve designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell, with an exaggerated art nouveau apartment on one side and a library adorned with random text on the other - is a heightened simulacra of Carr's mind, with his stuttering memory punctuated by changing lighting states and absurd cuckoo clocks.

What this production realises gloriously is the brilliant theatricality of Stoppard's writing. For all its frenetic shifts, Cottrell's direction uncovers a beautiful clarity; the density of Stoppard's linguistic play requires concentration, but is delivered with its proper lightness. I was laughing too much to realise how hard I was working to follow the dialogue. Which is probably the highest compliment I can pay.

A shorter version of the review of Realism was published in yesterday's Australian.

Realism by Paul Galloway, directed by Peter Evans. Set design by Stephen Curtis, costume design by Christina Smith, lighting design by Matt Scott. With Stephen Phillips, Julie Eckersley, Paul Denny, Miriam Margoyles, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Grant Piro, John Leary and Ming-Zhu Hii. MTC @ the John Sumner Theatre until May 17.

Travesties by Tom Stoppard, directed by Richard Cottrell. Set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell, costume design by Julie Lynch, lighting design by Bernie Tan. With Robert Alexander, Blazey Best, Jonathan Biggins, Peter Houghton, Rebecca Massey, Toby Schmitz, Wendy Strehlow and William Zappa. STC @ the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until April 25.

No comments: