Among the selection of shows I saw at Wendy Martin’s inaugural Perth Festival, those that stood out of for me were not the large-scale multidisciplinary spectacles – impressive though these were – but the more intimate and thoughtful works that explored the theme of empathy and its importance in art and everyday life.
Glasgow-based disabled performer Claire Cunningham was artist-in-residence at the festival this year, presenting two performance works – Guide Gods and Give Me a Reason to Live – as well as holding workshops and participating in the Sunday Series of Conversations.
I saw Guide Gods at Victoria Hall (former home of Deckchair Theatre Company and now run by the Fly By Night Musician’s Club) in Fremantle; it was also performed the following week in Burt Hall at St George’s Cathedral.
A grandiose former parish hall from the gold rush era, Victoria Hall was always a problematic theatre venue, but an ideal location for this show. It was staged in traverse for a small audience at one end of the hall, with two blocks of seating (cushions on the floor in front, chairs at the back) embracing a circumscribed performance space, almost like a church hall gathering or community meeting.
At one end of the space was an archway through which audience and performer entered. At the other end, steps led up to a raised dais with a collection of homely display items on shelves including cups and saucers, books, objects and figurines from various religions.
In the middle of the audience on one side composer and musician Derek Nesbit sat behind a harmonium; in the audience opposite him the stage manager sat at her desk. Screens on both sides displayed a running caption-transcription of the show for deaf audience members (or anyone who couldn’t follow some of the audio material); and an Auslan Sign interpreter to one side of the dais also translated the show.
The text consisted of narration and songs (Cunningham is an accomplished singer as well as a choreographer and dancer), and excerpts from audio interviews with research subjects from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and with diverse disabilities, speaking about the connections and tensions between these aspects of their identity.
As such, Guide Gods is a kind of documentary or verbatim theatre work, but one with a very personal edge, and a uniquely theatrical form which is derived from its subject matter, and in particular the performer’s own body, as well as her own beliefs or non-beliefs. Cunningham herself identifies as an atheist as well as being disabled, and finds herself personally and politically challenged by certain religious interpretations of disability.
This is especially the case with traditions that consider it as a symbolic form of moral or spiritual affliction, on the basis of which one may find oneself discriminated against or even excluded (as in certain forms of Hinduism or Buddhism) – or from which (in Salvationist religions like Christianity for example) one may or may not be ‘healed’.
However Guide Gods is no anti-religious or political diatribe. Cunningham is no Dawkins or Hitchens, but conducting a genuine inquiry into what William James called ‘the variety of religious experience’ – and disabled experience as well. In other words, this is a psychological inquiry, and perhaps even a spiritual one; and it became increasing clear that she was placing herself (and us) under the microscope as much as her research subjects. For me, this was most movingly manifest when she asked people in the audience – disabled and able-bodied – to publicly answer the question: ‘What do you love?’ Answers as various as ‘swimming’, ‘grass’ and ‘my dog’ attested to our common humanity, regardless of our beliefs, or even our abilities.
During some of the musical interludes and interview excerpts, Cunningham also performed a series of dance or movement sequences, all using or involving the crutches that are integral to her own mobility. These sequences included a series of increasingly elaborate tasks, which progressed from carefully moving up and down the steps carrying tea-cups, to lowering and raising herself to and from the floor, dispersing the inverted tea cups around the space, and balancing on them or walking across them on her hands and feet.
There’s something mesmerising about watching someone create a unique choreographic language in response to the particularity of their own body rather than trying to replicate any assumed ‘standard’ or traditional dance phrases or techniques. More broadly, I had the sense of someone negotiating their own unique life-journey, and even performing it as a kind of staged ritual.
At the end of the show (as at the end of James Berlyn’s festival show I Know You’re There) we were invited to stay for a cup of tea and a chat. I didn’t feel the need, but left reflecting on the origins of theatre and dance in religious rites, and the form of communion that attends the witnessing of all live performance.
Give Me A Reason to Live, which I saw at PICA two weeks later, is an altogether darker and more demanding work. Inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch – many of which (like other religious paintings, especially in the late Middle Ages) contain disturbing allegorical images of beggars, cripples, poverty and deformity – it’s also a harrowing memorial to the systematic extermination of the disabled by the Nazis, and a critique of social and economic policies today that value certain forms of ‘reason’ or even ‘life’ over others. These range from welfare cuts motivated by the alleged need for ‘austerity’ to the utilitarian morality that subordinates the needs of minorities in the name of ‘the greater good’, and are currently sweeping the so-called developed world, from the US and Europe to Australia.
Lasting about 40 minutes, it’s a rigorously concentrated work. Essentially, Cunningham begins huddled in an upstage corner, and works her way slowly backwards downstage, while performing a series of increasingly demanding and excruciatingly elongated movement-sequences using her crutches – the latter becoming a more and more precarious form of support or extension for her body.
Karsten Tinapp’s lighting is tightly focussed, piercing the space and Cunningham’s flesh with strips of light and surrounding her with chiaroscuro-like darkness. Meanwhile her progress is accompanied by Zoe Irvine’s sound design, which incorporates the heavenly motet Nesciens Mater by the French Renaissance master Jean Mouton and (at the climax of the show) Bach’s haunting chorale Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt, which is sung by Cunningham against the back wall while suspending herself aloft on her crutches for what seems an agonizing eternity.
This is a piece that – without literally speaking – speaks for itself. As in all great religious art, there’s no sentiment here, and no false sense of martyrdom or redemption. Alongside the fate of the disabled, I thought of all the victims of fascism and persecution, past and present – and specifically, the victimization of the body, its reduction to the status of an abject object, yet one still compelling our visceral sympathy, right up to the moment of its extinction. Conversely, perhaps the failure of empathy is one definition of injustice itself. If so, it’s a failure that continues to mark our century as much as the preceding one.
In any case, I found it difficult to join those in the audience who rose to clap and even cheer at the end of Give Me A Reason To Live. However I silently applauded Wendy Martin, for programming Cunningham as artist-in-residence and placing such serious and intimate works as these (and I Know You’re There) at the heart of her inaugural Festival – works that aren’t just about celebration and wonder (in the usual jargon of festivals), but that provoke thought, meditation, sorrow and even pain.
I was also grateful for the opportunity to finally see Simon Stone’s version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, albeit with a mostly new cast. First staged at Belvoir Street in 2011, this is a production that hails from what is now a previous era in the company’s (and the director’s) work, but it’s one that arguably made his name and launched his career in Europe. Indeed it’s possibly his most economical, emotionally accessible and formally distilled work (at least of the half-dozen productions of his I’ve seen), although for me it doesn’t quite match the sublime, furious intensity of his earlier Thyestes (also co-written by actor Chris Ryan, along with fellow-actors Thomas Henning and Mark Winter, and also involving this revival’s assistant director Anne-Louise Sarks as dramaturg).
Written by Stone and Ryan ‘after Ibsen’, The Wild Duck obviously owes much of its communicative power to the fiendish dramaturgical genius of the original play – and it must be said to the emotional honesty of the performances. Stone is a discerning and demanding director of actors, placing them in abstract but spectacularly effective stage environments and exposing them (and us) to a kind of naked truthfulness that can be both harsh and beautiful, ugly and tender.
In this case, the set (designed by Ralph Myers) is a glass box with no furniture, in which the actors (wearing body-mics) are arranged in a series of vignettes which have been extracted, sliced, diced, rewritten and in some cases extrapolated from Ibsen’s play. To some extent, this has the effect of making us doubly conscious of the fact that we are watching a framed and heightened, second-order version of reality – Ibsen via Stone, as it were – but perhaps surprisingly it doesn’t alienate us from the characters or their emotions. In fact if anything it intensifies our sense of their helplessness and the pathos of their situation as the infernal machine of Ibsen’s dramaturgy inexorably grinds out their fate.
The plot is reduced to six core characters (seven including the duck, who appears onstage throughout, unlike in Ibsen’s original), and the whole thing rockets to its devastating conclusion and aftermath in 75 minutes with no interval. In this regard, it almost functions like a kind of x-ray of the original play, revealing the latter’s bones and sinews, but also its vital organs, and above all its beating heart.
Like much of Ibsen’s work, The Wild Duck is about family secrets and their catastrophic revelation by an interloper, whether well-intentioned or otherwise. More broadly, it’s about the paradoxical effects of what one character in the original play (who is cut from this production) called (in most English translations) ‘the life-lie’. In the case of Stone’s adaptation, some of the irony that pertains to this notion is (so to speak) ‘ironed out’, in the interests of dramatic momentum and intensity. This runs the risk of making the play more melodramatic than the ‘drama of ideas’ that we normally associate with Ibsen’s social realism; on the other hand it tightens the screws considerably, and reveals a more psychological tragedy driven by the irrational forces lurking beneath even the most apparently ‘well-adjusted’ domestic arrangements.
Starkly punctuated by Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and Stefan Gregory’s sound design (which ranges from Bach solo violin to thrash guitar), the action effectively takes place in a kind of no-man’s-land – virtually the only props are a laptop, a mobile phone and a gun – which creates an abstract theatrical bridge between Ibsen’s world and our own.
Proper names remain the original Scandinavian ones, but otherwise Stone and Ryan’s dialogue is in a contemporary Australian vernacular which lends itself to an almost anti-theatrical, cinematic verism in acting style, supported by simple but carefully colour-graded contemporary costumes by Tess Schofield.
Indeed this juxtaposition of abstract staging and naturalistic writing and acting is a trademark of Stone’s productions – and perhaps more profoundly underlines his evident preoccupation with the way the heightened reality of tragedy invades the humdrum of everyday life.
Special credit is due to Anne-Louise Sarks as assistant director on this revival (until recently also a resident director at Belvoir like Stone, as well as being his former collaborator and successor as artistic director with their company The Hayloft Project, and now also directing in Europe) as well as the new cast members, including Airlie Dodds as Hedvig, Richard Pyros as Gregers, Steve Rodgers as Hjalmar and Katherine Tonkin as Gina, all of whom along with original cast-members John Gaden as Werle and Anthony Phelan as Ekdal anchored the work in a level of emotional truth that’s rare in mainstage theatre.
Indeed it’s fascinating to see a production (and indeed a classic play) reborn like this – and a testament to Stone’s abiding vision for the work, as well as his notion of adaptations in general. It also provided another fine example of the theme of empathy that lay at the core of this year’s Festival.