The City They Burned review (Cavern Table Performance Space, Melbourne)

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“Remember the wife of Lot,” said Jesus to his disciples. And, truly, how could anyone forget the most famous of biblical transformations, the woman who looked back and was turned to a pillar of salt? It’s one of the most memorable episodes in a tradition rich in archetypal stories, the Yahwist legend of humankind’s beginning.

But what about the daughters of Lot?

Fleeing God’s destruction of Sodom, Lot and his two daughters take refuge in a cave in the mountains overlooking the doomed city. The daughters, believing they’re the last survivors of a global catastrophe, ply their father with wine, then take it in turns to seduce the old man, to repopulate the race.

It’s a powerful if confusing story which follows a trajectory that we moderns seem incapable of retracing. According to the Book of Genesis, Lot doesn’t realise the advantage his daughters have taken. Each daughter gives birth to a son, and then, as abruptly as they appeared, they are gone. In a book crammed with judgments and instructions, this incident is remarkable for the bareness of its narration.

Local playwright Fleur Kilpatrick here offers a free adaptation of the story of the daughters, attempting to wrestle this slippery tale into something more legible, and establishing an engaged moral point of view. It’s an ambitious work, and this production, presented by Attic Erratic, directed by Danny Delahunty, is an exciting, generous treatment of the script. It has the intensity and fascination of a significant theatre event.

The first thing to note is the immersive design-conception of the piece. As soon as we arrive, we find ourselves in the living room of Lot and his family, still in Sodom. Brianagh Curran and Shoshannagh Oks are already in character as the daughters, offering drinks and canapés, eager to please, with a discomforting overflow of attentiveness. The space is meticulously dressed by designer Rob Sowinksi.

We, the audience or guests, are cast as the men and women of Sodom, and workers at Lot’s factory. We’ve been invited to Lot’s house in order to help him impress a pair of mysterious corporate inspectors, sent from head office. These are contemporary analogues of the two guardian angels God sent into Sodom before its destruction. In Kilpatrick’s version, the strangers are like sinister examiners, rude and smirking, supercilious beings from a distant metropolis, obsessed with numbers and productivity. The people of Sodom, us, represented by our two spokesmen (Brendan McCallum and Soren Jensen), resent their presence: the theme is that of workers in a small town threatened by the imminent closure of the local factory, the town’s lifeblood.

For Kilpatrick and Delahunty, the people of Sodom are not necessarily evil, or not proverbially, only frustrated, and certainly not sodomites in the usual sense of the word. There’s a stimulating, fluid play of ideas and politics in this first act of the play, with mingled tensions across class, gender, environmental issues and race (the two inspectors, Kane Felsinger and Dushan Philips, are the only brown faces in a room of white).

For a brief moment I even thought the two strangers might be homosexuals, given their nudging, winking relationship. That would have been an interesting challenge to the ancient homophobia of Genesis; but, no, they retain their angelic asexuality, existing only for work. The issue of homosexuality in fact seems to have been banished from the story, which is odd given how much other political material is inserted.

Indeed, the play does become a little strange and, even in the context of a biblical adaptation, improbable. In Genesis, the men of Sodom demand Lot give up his two visitors so that they might ravish them according to the local custom. Lot offers the men his own virgin daughters instead; but they will have none of women, nor girls. At this point the angels reveal their divinity and, after seeing off Lot and his family, rain down fire and brimstone.

Kilpatrick alters this plot, borrowing a twist from a different Bible story altogether, that of the Levite and his concubine. It’s a similar story in its shape, but with the crucial difference that the angry rabble do in fact accept the compromise offer of a woman: the Levite is saved from the crowd by giving up his concubine. And so, Kilpatrick has Lot defuse a violent encounter by offering his daughters to the men of Sodom. They accept, and we hear them working off their frustration in a noisy gang rape in the next room. Lot and his appalled wife continue entertaining the strangers.

The incongruity of Lot — played by Scott Gooding as a weak-willed, glad-handing managerial type — suddenly abandoning his daughters like this jars with Delahunty’s otherwise well-orchestrated immersive naturalism. And yet, it’s done so forcefully and decisively, in the midst of real violence, that I felt almost bullied into suspending disbelief. Gooding in particular is incredibly persuasive, a mess of nerves and despair as he tries to reconcile himself to the idea of his life’s work going up in smoke.

On the other hand, the twisting of the story does break some integral part of the original. In the second act, we reconvene up stairs, in an attic-like space, the cave in which Lot and his daughters are sheltering. Lot’s wife, Jessica Tanner, is there, too. She’s not a pillar salt, but reduced to staring, silent stupefaction. The fact that the daughters were actually raped dramatically changes the way we read this family reunion, as does the fact that the daughters, in this version, seduce the father under the gaze of the mother.

I think it closes off the ambiguity — or radical undecidability — of the original, giving it the more limited ethical scope of, say, a Jacobean tragedy or exploitation rape-revenge film. Not that The City They Burned is either of those things — it has its own agenda. Kilpatrick’s daughters of Lot are determined to own not only their own future but the destiny of the entire race, without ceding authority to the equivocating, venal, backwards-looking parents. It’s a positive message, but the story is less haunting or disturbing when the daughters’ act of empowerment can be so easily recouped as an erotic reprisal.

If this play had remained nearer to its origin in the plotting, I think it would have been stronger — even if, say, the daughters were sent out of the house at the end of the first act, but their fate remained uncertain, even to each other. I don’t mean to tell the artists what they should or shouldn’t have done, only to indicate that what I missed in the cave was a sense of terror, of the unknown and the inexplicable.

Brianagh Curran and Shoshannagh Oks, together with Gooding, are nonetheless compelling, though not in a tragic register, all through the final act, writhing and sporting. If there is no terror, there is at least a very real sense of apprehension; but I do think the writing tends to get a bit stuck. There’s too much of what Borges would have called “fine writing”, the kind which gets in the way of good writing. It gets in the way of, or is counter to, the more urgent and effective naturalistic dynamic of Delahunty and his cast.

And they are gripping performances: Gooding, of course, but also Jessica Tanner as the mother; Shoshannah Oks as the older and more precipitate daughter, and Soren Jensen as a lumbering Sodomite worker, with his memories of the plain before the factory. Jensen’s flat, hard diction gives a distinctly Australian character to all the talk of plains and towns, recalling more the world of Gerald Murnane than Genesis, or perhaps suggesting their congruence.

That other Bible episode which Kilpatrick merges with the story of Lot — from Judges, one of the many mad, proto-gothic parables buried through the Old Testament — ends with the insulted Levite dismembering his concubine, catatonic after her night-long ordeal, and sending her parts to the 12 tribes of Israel. On receiving this David Fincher-like gift, the tribes declare with one voice: “Well. We’ve never seen that before!”

The same might be said of Attic Erratic’s The City They Burned. It ‘s an unexpected pre-Fringe Festival sensation. It doesn’t entirely sit flush with its material, but it’s nonetheless a thrilling piece of theatre.

They City They Burned plays the Cavern Table Performance Space for the Melbourne Fringe Festival on September 15-23.

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