By Acting Company 2009, VCAM.
As I was watching Invisible Stains I kept being reminded of a show I’d seen before but couldn’t rightly figure what it was. Then I did. Théâtre du Soleil’s Le Dernier Caravansérail. And that was like a kick in the hippocampus. Why was I comparing the most astonishing piece of performance I have ever witnessed (and, I increasingly feel, will ever witness) to a graduating production at VCAM?
W – in the vulgar argot – TF?
There are a few surface similarities. Firstly, Invisible Stains has a big cast. This is standard biz for a drama school show since everyone needs their moment to shine and you’ve usually got a couple dozen of the little goobers to get through. Sometimes this leads to arse-punishing productions of four hours or more. Thankfully Invisible Stains clocks in at under two. And there’s also the perennial problem whereby certain students are featured more prominently than others, and in this case there were still a few people who popped up an hour and a half in and had me wondering ‘where the dickens have you been all this time?’
I do love a large cast. I missed the Ridiculusmus playreadings at the Fringe Festival this year but when I heard that one had featured a cast of 50 I was outraged. My response was something like:
50 PEOPLE. WHY. WASN’T. I. TOLD?
So yes, I do have an oddball jonesing for too many performers onstage at once.
But big casts don’t make great shows by any means. Another basic thing Invisible Stains shares with Caravansérail is big intents. Both span continents and cultures and decades and feature not just dozens of cast members but hundreds of characters. They’re not intimate in scale – they’re not even epic, since the epic usually maintains a focus on individuals within the longue durée. They’re spectacular. Individuals aren’t the point: or at least they don’t act as metonyms for a transcendent point.
Because there is no point.
This is what connects Invisible Stains and Le Dernier Caravansérail.
They are pointless.
They are without a point.
They are not without a purpose.
But they are without a centre.
It’s impossible (or beside the point) to say what either show is ‘about’. This is funny, since both shows employ aboutness as their method. They have no core, but this is what makes them so fascinating.
Comparison: in Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals (which will get its own post soon) he mentions a backyard astronomer telling him that sometimes, to see a faint star, you need to look around it. The most sensitive parts of the human eye aren’t the ones we use to focus on objects but are at the periphery of our ocular mechanisms, so by glancing around the object in question we can see it better than if we try to stare at it. Try it.
Comparison: In Camera Lucida, the book Roland Barthes wrote after his mother died and not long before he died, he discussed his photographic notions of the studium and the punctum. The studium is the cultural white noise of a photograph: the stuff we pass over, the social content that becomes the background due to our collective familiarity with it, the way journalistic photography doesn’t reach us on a personal level but bleeds into a more general gloss of reality.
The punctum is that point in a photograph that erupts from the studium, ‘wounding’ us with an unexpectedly personal poignancy. We suddenly find something that pierces us, that makes the photograph a private encounter rather than a social one.
Barthes seems to privilege the punctum. The photo that creates a moment of intimate connection between image and viewer.
Some of the most interesting contemporary theatre goes the other way. Presents us with the studium. Looks around the star to bring it to our attention.
Invisible Stains flickers through dozens, maybe hundreds of moments in collective memory. It looks at how that cultural memory is shored up (as well as the process of forgetting it entails – all memory, individual and cultural, is selective). So when a man in a suit carrying a briefcase appears in a daze, his hair and clothes covered in dust, we know instantly what is not being shown here. Two rifle-carrying soldiers in a jungle hear a helicopter overhead and another mist of dust begins to fall on them. Four women in underwear are inspected by a silent guard, who smells the hair of each in turn before ordering one apart from the others.
The various situations are often quick, sometimes less than a minute, and bleed together in a dizzying fashion. Some recur, or are echoed by others, and some seem to point to very different contexts at the same time. Some are hard to recognise, too. But there is so much going on here, all of the time, that the mind has to unfocus its attempts to determine what the ‘point’ is – what the unifying principle or theme or message or whatever is – and try rather to take in the whole. That’s why I was reminded of Caravansérail: there’s no narrative giving import to certain characters and moments while others are subtext or side-plot or just plain padding. There are also no connections between most of these scenes beyond aesthetic ones. Perhaps the closest comes during a startling monologue in which it is explained, mathematically, how every person in the theatre is genetically related.
There are some daggy moments in the show, or things that just don’t work. One of the recurring and contrasting sequences sees the entire cast at a wild party, a decadent counterpoint to the sufferings that make up the rest of the show. It’s an annoying undergrad scene, which only later became more forgivable to me as it became clear that this is exactly the kind of annoying undergrad life that some people (including acting students) indulge in. When some kids try to waterboard one legless partymember and film it on their phones so they can post it to YouTube, you realise how this terrifying political and historical blindness is being held up against real instances of torture (and much else). It also makes a lot of sense when you read director Tanya Gerstle’s program notes, in which she wondered whether this generation really has the right to ‘pretend’ the suffering of others (especially in comfortable, often clueless Australia). Given the level of rigour and self-scrutiny with which the cast and crew clearly took to Invisible Stains, I’d say they’ve earned that right.
Space 28, VCAM, ends tomorrow.
WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING
By Melbourne Theatre Company.
Andrew Bovell’s latest covers equally broad territory in a way that, for me, is far more trite and ineffective. It’s a saga spanning 80 years (the 50s until 2039) and leaps between different time frames, the same characters reappearing in several, sometimes played by different actors. Its scope is pretty massive, and it touches on a whole bunch of big themes. But it didn’t work for me. It felt as if a bunch of boxes were being lined up onstage with a word written on each: incest, suicide, euthanasia, alcoholism, climate change. Then the box was opened and it was empty. Issues were being flagged, but never really investigated, so I had the distinct feeling of seeing a very important play without anything actually taking place.
I think the problem was the genre of theatre employed: the multi-generational family saga. In contrast to Invisible Stains, this was history as incarnated only through a few individual characters. It’s intensely insular, and nobody stands for anything more than their own unique story. To really inflate this sense of narrative claustrophobia, WTRSF repeats the same stories across its entire timeframe, so that the same lines, actions, and relationships recur endlessly. It’s not just going with the old ‘history repeats itself’ riff; it’s almost a paranoid vision in which Everything Connects.
Which is another problem. With different genres an audience will accept different levels of coincidence or obvious narrative implausibility – a huge number of chance occurrences are welcomed in comedy, for instance, and taking that to a ridiculous level is what makes farce work. Surrealism, too, thrives on drawing lines between apparently discrete phenomena (cf. Dali’s ‘paranoid-critical’ method). In realist drama, however, you can’t overindulge in coincidence and expect your audience to suspend their belief. I don’t want to give away details, but WTRSF features so many honestly impossible coincidences that my jaw was hanging. Is Bovell attempting to shift the play out of the world of the Realist Aussie Play? Because if so, it needs a very different production than the one it receives here.
WTRSF might be saying something about repeating the mistakes of the past unless we learn from them, but the point is muddled. Here, the unspoken sins of 80s years ago are still destroying the lives of a future generation. But (SPOILER ALERT) the proposed solution is ludicrous: in a climactic scene, a character is given a bunch of props from his only living relative, who explains that he doesn't know what their significance is but that they hold the key to ending this cycle of misery. What? What the hell is the guy supposed to do with that? Of course we know what all of the Significant Props mean because we've been told already, but no one still alive within the play has a clue. Man, I'd hate to be the guy put in charge of sorting out his history that way. (At least he wasn't given one particular prop pivotal to the plot, I might add. That would really have messed him up).
The cast are fine, sometimes very good. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the London production featured Leah Purcell and Naomi Bentley playing the same character (older and younger) - that would have added a racial reading to the play that doesn't seem that popular right now in Oz. I was also surprised that the minimal set worked quite well, given the grand capacities for more showy production numbers offered by the Sumner. But for a show that has played three national festivals and is being hailed as a modern classic, I was left wondering what people are seeing in this thing. In fact, I wasn’t really left with much beyond that wondering. If anyone can tell me one thing that will stick in the memory – individual or cultural – about this piece, I’m all ears.
Sumner Theatre. Ends 22 November.