Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: The Flood

THE FLOOD

By Finucane & Smith. At La Mama. Ends Sunday.




The Flood is worth seeing on the strength of its credit list alone: Jackie Smith writing, Moira Finucane producing, Laurence Strangio directing, Caroline Lee, Maude Davey and Shirley Cattunar performing, Bronwyn Pringle lighting, The Sisters Hayes on set and costume… It’s one of those pretty sure bets that you’re not going to get a fizzer.

And nobody disappoints. It’s not my favourite play of the year but it’s a memorable one. It’s been billed (and reviewed) as Australian Gothic but I think it sits a little uncomfortably in that category for a few reasons I’ll get to. In many ways that’s the best description, though, as it presents many of the classic symptoms of the gothic.




A woman returns to her dilapidated childhood country home on a dark and stormy night. There, preserved liked body parts in a mad scientist’s jar are her elderly mother and older sister, who clearly holds a grudge against the favoured younger sibling who fled for London in her teens and hasn’t been back since. The atmosphere is oppressive and it isn’t long before bleak secrets are revealed lurking beneath the rotting floorboards.

There are a few wonderful new contributions to the stock of truly sinister imagery – the “Dog Hole” is almost something from a Japanese supernatural horror, while Oleander Man would fit right into a Southern Gothic tale. It’s all very Australian, though, and anyone who’s ever been creeped out during an outback camping trip or just shivered while driving through the Aussie country will relate to the uncanny aspects of the show.

Cattunar especially deserves mention as a riveting performer, perhaps even more notable for playing a character in her 70s without resorting to clich├ęs of the mad old woman – certainly her character could read that way on paper, but Cattunar alternates feisty strength with a brittle sense of imminent collapse, and it’s a tenderly realised and quietly stated portrayal.

The set is wonderfully chaotic – corroded and collapsing and strewn with piles of scissored magazines, dirty crockery, filthy layered carpets and haphazardly flung throw-rugs. When Lee’s character arrives her response is similar to the one we might have upon entering the theatre: how could someone live in this clutter? And where can I put my coat? But Cattunar’s Janet needs this. It’s her ecology, the world-system she has built up around her and which contains traces of the decades that have led here – sometimes tokens of important events, sometimes ways of pasting over them, reinventing her history the way she creates scrapbook collages from junk mail catalogues.

It’s only just struck me how resonant this image is with my last few weeks. I’ve been helping my own mother rearrange her house so that new carpets can be put in. It’s been the family home for 40 years and in that time a lot of history has built up, in a physical sense. From one perspective, there’s a lot of crap. But moving an entire house into a room or two reveals how that chaos of that clutter is itself an intricately organised system of significant meaning perhaps imperceptible to an outside observer. A pile of paper needs to be shifted, simple as that. But as my mother picks up the first item – a history of Croatian-Australian immigrants, say, or a recipe torn from a magazine, or an early Christmas card with a cheesy slogan – she can become absorbed in it, and sometimes ends up putting it on another new pile of things she needs to come back to. The result isn’t ordering this chaos, but shuffling it around. The chaos remains.

Growing up in this world might explain why I maintain a strong sympathy for chaotic art. On one level, respecting apparent disorder was probably a childhood way of avoiding cleaning. But on another, there’s probably something to be said for the untidy aesthetic which began to gain respect in the early modern era and which accords a certain degree of autonomy to systems we just don’t understand.

Order is work, and the decay of order – entropy – an inevitability. Things fall apart. Thermodynamics suggests that for a system to maintain an equilibrium of order, increasing amounts of energy must be invested. Work gets harder. We get older. Crap accumulates.

But the impulse to order is a human one which can’t be discounted. It’s led to some admirable results: narrative, for instance, which is a pretty sweet invention. Perspective. Agriculture (maybe). Not killing each other. The same impulse to order has led to less desirable things too: ethnic cleansing. Religious fundamentalism. Killing each other.

To return to theatre… All of this is a way of arguing why the orderly, well made play doesn’t always push my buttons. The play whose narrative follows the classic structure – presenting an initial situation of order, introducing elements which destabilise that order and then manufacturing a conclusion which logically restores things to a state of balance – can seem overly artificial to me. It’s work. It’s thermodynamically curious.

This is where The Flood departs from its gothic roots. Where the gothic is so often about the release of dangerous energies rather than their containment, the narrative of this play sees dark secrets expelled and ultimately defused. It’s a riveting work but isn’t too far from any of the mainstage dramas which raise the spectre of unspeakable things only to make them safe and manageable in the end. Some might say this is the function of art. Many have done so, magnificently.

But if the clutter onstage must finally be cleaned up in order that we can go home knowing things will make sense in the end, then I wonder how much of a boondoggle art’s artificial order might be. Because a clean and tidy home is not a clean and tidy mind, heart, world.

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