STRUCTURE AND SADNESS
By Lucy Guerin Inc. Season ended.
I love development showings. They’re fascinating, especially when you go back further down the line and see what’s changed in the final product. It’s inevitably surprising what stays and goes.
I never saw a development of Lucy Guerin’s Structure and Sadness but I sat in on a rehearsal once and I’ve since seen it a few times. When I caught last week’s remount there were, unexpectedly, a lot of things that appeared new to me. They weren’t new to the piece, but it took a strong familiarity with the work to pick up on them. It’s an incredibly fine, detailed work and it helps immensely to be attenuated to its minute moments of beauty. Most people I know would probably recommend that you see it; I’d recommend you see it twice (the season’s over though, so sucks to that).
I’m still surprised that Guerin had the audacity to turn to the real collapse of the West Gate Bridge in 1970 as a fitting subject for a dance work. One of the strangest things about the piece is that it uses dance to examine a bunch of things that seem to have no place in the world of choreography: WORK, for instance. The meaning and value of labour, of the working class, of the poetry of toil, the perils of the manual and the joys and pitfalls of the technological sublime have been thoroughly worked over in theatre and visual arts and so on, but not so much in dance. Other odd things picked over in S&S include real, local history, mediated tragedy and the intimacy of grief. There’s also plenty of fascinating, viscerally affecting set-pieces in which the gargantuan forces at play in the construction industry and the fragility of the humans moving within them are made terribly apparent. If it ever swings by your way again, I urge you to see it.
But perhaps my appreciation was coloured by other factors. For one thing, that morning I drove under the West Gate Bridge. This is a very different experience from driving over it – instead of the odd sense of unnatural elevation and giddy lightness and the godlike expansion of vision, I felt the immensity and potential weight of the thing hovering overhead. It was an unexpectedly scary moment, mainly because it came out of nowhere and instantly made me think of S&S.
I was driving out to Williamstown to carry a ladder a few kilometres (long story). It was a pretty hot day and I was driving alone through West Melbourne, Footscray, on through to Williamstown. I saw a lot of container ships, processing plants, pylons, 18-wheelers, forests of metal gridwork. I really felt immersed in industry.
Then I carried the ladder and this thing was exactly twice my height and felt about half my weight. It took 45 minutes, walking alone in the sun, feeling like I’d set myself a ridiculous and pointlessly punishing task. It really hurt but, as with a lot of toil, I had to put my mind elsewhere and so that trip saw me thinking about a lot of things to distract myself from the pain. I also became extremely conscious of things around me – most of which I’ve now forgotten, with the exception of the mum who pointed at me and said to her two kids “look, maybe he’s taking the ladder to Santa to use in his workshop!” The only present this Santa gave them was a barely restrained scowl.
So when I went into S&S I was still carrying this heavy body memory of labour and my point is simply that this might have influenced my appreciation of the piece. It’s not a very complex or interesting point.
THE HARRY HARLOW PROJECT
By James Saunders. The Arts Centre. Ends Saturday.
I recently mentioned to a psychologist that I’d just seen a play about Harry Harlow and he did a double take, looking as if I’d told him I’d been to a musical about Pol Pot or something. The psych fraternity has an understandably troubled relationship with Harlow, and as this guy pointed out Harlow’s practice only made more acceptable what many earlier psychologists had been arguing for decades. Harlow was a behaviourist, which meant that he ‘proved’ theories by producing observable, controlled case studies (more legit than vague assertions, being more based on concrete and reproducible evidence).
The problem was that Harlow’s practice meant that the only way he could ‘prove’ something about, say, depression, was to artificially create depression in his subjects. The result were increasingly horrific experiments carried out on monkeys, and some of those detailed in this production are truly monstrous (the ‘rape racks’, the ‘pit of despair’). The piece itself follows a general narrative progression from his earlier and more acceptable methods to these later indefensible practices. Their effects on Harlow himself make up a counterpoint to this coldly clinical story, as his personal life comes to mirror the isolation and existential misery of his victims.
I saw a development showing of HH quite a long time ago, and I observed some things which had been heavily altered since then, and some that were more or less the same. What’s odd is that these observations were completely wrong. Speaking to those involved, what I thought had been scaled back in the production (movement sequences, for instance) have apparently remained mostly intact, while the text itself has been bolstered substantially (I thought it was essentially unchanged). What does this mean? I suppose it suggests that a second experience of an art work will always be coloured by the first, but not necessarily in obvious ways. I knew a lot of Harlow’s story this time around, so my appreciation of the text wasn’t as something new but felt quite familiar. The movement, conversely, which had seemed obtrusive and sometimes inexplicable now made perfect sense, so it seemed more appropriate to the production this time round.
This is partly why I’m always wary of concrete, objective statements about what a production ‘is’. Without descending into a relativistic ‘everyone sees stuff differently’ argument, I think theatre reviews are often unaware of their own particularity (I’m saying reviews, not reviewers as such, and I know a review can’t be ‘aware’ of anything but you get my point and I’m in a hurry here so take it up with management). When it comes to things like a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ production, or terms like ‘successful’ or whatever, I kinda see a show as an artistic Schroedinger’s cat, both dead and alive at the same time. Only the act of observation reduces these two simultaneous, contradictory facts to a single, perhaps fatal one.
Harrry Harlow's a really intriguing show - some things didn't work that well for me (the lighting states mostly) but other people had the opposite reaction. Despite any of my (few) misgivings, however, it's certainly a work that stays with you, and I think that can be one of the hardest things to achieve in theatre. I've often thought hard about that initial development showing, and couldn't wait to relive the piece. I'm glad I did.