By The Rabble.
The Rabble's production of Cageling at fortyfivedownstairs has sold out which is great news for independent theatre in Melbourne (is it me or has there been an unusual number of similar sellout seasons in 2010?) It's a reimagining of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba with some pretty bold imagery and directorial choices, but for me it was marred for a few reasons I'll get to eventually.
The great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca's most enduring contribution to the arts must surely be his concept of duende, an idea with all the precision and grace you'd expect from a guy known to his friends as Flamenco Feddy. You could say duende is the quality of doing things in italics, Sometimes With Initial Caps, but I had to go back to the books to find a more precise explanation of duende. To save you the same trouble I'll reprint here an extract from Lorca's own writings on the subject in “Tears of a Horny Bullfighter”:
“The toreador will not sleep tonight. The blood has long been rinsed from his short pants but his soul is still awash with a violent gore no amount of scrubbing can remove. Not this night, at least. Why must he walk the restless midnight streets like a revenant? Why does rest elude him like a word I cannot think of? Is it because he is horny? Yes. But also no.
It is because of duende, my friends. Duende.
Duende translates as “the vibe” but it is so much more than that. We know this because there is no way of truly putting duende in words. Easier to put a horse in a muffin. Both are the fool's game.
But it is in the fool's game that duende is found, for it is only the fool who dares lift the skirts of the muse or make inappropriate comments about the angel's new haircut. In this foolish game played by the foolish fool we can hear the mournful cry of the Spanish balladeer as he plucks the guitar of passion with the dirty fingernails of mortality while singing his song of lies and olives. This game which is also a song and also also a bullfight is a game of terror and love. A little like gin rummy.
But the impish spirit that is duende cannot be pinned down by the impoverished language of the moderns; I can only dream of the day when the rest of humanity will do as I do and append labels to every instance of it with tags such as “What's This, Federico?” or “Look Out, Lorca!” Yes, yes, perhaps someday the masses will join my celebration of the WTF? and LOL, which is the heart of duende. And by duende, of course, I mean... duende. Look, you know what I mean.”
Cageling isn't a production of Bernarda Alba but a devised work that treats the play as an “undercurrent”. We've seen this process produce some terrific work – you can see it in stuff by Four Larks Theatre, Ignite, a lot of Malthouse work, and most especially in the recent output of Daniel Schlusser (who also stars in Cageling).
I was thinking about Schlusser's production of Life is a Dream after seeing this and the comparison helps me to frame my response. In Dream, Schlusser and his cast tore apart a classic and reassembled something new and unique from the fragments – you didn't need to know the original because the thing presented stood on its own feet as something remarkable in every respect. I even know some people who were angered by the work because it was such a thorough reimagining of Calderon's play that it shouldn't even lay claim to the title – I disagree, since I think that Dream was also deeply respectful of its source and stayed true to its themes. But in any case, you could view that production with no knowledge of its 17th century origins.
I can't say the same for Cageling: it felt as if I was witnessing a dialogue but was party to only one end of it. Some images were striking but seemed responses to a question I hadn't heard asked. I guess it was like stumbling upon the shed skin of a snake as you round a bend in the country – at first startling until you realise that the living thing is somewhere else. The husk itself might be beautiful in texture and hue but its most immediate significance is as a warning that the real serpent is still on the loose.
In short, what I'm saying is that I don't know The House of Bernarda Alba well and this severely impaired my reception of Cageling. Almost everyone else I've spoken to got a lot from the piece and most are familiar with Lorca's play; the only other person I know who didn't get into it hasn't seen or read Bernarda Alba (although he was more put off by the disjointedness of the whole thing, which isn't a problem for me).
Does this put into relief one of the most challenging aspects of devised adaptations – must the response itself contain enough of the original statement to be intelligible to newcomers? Or does this weaken the intensity of that response? I don't know. Maybe there is no answer worth pondering. Or maybe the answer is... duende.
(On a related note, remember the Argentinian "creepy gnome" that was all over the web a few years ago? I'd forgotten about him.)