Holding Emily Bronte Prisoner

22 Jun

Many of us know Emily Bronte only from her novel Wuthering Heights.

And many of us know Wuthering Heights only from Kate Bush’s pop song.

“Heathcliff, It’s me, It’s Cathy, I’ve come home,” sang Bush, capturing either Heathcliff’s half crazed grief for his deceased lover, or the eternal moan of that lover’s spirit in the wailing winds of the moors.

Death – and the attendant possibility of existence beyond death – was more immediate to Bronte than to us.

Before she was ten years old, she had lost her mother and two elder sisters. Before she herself died, at only thirty, she had also lost her brother. Her younger sister was to follow her to the grave soon after.

(I once set a play in Elizabethan England – over two centuries before Bronte’s time – and several audience members, including a reviewer, expressed incredulity that my protagonist had lost several children in their infancy. In the pain of enduring my play, perhaps they forgot how fortunate we moderns are.)

Wuthering Heights is considered a literary classic, but Bronte did not live to see fame. I doubt she would have wanted it.

Bronte

In addition to her novel, she wrote hundreds of poems, but only published twenty-one.

One of these is “The Prisoner”.

The young female protagonist whose detention is presented in the poem is not a criminal, but is most likely a victim of changing power relations between competing families. Her relatives and friends have been killed. She soon will die. Such machinations were not the stuff of Victorian England, but it was not a human experience the poet needed to invent.

In just over sixty lines of verse, Bronte presents convincing dramatic portraits of three human souls: the young master, whose privilege leads him to the self-justifying assumption that those who suffer must be bad; the gaoler, whose heart has been hardened by daily witness to cruelty; and the prisoner, who gently laughs at her captors and shares her vision “divine”.

The critic Spurgeon called it “one of the most perfect mystic poems in the English language”.

Dare we write such stuff in theatre?

A good dramatist would make easy work of the young master and the gaoler.

But the prisoner….?

“ …first, a hush of peace—a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast—unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.

“Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels”

Do we simply not believe that human life has such dimensions?

Dare we look?

The liquefaction of Julia’s clothes

18 Jun

“Gather ye rose buds while ye may” is Robert Herrick’s most famous line.

It’s a call to seize the day, to make the most of our short lives.

The poem’s title is “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and it advises them not to be coy, but to go marry.

Herrick’s lyrics, written in the 17th century, are charming, life affirming – and often addressed to lovers.

In delightful, easy-to-read verse they celebrate female beauty and sensuality. They sing of the power of love and of total devotion.

There are poems for Sylvia.

For Electra.

For Julia.

For Corinna.

For Anthea.

And none of these women existed.

Or so it’s been claimed.

Herrick lived to his eighties. Eschewing his own advice, he never married – implying an inherently sexist perspective, or the utter irrelevance of poetry.

The second of these possibilities receives insufficient notice nowadays, so let me expand.

Does it matter that Herrick’s impassioned verse was addressed to fictional characters?

Cynics will argue that the object of our affection is always a fiction, a mere projection of our own fantasies, an emotional amusement only made possible by the eternal mutability and essential unknowability of the Other. From a nebulous, swirling cloud of vapour we see the expected rainbow.

But not everyone is a cynic, and if fantasy speaks to us, perhaps it’s because the glory it clothes is ineffable.

 

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,

Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows

That liquefaction of her clothes.

 

Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see

That brave vibration each way free,

O how that glittering taketh me!

 

 

Losing Paradise

17 Jun

I chose to spend the pandemic as a poet.

During the day I have experimented with multiple forms.

At night, I read.

My shelves bulge with volumes of verse I’ve bought over the years – books often purchased on the strength of a single sonnet. Shelley’s Collected Works bought for “Ozymandias”. Barret Browning procured for “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Shakespeare’s sonnets snapped up second hand for “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Books bought and never read.

I do not blame only myself.

We’re taught poetry is difficult. We are told it is meant to be analysed – that is, pulled apart –  and then from the remaining mess we’re expected to fashion an academic essay that fits whatever is this year’s fashion. It’s a bit like forcing your dog to chomp at a pearl necklace and then carefully inspecting his turds in the hope of finding beauty.

The last few months I have read poetry purely for pleasure. Volume after volume, cover to cover. No agonising, only enjoyment. I do read everything twice; I’m not going to miss a Grange simply because I awkwardly gulped my first mouthful. But playfully I push on. No lingering over the needlessly esoteric. No pandering to thoughts and feelings I deem artificial. My shelves are full of dead poets. They wrote for me. And I’m taking it all.

Which brings me to Paradise Lost.

Milton’s epic was set for my second year at uni. At age 19 it seemed unreadable. The assessment concerned a passage from Book Six …. out of the twelve. I struggled through to Book Six, a dog that by page 1 knew this was not fare meant for my mouth.

I expect I got a C.

I pity the marker who had to rake through all that excrement.

Thirty five years later, I owe Milton an apology. And I owe myself one. Perhaps I wasn’t ready while still in my teens, but did I need to wait until I was in my fifties?

What impresses most about Milton is his utter audacity.

The introduction to my edition quotes the critic Northrop Frye: ‘In listening to the Kyrie of the Bach B minor Mass we feel what amazing things the fugue can do; in listening to the finale of Beethoven’s Opus 106, we feel what amazing things can be done with the fugue.”

Milton does something amazing with the form, but he also does something amazing full stop. He attempts to “justify the ways of God to Man.”

He fails. Of course.

But what an exhilarating failure! Milton’s Fall of Humankind might teach you little about God – but it teaches you a hell of a lot about being human.

Let me pull this back to theatre.

Because we have so many highly trained professionals in this town, the danger is we will be (to use Frye’s distinction) more “Bach” than “Beethoven”. Professionalism means we aim for certain standards: we try to get things right. Our goal is to make theatre that is perfect.

“But what can be wrong with perfection?” you ask.

Nothing. By definition.

Except that ….. when we cease to right, we can start to be human.

Some paradises are meant to be lost.

Angry Fags

12 Feb

Those expecting a queer subversion of Angry Birds will be disappointed. Or not – depending on how far they’re willing to stretch the whole bird, egg, pig analogy. (Yes, I had to research that.)

But as a political black comedy, Mark Nagle’s production of Topher Payne’s play is thought-provoking, fun theatre.

It’s a play about political strategy, and that’s a conversation our society needs to have. Too often we imagine our goals are all that matter, but how we attempt to achieve those goals is just as important. (An example: in Australia, current attempts to build an equitable society in regard to race are often hampered by well-intentioned voices who unthinkingly slip into the very racist attitudes they hope our society could leave behind. And so the process is made slower and more difficult. It’s the mistake Hilary Clinton made with her infamous “deplorables” comment. And, for that mistake, we are all paying.)

The world is made by our actions, not our intentions, and we must begin how we hope to end.

Set in the contemporary south of the USA, the queer characters reel at ongoing hate crimes. How can a more just world be made? One gay man says to another “They’re not frightened of us.” Is that the solution? A terror campaign?

                  Photo Credit Chris Lundie

Side note: all black comedies risk the same danger – that after the first death, there is no other (……laughter, that is.) This production has laughs a plenty despite the growing body count, and though the more sensitive may squirm, Nagle’s cast succeeds in both the pathos and the humour.

And the play’s discussion of political strategy is satisfyingly multileveled. Parallel to the debate about the use of violence is that of whether compromise is unavoidable, and whether it’s best to work from within the establishment or not.

With this intelligent and playful production, New Theatre shows once again why it is a vital part of Sydney’s theatre ecology.

Angry Fags by Topher Payne

New Theatre until March 7

A Manifesto; or Reflections on Writing about Theatre over a Decade

28 Jan

“Manifestos are written by revolutionaries as they wait for the next shipment of bullets. Oh, and by reviewers waiting for the next play.”

When I began this site in 2011, writing as the character Veronica Kaye, I wrote the above, and then continued:

Not that this will be a manifesto. But, then, I’m not a reviewer.

Which in two sentences [sort of] sums up my attitude.

I’m not in the slightest interested in judging plays. I’m interested in responding to them. I intend to write about what plays make me feel and what they make me think. I don’t intend to label them as failures or successes. Other writers can do that. And they will. And I don’t think it’s enough.

I hope to encourage the appreciation of plays as what I believe they are – sharings of our visions of the world.  They are not tricks that are done either well or not. Theatre is not Olympic diving.

Of course, theatre can be done horribly. But I’m not going to write about that. It’s tempting to be all Oscar Wilde for a moment and say that task can be left in far less capable hands than mine. But, it’s actually just a choice.

Theatre is not space flight. When you get it wrong, no-one dies. We just don’t get to visit new worlds.

[So I suppose it is like space flight.]”

Looking back, almost a decade on, I agree with most of what Veronica wrote (and she did write beautifully.)

But she was a young pup and, in her exuberance, I feel she was guilty of …. exuberance.

Now older, I find I differ with her attitude to both reviewers and artists. These differences are only subtle, but when we trip, it is not over Mt Everest but rather a mere crack in the pavement.

Veronica criticised how others wrote about theatre. I’m not much interested in this anymore. We must all work out our own salvation (and there is more than enough to be done on mine.)

Veronica also gave the impression she would talk about herself.  She did not (though her focus on the meaning of plays did surprise some people – especially if you didn’t think your play meant anything at all. Or didn’t want it to.)

I’ll continue with the same focus as Veronica, but I want to make clear that I’ll be analysing and discussing what the artist is doing, not using the production as a hook to hang my erudition.

I’m still not particularly interested in evaluating theatre. But I know some people like it. And I know it slips in anyway, unbidden, a sort of reflex action. After all, judgement is a natural response to Life  (“This coffee is awful!” and “What a beautiful day!”) and also a necessary one (“This society is unjust.”)

And, following Veronica, I’ll continue to write about artists with respect.

And her space flight analogy is charming (didn’t we all want to be astronauts when we were young?) but I’m going to rejig it, and make it something more down to earth.

I will consider a play as a gift.

And I’ll unwrap it.

And share it around.

Paul Gilchrist

Theatre Red is Re-Open for Business

10 Jan

About two and a half years ago I decided I didn’t have enough time to write about theatre anymore.

Well, things have changed.

Recently, as I was ferreting around the dark and dusty corners of my subconscious, hidden behind boxes labelled Bad Habits and Dis-organisation, I discovered this big bucket of extra Time.

I’ve decided to use this extra Time writing about theatre, because I enjoy it so much.

My contact details can be found on the page inventively entitled About/Contact.

Why I don’t write about theatre anymore

9 Jun

Everyone loves a rant, don’t they? So perhaps I should begin with a complaint about disorganized publicists who never had my name at the door, a whine about painful productions by hopeless incompetents, a whinge about competent productions by cynical CV-fillers, and a despairing howl about my inane colleagues who wrote only fluent cliche.

Unfortunately, I have no such rant in me. I’ve enjoyed writing about theatre and I have met some truly wonderful people.

But, before I explain why I no longer write about theatre, I’d like to explain why I began in the first place. Over the years, some people have responded as though there was something inappropriate about me doing so, suggesting it was either wrong or unwise for a working dramatist to comment on other dramatist’s work. But surely artists should be able to talk about Art? The moral discomfort seemed based on the assumption that if I wrote about theatre my aim must be to criticize. I don’t think this is the only way we can respond to Art.

Paul and Croc

I wrote about other artists’ theatre in the way I wished my own theatre was written about. I wrote about theatre in an attempt to acknowledge and appreciate the gift being given. Evaluation is the default position in most critical writing and, of course, it has its place. But I don’t write as a dramatist to be judged. I write to share.

As a playwright, I write to share my vision of Life. I use the theatrical form because it allows complexity and contradiction. (Dramatists who say they’re writing the Truth are simply substituting that word for an expression I believe more humble and honest.)

My vision of Life is joyful and hopeful – I hope. But if it were sad and miserable I would share it anyway, because you have to bring to the table what you have. (Occasionally as an artist I’ve come up against the view ‘Who are you to do that?’ and my response is ‘Who are you to not?’ Sharing is not arrogance. Deliberate isolation is.)

There are many qualities required in order to write about theatre well. One of them is time. I find I have increasingly less of that, and so I can no longer write about theatre, not when there are plays to write.

However, I have enormous admiration for those who do write about theatre (whether they’re driven by the need to evaluate or not). It’s not an easy task, as I’ve discovered. But I believe it is vital. If we don’t discuss our Art, it’s as though we are spitting Life in the face.

Paul Gilchrist

Down an Alley Filled with Cats

27 Apr

Talk to virtually anyone in the theatre world and you soon learn that there is a grand tradition of self-obsession.

This production refuses to honour this tradition, instead presenting the audience with a simple, engaging entertainment.

I, however, uncomfortable with such radicalism, will adhere to the time tested way.

I would not choose to direct this play – because it’s so difficult.

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Photo by Andrew Langcake

Down an Alley Filled with Cats by Warwick Moss was first produced in 1984 and won the Premier’s Literary Award before seasons in the West End and New York. It’s a comic thriller. And that’s what makes it so challenging – getting the balance right between the playful and the serious.

This production has a good shot at it, but I’ll be honest, it took me a long time to pick the tone. Maybe I’m just slow. (See, it’s all about me.)

Actors Gabriel Egan and William Jordan easily hold our attention, but I suspect opening night nerves may have played a part in making vocal performances a little muddied.

The two participants in this cat and mouse game to possess a valuable object are (conveniently) locked together in a room. Dramatists love this trick of offering the characters no possibility of escape, and audiences often go along with it as it mirrors their experience of the theatre. But it’s a trick that demands careful consideration of the physicality of the performances; it’s inevitable that close proximity will have to reflect both intimacy and antipathy, and in so far as this genre is a distant cousin of naturalism, there’s enormous pressure to get the pacing right to make this appear believable.

Moss’ script uses other classic tricks – you might end up wondering with it’s intricately plotted or all just a sleight of hand – but it will lead to interesting post-show discussions. Were you taken in or not? Of course, if you’re part of the grand theatrical tradition, you never were, not for a second.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Down an Alley Filled with Cats by Warwick Moss

Directed by Tom Richards

at King Street Theatre until 13 May

tix and info here

Future Seekers

25 Apr

Carol Dance’s Future Seekers is made up of ten loosely interlinked short pieces. It boldly traverses time (1917 to 2017) and place (Russia, USA, Lithgow). Excepting costume, design is minimalist in the extreme.

This is big theatre, presented simply.

It explores how the past informs the present. Generation connects with generation.  It is a powerful reminder that our actions matter, that our present impacts on more than ourselves.

Dance’s writing is charming and good-hearted. A cold soul might call it naïve and, at times, convenient but it’s these very features that create the magic of its wide-eyed wonder and the appeal of its optimism.

Future Seekers - IMG_0044 (1)

Director Mark Langham elicits good performances fitting the broad, bright style of the piece. Occasionally characterizations falter, but there’s a real pleasure in watching four skilled actors (Neveen Hanna, Eli Saad, Sana’a Shaik and Michael Wood) move from role to role, exhibiting a playful versatility.

Between scenes pianist Philip Eames presents a series of classical pieces. His performance is beautiful, and the breadth of the selection eminently suits the play’s purpose: the sharing of the belief that in the immensity of the wide, wild world there is space enough for both surprise and connection – and from such a union hope is born.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Future Seekers by Carol Dance

at Philharmonia Hall, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay Arts Precinct until 30 April

tix and info here

Sex Object

24 Apr

This is new work, but I’m not the audience for it.

It’s for those who enjoy TV sitcom.

Writer Charlie Falkner has put together three hyperbolic characters; a pretentious artist, a vacuous New Ager (who the other characters also call pretentious), and an inarticulate slacker. Falkner then throws in a fourth, an escort, to stir the plot.

There are some funny lines and energetic performances, but it’s of that genre only too common in the indie scene – Philistine Theatre.

Jack-Rabbit-750x501

Philistine Theatre has bad faith in the art form. It attempts to imitate the conventions of television or B grade film. Philistine Theatre claims its purpose is to simply entertain but, in aiming so low, it undermines its very reason for existence.

This play is a descendant of American slacker films. In these films, the protagonist fights for the right to smoke dope on his mother’s couch. In this version, the protagonist fights for the right to watch porn on his girlfriend’s dead father’s couch. As you can see, the genre has come a long way.

But seriously, Falkner does subvert the ending typical of this style of drama. In the films, it’s usually painful: the protagonist ‘grows up’ and becomes ‘responsible’, which could be interesting, if it weren’t for the fact that ‘responsible’ seems indistinguishable from ‘conventional’. However, Sex Object doesn’t go in for that sort of tripe; its ending is more like Porky’s. (An allusion that shows I’m far too familiar with C grade American films.)

The slacker, played amusingly by Falkner himself, has a porn addiction. This is not taken seriously by the script, which is not aiming to be anything but a light comedy. However, it’s as close as the audience gets to the sex implied in the title.

The marketing of the show suggests it’s an exploration of ‘millennials’, that category error pushed by other marketers when trying to sell mobile phones. Fortunately, Falkner knows the type of play he’s writing and doesn’t attempt any faux sociological analysis.

In fact, the program notes suggest the play says nothing (which is a fundamental tenet of Philistine Theatre.) But, of course, it does say something. The target of the play is what it calls ‘pretence’. It fights for the right to be small.

No, it may not have been my cup of tea, but as Voltaire could’ve said (if he’d indulged in such quaint euphemisms) I’ll fight for your right to drink it.

Congratulations to Jack Rabbit Theatre for producing new work and for the Depot for making it possible.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Sex Object by Charlie Falkner

Directed by Michael Abercromby

Presented by Jack Rabbit Theatre

at The Depot Theatre until 29 April

Tix and info here