Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Theatre Reviews: "Phèdre" and "The Maids" Sydney.

"Phèdre" ~ Bell Shakespeare Company
Sydney Opera House.

The tag line on the poster advertising the Bell Shakespeare Company's production of Racine's Phèdre is "I have confessed an appetite that is unspeakable". Replace the word appetite with performance and you have the unspeakable truth. Last night's performance was one of the most entertaining experiences I've ever had in a theatre, for all the wrong reasons. This was so bad it transcended itself. It was hilarious, ridiculous, unbelievable. I absolutely loved it.

I won't name the actors. That would be pointlessly cruel. But I will say that they all began with the same affliction. They appeared to be spouting the Ted Hughes' translation while attempting to shit marble to ensure their classical integrity. Once this nervous start was over they settled into a series of disconnected monologues, competing with each other to sound as disconnected from the surging (presumably) emotions so well concealed in their heaving bosoms. And that was just the men.

Hippolytus fairly vibrated with suppressed something or other. Either that or he suffered from a mild attack of Parkinson's disease, interspersed with catatonic periods when he appeared to be channeling a primary schooler attempting to dislodge a thesaurus from his sinus cavity. Yes, I know that classical acting involved wearing a mask and declaiming with little actual movement. But there were no masks, beyond the binary code of alternating distemper and mild bilious attack.

Phèdre looks at Hippolytus like a mantis contemplating sex, or lunch.

Theramene, his mate, was more naturalistic, resembling a laconic Aussie auto-mechanic charged with delivering the fateful news about what the Gods have done to your gearbox. But he was a Tonto without a Lone Ranger. His ordinariness well-crafted, but wasted.

The ladies, ah, the ladies. Phèdre herself also suffered the binary affliction. She was either declaiming in a monotonous, and almost impenetrable gabble or SHOUTING, which would be all the passionate bits. In brief these were: Incest (technically), infidelity, remorse, guilt, shame, wretched abasement at the feet of  the object of her inflamed passion (Ooh, that looks nasty luv, I should get that seen to), despair, spiteful recrimination, self-pity, self-regard, self-disgust, self-regard (again).

She conquered them all with one technique: Veering between breathless decanting of her entire vocabulary and SHOUTING, SHOUTING REALLY LOUD and OCCASIONALLY HURLING HERSELF ONTO THE FURNITURE. Which showed stamina, but not discrimination. No nuance beyond volume, no light and shade beyond belting it out at full blast and then, not.

That was it really. 

The urge to yell, "Oh, for fucks sake, you're supposed to have the hots for this kid .. at least look at him and stop writhing on the floor like a limbo dancer with vertigo!" was hard to contain. But, in the finest tragedic tradition, I didn't give in.

The other ladies. Well, best left unsaid really. The blonde ingenue was well cast, and her hair was nice. Her mate was a 70s girl I once knew called Julie, who was enthusiastic but a bit dim. She nailed the accent, and the shoes. Beyond that, she has the kudos of working with Australia's premier classical theatre company, for what that's worth.

Phèdre's co-conspirator, Oenone, the nurse, almost destroyed the entire production, no doubt by accident. Her conspiratorial confidences were delivered with the suppressed excitement and breathless tones that would have been entirely appropriate in a pantomime. I stifled a snort in the first act, I didn't want to be the first to burst out laughing (cowardice on my part). Later, and the audience had thinned out considerably after the break, there was actual laughter scattered throughout the audience in the moments of high tragedy. The urge to yell out, "Oh no he didn't!" when she accused brave Hippolytus of rape was almost unbearable. Once that thought had crossed my mind it quickly ran back to centre stage and set up camp:

Mighty Theseus has returned!

"Look behind you! He's behind you!"

Hippolytus loves Aricia... 

"Oh no he doesn't!"

"Oh yes he does!" and so on...

The return of mighty Theseus provoked a slim hope that an actor we hadn't seen yet might prove immune to the endlessdeclamationofreallybigwords and the asking-a-question-and-not-waiting-for-an-answer-before-ploughing-on-with-the-monologue. But no. Striding manfully on in a cheap suit that was clearly too small he became mighty Theseus by SHOUTING LOUDER THAN ANYONE HAD SHOUTED BEFORE .. A LOT.. REALLY A LOT.. then appearing to nod off while listening to the harrowing account of his son's death. 

I haven't had this much fun in a theatre for years. 

On the positive side..? Hmm.

Well the set was nice, very Belle Époque, fin-de-sale at an Italian furniture importer. But if you're going to bring the set to somewhere within a bull's roar of Racine's period why update the costume to seedy Sydney nightlife circa 1993? Why dress an anorexic Phèdre in hooker heels? Why have the Chorus wear a blouse made from a David Jones' bag, and have a black bra underneath it's semi-opaque, 'suburban haus-frau on Valium hanging about a bit' look? She stood there for two hours looking like the lady from the perfume counter, lost without her samples.

The music crashed about to indicate the beginning and end of acts and scenes. God knows this was the only indication. The director (who had an assistant director who did God knows what) should be dragged behind a chariot until mighty Neptune, angered and aroused by mighty Theseus's outrage doest smite him with a mighty smiting, and anything else he can lay his mighty hands on.

Go see this play. Really. It's absolutely hilarious.

This afternoon it's Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in "The Maids". I can hardly wait.

Later... (suspense filled pause ...)

"The Maids" ~ Sydney Theatre Company.

What a difference a day makes, and a play that's attacked with gusto, and by talented actors in full command of their craft. Jean Genet's "The Maids" was totally different. Brilliant, brisk, powerful and demanding, and awash with talent, luxury, perversion, eroticism etc.. Opening in a plush rectangular apartment, a goldfish tank with real glass walls, there was no slowing down for the weak or hard of understanding. Blanchett and Huppert opened with Cate playing narcissism for all it was worth at a dressing table mirror and Isabelle, in her maid's outfit, lying on a bed and lazily swinging her legs in the air. Yoga, Pilates, open-legged eroticism and playful insouciance all before she's even stood up. Maybe it's being French and knowing what insouciance actually is. Maybe it's just good acting.

About ten minutes in and said  Isabelle Huppert takes Cate Blanchett by the hair, sticks her face in a toilet and flushes her powder and rouge away. The said Miss B rises pale and naked from the throat up splashed in nude horror onto a video screen hanging above the set. Outstanding. Honest, splashy and a wake up call for the audience. Things grew more progressively more perverse, kinky, slutty, bitter, angry, stupid, petty and mean-spirited from there on. Superb!

Madame ~ Elizabeth Debicki

When after half an hour the third character (Madame, the employer of our two ugly sisters) arrives you realize for the first time that whoever she is she's going to have to take up a dominating role as The Mistress against Blanchett and Huppert. You hold your breath.. Can she do it? Answer: Yes, with aplomb and style, self-satisfied, loud and utterly self-absorbed in that way the rich have. She prowls in in sunglasses and furs, direct from doing just that at Cannes. You breathe again.. 
Huppert is great, a small and intense Piaf figure mixing comedic touches seamlessly into a character without remorse, balance or contact with reality. By contrast Blanchett is loud, terrified of their mutual pact of twisted eroticism, and wracked with Catholic guilt. Lovely work, not overplayed, and yet still vulnerable when you least expect it.
"I don't know what normal is" … Isabelle Huppert. (She lies!)
The final scene reprises the Sado-masochism of  the first but takes it from a comedie of eros to deadly seriousness in a way that is both touching and filled with nihilism and despair, that spiritless yet animated state which is so hard to portray. Blanchett does it effortlessly, true to despair's own inertia and fatalism. Lovely work. I actually cared about what happened to her.

Huppert's accent is a struggle, but in a French play that's fine. It's our job to make the effort. She is by turns drab, bullying, and strangely alluring in her anti-heroic ordinariness. A harpy with human teeth, a charmless killer. She evokes the Monica Lewinsky response: how could someone so unimportant destroy lives and careers with her sick, inept and ultimately boring  but sexually charged irrelevance. You may not want to fuck her, but you're intensely curious as to why someone else might (the two maids fight over who gets the unseen gardener as a shag-object).
All told a tour de force in a little over two hours. Your money's worth and no mistake. See it if you can. These three actors will have long, large screen careers. Two already have. To see them work this hard, this well and manage to combine live theatre AND  film acting in one performance is a rare offering. You'll be glad you were there.


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