From Angst to Affirmation: a theatre of betrayal

Are you old enough to remember when theatre of angst and tragedy were acceptable in our theatres and demanded a tough skinned audience to accept the unpalatable realities?

Something hit me when reflecting on reviewing Bell Shakespeare’s productions for about twenty years. John Bell was my hero after seeing what he could do with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at The Nimrod Theatre in 1977. It was an amazing experience. Seeing Barry Otto and great actors like Peter Carroll doing simply unbelievably astonishing things on stage reinforced my need to be in theatre and to also explore and see the potential of life and art. Stage Managing Peter Carroll in “The Christian Brothers” at La Boite in the late 70s was an eye-opener into the world of a great artist. I also stage managed Steven Sewell’s first play and production at La Boite “The Father We Loved On A Beach By The Sea”. NO! It wasn’t a Bell production! I could see how people without any real connection with what the writer was about could fuck up a theatrical vision so easily. So it hit me when thinking about Bell Shakespeare’s works over the last twenty or so years. Like his production of “Twelfth Night” the comedies were mostly remarkable and simply brilliant. However, the tragedies were mostly surface crap and unable to penetrate the mask of civility that the young actors were trained to accept and directors were refusing to challenge. In the main, substance was replaced by theatricality!

Fortunately we still have Belvoir Theatre. Formed from the old Nimrod Theatre, it still manages to produce challenging and often unfashionable works. In 2016 it produced Stephen Sewell’s 1983 play “The Blind Giant is Dancing”. Plays about class politics and the personal and political connection have not been hip for years. The theatre does Brecht. In 2019 it produced a remarkable production of “The Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht … also directed by Eamon Flack. Belvoir is one of the flag carriers in a cultural war of artistic attrition. It seems with most theatre, that if it doesn’t affirm a particular social group, it isn’t worth producing.

I remember discussions with John Romeril in 1980 about whether a play needed an uplifting ending or whether it could survive with a downer! Romeril is one of Australia’s most prolific and significant playwrights along with Stephen Sewell. Both have been able to dig savagely beneath veneers of civility.

But today, there are rare truly challenging theatre events. I suggest one is from Stan Grant:

Yes this was theatre! And more significant than anything from theatre presentations from State sanctioned theatre offerings in 2019. A presenter / an audience / relevant content / connection … challenge? YES.

So let’s imagine a state funded theatre company had an actor presenting this speech and this content. It probably would get support because politics being what they are, they might see it as an advantage to position a caustic view of culture from within a conservative program that featured historically dated material that nobody really cared about.

So when a state funded festival appears to support legitimate demands for recognition of people’s rights, how could any theatre enterprise neglect to offer support and even compliance?

Wesley Enoch, Director of the Sydney Festival

Wesley Enoch has done about all that any one person might achieve in theatre given a lifetime and his comparative youth. Coming from a most unlikely base, his achievement is even more significant. But this doesn’t mean his choices can be exempt from serious criticism.

Festivals provide opportunities to challenge the current stereotypes of vision as adopted within society. By programming a generally already acceptable commercial program it is hard to see how the Sydney Festival is not a betrayal of this ideal. The programming of a replica Spiegeltent, The Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, ripping off the original Famous Spiegeltent, in Hyde Park suggests concerns more for box office success than any sense of challenging. Yes, a betrayal!

 His criticism of the withdrawal of the French company which was supposed to be one of the main planks of the festival in 2020, who pulled out because of the smog, was offensive if not plainly ignorant. The main actress – a French film star – had been advised by her doctors not to go to Sydney as it was a health risk to her because she had a history of respiratory problems – even the French Government has issued travel warnings… and Enoch said ‘how dare she… it was an insult to Sydney’…

Perhaps if Enoch was a young producer trying to make a name for himself by debunking the famous and powerful, there might be some value in his reaction. But as it came from one of the most powerful and significant authorities in Australian theatre the action was hollow. 

So where is theatre expressing the anger and the uncomfortable voices of the dispossessed. Does it come down to patronising Australia Day street marches and cute dancers? And a feel-good sense of “aren’t we doing something” while presenting no actual commentary or revelation.

On the bigger picture, we cannot confuse sentimental tragic stories with what might be considered tragedy.

Theatre can seem cool and hyp while appearing to be radical and focused in its attack … However, so much of it is simply playing to its own coterie of sycophants! It’s cool to be seen as connected or part of a socially aware group. Yet there is a hollow core to this current theatrical incarnation.

Where are the imperfect and vulnerable practitioners who don’t fit into state sanctioned festivals and state theatre companies? Where are the ones who are truly SEEING and not simply adapting or shaping to the accord of coolism and jingoistic narcissism?

They are performing in back streets and struggling with commitments to pre-schoolers and families while risking the admonishing of extended families, cultures and societies! They won’t stop. They can’t even get reviewed … but they don’t need millions to support what they do. They are the festivals. They are the cockroaches at the table of culture and scampering away before being smashed.

And there is the real tragedy. As each one is killed off, there is the potential for new myths that might give rise to an ascension of art with its own paradigm for presentation. Theatre of angst and tragedy is still possible and may still have its resonance in the absurd dramas of back-street performers and clumsy writers and musicians.

When the original Famous Spiegeltent presented La Clique more than fifteen years ago with an eclectic mix of street performers, Olympic Gymnasts, comedians and Variety Performers, it was a radical act; an erotic attack on smug society. The replicas only provide the sound and fury … but all signifying absolutely nothing!

Like the shaman from the past, our art and theatre needs to re-define and re-discover the very reason for our existence … and then self-consciously proceed. Only when the smug sense of righteous bullshit is eradicated can theatre and our art move on and have some kind of new relevance to be the new shaman of culture and society!

Published by shadowhousepits

For more than twenty years, I have worked as a writer, theatre director, actor, dramaturg, producer and teacher. ​My work with Shadow House PITS best demonstrates a particular blending of Artaud’s ideal of a “theatre of cruelty”, Brecht’s “epic theatre” and the absurdist theatre of “Ionesco”. This website offers scripts and writings that illustrate this blending. Each script has had at least one season of public performances; most have had multiple seasons. Prior to Shadow House PITS I spent twenty years as a journeyman working at La Boite Theatre (1970s), being an Artistic Director of a theatre-in-education company (Jigsaw) and running a theatre school, Stagecoach (9 years). At one point I also was co-producer of a commercial theatre and bar (PITS) with David Bates. I regard all this prior time as doing a kind of dues in order to focus myself on what is necessary to write and produce work that has value. One needs to do one’s dues in order to have the temerity to declare one’s offerings for public perusal and judgement. Over recent years, I have produced and directed plays from the Western theatre canon, including: HAMLET, TAMING OF THE SHREW, TWELFTH NIGHT, KING LEAR and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare and THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI and MOTHER COURAGE by Bertolt Brecht and THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller. These were all performed by student actors. My own work is more directly influenced by Antonin Artaud, Brecht, Ionesco and Butoh. Have a look at the sample texts and some of the video links. Consider purchasing one for yourself. I hope you enjoy your time here with Shadow House PITS.

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