|Rita Kalnejais||Stephen Sewell||Jenny Kemp||Vanessa Bates||Benedict Hardie &
Series One September 2012
My church is broad where style, content, form and genre are concerned. I love all different kinds of plays. I only ask that I be taken beyond what I know and delivered to a new and foreign place where, like a wide-eyed tourist, I might be shown things I’ve never seen before, where mystery is explained and where hearing and being heard are paramount.
The first five plays off the rank span three generations and just over 20 years of Australian playwriting. Hate by Stephen Sewell was written in 1988 and the most recent Porn.Cake by Vanessa Bates was first performed (at Malthouse Theatre) in 2011. The other three - Madeleine by Jenny Kemp, BC by Rita Kalnejais and The Nest by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks – were all written in the noughties.
I didn’t give any thought to theme in the curation of this group but it is probably inevitable that where one person’s taste is involved, some similarities will emerge. The one that jumps out most strongly to me is that they all feature close family-type communities. Having said that, these are not your typical naturalistic domestic dramas. They all use the family as a microcosm to speak to the epic: the morality of the political Right in Hate, the terror of middle age in Porn.Cake, mental illness in Madeleine, generational savagery in The Nest and the possibility of grace in BC.
Rita Kalnejais’ background is as an actress. After graduating from the VCA in the early 2000’s, she moved to Sydney where she worked on many of Benedict Andrews’ groundbreaking productions. She is known for her daring, her extreme and febrile imagination and her sharp intelligence.
I remember my excitement on hearing that The Hayloft Project (then run by Simon Stone) was producing Rita’s first play. The Hayloft Project, based in Melbourne, but producing work in Sydney as well, is an impressive outfit whose hallmarks are fierce intelligence, bold theatrical imagination and an unabashedly contemporary aesthetic. To this point, the vast majority of Hayloft’s work was concentrated on the “renovation” of classic plays, a fashion which has since become de rigeur in companies around the country.
BC was, I believe, their second contemporary text (the first was Yuri Wells by Benedict Hardie) and I was eager to see what the company and Simon Stone would do with it. Although it was in many respects an outstanding production, it was the text that I walked out with inside my heart. I found it (and still find it) infinitely moving and tender – immediate in its dialogue and situation and extraordinarily and endearingly kooky.
In her retelling of the Immaculate Conception, Kalnejais sets the action in an unnamed Australian suburb. The familiar biblical characters are ordinary suburban people, and Kalnejais continually juxtaposes the ordinary and the miraculous, to great comedic and transcendent effect. By placing these two planes together, she re-examines the whole notion of God-on-earth and Jesus-as-man in a deceptively light and engaging way. The writing is extraordinary in its ability to swing between suburban mundanity and moments of absolute grace. I found it uplifting and inspiring and I can’t wait to see another production.
Stephen Sewell is one of the great political minds of Australian theatre. His plays are polemical, passionate and hugely emotional. As Sewell himself notes in his short preface to Hate, what they are not is naturalistic. Sewell has often been accused of being overblown in his dialogue, which (to my mind) is a gross misreading of his dramatic intention. He is a writer who has consistently insisted that we take ourselves, our nation and our politics seriously. His plays argue that this is the only morally responsible position to take. One of the things about Sewell’s writing that I love most is that he is unafraid to take a position. When someone speaks as clearly, as eloquently and as passionately as he does, I find myself able to really pit myself against the argument. I don’t have to agree (and I don’t always) but it is thrilling to be in the theatre with an artistic voice of such assurance and authority.
The relationship between Sewell and Neil Armfield (who directed the original production of Hate) has produced some astonishing work over the years. No-one who saw either the original production of The Blind Giant is Dancing (at State Theatre, SA/ Lighthouse in 1983) or the blistering re-study at Company B, Belvoir in the late 90’s - not to mention the incendiary experience of Hate - could ever forget the amazing theatrical power that this partnership generates. This is I think because Armfield understands that Sewell’s writing is pure and authentic – that the characters he writes are in real and powerful dilemmas and that the poetic height in his dialogue comes from their potent connection to the world. While his dialogue can appear naturalistic in places, it is never domestic. All of his characters vibrate with the larger epic political world.
Sewell’s choice in writing a bicentennial play in which Australia is represented by a privileged, white and thoroughly dysfunctional family seems unambiguous to me. In less sure political hands, it could seem like a narrow view of Australia and Australians. But the skill with which he constantly refers to the “other” Australia that we never see in the play means that we are always clear about the poetic symbolism of this family. The similarity between the family in Hate and the family in Beatrix Christian’s The Governor’s Family has always struck me, even though Christian brings a working class and an indigenous character into the mis-en-scene.
It is a matter of huge excitement to me to hear, just as we are finalising the collection, that Marion Potts has announced Hate as part of Malthouse Theatre’s 2013 subscription season. I’m thrilled to think that this amazing classic will be seen by a whole new generation of theatre makers - and I’m so curious to find out what they think. If nothing else, Sewell plays are always good for a vigorous debate - about theatre, politics and life. I so hope that this means that most rare thing for Australian theatre writing - more life!
Jenny Kemp is one of our leading theatre makers. As a writer/director, she has created an astonishing body of work over the last few decades. Her aesthetic is delicate and poetic and leans toward the inner landscape of our dreams, fears, visions and sexuality. As a practitioner, she tends to work with a loose ensemble of actors and designers who are not always in every work, but whose contribution to the development of the body of work is evident. Kemp’s work has a strong visual, poetic and ambient language that is instantly recognisable and utterly original.
Madeleine is a haunting and evocative work that examines the impact of schizophrenia on a nineteen year old girl and her family. It is part of Kemp’s On The Edge series, which also includes Kitten – a Bipolar Soap Opera which premiered at Malthouse Theatre as part of the 2008 Melbourne International Arts Festival. It features two distinct worlds: the reality of Madeleine’s illness and its impact on her family, and the fantasy world inside Madeleine’s mind. It is typical of Kemp’s work – bold and theatrical, yet almost unbearably intimate in the same moment.
One of the reasons I love Kemp’s writing – and artistry – is that she has created a body of work as a resolutely independent artist. She works regularly with companies across the country and some of her original works have been developed in association with companies and festivals, but the aesthetic has always remained protected. The result is a rich, wholly original and authentic body of work. Kemp is also a brilliant teacher of writing and directing. There are not many playwrights in Australia who have not been affected by her creative process at some time or another.
After being developed through Playwriting Australia, Porn.Cake made its debut on the Australian stage at Malthouse Theatre in 2011, Marion Potts’ first season as Artistic Director. It was delicately directed by Pamela Rabe in a production that unfolded just as the play does – starting a little whimsical, light and funny and finishing with a hefty punch to the guts.
On the surface, Porn.Cake travels the reasonably well-worn path of middle class malaise. Two couples, both childless find themselves, at forty-something, suddenly bereft of inspiration and joy. The women bake increasingly fabulous cakes and feed them to their utterly indifferent husbands. There are pithy jokes, sparkling exchanges and closely-observed kicks to the groin for a similarly middle class audience. It’s all great fun until the smart and wry commentary cracks open to reveal a savage but deeply empathetic critique of the emptiness of our consumerist culture.
Vanessa Bates’ style is beguiling. She has a light comic touch that invites an audience into what feels like a frothy, witty, delightful confection. I remember being amused by the sharp wit in Porn.Cake when I started reading it and then slowly realising that it was the sharpness of a blade. Before you know where you are, the knife is in and there’s an emotional bloodbath on stage. Bates’ great gift - if you will permit a tortured metaphor - is her forensic ability to pare both the social milieu and the inner life of her characters down to the bone.
This text marked the first venture of The Hayloft Project under the leadership of Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie. Another ‘renovation’, this time of Maxim Gorky’s The Philistines, this one proved to be a whole new take on Hayloft’s rethinking of the classics.
The Nest in this treatment is an articulation of generational independence, where the older generation is represented by a single figure (the father) and the younger by a gaggle of extraordinary and exuberant younger folk bent on a revolution of sorts – though how different from the original is a matter of debate.
One of my two favourite reviewers in Australia, Alison Croggon (for the curious my other is John McCallum) made the following observation in her review of the premiere production, which appeared on her blog (Theatre Notes) 11/12/10:
“The Nest is a scathing indictment of a bourgeois family, which in Gorky’s original play is a metaphor for Tsarist society on the brink of the Bolshevik Revolution. Here it’s shifted, with a surprising aptness, to middle class Australia: a generation that defined itself through stability, security and authority is threatened by a world of bewildering global and technological change. Anti-globalisation protests are not quite the 1917 Revolution; the Revolution has already happened. And this is key to the poignancy of this adaptation, in which the shadow of the past is a dark smudge beneath the present.”
The success of so many ‘renovation’ projects over the last few years lies in the parallel reality Croggon so sharply observes in the quote above. The Nest is – largely – a significant departure from the Gorky, but it holds the echo and the integrity of its template. The parameters here are lovingly shifted by Hardie and Sarks as a way of amplifying the wonderful impulse of the original.
The dialogue is deliciously witty, mordant and urbane, the politics suitably elastic and the moral message subtle and pluralistic. This is a very particular transliteration that favours modernity but still vibrates with theatricality, imagination and originality. To my mind, it brings Gorky firmly in to the 21st century and remakes a play - which might otherwise languish in obscurity – within a frame where its pithy and gritty social critique is refracted through a different prism - post revolution, post Perestroika: deep in the dark heart of global Capitalism.