I almost missed this show.
So many people independently told me it wasn’t worth a crumpet that I actually believed them. Which just goes to show, when the mass of opinion runs against a piece of theatre, it usually pays to investigate further.
As it turned out it was only because of the determined campaigning of a friend that I found myself sitting in the half-empty Sumner theatre for the closing matinee.
How wrong I was to doubt. This was a truly stunning production and, despite its obvious complexity, more rewarding than anything I have seen this year.
I realise that I am far, far too late to contribute to the critical discussion that has been unfolding online. So much has already been said over at Theatre Notes that it hardly seems worth adding a trickle to the flood. Nevertheless I want to post a few comments, if I may, mainly for my own clarity of thinking
The fact that The Man from Mukinupin has received such a bipolar reaction from audiences warrants investigation. Why have so many people to walked out on it during interval? Why have so many people dismissed it so spitefully (“worst show I have ever seen”) and argued so vehemently against it?
Sure, it is a shaggy beast, dramaturgically jagged and by contemporary standards overladen. But so is Shakespeare. And no one in their right mind would walk out of a performance of Hamlet. Audiences will suffer any degree of butchery or boredom for the sake of what they think is canonical.
And yet Shakespeare was, in every way, Hewett’s dramatic blueprint. As Peter Brook says:
It is through Shakespeare’s unreconciled opposition of Rough and Holy, through an atonal screech of absolutely unsympathetic keys that we get the disturbing and unforgettable impression of his plays. It is because the contradictions are so strong that they burn on us so deeply.
This same contrapuntal energy drives The Man from Mukinupin. It is her conscious intermingling of opposites, of high and low culture, that makes Hewett’s such a unique voice. Various theatrical styles – from vaudeville and country town players, to musical and dance, to high poetics and Henry Lawson bush ballads, to Coleridge, Shakespeare, Milton and other literary giants – vie openly for our attention. We have to be on our toes lest it all seem a jumbled mess. But that is only to say that it’s not easy. Just because something is complex or difficult does not make it bad theatre. Since when did theatre become synonymous with digestible? Why should a work not hold out against the audience; again, does anyone accuse Shakespeare of being too hard and therefore no good?
Leading on from this, it seems a great many people have been confused by Brechtian aspects in the production.
Brechtian strategies of representation are usually explained by way of alienation. In this regard, it would seem, the production may have been too sucessful. (Which begs the question, how does one alienate an audience that reads irony as poor production values?) There is, for example, Enoch’s use of whiteface (the inverse of traditional theatrical blackface) which draws ironic attention to itself and foregrounds the representation of race within the theatrical world as inherently cross-racial.
Or there is the brilliant use of the washing-line (the scrim) which forces a 2-dimensionality upon the playing space and behind which (as shadows) and infront of which (as stereotypes) the actors present deliberately flat characters. This makes for a wonderful contrast when the production switches between day and night (light and dark sides of the town) and the shadows on the washing-line (Plato’s cave wall) become a whole new set of characters: repressed ghosts, colonial outcasts, drunkards, flashers, and touch of the tar. Again, it adds to the confusion, but I felt it was an inspired choice to have the same actors (Craig Annis & Suzannah Bayes-Morton) playing Jack/Harry and Polly/Lilly as it made clear that their characters were simply negative images or yin-yang opposites of the same coin.
And none of it was out of step with Hewett’s text. It’s all there on the page. What’s not is the shimmering clarity of Enoch’s vision, which for me has done for The Man from Mukinupin what Benedict Andrews did for The Season at Sarsaparilla.
There were moments of geniune power and pathos which combined with instances of side-splitting humour: the ridiculously overblown perfomance of Othello’s smothering of Desdemona had me almost wetting my pants with laughter (especially since I was AD on Bell Shakespeare’s recent production of Othello and had watched that scene play out an hundred times in the rehearsal room).
This truly was a triumphant production which raised kept raising the bar in terms of sheer, uncompromising layering of depth and detail.
The Man from Mukinupin deserved to pack out its final weeks. And yet, while this diamond in the rough has gone largely unnoticed (at least in terms of ticket sales) every man, woman and legless dog has gone barking mad over August: Osage County (which in my opinion was largely forgettable).
It raises, I think, some important questions about Melbourne’s cultural mileiu and what possesses cultural capital here. Is it that we are no longer willing to give time and space to the poetic or baroque? Or is it that we cannot appreciate stories that critique our national identity?
The debate around the revival of Wake in Fright is an interesting case in point. As Kate Jennings argues in the Monthly:
Australians are intensely uncomfortable with being served themselves straight up, neat, on the rocks. When Wake In Fright was released, Colin Bennett in the Age feared for its box-office fate for that very reason: “Is it an Australian trait, a blind spot in our character, to refuse to see ourselves as others see us unless it be blatantly satirical?”
We spend so much time scratching around in the chookyard of Australian theatre looking for the next great play or film. Perhaps we ought to stop digging up worms and embrace our unruly, uncompromising writers of yesteryear.
Patrick White has been at last accepted onto the stage. It seems we are not yet ready for Dorothy Hewet.