I meant to put this up weeks ago but I got a bit distracted.
In fact, there’s a lot of things I’ve been meaning to put up. Oh well…
There were many things I liked about The Cove. And there were a few things I didn’t. But I find these days I am more interested in thinking about what worked in a show than I am dissecting its shortcomings. Which is difficult because, to misquote Tolstoy, All happy productions are alike, each unhappy production is unhappy in its own way.
Having directed a few plays, I’ve come to appreciate the myriad pitfalls and crocodiles that can wound or slay a well-intentioned production. These flaws are invariably the same (poverty of concept / overwrought concept; poor design /excessive design; underplayed acting / overplayed acting) which means that, when we talk about a play in this way, we are more akin to a plumber than anything else, reporting on whether the tap is running hot or cold.
The point of all this is merely to say that, for me, intention – dare I say, truth – is more compelling than flaws in the glass.
But it’s extremely hard to see how a critical language can be formed around something as slippery and hotly disputed as the truth. Our critical concepts are, by necessity, largely negative, whereas our idea of a perfect production is sublime, that is, essentially indescribable.
I’ve been turning over this question of how to approach theatre critically. Which is why it was such a breath of fresh air to stumble across Bob Brustein recently:
I was appalled, actually, at the fact that we would end our experience of watching a play by talking about the acting, talking about the directing, talking about the technical work, talking about the management issues, but we would never, ever, talk about the play.
Sadly this remains largely true. Most people, I think, formulate their opinion of a play by going through a kind of production checklist: what was wrong with the [insert creative element here] of the show. This sort of thinking is not only banal (mistaking surface for depth) but, in the wrong hands, can be dangerous.
Isn’t a play more than the sum of its parts?
As Brustein goes on to say:
And so I thought my most important function as a critic was to try to find out what these artists…were trying to do, and then to see whether they did that successfully. But at least to try to find out what the intention was before I rejected it.
Intention screams out of a good production. A poor production, on the other hand, is conspicuous by virtue of its absence. These aren’t concrete rules, an inscrutable production can be rewarding too. But the exception proves the rule: in theatre, the intention is all.
Which brings me back to The Cove.
I love the Dog Theatre in Footscray. It’s a hidden gem of a venue. And it’s such a healthy change for us Inner North theatre snobs to head out West (a region of Melbourne not being synonymous with live theatre) and see such talented, dedicated people making possible a night of independent theatre.
I was really there to see To Whom it May Concern, a play about an old man, soon to die of terminal illness, who cannot decide what to do with his mentally impaired son. Riddled with cancer, in excruciating pain, the old man wants to give himself over to the professional care of a hospital. But he cannot leave his son; he tries, but he cannot. It’s a portrait of a universe indifferent and entropic. It’s probably not your average punter’s idea of a good night out. But the writing is so good (restrained, effectual, relentless in pursuit of its characters) that a strange thing happens: in the midst of this wasteland, we find humour, growing like a weed out of the cracks in the pavement.
Only being able to utter one syllable “Da” is a huge challenge for an actor. But Matthew Molony achieved wonders with it. And Bruce Myles, as the father, was tender, yet brutal, careful, yet carefree, and rich with bathos. It’s a testament to the strength of these performers that they can magic up something so simple, slender, and affecting out of ultimately such a short sequence of words.
The accompanying play Somewhere in the Middle of the Night was about an old woman with dementia, losing her grip on reality, and her courageous daughter, who takes the role of death’s handmaiden. I enjoyed this piece – particularly Jan Friedl’s performance as the mother – but didn’t feel it was on par with its counterpart. There is fine material to be mined in the role-reversal between a parent and a child. Unfortunately Danielle Carter kept playing the issue, rather playing away from it, which made the dialogue feel self-conscious, and the silences hollow, rather than the other way round.
Keene’s writing is obsessively concerned with our most basic existential nightmares. His plays throw up, again and again, a world that is simultaneously callous and caring, inhumane and humane, and ask: how are we to live? This textual intention, I believe, would have been better served had all of the pieces (perhaps not all eight, but four, five, even six) been performed together. Through greater juxtaposition, as in a collection of short stories, these fragments might have started to body forth a darker, shadowy whole. As it was, this possibility was only hinted at.
Oh and where was the cove by the way?
A short disclaimer. Lok Tan & Geoff Chan – the sound designers – are close friends of mine. They have composed for the Whale on a number of occasions (Macbeth Re-Arisen, Melburnalia, and Melburnalia No. 2).