Theatre watched: Polyphony – Daniel Kitson @ Comedy Festival. A Servant of Two Masters – Circa
Don Juan – Circa. A Doll’s House – ATC. Titus Andronicus – Globe On Screen
I’m the first to admit I’ve never had an original idea in my head. Doing a monthly round up of the shows I’ve seen is a direct steal from Nick Hornby’s column “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” from Believer Magazine (thanks Lily Richards). But I’m nicking this for a high-minded reason: Rosabel Tan wrote an essay on contemporarty criticism for Ellie Catton’s new website. I commented on the social gulf that seeems to exist between theatre critics and practitioners. We’re far less likely to actually talk to each other than sports journalists are to athletes, and I think that’s to the detriment of everyone. Surely what separates the commentator from the general punter is having superior access to the inner workings of the thing you’re banging on about. Anyway, I thought it might be useful to be a bit more public about what I’m watching and what I think about it. In an ideal world it would foster a bit of debate, but look at the length of it! Who could process all those words? So it’s mainly for my own benefit.
I’d travel a long way to see a Daniel Kitson show, but I never have to because he always comes to me. What I like about him is how he treats himself as an artist and his audience. I first saw him fifteen years ago at an open mic night in London. He was a perrier-award nominated stand-up comedian and his ability shone almost as brightly as his restlessness with the limitations of the form. My take-away as an eighteen year-old was that making people laugh isn’t satisfying enough in itself. Especially if you’re smart. I didn’t become a stand-up comic. While Geoff and I were making On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover, Kitson was touring international festivals proving to us that there was an exciting space between stand-up and theatre - just where we were experimenting. In New York I saw Kitson in his majesty at Barrow St theatre. He punctuated stand-uppish banter with a recorded story, which looped and extended a little further each time he played it. The longer it went on, the more it made him seem like a cunt, and that in turn affected the way you listened to his jokes. The same kind of material that seemed light-hearted and quirky earlier took on sinister tones as the voice on the tape recounted a tale of how Kitson sexually humilated some poor woman. Just at the point where you don’t know whether to laugh or hiss, you get to the end of the pre-recorded story. Turns out that a playful conversation had become fixed in the storyteller’s head as a real incident. The terrible marriage between memory and reality. Boom. That took balls. The second time I saw him in NY, the famous talker hardly opened his mouth, and spent the whole night retrieving reel-to-reel recorders from the back of the cavernous St Ann’s Warehouse. He’d bring them to the front of the stage, plug them into a sound desk and play them in the right order. A story came out. Sometimes a tape would break, and that was the end of that part of the story. People who wanted the Daniel Kitson they’d heard of walked out in a steady stream and missed a profound meditation on the fallibility of memory. Every time I start to get worried about generating a consistent ‘brand’ in my work, I remind myself of how Kitson doesn't give a fuck. He makes a play. Then he makes another. Then another. That's how he's unmistakably Daniel Kitson.
In Polyphony (we’re there, that took a while) he delivers a deceptively rambling intro and places individual speakers in the hands of particular audience members. Everyone presses play at the same time, cueing an extraordinary play in which he talks to the various voices. This time, it’s not about memory, it’s about the future. At the time, I was a bit frustrated that most of the play revolves around the voices wanting to know what’s going to happen in the play, and DK refusing tell them. Then it's over. I felt at the time that he hadn’t taken his material beyond the form to use it to talk about whatever unspecified thing I felt was more important. Then, just now writing this, I realise that we as an audience have been trained to ask ‘what happens next’ in stories instead of just sitting and experiencing the present. It took me four weeks to realise that, and it's now the official only possible interpretation of the whole show. Copyright me.
I’m ranting on about Kitson, but he’s worth it. Much of his shtick involves the liveness of his relationship with the audience. It reminds me of a Kanye West lyric: “the moment they like you/ make ‘em unlike you/cos kissing people’s ass is so unlike you.” Without knowing him at all, what I take heed of in Kitson is his seeming ability to both give and not give a shit. Where my audience interaction is all about fawning disarmingly, he openly takes control. I don’t like it in my own work, but I appreciate seeing it done well. In New York I saw him tear a woman to shreds for checking her phone, and in this one he cuts a woman short when she can’t play her part in the show because she’s just emerged from a long term coma. “Keep it light,” he growls, “we’ve all been in long term comas.” It’s a power game. Daddy’s going to be rough on you, but it’s so you feel safe.
Kitson’s exactly the kind of person that I’d imagine myself getting on with, so I shook his hand at the end, and hawked around for a while trying to work up the courage to ask him to dinner. Vaughan Slinn pulled this trick off with Robert LePage a few years back. But as I waited, I remembered my terrible and humiliating experience trying to talk to Shayne Carter. I decided that like tigers, these magnificent beasts are best observed in their natural environment, and from a distance. Kitson’s a creature of the stage. That’s the beginning and end of our relationship. I left him to it and went to slurp some pho.
I can’t talk about A Servant of Two Masters without talking about my preconceptions going in: Lee Hall’s translation is a poor man’s One Man Two Guvnors; Circa obviously couldn’t get the rights to the real thing; neither the cast or director are experienced in comedia; it’s going to be dire. So firm were my convictions that I wouldn’t have gone except that Colin McColl had a spare ticket. I enjoy his company and was planning to grease up to him for a new commission. At first, things couldn’t have looked less promising. The set was all painted cloths like a provincial 1960s am-dram. There were only 60 people in the 300-seat theatre. Rest-home demographic. Then the actors came out in doublets and hose. Death. From there things perk up. The cast was uniformally excellent, playing with each other and the audience. My knowledge of OM2G caused me to waste too much time wishing that big man Gavin Rutherford was playing the harlequin character rather than the greyhound who got the job; I couldn’t ever bring myself to believe food drove any of his motivations. The only thing that could have improved this was if they were a working commedia troupe, or if they got to run the play in over six months, then their good work would sharpen into something wicked. Anything else I could suggest was delivered in spades by Don Juan, which I’ve written about at length, and no one went to that. So I don’t know anything.
When I comment on this type of play I feel like a young man of the cloth who thinks Christianity could be so much funkier and more relevant than the bishops allow it to be. My mistake is to forget that many of the people who actually go to church prefer a quiet communion, and funking it up will alienate the current congregation without attracting any new replacements. As it was, the show had a great cast, some good laughs and the audience there was seemed most satisfied. Maybe that’s enough.
A Doll’s House was an adaptation of Ibsen’s play by novellist and trained actor Emily Perkins. Watching it was a Damascus experience. Lightning right in the eye. Why waste my life making up new plots? This way, audiences get to engage with a classic and a new piece of NZ writing AT THE SAME TIME. Everyone wins. Emily* gets to pit her sensibilites against Ibsen, and come out looking very perceptive indeed. The cast get to create a new role and be compared to all the great Noras and Torvalds of history. In Emily’s adaptation, Nora and her husband live in some kind of solar-powered, tank-water-drinking eco-experiment, and I loved how the restrictions of traditional marriage have been replaced by their own eco-nazi bullshit, which Nora buys into for as long as she can. To me the whole thing hinges on one line – “I haven’t been happy, I’ve been cheerful.” Laurel Devenie is a great friend, but I will start a fight with anyone who denies she’s the best stage actor in New Zealand. If you think I’m wrong, bring your arguments or your fists – either way I’ll batter you. The biggest compliment I can pay this show is that it made me want to do a translation right now. Home fucking run. I’ve already got the first act of Our Town down for anyone who wants to see.
I imagine the main point of controversy would have been the set. It’s played in a pit of stuffed panda bears. Why Rabbit, why? Like Daniel, Tony’s never going to give you what you want, but he’s probably going to give you something that’s much better for you. His aluminium ladders for my play On the Upside Down of the World were inspired, and at the time I thought his pit of pandas was treat. An artificial softness that they all roll round in ‘till the shit hits the fan. Then Christian Penny suggested something I thought was intriguing – another option is that the set could have been much warmer. Arguable, I know, and this is not an invitiation for Rabbit to run me over in one of his segways (he’s got the licence to import them into NZ), but I think Christian has an interesting point. As is, the set tells us where we’re going - recognition of the ultimate coldness of artificial comfort. But we already know the plot of A Doll’s House – we know where Nora’s going to get to. How’s about showing us how a smart, kind woman like her fucked up so badly in the first place? Let’s make that eco-paradise look like the dream that got them into this pickle. Warm, natural acres of green for healthy kids to run around under big skies and clean air. Then, as the play goes on, we, like the charcters come to realise that all that organic environmental paradise is worthless compared to a scrap of true human connection.
Then to Titus. These on-screen shows from NT, Young Vic, Globe and Met etc. are a gamechanger for me. For the first time in my writing life I don’t need to travel to London and sit in the cheapest seat in the house to realise how far my practices are from the best in the world. The best thing I’ve seen all year anywhere in the world is the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Lighthouse Cuba in Wellington.
Titus reminded me why Shakespeare is the king. His use of audience contrasts wildly with Kitson's. Shakespeare just does it. He doesn’t need to talk about it. One minute the crowd’s a Roman mob, helping give Titus the best entrance ever, through the throng on a slave-borne chariot. A couple of hours later, they’re a gothic army getting ready to rape and pillage themselves from before. This is immersive theatre. And the audience don’t have to do a thing. Being there is enough for them to know they’re important. Also, for the first time in three Tituses, I understood the plot. Man it’s rough. Most Hollywood stories start off with a protagonist who’s lovable and pitiable in the same measure. Something exciting happens to turn his (it’s usually a he) life upside down and he gets to be Spiderman (it’s usually Spiderman). Then, in act three he combines his newfound spider powers with the everyman qualities he had at the start to save the world and fuck the girl. Hooray. Titus is the opposite. He starts out as a superhero. His loyalty to Rome causes him to turn down the chance to be Emperor in favour of the traditionally rightful heir. From there, his determination to do the proper thing makes his life worse and worse till he’s stabbed his own son to death, seen his daughter raped and mutilated, and chopped off his own hand to save two other sons only to see them beheaded. Understandably he goes a bit crazy. Moral of the story: park where you like. There’s no reward for being a good citizen. Thankfully (for the audience) all this denegration leaves you in no doubt that Titus is going to go Rambo-apeshit on the whole damn pack of them.
To say that the third act is a little disappointing seems churlish. Especially when the climax involves him cutting up his enemies, baking them in a pie and feeding them to their evil bitch of a mother. Then he tells her, slams her face in her son pie and stabs her in the neck. It’s not so much what happens that’s a downer, but how. Titus spends most of the play suffering as a tragic character and ultimately vanquishes his foes as a comic one. To offer some dramaturgial advice to Shakespeare: the resolution is a bit shit compared to what’s gone on before. His enemies get caught when they decide for no reason at all to put on masks and appear before him pretending to be ghosts or something. But I forgive Bill everything for the moor, Aaron, who is a better villain than Iago, though not a cleverer one. He wins a tight contest for best murder in the play by sticking a sword up a midwife’s twat. He gets the best exit I’ve ever seen, borne to his awful death begging God to forgive him for any good deed he’s ever done. What I learned from this one is that the key to horror is humour. There’s lots of laughs. It leads to an unsettling effect that benefits both comedy and drama, before, in my indisputable opinon, taking over a bit too much at the end.
So all in all, my first month back has been a thought-provoking return to New Zealand theatre. A lot to like, and a lot to think about.
* Whenever I'm on a first name basis with someone I'm gonna try and use their first name.
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