Category: Essays

Phaedra x3

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“I tried to suppress my mad feelings. That didn’t work. You can’t suppress Aphrodite.”
—Euripides (trans. Anne Carson), Hippolytus

“The first sight of him ripped my wounds open. No longer a fever in my veins, Venus had fastened on me like a trigger.”
—Racine, Phèdre

“Can’t switch this off. Can’t crush it. Can’t. Wake up with it, burning me. Think I’ll crack open I want him so much.”
—Sarah Kane, Phaedra’s Love

There are few figures in Greek mythology as tragic as Phaedra. And, if we accept Greek mythology as the benchmark of tragedy (rivalled only by the works of Shakespeare), then we must accept Phaedra as one of the most tragic figures in all of literature.

Though married to Theseus, Phaedra is in love with his son Hippolytus, her stepson. She cannot bear it. It literally makes her sick, killing her slowly. Her nurse, Oenone, tries to save Phaedra by telling Hippolytus of her symptom and the cause. Hippolytus is disgusted and threatens to tell his father. Phaedra, ashamed, kills herself, but not before leaving a note accusing Hippolytus of her crime. Theseus ends up cursing his son with the aid of Poseidon. Eventually he learns of the truth.

There are many iterations of this story in theatre. I have read three. There is the original Hippolytus by Euripides, which closely follows the above synopsis. The cause of Phaedra’s love is directly attributed to the goddess Aphrodite in this version, punishing Hippolytus for spurning love and women. Love is a tool of the gods, something humans cannot overcome. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the premise.

The second version I am familiar with is Racine’s Phèdre. In this version the gods, while blamed, are never directly attributed to the cause of Phaedra’s sickness. So, while acknowledging the Greek setting and the relevance of the Gods at the time, Racine is more concerned with the psychological ramifications of the story. In his version, Hippolytus is no longer represented as a sort of asexual figure. This is used to add an element of jealousy to Phaedra’s love for him. Overall it’s a pretty faithful retelling of the story with subtle additions that ground it in a more modern perspective.

The last version I’ve read is Sarah Kane’s tragicomic bastardisation Phaedra’s Love. Her main contribution to the story is an intense nihilism mixed with sex and profanity. With no regard for the original setting, she makes the language contemporary. It works though. It’s a fucked up play. In this version Hippolytus doesn’t rebuff Phaedra’s affections, but he doesn’t quite return them either. He just uses her for (oral) sex and rejects her. The rest of the play follows somewhat closely to the original, though filtered through grand guignol.

It’s interesting to note that the naming of the later plays is indicative of an understanding (on the playwright’s part) that the heart of the story is Phaedra rather than Hippolytus. She is the driving force behind the narrative, both her love and shame.

I love this whole fashion of taking classic stories are remodelling them to suit your own needs and intentions. And I don’t just mean in a dramaturgical sense. I don’t mean changing Macbeth to a corporate setting and cutting a couple of scenes and you’ve got a new play. That’s not a new play. That’s looking at an old play from a fresh perspective.

I’m talking about building upon the ideas of our predecessors. That to me is the crux of all writing. Firstly, we must accept no thought or idea can be truly original. Secondly, we must accept nothing is sacred. Thirdly, we must to what we can to be, above all else, honest. Forget about originality. What matters is sincerity.

Bastardise. Steal. Adapt. Translate.. Recreate. Deconstruct. Rebuild. Abridge. Expand. Mutate. Invert. These are just a few our tools as writers. We’d be foolish not to use them.

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Let’s Talk About Brecht…

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Other than William Shakespeare, is there any playwright who has shaped modern theatre more than Brecht?

I had the great pleasure of seeing the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan last Friday night. It wasn’t a flawless production (it’s certainly not a flawless play). The first scene of the play fumbled awkwardly to keep the audience’s attention. But the second half, after intermission, was a truly evocative piece of social critique, and went down like a warm glass of milk. The story of a hooker with a heart of gold who struggles to stay good under the stress of economic pressure, but can’t find stability without creating a male alter-ego, is not something from an understated drama. In fact, it’s incredibly didactic, bludgeoning you with its “ideas” and “themes” and “messages”. But it works because that’s Brecht’s intention. He asks us difficult questions but is smart (honest?) enough to know he doesn’t have any answers. Despite the fact The Good Soul of Szechuan isn’t much more than a parable, it manages to be heartfelt and humanistic, much to the credit of Robyn Malcom’s performance in the central role.

For all the “distancing effects” and ideas of “epic theatre” Brecht and his practitioners apply, there is an undeniable empathy in his works. They might be political works that attempt to make us think. But the personal is political, as it is often said. We cannot separate the two. And if we dare to turn theatre into pure spectacle and mere entertainment we do a great disservice to the medium.

If you had told me I would one day consider Brecht to be one of my favourite writers just a couple of years ago I’d have laughed and rolled my eyes at you, sarcastically retorting, “Yeah, right, mate,” in an intensely dismissive and glib fashion.

But Brecht will never be out of fashion. His messages are as pertinent as ever.

I’d like to wrap up this little tribute with a quote from the man himself. I feel Brecht’s fingers pointed directly at me as I read these words. No doubt they will only mean more to me as I grow older, echoing in my mind:

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

Theatre of Colour

“In my twenties I thought that I would write hundreds of plays. I had so many stories to tell. In my thirties I began to suspect that maybe I wouldn’t get to tell them all and by my forties I knew that that was true. I simply wouldn’t get to write them all.

And I feel a sense of grief about those stories I won’t tell. I mourn them. As it is I write and have produced a play about every five years. Two a decade. Some writers are more prolific but I’m not. Though there are films in between those plays so it’s not like I’m not working. But theatre is my first love and so I know the number of plays left is finite. I can probably count them on one hand.

And so I have resolved to make each one count.”

For the opening of the 2014 National Play Festival in Australia, Andrew Bovell delivered a powerful keynote speech, pleading for playwrights to write the stories they NEED to tell.

I’m often concerned that what I right lacks accessibility or that there is no desire to produce it, so I attempt to write what I think others will want to see. I find myself afraid of what I really want to write. This fear prevents me from expressing myself with any clarity. This has to stop. I don’t want to end up having written maybe two or three plays I barely like because I never pushed myself towards truth.

Bovell also talked about the whiteness of theatre, which is something prevalent not just in Australia. I see it in the theatre scene in New Zealand too. And, of course, a predominately European country is going to shaped heavily by the western canon of great theatre.

At this moment in our history I find myself hungry for content…. For plays that are saying something. I want meat on the bone. I want to think. I want to be upset. I want to be shocked and shaken. I sense a rise of conservatism in this country. A narrowing of opportunity. A widening of the gap between rich and poor. Between black and white. A meanness of spirit has crept in to the social discourse. I want to challenge it. I want to get in its way. And I don’t know if we can do that with Chekhov anymore.

Now, I for one, love Chekhov. Love Brecht. Love Shakespeare. But when Bovell said, “Australia is not a white nation. Australia is not an Anglo-Celtic nation. Australia is not a Christian nation. We are much more than that,” I couldn’t help but nod my head in agreement. Agreement in a universal sense, rather than at Australia specifically. Where is the colour in our theatre?

The Auckland theatre scene, for example, is predominately white, despite the fact that 23.1% of the population identified themselves as Asian in the 2013 census. This year I have only seen one “Asian” play, Lantern put on by PAT, and a compilation of scenes from various plays, to form ASIAN INVASION, performed by Ensemble Impact. It’s a noticeable absence that leaves one wondering WHY? Does it not perpetuate the false idea of Asians as being purely academic types? Is there really not much room for ethnic or coloured theatre?

I refuse to believe that.

And that’s why I write. Not because I’m necessarily any good. Not because I know what I’m doing. Not because I’m saying anything that unique. But because of a lack of visibility. Because it is too easy to say it’s not our job to tell those overlooked and unknown stories. Because if I don’t do it then why should anyone else?

So, I will strive. I’ll do what I can to write stories that shed some light on aspects of our culture others would rather ignore. The stories I want to see that haven’t been written. That’s my promise to myself. Let’s just see if I can keep it.

Ozu Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Addressing Tokyo Sonata

tokyo_storyTokyo_Sonata
The title itself echoes that of Ozu’s critically acclaimed Tokyo Story. But this is not Ozu’s Tokyo. The Tokyo of Tokyo Sonata is not postwar Japan of the 1950s; it is the Tokyo during the global recession of the late 2000s. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Tokyo Sonata, like Ozu, is concerned with Japan’s nuclear family and the very fabric of Japanese society in times of crisis. Unlike Ozu, Kurosawa is traditionally an auteur of the J-horror variety, dealing with cyber-ghosts and serial-killers. But he manages to construct a fairly meticulous domestic drama and blend it with elements of suspense and dread.

Though Ozu was never overtly socio-political with his messages, he had an understated understanding of the way social conditions created the climate we live in. Kurosawa, however, is directly concerned with these climates and the inevitable chain reaction that occurs when a family member falls victim to its conditions. Specifically, he is interested in the male head of the Japanese family – the father and patriarchal figure – after he loses his job and tries to hide it. What happens to the rest of the household? The dutiful housewife must continue to play her subordinate role; the eldest son is compelled to join the army; and the youngest son finds himself drawn towards piano lessons they can’t afford. Only lies and secrets hold this family together. This modern-day Tokyo that Kurosawa envisions is a place of desolation and repressed emotion. However, he isn’t solely blaming this on the economic climate. The members of the family seem to be very insular even before the father loses his job. The financial crisis that afflicts them is merely the catalyst for a family breakdown. But maybe a necessary breakdown. A cathartic breakdown.

I never had the pleasure of watching Tokyo Sonata at the cinema; It was never released locally here in New Zealand, at least as far as I’m aware of. There is this idea that Japanese cinema is too foreign for Westerners. This idea plagued the international distribution of Ozu’s films when they were first released. And this idea continues to plague Tokyo Sonata which still has not been released on DVD in the Australasian region. But, make no mistake about it, these worlds are not so different from ours.

In Ozu’s Tokyo, the character’s are taught to bear their grins even in the face of crushing disappointment. This is does not seem possible to us; we are not Ozu’s people, though we understand their suffering. In Kurosawa’s Tokyo, his people are crushed by disappointment, but there is the possibility of rebirth and new beginnings. Hope is all we have. And sometimes that’s enough.

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Notes on Masculinity, Part Two: Five Easy Pieces; Night and Day

THE WOMEN
These lusty, lost boys.
So in love with all the
Girls – their toys. So often
Praising the wonder
Of their bodies and breasts
But often failing to
Understand what lies
Yonder.

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Notes on Masculinity, Part One: Five Easy Pieces; Night and Day

What makes a man a man? It’s a question that hangs over both Bobby and Sung-Nam in Five Easy Pieces and Night and Day, respectively.

ALONENESS
Man is a solitary creature.
Or so he likes to say.
He often longs for company.
He often wants to play.
Yet in his heart
He feels the void
And, perhaps,
He cannot stay. So
He does what he’s
Always done.
He runs.
He runs
Away.

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Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son

ozu's motto the only son and his mother

Best known as Ozu’s first talkie (sound film), The Only Son (1936) is a highly accomplished domestic drama that would set the bar for all his subsequent features. It tells the story of a hardworking single mother who sacrifices what little life she has left to give her only son a chance at a future. She sends him to study in Tokyo, the city of opportunities, as she is led to believe that’s the right thing to do, after a talk with her son’s schoolteacher. Then time passes. Thirteen years, to be exact. The mother goes to Tokyo to visit her son and discovers he has a wife and a baby. He is also, to her disappointment, working as a night school teacher. Not quite what she had imagined for her son’s future. Not quite what she thought she had given up so much for.

If the plot sounds familiar it’s probably because it is. The central theme of shared disappointment between parent and child is a recurring motif in Ozu’s ouevre. It seems to be a precursor to something like Tokyo Story. The theme is even highlighted at the beginning of the film with a quote by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutogawa: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” This may as well be Ozu’s mantra.

What makes The Only Son standout is its narrative and structural elements you don’t normally find in Ozu’s films (at least not the ones I am familiar with). The first 15-minutes of the film are devoted to the life of the mother, dealing with her job as an employee at a silk-weaving factory, exploring her financial restraints, and showing her initial reluctance to give her son a proper education. And then, as previously mentioned, time passes. Such elliptical storytelling isn’t unique to Ozu’s films, as he often would omit essential plot details and jump ahead in time, but it was rare to see him jump so far ahead that actor’s have to be cast to play their older counterparts.

The remaining 65-minutes of the film are fascinating in their introduction of storylines that seem to mirror the central one: the reappearance of the son’s school teacher, who also moved to Tokyo in search of greener pastures, now working in a seemingly dead restaurant; and a neighbour’s son who is injured trying to impress his friends into letting him play with their baseball glove, because his mother can’t afford to buy him one.

The most gut-wrenching scene of the film occurs when the titular son wakes up to find his mother unable to go to bed. He understands why. She is concerned for his wellbeing and disappointed by his position in life. He too is disappointed by life’s meagre offerings, but doesn’t know what else to do. She insists he must overcome all the necessary obstacles – to try harder. To be a great man, like he promised as a child. He says he cannot. She says he must. After all, she has given up everything for him and is now stuck living in the very factory she works; her house was sold to fund her son’s future. And, suddenly and unexpectedly, we hear crying. The only son’s wife has been listening to the conversation – awaken by their distress. She, like the audience, understands how filled with disappointment their lives are.

This scene is impeccably constructed. Ozu presents a domino effect of disappointment. Each character in the house is presented in a series of consecutive shots, each one visibly upset, except the final character, the sleeping baby. Ozu then bookends this moment of great tragedy in his usual way, with a pillow shot (narratively-unrelated shot of scenery). Perhaps he does this to let us digest the profound sadness we have only just witnessed. This pillow shot – of and empty room in the house – lasts for approximately a whole minute. We are forced take this moment in, to contemplate it, whether we want to or not.

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In Ozu’s world, people are faced with disappointments throughout their day-to-day lives, the weight of responsibility and expectation. He wants to show us the world in all its relatable imperfection. The least we can do is accept and acknowledge the existence of these truths rather than blithely ignoring them. After all, he must have gone through great pains to show us these things. No art this honest is made without some sort of suffering.

Thoughts on Saved

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Saved
A play by Edward Bond

(NOTE: The following mini-essay contains spoilers for the aforementioned play.)

First thing’s first, I am not easily shocked. Second thing, Edward Bond’s Saved shocked me.

I didn’t have the (dis)pleasure of seeing it on the stage, and it is doubtful I ever will. But merely reading the words on the page gave me a glimpse of something deeply disturbing. Saved is a play that is rarely staged due to its infamous scene: A group of hooligans are messing around at a park. Pam, a young single mother, comes around with her baby in a pram to find one of the hooligans – the father of the child. He refuses to acknowledge the child as his. They argue, she storms off, and leaves the child behind. This is where things get messy. The hooligans begin to tease and torture the child, treating it with less compassion than if it were a farm animal. At first they just pretend the pram is a weapon to mow each other down with. But, soon enough, they begin pinching and punching the baby, then smearing its own shit all over it. Finally, the violence escalates into a game of stone-throwing with the child as the target.

There’s nothing quite as horrific as this moment, but the most shocking thing is the play’s determination to grasp at any grains of hope it can find. Most of the play’s characters are devoid of much humanity but they aren’t inhuman. They are symbols and products of social discord: men and women without jobs or dreams. We have but one ray of hope throughout the play: Len, the dopey but well-meaning lad who moves in with Pam and her parents at the beginning of the play as their tenant. He lingers around doing what he can, not quite friend or family but there nonetheless. He exists as evidence of some remaining moral compass in society and proof of possibility, though we don’t yet know what possibility that may be.

In the final moments of the play, Len is sitting down in the living room with Pam and her parents in silence. There has been conflict and strife. Pam has lost her child but seems to lash out with superficial concerns, blaming all those around her. Her parents have had a terrible fight after years of barely talking to each other. Len is at the center of all this though none of it is his fault. He could move out and start again, but that would be running away. So, he stays. He takes their broken chair and attempts to fix it. It is not easy to be optimistic and it certainly isn’t a happy ending. But it’s a start.

In Praise of Non-Traditional Venues

Shakespeare's Problems at Lucha Lounge

“If the stage cannot be richer than the text then let it be poorer.” –  Jerzy Grotowski

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Shakespeare’s Problems directed by Patrick Graham. It contained three abridged problem plays (named as such because they are not easily categorised as comedy or tragedy) from Shakespeare’s canon: Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well.

It was staged at the Lucha Lounge, which can be described as a tiny indie music bar, using the floor as the stage. Not your usual venue for theatre, let alone Shakespeare’s plays. The main bar and backdoor area was crammed full of about two dozen people. It was an incredibly intimate experience if you were comfortable enough to immerse yourself into the narrative. Ay, there’s the rub: comfort. A couple of people ended up spilling over the edge from where they could see the actors or were forced to sit or stand in awkward positions. Being so close yet unable to ease into the show can cause a sort of unintentional distancing effect.

But I have nothing but praise for any theatre company putting something of quality on for what I imagine to be a shoe-string budget. The performances are passionate and filled with clarity, and the excerpts from each play standalone effectively, despite a lot of context being trimmed out. I even found myself ruminating over the possibilities of potential plays for different types of non-traditional venues too, and the ways to optimise such venues.

In Shakespeare’s Problems, the scene that achieved a unique closeness and intimacy was the dialogue between Parolles and Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well regarding virginity. This was doubly due to the fact I had one of the best seats in the house for that particular moment, as the actors sat in a tiny corner out the back of the bar. This goes to show that a key element in non-traditional venues should be: blocking and comfortable seating. These are obvious and crucial elements in theatre normally, but in this scenario they are almost as important as the performance itself in creating an air of intimacy.

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Another notable example of non-traditional venue use in New Zealand theatre is Eli Kent’s The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, originally staged in the confines of his bedroom. The basis of the story revolves around a road trip between two twentysomething mates. Simple enough stuff, but the ingenuity of turning one’s bedroom into this private world where we, the audience of no more than a dozen or so people, are gifted with the privilege to enter, is such a beautiful and moving conceit. The room becomes the vehicle of not only the road trip, but the vehicle to express themselves privately too. I never had the opportunity to see this show, but I have read the script and its reputation as great fringe theatre precedes itself.

vanya audience

The most famous international example of a non-traditional venue is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya directed by Andre Gregory. The basic idea was to gather a small group of actors together and rehearse Uncle Vanya for no one but themselves in a run-down, abandoned theatre (without a proper stage). Eventually they decided to invite a few close friends and family to see it. Then they started inviting strangers from the street. And, finally, they invited filmmaker Louis Malle to capture it forever on film (Vanya on 42nd Street). These days it is considered the definitive production of Uncle Vanya (if such thing can exist) by many people, superior to those stiff, dry, almost academic BBC iterations. One could say the show had more in common with a sweet kiss than some broadway spectacle. Should that not be the goal of great theatre?

What Happened to Queer Cinema?

AnotherGayMovie

Somewhere along the line, after the shift towards mainstream gay acceptance, queerness in cinema died. Queer in the truest sense, not just films with gay characters, but unabashedly gay characters who challenge the status quo.

What do I mean I say “queer?” I mean strange, odd, different. And, most especially, transgressive and possibly shocking. Something that feels at odds with the rest of both mainstream heterosexual and mainstream gay culture. I’m talking about  films by directors such as Derek Jarman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Kenneth Anger; or the earlier efforts by guys still working in the business today: Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and John Waters. But, if contemporary LGBTI film festivals are any indicator, these transgressive punks of cinema have been replaced by a new wave of gay filmmaking. Films aimed at gay audiences but with commercial sensibilities, filled with contrived plots and lazy characterizations – like Eating Out (2004) or Another Gay Movie (2006).Blue-is-the-Warmest-Color

Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) was a welcome addition to the gay film canon, but it wasn’t queer in the truest sense. It was encumbered by – a term I generally avoid – the “straight male gaze.” A film etched in class differences more so than concerns of queer expression, though it was undoubtedly a film with queer content: romantic and erotic female relationships, explicit lesbian sex scenes, and the questioning of one’s sexual orientation. At the end of the day, director Abdellatif Kechiche made a beautiful film, arguably great even, but it is a film in the vein of (but much better than) Brokeback Mountain (2005) – successful in intention and execution, but aimed at a non-queer audience. They are studies of characters with an ambivalence towards their sexuality rather than a celebration of it.

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In Gus Van Sant’s debut feature film, Mala Noche (1986), we meet Walt, a gay store clerk. He falls in love – sudden, unrequited, obsessive love – with a boyish Mexican immigrant. At one point he even declares, “I have to show him that I’m gay for him.” Gay. Gay. Gay. This film is very gay. It’s not the sort of politically-charged work Van Sant’s later, but still successful, Milk (2008) is, with big stars and big locations. It’s free from the shackles and burdens of money, as well as its obvious benefits. It’s the work of a young gay director attempting to share something intimate. It is queerness personified, unfettered by any studio system or mainstream accolades.

in the  family

That is not to say that contemporary cinema lacks radical queer filmmaking. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004) and Patrick Wang’s In the Family (2011) are all striking examples of queer films made within the last decade that feel unapologetic and radical in their own ways. Weekend for its unabashedly gay riff on David Lean’s Brief Encounter and authentic male-on-male sex; Tropical Malady for its unrelenting elliptical take on homosexual desire through surprising narrative structure; and In the Family for its endlessly empathetic depiction of the domestic drama from an outsider’s perspective.

Maybe it is the growing acceptance of the gay community in most of modern society that is the very cause for queer cinema’s lack of queerness. There is no desire to fight for something the community believes they have won. No longer do filmmakers want to offend the heterosexual sensibilities of others – or the heterosexual sensibilities they themselves have adopted. I’m personally not quite ready for queer cinema to assimilate and lose itself to cheesy rom-com sentiments or mainstream-arthouse sensibilities. There is always something to rebel against. Now we just need to find it.