Friday, 24 June 2011
I had heard mixed reports about Dublin’s Abbey Theatre’s show ‘Terminus’. Some people had chucked in their tickets, not bothering to go after they’d heard it was an indulgent & static application of verse. Others raved about the power of storytelling. As much as it may distress you (hit unsubscribe now if this is you), I am closer to the latter than I am the former.
So before I get stuck in to what made it work for me, I feel compelled to stand on my soap box and ask when Australia and the Arts are going to invest in developing our writers? What Ireland seems to do so well is recognise that developing a National voice through their writers, of all ages, is the spine of good theatre. Let’s start with a story worth telling and a voice worth hearing before we start dressing the stage with everything else. Australian mainstream theatre produces less than 30% of local works as opposed to 70% in most other countries. And throwing Australian works into a theatre without significant script development and workshop opportunities can be as dangerous as swimming with sharks. Those writers who understand the importance of developing their work in collaboration with actors, designers, directors and a dramaturge have the opportunity to extend some wonderful ideas and drafts into the most fluid and powerful pieces of theatre. Take Andrew Bovell’s ‘When The Rain Stops Falling’ as one of the most obvious examples of this process at its best. So it is no wonder that there is a scarcity of Australian works that are even harder to sell to an audience when they do come along, because they have been left to foster their own talent and call in every favour to try to develop their work in some independent theatre in what still feels like a draft form. It’s about time the Government & Arts got more substantially behind our theatre writers of all ages and not leave them in a vacuum to find their voice- and those lucky few who get some assistance are still in need of further opportunities to fine tune their work. Theatre is one of the most powerful tools to capture what is happening in society at any given time. Theatre should contribute to the spiritual life of a nation. What a pity most of the voices we hear come from somewhere else and we don’t think our own are worth hearing or developing.
Mark O’Rowe’s ‘Terminus’ is a beautiful weave of three voices who share their stories of one fateful night in Dublin and how their lives interconnect during the course of the recounting of those events. O’Rowe, writer & director states “The monologue can express isolation like no other form” and what is captured with great skill in the performance of these monologues is the disconnection of the characters from those around them and from their own desires and emotions. I must admit, the staging of the play in its simplicity is an easy critical target for an audience. Actors stand and expressively tell their story and apart from a short overlap, sit down on the stage until their story recommences. All of this is framed with the shards of a mirror, the cracked lives of those whose stories unfold before us and the dim lighting comes from a concentrated spot that only seeps between characters in the tiny moments of isolated dialogue and at the end when all stories connect. It is reminiscent of the stylings of Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, where the actor’s entire body is utilised in telling the story without the need of anything else on stage. We are used to the theatricality of the neon lights and gold tinsel to sell action. But ‘Terminus’, although expressed in the form of three parallel monologues, evokes such a picture of action that I can visualise the locations, characters referred to, actions, emotions and relationships. I saw the violence, the rescue, the chase, the twisting of intestines hanging from the crane- each moment delivered to us with such imagery and passion. And not only did I see it, I felt it.
There is a deceptive simplicity to the presentation that Sydney audiences rarely expect but make no mistake, there is some terrific acting happening here. There was tremendous skill in being able to communicate the language of the text and embody the lives of the characters. I will admit, the rhythm of the verse was a little alienating at first but once the first beat of monologues finished, the actors and I seemed to have struck some communion and I was right there with them. And here’s the rub….I cared about what happened to each and every one of them. We want them to be victorious- even the most repulsive of characters. We want them to have their moment of redemption. Now how’s that for clever writing and performance- you made me care about your characters and not a glass box in sight.
Every nuance of the character came alive to me in this controlled and engaging delivery of storytelling. As Mamet would say “All that is under control is your intention” and Mamet created his system of Practical Aesthetics as a way of working with the actors that fit the needs of the writer. So it is not surprising, given the director, Mark O’Rowe, was also the playwright of ‘Terminus’, that he has employed, even unknowingly, some of Mamet’s ideals. Acting is about what the characters do. This does not mean they have to ‘do’ them on stage. I see their actions in their descriptions, manipulated through their expression and attitude towards those events. The actions, presented through the craft of the actor’s body and voice, are deciphered from the script. I think that’s why I was so surprised by one gentleman’s question in the post-show Q&A when he asked why he had spent all this money to see what he felt was a radio play. Oh dear. Where do I start? Is this what we have trained Sydney audiences to think? Do we rely on & expect elaborate design, aimless intentions and trickery posing as substance before we can call it theatre? What happened to the beauty of the story and the skill of the actor in expressing it without needing a barrel of monkeys, a crate of bananas and a well-placed duck? Well put your cardigan back on, adjust your man bag and quietly leave before you make a fool of yourself.
Look, I’m all for a big design, a jumble of symbols and a brass razoo if it enhances the work, but honestly, it would have been completely out of place here. It’s as redundant as the fat clinging to my thighs. I know we’ve been treated to so much good theatre to come out of Ireland over the last decade. The work of McDonagh has probably got the most attention in the mainstream sphere and perhaps audiences are under the mistaken idea that all Irish plays involve a frantic action sequence involving sadistic torture, a mallet through the head, a few missing digits or a dead cat. The work of Conor McPherson is probably a closer relative to O’Rowe’s play in its favouring of the solo story amongst its audience of characters.
All I ask is that you put your predilection for elaborate action and staging aside and just enjoy the beauty of acting and storytelling in this form.