Friday, March 30, 2007
Review: The Nightwatchman
Reunion Dramas, and their close cousins, Memory Plays, have become trustworthy and reliable friends in the world of theatre literature. There is the parable of The Prodigal Son. There is Arthur Miller's The Price and Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond. There is Catherine Hayes' memorably sardonic Skirmishes, which I saw at La Mama many, many moons ago. There is Brian Friels' Dancing at Lughnasa, the original Abbey Theatre production of which I was fortunate enough to see the night it opened on London's West End. And there is Daniel Keene's The Nightwatchman, commissioned by La Compagnie des Docks, Boulogne, France.
They are complex beasts, these reliable friends of ours. They are prone to sentimentality and over-embellishment. They can, in fact, occasionally be prone toward the very anithesis of reliability ... and sometimes even downright deceitfulness. They can be selfish, pre-possessing friends who are so wrapped up in the wonder of their own recollection that the fact we are bothering to engage with them at all becomes a point of conjecture ... both for them and us. And like any single memory, or catalogue of many, the extent to which another will find it compelling becomes entirely subjective. They sometimes battle to find the balance between necessary exposition and simply too much information ... not to mention the conflict between how we, as individuals, sometimes re-imagine the essential truth of an experience to suit ourselves. To remain, steadfastly within our comfort zones. To honour the truth - as we remember it ... or possibly as we prefer to remember it. My sister and I habitually disagree over details of our shared childhood ... to the point where I have been known to question whether or not we actually spent as much time together as we did experiencing the same things.
As The Nightwatchman begins, we are in the middle of a familiar ritual. A sprightly, elderly, blind patriarch, Bill, is preparing to sell the home in which he was born - a home he would later share with his (now deceased) wife and their children Helen and Michael - who have arrived to help their father prepare for the impending move away from, as far as they're concerned, all he knows and understands. But just how much does Bill really understand about the life he has lived ... and the people he has shared it with?
Listening to Daniel Keene is like watching butter slowly melt in a warm saucepan. It is hopeless to even attempt to try and resist the control he has over our shared destination. Keene is unrelenting in his determination that we shall arrive - not be left wandering and wondering ... and like all great craftsmen, Keene's is not necessarily the shortest route ... or the most scenic. But it will be the most memorable, and you will see, hear and imagine things you never knew existed. And there will be no room left in your heart for regret.
Sadly, this Griffin Theatre Company Australian premiere is rendered, almost painfully inert, humourless, impotent and fatally grounded. The experience of it becomes like watching the survivors of some hideous car accident wandering dazed and confused around what is left of their respective vehicles. It steadfastly refuses to honour the concept of pace ... that memories as contradictory, illusive, illusitory and life-changing as these rarely unfold in such a convenient manner. Memory assaults. The truth of memory - both cerebral and emotional - has the power to turn the strongest will, capable of even the greatest acts of denial, to dust. It has the power to determine the strength of our very ability to go on ... and endure.
Alice Babidge's design powerfully renders a minimalist post-apocolyptic world: the surface of the stage thick with tiny dull, dull grey pebbles ... and jet-black walls. "Once a garden" becomes the motif, but there was no evidence in the text that this garden had been decimated by a bushfire. It's the first of many significant and obtrusive elements that result in near-suffocation of the text ... most notably because the design, unlike the text, insists that the colour of blindness is black ... that simply because we can no longer see, we cannot recall a lifetime of the tones and flashes of light that inform Bill's, and our, experience of it.
It is difficult to know what to say about the actors. Alex Dimitriades (who had rehearsed the role of Michael) was indisposed, and Brett Stiller (fresh from his success in Holding The Man) was giving his third performance in the role. The lack of pace, combined with a veritable array of fussy stage business and quite simply too many unfulfilled comings and goings, constantly ambushes Camilla Ah Kin's otherwise steadfastly noble reading of Helen. Ah Kin's work, I can only imagine, would have been the most exposed to insecurity in Dimitriade's absence - given that they share not only a key relationship, but also a great deal of time together on stage. At first, I found her interpretation too calculated. Cool. Chilled. Later, her silent scream and her one genuine, heartfelt smile, immediately revealed evidence of a great performance struggling to get out. Brett Stiller was a revelation. I know a Michael. I know a Michael very, very well. He is a close friend of mine ... and he too, is a photographer who wears grey t-shirts and doesn't care too much for his hair. Stiller captures Michael's fatigue with life, his art and his character's distance from heart beautifully.
Sadly, given the complete lack of directorial purpose, it is William Zappa (Bill) whose pivotal performance becomes almost impossible to write about. There were certainly moments of the William Zappa who helped to inspire me to attend this production in the first place ... but he, too, is continuously upstaged by some of the more vapid directorial choices. As every one of Bill's senses is being tormented by an almost unearthly collision of time, place, sense and meaning - a heart-beat from the denoument - we are subjected to an embarrassingly fraudulent fall over a mis-placed chair. But nothing remains more difficult to comprehend than the 'miming of smelling the flowers' routine, up one entire side of the tiny Stables stage - only to deliver a beautiful monologue about something and someone to the jet-black back wall. There is sometimes a point in the theatre-going experience where it becomes simply impossible to forgive its flaws. And on this occasion, this was it.
Keene's text still manages to wrap its arms around you with phrases of compelling depth, beauty, clarity, playfulness and insight. It still manages to caress, stroke, massage and choke - even in spite of the treatment it receives here. And that is the mark of a truly great writer. On this point, my memory does not deceive me.
The Nightwatchman by Daniel Keene
Director Lee Lewis; Designer Alice Babidge; Lighting Designer Luiz Pampolha; Composer/Sound Designer Max Lyandvert
With Camilla Ah Kin, Alex Dimitriades & William Zappa.
A Griffin Australian Premiere.