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.


Nicholas Pickard said...

I am sad that I agree with you.

My mind flies to something that Peter Brook said:

"Deadliness always brings us back to repitition: the deadly director uses old furmulae, old methods, old jokes, old effects, stock beginnings to scenes, stock ends; and this applies equally to his partners, the designers and composers, if they do not start eash time afresh from the void, the desert and the true question - why clothes at all, why music, what for? A deadly director is a director who brings no challenge to the conditioned reflexes that every department must contain."

metal_petal said...

Bugger, bugger, bugger. How disappointing. I was really looking forward to reading an excellent review about a wonderful play and feeling jealous that I wouldn't be seeing it.

Still an excellent review to read - shame the news wasn't so good!

Snidley Whiplash said...

A veritable tsunami of eloquence.

Fuck plays, they're for poofs. Write a novel, Geoffrey. You could be the next Patirck White, only nicer.

Geoffrey said...

Thanks for dropping by Nicholas, Metal and Snidley, and for your comments. Nicholas, I look forward to your continued ruminations about this disappointing night at the theatre. I was depressed about it all day yesterday, and only decided to review it when I discovered that the director of this piece has directed another of Daniel's plays I really liked - "Half and Half". Based on what we saw on Wednesday night, I don't like to think that his work is going to be represented in this way again.

Yes Metal, bugger, bugger, bugger indeed. I'm glad I didn't suggest you flew over and saw it with us. I could barely sit still ... you, my dear, would have been unable to contain your rage!

Snidley ... bless you and thank you. But wasn't Patrick White a poof?

Snidley Whiplash said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoffrey said...

Clarification: The comment above was "deleted" by the author of the comment, not by me.

If whoever it was that deleted it would like to enlighten me as to why, then I can stop being distracted by wondering what it said ... not to mention who said it.

Snidley Whiplash said...

T"was I, luv. I yanked it because I was having a bit too much fun with the Patrick White idea over a cheeky bottle of Shiraz last night, and had begun to forget whose blog it was, actually. Sorry about that. Was pretty funny though. Maybe I should email it to ya?

Geoffrey said...

Snidley, bless you! It's the first time I've ever read, seen or heard you reference the concept of "too much fun"! In my world - and most certainly on this blog which we share - there is no such thing! Banish the very thought of it at once man, or there will be no hope for any of us.