Adelaide Festival opening weekend

Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, who have signed on as joint artistic directors for three Adelaide festivals (this year, 2018 and 2019), set the bar high on their first opening weekend and floated over it with ease. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it looked easy. It can’t be underestimated how much work went into securing the Glyndebourne Saul, directed by Barrie Kosky, for an exclusive Adelaide season and to restage it with mostly new singers and musicians, so all hail to Armfield and Healy. And, of course, they had to pay for it. It’s a mammoth show.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Saul - L-R Adrian Strooper

Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Saul was, of course, always going to be a hot ticket. The prospect of seeing Kosky’s vastly admired production of Handel’s oratorio saw opera-lovers poised over their keyboards months ago to pounce on tickets as soon as they were released. Those secured, one then had to be quick to get into Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. There were only two performances of a dance work that has shaken audience members to their core wherever it has been seen and seats quickly went.

Also on this first weekend, the Schaubühne Berlin Richard III had a particular pull for those who had seen its star, Lars Eidinger, as an unpredictable and entertaining Hamlet at the 2010 Sydney Festival, although the fame of the company was recommendation enough. There was also the revival of Armfield’s production of The Secret River (which unfortunately I couldn’t see), taken out of a theatre building and staged in the Anstey Hill quarry, reportedly to great advantage. There was more, but these were the most prominent events.

Saul which premiered at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 2015, is everything one had been led to expect, only more so. More electrifyingly immediate in effect, more ravishing in design, more complex in its theatrical exploration of the text and more thrillingly performed. Saul is by turns celebratory, brutal, grotesque, tender and bleak. In Kosky’s hands it becomes an intensely human story of conflict and a proud leader brought low by jealousy.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Saul - L-R Christopher Purves (lying)

Christopher Purves (lying) as Saul, Christopher Lowery as David and Adrian Strooper as Jonathan in Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Baroque specialist Erin Helyard, artistic director of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, was in sparkling form as conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and managed to appear on stage as well as a striking chamber organ soloist (chorus master Brett Weymark, associate conductor for Saul, was on hand to pick up the baton when Helyard was otherwise engaged).

A much smaller work but no less affecting, Betroffenheit was created as a response to one man’s devastating loss, grief, guilt, despair and, ultimately, need to go on. Its first half is a wild, vivid and fantastical journey through anguish and addiction; the second a restrained, pure dance recapitulation of the material that brings a sense of resolution, or as much as might be possible.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Betroffenheit - 37 - pic credit Shane Reid

The cast of Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. Photo: Shane Reid

Writer and actor Jonathan Young is the man whose pain lies at the heart of Betroffenheit. His young daughter and two of her cousins died in a fire, and while the work doesn’t go into great detail about the tragedy, Young’s appearance as the central character makes Betroffenheit intensely personal even as its concerns could be those of anyone who has suffered as he did.

Pite is a choreographer whose movement, no matter how apparently abstract, has emotional force. The dancers, in particular Jermaine Spivey as Young’s inner voice, were spectacularly good as the glitzy, hopped-up demons seducing and assailing this broken man.

It’s no surprise that Pite has of late become much sought after in the classical world as well as the contemporary sphere. She is a tremendous artist.

I was much less taken with Richard III than I had hoped but two out of three and all that … Many thanks, by the way, to Armfield and Healy for programming in a way that made it possible to see Betroffenheit (5pm) and Richard III (8pm) on the same day. Not every festival director does this but it made sense to think about the large contingent of interstate visitors who wanted to see both pieces on Saturday after the Saul opening on Friday.

Lars Eidinger’s bovver-boy Richard isn’t short of confidence, that’s for sure. He’s happy to strip off to show Lady Anne the goods on offer, he barks and croons into a microphone like a low-rent nightclub performer who is unaware he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and he takes a piss in public just because he can. He wears close-fitting headgear that suggests a readiness to use himself as a battering ram; or alternatively advises he’s a seriously unwell man who binds his forehead to keep his brains from falling out.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Richard III - Lars Eidinger in front - 04 - pic credit Tony Lewis

Lars Eidinger (front) as Richard III. Photo: Tony Lewis

There’s not much charm, to put it mildly, nor an overwhelming sense of menace. The lack makes Richard’s success as an arch-manipulator unconvincing. The words are there (mostly in German with English surtitles, occasionally in English) but why they work as Richard intends is a mystery.

Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubühne Berlin production begins with a bang but as it unfolds, interval-less, for two and three-quarter hours the energy dissipates. On Saturday night Eidinger seemed to feel that he wasn’t winning the entire audience over as he would wish. Several times he ostentatiously looked across his shoulder at the surtitles as if to question why there wasn’t more of a reaction. (I have to assume he wasn’t checking that the surtitle operator was doing a good job of keeping up.) And when Eidinger urged the audience to shout demeaning phrases at Buckingham there was by no means a general rush to take up the offer.

Ostermeier’s ending was practical, in that it eliminated the battle at Bosworth Field and left us with a Richard so spooked by the ghosts of those he’d murdered that he went entirely mad, although such a result didn’t seem to follow necessarily from what had gone before. Nor did Richard’s final action, a re-run of the fate of Kevin Spacey’s Richard in the Old Vic version that toured widely. The impulse behind the image differed in the two productions, however, and I didn’t buy what Ostermeier was selling.

Saul and Richard III both end on March 9.

Miss Julie

Belvoir, Sydney, August 29

WHEN Simon Stone is attracted to a text, anything can happen. In this he is reminiscent of Barrie Kosky, whose ferocious intelligence and unswerving commitment to a highly personal vision has given us some of the country’s most memorable and challenging theatre and opera. It’s impossible to leave a Kosky production feeling indifferent. One may be unconvinced (Opera Australia’s Nabucco) or transported (the revelatory Vienna Schauspielhaus production of Poppea seen in Sydney in 2009), but not untouched. And so it is with Stone, although his work operates at a cooler temperature. On the transporting side there is The Wild Duck, “after Ibsen”, which he co-wrote with Chris Ryan and directed; and his adaptation (with Ryan, Thomas Henning and Mark Winter) and direction of Thyestes, “after Seneca”. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past decade. On the unconvincing side of Stone’s ledger lies, for me, Miss Julie, written by Stone “after Strindberg”. I’ll come to my reasons later.

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

All those “after”s reflect one of Stone’s greatest interests – using an established theatre text as a jumping-off point, a choice that sets up an intricate and fluid set of expectations. These expectations will be coloured by one’s thoughts about translation, adaptation, appropriation, homage, “inspired by”, and what fidelity to an original source really means and whether it matters anyway. (A big argument right there!) You may ponder whether the piece you saw should still bear the title Ibsen or Strindberg or Seneca gave their play when Stone’s version looks and sounds so different. To which Stone may respond – and I’m just guessing here – that the piece feels the same at a fundamental level, and that’s the crucial point. (There’s probably a marketing issue here too. The Wild Duck is a great name with pretty good recognition in theatre circles; Little Eyolf not so much, hence 2009’s The Only Child, which was terrific.)

Delving down a little further, I’m interested in the degree to which audience members would be familiar with the texts just mentioned, and others like them. I think it would be fair to say few people, if any, would have read the source plays in their original language. Some keen theatre-goers may have boned up by reading a translation, but this is an area of deep subtlety. A small example: I have two translations of Miss Julie, dating from my long-gone university days. In Strindberg’s startlingly misogynistic introduction to the play he writes about “the half-woman, the man-hater”, and both my translations put it exactly that way. Warming to his theme, Strindberg says of this woman: “The type implies degeneration…” (Translation by Elizabeth Sprigge, 1955.) Or he says: “She is synonymous with corruption.” (Translation by Michael Meyer, 1964.) I think there’s a significant difference between the two assertions. The second is much more active, determined and implacable, and degeneration and corruption don’t mean the same thing anyway. It’s possible more modern translations may give other nuances. Of course Stone is not offering what we might call a straightforward translation of these plays, but what we know, or think we know, of them affects how we receive the Stone version, particularly if it’s still called The Wild Duck. Or Miss Julie.

I acknowledge there are probably many people who couldn’t care less how a production came to be or what it’s called, as long as they feel they’ve had a good night in the theatre. But for me, going to see a Stone production involves a great many micro-adjustments of perception and attitude; an intellectual balancing act. This is invariably stimulating, although there can be a concurrent diminution of emotional engagement, depending on the degree to which I feel the re-versioning is successful – a shorthand word for about a million things coming together to my satisfaction that may be completely different from your million things.

In Stone’s productions of Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there was an intriguing use of what we might call translation. The words stayed the same – well, Stone initially chopped off the final scene of Salesman but had to reinstate it when Arthur Miller’s estate got cranky – but both were played with Australian accents. This was quite a provocative directorial decision, given the status of Miller and Tennessee Williams. Not only are they giants of 20th century American playwriting, they are taken to be writers of the American experience.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof worked for me (mostly) in a way Death of a Salesman did not. If you’re interested, I reviewed the Williams in March.

Stone’s version of Miss Julie, directed by Leticia Caceres, puts Strindberg’s drama of sex and class into a contemporary Australian setting. The unseen 19th century nobleman becomes an absent politician on the brink of the prime ministership. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is his driver, doubling as a minder for Julie (Taylor Ferguson), who is left at home with the help while her father is away. Jean’s long-suffering girlfriend Christine (Blazey Best) is a housekeeper who cooks. Stone’s text absorbs a great deal of Strindberg’s detail: as the play opens Christine is seen in the kitchen cooking; Jean describes a party at which Julie forces him to dance with her; Julie has a boyfriend, to whom she metes out some physical punishment; the boss’s wine is commandeered; and so on in a multitude of ways. We even see for a time a pair of Julie’s shoes eye-catchingly placed against a wall of Robert Cousins’s clean, lean set – an echo of the master’s boots in Strindberg that, according to the original stage directions, are placed in a prominent position. They are there to remind us of the power imbalance.

Looked at in one light, Stone has carefully followed the original. In the overall arc of the drama, however, there are changes and emphases that shift the central concern of Strindberg’s play. I watched the Belvoir production as if with double vision: on one level seeing Strindberg’s play and on another failing to recognise Strindberg’s thesis.

Stone’s all-important decision was to make Julie just 16 rather than in her mid-20s. To underscore the unsuitability, to put it mildly, of what happens, Jean is no longer 30 but closer to 40. There’s plenty of rather grubby sexual warfare but Strindberg’s class-struggle theme can find little room to breathe here, swept away by the nasty little cat-and-mouse games (Jean and Julie alternating as feline and rodent) skittering around in front of us. It’s not easy to find a convincing way of presenting as tragedy contemporary class differences and aspirations, and Stone hasn’t found it here.

Julie is a clever, damaged, neglected, manipulative handful; Jean is an idiot who, as directed by Caceres, one simply cannot believe in. Would a rich and powerful politician hire a man so lacking in polish? Would such a man have ever been employed as a sommelier in “one of the best hotels in London” (now there’s a place that gets class divisions)? Where is the man who, in Strindberg, has educated himself towards becoming a gentleman? And would Julie’s father, so necessarily concerned for his reputation, have left her in Jean’s care? An older Julie and a wilier Jean would have made infinitely more sense to me.

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

My first thought was that Stone’s Jean is a fantasist; has to be. His behaviour in the second act supports that idea to a degree, although if he is a fantasist that casts doubt on anything he says or does, which is not useful in this play. Strindberg’s Jean, on the other hand, has prepared himself most carefully for his dreams of betterment. He’s a very astute man. Stone in some ways appears to align his Jean with Strindberg’s Julie and vice versa, but that only further muddies the picture.

In Stone’s writing Julie’s extreme youth makes her wild oscillations of behaviour explicable, but she is too immature to have meaningful control of her destiny. Her actions also eliminate another important idea in Strindberg, that of honour. She’s just a mixed-up kid, flailing around. And the ending, while theatrically effective, just doesn’t ring true. Julie might be running a bit wild, but this? I don’t accept it – although others obviously do, given the many highly laudatory reviews Miss Julie has received.

For Belvoir and Melbourne’s Malthouse next year Stone turns his hand to a subject I imagine few would have predicted. A version of Philip Barry’s 1939 comedy The Philadelphia Story, better known by many in its musical theatre form, High Society, will be “created by” Stone, who will also direct. The unusual “created by” tag suggests that not much of the original will remain and that jibes sent in Stone’s direction about authorship of revised classics have hit home. Belvoir’s season launch material promises a “radical new lens” on Barry’s play, a light entertainment involving a wealthy woman, her fiancé, her former husband and a newspaperman. To date Stone has mostly walked the dark side of the street, so the really radical thing would seem to be the promise of lots of fun and fabulousness. I look forward to it.

All of which is a very long way of saying Stone is someone who can make people care about what he does, argue about it, puzzle over it, attack it, defend it, love it, hate it, have an attitude towards it…

This makes him one of the current theatre’s most valuable assets.