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.

The best of 2012 and my picks for 2013

The long list for my top 10 shows of 2012 numbered more than 20 – a pretty good indication of a strong year in the arts. So why restrict myself to 10? No point really, so here are the shows that worked for me last year:

At the Sydney Festival: Babel (Words), a wild dance-theatre ride from choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet; Griffin Theatre Company’s searing production of Gordon Graham’s The Boys, directed with frighteningly effective violence by Sam Strong; The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes, making a welcome Sydney appearance after rocking Melbourne; and the superb I’m Your Man at Belvoir, verbatim theatre about boxing by Roslyn Oades with an authentic whiff of sweat.

In other theatre, Lee Lewis’s spot-on direction made Bell Shakespeare’s School for Wives a delight from start to finish. At Belvoir, Kate Mulvaney and Anne-Louise Sarks’s version of Medea, directed by Sarks, was a triumph. The audacity of the approach – the play is seen from the perspective of the little boys who have no idea what is coming – and superb performances from its two young actors made it one of the year’s absolute best. The final show of the year (and it’s sort of the first production of 2013) came with Sport for Jove’s terrific Shakespeare festival, and you can see my review below.

In the pure dance arena, the first whammy of the year came at the Perth International Arts Festival with American legend Lucinda Childs’s Dance; one of the most intricate, delicate, mesmerising, atmospheric, bloody difficult pieces you’re ever likely to see. Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, curated by Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela, scored a big hit with Tao Dance Theatre, another demonstration of how apparently minimal means can imply so much.

Also in dance, retiring Australian Ballet principal artist Rachel Rawlins was exquisite in her final performance for the company, as Odette/Odile in the new Stephen Baynes Swan Lake. The torment of Odette’s situation and her desperate need for love’s saving grace have never been more clearly articulated or more moving.

On the opera front Opera Australia’s Lyndon Terracini became a metaphorical rainmaker and a literal rain stopper when Sydney’s weather somehow turned obedient for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. La traviata somehow simultaneously offered intimacy and grand spectacle against one of the most astonishing backdrops anywhere in the world, and threw in Emma Matthews’s gorgeous Violetta too. Matthews backed up with a stellar Lucia in the new John Doyle Lucia di Lammermoor for OA. Its austerity didn’t appeal to those who like a bit of bling to go with their big night out, but Doyle put the performers and the music above all else with stunning results.

Sydney Symphony showed that a big orchestra, huge chorus and a group of top-flight singers can take an audience places that elude many opera productions. The concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades was outstanding.

I liked Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies more than many – it had everything but a truly convincing story. Top-notch in all departments was South Pacific, the Lincoln Centre production mounted by Opera Australia to huge acclaim and monster box office (and a hugely welcome alternative to Gilbert & Sullivan). South Pacific went so well it gets a return season in Sydney this year. Another instance of Terracini rain-making. A much smaller piece of music theatre – cabaret really – grabbed my attention earlier in the year. Christie Whelan’s portrayal of troubled songstress Britney Spears in Britney Spears: The Cabaret was remarkable for its wit, insight and sensitivity. Not all audiences were in tune with the show’s vein of melancholy and saw it as a send-up. It was much more than that.

Synaesthesia, the music festival staged at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, was extraordinarily stimulating. Involving talents as disparate as Brian Ritchie, David Walsh and Lyndon Terracini (yes, him again), Synaesthesia presented a wide array of music inside MONA, which proved to have wonderfully spacious and sympathetic acoustics. A real winner.

Looking offshore, in New York superstars David Hallberg and Natalia Osipova danced Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for American Ballet Theatre and, at the performance I saw, had to come out for an ovation after the first act so vociferous was the audience demand; later in the year Royal New Zealand Ballet staged Giselle in a new, beautifully lucid production from the hands of RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel and Royal Ballet star Johan Kobborg.

And in 2013 …

Frequent Flyer points at the ready, I am greatly looking forward to (in no particular order):

Dance: Sacre, Sydney Festival, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle (Sydney), Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote for the Australian Ballet (Melbourne only), The Bolshoi Ballet with Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream (Brisbane), Alexei Ratmansky’s new Cinderella for the Australian Ballet (Melbourne and Sydney), West Australian Ballet’s Onegin (Perth)

Theatre: The Threepenny Opera from the Berliner Ensemble, Perth Festival, One Man, Two Guvnors (Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne),Elevator Repair Service’s The Select (The Sun Also Rises), Ten Days on the Island festival (Hobart), Angels in America Parts One and Two, Belvoir (Sydney), The Maids, with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, Sydney Theatre Company, Venus in Fur, Queensland Theatre Company (Brisbane), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz, STC (Sydney), The Cherry Orchard with Pamela Rabe, Melbourne Theatre Company, Waiting for Godot with Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh, STC (Sydney)

Opera: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Carmen, (Sydney), A Masked Ball, in a La Fura dels Baus production, Opera Australia (Sydney, Melbourne), Sunday in the Park with George, Victorian Opera (Melbourne), The Flying Dutchman in Concert, Sydney Symphony, The Ring Cycle, if I can get my hands on a ticket (Melbourne)

Exhibitions: Turner from the Tate – The Making of a Master, Art Gallery of South Australia (Adelaide), The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane)