Thursday, 30 August 2018

REVIEW: Blasted by Sarah Kane – Malthouse Theatre

Fayssal Bazzi in Sarah Kane's Blasted
Photo: Pia Johnson
The dread sets in from the first scene. A foul-mouthed journalist (Ian) brings a young woman (Cate) to an expensive hotel room in the north of England. He wants sex and he believes, because she’s there with him, she wants it, too. They’ve had sex before, years before. She’s already much younger than him, so how old was she when this all began?

The play, at this point, is about expectation and transaction. Ian has brought Cate to this room for one thing and one thing only. It’s about consent and the dangers of the male ego. And you can see why the Malthouse programmed this now; in a time where we know violence against women has hit plague proportions, this one-on-one moment captures that violence in microcosm.

When Sarah Kane’s Blasted was first performed in 1995 at the Royal Court in London, it caused a scandal. This opening scene is confronting enough; Ian is racist, misogynist, homophobic and his work as a journalist does nothing to redeem him. And nothing prepares the audience for the show being torn apart at the end of scene two: a soldier arrives and Ian and Cate find themselves in a war zone.

Kane’s work is rarely performed because it is brutal and uncompromising. It’s easy to see how this play and Kane’s brief career (she wrote Blasted at 25 and died at 28) influenced so much that came later.

I had read the script and knew what to expect. This one room in Leeds becomes a commentary on war and what society’s expectations of men can lead to. And what it leads to is all based in fact, but that doesn’t make it easier to watch. And no wonder the warnings from the theatre are so comprehensive:

This show contains
EXTREME VIOLENCE, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, COARSE LANGUAGE, NUDITY, SMOKE AND HAZE, LOUD AND DYNAMIC SOUND, HERBAL CIGARETTES
AND CONTENT SOME AUDIENCES MAY FIND CONFRONTING

Not surprisingly, this show and the content warnings reminded me of another play that changed theatre, at least in Melbourne – The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes. (Read my review of the original production from 2010.)

Director Anne-Louise Sarks made her name as part of The Hayloft Project in Melbourne before moving to Sydney to work at Belvoir. I’m not sure how much involvement she had in Thyestes, but it feels right that one of the creative minds from Hayloft be the guiding force behind this production of Blasted.

Given the subject matter, Anne-Louise’s steady-hand ensures the play doesn’t feel at all exploitative. That’s an incredible achievement in a story that encompasses rape, war crimes, torture and cannibalism.

Marg Horwell’s set design and Paul Jackson’s lighting work together to underline the dread of the piece and keep the audience on edge, not knowing what will await us after each blackout.

The actors – David Woods, Eloise Mignon, Fayssal Bazzi – are put through the wringer with this one. They earned the applause that came at the end, though they looked ready to collapse from exhaustion as they took their bows.

In some strange ways, Blasted is absolutely a product of its time, but the ripple effects this show has created in the quarter-century since its debut are still being felt. Publicity would have you believe that Kane’s first play changed the world, but if that feels like a stretch, it definitely changed theatre in London and, by extension, given Thyestes felt like its progeny, in Melbourne, too.

Blasted is a searing work, hard to watch and impossible to look away from. If the play itself is about transactions and expectations between characters, this production is about the transaction and expectation between the audience and Kane’s work. Even if you know what to expect, you may not know what you’ll be left with. Somewhere deep in the devastation, there is hope.


David Woods & Eloise Mignon in Sarah Kane's Blasted
Photo: Pia Johnson

Friday, 24 August 2018

A Doll's House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath - Melbourne Theatre Company

Greg Stone, plus The Door, and Marta Dusseldorf
A Doll's House, Part 2
Imagining what happened after a story is over is natural, especially if the ending is ambiguous or unclear. There’s a lot of dramatic tension to be mined from the question “what comes next” - the audience will probably discuss the possibilities as soon as they leave the theatre.
When Nora walked out on her family and slammed the door behind her at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, it caused widespread controversy when the play debuted in 1879. Ibsen’s German agent had him re-write the ending for that country, which he later regretted.
In 2014, Belvoir theatre produced Nora by Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks, a contemporary re-telling of A Doll’s House that followed her out that door. The concept of a sequel is tempting; writing it for a bone fide classic is a risky proposition.
Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2 picks up fifteen years after Nora left her family. She returns to finalise a divorce that her husband Torvald never formalised. In turn-of-Twentieth-Century Norway, Nora has become a popular novelist - but as a still-married woman, she could be arrested for fraud, having signed contracts and the like. Not to mention the many men she has slept with.
Centering the play around Nora trying to convince Torvald to give her a divorce feels reductive; to have one of the great heroines of theatre foiled by paperwork is maddening. Yes, the tale is about a woman's lack of power a century ago - and as a modern play, Part 2 brings up the question of how much has or hasn't changed.
And by bring it up, I mean Hnath puts some pretty turgid dialogue into the characters' mouths. There's no subtlety here, no nuance. What is this play about? Let Nora, Torvald, Anne-Marie and Emmy tell you. Over and over again.
At the centre of Sarah Goodes' production at MTC is a door. The door Nora slammed shut fifteen years ago. Perhaps that ending raises the question of what comes next, but a slammed door feels like a pretty definitive full stop. The door sits centre stage and recedes into the sparse pale-blue set of this house for dolls. (The door returns to the centre of the stage at the end. Is it there to take a bow?)
Marta Dusseldorp's performance as Nora is declamatory, both vocally and physically. She spreads her legs so defiantly so many times, I wondered if that was part of Hnath's script. The character has returned to explain her problem with the world and her belief that in fifteen more years the world will change. We know it won't. We know it hasn't. We wonder why this play is underlining this idea so vigorously; spelled out early on and explicated in the final moments of this never-awaited sequel.
Greg Stone's Torvald elicits some sympathy until he flails around claiming he's a good man, as so many oblivious men seem to do, thinking that absolves them of their many flaws. 
Zoe Terakes, as daughter Emmy, plays the comedy the whole endeavour tends to evoke; what else but satire does so much over-writing and over-acting suggest?
There's some widescreen video of the audience and of Nora approaching and leaving the house once more, off into a field that evokes nothing more than Julie Andrews twirling atop hills that are alive with music. The bird that flies by is probably an eagle. I'm surprised, given the heavy-handedness of this production, it wasn't a wild duck.