Drama and Politics

Anyone seeing much of the Adelaide Festival’s drama could well believe the Artistic Director David Sefton had cannily programmed for an election year. Not so, he assures me during a conversation a few days after the tumult and the shouting died away.

Anyone seeing much of the Adelaide Festival’s drama could well believe the Artistic Director David Sefton had cannily programmed for an election year. Not so, he assures me during a conversation a few days after the tumult and the shouting died away. Negotiations began more than four years ago to bring out Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s stupendous Roman Tragedies, which gave its audiences unprecedented insights into Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, and ways of producing them. By turning the whole expanse of the Festival Theatre’s performance area into a vast television studio into which the audience were invited as observers and dressing the cast in smart, mostly dark dresses or suits, director Ivo van Hove submerged the historical under the immediacy of the present. Characters are interviewed for TV current affairs shows; Coriolanus thumps the desk and scatters his papers as he furiously roars out of the senate; Antony begins speaking to his friends, Romans and countrymen in a whisper, his voice rising in anger until he discards his hand-held microphone, striding down from the stage to address the audience in his own unaided voice. In Antony and Cleopatra he is married off for political reasons to a vacuous, gum-chewing Octavia; Cleopatra’s Egyptian court has an inexhaustible supply of champagne. Shakespeare’s text was cut and adapted, but revealed all the more clearly the terrible interdependence of personal passions and ambitions and politics. This interdependence underlies Homer’s Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, sparked by Prince Paris of Troy’s abduction of Helen, the world’s most beautiful woman, who also happens to be the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Homer’s epic portrays the quarrel between the Greeks’ champion, Achilles, and their leader Agamemnon. Achilles sulks, won’t fight, and is only goaded to action when his bosom buddy, Petroclus, is killed. So Achilles kills the Trojan champion, Hector, and is himself finished off by Paris (or possibly the sun god, Apollo). The retelling of the story by Lisa Peterson and the enthralling actor of the piece, Denis O’Hare, frame the narrative in modern idiom with contemporary references which cogently relate past and present. Hector returns from the front for a moment to be with his wife Andromache and their baby son – or is it a soldier on special leave from Afghanistan back in Adelaide, Newcastle, Boston or LA? Later, in a few stunning minutes, O’Hare lists in rapid succession what seems to be a complete, depressing catalogue of all the wars in Western history, from Troy to Syria – Crimea has surely been added to the script by now. Closer to home, in Malthouse Theatre’s The Shadow King, director Michael Kantor and lead actor Tom E. Lewis transform Shakespeare’s King Lear into a tragedy of contemporary Australian Aboriginal life. Lear distributes his lands, as in Shakespeare, but now money is involved — big money, through mining rights — and Goneril and Regan have something to quarrel over apart from Edmund the bastard (in every possible sense of the word). Lear’s appalling error, and a sign of his egregious egotism, is that the land he gives to his vile daughters (Cordelia, the good one, misses out because she is honest) is not his to give. He does not own the land: the land owns him, as it owns all his people. How often is this Aboriginal concept brought before us? It makes an unshakeable foundation for this rich adaption of Shakespeare’s great tragedy. A different kind of politics animates The Seagull—the politics of art. In Chekhov’s 1896 play, so stylishly produced by State Theatre Company, the young playwright Konstantin is channeling the author when he says ‘our theatre’s in a rut… It’s nothing but clichés and shopworn conventions… We must have new forms’. Unfortunately Konstantin stakes everything on ‘new forms’; his first play is ridiculed and he never achieves success. His talent is not great enough. His reforming zeal has never formed itself into a coherent body of ideas. He never properly engages with the current politics of art that produced the likes of Chekhov, Diaghilev and Stravinsky. Chekhov wrote in a notebook, Konstantin ‘has no definite aims and that has led to his destruction’. The destruction of political rivals through democratic process was the basis for the gritty, hilarious and enlightening Fight Night, a clever, rewarding piece by Australia’s Border Project and Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed. The 200 audience members were issued on entry with press-button dials to record votes and answer questions. Yes, it’s election time and David is eliminated in the first round. Four out of the five original candidates are left, a coalition is formed, another one goes. We are asked questions: how would we want our candidate to react in a hostage situation? Be a spokesperson, take action, or stay calm? Are certain words offensive to us? Are we religious, spiritual, neither? It’s a mixture of the political, the demographic, and the ethical. Finally, back to the election: when all relevant votes are in, a surprise — David the underdog is the winner. And there had been no corruption at all. To make sure, I asked the usher collecting the voting dials: “Is it the same result every night?” “No, not in the least,” he replied. “Always different, depending on the audience.” Not quite like a real live election maybe, but by presenting us with such a clutch of plays in an election month (and I had to miss Big Mouth), whether by design or not, David Sefton gave added spice to the audiences’ enjoyment. adelaidefestival.com.au

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