Oedipus Rex

Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs, August 26

Peter Carroll as Oedipus. Photo: Pia Johnson

Peter Carroll as Oedipus. Photo: Pia Johnson

It begins in darkness. A couple of minutes tick past in a silent void. Some have found this initial blackout (with more to follow) uncomfortable and agonisingly long but I have to admit it didn’t feel that unsettling or threatening in the audience I sat with.

Then in a watery pale half-light we glimpse a frail old man in grimy-looking underwear and blindfold breathing noisily through an oxygen mask. The darkness returns and a barrage of cacophonous sound throbs through the theatre.

As the light comes and goes, he clambers onto the chair and strikes a series of agonised poses reminiscent of classical sculpture.

When the lights finally come up fully, a young woman enters with towels, a basin of water and a laundry bag of clothes. Stripping the old man she washes him in a bored, matter-of-fact way but not without tenderness. Then they play games to while away the time, games that he cannot hope to win.

This is Oedipus (Peter Carroll), now aged, almost senile and in exile, looking back in anguish on the terrible tragedy of his life: fated to murder his father, marry his mother and sire children that are his half-siblings. He has already gouged out his eyes. He lives in the kind of darkness the production periodically thrusts us into. Now his daughter/sister Antigone (Andrea Demetriades) is with him as he faces death.

Director Adena Jacobs describes her hour-long production – which references Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus – as “a meditation on the myth of Oedipus Rex, and the notion of suffering itself. It is a poem. A code of symbols. A series of impressions that emerge from the darkness of the theatre. Tragedy cannot be represented. It can only be experienced through the senses,” she writes in the program notes.

It certainly helps to at least know the outline of Oedipus’s story, though there is a short section of text in which Carroll briefly articulates his tragedy, capturing through the poetry Oedipus’s once heroic status.

But for the most part, Jacobs uses loaded imagery. Are the games (which feel somewhat over-extended) a reference to human beings suffering as the playthings of the gods? Oedipus’s destiny was after all predicted before he was even born. The riddle of the sphinx was a kind of cruel game, as Antigone is at times here. Or is the game-playing merely a way of passing of the unendurably long days waiting for death?

One particularly striking image offers various possibilities around the theme of incest: perhaps a memory of the past or another twist in the present.

Max Lyandvert’s soundscape moves between rumbling electronic noise and glorious, lush early music that summons a sense of the epic, tragic grandeur of the myth – in complete contrast to the ugly, painful, squalid reality of what we see unfolding before us in this drab, carpeted room backed by a wall of timber frames and plastic sheeting (designed by Paul Jackson, who also did the lighting).

Somehow, though, as we ponder what each image might mean, we respond intellectually rather than viscerally. As with Jacobs’s recent production of Hedda (also for Belvoir) we are held at arm’s length emotionally.

Carroll gives a wonderful portrayal of a haunted man confused, possibly suffering dementia, consumed by suffering and the horror of what has been, yet still able to lash out in rage. The black contact lenses, which make dark holes of his eyes, lend a genuinely frightening touch to his haggard face.

Peter Carroll with Andrea Demetriades. Photo: Pia Johnson

Peter Carroll with Andrea Demetriades. Photo: Pia Johnson

Demetriades is also impressive as Antigone, by turns caring, cruel and exasperated: a down-to-earth foil to the dramatic intensity of Carroll’s tortured performance.

It’s strange though, at the end of a piece that explores such a horrifying tale, for it to have had such little impact emotionally. It should be harrowing and full of pain. Instead I watched with cool detachment, admiring, pondering, wondering, yet not really emotionally involved.

Oedipus Rex plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs until September 14.

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Hedda Gabler

Belvoir St Theatre, July 2

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

At the end of Belvoir’s new production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler you come out thinking why? Why to many things in the production, but most particularly why cast a man in the title role?

Written in 1890, Hedda Gabler is one of the great dramatic female roles. There are few enough of them to begin with. What’s more, she is a strong woman feeling so trapped by a repressive, male-dominated society and unfulfilled marriage that she eventually finds herself in a situation where she believes the only escape is suicide.

A production needs to offer a fresh, compelling insight to justify casting a man in the role – and we don’t get that here.

Naturally, there has been a huge amount of interest and coverage around the decision by director Adena Jacobs to cast Ash Flanders as Hedda. Flanders is a co-founder of Melbourne’s queer indie theatre group Sisters Grimm, which has gone from cult following to a mainstream presence.

I saw Flanders play a glamorous, alcoholic housewife in Little Mercy, Sisters Grimm’s send-up of the “evil child” movies. He did it brilliantly. His performance was poised, very funny and believable within the camp, spoofy world they set up.

However, take him out of that world where he has so much flair and he doesn’t look quite so convincing – not on the basis of the choices made in this production anyway.

In interviews, Jacobs has said that casting Flanders “frames the crisis of Hedda Gabler as one of identity, and the problems of difference, rather than solely one woman’s drama.”

Flanders has said he’s “playing Hedda as written, as a person first, then as a woman and below that is the male actor. Adena has been saying you will forget that you are watching a man but at the same time there are moments that we can bring that to the forefront and it becomes something different altogether, hopefully something that is post-gender. Because I think Hedda is almost beyond gender, she is almost a mythical creature.”

With his own hair and a little make-up Flanders (who spends much of the production in a swimsuit) looks somewhat androgynous but you never forget that he is a man. There are a couple of moments when he briefly dons a long wig only to quickly toss it aside again. There are titters in the audience at the mention of a possible pregnancy.

At one point he stands naked. It’s a somewhat confusing image given the flat male chest but female genitalia (‘tuck job’ presumably) leading you to question exactly who he/she is supposed to be. Jacobs presumably presents this image of Hedda as both man and woman to underline the universal nature nature of her situation – as one of difference rather than solely a woman’s dilemma, as she articulated – but that sense of universality didn’t resonate for me in the production.

Clearly there’s no point in Flanders playing a woman so convincingly that we think he is one. You might as well cast a woman. But his performance doesn’t transcend the novelty of the casting or lend any fresh insight to the play.

His Hedda moves and speaks at one pace. She is forever observing or talking with a quiet, cold detachment, while posing languidly. Instead of the mass of paradoxes and emotional complexity usually associated with her, his Hedda feels flat and one-dimensional. Even when she plays with the pistol or guns down people in a violent video game, it’s done without any display of emotion. We never see any vulnerability, she just comes across as icily manipulative. Hedda may be bored, but she shouldn’t be boring and she comes perilously close to that here. It’s hard to see quite why all the men around her are in her thrall.

What’s more, there is precious little chemistry or tension between Flanders and any of the other actors – all of whom seem to be wrestling with characters that feel underwritten in Jacobs’ adaptation.

Marcus Graham is the most compelling as Judge Brack, played here as a suave, louche playboy, while Tim Walter’s Tesman is a bland, ineffectual, anxious figure. Oscar Redding fires things up briefly as Lovborg, and Anna Houston as Thea Elvstead and Lynette Curran as Aunt Julie bring some warmth to the production. But none of the cast seems really comfortable and you don’t feel anything for any of them.

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Jacobs’s decision to set the production in a contemporary world is a bit hit and miss.

Entering the theatre there is a strong sense of déjà vu. The set (by Dayna Morrissey) features the interior of a spanking new, soulless house at the back of the stage. Seen through sliding glass doors, it’s reminiscent of Ralph Myers’s set for Benedict Andrews’s The Seagull (along with any number of other glass boxes seen on Sydney stages in recent years). In front of the house is a small swimming pool. A large, flash, vintage car sits to one side of the stage, which inevitably brings Belvoir’s 2012 Death of a Salesman to mind.

There are sound issues whenever the actors are inside the house or in the car, with their amplified voices sounding muffled. In the car, it’s actually hard to understand some of what is said.

The production starts slowly in silence. A television inside the house shows a film featuring a wedding. (Hedda and Tesman are, of course, just back from their honeymoon). Hedda gazes from the window blankly then lies by the side of the pool with headphones on. The maid (Branden Christine) smokes a cigarette behind the car. Tesman arrives home sweating after a run. Not a word is spoken. It sets up the boredom of Hedda’s life – but from there you expect things to start to flare and they don’t.

Jacobs’s adaptation, which runs 90 minutes without interval, uses a lively contemporary idiom while sticking pretty faithfully to Ibsen’s plot (though the script has been ruthlessly pruned). By updating it, however, there are various paradoxes. In a world with television and smart phones wouldn’t Lovborg write his precious book on a computer rather than by hand?

So many things like this become distractions, from Hedda’s bare bottom beneath a short fur jacket to the maid taking a dip in the pool. Would Hedda really have let her maid do that without asking? And how come when Hedda locks Thea in the car, she’s desperate to get out but apparently sleeps through a vital conversation not long after being shut in?

The fact that you sit there asking yourself such questions when you should be immersed in the drama is indicative of how little the production engages. It’s a disappointing experience that seemed to promise so much, for whatever the success, or otherwise, of the gender politics at play, the production falls flat as a piece of drama.

Hedda Gabler is at Belvoir St Theatre until August 3