'The Eisteddfod' by Lally Katz/Stuck Pigs Squealing
B Sharp, Downstairs Belvoir St Theatre, 7th June 2007
Violence abounds in Stuck Pigs Squealing's production of Lally Katz' The Eisteddfod as well, though in this instance the violence occurs (mostly) at a far more psychological level than that occurs to bodies in Post's Gifted and Talented. The effect however, while also hilarious in its absurdity, is also ultimately very dark, like an over-sweet lozenge with a surprisingly bitter centre.
The eisteddfod of the title is the premise that underpins the claustrophobic imaginings of our protagonists, and the event itself occurs offstage, though its consequences are devastating and reverberate through the final scenes of the piece. In a tiny (and beautiful) physical space, the compressed performances of the actors play out the repressed stagings of the interior personal and narrative desires of two psychologically damaged grown children, who themselves forcefully playact to fill the time. On this stage, the characters conjure other stages, changing roles and identities to play out their desire to exist differently, a desire that they find themselves unable to implement in the 'real' world beyond play. The fact remains that they exist in this state largely for reasons of a narrative conceit, but it's no less effective or evocative for that. And so on this stage, the characters build their own worlds, worlds with their own stages, upon which they play all the players, players who are also themselves trying to play roles.
The play is introduced by the pre-recorded voice of the author herself, a perfectly pitched dramatic device. She introduces us to the characters, the brother and sister partnership of Abalone and Gerture, who existed "once upon a time". Clearly we have arrived in the land of the fairy tale and of make believe. These children have been traumatised by the death of their parents in a "tree felling accident" to the extent that they have never been able to leave the basement that was their home, because their parents, even while alive, were strict. So while they embark on fantastical journeys, they never actually leave the basement. Kind of like Hansel and Gretel, but the forest exists inside their minds, and they create the dangers and pleasures for themselves, wresting with monsters of their own creation rather than external elemental forces.
It's a clearly implausible scenario, and one with clear resonances of other deconstructions of fairy tales such as Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods (whose protagonist was also orphaned in an equally implausible "baking accident"). But the setting is laid out for us in such a charming way that it becomes impossible not to be taken in by it. Introduced to the players, we too begin to play the game. The trauma of parental death is suspended with an attempt to turn it into a playful joke, but this dismissal of past death as only a joke, only a narrative device that frames the game, is clearly inadequate. As Denis Hollier observes in his book Against Architecture (1992): "[o]ne plays dead so that death will not come. So nothing will happen and time will not take place." (p 36) Such attempts at stopping time to prevent death are rarely effective, producing instead new traumas, paranoia's and anxieties that also must in turn be banished through new acts of play. Despite attempts to remove its sting, this casually announced foundational death dwells uncomfortably in the immediate exterior of this stage world. It's little wonder then that these kids stay within the safe but claustrophobic confines of the basement in order to play.
It’s a very light and fun game to begin with. Lally Katz' command of zany cartoonish absurdity is near-absolute, and the dialogue is witty, sharp, and continuously sparkling. Complementing the text, the direction (Chris Kohn) and the performers (Luke Mullins and Katherine Tonkin) are absolutely precise, completely disciplined, and always compelling. No matter how strange the world's that Katz' language evokes, the performers inhabit them with gusto, and Kohn's shaping of the ever shifting stage worlds within worlds is always inventive, and regularly startling.
Abalone (Mullins) is practicing hard for what he sees as his overdue triumph at The Eisteddfod, in this case a drama competition in which he intends to perform the role of Macbeth. Talking about the Scottish play is supposed to be taboo in the theatre, and thus it is unsurprising that his pompous and precious rendition of the Thane who would be King is, like Macbeth himself, doomed. The fact that he plays out this doom in a drama competition that exists only in his imagination makes this all the poignant, even as it is really really ridiculous. It’s the force of his conviction that holds this very shaky premise together, and Mullins' performance is one of the best I've seen for years. Abalone drives himself ever onward with his ridiculous will to win, but he is unable to recognise that the only real obstacle to this goal is himself. Even in his forceful make believe, he can never quite seem to believe enough to make it.
Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of this review in Eisteddfod Season Part 2.2!