B Sharp, Downstairs Belvoir St Theatre, 7th and 23rd 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.
Gerture (a beautiful halting and vulnerable performance from Katherine Tonkin), by contrast, lives a fantasy job in which she is a teacher. Unlike Abalone's narcissism, it seems that Gerture's desires are far less ambitious. She's not gifted in any way, she states. But she can "just appreciate other people's gifts." But while Abalone lives for, and is ultimately consumed by the Eisteddfod, Gerture's projections extend into the domestic realm, playing out an abusive romantic relationship with the imaginary Ian, whose role is enacted by her brother Abalone. Immediately, it's clear that we've entered a dark and uncharted sexual realm, and it appears that the implied incest of Abalone and Gerture is the least of their problems.
It appears however that the confused sexuality of this pair is only allowed to be expressed when they are playing an assigned role. For instance, mid way through the piece Gerture sits on the tiny bed and quietly delivers a monologue detailing her relationship problems with Ian, and her attempts at getting other characters within her fantasy world (her teaching assistant Julia, and the computer technician) to help her work out what to do as they seem to "know Ian better than I do." As she does so, Abalone is curled behind her, dozing and apparently masturbating silently. Gerture interrupts her story to gently chide him: "Abalone, don't. I'm right here you know." It seems that some things are out of bounds in these games. As is pointed out earlier in the piece, this is their parents' bed after all.
At Gerture's request – "Be him!" – Abalone performs again for her, but his Ian is a truly monstrous misogynist, far more disturbing than his ridiculous Macbeth. Ian takes ever opportunity to belittle and humiliate Gerture, on the grounds that while he likes to fuck her, he no longer loves her. She's just an object to him, to be used only at convenient times and in convenient ways for him. She is disposable for Ian, just one object among other objects, just part of the other clutter onstage. It seems that Gerture expects and almost welcomes this abuse, believing that suffering will produce an authentic experience: "I want someone to hurt me for a reason". But Abalone's Ian is having none of this: "Gerture, get control of your head." To Ian, and perhaps to Abalone also, this is all just a meaningless game. But it seems that this is a game that Gerture desperately needs to play, even if it is deeply unpleasant for her.
When Gerture complains to Abalone that this performance is too relentless awful, he replies that it has to be this way. All love ends. "Do one where he loves me" she cries, and he responds, "But we have to make it real." Meaning, it seems, is always linked to pain of one form or another. As if to escape the need for such pain, Gerture throws herself back into the world of her imaginary classroom, a stage beyond the reach of both Abalone and Ian. Abalone, wakes to find her gone, and is momentarily in despair at losing his sister and his Lady Macbeth. But due to another narrative conceit, this time an author ex machina (in another sign of the truly odd psychology of the piece, Abalone insists that the voice of Lally Katz must be Mum, a title that she reluctantly accepts), he is able to be transported into the schoolhouse to win Gerture back, in order to finally compete in the Eisteddfod with his Lady M.
This much-anticipated event occurs offstage, and as in art, in this imagined life Abalone's Macbeth meets with a tragic end, at least from his perspective. In the aftermath of this offstage disaster, the siblings seem only to be able to make believe another death, this time that of another girl who lived on the cul-de-sac beyond their house, a story that may or may not be true. It’s a shared account of the girl's last moments, as she hangs herself from the monkey bars in the playground with a skipping rope, for no other reason than she was so very tired. In the distance, a car alarm, "soft, like a lullaby". It seems that even the play of innocents always comes back to death in the end, collapsing back on itself, reaching the point at which it far exceeds its status as a game. The piece ends quietly, and the worlds and stages fade to black. In a somewhat macabre gesture, a child's skipping rope sways gently in the exit door.
There's clearly much more that can be said about The Eisteddfod, and many others will and have already given highly favourable accounts and accolades that it well deserves. But the short version must be this: see it