So I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what we can ask of our audiences. About hardness, culpability and the hurt that words can bring. A few weeks ago I saw Roslyn Oades’ Hello, Goodbye, Happy Birthday and I felt so grateful to see a piece of theatre that was new, innovative and at the forefront of its field just be gentle. New and innovative so often means jagged.
I’m aware that theatre happens both onstage and in my body – the body of the audience – and I am aware that the theatre that is me goes through phases: sometimes I can take whatever you have going and other days, for whatever reason, I am more brittle.
Last night, at Merciless Gods, I was brittle from muscular pain and painkillers. This brittleness (and my fun drug cocktail) in no way clouded my vision: I saw a stunning production. I saw actors perform with incredible control, intensity and generousity. I saw a lighting design that made me gasp and I heard words that cut. And I was shaken because it was hard and jagged and I was brittle and tired.
A few weeks ago, I wrote this scene (edited down here) for my new play, Whale. I doubt it will make it to the final or even third draft because dramaturges seldom have time for this sort of wanky self-doubt, but this scene was in my head last night.
I think I need a break
Does anyone else need a break?
Are you okay?
How much is too much to ask of theatre?
I’m not –
We want it to be relevant and have a message
We want it to say the big things but
Right now relevant means fucked
Give them a shitty night
Think that maybe there needs to be a moratorium
Maybe we need to ask our audiences
Do you want us to be relevant and frightening
To put shitty decisions on your lap and force you to feel culpable
Or do you want to come here and forget about it?
Okay I hear you
I just think
Now you’ve started
Maybe you need to finish this one
You can write a comedy next year
Would that make you feel better?
Yeah, that’s definitely not going to make it to draft three.
Every time I ask people these questions, their answers blow me away. So – prompted by Merciless Gods but in no way entirely about that show – I wanted to give people a chance to answer the questions that I keep coming up against. Here, in an act of beautiful generosity, artists and critics answer my questions:
How much is too much?
Sarah Walker: You know, I think there really isn’t an answer to this question. Because I’ve seen shows that have depicted horror – true horror, but they’ve cared for the audience in that space. Given them a sense of power. Whether it be to politically empower people – say, this is happening but it can be stopped and you can do something to stop it, or to just fight horror with love, with hope – to say, just feeling is an act of rebellion. Loving is a weapon against hate. Those are the shows that have justified their brutality. I think the problem comes when a show brings you darkness but doesn’t give you a way out. That is the work that shuts people down. That makes them feel powerless.
Myron My: I don’t believe there can be such a thing in theatre because ultimately it is all make-believe. As long as it’s done with care and respect. I think it’s important that while we yearn for love and happiness it’s really important to explore and reflect on the darker elements of life, and what better way to do it than through theatre.
What purpose does brutality serve of our stages?
Eliza Quinn: I think sometimes its the escapism of theatre that can feel brutal – like “Oh, I just spent two hours in this nice warm theatre and I went into a totally different world that made me feel something that might have been vaguely euphoric or sublime, and now I’m outside and it’s cold and wet and I don’t know how to reconcile what I saw in there with what I know is happening out here.”
Sometimes it’s like a performance is asking too much of me by being so wonderful and joyful. Then I exit the theatre and go home and turn on the news and there is no joy.
Like I feel as though the performance or text or whatever didn’t give me any tools with which to navigate the world outside. And I ask myself if that’s the point of theatre? If it is there to give you the tools to deal with the real world or if I should just be grateful that a whole lot of people put in so much effort to entertain me. Sometimes it feels like I am asking too much of theatre.
Sarah Walker: I think of all artists, theatremakers particularly feel this responsibility for their work to interrogate, to challenge and to reveal. We’re okay with film being entertaining and silly and comforting, but I think theatremakers feel like that isn’t enough – feel like they have to ask the big, awful questions with their bodies and their text. Perhaps it’s something about the liveness of theatre – the reality of the human figure sweating and fretting and heart-beating in front of you. Something about that dynamic seems to force us to try to create work that makes people feel, and it feels wrong or cowardly to just make people laugh or feel delight. It’s not, of course. The ideal work is one, I think, that acknowledges that the world is terrifying and brutal and cruel, but reminds us that there is beauty, there is hope, and that we can cultivate those energies and emotions in a way that isn’t just ignoring the bad.
What did the brutality of Merciless Gods do to you?
Bridget Mackey: I think that we should see brutality on our stages. There’s a brutality that exists in our world and I think that we should be made to look at it. I think that Christos Tsiolkas is a writer who makes us look at things that we, as a society, don’t want to look at. And Little One’s production of Merciless Gods has skilfully dramatised the quality about Tsiolkas that I appreciate. To be honest, there’s a brutality to my own desires. I’m talking about both sexual desires and things I’d like to do or say when I’m angry or frustrated. Of course, I am sometimes ashamed of these things and don’t act on them. Sometimes I act them out in a safe way. I figure other people are the same. So, I think the stage is a good place to explore darkness and brutality. Sometimes when we look at things closely we see them for what they are, and realise we are not alone in our experiences.
Sarah Walker: When Stephen and Dan were interviewed on Smart Arts, they both used a word to describe the stories that made up the show, and that word was ‘tender.’ And I feel like that was what I took away from that production – this sense of profound tenderness. I will admit that I watched it partly through a camera lens, which always distorts my experience of a production. But what I felt during those vignettes wasn’t the stark, clinical slap of brutality. It was the ache of love, of longing, of people desperately trying to figure out what it was to be human. What it meant to be alive in a cruel world that took things away that you cared for. So many of those characters were just aching – aching, but in the space that absence or pain carved in them, that ache became something of substance. Became love that filled the hole and defined it. My overwhelming takeaway was that humans can be hideous, but they can also be so, so tender. So human. And that that love and tenderness wasn’t just a response to pain. It was a force just as strong as the horror. There was something I found comforting in it, because I’ve felt that pain, that loss. Not in the circumstances of the characters in the show, but I recognised those feelings. And knowing that we all feel those things – it helps to make us feel a little less alone. And the more complex pieces – Petals, for example, still had moments of profound beauty. Pete Paltos singing, his voice filling that huge space, brought beauty to a monologue that is otherwise horrifying. That a character who could be so brutal could also be so beautiful was meaningful, and complex, in the way that the world is complex.
Have you seen a show that has asked too much of you?
Jessica Bellamy: I have seen shows that asked too much of me, but for me, that “too much” was along the lines of: pretend you can empathise with the couple trying to buy a house, give a shit about that wedding, laugh at those jokes that to you are not funny, not relatable, not coming from a world that empowers you. The last show that asked too much of me was The Odd Couple. I sat in the middle of the theatre, surrounded by a room of half-tittering and half-snoring white hairs and I felt tears run down my face because I knew this sort of theatre and this sort of “comedy” is what so many people want, and what I should be reaching for if I want to make the sweet big money out there one day, but does it have to be within a tapestry of middle class sexist bullshit? When I see plays like this, where the wise and witty and weird are mocked and ignored, I think: theatre can be a bully sometimes. Theatre should be a refuge and a solace, but plays like this just remind me I am not welcome. There is no place for me in a canon like this. I did not find Merciless Gods brutal. I found it refreshing, honest, sad, ugly and beautiful. I heard voices that we do not often hear, do not listen to, that get lost under the weight of those who are amplified too often.
Merciless Gods is by Dan Giovannoni from the book by Christos Tsiolkas and directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. It is playing at Northcote Townhall until August 5th.