Oedipus Schmoedipus | Belvoir & Post
A response by Augusta Supple after Aristotle, Benedict Andrews, Elissa Blake, Jason Blake, Lloyd Bradford Syke, Wesley Enoch, John McCallum, Ralph Myers, PACT, The Performance Space, Martin Del Amo, Julie-Anne Long, Chris Ryan, The Sydney Front, Cristabel Sved, Natalie Rose, Mish Gregor, Zoe Coombs Marr, Post, Sydney Theatre Company, Wesley Enoch, Diana Simmonds, James Waites.*
Unless you have been asleep (or dead, or not attending shows at Belvoir) for the past five years, you’d noticed a scholarly obsession with the ancient Greek classics – you know the ones – of gore and punishment, foretold prophecies lived and the horror of one’s true nature being one’s undoing. They are stories of gore and death and horror and in the true and ancient sense of the word tragedy. (Strange that there are so few Greek Comedies that survive – perhaps a language barrier? A cultural translation problem? Or is it that we are genetically haunted by these narratives in a different and enduring way?) Keeping within the house style of Belvoir – no longer the paper bag aesthetics of yesteryear – this clean white glass and sparse is tangled up in the lessons we (as an audience and a culture) may not have learned.
• That we can not escape ourselves no matter how hard we try.
• That we can’t escape our family – not matter how hard we try.
• That we can’t escape the future no matter how hard we try.
• That we suffer at the hands of others no matter how hard we try.
• That we don’t learn from mistakes – no matter how or who teaches us.
• We all die.
It is this sixth point that has caught the steely gaze of Post – a performance art collective who have over the past few years made themselves a cornerstone –go-to in the blossoming Sydney non-text-based/non-dance-based/create your own art adventure via lecture scene. Previous works include “Who is the Best” Wharf 2 (Sydney Theatre Company) and “Post take on the GFC” (Belvoir 2010) (in a double bill with Version 1.0 Downstairs Belvoir). Since that time Natalie Rose, Mish Gregor and Zoe Coombs Marr have been in residency, won awards, collaborated, been commissioned, incubated thoughts and have produced their signature storytelling with their signature jocular irreverence.
There’s been much discussion and debate about this show. (Which – in case you were wondering – I also saw on opening night – yes I was there as Mrs Blake ushered her children out within the first 7 minutes of blood letting). Grand Dame of the “kill me, kill me now” catch-cry, Diana Simonds has responded HERE. Of course the last remaining Blake in the theatre on opening night responded HERE. And John McCallum – an open and supportive fan of re-thought adaptation has responded HERE.
In all honesty it’s not that much of a big deal.
Bad theatre happens. But is this “bad theatre”? I’ll come back to this later. The reactions have been hard and fast and fairly consistent. And when this speed of reaction happens, there are two reactions – as polar as bears – that it is bad on purpose (and thereby teaching us something about our snobbery and our industry) OR that it is unintentionally bad and it is a sign of the decay of the theatre arts/training/young people of today.
Both discussions are being bandied about a lot at the moment. And Belvoir are receiving a lot of mileage out of Post’s Oedipus Schomedipus. And it seems to be a perennial “house” provocation for Belvoir who have insisted on demonstrating this argument is still relevant. Examples I’ll cite include:
Everybreath (2012) directed by Benedict Andrews
The Business (2011) directed by Cristabel Sved
Of course it’s not hard to make bad theatre. Just throw a lack of time, a lack of money – a bunch of expectation, arrogance, fear, delusion and too many KPIs at it and it is easy. Add to that an audience who are desperately well-read and hoping for transcendent art – and you’ve got a fantastic recipe for failure. And conversation. And controversy.
But is it?
Can it be controversy if it is anticipated? Can it be controversy if the discussions around this work fall in line with two reactions? Are we discussing it – or shouting and shaking our heads? Are we shrugging glibly saying “it was fun” and then carrying on re-posting internet memes of grumpy cats? Are we really outraged that a play about the Great white males/sharks of literature are pulled apart to reveal a string of lessons not learnt and ultimately glib? Post making fun of this literary history, poking fun at the ineffectual nature of art to say something more than a few strings of glib platitudes about death and existence – to an audience who is more than familiar with the essence or the stories of the dead whites.
It is… well… depressing.
Depressing like death is.
Or like realising that you’ve sat willing excellence out of a show that refused to be excellence. You’ve sat willing excellence out of three artists whose whole artistic raison d’être is to not let you be sated. Out of cruelty, or negligence or incompetence.
I like to think it’s not the last two.
Because of the overwhelming support its been given – the money to develop a new show – something most Australian playwrights can only dream of as an opportunity. Because of the promotion on the back of Sydney Taxis that most independent artists could only dream of…. Because of the residencies that seem to be handed to them to unwind their thoughts in a string of fairly pedestrian puns and word games. We see the support – we expect transcendence. What we are given is the everyday. Goofy, ordinary everyday ruminations.
And many are outraged.
But what if the joke is on us?
What if Post is, in a very clever post modern way, drawing attention to the broken artform of theatre? What if presenting the expected. The casual, the everyday, the lack-luster – is a comment on expectation of life?
What if Post is playing a clever game with the idea of “Belvoir” – the company full of Classic-obsessed theatre nerds who have a stronghold of subscription support and government recognition through funding bodies and major philanthropic player? What if this is a very clever site specific boundary pushing of theatrical sociology?
What if the inclusion of a group of individuals who are unpaid, untrained and unrehearsed except for about 4 hours of tech/dress/instruction – is there to comment on the very nature of how we view the performer. And perhaps – as one of those dead white males once suggested, that if all the worlds a stage and death is the final act – surely the best people to perform are people of the world – not performers (who might self-consciously be too busy training, auditioning, rehearsing, performing, crafting profile to be a person of the world.) And so, here we see the hypocrisy exposed – the company (Belvoir) that hosted Wesley Enoch’s provocation about money in art for the Philip Parson’s Award 2013 which poked at some sore spots in the industry (money and payment of artists) is enabling the same practice they squashed in 2010 (through the closing of the independent/co-op practices of the downstairs theatre) to re-emerge on the mainstage. Interesting.
And a clue in the cleverness might be the fact that there are women taking on the male classics – nodding to the sexism of the industry and history – and providing an irreverent and casual response to it.
What if the cleaning up after the first act (where in Combs-Marr and Grigor have murdered each other in a bloody frenzy dozens and dozens of times) – the real work of a stage manager is the reality check? What if this is dramaturgical design – not whimsical incompetence – which reminds us of what real time is: in the face of a sped through series of “cartoonish” murders. It reminds us of what real work – a job needing to be done and finished with excellence looks like. It reminds us of what an authentic presence looks like – a presence where by the objective is unambiguous. Watching a stage manager clean up litres of blood with mops and brooms and towels reminds us of the transience and the waste of it all. This was undoubtedly my favourite moment of the whole show. I was enthralled. It amplified the whole simple, goofy superficial nothing of the rest of the show. In this we saw an intent, a problem and it work its way to conclusion. This was the biggest section of the whole night that followed Aristotle’s writings on “the poetics.” (Everything else was rehearsal room games, gags and exercises).
Did I enjoy this show.
Am I supposed to? No. Therefore, Post succeeded in fulfilling its intention. Have I had interesting conversations about this show – yes. But not because of the show – but because of the excellent company I keep. Exposing the truth that a show is sometimes not as important as the ideas it spurs in the individual in their life beyond the show. (A comforting thought)
Some will clap at the irreverence. Some will laugh at the hairy dog tail thinking. Some will delight in the goofy or the slapstick or the stupid. Any moments of poignancy will be found in the audience, as they watch the older members of the chorus admit they “will die.” Any emotional reaction will speak directly to the expectation of the audience. Exposing we are more the active player, than the passive recipient in this particular art experience.
But it comes down to this: what do you expect?
What do you expect?
From art, theatre, criticism, conversation, classics, the wine from the foyer bar, your life… your death?
* This list of afters pertains to people or companies I reference in this response, people I have spoken to about this show in private or in foyers, or those who have created work I think points to this production or vice versa.