June 2011

Arts & Letters

Under surveillance

By Peter Robb
Director Benedict Andrews in rehearsal for the Belvoir Street Theatre's current production, 'The Seagull'. © Heidrun Löhr
Meeting Benedict Andrews

For the set of Chekhov’s The Seagull, playing at Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney (4 June – 17 July), designer Ralph Myers has made an architect’s model of an Australian fibro beach house and its domestic interiors. Benedict Andrews is directing an Australian vernacular Seagull, transposed by himself from the lakeside dacha to somewhere on the coast – a summer holiday place where people roll joints, call each other mate and arrange to leave by car rather than horse. Outside Myers’ entrancing miniature of a recent Australian past is an almost invisible extra: a small glass cube out the front. In the interrupted performance that is the crisis of The Seagull’s first act, the girl Nina speaks not from a makeshift stage with a view of the lake beyond but from inside a glass box. We shall be seeing this glass cube again.

Andrews’ last production in Australia, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure a year ago, was also at Belvoir Street and also designed by Ralph Myers, who has followed Neil Armfield as the theatre’s artistic director. Among the manifold splendours of that production, the first to catch the eye was the set. It was instantly recognisable as a contemporary hotel bedroom in soothing pastel colours, with a glass-walled ensuite bathroom – smart and bland in the right degree. The room was anonymous enough to mutate subtly into a contemporary executive suite, an up-market brothel, a prison cell, any number of generic rooms and streets and open spaces, the moated grange where the play’s pivotal sexual encounter took place in secrecy at night, and the city gate where things were put right at the end. Sometimes it did this by rotating so all you saw was the blank wall outside and a door. From being right in on top of everything you were abruptly shut out while others came and went.

We now expect hotel and office buildings, prisons and city streets to be under video surveillance, and this contemporary Measure for Measure used a video filming of its action to remarkable effect. It enlarged the tight confines of the set while going in cruelly close to the faces and bodies of the actors, bleached, blurred and blown up in real time on a large screen in parallel to the physical action. And, since Measure for Measure is also a play about manipulation and surveillance, it worked. The video, which had a simply expository function in Andrews’ earlier The Season at Sarsaparilla, had become, three years on, an integral part of the play’s structure and meaning.

Andrews’ trapped intimacies don’t always work. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?? couldn’t support the intensities he took to it in 2007. Albee’s post-Eisenhower play shows its age. It is still wonderful as Martha’s angry energy breaks again and again over her never quite destructible husband, George. But, like all post-midnight booze parties, the play exhausts itself toward the end and makes a tired and factitious exit. Andrews had a magnificently Australian Martha in Catherine McClements but the rest of the cast faltered. The set, with its great wall of glass behind, was out of scale with the modesties of what took place.

There’s a tight nexus here that is hard to pick apart: the link between enclosure and surveillance, prison and theatre. The title of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – his study of the origins of modern prison practice – more literally translates to ‘Watch and Punish’, and Foucault argued that constant surveillance was part of society’s punishment for crimes. Bentham’s eighteenth-century Panopticon, the model prison project that let a single unseen warder keep watch over hundreds of convicts, was not merely an exercise in efficiency. 

A few hours after Andrews got off a flight from Reykjavík to Sydney via Berlin, we stumbled into this nexus. He was talking about his infancy in Adelaide, and his very Catholic upbringing, and how at the age of three while assisting at Mass he began mimicking the liturgical gestures of the priest before the altar. I mentioned that Jean Genet, as an abandoned child sent to live with a pious peasant family, had begun the same way, memorising the liturgy and organising other small children in elaborate funerals for dead birds and dogs. Andrews has an intense and longstanding interest in Genet, whose early work blends the languages of religion and sex with the theatre of confinement, and whose first play was set in a prison and called Deathwatch (Haute surveillance). The first play the schoolboy Andrews directed was written by himself and called Cell.

The notion that theatre – and the life theatre represents – is a form of confinement for the actors, and that the confinement consists in being under the unremitting gaze of others, recurs in Andrews’ work. You are never alone. Cameras track you. The walls are always glass.

Sometimes, he does things quite differently. For the Sydney Theatre Company in 2009, he took Shakespeare’s history plays, from Richard II through the six Henries to Richard III, cut them each to one-third of their length and presented the eight plays in a single epic performance as The War of the Roses in four parts, lasting eight hours. Here the stage was stripped, the effects simple and vivid. Andrews’ eyes and voice fill with rapture when he recalls the “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful” rain of gold showering on Cate Blanchett as Richard II; they darken at the memory of the ash falling on Richard III and the monarchy. The play’s foot soldiers loved it too, though they found gold paillettes glittering in their most intimate crevices, and shat black for weeks.

He is silent when I harp on confinement and surveillance in his roughly domestic plays but, of The War of the Roses and the King Lear he directed at the end of last year in Reykjavík for the National Theatre of Iceland, he talks about the king’s “journey toward the far reaches of … being human”. The end is the same on the “vast empty stages” as under the surveillance cameras: “There’s nowhere for the actor to hide.”

Neither the exposure nor the confinement comes easily. John Gaden, who performed in The War of the Roses, told me of a moment not long before opening when Andrews threw out a set the actors had been rehearsing with for weeks. This left what Andrews recalls as “the bare stage, the actors, their bodies, their words”. He describes the change as a “crucial decision … an act of creative destruction … a big risk” that disconcerted the actors into new life and strengthened the epic flow of the action. It wasn’t the only radical change made toward simplicity as The War of the Roses evolved.

The difference is never merely formal. In 2009, straight after The War of the Roses, Andrews produced A Streetcar Named Desire in Berlin – rather wonderfully renamed Endstation Sehnsucht – at Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, the theatre where he has found a European home, close friends and an electrifying mix of high art and wildness in its German actors. Against expectation, he used “an empty, stripped away theatre, not a domestic setting”. Blanche DuBois on her lonely journey was closer to Lear than to Martha. The images of this spare staging are breathtakingly beautiful.

Last December, in the dark and cold of the Icelandic winter, in a country still convulsed by financial devastation, Andrews produced his Icelandic-language King Lear in Reykjavík. He felt in touch with the wild past King Lear is about, and worked with actors who showed without feigning the rude warrior vigour that King Lear needs and rarely gets. The physical ease and unselfconscious energy of the actors reminded him of Australia, offering something more elemental than old Europe now can. He wants to do an Icelandic Macbeth.

Wasn’t the baroque artifice of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses a wrench straight after such a King Lear? Andrews says not. With him to London went Börkur Jónsson, who had designed his King Lear in Iceland, though the design moved back into the glass box. Penelope waited for her husband’s return from the Trojan War behind perspex walls in a space the Guardian’s reviewer interpreted as “a hotel suite … or a prison”. The ex-combatant Ulysses also reminded the audience of contemporary wars in remote countries. Andrews’ Hobbesian vision of the body politic as the theatre of endless violent conflict had first shown ten years before in his Balkan and militarised Three Sisters, disturbing the idea of Chekhov dear to Sydney Theatre Company’s subscriber base.

Where does it come from, this sense of entrapment and strife? Andrews was born into the professional middle classes of Adelaide in 1972, the first child of a schoolteacher mother and a father whose career segued from secret work in defence systems to expertise in neo-Gothic architecture. He was educated first by the Jesuits – who surely imparted his fluency of language and conceptual ease – and later at a Sisters of Mercy school where he was able to do drama. The faintest afterglow of doting parents and eager teachers still envelops him like an aura. He is used to being listened to and having his wishes realised.

In his mid teens Andrews studied drama under a teacher called Michael Beresford-Plummer, and read Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter. The boy learned to invent actions around feelings and situations – threat, for instance, enacted with a hand and a knife – and began to write plays, an activity lately returned to after years of directing the work of others. Andrews had been vaguely heading toward law at university but he told his teacher he wanted to continue with drama as a sideline. “Drama is never a sideline,” Beresford-Plummer told him. “It’s your life or it’s nothing.”

In 1990 Andrews went to Flinders University to study drama. He learned directing from Jules Holledge, a veteran of the UK’s alternative drama of the ’70s. Graduating in 1995, he went on to work as assistant director with Jim Sharman and Neil Armfield. There are no false steps or wrong turns in this story. In 1999 Robyn Nevin invited the unknown Andrews into her inaugural season at the Sydney Theatre Company. His production of Marivaux’ La Dispute, Andrews says with a theatre person’s shyness, was “a huge hit”.

In Berlin in 2008 Andrews met his partner, Margrét Bjarnadóttir, known as Magga, a dancer and choreographer from Iceland. I asked him what he had learned from Magga, thinking the northern fringe of Europe, its wild violent past, but also dance – theatre conceived entirely as movement. He searched for an answer, scrabbled through his shirt buttons and finally put his hand on the skin over his heart. “Only here,” he mumbled. “Only love.” The theatre man suddenly faltered and showed an inarticulacy that was all the more striking for the tireless and loquacious urbanity with which he’d been fielding my queries for hours. A proposition on Brecht or Genet or Bernhard would be batted back without effort. I wondered suddenly if this is what being a theatre director was about. Feeling unable to speak for yourself, and so spending your working life enabling others to speak for yet others.

Andrews has shown from the start a powerful visual imagination, which is not anchored to theatre’s old pieties and which can recast drama in startling and compelling ways. He’s not the only such director, in Australia or elsewhere. John Gaden, now working on his third Andrews production, calls Barrie Kosky the godfather of Andrews and his younger contemporary Simon Stone, and sees the three as the great renewers of theatre in Australia.

But Andrews’ work now has a more particular quality. It was powerfully evident in last year’s Measure for Measure, which was conceptually brilliant, beautiful in its craft, funny, shocking and moving. The language was warm, alive and intelligible, the complicated plot always felt clear and going somewhere. The actors inhabited their roles as if born to them, working together as the kind of microcommunity only a great deal of reciprocal trust and love can sustain.

It culminated in the drawn-out reconciliation scene at the end, when justice was done, people got their deserts, and couples were willingly or unwillingly paired off. Shakespeare’s reconciliations are immensely moving and intrinsic to his comedy, yet they embarrass many clever directors. Andrews understood why the reconciliation mattered and gave the conclusion all the loving attention the play made it deserve.

Now he is revisiting Chekhov in the ideal intimacy of Belvoir Street, and using his return to Australia – a little older, somewhat changed – to stage a play whose painful comedy concerns passing time, eagerness and disappointments in life. And the difficulties of making an art that reflects life’s real complexities. Andrews chose The Seagull because it’s full of these questions about life and art, questions he says the people in the play have “a terrible and funny incapacity to answer”. The questions are most of all about love. They are asked in a place of confinement, the summer place out of time and life.

Chekhov’s play is very funny and very painful. The laughs and the hurt create each other and a director has to get the balance right. How Andrews does so is almost sprite-like, dancing around the rehearsal room and its rudimentary set like an Ariel – you’re never quite sure where he is – mostly silent, sometimes laughing, sometimes offering an alternative take almost as a joke, ultra-delicate with the young, and yet, as the veterans understand, exquisitely in control. “He runs a good room,” as they say, and the rehearsal seems to run itself. Everyone is quiet and intent. Only the actors speak.

This Seagull has a cast one might dream of: Emily Barclay, Bille Brown, Gareth Davies, Judy Davis, Maeve Dermody, John Gaden, Anita Hegh, Terry Serio, Thomas Unger, David Wenham and Dylan Young. Andrews knows his luck. As Arkadina – star, mother, lover, sister, neighbour or boss to nearly everyone else – he has in Judy Davis one of the great English-speaking actors of her time, and perhaps the greatest unrecognised comedian.

Yet the best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them. How the imagination does that is what the director’s about.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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