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The Blind Giant is Dancing

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING, by Stephen Sewell, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Surry Hills, 17 February – 20 March.

The primitive but stirring sound of a muted metal instrument (it, probably, a manufactured electric source) heralding the entrance of the participants to commence action on the Belvoir stage promised an heroic approach to this epic 1983, political/religious family saga, THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING, by Stephen Sewell. I was flattered to be presented with the dense muscularity of the ideas in the language of the play – it has been so long since I have been enthused by an Australian text with challenging ideas/debate, a basic of the best kind of theatre – that I leaned into the play, in my seat, and despite, the relative casual vocal skills and efforts of the actors I paid attention to the convolutions of Mr Sewell’s mixture of family, religion, brand-politics, political manoeuvring and ethics, with a kind of anticipant thrill.

True, the play is long, and, sadly, actually came to feel long – one wished for the ‘blue pen’ to be further wielded –  so that, one gradually sat back, and had one’s appetite diminished for the work, out of exhaustion, but, mostly, out of an accumulative frustration at Directorial decisions (tonal) and acting inadequacies (skills). The longer you are on view the more likely the audience’s critical ‘eye’ will come into play. That is prevented, only by the highest quality of performance, that will keep one suspended in a subjective ‘bath of joy’: e.g. anything I have seen by Mnouchkine, some of her work 6 hours long! – never a glimmer of distraction from me, whilst watching. Mr Flack’s work with Mr Sewell’s play intimated only a promise of that possibility.

Eamon Flack as the Director, seems to be enamoured with the cinematic medium, rather than the very different demands of the theatre, and here, on the Belvoir stage, as he did with his production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, indulges that trait. (I wish he would indulge his [obvious] theatricality for the medium he is working in.) This artistic exploration/pre-occupation is present in his making this text seem filmically naturalistic – performances of intense but small scale intimacy – and emphasized it consistently: for example, by allowing the late scenes of seduction, between Rose (Zahra Newman) and Allen (Dan Spielman), to be played so softly (and, perhaps, ‘truthfully’) that  micro-phoned projected voices were required to communicate it to the audience (the Sound Design uncomfortably, disconcertedly, different, drawing attention to the technical sleight of hand) and encouraging other actors – e.g. Ramon (Ivan Donato) – to speak the play as if it were a real life occurrence, (instead of sounding and looking LIKE ‘real life’ – at stage scale), so that in many instances, we had only audible sounds/noises coming from the actors that intimated an emotional state, rather than a giving of the information of the line, for us to be able to understand, and so endow the emotional iterations, that were, otherwise being demonstrated for us, and for us to be able to, at least, grasp the ‘arguments’ of the play – the thoughts as well as the feelings of the characters. (With this filmic style of playing on the stage, Mr Flack could have helped us, further, by having sur-titles for us to comprehend what was the cause of the emotional outpourings, since, often, we couldn’t hear with unequivocal clarity what was been said.)

The Directorial style was consistently a directed subjective/naturalistic focus instead of disciplined objective/storytelling focus for the theatre. Time and time again the drama of the play fell to the floor at the ends of speeches, either spoken too softly, or gabbled in sentence length without any real vocal technique clarity of word by word construction, and most times not utilising the clues – ‘commands’ – of the writer’s syntax accurately, to tell the ‘story’ of the play. ‘Feeling’ not ‘thinking’ the principal mode of the actor’s choices in performance.

We experienced naturalism (realism?) dominating the manner of the storytelling in this production where I believe Shakespearean epic could be, should be its reach, its tone. I thought, after watching the production, even the title of the play in its choice of heightened poetry: THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING, is a clue to the production scale. The more experienced actors of the company, especially, Russell Kiefel and Genevieve Lemon, had no such blindness, blemish, and made a more gigantic impression in the schemata of the production, as a result, and had the play ignite, using the particular (a barbecue) to illuminate the universal context – to make the ordinary (small) into an infinite – the echoes of Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN’s Willy and Linda Loman were intimated in their husband and wife, Doug and Eileen Fitzgerald. As no less, I felt an envisioned heightened scale of acting in the carefully drawn and subtle creation by Andrew Henry of the younger brother Bruce, growing from feckless idiot in short shorts to a questing hero of conscience and honour in compensating contrast to his brother’s Allen’s descent (a Malcolm contrasting Macbeth, perhaps?).

Especially after the satiric and nostalgic family scenes of the second act, the scale of this play began to push at me in its possible conception and explain my relative boredom with what was been offered. I began to feel the epic nature of the tragedy of this play. This play is not just about the strangulation of religious/church rituals and prejudices enmeshed, further, in the dynamics of Capital and its Corporate Beasts sooked onto our democratic institutions and ideals – epic though that is – but even more powerfully, of the Shakespearean scaled tragedy of an individual of this society, a possible GIANT of idealised principle – religious and political – brought low through the gradual succumbing to the insatiable disease of the everyman human animal: greed for power. Power at any cost, ultimately, leading to a lonely seat on the throne of government – a corrupt place where the need for absolutism, to survive, corrupts unfailingly. Like many of Shakespeare’s great tragic characters – Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear (name them) – Allen Fitzgerald, begins the play as a man of some honour and behavioural ethics – a conscience ridden struggling human honour, to be sure – that progressively, in the battering course of the world that he lives and battles in, becomes diminished, to be what he once was fighting against and despised most – a leader, soaked by and in the bleeding wounds of his lost principles, alone and grippingly paranoid – a figure as terrible as Ivan the Terrible in the Eisenstein film! – a figure (and performance) of scale.

The naturalistic scale and habits of the contemporary, popular, filmic tone appreciated by Mr Flack has led him into Directing, I think, Mr Spielman into playing an ordinary man living out choices, to having a fall from ethical behaviour, instead of the Hero with a Tragic Flaw, having a spectacular descent into a kind of modern madness. Creating a monumental tale/fable of caution for us all. This production had no Blind Giant Dancing. It kept reminding me of the relative failure of epic tone displayed in Mr Flack’s production of MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, last year. A deliberate pulling of the theatrical demands of Brecht down to a contemporary film and television ‘melodrama’ scale.

The acting of the company at Belvoir, in general, was good, but except for the aforementioned Mr Kiefel, Ms Lemon and Mr Henry, had no glimmer of greatness.  What has tantalised me about attending the theatre again, was the opportunity in London of seeing acting from most of the actors there, played at a thrilling capacity for heightened stakes, each challenging the other to an engaged energy of concentration and skill that was viscerally, thrillingly projected into the theatre, no matter where you sat. Acting that made even ordinary material – RED VELVET– easy to sit through, because of the passion of their playing with very articulate instruments of craft – voice and body. It takes courage and most of all Skills in a primed state for usage to do so. Mr Sewell’s plays can bear it, they are built heroically, it seems to me, for artistic courage, heightened stakes and highly prepared and available skills – I believe his plays require all three elements, ferociously.

Mr Sewell’s consistent writing habits, evidenced in his play texts, have all three elements and the artists working on them need to compliment – match – that inspiration. But the Australian inclination to ‘kitchen sink’ style, or fashionably, to melodramatic TV and Film scale – intimate and real – is what we mostly see here. Really, last year, from memory, Geoffrey Rush in KING LEAR, Colin Friels in MORTIDO were the only actors prepared to buck the boring flavour/favour of our genteel tastes and attempt to thrill an audience with acting at a theatrical (and believable) scale. It was disheartening and interesting to see a performer such as Yael Stone, as Louise, the isolated Jewish wife, who we have known to ignite and project indelible characterisations on the Belvoir stage in the past, reducing her choices to such a dull expression of action, that did seem to me to require, perhaps, a camera to capture, the possibility of her internal truths of her character. Similarly, Mr Spielman, in a reductive mode, for one can remember what we have seen him deliver under the direction of Mr Kosky, in the past (THE LOST ECHO).

Ivan Donato, as Ramon, played at an internalised impassioned state of communication – but in Row H you could barely hear him; Zahra Newman’s Rose seemed to only want sex from Allen – its telegraphed need, blinding us to any other perceptible option/motivation for her character’s action; Geoff Morrell appeared to be re-playing some of his television characterisations; Emma Jackson with three roles overplaying or underplaying to distinguish them; Ben Wood brought some real interest to one of his roles but showed, relatively, little interest or invention in his other tasks; Michael Denka making an impression with the little he had to do – a Mafioso energy of threat – one wanted to see more of him.

The Design, both Set and Costume, by Dale Ferguson was clean and stimulating. The dark green walled surround stage, bare, except for a large L.E.D.screen, centrally placed, that illuminated the space with sometimes blinding light, which resulted in an Artaud discomfort effect, and sometimes with Brechtian like titles of scene location etc. It was a contemporary (if not expensive) stroke. Lighting Design, by Verity Hampson. Pieces of furniture were brought on as required with precision, leaving some actors seated in the background hovering, sometimes watching, sometimes representing participants of the action, Meyerhold-like. The Sound Composition by Steve Toulmin was the element that seemed to understand the epic/timeless scale of Mr Sewell’s story best, it was consistently thrilling, it continuously heralding an epic scale of production that was consistently not met in the Directorial or Acting offers that followed.

I was glad to have seen this play, despite the limitations of this production. It gives one a jolt of memory that there were once ‘warriors’ writing for our culture, our country, that cared about the bigger moral issues of our times. It also signals, perhaps, the reason for our increasing disillusionment with our present day writers (or at least the writers that the Company artistic ‘gatekeepers’ – Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Belvoir – are prepared to produce), who write so consistently and ordinarily about domestic trivialities with so few points of view  – family melodrama and deflective shallow comedy: the Belvoir piss-take style with a play like Gogol’s THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, or the STC’s production of Gorky’s CHILDREN OF THE SUN, not long ago.

I was a guest of some regular Belvoir subscribers and they were, they said, frankly bored by the production, not finding enough clarity to give them cause for a three hour engagement. The discussion after the performance, on the outside pavement, was wan and moved quickly onto other things. Mr Sewell’s plays are written with social and political combat in mind. We all ought to have been charged with argument one way or the other, about something. We weren’t.

Says the ‘blurb’ on the back of the text/program sold at the the theatre:

THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING is an angry and tender depiction of an idealist, Allen Fitzgerald, who becomes so embroiled in a party power struggle that he loses sight of what’s at stake. When it premiered in 1983, THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING felt like a sharp slap in the face. Now, in an age of ICAC, Union Credit cards, speculative housing bubbles, a pulverised working class and vapid leadership in the 21st century, this Australian classic has lost none of its brute force.

Certainly the play has this intimation of its power, this production did not – it is all a matter of courage and skill really. The other artists need to reflect and meet the courage and vision of the writer. This production had no sense of “brute force” – BRUTE FORCE!

It would be an event to see what Stephen Sewell is writing for the theatre for today, would it not? I am sure his passion for the ideals of society, and his desire to awaken us, one way or the other, have not tempered. I think I know enough actors that feel the same way and have the courage to do him proud. I think I do.