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Sydney Theatre Company and Medina Apartment Hotels present RABBIT by Nina Raine at Wharf 1.

This British play was written and first performed in London 2006 “for which Nina Raine won both London Standard and Critic’s Circle Awards for Most Promising Playwright”. Ms Raine recently expressed surprise that her “little” play has had such a big life. For it also has had a showing in an Off Broadway house in New York in 2007, and in New Zealand.

The play is not really covering any new ground (What play can?) except it is covering a contemporary Generation Y in its first conscious contemplation of mortality. Bella (Alison Bell), the leading character, living a fairly successful career as a PR Consultant and a seemingly carefree, hedonistic lifestyle, celebrates her 29th birthday with some friends in a restaurant/bar, whilst secretly dealing with the imminent death of her father with whom she has had a fairly toxic relationship since her teenage years. Like the recent Tommy Murphy play SATURN’S RETURN we meet this new generation Y on stage, coming to terms with the consequences of their life choices as the onus of future responsibilities as maturing adults are made manifest to them.

It is a well written play. Conservative in its construction and revelations and mostly interesting for the emphasis of experience and values that are reflected in the concerns of this group of youthful adults in 2006 (2008.).

At the performance I attended the play had a gentle response to the comedy and finally a respectful absorption in the human dilemmas of Bella, and the relatively empathetic response of her friends to the finally revealed crisis in her life in the last three pages of the play. It was a good old fashioned night in the theatre. Generally satisfying.

However, there is something wrong. It should have had a bigger impact. The tone of the piece in this production by Brendan Cowell feels slightly askew. Mr Cowell and his company have set the play in Sydney in 2008. It has been transplanted from its cultural authenticity both in time and place and it just doesn’t quite gel as an Australian play. The class of these British characters does not in this production find an equivalent in this Sydney locality. (Their costuming (Genevieve Dugard) does not even reflect their socio-economics) (When leaving the theatre I overheard several young members of the audience discussing their inability to believe in the characters and their behaviour. The level of personal confrontation, they felt, was not an experience that they would have in their world, in Sydney, even amongst close friends, and never in such a public place: a pub back bar.) Why Mr Cowell felt that this play was going to be more useful as an Australian play I can’t quite fathom, except in a very generalised way. I have a feeling that as a British play I might have been able to believe it more and appreciated it more by the keeping of the distanced context of the writer’s world.

In the Queensland Theatre Company’s program notes for their recent production of STONES IN HIS POCKETS there is a very interesting note by the dialect/accent coach, Helen Howard, headed: WHY USE ACCENTS? In the final paragraph she says, “To do all plays in our own great accent could be interesting, but would promote a parochial slant on our world outlook and understanding of other cultures, and diminish the pleasure to be had in the theatre’s great panoramic vision of human life. Only in revealing the specific detail of a play, which in many cases includes its own native accent, can we unlock the universal resonance within it.” The embracing of the familiar parochial at the expense of the “universal” certainly hindered my response.

So, the change of location and dialect ie the dialectical word usage, and more importantly dialectical rhythms, that reveal truth and character, maybe some of the reasons for my sense of being in a world that was not quite right. The last time I was in a world of alcoholic truth telling in the theatre, was in Peter Evans production DON’S PARTY in the Drama Theatre at the Opera House. This play was authentically Australian which was reflected accurately in its sounds, word usage and rhythms. There was a greater sense of a reality that I could enter, to help me to accept the vitriol that was been expressed between characters in the play, than in this production of Ms Raine’s play.

As a digression, I feel fairly strongly about this dislocation of a play’s reality by the choice of not embracing the world of the play as written by the writer. Benedict Andrews’ production of Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Belvoir Theatre, though by most critics, and certainly by gauging the audience response the night I attended this work, was highly received, I would argue that what we saw was not the play written by its author Mr Albee, but rather a hijacking of somebody else’s art by an auteur that had an entirely different agenda than the author’s. I can’t imagine Mr Albee would have been pleased with what was enacted on the Belvoir stage, and knowing Mr Albee’s reputation as a protector of his integrity as a writer, would he have permitted the artistic licence that the Company B took with the play with its Australian sound and rhythms. The play as written by Mr Albee was hardly recognisable. I had just recently seen the American revival production with Kathleen Turner and had a devastating emotional evening in the theatre. It worked then and I saw no gains to what I experienced in the American production by shifting the location to somewhere in Australia. (The location guides in the text were not at all altered at Belvoir, which made the night for us, who find “delight” in the detail a very bewildering experience.) Similarly an Andrew Upton production of a Mamet one-acter (REUNION, I think) several years ago was reduced to sounding as if it were written, to my ear, by Daniel Keene. (No dishonour, I hasten to add, just not Mamet.) Ravenhill’s play, POOL (NO WATER) recently, at Darlinghurst Theatre also blighted. The rumour mill is telling me that the STC are about to embark on a Tennesee Williams in Australian dialect. Tell me it’s not true. If it is so, assist me to understand the raison d’etre. I know for instance, that Ms Blanchett , has a great ear and skill for dialect. So it can’t be a skill issue, can it?

The choice of the dialect in this production was an obstacle for me. Cultural ethics jettisoned for a parochial artistic licence.

Nina Raine says in the program notes “I just wanted to write something funny, moving and above all entertaining….. And it’s quite hard to make that happen. Unfortunately, cruelty is much funnier than kindness. What people don’t realise, reading the script, is that the lines are never played as hard as they are written…”

Unfortunately Mr Cowell has guided his, generally, talented actors in to playing at a very speedy comic style rather than mining the substance of the text. He has for most of the play drawn from the actors a tendency for them to present character types rather than real people. On almost every page of the script Ms Raine has musical cues of Ellipses, Beat, Silence and Pause. Within the musical scoring of the text there are writer’s directions to give the actors opportunities to create the subtextual substance of the characters. But the general style of playing by this company is rapid fire, give and take, aimed at achieving a comic joke through rhythmical timing and creating a kind of “farce” technique where speed and surprise is the essence of the work. But Ms Raine’s score suggests a modern comedy of manners where comedy is achieved by character juxtaposition and emotional dilemma and the pathos of situation in the landscape of these people’s relationships. Ms Raine through her directions provides the director and actors the clues to achieve this and gives them the breathing space to create that. As this is basically ignored, what we do have is a brash, and noisy exchange between characters without and real motivational time for cause and affect. So that these people appear angry, mean and spiteful or as Ms Raine suggests, what the trap is, cruel. The actors are tending to talk at each other rather than to each other. They wound each other as point scoring instead of maintaining and using and developing relationships. These are relatively comic automatons rather than vulnerable human beings. Comic strip instead of flesh and blood.

In the second half of the play the writing (although Ms Raine tends to spell everything out towards the end) is given breathing space by the director, for these so far brittle people reveal a deeper life. It is almost as if this production has two different plays on its hands. A farce and then melodrama (in the right sense).

Alison Bell is powerful vocally,both in timing and volume, though she tends to bully her way through the aching arc of Bella. We know something is going on but it is held and indicated. Toby Schmitz, like his performance in RUBEN GUTHRIE, reveals his shinning verbal skills and his comic physical quirks to gain some laughter from the audience but only reaches into the complex vulnerability of Richard belatedly. There was more to reveal throughout the piece. Kate Mulvany is best in the last act when she begins to voice the rather over written didactics of the writer in the “Surgeon speeches”. (Why has the interpolation of “metaphoric tuning forks” been placed in the text instead of simply the writer’s “tuning forks” Is it that the director felt we wouldn’t get it?) The otherwise laying out of the “memory” revelations of the writing, by Miss Mulvany, is teasing in the possibility of what the play might have been when relatively, treated seriously. Geoff Morrell plays a father figure but does not really create the dominant presence that helps us see the plight of his regretful daughter. It lacks any real imaginative presence other than speaking the words believably. Romy Bartz is also a rather good farceur (Why does she enter with a bicycle is beyond me? It is hardly the character Ms Raine has written. Some quaint hippy !!) but like Mr Morrell, does not bring much depth to the role or the situation other than the bare bones. Ryan Johnson lacks the physical and vocal dynamic of the other performers and so kind of disappears. This is a well balanced sextet that Ms Raine has written and the play can’t function well enough if it is only been played by a quintet.

The actors are doing as well as Mr Cowell has demanded. Not much more. This is reflected in the Set design (Genevieve Dugard). Ms Raine asks that “the main setting is the restaurant and table at which the friends sit. But the area should be small and intimate: and it is in the darkness around this focal point that the father’s scenes materialise.” Instead we have a setting that takes up the entire space and uses both the vertical and horizontal realities, in a well lit environment. Instead of being in the midst of a whirling hedonist world of a busy public space that Bella is escaping in to avoid her responsibilities to her parent, we are in a deserted back bar with nobody else in sight. Neither customer or waiter or even glassie. (The bollarding of the space by one of the characters a simplistic ploy by the director to explain the absence of the real world. It is a restaurant and not a back bar, isn’t it?) The physical Metaphor of the writer’s envisioned space has been thrown out. We have a juke box and a stairway to exit (to heaven!) instead.

The score (Steve Francis) is over emphatic and the lighting (Luiz Pampolha) merely pragmatic. What Mr Cowell and his team have given us is a kind of realism instead of an impressionism that is indicated by the writer. This weakens the impact of the writing.

It is these cavalier choices that finally undermines Ms Raine’s “little” play. It certainly has more to offer when read on the page than what is offered in production at Wharf 1. It is not enough to like the play. It is really necessary to respect the writer. Mr Cowell as a writer most probably knows only too well how hard it is to hand your creation to people who do not read your text closely and set up their own agenda instead of revealing the writer’s.

Playing now until 18 January 2009. Book online or call 02 9250 177.


5 replies to “Rabbit”

  1. Just home now from seeing Rabbit myself. I have never read your blog before and think it is a wonderful and ideologically generous task that you have committed yourself to! As you say – you noticed a severe lack of public discussion dedicated to the arts – and I 100% agree with you. But, ironically, I think the reason why theatre isn’t thriving as a home for discourse (both on and off stage) is because of something you advocate in your review – a stultifying (even inhibiting) reverence for writers.

    I am a writer myself (doing an MLit (Crative Writing) at Syd Uni) but trained as an actor at Theatre Nepean and have also tentatively directed theatre. I’m by no means experienced, but I feel as if this debate is riding the cusp of a shift in Australian theatre – which is something I think about a lot, and is why I found your review particularly interesting.

    I think holding the writer’s original intentions as the absolute blueprint for a production is exactly why theatre is falling behind other art forms that are thriving in Sydney right now (just look at the independent music scene! We’re practically drowning in street press and community radio stations dedicated to it!). At Simon McBurney’s talk at the Sydney Theatre last week he mentioned his distress at witnessing theatre’s stubborn hold on naturalism – theatre is ignoring the fact that film and television brings out the nuances and detail specific to naturalistic verisimilitude better than the medium of theatre. Theatre can do things tv and film can’t – and when the artist who works in the theatre explores these qualities and limitations in how they tell their stories – I think they’re artistically freed. Painting was freed by photography – why hasn’t theatre been freed by television? Film has even been freed by television – there are so many more auters out there in the film world who are willing to communicate through the medium of film as well as through the written word – and this has liberated film writing – it doesn’t need to say everything – because film image (in the right hands) can say so much!

    Perhaps the fact that Brendan Cowell is a writer is exactly what allowed him to treat the script relatively irreverently by placing it in an Australian context. If writers want sole propriety over their audience’s imaginations they should be writing novels (but even then – see below…). Theatre writers should (surely?) enter into the creative bargain knowing full well that their words will be reinterpreted depending on who’s voicing them, and who’s directing their work. That is exactly where my love for theatre springs from – its temporality – the fact that it can never be the same twice.

    I didn’t know that Rabbit was written by a Brit until interval – and it didn’t matter to me. I’m not actually a fan of the whole Sex and the City-esque bitch fest naturalistic play per se (I much preferred Frankenstein or A Disappearing Number as a piece of theatre) – but as a (relatively) young Gen Y woman I actually heard some of my own inner concerns voiced by Nina Raine that I have never dared to say myself – as I would call myself both a feminist and ‘ambitious’. I didn’t give a rats arse about accent, because I could see myself on stage – and that scared me as I’d almost walked into Wharf 1 having decided I wouldn’t like it.

    I thought Alison Bell was well cast – her inherent heart-on-sleeve vulnerability gave the otherwise hard edged character a pulse. I think that – if we’re talking naturalism – hearing actors speak in an accent other than their own is only a hindrance to the emotional psychological truth of the play. I have never seen it done well by an entire cast on stage. I can’t help thinking that your argument for all contemporary plays to be performed in the accent they were written in is not that far away from the same belief that Shakespeare should be performed in a kind of Westcountry approximation of Elizabethan English – which I’m pretty sure is a belief you don’t hold.

    On a different but related note – I’m reading The Corrections by Jonathon Franzan at the moment – and though it is distinctly set in the States I’m internally, subconsciously, giving all the characters Australian accents. I think everyone does this – particularly now that our Gen Y tech-savviness (and travel obsessions) makes the middle class of the UK, the US and Aus almost mutually exclusive.

    Pip Smith

  2. But, Pip, his point was that sticking to the play’s specifics (eg; a Brit accent) accesses the universal – while transforming everything into ‘Aussie-speak’ creates problems of logic and destroys inherent rhythms. As audiences, we are capable of relating to stories that don’t come from our backyard – so why make them sound like they do? Because it’s easier. Because we’re Australian and proud of it?

    And I don’t think we have a ‘stultifying reverence’ for writers – I think we have a stultifying disrespect. It’s all every nice to imagine actors and theatre-makers being ‘artistically free’, but what exactly does that entail?

    And yeah, naturalism is a big hangover, and can be like really expensive TV, but that’s not the fault of ‘writing.’ It’s the fault of very safe decision makers – writers, too, can transcend the bounds of Naturalism.

    I don’t want to see ‘faithful’ productions of texts for the sake of it – but I don’t want to see ill-founded, ill-considered, vanity projects. And I don’t want Mamet, Pinter, Albee, Tennessee Williams dished up for 70 bucks a pop without the dialects that make the language wok rhythmically, emotionally, aesthetically.

    But maybe that’s too strident, there are no rules – only theatre that works and theatre that doesn’t – but to say the problem with theatre in Australia is ‘reverence for writers’ is just being stupidly provocative.


  3. I don’t know about ‘stupidly’ provocative – this is just a discourse we’re engaging in – let’s not get too personal here.

    I know that writers can transcend the bounds of naturalism. My favourite writers do! All I’m saying is – when it comes to naturalism, it isn’t the ‘music’ that matters – it’s the emotional truth. If it was opera it would be a different matter – even poetic drama. But Rabbit was a work of naturalistic drama.

    Also I’m wondering what these problems of ‘logic’ are? And ‘inherent rhythms’? What writers are concerned with in a naturalistic context is the perfect articulation of a true emotion/ thought – surely? I thought the play worked in an Australian context. But that’s just my opinion. Did you really think Rabbit was an ‘ill-founded, ill-considered vanity project’? And if so, whose vanity was it supporting? Cowell’s? I know he’s getting a lot of media attention at the moment – and I don’t particularly agree with his aesthetic – but I think that’s a little unfair. I respect him for his prolific creation of work. And the fact that this is prompting discussion is surely mark of a useful and interesting play.

    I think ‘artistic freedom’ is the ability to creatively articulate whatever it is you need to communicate – with finesse and specificity – irrespective of whatever ‘school’ you belong to.

    And, Anonymous, you’re very right – naturalism isn’t the fault of ‘writing’ – it’s the fault of those who posses a ‘reverence for writing’- ie the safe decision makers.

    If you want to hear the dialects work – hire the BBC tapes – the thing is – we always have the scripts – and we always will have the recordings of those who will ‘perform them properly’ – why can’t we let people test those scripts – try new things with them. What is – really – the worst that can happen? Theatre is a disourse. Let’s let people say what they have to say!

    Criticism is important – but not to the point where you forbid people to tell stories in their own dialects!

    Pip Smith

  4. Thank you for the discussion. How great.

    The emotional truth is expressed through the feelings that the actor has in what I call a “personalized ownership” of the text, through the technique of identifying through first hand (ie personal life experiences) and then second hand (ie references that we have had through other sources eg film, reading etc) life experiences.

    Once I have done this, as an Australian in this culture, my next task would be, through research, and the act of the IMAGINATION translate it to what I understand the origin of Ms Raine’s cultural need to express this story is. A necessary part would be the study of the language of the text, its vocabulary, its rhythms etc. An examination of the given circumstances which include the culture of origin.

    The vowel sounds, in English, are the emotional release impulses, so that the Australian and the “British” vowel sound will have a different value and musical emphasis as indicated by the physical effort to shape and support it. The word choice and the innate rhythmical structure of the cultural dialect is the result of the need to express the emotional truth peculiar to this writer’s experience.

    It, as you can see, gets very complicated. What I am essentially saying is that what happens when the dialect is ignored is simply reducing the work down to an easy solution (which is only a preliminary step in the thrill of being a craftsman in the pursuit of being an artist) instead of expanding the responses of the actor into a truer set of decisions in honour to the writer’s intentions.

    The production needs to explore the text in a more detailed adaptation of linguistic changes for it to be truly Australian. But this did not happen in this case. It was simply speaking it with the actor’s convenient sound. It is really not enough. The production then falls between two stools. It is neither an authentic reading of this writer’s intention or an accurate reflection of an Australian context – the linguistic choices in vocab, sound and rhythm are different. It is never as simple as putting it into “strine”. This is what I suggest why there was some small unease or mystification in the reception of the play, certainly it was for me and some of my fellow audience on the night I attended. The emotional truth that you are asking for is in the Music of the culture.

    Now I am sure your emotional identification with the character and her situation was a genuine catharsis but it was not merely that it was spoken in a dialect, that you, unconsciously perhaps, gave it, inspiring relevance. I am sure that the power of the observations would have had a similar affect on you with the added sophistication of the actor’s craft of interpreting with an attempt for cultural authenticity. With its authentic musical scoring it may have had an even greater emotional truth and impact for you.

    Now I also feel that it is not the writer’s choice in this instance that is holding onto “naturalism” but rather the Director, Mr Cowell. This writer has not asked for naturalism if you read her Set instructions.

    The “naturalistic” emphasis of this production is in the Set and Lighting decisions that Mr Cowell has made. I believe Ms Raine with the quoted instructions I gave you, was asking for a much more “impressionistic/expressionistic” feel. A memory or mind play. It should have the feel of being in the experience with Bella not watching an objective unravelling of a “naturalistic play”. And although Bella does not talk directly to us, we as an audience know her pain and predicament and know more than the other characters, and are meant to read the interaction with her friends through this extra filter of knowledge, and with each recalled moment with the father figure a possible escalation of the emotional trauma and catharsis should be happening. A bit like say, Tennessee Willliam’s THE GLASS MENAGERIE or Arthur Miller’s AFTER THE FALL. It is the design of the set, the lighting, that pulls this production of the play down to a TV naturalism experience, rather than the more heightened theatrical intention of the writer. Ms Raine is actually asking for more risk taking that this Design offers. It is meant to be an inner psychological journey rather than the naturalistic, literal response that Mr Cowell has elicited from his Design team. It is why I had a better response to the play on reading it, closely. This is not this writer’s fault it is rather the decisions of the director and his designer. We are not getting the experience the writer has offered. Mr Cowell has been too free with his decisions and would have had a more theatrically contemporary production if he had respected the writer’s guides more closely.

    I hope this is some further useful response to the debate. Thank you both for taking on the purpose of the blog. I find it refreshing and fun. ART AS FUN!!!!! Art as a stimulation. A curious phenomenon. Merry Christmas.

    Kevin J.

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