One Man – Three Women – and a Mother’s apartment!
Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers opened on 28 December 1969, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York. It ran for over two years and subsequently was performed throughout the world, including Australia. It has remained one of Neil Simon’s most regularly performed comedies of urban New York life.
This satiric comedy-of-(American-Jewish) manners was initially a response to the ‘sexual liberation’ of the late-1960s, exemplified by the ground-breaking musical Hair, which had opened on Broadway only the year before. Last of the Red Hot Lovers joined other notable productions in 1969, the first year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, that questioned and challenged numerous contemporary conservative values and institutions. This included Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies are Free, and Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (Marriage), Robert Marasco’s Child’s Play (Roman Catholic education), and Arthur Kopit’s Indians (History and Native-Americans). This rebelliousness was complemented in some of the most outstanding and influential American films of the year, which included John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, and Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
All these works are celebrating their respective 50th Anniversary in 2019. It is somewhat sobering to think and reflect that many of the issues raised in these works in 1969 are still concerns in 2019. Dated? I think not.
Within Neil Simon’s considerable canon of work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is the second in a quartet of plays that charts a particular evolution of Neil Simon dramatic concerns, skills, and artistry. From the farcical Plaza Suite (1968) and the satiric romance of Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969) to the serious dramas of The Gingerbread Lady (1970), and The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue (1971). Collectively, these plays form a quartet with similar themes, characters, situations, and dramatic techniques, including setting the entire action in the same room but with three different stories (Plaza Suite and Last of the Red Hot Lovers). There is a growing sense of middle-age and middle-class fear, isolation and complete ‘bafflement of the individual’. This ‘bafflement’ with the modern world is also reflected in the film The Out of Towners (1970), one of Neil Simon’s best film works.
What gives these plays (and screenplay) an added depth is the poignancy of the humour. Clive Barnes, the influential New York Times theatre critic, noted the shift in Neil Simon’s humour in his review of the original production – “He is as witty as ever…but he is now controlling that special verbal razzle-dazzle that has at times seemed mechanically chill… There is the dimension of humanity to its humour so that you can love it as well as laugh at it.” (NYT. 29 December 1969).
Whilst Last of the Red Hot Lovers deals with a middle-age crisis of confidence the play also deals with more universal issues such as ‘broken dreams’. From today’s perspective, the play could be regarded as relatively conservative. It challenges the now accepted convention of ‘do your own thing’ on a moral and ethical basis. As the characters express, it makes one also question whether or not one is ‘decent’.
Are you? Are you ‘decent’? Who else in your life would you call ‘decent’? Or do you think that mankind is basically selfish and ‘indecent’? What can you do if essentially you are a ‘romantic’ and believe in the best of people rather than the worse? How do you cope with modern ethics that proclaims ‘do your own thing’ and be ‘honest’ to yourself when invariably that involves hurting other people?
This is what makes Last of the Red Hot Lovers still so relevant and pertinent as these issues are still part of living in so-called ‘modern times’ and can be baffling. What makes the play special and very much exemplifies the best of Neil Simon is that he doesn’t judge his characters. These are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people but individuals with whom we can empathize as they struggle with a world that seems to demand behaviour that doesn’t sit comfortably with them, particularly in regards to sex.
Like most of Neil Simon’s work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers the characters are wonderful for actors to play. The original (and subsequent productions) invariably have been performed by one male actor and three female actors. The original cast was James Coco (Barney), Linda Lavin (Elaine), Marcia Rodd (Bobbi), and Doris Roberts (Jeanette). The great American caricature artist, Al Hershfield, did one of his famous theatrical portraits of the original cast. Other actors who have performed in this play include Dom DeLuise, Sid Caesar, Alan Arkin (Barney), Rita Moreno, Sally Kellerman (Elaine), Paula Prentis (Bobbi) and Renee Talor (Jeanette). The Australian cast included Harry H. Corbett (Barney), Lelia Blake (Elaine), Anne Lucas (Bobbi), and Betty Lucas (Jeanette), and was directed by Alfred Sandor.
The idea, however, of having all three female characters performed by the same actress was initially inspired by a highly successful 2005/06 Chinese production featuring husband and wife team Xu Zheng (Barney) and Tao Hong (Elaine, Bobbi, Jeanette).
This production of Last of the Red Hot Lovers by STARC PRODUCTIONS complements and continues our ever-evolving ‘aesthetic’ of 2-hander plays in which the acting has precedence over design and concept: ‘STARC by name – ‘Stark’ by Nature’. Each of these four productions – Gardner McKay’s Toyer, Jim Cartwright’s Two, Suzie Miller’s Reasonable Doubt, and now Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers – whilst maintaining our essential dramatic ‘aesthetic’, nonetheless, are widely different in ‘style’.
What is ‘Style’? Michel St. Denis defined ‘style’ as the ‘dramatic reality’ or ‘dramatic truth’ of each individual play – even though written by the same playwright. The world of Last of the Red Hot Lovers may have certain similarities with other plays by Neil Simon, but it is remarkable different – even the three Acts are different, even though set in the same place.
These are the artistic challenges for STARC PRODUCTIONS, challenging our talent and skills against different ‘styles’ within one ‘aesthetic’. Furthermore, it complements and continues STARC PRODUCTIONS artistic mission – Quality Entertainment at Affordable Prices.
We are determined to establish another full-time professional theatre company in Adelaide. It’s Time! The talent and skills are here – but not always the opportunity. It’s Time!
“It’s come to my attention that you don’t know who I am” – is a line that Cate Blanchett delivers with deep and devastating effectiveness when she first enters THOR RAGNAROK. Could it be that she is referencing her old acting teachers, Kevin Jackson and myself? Not certain – but what this line does reflect is the subject of ‘identity politics’ that has come to dominate so much of modern theatre and film.
So – here we are – at the end of 2018 – that brief time in which we reflect on what we have seen and done over 2018, amidst the plethora of ‘Best of’ lists. I am not necessarily into the ‘Best of ’ etc. I have a fervent dislike of art becoming a kind of superficial competition, which is why I don’t watch a lot of TV. My lists are far more personal and revealing, reflective of those productions that affected me in one way or another, and have stayed with me for various reasons. I have my favourites, certainly, but they are not necessarily the “Best” of anything. I like the respective following works – because they moved me – that’s all.
I feel very fortunate to be living and working in Adelaide, partly because I am able to see a relatively vast range of national and international productions each year. This is primarily due to the respective festivals, such as the Adelaide Fringe Festival, the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Film Festival, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and (my favourite) the Oz-Asia Festival.
So – here we go. However, let me first state that I did not see any opera this year, nor did I see much dance and ballet, so these kind of productions are not on my list. All the theatre productions listed below were different in their own way, yet each profoundly moved me as well as enlightened and thrilled me.
THEATRE (in roughly chronological order)
JOHN BUCCHINO: IT’S ONLY LIFE – Davine Productions (USA/AUST. – Fringe Festival)
FLESH & BONE by Elliot Warren – Unpolished Theatre (UK – Fringe Festival)
KING JACK QUEEN by Baboab Tree Theatre Company (UK – Fringe Festival)
SMOKING WITH GRANDMA (Threewords Playwright (China – Fringe Festival)
KINGS OF WAR based on the ‘History’ plays by William Shakespeare – directed by Ivo von Hove and produced by Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Adelaide Festival)
US/THEM by Carly Wijs and BRONKS, Belgium (Adelaide Festival)
FLA.CO.MEN – Israel Galvan (Spain – Adelaide Festival)
MEMORIAL by Alice Oswald – directed by Chris Drummond with Helen Morse (Brink Productions) (Australia – Adelaide Festival)
PATTI LUPONE (USA – Cabaret Festival)
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL (USA – Cabaret Festival)
NASSIM by Nassim Soleimanpour (Iran – Oz-Asia Festival
SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai (China – Oz-Asia Festival)
SUTRA by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Netherlands/China – Oz-Asia Festival)
FAITH HEALER by Brain Friel – directed by Judy Davis with Colin Friels, Alison Whyte and Paul Blackwell. (State Theatre of South Australia.)
THE PURPLE LIST by Libby Pearson (UK – Feast Festival)
SEUSSICAL by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens– Northern Light Theatre Company
LINES by Pamela Carter (UK) – directed by Cory MacMahon (UK)
GODS OF STRANGERS by Elena Carapetis (State Theatre of South Australia)
Whilst this is really just shameless self-promotion, nonetheless, I am very proud of the productions that STARC the company I have formed with Stefannie Rossi and Marc Clement, produced in 2018. This includes TOYER by Gardner Mackay, TWO by Jim Cartwright, and REASONABLE DOUBT by Suzie Miller. Plus – there was Genet’s THE MAIDS.
Suzie Miller’s REASONABLE DOUBT, Elena Carapetis’ GODS OF STRANGERS, as well as Jada Alberts’ BROTHERS WRECK were the outstanding new Australian plays produced in Adelaide in 2018. I did see other new works in Sydney and Melbourne – but that’s another story, and none of them had the same impact on me as these three works. I may be biased re REASONABLE DOUBT but it was an honour and privilege to direct and produce the Australian premiere of this play.
FILM (not in any order of preference)
SHOPLIFTERS (2018) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (JAPAN)
CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) directed by Jon M. Chu (USA)
A STAR IS BORN (2018) directed by Bradley Cooper (USA)
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018) directed by Bryan Singer (USA.UK)
HEREDITARY (2018) directed by Ari Aster (USA)
GURRUMUL (2018 directed by Paul Damien Williams (AUSTRALIA)
Films released at the end of 2017 and seen in 2018
SWEET COUNTRY (2017) directed by Warwick Thornton (AUSTRALIA)
THE INSULT (2017) – directed by Ziad Doueiri (LEBANON)
A FANTASTIC WOMAN (2017) directed by Sebastian Lelio (CHILE)
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) directed by Luca Guadagnini (ITALY)
THOR – RAGNAROK (2017) directed by Taika Waititi (USA/NZ)
DARKEST HOUR (2017) directed by Joe Wright (UK/USA)
THE POST (2017) directed by Steven Spielberg (USA
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) directed by Martin McDonagh (USA)
THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) directed by James Franco (USA)
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) directed by Rian Johnson (USA)
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) – directed by Michael Gracey (USA)
BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017) – directed by Denis Villeneuve (USA)
Rather an eclectic group – and there are others – but these are the ones that have stayed with me.
I was also very fortunate in representing the National Film and Sound Archive in presenting during the 2018 Adelaide Film Festival (which was excellent) the newly restored prints of Gillian Armstrong’s STARSTRUCK (1982) and John Duigan’s THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE (1987). The latter, in particular, was very well received, and it was marvellous to see the very young Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn who most certainly have gone on to have quite wonderful careers.
2018 also marked the 100th Anniversary of the Raymond Longford’s and Lotte Lyall’s THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1918), which premiered in Adelaide on the 26 November 1918. I couldn’t attend the anniversary screening in Adelaide, so I watched this great Australian silent film classic at home.
Re Australian films – I did see a number, including Stephan Elliot’s SWINGING SAFARI, Mark Grenfell’s THE MERGER, Chris Sun’s BOAR, Ben Howling’s CARGO, Marion Pilowsky’s THE FLIPSIDE, and Heath Davis’ BOOK WEEK. I also finally caught up with Simon Baker’s BREATH (2017) and Ben Young’s HOUNDS OF LOVE (2017). A number of these films I admit I watched at home as they either had a limited cinema release and/or went straight to Netflix.
So – a wacky combo of romantic comedies and horror. None of these films was ‘brilliant’, but they were OK; in fact, more than OK. I particularly liked and appreciated the romantic comedies, perhaps the most difficult of all film genres to successfully pull off.
It was, however, Paul Damien Williams’ documentary GURRUMUL and Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY that were the stand-outs – especially SWEET COUNTRY.
Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY is terrific! And yet – I don’t know anyone who has seen it. Seriously. I saw it at the movies in Mitcham and I was one of three people in the session. Rather depressing – especially for such an excellent Australian film, but the reality is that it has been a bit of a disaster at the box-office, and continues to be an unknown despite good reviews etc.
SWEET COUNTRY, however, did trigger and inspired me to explore in more detail the nature of Australian ‘westerns’, and the ‘Western’ as a film genre in general.
The ‘Western’ is arguably the most common form of film in World Cinema, beginning with the Tait’s THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906), the first feature film in World Cinema, and the shorter THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903).
Subsequently, it is possible to argue that it was the ‘Western’ that began cinema and feature film. There are so many sub-genres in regard to ‘Westerns’, including musicals, comedies, horror, and science-fiction. Virtually all major ‘stars’ have at least one ‘Western’ in their body of work – and often more than one. Nor is the ‘Western’ confined simply to US film – they are everywhere; for example, the influential Italian/ Spanish ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone. Australian ‘Westerns’ have the strange title of ‘meat-pie’ Westerns.
There is not the time nor space to elaborate on this wonderful conundrum (what does the ‘West’ mean? Etc), but SWEET COUNTRY certainly joins the pantheon of great Australian ‘Westerns’ that includes WAKE IN FRIGHT, THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, THE TRACKER, THE PROPOSITION, MYSTERY ROAD, GOLDSTONE, as well as earlier films such as ROBBERY UNDER ARMS, BITTER SPRINGS and even JEDDAH.
The ‘Western’ is also very much a part of contemporary US films. Here is a list of some of the modern US ‘Westerns’ that I have watched. John McLean’s SLOW WEST (2015) and Ti West’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) being two in particular that I enjoyed and would thoroughly recommend.
THE HOMESMAN (2014) – directed by Tommy Lee Jones
SLOW WEST (2015) – directed by John McLean
BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) – S. Craig Zahler
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) – Quentin Tarantino
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) – Ti West
BRIMSTONE (2016) – Martin Koolhoven
Looking back – WOW – quite pleased with myself that I have actually seen so much.
Finally – did Ms Blanchett wickedly reference either Kevin Jackson or myself in THOR RAGNAROK?
I don’t really know – but it certainly has been suggested. No matter – but if and whenever I see this wonderful ex-student of ours I do intend to say to her in a rather deep voice – It has come to my attention that you don’t know who I am (Kevin), quickly followed by – Have you been listening to a word I’ve said!!! (Me)
Bring on 2019.
TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS:
#2 – THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1919).
Raymond Longford’s film version of C. J. Dennis’ SONGS OF THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1915) is truly an Australian ‘classic’ film, and deserves to be always in any list of ‘Top Australian films of all time’.
There are a number of things about this film that makes it special. Firstly, there is Raymond Longford (1878-1959) who produced, directed and co-wrote the screenplay. Longford is possibly the greatest of the Australian silent filmmakers. His career and life is a roller-coaster of ‘boom to bust’. His early film career is linked to his partner Lottie Lyell who co-wrote THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE with him, as well as many others, and appears as Doreen in THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE. Longford was already married when began his relationship with Lottie Lyell, but his wife refused to grant a divorce. Lottie Lyell died on T.B in 1925. From then on Longford’s career and life was gradual and humiliating decline. He ended up being a night-watchman on the Sydney wharves, dying, virtually in poverty, in 1959 at the age of 80 and largely forgotten. However, Raymond Longford was true ‘pioneer’ of Australian film, in directing, producing, writing, and fighting for an authentic Australian voice in film. He was highly critical of the influence and dominance of films and film-makers from the UK and the USA. He eventually softened his criticism of the Americans, preferring them due to their technical skill and artistry, as well as their sensitivity and encouragement of establishing an Australian film industry. Whereas the English were less technically skilled and regarded Australians as mere ‘colonials’ and ‘convicts’.
THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE is Raymond Longford’s masterpiece. However, there are many others that are noteworthy, and perhaps more indicative of Longford’s aesthetics and style. THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE, and its sequel, GINGER MICK, were highly successful, but they are not necessarily atypical Longford films. Longford was a bit of a maverick and a rebel, as befitting someone who is basically inventing feature films making in this early period of silent films. A more typical Longford-Lyell film is THE SILENCE OF DEAN MAITLAND (1914), which was highly controversial for its time, and involved a number of legal battles.
Another reason why THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE is special is the naturalistic acting that is unique to ‘world cinema’ of the time. This is most evident in the performances of Arthur Tauchert as ‘The Bloke’ and Lottie Lyell as Doreen. The naturalistic nature of this romantic comedy is enhanced by the given circumstances, which are essentially out-door locations in post-WW1 Darlinghurst, Sydney. Furthermore, perhaps due to the influence and presence of Lottie Lyell, but as he later admitted he was developing a particular aesthetic that was directed towards women as he regarded Australian women as more empathetic than Australian men to human drama.
THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE also has a special place in my affections as it was my father who introduced the poem to me, especially the ‘The Play’. In this poem, ‘The Bloke’ takes Doreen to see a production of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It is one of the funniest versions of Shakespeare’s famous play, and it is wonderfully realized in the film. THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE has an Adelaide and South Australian connection. C. J. Dennis was born in Auburn, about 100kms from Adelaide, and the first screening of THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE took place in the Adelaide Wondergraph on 26 November 1918.
For many years it was thought that this film had been lost. However, in 1952 a complete copy was found, restored and screened at the 1955 Sydney Film Festival. Raymond Longford was not invited because the organizers thought he was dead. An original negative print was discovered by accident in the USA in 1973. This American version was a better print than the one found in 1952. It was this version that was the basis for the 2000 restoration of the entire film by the Australian National Film and Sound Archive. This restoration is available as a two-set DVD, with an accompanying booklet about the film and its recovery and restoration. THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE needs to be reclaimed and rescreened so that it once again can take its place as on the ‘Top Australian Films of All Time’.
I have been neglectful of my WordPress website. I have recently had a very successful exhibition of my photography for this year’s South Australian Living Artists festival, a number of which have been sold. Thank you.
I have started a new series called DANCING TREES. This is an attempt to capture the movement and character of trees. I will post a few of them – the story so far. This one from Brown Hill Creek, Mitcham, Adelaide, has already been sold. My photos are available for sale on the BlueThumb web site.
Jean Genet (1910-1986) is one of the most controversial and challenging French writers of the 20th Century. His major works include the semi-autobiographical novels Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), Querelle de Brest (1947), and The Thief’s Journal (1949) and the plays The Maids (1947), Deathwatch (1944), The Balcony (1956), The Blacks (1959) and The Screens (1961).
Genet was a vagrant, a thief, a criminal, and a homosexual. He was also incredibly independent, driven and opportunistic. His wrote his first major work, Our Lady of Flowers (1943) on brown paper in a prison cell. A prison guard caught him, confiscated his writings and burned them. Genet then rewrote the whole thing again. On his release, he sought out Jean Cocteau who was impressed with Genet’s writing, which complemented his own existential work and introduced Genet to other influential French artists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. It was due to Cocteau and Sartre, as well as Picasso, that Genet was published. They also helped prevent him from returning to jail.
Sartre went on to write a detailed analysis of Genet’s work called Saint Genet (1952). This so disturbed Genet that he did not write again for a number of years, but when he did, it was to create some of the most explosive and controversial plays of the 1950s. Furthermore, Genet inspired many other artists from different fields, including Jacques Derrida, Lindsay Kemp, Angela Davis, Michel Foucault, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and David Bowie.
It is perhaps difficult to fully appreciate today the absolute radicalism of Genet and his considerable impact and influence – at least in Australia. I was reminded of this in a recent radio interview here in Adelaide, promoting a production of Genet’s The Maids that I am directing, with the wonderful, highly informed and experienced Peter Goers. Peter questioned me as to why Genet is not done much anymore. At the time, I was a bit thrown by Peter’s accurate question. I muttered something about Sartre, that Genet’s theatre, according to Sartre is the theatre of ‘fury’ and ‘hate’. This is most certainly true and is an integral part of The Maids in its murderous and suicidal hatred of class and privilege. Peter’s question, however, has made me reflect, and the following should be read more as a meditation on Genet and The Maids.
The Maids is possibly the most well-known and most performed of Genet’s plays. It is complementary to a great deal of post-WW 2 and early Cold War drama in theatre and film of the time, in that it involves secrets and the gradual and eventful unraveling of those secrets. Subsequently, it shares certain themes with such works as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which was also first performed in 1947.
One reason for The Maids exalted position as a major work of the 20th. Century is primarily due to it having three wonderful female roles, amongst the best of world theatre. Many great actresses have performed the roles of the maids, Solange and Clair, and their Madame. This includes Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, Vivien Merchant, and recently Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Hubert and Elizabeth Debiki.
Genet’s world is more transcendent and elusive than simplistic emotions. Even if they are full of ‘sound and fury’ they are not ‘nothing’. They tap into the continual bafflement of the individual – caught in between order and chaos, between truth and illusion; between the mask and reality.
What makes Genet rather shocking and provocative is that the illusion is often preferable to the reality with seeming tragic consequences. However, the tragedy is not necessarily how the respective protagonists see it – they tend to see their subsequent demise as a release, a freedom from oppression and a way of remaining true to themselves. Maybe the fact that Genet doesn’t allow for sentimentality and ‘niceness’ is a reason for his current relatively neglected position in modern Australia? Genet is not ‘nice’, he is most certainly not ‘P.C’, and the portrayal of women in The Maids is not particularly flattering; powerful but not ‘nice’. What perhaps needs to be questioned is why there is a sense of dissatisfaction when one is denied ‘niceness’ in preference for bafflement. Order versus chaos, and in Genet’s world it is chaos that wins time and again – as it does in life.
Subsequently, as I muse, is The Maids an ‘absurdist’ piece? The French certainly don’t think so. Most despise the term ‘absurdist’, which was first used to describe such works by the English critic Martin Esslin. The French don’t tend to use this term, but rather see such works as The Maids as deeply reflective of real life. Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’ isn’t ‘absurd’, it is very real. So too is the eternal battle between servants and masters, or in The Maids case, mistresses. Shakespeare encapsulates the essence of this battle in Julius Caesar when he has Cassius say, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings’ (JC:1.2).
In Genet’s The Maids, it is the Madam’s maids, Solange and Claire who are the ‘underlings’. They represent any person, male and female, who have felt the whip of oppression based on privilege, wealth and class; in fact any form of discrimination. They truly hate the ‘Madame’. Whilst the reason for this hatred is not always clear, nonetheless, it is very real; and if we were truly honest with ourselves we would allow ourselves to empathize with this hatred, as virtually all of us have felt the whip of the boss man or woman and have hated the person simply because we are ‘underlings’, and felt powerless to do anything about it. For example: we rant and rail full of ‘sound and fury’ about Donald Trump, or any other perceived political authoritarian, but all this ‘sound and fury’ actually amounts to nothing but a sense of frustration and a denial of our own significance, influence, and worth. We are powerless; we remain ‘underlings’ with only our hatred and resentment to keep us company (along with other malcontents on FaceBook). However, anger and hatred, as Plato observed, gives us pleasure. So that is partly the cathartic challenge of The Maids – will you, as an audience member, allow yourself to hate? And no – it’s not ‘nice’; but it is human, honest and very real, and not in the least bit ‘absurd’.
Reading through the respective publishing and performance history of Genet’s work it is a relative minefield of explosive condemnation and awe. Whilst I am quietly confident in my production, nonetheless, I am expecting a hammerhead reaction – polarized opinions, bafflement, and that dreadful summation ‘well, that was interesting’. Furthermore, Genet seems to attract the type of criticism that reeks of odious comparisons and how it should be done (like Pinter, Brecht, Wilde, and others), rather than how it could be done. Ah, well – such is the current zeitgeist. All I can offer in defense to my valiant cast and crew is as long as we think we have done the best we possibly can then it really doesn’t matter what others think.
So – why did I agree to direct Genet’s The Maids? To answer this I had to reflect on my relationship with Genet. This began with Lindsay Kemp’s extraordinary production Flowers (1974), based on Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, which I saw as a teenager in Sydney.
Not only did it assist in reconciling and articulating my own blooming homosexuality, it also transported me into the magical but dark side of illicit desire, and the heart of existentialism. I then attempted to read Our Lady of the Flowers and A Thief’s Journal, which I found a bit of a struggle, but finally started to get it with Querelle at Brest. This was complemented by reading Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Camus’ The Stranger and seeing productions of Deathwatch, The Maids, as well as Sartre’s In Camera, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros – with the addition of The Rocky Horror Show, Yukio Mishima’s Confession of a Mask, and Tom of Finland.
Yes – this was a discovery of homosexuality in a particular theatrical manner. The point is, however, I had no idea what ‘existentialism’ or ‘absurdist’ meant, not from an academic point of view. I hadn’t read Martin Esslin, Derrida, Foucault, or even much Sartre and Camus. I came at these things not from academic labels but from experiencing them raw without preconceived ideas about what they were supposedly meant to be, albeit filtered through a theatrical gaze – and I am grateful for this innocence. I still tend to flinch and shy away from such labels; all I care about is how it feels and how it stimulates the imagination. However, as with a great deal of ‘gay’ literature – the mask is always present and very real, partly out of necessity, and partly out of desire.
The only other major Genet experience was Jim Sharman’s epic 4 hours NIDA production of The Screens. I was new to NIDA then and agreed to be the staff member to sit through all 10 performances. That’s 40 hours of my life I will never get back again. Jim’s production wasn’t bad – in fact it was rather spectacularly good – but it was baffling and exhausting; which is another challenging aspect of Genet’s work – it should be baffling and exhausting – as well as funny and ‘theatrical’. I think ‘theatrical’ is preferable to ‘absurdist’.
So – here I am forty years on from my initial contact with the world of Genet and finally entering and endeavouring to produce my own version of The Maids in collaboration with others. Why? Well, as previously mentioned, it does offer three terrific female roles. I was asked to direct this by a couple of Adelaide actresses with whom I had worked and thought were terrific. It was their idea and passion for the play that was the initial appeal. So my sense of responsibility and commitment to them is very high – and it has been a joy to rehearse with them this complex work, discovering new things at every rehearsal, which is always indicative of a great play and engaging process. For example; today’s rehearsal involved discussion about making final decisions about blocking and ‘locking’ the show into place. Whilst acknowledging that this is ultimately a necessary step I argued that I don’t really like to ‘lock down’ shows. Why? Because the theatre is a ‘live’ experience and this production will be slightly different for each performance. Subsequently, it can never be fully ‘locked down’; there will be a definite blueprint and safety net but it should be allowed to grow and change throughout the season. Some actors like this; others don’t – and that’s okay – but it is part of my aesthetic if you like.
Another reason for doing The Maids is rather selfish. This is recognized as one of the major plays of the 20th Century, and I have never before directed a play by Genet. So this has been a personal artistic challenge of myself. I have no idea really if this is going to work or not. There isn’t any certainty – not with a play like this – but nothing ventured nothing gained. As I have continually harangued respective acting students, you have to be artistically brave and make bold choices if you wish to be truly a theatre artist – the risk is all!
Furthermore, The Maids as well as the theatre venue in which it is to be performed, the intimate Bakehouse Theatre in Adelaide, complements my current aesthetic in regards to theatre. I wish to do plays and productions in venues that are focused primarily on the actor. Whilst I deeply acknowledge and appreciate the art of theatre design, I am more interested in the challenge of an ‘empty space’ and allowing the actors and the playwrights words envelope and engage the audiences imagination, thoughts and feelings.
It is the relative simplicity that is the challenge rather than the theatrical ‘smoke and mirrors’. They have their place, of course, and rightly so, but it is not necessarily where I am focused at the moment. Whilst I can admire and respect a fabulous artistic design and concept I am not moved by it. This is a debatable point, of course, and I have certainly experienced a number of ‘wow factors’ in regard to theatre design, but they are only momentary. Only the actor and the playwright are capable of moving and changing an audience.
I crave the simplicity and challenge of an ‘empty space’; and for me, the actor is the heart of the theatre – as it was in Shakespeare’s time, so it is for me.
As part of the South Australian History Festival that has been running throughout May, there is a truly fascinating exhibition at the South Australian Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide – Leviathan: An Astonishing History of Whales. This a celebration of the compelling majestic power and beauty of whales.
Part of this exhibition is devoted to the history of ‘whaling’, past and present. Hunting whales, despite its current ‘politically incorrect’ status, was and still is part of human history. Why hunt whales? Many people today, including myself, would find such a thing truly repulsive – and it is! Nonetheless, whilst acknowledging the brutality of ‘whaling’, this exhibition captures the fascination, dependence upon and respect for whales by a number of human groups and tribes, some of which continue to hunt whales today. This includes a few modern indigenous tribes in places such as Indonesia and Greenland, as well as past ‘western’ commercial whaling that inspired artists and writers, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
I am most certainly not defending the hunting of whales and ‘whaling’, nonetheless, there is a fascinating mystery, a kind of ‘romanticism’ about ‘whaling’ that is part of past and modern human history. Why? Neither I nor this exhibition has an answer, yet it does exist and is a conundrum – which is partly why this exhibition is so fascinating and well worth a visit. Furthermore, it is a part of South Australian history as Port Adelaide once was a trading centre for commercial whaling in the now distant past. This may be uncomfortable for many who think it should be buried beneath the veneer of the niceness of modern ‘political correctness’ – nonetheless, it remains an historical fact. This exhibition challenges as well as informs without being gory and horrific, adding to its overall impressive value.
Furthermore, there are many other reasons why a visit to the South Australian Maritime Museum is worthwhile. There are numerous artefacts from the past that are fascinating. This includes a series of ‘figureheads’ that once stood proudly at the prow of sailing ships – a lost art form in itself.