By Jean Genet
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
Reviewed by Jorge Sotirios
It was with great anticipation that I headed off to Belvoir Street to see a writer rarely produced in this country. Splendid's was written by the late great Jean Genet in 1948 but suppressed until recently.
His theatre is a truly poetic one that can dazzle by its poetry, its twisted yet consistent logic and its aesthetic grace. His vision has the ability to shake the underpinnings of comfortable society by exposing its latent desires, fears, deceptions and blatant hypocrisy. So why was I left unmoved?
On the seventh floor of a grand hotel, a group of tuxedoed gangsters are spending their last hours of existence surrounded by the cops, having disposed of the heiress they kidnapped.
The play is thus set up for an elaborate rite. Before us is the holy temple of our own times (wealth creates its churches and symbols just as religion does), where a rotting corpse acts as the fulcrum for a high ceremony. Because for Genet, death and the void lurk at the very centre of our selves, our actions and our society.
Splendid's is a play about crossing the threshold. It's the point where cops become gangsters, hardened men are transformed into delicate women, the living turn into the dead, since for Genet, reality has as much substance as a dream. This unique quality of metamorphosis suggests we are both one and the other, and with the stain of death deep within us, ultimately neither.
Alas, this production, directed by Bogdan Koca, remained stagebound, formal and icy, when it had the ingredients of rich language and stylised gestures to have been a dazzling dance of death. Above all, Splendid's lacked tension and was not a compelling drama.
Reservoir Dogs is a good example of what can emerge when the atmosphere of danger is evident. That film showed outside forces pushing into a criminal microcosm whose the intense power struggles of betrayal and allegiance cause it to break at the seams. Very similar terrain but very different outcomes.
One can only imagine how it would have turned out had Jim Sharman directed, as initially intended (he did a superb Genet play, The Screens, some years back). Genet requires sensitive and visionary directors. Charles Marowitz was one with The Maids, and the Argentinean Victor Garcia likewise with a hallucinatory presentation of The Balcony.
The redeeming qualities were in the acting of David Wenham, Ralph Cotterill's magisterial presence, and Jacek Koman, who gave the piece a brief moment of the sacred in his transformation from a crim to ghostly double of the dead hostage, bejewelled and decked out in taffeta compressed against a hairy chest.
One should also add that the author was far ahead of his time in understanding the narcotic effect an image-saturated society is held under. The power of images to construct our reality, to create monsters and heroes is alluded to in the use of the radio broadcast. The media can create phantoms in which we readily believe, since truth can be manipulated to uphold an ideology tailored to the needs of the system.
This is apt at the moment. Our media would like us to think the French are unified and monolithic. Clearly they are not. And French culture is not simply made up of Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Pierrot mime artists.
Finally, this production of Splendid's did not do justice to Genet's vision. His is the genuine voice of a critical poet, since he makes visible new relationships previously concealed or hindered from coming into being. He has ventured to the other side of the looking glass, and rather than be surprised, has mapped out its features and so reflected it back upon the ordinary world. The world is two-fold, mirrored, doubled and hence dialectical.
That this production failed to extract such qualities is a measure of how the most revolutionary of ideas can be appropriated and processed by capitalism to become standard fare for the middle class. The system critiqued by Genet consumed his vision and thus rendered it impotent. C'est la vie.