Variations on a theme


At the Black Pig's Dyke
Vincent Woods
Seymour Centre
Piotr Tomaszuk
Belvoir Street Theatre
Bacchae Burning by Water
Euripedes, Robbe-Grillet, Joyce, Koltes
Performance Space
Playing as part of the Sydney Festival and Carnivale until the end of January. Reviewed by Jorge Sotirios

Three plays running concurrently as part of the Festival of Sydney and Carnivale appear on first glance to have little in common. But upon deeper examination they display a unity, specifically at the crossroads between philosophy and religion.

The Druid Theatre presented At the Black Pig's Dyke to great audience reception. It's not difficult to see why. They utilised the essential resources of the theatre to convey the depth of suffering of the Irish people. Their use of straw masks, lighting, atmospheric music, song and dance vividly expressed the cycle of tragedy. This play did justice to the tragic plight of both Catholic and Protestant, caught in a net of murder and retribution.

Indeed, there were heavy undertones of ancient Greek tragedy at work. The Mummers (archetypal characters: the Doctor, the Captain, the Butcher presided over by Tom Fool and Miss Funny) resembled something of a chorus commenting on the actions from the outside yet fully implicated within the world of the play. They enacted the rituals of their conflicts in large symbolic form in order to highlight (and cleanse) the bloodstains of the past that constantly reawaken generation after generation.

The schism that lies at the heart of the Christian religion is sharply etched in the pre-designed violence that haunts each character without arriving at an easy solution. For how can their be an easy resolution? All there can really be, and this the ancients knew well, is the dialectic of suffering for which there seems to be no bridge. The effect this achieves, though, is one of a tremendous compassion at the fate of all involved.

Melbourne's IRAA Theatre, on the other hand, presented a post-modern version of ancient tragedy which was disappointing.

All the elements were there for a riveting performance, for the director has a superb visual sense — a shimmering pool upon which the conflict between the archetypal forces of rationality and passion, order and chaos, male and female, the state and individual, as represented by Pentheus and Dionysus, are played out. Sadly, the effect was unlike At the Black Pig's Dyke, since this collage of writings by Joyce and Robbe-Grillet superimposed upon Euripedes' The Bacchae was not a unified work, but rather a formal exercise whose content was lost in its sophisticated theatrical presentation (laborious voice-overs, clich‚d poses of stillness, silences in search of profundity).

What resulted was a self-conscious reconstruction of the myth in a stream-of-consciousness style that failed to move the audience emotionally or intellectually. Meaning cannot accrue unless form and content work in conjunction. The essential conflict that binds the psyche became an abstraction which was unfortunate, for the actors playing the chief protagonists were rightly cast: Pentheus as the repressed ruler and Dionysus as the exotic outsider. A European/Asiatic dialectic could have been better understood if the drama was captivating.

As for Roll-a-Pea, this reviewer was left unmoved, angered even, at the reactionary politics it tried so assiduously to transcend. The simple moral tale of good and evil is presented in the story of a young boy who is sold by his parents to a salesman who is the devil himself. Not having committed any crime, this poor wretch has to atone for his fate by rolling a pea all the way home, the pea constantly rolling back to its starting point — a Sisyphean challenge that somehow is achieved.

Aside from this conservative Christian vision, the play was done in a style too heavy-handed to describe. Elements of Orthodox liturgy (icons, candles, smoke) were used to no avail since the sloppy use of symbols (kitsch in many respects) meant no true ceremony could occur. Jean Genet could have told them a thing or two about true religious feeling that was not necessarily church-based.

And their puppetry skills were atrocious — wooden puppets handled with no delicacy and without effect. They did an injustice to the rich Polish legacy in modern theatre: Grotowski, Kantor, Jan Kott.

What made it worse was the stereotypical representations that the West would like continued, namely women in black scarves and harmless drunks. This scaffolding reinforced the ideology within it: self-humbling before a higher authority is the only way to salvation whilst patriarchy returns with a vengeance. Dismal.

I feel one can make a judgment that perhaps goes to the core of the problem. At the Back Pig's Dyke and Bacchae: Burning by Water both arose from cultures that never lost their pagan roots, however much Christianity imposed itself: the Celtic and the Hellenic. Both cultures thus contained a vitalistic impulse, "the Dionysian spirit", which Slavic Christianity was deprived of.

The denial of this wellspring of energy produced a religion which was dour, cold, humbling and guilt-ridden before an invisible abstracted god which Greek religion dispensed with.

In challenging the gods, protagonists such as those in At the Back Pig's Dyke and to a lesser extent Bacchae: Burning by Water create memorable outlines of being, which does not occur in the subservient role demanded by religion like that in Roll-a-Pea.

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