There is something disturbing happening to theatre in Sydney and I pray it is not contagious.
After watching the Sydney Theatre Company’s performance of Suddenly Last Summer this week I am left feeling very anxious, and it has nothing to do with the dark subject matter of this rarely performed Tennessee William’s work. The one-act play centres around wealthy matriarch Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin) and her desperate attempts to silence the ramblings of her niece Catherine (Eryn Jean Norvill), regarding the controversial manner in which Sebastian Venable, Violet’s son dies.
While the script, dominated by the powerful monologues of both Violet and Catherine, certainly delivers its share of heightened drama, the STC has yet again seen fit to continue its use of cameras and screens on stage, in an attempt to bring audiences even closer to the action. Despite previous attempts at this largely being viewed as failures, the 2013 production of The Maids a particular case in point, the STC has granted resident director Kip Williams the chance to try, try and try again, and undoubtedly there are some members of the theatre going public that will view his latest offering with relish. However, for those of us amongst the theatre purists, a label I feel I am now forced to give myself, a deep sense of mourning is more likely to be felt as we ask the question Where has all the theatre gone?
The play begins as the audience is confronted with a large white wall covering the stage. At first glance you would be forgiven for assuming that it is acting as a curtain and will rotate at any moment to reveal a gloriously opulent New Orleans Garden District setting. However it soon becomes painfully obvious that this is not going to be the case when Violet, accompanied by Dr Cukrowicz (Mark Leonard Winter), briefly wanders across the stage and then disappears through a hidden door in the wall. And it is behind this wall that two thirds of the play takes place, leaving the audience at the mercy of a live feed that is projected onto the wall, now acting as a screen. Seated amidst an array of potted plants that serves as Violet’s lush southern garden, the characters wander about and deliver their lines while the audience is left dumbfounded at the barrier that has been placed between them and the actors. As the rest of the characters slowly arrive, they too make a brief appearance in front of the screen, before also disappearing into the setting hidden behind it.
After thirty minutes of watching the drama unfold in this peculiar manner, a slight reprieve is granted to the audience when the screen finally does rotate, revealing the setting and the characters in their entirety. However any thoughts that the traditional theatre experience is about to begin are short lived, as three camera operators promptly appear on the stage, all dressed in black, and with cameras in hand. They proceed to intrude in on the characters like voyeurs, projecting various close up shots onto the screen behind them, and leaving the audience to grapple with whether to focus on the images appearing on the screen, or the characters standing in front of it. To further add to the sense of disconnection that many of the audience were no doubt feeling by now, we were also treated to a live feed on a couple of occasions when two of the characters ran off stage with a camera operator in hot pursuit. Without warning the audience found themselves jerked away from the greenery of the deep south, and dropped into the bowels of the theatre, concrete corridors, pipes, and all.
If that wasn’t enough to send any serious theatre goer running for the exit, the final coup de grace comes when Catherine, who is now behind the screen again, delivers the most dramatic monologue of the play in which she is finally free to tell the truth about her cousin Sebastian’s demise. As her desperate story races towards its shocking climax, and the audience is transfixed in anticipation of the secret about to be revealed, the camera zooms in and we are left with nothing but a close up of the character’s eyes to keep us connected to the action that continues to unravel behind the screen. They say the eyes have it, but even the prettiest of eyes would have failed to carry such a crucial scene on their own.
As the play ended and the actors came out for their bow, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sadness at what I had just witnessed. In attempting to bring the audience closer to the characters, the STC has achieved the exact opposite. The use of cameras and screens on stage only served to create a disjointed and distracting viewing experience that ultimately left many of the audience feeling more separated from the characters than ever. It is true that a big part of the appeal of the theatre is the intimacy, but it seems that the STC needs reminding that the intimacy was already there. For a theatregoer there is nothing like the emotional journey one undertakes when watching a drama unfold right in front of them, with the characters so close you could touch them. We feel the characters’ emotions in every word that is spoken, in every gesture, no matter how big or small. We do not need to be able to look into their eyes to know they are hurting. We are on the stage with them. Taking the same journey they are taking. Free to languish our attention on whatever or whoever captures it. And long after the curtain has fallen we are still bound to them. This is what we love about the theatre. It is raw. It is dynamic. And it is unique. It is something that cinema could never be. And that is how we like it.
By Maryann Murray