Friday, March 07, 2008

Stoppard. Chekhov.


If I was to name a song I’ve heard more times than any other, I’d probably nominate a little B-side from a band I loved when I was young. The song’s called 'Golden Hair' and it’s by a bunch of kids who were a big thing in the British shoegazer scene for about five seconds of the minute that shoegazer bands were anything resembling a big thing anywhere. The band was called Slowdive and you can hear a Peel session version of the song here.

Anyway, because I loved the original version of this song so much, I also knew it was a cover of a song by Syd Barrett, ex-Pink Floyd member and typically 70s genius-turned-broken-recluse. I also knew that Barrett himself had taken the lyrics from a section of a much longer poem by James Joyce entitled “Chamber Music”.

When Golden Hair (Barrett’s version) kicked off the MTC’s production of Rock ‘n’ Roll, I was obviously tickled pink because of the song’s personal connection. Then some people with accents started blabbing all this stuff about class consciousness and the failure of the British left and the unpalatable nature of communist biscuits (too dry, from the expressions I was watching, though that might just be my interpellated capitalist upbringing). Class? Communism? Biscuits? I was watching a play called Rock ‘n’ Roll, not Baking for Traitors Who Are Willing to Even Contemplate Alternatives to Western Liberalism! Then I remembered that this play was written by Tom Stoppard (by remembered, I mean that I saw his name on the programme) and that he’s British (although the biscuit reference should have clued you in on that – our American readers should substitute the word ‘cookie’ for any future biscuit reference). I also knew that Stoppard had done James Joyce before (though JJ doesn’t get any mention in this show) and that this was apparently the most personal of his own plays. You can tell this is the most personal of my reviews by the frequent parentheses I am employing. These are unnecessary asides that don’t add a lot to the content of the overall piece, and could frankly be done away with. There’s a fair bit of that in the play, too. (US readers: the word ‘programme’ above means ‘program’).

When I say that Stoppard is British, I should offer a caveat. The chap (US: dude) was born in what’s now the Czech Republic before being shipped off overseas as a bub, so some have seen this play as a way of exploring what his life could have been had he not been (as he puts it) a “bounced Czech”. I like a man whose self-assessment involves a pun, but then I also think breakdancing performed by zombies and/or Frankenstein’s monster-types is pretty much the kitten’s mittens so I may not be the yardstick by which we measure the common man’s taste.

So here’s the deal: Czech student Jan is wrapping up his studies in Oxford by actually attending his politics lectures and hanging around with his hardcore old Marxist professor friend Max. In my experience most exchange students spend this valuable time either a) drunk with their newfound exotic overseas friends or b) sobbing in their rooms because they never met such friends but this was the 60s so a certain degree of fantasy is allowed and write-off-able due to drugs or a nostalgic view that suggests people in the 60s were all pretty free-of-mind. Jan is quite impressively long of hair, though, which immediately alerts us to the fact that he’s one of those sorts we used to call a “longhair” during my military days, and he’s clearly the kind of blind idealist who doesn’t realise that freedom isn’t free! You need to oppress someone to ensure your rights won’t be challenged, right?

More connections: in my late teens I wandered over to England and spent a pleasant summer hanging out with that band Slowdive along with lots of other musical nobodies who turned out to be perfectly welcoming to young Australians posing as music journalists. While I was there, I stopped in for a late performance of the premiere season of Stoppard’s Arcadia, and while I kind of enjoyed it, I wasn’t bedazzled by it. I felt a bit like the performers didn’t quite understand what the play was about, and I only barely got it myself. Or rather, it seemed as if Stoppard had done excellent research but not necessarily crafted it into a truly intricate and complete work. I read the play a few years later, I think, but I really should go back to it and see if that initial response still stands up.

During Rock ‘n’ Roll’s interval, I asked a woman standing outside the Arts Centre whether she was enjoying it. She gave me a look like someone staring up hopelessly from the bottom of a well and after about five seconds blurted “I have no idea what’s going on.” Another departing patron asked why he should even be expected to care about the history of Czechoslovakia.

Thing is – I did care about that history. And I really did try to care about this play. I did everything I could think of, including sighing to myself and drumming my fingers on the armrest. I care about the relationship of 60s and 70s rock to the idealism and the failures of various countercultures and the collapse of the grand narrative of Marxism and the possibility of indifference as a form of social revolution. But I felt – again – that nobody involved in Rock ‘n’ Roll (cast, crew, audience) really knew what it was about. What I don’t know is whether this includes Stoppard himself.

I really dislike being unable to distinguish a production’s shortcomings from its script. This I can say: the show I saw felt like a first-year uni classroom debate between someone who’d read Marxism For Dummies and someone who was, basically, really into 70s prog-rock. The kind where you want to interrupt at some point and say “okay folks, we’re going in circles a bit here and need to move on. Let’s do a bit more reading and take it up next week.”

The philosophical questions at stake in Rock ‘n’ Roll are fascinating academic stuff, but I don’t know if they make a good play. Plenty of audience members didn’t think so the other night. And despite the best efforts of a great cast, it was hard to connect much with the endless back-and-forth arguments that only rarely appeared to be coming from characters, rather than spokespeople.

That said, it does feature a strong cast of cats wearing very good wigs (I mean that not in a facetious way – the wigs are very splendid and I thought the cast were very commendable).

Coincidentally, these cats are wearing wigs.


Comparing Rock ‘n’ Roll to Platonov is a study in opposites – it’s a play I have no particular interest in (hell, Chekhov bores me to tears) produced on a shoestring, which somehow manages to be hugely compelling at all times. It’s the second production by the Hayloft Project whose Spring Awakening was one of last year’s highlights, and thankfully it confirms that that show wasn’t a one-off success.

Director Simon Stone has taken Chekhov’s chubby and undisciplined early play about a bunch of self-destructive Russian aristos and reinterpreted it as a contemporary study of a young generation’s postmodern malaise. The characters are bored twenty-somethings seeking an escape from the ennui of their lives through decadence, affairs, meaningless betrayals and mindgames. Platonov himself is immediately presented as a complete dick, to use the technical terminology – he’s introduced as the kind of person whose chief goal in life is to prove that women are stupid. His friends aren’t that much better, indulging in drunken frolics to avoid life’s seriousness or concealing their desires and fears behind a mask of callousness and indifference. Those of you not predisposed to watching complex drama unfold will also be thrown a bone through the liberal use of inflatable lilos and Melbourne Bitter.

The first half of the play is set in a ruined countryhouse where an all-night party unveils the corrosive relationships between everyone involved. The second half follows the aftermath of this eve of destruction, high on gun-waving and low on discussions of the deleterious effects of logging cherry orchards and the like (there is, I have to admit, a little talk about cutting down trees, but it doesn’t get in the way too much). The result is an all-business show that knows your modern audience hasn’t got time to ruminate on the challenges faced by Russian landed gentry in times gone past, and would prefer to ponder the perennial problems that getting drunk and hitting on your best friend’s spouse ineluctably lead to.

The set is truly stunning, to the point where I don’t really want to reveal much about it here. It’s not too water-restriction friendly, but even if you’re not enjoying the show there’ll be enough visual interest to keep you from checking your watch or wondering if your car is being broken into.

Stone himself stepped in to play Platonov at the last minute, and the play suffers a little because of the reduced directorial role this must have necessitated. I don’t know that Stone makes for a perfect Platonov, but then he’s probably directing himself which rarely bodes well. It’s a pretty minor quibble amongst a uniformly impressive cast, though, and the very fact that I was so involved in the situation when, as I said, Chekhov’s apparent “universal themes” seldom resonate with me enough to, you know, keep me awake or anything – well, get along and see this one if you’ve got any interest in Melbourne theatre.

"I know I do. (Have)"

Nice new (remixed) track by Goldfrapp here, if ya want it.