A pastiche epic of the Australian and British theatre of the 70s with a dash of feminist politics as its core, The Other Place is neither wild nor smart enough, says Robert Reid
In the artist’s note to his new play, The Other Place, Christopher Bryant writes that “…at least in the 70s, people felt so passionate about art that they’d riot in the streets…”
He’s referring, I think, to the protests against censorship sparked by the 1969 arrest of actors performing Alex Buzo’s play Norm and Ahmed. Actor Norman Staines was charged with use of obscene language in public in Brisbane for the Twelfth Night production and actor and director Graeme Blundell was charged and fined for the same offence performing the same play at La Mama in Melbourne. The riot Bryant describes, both in the notes and in the play, sounds like it happened at the end of this performance with police appearing to stop the show and arrest the actors, while outraged audiences leap out of their seats to the actors’ defence.
In reality the La Mama “riot” occurred at the conclusion of John Romeril’s Whatever Happened to Realism, written and staged in protest of the earlier arrests. Audiences for this play, mounted agit prop style outside in the La Mama courtyard, were mostly made up of the usual Carlton habitués who took to the streets at the end of the production to march around the corner to the Carlton police station chanting, “Shit fuck, piss cunt, bugger off why don’t ya.”
As a spontaneous moment of audience revolt the reality is a little more tame than it is in Bryant’s imagination. In fact, several decades later, a desultory recreation of this moment aired as part of Tony Robertson’s Time Walks TV series; a handful of La Mama staff (I think Liz Jones, Maureen Hartley, Pippa Bainbridge and whoever was rehearsing that day) were press ganged by the show’s producers into resurrecting this protest, marching and chanting behind an aging Baldrick. It’s a hollowed out moment of rebellion, reanimated for the sake of charming antipodean nostalgia. Throughout The Other Place, I’m reminded of this cringe inducing moment of television non-history more than once.
The Other Place takes as its material the life and work of La Mama theatre founder Betty Burstall and pioneering English director, Buzz Goodbody. Bryant contrasts the lives of these two women, not quite contemporaries, drawing his comparison around their determination to succeed as women directors outside the heavily patriarchal structures of mainstream theatre in their cities. Both women are strong, independent and determined to make the kind of theatre they are convinced their cities need. Burstall launched the La Mama Theatre as an alternative to the mainstream Melbourne Theatre Company in 1968 and Goodbody established The Other Place in London as alternative to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973.
This isn’t an easy work. It asks a lot of its audience. The Other Place puts its theatre makers in a purgatory of half-remembered life stories. All the actors wear white overalls, recalling angels or ghosts, but they might also be rehearsal clothes in negative. The play is broken into three acts, titled Elizabethan, Post Modern and Magic Realism, though none of the acts corresponds to the style called out by their titles. They are largely constructed from a set of monologues delivered in turns by Betty or Buzz. Both characters are shared out among the five actors – Susie Sparkes, Ravenna Bouckaert, Kirstina Benton, Erin Pattison and Vivian Nguyen – who rotate through the monologues, and also act as a kind of chorus talking back to the central speaker and taking on minor characters as required.
I struggle with how to describe this work. It has a post-dramatic aesthetic but not the non-indexical relationships of post-dramatic theory. It works with historical material but it doesn’t care for historicity. It’s attempting something interesting, taking Australian (and modern English) theatre history as mythologies to deconstruct, treating recent and local history with the same gravitas usually reserved for canonical classics, but it suffers from superficiality.
It looks like what its supposed to look like, but there is an internal consistency to good post-dramatic work that is missing here. For instance, the level of research and knowledge about the two artists, their work and the time period, feels like just enough to satisfy an undergraduate essay on overlooked theatre makers and not much more. It trawls the Wikipedia pages for their juiciest biographical details and knits them together with a post-dramatic flourish that doesn’t quite draw a meaning from the smashed-together narratives.
A lot is made of key moments in the history of these two. Betty Burstall discovers off-off-Broadway theatre and brings the idea back to Melbourne. Her marriage to her husband Tim breaks down. The obscenity raid and the sweary march. Buzz Goodbody becoming the first female director at the RSC. Her modernisations of Shakespeare. Her fine for obscenity over a set that included a banner declaiming “Fuck the Family”. Her production of The Oz Trial (I’m not sure this made its way to Bryant’s show actually but it’s worth knowing about). Her founding of The Other Place. Her suicide after her first production of Hamlet. These things are jumbled together, tumbling over and over each other, in an alienating hullabaloo.
It’s rough at the edges. It reminds me of Forced Entertainment’s playfulness but it lacks the specificity. Blackouts and off stage spaces and clunky changeovers all exist in the theatrical semi-dark, partially evoking the liminal while flattening out the here/now-ness of the post-dramatic. Neither wild enough nor smart enough, instead it’s somewhere in between. It finds an aesthetic but no ethic, so the practice is flawed.
Furthermore, much of the lighting is very dark and distances us from the action: it’s like seeing the play through smoke in a dark room. Diffuse, difficult to reach, difficult to watch or to care. Through the third act – a fictional interview between Burstall and Buzz – the other actors in the background blow up plastic palm trees and futz with them distractingly – only to find a fleeting connection to the text with a nod towards the arrival of Burnham Wood at Dunsinane in Goodbody’s production of Macbeth. An ongoing soundscape runs underneath, synthy wheezing and humming under some of the more abstract moments. Rain and wind batter the scenes set in Melbourne – though it’s also raining in St Kilda when we see it so that much of the soundscape might be the real Melbourne painting itself into the experience.
The text doesn’t feel grounded enough to allow for more than superficial choices, and the staging doesn’t make the text any clearer, so each performance feels similar to the others. Without the projections of the character’s names at the back of the theatre it would be impossible to know which actor is which character at what time. Which is a problem as, for the most part, the play is two extended character portraits with little real action, faint echoes of drama and not enough discourse.
The Other Place makes a pastiche epic of the Australian and British theatre of the 70s with a dash of feminist politics as its core. The lack of specificity makes the politics of these women, their lives and works, seem kind of generic. Ultimately I’m left to wonder what the equation is between these two, other than that they both made unconventional independent theatre.
Finally, it’s a little odd to be watching this story of La Mama, at Theatreworks. For obvious reasons it seems like this production would have found a more natural home at La Mama. It’s an inconsequential irritant, really, but it also speaks to the “almost there” quality that suffuses the whole. The Other Place is a good idea that isn’t quite fulfilled. Something is missing: an internal consistency, a dramaturgy that brings these disparate elements together. As it is, it’s bits of theatre history and theory that occupy the same space and time briefly, feigning connection like broken conversation in a foyer.
The Other Place, by Christopher Bryant. Directed by Jessica Dick, Set and Costume Design by Ella Butler, Sound Design by Joshua Bliss, Lighting Design by John Collopy. Performed by Susie Sparkes, Ravenna Bouckaert, Kirstina Benton, Erin Pattison and Vivian Nguyen. Until September 8. Bookings