Alison Croggon contemplates the aesthetics of annihilation in Declan Greene’s adaptation of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia
Adaptations are always a conundrum. What are we actually watching? Are we seeing what’s in front of us, or is it a kind of double exposure, in which what we perceive is refracted through memories of the previous work? Do we watch them differently?
Like everything in art, it all depends. Nothing is without context, after all: no matter how original it is, every artwork draws from those that precede it. Some are conscious repurposings that take a classic frame and break it open to make something new, such as James Joyce’s use of the Odyssey in Ulysses or Jean Rhys’ reworking of Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea. And then there are the straight adaptations, like Declan Greene’s version of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which retell a particular story in a different medium.
I haven’t seen the original film – somehow, I have never got along to Lars von Trier – and so I’m missing one of the seductions of adaptation, the comparison between the two experiences. But it did mean I watched the play without knowing what happened next. Since then, I’ve done some googling and watching of YouTube videos: no substitute for seeing the original, but enough to tell me that this is a pretty faithful rendering.
Von Trier’s film is an exploration of clinical depression, based, according to interviews, on his own experience. He projected that experience into two sisters, Justine and Clare, who respectively embody different aspects of depression. He also turned the representation of depression inside out, so that subjective depression became objective reality, as a planet called Melancholia crashed into the earth. Both the film and the play are structured in two acts: Justine’s disastrous wedding, during which she has a psychotic breakdown, and the period afterwards, as a small family riven by mental illness waits for the world to be destroyed.
Lutton’s production features a design of stark simplicity by Marg Horwell. It opens on the luxurious house where the wedding is taking place, which is suggested by three chairs, a chandelier sitting on the floor, a microphone front stage. Above is a roof with a huge circular hole, a subliminal image of the planet that is about to destroy the world and also the emptiness in the lives of the people we’re watching. Rains of pink confetti fall through the gap: suggestions of snow, of emotional desolation and dislocation.
As with so many of Lutton’s productions, the emphasis is on beauty. The tagline for the show is a quote from a review of the film: “The end of the world as we know it might just turn out to be beautiful”. I suspect Lutton’s view of beauty is here a little different to von Trier’s, which is a misanthropic aestheticisation of human suffering: Lutton attempts to focus beauty, and even a vertiginous redemption, on the small, domestic interactions between the sisters and Claire’s child Leo (Alexander Artemov). But I think the gravitational pull of the source material is too strong.
It’s worth remembering that von Trier was temporarily banned from Cannes after the premiere of Melancholia, when he compared himself to Hitler during a notorious press conference. “What can I say? I understand Hitler,” he said. “I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end.” He later (refreshingly perhaps) explained that he spoke so carelessly because he had stopped drinking, but I suspect he was being truthful. The connection, aside from the lavish use of Wagner in Melancholia’s score, is in von Trier’s aesthetisation of nihilism. The sublimity of absolute destruction was a feature of German fascism which itself was, among many other things, a wildly successful aestheticisation of politics. It’s most famously expressed through Leni Reifenstahl’s film of the 1933 Nuremberg Rally, and the fact that the SS uniforms were made by Hugo Boss.
This production has a strong feeling of fighting a rear-guard action against von Trier’s misanthropy and, more particularly, his misogyny. In this version the objectionable father of the sisters is dead (he’s replaced by the mother in a drunken rage, brilliantly played by Maude Davey). The expansion of the role introduces some discussion about class resentment and about how gender shapes perceptions of mental illness. But these feel like footnotes, rather than active disturbances of von Trier’s underlying arguments.
There are a few other minor changes: there is no erotically-charged horse, for instance, and the Wagner soundtrack is replaced by J. David Franzke’s visceral score. The major change is that Lars von Trier’s images are rendered in words. The text does most of the heavy lifting in working against von Trier’s misanthropy, and it makes space for some breathtaking writing: my favourite parts of the show are those in which Greene’s formidable capacity for surreal lyricism takes off.
These passages create electrifying moments, in which direction, performance and design conspire to create an extreme of heightened theatricality that reaches towards a kind of ecstasy. After the more conventional wedding drama of the first act, they begin to play against scenes of domestic intimacy which slowly build to create a finale of genuine catharsis. The scenes where Claire fumblingly attempts to deal with Justine’s catatonia are the most truthful in the play, striking a note of emotional realism that gives the action weight. And the final image, drawn directly from the film, of a small family facing doom in a “magic cave” transparently built of sticks is both mysterious and transparent, as all true metaphors are.
This is largely because of the cast, which delivers a very difficult text that demands they hold their nerve through moments of melodramatic extremity. Leanna Walsman (Claire) and Eryn Jean Norville (Justine) play the two sisters as an exercise in contrasts: in the first act, Justine is out of control to Claire’s control freak, while towards the end Claire’s overwhelming terror contrasts with Justine’s fatalistic calm. Norville’s solo moments are genuinely spine-tingling.
But I can’t help feeling a sense of lost opportunity. Most of what works best in this production is not von Trier but what the creative team brings to this story, and many of its least sure moments are those in which you feel the creative impulses are confined by the original text. Which makes you wonder what might have happened if Greene had been let loose to write his own play.
Melancholia by Lars von Trier, adapted by Declan Greene, directed by Matthew Lutton. Sets and costumes by Marg Horwell, lighting by Paul Jackson, sound design and composition by J. David Franzke. Performed by Alexander Artemov, Maude Davey, Steve Mouzakis, Eryn Jean Norvill, Liam Smith, Leeanna Walsman and Gareth Yuen. Coopers Malthouse until August 12. Bookings https://malthousetheatre.com.au/whats-on/melancholia
Some scenes in this production make reference to mental illness, self-harm and suicide. If this production raises any issues for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (24/7). Further resources are also available at lifeline.org.au.
For more information about mental illness, contact beyondblue on 1300 224 636, go to beyondblue.org.au or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.
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