by Peter Maple
Storytelling should be vital – should be potent – should be in the immediate.
No…? That is something I personally believe and feel. I also personally believe and feel Damien Ryan, Managing Artistic Director of theatre company Sport For Jove has something to say, has something to show, has something to share…
Founded in 2009, beginning with their laudatory outdoor Shakespeare festivals in the Blue Mountains and the Sydney Hills Districts, Sport For Jove has had a sky-rocketing trajectory, replete with awards, critical successes, audience praise – and an ever-growing staunchly loyal following. One could be forgiven for thinking and feeling the Company has been around much longer than they have, given their indelible mark and regard.
So, what’s behind this (comparatively) rapid ascension? Who is behind it? Who do we point the finger at? Who’s to Blame…? I might speculate to say that it’s because Sport For Jove have something to say – have something to show – have something to share. Whether you connect with their work or not, Sport For Jove most definitely have a voice, and an identity – clean and clear – and they’re not timid in using it. In fact, they’re quite theatrically brave, bold, and powerful in using it.
[See here their artistic mission: http://www.sportforjove.com.au/artistic-mission].
And just as Sport For Jove’s platforms for performance have branched out over the years, expanding beyond The Hills and The Mountains since its inception – migrating and ‘infiltrating’ into the ‘greater populace’ and more ‘mainstream’ venues – so too have their adoption of texts spread and increased outside of solely Shakespeare – yet, they are always highly complementary to that of The Bard’s work and worlds.
This time round it’s No End of Blame, by Howard Barker. Damien Ryan directs…
Within your marketing blurb for the show – “A visual and aural feast for the senses” –
Yes, the show will cross a spectrum of art forms which is very exciting. There will be a huge amount of really wonderful music in the production from some of the great 20th century Hungarian composers and even much older folk artists, and their material just gets the blood and the spirit pumping, it is simply divine music. The score will be enormous from Alastair Wallace, our Designer. And the play spans 12 entirely different periods and places across Europe from 1918 to 1973, so Mel Liertz costume designs are just beautiful, the largest number of costumes I have ever used in a show, with 8 actors playing almost 60 roles, of vastly different aesthetics and worlds, so every scene is a new visual stimulus, and of course there is also significant nudity in the play, it is a very vast human canvas. And most excitingly of all, we have the work of 3 of Australia’s most important artists in the show, original works from the extraordinary Nicholas Harding, and cartoons from Cathy Wilcox and David Pope. There will be over 20 original artworks projected in the show and analysed by the audience. Coupled with that is a Shakespearean scale of language, along with Hungarian dialect, Romanian, Russian accents and the whole spectrum of British accents. So it is genuinely something of a theatrical immersion I hope.
I always feel there’s an ‘art’ in itself in determining the right title to a piece. A final ‘stamp’ upon its identity perhaps… No End of Blame – What does this production’s title mean to you?
How does it resonate with you in particular, and with your current interpretation for the show?
We are very afraid, particularly in this era of political correctness to speak our minds and to point the finger at what we don’t like or agree with, or we feel guilty or frightened, exposed when we do it. But human beings must ‘assign the blame’ – to make a better world we have to call things as they are. That’s what a political cartoonist does, slices through the veneer, sees “through the pouring curtain of piss” as Barker puts it, to help us deconstruct the messages being forced down our throats by government, education, cultural elite, whatever. Barker’s play says there is no end of things to blame for, people who need to take responsibility, be held accountable, no more so than the anti-hero of this play himself, Bela Veracek. He lays the blame when it needs to be laid but like any human, shirks his own responsibilities, takes the coward’s course when it suits him. Culture grows through argument and conflicting perspectives offer opportunities to find the truth somewhere in the mess and this play’s title is about the challenge, the need, the cost of assigning blame. It is also sub-titled “Scenes of Overcoming” which is also hugely significant, every scene is a catastrophe for the external or internal landscape of the human being but every scene is about overcoming something, something very profound, frightening, dangerous, devastating, ugly, tempting etc. And not just for Bela. The play doesn’t provide neat packaged meanings and is so brutal and unforgiving, and yet possibly quite inspiring in its own way.
The play spans a time period of six decades to be presented on stage. Can you describe how you first reacted to this challenge – the difficulties involved – and some of the strategies and crew implemented in achieving the necessary outcome?
Such a challenge yes, and we have all been pushed to the limit trying to find the conventions that might allow for it, but in the end, at the bottom of my anxious mind I actually know it is not a problem. This is theatre, an actor stands in front of us and tells us he is a young man and tells us he is an old man and we follow that story. And the play is an odyssey, a modern myth, a group of actors weave a great tapestry and the audience connects with the actors as much as the ‘characters’ they play, going on a journey with them, watching actors do so much extraordinarily challenging material, giving all of themselves. It is an invitation to believe, to accept and to understand the purpose of why the character is journeying so far and for so long. We make believe alongside them, Barker loves that the play knows it is theatre. It is about actors taking us somewhere and confronting us with giant tableaux of life.
Howard Barker, the playwright – consistently visceral, powerful, potent, dark, funny, political, complex – with a deep core of human truth (no, I’m not a fan at all 😊…).
What appeals to you with the writing here for Blame?
What do you foresee will appeal to audiences?
Possibly nothing will ‘appeal’. As you know, Barker certainly doesn’t seek appeal or approval, his is deliberately difficult, challenging material seeking to break through the molds of traditional storytelling and reacting against the cultural elitism he sees in so much commercially geared theatre. He wants his audience on the back foot, then the front foot, seeking as much for what is happening ‘now’ as much as what is happening ‘next’. The writing is absolutely extraordinary in some of its insights and an audience has to work hard to keep in tune with it. He doesn’t package up relevance or messages or something fitting the social milieu, even though he achieves it remarkably in this play, especially for our current age I feel, but it is not his mission or aim. He is an astonishing playwright, his language for me is as impressive, surprising, harrowing and overwhelming as Shakespeare and I really mean that. I never tire of reading it and trying to unlock what motivates his staggering contradictions and moments of irrationality, he is very, very daring and that is exciting and a bit sickening. I have had many a feint-hearted moment approaching this play, but the cast are loving exploring it, as am I, and they are doing so very bravely as it is confronting material. He knows how to write a well-made play, no question, his structure is deliberate chaotic but there is supreme order in that chaos, he really knows how to put a story together, while breaking many rules on the way. And the material actors get to speak is so rich and dangerous. Very theatrical while being very truthful. I have never seen actors work harder at anything than they are in this room, Barker awakes every impulse and ever pore of an actor. It is also disturbing in some ways and I have had a lot of strange dreams while working on this. As have some of the actors. I don’t know precisely what audiences might feel, the first scene will revile them in some ways and other scenes will inspire them, some will baffle them, some amuse them. It is a tapestry and they will make personal sense of it in their own ways, but they’ll earn that sense through hard work, enjoyable, stimulating, hard work.
The story of Blame satellites around artists, censorship, politics, human rights…
In ‘real world’ terms, what do you feel art has to offer politics and/or vice versa?
As history has shown, some of the greatest art and the most important art has come out of politically destabilised or inequitable environments, dictatorships or violent epochs, or repressive states that don’t freely engage with art, and this includes to a degree the writing Barker was engaging in through the Thatcherite era etc. Art is a mask through which people can speak the truth and without it, politics, religion, culture, identity, both national and personal, is left without a visible soul. And yes this play is about many forms of art – it is blunt political theatre and at times almost farcical and caustic satire, it is about artists and the role they play in the world and it is about censorship and freedom above all. It compares the apparent freedoms of the ‘western’ world with the state of art behind the ‘iron curtain’ in the 20th century and reveals arguments that we are still having very regularly today – even about political cartoons specifically. One of the ways we judge a free society is the freedom of its artists isn’t it? Censorship is the barometer of a culture’s health. Artists, as Bela says in this story, “shove the thermometer in the great wet gob of humanity” and strangely it is actually when the mercury goes up that we are healthy because it means we are arguing, freely, that a culture is willing to fight for what it believes in, to argue passionately for what is right, “the fever of truth” as Bela calls it. When the mercury goes down and there is one dominant, privileged voice keeping all ideas in check, then we are in trouble. Theatre is a critical part of that process in every culture.
Sport For Jove in my opinion are known for creating unmistakably strong ensemble performances – casts really working (well) together – on ‘the same page’, within ‘the same story’, existing in ‘the same universe/world’. Jove casts rarely seem to be ‘competing’, but rather, and ultimately preferably, are seen to be ‘collaborating’. Do you have a philosophy on this?
How do you create this much appreciated dynamic between your performers?
Thank you, that’s a lovely reaction to the work we do and yes certainly, “everyone is in the same play” is a phrase we often hear which is great. I’m probably not entirely sure if there is a formula, I distrust formulas or routines and methods a bit with theatre, every play is so different and every cast so different that I try to take every play as a new adventure and a new set of rules and just respond to it instinctively. However, I have no doubt that is rubbish in practical terms and that there are probably very obvious patterns in our approach to ensemble. I certainly gravitate toward actors of real intelligence who love ideas and want to speak up in rehearsal and collaborate very actively in the room, not just on their role, but on the production. Many heads are better than one and a basic tenet of setting up this company was that it is an actors’ company, where actors should feel they own the work and are responsible for it, and that very much happens in the room. I do a great deal of research as do our wonderful designers and the casts themselves so we do take huge care with the world we create and make sure we all know what the game is in the play, what we are fighting with or for. And I guess I like detail and specificity in most things as it think it helps actors deal with heightened text and big ideas very personally. So we end up building quite a detailed world, but it is then up to them to learn to play in that world. But that comes down to communication. Good communication between everyone in the room. Possibly another thing that I haven’t really stopped to consider until answering this question is that when I was a young actor playing some functional supporting roles in big companies I had several experiences of feeling quite unimportant to the world of the piece, that a top down approach to directing meant that there was little dialogue or sense of community to the entire ensemble and the result is that actors don’t really know the world of their play and therefore walk into a scene in the rehearsal room feeling quite lost, but feeling equally indulgent to voice that anxiety. When feeling this, actors simply try to compete on stage in order to be ‘noticed’ or make their mark, and I think a whole plays suffers terribly from that. Every character in a scene is as important as any other, from the most silent to the most celebrated and I like to provide as much detail and ask as many questions of the interior world or as many connections to the onstage world for them as I do for the central players. If you are painting something, the things in the centre of the frame are no more important to the artist’s desire for a complete picture than the very edges of the work, the edges make sense of the centre, and I think a stage is no different. In fact, the edges often require more work to fully evolve because the material is more slender at times, but the effect on the piece is exponential. To use another dumb metaphor, the people at the bottom of the human pyramid are working a lot harder without being noticed while others climb up top. I want everyone involved to feel they own and understand the show, everyone else’s journeys and words as well as their own.
With Blame set in the art world, you have wonderfully managed to arrange the involvement of three practising Australian artists. Who? How? And to what effect?
Yes, a huge privilege. I began by approaching Wilcox and Pope, two political voices I have long admired, great artists and powerful minds to see if a show about a provocative cartoonist might be of interest, and was overjoyed that it was. They loved the thought of taking it on and we are very excited with the work they are doing. Each scene begins with a cartoon that Bela Veracek, the lead character has drawn, and these great Australian artists are the ciphers to his work.
And the national treasure, Nicholas Harding, who has a long-standing relationship with theatre has done the 9 artworks of Grigor Gabor, the other key character in the play, a series of nude life sketches for which our incredible cast posed. It was an amazing experience for everyone involved and the drawings are very beautiful and very emotional. So an audience will study and explore those artworks on a big screen during the show.
Do you have a (current) favoured artist?
Who is inspiring you at the moment, and why?
What are they inspiring you to do?
I don’t know a lot about art but like almost everything! I love all of the great masters and could stare endlessly at Renoir and Rembrandt, but my most recent favourite art was actually a series of self-portraits and straight portraits of dementia patients that I was researching for my work on The Father at STC. Extraordinary painting, a lot of it from dementia sufferers capturing their own situation on canvas. I also think we should watch out for a brilliant young Australian artist called Rosalind McKelvey Bunting, she is currently studying in New York but has worked extensively in Sydney and is a remarkable talent.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” …
12 – 28 Oct
Thu 12 Oct 7:30pm
Fri 13 Oct 7:30pm
Sat 14 Oct 7:30pm
Tue 17 Oct 6:30pm
Wed 18 Oct 7:30pm
Thu 19 Oct 7:30pm
Fri 20 Oct 7:30pm
Sat 21 Oct 2pm, 7:30pm
Mon 23 Oct 6:30pm
Tue 24 Oct 6:30pm
Wed 25 Oct 7:30pm
Thu 26 Oct 7:30pm
Fri 27 Oct 7:30pm
Sat 28 Oct 2pm, 7:30pm
Venue: Seymour Centre: Reginald
Theatre Company: Seymour Centre and Sport For Jove Present
Duration: 120 minutes including interval