Every Breath wasted

I'm still asking myself ‘why?’ Juvenile, immature, ludicrous, preposterous, silly, self-indulgent, are all words I’d use to describe this production. It was a case of nudity-because-I-can-get-away-with-it, and I don't think I can begin to expound upon how completely pathetic a waste of 80mins of my life it was.
Benedict Andrews, Every Breath’s writer and director, has a lot to answer for in the current Sydney theatrical scene. Perhaps the man who single-handedly bought pretentious wanking back onto our mainstages (literally, intellectually, metaphorically), Andrews is famous for the continuous stream of gold confetti in STC’s War Of The Roses (as well as continuous streams of ash and rain, not to mention Prince Hal performing fellatio on Falstaff), as well as the seagulling of Chekhov’s Seagull, and the ‘sexy’ power-fuck of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Every Breath, for the unaware, is about a family who have hired a security guard (who, it is revealed, is also a hermaphrodite) to keep them safe from an unidentified threat. As the play progresses, each member of the family projects their desires (predominantly – exclusively – sexual) onto the security guard, so that by the play’s end, it just becomes laughable.
Knowing Andrews’ track-record and directorial trademarks for ‘shit falling from the gods,’ I was disappointed. I thought ‘Benno’s writing and directing his own play; maybe it’ll all make sense this time.’ I was mistaken, sadly. Nothing fell from the ceiling, the set – a raiseable and tiltable platform anchored in the roof by four chains – was perhaps the stupidest set I’ve ever seen in a theatre, and did nothing except to restrict the acting space to the edges; the Belvoir corner was instead a gaping hole of void. It wasn’t even bad enough to be good through a kind of guilty-Schadenfreude. I've seen better plays at Dramac back when they were hellbent on sex-and-drugs-and-godknowswhat; even now, some of their plays would leave some of the mainstage plays for dead. I think Benedict Andrews should stick to doing what he does best (i.e. messing up – butchering – the classics); or, alternatively, we could just leave him in his own little straight-jacketed world and let him out once a year for a bit of exercise. Considering last year’s butchering of Chekhov’s gorgeous The Seagull (I love Chekhov’s play – still do – even if I thought the production was fundamentally wrong), Every Breath made that production almost look good.

I sniggered through the last half-hour of Every Breath, for no other reason than because it was so pathetically stupid and juvenile, so completely devoid of plot, substance or sense. There were the obligatory digs at Chekhov and the pretentiousness of modern theatre (in other words, Andrews’ own work), which amounted to “intellectual injokes” for the culturally-aware – the back row of the theatre, probably Andrews’ associates, seemed to enjoy this self-aware reflection; for me, it was just stale and empty, a lifeless reiteration of a personal gripe.
The three young actors in it – Shelly Lauman, Dylan Young, Eloise Mignon – have been and are capable of so much more, so much better. I’ve seen them each once or twice at Belvoir in the past year, and it was sad to see them not even trying with this. Or maybe they were trying, you just couldn’t tell, the production was so rotten. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Blake thought they appeared “uncertain, unconvinced and occasionally unsafe; [John] Howard looks and sounds particularly ill at ease.”

For the past week, I’ve been constantly asking myself Why? How do people deal with something like this? How is something like this possibly allowed to be produced? And the answer is surprisingly – despairingly, appallingly – simple: people deal with it by deluding themselves that it’s fantastic, by falling over themselves to clap the director on the back and say ‘top job’ because they cannot think of anything else to express their sheer inability to comprehend what they just saw. In reality it’s a severe case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one wants to call it for what it is – BATSHIT. Productions like this go ahead because Benedict Andrews is a Name (always in capitals; like Barrie Kosky, from whose book he seems to be taking a leaf from); he is a bankable commodity, guaranteed to get people talking, and he has won Awards. (The fact that Every Breath was shortlisted for the 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award does nothing to dull its stink.) It makes me angry that people pay money to see things like this when they can get something much better from a university society for a fraction of the price. And I know, because Dramac has had eighteen months of solidly brilliant productions. As we all know, Company B/Belvoir is capable of so many wonderful things, and have been, more or less, for twenty-five years (Cloudstreet, ‘Madman,’ ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie,’ Keating!; the sheep in last year’s As You Like It, for instance), yet this just gives me a simple reason in answer to the time-worn question of why nobody likes Australian theatre anymore...

“I don’t think I’ve ever read a play that’s come to us without having anyone work on it that is as complete and perfect as this play,” says Artistic Director Ralph Myers in TimeOut Sydney. “It just works. Obviously, having been a director for a long time, Benedict has an understanding of structure, which is something not so common in young, emerging playwrights. Plus he has an amazing facility with character and dialogue as well.” That may be all well and good in the rehearsal room, but in performance, you’ve also got to consider the audience, their reaction, their sensibilities, their tolerance thresholds; Every Breath disregarded them in an instant.
At the end of the play, the four members of the family (mum, dad; son, daughter (16 year old twins)) all managed to sleep with the security guard in the space of five minutes’ stage-time. By the time the third person got to have their turn, I was sniggering, and by the end of it, I was laughing silently, my shoulders shaking, and so was the person on my left. (I pity the poor elderly man sitting at the end of my row [the front]; he had an uninterrupted view of proceedings.) The last scene of the play was effectively four soliloquies, one by each member of the family. During each’s monologue, their opposing family member (young/old, male/female) appeared on stage behind them, in a separate ‘space,’ and proceeded to masturbate. Like much of the play, I’m still trying to work out what the point of the juxtaposition was. Belvoir’s website carried a warning of ‘nudity and graphic sexual content,’ but they might as well have left it off: the entire production was so underlit that it didn’t really matter if they were nude or not, and as for ‘graphic,’ well, I’ve seen worse on television and in films. The final scene – the final image – when the hermaphroditic security guard took off their clothes, was sad and depressing more than anything else, voyeurism past the point of help, and... I was terribly glad when it was over, but I also wished just something had fallen from the ceiling, that there was just a tiny little bit of meta in it to make it interesting or entertaining.

Every Breath is an extraordinary debut written by a theatre-maker at the top of his game. Darkly funny, sweetly eerie, and strangely familiar, this is about what happens when prosperity gives us the license to see the world as we want to see it.” So states the 2012 season book. Extraordinary it might be, but extraordinarily, unfathomably and unforgivably shite. If it is strangely familiar, I’d hate to be living in Benedict Andrews’ world.

See more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/bad-bad-belvoir-20120329-1vzxs.html#ixzz1qV5beHm2 (and Sydney Morning Herald, print edition, 2012-03-30)

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