Night at the museum: Griffin’s The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars

As many a child does, I loved mythology, and all the many intricacies of which god sired who with whom, who did what where; all the gods, demigods and deities, heroes and heroines running around the place felling monsters and accomplishing miraculous feats… I don’t know if it was that I grew out of it or just stopped being obsessed by it all, but somewhere along the line it no longer held the appeal it once did. It’s all still in my head somewhere, all the stories about the gods and the apples, the world tree, the goat-men and the epic wars, all connected (like so many other things) by that wonderful red string. And then along comes this play, Van Badham’s The Bull, The Moon, and the Coronet of Stars at Griffin theatre; with its adaptation of the story of the minotaur into a contemporary context, it’s a bit like playing hide and seek in a labyrinthine museum of myth – you’re aware of something bigger going on in the story, but at the same time, you’re trying not to get caught up worrying about it all, because you still want to be told a story, you still want it to work its magic on you.
Like friends or lovers telling the story of how they met, the play’s genesis had many beginnings (as told on the Griffin blog in three parts). It was originally written as a short play inspired by a shard of pottery in Oxford’s Ashmolean museum; it started life as a double-dare between two good friends (the other half of the dare became Dance of Death for Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre); it started as a story told millennia ago, about a man who slew a bull, a woman who helped him find his way out again, and a man who loved frivolity a little too much. It’s an enchantingly beautiful play, told eloquently by Badham’s poetic language and performed superbly by Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca. Something strange is happening in the museum where Marion and Michael work. As Michael keeps guard, a monster appears along with an impossible situation. Marion flees, only to become infuriated by Mark, a sommelier, and have her world turn upside down as her emotions betray her. To quote the season book, “it will lure you into an orgy of antiquity, cupcakes and beachside frivolity [in] this delightfully debaucherous fairytale for adults.”

Perhaps thought of as the antithesis of Thyestes (The Hayloft Project/Belvoir, Sydney Festival 2012), it has more in common with Tom Holloway’s Love Me Tender. Like Holloway, Badham builds pictures from words, out of words, and flies in the face of the common rule of writing, ‘show, don’t tell.’ For Badham, the fun and eroticism is in the telling, (and it wouldn’t be a retelling of a Greek myth without the eroticism), and she “revels in sumptuous imagery and [all] its erotic and comic possibilities,” as Deborah Jones wrote in The Australian. Just as in Greek mythology, Badham has “for every act of cruelty, written one of intimacy; and for every act of violence, [one] of love.”
Fascinated by the myth of the Minotaur, Badham set out to write about “the monsters we create from the impulses we fail to control... the way [they reflect] upon the repercussions of misplaced desires.” At its heart, it is a story – shared; told – by two people, of their lives, of how they met, their passions and desires, their dreams and their own stories. It’s hypnotic too, in a way that only language and theatre can be, and you (quickly) fall under its spell, no matter how hard you try to resist it. It’s smart, clever, funny, morethanalittle debauched and eversoslightly epic. Just like the myths, really.
Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca are terrific. Considering neither of them leaves the stage for more than a minute in the play’s eighty-minutes running time, their energy and engagement with each other, the language and the audience is maintained with a lightness and playfulness, a verve that exudes from their bodies and infuses the audience with its tenderness and resilience. Zeremes’ two characters are not just shades of one person but (necessarily) different people; whereas museum publications officer Michael is cool and posited as the Theseus figure in Badham’s transposition, sommelier Mark is Dionysian in his manifestation and manner – equal parts exasperated, turned-on, and intrigued by Colloca’s Marion. As the Ariadne figure, Colloca gives a fine portrayal of her resourcefulness, her determination and resolve, as well as Marion’s defensiveness and warmth.
I’ve long admired Lee Lewis’ direction, the way she doesn’t shy from the reality of a situation, but at the same time brings to light the tenderness and beauty inherently present in the play itself, within its characters and language. With The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars, her direction is subtle and playful, light, but clear, strong. In the post-show discussion, Lewis described the play’s attraction as being about joy: “we don’t have a lot of plays that detail joy and beauty,” she said, so when Badham’s play came up, she leapt at the chance to work her magic on its mythic connotations. In another’s hands, it could’ve become heavy-handed, the allusions forced and blatantly signposted, the costuming and set more concrete and as-described-in-the-text; with Lewis though, Colloca and Zeremes are costumed against their descriptions in the text, so as to allow the audience to become part of the theatre-making process, actively encouraging them to put themselves in the shoes of the characters, make them – us – complicit in completing the circle of theatrical illusion. When coupled with Anna Tregloan’s beautifully poetic set and costumes, Steve Francis’ subtle, unobtrusive, playful and ever-present score, and Verity Hampson’s gentle lighting, Badham’s play is transformed into something special, a truly magical and generously-spirited ode to love and the relationships we form in our lives.
The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars “takes messy, ordinary stuff – lust and infidelity – and elevates it to the realm of the gods.” As a retelling of the story of the Minotaur, simultaneously caught up in that of Ariadne, Theseus, and Dionysius, (red string, labyrinth, beast and all), it is appropriately legendary and epic. By the play’s end, I dare you not to be so thoroughly caught up in it, so totally head-over-heels in love with it, that you don’t leave the theatre with a giddy big smile upon your face, a spring in your step, and your heart full, warm and fittobursting. Perhaps, like Ariadne and Dionysius, like Marion, Mark, and Michael, we are all stories in the end, all legends – or heroes, as Bowie sang; perhaps all we can do is try to tell (or live) the best one(s) we can.

Theatre playlist: 13. Museum Open Late, Alan Silvestri

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