Punked: Lies, Lies and Propaganda's Phaedra

In the Tap Gallery’s intimate Downstairs theatre, a table stands, laid for a banquet. A man sits at the table, hungrily stuffing his face with food, a headless deer lies in front of him, and four figures stand around the space statues. This is Euripides’ Phaedra, as told by Lies, Lies and Propaganda (henceforth LLP), one of Sydney’s newest independent theatre companies.
Phaedra is the story of a woman (Phaedra) who falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus, and the effect it has on the family and the way the gods intervene and clean up after the tragedy. Like all Greek tragedies, Phaedra is grandiose, epic, full-blooded and, well, tragic. In the hands of LLP’s artistic director Michael Dean, Euripides’ play becomes an examination of erotic shame, sacrifice, passion and synth-pop.

Describing Phaedra – the character, the woman – as a “tragic art-punk heroine,” Dean infuses a kind of rock’n’roll swagger and an eclecticism which seems out of place with Euripides’ heightened and already-visually poetic language. In his Director’s Note, Dean quotes music critic Simon Reynolds as he describes the Post-Punk movement as one of “astonishing experimentation… that mixed industrial grime with the unearthly and uncanny… yowled imagistic incantations like a cross between Antonin Artaud and James Brown.” This pedigree comes through in Catherine Steele’s design, a curious and effective fusion of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles, Adam Ant and contemporary smart-casual clothing. Distressed with gashes of blood-red paint, stained cuffs and cummerbunds, complemented by ghostly white faces and accentuated cheekbones on the Chorus, it seems rather like something Vivienne Westwood could have conceived of.
LLP’s production, as per its artistic statement, is fearless, certainly, not to mention messy, colourful and provocative. It is not afraid to draw blood or spill it, nor blur the line between theatre, art and art-theatre or perhaps performance-art. A bold and inventive debut production, it perhaps stumbles on a conceptual level – why is Phaedra being told in this way, what does the aesthetic lend to the story and its telling? Why do the characters, already heightened by the nature of Greek tragedy, speak in this anachronistic and somewhat jarring way? While Dean is at pains to point out that his production is not happening in any other place or time than in the theatre at the instance in which it is being performed, it seems like a cheat’s way of saying ‘why not?’ There are stylistic choices which are effective in the brief glimpses we get of them, but more could have been made of them; a more theatrical sense of [the] play could have been created. While the cast are strong, both in a physical sense as well as vocally, they did have to compete with a near-constant soundtrack of post-punk and synth-pop which marred the clarity of the text and the diction of the delivery. If music was to form a key part in LLP’s production, perhaps a move towards a movement-based mode of delivery could have been made, perhaps the songs could have been integrated into the fabric of the production further. A key element in Greek theatre, the Chorus here could have been integrated further into the physicality of the scenes; whilst bringing a tongue-in-cheek element to the scene, their beat as a popcorn-eating audience did distract from the telling of the story. The performances were strong – Richard Hilliar’s Hippolytus, Katrina Rautenberg’s Theseus and Danielle Baynes’ Phaedra especially in the ‘name’ ensemble, while Jennifer White and Sinead Curry were strong in the Chorus. I’m not necessarily disparaging the production or the directorial/design choices that have been made because, on the whole, they are valid and effective; it’s just that more could have been made of and from them.
This is a brave and fearless first production, one that allows Lies, Lies and Propaganda to announce themselves with a flourish and say ‘This is who we are, this is what we do.’ If we get another chance to see what they do next, it could herald a new, daring, experimental and bold voice on Sydney’s independent theatre scene.

Theatre playlist: 37. Burning Down The House, Talking Heads

No comments:

Post a Comment