Goodbye, yellow brick road: Belvoir’s The Wizard of Oz

The story of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has found a place as one of the most famous and enduring stories in (children’s) literature; just as the celebrated MGM film with Judy Garland has become a staple of millions of people’s lives since 1939, the story has become synonymous with a journey of discovery and a quest for self-identity and -worth. At its heart are four displaced people who are in some way incomplete; the book (and film), then, becomes a chronicle of their quest for completeness, for self-change. It is also a space for dreaming and yearning, a place for the glorious flights of fancy of your imagination, a space for a certain amount of theatricality, illusion, and artifice. Based on the myth created by Baum’s book and perpetuated in all its Technicolor glory, Belvoir’s latest offering is Adena Jacobs’ reimagining of The Wizard of Oz. However: if you do happen to go down to Belvoir this May, it’s best to leave your expectations and love of the book and/or film at the door.

In her Director’s Note, Jacobs states that this production “is a response to the myth, created by myself and all of the artists involved in this project.” She goes on to say that “Dorothy’s gender is no accident. Through the prism of the feminine, the metaphors of Oz open up in fascinating ways. Oz is a landscape of castrated bodies, of witches dead and alive, of an invisible patriarchal force, and a young female hero who is imbued with great power and authority. Dorothy’s rite of passage can also be read as a complex process of feminine conditioning, one which is laced with beauty and violence.” Bearing all this in mind, you would expect a dark and perhaps confronting production. In many respects, Jacobs’ Oz is. But it’s also weirdly alienating, distancing, and disaffecting.
I quite admire the rigour and ideas behind Jacobs’ productions – she often seeks to reinvigorate ‘classic’ or canonical texts, try to come to terms with their implications in a twenty-first century context, for a twenty-first century audience. However, I feel that this rigour and boldness in challenging boundaries and preconceptions of ideas is lost in its journey to the stage; watching her work, I don’t understand why she has made these choices, what they add to a production or text, what effect they’re designed to have. I am all for non-linear, non-traditional modes of theatrical storytelling and radical reinterpretations of foundational stories in the canon, so long as the story is strong, so long as the logic or narrative progression within the story makes sense in its own world.
Jacobs’ Wizard of Oz follows the spirit of Baum’s book in that it is almost folkloric, more Grimm than MGM-Technicolor; it is also more primal, and there is a strong sense of power and sexuality at work in the production. In an interview with Elissa Blake, Jacobs remarked upon the fact the land of Oz is “a world of witches… In our piece everyone is a witch. We are exploring the notion of what powerful or sexual women are and how they are regarded… especially that terrifying journey young girls have to go on in order to become an adult woman.” Eschewing a script for a more impressionistic approach, Jacobs uses music, movement, imagery, and soundscapes to evoke a darker, more surreal Oz than we’re accustomed to seeing. While Jacobs says “it’s not text or storytelling driven,” surely any piece of theatre, no matter how linear, movement-based, or immersive it is, should be driven by the need to tell a story. This Wizard, however, doesn’t really tell a story; at least, not one that is easily discernable from Jacobs’ series of often-striking vignettes.
Ralph Myers’ set – a concrete box, with a glass cabinet in the corner, and a hole cut in the wall, while wires criss-cross overheard – is as blank and malleable as any dreamspace can be, but it lacks the imagination and ingenuity that any vision of Oz requires. Emma Valente’s lighting goes some way to disguising this, blasting the bleak space full of a rich saturated coloured light, the closest Jacobs’ Oz comes to glorious Technicolor. Valente also manages to create a clever approximation of sepia, de-saturating the normally-vibrant colours in a nod to the sequences which bookend MGM’s film. Max Lyandvert’s composition and sound design is subtle and brief; the opening dust-bowl cyclone is too quiet to be discombobulating, and the two or three bursts of song sound like outtakes from an MGM musical, but they fail to compel or invigorate the already-flimsy story. Kate Davis’ costumes are more gestural, abstractions of ideas rather than full illustrations; while Dorothy is still dressed in her gingham dress and ruby slippers, the rest of the characters wear everything from power-suits and orange face-paint, to abstracted masks, metal gloves, balaclavas, and sometimes barely anything at all. Rather than combining to create a coherent vision of a darker and more surreal Oz, the costumes only fragment the vision and storytelling further, burying meaning beneath layers of extraneous connotations and symbols.
Jacobs’ cast manage to create some memorable moments amongst this melange of influences, but even they are upstaged by a round of applause for Lucky Jim, the Jack Russell terrier who plays the role of Toto, in his first appearance in the opening moments. Emily Milledge’s Dorothy is full of an effective wide-eyed naïveté, and even though there are moments where the unbridled joy of performing and being on stage shine through (as in the first dance sequence with the Scarecrow), her Dorothy is ultimately passive and bewildered, the water-balloon scene notwithstanding. Melita Jurisic’s Scarecrow first appears behind a curtain, hanging from a rope in a twisted bondage act; her high-pitched maniacal cackle is unsettling, and her floppy head-strong straw-filled walk is effective, but there is no real sense of character or kindred-spiritedness between her and her companions. Jane Montgomery-Griffiths’ Tin Man (or should it be Woman?) is dressed like a Frida Kahlo painting, hinting at the darker, more Baum-esque incarnation of the character, rather than its MGM incarnation. Paul Capsis’ Lion is really a diva with stage-fright who only needs a microphone and a red-curtain to shine (which he does, briefly), but he otherwise feels underused. The Witch, played by Luisa Hastings Edge, appears in many different forms, characterised by her platinum-blonde wig, emerald-green dress (or suit), and orange face; while vaguely threatening at times in a benign kind of way, any threat or conflict she might bring or represent is undone when she starts playing the accordion.
There are little moments in this production which nod to the source material but pass briefly, are there if you get the reference but are otherwise un-signposted. Perhaps the most significant, blatant, and underused is the rainbow which appears from a column of lights, while Dorothy’s disembodied head gazes longingly at it through a hole in the rear (false) wall. When she meets the Lion, she tries to coax him out of his phobia by singing the first two notes of the film’s iconic song. As we get further and further into Oz, the dream mutates, becomes less an homage and more a fantasia upon an idea, even to the point of drawing on intertexts such as Alan Moore’s controversial Lost Girls graphic novel. There is sex and nudity in this production, but it doesn’t read as serving any particular purpose. By the end of our hour-long audience with the Wizard, it seems that a lot of the instances of partial or near-total undress were simply because they could; the act, besides the necessity of costume changes which often happen in full-view of the audience, loses any power it could have had because it is used so frequently and seemingly haphazardly.
Even though Jacobs makes us sure we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, at little more than an hour her journey to Oz seems excruciatingly long; without any strong narrative arc, however, it also feels rather inconsequential, and not really worth anywhere near the full ticket price. To be pithy about it, this Oz has no heart, and as this Tin Man says, you "cannot love something with no heart." While Jacobs’ intention is no doubt to confront, challenge, and provoke a strong sense of the surreal in the audience, as well as breaking down boundaries of performance and gender (as in Hedda Gabler), I don’t think it works anywhere nearly as well or effectively as it could; even Valente’s richly coloured lighting loses its impact after a while. It all feels rather complacent and tame, a little bit too ‘safe’ considering what we were promised; even ironically self-aware university students with a library’s worth of performance and gender theory behind them would produce something more engaging.

Like the Wizard himself, it all feels like a bit of a sham.

Fn. I’d also really like to see a show at Belvoir this year which is more than eighty minutes long.

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