09/12/2016

Dreamer: Windmill's Girl Asleep

At the Adelaide Festival in 2014, a new play by Matthew Whittet was premiered. Forming the third part in a trilogy for Windmill Theatre Co. (what is now known as the The Windmill Trilogy), the play was the story of fourteen year old Greta Driscoll, her dreaded fifteenth birthday party, and everything that happened on that night. The play was Girl Asleep, and it went on to become an internationally successful film. When it premiered in Adelaide, playing in rep with the rest of the trilogy, I missed it due to Hilary Bell’s gorgeous version of The Seagull, and the first instalment of the trilogy, Fugitive. But two-and-a-half years and numerous successful film festival campaigns later, Girl Asleep rocks onto Belvoir’s corner stage in all its 1970s glory, but I can’t help but wonder if it suffers from Whittet’s tendency to wallow in a conceit without properly exploring and/or developing its structure and the full extent of the world.
Set on Jonathon Oxlade’s wallpapered and ingeniously disguise-filled set, the play starts with Greta telling us about the night everything changed. The first half hour sets up the story and the world, switching between scenes and Greta’s direct address to the audience, but the focus suffers as a result – is this framing of the story necessary, is there another way to do it, and why doesn’t it continue throughout the play, or return at the end? As Greta’s birthday kicks into gear, and the play shifts into the extended dream sequence – itself a series of vignettes loosely-connected with strands of dream-logic – the story gains momentum but not too much focus, until we land back in the real world with a scream and the bass from the party pulsing through the floor. It’s then only a quick change to the end of the play, but the ending feels unresolved, a little too neat and unearned, the final image a little too cute and clunky. Director Rosemary Myers (who also directed the film), keeps the play moving with enough chutzpah, whimsy, and energy to sustain an entire trilogy, but sometimes it’s not enough to disguise the unfinished feeling of the story. The other key player in Myers’ production is Luke Smiles’ soundtrack, courtesy of his professional moniker, motion laboratories. Filled with tracks by Serge Gainsbourg, Fleetwood Mac, Brian Eno, Supertramp, The Sweet, and Donna Summer, we are placed firmly in the 1970s world of Greta, and it is an absolute joy.
If you’re paying attention at the beginning, everything in the dream sequence is referenced at least once – if not by directly by name, then in spirit or by association – but sometimes it feels as though the parallels are too neat, a little too obvious, and not developed enough once we enter Greta’s subconscious. Greta’s family appear in altered forms – her sister becomes a smart-mouthed firebird (and firebrand), her father a farting goblin, her mother a distant ice-queen – while her best friend Elliott appears ala Serge Gainsbourg, and the school bullies Jane and Umber are ferocious dogs (get it?). Greta’s penchant for plastic horses is also checked, as is her Finnish pen-friend Greta, and some of these associations are more successful than others (Firebird, horse, and dogs in particular). It’s interesting to see how little character development and/or contrast there is between her mother and the ice queen, and her father and the goblin – they both feel like and read very much as the same characters in two different locations, rather than one being an exaggeration of the other as you would find in Grimm’s fairytales. The only terrifying aspect of this sequence is the Elliott-Serge Gainsbourg association, and the resulting scene has a menace to it which I don’t think is fully explored, or rather could be explored more; is the association in Greta’s head only, or is there something in Elliott himself which makes this link obvious to her, why is the link made (other than her sister’s obsession with the music, and an instance with Elliott near the beginning), and how could its impact be felt more keenly? At the end of the dream sequence, the fight with the dogs is well-handled, and dramatically necessary, but there isn’t enough physical contact or interaction between Greta and the ‘dogs’ for the fight to be entirely credible and/or dramatically satisfying. As for the ‘Maiden with the Tiny Hands,’ who kicks off the whole dream sequence, I wonder why she isn’t made more of, why she doesn’t appear more than at the end of the play, as a kind of benevolent force, a kind of coda?
Myers’ cast are all adept at the art of the quick-change, and their characters are as wacky as the story itself, but there’s also heart to the story, even if it is sometimes a little misplaced. Ellen Steele’s Greta is awkward and shy, but there’s an unchecked fierceness and volatility to her which, when unleashed, is worth waiting for, and hers is perhaps the most fully-formed character in the piece, but also the most elusive – we only really learn about her once we leave the theatre, when we look at ourselves at age fourteen or fifteen. Dylan Young’s Elliott is the geeky best friend, as socially awkward as Greta herself is, and there’s something touchingly naïve about his character which works nicely with Steele’s Greta; Young’s Gainsbourg is very much the dark mirror to his Elliott, but this could be played with in more depth. Sheridan Harbridge’s Genevieve, Greta’s older sister, is "a Jean Seberg-esque figure who will more than likely punch you if you speak to her"; she has a very fine line in fast-mouthed comebacks which puts her in good stead as the beaky Firebird, while her bully Jade is frighteningly silent and aloof. Whittet’s portrayal of Greta’s father Conrad is "a vision of 1970s beige," and has a terribly corny line in (bad) dad jokes, while his Goblin reads like a PG-rated version of Old Gregg from The Mighty Boosh. Amber McMahon’s flawless comic timing puts her in good stead for her smorgasbord of roles: Greta’s mother Janet (a snappy vision in purple and auburn beehive hairdo); Ice Queen (a frosted mirror to Janet); Umber, a similarly aloof mirror twin to Harbirdge’s Jade; a batty crazy-eyed classmate of Greta’s; and a veritably bonkers Finnish-Greta. Oxlade’s costumes are spot-on, capturing the right mixture of period detail, childhood whimsy, and unchecked dreams, and the cast play with them to pitch-perfect effect, particularly in the party sequence where McMahon, Whittet, Young, and Harbridge become a who’s who of Greta’s year, and every 1970s school stereotype you could imagine (even if the necessity of the quick-change does draw this sequence out a bit).

*

I wouldn’t normally do this, compare two different versions of the same story, but with the film of Girl Asleep now widely available, it’s interesting to look at how the play was shaped into the film. When the play premiered in 2014, Myers, Whittet and the Windmill team knew they would be making the film, so a lot of the design and structural narrative decisions were made with one eye on the stage version and another on the film version, and how they could be changed and adapted to suit the different mediums. With the production and sound designed by Oxlade and Smiles respectively, directed by Myers, and written by Whittet, with Whittet and McMahon reprising their roles from the play, the film is in incredibly safe and assured hands, considering this is Myers’ debut feature film. It’s theatrical roots are apparent, a little too visible at times, but they are embraced with gusto, along with the limitations of budget, scale, and length of the shoot, and it actually works to the film’s overall advantage.
The film still suffers from the structural problems inherited from the play – overlong setup, slightly disjointed dream-sequence, slightly-too-neat ending – but in many cases, the film actually makes a tad more narrative sense. Yes, Greta’s subconscious associations are still checked, but here they are visual rather than established through dialogue. The horse still remains, but it really is a plastic horse that they are riding, and the Goblin is even more Old Gregg-like than on stage. Gone is the Firebird version of Greta’s sister, but in her place we get the Huldra, a powerful Scandinavian warrior (in mythology, the Huldra are Scandinavian forest-dwelling nymphs or mermaids, but there is a Germanic version – Frau Holle – who resembles the film incarnation more closely), who helps Greta fight the dogs, keeps watch over her, and rescues her from the various demons when they start to overpower her. The fight with the ‘dogs’ at the end of the dream sequence is visceral and empowering, a masterstroke of foley, choreography, and editing, and the Serge Gainsbourg element is well-handled.
Part of these improvements are due to the nature of the filmic medium – you can cut to different locations and points of view in an instant, can juxtapose images and sounds and moods visually in a heartbeat, and can use the camera itself as a character or a point of view as much as those of the characters themselves. But part of it is also due to Oxlade’s designs, Andrew Commis’ cinematography, and Karryn de Cinque’s editing, which give the film a Wes Anderson-David Lynch vibe, with a dash of Puberty Blues.

*

While Girl Asleep is perhaps not as narratively strong as School Dance (which starred Whittet, Oxlade, and Smiles as themselves, alongside McMahon as nearly everyone else), nor as adrenaline-fuelled as Fugitive, it is a welcomely feminine and emotional addition to the Windmill Trilogy, and a clear evolution of the Windmill style, a development of a particular (and inventive) theatrical voice which has found a strong foothold in the Australian theatre scene. As a piece of theatre, Girl Asleep could benefit from a sharper dramaturgical eye on the script, a filleting down of the story’s set-up and dream-sequence, along with a stronger ending, but as an experience and as a trip back to the 1970s, complete with flairs, killer tunes, and outrageous wallpaper, it is almost unbeatable. Alongside Wes Anderson’s gorgeous Moonrise Kingdom, both incarnations of Whittet-and-Myers’ Girl Asleep serve to remind us that teenage-ness and growing up are not new, nor is the psychological and physical bullying and violence that often accompany them, but rather something we all share. It also serves in a way as a corrective to Kip Williams’ recent A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where – in Jane Howard’s words – the liminal space of dreams and the subconscious is a dark place, even for children who grow up in nurturing families and comfortable suburbs; fathers are always embarrassing and perhaps overbearing, while mothers are tough; the schoolyard is a battleground, and romantic relationships are equal parts dreamy and full of dread.

Teenage-ness is terrifying, but it’s also a time for discovering who you are. Even if it means wearing someone else’s clothes.

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