Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 11. 1964.
"The Possessed" Well Worthwhile
"The Possessed" Well Worthwhile
Nola Millar's production of The Possessed for the Russian section of the Modern Languages Department was an achievement which reflected the very creditable enthusiasm of everyone concerned. It is hoped that the innovation will become a permanence and that the department will undertake a major production as an annual project.
The first night's full house was swayed by the rapid demonstration of all the acts of violence, Injustice, compassion and pathos which could form part of life and acclaimed the success of the production with sustained applause (despite the lateness of the hour).
But was the insidious feeling of dissatisfaction once the spell was broken caused by faults in the play or faults in the production? A play must be judged on its own terms, inherent in its text and dramatic form—but this play posed a large problem for its audience even before the problem of "successful production" could be considered.
Some of us are tuned in to Dostoevsky, determinism, Russian gloom and Chekovian silences, others know Camus's existentialism, plagues, politics and corruption in modern society, but what we were confronted with was an unhelpfully ambiguous English translation of Camus's French, a dramatic adaptation (the selection serving its own purposes) from the Russian novel. On this wellwatered family tree of a play were grafted other difficulties, perhaps unavoidable; a multiplication of styles of acting — naturalism (Stamislavsky, which suits the mood if this is a Chekov-like play), stylisation (appropriate for ritual-type conventionalised drama), even at times an approach to highly-mannered comedy of burlesque. This variation in acting styles could become a good thing, if the play itself demanded it in order to transmute the action into an audience-involving whole, but this intention and consequent justification never became apparent.
In fact, since Camus's conception of dramatic form here includes the conventions of narrator-participator and an acting space which is left free enough for an actor with the assistance of mime to visit houses in two parts of a town and talk with people in the street on the way, a greater degree of stylisation in the acting could have appropriately given the play a formal unity.
The set was entirely adequate; its only fault was perhaps an over-attention to detail—the dangling lampshades which cast odd shadows, the chairs and sticks which actors fell over, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, the narrator's precarious triangular perch (which distracted rather than intensified attention).
Thus the production left us constantly in doubt as to the terms on which the play asked to be considered. Was it high tragedy, extra-subtle comedy, or melodrama? It achieved its dramatic intensity not so much through involvement with a character's intellectual or emotional problems and personal growth of awareness, but through climax after climax of a visually and melodramatically exciting kind. Tension was achieved, pace was maintained and the actors were admired for managing to overcome the basic ridiculousness of many of the pseudo-tragic lines they were faced with. The performance was, somehow, a success. But not the serious success that I fear was intended.
Now for the actors—all highly competent, but not all entirely successful in what they seemed to be attempting in this play. Murray Gronwall held the audience's attention throughout. He looked right, his exits and entrances were superb; but he lacked something needed for a tragic figure, the battlefield of good and evil. Perhaps his voice has not the kind of depth and flexibility that the rather spare lines of the part needed to give them body. The confession scene came off because the audience was captured, like the reader of a detective novel, but the morning-after scene with Lisa failed because the tentative nature of what seemed like improvisation was working against, not with, the actor.
A performance doubtful in a different way was Anne Flannery's as a Dickensian grotesque, the lame, Cassandra-like Maria. This was horrid realism, and successful; but the characterisation seemed to be established from the head down, rather than from the heart up. When Maria was one of a group, with attention focused elsewhere, she ceased to be Maria.
This never happened with Maarten van Dyke's characterisation of the enthusiastic, idealistic, self-willed revolutionary, Verkhevensky. He exhausted the audience with his exuberance and captivating malice. Yet the strength of the political agitator was demonstrated most successfully in the one scene, the revolutionaries' council, where he was both still and silent; a rather fine achievement.
Irene Esam, as Lisa, was most convincing, and consistently so; the languor and stability and beauty of the old Russian upper class was never in doubt. She, with Pat Evison, as Vavasa, and Ronald Lynn, as Stepan, created a Chekovian stillness against which the attack and undermining instincts of the revolutionaries became clearly outlined. It was Pat Evison's magnificence and professional style which pulled the production to Its final note of real tragedy. But how to reconcile this with the general disparity of tone originating in the play itself?
Mathew O'Sullivan's ompassionate performance Shaltor was balanced by Raymond Boyle's perverse and comic morbidity as Kirilov; Ariadre Damlov's sophisticated burlesque by Sonja Savelius's ingenuousness and Russell Duncan's boorish drunken irascibility by Ross Jolly's cringing yet insinuating devil promptings.
The play could usefully have made more of William Juliff as the narrator and participator (becoming within the play an audience for the action). He provided a very pleasant point of reference.
The Possessed, however, was making inordinate demands on the actors' interpretive capacities. They should not have had to recreate or make up for the inadequacies of the text.
So, although there were creditable performances all round, these once more did not add up to any final conception of unity-in-diversity, so necessary to the acceptance of the play and the production as a meaningful demonstration of the absurd or something more than melodramatically entertaining. This was the qualified success of almost paradoxically serious melodrama.
Yet these quibbles give perhaps an unfair picture. This really was a most stimulating and memorable evening in the theatre and Nola Millar managed to overcome remarkable difficulties in the Nineteenth Century English script to make it possible. All credit to her that the play so vividly came alive in its third-remove existence.