Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. [Volume 39, Number 19, 1976.]
It is ironic that on one hand I should with reservations be applauding Mervyn Thompson's production of Chekov's Three Sisters, while the other is forced into a rather silly argument about what constitutes that same audience that is turning out in droves to see this play.
Ironic also that my original comment about this audience, itself a rather heavy-handed piece of irony, should have been taken so literally. This was a throwaway line in a piece which examined two polar opposites of theatre ideology, Jonathon Elsom's "Sweet Mr Shakespeare" and Paul Maunder's Amamus Group. Not in his hare-brained first letter, nor in his slightly better reasoned second letter (printed here) does Mr Thompson take issue with any of the arguments I advanced in this review.
It is a truism that the only people who go to the theatre are theatregoers, and they are a very small percentage of the population. If, in the last year or so, he has fractionally inćreased this percentage by his entrepreneurial efforts, and I do not dispute his claims that he has, more power to his elbow. This does not, however, alter the fact that the percentage is still in the main a very small part of a particular social class. Mr Thompson knows this very well. A couple of years ago in Christchurch he was involved in a survey the results of which were published in Canta, which demonstrated precisely this.
In the year 1975-76 Downstage received over $133,000 of Arts Council money. This year the grant has been cut to a meagre $120,000. It is not unreasonable to question how, and on whom, this money is being spent. Nor is it necessarily fashionable radical posturing to do so.
Facts are not distasteful to me as Mr Thompson would have it, but misrepresentation of them certainly is. I did not call him a liar. I did however demonstrate the patent sophistry of claiming as typical an audience not yet played to. He seems determined to perpetuate this misrepresentation. It is now three months since his first letter (12 April) at which time many of the audiences he said were typical were entirely hypothetical, as they still are.
His community programme is laudable, if not particularly energetic. To date it consists of a performance of "Sweet Nothings" (the title does nothing to belie the content) to a captive audience at Witako and a performance of "Songs For Uncle Scrim" to a pensioner group. This with a group visiting secondary schools and a performance to the Labour Party Conference is the extent of the Community Programme Mr Thomspon so extravagantly boasts. He stresses that these performances have been without charge but omits the fact of the large Arts Council special projects grant provided specifically for this purpose.
I am looking Mr Thompson and what I have noticed to date is a pathetic token gesture.
However enough of this. This is supposed to be a review of the Chekhov. The play after all is the thing. Or is it? Politics can be kept out of theatre can't they? Just as Muldoon and his muddied ambassadors would have us believe they can be kept out of sport. Mr Thomspon aptly demonstrated that there is no place for radical politics certainly in his theatre, by his pusillanimous production of Marat Sade last year. Revolutionary Theatre as froth and bubble musical comedy.
What about the Chekhov? It is a political play, although Chekhov doesn't beat any drums, and if Mr Thomspon's audience sheds a tear for a yesterday untrammelled by proletarian demands he does nothing to discourage them. His production is unashamedly romantic and glitteringly opulent.
Set in Pre-revolution Russia it is the story of the aristocratic Prozorov family on their uppers, whose life style is threatened and eventually destroyed by the grasping bourgeoisie, personified by Natasha, Audrey's wife, and her lover Protopopov. Protopopov is never seen on stage but his presence, symbolic of the forces about to convulse Russia, lurks prophetically in the wings.
Chekhov portrays humanity in all its weakness and foolishness. His characters are trapped by their dreams. There are some outstanding performances in this production. Sherril Cooper as the admirable Olga is superb. Christina Milligan's Natasha is a superlative suburban bitch. Deirdre O'Connor gives the part of Irina an enigmatic tranquillity, fragile and other worldly, contrasting with the passionate and histrionic Masha played by Alannah O'Sullivan.
Structurally the play has strong undertones of Greek tragedy with the sisters providing the chorus. Although it is not itself a tragedy, Thompson and his designer Raymond Boyce have developed and accentuated this element creating an amphitheatre by splitting the Hannah Playhouse auditorium in two and placing the audience on tiers on either side. This is an adventurous way of overcoming the problem of staginess inherent in a play of this nature, and it comes off.
There is no artifice on this set. Everything is for real and if the grandeur seems overdone in the first act it is balanced by a gradual austerity which develops through the play culminating in the autumnal garden scene in act four dominated by the shadow of a dead tree. Boyce's set design is beautifully realised and complements perfectly the action and Thomspon's romantic conception of the play.
Praise also for Russell Duncan's Kulyghin, Masha's cuckolded schoolmaster husband, ever the buffoon because he didn't know how to be anything else. Although bordering on caricature, Duncan gave a real depth and sensitivity to this role. To Anthony Groser also, a consummate actor, for his Ferapont, the wise old idiot. Groser's impeccable technique unavoidable pointed up inadequacies in some of the less experienced actors.
On the other side of the coin I was less than happy with lan Watkin's Chebutykin. Watkin is a good actor, but I feel he relaxed too much into this important part and the character lacked the nihilistic bite and cynicism the role demands. This approach would probably have been suitable for a television production but it lacked the timing and inciseveness necessary on the stage.
John Callen's Vershinen also left me cold. Perhaps I was expecting a more conventionally flamboyant Alexander Ignatyvich. However this soft-centred self-pitying soldier I could not take. There is a real optimism in Vershinen's half-baked philosophy which is essential to the play. The part demands a bravura that Mr Callen's "sensitive" characterisation totally lacked.
In spite of the general quality of the production ideological considerations cannot altogether be set aside. Mr Thompson is protesting over much (in the best theoretical tradition) that he is on the side of the angels with his mythical community programme, while continuing to cater for the same old audience.
Downstage used to be exciting - today it is flaccid with too much money and real theatre is happening elsewhere - in little outfits like Unity and Circa.
—a play by David Hare
Opens at Unity Theatre Wed. Aug. 4 at 8pm.
Season ends Sat 21. Sunday Matinne performances.
8 & 15 August at 4pm. Students and workers $2.00 (i.e. $2.00)