Alright, some background to this review; Sarah Kane, playwright, was 24 when she wrote this work, it was her first, she then committed suicide just four years later. People have argued for some time that she never managed to reach full potential, quite rightly. People also say a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, but this adaptation goes further, spoon feeding the audience to the point of boredom and, for a work as blisteringly challenging as this, it is a real shame.
Kane wrote this work in the 90s, and its direct dealing with the Balkan war, providing a rich and conflicting background of trauma and causality. This, in today’s tumultuous climate, should still strike a resonant chord. But the problem here is that each detail is painted in so clearly, that the audience is not able to engage with the work past what transpires on stage, yes a 24 year old wrote the work but, with so much time having transpired since, you would think that, a company approaching the work today, would have had a more matured and nuanced approach, but alas, we languish, instead, in despair.
Part of the beauty of theatre and art, more generally, is that the individual is allowed some agency, to be able to paint in the details between each brush stroke, but there is none of that here. The ensemble do what they can with such limited scope, and you feel not empathy towards character, but sympathy towards performer. Director Anne-Louise Sarks has either gone to far or not far enough at all; the distinction here is murky. Either way, this adaption is too polite, too caught in up niceties and emotional exploitation to ever really shock.
The single redeeming feature of this work, is the production itself, stage design is a stroke of genius, the rapid shifts in pitch black, each revealing this imagined place in a further state of decay, a master stroke. But this single thing is not enough; it simply feels like throwing makeup on a corpse and calling it a whore.
This work might have been polarising at its time, but that was the 90s, before images and news of war flooded us through social media and smart phones; today we need more than pure shock to evoke something within us. In the contemporary we need a radical connection to be formed with the subject, if this fails, we cannot connect at all. The one lingering thing, perhaps not so softly, which remains post show, is a question: “What the hell do we have to do or, in the context of this work, whose baby must we sacrifice and eat, to see more, new work of the Australian cannon presented on stage?”
As this year continues, we have the right to feel outrage towards this company in particular, for their failing to present more than the bare minimum of new Australian work, they have the budget, have the resources, so there really is no excuse for their failings. Their two most outstanding works of the year, as examples have both come from First Nations artists. Instead of this (pardon the french) shit, surely they could have directed their resources to a third work by Indigenous theatre makers, but that would have shown initiative; that other thing, aside from imagination, Malthouse continue to prove they are missing. Do yourself a favour folks, miss this show.