Monday, 24 March 2014

Postcard from Perth 17

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre and the Arts in WA

Classic Pleasures

WASO, Mozart/Strauss/Wagner; Black Swan, A Streetcar Named Desire

We loosely apply the term ‘classic’ to works and repertoire that endure. Despite rhetorical claims of ‘instant’ status, no work is a classic at the time of its appearance, and sometimes not for centuries afterwards. The reasons for this are manifold. A work or even an artist may not at first be widely known; tastes and fortunes change and fluctuate; and understanding takes time. Hildegaard’s compositions were virtually unknown outside her abbey for centuries; Bach’s reputation declined throughout the ‘classical’ era until revived by Mendelssohn; the achievements of Schönberg and the Second Viennese School are still in truth appreciated by a minority and have arguably yet to be accepted into the pantheon of ‘classics’ despite their acknowledged greatness. As the preceding list indicates, classic works need have nothing in common in terms of style. Indeed I’d argue that what makes a work capable of becoming a classic is precisely that it transcends or fuses existing forms. In other words, it breaks the mould and creates a new one.

The related term ‘classical’ is somewhat different. In music and theatre it refers to specific periods in the history of forms: Greek or French ‘classical’ drama, or the ‘classical’ style of the First Viennese School (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in particular being the ‘classic’ exemplars). However we also tend to make ‘classical music’ synonymous with the tradition of ‘art’ music’ – also known as ‘serious’ music (both terms are problematic) – that stretches back to Bach or even Hildegaard and forward to Schönberg and beyond.

In this regard it’s worth noting the association of both ‘classic’ and ‘classical’ with ‘class’. All three terms cluster around the notion of a body of works considered worthy of study and knowledge by a group of people considered worthy of studying and knowing about them. As such, they are all necessarily contested terms.


A couple of weeks ago I went to the inaugural concert in WASO’s 2014 Season under the orchestra’s new Principal Conductor Asher Fish.

There was a palpable sense of excitement amongst both the audience and the orchestra. Fish is an international star: his previous posts include Chief Conductor of the Vienna Volksoper and Musical Director of the New Israeli Opera, and he’s currently still Principal Guest Conductor of the Seattle Opera. As his professional and cultural background suggests, he has a passion for opera, the Romantic repertoire and the core European tradition. Like Simone Young (who’s conducting Bruckner with WASO later this year), Fish studied under Daniel Barenboim, and like Barenboim he’s been active in breaking the taboo on conducting Wagner in Israel. He conducted the first Australian complete Ring cycle in Adelaide in 2004. Like his colleague Joseph Colaneri (who was appointed Director of WA Opera in 2012), Fish is also a regular at the Met, where he recently conducted a memorable new production of Parsifal (which I was lucky enough to see at my local cinema Luna on SX last year as part of the Met’s HD Digital Season). So there’s currently a sense of renaissance at WA’s two leading ‘classical’ music institutions.

Fish has stated his admiration for WASO as an orchestra that combines ‘British professionalism, American work-ethic and German precision’ but also indicated his determination to weld this into a distinctive sound. In a brief talk after the concert, he spoke of the paradoxical attractions of working in Perth because of its geographical remoteness and relative security in terms of funding and even employment in comparison with Europe or America – all which enabled him to focus on the music rather than administrative politics. Let’s hope he’s right. In general I’d risk saying that in the past WASO’s strengths have tended to lie in its wind, brass and percussion sections, while despite fine individual players the string section as a whole has not always achieved a unified sound, while the programming has likewise sometimes lacked a clear identity or focus. Nevertheless it’s a damn fine orchestra, and potentially a great one.

This year, on the strength of the programming and Fish’s reputation alone, I’ve subscribed to WASO for the first time. Highlights for me include Fish conducting Mahler’s 9th and a Beethoven Festival featuring a complete cycle of the symphonies over two weeks; and Simone Young conducting the Bruckner 4 and the Elgar Cello Concerto with German cellist Alban Gerhardt.

The program for the first concert on Friday 8th March clearly stated Fish’s musical affinities and agenda for the orchestra: core works from the classical and romantic Austro-German repertoire; and the development and progressive expansion of sonic forces. Responding to Fish’s direction, the orchestra gave us a Magic Flute Overture that was crisp and precise but also full of dark turbulence, underlining the work’s simultaneous affirmation of Enlightenment philosophy and its anticipation of Romanticism. This was also true of the Mozart 20th Piano Concerto, one of the composer’s most personal, ambiguous, tragic and sinister works. Like the Requiem it’s in the inherently chromatic key of D minor, which Nigel Tufnell from Spinal Tap called ‘the saddest of all keys’ (‘people instantly weep when they hear it’). Here Fish assumed the double role of conductor-pianist. This was no domineering virtuoso performance, but rather a thoughtful conversation between him and the musicians which depended on mutual listening as much as direction (though guest concertmaster Paul Wright visibly had his back).

After interval came the highlight of the concert for me: Richard Strauss’s great tone-poem Death and Transfiguration. I know this work from recordings but I’ve never heard it played live before – a rare treat. Here Fish was in his element, and the expanded orchestra rose to the challenge with a performance of shattering power, demonstrating to the full the renowned acoustics of the Perth Concert Hall (which Richard Tognetti among others has ranked as the finest in the country). Paul Wright again distinguished himself here with some heart-melting solo passages. Finally came a Suite from Wagner’s Meistersinger, comprising the Act III Prelude, ‘Dance of the Apprentices’ and the Act I Prelude. I’ve never heard them played in this order before, but it made musical sense, especially after the dying fall of the Strauss. It was a fitting closing statement from Fish in terms of style and subject-matter, and another fine performance, even if I personally struggled with the music’s emotional bombast.

All in all, it was a thrilling concert. At the end, there was a genuine sense of triumph from the audience, orchestra and conductor. Of course, it’s the honeymoon period, but I felt that Fish has the measure of the orchestra, the audience and the task ahead. I felt proud to be there, and excited about what’s to come.


A Streetcar Named Desire is another classic work, and Kate Cherry’s new production for Black Swan at the Heath Ledger Theatre likewise sets an ambitious new benchmark for the company. A large (and largely local) cast is led by Sigrid Thornton, whose big and small-screen popularity is I suspect as significant a factor with audiences as the reputation of the play itself (which likewise derives some of its lustre from the famous Hollywood film with Vivienne Leigh and Marlon Brando).

Let me say straight out that this is by far the most impressive Black Swan production I’ve seen. I should also declare at the outset that I’m currently a Resident Artist with the company. Although I had nothing to do with the show, I’ve seen it twice now: once on opening preview and again at the end of the opening week. If anything, it become even more absorbing on second viewing, despite a running time of over three hours.

In fact I’ve never seen Streetcar before onstage, but only (like millions of others) on screen. It’s a memorable (if flawed) film, but an incredibly powerful and ultimately devastating play, which deserves to be called a classic for all the reasons I’ve mentioned.

In my view, Tennessee Williams (like his compatriot O’Neill, but in a narrower and more twisted vein) is the American successor to the revolution in European theatre begun by Ibsen and continued (with the same proviso) by Strindberg. This revolution belongs to a broader movement that’s sometimes called ‘Naturalism’ in the context of theatre, and beyond it in literature and philosophy; Zola was and remains probably its most famous practitioner and spokesman. This significance of this movement is often reduced to limited and superficial considerations of style (especially with regard to acting style) rather than the content and worldview that underlies it – which can be characterized as an extension of ‘realism’ in terms of its focus on the physical, scientific and especially social determinants of actions and events. Naturalism though places an added emphasis on contemporary ideas of heredity, psychology and even pathology, which leads to an underlying metaphysical fatalism and even pessimism. As such, Naturalism shades into Symbolism and Expressionism, as exemplified by the trajectories of Ibsen and Strindberg, and likewise O’Neill or Williams himself.  

This applies not only to the content, form and dialogue of Streetcar but also to the staging and acting style. In regard to the latter, the issue is complicated by the interpretation given to Stanislvaski’s theory of acting by his American followers in the so-called ‘Method’ school: in particular its founder Lee Strasberg and most famous practitioner Elia Kazan, who went on to direct both the first stage production and the film of Streetcar (both starring Brando), and who subsequently become one of the most influential directors not only of Williams but in American theatre and cinema history.

In brief: Stanslavski taught acting as an autonomous art-form with a scientific focus on penetrating and abandoning surface-effects in order to seek, understand and apply the underlying laws of character and performance. The Method in contrast had (and still has) a more subjective focus on the actor rather than the character, in particular focussing on Stanislavski’s early technique of ‘emotional memory’ (which he later abandoned). Significantly, the Method’s version of emotional memory is more about the actor delving into their own past in order to connect with the material, whereas for Stanslavski it was a more universally human process of empathy with the ‘given circumstances’ of the character and the play. As such, the Method obviously lends itself to the medium of cinema – especially in its Hollywood version which focuses on the personality of the ‘star’ – and more generally to the American ideology of the (typically masculine) individual in (usually) his primal struggle against the collective. This theme is of course dear to Kazan, both in his films (On the Waterfront being the outstanding example) and in his life (most notoriously in his cooperation with the anti-communist House Committee on Un-American Activities).

In the case of Streetcar, Kazan’s macho individualism emphasised a superficially stylistic version of naturalism and critically shifted the emphasis from Blanche to Stanley. This is especially the case in the film version, where the focus on Brando totally (and literally) overshadows and upstages Vivienne Leigh in terms of focus and sympathy. Ironically, this distorts the form and content of the play, in which the ‘naturalism’ (in a more profound sense) of Stanley highlights the more dreamlike, symbolic and even expressionist figure of Blanche – whose emblematic proclamation, ‘I don’t want realism!’, might serve as a motto for the playwright. Indeed I’d go so far as to argue that – in terms of the underlying libidinal economy of his uniquely autobiographical oeuvre – Blanche can be seen (and could be played) as a drag version of Williams himself. Beyond this, one might point to the use of highly stylized language (especially by Blanche); the ‘dream-play’-like structure and content of the scenes (which seem to fade in and out, in a floating and increasingly continuous succession); and the stage directions regarding character, setting, music, sound and lighting (most notably the hallucinatory voices and shadows that are described in the final scenes) – all of which locates us more and more inside Blanche’s consciousness.

The most striking aspect of the Black Swan production is the looming set by Christina Smith and chiaroscuro lighting by Matt Scott, together seamlessly weaving an appropriately Symbolist world. As Blanche says in the opening scene, ‘Only Mr Edgar Allen Poe could do it justice!’ My only reservation concerned the prominence and heightened visibility of the upstairs apartment, which drew focus and diminished its potential as a mysterious site of unseen sexual enjoyment and violence. Ben Collins’s music and sound design likewise cast a continuous and delirious spell of classical New Orleans jazz (especially his steamy, brooding Duke Ellington-like ‘jungle’ arrangements). I was less convinced by his periodic onstage appearances playing the sax, which similarly seemed to undermine the potency of the offstage world.

In general, the staging and performances made a fair fist but didn’t quite succeed in capturing for me the swooning, overheated, dissipated, decadent and dangerous Southern Gothic atmosphere and rhythms of the play; and it’s this ambience that crucially mediates between the play’s Naturalistic origins and Symbolist/Expressionist leanings.

As for individual performances: Luke Hewitt stood out for me with a truthful, touching, funny and ultimately tragic portrayal of Mitch. His scenes with Blanche were the heart and soul of the production. Opposite him, Sigrid Thornton is a compelling presence throughout, navigating us through the play’s (and her character’s) twists and turns with riveting charisma and skill. My only reservation here was that her Blanche seemed a little too direct and sure of herself, in contrast with the fluttering ‘moth’ described by Williams in the stage directions. Conversely, Nathaniel Dean’s Stanley seemed a little indirect and unsure of himself at times, in contrast with the playwright’s description of his ‘animal’ physicality and emotional energy. This imbalance left Jo Morris’s capable Stella with an unclear role in the central triangle of the play: more like a stronger older sister to Blanche than a victim in her own right.

This leads me to the crux of my disagreement with the overall tone and emphasis of this production. For me, Streetcar is a much darker play, in which ‘desire’ is a corrupted, warped and morbid thing that ultimately damages and destroys men and women alike. As such, it’s distinct from love; we catch a glimpse of the latter in Mitch’s feelings for his mother and (at least potentially) Blanche – who seems fleetingly to recognise this in her enigmatic line at the end of the scene when they kiss: ‘Sometime’s – there’s God – so quickly!’ Otherwise, in a very real sense, Streetcar is a play about sexual violence and indeed predation. The offstage fighting upstairs; Stanley and Stella’s co-dependency, in which abuse and beating is habitually followed by sexual gratification; Stanley’s use of humiliation and ultimately rape in order to subjugate Blanche; and even Blanche’s own predilection for having sex with minors – all are links in a perverse chain or dance, like the polka that Blanche can’t get out of her mind. This mechanism is what ultimately drives Williams’s ‘naturalistic’ fatalism. Underlying it is of course the social oppression of one group by another in terms of gender, class, culture, skin-colour or sexuality, and the way this oppression gets transmitted and translated from one generation or group to the next. Hence the unspeakable secret of homosexuality and the underlying climate of homophobia in Streetcar and his other plays.

Nevertheless, whether at the hands of Elia Kazan or with Kate Cherry at the helm, it’s a gripping three hours of theatre, and Black Swan has done it proud.


A Streetcar Named Desire has an extended season now closing on 11th April.

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