Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Postcard from Perth 26

Remembrance of Things Past

Black Swan The House on the Lake/WASO Mahler Ninth Symphony

Anamnesis – the process of remembering what we already know – is a technique as old as philosophy itself. For Plato, it was the process by which the soul remembered knowledge gleaned from previous incarnations; in Christian liturgy, it became the ritual remembrance of Christ’s passion, resurrection and ascension; in secular medicine, the patient’s narration of their own history; for Freud, the return of the repressed to consciousness.

As a theatrical device, anamnesis is as old as Oedipus. The latter is also the first detective story: a symbolic re-enactment of the primordial murder-mystery, according to Freud. In Plato, Christianity, medicine or psychoanalysis, the uncovering of the truth through anamnesis is a restorative process that leads to enlightenment, wisdom, healing or even salvation. In Greek tragedy, however, and its successors – from Seneca and Shakespeare to contemporary crime fiction and film noir – the remembrance of things past brings justice, but also further suffering.

Last week I saw and heard two works using anamnesis as a central technique and even a structural device: Black Swan’s production of Aidan Fennessy’s new play The House on the Lake and WASO’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. If the symphony properly deserves to be called ‘tragic’ in the sense alluded to above (even if the performance perhaps didn’t entirely plumb the work’s depths), the play fell far short of being a tragedy (despite the admirable seriousness of intent and intensity of focus given to it by the production team). To compare Fennessy with Mahler might seem invidious; but perhaps the comparison can reveal something about the role of anamnesis in artistic construction – and perhaps even in the process of production.


The House on the Lake is the second new work this year to be programmed in the Studio Underground as part of the Black Swan Lab initiative, following Chris Isaac’s Flood (reviewed in a previous Postcard back in February).

The Lab is designed as a collaborative venture between established and emerging artists currently associated with the company. In this case, the show is directed by Black Swan associate director Stuart Halusz (here making his professional directorial debut with the company) and designed by emerging artist India Mehta (who also designed Flood), with a lighting design by Black Swan regular Trent Suidgeest and sound design by emerging artist Brett Smith. The cast consists of Kenneth Ransome, an established artist and regular with the company, and Marthe Rovik, who originally trained and worked in Norway, here making her Black Swan debut after appearing last year in a production of Hedda Gabler at The Blue Room. Aidan Fennessy is of course an established writer whose play The National Interest was programmed by the company in 2012. The House on the Lake was commissioned by Black Swan and developed by Playwriting Australia.

Let me say straight out that I think the Black Swan Lab is a fantastic initiative by a major theatre company attempting to bridge the chasm in Perth (and elsewhere) between established and emerging artists – and more generally between ‘mainstage’ and ‘independent’ theatre. I should add that I don’t mean ‘chasm’ in terms of quality but chiefly in terms of resources. Around the country there’s no dearth of emerging and independent artists with talent, skills, energy and vision – the problem is that money and infrastructure are desperately lacking for them to develop and consolidate their work, in comparison with the ongoing funding and corporate sponsorship available to the major organisations. Funding cuts to the Australia Council recently announced in the Federal budget (and paralleled at State level, most egregiously in Queensland) exacerbate this structural imbalance, as major organisations are relatively protected in comparison with small-to-medium companies, independent artists and projects (which must bear the brunt of the cuts). So it falls to the major organisations themselves to bridge the chasm by lowering the drawbridge, so to speak, to those currently outside the castle walls; and this inclusiveness can only be of artistic benefit to the mainstage companies themselves.

It’s perhaps ironic then that the strengths of The House on Lake reside in its creative team while the weaknesses lie in its structural – and primarily textual – foundations. Full marks go to India Mehta’s hauntingly toned, carefully degraded and impeccably detailed set: a fading green-hued hospital room complete with peeling walls, stained and cracked tile floors, and mesh-guarded windows of translucent glass, beyond which leafless trees press and beckon. This ensemble is dynamically lit by Trent Suidgeest with an appropriately flickering logic that tells its own disjointed story, accompanied by the equally unpredictable fluctuations of Brett Smith’s soundscape.

Placed in this stylishly executed environment, the two performers struggle to inhabit or flesh out their cripplingly schematic roles. Everything is in the service of plot, genre, mood and atmosphere; and alas, none of these are remotely original, fully realised or even rigorously thought-through. The play itself has the sense of an exercise, owing a painfully obvious debt to amnesia-whodunit films-noirs like Christopher Nolan’s Memento. In fact it borrows heavily from the latter – an unreliable protagonist suffering from anterograde amnesia, a murdered wife, a set-up involving a change of clothes with the intended suspect, etc – without any of the film’s structural cleverness (chiefly the reverse chronology) which alone made it remotely interesting (at least as a film).

In comparison The House on the Lake fails as a play not only because its dramatic structure founders in the no-man’s-land between a conventional sequence of scenes and the dramatic unity that might be achieved by a single act unfolding in real time and punctuated only by lapses in the protagonist’s short-term memory (a structure which might have been interesting if sustained). It also – and more crucially – fails because the characters lack any credible depth or compelling dynamic between them. In short: nothing happens onstage except that the ‘truth’ about what ‘really happened’ is predictably yet randomly (and rather implausibly) revealed.

Faced with this almost insurmountable challenge, Ransome at least invested his character with a convincing vulnerability, which however (and rather unconvincingly) gave way as the pressures of plot began to mount. Meanwhile Rovik (who gave us a fiercely adamantine Hedda at The Blue Room last year) struggled to be more than functional in a hopelessly underwritten role as a ‘doctor of psychology’ who is supposedly assigned to uncover the truth – and supposedly does so after entering a rather unlikely labyrinth. As for Halusz: I felt this play was a thankless task for an emerging director and (for his sake and the playwright’s) should not have been programmed in its current state of development, if at all.

Once again this raises questions for me about the whole process of commissioning, developing and programming new work, at least as habitually practised by major theatre companies. Perhaps there’s something inherently problematic and even arse-about in the conventional sequence by which a playwright is (first) commissioned to write something which (then) goes through a stage of dramaturgical development (possibly through a separate organisation or with individuals who may have nothing to do with the eventual production) and (then) gets programmed (possibly well in advance of the play itself being ready) before (finally) being assigned a creative team and cast.

No matter how individually talented or experienced the people involved in this chain of production, it seems to me to miss the crucially collaborative process by which theatre is made by a consistent team or company of artists, including the playwright. The latter incidentally is the development model adopted by most independent ensembles. Mainstage companies more often than not merely commission writers or employ artists on a piece-meal basis and hope for the best. These are hardly ideal conditions for new work to come to fruition. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why it's so much ‘safer’ for mainstage companies to opt for established or ‘classic’ plays instead.

It’s not however how Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov or Brecht (to name a few) produced those same ‘classic’ plays. Like most ‘independent’ writers today, they wrote for (or were key members of) their own (or their own chosen) theatre companies. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why they wrote such good plays, and why paradoxically we still perform them today.


Mahler’s final completed symphony was written after the death of his four-year old daughter in 1907 and the simultaneous diagnosis of his own fatal heart disease. Death haunted Mahler all his life and permeates his works, from the funeral march in the slow movement of the 1st Symphony to the Songs on the Death of Children (the composition of which Mahler retrospectively blamed for his own loss four years later). He even claimed to have cheated death by surreptitiously writing his ninth symphony without naming it as such in the form of the symphonic song cycle The Song of The Earth (Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner's ninth symphonies all being their last). 

Nevertheless, the wordless presence of death is imminent throughout the Ninth Symphony proper. The faltering rhythm of the opening motif mimics Mahler’s irregular heartbeat; and the descending three notes of the main theme quote the opening motif of Beethoven’s sonata Les Adieux (‘Farewell’). They also echo the falling notes of the final sung phrase ‘Ewig, ewig’ (‘forever, forever’) at the end of The Song of the Earth - the last movement of which is also entitled Der Abschied (‘the farewell’). As for the last movement of the symphony, its elegiac main theme recalls the famous hymn ‘Abide With Me’; in its closing moments, it repeats a line from one of the Songs on the Death of Children; and the last note is marked in the score to be played ersterbend (‘as if dying away’). Some of these features were elucidated in a pre-concert talk by musicologist and Jungian analyst Sally Kester, who outlined what she described as the work’s ‘emotional program’.

This sense of ‘farewell’ is not only personal but also cultural and historical. After the blows of 1907, Mahler had resigned from the Opera and left Vienna for New York (although he returned for the summer to finish The Song of the Earth and begin the Ninth Symphony). Among the group of admirers who gathered to farewell him at the station were the composers Schoenberg, Webern and Zemlinsky, the conductor Bruno Walter and the painter Gustav Klimt – his musical and artistic heirs. Klimt is said to have murmured as the train pulled away: ‘It’s over.’ He said more than he knew.

The Ninth Symphony is not just Mahler’s swansong but a lament for the passing of an era, perhaps even an entire civilisation. It stands on the cusp between late romanticism and early modernism – in particular the musical expressionism of Richard Strauss and the early Schoenberg, but perhaps especially the work of Schoenberg’s disciple Alan Berg (whose music is also haunted by death). Berg is anticipated above all in the sardonic folk-dance rhythms of the second movement and the grotesque humour of the third movement’s rondo burlesque. Beneath it all, as in Kafka’s work, one hears the approach of something inhuman, and feels the irresistible undertow of impending historical catastrophe.

Crucial to the emotional and technical progression of the symphony as a whole is the effect of things remembered: feelings, thoughts, melodic and rhythmic fragments, musical forms and structures – both endogenous to the work itself and from other sources - which change their meaning and become transfigured by the process of memory itself. In this Mahler has as much in common with that other great early modernist Proust (whose use of anamnesis equally spans both personal, cultural and historical dimensions) as he does with Kafka. This is illustrated by the anecdote (divulged by Mahler during his brief analysis with Freud) about the composer’s childhood memory of fleeing the house during an argument between his parents and encountering an organ-grinder in the street playing a banal popular tune; or the similar (almost Chekhovian) experience towards the end of his life of overhearing the muffled drumbeat from a fireman’s funeral through the window of his apartment in New York and incorporating the sound into his unfinished Tenth Symphony. Fragments of a life cut short and a world in ruins are redeemed and made whole through memory. Nowhere is this process of transfiguration more apparent than in listening to the Ninth Symphony.

WASO’s new chief conductor Asher Fisch confidently led the orchestra to new heights in this monumental work (the symphony lasts for about ninety minutes, and occupied the entire duration of the concert without an interval). I’ve never heard the strings in particular sound better, especially in the extended lament that stretches across the final movement (marked ‘very slow and held-back’), highlighted by spellbinding solo work once again from acting concertmaster Paul Wright and guest principal viola Paul McMillan. If anything, I missed only some of the work’s more anguished and tumultuous depths; Fisch and the orchestra seemed more temperamentally inclined to explore the sunlight on the heights and the serenity of the Elysian fields than the darkness that continually threatens without and within. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to hear their forthcoming Beethoven cycle together. It promises to be a grand journey.

Mahler, incidentally, as a conductor of his own work was known to change his orchestration in rehearsals, in response to what happened on the floor. It’s harder to imagine that being possible today in the industrial mode of production common to orchestras or opera houses. Again, perhaps this indicates that something’s been lost in the process; another argument in favour of ‘the remembrance of things past’.


The House on the Lake closes on June 22.

WASO’s Beethoven symphony cycle conducted by Asher Fisch is from August 22–24 and 29–31.

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