Sunday, September 04, 2011
Baby Swims by Pants
There are only about five reasons to stay in this country that taste overlooked and at least three of them have something to do with Tim Winton. Cloudstreet is a monument. Dirt Music is an anthem. And Breath? I call that a reason to keep sucking up copious quantities of oxygen and recklessly expelling Co2 without the slightest consideration for the environmental consequences. So you know I'm already a devotee. Winton is Sondheim without the songs - and you don't even notice that there are no songs.
My recent kulcha long weekend in Melbourne was packed with gourmet mindfood but Rising Water was the Beluga moment. This is Tim Winton's first play. It seems crazy that he hasn't written one before. His gift for dialogue, matched with the largely uncontested space of contemporary Australian playwriting, seems like an open goal. That thought made me quite sad, not least of all for Tim Winton. Now I'm not only gasping for his next book but his next play as well. I'm thinking I'm not the only one and that Helen Garner should take up playwriting.
I saw a London production of Cloudstreet at The Barbican, five or six years ago. It was astonishing. Winton has an exceptional intuition for establishing a commonality of experience in even the most banal and localised of scenarios. Post-war Perth was instantly recognised in post-everything London. We were as easily drawn into the world of the Lambs and Pickles as we might have been to that of the Montagues and Capulets, the Hatfields and McCoys, the Campbells and MacDonalds or the Fowlers and Mitchells. Winton didn't write the script for the dramatisation of his novel but he did make it impossible to misinterpret. Like Dickens, he's a great literary dramatist. Once he puts words into a character's mouth, they're not easily revoked.
There are two happy consolations for the almost total invisibility of the performing arts in this country beyond a dim awareness of staged movement acquired solely through the cipher of So You Think You Can Dance. The most immediate and convenient is that it's never that difficult to acquire good tickets, even within a week or so of the show.
So, with a click of the increasingly abused mouse, Ms O'Dyne and I found ourselves in the front row, slightly right of centre. I like to be close to the stage so that I can see the expressions on the actors' faces. Just on that subject, this is the third time in succession I've found a conveniently spectacular sole pair of premium stalls seats and no others available and had a 'mmm' moment before committing my credit card. And each time I've bought the tickets and ended up with great seats in a full theatre. Either this is a highly sophisticated selective selling system or I'm a very lucky theatregoer indeed.
The second reason has something to do with the first. Film and television actors have to supplement their livelihoods with theatre work in order to keep body and soul from drifting apart. The core cast of Rising Water is a trio of superb Australian actors capable of appreciating Winton's intent. He is a chronicler of an experience which is largely defined by a very narrow vocabulary of cliches. Australians don't like it when they hear them, but, if they disappeared from plays and films and television shows, we would not recognise ourselves. In everything Winton does, he disciplines his ideas into this highly specific vernacular.
I'd like to dwell on this problem for a moment as I wonder whether it may be restricting playwriting in this country and that Winton might be the only writer with the skill and nerve to use this severe constraint to his advantage. Film-makers usually cop out by supplementing the cast with an American or European star and blaming it on investor pressure. But what they're really looking for is an outsider character who'll not only toss in copious question marks (what? you really think that? Blimey/Holy cow/Mon dieu!), but provide some much-needed relief to the relentless register of Strine. Australians are not much given to critical self-reflection either and Winton does use a catalyst in the form of a drunk and disgruntled English backpacker to pop a few challenging social questions, but you know it isn't because he really needs to. There's not much coherence in her skinful bellicosity and norf London ain't much relief from Strine.
Good dramatists trap characters in circumstance and allow their pasts to catch up with them. It is in that moment that a great play takes place. Its business is crisis and how it's dealt with. Will the character overcome his/her predicament or be destroyed by it?
It's Australia Day and Baxter, (John Howard) is asleep on the stern of his tiny, dilapidated yacht moored in Fremantle, Western Australia. He's woken by Col, (Geoff Kelso) returning to his own wreck with a slab of lager and a bottle of rum. It is after all, the day on which Australians 'drink vast amounts of beer and get sunstroke and run screaming through the streets with the flag pouring off their shoulders like a super-hero's rippling cape while they go after wogs and slopes and towel-head reffos.'
Shortly thereafter, the non-drinking Jackie, (Alison Whyte) returns to her boat from what we later learn is a professional trip, changes out of her suit and into sweats and makes herself a cuppa. Already we know that these three Australians at least have an uneasy relationship with their national day. They are three people, parked so close they can step from boat to boat, on the cusp of emptiness, like a bizarre reversal of a boat-people tragedy. Except they can never escape. Whether through lack of time, sea-worthiness, or nerve, these three are tethered to their fates.
We are not sea people by way of being great mariners, but more a coastal people on the edge of things. We live by the sea not simply because it is more pleasant to a lazy nation but because ... the sea is more forthcoming; its miracles and wonders are occasionally more palatable, however inexplicable they may be. There is more bounty, more possibility for us in a vista that moves, rolls, surges, twists, rears up, changes from minute to minute. The innate feeling from the veranda is that if you look out to sea long enough, something will turn up. (Land's End, quoted in programme).
This really is what Australia is all about - unfulfilled promise, unmet longing and incomplete journeys. And these three have failure in their pasts, none more so than Baxter. As a former head teacher in a secondary school, he set up a project for pregnant students and found himself dangerously embroiled in the personal life of one particular girl. For this he paid dearly. Australians despise success and failure in equal measure. If you want to get on with people, your best bet is to avoid both fame and notoriety.
The staging is clever with the boats set out on a reflective surface and mounted on some kind of mechanism so that they bob about when people move. And we, the audience, are in the sea. We are the sea. We represent the unknown, the mysterious, the longing. I rather liked that. We undulate. We have secrets of our own and we are, of course, dangerous.
The three yachts are called Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. (Winton fully exploits the opportunities for sight gags - there's also a fish in the sky and kite in the sea to remind us of where we are). Those who recall their Sunday school lessons will recognise the reference to Psalm 23, much beloved of classical composers and rappers. 'My cup runneth over' becomes a statement of grand irony. Here in this land of plenty, there is crippling emotional want. Australians are not stifled by a prohibition on free expression but rather by an inability to articulate it. Never is this more obvious than on Australia Day when no one can work out what it is they feel, much less put it into words.
Psalm 23 is also commonly used in funeral liturgies and Rising Water is about death. It's there in the title, after all. Winton has a bit of a fascination with drowning and hanging too. He uses the Chekhovian device of introducing an instrument of death in the first act. Baxter tries to tie a noose knot and can't but then produces a 'here's one I made earlier' and strings it around his neck. But, in the end, after poor ailing Shirley is scuttled by the drunk backpacker, he strikes out into the open sea in a row boat.
Reviewers seem to have been confused by the intermittent appearance of a young, unnamed boy in a row boat. This is the youthful Baxter. (People really do need to brush up on their Shakespeare.) By choosing drowning over hanging in the end, Baxter absolves himself of any guilt for what he might have done but clearly didn't and also reconnects with his young, hopeful self.
The reviews for this play haven't been universally warm, despite Winton's official 'national treasure' status. It's quite obvious that a lot of people haven't picked up on the multiple layers of meaning. This is a clever play and Winton manages to open several important lines of enquiry about our fragile national identity and the anxieties that so easily threaten it and the narrow frame of cultural reference in which we inexplicably choose to confine ourselves. It certainly gave me plenty to think about. Can't wait for his Anzac Day play.
Rising Water, The Playhouse, Melbourne until 10th September.