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The Serpent's Teeth | Sydney Theatre Company
Written by lloyd bradford (brad) syke   
Friday, 25 April 2008 19:37
The Serpent’s Teeth | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft - STC Actors Company in Soldiers. Cover - Eden Falk, Ewen Leslie & Luke Mullins in Citizens. Photos - Brett Boardman

If the appointment of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton as co-Artistic Directors of the STC has anything to do with the quality of the current production of Daniel Keene’s The Serpent’s Teeth, then it is the highest possible testimony to the wisdom of that choice.

Of course, it’s highly and tragically likely that Daniel Keene is less well-known to most Australians than Daniel Boone, or, for that matter ‘Booney’, yet he’s a multi-award winning playwright, who’s written for the stage for three solid decades. The even greater irony is his success elsewhere has been such that a North American or European might well say ‘oh, yeah!’ before most of us. But don’t get me started on who and what we celebrate in this country (let alone why), which still, all too often, proves itself to be a relative and relatively vast cultural desert.

A bit of history. The STC Actors Company was formed a couple of years ago, by invitation. If the STC is Toyota, its AC is the Lexus. A dozen top-notchers who kicked off with Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’ and who haven’t put a foot wrong since. Eight seasons later, this magnificent seven, plus five, still rehearses almost every day. No wonder they work so remarkably, side-by-side.

The Serpent’s Teeth was commissioned, ‘specially, for this extra-special ensemble. There was no curtain. We walked into a wall. A foreboding, insurmountably high, bleak, grey wall. Indeed, it takes the idea of the fourth wall a stage further, since it is from behind this wall that we see the action of the first of two plays which comprise The Serpent’s Teeth (Citizens & Soldiers).

With composer and sound designer Paul Charlier’s rumbling score cuing the mood, in perfect synergy with Robert Cousins set & Nick Schlieper’s brilliantly measured lighting, on walks John Gaden, as old Rasid, pushing his heavily laden barrow, along the impossibly long road to peace. The only real life, besides the little that still resides in him and his reticent grandson, Tariq, played by John Denyer (and Narek Armaganian), is in the spritely, tenacious olive tree he’s taking to the next village, to exchange for an orange tree. His willingness to extend the olive branch, as it were, is deeply affecting, as his reluctant, awkward, but, nonetheless, genuine care and concern for Tariq. At one point, Tariq seeks to assume the mantle and burden of his aging grandfather’s load, but the old man cautions ‘it’s too heavy’. Such is the inheritance of a war torn, consternated world.

Citizens is all about survival. The containment of the wall defines the borders of their lives. What is above? What is beyond? Only ‘the other’. The real battle is against resentment, fear and loathing. No-one needs a bullet to feel the insidious, burning pain of conflict & division; the isolation; the emptiness. These people are already haemorraghing; beyond merely bruised. As a not even thinly veiled metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian nexus, it works wonders. Even the most sceptical and removed will be almost inevitably reshaped by the epiphany of seeing through foreign eyes made our own.

Peter Carroll’s masterfully realised Basim, too, is old, crabby and funny. His daughter, Hayah, played by Hayley McElhinney, trails him, dutifully and compassionately, holding aloft an impossibly optimistic bright yellow brolly, to shade her father from the rigours of the sun, as they make their way, with strange, determined gait, to Basim’s estranged brother’s funeral. Basim hasn’t spoken to his brother for 27 years, but, ‘news of a death is an invitation’. Indeed, this line invites and beckons one of the principal themes of both plays: news of death is an invitation; but to do what? Basim matter-of-factly, but not coldly, acknowledges his differences with his ‘hateful’ brother, but feels for him, inasmuch as there proves to be too few at his graveside. Is the invitation to lie down and die also, outwardly or inwardly? Or to soldier on; perhaps the awareness of emptiness is ‘enough’? Hayah’s umbrella raises the possibility of redemption; of overcoming fate, misfortune and, even, death itself. The soul, no matter how grim the circumstance, is still capable of upliftment and must always aspire to it. There is a way over the wall, for the wall can only be built inside us. Tear it down and we demolish all its earthly replicas. But let’s not get too pseudo-religious. Or hopeful. There’s plenty more blackness to come!

At Basim’s behest, Hayah gives her offending umbrella to a bereft, passing stranger, Habib (Brandon Burke), who then has a much-needed and sought gift for his sister’s birthday (one’s trash, another’s treasure). Along the way, he happens upon Safa (Amber McMahon), struggling with her sedated Alsatian-in-a-box. He changes direction entirely, succumbing to assisting her with her burden, as they go down the road together. Again, Keene enthusiastically points to the everyday, mundane possibility of redemption; the redemption of small favours, courtesies, gestures and kindnesses. Keene himself says: ‘everyday life doesn’t stop to make room for the violence of war’; it must continue, as best it can.

I could detain you all day, describing the richness, humanity and nuances of each and every character. Equally, I could wax, in some case lyrically, about the cohesive performances, from those already mentioned, to those, also, of Eden Falk, Ewen Leslie, Luke Mullins, Emily Russell, Steve Le Marquand, Marta Dusseldorp and Pamela Rabe (who also directed Citizens). All are more than competent. All pull in the viewer, enabling him, or her, to see through the eyes of the character; to hear with his, or her, ears; to feel, with his, or her, heart.

Likewise, I could happily labour and pore over the finer points of technical delivery, whether in the aforementioned, or, say, the costumes of Tess Schofield, which completed a convincing picture.

Directors (the other was Tim Maddock) & crew that understand the power of minimalist aesthetics are always and ever, for mine, a Godsend. When the insistent drone of a Black Hawk rose to a deafening crescendo and the lights levitated over the wall, blindingly ablaze, then sound and light ceased, there was drama. And how often does one see real drama in the theatre, these days? In the news, sure! But the theatre?

Soldiers brought it all back home, with bereaved relatives loitering, by turns, in a cold, dark, empty aircraft hangar, waiting for a belated plane from Baghdad, carrying the remains of their husband, son, or brother. Observing the tortures and torments of those left behind is, of course, almost as bloody and destructive as the weapons that tore the deceased apart. Regret and guilt are, after all, the real killers. As with Citizens, only perhaps even moreso, the writing here is razor-sharp, remarkably and memorably profound; at times, ravishingly beautiful. There is stylistic homage, in cadences and richness of expressive language, to Shakespeare. Space is allowed, too, for soliloquies. There are numerous moments of ‘ooh-ah!’ ‘Any man is lost if he moves too far from what he loves’ was but one of mine. I know it’s good if I wish I’d written it and am jealous of he, or she, who did; who’s capable of such words, consummate characterisation, revelatory structure. I know it’s good if it runs for nigh-on two-and-a-half hours, but yields no awareness of time passing. I know it’s good. It’s better than good.

It’s extraordinary!


Sydney Theatre Company presents The STC Actors Company in
THE SERPENT’S TEETH
Two new plays by Daniel Keene
CITIZENS and SOLDIERS

Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Opening Night: 24 april at 8pm
Season: Friday 25 April – Saturday 17 May
Evenings: Tuesdays – Saturdays 8pm
Twilights: Mondays 6.30pm
Matinees: Wednesdays 1pm, Saturdays 2pm
Night With Actors: Monday 12 May 6.30pm
Bookings: STC box office (02) 9250 1777 | SOH box office (02) 9250 7777 |
sydneytheatre.com.au/serpent
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Comments (22)

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Brad,

your review is smart, passionate and a very well-observed response, for what (as yuo say) might well be a hint of yet to come from the new artistic leadership.

Andrew Upton, on the night, was particularly delighted that Keene was at last to be seen on a mainstage in Sydney. He knew it was a meaningful move.

Even if it is still technically Nevin's last season, the minimalist staging is very likely part of the new regime's commitment to taking the STC to a new place. I think we will be seeing a greater focus on writing and acting and directing - and indeed fine staging! But no more staging and design excess in the form of uneccessary and costly sumptuousnessness.

The opening night crowd had a fresh buzz of youthful energy to it. That was exciting too. Some of us oldies felt we were rather lucky to still be on the invite list, but also thrilled to feel the groundswell of a very talented new generation coming to the fore.

Well done mate.
James Waites , April 27, 2008
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Hi Brad

Having read your review, I think we must have been at a different play.

Citizens was dull, pretentious and boring. Somewhere along the line, "entertainment" was overlooked completely. Pretty fundamental if you wish to engage with a live audience. It was worse than watching paint dry - I personally felt robbed.

Soldiers was better, and the stage set atmospheric, however this also was pretty slow theatre. Notwithstanding the very serious nature of the subject matter, I found it difficult to empathise with any of the characters and was pleased when it finished. If this is as good as it gets, I would say its time for the STC to dust of their CV's.

A hugely disappointing evening.
Barbara Hutton , April 28, 2008
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I only get to Sydney once or twice a year, and so only see what happens to be on at the time. This time round I feel very fortunate to have been in town for ?The Serpent?s Teeth?.

I can understand (thought I do not share) Barbara Hutton?s feelings about ?Citizens?. Personally I found it fascinating. I knew nothing about the play before I walked into the theatre. Now, Palestine happens to be one of my areas of particular interest (I?ve been there three times in the last five years, and have had experiences similar to those that occur in the play). So it grabbed me from the moment I walked in and saw the set ? I thought, ?Right, well I think I can guess what this is going to be about!?

So for me it was fascinating. But from the muttered conversations during the performance of those siting around me, and the overheard conversations at interval, many of the audience seemed not to ?get it?.

I do think that for the ?average? audience member, ?Citizens? is hard work. I think the audience (note, NOT the play, but the audience) could have done with a bit more help directorially. In the absence of ?plot?, it was surely necessary to shape the work emotionally, to take the audience on an emotional journey (as opposed to a narrative one). The production did not so this, content to let the moments speak (or not) for themselves.

The second play, ?Soldiers?, is a very beautiful thing indeed. For all that it is Spartan, it is moved and staged beautifully. And it is very moving. I felt drawn into it. No, I felt embraced by it.

As I said, I am only an occasional visitor to the Emerald City these days, and frankly I find a lot of Sydney theatre very worrying. There seems to be a coolness about so much of it, a detachedness, a ?wanna-be European-ness? about it. ?The Serpent?s Teeth? (and ?Soldiers? in particular) was heartening: warm-blooded, intelligent, artful, engaged, and unashamed about being any of these things.
Rob Jarman , April 28, 2008
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I have been seldom so moved by a work of theatre. I was certainly never bored: it went by so fast I was surprised when it finished. Entertainment is a subjective thing, I suppose.
Sarah Winchester , April 28, 2008
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Fascinating comments all round. Rob is right: there were very mixed reactions from the audience - certainly on opening night. While(above)I was clearly impelled to congrat you, Brad, on your writing; I was among those who wrestled with the two works at several levels.

It's interesting that among those who were not universally delighted or unersally bored, some preferred one play over the other.

While the so-called 'average' punter with mixed feelings preferred the longer second play to the first; many among the congnoscenti (including John McCallum at the Australian) have vastly preferred the first, supposedly for it's more coherent structure.

I liked much about both and had problems with both. For me, the first was crushed somewhat by the shadow of Beckett; and the second just goes on and on beating he same drum. Or is the first a homage and the second a ritual chant?

I certainly think Daniel Keene's work takes some getting used to - and, having seen so little in Sydney, it difficult to form a set opinion.

While some of the writing is dazzlingly distilled, I felt some of the more high-flown sentences were really quite clunky. "Hammer my tears on the anvil of your blood", I thought at the time was ridicuous. Perhaps "anvil of my bones" - something solid! Yet, the more I look at the sentence in print the more I like it - so who knows?

That Keene is an original and challenging voice is indisputable. Is it without flaws? Are the structures original - or faulty? Or both?

That the images have stayed with me for days and that I feel I need to remain engaged in the work through this discussion, suggests the works have had a bigger impact on me than perhaps I would like to think.

Let the debate continue: at least it's s debate worth having.
james_waites , April 29, 2008
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I also thoroughly enjoyed this production, but can we just set the record straight? This production was commissioned and the scripts developed under the artistic directorship of Robyn Nevin. It is part of the 2008 season, which is entirely hers. The actors chosen for the current Actors Company were all chosen by her. The Actors Company itself is entirely her creation. Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton have made choices for Wharf2Loud but, with the exception of the Blanchett vehicle of "Streetcar Named Desire" for next year, there is no indication yet of what plays they may select or commission. No doubt they will make some exciting choices, but that will be for 2009. I'm surprised someone has savvy as James Waites isn't clear about this.
John Harrigan , April 30, 2008
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Hi James

I'm intrigued by the discussion! Daniel's work has always sharply divided audiences. It's never going to please everybody; it demands things that not everyone is prepared to give, and they have every right to refuse. Nothing is compulsory in art.

For my part, I thought the production a beautiful realisation of those very challenging texts, but clearly I have some familiarity with them. (For those who don't know, Daniel is my husband).

To get specific: the line that intrigues you makes poetic sense in its context. But it's unashamedly "high" language which perhaps audiences are not used to outside Shakespeare, and perhaps especially not in a play about ordinary Australian families:

My son calls me
and I answer him:
come home to me now,
bring your lost life
to grief?s foundry,
we?ll forge a meaning from it;
the hammer of my tears
on the anvil of your blood.

It is the labour that matters,
the shaping out of emptiness
the necessary presence of your death.

I hope you don't mind if I get a little technical in describing how I think it works, but I do know a little about poetry. The metaphor uses poetic paradox - transforming fluids like blood and tears into items that represent hardness. Paradox is a common poetic device that is used to generate tension and meaning and emotional affect (a common example is how Wordsworth makes the industrial city a thing of organic unity in the poem Composed upon Westminster Bridge). In this case, the language jams the fluidities and vulnerabilities of human emotion and flesh (blood, tears) against the emotional hardness of mourning, "grief's foundry", where the process of sorrow and the making of meaning are acts of conscious labour. The literal impossibility of the hardness of tears or blood grabs your attention, but it leads to an emotional truth - grief is hard. Which is why - imho, anyway - the line works.
Alison Croggon , April 30, 2008
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Hi Brad,

Apologies to Alison and those of you who enjoyed the Serpent's Teeth, but I wholeheartedly agree with Barbara. I found both plays slow, boring and pretentious. Like Barbara, I didn't really empathise with any of the characters who all seemed quite 'cold' and I struggled to stay awake - as did 5 other nearby members of the audience. Much of this criticism is self admonishing as we (4 regular members of the STC audience) are annoyed with ourselves for choosing to see it when we purchased our season tickets last year. But it was difficult to understand the type of play from the skeletal information provided in the STC's brochure.
I hope the other plays we have chosen are more entertaining!
Vee Ballard , April 30, 2008
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I was hoping to encourage a discussion on this production because I thought good would come from it - esp among Sydneysiders - who have seen so little of Keene's work. Much less talked about it.

John, I think am aware of where the decisions of Nevin stop and that of Glitter & Fluffy start - just as you outline them. Though I did wonder on this occason if they might have made an unofficial contribution to the decision to program this work. My comments to this effect were drawn from a passing conversion with Upton after the show where he expressed particular delight in Keene being seen in Sydney. Proper-like. At last!

And Alison welcome to you indeed. I read your words on the play/production on your own blog - and so should everyone else!! I was intending to comment there that is is not only appropriate but fantastic that you choose to make comment. As above, you are well placed to contribute.

You are certainly helping me over my bump!

In fact, I am now wondering if I did not fixate on of the evening's best lines? Why, otherwise, did it stick in my head?? It's very contrariness, the unlikely juxtaposition, is its strength. Your elaboration makes total sense. Laid out in context, the whole sequence reads beautifully.

It's possibly a matter of overall trust in an artist who wishes to take us nto unfamiliar territory. We may wish to quibble over this or that, it hardly maters: one reviewer goes this way or that, audience members responding - each to their own life experience, aesthetics and values.

But when work is new we have to feel safe in the hands of the pilot/artist. Yes, take me where you like, we say. Or no no - I'm not ready to go with you. We were a largely defensive audience on opening night. Perhaps a hard nut to crack. So there value, I presume - in an ensuing debate. If Mr Daniel Keene can't get us talking about matters concerning art and life over our lattes, we are surely a 'dead class'.

I wrote my first comment to complement Brad Sykes on his review because I sensed he 'read' these productions in quite a different way to me - and was accordingly rewarded with deeper insights. it is a good review, I am sure you agree Alison, that gets one thinking.

Anyways: I will go back and have another look and listen. Try and drop a few defences, perhaps. Isn't that first play about some problematic wall?? I guess being chicken won't get me to the other side - lol...
James Waites , April 30, 2008
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James, no doubt Upton is delighted. He has been handed a gift.
John Harrigan , April 30, 2008
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Hi Vee - no need to apologise for not liking something. I never do! Interesting, James. I know very little about Sydney audiences. From where I'm sitting, it looks like a series of differences about the vocabulary of form: these are not radical plays, when you look at 20th century playwriting, for instance, but they certainly don't conform to the established tenets of naturalistic plays, and I think this may alienate some people. And yes, Brad's review is corker. I always love reading engaged responses to work.

Just for the record, it was Robyn Nevin's invitation to Daniel that is responsible for the programming, so she should get full credit - or blame, as the case may be. And also the actor Dan Spielman, who introduced Citizens to the Actors Company in the first place. The first play was already written, and Robyn suggested the idea of a diptych and commissioned Daniel to write a second piece specifically for the Actors Company. She is also, in close consultation with Daniel, responsible for those directors. Andrew Upton has however been nothing but supportive, and I wouldn't be surprised to see more of Keene and Maddock at the STC.
Alison Croggon , April 30, 2008
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An interminable, awful night at the theatre. Poetry buffs will find plenty to feast on here, but anyone who cares about plot and action will be bored rigid.
Ham Jackson , May 01, 2008
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While I certainly don't feel as negative as Ham Jackson, I must say that I thought Pamela Rabe's direction of "citizens" was a test of our patience, with absurdly long pauses between each vignette. As a first-time director, I wonder how much help she got from the powers-that-be at STC?
Margaret D , May 02, 2008
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Not sure if anyone else want a say - but a very fruitful conversation all round.

Brad you have been elegantly silent???
James Waites , May 02, 2008
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The concept was fascinating, however Keene's execution left a lot to be desired. The characters in Citizens were engaging, but the play was rigid and lacked cohesiveness. Soldiers flowed much better, however I felt no emotional connection to the characters and their (long-winded) poetic rants only served to make the play more pretentious. Perhaps if Keene had make me care about the characters first, their words would have touched a chord.

You know a play isn't going down well when you see people flicking open their mobiles checking the time. One of my companions (a woman extremely well educated in the arts), upon hearing the plane arriving at the end of Soldiers, whispered, "Thank God the plane's arrived at last."

A good idea, but it missed the mark by a long way.
Jacinta Parke , May 03, 2008
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Mr Upton might be happy with the 'gift' of the play, John Harrigan. I wonder if he's a shappy with the box office 'gift'?
Theo Walmsley , May 05, 2008
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Well Theo you can't have it both ways--walk around the foyer on opening night taking credit for something you didn't do, but then run away from the challenge it presents to mainstream audiences...it's a learning curve...
John Harrigan , May 09, 2008
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My partner and I walked out 45 minutes into the first play. We are subscribers to the STC and regular theatre-goers, we read widely, we know quite a bit about "poetry" and "high language", we have seen many fine productions here and overseas, and I can tell you that Citizens was amongst the worst plays I have seen. The words chosen by others above - interminable, pretentious, boring - I agree with wholeheartedly. I could already tell when the play was introduced with 5 minutes of lugubrious noises before a brick wall, that we were in the presence of a master pseud. A little pretentiousness is not always a bad thing, but when it is combined with a complete absence of anything engaging, and a total po-faced absorption in its own self-importance without any trace of humour or irony, it is time to walk out of the theatre, and that is what we did.
Ross B , May 15, 2008
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Citizens was a perfect example of why plays should carry health warnings that caution intending audiences that the viewing of the product could lead to possibile brain collapse. I can only conclude that the first victim must have been the "author", who, despite having the entire English language at his disposal, chose voluntarily to present this pedestrian dross.

MH
mh , May 16, 2008
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Dead boring, tedious script, over-acted, depressing, just plain awful. A quarter of the audience did not come back for more torture after half time...they were the smart ones. It's enough to put you off live theatre from the STC.
graham , May 17, 2008
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I very seldom fail to applaud at the end of a play, because even if I loathe the play, I usually have to admire the acting. But this time my hands remained in my lap. I found nothing whatever to admire in the play, the direction was tedious in the first half and pointless in the second, and the actors should have had more sense than to appear in it.
Pat Shaw , May 19, 2008
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many people found Citizens disengaging , because we are saturated by main stream media that cover stories from the other side of the wall, its very courageous to approach it from different side to what people used to.
eyad bahadi , May 28, 2008

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