Left - "Puppets" – featuring Joanna Curteis as The Mother (foreground). Photo - Jeff Busby
In more sense than one, Hélène Cixous’ The Perjured City Or, The Awakening of the Furies has history pulsing through its veins. On the one hand, it takes an event from the recent past – the administration of contaminated blood samples to over four thousand patients, many of whom were children, in France in 1985 – and, on the other, filters it through a stylistic sieve of over five thousand years of theatrical form. The result – a four-and-a-half hour epic which sees twenty-three actors playing over thirty roles – is a fiercely poetic, politically indignant, and incredibly demanding piece of theatre.
The play opens in a cemetery – a city of lost and wounded souls – where a woman, the Mother (Joanna Curteis), mourns the death of her children who have received contaminated blood transfusions. She embarks upon a quest for justice, encouraged and assisted by the cemetery’s caretaker, the Greek poet and tragedist Aeschylus (Benedict Hardie), and Night (Ben Pfeiffer). They enlist the help of the ancient Furies, Megaera (Meredith Penman), Tisiphone (Anne-Louise Sarks) and Alecto (Joanne Trentini), who were last seen on stage a couple of millennia ago at the end of Aeschylus’ Eumenides. Awoken from their slumber by the great injustices of the modern world, the Furies wish to take punitive action on the doctors who knowingly distributed the contaminated blood. However, their bloody-minded conception of justice – among other things, they propose killing the doctors’ children – sits in striking contradistinction to the more nuanced and modest demands of the Mother. Defiantly opposed to seeing more blood spilt, she merely wishes to have her pain acknowledged, and for the doctors ask her forgiveness. Advised by their ever-present pack of gaunt-faced lawyers (Brendan McCallum and Cameron Moore) to do otherwise, the doctors in question (Grant Foulkes and Michael Wahr) flatly refuse on the grounds that doing so may incriminate them.
Meanwhile, in the city annexing the cemetery, the King (Gerard Lane) refuses to do anything about the scandal – much to the mortification of his Queen (Celia Mitchell) – reasoning that the cries for justice will blow over soon enough. When they don’t – and it’s obvious they won’t – l’affaire du sang contaminé develops into an important election issue. Sensing that an opportunity has been afforded him, the proto-fascist candidate, Forzza (Tim Potter), soon exploits the fear and indignation of the outraged populace, all the while scheming to do away with the cemetery once he has been brought to power.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on here, that’s probably because there is. I haven’t even mentioned some of the play’s best subplots, many of which are standalone scenes. The dreamlike journey of the two murdered children, Daniel (Ben Hjorth) and Benjamin (Stuart Bowden), whose spirits rise up to relieve their mother’s grief, is one of the most moving of the play’s narrative threads. The Kafkaesque (or is it Ionescoian?) scene in which the city’s medical fraternity decide to officially support the disgraced doctors whilst simultaneously ostracising the one member of their circle who refuses to do so on ethical grounds – tellingly, it’s the only woman among them, Professor Lion (Medereith Penman) – is another personal favourite. The play is epic in both its scope and intent, and is, at times, incredibly taxing on its audience. Written in often achingly beautiful language, reminiscent of Shakespeare among others, it requires long stretches of concentrated engagement, which it rewards with deep insight into, among other things, the human condition, the modern world, patriarchy, capitalism and – especially – theatre. In short, it is a mammoth undertaking, especially for a company of students.
Director Kirsten von Bibra’s production is not without its pratfalls. In addition to the usual opening night gaffes – some minor sound problems and a few missed cues – attempts to integrate the cast’s full skill set into the staging of the piece are not always successful. Certain scenes on the rigging, for example, have a tendency to come across as clumsy attempts to spice up otherwise dullishly performed dialogue scenes. One occasionally wonders if it’s entirely necessary for us to be reminded so often of the cast’s knowledge of the circus arts.
However, these are minor concerns when compared to what is, on the whole, a marvellously conceived, intelligently designed, and very well performed production. Von Bibra elicits from her student cast some impressive and, occasionally, deeply moving performances. Joanna Curteis’ Mother, for example, whose pained but unwavering call for justice remains at the heart of the piece throughout, is particularly impressive. Curteis, her rounded vowels and perfect diction somehow reminding me of Emma Thompson, captures in her posture and speech the quiet righteousness of the just, providing not only a moral but also a performative counterpoint to the Furies, who, primitive sirens fuelled by an almost erotic blood-lust and an archaic eye-for-an-eye morality, are performed with a certain comic ferociousness by Penman, Sarks and Trentini.
Perhaps the production’s most evocative performances, however, are those of Ben Hjorth and Stuart Bowden as the two Ezekiel brothers, Daniel and Benjamin. Hjorth and Bowden, wearing hooded grey tracksuits and singing their lines in emotionally raw plainsong, are charged with the task of manipulating the two wooden puppets which, with their strangely inherent pathos and awkward honesty of movement, become the two deceased children in the eyes of the audience. The sequences in which these puppets appear – particularly the final, incredibly moving, scene of the play – are among the most strikingly realised in the entire production. The energy lifts whenever they’re on stage and the marriage of elements during these scenes – the orchestration of music, design, lighting and performance – doesn’t get any better. The puppets are the handiwork of Lachlan Plain and Sarah Barrow.
Many of the production’s most memorable characters – if not always its most memorable performances – emerge as much out of Jessica Daly’s inventive costume designs, which telescope the traditional and the modern in much the same manner as the play itself, as they do from the pages of the text. Spiky-haired and bat-winged, Ben Pfeiffer’s softly spoken Night, like a less sprightly and more introspective Puck, is one part glam-rock, one part Goya. Tim Potter’s Forzza, with his black leather jacket, Aryan-blonde hair and faintly hysterical full-frontal delivery, affects the pose and style of what we might, for want of a better term, call fascist chic. Jeminah Reidy’s set – a circus ring draped in an asymmetrical lattice of blood red rigging with a multipurpose platform – now a grave, now a podium – offset from its centre – is strikingly versatile. The dominant colour scheme – red, white and black – is dynamic and bold. Meanwhile, with the exception of the hauntingly beautiful piano music of the scenes with the puppets, which is like something out of Saint-Saëns, I wasn’t quite so positive about Elizabeth Drake’s score. Too reliant on synthesised loops to be anything that exciting, it might also be that the few technical slip-ups on opening night didn’t do much to showcase its qualities.
But it’s the text itself that is most impressive here, and it’s the text that really takes your breath away. The play’s central thematic and dramaturgical premise – that tragedy is a recurring motif in human history and that the forms with which it has been explored in the past remain a valid means of doing so today – demand of the audience, if not necessarily a deep intellectual engagement with the forms and concerns of the great tragedies of the western tradition – many of which are quoted directly or paid lip service to in the text – but at least a passing acquaintance with them, which I, in a number of cases, didn’t have. And thus I found myself, throughout the proceedings, silently resolving to embark upon a crash course in the history of tragedy.
Every now and then, when you least expect and perhaps most need it, something hits you with the full force of history and puts you in your place. It reminds you just how little you know, how little you’ve read, and how far you have left to go. It makes you feel like a bit of a fraud – you, who writes about theatre as if you actually know something about it, as if a few years here and there as a drama student somehow qualifies you to pass judgement on the work of others; you, for whom so much of the art form’s history remains almost completely unknown and obscured by the centuries, an iron curtain of names and titles that, much as you would like to draw it back, seems so dauntingly heavy that you can only look at it impotently and sigh. I am, in case you couldn’t tell, the kind of person who hates not knowing everything about everything.
The Perjured City, for its occasional flaws, does what all great theatre
must do: it engages with the world, with the times in which it was written, and
with history. And if you’re anything like me, it will make you want to engage
as well. We will never understand ourselves – how we can be capable of such great
evil and, more importantly, of such great love – until we do so. And we will
never be able to do so without works of art like this one.
VCA Drama – Company 2007 presents the Australian premiere of
The Perjured City, or the Awakening of the Furies
by Hélène Cixous | translated by Bernadette Fort
Space 28, VCA Drama, 28 Dodds Street, Southbank
Tuesday 29 May to Saturday 9 June
Tuesdays to Fridays 6.30pm / Saturdays 5pm
$20 / $12
The show is four hours in length, plus interval. Food and refreshments will be available to purchase.