Children's rhymes, when sung at just the right tempo, with just the right lilting, listless tone, have a tendency to become slightly unnerving. There is something disquieting about the strange familiarity of the world a child inhabits; about their propensity to make-believe and their proximity to a place, not only of imagination of wonder, but also of basest desires and instincts. Pushed far enough in the right direction, taken to its furthest extremes, the innocence of childhood comes to resemble something else entirely; the line between innocent games and something altogether darker, one feels, is often mercilessly thin. With the playwright herself serving as our childish-sounding, but already slightly maniacal, narrator ("I'm Lally Katz, and I wrote it!"), The Eisteddfod initially straddles this line and then, very quickly, topples over it.
A brother and sister with the unlikely names of Gerture (Katherine Tonkin) and Abalone (Luke Mullins) are left orphaned and, what's more, agoraphobic after their parents are unexpectedly killed in what is perhaps best described as a series of unfortunate events. The children, increasingly isolated in their claustrophobic little room, with its single bed, hardly big enough for one of them let alone two, and woefully out-of-date wireless, which channels in a series of lovelorn ballads and grainy-sounding political speeches from the seemingly timeless world outside, resort to make-believe and playacting, not as a way of passing the time, but rather of creating an alternate reality for themselves.
Slowly blossoming into a woman, Gerture plays out fantasies of a subservient sexual relationship with a brutish and abusive lover, Ian, while retreating into a semi-comatose state where she claims to be a teacher in a school. Fiercely possessive of his sister, and personally hurt by her desire to escape, Abalone hatches a plan to keep Gerture in the bedroom with him, inviting her to play Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth the upcoming eisteddfod. The prize for winning – a one-way trip to Moscow – is something he know she'll find appealing.
This, of course, proceeds with all the absurd logic and seemingly spontaneous creation of children making up games on the spot; only here, where the games give way to (or rather include) intimations of sexual violence, emotional blackmail, and the channelling of the children's own dead parents, the disturbing implications of allowing make-believe to go too far become readily apparent, the darker side of the childish imagination thrown into sharp relief. That this is done with mordant wit and a kind of Tourette's-like irreverence – some of the things these characters blurt out must be heard to be believed – doesn't in any way lighten the inherent darkness of the material. Indeed, Katz's script, while possibly the funniest I've seen performed all year, is nevertheless unrelenting in its blackness and propensity to shock (though it is important to note that so-called shock-value never becomes an end unto itself). Laughter here is flanked on all sides by a certain air of nervous uneasiness. The comic relief, to put it another way, doesn't really relieves much of anything.
Formally, Chris Kohn's production operates according to a logic of concentration and intensity: before we can explore the darker side of childhood, it seems, we must first heighten childhood itself by taking it to the extreme. The set, lighting and sound designs are all directed to this end, intensifying everything from the focal point of the audience's gaze to the relationship of the actors in the space and the sound of their voices in it. Adam Gardnir's claustrophobic set – a single, perfectly square little bedroom, raised above the stage like a bird cage dangling from the ceiling – forces a certain intimacy between the bodies of the actors and, a brightly lit cube suspended in darkness, focuses the attention of the audience into the space like a magnifying glass focusing sunlight onto a single, burning point on the back of your hand.
The marvelous performances similarly contribute to this intensification. Mullins' Abalone, in particular, with his seemingly placid demeanour often giving way the highly-sexed machismo of Ian or the hyper-extended caricature of his laconic bogan father, takes the notion of childish make-believe and turns it into a kind of furious schizophrenia. The scene in which he 'rehearses' Macbeth – punching the air, sprinting on the spot, and urging himself on with deep-throated roars of "Thane? Thane? Fuck Thane! KING!" – is one of the most hilarious and deeply unsettling of the production. Gerture is a gentler soul, but Tonkin's performance, while necessarily less extroverted than Mullins', is nevertheless intense. Where Mullins' is directed outwards, Abalone thrashing around in the bedroom like a wild animal trapped in a cage, Tonkin's performance is directed inwards, Gerture's passions expressed with a stillness that absorbs everything around her into it. Unlike Abalone's borderline-psychotic playacting, which requires his body to become that of another, Gerture's retreat into the imagination is a retreat from her body altogether. Neither approach is particularly healthy when taken to the extreme: childish make-believe, pushed too far, threatens to subsume the characters completely.
There seems to be an implicit comment on the nature
of performance in all of this. After all, what is make-believe if not early
training for social performance? Performance is a healthy, natural, and, in any
case, inescapable element of our lives, particularly as a coping method or
survival mechanism. But it is not without its dangers or its implicit,
threatening strangeness, which is one of the things we're reacting to when we
shiver at rhymes about pockets full of posies. What The Eisteddfod
reminds us, with such inventiveness and bite, is how close we can come, at any
stage of our lives, to believing the make-believe, and succumbing to it.
Malthouse Theatre Presents A Stuck Pigs Squealing Production
by Lally Katz
Venue: Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street Southbank
Dates: 18 July - 29 July 2007
Opening: Thursday 19 July at 7.30pm.
Times: Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday to Saturday 7.30pm, Sunday 5.30pm. Matinee - Saturday 28 July 1.30pm
Tickets: $18 - $30
Bookings: 9685 5111 | www.malthousetheatre.com.au