Devised and directed by Bob Pavlich, this new play is definitely a curiosity, a variation on the popular genre of verbatim theatre but with a few interesting twists.
Two actors perform the edited and/or compiled transcripts of a series of real interviews with an eclectic selection of great figures of the 20th Century, however they do so with an intriguingly varied number of techniques. The first and most obvious novelty is that the celebrities are not explicitly identified in the spoken content of the play, as the interviews are presented without introductions or even their opening comments. Although the interviewees are listed in the programme, you have the option of watching the play “cold” and working out for yourself who these luminaries are by the context provided in what they say. Since this can be quite fun, as some are more immediately obvious than others, the names of these famous people in question won’t be spoiled here.
The other reason why one has to use their words alone to determine the celebrities’ identities is because of another one of this play’s stylistic idiosyncrasies - at no point do either of these actors perform impressions or otherwise mimic the recognisable voices and mannerisms of the people they are portraying (in the manner, for example, that Marshall Napier does so well in MTC’s Frost/Nixon). It might seem like an odd choice at first, but this play is not an exercise in virtuoso impersonations, far from it. It is an examination of some of the thoughts and perceptions of public figures, rather than focusing on their overly-familiar public personae.
This provides a distancing effect, forcing us to really listen to what is being said rather than how it’s being said or even (initially) by whom. Thus, one is in an unexpected way freed from the distraction of their celebrity status. By hearing their words performed by actors who neither look nor sound anything like them, nor are endeavouring to do so, we can hear their words in a new light and thus, in a roundabout way, have the opportunity to re-examine some of these famed personalities from a fresh perspective.
If this weren’t an intriguing enough idea, they don’t stop there. The production is laced with several other interesting choices in the way the interviews are presented. They are not played exactly “straight”, because even though the actors are not impersonating their “characters” specifically, they are not giving dull, flavourless readings either. Each performance has a distinct characterisation (the interviewers as much as their subjects, it should be noted), some loosely similar to the broad strokes of the personage in question, others purposefully against type.
The style is broadly naturalistic but with layers of transparent theatricality, such as having racks of clothing onstage for the actors to change into openly while speaking (the costumes generally served as much to distinguish the changes between interviews as to give clues to the characters), as well as having them control the bulk of their own lighting and musical cues by having a control board at one side of the stage which they use matter-of-factly. Some segments use unique, curious performative devices, such as one where the interviewer speaks aloud extremely detailed descriptions of the subject’s body language while answering the questions, and yet the actor playing the interviewee does not actually act these movements out, generating an intriguing dissonance.
A few of the scenes even take on some metaphorical dimensions with the use of props, notably the interview of a famous actor/director/auteur which utilises a small puppet theatre, a miniature replica of the La Mama theatre that they are standing in, with Barbie and Ken acting out the interview while dressed identically as the actors manipulating them. It is a rather bizarre effect, like the experience of standing between two parallel mirrors, or viewing a painting of a painter painting a painting.
This range of different performative devices keeps the interviews lively, although this is no difficult feat for the charismatic team of Melanie Sharp and Darren Lever, engaging and versatile actors both. In fact the only real criticism of the evening that springs to mind is the aforementioned interview with a certain famous director is disproportionately long compared to the others and, though quite interesting, throws one off in this regard. As does a rather odd short piece performed by Lever alone while Sharp makes her one offstage change, the lament of a stalker which appears not to be based on anyone famous. It is actually very funny to be sure, but seems a rather incongruous non-sequitur.
Interviews with Famous People will probably not appeal to the very young or those otherwise particularly unversed in the topic of fame in the last century, but for everyone else this unusual new work should be a delightful and stimulating piece of theatre.
La Mama presents
Interviews with Famous People
Venue: La Mama, 205 Faraday Street, Carlton
Dates: July 2 – July 20, 2008
Times: Wednesdays and Sundays at 6.30pm, Thursdays to Saturdays at 8.00pm
Tickets: $25 (full) / $12 (conc.)
Duration: 85 minutes approx.
Bookings: 9347 6142