A Dream Play was written in 1901 by Swedish playwright August Strindberg. It’s an important work, despite its difficulties, throwing off the tenets of Realism and seen as a precursor to Surrealism. The original script runs over three hours and has over 40 characters. This 2005 Caryl Churchill adaptation runs for just over an hour and embodies an aphoristic prose that underscores both her Brechtian and surrealist post-modern techniques.
Ignite’s production works to accentuate the surrealist nature of the action through the very physical theatre employed, along with the wonderfully stylised sound design and a set that employs a good use of levels and textures, ensuring ample surprises and absurdist elements. I must admit though, despite the fact that mixing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor with Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini was a stroke of genius, I would have loved to have heard them properly mixed together.
Agnes, played with an astonishing amount of other-worldliness by Meredith Penman, is the daughter of the Vedic God, Indra. She comes to Earth to find out why humans are always complaining and discovers that human life is filled with sorrow, disappointment, and hardship. There is particular focus on gender issues, Christianity, materialism and poverty, and the banality of domestic life. Agnes’ discovery of the human condition occurs through a dream-like sequence of absurd events where she meets a multitude of characters across various settings.
Some of these characters play a more significant role in her earth-bound dream experience and clearly have symbolic value. A lawyer, an officer, and a poet each help to illuminate various aspects of the human condition. The text is so rich with social comment and poetical metaphors that they virtually tumble from the actors’ mouths one on top of another for the entire length of the production. Towards the end, when Agnes is trying to answer the poet’s question of why we are just animals and not Gods, he says “I know what I write doesn’t say what I mean, so when I am praised, I feel ashamed.”
With a similar style to directors Michael Kantor (from Malthouse Theatre) and Matthew Lutton (Perth’s ThinIce), director Olivia Allen has infused the set with its own persona and directed the amply talented cast to interact with it thusly. While some elements feel less organic than others (the rock star-esque use of a microphone stand, for example), as a whole, the direction is filled with a crisp vision. From its Blade Runner-esque beginning when Agnes falls from the heavens, to the discordant soundscape, the production as a whole brings an ultra-modern feel to a timeless question: why are we really here? What’s the point?
The entire cast is strong, presenting an important unity to an audience confronted with action that is made up entirely of fragments and seemingly inexplicable happenings. Penman as Agnes gives the role what it needs by setting herself apart from her human counterparts. Her vocal abilities are impressive. She must sing as waves and as wind and is extremely convincing. Also worth mentioning are Karen Roberts, playing various roles (including a wonderful turn as a teacher) for her exceptional voice work, and Gary Abrahams and Michael Finney for their strong physical performances.
A Dream Play is the kind of play that seriously divides an audience into those who shift uncomfortably in their seats, unmoved and occasionally bewildered, and those who nod and murmur in delight as the play progresses, leaping to their feet at its end. A common experience though, I’m sure, is that, like a dream, its melancholy and sense of unearthliness lingers well beyond the dream itself.
A DREAM PLAY
by August Strindberg in a new version by Caryl Churchill
Direction Olivia Allen
Venue: New Ballroom @ Bella Union, Trades Hall, Carlton South
Dates: May 5 - May 17 2009
Times: Tuesday @ 6:30pm Preview, Wednesday – Saturday @ 7:30pm, Sunday @ 6pm; Wednesday and Saturday Matinee @ 1pm
Tickets: $25 Full $17 Concession
Bookings: www.bellaunion.com.au or at door