Submitted by Adam Rafferty on Wednesday, 15th Dec 2010
Date of Show:Tuesday, 7th December 2010 (All day)
Venue:Northcote Town Hall Studio One
A Russian classic gets new life through a modern adaptation in the latest production by the darlings of Melbourne’s fringe theatre scene.
The Hayloft Project’s passion for responding to classic works by developing their own modern interpretation is continued in their latest work, this time an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Philistines. Written at the turn of the 20th century, and very much a reflection of pre-revolution Russia, Gorky’s story is set in a large house that has been divided up to fit in as many boarders as possible and plots the collapse of a family within.
Hayloft’s production, written by Director Anne Louise Sarks and performer Benedict Hardie, immerses its audience into the share home of patriarch Victor via an ‘in-the-round’ presentation of a full-scale home and all its rooms. Having a fly-on-the-wall view is wonderfully enveloping at times and adds nuance to the performance that isn’t always available to an audience. However, there is a certain ‘luck of the draw’ with this layout and at times the performers are playing out entire scenes with their backs to a portion of the house. (My recommendation is that the sitting near the lounge room is best!)
Gorky incited riots in the theatre when The Philistines first hit the stage due to its naturalistic presentation of everyday characters. Like Ibsen before him, Gorky challenged the status quo of what was appropriate material for the theatre. Instead of tales of good and evil, royalty and great historical figures, recognisable people with whom audiences could identify were portrayed instead.
Of course, this kind of subject matter is commonplace today and hardly makes for an eye-opening theme in 21st century theatre. Instead, Hayloft have brought a different kind of naturalism to the stage – naturalistic speech and performance – that opens up greater depth to the topics presented. At times, watching The Nest does feel like peeking through a keyhole or voyeuristically sitting in the corner of a room unnoticed as the everyday lives of its residents go on unabated.
While this stunningly modern realism is engaging, many of the plot points have lost their sharpness in a modern context. One of Victor’s sons, Nil gets the housemaid pregnant while the other, Peter has a relationship with a merry widow lodger, much to Victor’s disappointment. Understandably shocking in 1902, far less so in 2010. It leaves the responsibility of challenging the audience down the obsession of Victor’s daughter Tanya with her adopted brother Nil and her reaction to discovering Nil’s illicit relationship. This situation is full of colour and range and entrances with its results, but seems a little slight to be carrying the greatest weight of the story’s plot.
Performances from the ensemble cast are very good across the board, with significant skill shown by Sarah Armanious as housemaid Polya, Meredith Penman as Peter’s girlfriend Helen, Brigid Gallacher as bolshy friend Erica and Alexander England as Nil. Perhaps James Wardlaw’s father figure, Victor is somewhat out of place, seeming to go from zero to full flights of rage towards his family, residents and staff within a matter of moments without real provocation.
Anne-Louise Sarks’ direction has provided a wonderful authenticity of language and an engaging structure, if somewhat insensitive to the needs of an audience when presenting ‘in-the-round’. Russell Goldsmith’s compositions and sound designs add significantly to the mood of the piece and along with Lisa Mibus’ lighting designs are presented with beautiful timing and sensitivity by Stage Manager Caitlyn Byrne.
While sometimes Hayloft are guilty of self-indulgence and goading their audience towards a reaction rather than challenging their thoughts, this particular production is much more subtly presented and is an intriguing exercise in mood and focus. Definitely worth a look.
Photos: Jeff Busby