On Friday we went and saw the MTC's production of Patrick White's The Season at Sarsparilla.

Image:Dramatic White

On the way into the theatre, I overheard no less than three people independently telling their companions about the narrative trick being used in the play. If you haven't seen the play yet, and you don't want to have a bit of a preview, stop reading now.

[Slight pause to allow people to leave if they want to.]

It seems that people had attended previous performances of the play and been confused about what was going on. When they finally worked it out they felt the need to explain it to their friends who still hadn't seen it: and now those friends were busy spreading the word before the performance started. Personally, I would have preferred the excitement of working it out myself during the performance, rather than hearing it as I went down the stairs on the way in.

And again in the foyer.

And again whilst I was finding my seat.

Anyhow: the story involves three families in 1950s suburban Australia. As they play out their stories in their three different houses, they are all actually staged in a single house in the centre of the stage. The characters in one house don't see the characters in the other houses (except when they go "next door"), but their three stories are interleaved with each other. Stories of love, disappointment, hope, propriety, impropriety and frustration. If you hadn't been told ahead of time, it might have taken you a few moments to work out that characters A and B couldn't see characters C and D even though they were all standing in the same room.

It was a large cast: 13 actors, playing 15 roles. For me, Peter Carroll, playing Girlie Pogson - a woman - and Amber McMahon, playing Joyleen (Pippy) Pogson provided a nice dramatic contrast. Girlie is a prim and proper older married woman, disappointed in life and always, boringly, harking back to her idylic upper class childhood on a country farming property. Pippy is her youngest daughter. Pippy's a young girl straining against the mundane life of suburbia, learning about sex, history and a wider world. Pippy's learing about sex and violence by reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Girlie's worrying about how to scale fish for dinner. But it's not clear whether Pippy - or any of the other characters - will break free, or if they will settle down to meals of eggs, ham and a spell in front of the telly.

Quite apart from anticipating the performance, I'm developing an expectation that whenever I watch a Patrick White play there will be a bit of off stage drama. Two hours and ten minutes into this play somebody down the far end of row H either started having a serious medical emergency, or they decided to feign one as a way of getting out without having to watch the final hour. (It's a very long play.) There was a lot of a commotion in the seats. The actors continued as if nothing was happening. For a moment I thought somebody might be performing CPR, but upon reflection they were probably bending down repeatedly to find something under their seat. Eventually one man walked out whilst leaning on somebody, and five of his friends went out with him.

A little while later somebody decided to phone the control booth. Its ringing was clearly audible in the theatre. This wasn't a mobile phone: they don't work underground in the Playhouse. It was a landline ring tone. The person in the lighting booth was either asleep, deaf, or couldn't find the phone, because it rang for a long time.

My friend Dale, who works for the MTC, has previously told me that a record is kept about what happens during each performance, so no doubt there's quite a bit written in Friday's account. It strikes me as bad organisation that the Arts Centre has a phone that can interrupt a performance.

Nonetheless, everything that happened on Friday pales into insignificance compared to what happened when we saw Patrick White's The Aunt's Story in 2001. Many of my friends have already read my account of that night, which appeared on a previous version of my web site. But for anybody who hasn't, it's a fairly good read. Here it is:

The Aunt's Story

Image:Dramatic White

Friday 2nd November 2001

Melbourne Theatre Company

The night that we went to see the Aunt's Story was very dramatic.  Here's an account of what happened.

Pre-show preparations

To start with, although I had listened to the discussions, I clearly hadn't paid enough attention to the specific details of which of our theatre friends was attending which performance.  So I went out and got a very nice selection of posh biscuits and nice chocolates to serve to our friends when they came around for after show coffee. But out of our normal group of attendees, only Dennis and I were there that night.  The rest were attending the next night.  (I knew that some of our theatre group weren't attending that night.  I just didn't figure that we were down to only Dennis and I.)

So the others missed the excitement.  And the posh biccies.

Labor Politician Spotting

Since it was a Melbourne Festival show, we had to have a Labor politician de nuit.  Every Melbourne Festival event that we went to had at least one Labor Pollie.  Previous politicians had included Simon Crean, John Brumby, Bob Carr and Janet Kaylock.  (Actually Janet is a friend of mine, but she once ran as a Labor candidate in a country Legislative Council seat.  She never had a chance of winning, but she ran to ensure Labor was represented.)  

Our politician on the night of the Aunt's Story was Barry Jones.  He sat immediately in front of me.  Barry carries himself in a very upright and formal manner.  This meant his head was obscuring my view significantly.  

But that's OK - I don't begrudge Barry the right to hold his head high.

The Play

The first act of Aunt's Story was a taut psychological drama set in Australia.  Julia Blake played a very stern, grey, embittered Victorian woman.  (The oppressive mother of the aunt that the play is about.)  The aunt (Helen Morse) was reluctant to make the compromises required to become a married woman under the rules of Edwardian Society.  She wouldn't flatter men, and she was reluctant to subordinate her personality to fit with the wishes of a husband.  So everybody told her about how she was going to become an embittered spinster.

The first act was very good.  

The second act was strange, but then I guess we didn't see it through to the end, so maybe it is unfair to be critical.

It showed what happened after the aunt's mother died and Helen Morse decided to escape to Europe and have an independent life for the first time.  Nervous at first, she starts to reach out to people as she stayed in a shabby hotel somewhere in France.  The hotel is a faded shadow of its former prestigious self.

The play is a little more surreal in this act - the costumes have changed from formal drab Victoriana to curtain clothes that were deemed too exotic for Trellawny of the Wells.*  One of the residents of the hotel was Elsie Rapallo (Julia Blake in her second role for the night).  She was a supposedly rich American woman whose daughter had married some European noble, but whose daughter now refused to see her.  Her costume was a bright red and orange collection of curtain material that probably stayed on her body by the clever application of a large number of strong pins.  Another resident was General Sokolnikov, a Russian exiled by the Revolution.  He wore one of those extravagant green general's jackets trimmed with copious gold curtain tassels.  It was the sort of general's jacket that you only ever see in a box that carries the tasteless costumes that theatre companies don't use any more.  Except they do.

The Shell

The American and the Russian had an obsession with a Nautilus shell.  (The play was getting more surreal as it progressed.  Don't ask me why they were obsessed with that shell.  They just were.  Accept it - don't ask questions.)  

In a struggle to grab the shell, it was broken.  At that moment I thought to myself "they must go through a lot of Nautiluses".  

As we all watched where the shell had smashed there was the noise of Julia Blake shouting and stomping away in rage that the General had broken her shell.  Then there was a loud thump.  This was the moment when she fell off the stage at the extreme right hand side, but Dennis and I completely failed to see her topple.  I thought she had walked into the wings and the fall was sound effects as part of the plot that was supposed to happen just out of sight.

After the fall she was still shouting, still seemingly in her New Jersey accent.  But she was now saying something like "Oh, my back, my back".  This went on for a little while whilst the character playing the Hotel concierge (Roger Oakley, aka Senator Doug Rutherford from Something in the Air) was sweeping up the Nautilus.  But the dialogue didn't progress.  And then an actor came out from the wings to peer down at where Julia Blake had fallen.  Julia was between the front row of seats and the stage.  Some of the people sitting nearby started to get up and look down at her.  Senator Doug Roger Oakley came and had a look.

Given one's tendency to think that anything that happens on a stage is intended, I still thought this was part of the play.  I thought "maybe the play is getting experimental, and seeking audience participation?"

Then most of the cast came and peered down at where Julia Blake was lying, still complaining in a very loud pained voice about something.  The lights came up and an usher and other theatre staff went down to the corner of the stage to where she lay.  

After about ten minutes of people coming and looking at the scene of the accident and then going away again, a very worried voice came over the loudspeaker to say that the performance would have to stop due to this 'unfortunate incident', and that they were sure that MTC would arrange for us to be able to see the second half of the play at some other time.  (In fact, the loudspeaker voice actually quavered.)  But I don't think they had any idea as to how a half performance would be managed.  We all just left at this point.

Julia Blake was still lying there as we departed.  No ambulance had arrived yet.  (From the sounds of her pain, and the fact that she hadn't moved, I'm presuming that one was going to be needed.)

Barry Jones' Response

Here are three things that Barry Jones didn't do:

1. Leap up suddenly and run to the front yelling "Clear the way, I'm a former Parliamentarian and 'Pick a Box' Champion.  I know what to do in cases like this."

2. Yell out "Make sure you record this injury in your Workcover Injury Register".

3. Mutter with disgust to his companion that "in a performance of La Traviata at the Coloseum in 1905, six of the cast were killed when the lighting rig collapsed, and the rest of the actors continued the show by walking around the corpses." and then "I demand a refund".

In truth, he just sat there quietly like everybody else in the audience, occasionally having a quiet word to his companion.  Like the rest of us he waited until the announcement, and then stood up and left.

Moral of this Story

The moral of the story seems to be that florid Trelawny of the Wells* type costumes made of thick curtain material are dangerous to your safety.  Theatre Companies should stop using them.**  I'm sure the reason she fell is because she got her feet caught in the costume when she was too near the edge of the stage.

When we got home we were too shocked to open up our posh biscuits, but I snuck a small piece of chocolate.

Julia Blake

I don't know how she is now.*** I've heard a rumour that she broke a collarbone.  Which I guess is not as serious as being rendered quadruplegic.  Hopefully she will be well enough to appear in True West, an MTC play being performed in April/May 2002.  

* Footnote 1: Trelawny of the Wells was a Victorian Melodrama that MTC tried to rescue from obscurity in the 2000 season.  May it sink back to obscurity as fast as possible.  It had too many costumes made of curtain material, and no redeeming features.
** Footnote 2: From 2001 until 2008 there has been a marked drop in "Curtain Costumes". Hooray!
*** Footnote 3: Julie Blake appears to have recovered. She has successfully appeared in a couple of MTC productions since her accident. True West was a success and we've seen her in a couple of performances since then.
**** Footnote 4: I just noticed for the first time (in 2008) that in the photograph that the MTC produced for The Aunt's Story that I've included higher up in this posting, one of the clouds is shaped like a Nautilus.

Comments (0)
Anthony Holmes February 9th, 2008 10:59:25 PM

No Comments Found
 Add a Comment
Web Site:
Comment:  (No HTML - Links will be converted if prefixed http://)
Remember Me?