Friday, November 4, 2011

Theatre: When the Rain Stops Falling

Black Swan State Theatre Company
Written by Andrew Bovell
Directed by Adam Mitchell
Designed by Bryan Woltjen
Lighting design by Trent Suidgeest
Sound design by Ben Collins
Featuring Vivienne Garrett, Julia Moody, Fiona Pepper, Igor Sas, Scott Sheridan, Steve Turner and Alison van Reeken
 Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
Until November 13

Julia Moody and Scott Sheridan (pic: Gary Marsh)
With the sad, exquisite When the Rain Stops Falling, Black Swan have unquestionably kept the best of their first year’s tenure as the core tenant of the State Theatre Centre ‘till last.
Andrew Bovell’s family saga charts the lives of seven connected characters over four generations, eighty years and two continents; it’s a complex, highly structured work that requires the utmost clarity in its script and staging to avoid disintegrating into confusion. That it succeeds so well is greatly to the credit of Bovell’s disciplined, highly literate writing and the painstaking management of scenes and characters by director Adam Mitchell. It is also indebted to a cast of West Australian actors who would, I think, do it proud on any stage, anywhere.
It is also gorgeous to watch. Designer Bryan Woltjen has done a simply outstanding job with moving shapes and surfaces, creating an abstract, deceptive world that shifts before our eyes. Sound designer Ben Collins and lighting designer Trent Suidgeest compliment Woltjen’s work immaculately.
A beautiful play, beautifully done.
Link here to the complete review in The West Australian

Ronni Chern has written to me with her very interesting insights into the layers of meaning she drew from the play. Ronni's husband is a member of the board of Black Swan. She writes:

Here are some of my ideas about what you had to say (in your review):
I am pleased that not only did you unravel a complicated and sophisticated plotline, you     captured my sentiments about the impressive acting, directing, staging and visual and auditory effects. The ability to weave the actors into and out of designs amid subtle lighting changes seamlessly transformed the audience into intuitively grasping the ideas of the play, even if some had to weave the logical threads together after the production. All could recognize this play was about sin and betrayal, guilt and self loathing, and finally the power of redemption.
The images of people coming and going in the rain, hanging up their umbrellas, eating and then leaving, helped us see the generations interconnecting -- the same behaviors and rituals uniting them over time. The common symbols of rain, washing away or cleansing, angry gods, or a weather “report” on the actions of those on earth -- a suggestion for change of the behaviors of a community -- such recurring images of incessant rain set the mood. It immediately got us thinking about when would this rain stop -- echoing the the title of  the play. The answer we would find, would come at the end.
The themes of redemption or salvation were symbolically announced at the beginning with the dropping of the fish from the sky and Gabriel’s question, of why did his son want to see him after 27 years—and the suggestion that it was perhaps to discover who he is. At the end, Gabriel does give his son Andrew a gift, objects in a suitcase which reveal the painful secrets of his family and help him discover who he is. This revelation combined with father and son consuming a whole fish rather than the heads and bits of  the soup -- remnants of faith -- as did his ancestors, provides a a symbol of renewal. It offers a chance to break the cycle of sin and betrayal. Gabriel’s final trumpet, as symbolic messenger, enables Andrew to have a new beginning and a chance to enter paradise.
Three scenes stand out for their visual or thematic effects. In an early scene, a conversation between Henry and his wife, the reluctant mother of the first Gabriel, she reminds us of the French philosophers who emphasize a world organized by science and logic, rather than including faith or spirit, and her disgust over the fall from grace of her husband. In another scene, the visual effect of lovers Gabriel and Gabrielle hugging midway as they climb to the top of Ayers rock, in a yellowish light, is reminiscent of an imaginary staircase to heaven; as we discover that Gabriel’s father is the perpetrator of the abuse and death of Gabrielle’s brother, the audience is visually reminded of the destruction of this stairway to happiness and how the sins of the father fall upon the son. In another scene, the older Gabrielle, many years after giving birth to her son, eventually loses her mind; yet, she chooses to pour the ashes of the father of her child -- a soul destroyed by guilt -- into her soup and consumes the bitterness in an effort to swallow forever the sins of the past. The intertwining of his ashes, a lost soul and her lost mind produce  empathy in the minds of the audience for those suffering from secrets.
Whether the writer, Andrew Bovell, consciously employed such biblical allusions or common symbols, it is hard to know. Yet, as someone who brings her own cultural context to the reading of a play, whose education has explored the Bible as literature, or who remembers reading of Milton’s “Gabriel” and the images of Shakespeare’s foul weather, I find the play to resonate with many of the themes of Western literary works. It has echoes of the sagas of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of Ellison’s Invisible Man’s discovery of his identity through objects kept in a suitcase, of Biblical stories of floods, fallen angels amidst the “sins of the father falling on the sons,” and opportunities for man to find salvation and redemption in literature and life.
The rain finally stops at the end of the play when father and son and fish -- the trinity -- are reunited. Perhaps that was enough to stop the floods.

I'd like to thank Ronni for taking the time to share her thoughts, and take this opportunity to encourage everyone to do the same. I welcome your thoughts about any of the productions I cover on the blog, or your opinion about what I have written (especially if you have an alternative view!). Feel free to write about shows I haven't been able to cover as well – no publicity pieces though!
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1 comment:

  1. I too loved this production. All elements: staging, set design, actors, lighting, sound and beautiful visual effects worked in perfect harmony to realise a thought provoking and moving script.
    A central image in my mind several days on is the initial ‘soup eating’ scene. One by one the cast assembled, spooning the broth into their bowls, ultimately sipping in unison, and the impact of those silver spoons being lifted in this austere setting was mesmerising. Of course a sombre group assembled at a supper together brings resonances to a western mind of the Last Supper, no matter the number at table, and notions of betrayal, suffering and the hope of redemption are thus brought into play.
    A device that worked powerfully for me was the repetition of sections of dialogue, sometimes verbatim, sometimes with subtle shifts, in different context across the span of generation and families. This wove the disparate plot strands together, helping the audience to make meaning, see and feel the connections. For example, the memory, or lack of memory of the brush of a father’s bristles on a child’s cheek the smell of his aftershave. Another example, the obsessive cleaning of a drab room, a place infected by secrets and shame, followed by frenzied re-painting of it in white, off-white, yet to no avail. The rooms are in different countries , the events decade apart, yet driven by the same secrets and lies, the characters remaining mired in lonely, angry suffering.
    The symbol of Saturn devouring his children was powerful too. At one level this play was about a father who devoured his child and gandchild’s future, as well the future of others caught in the web of events spinning out from his actions. At another level though, this play is also about all of us, how our careless greed and speed, our devouring of the bounty of the planet steals the future form our progeny. The final symbol of Diderot’s dressing gown was astounding, I gasped as it was pulled from its box, and was taken back to the scene where this Gabriel’s Grandmother, in her youth, had told us the story of Diderot’s new gown, and the dissatisfaction this had ultimately brought to him. Of his need to make new, to keep consuming to assuage the desire set off by this one new garment.
    Indeed Black Swan, the best was saved until last this year, a play that was beautiful to watch, and made its audience think and reflect long after the auditorium was silent.