only love can save me and love has destroyed me
Thursday 4 July -
Saturday 20 July 2002
Bats Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington
Four unnamed characters in an unspecified time and place question love's assault on the wholeness of the self in a bleak but somehow uplifting world. The NZ premiere of a work by controversial UK playwright Sarah Kane.
James Stewart (A)
Carey Smith (B)
Tina Helm (C)
Eve Middleton (M)
Design & Photography Sar Ruddenklau; Production Manager Eve Middleton; Posters Ian Freer & James Stewart; Directed by David Lawrence
The first time I heard of Sarah Kane was the headline announcing her suicide on the front page of The Stage one Thursday morning in February 1999. I was living in London at the time and fascinated by the about-turn the media did in their attitude to her writing. Find reviews of the original productions of Blasted or Phaedra's Love and I can guarantee you'll encounter commentary that makes the uncomplimentary stuff you'll find on some of the review pages on this website seem pretty jovial and friendly by comparison. Blasted was described most famously as "a disgusting feast of filth". More interesting to me was the reviewer who said, "Until last night I thought I was immune from shock in any theatre. I am not." Some of the more mature reviews look beyond the violence and brutality but the unanimous view seemed to be that her plays were appalling at best, with one critic questioning the judgement of any theatre that would programme them. The Daily Mail's Jack Tinker was so vilifying in his spleen that Kane named the sadistic torturer in Cleansed after him. Crave was written under a pseudonym in order to escape the inevitable "from the controversial author of Blasted" label. In the wake of her death, of course, some radical revision in thought has occurred - now critics claim Sarah Kane was the most important British playwright of the 1990s.
I sought out the first two plays quickly - I had hoped to come back to New Zealand with an arsenal of new plays to put on. I read and saw a lot of stuff I thought would be great at Bats and was always surprised when I returned to NZ to find that Circa or Downstage had already grabbed the plays before I'd even had the chance. I obtained the double volume of Blasted and Phaedra's Love with its wonderful King Lear-invoking cover. I read Phaedra's Love first, determined to enjoy it despite the 30-odd reviews saying it was juvenile and gratuitous. As a modernized Greek tragedy, I hoped it might be exactly what I was looking for...but by the end I just found it juvenile and gratuitous. Not so with Blasted, though. I had thought in light of my love of Titus Andronicus, The Spanish Tragedy and Tourneur's plays that I would never be shocked or disturbed by violence in the theatre again. By the time I'd read the series of vignettes that end Blasted I needed to have a long lie down. Neither play was suitable - I didn't like Phaedra's Love and didn't believe I knew any actors that would be prepared to do half the stuff in Blasted, nor could I see how Blasted could be staged without a ton of money to spend on making everything as realistic as possible (sorry to those who like expressionism - while I agree that you couldn't, for instance, stage the rats or the sunflower in Cleansed realistically, I don't think there's anything even remotely emotionally effecting about expressionist staging and, however people have tried to stage Blasted over the last 8 years, I believe it was written to provoke a severe emotional response and must be staged as naturalistically as possible to work).
So much of the literature I've come across says we should ignore the fact that Sarah Kane took her own life and try to consider these plays just as plays rather than as an elongated suicide note or cry for help. But I find it impossible to separate the writer from the work as I think that's a huge part of the appeal and complexity of the plays, not to mention a vital contribution to the understanding of them.
In April 2001 I spent a few days in Auckland after teaching the Shakespeare course for the second (and what turned out to be the last) time at the National Youth Drama School in Hawkes Bay. I felt like I'd come full circle - the year before I'd had a wonderful, inspiring week and it had seemed like the first time in years that my brain had been functioning at its full capacity. It was the beginning of questioning exactly what I wanted out of life and realizing that deep down I was profoundly miserable by some of the choices I'd made and the circumstances I was then living in. A year on, returning to the National Youth Drama School was not the great experience it had been the first time around - instead of an onto-it, enthusiastic class I had a bunch of grumpy, difficult teenagers, many of whom either didn't want to be doing the class or didn't want to be taught by me. I never really recovered confidence after the first, difficult day, and the rest of the week was hard slog. But it was the first week since my marriage break-up four months earlier where I wasn't thinking about my wife every minute of the day and the first week where I felt like I could function as an individual human being. But in spite of all these feelings, the overwhelming feeling was one of depression; that I was a worthless human being who couldn't teach, who couldn't act or direct but had just had the occasional fluke or lucky break. Regardless of any good things that might have been happening, ultimately my cats felt like the only reason I had to get up every day and continue with my life.
That week in Auckland I obtained a copy of Crave. I was a little surprised, especially after Blasted and Phaedra's Love, that it had no stage directions, the characters were nameless and there was no discernable plot. I read it on the overnight train from Auckland back to Wellington and it blew my mind. Like Hamlet did when I was 15, here was a play that understood exactly what I was feeling and going through; here was a play that confirmed that life was not worth living; here was a despairing, angry play that said all the things I wanted to say to my wife. Those first few readings made little sense to me on a practical level (i.e. what the story was/might be or who the characters were) but on a psychological and emotional level I engaged with it immediately. I arrived home Friday morning; on Saturday we had the first full cast readthrough of Volpone - the wheels of the trilogy were beginning to turn - and that night, in between dinner and wine (I cooked a gigantic meal and squeezed all the actors into my tiny flat), I said to Carey, Eve, James and Tina, "We're going to do this play next year after we do Hamlet." In retrospect it seems odd that every show I directed in 2002 - Bacchanals or non-Bacchanals - exorcised some personal demon in a way, be it my father, dead friends, ex-wives and so on.
I spent the next year trying to explain to people who Sarah Kane was - virtually no one in NZ had ever heard of her, despite how many productions the five plays she wrote received throughout the rest of the world. Sharyn Duncan at BATS was interested and keen, and tentatively programmed the show for July 2002. She'd spoken with a co-op who were keen on doing Love and Understanding, a great, grim play by Joe Penhall - another great 90s UK playwright that NZ had never heard of - and Sharyn thought that the two shows could form a double bill. The group wanting to do the Joe Penhall play fell through, however, and Downstage eventually beat them to having the first production in Wellington of a Penhall play with their staging of Blue/Orange. Even though BATS is not usually the theatre you'd expect to find current UK plays being staged at, the energy and anger of the writings of Sarah Kane, Joe Penhall, Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson is not, to my mind, well-suited to the safe environments of Circa or Downstage. Over the next few months I had dreams in which another theatre would announce that they were doing the plays - and indeed was disturbed when I spoke to someone who was seriously thinking about doing 4.48 Psychosis in May 2002, even though it never eventuated - but before too long I heard back from Sarah Kane's agents and paid the licence fee. To my joy - and I guess it'll be my wee place in theatre history - I would be directing the first professional production of a Sarah Kane play in New Zealand.
Despite the happy time we'd had doing Hamlet, Carey and I, at least, felt that the days of the large cast Bacchanals shows should be left behind. Whenever I work with a large cast I spend the rehearsal process vowing I'll never do so again. But once the show is up and running or over, I often forget all about the hardships. It's so hard, especially when you're not paying people, to co-ordinate everyone to be in the same place at the same time; to get everybody to give the same level of energy and commitment. Often during the Trilogy it would take only one tired or hung-over actor amongst fourteen to destroy the focus of a full run-through. But when there're less of you, there's more onus on everyone to give 100%. Even the notion of being able to fit the entire company in one car was uplifting. And with Carey, Eve, James and Tina I knew I was working with four very well-matched actors in terms of attitude and ability. Casting was obvious - all four actors came to the same conclusions about who should play what part.
Returning to reading the play a year later I was in a much more balanced frame of mind but the play still seemed to say exactly what I was feeling. The joy of the writing is that it is so complex and multi-layered; whereas initially it seemed to affirm my feelings of hate and despair, it now seemed to affirm love and redemption through those two mighty opposites, cruelty and compassion. I had no idea how I would direct it, and the actors each confessed they liked the script but had no idea what it was actually about. We knew that a large part of the rehearsal process would involve textual detective work.
What we did decide early on was that we wanted to have things projected - Eve had liked the projection of words onto the back wall of BATS which had taken place in Po@rt, a poetry show I'd lit at the same time as we were doing Wealth and Hellbeing. I thought in such a text-based play as Crave that projecting words would be great, but as we talked with Sar and she developed her design ideas, it moved much more towards images and away from words, bar subtitling the lines of dialogue Carey's character spoke in Spanish, German and Serbo-Croation. Sar, Eve's cousin, shifted to Wellington to study design at the start of 2001 and volunteered to help out on Hamlet. Most nights she ran the front-of-house system, was an audience wrangler, and most importantly she made the giant yellow Danish crest that hung at the back of the stage in the downstairs space. Crave would be the first time we'd actually had an official Designer for a Bacchanals show. While yet again the poster was created by James and friend Ian Freer from my design, Sar took all the photographs, decided on the actors' frocks and created all the slides. There were about 50 of them in the hour-long show, ranging from shots of empty, dirty streets to landscapes, hospital corridors, faces, plane propellers and various other abstract things that connected unconsciously with the text of the play.
The one other design idea we'd gone in with, and this one was more conceived out of malice than any aesthetic value it might have, was that we would be painting the space a different colour. Virtually every show Carey and I had ever been involved in at BATS had involved us being screwed over by the requirements of the 'main bill' show. When we'd done So, You're A Man (the comedy show that Carey, myself, Taika Cohen, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie performed in Auckland, Wellington and Melbourne over 1996-97) there in 1996, we'd had to abandon most of the carefully choreographed physical comedy in the show, because the play we were sharing the space with had a giant, abstract set in the centre of the stage which we had to perform around. For the first season of Taika and Jemaine as The Humourbeasts we had to share BATS with a show who'd painted the whole space red. But the more prevalent memory was of Margaret and Vanessa's Xmas Show at BATS in 1999 (the show I met James and Eve doing). It was a late night, physically rowdy show with a huge living room set and thirteen heavily-booted actors throwing themselves all over the stage - and we were sharing BATS with a one-woman show that had one chair on stage and had painted the entire space a very rare shade of post-it note yellow. We lost an entire day out of production week because we made an unavoidable mess of the floor but there wasn't enough paint left to do another coat, so actors spent the day carefully scrubbing off the thousands of scuff-marks by hand. Carey and I vowed that when we had a main-bill show at BATS, we would repay any show sharing the space with the same inconvenience and lack of fair play as had always been accorded us. So for Crave we would paint the entire back wall of the theatre as white as we possibly could.
Before we began rehearsals, we had a series of meetings at which we read the play aloud again and again. I read reviews of every production I could find and knew all the various extremes to which Crave had been staged, ranging from the original production, in which the four actors sat in chairs and addressed the audience, to productions in Europe that had given the play giant living room sets or suspended the actors in the air on bungee cords. The discussion page on the Sarah Kane website was also an incredible resource - virtually every question we had about certain lines had already been asked and answered, even if the answer was "We will never know what this bit means!" Sarah Kane explained everything to the original director and cast, who all swore never to reveal what the real story behind the play is. Every time we read it aloud we focused on a different thing - sometimes we just read all of M's lines in isolation, to see what things they told us about her character. Then we might read only M and C's lines, to see what connections there might be between the two that informed how we chose to interpret either character or certain speeches or moments. Reading it again and again we decided on what our interpretation of the 'story' would be; who we thought the characters were and what bits might be staged as scenes between characters, what bits might be characters in isolation and what bits were four different parts of the same 'voice'.
"This is exactly the kind of play you hate!" said Carey during the first of these sessions. It's well known that I hate theatre where things are ambiguous and unusual just for the hell of it, where style over-rules substance. I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent human being and have come to the conclusion, after sitting through so many shows where I've been convinced that I must be stupid for not 'getting' it, that when I see theatre that makes no sense it's the production's fault for being unclear rather than mine for being stupid. I find such theatre patronizing and I've been infuriated sometimes, asking directors afterwards, "What was that last scene about?" and they've said, "It's what you make of it". This is a total cheat and insulting of audiences' intelligence. Even if the meaning is not clear, the director and actors should always have an opinion or an angle on it. In the case of Crave, we were aware from the outset that it is a bewilderingly complex piece of writing but we felt that so long as we knew what we were trying to say with it, meaning would somehow be conveyed to audiences, and I was determined that if someone were to ask me afterwards, "What was that last scene about?" I'd be able to tell them emphatically rather than fob them off by admitting I didn't actually know or had no real clear idea of what I was trying to convey.
What still seems amazing to me in retrospect was that we only rehearsed Crave for two weeks. It transpired that BATS would be available in the daytime for us to rehearse there, so rather than the usual weeks/months of squeezing in time whenever we could get it, we opted for two weeks' full time rehearsal at BATS, beginning on Tuesday 18 June. The show opened two weeks and two days later. I always remembered how, when rehearsing The Frogs after years of working with students and amateurs, I was surprised when what I'd hoped to get through in a 3-hour rehearsal was achieved the first time a scene was on the floor - the joy of working with professional actors. Rehearsals for Crave took place while the worst show I've ever directed in my career was playing in the evenings. This show had done a lot to batter my confidence and self-belief and had been the reverse of The Frogs - what I'd intended to achieve the first time a scene was on the floor would take all of a 3-hour rehearsal. By the end of its first rehearsal, Crave was already in better shape than the other miserable show would achieve by its last night (I should point out that much of the other show's failure was my responsibility and not that of the actors - who included Erica and Adam - who strived against impossible odds to do their best).
Swift and happy as it was, the Crave rehearsal period was intense. I felt in watching it like I was spending eight hours a day being kicked in the back. The five of us worked blindly, creating the staging and concept from scratch; and for all our readings and analyses of the play in the preceding months, once we were actually in the theatre we worked largely by instinct than plan. Every idea I threw at them was taken by Eve, James, Carey and Tina and pushed as far as they could take it. Their work as an ensemble was, I thought, incredible. At the same point every night of the season, I watched the four of them dealing with the rapid-fire, speaking-as-one-style text of the last 10 pages of the script and thought, "You are the most amazing actors in the world!" as I marvelled at how they were pulling it off - because it was nothing to do with me.
Production week was very easy and happy. The white wall (which, as we'd anticipated, caused great problems for the show that shared the space with us for the last week and a half of the run) was easily created. A huge crowd of volunteers - other Bacchanals and Rialto staff - came down and the paint job was achieved in no time. I lit the show from scratch, building the lighting design around the performances of the actors, and it's the best lighting I've ever done. Sound and music for the show was simple. We opened with the lengthy "An Echo, A Stain" by Bjork, which consists entirely of lines from Crave (Bjork was a big Sarah Kane fan) and closed the show with Elvis Presley singing "It's Now Or Never", which seemed oddly appropriate - again, going on instinct rather than any plan. We also had a soundscape of sea noises for certain parts of the show. Phil Greig, the technician at Rialto, sorted us with a slide projector and we had a lens wide enough for the slide projections to fill the entire back wall of Bats.
The opening night was one of the most incredible nights I've had in a theatre - which will sound arrogant, talking about one of my own shows in that way. But the experience of the night was astounding. A packed house, including our friends, family and other Bacchanals, filled the theatre on a freezing, pouring night. I was oddly terrified - usually I light my own shows so that I'm not actually in the audience but doing something I'm relaxed and confident about. But my heart pounded and I was trembling with every lighting and slide cue. It wasn't until during James' huge speech, which occurred about 15 minutes into the show, that I relaxed. In the speech A, a paedophile, has a two-page long, unpunctuated monologue in which he addresses the child he used to abuse about how much he loves and misses her. James was even more challenged and bewildered by it than he'd been by the mountebank scene in Volpone. On opening night as he listed his desires and all the things he'd do to make his lover happy, he got to "and want to buy you a kitten I'd get jealous of because it would get more attention than me" the audience laughed and suddenly we - me in the lighting box and Carey, Eve, Tina and James onstage - all had the same sudden realization that the audience were listening intently to every single word of the play. The atmosphere in the theatre was electric. Well after the end, half the audience were still seated, deep in discussion.
The actors were still hiding backstage and I went to find them. They were all bunched in the corner in the dressing room, too scared to come down. "That," said Carey, "was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I was absolutely terrified - playing Hamlet was a hundred times easier." The others agreed and James said that by the start of the show he was shaking so hard with nerves he didn't think he'd be able to stand up properly. What was so ironic was that the praise for Carey that night was centred around how comfortable, relaxed and confident he'd been. "He looked like it was no effort whatsoever," someone said. We had a fantastic party at BATS that night and praise for the production was enormous. "This will be the one!" everyone said to us. "This will be the show that puts you guys on the map!"
Alas, it was not. Crave did okay business but nothing like you would expect the NZ premiere of a Sarah Kane play to do. The dreadful weather maybe had a lot to do with it...but many people who saw the show saw it twice. We never really recaptured the electricity of the opening night but it was still incredible to watch each night. Audience responses were unlike anything we'd ever had, either - many people, some of whom had experienced some of the horrible things that affect the characters in the play, said what a cathartic experience seeing the play was. The various readings of the end of the play were fascinating too. One reviewer claimed that we were inciting audience members to commit suicide and questioned not just my morals for putting the play on, but also BATS' for programming it - but we'd seen the ending as the dawning of a new day, as realization, as catharsis, as understanding, not as something negative. And, as far as I know, no one committed suicide after seeing our production of Crave.
And the positive reviews for Crave said we'd achieved exactly what we'd wanted: something that was uplifting in spite of its tone of despair. How strange that the show I'd originally wanted to do because it said "Fuck you for ruining my life" to my wife now said "My pain makes me a better human being, and tomorrow when I wake up things might not be great but they will be better than they are today". Lines like "Only love can save me and love has destroyed me" and "The spine of my life is broken" or the passage paraphrased from Job - "Let the day perish in which I was born" - gave way to the quieter, calmer, saner moments: "If you died, it would be like my bones had been removed. No one would know why, but I would collapse".
With Carey leaving NZ, though, nothing would be the same again. Crave set a new standard for Bacchanals shows, though: a truly ground-breaking piece of new writing, acting of an extremely high standard, complex and comprehensive lighting (a far cry from the three floods of the trilogy), a consistent and coherent design and a show that, in spite of its ambition, was very easy to pull together. How ironic that what was supposed to be a holiday after large-cast, four-hour long productions of the classics would prove to be twice as complicated and demanding, and yet just as satisfying a play to work on. - David
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