In the footsteps of Maeterlinck: exploring the unseen, unheard, unknown
‘John’ at the Dorfman (National Theatre)’ and ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (Malthouse Theatre/Black Swan State Theatre Company at the Barbican Centre)
Mertis (Marylouise Burke)
There are some plays that you wish you had written yourself, as you feel that the world that they are exploring is so close to your own conscious and unconscious areas of imagination. They open you doors and pathways where you can also step in and feel at home, and that’s why in a way you feel you have written them too when you watch them or read them. There is a certain quality in the plays of Maeterlinck that had made me feel entering a new world which in fact had been a step, a thought away from my own when I had read them in French: ‘The Blind’, ‘Death of Tintagiles’, ‘The Blue Bird’, ‘The Intruder’, ‘Princess Maleine’, ‘Pelléas and Mélisande’. Maeterlinck in his essay ‘The Treasure of the Humble’ explained his method of understanding life and writing about it, insisting that there is no need to go anywhere to understand the hidden depth, sense, meaning of life. One does not even have to talk, one just has to allow silence to communicate things that otherwise cannot be communicated. Maeterlinck’s plays make an inner eye in one mind’s open, and though it is hard to explain, his drama triggers the emotional mechanisms, ways of seeing that can sometimes later be turned on (almost alike to a diamond on Tyltyl’s head that gives every object a new meaning and makes everything alive), while sometime disappear as quickly as they appeared.
I think that new play 'John' by Annie Baker (who has had her major success with her previous play, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014 'The Flick) at Dorfman (National Theatre) achieves exactly the same thing, and it is one of the major achievements, in my view, that a piece of theatre can do. Yes, it can potentially enlighten me on this and that subject, delve into this or that area of life and make me intellectually more knowledgeable on a particular topic, but is is so rare in my life as a playwright and a theatre goer that a play actually transforms my inner vision. I have recently seen only one such play – it was ‘The Drunks’ by Ivan Vyrypaev at the Bolshoi Dramatic Theatre in St Petersburg. Everyone in the play is drunk and by the virtue of this almost saintly (and insane) drunkness a level of interconnectedness, honesty between strangers is achieved within minutes of conversation, so one indeed feels they belong to this ‘one world soul’ mentioned in Treplev’s play in Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’. So when I went home I wanted to talk to people on the underground, to ask them questions, to tell them about myself and that seemed normal, it was like an action my brain was primed to do after seeing ‘The Drunks’. When this after-play feeling subsided, I realized it was far from normal and closed off as everybody does. But that exhilaration after Vyrypaev’s play, that light and levity that I felt as a result of this drama will never go away from my memory and might come back some day when I would only need to go back to that state of mind altered by 'The Drunks'.
The same effect was produced by Baker’s play and I am not sure any act of describing it would do it justice. It empowered me to believe my own experiences and thoughts that are usually hidden from everyone in case they would not be accepted. I felt that they could possibly (may be, in some cases) be true and could indeed be trusted. It led me on the way of exploration of the dark, the weird, the unknown: can toys have power over humans, what can memories do to us, can dead or gone people still be with us, inside us, can we understand and read each other’s minds without speaking things out? Baker’s play reminded me of Connor McPherson’s ‘The Weir’, but in my view, goes on a journey which is more intimate, more profound, which does not only probe the land of the unknown but actually gets there, sits there, brings its characters there and makes us live the long and wonderful 3,5 hours in this world which we are free to inhabit, too. It is deliberately slow (as Baker, similar to Maeterlinck, knows the importance of silence), it is deliberately detailed, it deliberately has unfinished, illogical thoughts, memories, ventures that just hang there and don’t press themselves on us but in the end form a collage which in itself is a playwright’s message: these things deserve to be heard and seen and that means they are real, true, worthy of being treated seriously. And all this process in the end alters people’s minds – irrevocably, I think. But this is already a judgement, an inner view of a playwright and a critic whose head has been completely blown off by that play – but what exactly happens there?
Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale)
The first person we see is an elderly unknown woman who draws the stage curtain to the sides – she is the sorcerer, the magician, the director of this play (one gets a quick association with E.T.A. Goffman’s short stories here) and then we see a large sitting room of the house – the place itself is a character here. In the design by Chloe Lamford who closely follows Annie Baker’s stage directions, the house is overflowing with objects: it has two sets of clocks on the walls, lots of pictures and memorabilia, dozens of toys (dolls, small ships and trains, tiny house with electric lights inside) scattered everywhere: on the mantelpiece, on the tables, above the stairs. The objects have unknown and unexpected resources of activeness: the piano could start playing in the middle of the night, the dool Samantha could be watching you with an evil and strict look, the rooms upstairs could have a leak and could ‘behave strangely’. Every one of this little things is watching the action happening in the sitting room and is being watched by us. The eye, like in a film ‘An Andalusian Dog’ by Buñuel, is introduced from the very beginning as a symbol. One looks inside the doll houses, one sees with one’s inner vision because of the lack of the real eyesight (one character is blind), one cannot see what is happening as some scenes are happening upstairs and thus beyond our view (unheard of in modern theatre) and one also gets attuned to seeing things differently because of the constant change of lighting (a Christmas tree in the corner goes on and off, multiple lamps in the room are turned on and off).
Annie Baker and her director James Macdonald also openly explore the sensitivity of women to the illogical, unknown, weird elements of our lives. The main character, the owner of a small B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Mertis (an American actress Marylouise Burke) has a set of strange qualities about her which require some time to get used to: she winds the clock through the day, she opens and closes the stage curtains, she puts on the radiola every morning, she does not heat the rooms upstairs when she promises she would, she writes things in her journal that prove to be written in an unexisting language, she drinks something weird from a glass jar, and she talks to people in a way that their weirdest memories get unwillingly spoken out. She cares for a husband George who never appears as he is ‘sick’ (and may never have existed), but one of the most romantic and beautiful lines in the play are about him. Her friend Genevieve (June Watson) is almost blind but has a vision that she has been inhabited by her former husband John, and every action, every person she meets gets a part of John in her eyes, as he has command over them – Genevieve even has a small speech aimed directly at the audience where she tells us how exactly, in seven steps, John invaded her body and mind. The young woman Jenny (Anneika Rose) who comes to visit the place a week after Thanksgiving, as her boyfriend Elias thought it would be a good idea to explore Gettysburg, a famous scene of the American Civil War, has her period throughout the play (and this is stressed by the playwright in several dialogues). This condition (here we could recall beliefs of various world cultures) makes her prone to witchcraft and connects her to evil and dark, unknown forces in herself and the universe. The most rational link in this quartet is undoubtedly a bespectacled Elias (another eyesight symbol here, as at one moment Jenny puts on his glasses), and he is perfectly contrasted with all the women here in the play, as he actually does attempt to do a bit of sightseeing every day, thus doing the only logical and normal thing throughout the run of the action.
But Elias is, as everybody else, is bound to to reveal (very unwillingly, immediately closing off at the mention of it) his own painful memories of being touched and kissed by a man in a public sauna, his parents’ shouting at each other in his childhood and his fear of admitting his Jewishness to himself. The same with Jenny, his girlfriend with whom they have been on the verge of separation and are going through a strange period of semi-acceptance, semi-rejection of each other. She is a brisk young woman who speaks her thoughts and criticisms of Elias quite openly, she has a job of inventing questions for a TV show (and Mertis suddenly gets all the answers right, because ‘she is a bit of a mind-reader’), but she is also drawn to spooky, scary stories and in a way the only route to Elias’s taming and loving her is by putting his arm around her and telling these stories. She has a strange memory of her doll Samantha watching over her and demanding things from her, and when she sees the same dool in Martis’s house, it becomes her obsession. She also later reveals a memory of having sex with the Universe, of being exposed to forces of nature and cosmos in a way she almost felt an orgasm – a story told in semi-darkness over a glass of wine to two very old ladies one of whom is blind. But they do listen, and listen intently, and so do we.
The elderly women lead simple lives full of daily routines (like visiting and calling each other) but their very premises are uncertain, vague in a play. We never know the story of either of them in a sense that we never learn proper, reliable facts about them – Mertis was helping out in a hospital, met her former husband there, he died, then she corresponded with George through letters for two years and married him (never seeing him before) afterwards. We never see him either and it remains a question whether he exists. The phrase, though, that she uses to describe her meeting with George made my cry: ‘Walking through Terminal 4 towards him was like emerging from the dark wood into the sun. Shame and guilt were shed like a shell, and nothing else mattered. If this could happen, anything could happen’. The same with Genevieve – she seems obsessed with her ex-husband John and there are moments when she still feels he inhabits every object, every part of the world around her, and after getting over the weirdness of her experiences (and she was put into the mental hospital because of it) one begins to suspect that it could also be a dark, unusual side, but an existing, a normal side of true love. And Jenny has a John of her own (a former lover Elias is jealous of) who might be her true love also. The way she describes her response to him needing her, to him crying when he sees her and their furtive meetings we feel that she is still in emotional connection and dependence on him – and that is revealed by a final text sent to her phone and a question Mertis asks when she sees it – ‘So who is John?’.
Genevieve (June Watson)
And John, it seems, is not only the inner lover of women, he is also ‘the watcher’. The question Mertis askes of everybody in a play: ‘Have you ever felt that you were being watched?’. And it seems they are being watched – by objects, by Universe, by people in their memories, by their deceased parents, lovers, husbands, also the dead people from other centuries (Mertis mentions the house was a hospital and the soldiers’ legs and arms were thrown out of the window).And they are being intently watched by Mertis herself – and I think what Baker tries to show here is this eye, this watching is actually extremely kind, tender, almost parental. This is a play’s message about the supernatural forces in our lives – they might be actually guarding us, helping us, caring for us, connecting us with most important elements in ourselves. Everyone gradually warms up in this initially strange, weird, cold house. Everyone becomes a child, everyone allows herself (himself) to close one’s eye, imagine, listen, talk. One is not afraid of being watched or heard anymore (another scene is important here when blind Genevieve is in the room but is not seen by the young couple so she overhears them), and one gets closer and closer to oneself inside one’s body and ‘normal’ habits. John here is also Mertis herself, and she may be that kind God who watches all over us, winds and unwinds the clock, makes the day go by, allows poetry to inhabit the moment only to disappear in scribbles afterwards and lulls us all to a state of a perfect bliss without us understanding the real reason for it. A session of magic, of hypnosis happening in a B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania which also allows for metapsychosis (as Elias says he coul almost imagine being George and living here forever). May be, as Baker hints, we are all indeed one soul with the universe (people, lions, eagles and partridges, antlered deer, geese, spiders from ‘The Seagull’), and could substitute each other on our lonely journeys by stepping in another person’s life for a brief moment that would feel us with priceless, mystic knowledge.
Photo credits for all images from 'John': Stephen Cummiskey
Another theatre production which grapples with the mystic, surreal and unknown as reflected and perceived by women’s psyche is ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (a tour of Malthouse Theatre/Black Swan State Theatre Company from Australia) and has been shown at the Barbican on 21-24 February 2018. It is based on a novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay which was published in 1967 and entered into consciousness of Australian people while being purely fictional. Admittedly, as an European audience member, I hardly knew anything about this legend, but it seems there was a film also made based on this novel, and critics still debate its meaning, as the story which is presented as a true one never received a definite ending. And this is what the creators of the show that lasts 1.5 hours played with.
In a way, the playwright Tom Wright (who adapted Lindsay’s novel) and the director Matthew Lutton are exploring similar themes as Annie Baker’s ‘John’: the mystic, the unknown, and human responses to this in dreams, fears, bursts of emotions, visions, etc. The novels delves into a strange event (invention of an author but presented as a true story): during the picnic at Hanging Rock (a stone formation in the Mount Macedon area, Victoria) that was organized by a private school teacher and her female students on St Valentine’s Day in 1900, three girls and the teacher herself disappear. Among characters in the novel (and in the production also) there are the head teacher of the school Mrs Appleyard (who remains at school), the mathematics teacher Miss McCraw, the Irma, Miranda, Edith (the three girls who disappeared) and also Marion, Sara, the driver who gets them to the location, a young Englishman who was nearby (Mike Fitzhubert) and his friend and uncle’s coachman Albert – they were later brought in as the witnesses. There is also a French teacher and another student back in the boarding school – and one has to unweave all these characters gradually and quite painfully through the show as they are all played by five young women (Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahan, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels) of the cast, playing men and women and switching between different girls also. This might have worked fine for Australian audiences who know the novel, the story and the myth, but it is more complicated for the Barbican audiences to decipher the plot through intricacies of this production that is obviously less interested in the story but in the eye of the beholder and switching perspectives of the event that multiple characters have here.
The show has a running long wall in a form of a trapeze that runs along the whole stage and creates a closed space of the dark-blue-lined space inside it (set and costume design bu Zoë Atkinson). Beneath this wall, overhanging the whole set is a strange thing that seems to be created of separate tree trunks with branches brought together in some kind of an installation. It looks like an animal, or a concentration camp wire, and generally evokes unpleasant thoughts and fears – it is an objectification of ‘it’, the mystery of the Hanging Rock (never to be physically represented in the show). The actresses appear in school dresses (bright blue dresses and jackets, with cream-coloured hats, all very orderly and well-behaved) and start telling the story of the picnic (the planning, the looks of the girls, the thoughts of the girls, the behaviours of the teacher and driver). I must admit this is the part where it was still possible to hold on to the plot development, as afterwards its understanding for me as a member of the audience went into shreddings and pieces. I know and realize that this was an intended method of the creative team, but they left me continously hanging indeed at this hanging rock while I would have preferred firmly standing, thinking and observing.
So, then I followed the form of the show while being conscious of not following the plot fully (and I understood it was collaged, spread out through ever-changing characters, interspersed with some other meanings, but I was loosing it, and I am not the dimmest of possible theatre-goers). In terms of form the show indeed explores multiple points of view, as the actresses impersonate all characters at once: the Englishman who begins his own search of the lost girls, his coachman who finds him unconscious, one girl (Irma) who suddenly re-appears, and other girls (one wants to leave the school, and other three rip clothes off the returned Irma). The subtitles of each of the scenes appear above the stage (which is always half-dark) and seem to be intended for evocation of an additional perspective rather than for information purposes. I don’t remember them exactly, as they seemed slightly pretentious to me, but they went like ‘retaining to memory’, ‘they were all happy’, ‘where did that come from?’, ‘between here and there’ and so on – I again understood what the show makers were doing without fully weaving these subtitles into what I was seeing on stage.
In this labyrinth of senses I understood that the girls were caught in some time warp or in some unknown world resembling of the fourth dimension from Herbert Wells and Ray Bradbury stories, while the young Englishman who was following nearly fell into the same unknown space and lost consciousness in the process. The production explores thess mystic experiences through showing how it remains ununderstood because it is too far from the real-life experiences of the schoolgirls and schoolteachers. Also it showed how each character’s hidden primeval agonies and anger was brought onto the surface while the exploration of the crime was made – thus, the head teacher shouts and hits the student, while other schoolgirls loose their polite postures and become the exercising animals (making movements resembling Meyerhold’s biomechanics) who are ready to kill the returning Irma. So the ideas behind this show were really fascinating, and indeed they all centered around the unknown, this void where people disappear, and our fears of such a nightmarish exprerience.
However, I would have appeciated if some blueprint was made for me with the help of which I could follow this intricate collage circling around the mystery in the centre of the show. It is slightly disappointing not to find answers to what was going on, and by this I don’t mean finding the final response to the question of where did the girls go, but I would have been happy to understand what was being asked and what was being said by the creators of the show. I must admit I began to suspect it of emptiness beyond its intricacies, and just enjoyed the presence of that tree installation over the top of the stage that indeed continued to be fearsome, weary, intruding into my intimate space and evoking some nightmares. So while creating the mood and the ambiance, the production failed to lead me where it wanted to let its audience go, but I do realize it might have been just me (sometimes I am lost on unusual accents spoken with speed on theatre stage) or may be it required some more in-depth knowledge of Australian literature and mythology. I am looking forward to know more about both, while all my thoughts still remain with the production of Annie Baker's 'John' at the Dorfman (National), which, while being written by an American playwright, tapped on universal things and altered my mind in a way that a play and a production rarely do.