Review: Armfield's poor - not cheap - Theatre Ring cycle, 2013

The Melbourne Ring, 2013

By Terence Watson
The concept of “poor theatre” as applied to the Melbourne Ring Cycle, has for many attendees been synonymous with “cheap theatre,” especially since many people found the range of costumes from the formal to the bathing costumes of the “Sea of Humanity” reminiscent of a visit to an Op Shop, and the minimal use of spectacular stage effects a way of saving Opera Australia money. However, as Armfield’s references to “poor theatre” and “simplicity of means” should alert us to a more serious intention.

I was grappling with Armfield’s concept and the prevailing disappointment in the style of the production until I remembered from my studies of theatre and drama that it was coined by the Polish Director Jerzy Grotowski in the 1960s to describe his rejection of the lavish productions of state-subsidised opera and theatre in Europe (and the equally elaborate privately sponsored productions in the USA), and his contention that theatre should also not attempt to compete with the resources and techniques of film, but focus on the essential elements of theatre, especially the acting. According to Andy Merrifield “rich theatre:” ...depends on artistic kleptomania, drawing from other disciplines, constructing hybrid-spectacles, conglomerates without backbone or integrity”.... one is dazzled by grandiose sets and décor, by star actors, by high-tech lighting, by flashing colors and ornate costumes and heavy make up, by lightening quick changes of scenery, all of which is image-driven, says Grotowski, all of which frequently fosters audience passivity rather than empathy [ encountering-paratheatrical-space-by-andy-merrifield-2/].

In 1968, Grotowski and Lutwik Flazen (regarded as one of Poland’s most renowned theatre writers and thinkers) wrote the ground-breaking book, Towards a Poor Theatre in which they claim:

Theatre - through the actor’s technique, his art in which the living organism strives for higher motives - provides an opportunity for what could be called integration, the discarding of masks .... Here we can see the theatre’s therapeutic function for people in our present day civilization...the actor accomplishes this act...through an encounter with the spectator - intimately, visibly, not hiding behind a cameraman, wardrobe mistress, stage designer or make-up girl.... The actor’s act - discarding half measures, revealing, opening up, emerging from himself as opposed to closing up - is an invitation to the spectator. This act could be compared to an act of the most deeply rooted, genuine love between two human beings.... [Jerzy Grotowski (19 June 2004). “Source Material on Jerzy Grotowski’s Statement of Principles”].

This “stripping away” of inessential components of “rich theatre” and focusing on the actor is consistent with Wagner’s own theories about the stripping away of inessential aspects of the mediaeval legends and romances and the centering the dramatic action on the crucial actions of the protagonist in his or her world.

1968 was also the year of Grotowski’s debut in the west. As Director of the Theatre of 13 Rows in Opole Poland, Grotowski took Stanislaw Wyspianski’s confronting playAkropolis/Acropolis to the Edinburgh Festival. From this debut, Grotowski’s ideas rapidly became popular with more socially radical theatre groups in the west. I would take a punt, given Armfield’s use of the “poor theatre” term and his characteristic theatrical style, that Grotowski was a major influence in the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) in the early to mid-1970s when Armfield was learning his theatre craft and theory, especially in reaction against the academic focus on texts and their interpretation. Armfield graduated from Sydney University with honours in 1977.

On 12 August 2012, in an interview with Elissa Blake for the Sydney University’s “Profiles” of important graduates, Armfield described the emphasis in the 1970s on dramatic texts, rather than theatrical practice: “Most of the energy and the pleasure of university was directing with SUDS over and over and over again,” he says. “...performance wasn’t a subject and drama was studied as texts in the English department. So we put on shows and bonded with people who were obsessed and loved it. We did it all ourselves with little or no mentoring from teachers. That was a great thing. We learned from our mistakes.”

He also gave Blake a definition of the concept of “poor theatre” that he has been applying to the Ring Cycle:

I always aim for a simplicity of means. I get rid of any decoration or embellishment and place the performer in a space where there is concentration on the human body and the clarity of the story,” Armfield says of the house style he forged at Belvoir. “The theatre here is a rare space where the audience breathes the same air as the actors. It’s a handmade, intimate experience.

In the 1970s, though, Grotowski moved on to a more socially inclusive concept of theatre Paratheatre that also seems to have found its way into Armfield’s theatre practice and his view of the Ring Cycle:

The main ideas inspiring the paratheatrical work were ... overcoming the division between participants and spectators; working towards suspending social roles and ... finding the human dimension of one’s existence in action and experiment; encounters involving other people and nature ... and gradually leading to fundamental transformations in culture .... The fundamental principle of paratheatrical work ... was the principle of gradually opening up the experiments and including in them ever more groups of people expressing an interest in them [ node/1904].

Armfield almost paraphrases Grotowski’s view of theatre in “an empty space” in giving us an entry point into his conception of the Melbourne Ring Cycle with his comments on Peter Thompson’s ABC Radio National program “Talking Heads,” on 12 July 2007, about the need to engage in a radical re-think of theatre in contemporary life when he took over as Artistic Director of the famous Company B at Belvoir Theatre in 1994:

When we bought this theatre, I argued that the theatre was somehow exhausted as a space. My suggestion was that we start again, that we needed to rip the seats out, to take all the structure out and open it up as a warehouse and find a new kind of architectural energy. Just make it an empty space and perform in front of it and realised how incredibly versatile this space is imaginatively so the audience could be taken anywhere by the simplicity and the lack of scenery, really.

In the Melbourne Ring Cycle, this idea finds expression in the constant use of a bare, black stage.

In the interview with Westwood, Armfield voices his sympathy with Wagner’s revolutionary ideas about the social purpose of theatre: ... Armfield regards the Ring, in part, as a work of people’s theatre – ‘that’s how it was written’ - and has approached the production with the economical stagecraft that is a hallmark of his theatre work. He is alert to the incongruities of the Wagner tradition: ‘Wagner was an opera composer who was trying to put a bomb under contemporary arts practice,’ he says.

There are in fact many similarities between Wagner’s theorising about the “true” nature of theatre in his Art and Revolution and The Artwork of the Future and Grotowski’s ideas that are too complex to go into here, but are worth following up if you have the inclination (all of Wagner’s essays are easily accessible at The Wagner Library http://users. ).

Also speaking with Thompson, Armfield gives us, perhaps, an insight into how his view of the power of theatre shaped his Ring Cycle production: “Well, it’s the pleasure of putting on a show, it’s the pleasure of gathering people together, it’s the pleasure of hearing an audience rolling with laughter or an audience kind of genuinely heartbroken or shocked in silence. There’s nothing more thrilling than being part of that crowd.” Merrifield again helpfully explains Grotowski’s emphasis on the actor-audience relationship:

...there is only one element of which film and television cannot rob the theatre: the closeness of the living organism. It is therefore necessary to abolish the distance between actor and audience by eliminating the stage, removing all frontiers. Let the most drastic scenes happen face to face with the spectators so that they are within arm’s reach of the actor, can feel his/her breathing and smell the perspiration.”

Hence Armfield’s practice in the Ring Cycle of bringing his characters as close to the front of the stage as possible; it is a bonus for the singers, too, of course, since they do not have to project as exhaustingly as from the back of the set.

In a perhaps unintended rephrasing of Wagner’s maxim “Kinder, macht es neue,” that Elke Neidhardt was fond of quoting, Armfield speaks in the interview with Blake of the importance of theatrical renewal: “I think there’s a constant rejuvenation in the experience of an audience receiving a performance and I think that there’s a thrill of something being right and funny or communicative and meaningful in all sorts of ways. I take pleasure in other people’s pleasure.”

To Thompson Armfield also offered the thought: “I think theatre has the potential to be like a space of both contemplation and active engagement. It can be funny and it can be beautiful and it can be heartbreakingly sad. It’s an essential kind of human activity, the acting out of story.” We can read here strong echoes of Grotowski’s view of the actor’s relation to the spectator being an “act of the most deeply rooted, genuine love between two human beings.”

With these theoretical ideas in mind, we can see how Armfield’s concept of “poor theatre” is far from cheap, despite the deliberate use of “ordinary” clothes for most characters. Armfield’s production focusses very strongly on the interaction between the performers (given the extra constraints imposed on them by the physical requirements of singing – such as not deafening your lover by bellowing the love duet in his/her ears!). There are memorable moments, such as Fricka throwing herself on the ground in Wotan’s path in a juvenile tantrum; Wotan lying next to his daughter and stroking her hair as she falls asleep, and, in a triumph of imagination, the ritual bathing of Siegfried’s body (to mention only a few).

Armfield builds on this basic notion of Grotowski’s with a version of the earlier director’s “paratheatre” by introducing what has been called the “sea of humanity,” apparently in reference to the crowd of people’s first appearance as the Rhine River. Instead, we would gain a better idea of Armfield’s approach by remembering Grotowski’s hope for a newly engaged social theatre: “overcoming the division between participants and spectators; working towards suspending social roles and instead finding the human dimension of one’s existence in action and experiment; encounters involving other people and nature.” We are, I think, meant to take the crowd of people as our representatives, and their “ordinariness” is supposed to make it easier for supposedly egalitarian Australian audience members to identify with them and, by extension, the named characters who enact the main story.

In an informative comment, Westwood also reports “Armfield started thinking about how he would stage Wagner’s allegory of wealth and power in the global energy capital. During the several years the production was discussed, Armfield saw it would have to address the oil industry, and environmental catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, 400km southeast of Houston.” The cancellation of Houston Grand Opera’s involvement in the project seems to have given Armfield licence to re-think his approach and to build on his investigations of Australian history and culture in such works as the stage adaptations of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Instead of a  critique of rampant despoiling capitalism, he has given us a whimsical and affectionate picture of ourselves through the lenses of various Australian traditions and symbols.

It is also worth remembering Wagner’s own view on the relationship between the hero of a tragedy and the community out of which he emerges: the hero is played by an actor within a community of actors who, through an imaginative identification with the hero of a particular myth directs the troupe of actors in enacting that myth for the moral improvement of the larger society through the overcoming of egoism:

Only that action is completely truthful...on whose fulfilment a man had set the whole strength of his being, and which was to him so imperative a necessity that he needs must pass over into it with the whole force of his character. But hereof he conclusively persuades us by this alone: that, in the effectuation of his personal force, he literally went under, he veritably threw overboard his personal existence, for sake of bringing to the outer world the inner Necessity which ruled his being. He proves to us the verity of his nature, not only in his actions...but by the consummated sacrifice of his personality to this necessary course of action. The last, completest renunciation (Entäusserung) of his personal egoism, the demonstration of his full ascension into universalism, a man can only show us by his Death; and that not by his accidental, but by his necessary death, the logical sequel to his actions, the last fulfilment of his being.

The celebration of such a Death is the noblest thing that men can enter on. It reveals to us in the nature of this one man, laid bare by death, the whole content of universal human nature.

In his Towards a Poor Theatre, Grotowski summarises Wagner’s position as “The actor, at least in part, is creator, model and creation rolled into one” [ htm]. Both theorists have a very strong moral understanding of the purpose and effect of the theatrical experience.

The status in Wagner’s analysis of the community of artists is akin to Grotowski’s notion of the theatrical priesthood:

The actor, depending only on the natural gifts of voice and body, could bring the sacred rituals of theatre and the themes of social transformation to the audience. The audience became pivotal to theatrical performance, and theatre became more than entertainment: it became a pathway to understanding.

The relevance of Wagner’s explanation to the character and myth of Siegfried, as Wagner constructs them, is evident.

Wagner emphasises the communal ritual nature of the drama: Grotowski and Armfield build on this notion by calling for the involvement of spectators in the action. Grotowski was known for bringing members of the audience onto the stage as part of the theatrical world. Members who have seen the recent Bayreuth productions of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal will recall similar effects. In Meistersinger, Katherina Wagner had the townsfolk sitting in bleacher seats and dressed as members of the audience, as a direct reflection of the larger community. In

Parsifal, Stefan Herheim inserted a large hanging mirror in the final scene to reflect the actual audience to itself.

Armfield extends this idea further by having “ordinary” people participate in the theatrical realisation of the narrative: they form the Rhine River (in Rheingold and Götterdämmerung), they become the gold in Rheingold (suggesting that human beings have a similar value to that attributed to the gold), very movingly, they pay tribute to the dead Siegfried by laying flowers in a circle around him (that both reminds us of the ring of power, the cycle of life and death, and the folk ritual of laying flowers at the sites of motor car accidents) – again to mention only a few of Armfield’s imaginative deployments of his crowd. Whether or not one is convinced of the theatrical validity or ideological intention of the use of the crowds depends perhaps on one’s own ideological commitments or preferences in theatrical practice.

In developing Grotowski’s ideas, Armfield emphasises, as he told Blake, the “plac[ing of] the performer in a space where there is concentration on the human body and the clarity of the story.” Grotowski described this approach: “By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography [ie not arising out of the actors’ discovery of the drama], without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc [ actingreading/actingteacherbiographies/jerzygrotowski.html].

Out of the placement and interaction of the performers, according to this approach, certain theatrical effects will naturally arise— particularly significant symbols, character’s actions, scenic images. I have in mind, for example, the giants ripping through the backdrop with their cherry- pickers. This moment has several significances. Firstly, the backdrop is exactly what Wagner called for in his stage directions, a very naturalistic picture of the mountain top with Valhalla in the distance. Armfield makes a strong ideological point by showing how easy it is for the giants to destroy Wotan’s illusion of a future shield from attacks, and of his growing divine power. Armfield builds on the delusion of Wotan’s dreams and ambitions by having the Norns engaged in an equally futile task of repairing Wotan’s world. The sham of this attempt, given all that has happened and that will soon happen, is reinforced by having the backdrop upside down as well as torn. The action of the Norns carrying off the entire backdrop reinforces its illusory status. It is also a statement about the nature of contemporary attitudes to such faux naturalism.

Another instance is the bare stage for the second encounter between Wotan and the giants where the gold “box” is built around Freia; at the moment she is declared freed by the giants, she bursts out of the “box,” scattering gold in all directions. It is unexpected and powerfully dramatic as a representation of love freed from the power of gold/money.

A further “muscular” theatrical moment is Fafner’s bursting stark naked and covered in blood from his cave. For most Wagnerians, there is an expectation of a dragon of some sort (usually quite disappointing). In keeping with the notion of not competing with “rich theatre” or film, Armfield  undercuts this expectation on one level, and deftly refocusses our attention on the plight of the dying giant on another level.

When we consider the relatively small number of props and sets in Armfield’s production, we enter another important area of “poor theatre,” that of the need for them to arise directly out of the actors’ actions:

The number of props is extremely limited; each one has multiple functions. Worlds are created with very ordinary objects, as in children’s play and improvised games. We are dealing with a theatre caught in its embryonic stage, in the middle of the creative process when the awakened instinct chooses spontaneously the tools of its magic transformation. A living man, the actor, is the creative force behind it all [Grotowski, Jerzy (2012-11-12). Towards a Poor Theatre (Theatre Arts (Routledge Paperback)) (p. 76). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition].

This approach is, perhaps, best described in terms of the “magic transformation” that Grotowski identifies as central to the theatrical experience. Indeed, transformation is a key term, it seems to me, in Armfield’s analysis of the Ring Cycle. Almost every character experiences a change of some kind. Armfield sets up the transformation pattern with Alberich’s magic changes into the serpent and the toad: the use of circus or cabaret magic sleight of hand to emphasise the dubious intelligence of Alberich’s willingness to demonstrate his new power with such party tricks, rather than immediately dominate Wotan. The transformation of the Rhinedaughters into circus or cabaret dancers continues the metaphor.

Among the many other transformations Armfield builds into his production, one of the most dramatic is Fafner’s making himself up into a psychopathic nightmare figure on the huge screen at the beginning of act 2 of Siegfried as a symbolic dragon, and then appearing transformed back to his giant form as he staggers mortally wounded and naked from his cave. Hunding’s hut seems to have been changed into an Australian high country shelter. We could even read a critique of the modern obsession with transforming one’s body into a perfect form into the Gibichung’s gym rituals. The wild mountain woman is finally transformed into the modern trophy bride, hobbled in wedding gown and high heels and trapped in a parody of an Australian ritual – the horror of a wedding in the tent that turns into an internecine battle à la Jack Hibberd’s Dimboola.

These production transformations match the character transformations that Wagner describes in great detail. Siegmund, for example, develops from a feral forest predator to noble hero willing to sacrifice himself for the safety and well-being of his lover. Wotan transforms from world dominator to world renouncer. Alberich “grows” into a nightmare of hatred and resentment. Siegfried changes from just post-pubescent youth into a tender, loving man to match the gentle, adoring Brünnhilde who has been transformed into a human being by her father. There are many other instances.

Finally, we must be grateful that Armfield is highly sensitive to the special character of opera, since it has contributed to a highly successful interpretation of one of the world’s towering cultural masterpieces; as he told Thompson: “It’s very different directing opera to directing plays. In opera, the director’s job, I believe, is all about making the music feel inevitable and right. You know, what happens in an opera theatre is that an audience listens with their eyes.” armfield.shtml a-ring-of-revolution-with-opera-australias-production/story- fn9n8gph-1226741165764