The Daniel Schlusser Ensemble takes up the real-life drama of Tennessee Williams' family in a new devised performance piece, Menagerie, a part of the MTC's festival of independent theatre
Director Daniel Schlusser is candid about the origins of his latest work. "We initially applied for the copyright to do the Glass Menagerie," he explains, "and I was very open and told them what I wanted to do, which was to change the context quite drastically. I was offering to be very faithful to the words, but they just didn't want a bar of it."
Not to be daunted, however, Schlusser soon discovered the material he was looking for in the story of the great playwright's own life.
"All his work has that intense biographical content," says Schlusser, "so it kind of struck me, given that I play a lot without language, taking language out of situations, that if we deal with the life and times of Williams, it'll look like a version of the Glass Menagerie anyway."
There is certainly much in Williams' life that is theatrical – even gothic – and his legend is rich with dramatic potential.
"He's a fascinating figure, always hiding what he is behind a dramatic persona," says Schlusser, whose new play focuses on the Williams family unit. "There's the horror of his sister being lobotomised, his mother as a sort of Amanda figure [from Glass Menagerie], a wounded matriarch, and his place in the family as a young gay writer."
The Daniel Schlusser Ensemble is one of the country's most critically admired companies, with productions like The Doll House and Life Is a Dream often cited by local theatre makers as key influences. Their work is distinguished by an innovative deconstructive style.
In the past, however, they've always had a theatre text to pull apart – usually a classic. Here, there is no text and scenes must be devised from scratch.
"We're taking a freer approach to what the stage text will be," says Schlusser. "It's a bit different and it's harder to talk about than an approach to a fixed text. We're finding ways of stepping off into a void."
Part of the challenge is to breathe new life into Williams' particular poetic style, that overripe, lilting music which comes through so powerfully in his stories, essays, plays and even his diaries.
"Audiences have become a bit immune to Williams' charms," admits Schlusser, "because they've seen the clichés represented so often and without much thought. If you look at some of the plays today, they're sort of out of fashion. We're so familiar with the kind of heavy archetypes he uses. It's almost like they've been reversed engineered from Cliff Notes."
For Schlusser, as an Australian, one thing that has helped open out this problem is the foreignness of Williams' gothic Americana and Schlusser's native resistence to American culture.
"When I was starting out," he says, "everyone was obsessing over the Americanisation of Australian culture, and I kind of wonder when that ceased to be a thing, whether it's because it's complete, or whether we just stopped being so neurotic about it. So that tension has been really fertile."
There is, he thinks, a liberating feeling of distance in tackling a monster like Williams' family from as far away as Melbourne.
"I love being from the provinces," he says. "I just got asked about freedom, about whether under the German system artists are freer or bolder. When you think about that, after the reflexive response of, 'Yes, yes, of course', then actually, you realise you don't get much more freedom than we have, which is almost a freedom from history."
Schlusser’s Menagerie is the first show prgrammed as a part of Neon, the MTC’s new festival of independent theatre, running 16 May to 21 July, a celebration of the work of five of the city’s best-known companies.