We’ve been talking in fairly glowing terms about the work of director Benedict Andrews on Time Out this week - because Andrews makes theatre worth talking about. (Those who witnessed the recent Belvoir Sunday Forum on criticism might recall that Andrews’s work is partly the reason I’m here talking about theatre at all.) His latest production for Belvoir, though, is being talked about for all the wrong reasons. Every now and then in the mysterious alchemy of theatre-making, it all blows up in your face.
Until now, Andrews has stood on the shoulders of the greatest dramatists in the English language. With Every Breath, in every sense that matters, he makes his playwriting debut, and directs himself. The result is, in short, dismal.
The plot is straightforward however. An unspecified threat looms over an otherwise comfortable, buttered artichoke-eating family: mother Lydia (Angie Milliken), father Leo (John Howard) and bespectacled 16-year-old twins Olivia and Oliver (Eloise Mignon and Dylan Young). An androgynous security guard, Chris (Shelly Lauman), is stationed by the backyard pool to protect the family from whatever it is they need to be protected from.
The Upstairs Theatre has seldom felt so cold. There's no hint of the jasmine in the air in the script. The pool, in the set design by Alice Babidge, is a pentagonal hole in the floor that pushes most of the action to the edges of the space. Its bulky lid - a slab of the floor - hovers above the stage and changes shape like some awkward and meaningless sci-fi machinery. The imagined possibility that the performers are in danger of getting crushed by the thing is just one of the disconcerting aspectsof the whole affair.
In 2011, Belvoir’s artistic director Ralph Myers said - told us, in fact - that Andrews’s first draft of his script for Every Breath was the best first draft he’d seen. We’re inclined to believe him. With the benefit of being able to consult Belvoir’s programme/script book for this production - this one is in a deceivingly tranquil shade of periwinkle blue - one discovers that Every Breath is strangely, hauntingly effective on the page. Playing out on the mental proscenium of the imagination, it’s literature - rich with myth, ambiguity and melody.
Ironically, what we see on stage seems, by comparison, severely flattened. Without sufficient investment in character and drama, the reality presented in Every Breath is so tissue-thin that we can’t help but see right through it. And what we see are the multifarious indignities to which the cast is being subjected: regular nudity and semi-nudity, numerous simulated sex acts and, towards the end, one prolonged masturbatory montage. (On the page, there’s something beautiful about the orgasmic crescendo of the name ‘Chris’ being repeated 81 times in a row. Not so on the stage.) None of this business is objectionable in itself - Sydney theatregoers cop eyefuls of such stuff all the time. The issue is that a production must earn the right to ask its performers to bare all, to look like asses or give of themselves so completely. Every Breath doesn’t. What we’re left with is a strange circus-like performance art in which an increasingly self-conscious audience mostly just feels embarrassed for whatever victim is on stage at that moment. Mignon is particularly hard done by but not one of them is spared. Even the unexpected musical number (no, not that song by the Police) is shockingly uncomfortable.
If the first draft of Every Breath indeed held so much promise as Myers has said, it raises serious questions about what development the script has undergone since then. The temptation is to wonder if Andrews, a theatre-maker regularly accused of committing sacrilege against playwrights, defended his own project against the useful interference of others. At its best, Every Breath is still a first draft. At its worst, well, it's much worse than that.