First published on 7 Sep 2011. Updated on 12 Sep 2011.
Ralph, I’ve noticed in your tenure here that, despite or perhaps because of the fact you’re a set designer, there has been a lot of what appears to be anti-set sentiment coming out of Belvoir… You’ve said that the Belvoir space limits what you can do in terms of spectacle and illusion, and as a theatre it's missing out on some of the things that make a theatre ‘good’. So do you ever find yourself wishing that you had wings, flies and a proscenium arch at Belvoir?
No, because what is so great about the space here at Belvoir is that you don’t have those things. It means that the audience have to use their imagination to supply the things that are not being supplied by the set design. And thus the images that people conjure in their minds, by necessity, are personal images –things from their own experience or their own lives that mean much more to them than things that are shown to them.
That’s why a film of a novel is never as good as the novel. The film is someone else’s experience – it’s someone else’s experience of the countryside or the old lady. Whereas in a novel, you picture and create those and you populate it with people that you’ve known or places you’ve been to and you draw on your own experience – so they mean a great deal to you and they’re very personal. Theatre is the same. The best theatre historically has been when there’s no spectacle.
The Globe, and Shakespeare’s theatre, was just an empty stage. When you changed locations, you did it by telling people you were changing locations. The images changed in people’s minds without having to move pieces of canvas or people coming on and having to move the furniture.
So I am really pleased that the theatre has no wings. It’s just a room.
You always hear about the audience’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ – but a good piece of theatre can embrace its theatricality, even its artifice, can’t it?
You go to the theatre with the knowledge that it’s not real and that you believe that it’s real at the same time. If anyone in the audience thought that Hamlet was going to stab Claudius through the chest, they would stand up and stop them… in the same way that if someone at the bus stop was going to stab someone through the chest with a dagger, you would stop them. Or at least we hope you would if you were brave enough.
We know that’s not really what’s happening but it doesn’t stop us from being moved by it. I think the suspension of disbelief is a about the pleasure of knowing something is not real but believing in it at the same time. I think that’s true of all representational art – you kind of allow yourself to be immersed in it and it’s a sort of collective fantasy that we all engage in and that we allow ourselves to be swept into as audience members.
Well it’s your second year of sweeping people away. We’ve heard so much about the Melbourne production of Thyestes. Having just talked about the Belvoir space, why are you taking this one to Carriageworks?
Without giving too much away, when the curtains come up there are actually two audience banks facing each other – and we couldn’t do that in our space. Carraigeworks have these great big open flexible spaces. It’s a great production. When I saw it I had just appointed Simon Stone as the resident director but hadn’t seen a whole lot of his work.
That must have been thrilling then.
Yeah, you see that and you think: this guy really knows what he’s doing.
So Buried City is one of the other Festival productions?
Yes, it’s a totally new show that we are doing with Urban Theatre Projects. It’s about Perry Keyes – a kind of balladeer and folk singer of Redfern who sings these songs of this lost city, the lost, working class inner city of Sydney. UTP’s Alicia Talbot makes these extraordinary projects about place and space and people’s relationship to it.
Is this the first time you’ve paired up with Urban Theatre Projects?
Yes it is. It’s a project that we’ve worked on a long time together. We’re merging together Belvoir’s strengths of dramaturgy and text and Urban Theatre Projects’ strengths in finding these stories and contacting this part of the community that’s never really exposed to the light –investigating a part of the city that isn’t really seen. It’s a really fabulous show.
Talking about collisions with other theatre-makers, what can you tell us about Lucy Guerin’s work Conversation Piece?
Both these pieces, Conversation Piece and Buried City, came out of an Australian Council initiative where you can apply for money to produce or seed projects with a small company and a large company. As a large company we applied for some of this money to do a project with Lucy Guerin and to do one with Urban Theatre Projects – and both paid great dividends actually.
We’ve done three weeks of rehearsal on Conversation Piece already – quite a lot of development for a show before it’s been programmed. And at the end of the three weeks there was kind of an extraordinary show. It ended up being about making something out of nothing – about starting with a kind of seed or germ, and then trying to grow the show like a crystal garden every night. The basic idea is to take three actors and three dancers and push them together in a piece of theatre. It becomes about theatre and dance and the relationship between the two things.
Beautiful One Day is also a collaboration with a couple of other theatre companies.
Rachel Maza’s Melbourne-based company Illbijeree is a really great little powerhouse indigenous theatre and she is a great theatre-maker, with a great brain and obviously a big heart. Version 1.0 are kind of unique in the way that they attack stories. They really thoroughly research things and make their way into the core of an issue then make a theatrical response to it.
So we thought we would smash it all together and talk about Palm Island and Cameron Doomadgee, the man who died on the floor of his cell in 2004, which set off a whole train of stuff that isn’t really resolved yet.
The idea is to make the show with people from the island and bring it down here. It’s really great to be doing something that is a piece of indigenous theatre that is really overtly political again. And to be able to pick at a running sore on the Australian national psyche, I suppose, and get somewhere closer to healing it.
Rita Kalneijais wrote Babyteeth. We know Rita as an actress…
Rita is a great playwright. She’s been writing things for years actually. She had a play on in Melbourne, directed by Simon Stone when he was at Hayloft, called B.C., which was about the immaculate conception. It was very funny and very good, and on the basis of that we commissioned her to write a play for us.
This play is not at all what we were expecting. It’s a sort of black comedy about a teenage girl who is dying of cancer and this family that’s falling apart. Every one of the characters is so rich. The girl, her junkie 21-year-old boyfriend she met on the train, her middle-class parents, her violin teacher with the eight-year-old prodigy student and a dog… It’s the strangest world that it takes place in but it’s very familiar. It’s kind of out of control. It’s funny, it’s wrong, it’s great. I love it.
People certainly liked the larger-than-life characters in Neighbourhood Watch recently.
Neighbourhood Watch is really a portrait of a person – this is a portrait of a community. They’re similar but they’re different. Rita is probably more acerbic and more hard-nosed than Lally is as a writer.
Simon Stone is adapting and directing Strange Interlude – what is it?
Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude is this strange, expansive, brilliant play. It’s nine acts long and takes five hours to perform in its original format so Simon has taken the knife to it which is great.
Back to back with his production of Death of a Salesman!
Well that’s just how the dice fell – but if anyone can manage it he can. No, it’s very exciting. Salesman is maybe the best play of the twentieth century, and Colin Friels is such a good idea in his role.
Simon’s got a great handle on it and a great way of attacking it. It’s really modern. I’m trying not to design too many shows for next year’s season so I can spend more time being an artistic director – I really want to design everything because I get really excited about it – but I am really pleased I am designing that one.
Toby Schmitz and Noel Coward is such a great pairing in Private Lives. And you’re directing that one?
Yes, I always fantasise and plan on directing things but never get around to it. So I thought I might as well give myself a job. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do and I realised I wanted something that I didn’t really need to think about whether or not it was a good play. Private Lives is one of the most perfectly written plays ever. It’s kind of a perfect play. It’s funny, it’s savage, it’s incisive, it’s beautifully structured, it’s got five amazing characters, it’s brilliant. And it’s been crying out for a version that isn’t people walking around in dinner suits and drinking martinis.
Finally, Ralph, when last we spoke to Benedict Andrews he was very focused on his writing. He's written a play called Every Breath. I suppose the question is, what is his writing like?
Really good! I don’t think I’ve ever read a play that’s come to us without having anyone work on it that is as complete and perfect as this play. It just works. Obviously, having been a director for a long time, Benedict has an understanding of structure, which is something not so common in young, emerging playwrights. Plus he has an amazing facility with character and dialogue as well.
It’s a very dark play about a nuclear family whose lives are interrupted by the security guard who comes to guard them. It’s got a very simple conceit – which I won’t tell you – but it is kind of delicious.
With him directing his own work, we won’t be hearing any of those playwright-versus-director arguments…
It’s a really interesting thing actually. One of the rules of artistic directors is to never let playwrights direct their own plays. But I think it’s going to be great. I think if you’re the right kind of artist it gives you the ability to see the whole picture and to be able to change the part that you know needs to shift. You’re ultimately responsible for it. We love the play and Benedict is one of the best directors in the country. So why not do it?