I’ve just had an intense week of theatre. I’ve always liked the European’s concept of ‘encounter’, different from ‘meeting’ or ‘festival’ – it involves contamination, moving outside one’s safe space, no matter how complex that space may be, in order to have a dialogue with ‘another’ at a deep level. So I had thought to spend a summer holiday week in Blackball having an encounter: with other practitioners, with a classic text as the focus, and to use the old miners’ bathhouse as a venue. The actors would need to start ‘off script’ and we’d go from there. The bathhouse is both a bleak concrete-walled space (and is semi derelict, having lost its roof, windows etc), yet is surrounded by beech forest and evocative light and cloud. It was also the place of relaxation, banter and after-work dialogue. The initial idea of Hamlet failed to get funding but Beckett’s Endgame seemed do-able. Free theatre’s Peter Falkenberg and Marian McCurdy were keen, as was a great niece, Emily, recently graduated from NASDA, plus three of us Kiwi/Possum elders.
We assembled at the Brian Wood cottage on a beautiful summer day and then it began to rain, and rain, and rain. We rehearsed in the garage and then when that became overcome by thunderstorms, in the Working Men’s Club. Beckett’s a strange one. Freud discussed the similarity between the artist and the schizophrenic. The play is absurd, a series of inkblots in a way (those random patterns used by analysts to begin clients free associating), so the text was both very difficult to learn by rote and it began to generate personal associations: adopted family, invalids I have known, retirement… and the text is constructed with transition pieces of pure psychosis- or is it simply fine art trickery – make a proposition, negate it, negate the negation. The mysteries grew- with suddenly a child abuse reading possible. And then the biblical allusions. The plot is remote but one can piece some things together: a decrepit gentry family on some Russian steppe presumably took in a peasant boy and groomed him for higher things, but when the master becomes a cranky invalid, the boy is abused. Master and servant now play out a daily sado-masochistic game. When will it end? Toss in a post nuclear holocaust environment, remove any logic and it is a bleak yet comic piece.
An intense week’s rehearsal tested memory and resolve. Thunderstorms and lightning struck the house, but there was finally a lightening in the weather and a dress rehearsal in the bathhouse was possible, accompanied by a setting sun and rising moon. For the first performance the rain returned more gently, but we had tarps for a brave audience and a special encounter took place. A second more normal night and then to a theatre in Hokitika. I got out the lighting gear to find the old cat had been shitting in the corner – I had been wondering what the smell was. Playing inside was easy. It was like a marathon runner being given a mile to run. We were tired but that can lead to a greater focus. It was a smart audience and we had the satisfaction of achieving the whole art object.
And Emily, the graduate, had flowered as a performer- from song and dance to this. From timid to certain. She has learned the most important acting lesson, to have a through line and to tell her story as a performer.
We drove back through the night, feeling that moment of plenitude that real encounter brings.