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Stone deaf in the uncritical pursuit of novelty is a sign of insecurity among our directors


Cameron Woodhead

Illustration: Robin Cowcher.

Illustration: Robin Cowcher.

WHEN Simon Stone cut the "Requiem" from the end of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in the recent Belvoir production, which opens in Geelong this week, he aroused the ire of Miller's agents.

They demanded its reinstatement. Really, they should not have had to - anyone with a shred of sensibility should have been able to tell that the funeral scene is important.

The episode is the latest example of a sickness among theatre directors in this country when it comes to staging canonical drama. It's a disease born of hubris, ignorance and, ultimately, of insecurity.

The situation is tragic because its sufferers have limited insight into their condition, and their symptoms are exacerbated rather than salved by our arts bureaucracy, with its slavish focus on "innovation" as a touchstone of artistic merit. The uncritical pursuit of novelty is particularly egregious in theatre, due to the nature of the form itself. Theatre is always new: every production, every night is different. It's the most complex mode of representing human experience we have, so thinking that you have to rewrite Ibsen or amputate an Arthur Miller play to make your mark as a director is a terrible vanity.

At its worst, it resembles the behaviour of politicians who pass trivial and unnecessary legislation, just to make it look like they are doing something.

If classics are classics because their continued performance is still meaningful to us, it follows that the text of a famous play is not sacrosanct. Postmodern theory makes this point explicit.

Acknowledging that every adaptation does violence to the text in some way, it has encouraged playfulness and unlocked an arsenal of interpretive techniques previously unavailable.

Predictably enough, this view has reconfigured power relations in theatrical production, giving more freedom to directors and designers at the expense of writers. Yet that freedom comes with a heavy responsibility.

Whether you adapt classics with the delicacy of open-heart surgery, or commit a massacre, will depend a lot on the context in which the work appears.

And I don't want to sit here pontificating about Aristotelian unities or Freytagian pyramids, or any of the other dramaturgical theories or aesthetic movements in theatrical history.

Simon Stone is a director of great sensitivity and talent, but he does not have a strong sense of all this. His excellent production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck, for example, I now think disimproved the original ending.

Ibsen finished with the unsettling spectacle of a young man asserting his blind devotion to honesty - its price, the corpse of a young girl on stage. Stone allowed the characters out of the cage, with grief-stricken parents talking through their pain: it was an answer (and a reassuring, bourgeois one) not the still relevant question that Ibsen asks. His former collaborators at The Hayloft Project did something similar in The Seizure, an adaptation of Sophocles' Philoctetes.

In Sophocles, the title character will not - cannot - seek help for his horrific injury. He yields only when the demigod Herakles appears. In contemporary terms, it's a mental illness and addiction narrative, so why did Hayloft dispense with the deus ex machina? It makes no psychological sense.

Then there was the terribly shallow and confused dramaturgy in Queen Lear, or Stone's decision to change Willy Loman's suicide to gassing rather than a car crash simply to get a spectacular stage effect. (Miller knew what he was doing. A car crash is a real travelling salesman's death, and its ambiguity is crucial to Willy's motivation. He wants the life insurance money for his family.) The list goes on.

Yet for every dramaturgical intervention that fails, there's a success. Schaubuhne's production of An Enemy of the People at the Melbourne Festival is exemplary instance of the latter.

Florian Borchmeyer's dramaturgy put an infamous anarchist manifesto into the mouth of Ibsen's idealist, and director Thomas Ostermeier opened the play's town hall meeting to audience participation. It was a brilliant way of implicating the spectators in the lead character's ambivalent character and his predicament.

Crucially, the action ended on a moment of precipitation, a wordless breath before the kind of decision between principle and material comfort that we all make, all the time.

Knowing what should be changed and what should be preserved in contemporary adaptations of the classics is a difficult art.

But as Schaubuhne shows us, if you think critically about it, and know the world outside the theatre, the novelty will take care of itself.

Cameron Woodhead is The Age theatre critic. He blogs at

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