The last time that I saw Benedict Andrews and Marius von Mayenburg collaborate on a piece of theatre was El Dorado in 2006 at the Malthouse in the Merlyn Theatre. Aside from the slow-burning, epic narrative and the immediately striking aesthetic of the glass enclosure, what had a lasting impact on me, and what seared a still vivid imprint onto my mind, was the opening prologue: Robert Menzies, pressed against the glass, sweating, spitting and delivering a breathy monologue before disappearing into smoke. Few theatre beginnings, outside of a couple of MIAF shows, have commanded my attention in such a way since. Which leads me to ask: what, oh what, were von Mayenburg and Andrews thinking with the opening of Moving Target?
Before I get into a deeper discussion of the piece, which incidentally I did really enjoy, I have to talk about how much I passionately hated the way in which it started. Entering the space, the actors were already positioned in a pleasant, domestic tableaux, the indie-hipster-too-cool-for-school tunes of Animal Collective playing in the background. The lights then dimmed and what followed was thirty minutes of tedious, almost unbearable slapstick and physical games, during which the significance and impact of some of the text was almost entirely lost. While many of the audience seemed to find humour in the choreography of the actors playing hide and seek, a handful, especially on the instances where the games were interjected with loud sound effects or distorted voices, were driven to leave the Beckett theatre. I honestly do not blame them, as I was so tempted to walk out myself; if you were to judge Moving Target on the merits of its first thirty minutes, it would be a self-indulgent exercise on how not to approach postdramatic theatre.
Moving Target emerged from a long collaborative process between Andrews, von Mayenburg and cast. The director and writer collated a broad spectrum of fiction and non-fiction writing, political commentary, lyrics, art and other material in a book named ‘The Secret Project’, and then took it to rehearsals. Much of their initial workshopping with the cast revolved around the improvisation of ‘hide and seek’, which Andrews asserts, like theatre, “is concerned with appearance and disappearance… enacts a basic destruction and recomposition of community”.
This is how the piece’s opening developed. The ‘hide and seek’ dynamic is definitely what dominates the first thirty minutes of Moving Target and it then recurs as a motif throughout the piece. It is also what, quite ironically, gives those first thirty minutes such a feeling of staleness and stagnation, a feeling that this sort of improvisation and game-playing is exactly what should have been left in the rehearsal room to better allow for the text and images of Moving Target to breathe. In one sense, including them gives the piece an immediate accessibility; a lightness in theme and character which the audience feel they can trust, from which the piece can get progressively more disturbing and challenging. But it feels too obvious, too aimless, and too self-referential (the actors even refer to each other by name when they are “found” during the game) for a piece of theatre which has bigger things in mind. It is a solid metaphor and it does perform, at least in part, the function which Andrews asserts in the aforementioned quote; however, nowhere near enough to justify thirty minutes of it. At least not in its infancy.
There is a point at which the ‘hide and seek’ game finally moves out of its juvenilia and becomes a very surprising, and very clever, evocation of one of the most disturbing images of the Iraq war. It’s a small pay-off from Andrews considering what precedes it, but it stamps out the direction that the piece is to take from there onwards; a detached examination of paranoia and protection in the contemporary world context of grave human atrocity, war and terrorism. When the ‘hide and seek’ routine is performed subsequently, there is always a stronger purpose and narrative function to it; a very welcome relief. I can happily say that for the remainder of the piece I was completely captivated, and did not feel compelled to consult my watch or murder the hosts of Play School.
I say Moving Target is a ‘detached’ examination because this is von Mayenburg at his most abstract. Gone are the archetypal characters of El Dorado; rather, we have a cast who float in and out of character, never settling with any one definite persona, reciting fragments of stories and fears in the first and third person. Stylistically, the change in his writing should not come as too much of a surprise; von Mayenburg has translated into German, and been very obviously influenced by, form-pushers such as Sarah Kane and Martin Crimp. It’s an interesting evolution, especially considering recent revelations that Berlin is moving away from the postdramatic theatre which has dominated for at least the last decade. Moving Target is an exceptionally ambitious text, but after the jarring beginning, the narrative threads begin to connect and the image of a potentially dangerous child, and a sick, dangerous society, really develops. The way that Andrews handles the increased hysteria and pulsing urgency of the text, particularly in the final quarter, is imaginative and inspiring.
The text doesn’t function flawlessly, though; von Mayenburg’s poetry is mostly fantastic but is also, occasionally, a little excessive. In particular, the cat metaphor, littered through the text and given some visual hints by Andrews, is not entirely realised until the piece’s closing monologue and is an unnecessary afterthought to what is already a well-developed theme of the play. The closing monologue could well have been scrapped to let the piece explode and then settle with the resonances of tension and fear. It is a complicated, complex and loaded text, but one certainly worth the efforts of following through its equally complex representation.
The real key to the accessibility of Moving Target is the cast. The mesh of character and third-person delivery of text is a challenge for the actors, especially in conjunction with the intense physical choreography, but as an ensemble, they truly exceed expectations. While it is hard to distil individual performances as ‘stand-out’ in such a piece, the crude machismo of Hamish Michael and the vulnerability of Julie Forsyth add particular depth to the text. Michael should also be commended for his discordant and unsettling sound design (especially if the closing Kate Bush number was his own choice) and the innovative use of integrated microphones. Paul Jackson reaffirms himself as one of Melbourne’s most interesting lighting designers, indulging in the full spectrum of safety-zone colours and giving the off-white set a spooky, unnatural gleam.
Andrews’ direction is again astonishing, and regardless of whether or not this type of material is what you feel constitutes ‘good theatre’, his work demands an audience. From making his actors create finger paintings on stage to the thumps of a thundering soundtrack, or the construction of intricate webs of sticky tape across the stage, Andrews constructs a mise-en-scene which sometimes intimidates, but never bores. It is ultimately so successful because it does not denote the way in which von Mayenburg’s text should be read; rather, it raises questions and problematises a simplistic understanding of the images and the themes of the play.
While he needed to look much more closely at the worth of the opening and the ending, Andrews has pulled off an enormously exciting piece which will be undoubtedly, and deservedly, one of the most talked-about of 2008. From the perspective of an emerging theatre artist, or for anyone who has ever seen theatre, Moving Target is an opportunity to see some of Australia’s most exciting talent in a relevant, and very contemporary, production. See this play.
Moving Target runs from March 12 to March 29 in the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse. For more information see http://www.malthousetheatre.com.au