Saturday, 2 October 2010

Once in a generation...

I've just spent 7 days on my own. Just me and the sound of the car wheels on the road. I punched the air somewhere outside of Wodonga – not because I'd just left the place – though that's reason enough...but because I'd just clocked the speedo for the second time. Over 2000 kms of greenhouse gas producing solitude. Fan–fucking–tastic.

And the most significant exchange of words I had with anyone in all that time was with my current obsession – the extraordinary Mr Ewen Leslie. Now really, how can it get much better than that?

I had spent the 1000 or so kms before I got to Sydney thinking on exactly what I would ask Mr Leslie in the Q&A session after my third (yes that's right 1, 2, 3) viewing of The Trial. The Q&A session I was driving the aforementioned 1000 or so kms to be part of. There's a lot of space inside one's own head when there is nothing to do but drive; work out how to open water bottles and change CDs while driving; and consider which small coastal town deserves ones patronage for the night. The rest of my mind was able to focus on what to ask.

There's a fine line between sounding clever, knowledgeable and enthusiastic; and sounding like a dickhead. Walking that line got a lot of thought, particularly on the stretch into Lake's Entrance when I was already a little tired and paranoia may have been setting in.

Knowing that Mr Leslie is about to play Hamlet for the MTC was playing on my mind. I loved his Richard III – the fully self-actualised man – the self-aware villian who chooses villiany actively and accepts the consequences. “I am I” he calls out in the height of an existential crisis. Its the only answer any of us are left with when we face our inevitable defeat and mortality. Hamlet will be even better. I already want to know if they are going to leave in my favourite scene – the wonderful lines “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.”

The publicity shots show him looking a little effeminate, clutching the sparrow whose special providence is part of the moving speech where he accepts his own demise. I hope we are not going to have a foppish Hamlet – let him be manic and masculine – more Mel Gibson than Kenneth Brannagh...

But all this worrying about Hamlet, got me no closer to the question.

I wanted to ask something about the actor's craft. A thought that struck me with particular intensity as at 8am the morning after the Grand Final I walked the beach at Eden in the sun and noted that it did indeed seem a place appropriate for tempting people with shiny objects like apples. I thought about asking about the lack of great speeches in The Trial for the Joseph K character. But then I remembered the wonderful speech, to the audience, made complicit in Joseph K's torture through him addressing them as the jury. Its a deeply uncomfortable moment – and when Mr Leslie ennunciates “Fuck you.” it has a new power. The F-word can still be shocking.

Of course none of his speeches quite measure up to the extraordinary parable of the doorkeeper from the penultimate scene. It is a magnificent piece of writing – Kafka at his most lyrical and horrific. Its impact on the audience and the trembling, near-naked Joseph K is difficult to describe. When the Chaplain finishes with the line “And now I am closing that door.” there is a collective gasp from the audience – we have been shown our own internal despair.

Its difficult to dwell too long on despair and death as one drives slowly up the southern coast of NSW. The sparkling water; the white sand; the pelicans diving, floating like small boats across every bay and inlet. But I still needed the question.

Of course some friends had suggested that the question I really wanted to ask was “So, what are you doing after the show Ewen?” but I like to think of myself as a little more subtle and cerebral than that. These may well be the same friends who were trying to shove me onto the stage in the Malthouse, whispering, rather too loudly for my comfort “Go on, he's up there in the bed, you could just snuggle in next to him.” With friends like that...

And it was another friend's question on my first viewing, which had made me think carefully about questions to avoid. She'd been fascinated by the way the blood from the final, truly harrowing scene had stained Joseph K's underwear in a patch that did indeed resemble menstrual bleeding. M is not squeamish and she asked if it was deliberate. There is something quite extraordinary about seeing a man who has just spent over an hour in front of an audience in nothing but a pair of white underpants blush and look at his feet. I noted, with an amusement inappropriate to the seriousness of said scene that when I saw it a second time Mr Leslie was at pains to bleed as far away from his undies as possible.

Those final moments of the play though are emotionally grinding. I had tears in my eyes all three times and during the first performance I saw, someone, not far from me, was sobbing uncontrolably. The bloodstain left on the floor of the otherwise empty stage is a moment of the most perfect pathos. So, as I settled in for my third viewing, crushed in the back row between a selection of Sydney's finer matrons, it was this that I already had in my mind. Its bloody amazing to watch...but what does it feel like to play?

I didn't ask the first question...but I did get my hand up, like an over-eager Yr 7, for the second one. And I explained, in my best booming teacher voice so that no one in the theatre could miss a word, that I found Joseph K a compelling literary figure; one who was fascinating to watch; but also harrowing. Then I asked what an actor could possibly get out of playing that part.

I have to say I was gratified with a very long and complex answer; which included lines about how the audience seems to spiral down as the play proceeds and doesn't give a lot back to the actor. Mr Leslie leaned forward in his seat – a good thing, because from the back row I could barely see him. He made some very funny jokes, which, to be honest, I was just a little too excited to remember. All in all, it was worth every km between Coburg and Sydney.

Fan-girl adoration aside, Ewen Leslie is something else to watch on stage. The manic energy which means he can't sit still during question time (in fact I've taught kids with ADHD who have more control over their movements) – becomes on stage a presence and physicality like nothing else I've ever seen. And there's a stillness – whole minutes when he doesn't move, does nothing but breathe. Simon Phillips, outgoing director of the MTC, has called him the actor who comes along once in a generation. Its hagiographic praise – but I think it might be accurate.

Sure, I'd pay money to sit and watch him read the phonebook; but what I will be paying money for next is flying to Sydney to see him in The Wild Duck in February...and now I have about five months to think of the question I'll be asking...