What is a dying city? Yr hmbl crrspndnt thought of Venice. Not modern Venice, disappearing into the mud, but eighteenth-century Venice and the moribund Venetian Empire of Arnold Toynbee’s twelve-volume epic, A Study of History.
Venice is Toynbee’s example of a civilisation in decline, unable to deal with the challenges of the new era: a society locked in a cycle of self-worship and idolisation of an ephemeral self. It is a civilisation in moral, intellectual, political and economic collapse, one that has allowed its once vital values and institutions to wither beneath the shimmering recollection of a distant past. This is the city that John Ruskin described when, in The Stones of Venice, he called it the dying city, magnificent in her dissipation.
The dying city in Christopher Shinn’s 2008 play, currently presented by Melbourne’s Hoy Polloy at the Mechanics Institute in Brunswick, is New York City, and the moribund civilisation it represents, by extension, is America.
In Dying City, America is a place where once they produced so many great writers, but now produce only piece of shit movies, where Long Day’s Journey into Night has become Long Day’s Journey into the Hampton’s, where once people really believed in truth and community, but now are content to preach their own limited slice of truth to the converted, at the Indiana State Fair, or on Comedy Central.
It’s a harsh vision of New York and of America, and the characters that populate it are themselves cold, confused and alienated.
Kelly (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley), a therapist, is drifting through life. One year ago, her husband, Craig, was killed while serving in Iraq, and she has been struggling to re-engage with life in New York ever since. Peter (Brad Williams), Craig’s identical twin, shows up out of the blue. Peter, too, is struggling to come to terms with life after Craig’s death and sees in Kelly a possible lifeline. Their re-union is interspersed with flashback scenes of Craig (also played by Brad Williams) and Kelly’s last night together before Craig left on active service, scenes that reveal betrayal and trauma and the deep sense self-loathing at the heart of all idolatry.
On the morning of 11 September, we learn that Craig and Kelly sat on their couch and stared out at the cloud of death that hung over the city. Seven years later, that cloud still hangs over them, a cloud of complex associations—war, therapy, torture, self-medication, denial, subjection, childhood, disillusionment, William Faulkner, acting, Abu Ghraib, sexual domination, power. It is a cloud in which the characters of this play have become lost. As Kelly says, I think you need to be on the outside to see it. Much of this play, therefore, is about putting the audience on the outside, about distancing us from the relationships and framing them in a broader political and moral context, of seeing the personal against the political. The result is a chilling if not chilly critique of contemporary life.
Shinn allows his argument to accrete in a well-measured way, building the scenario piece by piece with his concise, natural but always direct dialogue. The play does not then hinge on any particular scene, but on the accumulation of suggestions. This method is artfully pick-up by director Matt Scholten, who allows props to carryover from scene to scene, travelling backwards and forwards in time, building-up in Kelly’s otherwise sparse apartment. He suggests also, in the movement of characters between scenes, the instability and fluidity of the relationships and associations.
Brad Williams is fascinating in his role as the brothers, conveying well the multiplicity of aspects within the Peter/Craig conjunction. Peter, who is an actor, admits to being confused sometimes about whether he is playing himself or his brother, while Craig also is split between two personas, public and private, the walls between which are steadily broken down.
And speaking of all things chilly and chilling, it’s worth especially noting the fortitude of Ellerton-Ashley, who, on the night I was there, had spend ninety minutes on stage, barefooted, in a room that couldn’t have been warmer than ten degrees. Let’s hope the heating problem at MIPAC was a one-night only thing.
Venue: MIPAC, Brunswick, corner Sydney & Glenlyon Roads
Dates: Friday, 6 August – Saturday, 21 August 2010
Prices: $30 Adult, $20 Concession / Groups 10+, $18 Tuesdays
Bookings: 03 9016 3873 [email protected]
Photo by Tim Williamson, courtesy of Hoy Polloy.