Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Grotesque and the Gothic in Peter King's John Gabriel Borkman: A Reflection from the Inside

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Grotesque and the Gothic in Peter King's John Gabriel Borkman: A Reflection from the Inside

Article excerpt

Look down. Russell Walsh's half-kneeling black-trousered leg, the leg of his character Foldal. His black shoe. Step over his calf. Right hand by my side. Face audience. Put left foot down next to the left of his leg. Swivel hips and head slightly to right. Bend towards Russell's right ear and say ... say... Say what? Say what? What do I say? 'Line!' I say quietly, tersely, to the stage-manager sitting an arm's length away. The SM has no script! A waiting. Murmured discussion. The audience freezes. Like me. More waiting. Minutes pass. 'No point in freezing', I tell myself. I relax. Russell waits.Three other actors on stage wait. A stir in the audience. Four audience members leave, walking across stage, past the actors to the exit door. Conversation outside. A fiasco. A shattering of illusion is a death. We continue.

An hour later, ripping off Borkman's jacket, I apologise to the cast. 'Sorry about that, guys.' 'No worries', someone says. Is every dry the same? The reviews have been good, some very good. A spinning newspaper stops: 'GROTESQUE DRY BY VETERAN ACTOR'.

So went performance six of Borkman at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne and which ran for ten performances, 18 -28 September 2013.

13 July 2013

'Peter King here, Jim. I'm doing John Gabriel Borkman. I've lost an actor and I would love you to play the role. It's part of the Fringe. Can I send you a script?'

Fringe is where you get your hands dirty, split the door, often settle for less. Rehearsal begins in King's lounge-room. The mooted city space, convenient for me, falls through due to cost. I now have a long drive at the end of a teaching day to get there, but the pull of the project is strong. We have eight weeks, not four, till production week: time opens up detailed work. The temporary absence overseas of two actors makes extra time for me to rehearse with others. We work in bits.

As I began to rehearse, in addition to undertaking the demands of the director, I, my head elsewhere, charged myself at the outset to be alert to theatrical manifestations of the grotesque, since I have an interest in that trope as part of my doctoral study. Early on King said, 'I want it to have ... a bit of The Addams Family about it. It's never melodramatic but it is in that eerie area.'' I thought of people standing tall, expressionless, bags under their eyes, along with an awareness that this was a popular image and that there was a bit of the showman and publicist here in King's characterisation of the play. I wondered to what extent the grotesque, if it emerged in the doing, might be conflated or interlaced with or featured in the Gothic. Because of lack of specific reference to the grotesque, I decided it would be worth seeing if it 'arose' in the playing. I postponed my reflections on possible grotesquerie until the play was running, in order to see what had been thrown up or come into being during rehearsal. I did not reveal inquiry to cast or director during the run of the play. It is a truism to say that a sense of evolution and surprise is more likely to emerge in a production with a visionary director, but not trite to say that the thoughts and feelings which attach to the effects and affects of visionary venturing provide rich material for individual investigation. So I asked myself if there would be grotesque features in the text and in the playing-as-directed despite my efforts not to initiate manipulation of the text or to perform in order to produce that phenomenon. How could I avoid bias and the production of effects unintended by the director, and, if such effects arose, how might they be identified and apprehended, and what experiences would I have as actor?

I took into the production, as prior knowledge, several strands of the grotesque trope. Geoffrey Galt Harpham2 warns of the methodological problems in discussing the grotesque because of its 'dizzying variety of [aesthetic] possibilities'.3Writers of and commentators on the grotesque stress different themes: Mikhail Bakhtin4 highlights hybridity and excess - qualities in which I was particularly interested - and the body's orifices and lower stratum. …

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