When the instructions to the secret Brunswick venue say,”if you pass the brothel or the bus depot, you’ve gone too far”, it already has to be a good night – so to be immersed in moments of exquisite theatrical bliss is a bonus.
French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) spent 30 years writing and re-writing The Temptation of St Antony, his novel in the form of a play script that wasn’t meant to be performed but proves irresistible to artists. It’s about St Anthony, a monk who shuts himself away in an Egyptian desert to be closer to God but doubt and exhaustion call temptations. It was last seen in Melbourne as a production by Robert Wilson at the 2007 Melbourne Festival.
Next to take on its depths are Four Larks, Mat Sweeney, Sebastian Peter-Lazaro and Jesse Rasmussen, a Melbourne collaboration formed in San Francisco. With a unique theatrical voice, they make junkyard opera that’s unexpectedly beautiful and so much more than its name suggests.
With fourteen people on the stage (cast and orchestra), the secret warehouse/garage is filled by Peter-Lazaro and Ellen Strasser’s design made from the found and re-claimed. Starting with a typewriter that could be 100-years-old, it’s a world of books and pages that’s coloured by the sepia creams and browns of old pages and the fading colours of lost stories. The hermit’s temptations are so connected to his words that his reality is always in doubt as his faith tumbles and flies among the gods and sins.
With work this dense, it’s difficult for an audience to be as involved as the creators. Whereby they’ve had weeks or months to live with a text, we have one go and it’s frustrating to know that there’s so much happening on the stage that’s out of reach without a thorough understanding of the text.
Maybe working with a writer or dramaturge would help to find ways to bring an audience closer, but I suspect that the unease of feeling slightly lost is a vital part of the experience. Searching for personal meaning in its complexities, instead of understanding the creators’ intent, may be why it’s so hard to pin down why this work resonates so deeply.
The Temptation of St Anthony finishes on Sunday. It’s been selling out, but there are a handful of tickets left. See if for the experience of the secret venue, see it because it’s just so beautiful and see it because it’s theatre like no one else is making.