The Melbourne Arts Festival ended on the 23rd, but a Festival show called the Carnival of Mysteries went on for a few nights more. M. bought tickets. This Carnival, even though it never mentioned Christina Stead, was closer to her in spirit than I Write What I See.* Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith (the creators) might never have heard of Stead for all I know, but they had her willingness to go too far and to risk being misconstrued -- an act of faith in the audience, which was Stead's faith also.**
When I come across a production like this it reminds me -- and this is one of the reasons why I keep returning to Stead as well -- it reminds me that there is sometimes value in going beyond the point that seems normal and comfortable, and that, in fact, things can improve if you go too far (or put it like this: some ideas seem designed to be taken too far, as sharks are designed to swim), and if you have faith and dedication, for example, Moira Finucane standing naked on a low pedestal in a dim tent, her face tilted upward and rapt into the light, with the recorded sound effects of calving glaciers moaning and roaring around her, and the actor herself booming, "Don't touch it. It will burn you," then lowering her chin and opening her mouth and eyes in rectangles until she had the face of the Parco Dei Mostri ogre -- piling one idea on another -- a strange and archetypal figure, with her fingers splayed and tents of light descending between them to the floor.
There is no virtue in doing a thing like this halfheartedly. Either do it with a whole heart or look silly.
Stead, who rarely wrote halfheartedly, worked in an archetypal way too: Henny Pollit is a mother, but she's also a fairytale witch, "a charming slatternly witch" living in "a cave of Aladdin," Marpurgo in the Beauties and Furies is a seductive demon, and Edward in the People With the Dogs is a charmed prince.
Beyond Sam stood the physical world, and beyond Henny -- what? A great mystery.
By appealing to archetypes the show invites the audience to step into the roles played by Henny's children, witnesses to some colossal mystery, strange displays, unexplained behaviour that seems significant because it is being carried out with great conviction.
The Carnival's different acts were staged in tents and alcoves with fanciful names, for instance, The Tent of Miracles, The Midnight Pleasure Garden, while the performers were named The Handsomest Dancer Ever Born, The Man They Couldn't Hang, The Gothic Horror Librarian, The Queen of Abyssinia, Eye In Hand, The Daughters of Rasputin, but the execution was not whimsical -- by which I mean that it was not light, and not jokey -- any more than Henny is a joke witch.
They staged the Carnival in a downstairs room divided into different, smaller areas, the Tent at the centre, the Shrine in a little white space at the back, the Sideshow Alley like a set of boxes only slightly more significant than cupboards, enough to seat six or eight people each, with the performers about a foot away, clawing at the walls. There were three or four short acts running at the same time. These performances went for ten minutes, more or less, and after one act was finished, the people who had been inside that room came out, looked around, and chose another door.
If you ran all of those acts back to back (reckoned Finucane in interviews) then the Carnival would last for six hours, but the audience was only allowed in for an hour and forty-five minutes. After that there was a mass sing-along and you trailed away, up the pale square staircase, back to the street. So everyone saw a different Carnival. M. saw the Ice Queen, and so did I, but he was watching a magician disappear in one part of the Sideshow while I was watching Yumi Umiumare crawl across the floor in another part, and neither of us saw Garçon Gigolo (who, it's said, took off all of his clothes and stared you in the eye) or Eye In Hand -- what was Eye In Hand?
Then there were the decorations, for instance, a set of eyeholes cut unobtrusively into a wall, and if you bent down and looked through them you saw a dioramic painting of a grotesque battle. Eleven artists decorated the Tent of Miracles, eleven different painters, but I was so busy looking at the Shrine and the peepholes that I missed the work of every single one of the eleven.
“You know, Celeste, I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature," said Proust to his last housekeeper. "That is why it is never finished. Even when the construction is completed there is always some decoration to add, or a stained-glass window or a capital or another chapel to be opened up, with a little statue in the corner" -- In Search of Lost Time being similar to the Carnival in this way: a long, long experience embroidered with thousands of tiny moments you might miss.
As you come out the other side the person next to you asks, "Did you like the painting through the peepholes?" or, "Wasn't it funny when the Guermantes decided to tour the fjords?" and you reply, "What and where was that?"
One blogger who reviewed Carnival wrote, "[U]nfortunately the limited time means that you will not see all of the performers," but the show was obviously designed that way (so it was not a misfortune but a plan) -- and that's one difference between this and a book -- you can go back to the book, but the Carnival ended last night, and I never will find out what Garçon Gigolo looked like with his clothes off (with them on he was tall, thin, straight, and bald, like a baton in a wrapper).
* Darryl Emmerson's Christina Stead biographical play. I wrote a post about it two weeks ago.
** Letty Fox.