Theatre has long served as a beacon for Gary Abrahams, the director and playwright behind productions such as 2015’s Buyer and Cellar, Angels in America (2017) and Admissions, which showed this year at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Most recently, he is directing the premiere of Driftwood – The Musical, by Jane Bodie, opening this week in Melbourne.
Abrahams’ love of theatre was ignited during his childhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the 1980s. He spent weekends scouring the drama section of bookstores and fell in love with the political plays of Athol Fugard. Later he encountered the work of the avant-garde German choreographer Pina Bausch. In Café Müller, based on the artist’s childhood memories of her father’s cafe during World War II, dance and performance converge. Bodies dodge, collide and reach for each other. For Abrahams, this work, which was first performed in Germany’s Opernhaus Wuppertal in 1978, epitomises a sense of raw expression that he still reaches for today.
Tell me about the first time you watched Café Müller. How did it affect you emotionally?
I grew up in the ’80s, smack-bang in the middle of apartheid. There were a lot of sanctions in South Africa, so we didn’t get a lot of cultural products. When I graduated high school, I took drama as a subject at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. I had a teacher who pulled out an old TV and showed us Café Müller. It just was one of those moments, like The Matrix – the blue pill or the red pill?
Café Müller introduced me to the idea of dance theatre. There’s that duet between the female dancer and the male dancer, where she’s throwing herself around the stage and he’s running around clearing the furniture. That spoke to me about the nature of love with such clarity that it really punctured me. It’s an indelible image that I carry around. I love what Café Müller explores about relationships. I think relationships are both tender and very violent. I think we inflict unspeakable acts of cruelty on our partners and our lovers. Yes, I understand social politics are different, gender politics are different – there is a heteronormativity to the work. But for me, it doesn’t date.
In an early Café Müller scene, a woman makes her way across the stage with her arms out, almost as if sleepwalking, and later, actors throw each other across a wall. The work plays with ideas of power but vulnerability too. What do you admire about its sense of risk?
Even though Café Müller is metaphorical, it is also absolutely real. The way those dancers throw themselves around, they have to have such trust in the maker and each other. It’s also such a gift as an audience member when an artist is sacrificing themselves night after night. It creates a profound sense of catharsis. It’s almost religious – they are doing it for us, on our behalf.
When I was younger, I always felt a divide between people like me, who are into the arts not sports – but as I get older, I realise they are more closely aligned. When you are watching a football game, you know what the rules are. But it’s also dangerous, you don’t know exactly what is going to happen. One of the challenges I find with the current conversation is the expectation of art to be moral or reflect current morality. We want art to reflect the world as we want it to be. And of course, it is a necessary part of the conversation. But at the same time, you also have to explore the brutal truth.
We want art to be a moral mirror…
And that’s not what art’s position is. I don’t know if you grow from that so much. Pina Bausch creates work with her performers, there is a real symbiosis with the dancers that she works with. The artists are asked to bring an enormous amount of themselves. Every work is begun from a place of not-knowing. The process of making is about discovery and deep exploration.
In Bausch’s work, dancers fall to the ground. They lose direction. There’s longing and horror. The body is a vessel for deep emotions. How does Café Müller inform your directorial technique?
You absolutely have to bring yourself to Café Müller. You are in this space where you are absorbing, experiencing, witnessing the work – but you are also in conversation with yourself. It is a really enriching place to be. I still use Café Müller’s idea of layering images. Multiple things happening on the stage at the same time, that are independent of each other but speak together as a whole.
Café Müller makes me think of the stage as a large canvas. You can zoom in closer and play with an audience’s attention in really interesting ways. There’s a magic that happens when you realise that you are transfixed by this smaller gesture, the intimate space between two people. I am a text-based director, but I love to bring elements of that physical theatre language and demand that my actors are very viscerally connected to their bodies.
I come from a Jewish culture and we are very expressive. In drama school, I was told don’t move your hands, so I went through with my hands tied behind my back. For the longest time I thought, I can’t direct because my natural mode of being doesn’t fit into that prescribed way. Now, I have to undo that with actors.
Your company, Dirty Pretty Theatre, has adapted James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and you’ve previously spoken about a time in which you were insecure that your work would be disregarded because of your interest in literary theatre. Bausch’s theatre company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, was met with ferocious reaction from critics. Audiences would throw oranges on stage. How has Bausch’s courage shaped your own trajectory?
I’ve never been a cool person or a fashionable person. I make work for myself, to satisfy something within me. I wish I had Bausch’s artistic courage. I know that I made a choice, 10, 12 years ago, where I chose to pursue a more commercial route. I love Broadway. But when I was studying, I really loved niche, experimental, avant-garde works. I was torn between the two. It is such a tough thing.
Something like Café Müller doesn’t happen overnight. But in Australia, we do not have the support for long-term development for new works. I can’t beat myself up for not going down that route. We work in a very different context to European artists.
Pina Bausch was born in 1940 and, to me, Café Müller speaks to the psychic horror of wartime Germany. It shares a historical moment with your current production, Driftwood – The Musical, which tells the story of Austrian–Australian sculptor Karl Duldig and his artist–inventor wife, Slawa Horowitz, who escaped the Holocaust and rebuilt their lives in Melbourne. Why does this era fascinate you?
Growing up, the horrors of the 1940s felt so far away. But then I realised that when I was born, World War II was as far away as 1990 is from now. It’s staggering how quickly we forget. The thing in Driftwood that I really connect with is the story of art and artists. When we’re in crisis, art is one of the first things to go. But we forget that it sustains us.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Gary Abrahams".
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