Theatre

Daniel Schlusser Ensemble’s first production for almost a decade is a devastating exploration of violence against women. By Tali Lavi.

Hercules

A scene from Daniel Schlusser Ensemble’s Hercules.
A scene from Daniel Schlusser Ensemble’s Hercules.
Credit: Pier Carthew

In a week that opened with Penny Wong’s rallying cry that “Australians have chosen … a government for women”, Daniel Schlusser Ensemble returned us to grim reality at Arts House Melbourne with a harrowing production (May 24-28) about male violence and its colossal wreckage.

Hercules – the company’s first production since their acclaimed M+M for the 2013 Melbourne Festival – possesses a subtitle: haunted by Euripides. In the classical Greek tragedy Herakles, also known as The Madness of Heracles, the hero murders his wife and children.

Two weeks before I saw Hercules, a young adolescent told me of her fear of being raped. I cannot quash this fear by advising her to put on the lights and check behind her cupboard doors or under her bed in order to dispel the bogeyman. The statistics of violence against women are too overwhelming. Over the past three years, books such as Amani Haydar’s The Mother Wound, which explores coercive control and systems of violence and injustice, Jess Hill’s groundbreaking See What You Made Me Do and Ronnie Gorrie’s truth-telling memoir Black and Blue have done much to confront and interrogate this reality.

Hercules warns of something else: beware the barrage of information, for it can make you numb. The workings of trauma are manifest in the play’s structure. Trauma collapses time, it freezes and reorders chronology. Its cruellest haunting is perhaps not the reappearance of traumatic memory during a triggering event but in its emergence when the survivor is breathing easy. Herakles is embedded in this production in the form of suppressed trauma, a haunting discarded in favour of its cheery, sanitised Disney version. Daniel Schlusser Ensemble resurrects the story to reckon with our deadly forgettings.

Framed by a proscenium stage, a Steiner kindergarten room with a draped painted ceiling of azure heavens and children’s luminous watercolour paintings is an image of grace and order, a modern domestic iteration of Paradise before it is lost. There is an abundance of wood – infant chairs, an obligatory rainbow block set, a pull-along rabbit. There’s enough to be later employed for other uses: to be fashioned into bows perhaps, or clubs for bludgeoning.

Under Daniel Schlusser’s radical direction, this Edenic space is fleeting. From the moment the play begins, its trajectory is towards Hades. The myth of Hercules leaks into the present as a dissection of glorified might and its bloody corollary. Disassemblage, collapse and suffocating containment run as countercurrents through this harrowing production.

In Euripides’ play, Hercules’ wife Megara says: “Women are readier than men / To tell their grief.” The opening is enacted in partial darkness in which Woman One (Mary-Helen Sassman) is frozen by what we suspect is grief. When a second woman (Katherine Tonkin) enters the room – quietly, carefully – it is a long while before she speaks. Later, the emergence of Edwina Wren as the third woman completes the cast. There are long minutes of human silence, the clock’s interminable tick its jarring counterpoint. Several attempts to talk fail: the words will not come.

Whatever has happened, it seems, is beyond expression or containment in words. That is, until words crowd in as part of the show’s traumatically choreographed chaos. Phrases play on a mindless loop thick with tropes from pop psychology, verbalising the prosaic.

A story acts as a transition to this state of verbal flooding. It contains elements of ancient storytelling – there are three brothers; it comes from Bulgaria – that initially feel at home in this Steiner setting. We think initially that it is offered by Woman Two as a gift of consolation or reprieve to Woman One, who refuses to let go of one of those infant chairs. She assents, with a faltering voice, to hearing it. What emerges, and becomes the pattern of this play, is the unexpected.

The brothers attempt to build a house but every day it crumbles to waste. To avert the trouble, they are told that one of their wives must be bricked into its walls. The brothers decide that the wife to be sacrificed will be the woman who arrives first with their lunch and, in order to ensure it won’t be their wife, load their partners with domestic errands. In soothing tones, Woman Two anchors it in reality: the wife who ends up being sacrificed is chosen because she “was so diligent and efficient” at doing the myriad tasks expected of her.

The listener is now entranced. She asks whether the chosen wife requested “to leave a hole in the wall so she could continue to [breast]feed her babe”. The absurdity provokes an eruption of incredulous laughter in the audience. There is more laughter but the humour, for the most part, is laced with violence. The image of immurement resonates throughout the piece as a metaphor for the state of women.

The soundscape is layered with dissonance that cultivates a palpable sense of unease – discordant tones, the unrelenting tick of a clock as if to connote that time is out of joint, a throbbing heartbeat. The ingenious design by Romanie Harper and Bethany J. Fellows creates a heightened atmosphere of malevolence and surveillance.

While I was writing this review, my news feed informed me that 19 children and two teachers had been killed in a Texas school shooting. Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko, responded in a tweet: “Our bodies are not designed to absorb and process this much violence, loss and grief.” The bodies on stage in Hercules are by turn vehicles, vessels, battering rams, transcendent, cowed or like children. They are often in states of acute distress and hyperproductivity, engaged in the precarious and impossible business of attaining a stable centre, a point of stillness. Performed by a mighty trio of actors, these women are dextrous in their quicksilver shapeshifting, morphing from the domestic to the epic, the comic to the tragic.

Hercules, unlike its Greek predecessor, does not contain redemption in the form of a moral lesson about friendship and isn’t motivated by an idea of catharsis. The real haunting enacted during these 90 minutes exists in its melange of the banal, the mythic and horror. It is a visual pastiche of familiar images: women taking refuge in war zones, unidentifiable beings emerging from a house’s structure, a shooting, screens, violent messages. The stage’s metamorphosis from childhood oasis into a space where monsters roam inspires awe – not merely for its spectacle and artistry but for the wondrous and sorrowful encounter with the mythic.

It finishes with a sung lament that rends the heart. When Herakles’ friend Theseus discovers what has unfolded, he says, “Your sorrows reach from earth to heaven.” Perhaps there’s hope in the notion that, along with activism, art like this might cause the structures of our immurement to crumble.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Dark myths".

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Tali Lavi is a writer, reviewer and public interviewer. She is on the programming team for Melbourne Jewish Book Week.

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