In founding and developing Voice Theatre Lab over the past three years, Robert Lewis has developed an ensemble of performers with core physical and vocal skills deriving from a variety of sources. These include the work of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba, founder of Odin Teatret in Denmark and the Japanese fusions of Tadashi Suzuki. Improvisations months ahead of the actual production provided a kind of palette he could draw on with the cast. At the beginning of the 2007 production of Doctor Faustus and again with Seneca’s Oedipus, Robert presented the cast with his own radically cut-down and reformulated version of script: in effect, his own vision of the play. As rehearsals progressed, he turned to performers for their feedback, because they were doing the play ‘from the inside’ and this gave them a special kind of authority. Up to the point of performance before an audience, the script remained a working document for him.
One of Robert’s central preoccupations as a director is the notion of crisis, which creates uncertainty, instability, tension, in a word, drama. There are vocal crises (doing things with the voice it wasn’t designed to do), there are physical crises (holding positions the body isn’t designed to hold) and crises of expression (simultaneous expression of contradictory emotions with voice and gesture). Robert likes to have his actors cope with as many crises as possible simultaneously, experiences which can be uncomfortable and intensely liberating at the same time. He is always looking for the spaces between, for ways to break through life’s limitations and banalities.
Robert’s method investigates a simple question: If the body is an instrument to produce sound, what sort of possibilities emerge when one subjects the body to various kinds of physical crisis? He emphases the fact that the voice is the body, the body the voice. They cannot be separated (except we do mentally separate them most of the time).
In the Seneca’s Oedipus, Robert is interested in creating not so much character as consciousness, that’s to say actors inhabiting another space and creating a person, being or perhaps mental state on stage. He has set out to explore the fullest possible range of physical resources in order to dramatise the interior consciousness rather than constructing a conventional or stereotypical set of external characteristics or features.
Like other Australian companies, Voice Theatre Lab produces cross-cultural work. Oedipus is a Latin text that radically re-writes one from classical Greek (by Sophocles), translated and recast again in contemporary English for the Australian stage developing performance with techniques from Japan. In a post-colonial context, this is termed hybridity. More basically, Robert is doing what any adventurous artist does: he goes outside his own artistic traditions (Classical European, Australian) to extend and regenerate those traditions.
Seneca’s original Oedipus was, it seems, very likely written to be read rather than acted conventionally. Rob has turned the text into a performance piece, cutting narrative back, making it much sparer and using elements derived for instance from contemporary Japanese Butoh to create a ritual choreography.
Underlying this is the psychological process Sigmund Freud identified with Sophocles’ original Oedipus: “His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours – because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.”
There are, then, many levels on which this performance sets out to engage the audience. Narrative outline and key elements of the text remain as the playwright has written them, but in VT Lab’s new production, style, form, gesture and articulation transform and recontextualise these original elements. The process involves a journey from text to choreography and then back to the heightened ritual drama locked in Seneca’s original work.
Authorised by the Head of School, Tasmanian College of the Arts
19 October, 2012