by Thomas Connelly
Nihil humani a me alienum puto
On a night when the heavens themselves seemed to be weeping in sympathy for us stupid apes I took myself to see Murder at the Playhouse Theatre in Hobart. I had heard that it was a powerful, confronting work. I was also intrigued by the use of puppets in the play. So I took my seat in the balcony and looked down upon the stage, like an Olympian watching the clots of gore.
There were many things to like about this production; the music of the Bad Seeds, the way the space was used and the stark use of pulsating lighting. The puppet masters were of great interest. Black burqa clad ninja blobs that seemed to appear and disappear, flitting about the stage like shades of the dead warriors confronted by Odysseus during the Nekuia. These puppet masters, like priests and shamans of old, controlled much of the action in the play and brought to mind questions of free will. Are we in fact free or are we controlled by these anonymous forces? All in all an interesting and powerful use of alienation techniques that propelled the action along and left the audience breathless. Added to the bubbling hexenkessel was the physical presence and voice of Graeme Rhodes who was able to pour out a rich roiling spew of tortured words. There was much to like in this production.
But in the end, for all the provocations and technical bravado of the performance, it was for me disappointing. Partly because of the fact that I am over Nick Cave. What I once loved I now see as no more than dubious theology, a false machismo and a series of clichés strung together over some fine musicianship. When I was in Canberra a few years back I was at a poetry slam. One of the poets was a soft spoken young woman who wrote powerfully (and was often ignored by the drunken youthful slam crowd) about her experience of being raped at knife point. After a reading she told me very plainly that she liked what I wrote, but that I use too many swear words. This made me think about myself and the arts scene in general. I saw all around me a culture of machismo and aggression. I have since changed my views on a great many things. One being Nick Cave.
On a deeper level I was disappointed with Murder as I do not want to know the how and the when of murder. To me the descriptions of pain and cruelty and murder are not enough. At any time I can pick up 120 Days of Sodom, written in 1785, and gain an understanding of the mind of the killer. And de Sade had the good sense to place his horrors within a political framework.
Before the horror starts de Sade sets the scene.
"The extensive wars wherewith Louis XIV was burdened during his reign, while draining the State's treasury and exhausting the substance of the people, none the less contained the secret that led to the prosperity of a swarm of those bloodsuckers who are always on the watch for public calamities, which, instead of appeasing, they promote or invent so as, precisely, to be able to profit from them the more advantageously."
This work touches on a great many things. The 'hero' tells how his mother died. He was told, by his grandmother, that God wanted to be with his mother. In his child mind he internalised this as God is a Murderer. Later when given the chance to murder (Ivan Milat of all people) he felt the years of rage roil up inside. Is this a description of post traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD may be seen as a moral injury, caused by humiliation and shame. Listening to a replay of the name dropping Philip Adams the day before I saw this show I was intrigued by a conversation he had about this very issue. Post-traumatic stress disorder, Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay explains, is the primary injury, the “uncomplicated injury.” Moral injury is the infection; it is the haemorrhaging. PTSD in service members is often tied to being the target of an attack — or being close in relationship or proximity to that target. Moral injury, Dr. Shay says, can happen when “there is a betrayal of what is right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation.”
More specifically, moral injury has been defined as “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations."
Now I am not a trained psychiatrist, but there does seem to be certain amount of truth to this. In my own personal life I can certainly point to the shame and rage and self loathing caused by being an abused child, and more importantly being in a situation where I was not able to protect my mother. I was put in a situation as an eight year old boy where I was too afraid of my father to properly protect my mother. Would this turn me into a murderer? I am happy to say it has not done so. I can not say, however, that under other circumstances I would have turned out differently, more violent, more able to be cruel and cause pain.
So maybe I am being too harsh on this production, while not being the play I would make, it did give me a few nights of disturbed sleep, and the production does raise a great many questions. Upon raising questions the work, like many works in our age, did not offer any way forward. There was none of the movement from the darkness to the light, only an endless interplay of grey and black. Maybe I am old fashioned in my believe that there must come a time when art does more than describe. Old fashioned in the notion that art can lead us to the green fields beyond.
In our society the ones with the least amount of control are the poor, the working people. The original and the endless violence is poverty. Maybe next time we can see a show called Poverty based on the 1981 album Solid Gold by Gang of Four.