Cleverly playing with form to reveal the content
by Gai Anderson
Based on the play by Earnest Hemingway
Performed by Elevator Repair Service
Seen at the Theatre Royal Hobart, as part of Ten Days on the Island, March 2013
In these days of enthrallment with film as the ultimate form in which classic stories are enacted dramatically, transforming a classic 20th century American novel to stage engagingly is quite a feat. But that’s what New York’s experimental theatre company Elevator Repair Service (ERS) like to do. They take the content of existing American literary forms – TV programs, non fiction writing, novels, plays etc., and then play with the form of enactment: mashing them up, juxtaposing theatrical styles, using slapstick, comedy and their highly developed abstract choreography.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is the third of a trilogy of American classic novels, which included a 7-hour version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby where every word of the novel was spoken onstage. It’s the text that keeps it grounded and allows them to experiment with the form, apparently.
In the case of The Select (The Sun Also Rises ) they say they found a play inside the novel – and the show is essentially narrator-led storytelling, (“ she said”, “I said”) interspersed with heightened clipped moments of interaction - feeling at times like a noir-film as radio-play, and at others a Pinteresque drawing room drama crossed with a comic strip.
While the action is not boring, at 3 + hours, its words demand considerable focus at times particularly in the slower first act, as the narrator sets up the lives of a group of lost and damaged, post-war bohemian expats, endlessly trying to fill their vacuous lives with excessive drinking and partying in Paris bars. And there is the rub I guess - these are not pleasant people to be watching up close, and perhaps why I have never really warmed to Hemingway’s novels.
But there is also much fun, as the lush wood-paneled bar room set transforms simply into taxi, streetscape and bedroom with clever light and sound. The satire that really drives this stylish show is held by a deliciously heightened soundtrack feeding the staccato slapstick action. Sound effects of endless breaking glasses, pouring wine and laughter - coupled with surreal moments of abstracted dance and movement, a waiter who constantly juggles wine bottles and a continuous revolving chorus of colorful local characters.
But in the second act, as the action moves to Spain and what is now a love-octet becomes ridiculous and painfully tragic, the pace really picks up and the real brilliance of ERS is revealed. Set amongst the color of the bullfight and fiesta of Pamplona, the contrast between the desperate vacuous white characters, the passionate Spanish and their adulated toreadors is extreme. Here Hemingway’s message is cleverly exaggerated through the choruses of endless sculling of alcohol, and the Ren and Stimpy version of the young man Toreador (played by a woman) bull-fighting with a table sans-horns. It is silly in the extreme against the mashed up sounds of bad matriarchy-band music but totally and hypnotically brilliant.
In the end whilst I’m still not sure about the 3+ hours, I definitely got something of the genius of Hemingway - as the desperate-for-passion, tragic white-woman, destroying the men around her, is paralleled with the desperate-for-tragedy as passion of the Spanish and their blood-thirsty bullfighting .
I might even try some of Hemingways novels again, but will definitely try ERS , again should I get the chance.