Posts Tagged ‘The Independents 2011


Empire Burning

Co-presented by !Metro Arts & Eugene Gilfedder as part of The Independents 2011

If, as an artist, you were to ask yourself, “What’s the most ridiculously relevant and immensely difficult piece of contemporary theatre I could possibly create and deliver to unsuspecting audiences in Brisbane?” Eugene Gilfedder’s Empire Burning would be it.

The Fall of Rome, under the rule of Nero, a licentious, self-absorbed emperor, who, according to the history books, sought notoriety for his artistic endeavors in an age when an emperor’s involvement in the arts was unacceptable, is a massive narrative undertaking. To attempt to draw the parallels between that chaotic era (circa AD 50 – AD 68) and our current global political climate is truly ambitious. To interweave a wry commentary on the theatre industry and the job of acting itself is the delicious cherry on top.

Poetic, complex language, complex characters, plot twists and layers to rival the catacombs of Paris plus the incredibly challenging, disturbingly current, familiar, fear-inducing themes of terrorism, the abuse of power and the inevitable implosion of any powerful group, all rear their intriguingly ugly heads, forcing us to confront everything we might do our best to avoid hearing about by turning off the TV and logging out of Twitter.

The almost imposing set, of grey Roman columns and white screens between, onto which are projected images of stone, flames and figures clad in gold armour or togas, in their various poses and reposes, almost worked for me. I was unconvinced by the multi-media in this production, as I was by the soundscape. There was something not quite strong enough in the essence of these elements and so they did not, as I had expected, have a powerful impact. At least, not on this reviewer.

Geoff Squires’ lighting design, with its varying degrees of light and shade and the red of the Great Fire (and of passion, discontent and dissent) perfectly encapsulates the heavy mood of the piece.

So with its columns, smoke, screens and its players clad in suits…the political stage is set. Of course, there is no better setting than the dramatic realm of political upheaval for both comedy and tragedy. On this small, grey, smoky stage, in the intimate surrounds of the Sue Benner Theatre at Metro Arts, Gilfedder presents us, as if it were John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter, a world of sinister strategy and status quo trappings that drip blood and reek of betrayal.

The myriad seeds planted throughout the show take their time to germinate. This is a show that will – and must – be discussed long after its conclusion.

Some of the themes – the political, the games that are played for power, the crumbling of an empire – are obvious. Others – the Oedipal complex and abandonment issues, the ineptitude of the bureaucracy, the pursuit of answers, no matter how unsatisfactory – are slightly more shrouded, though no less vital to the turning of this monstrous wheel. Let’s not forget the narcissistic attitudes of the power brokers, their personal agendas and the impact on the people, globalisation and the notion of empires built by power hungry men, the woman with her own ambition left unfulfilled and her power brutally ripped from her grasp, the war on terror, which inadvertently creates a war on ordinary life, mildly asking of us all, “What do we live by? What do we live for?”

All this, from the mind of one man: Gilfedder. He has brought an incredible vision to fruition. Gilfedder is writer, actor, designer, director and producer. One has to admire the genius and commitment and, let’s face it, the pure gall of pursuing the challenge of crafting something so complex, so intriguing, so demanding, that in the hands of lessor actors would be a dismal failure.

This company of actors is very nearly what we might call the collective cream of the crop. Gilfedder, Michael Futcher, Steven Tandy, Sasha Janowitz, Niki-J Price, Dan Crestini, Damien Cassidy…the cast list reads like a who’s who of Queensland theatre.

In a perfect example of art imitating life, his son, Finn, joins Gilfedder; master and apprentice both on stage and off. The resemblance is uncanny; those typical Gilfedder traits – the eyes behind the steely gaze, the stance and sure gesture to support minimal blocking, the strong, set jaw in clear commitment to the character and aiding the vocal choices – unmistakable. The connection between the two did not go unnoticed and nor did the wry humour behind the bitter jabs within dialogue that must have seemed ironic in rehearsals.

Gilfedder-Cooney does a fine job as Nero, the obsessive, self-important, self-destructive, conflicted emperor, torn between the ego-stroking of the senators, invariably leading to the corruption of the power that has been thrust by his mother upon him (absolute power corrupts absolutely) and the wisdom of Seneca’s teachings. And this in addition to his misguided ambition to become a performing artist! It is said that Nero sang (some historical sources say that he sang, others say that he played a fiddle) whilst watching Rome burn to the ground and, before he committed suicide in AD 68 (rather than be flogged to death by order of the senate), Nero’s last words were, “Qualis artifex pereo.” (“What an artist the world loses in me.”)

As his tutor, Seneca, Gilfedder is the most comfortable on this stage, delivering a solid performance, particularly in the intense work with the silent Prisoner (Dan Crestini) and in his support of what was, in my opinion, Niki-J Price’s best work in this production, during the demise of her character, Nero’s mother, Agrippina. I was unconvinced by Price’s performance until her break down, at which point, she has survived yet another of her son’s diabolical plots to kill her (according to the sources, there were several; Gilfedder’s text reveals only one). This part of Price’s performance, dripping wet, bedraggled and betrayed by her golden boy finally gone mad, was completely convincing and I would have liked to see the same fearlessness and commitment to the role from the outset.

As the mute Prisoner, Dan Crestini is incredible to watch and I wish it had been easier to see him. As it was, in the third row, I found myself peering around the heads in front of me so as not to miss a moment of his superbly controlled contempt, fear and fierce determination to stay silent (and to a large extent, still). The extreme physicality of this role as created by Crestini, with his gnarled, damaged hands and his severe burns, was intense and tension inducing for the audience and, for the actor, incredibly physically demanding.

Steven Tandy (Burrus) and Sasha Janowicz (Piso) settled into their roles and both gave good performances and Michael Futcher (Rufus), perhaps better known to Brisbane audiences as a director, was all actor on this stage, his presence and easy confidence making his Rufus’s involvement in the schemes to rid the empire of its deficient ruler, unassuming and unexpectedly, almost pleasant.

In this production there is obvious trust and respect for its mastermind who, in his own words, “acknowledges that the difficulty was part of the experiment of this work” (Director’s Notes).

In Empire Burning, Gilfedder has given a wonderful gift to both actors and audiences. We see, through the eyes of those who have gone before us, our own uncertainty, turmoil and disbelief played out on a stage that could be any top strata government office. Regardless of how many times we see it, and regardless of the different guises in which we see it, it’s always confronting and frightening to recognise the fact that over thousands and thousands of years, the parameters may have changed but the politics of the empire have stayed exactly the same.

There is something so incredible about the feat itself, about the successful staging of this production and the fact that Gilfedder is able to attract and assemble some of the most talented actors in this city at this time and, considering the degree of difficulty of his text, or perhaps because of it, they have stretched themselves to the extent that they are able to achieve together, a masterful production that is an absolute treat for those involved on stage and off. That is something worthy of the theatrical history books.

Empire Burning: until May 28th at the Sue Brenner Theatre, !Metro Arts