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EAMON FLACK AND THE BIGNESS OF SPIRIT

This interview was first published online at thespellofwakinghours in March 2015.

An excerpt from this article was published with permission in Belvoir's subscriber magazine, Interval, in May 2015.

Sometimes you encounter a piece of theatre which seems to shine with its own light, theatre which reaches out into the darkness of the auditorium and gently holds you, slips its fingers under your skin and doesn’t let go for a very long time afterwards. It was March 2012, and Rita Kalnejais’ Babyteeth was playing in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre; billed as “a mad, gorgeous, bittersweet comedy about how good it is not to be dead yet,” it was filled with a warmth, a big-heartedness, and an almost-visible hum, and was – still is – one of the most beautiful new plays I’ve ever seen.

Babyteeth was directed by Eamon Flack, Belvoir’s Associate Director – New Projects. I don’t make a secret of being a strong admirer of his work as a director, in particular his work at Belvoir. Following his recent appointment as Belvoir’s new artistic director from 2016, I sat down with Flack at the beginning of the year for what became an in-depth discussion about the classics, dramatic and historical context, his intentions as incoming artistic director, and about the need for compassion.

Flack’s 2011 production of As You Like It for Belvoir was something of a theatrical lightbulb moment for me. Underneath the playful exterior – with its flower-cannons, the pond in the stage, Gareth Davies’ red dress, Charlie Garber’s blue-and-white cloud-suit, the relationship between Alison Bell’s Rosalind and Yael Stone’s Celia, and those unforgettable sheep – there was a very specific and rigorous engagement with what the play was about, and what Shakespeare was perhaps trying to get at in the play, too. “We gave ourselves the same task Shakespeare gave himself and his company, [and] I get kind of annoyed when people assume that kind of [creative] freedom is willy-nilly.” ‘The task’ is something Flack talks about a lot with regards to his directorial process, not in a nebulous way, but in a way that tries to get to the core of a text, that tries to articulate the historic context or resonances of a particular play when it is put on the stage. “It’s always very specific, and it changes very much from show to show,” but it is present in every decision, beat, and action that you see on stage, and focuses on how to make the performances as rich as possible, how the actors can inhabit the space.

In the case of As You Like It, the task was to create the kind of play that Shakespeare might have written to be performed on Shrove Tuesday at Richmond Palace in 1599, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I. In its first instance, as Flack wrote in his program note, it was “a show about a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation, performed for a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation.” Shakespeare’s intentional ironic mirroring was not lost on Flack, and while he gave Charlie Garber’s Fool the licence to remove the bits of comic business that don’t work in a contemporary context and replace them with his own, every addition or subtraction to the text was made with a very particular and firm intention and structure, and was not a decision made lightly, no matter how spontaneous, free, or anarchic it looked in performance.

‘The task’ is also firmly rooted in Flack’s more recent work with plays like Angels in America and The Glass Menagerie and, more pertinently, his upcoming production of Mother Courage and Her Children. While one of the tasks for Angels in America was to find a way of realising Tony Kushner’s play on the stage – that is to say, finding a way of staging “fifty-nine transitions and sixty-scenes on a stage with no capacity for illusion” – Flack’s self-assigned task for Mother Courage relates more specifically to a rigorous understanding of the play’s historical resonance, namely ‘what does it mean to do the play in Sydney in 2015?’

Due to our physical and, at times, political remoteness to “a lot of the history that these [classic] plays are grounded in,” it can appear that there is a greater freedom afforded to us to explore the themes and resonances in these works. But “it also means that sometimes we don’t really find the context of that work, so the whole [thing] floats completely free of the actual moments we’re living through, in this history, here.” And this is where Flack’s production of Mother Courage comes to the fore.

Written by Bertolt Brecht during World War Two, and premiered in the ruins of a “failed thousand-year empire,” Mother Courage and Her Children is set in seventeenth-century Germany and Poland during the Thirty Years’ War, in a time when there was more “historical chaos.” In directing the play today, Flack wants to bring a global context to Australia, to “try and invoke in this city some understanding of what historical chaos is like [;] it feels like we’re beginning to have experiences of historical chaos again [but] we haven’t really experienced it for a few generations. That’s what I feel Mother Courage is about rather than ‘war’. It’s about the fact that out there [on] the planet, people are experiencing the seventeenth century, and perhaps some of that chaos of the seventeenth century is beginning to come home here, and what does that mean for us?”

In articulating his task for Mother Courage, Flack explains how in the West, the seventeenth-century was “the last full thrash of violent sectarianism and medievalism before the overall drift of society and history gave way once and for all to the emerging modern era. But large parts of the world today are still in a violent confrontation with the elemental forces of modernity.” While this might be a general observation, Flack believes you can “see the pattern broadly at work in the Middle East, in much of Central and South Asia, in large parts of Africa. [The] crucial thing is that this is not a first encounter between the “old” and the “new”. [They have both] been cheek-by-jowl for some time, and what’s happening is the fight-back of the threatened “old” against the ever-expanding entrenched interests [of the] “new”. What is so seemingly apocalyptic about seventeenth-century Germany and modern Syria, for example, is the viciousness of ideology… [It’s] not so much about seizing power as engaging a final battle between whole ways of life.”

In Brecht’s play, however, “there’s a tougher, more adult account [which] is about the vile mix of economic and superstitious forces – the terrible mix of material scarcity and human fear on both sides.” These are not “pseudo-theological sectarian questions” we’re dealing with, but rather “fundamental questions like human dignity [vs.] material power, human virtue [vs.] material need. This is not millennialism… this is human chaos. The battle, then, is not so much to do with which side you’re on or who has more firepower, it’s simply to do with how much of a notion of humanity you can hold onto and still survive. That’s what Brecht is writing about.”

“Vast numbers of people are experiencing [this] in places like Syria, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and West Papua, the Sudan, Nauru (!) etc etc – and in a slightly different way in Russia, the Ukraine, China… And it seems that we have thoroughly excused ourselves from any fellow-feeling with these people, and that strikes me as foolish, because – quite apart from the standard of our own humanity – it’s clear in a globalised world that the chaos, trauma and ideological extremity of the current seventeenth-century-ish-ness is not going to remain neatly compartmentalised in far-off countries. We’ve seen that already in different ways in places under our jurisdiction like Nauru, the seas between Christmas Island and Indonesia, Cronulla, Martin Place, even the antagonism between cyclists and 4WDs… It’s foolish to think we will be free of this chaos.”

Hence Flack’s Mother Courage at Belvoir in 2015, which he sees as “a vision of twenty-first century globalisation as a seventeenth-century-ish force of chaos; as an argument for fellow-feeling as a necessary counterpoint to economic theology; and as an attack on our sense of comfortable superiority, on the almost racial belief that our material wealth and political stability makes us inherently better humans than people who don’t benefit from these things. Decency is not inherent,” he continues. “You only need to look at the rising incidences of family violence when families are under economic pressure, or the ugly rise of right-wing racial hatred in economically uncertain Europe… The seventeenth-century-ish conditions of chaos are only ever a moment away, and every one of us is capable of becoming Mother Courage, or Eilif, or Swiss Cheese, in an instant. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves about either of those things.”

While the intellectual rigour behind this production is not unusual for Flack, nor for any other director, the breadth of passion and vehemence with which it is articulated makes it a thrilling and, potentially, harrowing prospect, one we’ll have to wait until June to discover the full extent and exploration of. But in a way it’s emblematic of Flack’s approach to theatre – to theatre-making – and something he’s very keen to bring to Belvoir during his tenure as artistic director – that is, the idea that the arts, and not just theatre, must have the same plurality of experience and variety of life as the society they are a part of. “Variety is the only thing that matters… it’s a positive embrace of the very nature of what is best about our society – our variety of life.”

In his keynote address at the 2014 National Play Festival, playwright Andrew Bovell argued whether the question of class and access and privilege and training wasn’t part of something bigger, that the continual revisiting of classic dramatic texts – the canon, in other words – was simply a reassertion of the “vast history of whiteness that has dominated and shaped western theatre, [and] that what the plays actually say, their content, is secondary to the directorial and design approach,” which often reaffirms this notion.

Flack agrees with Bovell in believing that this kind of “orthodoxy has made our stages more conservative, like the world-view of our stages in Sydney has become more conservative in trying to be more radical.” And this is something he is ready to address and change as artistic director. While this kind of change doesn’t happen overnight or as a result of one theatre company’s season, seeds can be sown and nurtured across a number of years, and issues can be addressed so their ramifications will have long-lasting effects.

In the first instance, it means “coming to a very rigorous understanding of the way in which the arts in Australia are a privileged undertaking, [and] how do we change that,” as well as actively asking what role the government plays in the construction of this idea of privilege, even while they “[claim] the opposite.” While Flack can’t say too much about how he intends to tackle and address these issues, he believes it means “finding ways to get out of the inner-city, [and] finding ways to make sure that the actors and artists who work here present us with the glorious fullness of life, rather than with just a tasteful sample of middle-class struggle.” As Flack asked in his notes to The Glass Menagerie last year, “[what] do we do about the gentle, the odd, the peculiar, the monstrous, the marvellous, the broken? [What] are we without them?”

Bovell reflects this in his address, concluding “I sense a rise of conservatism in this country… A meanness of spirit has crept in to the social discourse. [If] we are to truly reflect who we are, [we] must ensure that our stages don’t reflect that more narrow vision of what this nation is. We must make room for the new. We must place it at the centre of what we do.” It’s not an obligation to “this thing called ‘diversity’,” says Flack. “It’s got to be more real than that, otherwise we’re just obliging and I don’t want to do that.”

Flack’s current role at Belvoir is Associate Director – New Projects, a position he has held since late 2010. When asked what he looks for in new writing – whether in choosing work to produce, or in developing new works – he pauses for a moment, before saying in a hushed almost off-hand way, “just that it’s damn good!” What is important is that “someone can write for actors and for the stage; [that it’s] something that only theatre can do, that only the stage could do.” He values the originality of the voice, and story over form; that is, the contents of the story over the way the story is told. “I don’t really care if the form is whizz-bang new, or if it’s completely traditional. I feel like traditional form allows you to be more radical with content anyway.”

One thing that has always felt incredibly tangible and visible in Flack’s work is his sense of ensemble, not just among the actors on stage, but among the creatives as well, and I wonder if it is part of his ‘process’ or how theatre should be, something that should always be inherently present in the theatre-making process. Flack affirms the latter: “Everyone on that stage is responsible for making the meaning and making the world, for delivering the experience connecting that to the audience.” He continues that while he can’t stand group dynamics in life, on stage it’s one of his favourite things ever. You could see it at the end of As You Like It, where the cast lined up across the stage and sang and played before dancing off into the street. You could see it at the end of Angels in America too, even if there were “ghosts filling in all the empty chairs.” To ask whether there’s any underlying significance to this conceit seems unnecessary considering Flack’s response: “I just love seeing a line of people being alive in some way on a stage, I think it’s the most glorious thing.”

It also feeds into what Rita Kalnejais talks about in her essay ‘Humans Being’ in the Belvoir book, about grace and empathy on the Belvoir stage. I mention Babyteeth, in that it’s kind of my litmus test for how I see Flack’s work, because of its aliveness and awareness of other people, not just in how to be, but in how to act, how to carry on and how to survive, and we return to the question of process first discussed at the beginning of our conversation. By his own admission, one of the things Flack does, in any piece of theatre, is to “make it very difficult – and therefore very necessary – for the actors to have to talk to each other on the stage.” By putting numerous obstacles in the way of them being able to achieve this and be honest, “the more that the characters and the actors are constrained, the more the need to speak matters; the more the desire for contact matters.” It’s an extension of the classic acting principle of identifying objectives and obstacles in motivations and character beats, the way drama is created in any context. “The more obstacles there are, the more things – when they get to connect – the more they shine and hum.”

Above all else, there’s an overwhelming sense of compassion in all of Flack’s work which is hard to ignore, hard not to fall in love with. “I think compassion is the most important thing ever. You’ve got to have faith in something bigger than just your family, or your economic prowess, your earning power, which is all we [seem to] value now.” It’s the question of faith that sits at the heart of Angels in America, the same question at the heart of Mother Courage – ‘what are we going on for?’ “[It’s] what drama is so often about, finding a way to get back some sort of shining faith in spite of all that stuff. [It’s] what Babyteeth was literally about: that girl is dying, it is going to end for her, and what is the bigger thing? What Rita wrote, a glorious kind of insubstantial other thing, what exactly is that? What is beyond death? What is life? That is literally what that play was about.”

Flack acknowledges there are particular qualities people associate with his work, but doesn’t believe he is the right person to talk about them. “I like kindness [and] generosity; I don’t know if I am optimistic,” he says, continuing that “we’re all fucked,” but it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t “have faith in some essential human things.” And we come full circle: at the beginning of the conversation, discussing the propensity for continually producing ‘the classics,’ Flack stated that beyond being the best plays, it was perhaps a more serious and compassionately-minded reason that made them mainstays of the theatrical repertoire. “I don’t believe that humanism – or the qualities we love most in humanity – are innate… I think they must be learnt and practiced and kept across time and passed on, and that’s why I love theatre, because it’s the truest expression of that – of all the art forms, it’s the truest expression of that – because it can only go from person to person.”

I’m reluctant to use the word ‘optimistic’ to describe Flack’s body of work, but perhaps a more pragmatic understanding of optimism is at play here. By allowing – and necessitating – alternative points of view, what Flack is illustrating is a more realistic view of the world than you might expect. A world which revels in Keats’ negative capability; a world which requires the presence of the cynic Jaques in the otherwise ebullient As You Like It. “If you asked me what I’m interested in, it’s everything that’s in that play. [It’s] one of the greatest, I think it’s glorious… I’d quite like to do it again.”