KIP WILLIAMS AND THE POETIC GESTURE

This article was first published on thespellofwakinghours in November 2015. 

I first encountered Kip Williams’ work in 2013, with his production of Romeo and Juliet for the Sydney Theatre Company. From the opening moments with the Montague boys swinging on the chandelier, to Mercutio’s mustard-coloured velvet suit, the revolving mansion, a tangibly dangerous knife-fight, snatches of Alt-J and Max Richter in the soundtrack, and the devastating conclusion of empty white beds in a black void, I was struck by the poetic imagery and exuberance with which it exploded onto the Drama Theatre stage.

I’ve since had the pleasure to see the rest of Williams’ work for the STC. From the stark isolation of his Macbeth, to the aching Chekhovian lyricism of Children of the Sun, the luscious haunting of Suddenly Last Summer, and the frenetic kaleidoscope of Love and Information, Williams’ body of work is nothing short of remarkable. Following my recent chat with fellow STC Resident Director Sarah Goodes, I sat down with Kip Williams for an engrossing and lengthy discussion about the nature of scale, the poetics of space, the enormous challenges of wrestling Love and Information to the stage, and the promise of STC’s 2016 season.

For Williams growing up, there was never a time when he wasn’t making theatre, drawing, singing, performing; “I come from quite a creative family,” he says by way of explanation. “My maternal uncle was a musician, and my paternal grandmother is an actress, so she was constantly convincing her grandchildren to put on plays for her in the living room – you know, daggy stuff – and I just happened to be the one who was orchestrating it. When we were ten or eleven, my friends and I started our own theatre company, and we took the school play very seriously throughout high school... I would write plays a lot and put them on, not really thinking about the fact I was directing them.” This fascination with “making things” continued at Sydney University, particularly in their dramatic society, SUDS, where he would “act, write, design, stage-manage, do box office, all sorts of things.” After doing about twenty productions over four years, Williams thought about going to NIDA, even though he was the absolute bare-minimum age to get in, and “just had my undergraduate experience,” he was accepted, and graduated in 2010 with an MFA in directing.

One of the things Williams found pleasurable about acting at university, was “the experience of cracking open the psychology of a character, and as an actor, I always adored the rehearsal room.” Being on stage was a slightly different story. “For one show at uni, we ended up touring it and doing thirty-odd performances. I got intensely disillusioned with it. I didn’t enjoy being on stage very much. For me, it was all about the rehearsal room.” He recalls playing Hamlet at uni and, when the director walked out of the room, Williams remembers walking up to “the person who was operating the lights, [saying] ‘I’m actually going to move over here on this line, and I think you should bring up the lights over five seconds at that point, and you might want to fade down the lights over there when I say this word,’ so without even knowing it, I was directing from the inside, which was naughty.” It was by doing this that he realised that the pleasure he got from acting “was actually a directorial pleasure, and that the difference between the director and the actor was that that not only did the director get to share in the experience of cracking open the psychology of every character, but they were also the shaper and voice behind what the work was communicating. I realised that what I cared so much about as a theatre maker was what was being communicated to the audience on a holistic level.” 

Walking in to NIDA on his first day, Williams says he still thought of the director “as being a very necessary servant to the playwright,” but his time there opened his eyes to the ways in which a director could be a collaborator with the playwright, that the director could also be “an originating storyteller, that the kind of blueprint quality of the script called upon a storyteller to breathe a voice into it.” This is where his interest as a director lies, where his current practice stems from. His graduation show at NIDA was Samuel Beckett’s play Not I, “which is intended to be just a single mouth and one single sentence; I did a twenty-person adaptation of that with nineteen speakers and one silent figure. I had to do it. For me, Beckett’s play was a story of shame and self denial, and that was the only way I could tell that story.” What NIDA offered Williams was “the opportunity to make and make and make,” which is what he says he had always been hungry for as a child, “just to make things. I suppose when it comes to the question of how I came to be a director, it became the natural end-point of a person who’s interested in making things, and who’d loved the theatre, and had grown up around the theatre and going to the theatre, reading plays, writing plays; making plays. My time at NIDA was a form of radical journey of finding my voice and refining my voice and expanding my practice.” 

One of the great strengths of Williams’ productions is his imagery, the way he deploys the resources of a theatre and the theatrical space to create haunting and often poignant images which magnify the text they are born out of. You might remember the Capulet mansion and the beds from Romeo and Juliet, or the overbearing voyeuristic gaze of the doctor in Suddenly Last Summer; Macbeth’s final battle alone, amongst raining confetti; the void outside the house in Children of the Sun; the cemetery scene in Love and Information. These all come from Williams’ firm belief that theatre’s primary form is space, not language.

“The thing that separates theatre from all other forms of storytelling is that it’s spatial – it’s about an audience and a group of actors being in space and receiving a story in space. I’m quite influenced by [Antonin] Artaud – or, rather, I find Artaud’s thinking on theatre to resonate with me on this.” Williams is clear this resonance is not born of the common perception of Artaud’s work with relation to the ‘theatre of cruelty’.

“I find it quite a dishonest interpretation of Artaud to be somebody who was just interested in assaulting an audience. In fact, outside of form, I think his thinking with regards to the function of theatre is quite akin to that famous Hamlet speech about the function of acting being ‘to hold a mirror up to nature,’ and I think Artaud very much argues for the same thing, only that [Artaud] believes that at the heart of human nature is a very dark soul, and by allowing an audience through story-telling to experience the darkness that is innate to all of us all, we can have it purged and exorcised without having to enact it in reality, which is quite an altruistic philosophy to hold in relation to the function of theatre.” So how then does Artaud’s ideas on theatrical form resonate with Williams’ sense of theatre being primarily about actors in space?

For Williams, Artaud crystallises the idea in terms of answering the question ‘what is theatre?,’ and the answer offered is that “theatre is space, and it’s about poetic gesture in space. You only need look at Beckett to see this in action. All of his plays contain the most extraordinary poetic gestures that take place in space. Waiting for Godot in its entirety is about two people who wait by a tree for someone who never comes. Or think of Lucky and Pozzo’s entry; a corpulent man walks an exhausted emaciated man into the space by a rope. These are gesture that only makes sense in space. They simply would not have the same impact in film, in a photograph, in a novel. That speaks to me about the true impact of theatre being a spatial medium. An audience always experiences the true potency of theatre through things that are spatial gestures, and those are inherently visual things, because you experience space primarily visually, but you also experience it aurally.”

This is where Williams’ love and interest in writers and their relationship to text stems from. “Part of the reason why I’m interested in writers like Tennessee Williams and Beckett and Caryl Churchill and Shakespeare, is that their relationship to text allows actors to have a kind of metaphysical relationship to it, that it’s actually as much about the sound and rhythm of the language in space, and the impact of the musicality of that language, that has just as much meaning and activity playing upon the audience, as the content of what is being said.” This is not to belittle the importance of the contents of the language itself – we wouldn’t have stories being told unless words were spoken – but it encapsulates something the director Jim Sharman (a long-time mentor of Williams’) imparted to him: if you don’t get the image right, then people don’t (or perhaps, won’t) listen. “So the way in which people will be able to receive the content of language has a direct correlation to the way in which the director has cracked the right image on stage, or rather the resonant poetic gesture in space.”

I think back to Williams’ production of Macbeth for STC in 2014, with Hugo Weaving as the eponymous anti-hero. At the time, Williams talked a lot about the idea of the ‘inverted theatre’ – of the audience sitting on the stage, looking out to the empty auditorium – and it was one of the most-talked about elements of the production. I also mention the live-video feed in Suddenly Last Summer, and wonder if these gestures were part of the reason for embarking upon the production, or whether they came later, as a result of spending time with the text. “I’m generally not aware of the poetic gesture before I’ve decided to do the play, so it’s the play itself which reveals that gesture. The unusual thing about Macbeth was Andrew [Upton] and I had talked about staging a production in that way before deciding on the play, so that was a unique experience of a spatial gesture conjuring the play.” 

In Suddenly Last Summer, one of the major gestures within that production was “the way in which scale of face worked as a way to put the audience inside the play’s almost nightmarish experience of being watched.” After playing the first thirty minutes of the play behind a wall that doubled as a giant projector screen, the set revolved to expose the lush conservatorium and we met the character of Catherine for the first time. Several things happened at that moment: “first of all, the entrance of Catherine fractured the single and unbroken camera shot we had sat with for half an hour. The looming face of Mrs Venable revolved away, and in a way, so too did her singular and domineering authority. We switched to using multiple cameras, and thus began to experience multiple perspectives for the first time. More than that, the audience became placed inside Catherine’s experience of that world. She was set in the middle of the stage, with the giant screen behind her, and with it these faces looming over her, constantly regulating her… and so through this the audience themselves spatially received the kind of nightmarish overwhelming experience that Catherine herself is caught within.” All those ideas sprang from a reading of the play at STC, months before the play was programmed, but “it’s still an example of reading the play and the idea coming from the text, as opposed to the instance where you know what the idea is and you decide you’re going to do the play because of that idea. More often than not – in fact, almost all the time – it’s unknown to me as to how the play is going to be done when I take the play on; I’m just interested in spending time with that writers’ mind and that particular story, and seeing how that text reveals itself to me.” 

The other half of the equation is, of course, the device of the bare stage, and it features in all of Williams’ productions in one form or another. In one sense, it serves to balance out the richness of the design, but at the same time, it harks back to what Williams said earlier about theatre being a spatial medium first and foremost. “I work in theatre because of the thrill of telling stories with actors in space, so one of the privileges of the opportunity I’ve had of working at the Sydney Theatre Company at a young age, is that I’ve been able to work in big spaces straight away from the very early stages of my professional life. [I feel] like I can tell stories better when I have more space to use. ‘The Space’ is the thing I need to crack with my design team in order to tell the story with the actors I collaborate with. I work very intuitively with space. It’s almost like a play reveals not only the dynamics of space it is asking for, but also the kinds of movement that will bring it to life in that space. I subsequently work quite choreographically, in a collaborative sense, with actors: responding to their intuitive responses to the space the designers and I have offered, and working together to craft a kind of rhythmic dance within it.” 

In the case of Romeo and Juliet, Williams – along with designer David Fleischer – was interested in “the story turning at the point of their union. The two lovers hurtle toward each other with such assuredness that there is no consideration of what happens after that. So the two of them are, as a result of that union and the death of Mercutio and Tybalt, thrown into an abyss; there’s no security anymore. So David and I essentially took the audience from a world of architecture and structure and immovability, to a world of void and floating space, and used their marriage as the point where this inversion would take place.” What followed after the pre-interval marriage was a stark contrast to the full-stage set of the mansion, and all the action that took place on and around it. 

With Children of the Sun and Macbeth, “I suppose a lot of what I’ve been thinking about in my work is asking the question of ‘what is the future beyond the patriarchal paradigm?’ and ‘when we destroy it and when we abandon it (as I believe we should), where do we go?’” In both these plays there’s a similarity in that “you have two men who are incredibly blind to the way in which their own ego and sense of entitlement is destroying the world around them, and in both productions, those men are left with nothing.” But there’s also a fascination with time – “and the way time works as a cruel force in these works” – that sits in a lot of Williams’ productions. At the end of Macbeth, the character of Malcolm was “dressed in Jacobean garb, the ‘poor player who struts and frets upon the stage and then is heard no more’, and the way they played the scene as they walked off was a very pointed expression of the cruel way in which time continues on,” an evocation of “the existential philosophy in the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech.” While the more sentimental ending to Macbeth would have been to have Hugo Weaving left alone, ‘dead’, on stage, “the less sentimental [and] more brutal” ending was “seeing an actor stand and leave the stage, and the final image for the audience being emptiness, nothing. That’s the philosophy I think Shakespeare was offering us in that famous speech, and I think it’s what we also have to deal with at the end of the show.” 

And this brings our conversation to Williams’ most recent production, Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, an STC co-production with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. The production ended with a dark and empty stage, while two actors stood in diagonal corners of the once-full space, asking ‘do you love me?’ The potency of the scene came from the way in which the characters – the actors – have become such an ensemble, reorganising the blocks and fragments of information over the previous hundred minutes, and have now had every object taken away in one simple sequence. Just space remained. “I always knew we would work towards a staging of the final scene where everything was gone. When we die, there’s nothing left, and, in this play, the only true question ultimately is ‘do you love me?’ and the only true answer in that scene is the answer to that question. I often use space – not emptiness – as an expressive way to allow the audience to experience this existential philosophy of how we relate to one another, and how we relate to our own existence, how we relate to time.” 

Comprised of seventy-eight scenes, Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information comes with several rules or criteria which must be adhered to for the production’s success. With Churchill’s text being little more than unallocated lines of dialogue, there are anywhere between fifty-one and seventy-six scenes you can see on stage in any one production, and in the vicinity of 3.18 septillion different combinations of the running order. For Williams, Churchill’s inventiveness and theatrical-mind were part of the allure of embarking upon the challenge of staging a play where they playwright gives a director and cast nothing more than the possibilities for dialogue. In 2013, Williams directed Churchill’s Cloud Nine for NIDA, and says it was “one of the happiest productions I’ve ever worked on. [Churchill’s] a genius playwright. She uses form to inform content. She knows what she wants to examine in a play, and then uses the form of the play to express that idea. It’s the key to her eternal invention.” 

When it came to Love and Information, however, Williams “found a correlation [with] Under Milk Wood. I saw a way I could progress the ideas I had started to talk about in that production inside this one.” Both Under Milk Wood and Love and Information are examples of “theatrical portraiture;” where “Milk Wood was about the cycle of time, and the way in which there is an inevitable riptide through society that an individual follows, Churchill is interested in the finite nature of time, the brutal nature of time – that you are born, you have your life, then it is over – and between those two marked points of birth and death, you have an opportunity to generate meaning with your existence.” After a long and slow design process, where Williams and designer David Fleischer could foresee the play’s collage-like assembly of scenes unfolding only through a series of set-pieces and blackouts, he knew he wanted the freedom to be able to “make [the production] in the rehearsal room, and [that] we wanted the audience’s imagination to be activated,” and thus the idea of the moveable blocks was born.

Unlike the idea of using preconceived set-pieces – which seemed like it would result in a “deathly form of theatrical IKEA” – the blocks allowed him and his cast “to create limitlessly - any different setting we might dream of.” The design also spoke to “the existential philosophy of the work... eight people [were] going to move these blocks around, constantly attempting to make new sense and meaning, and then they were going to take those elements of information away, and like death, the information of life would be gone.” Instead of starting rehearsals with a restricting arrangement of who would be in which scenes, all the actors’ names were put into a wine-cooler, and “for the first week-and-a-half, I pulled names to determine who was going to be in what scene. We would have gone through the play maybe four or five times in a week-and-a-half; we set ourselves the challenge of doing all seventy-six scenes even though we ended up doing only seventy of them.” In comparison, the Royal Court production only used fifty-eight scenes – the compulsory scenes, and the eight ‘depression’ scenes – whereas Williams’ production used all those scenes plus twelve random scenes.

To make the task exponentially more complicated for themselves – not only coordinating the order and make-up of scenes, but also trying to “orchestrate that with only eight people” – Williams and Fleischer set themselves the task of “having a new costume for every scene. The organisation of it was extremely complex. Constant conversations like: ‘if Alison [Whyte] is in that scene dressed as a military person, she can’t be in the preceding twelve scenes because she’s getting changed, but then Harry [Greenwood]’s getting changed-up as a Neanderthal, so that scene will have to be with either Ursula [Yovich] or Anita [Hegh]…’ The beauty of working on text that is as broad and open as [this] is that I wanted the production to span the gamut of contemporary society… The more I moved into the making of it, the more I wanted an expression of time within the work; not just to work laterally [i.e. across a lifetime], but to work in a vertical sense too [i.e. through historical time]. We had thought about setting a few scenes in a natural history museum, so I spied an opportunity to time travel back by having some Neanderthals on stage.. In this work about humanity, I thought it was necessary to then to push us in the opposite direction of it and to have a space-person on stage moments later.” 

The challenges in making this production were enormous, and Williams says he was “constantly changing things in the room, dealing with the Malthouse [where the production had its premiere] saying ‘we can’t, we need the costumes sorted now,’ – I was constantly changing the order, changing the [scene’s] cast, changing the contents,” but he doesn’t think it could have been made any other way. While it may have been an incredibly trying process, the goodwill among the cast, creatives, and Malthouse to get there was enormous. “A lot of that was borne off the fact that for the first week-and-a-half of rehearsal, every scene was everyone’s; it wasn’t about ‘what are my lines?’ but about ‘what is the best idea for this show?’ and that was great. You don’t always have those experiences in rehearsals.”

Williams’ projects for STC in 2016 include Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. The season opens in January with The Golden Age, a play “Andrew [has] long been interested in seeing if it would be a good show to do. [It’s] such a big show – the scope of it is huge, with regards to the size of the cast, the number of characters, the different places the narrative wends its way through – from Ancient Greece through to the wild bush of Tasmania, to Nazi Germany.” Perhaps more importantly though, Williams is fascinated by the way the play “allows us to think about cultural identity, cultural imperialism, and cultural participation, not only with regards to our very complex and problematic history, but with regards to cultural imperialism inside this country at the moment, [with] regards to the discussion about who is allowed to be a citizen inside this country.”

The same vein of societal inquiry informs his thinking on A Midsummer Night’s Dream – “there are darker threads inside that play that I have never seen explored, that have always resonated with me.” Although billed as a comedy, “the play examines sex and sexuality in a really dark manner – the thrill and terror of sexual awakening are two sides of the same coin; the thrill of a naked body and the terror of a naked body the first time you see one.” Williams is also fascinated by Oberon’s relationship to Titania – “in duping her into sleeping with a half-man half-donkey, his act is rendered comic within the play, but it’s a very dark and problematic act of revenge that he puts upon her. So the production will be comic because the play is comic, but it will be as much about the nightmare of sexual awakening as it is about the thrill of sexual awakening.”

In All My Sons, Williams sees a correlation with Suddenly Last Summer although in a less heightened way. Still at the very early stages of designing the production with designer Alice Babidge, Williams is drawn to the way in which families “live in a knotted web of lies and delusion, in order to maintain a peace, and not have to confront harsh realities. [There] are certainly resonances with Suddenly Last Summer, and the space between what a character conveys in a public sense to those around them (and even to themselves) versus what’s truthfully inside… it’s a big thematic [concern] inside a lot of my work.”

The question of ‘what happens next?’ is not one Williams has entertained yet, as he is still a Resident Director at STC until the end of 2016. Hopefully, “the opportunity to continue to make work on the scale that I’ve been making it comes after that… I want to continue to make the work inside the places that can allow me to work in space.” Which writers would he like to work on in the years to come? He’d like to make his way through “Shakespeare’s glorious catalogue.” In a Trevor Nunn ‘all thirty-seven plays’ kind of way? “Maybe. I don’t know.” He’d like to do a bit more Beckett, venture into Sarah Kane – “she’s sort of intimidatingly good” – as well as Patrick White, more Caryl Churchill, some Eugene O’Neill and Federico Garcia Lorca, and “some big new original works.”

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