Sydney Fringe Interview with Chris Dunstan of The Defence.
One of the highlights of my Fringe experience this year has been The Defence, a very interesting and well executed play examining gender relations within the rehearsal spaces of contemporary theatre. This expansive theme is couched within the narrations of one August Strindberg, a play write and novelist who has the peculiar reputation for writing some of the most compelling female characters all the while being a confirmed misogynist. Chris Dunstan wrote the play and then work-shopped it with his cast, coming up with a surprisingly effective real life tale of the conflicts of gender on the stage and behind it. The Defence extends from Strindberg and his relationships with women, particularly his first wife, Siri von Essen, but it soon moves beyond Strindberg. Strindberg becomes the launch pad for what Chris could see going on around him within theatre rehearsals and often inside himself as director.
I was fascinated with this relationship Chris felt he could clearly see between Strindberg, contemporary theatre and the more recent developments between men and women. I was lucky enough to get a chance to ask him some questions, and he was kind enough (and patient enough with me) to answer.
Here is a little taste of some of our tete-a-tet:
Lisa – Having studied Strindberg’s plays and read The confession of a Fool, what is your overall impression of Strindberg’s attitude to women? Is he misjudged these days?
Chris – When researching Strindberg, I was thorough up until a point but I still haven’t actually read the entire Confession of a Fool. I first encountered excerpts from the novel in an anthology dealing with notions of masculinity and femininity. Personally, the idea of using the Strindberg text was less about upholding its integrity and more about tapping into a culture best summarised by the following quote from writer-director Simon Stone:
“I’m stealing whatever I need to steal and corrupting whatever I need to corrupt to entertain an audience … I have no interest in honouring a set of ideas [an original playscript] that belong to the past of an audience.” (From Rosemary Neill’s article in the Australian)
I was intrigued by the way in which auteur directors can pick apart a classic text based upon their own desires and interests. This is why ‘The Defence’ spends more time in a modern rehearsal room than it does in Strindberg’s nineteenth century study. My Strindberg is specific to the aspects of his incredible life that spoke to me, as opposed to being historically accurate. I imagined him as a genius trapped by his own intellectual theories and his conflicting passion and hidden respect for women. But this is simply a projection of myself and I think the audience will recognise this in light of the play’s ending.
Lisa – The moment when Catherine removes her clothes is very powerful in the play, and really, the plays climax. Is it the enormity of her femininity that unsettles the men around her, her vulnerability or her compliance do you think?
Chris – I’d like to think it’s Catherine’s self-assuredness, which is always present yet doesn’t need to be paraded like the bravado of the men, that unsettles the rehearsal room. Whenever she attempts to challenge the director on his terms, she’s consistently countered. It’s only when she reveals herself, both physically and figuratively, in a way that’s assertive but not excessive that the systems of the rehearsal space begin to crumble.
Lisa – Do you think a misogynistic attitude to women is connected to masculine creativity? Does a fear / hatred of women contribute to a demand within themselves for excellence?
Chris – Personally, I feel the number of male creatives with openly misogynistic sentiment is relatively small or at least diminishing (especially if a comparison is made with Strindberg’s time!). I think the issues that surround male creativity are far more deep-seated and potentially twofold. Firstly, male creatives often inherit structures and systems of working that assume sexist attitudes in an indirect rather than explicit way. Secondly, there can be a reluctance for men to open themselves up to discussion when tensions arise. This is frequently tied up with constraints in time and resources but may also imply a fear of admitting to the underlying “messiness” of notions of gender. There’s no clear solution to some situations and so an open dialogue is crucial. But I’d be interested to hear what you think of this.
Lisa – Was Strindberg afraid of what women might do to him or what they might become around him?
Chris – Again, I don’t feel I’m in a position to make an informed judgment about this. Personally, I was more interested in Strindberg’s difficulty in resolving or accepting the passions women evoked in him than his conscious fear of how the feminist movement would impact society. It must be said that the latter was great and the text alludes to his paranoia regarding a battle of the sexes, similar to the kind that led to family structures shifting from ancient matriarchies to the patriarchies that Strindberg was attempting to maintain.
Lisa – Virginia Wolf talks about Strindberg in A Room of One’s Own. She comes to the conclusion that there must be a new kind of artist that is separate from gender. What do you think of this?
Chris – It’s a nice ideology but practically I feel it would be impossible for an artist to separate themselves from the influence of gender, more so in terms of its social implications rather than from a physiological perspective. Presently, gender is so tied up with our modern society and history and so I believe it’s more important for artists to acknowledge and open themselves up to this as opposed to attempting to transcend beyond it.
Lisa – Does creative energy get wasted on maintaining gender roles in both men and women?
Chris – Possibly but not in a conscious or direct way. In terms of my experiences of theatre-making, time and energy can often be wasted upholding the systems that dictate how a work is made. The way in which these structures manifest themselves may imply certain gender roles but don’t usually revolve around them. It must be said that a creative process is often designed in a way, especially in a commercial setting, to ensure the piece is produced as efficiently as possible. However, I think this is part of the problem.
Lisa – What sort of responses have you had to The Defence so far? What has surprised you about writing the play? What responses have surprised you?
Chris – On the whole, we’ve received extremely positive responses. At the very least, the play seems to provoke a strong reaction. Some of my favourite comments so far include:
“It’s a lovely ugly play” (Christopher Ryan, Artistic Consultant for ‘The Defence’)
“It’s like ‘Inception’, only less confusing and with more booty-shaking.” (My friend Greg)
“But that’s its gift. Dismiss it and then let it turkey-slap you.” (Jane from Shit On Your Play blog)
Personally, the most surprising part of the creative process was the way in which the dynamics explored in the play resonated throughout rehearsals and in writing the script. For instance, I often found myself giving Catherine specific directions on how to perform the blowjobs / tea-bagging / turkey-slapping, giggling uncontrollably at the results (as you can tell, my sense of humour is crude to say the very least and you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that ‘South Park’ is one of my favourite TV shows). More seriously, there were also times when I would script lines for Catherine’s character that she then questioned from her own perspective as a female actor. Ultimately, it was these discussions and the collaborative nature of the process as a whole that enabled the continual development of the ideas. However, it was important that I acknowledged how implicated I was as a male director in terms of the questions the play asks and that I didn’t attempt to sit outside their scope.
And the most surprising response so far was from my 74-year-old aunt. I was nervous about her seeing the play, as she’s not usually one for explicit language and sexual innuendo, but she came out the other side beaming, having connected with play’s themes.
Lisa – What aesthetic components were important to you in writing The Defence? How did you incorporate Strindberg’s techniques into the play?
Chris – For Strindberg’s nineteenth century study (as it appears at the beginning of the play), I really wanted to create the kind of sparse and angular aesthetic that is often used in modern adaptations of classic texts. It’s vital that this holds a certain integrity so that the shift to the rehearsal room is more pronounced. From here on in, it’s about revealing the underlying “messiness” of rehearsal spaces and to allow this to slowly corrupt the clean and stylised aesthetic that we began with.
In terms of Strindberg’s own visual techniques (regarding his ideas on naturalism), I was guided by his revolutionary impulse to move away from the painted canvas backdrops and footlights that preceded ‘Miss Julie’ in order to present a single set, which was realistic yet at the same time incomplete. He was interested in bringing the minutiae of everyday life and a character’s psychology into greater focus and this sentiment stayed in the back of my mind as ‘The Defence’ evolved.
The Defence is playing at The PACT Theatre this week. You can grab ticket here. This is an excellent taste of experimental theatre done very well. Don’t miss it.