Duck Hunting – A nightmarish confrontation with our inner self. (Theatre Review)
Contemporarian Theatre Company
King Street Theatre from 4 Nov to 29 Nov. You can grab your tickets here.
Images Toby B. Styling
Craig Stephens’ crises, the axis upon which Alexandr Vampilov’s 1969 play Duck Hunting pivots, is one of language. Craig talks and talks and talks throughout the staged single day of Duck Hunting, but never says anything. He lacks the educational dream of visionaries like Plato and Lenin who wished the young were not only taught how to read and write in school, but equally important taught a critical attitude toward language as necessary as the first step in the formation of literacy. As Lenin observed, this would not only produce the functional skills required to successfully exploit a modern economy but also the critical insight necessary for popular opposition to stifling institutions and oppressive ideologies. (Orality and Literacy – Walter J Ong) Without a powerful internal dialogue, that which in most of us is an oppressive circular hysteria, Craig is left constantly vacillating between justification and a slavish devotion to his desires, which he knows to have an instinctively honest core, but occur on the surface as slacking, substance abuse and forcing his own pain into the laps of others, particularly the women in his life. Craig Stephens doesn’t know how to talk to himself, let alone those around him, and he’s floundering in an ocean so alien to his true desires and yet so obviously of his own making, he is left with suicide as the only true option available to him.
It’s all very Russian, a kind of blokey version of Mrs Dalloway if you like, where the internal monologue not only takes over, but comes to be the author of the so-called rational reality seen around him. However, this is theatre, not the novel, so the internal monologue is sprouted out of Craig’s mouth in phone conversations and wordy soliloquies at the bar, be it home or hotel, where he uses the people around him as a sounding board for his constant verbiage. It looks like Craig’s life is falling apart, when really he is experiencing the surfacing of his internal mess. While everything that happens to and around Craig is caused by him, it also isn’t because he is at cause of nothing. He is a piece of driftwood in an ocean that, rather than offering hope, bashes you on the head and leaves you to drown. This inability to take responsibility (it is an inability – he doesn’t know how to choose no) is a crises of realisation and awareness that stems from an inability to understand how his words affect himself and his world. When his wife has an abortion, it is in response to his hopelessness, a living example of the aborted dreams of possibility and hope. Craig’s only true hope and pleasure is duck hunting, an outing offered by a mysterious, surreal friend who is a manifestation of the control and poise Craig longs for but doen’t have the wit to know he needs. In Craig’s world, everything is a horrible reflection of his inner self and nothing can be seen as separate from his own disturbing foolishness.
The current manifestation of Duck Hunting showing at King Street theatre is a modern version of the original, plonked in contemporary Melbourne. Drawing close to the current day leaves us with the horrible realisation we are Craig, or worse, we know Craig, and at times this intensity of connection can erase our own critical faculties, which is, of course Vampilov’s point. Duck Hunting is long, very long, and although director Shai Alexander peps it up with interesting creative direction, the proximity can place a much-needed strain on the watcher. It’s horrible to be close to Craig for a long period of time, his self-destruction is so palpable when performed by Christian Heath. Heath begins the play asleep in his bed, a vertical affair upon which he lays like an anti-anti-Christ, not even good enough to espouse the metaphor. But this is part of the point of a critical reflection on language and the crises of our internal dialogue. Duck Hunting is a marathon experience, exhausting in scope, perspective and immediacy. It’s the kind of theatre I like – imposing and focused more on the ambition and collaborative reach of the creatives involved, rather than flawlessly executed. If you like theatre that challenges you, makes you feel frustrated and demands you ask yourself ‘why,’ then this is a long enjoyable night out you can relax into after a great Newtown meal.
The cast revolving around Heath’s spotlight, are vibrant and energetic. They are not always in command of their greater point within the play, but they are always watchable, regularly funny, and keep the plays momentum high. The play is long for a reason, you are meant to “endure it” from a cerebral perspective if you like, but Alexanders cast exude a charming warmth of connection that eases the audience through their Vampilov experience. If Craig’s self-destruction is excruciating and horribly banal, then it is his satellite associates in life, his friends, lovers and bystanders who bring colour to his world and provide him with his lost opportunities. Alexander’s direction and his vibrant cast cleverly vacillating between realism, the absurd and cartoonish projections of Craig’s impression, leave us with a sense that within the hopelessness of our own self obsession, it is the other, that which we fear above all else, that brings us hope.