The Squeal in the Pen – Benedict Hardie and the agony of influence. (Theatre Review)

The Squeal in the Pen

New Fitz Play #7 2017

The Old Fitz theatre, 29 August – 9 September

You can grab your tickets here. 

The idea of the New Fitz Program 2017 is to have playwrights respond to productions on the mainstage. This interesting idea runs the risk of tapping into the Australian cultural cringe, but outside that narrow assumption there lies the opportunity to see writing as it is; a perpetual relationship with its singular lack. To write in response is an almost violent struggle with the original to master or refuse its presence. This comes to the fore strongly with The Squeal in the Pen, as the spectre of Sarah Kane sits heavily over its top, even as Benedict Hardie both embraces and refuses her, the weight of “well, she died for her play” forces a textual conflict that beautifully makes its way onto the stage. Hardie works with narrative and context rather than language as Kane does, but one can’t help but sense the journey Hardie is on as he navigates this complicated exercise. Whether or not the name Sarah Kane already speaks volumes to his audience, negotiating a critical divide is always a hazardous enterprise. Besides the obvious nostalgic influences of who and what Sarah Kane is and how she has been appropriated for Benedict Hardie’s purposes, culturally we refuse influence as if it were more akin to plagiarism than collaboration. This is odd given all creative truths happen in the space of a delightfully suspicious collusion. Guided by this determinant, we see Benedict Hardies’ young man as himself, the visiting female as Sarah Kane and the pig they love, writing itself. The woman (Kane) visits with her prefabricated constructions (influence) that he (Hardie) builds. Their torment is, the squeal in their pens.

Oscar Wilde remarks in The Portrait of Mr W.H. that: “Influence is simply a transference of personality, a mode of giving away what is most precious to one’s self, and its exercise produces a sense, and, it may be, a reality of loss. Every disciple takes away something from his master.” It was two years later in The Picture of Dorian Gray that Wilde had turned this to a bitter question of the moral lack in the character of influence. Benedict Hardie sees it as something different. Both he and Sarah Kane are trapped in the cell; both he and Sarah Kane have no relationship to time, they are both guided by unseen masters who control and refuse to control them and both Benedict Hardie and Sarah Kane will die for their work in their own way. Hardie wants to partner Kane, not experience each individual work as its standalone other, each in natural judgement upon its fellow. They are equally in the asylum; equally trapped and free.

Lou Andreas- Salome observed that sublimation was our own self-realisation, and her replacement suggestion for the purposes of accuracy was the phrase “elaboration.” In other words, it is the task of the writer to feel their influence and repurpose it for their own creative world, to (re)describe such in a way that the witness (reader, audience or shareholder and investor as Benedict Hardie calls them) is given access to consensus. Madness (realness) comes from making one’s own culture and rapidly contemplating one’s central place in it. However, for this contemplation one must make a sacrifice and every latecomer making depends upon sacrifice. Sacrifice is meant to renew human vitality (Christ, Cain and Able etc). In the process of poetic misprision, sacrifice diminishes human vitality, for here less is more. Each piece of writing is an evasion, not only of another piece of writing but also of itself, which is to say that every piece of writing is a misinterpretation of what it might have been. Writing and reading are sacrificial processes, a purgation that drains more than it replenishes, stripping all back to bone.

In a respectful, nuanced understanding of the creative process, Benedict Hardie stands comfortably with Sarah Kane in what can appear to be an awkward pairing. The squeal in the Pen is a courageous and confident addition to the main stage currently showing at The Old Fitz and a surprisingly joyful account of what it is to write and love. Benedict Hardie is well supported by director Madeline Humphreys who calls forth strong performances from her cast. Standing on the set of 4:48 Psychosis and being is no small thing and the cast of Cassandra Sorrell, Varun Fernando and Alex Sideratos are equally confident and proud of the efforts of this group of creatives. This is an excellent show, that has a lot to say about writing in general, but equally the power of fine writing in Australia. A rare and true gift of the joyful combination of ephemera and present, The Squeal in the Pen reminds all of us what raptures await those willing to give themselves over to theatre.