play twenty eight: love me tender

love me tenderAuthor: Tom Holloway

Published: 2010

Synopsis: Father is a fire-fighter, the local hero, and his youngest daughter has just been born. His love for her is unlike any other kind of love – deep, long, protective – but as she heads towards adolescence he has to confront how our hyper-sexual culture is forcing young girls to grow up fast. All this in the midst of the gods’ wrath, who’ve stopped the wind and made the forests burn, forcing him to choose what sacrifice he is willing to live with.

What moved me: My familiarity with the Iphigenia myth upon which this work is based allowed me to see the full extent to which Holloway had allowed it to be infected by an Australian sensibility. Athena’s refusal to allow the wind to blow and so release the Greek fleet on its way to Troy is our craze-inducing heat in which we wait with baited breath for the first fire of the season to break. The fire-fighter is our Agamemnon, who we look to when we need to be saved (and who is an unimpeachable archetype of Australian masculinity).

I also loved the dilation of Holloway’s language. Every scene unravels as a layer of images slathered upon each other – we think it is one thing, but then it becomes another, and another, and another, until we almost stop trying to assume we understand what we are seeing and wait to be told.

Step into my coffin. I’ll show you around.

chessI’m in the thinking stages of making a show about what it might be like to wake up in your own coffin. Writer Ellana Costa and I want to look at the hard reality of ghosthood. What if you were a ghost with limits? What if you couldn’t defy gravity or boundaries but were stuck for eternity inside a wooden box?

Performance Space (a theatre company based at Carriageworks) are running a short work evening at the beginning of March called ‘Nighttime: Live and Let Die’ and to apply to be a part of it you had to pitch an idea around the themes of death, night, dreams, ghosts, rebirth, etc. Coincidentally, I saw a performance two days before the application was due in which a man dreamt that he had died and yet was awake in his coffin. The avalanche this scene set off in my head resulted in this pitch (I’ll spare you the artistic masturbation and just give you the broad outline):

“Step into my coffin. I’ll show you around.”

Tom has just woken up as a ghost. He’s in his coffin and is surrounded by objects. The only problem is, he can’t make sense of them. What is so important about that whistle? And why is there a bible underneath his pillow?

come and join me’ is about the disconnect between how we are seen by our loved ones, and how we see ourselves.

If an audience member gets close enough, Tom will ask them to step into his coffin and help him work out why he’s been buried with a bible, and why he’s wearing a Ramones T-shirt.

When we are grieving the loss of a loved one, we bury them with objects symbolising who they were to us, but perhaps not to them. What if you never told them what you loved about them? Or what if you loved the part of them that they despised?

‘come and join me’ is also about the inexplicable choices we make in life – why we choose to learn the clarinet instead of the oboe, or to be a novelist rather than a dancer. Buried with the objects that mark these choices, we are faced with an eternity of contemplation.

The possibility that I’ve now realised, which I should have put in the application, is this: what if a ghost was given a chance to explain their chest-pieces?

Chest-pieces is an idea I had a while ago that runs vaguely along these lines:

What if every sternum was a door that you could swing out to reveal the six precise memories that have had the most formative influence on a person? What if you could reach your hands inside and take them out, one by one, and roll them between your fingers? I imagine that these six memories would be concentrated, like juice, to resemble something like chess pieces that you can roll around in the palm of your hand. Imagine if you could handle the chest-pieces of another person to discover who they were, rather than trying to negotiate the said/unsaid of language (and our heinous ability to understand our own selves and then communicate that understanding) […] What if these six pieces were lined up before you the moment that you died?

The trouble we have with being alive is that our lives are spooling out like thread – this thread will continue to spool until it runs out. Obviously, this is not really a problem, but the one thing we are denied with death is a definitive line-up of those six chest-pieces, those six moments that you could place in the hands of another human to make them understand how and why you lived your life.

BUT. What if you were a ghost? You would no longer be living. Your thread would have stopped spooling. But you would have your six chest-pieces. And you’d be able to hand them to somebody and make them understand what you lived for, maybe what you died for.

I guess the challenge for Lana and I is to work out how to minimise the elephant tread of language in this imagining.

what do you say to death?

collingwood

Fifteen days ago my uncle died.

He was in a car accident and his chest collapsed. For reasons still unknown, they could not operate as his blood would not clot and he was dead within 24 hours.

All I could feel was a sense of total absence.

The man that I had only really started getting to know halfway through last year no longer existed.

He was a real outback kind of guy.

Hard in a no-bullshit, rock-climber, mine-manager kind of way.

He’d been bitten by snakes so many times he was immune to anti-venom.

He was a diehard Collingwood fan.

He didn’t eat vegetables.

He was a serious smoker.

He was a gentle giant who in his retirement lived on Mount Tambourine with his partner, my aunty.

He worked on their massive back yard, building a rock-climbing wall in his shed, a big birdcage for their zebra finches, and a pen for their chooks.

He drove my sister and I the hour-and-a-half trip to the Gold Coast airport after our stay with them.

He called my aunty ‘Poss’.

When I heard that he’d died all I could think about was my aunty. He was her everything. They’d never had kids and had lived all over Australia, following John’s mining placements. And he was gone. A whole had been ripped into halves.

I only have a shadowy understanding of grief. My grandfather, my idol, died in 2006, and I still think about him everyday. But it was with John that I began to sense the shock of sudden death, of having your ribcage yanked out and being told that it no longer belongs to you.

The thing that I am ashamed of and which fills me with wonder is how quickly the world reasserts itself. The shock knocks out your focus, holding you in the merciless grip of remembered images, remembered words. But almost instantly your focus starts to shift back: objects refill with colour and weight, something makes you laugh, you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t know what’s happened and who you decide shouldn’t be dragged down with the details.

I’ve realised that language has not been designed to cope with death. The sheer nature of it is a ‘filling-up’; you fill up space with words, often to avoid the yawning, threatening, exhilirating emptiness of silence.

Is this why we flounder with the bereaved? What language could approximate their loss, could capture the absence of their other half?

Perhaps this is where our bodies really do come into their own. Language fails in the face of death. But you still want, desperately, to help the one left behind, to help them start stitching up the one half left. And so you hold them. A hand on the shoulder, back, knee. A hug. An encouraging, useless smile. Open arms.

What else can you do?

Funnily enough, I think one man has managed to capture grief with words, which my aunty put on the funeral service sheet:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H.Auden