Sunday 11 September 2016

Edmund. The Beginning. - Theatre Review

What: Edmund. The Beginning
When: 10 – 22 November
Where: Arts House, Rehearsal Room
Written and Performed by: Brian Lipsom
Directed by: Peter Evans and Susie Dee
Costumes by: Brian Lipsom and Mel Page
Stage Management by: Hayley Fox

No-one can deny for a single moment that Brian Lipsom is not one of the most accomplished actors in Australia at the moment, and in his show Edmund. The Beginning we discover that he is a phenomenal wordsmith (or witsmith), with formidable performance making skills as well.  Edmund. The Beginning is being performed at Arts House in the Rehearsal Room.  Be warned, the show has a strict lockout. No latecomers!

Edmund. The Beginning is one of the densest works I have come across and yet it does not collapse under its own weight which is a phenomenal achievement.  This piece of theatre is not for the lay audient.  To have any means of entering it you really need to have a background in English literature and English theatre history. Without these, the layers and nuances and depths and complexities of Lipsom’s witticisms will be impenetrable. I feel I have a good foundation in these areas but I would not for a single moment assume I grasped anywhere near everything included and referenced.

In many ways, this is Lipsom’s intentions.  When Lipsom finally begins speaking (which is not the beginning of the performance and does not contain the beginnings of the witticisms which have already commenced through his costume and entrance and demeanour) we think he is himself, but it is revealed that he has taken on the persona of Daniel Brand.  Who Daniel Brand is, and how he fits into the construct of this work is revealed over time – yet never completely.

Brand/Lipsom talks about Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude the Obscure and in reference to the book, anoints himself ‘Daniel the Obscurer’.  He explains the pun on the word obscurer and its multiple levels of meaning and as the performance unfolds it becomes clear that Lipsom’s intention is to be clearly unclear for all definitions throughout.

It is also revealed (ambiguously) that the structure is essentially a great witticism as well.  Towards the end Lipsom talks about the show being an horary, but throughout – in his costume, in the episodes and how they are put together – he is evidently playing with the word orary (and possibly oratory). He also plays with the idea of the word mobile and oh so many others, it is hard to keep up.

The content of the work is superbly suited for Lipsom, with his classical English theatrical training shown at its best both in terms of content and also his personal performance strengths.  I love hearing classical English actors orate.  Nobody trains the actors voice the way the English do and it is always a pleasure to hear a master of his craft in this field perform.

Unfortunately, the utter anglo-centricity of Edmund. The Beginning is the very thing that makes it impenetrable and ultimately meaningless for me.  It has no meaning or context within Australian society today.

Woven into the threads of the work is Lipsom’s own story of being a young boy swept away by Pinter, and his removal to Australia later in life.  He draws linkages between Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund, Pinter’s son Daniel, and Sylvia Plath’s daughter Frieda (also an ex-pat now living in Australia) and himself. 

I didn’t understand the corollaries, nor the purpose for them.  If I had to guess I would say it is depression, or ‘gloom’ to which Lipsom refers at the end. Certainly I always find Thomas Hardy’s writing impenetrable because of its gloominess. Pinter became estranged from his son and Plath committed suicide so there is a definite linkage of gloom there.  Also, Plath’s legacy of confessional poetry influences the work heavily – another link.

My problem is it was just too hard.  I could congratulate myself and say I am better than everyone else because I ‘got’ much of it, but the truth is I don’t understand art that is not accessible or doesn’t appear to want to affect people.  I like the idea that this piece is for the highly skilled and specialised because sometimes we all need brain food, but I also need to be left questioning or examining something to really appreciate what I have seen.

Lipsom states in the work that in ‘his’ opinion art should be unexpected and inevitable.  For me the inevitability is missing – unless his whole point is that we all die... which is not unexpected.  I guess after sitting through it and working my brain at maximum, I just felt like I was left without anything in return.

Apart from very elaborate costuming and some somewhat ungainly props, Lipsom avoided technical theatrical elements. If it wasn’t for the costumery I would have called this Poor Theatre. The natural light entering the room (and a bit of overhead lighting as the sun went down) were all that was necessary, and his mobile phone created the sound source for playback moments (one of his non-verbal witticisms at work).

My favourite moment was when the sun was just dipping below the horizon and we sat in darkness and quiet in the room with Lipsom speaking in a gentle, hypnotic tone.  There was a grace and restfulness about this moment which was absolutely essential in the maelstrom of the detailed and complex performance.

Every actor in Melbourne should see Edmund. The Beginning and every English literature scholar as well.  It is a brilliant piece of theatre. I would not recommend it for the general public though. Not because they are too dumb to get it. More because it is a highly specialised piece and it could be detrimental to the lay person’s relationship with live theatre if they get lost right from the beginning (a very real possibility) – something none of us want to occur.

4 Stars

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