Dorothy tries to stand upright, her legs buckling as her hands push against the smooth glass walls of the spinning box. She sets her feet wide. She tilts. Her hands move to grasp at the wall behind her. Her face is panicked. Her gingham dress swirls around her knees. From her forehead glows the red stain of a lipstick kiss. The box spins and spins and spins and spins and spins. Dorothy looks outward. Control is impossible. The box glows. Lights from within splash pure colour out and over the theatre. Orange. Green. Purple. Blue. Yellow.
By the time we see this scene of Dorothy (Emily Milledge) reeling in an inescapable Technicolor tornado, we’ve already spent some time in Oz. We’ve encountered witches both good and dead (both played by Luisa Hastings Edge). Ruby slippers have been obtained from the latter. Three new friends have been met. And still, when we see Dorothy spinning in the glass box, our minds return to the tornado that brought her to Oz in the first place.
From director Adena Jacobs for Belvoir, this The Wizard of Oz is ‘after L Frank Baum’: after his book, after the 1939 film, and after our collective memories of both. Fragmented, non-narrative, and largely wordless, Jacobs relies on our existing knowledge of the text to build a work of images and emotion, and in doing so demands an extreme generosity from her audience. The audience must be generous in accepting that they will not be able to grasp every image and every moment, and in allowing Jacobs’ vision to control the way they view the work. In return for this generosity, Jacobs offers her audience a work of startling power and depth.
Eschewing narrative structure and forgoing a traditional emotional arc, moments spring out half from the stage and half from our memories: the spinning box becomes the tornado; an angular dance suddenly reveals itself as The Jitterbug from the stage musical; Dorothy clicks her heels, sharing our innate knowledge of what here is a futile attempt to return home.
We are constantly exposed to darkness and terror. Where there were traces of heartbreak in the film, Jacobs claws out the damaged heart and exposes it in full. Where there were tears in the fabric of good in the book, Jacobs rips through the material and allows destructive evil to consume absolutely. Missing parts – brain, heart, courage – aren’t joyously sung about in optimistic dreams for the future. Instead, their absence is marked by searing pain and a deep-seated belief that things can never change, lives will never be happy, damage cannot be undone.
To ascribe notions of meaning to Jacobs’ production is impossible, if only because of its incalculable number of layers. There are the layers she brings as director, but also those from designers Ralph Myers (set), Kate Davis (costumes), Emma Valente (lighting), and Max Lyandvert (composition and sound). There are the layers brought by her cast. And there are the layers we ourselves bring as members of the audience.
Jacobs shows us Dorothy about to become a woman, about to step out into the world alone and inevitably be confronted with a world that is harsh and scary: a world that takes women and pits them against each other; a world in which men destroy women, and societal rules can destroy them, too.
She shows us bodies that are alternatively and concurrently female and androgynous and queered. The aging Scarecrow (Melita Jursic) hangs in a deserted field, her face warped by stockings – a long way from the times it was painted with beauty. The Tin Man (Jane Montgomery Griffiths) is clearly gendered as male, but Montgomery Griffiths stands topless, breasts exposed. The Lion’s (Paul Capsis) mane, the beast’s symbol of masculinity, is huge and matted, as Capsis stands in a delicate peach skirt and lace top, singing in his rich voice I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.
This The Wizard of Oz speaks about the comradery and friendships that spring uniquely from a dark strain of humour shared by pained companions. Dorothy tries to become one of these companions, but she is young, and not yet so pained, not yet so destroyed as the other three. Milledge’s performance is at first quiet, youthful, and observing, eyes searching out into the audience. As we watch, her Dorothy sees power in her grasp and she reaches for it: she becomes a woman. She grasps a burning broom with pride; she throws water balloons at the witch with determination, conscious of the pain she will inflict.
Jacobs’ work has long shown a fascination with the scope of the cinematic, and that remains true here. Yet hand-in-hand with that has always been her fascination with the truth in theatre. With brief appearances of a live Toto, and not so brief appearances of woman’s breasts, Jacobs wants to confront her audience with the knowledge of theatre’s true existence – truth that cannot be faked. This truth then clashes head on with the fantastical and theatrical: Toto’s presence gives way to the arrival of dozens of mechanical dogs; a rainbow spans the theatre built from nothing but stage lights and a smoke machine. In theatre, as in Oz, Jacobs wants to remind us there is always someone hiding behind the curtain.
As we reach its final scene, this The Wizard of Oz perhaps ultimately reveals itself to be about memories: our memories of the book and film, and the memories of a lifetime that are carried into old age.
On stage sits a woman in a wheelchair and a gingham dress, played by hundred-year-old actor Eileen Kramer. Kramer is old in a way that can never be faked through stage trickery. She was 24 when a 16-year-old Judy Garland landed in Oz on the silver screen for the first time.
Over the speakers we hear the tinny sound of an accordion: a tune earlier played live on stage now sounds as though it were recorded long ago, degraded through many listens – just like our memories. The Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion look on unaged, smiling, and proud. The woman dances her hands to the music, pure joy on her face. Jacobs gives us no clues or links to how we got here. In the end, there is only this.
This Dorothy, we feel, led a life well-lived; and in her old age, wherever she ended up, continues to live well still. Through this, perhaps, a Wizard of Oz filled with so much terror and darkness can also find a way to embrace hope.
The Wizard of Oz plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until May 31.