Watching the Australian Ballet’s production of Nutcracker recently, I found myself thinking back on Mr Burns (2012) – Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic play where The Simpsons is the major lasting cultural commodity – which I had seen a few weeks earlier. I think that’s a sign of good art: it becomes sticky and worms its way into your thoughts in the oddest places.
In my review of Mr Burns for Junkee, I wrote:
Washburn not only brings theatre into the current cultural conversation by repurposing a beacon of pop culture; she also imagines a future where The Simpsons will be as mutatable and adaptable as Shakespeare is now. In theatre, she argues, it is the now which is the point.
The Nutcracker is one of the world’s most beloved ballets. The work is a mainstay in the broader culture, too, having worked itself into our lives away from the ballet stage: Tchaikovsky’s 1982 composition is synonymous with Christmas. Particularly in America, companies will stage it for weeks on end every year, as a family Christmas tradition – casting dozens of ballet students in its ranks and selling tickets upon tickets to their families. The ballet imagines a world where truly everything is better at Christmas, a story we all want to keep telling ourselves – and it does so in a way that is accessible and safe for audiences.
In Australia, there isn’t such a tightly-held tradition around the work. Rather, it pops up every few years, and not always pegged to the holiday season. The Australian Ballet has three Nutcrackers in their current repertoire: David McAllister’s 50-minute ‘Storytime Ballet’ for children (2016); Peter Wright’s traditional staging (1990); and Graeme Murphy’s Australianised version from 1992, subtitled The Story of Clara, which they are currently staging.
The Story of Clara is in many ways a beautiful example of updating, remixing, and repurposing classics – and in as many ways, it is an example of how a work can become dated and stale after 25 years. Murphy moves the ballet to a hot Australian Christmas in the 1950s, and to the home of Clara, an elderly Russian ballerina welcoming her fellow dancers to a Christmas celebration. Clara and her friends, all played by former members of the company – including original company member and stalwart, Colin Peasley – listen to The Nutcracker on the radio and retrace the steps of their youth. Their bodies are worn and old, but still hold the markers of grace and poise of a professional career.
For those who are familiar with The Nutcracker and the conventions of ballet, this scene brings great joy. Murphy makes visual and physical references back to Marius Petipa’s original choreography, refracting the original steps and emotions of the children at their Christmas party into the emotions of these adults. For those who aren’t familiar with the traditional choreography and story, Murphy’s work is simply about the joy of these characters, and the way they stumble and laugh through steps. Although this production is 25 years old, there continues to be a freshness to this scene on the ballet stage.
In act two, though, the work begins to show its age. The second acts of ballets in Russia at the turn of the last century were often given over to ‘divertissements’: short dances meant to demonstrate skill rather than advance the plot, usually under the guise of guests performing at some event. In The Nutcracker, these include ‘Spanish Dance’, ‘Chinese Dance’, and ‘Russian Dance’, and Murphy finds himself too wedded to these original motifs.
Now used to represent the travel of a ship bringing dancers from Russia to Australia, the divertissements become literal representations of their respective countries. The ‘Arabian Dance’ is now set in Egypt, and seeing the company’s largely white and Asian dancers wearing dreadlocked wigs and carrying rope around their necks is deeply uncomfortable.
Seeing the company’s dancers wearing dreadlocked wigs and carrying rope around their necks is deeply uncomfortable.
After the company’s 2016 staging of the astonishing Nijinsky (2000), which built a contemporary full-length ballet from the dance and choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950), this act seems particularly dated. While John Neumeier, the choreographer of Nijinsky, took the scenes of war in his ballet to show a particular devastation on the minds and bodies of young men, here Murphy’s overlaying of a soldier scene against the bright music of Tchaikovsky feels trite.
With Murphy still regularly working with the Australian Ballet, it’s disappointing that the work would still carry these anachronisms that feel so dated against its contemporary classical peers, and against the context of conversations about race and ballet. The 25th anniversary of the work – and the 55th anniversary of the company – would have been an excellent opportunity to revisit the work, maintaining its place in the Australian ballet cannon by ensuring it doesn’t calcify, like so much ballet has.
It’s a tricky question: at what point does a work feel dated? I’ve been thinking about this 25-year point recently – in London, Angels in America has opened again at the National Theatre where it debuted in 1992, with a new director and creative team. Tony Kushner’s ‘gay fantasia on national themes’ is set in New York during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and yet when I saw it in Australia in 2013 I was struck at how the sensibilities of the production, directed by Eamon Flack, felt so pertinent and so Australian.
Running over seven hours in two parts, Kushner’s play exists both in our world and in fantasy: magic modulated by feverish dreams and drug abuse, but also a magic that is real in this created world. It’s an indictment on a country and a political class that looked at an epidemic with indifference, and a call to continue the fight for those to believe our work on earth is not yet done. The work is intricately structured, the dialogue is compelling, and it is likely to have a long and important life. Indeed, a new London production, directed by Marianne Elliott, is receiving wonderful notices, calling it ‘a triumphant return that promises to defy the previous production in scope and scale.’
But, and this is crucial: Angels in America was not a good play in 1992 because it holds up in 2017; neither does Nutcracker carrying disappointing elements in 2017 mean it was a bad ballet in 1992. Performance exists in the now: how we will measure its worth in the future is irrelevant.
Performance exists in the now: how we will measure its worth in the future is irrelevant.
It’s not always seen as such. The projected longevity of a work is often cited as a measure of how good a piece of theatre is today. Speaking to American Theatre recently, critic David Cote noted:
[Young Jean Lee’s Lear] was getting trashed by reviewers here and there, but I loved it. And I said: I don’t know if in 50 years it will be considered a great play, but I do know that a lot of the things that are around right now won’t deserve to be around in 50 years, and I hope this piece of culture will still be around.
Maybe Cote will be right – but with all due respect, I doubt it. Lee’s Lear (2010) is a contemporary adaptation of King Lear with the three sisters all played by women of colour (no, Hamilton did not invent this casting model), focusing on the women’s stories over the men’s, before – stay with me here – they all turn into characters from Sesame Street, as Big Bird (formerly Edmund) learns about death.
Even if we assume Sesame Street lasts another fifty years, it’s hard to imagine the collective cultural consciousness of an episode from the early 1980s will last that long. Lee’s Lear works (or doesn’t – Hilton Als called it ‘a hot mess’) because it takes two cultural products that her audience is likely familiar with, and repurposes them for a modern meditation on death and mortality. Written in the wake of the death of her father, like all Lee’s work it is directly responsive to a moment in time. King Lear will last another fifty years because it will continue to be molded and changed; I struggle to see how Lear will. But considering its longevity is no way to measure its worth.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen was in Dutch. Yes, Ivo van Hove is an incredible director. But he also allowed his Roman Tragedies (2007) to be decoupled from the original language, creating a freer, more exciting, more pertinent stage show. The lineage of my favourite theatre works can, sometimes, be drawn back hundreds or thousands of years, but they always sit firmly in our contemporary reality. And still: while this Roman Tragedies likely has many more years of performances in it, at some point it will become another theatrical footnote, and a new Shakespeare, made in a new now, will take its place.
Not to rehash a years-old argument, but the line between what is ‘new’ and what is an ‘adaptation’ is fraught. Murphy’s Nutcracker was an adaptation of the original, but it was also a wholly new work on its Australian premiere. The final act of Mr Burns is an adaptation, but unlike anything – we can assume – that had come before. The audience is no longer the audience of today, but we have been cast as the audience of 82 years later, watching this remixed version of The Simpsons, in which the original television show – lost in the new post-electric world – and a host of pop-culture references have morphed into myths used to retell the legend of America’s survival. The Simpsons itself doesn’t survive: its cultural potential does.
The Simpsons itself doesn’t survive: its cultural potential does.
The Western theatrical lineage can be traced back to Ancient Greek drama, and these works – adapted, transformed, translated – still pop up on our stages frequently. Australian and international artists have repurposed our understanding of these works, built from incomplete remnants of scripts and then modified over hundreds of years through the eyes of hundreds of historians, translators, and artists. But there is a reason we’re most likely to see this work – or even non-English language theatre of more recent history, such as Ibsen or Chekhov – in a new translation: because we want the work to constantly speak to our now, not to the now of a playwright adapting or translating the work 20 or 50 or 100 years ago.
Performance is exciting because we sit in the same room as its creation. Performance is exciting when you feel like you are sharing the same time as a work’s creation, that it sits in the same world that you do. Ballets can last centuries, plays can last millennia, and it’s this repetition of history which makes our understanding of the performance world all the richer.
But while Mr Burns imagines a future where The Simpsons lives on in our theatrical culture, Mr Burns itself probably won’t – it relies too heavily on an audience’s relationship to television that has already shifted. And that’s okay. The Story of Clara might survive another 25 years as a truly Australian ballet, but perhaps it shouldn’t. W can’t measure its success today by how well it performed yesterday, or by imagining how it will look tomorrow. We always need to interrogate performance as how it sits today.
Nutcracker – The Story of Clara plays Arts Centre Melbourne until 10 June.
Mr Burns: a post-electric play plays Belvoir, Sydney, until 25 June.