A Response: Ladies in Black | Queensland Theatre Company in association with Queensland Performing Arts Centre & at Melbourne Theatre Company
February 8, 2016 § Leave a comment
It is a fallacy to depict Australia as having no culture. It is an even more dangerous fallacy to argue that Australian culture is ‘less than’ or ‘not comparable’ to other cultures — particularly European, a colonial shadow which we have spent quite some time trying to get out from beneath. The former is an incorrect statement because it not only ignores all artistic endeavours in over two hundred years of colonisation but also renders indigenous culture as non-existent; and the latter falls down because it reaffirms the notion that Australian work is somehow not good enough — not good enough for what, no one is quite sure. It is therefore distressing to see both of these fallacies repackaged as entertainment in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black.
There is, of course, a source novel (it’s worth nothing that all of MTC’s new works this year are adaptations; save for the Neon Next production of Lilith: the Jungle Girl [Sisters Grimm], the ‘family show’ Egg [Anlgela Betzin], and arguably Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland [although it comes to Melbourne via Sydney and Los Angeles] so many of the problematic elements of Ladies in Black are inbuilt. However, there is a responsibility on the behalf of the production company and the writers—book by Carolyn Burn, music and lyrics by Tim Finn—to, at the very least, deal with or mitigate the racism, sexism and cultural elitism, rather than excuse it. It feels as though the production is asking the audience to sit back and think, “but it’s fun” or “it’s a sell out”, thereby pre-empting and justifying any and all critical feedback that may arise. I don’t think that’s good enough. To start with, it’s is worth noting that the novel comes from the early 90s, not the early 60s where the story is set, so that argument is already on shaking ground before the evidence is explored.
Madeleine St John’s novel (The Women in Black, which was probably changed due to copyright or confusion with the West End stalwart The Woman in Black [or not]) feels like a bildungsroman—as does the musical (if that’s an acceptable genre for musical theatre?)—And focuses on one summer in the life of 17-year-old Lesley Miles. It’s Sydney, it’s the 60s, and things are changing. But not fast enough. The eponymous women all struggle to define themselves against a backdrop of patriarchy as they work together in Goodes (think Myer, David Jones, etc.) leading up to Christmas/New Year’s Eve and over the January sales — this provides the basis for act one and act two respectively. One woman has a fraught relationship with her husband of ten years, who seems to be infertile; one cannot find a husband at all, despite her best efforts; one has become a widow after losing her husband in the war—the first one—; and then there’s Magda, the ‘continental’, who looks after the designer gowns. She seems relatively normal, although, as ‘other’ is predictably ‘exotic’, ‘wild’ and is initially to be feared. Lesley, who changes her name to Lisa when she gets the job, has completed her leaving exams from school and is waiting to hear about results and therefore her university prospects; she faces the largest obstacle in the show: her father.
The story is a simple one; however, as with any show, it’s all in the telling. Importantly, it is about who is included and who is not, who gets a voice and who does not, as well as who has power to make decisions. And in this text, 60s or not, the power does not belong to any minority group. Every female character is defined by her relationship with a man, and the men suffer from the overbearingly oppressive gender roles in more ways than one too; one is only a man if he can produce a child, another is characterised as a villain until he relents and lets his daughter go to university. Then there are the unmentionables; larger women, different sexualities and indigenous people. Only the former gets a look-in and only in the most minor of roles and mostly as comic relief. The most troubling aspect of all of this is how it is presented as light comedy — and, to MTC’s credit, the audience laps it up. When a male character acts badly, say, by arguing his daughter into submission, the audience chortles as if to acknowledge, “this is true”. Is the Melbourne Theatre Company, then, presenting us with a mirror? Or are they pandering to status quo stereotypes that actively perpetuate problematic traits within broader society?
The ideological issues in this musical make themselves apparent very quickly. The most disappointing aspect of the production is that it, once again, depicts Australians as cultureless drongos, with Europeans as the paragon of style and excellence. From the ‘Australian’ accents, to the (actually borderline offensive) ‘European’ accents, Ladies in Black expects us to judge people based on class and the way they look and sound. Even the various departments at Goodes—and who works in them and why—belie the ideological frameworks of the text: dresses from Melbourne and Sydney are a dime a dozen, and far more lowly than the one-of-a-kind designer dresses from Europe.
Naturally, one could argue that in the 60s Europeans were designing better dresses than Melbournians; however, if that is true (and there’s nothing objective to say that they were), why bother mining that particular well of experience? I’m not saying let’s gloss over our particular fault in history as inadequate dressmakers (if that’s the case) but why dedicate a musical to such an endeavour. Obviously that’s not all the musical is about—it’s about growing up and finding oneself—but does it really need the puffery and cultural baggage of belabouring the point that Australians are not worthy? This is an adaptation, so that’s an easy out, but why reinforce Australian’s already substantial cultural cringe with songs that literally position the protagonist, and the audience, to feel out of place with Australians and at easy with the ‘cultured’ ‘Europeans’ — I still do not know where these characters are supposed to come from. Hungary is discussed and the two men are definitely Hungarian, but Magda’s last name is Italian, she speaks in French and sounds vaguely Eastern European; am I in fact the ignorant one, or should the production not just call her ‘continental’ and then do some kind of bizarre hand gesture like a mime pretending to wipe their face with two hands?
What is frustrating about having to engage in this ideological response is that Ladies in Black is not ‘bad’. It’s perfectly perfunctory. Despite some lacklustre sub plots, and some songs that have no subtext—at times the characters sing exactly what they’re doing, saying and feeling in a way that feels particularly amateur—the show slides along hitting most of the expected beats of a traditional musical. Where is this musical set: at Goodes. Who is this musical about: the ladies who work at Goodes and whose uniform of choice is black. What does Lisa want: to have the confidence to follow her dreams: she tells us, she wants to no longer be afraid but to be like the Tiger in William Blake’s poem of the same name. Lisa wants to be a poet. Good luck to her. What is the obstacle in her way? It’s (the patriarchy) her stubborn father. These four questions map out the first four songs in a relatively predictable music theatre narrative — which is fine, it’s supposed to be entertaining and by no means does it need to be formally experimental or particularly daring. By going on a journey and growing from a child to an adult—illustrated by her name change from Leslie to Lisa—the protagonist, I guess, becomes more self assured and resilient, emboldened to follow her dreams, and, one assumes, grow up to be the author St John. There is nothing wrong with this journey; in fact, thanks to the focus on rudimentary music theatre tropes, it’s one of the more enjoyable new Australian musicals. However, that does not excuse its deeply flawed politics and that does not make it particularly exciting theatre. To me, the ideas at work and my ability to enjoy a piece are intertwined. This is the voice that MTC has chosen to develop and who is missing is heard loudest of all.
I am well aware I am about to fall into a trap. I am about to use examples of other (foreign) musicals and say that an Australian product has ‘failed’ to live up these standards. I would like to counter-argue that straight off the bat. If this musical attempted something unique then there would be a different set of criteria against which it could be judged. If it was formally experimental or challenging then it would not so easily lend itself to comparison. And if the plot were dedicated to persons other than white Anglos—without acknowledging this in any way—then it would be easier to forgive its flaws. While there is an ‘Australian’ sensibility to it—self-deprecating earnestness, if Australians can indeed claim that—the form is fairly traditional. If there weren’t such a dearth of Australian musicals then Ladies in Black would not stand out as it does. As it is, audiences are clapping and perhaps industry professionals are congratulating themselves in confirmation that now really is the time for the great Australian musical. Except this isn’t it.
I wish this were a pleasant exception. I wish Ladies in Black were an amusing titbit of a production, wherein the ideological errors could be laughed away as an anomaly; however, this is the pinnacle of music theatre in this country and that is frightening. Aside from (more explicitly) commercial ventures like King Kong, Love Never Dies and Doctor Zhivargo, Australia’s musical cornerstones are Pricilla (a jukebox musical), The Boy From Oz (a jukebox musical) and the likes of Shane Warn and Keating!, both of which are more cabarets than ‘musicals’. Perhaps (perhaps?!) that is what Australian’s are more suited to? Admittedly, the musical is something of an American tradition and engaged with by the Brits, but how Australia has not produced more work in this area is beyond me — camp is this country’s bread and butter. The closest we’ve come is Songs for Nobodies, which, despite everyone’s best efforts, never quite made it to Broadway.
It is promising that this is a new work. It is also promising that audiences responded well. It is troubling, however, that the production team felt the need to resort to out-dated cliché and groan-worthy tropes to accomplish this task. Especially when, over in the US, Hamilton is changing music theatre forever. Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States, while casting him—and almost everyone else around him—as a person of colour. In addition, the bulk of the (entirely sung through thereby making it really an opera) musical uses hip-hop, rap, reggae and other similar styles to not only elucidate character and plot but also elevate the production from mere education or drudgery to one that is compulsively watchable. I cannot sing the praises of Hamilton enough. By contrast, Ladies in Black feels cumbersome and outmoded — did I avoid falling into the trap of rejecting a piece of Australiana and praising another product of cultural imperialism? You decide.
The hand of director/dramaturg Simon Phillips can be seen at work here. He understands success and spectacle in a way rarely seen on Australian stages, having spearheaded a number of large-scale new(ish) works; including, Priscilla and Love Never Dies, as well as Songs for Nobodies, Pennsylvania Avenue and shows such as August: Osage County and North by Northwest. The former artistic director of MTC is one of the country’s most valuable cultural resources and he keeps Ladies in Black moving (the man loves a revolve). I would also hazard a guess that he influenced some of the decisions around standard music theatre beats (but that’s just speculation). He manages his players, lighting (David Walters) and set (design by Gabriela Tylesova, who must get a special mention for her delicious range of dresses and gowns) well, keeping the musical light and engaging, which was probably his position description and why he was hired.
Sarah Morrison is lovely as Lisa and Christen O’Leary is very watchable as Magda, despite her awkward accent. The real standout is Deidre Rubenstein as Miss Jacobs, the elderly lady in alterations, whose husband passed away. Rubenstein also doubles as another character’s mother, a noteworthy comic turn. She was equally compelling this time last year in Loving Repeating, as Gertrude Stein — Rubenstein also worked with Phillips on August: Osage County. The rest of the cast rise to the occasion and fill out the production exactly as they were told to.
There is a sense that you want Ladies in Black to be good. It would be so nice to have a classic Australian musical that schools could perform ad nauseam; in the same way they do Guys and Dolls, Grease and Into the Woods. It is deeply troubling that Ladies in Black might be angled to do exactly that. To think we are educating another generation to expect that their own cultural products are inferior to other (predominantly white) cultures is upsetting. To reinforce gender stereotypes, erase people of colour, stigmatise foreigners, and not include a range of sexualities is a dangerous game — obviously not all musicals, as with all plays, can be everything for everyone, but when it is overwhelmingly skewed towards one cross section of society, surely we have to ask the question. And if this is what the Government is funding (and while I recognise that the MTC has very limited funding, the truth is that they receive more than fringe groups already) then we have problems as a nation. Without impinging on artistic liberties and sensibilities, publically funded art should at least attempt to present on stage the diversity of our society — shouldn’t it? While audiences and critics have clearly enjoyed Ladies in Black and shrugged off its responsibility to the community because it’s ‘fun’, we should be asking ourselves if this is the best use of the limited time, money and resources in the theatre industry.
I’m led to ask myself about my own bias: am I being critical and expecting more of this production because it focuses on women, and I am a man? I hope I am held to account on this one and would argue that I don’t think so. My rationale is that what I am let down by in this production is not its focus on women—which I love, I wouldn’t even care if there were no men whatsoever—but that it does so at the exclusion of all others. And not even in a way that says, ‘this simply isn’t about others it’s about women’, but rather in a way that erases people of colour, diverse sexualities, and simplifies ‘what’s good’ into elitism and class-based bias. I hope that others can keep me in check on that though.
When stacked up against the rest of the MTC season—because perhaps this is the one ‘problematic’ offering of the year—it doesn’t get that much better in my opinion, not when it comes to Australia and diversity. By and large, the MTC takes already provenly profitable foreign plays to stage, as well as adaptations of already marketable products. We’re at least getting one Australian story, Jasper Jones. Of note is that Burns and Phillips also collaborated on North by Northwest, which is an American story. Elsewhere in the MTC season is Double Indemnity, Australian playwright Tom Holloway adapting an American novel. Hopefully Straight White Men (by American playwright Young Jean Lee) provides some more insight. The Cybec Electric readings are on soon and will showcase new Australian writing, so that’s refreshing, but without peak artistic bodies cultivating new writers—and actually staging them—we will never have new stories embedded in our cultural memory. And so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, Australia has ‘no culture’ because no one is taking a chance on Australian products.
Ladies in Black was fine. There is visible talent in the production. And I wanted so badly for it to be good — I even left humming its signature ‘Ladies in Black’ tune. Yet to forgive it its shortcomings because it’s Australian and entertaining is to excuse its ideological flaws, which I cannot do. We’re better than that and we need to expect more of our artists and production teams.