Bloody Family is the kind of show I ought to love unreservedly. It’s a new performance based on an old — perhaps the oldest — play, it’s committed to its own theatricality, it plays with fictional and real worlds, it’s exploratory and open, and despite all that, it doesn’t take itself too too seriously. It’s specific and present without being “about” or “for” anyone or anything in particular. It’s precisely the kind of work I want to see much more of in Toronto. And yet, I wasn’t ultimately as wowed by this piece as by Philip McKee’s last full-scale production, Lear, which felt more finished, more rounded, more deeply and fully thought-through than this engagement with the Oresteia.

But perhaps that’s not the most useful set of criteria. McKee (and yes, I realize ascribing authorship to anyone is inadequate given the collective genesis of this show, but whatever — the fingerprints are relatively unmistakable), of all the young Toronto directors I know, is perhaps the most dedicated to an experimental, exploratory ethos in his work, and it’s a rare experiment that yields a clear, unified picture. Instead, work such as Bloody Family is a more likely, and perhaps as respectable, result of any experimental process: a series of encounters with the material, a sequence of different, differently conceived and enacted attempts to tackle the story and its characters theatrically or performatively, a string of stage images — but not, or not yet, a conclusion or even a consistent approach. That makes McKee’s work a bit of an anomaly in a context where most shows strive for psychological coherence, and where the dictate of some sort of narrative arc, Freytag’s or an alternative model, still holds sway. Bloody Family is emphatically not an exercise in “story-telling” (thankfully), nor is it consistent in its use of actors to represent characters, nor are those characters internally consistent. One could construct various narratives out of the scenes it puts on stage, even little psychodramas: one of those plot lines might be the revelation that McKee’s character, a theatre maker keen to recast Clytemnestra’s familiar story in a light that would do her justice, may be kinder than some of his predecessors to his characters, but only at the cost of exploiting his actors. But I’m not sure that’s the point.

This is not a production that has many answers or draws any clear conclusions. As Kelly Nestruck correctly noted in his Globe and Mail review, it’s a meditation. Like most experiments, most meditation exercises do not lead to enlightenment — but that doesn’t mean that they’re pointless, or, as Nestruck seems to think, corrosive. To his mind,

this is theatre-making intellectualized to the point of emotional and narrative inaccessibility – near self-negation. At the end of the show, Clytemnestra confronts McKee. “I don’t see the value in repeating the same thing over and over, causing suffering.” Bloody Family seems to side with her, though the value of telling The Oresteia, over and over, seems pretty clear to those of us who aren’t mythical characters. This is a piece of theatre that is deeply ambivalent about the value of theatre itself, and it’s hard not to feel equally ambivalent about it as an audience member.

I sensed no such ambivalence. Asking questions about the form and practices of theatre is not the same as dismissing theatrical work, or even feeling ambivalent about its value, though it may speak to a dissatisfaction with its expressive means. As someone considerably less certain than Kelly Nestruck what the value of re-staging the Oresteia over and over might be, I think it’s worthwhile to ask the question, and ask it in a theatre, through the means of the theatre; and I think it’s even more worthwhile to ask, as this production clearly does, how one could stage plays such as these now, and what the moral, ethical, and aesthetic implications of such a theatrical effort are.

Let me try that again: I don’t think Nestruck is wrong about the piece’s emotional or narrative inaccessibility. If you don’t know the story of the Oresteia, the show won’t try very hard to tell it to you (though like Daniel Karasik, I don’t think that is — or should be — a problem. This is a foundational document of Western civilization). Emotions are a more difficult question: I definitely felt things as I watched, so some sort of emotional response took place; but I don’t think I could clearly say what the characters were feeling. That, however, is obviously programmatic. However, neither of those aspects of Bloody Family amount to anything like theatrical “self-negation,” unless one assumed that theatre consists of stories and feelings. It doesn’t. It consists of bodies moving in space, sometimes speaking words.

As theatre, though, Bloody Family is anything but ambivalent. It’s a show that embraces its own theatricality right from the start. Tanja Jacobs’s Clytemnestra standing centre staging at an ironing board, slowly ironing a white sheet (a shroud, as it’ll turn it out), may be a scene of unexpected domesticity; but when she’d done ironing, Jacobs crosses the stage following the iron’s very long extension cord, and puts away her tools — what may have passed for an imaginary living room at first now is clearly and unmistakably a stage. Similarly, the first scene proper, McKee’s playwright’s interview with Clytemnestra, is staged as a balancing act between theatre and (fictional) life. There are the props of the real — real tea served in real cups, areal digital recorder, papers and books, chairs to sit on. Jacobs doesn’t stand noticeably apart from her character, nor does McKee seem distanced from his: as bizarre an interview as this is, it sounds and feels, for want of a more elegant term, normal. However, though you wouldn’t know it from any of the descriptions of this scene in the reviews, it’s also very obviously and deliberately not normal. Clytemnestra and the playwright sit in opposite corners of the square playing space, facing each other across a bare expanse of plywood; when they have to reduce the physical space — when she hands him a cup of tea, when he places his recorder in the space between them — both have to go on an odd journey across a divide that, as actual, physical space, has no place in the world of ironing boards and tea sets. I’m not sure there’s much more to be said about that except that it’s a staging gesture that signals, unequivocally, that this is not a show interested in counterfeiting reality: this is nothing more than theatre — but also nothing less.

The same is true for the sequence of truly striking images McKee et al. create once Clytemnestra agrees to play along (despite telling the playwright that he’s got her story completely wrong). The most satisfying of these, to me, was the slow, ritual sacrifice of Iphigenia (Norah Sadava), whom Clytemnestra washes, partially undresses, and then wraps in the sheet she was ironing, before pouring a bucket of thick, viscous red paint over her head. Iphigenia sits a wile, her head inclined, the paint forming a shining, smooth helmet even at pools at her feet; then she slowly crosses diagonally across the stage and leaves. It’s a long scene; it takes a long time to build; it’s quite ostentatiously “made” (Jacobs takes away the water tub and bucket she used to wash her daughter before bringing on the “blood,” she lifts the paint bucket slowly, she pours carefully); there is no effort here to disguise that these are props and tools, that they need to be brought on and taken off, that no-one is being injured. The paint never quite “becomes” blood. Iphigenia’s sacrifice is a stage image of that sacrifice. It’s theatre, not life. But it’s mightily good theatre.

Credit: Alejandro Santiago Photography

Credit: Alejandro Santiago Photography

In its self-conscious made-ness, though, this is an image of or about theatre as much as it is a representation of Iphigenia’s death. If it holds “reality, even the fictional reality of myth, at arms’ length, so does the rest of the production: the events of the Oresteia, to the extent that they’re in the show at all, are merely gestured at, evoked, not staged. (It might be worth pointing out that the death of Iphigenia itself isn’t in Aeschylus — in drama, we need Euripides for that, and even in his Iphigenia in Aulis, the death is not as unambiguous as in Bloody Family.) Missing pretty much completely is the bridge to get us from the daughter’s death to the son’s matricide: Clytemnestra never kills Agamemnon, because Agamemnon, except for a brief moment when Orestes is made to impersonate him, is not in the show. All of which is to say that from a narrative perspective, this is indeed a complicated and highly selective engagement with the story of the Atreides. One aspect of that selectiveness is that revenge ceases to be a central motif; another, perhaps even more troubling, aspect is that justice barely gets a look in. In fact, what is left of The Eumenides is so far removed from that play’s focus on the foundation myth of Athenian justice that I’m not sure Aeschylus’s play was the source at all. Is Bloody Family here drawing on Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris instead? The unexpected reappearance of an unharmed Iphigenia at the end of the show suggests as much, but McKee’s program note makes no mention of any of this.

If revenge and justice aren’t really at stake thematically, what is? If I had to have an interpretative stab, I’d say the healing that justice is imaged to perform in the Oresteia here is performed by something like therapy: Clytemnestra begins the play convinced that her own murder of Agamemnon was a psychotic act, suggesting that Bloody Family is more inclined to look towards the mind than towards the gods, and in a sense the entire show allows Clytemnestra to act out, or reenact, a series of traumatic episodes. Some of those are scenes she never witnessed to begin with and which may in fact be mere fantasy — including the death of Iphigenia; others go over all-too familiar ground (including her death at the hands of her own son). And even though they do not include her psychotic break, and although she herself experiences the reenactments as painful, threatening the playwright with a lawsuit, the outcome is a reconciliation with history that goes even beyond the reunion of Iphigenia and Orestes that Euripides offers: Iphigenia and her mother meet again, both unharmed, as if Agamemnon’s betrayal had never happened. I’m not sure what kind of therapy this is (family constellations?), but therapy seems to be the guiding trope.

Theatre as therapy for mythological creatures, then? If so, Bloody Family complicates its own model. It certainly doesn’t celebrate the playwright or director as a benevolent therapist figure. In a long, and at times difficult-to-watch scene in which McKee rehearses the aftermath of Orestes’ matricide with Ishan Davé, the show seems to turn its focus to the question of what theatre asks of its actors: if re-enacting scenes of emotional or physical violence has some sort of healing effect, is this true only for “people” (such as Clytemnestra — or, perhaps, us) but not for the actors? Is theatre redemptive only by virtue of also being destructive? The character Ishan Davé has a cold; he’s physically unwell; and yet McKee is putting him through a strenuous physical workout, a routine seemingly designed to increase his suffering, to exhaust him, to achieve a performance of Orestes grounded in the actor’s own actual pain — an exercise Davé, as a professional, rigorously commits himself to until McKee ties a blindfold around his head too tightly, too painfully. That prompts a complaint, and an explanation — but the blindfold stays on, too tightly, painfully. It’s a fascinating scene, balanced precariously on the edge between the real and the theatrical: is the blindfold really too tight? How exhausted is Davé? Is his irritation his own, or “just” the character’s? If this is a scene that stages the ethically dubious nature of creating a character’s suffering on the basis of an actor’s physical discomfort, does its own staging also rely on the real Davé’s physical suffering? Does the critique of theatrical processes cut both ways, implicating the critique itself? If nothing else, it’s a knowing and painfully witty treatment of both the language of certain rehearsal techniques and of the figure of the director — the latter exposed in all its narcissistic potential when McKee, after putting Davé through the ringer, demands he do a set of push-ups and then joins in, showing off his ability to keep pace with the actor. If this is the agent of Clytemnestra’s therapy, and if this is the process on which her therapy depends, the method and its practitioners are more than a little flawed.

However, reading Bloody Family as a play about therapy might be demanding more narrative or thematic coherence than the show is willing or able to offer. In fact, the most obvious reading of McKee’s role in the scene may be that the director here stands in for the Erinyes, plaguing the actor as the furies plague Orestes. From that perspective, the sequence remains in fairly close dialogue with Aeschylus. But if Davé himself stands for Orestes in the scene, his exit frustrates the expectations the scene raises: he storms off. The furies he’s plagued by have no power outside of the rehearsal room. This Orestes can quit his own story, which is neither Aeschylus’s nor Euripides’s. The scene raises the question of how far theatre can or should go to create representations of suffering or pain, but it doesn’t answer it; at most, it stages this specific actor’s (the character Ishan Davé’s) refusal to submit to an ever escalating series of humiliations at his director’s hands (and finally, belt). At that point, it seems fairly clear that McKee has gone too far, but what conclusions are we supposed to draw from that? That directors shouldn’t whip their actors? That directors shouldn’t need to whip their actors? That no actual suffering should be required to stage suffering? That there’s a limit to the suffering actors should be asked to bear? But if so, where is that limit?

Perhaps justice does remain a theme in this scene after all, but it’s the justice of representation: not “how does the world return to order after violence” but “how can we portray disorder and violence without committing violence ourselves?” If that is the question, the scene doesn’t answer it, but implicates us in it precisely by staging the very representation it critiques, by putting Davé’s real body through the same vigorous exercises that his character has to perform, and by having McKee’s real belt smack Davé’s actual bottom. It’s not a boring scene to watch, pace Nestruck; it isn’t ambivalent in the moment, though it may be in its implications. But that’s precisely the problem and, I take it, the point: the more enjoyable, the more captivating the scene is, the more we as an audience find ourselves on the side of the furies. Neither Apollo nor Athena may come in to restore order, but neither do we: we are part of the violence, not innocent observers.

I could go on, but this is quite long enough. Bloody Family is obviously an enormously thought-provoking show. It’s also a captivating piece of theatre. But it isn’t a profoundly coherent work — or if it has a unifying set of ideas at its core, I missed it. It’s made up out of a series of theatrical explorations: of ways in which theatre can respond to trauma, of the relationship between theatre and therapy, of the question if art can speak about violence without perpetrating its own kind of violence. It’s in some sort of complicated, not-quite-resolved dialogue with the Oresteia and related plays. I’m not convinced it’s in anywhere near as close a dialogue with the present, although both McKee’s program note and Franco Boni’s message mention Afghanistan and Canada’s involvement in various international conflicts. If that context played an active role in the creation of this piece, it’s been thoroughly sublimated: I don’t think Bloody Family really works as a reflection on the relationship between art or theatre and current real-world events. What it does do, on a more removed level, is reflect on the relationship between violence and trauma and the staging of violent and traumatic events. In other words, it operates on a level of abstraction or non-local specificity that might make it possible, for audience members other than me, to find a way back to current events and to use this show, if they so choose, to think about how one might represent or make sense of current events not unlike those of the ancient world in and through an art form that stands in as vexed and troubled a relationship to reality as the theatre does. I can’t say I felt like thinking about that question, nor did I think the show compelled me to do that — but it’s not a huge leap. In any case, whatever else it is, Bloody Family is in no sense theatre trying to negate its own power.

One Response to Bloody Family (Philip McKee et al. / Theatre Centre, Toronto, October 2014)

  1. Roger Beck says:

    If one watches “Bloody Family” as (subtitle) “A Director’s Tragedy”, then the pivotal moment (“peripeteia” to us old Aristotelians) is the Director’s physical assault on the Actor (whipping with belt evokes scourge of the Furies, but that’s another story). Much Fear leading up to this transgressive moment. Much pity as we realize, and are told in no uncertain terms by Actors as well as Director, that he’s lost his show. Emotions purged by exercise of same? Could be. Hate to say this, but it’s all Aristotle, all the way down. This element in Bloody Family at least.

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