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Great Art and Brave Hearts (1997)

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The stunning performance we watched that evening revealed another side of Max: the ruthless task-master. The first play in this double-bill (Blue Heart, the title under which the evening was billed, is an amalgam of Heart’s Desire and Blue Kettle, the titles of the two plays) qualifies as an actor’s worst nightmare. The action, which features an elderly trio (a sour-faced, bullying father, a brisk and sullen mother and a vague, kindly aunt) waiting, with the permanently drunken son of the family occasionally popping in, for a long-absent daughter to arrive from Australia on her first visit home, follows a lurid course and seems, like the ‘platypus’ referred to by Aunt Maisie at the very beginning, to represent “a completely separate branch of (dramatic) evolution.” Not only does it constantly swing from domestic realism (or a parody of it) to absurdity, it also keeps stopping, rewinding and restarting from different antecedent points, each time taking a wildly unexpected direction, and is punctuated with disconcertingly bizarre intrusions. The replays, moreover, are not simple repetitions: sometimes they are played in a kind of shorthand, at double speed, with only the first or last words of each character’s lines repeated with the exact same movements that went with them before and the same intonation.

To take on a work like this which demands, if it is to work at all, absolute precision and split-second timing is a feat of theatrical daring that only a person in full command of his craft and fully confident of his actors’ technical virtuosity and artistic discipline is capable of. It also requires a lot of faith, not just in the text or the author, but, ultimately, in the power of theatre to keep rediscovering its magic and infinite potential and, in the process, rediscover the world and reinvent reality.

It may seem like a paradox that a director who names Stanislavsky as the major influence on his work should team up with a playwright famous for her imaginative bravura, experimental spirit and technical innovations. But, then again, Stafford-Clark’s understanding of realism takes it beyond the mere photographic reproduction of what is commonly perceived as reality, to explore the vague, hidden truths that lie under the surface and the inner lining of the heart. What he ultimately seeks to communicate is not what the world is like but, rather, how it feels on the pulse. An identical drive informs Churchill’s ceaseless experimentation with form, and this explains their long collaboration.

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