Acting on the Camino Real [by James Wenley]
At the Camino Real, to borrow from The Eagles, you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave.
To mark the public debut of the second crop of actors from the industry-geared The Actors’ Program, Benjamin Henson directs them in arguably Tennessee Williams’ most experimental and misunderstood work: Camino Real. Written during the period that the House Un-American Activities Committee was at its height (which director Elia Kazan was caught up in), you can catch the traces of the period’s paranoia (“brother” is an inflammatory word) in the play’s shifting narrative and bleak view on humanity.
Audiences and critics rejected Camino Real in 1953 but it has since gained an afterlife and following, as directors have found in its form a challenging and provocative piece that they can stamp something of their own mark (Williams had said: “’Of all the works I have written, this one was meant most for the vulgarity of the theater.”) This is no different here, as the Benjamin Henson aesthetic (see the off-balance, sexually charged worlds he created in Titus and Unitec’s Jacques Brel and Hamlet) is applied here, using a stripped down amalgam of the Broadway version and earlier one Act Ten Blocks on the Camino Real.
Like many of his plays, the central characters find themselves trapped, constrained by social circumstance– “Caged birds” – but the nature of the containment in the town of Camino Real takes on a far more surreal level. It’s a half-way place, a non-religious purgatory where you arrive at without knowing how. It’s population includes literary figures (Byron, Esmerelda, Cassanova) watched over by one Mme. Gutman (Cherie Moore), who finds pleasure in the inhabitants’ misfortunes. Many want to escape, others tolerate, and a few thrive. A gypsy (Willa Oliver) enacts a nightly ritual to restore the virginity of her daughter Esmerelda (Rhema Sutherland), who each night chooses a new man as her hero. Street cleaners comb the streets for bodies to take their organs.
Piles of old luggage line the rear of the Basement in John Parker’s set, with two sets of crossed piping from ceiling to floor, giving the impression that the whole building could collapse at any moment. The actors arrive, vulnerable, in old-style underwear.
This is an odd and bedeviling play, Williams rejects the conventions of structure, and his own style. It plays in a sequence of “blocks”, announced by a blindfolded La Madrecita (Anthea Hill), who reaches blindly for a microphone hanging from above, whose voice later becomes disconnected from her body. It’s not easy to follow, and makes some jarring jumps between blocks – like the virginity ritual that becomes rave-like under Henson’s conception. After the first blocks establishes the Camino Real, a washed up boxer Kilroy (Oscar Wilson) arrives, and suddenly we seem to have a protagonist, and an outsider through which we too can follow. Soon enough he is silenced and forced into the role of a “patsy” with clown hair and nose. Then arrives a ghost from a past, a character that is new to us, Marguerite Gautier (Moana MCartney), who wants to escape Camino Real with her lover Jacques Casanova (Arlo Gibson), and drives us towards the play’s inevitable conclusion.
So, it is an intentionally schizoid play, a fever dream elevated by the classic Williams turn of phrase. The characters ruminate on loneliness, dreams, and their current position; their questions “Where are we?” echo our own. Henson gives the play a strong visual sensibility, including striking group sequences in the way he moves the bodies onstage, beautifully employing the sense of shared ensemble the actors have built over their year together.
There’s a strong coherent style (though Morgan Albrecht’s Disney princess backpack seems a bit too kitsch for kitsch’s sake), but it’s at the expense of the allegory (or substituting it for a contemporary one), and I never feel a chill up my spine. There’s never a palpable sense of danger or threat, and the production lacks for it.
As to the second purpose, highlighting the theatrical prowess of the Actors Program grads, the choice of text goes only half-way. For many, we get just a flavour of what they are capable of. They get to try on different accents, and are put to work with actors “business” – chewing cigarettes, playing with fur coats. To name a few: Ryan Dulieu gives us a series of bony poses as a Southern Dandy, Hannah Patterson has an appealing comic energy from the sidelines of the stage, and Mayen Mata invests considerable pathos in a brief turn as Lord Byron. We get snatches of these and other actors, enough to create intrigue, but not enough for them to really shine on their own terms. Oscar Wilson is given the opportunity for a great performance as Kilroy, who bounds onto the stage with a gear shift of magnetic energy and tragic good old USA optimism. He’s one to watch certainly, alongside the others in this year.
Williams’ Camino Real remains a world of darkness just beyond that of this production; a play of poetry and a puzzle.
Camino Real is presented by The Actors’ Program and plays at The Basement until 16 November. Details see The Basement.