If the appointment of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton as co-Artistic Directors of the STC has anything to do with the quality of the current production of Daniel Keene’s The Serpent’s Teeth, then it is the highest possible testimony to the wisdom of that choice.

Of course, it’s highly and tragically likely that Daniel Keene is less well-known to most Australians than Daniel Boone, or, for that matter ‘Booney’, yet he’s a multi-award winning playwright, who’s written for the stage for three solid decades. The even greater irony is his success elsewhere has been such that a North American or European might well say ‘oh, yeah!’ before most of us. But don’t get me started on who and what we celebrate in this country (let alone why), which still, all too often, proves itself to be a relative and relatively vast cultural desert.

A bit of history. The STC Actors Company was formed a couple of years ago, by invitation. If the STC is Toyota, its AC is the Lexus. A dozen top-notchers who kicked off with Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’ and who haven’t put a foot wrong since. Eight seasons later, this magnificent seven, plus five, still rehearses almost every day. No wonder they work so remarkably, side-by-side.

The Serpent’s Teeth was commissioned, ‘specially, for this extra-special ensemble. There was no curtain. We walked into a wall. A foreboding, insurmountably high, bleak, grey wall. Indeed, it takes the idea of the fourth wall a stage further, since it is from behind this wall that we see the action of the first of two plays which comprise The Serpent’s Teeth (Citizens & Soldiers).

With composer and sound designer Paul Charlier’s rumbling score cuing the mood, in perfect synergy with Robert Cousins set & Nick Schlieper’s brilliantly measured lighting, on walks John Gaden, as old Rasid, pushing his heavily laden barrow, along the impossibly long road to peace. The only real life, besides the little that still resides in him and his reticent grandson, Tariq, played by John Denyer (and Narek Armaganian), is in the spritely, tenacious olive tree he’s taking to the next village, to exchange for an orange tree. His willingness to extend the olive branch, as it were, is deeply affecting, as his reluctant, awkward, but, nonetheless, genuine care and concern for Tariq. At one point, Tariq seeks to assume the mantle and burden of his aging grandfather’s load, but the old man cautions ‘it’s too heavy’. Such is the inheritance of a war torn, consternated world.

Citizens is all about survival. The containment of the wall defines the borders of their lives. What is above? What is beyond? Only ‘the other’. The real battle is against resentment, fear and loathing. No-one needs a bullet to feel the insidious, burning pain of conflict & division; the isolation; the emptiness. These people are already haemorraghing; beyond merely bruised. As a not even thinly veiled metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian nexus, it works wonders. Even the most sceptical and removed will be almost inevitably reshaped by the epiphany of seeing through foreign eyes made our own.

Peter Carroll’s masterfully realised Basim, too, is old, crabby and funny. His daughter, Hayah, played by Hayley McElhinney, trails him, dutifully and compassionately, holding aloft an impossibly optimistic bright yellow brolly, to shade her father from the rigours of the sun, as they make their way, with strange, determined gait, to Basim’s estranged brother’s funeral. Basim hasn’t spoken to his brother for 27 years, but, ‘news of a death is an invitation’. Indeed, this line invites and beckons one of the principal themes of both plays: news of death is an invitation; but to do what? Basim matter-of-factly, but not coldly, acknowledges his differences with his ‘hateful’ brother, but feels for him, inasmuch as there proves to be too few at his graveside. Is the invitation to lie down and die also, outwardly or inwardly? Or to soldier on; perhaps the awareness of emptiness is ‘enough’? Hayah’s umbrella raises the possibility of redemption; of overcoming fate, misfortune and, even, death itself. The soul, no matter how grim the circumstance, is still capable of upliftment and must always aspire to it. There is a way over the wall, for the wall can only be built inside us. Tear it down and we demolish all its earthly replicas. But let’s not get too pseudo-religious. Or hopeful. There’s plenty more blackness to come!

At Basim’s behest, Hayah gives her offending umbrella to a bereft, passing stranger, Habib (Brandon Burke), who then has a much-needed and sought gift for his sister’s birthday (one’s trash, another’s treasure). Along the way, he happens upon Safa (Amber McMahon), struggling with her sedated Alsatian-in-a-box. He changes direction entirely, succumbing to assisting her with her burden, as they go down the road together. Again, Keene enthusiastically points to the everyday, mundane possibility of redemption; the redemption of small favours, courtesies, gestures and kindnesses. Keene himself says: ‘everyday life doesn’t stop to make room for the violence of war’; it must continue, as best it can.

I could detain you all day, describing the richness, humanity and nuances of each and every character. Equally, I could wax, in some case lyrically, about the cohesive performances, from those already mentioned, to those, also, of Eden Falk, Ewen Leslie, Luke Mullins, Emily Russell, Steve Le Marquand, Marta Dusseldorp and Pamela Rabe (who also directed Citizens). All are more than competent. All pull in the viewer, enabling him, or her, to see through the eyes of the character; to hear with his, or her, ears; to feel, with his, or her, heart.

Likewise, I could happily labour and pore over the finer points of technical delivery, whether in the aforementioned, or, say, the costumes of Tess Schofield, which completed a convincing picture.

Directors (the other was Tim Maddock) & crew that understand the power of minimalist aesthetics are always and ever, for mine, a Godsend. When the insistent drone of a Black Hawk rose to a deafening crescendo and the lights levitated over the wall, blindingly ablaze, then sound and light ceased, there was drama. And how often does one see real drama in the theatre, these days? In the news, sure! But the theatre?

Soldiers brought it all back home, with bereaved relatives loitering, by turns, in a cold, dark, empty aircraft hangar, waiting for a belated plane from Baghdad, carrying the remains of their husband, son, or brother. Observing the tortures and torments of those left behind is, of course, almost as bloody and destructive as the weapons that tore the deceased apart. Regret and guilt are, after all, the real killers. As with Citizens, only perhaps even moreso, the writing here is razor-sharp, remarkably and memorably profound; at times, ravishingly beautiful. There is stylistic homage, in cadences and richness of expressive language, to Shakespeare. Space is allowed, too, for soliloquies. There are numerous moments of ‘ooh-ah!’ ‘Any man is lost if he moves too far from what he loves’ was but one of mine. I know it’s good if I wish I’d written it and am jealous of he, or she, who did; who’s capable of such words, consummate characterisation, revelatory structure. I know it’s good if it runs for nigh-on two-and-a-half hours, but yields no awareness of time passing. I know it’s good. It’s better than good.

It’s extraordinary!

Sydney Theatre Company presents The STC Actors Company in
Two new plays by Daniel Keene

Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Opening Night: 24 april at 8pm
Season: Friday 25 April – Saturday 17 May
Evenings: Tuesdays – Saturdays 8pm
Twilights: Mondays 6.30pm
Matinees: Wednesdays 1pm, Saturdays 2pm
Night With Actors: Monday 12 May 6.30pm
Bookings: STC box office (02) 9250 1777 | SOH box office (02) 9250 7777 |

Source: Australian Stage: https://www.australianstage.com.au/200804251391/reviews/sydney/the-serpent-s-teeth-%7C-sydney-theatre-company.html
Sydney Reviews
© Australian Stage Online

Photos: Brett Boardman