Sydney Festival 2013 review: Murder

11 January 2013

In 'Murder', the grin of death is borrowed and amplified many times over in their puppet version of the show's dominating figure - the semi-mythical Stagger Lee. [Image: Susannah Wembley]
In 'Murder', the grin of death is borrowed and amplified many times over in their puppet version of the show's dominating figure - the semi-mythical Stagger Lee. [Image: Susannah Wembley]

Dr Huw Griffiths from the Department of English responds to the Sydney Festival production, Murder, on now at the Seymour Centre until 19 January 2013.

Holbein's Dance of Death, a series of brilliant woodcuts from the 1530s, features a playful skeleton with a gloriously sardonic rictus grin that dances its way through the lives of everyone from the Pope and the Emperor down to a Blind Man and a Waggoner (Hans Holbein the Younger, The Dance of Death, Paris, 1538). As it dances around them, it either beckons or drags them away to their deaths. Even a young child is led by the hand, away from a domestic scene in which his mother is cooking for him, by a smiling skeleton.

Holbein's is only the most famous example of a medieval and Renaissance tradition of the dance of death in which death is shown to be indiscriminate, taking anyone and everyone, and at any time. While this might participate in conventional Christian pieties of momento mori, in Holbein, it's that glorious grin that has us turning the pages. It is uncanny: part human, part totally inhuman. It is death as psychopath: amoral and indiscriminate. He dances marionette-like through scenes of ordinary human activity, half participating in them and half emerging from an alien world.

In Erth's Murder that grin of death is borrowed and amplified many times over in their puppet version of the show's dominating figure - the semi-mythical Stagger Lee. Their Stagger Lee is Holbein's death dressed up as a pimp and a gangster. His enormous grin presides over the performance, mocking us all with its promise of a violent end.

The story of Lee that the show draws from starts as nothing more than a late-night brawl in 1890s St Louis, leading to a shooting for which Lee, an African American pimp, is found guilty.

The real story, however, lies in the subsequent folk mythology that has built up around him and that particularly lives on in the song 'Stagger Lee' that has been adapted and sung by many singers through the 20th and 21st centuries.

In Nick Cave's version, used as influence and soundtrack for this performance, he is described as "that bad motherf***er called Stagger Lee". Like Holbein's death's head, he's a mocking figure, overthrowing social niceties in an immense and joyous appetite for death. He is a figure that doesn't only stick two fingers up to the establishment but a loaded pistol that he is more than willing to use at the same time.

Murder's puppet version of Stagger Lee is virtually reduced to this Holbein-like grin - an enormous smiling orifice with the pearly whites of Brecht's 'Mack the Knife' - just as sharp and just as vicious, but much more inhuman in their lack of concern for their prey. Puppets and marionettes are perfect for showing us the uncanny presence of death, violent or otherwise, in all our lives. "Do marionettes have a soul?" Derrida asks, describing them as "neither sensible nor insensible." (Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign Volume One, Tr G Bennington, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 187). Like the momento mori figure of the grinning skeleton, the marionette appears both human-like and alien. Erth's well-established reputation as consummate puppeteers ensures their marionettes mimic human gesture with uncanny accuracy.

But this weird accuracy, coupled with the visible on-stage presence of the puppeteers and their interaction with a 'real' actor (Graeme Rhodes) who is, himself, moved around the stage like a marionette, serve only to alert us to their soulless mimicry - they imitate being human just as well as a psychopath might pass for someone with ordinary feelings.

Murder purports to have a story at its centre, the story of an emerging psychopath complete with disturbing childhood dreams of violence. But the narrative aspects of the performance are, to be honest, both laboured and somewhat superfluous. It also gives us, in its rather hectoring opening spiel and its trite references throughout to recognisable events such as the Strathfield massacre and the career of Ivan Milat, what appears to be a rather tedious lesson in why we shouldn't be watching the very stories of death, sex, and violence that the show is, itself, trading in. Some people around me in the theatre certainly felt short-changed by this aspect of the show as the narrative just fizzled out in the final scene. But the real fascination of this show doesn't lie in any one story, or in any message about our unhealthy fascination with serial killers. Really, it's the techniques themselves that carry the interest and not just because they are good at what they do (and they are stunningly brilliant at it): blending conventional puppetry with digital projections and human actors. Rather, it is in the way that these blended techniques open up questions of mortality: uncannily mimicking the dispossession of our own lives instantiated by the constant presence of death.

The music in the show is advertised as coming from Nick Cave's 1996 album, Murder Ballads. But, in fact, they make imaginative use of a wide range of Cave's work, including classic earlier 'hits' like 'The Mercy Seat' and 'Red Right Hand'. For me, the most telling track was 'Cannibal's Hymn' from 2004's Abattoir Blues. There's a great line in it: "If you're gonna dine with them cannibals, / Sooner or later, darling, you're gonna get eaten." Murder's occasionally moralistic dialogue and narrative might try to resist the amorality of death's lack of discrimination but, just like Holbein's grinning skeleton and Stagger Lee stalking us through the ages, those puppets seem to know a hell of a lot better.

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