Worlds collide in Declan Greene’s theatrical version of a daring film
When Melbourne playwright Declan Greene first saw the 2011 film Melancholia by controversial Danish auteur Lars von Trier, he knew he had to bring it to the stage.
“I walked out of the cinema knowing there was a version of it that’s definitely a play, particularly in the second act when the planet is approaching,” Greene says. “It’s all this tight, chamber, fourth-wall version of theatre; it’s a pressurised location and an emotionally rich drama with a cast of four characters.”
That kind of conventional dramatic set-up mightn’t be what most people remember from the sci-fi art film, which has depression at its heart. The planet Greene is referring to? It’s called ‘Melancholia’ – a term that has been used to refer to clinical depression throughout history – and it’s on a collision course with Earth.
Greene’s adaptation will be directed by Malthouse Theatre’s artistic director, Matthew Lutton, who is tasked with bringing the surreal landscape of the film and its global concerns to life on stage. Their version sticks pretty closely to the film’s arc, but the dialogue has had to be reshaped and innovative theatrical solutions have been found.
“Von Trier’s films are very fragmented because of the way they’re edited,” Greene says. “It makes perfect sense when you watch it in the film, but when you write it down and put in the mouth of an actor, it really doesn’t.”
The first part of the film has no sci-fi element: it takes place at a luxurious estate where a rich but deeply unhappy bride called Justine (Eryn Jean Norvill will step into the role played by Kirsten Dunst in the movie) has the wedding night from hell. The second part takes place a few months later when Justine’s depression has become debilitating. While staying with her sister Claire (Leeanna Walsman on stage, originally Charlotte Gainsbourg), Melancholia starts swinging towards our planet.
“For the last maybe ten years – but especially at the moment – it feels like we’re on the brink of something huge, societally,” Greene says. “It feels like there’s another major epoch in human history on the horizon. On one level, that’s what occurs in the film. If you don’t take it in its most literal definition as the end of the world, and look at it as a final jolt into another stage in history, there’s something really relevant in that.”
The film can also be read as a straightforward allegory for depression – and the depression Justine experiences is mirrored by the world’s own crisis, which she feels eerily at peace with – but Greene says it has a complexity and richness that defies easy analysis and classification.
“It’s like one of those pieces of art – I think of David Lynch’s films like this sometimes – you’ve got all the pieces the pieces for a jigsaw puzzle there, and you’re trying to build something from it. You don’t know what you’re building; there’s no picture on the box. And then you build something and think ‘cool, I’ve got it!’ and then there’s about 500 pieces that you realise are all left over.”
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