Worlds collide in Declan Greene’s theatrical version of a daring film
Lars von Trier is a filmmaker who gleefully courts controversy, the kind that occasionally rises from his artistic output but more often from his offscreen stupidity. His 2011 film Melancholia was overshadowed by his comments at Cannes that he “understood Hitler”. His work often has a troubling streak of misogyny about it – although it’s possible to argue that he’s actually more of a misanthrope, an equal opportunity hater. Most of the people in his films are awful; cruelty, resentment and violence are as natural to them as breathing.
It’s a world view that is hard to shift after a few minutes in the company of the vile bodies wrapped up in the wedding reception of Justine (Eryn Jean Norvill) and Michael (Gareth Yuen), held in the grounds owned by her sister Claire (Leeanna Walsman) and husband John (Steve Mouzakis). The reception is running behind schedule, mainly because Justine has run off into the orchard and gotten her dress dirty. Claire is battling to keep a number of things under control, namely her drunk mother (Maude Davey) and her withering husband; both take the opportunity of the wedding speech to unload all their crude familial hatred onto Justine, who sits implacably in the corner.
Justine is more than a little distracted for a bride, but not so distracted to miss a strange new star in the sky. The others dismiss it, but she senses something significant in it, something portentous, even imperilling. And she’s right, because the star is actually a massive planet named Melancholia, hurtling towards the earth. Before it hits it will have significant, if unquantifiable, effects on her: she has a sexual liaison with a groundskeeper, allows her brief marriage to collapse, and eventually falls into a catatonic state. It’s clear we’re meant to see something symbolic in all this planetary interference, although it’s never clear just what.
Director Matthew Lutton and playwright Declan Greene talk a lot about romanticism, Wagner and Chekhov in the program notes, and while it’s possible to catch tiny glimpses of this in the final production, most of the time it seems like they’re pushing an alarming amount of shit up a very steep hill. The only things Chekhovian about von Trier’s characters are their wealth and the fact that they are doomed; they have none of the lived-in detail or depth of humanity that Chekhov brings to even his most minor characters, and their fate isn’t remotely moving. Greene hasn’t really filled in the schematic nature of these people or their situation in the first act, so the heavy symbolic weight they’re asked to carry in the second act isn’t sufficiently supported. You find yourself wondering why we couldn’t have concentrated in these end days on the servants, or perhaps that randy groundskeeper, rather than these meagre blowhards.
It’s not all bad, though. The performances are uniformly fine, and proof of the value of great actors. Norvill is captivating despite the limitations in her part; her scratching doubt and drifting focus come to seem like a moral position, and her descent into, and recovery from, her agentic state is perfectly controlled. Walsman is also magnificent as the increasingly panicked Claire, seething with resentment but ultimately bursting with love. Mouzakis is so good he almost makes the loathsome John credible, and Davey is hilariously droll as the car crash mother. Liam Smith is a little dynamo of innocence as Claire’s son Leo (in a role shared with Alexander Artemov).
The production itself is technically brilliant. Marg Horwell’s set evokes the fallen decadence of a lost people in the first act and a tentative embrace of the natural world in the second. Paul Jackson’s lighting design is wondrous, its purples and greens both lush and sickly. J. David Franzke’s sound design is insistent, and eventually belligerent, but it does evoke the stress of oblivion. Lutton struggles to unify the tone sometimes, but he elicits better performances than the parts deserve.
There are interesting ideas – around faith and measurement, accretion and sacrifice – lurking at the fringes of this play, but the most consistent element is a detached smugness. As a work of theatre Melancholia is rather like the body of Lars von Trier’s filmography: ponderous and pretentious, occasionally arresting and memorable, but ultimately cold, cold, cold. After Bliss, Lutton desperately needed a hit on this stage, but this intellectually thin and thematically bombastic work isn’t it. I can think of better places to see out the end of the world.