The Season at Sarsaparilla

Film and theatre are tempestuous bedfellows. For every spirited success (take Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street) there are five flaccid failures. In Benedict Andrews’ production of Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla the semiotics of cinema step firmly on to the boards.

This is a remarkable work of theatre. The direction is fluid and graceful and the performances often brilliant. The set, rather than taking the traditional Sarsaparilla form of three houses side by side, compacts the action into a single building, mounted on a revolve. There is no risk of confusion: Andrews is a deft choreographer and conducts our attention with precise and seamless shifts. Added to this is the presence in the house of cameras and two screens at either side of the stage that relay their perspectives to us. The result is that the cutting up of the space is left to invisible lines: vectors of movement and angles of light.

The shared space of the set fundamentally changes the thematic dynamics of the play. Gone are the class-based material differences of the houses; gone is the false sense of security that discreteness can imbue. In their place comes a more private and disturbing landscape. The essential dislocation and failing connection between characters is heightened by the dark irony of their proximity. There are very few moments of spatial isolation on stage, yet the loneliness and disparity of the Mildred St inhabitants is often acute. The space is public but the isolation is private.

This dialectic of private and public space parallels the tension between the theatrical and cinematic elements of this production. The camera is a monocular viewer and the sole witness to the light it captures. On the other hand, theatre is stereoscopic and pluralistic in its witnessing. An actor on the stage cannot look out at an audience and make eye contact with everyone at once but an actor on the screen can. To see the eyes of the actor peering out at you, even if it is through the processed reflection of camera, projector and screen, is a window on the private world of a character. However illusory the experience may be, the sense is that this is a private audience with the character — an intimate moment of self-revelation. Thus, the public arena of the theatre is entwined with the private diegesis of the cinema. And where the theatre of Sarsaparilla is inherently allegorical or, at least, metaphorical, the cinema of Sarsaparilla is psychological and personal.

The screens have another important part to play with respect to the composition of the space. Theatre is rarely “widescreen” – its historical connection with everything from the gods to the lighting rig is vertical. Cinema is all about horizontals – from railroads to deserts – and the addition of the two screens, at either side of the set, widen the “aspect ratio” of the Playhouse stage. Perhaps this seems a trivial point, but the thematic ramifications are enticing. None of the characters, except Roy Child (Eden Falk), ever bother to look up, to peer heavenwards in hope of inspiration or, at the very least, some “razzle dazzle”. Roy seems to be the authorial voice of Patrick White incarnate, though he is never made more sympathetic than anyone else, and there is something hapless and futile in his vertical ambitions. The rest of the cast, staid in their horizontal urban sprawl, are usually framed by windows that cut off the completeness of their lives like a scene from Rear Window. The only thing they have to look out at is the audience, an enigmatic view that the audience is clearly denied and that, therefore, may as well not exist. The result is a cyclical ennui, an implacable desperation muffled by a suburban complacency that refuses to look up or down for a different way.

The cinematic shift of space in Sarsaparilla is paralleled by its shift in time. The cameras capture moving images but if there is nothing moving within their frame, there is simply photography. Time stands still, as it were. The directorial eye of Benedict Andrews can linger over apparently minor details – an empty beer glass or perhaps an out-of-place hat. The wandering eyes of the theatre audience necessarily take note of the static screens and the cinematic language of montage is thereby born. A woman enters, we see a stranger’s hat, there is a moment’s pause and the full impact of the hat is known to us. From Antonioni to Marker, the stillness of an image and its extension through time can be as redolent with meaning as a sweep of action because it is its juxtaposition, its context that imbues it with significance.

What Andrews has created in this production of The Season at Sarsaparilla is not just a wonderful piece of theatre but a worthy piece of cinematic craftsmanship. No doubt, this theatre is no film, nor should it be, but in working with cinematic language so fluently, Andrews has managed to integrate the two with rare success.