On accents, place, specificity, and Dennis Kelly’s Orphans

by Jane

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about accents on stages. On what is it that makes a play, a piece of art, “Australian”? What is it in us that craves for recognition of a world we are told is ours; or what voyeurism do we seek in a world that isn’t ours?

These most recent thoughts have come off a local production of Dennis Kelly’s The Orphans, directed by Shona Benson for Blue Fruit Theatre.

Originally set in London and making its debut at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe, for this season Benson chose to set the production in Adelaide. In this change, though, rather than bringing the world of Orphans closer our own, rather than creating recognisable ties and providing us with something familiar to connect with, Benson ends up un-anchoring the play: she sets it adrift.

But first, some divergence.

Months ago I argued – much to the chagrin of some – that Belvoir’s Angels in America felt incredibly Australian, despite it’s American accents and American setting. In the past few years adaptations and relocations of classical work to an Australian setting has become a huge and defining part of Australian theatre. Like all theatre, sometimes this work is celebrated and sometimes it is derided.

Playing with accents and location is nothing new for Australian theatre, though. Historically, perhaps our most famous example is John Bell and the work he did with Nimrod, then later and continuing with the Bell Shakespeare Company.

In her 1977 review of Bell’s Much Ado About Nothing at Nimrod, Katharine Brisbane comments the “point of controversy in this production [is] the greengrocer accents”:

The reason I liked the accent was a simple one: that it provided a communal reality with which the actors could work and a bridge over which the audience might approach the play without timidity or reverence. The problems involved in trying to find something in common between Shakespeare and the modern Australian are, of course, legion. Aristocracy, in particular, is something that makes us uneasy. We have no sense of hierarchy and the intrigues of the nobility would seem remote to our experience of life. That is why the study of Shakespeare so often becomes an effort of will, instead of an enlightening experience. John Bell’s production of Much Ado About Nothing knocks the stuffing out of such uncomprehending reverence and focuses the audience’s attention and affection directly on the people and events on stage.

When I look back over my theatre-going history, I can’t remember a single instance of seeing a “traditional” Shakespeare, and it seems these degrees of reverence to the world he wrote in have been worn away in Australian performance.  We would scoff, surely, if we were to see an Australian company today stage his work in British accents.

To launch an ongoing series of articles on Shakespeare in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood proposed we consider:

[W]heather in producing Shakespeare today the most effective approach revolves around cloaking the text in contemporary imagery, or hewing to a more “classical” line, dressing the actors in what passes for traditional Elizabethan costume.

Despite calling the new Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet a “test case for the here-and-now approach”, Isherwood goes on to talk on the frequency with which contemporised versions of Shakespeare are staged, and, “what’s comparatively newer is the tradition of presenting the plays in Elizabethan or Jacobean attire.”

When we see Shakespeare set in contemporary Australia, the text remains largely untouched – other than the typical editing to par down works for length or cast numbers (broader adaptations like The Shadow King excluded). Place names and other references are retained – I’ve yet to hear “something is rotten in the state of Victoria” (this isn’t to say, however, that it hasn’t happened) – and as audience members we recalibrate accordingly if it’s to a specified Australia or to some imagined world between Shakespeare’s and ours.

Benedict Andrews production of The Seagull at Belvoir was, for me, particularly effecting because it sat in a place between Chekhov’s and ours. Done in Australian accents with contemporary vernacular and localised in Ralph Myers’ set clearly evoking Australia, Andrews nonetheless maintained the Russian names and places from the original text. Neither Australia nor Russia, it was still intimate and familiar, and Andrews’ adaptation brought through a contemporary relevance and urgency.

It’s clearly untrue to say that all work can be updated or adapted from its traditional setting. In my review of Joanna Murray-Smith’s version of Hedda Gabler, directed by Geordie Brookman, I wrote:

Perhaps one of the dangers in adapting Hedda Gabler to a contemporary context is the way that women’s place in society has changed in 120 years. Ibsen’s women, his Hedda and his Nora in particular, were revolutionary in their portraits of middle-class women unhappy with their lives, questioning society, and, ultimately, taking control of their own destinies – in radically different fashions. It would be all too easy for a contemporary Hedda to not ring true: while women are still under many pressures and societal expectations, today’s women are, on the whole, more activated both inside and outside the home. Yet, Murray-Smith’s adaptation brings with it startling relevancy, none more so in the ever-prevailing expectation and tension on women to become mothers: here, this conversation feels shocking but in no way false.

I went on to comment in particular on Alison Bell’s performance in the titular role. Under a lesser performer, I proposed in my review, Murray-Smith’s Hedda could easily ring false. I would be very curious to see how the text would hold up under a different performer.

And what set me off on these thoughts again is how much Orphans here rings false. An Adelaide-set Orphans ignores the political climate of London in 2009 and the circumstances which Kelly was writing in. It presumes that changing a few words will suffice to make the play move halfway around the world. Unlike Andrews and Murray-Smith’s relative freedoms with non-English language, non-copyrighted scripts; unlike a production of Shakespeare changes location through performance and design, not all contemporary plays can be lifted from one place to and still fit in another.

Benson, herself recently moved to Adelaide from the UK, localises a few words and places: a slur is changed from “Gypo” to “Abo”, a couch is purchased from David Jones instead of John Lewis. Other changes make less direct sense: is the Australian equivalent of a British business trip to Miami really Shanghai? I would suggest the latter would engage a much higher class of business –  creating a very different commentary on the class relations and the class divide between Kelly’s characters.

It is in the wider linguistic differences between our countries, though, that the production really jars when we’re told it’s in Adelaide. The word “lad” sounds constantly foreign on an Australian tongue. Most incompatible, though, is the references to “the Asians” and “the Asian lad”: in the UK, Asian being used to refer to those from South Asia, in Australia more commonly used to refer to those from East and Southeast Asia. It is not the Australian accents themselves which feel out of place, but the statement that this production is set in Australia: if we are watching Australians, why don’t they sound like us?

When adapting plays to contemporary Australia are successful, I feel it is because these adaptors – be they playwrights, directors, or collectives – understand how to build up a new world for these stories to exist in. In the examples I used previously of The Seagull and Hedda Gabler, we believe in the characters because we believe in their worlds.

In the production of Angels that I spoke about at the beginning of this piece I believed in the world that Tony Kushner wrote and Eamon Flack directed because of the specificity in Kushner’s text. Angels, magic and all, Kushner’s work is incredibly embodied in his New York City of 1985. Like I commented then, that world isn’t ours – it certainly isn’t one I can personally recognise – but through the play you feel its existence.

I’ve often found that the more specific something becomes, the more recognisable. I liken it to people talking about poetry: when you find that one specific, tiny word, you can open up a whole world. One of the many remarkable features of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life & Times, recently at the Melbourne Festival, is how this verbatim theatre work describing the life of one of the company members in painstaking detail opens up a world of thoughts of your own childhood and adolescence.

In her review, Alison Croggon remarked:

The simplicity of the concept opens out a complexity that is at first surprising and then startling. So many things are at work, from the almost fanatical precision of the direction and the athletic endurance of the performers, to the various invitations which the work gives to its audience.

We are listening to an act of remembering, underlined by the inarticulacy and banality of the script that prompts the same act in our own minds. The very ordinariness and undramatic nature of the material — the bizarre logics and obsessions of childhood, the distortions of memory itself, the circular nature of the narrative and, perhaps, most of all, its transparency — prompts our own recollections, which becomes more and more part of the texture of the experience. At interval, people were swapping their own childhood memories; it was irresistible.

I had a similar feeling come through over the weeks of being a recipient of Miranda July’s We Think Alone. Like Life & Times, the banality that Croggon speaks about is present in July’s sharing of a series of emails on a theme each week. In receiving these emails, though, as a global audience we were asked to reflect on those stories and messages and fragments of lives that sit in our sent folders.

In both We Think Alone and Life & Times, it’s through entry into specific worlds, of words taken directly from people living their lives, that our own world opens up: that we glance on our lives a little differently, that we remember memories we didn’t know we’d stored.

There are parallels to be made between the London in Kelly’s work and Benson’s Adelaide: comparisons to be made between racism and class relations, and more broadly of the way we live in families while also living in societies. But they’re different. Racism in the UK manifests in different ways to in Australia; the class system in the UK is a different beast than it is in Australia; and both of these again are different in cities of 15 million people and 1.2 million people.

While the wider elements of Benson’s production – the design, the performances – are strong, in trying to place Kelly’s world in our world, it becomes impossible to picture what exists beyond the walls of the Bakehouse Theatre. Small references to place and the built environment don’t gel. The links to the issues that could be pertinent instead become hidden. In trying to bring us a story that is more familiar, more recognisable, Benson only obscures.

And without an imaginable world there isn’t an imaginable threat or fear. One of the things Kelly explores in his text is a feeling of removal, of isolation or alienation from society; of desperately trying to save a world you want. Here, though, there is no world for anyone to be removed from: the living room becomes the whole play, and thus Kelly’s text reduced to a living room drama.

Discussing my thoughts about the play with a friend, she remarked that 2009 still sits close in our collective consciousness, and while we weren’t in the UK at that time, in a globalised world where we consume news online there is a feeling of recognition. Playing with time and space, Benson doesn’t have the advantage of us rejecting or not recognising, say, the space of Chekhov and Ibsen.

To consider the intersection of place and accent is a tricky concept. If we look to the world of musical theatre for a moment, consider that the Australian production of Wicked was done in American accents, while in the West End actors had British accents for the characters in the fantasy land of Oz. When we look at the French-set Les Misérables, Thénardier and Madame Thénardier have cockney accents to signify their class standing – even in Australian productions. I’ve never found this anything other than bizarre.

If we see a play written in and set in Europe by an Australian company, you’d hope there would be no need to put on an accent. Yet we almost always have accents on stage for plays set in the UK and North America. Of course, going back to specificity, they can help build a world – but in the case of bad accents, they can go just as far to destroy it. What would it have meant for Benson to play with accents, but not play with place?

The line for what works are transportable in time and space is malleable. I’d suggest the closer a text is to our time and the more a director places themselves to work in service of the text, the less the work can be transitioned. Directors can bring our world and the playwright’s world crashing together in many exciting ways: by sharing our humour, by adapting their language, by using our accents. Here, though, Orphans didn’t make worlds crash together. It made them spin further apart.

Further reading:

Dennis Kelly’s Orphans, available for Kindle here.

Reviews of the original production from Michael Billington and Matt Truman, or Ben Brooker’s review of this production, where he finds the move unproblematic.

British critic Andrew Haydon writes about some of the things I’ve grappled here – and many more, besides – on Postcards from the Gods. About half-way down the page he talks about nationality, accent, and class – the latter issue which I almost completely glanced over here. I’m particularly struck by the thought you would set Speaking in Tongues in the UK using regional dialects to separate characters.

In that piece, Haydon links to Croggon’s review of a Melbourne production ofThat Facewhere she writes:

This resonance simply doesn’t translate to Australia: yes, we have class in our society, but it’s quite a different deal here. We might even have colonial imitations of the British class system, but they don’t function in the same ways or with the same codes. Consequently director Sarah Giles’s decision to stage That Face with Australian accents effectively reduces it to an enclosed family psychodrama. It still works, but you have to listen hard through the unfocusing that results: and aside from the ramifications of class, the diction remains too specifically English to sit easily with Australian accents.

I think Katharine Brisbane’s Not Wrong – Just Different is essential reading. A collection of many of her reviews from 1967 – 85 it is an insightful history on Australian performance.

Covering much of the same time, is Julian Meyrick’s history of Nimrod Theatre Company in See How It Runs: Nimrod and the New Wave.

And read the rest of Isherwood’s series on Shakespeare, including his reviews of the classically staged Twelfth Night and Richard III. (And please watch the Orlando Bloom clip in that first link. Truly, hilariously dire.)