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Four Larks’ Temptation of St Antony by Tom Rigby

Four Larks, the young theatre collective based in Brunswick, Melbourne, have a well-earned reputation for ambitious adaptations. Having tackled Peer Gynt, Alice in Wonderland, The Master and Margarita and the Orpheus myth in the past, the collective has become highly adept at transforming its former auto repair shop into all …

Four Larks, the young theatre collective based in Brunswick, Melbourne, have a well-earned reputation for ambitious adaptations. Having tackled Peer Gynt, Alice in Wonderland, The Master and Margarita and the Orpheus myth in the past, the collective has become highly adept at transforming its former auto repair shop into all manner of complex literary spaces. Critics have praised Four Larks for their operatic spectacles and ‘junkyard’ aesthetic that eschews twee romanticism in favour of thrilling theatrical bricolage. Directed by Mat Sweeney, Sebastian Peters-Lazaro and Jesse Rasmussen, Four Larks recently presented their original adaptation of Flaubert’s The Temptation of St Antony, a novel written in play-like form that took French literature’s master craftsman twenty-five years to write.The novel presents the reader with so many challenges that, according to Foucault, its publication served to ‘extend the space that existing books can occupy’. Just as the title refers to a heroic test of faith,this production represents the most arduous trial yet to be confronted by Four Larks.

We enter the dimly lit, high-ceilinged space to the haunting strains of Chopin and the clacking of a vintage Monarch typewriter. It is a barefoot Antony (Tim Wotherspoon):wearing dirty long-johns, his eyes lined with kohl, we find him crouching over the keyboard, intermittently punching out a draft of the narrative we have just entered. In the minutes we spend waiting for the performance proper to begin, Wotherspoon maintains this distracted, discomfited posture, often pausing to stare twitchingly through space at the audience, as though he suspects that there is something with him in the room but cannot be sure. The floor-level stage is set as directed by Flaubert.

It is in the Thebaïd, on the heights of a mountain, where a platform, shaped like a crescent, is surrounded by huge stones. The Hermit’s cell occupies the background. It is built of mud and reeds, flat-roofed and doorless. Inside are seen a pitcher and a loaf of black bread; in the centre, on a wooden support, a large book; on the ground, here and there, bits of rush-work, a mat or two, a basket and a knife.

These opening lines—written like stage directions and situating the action within a theatrical space form the first of an elaborate system of frames used by Flaubert in The Temptation of St Antony. By placing the book (literally) ‘in the centre’, it can be argued that this novel opened the door to literary modernism. Foucault argues that Flaubert did for the library what Manet, his contemporary,did for the gallery, by surpassing mere irony and giving birth to a new metalanguage of art about art.

Four Larks take the book metaphor and run with it: instead of stones, the semi-circular space is surrounded by book-laden shelves, packing crates and suitcases, and in place of mud and reeds, the walls are pasted with hundreds of pages torn from books. Every surface has a pile of books on it, and behind the cluttered, shed-like scenery the actors—also clad in grubby long-johns—and the orchestra are concealed. A recording of Wotherspoon begins, narrating Antony’s account of his own life up to this point. (This, and almost all of the dialogue, is lifted directly from Flaubert.) The dissonance between the elegant composure of Wotherspoon’s voice-over and his dishevelled, neurasthenic presence is underscored by the percussion of the typewriter’s clacking, in time with the narration.Clever dramatic devices such as this are used everywhere throughout the production to frame and adapt the original text.

Flaubert’s Antony possesses the complexity of a modern, neurotic bourgeois in the depths of a mid-life crisis. True to this, Wotherspoon’s distraction is like that of a jaded scholar. Dissatisfied with the successes of his youth—the successful forging of an order of anchorites and a certain renown within his own lifetime—Antony dwells instead on a failed attempt at martyrdom and resents the disciples who have left him to pursue their own careers as ascetics. Lonely, bored and suicidal, he turns for succour to the Bible, but he can’t help comparing his own life to the heroic deeds therein: the Jew’s laughter of their enemies, Daniel’s victory over Nebuchadnezzar, Solomon’s wisdom in the face of the Queen of Sheba’s ‘temptation’. Compared with these legendary figures, whose names and deeds resound to the present day, Antony comes up short—and if so in his own eyes, surely also in the eyes of God. As the sun goes down on yet another monotonous day, Antony’s mind overflows and the night teems with delirious representations.

Are we inside Antony’s head or looking over his shoulder? Is this memory, dream, desire or haunting? Four Larks brilliantly evoke the startling ambiguity of the novel: the Queen of Sheba appears and bursts vampishly into song, her skirt boldly emblazoned with the book’s opening lines. The voice-over continues to narrate Antony’s encounters with each of the Seven Deadly Sins, played by the wonderfully physical ensemble who, like living hieroglyphs, perform the words and deeds en masse. The narration only ceases upon the appearance of Hilarion, Antony’s favourite former disciple turned Devil’s advocate. This shift—a jarring and spooky irruption of imagined reality into pure delirium—is executed marvellously. In the novel, Hilarion appears, framed by the threshold, a creepy, white-haired child-like figure. Here, Emily Tomlins plays Hilarion as an effusive, domineering dramaturge. As Tomlins strides onto the stage shouting directions, Antony’s cell becomes a rehearsal space. The ensemble pack up their props and move to the side of the stage to stretch, while Hilarion begins mercilessly to critique Antony’s narrative of ‘continual martyrdom’. Tomlins’ gregarious Hilarion is the perfect foil to Wotherspoon’s peevish Antony and we can’t help but feel some sympathy for the idealistic author being called to account for his self-indulgence. Tomlins adds a degree of brash humour to the part, authored by Flaubert as a cool, clear-eyed, sceptical counterpart to Antony’s raving idealism.

While Flaubert’s story of the neurotic anchorite is not his most widely read, it is arguably the most important of his novels. St Antony presaged by a decade the publication of Nietzsche’s essay ‘What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?’ (Part III of On the Genealogy of Morals), and it is this same question that Flaubert investigates in Antony’s night of temptation. Nietzsche contends that asceticism arose during ancient times from the need of the philosophers to ‘overthrow the gods and traditions inside themselves, in order to be able to believe in their innovation’,and that it has since been instrumental in the spread of Christianity’s universalised and morbid representations of human subjectivity. For the ordinary person, ‘ascetic ideals’,

are an attempt to imagine themselves as ‘too good’ for this world, a holy form of orgiastic excess, their chief tool in the fight with their enduring pain and boredom; among the clergy they are the essential priestly belief, their best instrument of power, and also the ‘highest of all’ permits for power; finally among the saints they are a pretext for hibernation…their repose in nothingness (‘God’), their form of insanity.

Nietzsche the psychologist sees through asceticism’s paradoxes—seeking beauty in ugliness, life in death—to pre-empt, in a way,the Freudian notion of the death drive. As a will to nothingness, asceticism is an instinctive response to the constraints of a repressive social order based on a universalised subjectivity steeped in individual guilt:‘Man will sooner will nothingness than not will…’ St Antony of Egypt (ca. 251–356),as one of the founding figures of Christian asceticism, is hugely important in its history and arguably more influential to this subjective template than Christ himself. St Antony helped cement at the heart of Western ideology the concept that the cause of suffering lies within the realm of the individual’s thoughts and deeds. In doing so, he helped found an empire of Sin.

In Hilarion’s scathing critique of his former master’s literalist interpretation of the Bible, Flaubert demonstrates in the strongest terms the powerful role that asceticism has for so long played in the construction of truth.

Antony: ‘But it is the truth of the doctrine that makes the martyr.’

Hilarion: ‘How can he prove its excellence, seeing that he testifies equally on behalf of error?’

Antony: ‘Be silent, viper!’

Hilarion: ‘It is not perhaps so difficult. The exhortations of friends, the pleasure of outraging popular feeling, the oath they take, a certain giddy excitement—a thousand things, in fact, go to help them.’

It is here, too, in the worldly affirmation of the will—in desire—that Nietzsche would seek to locate the only ‘good’ that can, without deference to some metaphysical or ideological principle, lend meaning to any act. As Nietzsche demonstrates, asceticism has played a key role in the construction of global and unitary knowledges, with modern science no exception. For Nietzsche and Flaubert both, temptation, or the testing and rupturing of faith, is the crux of wisdom, not its stumbling block—for ‘what sense would our whole being have if not for the fact that in us that will to truth became aware of itself as a problem?’—a concept that runs through modernism, structuralism and the ‘post-’ derivations of each.

Nietzsche always held that artistic production provides one of the most fruitful grounds for the excavation of meaning.As implied by the ‘junkyard’ tag, the Four Larks sensorium is a rich and eclectic one. The orchestra is made up of eight first-rate performers, whose sombre composure, as they sit on stage during the lulls, belies the brightness and intensity of their sound. Ellen Warkentine and Mat Sweeney’s score is at once exotic yet familiar—I have never heard a banjo sound so oriental. The music both underscores and parallels the dialogue, while providing an open, dynamic milieu for the bodies of the ensemble to move about within. Aside from Wotherspoon and Tomlins, the ensemble has four actors, who—when not working in unison as a multi-headed, many-limbed signifying machine—also bring their diverse individual talents (and voices) to a variety of cameo roles during the procession of exotic deities, prophets and demigods to whom Antony is introduced by Hilarion.

Esther Hannaford speaks her parts through song and dance to great effect, her excellent bluesy vocals spontaneously swinging the production into cabaret mode on more than one occasion. Emmeli Johannson Stjarnfeldt’s performance of, among others, a radiant Isis, is a subtle assemblage of understated gestures and great physical beauty. Reuben Liversidge portrays a boozed-up Bacchus and a campy Indian gymnosophistin the great Australian tradition of buffoonery. And Terry Yeboah’s Apollo and Nebuchadnezzar dominate the space with a powerfully eloquent vocal delivery and a dynamic, muscular presence.

The simplest but most impressive achievement of Four Larks’ stagecraft occurs towards the end of the play, during the Spinoza-inspired monologue, in which the Devil explains to Antony:

Never shall you understand the universe in its full extent; consequently, you cannot form an idea as to its cause, so as to have a just notion of God, or even say that the universe is infinite, for you should first comprehend the Infinite!

In the novel, the Devil speaks these lines while carrying Antony on his back through the silent depths of space.It is the thrilling climax of Antony’s materialist epiphany, the moment in which he learns to love existence and embrace desire. In this production, the Devil narrates in Hilarion’s voice while the space is suddenly plunged into darkness, eradicating all of the chaotic, claustrophobic detritus of the hermit’s cell while palpably evoking a sense of great depth. This contrasting effect, which makes the audience feel they are floating,encapsulates Four Larks’ striking bricolage. For Foucault, Flaubert’s greatest literary achievement lies in his construction, in The Temptation of St Antony, of ‘an extremely complicated space’. Four Larks may also be highly commended for having successfully done just that.