Daniel Schlusser is one of the most influential directors and dramaturges in Australia. His Peer Gynt was hailed by many Melbourne critics as the outstanding theatre event of 2009 while his Life is a Dream and Poet #7 were nominated for a combined seven Victorian Green Room Awards, including Best Direction and Best Production, in that same year.
Daniel Schlusser speaks to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew about his latest project, Ibsen's The Dollhouse.
Daniel tell me about the certain something, someone or somewhere that has inspired your work with dramaturgy, updating plays, tying in canonical works to the zeitgeist now?
I can't name it really, it's a compulsion, it's in perpetual motion, experiences of life; people art, landscape.
My sense of lineage at this moment in time might include the morose artist Martin Kippenberger and the man who led me to him, Armin Petras (Artistic Director of the Gorki Theater in Berlin). Jack Hibberd's populist rewrites were an early spark as were the theories of Howard Barker.
Films do it all the time, the way that Fassbinder re-uses Hollywood plots for his own ends.
On reflection, is there a particularly fond theatre memory that feels like the base for your directing/ dramaturgy work?
Julie Forsyth as a wildcat Lady Macbeth and Rob Menzies as Macbeth in a site-specific Anthill production comes up – there was a sense of danger and muscularity and immediacy in that work that thrilled me at a young age.
A lot of the great experiences I have had don't work directly on the mind in such an obvious way, it might be more accurate account of my dramaturgical development to recall trooping up to the television room to watch Dr Who on a Friday night, all the kids armed with pillows covering our faces during the scary bits.
Tell me about your recent take on Peer Gynt – in hindsight what did you enjoy most about updating this work and what do you feel resonated most with audiences?
Wow, what can I say about the audience? For me, in hindsight, as an audience of one, I still feel very moved by the basics of the story, regardless of contemporisation: a boy who grows up without a father and is trying to impress an absence, a girl who waits her whole life, with unwavering certainty for the boy to return when he is ready.
Things that resonate with me are people I know in very specific ways, the brutality of needing to curtail the imagination in order to survive in the world, and the need for stories.
The most successful aspect of the production might have been the flatness of the frame and the width of the stage, like the Australian accent, like the landscape, very little verticality. The real kombi on stage amongst other perfect design touches. And I think we tapped a kind of suburban hell – in the contemporisation/adaptation of the 'troll kingdom' in that play – a hell that was very recognisable for Melbourne audiences.
And similarly with your take on Life Is A Dream?
A week before rehearsals I was beaten up in a random attack by a bunch of kids on a street-corner in Westgarth. What seemed to be appalling timing ended up infusing the work in a way that was almost alchemical; I don't expect to again make a work based so thoroughly on instinct as that one.
What motif or indeed, character(s) seized you most in selecting these two plays; from so many canonical works?
That's the most mysterious question of all: how texts come to choose you. They are both considered unstage-able, I think that is a red-rag to a bull and their impracticality stems from their ambition and that's attractive. Faust Part II may well be the next point of call, or a novel, The Master and Margarita. I don't find "well-made plays" as interesting. I think that there are canonical works that, at any point in time confirm our existing world view and there are canonical works that appear to confirm our world view but actually contain really difficult truths, maybe it's discovering the latter that gets me to particular works.
Ibsen is flawed, he is human, and his plays are a mix of deep insight, poetic genius and melodramatic rubbish. Calderon is almost as transcendent but also has that irritating habit of stretching metaphors to well-beyond breaking point, he's also deeply religious which is a stumbling block. It's another possibility: that it is the flaws that attract me to them. Thematically, they are pretty wide-ranging but first there has to be a single detail that gets under the skin; I read badly and come away with a single detail, such as, "I wonder what someone would really be like if they had spent the first 20 years of their life imprisoned in a cave?" and then I keep scratching at that detail until it yields a personal connection or a strong contemporary resonance, or simply, that I get a fix on the "reality" of that condition or idea. And then I read again and find another detail... eventually I have to make a show.
Reclaiming social ritual in art, in these secular times, is perhaps one of theatre's most engaging consolations?
Our lives are full of ritual, some of them are exhausted through mindless repetition some of them are alive and thriving. Ritual is not at all esoteric. It is a very practical, basic activity. I like to go to the footy with 40,000 people on the weekend and I like to go to the theatre with 100 other people during the week and in turn, I go to the pub and the conventions amongst half a dozen friends are just as regulated, it's very simple and it is very real, very ordinary work that has to be done.
I wouldn't be comfortable "reclaiming" social ritual, it is more that the beginning point is examining the contract between the live audience and the performer and trying to re-energise the space for both. Of course my shows are often based around the structures of rituals such as parties, weddings, auctions and when you start investigating you become hyper-aware of the rules that bind us in even the most relaxed activities.
I like your word "consolation" and wonder where that comes in. Is it that I don't like parody? I'm not interested in taking the piss, I am interested in the way these cliché or crass behaviours might conceal or satisfy deep needs.
Is ritual the primary conceit behind your adaptations including plays like The Dollhouse?
The alert viewer will notice that one of my favourite strategies across this sequence is identify the dominant social occasion and amp that up, increase its presence to provide a natural dramaturgical frame.
In this case, it's the understanding that The Dollhouse is a Christmas story and Christmas is a very interesting time for ritual, particularly for Australians who celebrate with so many inherited Northern Hemisphere traditions.
Nora's mental landscape – that paradoxical and universally familiar landscape, worldly success while something is deeply disturbing to the underbelly. Tell me about what is enduring, challenging and disturbing about Nora and a story like The Dollhouse?
The problem with financial success and the quest for financial success is that somewhere along the line it is necessary that someone or something is exploited, it's the basic math of capitalism. When survival becomes the issue, we are at our most resourceful and at our ugliest. Ibsen's characters are not so much people as animals cloaked in civility.
Tell me something about your selection process, what types of things and observations prompted you for the contemporary feel for this production of The Dollhouse, the shiny warehouse conversion setting for instance?
Let's admit it: all Melbournians, regardless of class, want to live in a warehouse conversion, especially if it is re-badged as being on the "Upper West Side".
Do you imagine something along the lines of 'What would Ibsen write today?' in these re-imaginings?
Absolutely – he would be horrified if he saw a contemporary production in frock coats and outdated English if he happened to turn up now. Ibsen was searching for a form of realism. The fact that our understanding of the real has changed substantially ought to be reflected in our idea of "fidelity" to the author. I'm also convinced that had Ibsen been alive today he would have included a Dalek in the script, so I'm very proud to be upholding the writer's vision in that respect.
Horror, is there an Australian Gothic feel to this production?
I am obsessed with Australian Gothic, the films of the 70's – Wake in Fright, or the photos of Trent Parke... and often go to them for inspiration but I think this one probably owes more to Polanski's claustrophobia – without the neurotic heroine. Our Nora would be quite comfortable glassing an intruder.
The Dollhouse, directed by Daniel Schlusser opens at fortyfivedownstairs, 15 September, 2011.