‘Fragments of Magic: On Reading and Sometimes Seeing Lally Katz’, by Jane Howard

Lally Katz in Stories I Want To Tell You In Person. Image by Heidrun Lohr.

November 2011

I am not in Melbourne, so I will not see Return to Earth play at Melbourne Theatre Company. Instead, I am living vicariously in Adelaide, eagerly awaiting reviews, celebrating for the playwright Lally Katz – a woman I have never met, but of whom I’m nevertheless a not-so-secret fan.

Return to Earth is one of my favourite scripts. I’ve devoured it on the page. As the play begins, the world of the young protagonist, Alice, seems to be fully ours, but as it develops, the plane between the real and magical begins to shear.

We realise that this small country town exists in a world consumed by magic. Alice sits on the beach and pulls barnacles out of Theo’s back. Her niece Catta goes into surgery in a combination emergency room / auto-repair shop. Finally, we find out the title of the play is meant to be taken literally: Alice is not only struggling to return to her hometown, but is also struggling in her return to earth, after having travelled through space.

[C]overing the top part of his back and shoulder blades are layer and layer, rows and rows and rows of barnacles. Like half clam shells coming out of the flesh, like easy-to-pluck weeds.

ALICE runs her fingertips lightly over the barnacles. He shivers.

She fastens her thumb and forefinger to one of the barnacles and begins to gently pull.

THEO: It will leave a barb. Unless you get it out from the root.

ALICE: It’s okay.

One by one, she slowly begins to pull each clamshell-like barnacle out of his flesh. The shells come out surprisingly clean and whole. They leave only a bloodless slit behind.

The script is a complex meditation on losing your notion of self: on trying to match up who you are with who you were; on the idea that is it impossible to ever return home; on being selfish and hurting those around you who love you. But beyond this, when I read the play I read a magic that is shocking and powerful and brutal, but also soft and quiet and filled with wonder for this world – and whatever lies beyond.

And so in Adelaide, I wait for the reviews.

They’re not good.

Terrible, even. The play is a complete critical flop. I wonder how I could have got it so wrong.

And then I read Alison Croggon’s review.

I walked out of the opening night of Lally Katz’s new play Return to Earth with my stomach in a knot. Readers, I have seldom seen a production which was so utterly wrong. It’s wrong from the ground up, wrong from the first moment, and goes on being wrong all the way through to the end. Every flicker of life in this play is wrestled to the ground and throttled to death.

Like me, Croggon has read the script. She can see there is something more.

Robyn Nevin. Image by Jeff Busby courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.

April 2014

I’m sitting alone in the Sumner Theatre in Melbourne during the interval of Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch, Melbourne Theatre Company’s remount of the July 2011 Belvoir production. If I stand up and go into the foyer I’ll have to show my tear-streaked face. There is the possibility that I might run into someone I know, so instead I sit, quietly, in wonder at the magic on the stage.

After the show ends, I leave the theatre and walk up St Kilda Road towards the city. I send a message to a friend in Adelaide, another Katz fan:

Neighbourhood Watch was so good that I kind of feel like I never want to talk about it because there would be people in the world who love it less than me and I don’t want anything taken away from the experience I just had in that theatre.

I get on a tram and go home. I gush about the production to my housemate. I implore her to buy a ticket to one of the last few performances. I get nervous that she won’t love it as much as me.

She couldn’t love it as much as me.

March 2013

Katz’s autobiographical one-woman show Stories I Want To Tell You In Person, is scheduled to open in Sydney. It is a chronicle of how Katz spent her Belvoir commissioning money on New York City psychics, and an enumeration of the curses with which they diagnosed her. I am in Adelaide, waiting to read reviews.

But before the critics make it to the theatre, they’re told Katz is ill and opening night is cancelled. Along with the night after. And then the whole season.

It’s the curse, Katz tells the media.

I almost went to Sydney to see this production, but one thing led to another and I cancelled the trip. I wonder if I have the opposite of the curse: whatever made me not buy flights this weekend.

One of the reasons I am drawn to Katz’s work is the way magic exists in her storytelling worlds. Katz takes us into worlds that seem just like ours, slowly shifting our perspective to show layers of magic, to make us feel the wonder of thinking ‘I never thought it could be like that.’

Neighbourhood Watch is, on the surface, the least magical of Katz’s published scripts. Set on a suburban Australian street, it opens with two housemates watching the dawn of a new day and a new Australia. “Happy Kevin ’07, my friend”, Ken says to Catherine as they sit outside their house, their worlds suddenly filled with new possibilities.

But in a world of new possibilities and big banner changes to politics, the minutiae of life on Mary Street go on. Catherine – a single, lonely, young, largely unemployed actor – struggles. She lies to Ken to hide how little she eats; she obsesses over the ironing.

On the other side of Mary Street lives Ana, an eighty-year-old Hungarian woman, and her dog Bella. Ana is friendly to her neighbours, but they are not her friends, and she steadfastly avoids the efforts of Milova, an elderly woman from Serbia, to become friends: Ana considers Milova to be her enemy.

One day, Ana calls to Catherine across the street: “You. Girl. Come. Over. Here.” From here on, Neighbourhood Watch traces their relationship over the course of a year, before ending on a new moment of hope. “Happy Obama, my friend,” Ken says to Catherine, as the pair again look out over Mary Street and a changing world.

May 2014

My feelings are neatly matching Alison Croggon’s from two and a half years earlier. I have flown to Adelaide for the night to see the second production of Neighbourhood Watch at the State Theatre Company. I walk out of the opening night of this new production with my stomach in a knot: it is wrong.

Neighbourhood Watch’s suburbs and “Kevin ’07” references may at first glance suggest that magic doesn’t live in this story of Australia. But the more I dig into the play, the more I see how crucial magic is to this world.

As Catherine visits Ana with increasing frequency their friendship takes on greater familiarity, and Ana starts to teach this young woman about “the sixth sense”: the feelings you must listen to, the feelings that will keep you safe. Ana felt this sense when she was back in Hungary, and describes an incident from her youth:

ANA: Like the x-ray, but more feely. It is the sixth sense. Alvays tell Ana vhen she is in the bad. It all the time tell me vhen coming something sad. For example, vhen it vas var in Hungary. I live in the house vith my mummy, my daddy, two sister and my brother. And von night, the gypsy come to sing, he have been sent by von young man to sing love song to the girl he love.

A GYPSY begins to sing beneath the window. In Hungarian.

The lounge room shifts slightly into Hungary. CATHERINE feels it, sees it, she is half in the lounge room, half in Hungary watching ANA, who suddenly seems younger. Like a young girl.

In Melbourne, under Simon Stone’s direction, I see magic. In the cavernous set with three walls and the floor covered in grey carpet, the revolves start to turn and the actors circle each other. Lights come in harsh and low, stretching long, eerie shadows up the walls. Everything feels a little off-kilter. The theatre has moved to Hungary.

The magic Stone finds in the theatre is bigger than the magic I found on the page. We all know how to make a leap from Australia to Hungary when we read. On stage, though, this shift is mediated through directors and designers. There is so much more room to fail. It’s a delicate dance, but this means the rewards can be so much greater. And now, as Ana’s lounge room shifts slightly into Hungary, we in the audience make that shift, too.

Robyn Nevin and Natasha Herbert. Image by Jeff Busby courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.

August 2013

I have flown to Melbourne for two days and am squeezing in as much theatre as possible. Months after Stories I Want To Tell You In Person was postponed at Belvoir, a healthy Katz stepped on stage to perform her story with an added curse and a new ending. The Melbourne season, so far, is curse-free.

At this Saturday matinee at Malthouse Theatre, I’m overjoyed to hear Katz tell stories of scripts I’ve savoured but never seen. My date and I laugh uproariously when Katz talks about her regular pastime of “day shopping with the elderly”, as we appreciate our day theatreing with the elderly.

Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, Stories is a joyous celebration of Katz’s work and life. Joyous, and somewhat judgmental. Sarks and Katz look over Katz’s actions with a skeptical eye: travelling to Mississippi to spend time with her boyfriend “The Full Jew”, even when he says he will be working the whole time; her terrible attempts at bargaining with the New York city psychics; buying sushi from the Duane Reade pharmacy in Times Square.

Katz laughs lovingly at herself. She laughs lovingly at us, her audience. She laughs lovingly at the audiences of Return to Earth, the subscribers who “bought tickets before they knew they hated it.”

She laughs, shamelessly. But to anticipate shame implies that there is something in these life choices to be ashamed of, and Katz never lets us feel like that. She laughs, celebrating, and we laugh and celebrate in response.

I am smitten.

May 2014

I watch with a heavy heart as the magic of Neighbourhood Watch is crushed under the direction of Julian Meyrick. The shift between Sydney and Hungary isn’t subtle or sudden. It is laborious, as actors and stagehands reposition the little white boxes making up the houses on Mary Street. The magic of the play’s world is suppressed by the factual business required by the attempt to achieve stage magic: moving the houses, searching for set markings on the floor, locking house components together, opening them to reveal banks of stage lights.

Hungary is never just Hungary. It is an approximation, the audience’s imagination curtailed by all there is to consider in the real world. The text is obscured by design; the magic never feels magical.

Eugenia Fragos comes on stage as Ana’s sister. To sound young the actor forces her voice up a few octaves; to look young she walks on her knees.

I could cry. Not the same way I cried in Melbourne.

In Stories, Katz tells us how the real Ana came into her life: standing across the road yelling “You! Come on my gate.”

Katz talks about their friendship, and how she started to bank up the stories the real Ana would tell her about her life in Hungary and in Australia. Katz tells us how she had been looking for a character to write for Robyn Nevin that was – at Nevin’s request – “tough and funny”, and it was in Ana that Katz found these qualities.

Written for one of Australia’s leading actors, it’s not surprising that both Belvoir and the State Theatre Company cast stars in this role and centred their marketing materials on these women: first Nevin, then Miriam Margolyes.

And yet, for me, Neighbourhood Watch was always Catherine’s story. It is Catherine who grows over the course of the play. It is she who needs this tough and funny woman in her life. Catherine is who we start with, and who we finish with: a woman who, in a year bookended by big political markers of hope and a new dawn, finally starts to find her way again.

Having Catherine as the central character is as crucial to the play as its magic. Ana is the person who takes us to Hungary, but she takes us there because she needs to take Catherine there. Ana has no reason to travel there alone; Catherine cannot do it by herself. In Stone’s production the young Catherine needs direction, she has to have Ana teach her to stop being the “baby horse”, always bolting ahead. Catherine is the character we needed to follow, and it is through her realising Ana’s magic we are allowed to realise it, too.

In Meyrick’s production, this balance is all off. The show never stops being about Margolis’ Ana: we are never let in to Catherine’s journey. But more than that, because Meyrick doesn’t show us what Ana brings to Catherine’s journey, we can’t fully see the magic. The arc of the play is flattened and, finally, the conclusion to Ana’s story rings false.

ANA and MILOVA sip their coffees. CATHERINE sits with them. ANA finishes her coffee. She smiles at MILOVA. Smiles at CATHERINE. She collapses. CATHERINE jumps up.

In these final moments of their relationship, after a year of Ana passing on knowledge and strength to Catherine, when Catherine has grown enough in herself that she can pass a piece of knowledge and strength back, Ana dies.

In Melbourne, I watch this scene having really understood – for the first time –Ana as the holder of magic. She has fulfilled her purpose in Catherine’s life, and just as Mary Poppins took her umbrella to the sky, Ana travels on to her next adventure.

I cry. More. Again.

In Adelaide, I watch this scene and feel nothing. Ana isn’t magic. The ending feels forced. Ana dies for no reason other than the fact she is old. There is no dramatic arc that has led us to this.

My stomach is in a knot. I don’t cry.

Lally Katz in Stories I Want To Tell You In Person. Image by Heidrun Lohr.

October 2014

Lally Katz clacks onto stage in Adelaide’s Bakehouse Theatre in her platformed heels. She glances at the empty front row – and the full seats behind it – and laughs at us, an audience too scared to sit at the front.

Stories I Want To Tell You In Person opens with Katz talking about Neighbourhood Watch – the first Neighbourhood Watch, she clarifies, not the new Neighbourhood Watch that you probably saw. The last time I heard these words, in Melbourne, I had only read the script. Now, I’ve seen it twice.

Having spent months thinking about magic and Neighbourhood Watch, I am so attuned to the magic in Stories. There is the disembodied consciousness that talks with Katz from the rafters; the curses; the Apocalypse Bear who joins Katz in a goodbye dance; the appearance of the Hope Dolphin – long awaited, after being written out of the early draft of The Hope Dolphin Rises Again, or as we now know it, Neighbourhood Watch.

Magic in Katz’s world is everywhere, even in what we are told is a true story.

May 2014

I wonder if part of the reason I’m so disappointed is that I’ve been thinking too much of Ana being a real person. As a fan of Katz and her work, it’s hard to watch Neighbourhood Watch without being aware of those strands of biography – or even autobiography, given Ana and Katz’s relationship.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask Meyrick to see what I saw in Neighbourhood Watch.

I’m not asking – I was never asking – for him to put my Neighbourhood Watch on stage. I’m certainly not asking for a rehash of Stone’s production.

I want new directors to show me new things in scripts. To find something that I – and the directors who came before them – didn’t find. I want scripts to be breathing and malleable, with different themes and thoughts waiting to be uncovered and brought to the surface.

Not only did Meyrick fail to bring anything new to light, he smothered all I had previously found in Neighbourhood Watch.

As a critic, this is disappointing. As a fan, it is devastating.

October 2014

Watching Stories, I start to let some of these feelings go. When I wonder about the lies and the omissions that must exist here, the notion of truth in stories on stage begins to feel silly. The idea that Meyrick has to be faithful to these characters begins to feel silly.

Even if I’m still disappointed.

Even if, secretly, I celebrate an Adelaide audience getting to see the Katz I love, after having been so disappointed in the Katz they were shown in May.

September 2013

Return to Earth is getting a new production by Arthur Productions in Sydney. I, again, am in Adelaide, waiting to read the reviews.

The reviews aren’t as harsh as in Melbourne but it still feels like no one in the theatre is seeing the play I read. Is the trouble, as Ben Neutze writes for Time Out, that:

For the play to work most effectively, the staging should have one foot planted firmly in naturalism – or else the surrealism and the emotional stakes lose most of their impact. [Under Paige Rattray’s direction] there’s just no sense of there being a ‘normal world’ in this production. It seems that all of the characters onstage have some sense that they’re in a surreal situation, which makes it difficult to engage with them, even when the performances are strong.

Or is the trouble that Return to Earth is an unworkable: a piece that will always work better on the page than it can on the stage? I consider this to be my favourite Katz play. Should it be? Can a play be my favourite based only on what I’ve read?

I read the script again, and think about all of those subscribers in Melbourne who bought their tickets before they knew they hated it. I wonder if they’ll go see another Katz play, and what they think of her now.

May 2014

If the first time I had come across Katz had been this State Theatre Company production, would I be a fan? Would I have given her – or that script – another chance? If I hadn’t read the script, if I hadn’t seen another production, how drastically would my reading of the play have been altered?

November 2014

I’m sitting at my desk in Adelaide. Katz’s scripts are open at my favourite passages; I flip back and forth through my notebook of thoughts scrawled in cafés and on trains; I thumb through the programs I’ve collected over the past year of seeing Katz’s plays. I write a long essay about how much I love Katz, pulling together scraps of writing I’ve had saved on my computer for months.

As I finish this essay, the Perth Festival announces their 2015 program, which will include Katz’s new work: an opera for children called The Rabbits.

I hope I’ll be able to see it there, but I know that if I can’t, I’ll be in Adelaide, waiting for the reviews.

Jane Howard is a freelance culture writer based between Adelaide and Melbourne, primarily writing about the performing arts.