!Metro Arts Brisbane’s latest offering in its 2011 Independents program is Empire Burning, a most intriguing and, it has to be said, much-anticipated new work from writer, actor and director Eugene Gilfedder. Mr Gilfedder is a fine actor held deservedly in high esteem in the industry; the range of his work during the past 12 months alone is impressive. For this premiere season of his own play he has gathered a top-notch cast which includes himself as Seneca, the Roman statesman, philosopher and playwright.
Empire Burning is a mighty big work which runs at around 75 minutes’ playing time. It encompasses the rise to power of the boy-Emperor Nero, his relationship with his tutor Seneca and mother Agrippina, and nasty goings-on in the upper echelons of Rome. It’s all set against the mysterious fires that engulfed the city in AD64. Empire Burning suggests these are the work of the people ‘who come through the flames’ – what we now called terrorists. Apparently the religious extremists of the time – the Christians – were blamed for the fires back then. Not much changes it would seem.
I came away from this first production of the play with mixed feelings. I was engaged by the breadth of the subject matter and with the way the writer has taken the stuff of ancient Rome and found such a clever and frighteningly snug fit with contemporary world politics. I love the singularity of the voice in Gilfedder’s text – his poetic and intelligent writing. He has written some great roles for actors who, in this production, are very well cast and take to the material with relish. However, there is a problem in the density and scope of the play’s subject matter which feels as though it’s been compressed and forced into an all-too-short playing time. This is a triple-decker work if ever there was one, and the play’s contents burst the seams of the production.
In Empire Burning there seem to be three separate (albeit related) story lines all jockeying for focus and, like the play’s themes, they’re all substantial. There’s the psychological drama of the rise of Nero; the thriller in the fear and confusion caused by the people ‘who come through the flames,’ and the political drama of the corruption and chicanery of the imperial power lords. In particular, it’s this plot inhabited by the nest of vipers that comprises the Senate and their lackeys (Steven Tandy,Michael Futcher, Damien Cassidy and Sasha Janowicz) that seems intrusive at times with those all-too-familiar by now grist to the mill scenes of plot and counter-plot in political corridors of power. Of course these meaty scenes have their place, but Empire Burning is complex, epic drama and the text needs some refocussing on the pivotal story as well as expansion across the board to strengthen and give integrity to the epic nature of the work. In fact, I think there is either a full-length play or a couple of 75 minute works awaiting release from this rich source material.
… the text needs some refocussing on the pivotal story as well as expansion across the board to strengthen and give integrity to the epic nature of the work.
Whilst the identity of the people of the flames and how the very corruptible men of the empire deal with them is undoubtedly fascinating – if hardly surprising given contemporary society’s ongoing engagement with what political-speak is now calling the ‘narrative of terrorism’ – it is, ultimately, the story of the boy Nero (Finn Gilfedder-Cooney) which is the linchpin; it begins and ends the play. After all, it’s the human element in plays – the ebb and flow of human relationships – that grabs and hangs on, and this one is a beaut. Unfortunately, it is this thread which is the least compelling.
We are introduced to Nero being tutored by Seneca to step down on accession from his imperial birthright. He appears as a cool, intelligent young man undoubtedly chafing under the fussing of Seneca and the thumb of his dominating mother Agrippina (Niki-J Price). However, Nero is more than capable of giving as good as he gets – we see him in debate with both – so it comes as a huge surprise (and it has to be a flaw in the writing) when we are told by Agrippina that her son is mad. Up to this point – and quite late in the play – there has been no apparent instability in the boy and no sense of his unravelling as the city and civil society fall apart around him. This lack of revelation through action weakens the characterisation and the outcomes of Nero’s transformation. It’s a terrific role for a young actor, by the way. As Nero, Mr Gilfedder-Cooney’s accomplished debut performance bodes well for him. His scenes with his father Eugene and with Ms Price show a confidence which belies his stage experience.
Things go really pear-shaped when Nero finds Seneca’s eye-gougingly terrifying dramatic writings – inspired by the hours his tutor has spent interrogating the mute, chained terrorist in the dungeons (Dan Crestani). He finds in them the ‘script’ for his real-life performance and an outlet for his latent madness. Nero takes on the role of tyrant, swaps his suit for some far more outrageous gear, and the potential statesman and stoic becomes instead the psychotic Nero of nightmares. His mother and the senators are picked off one by one and Seneca himself is left confused and stumbling in the smoke and fires that have ravaged Rome. Seneca the philosopher is searching for some meaning in the violence and horror which seems to be beyond reason – from ‘another world. Of course, there is no meaning and no reason. It’s an awful nihilistic – and the only possible – ending to this bleak tale.
As it stands, this is is a wonderful, gutsy piece of theatre and, in particular, it’s a play you have to listen to. Empire Burning is written in blank verse and in heightened language. It is clever and witty and sophisticated and, I imagine, quite marvellous to play. However, I was baffled at the apparent decision by the director to flatten out all the spring and rhythm of the blank verse in favour of a more choppy, naturalistic prose style in performance. Why bother writing verse if its cadence is lost in speaking? At the performance I saw, some of the company were less comfortable than others in handling the text, and there were occasional fluffs and hints of nervousness here and there. However, this production is in the safe hands of very experienced actors, and will undoubtedly end stronger than it started.
Empire Burning‘s production values work well in such an actor-centric play. The simple set comprising columns interspersed with screens looks elegant and completely appropriate for its setting amongst the Roman upper classes. Geoff Squires‘ lighting and Freddy Komp‘s visual design and projections provide the mood and a colourful and vibrant dynamic to what is an otherwise monochromatic palette of set and contemporary costumes. Less might have been more in the sound design by John Rodgers and Ken Eadie which, at times, distracted rather than enhanced mood and action – the sound-track of voices and the dialogue is often quite rich enough. Given the ‘player’ nature of the young emperor, I would have loved to hear Mr Gilfedder-Cooney open up on the electric guitar slung, temptingly at his side; he only plucks at in a very desultory way towards the end of the play.
Empire Burning is challenging and rewarding for artists and audiences, demanding attention to the close-woven texture of its ideas and poetry.
I hope Empire Burning will progress to subsquent productions; this big, rich play deserves it. I certainly hope Eugene Gilfedder will continue writing. The genius of the work that is emerging from !Metro Arts through its commitment to their Independents program is that plays like Empire Burning are able to get on their feet before an audience, be tested in the crucible of production and go on to further development. Remember The Kursk and boy girl wall? Bravo.
Footnote: In considering this production I did wonder whether it is ever a good idea for playwrights to direct their own work. It must be a challenge to separate out the writer’s from the director’s viewpoints – getting the necessary objectivity to wrangle the material from page to stage can be no mean feat.
Written and Directed by Eugene Gilfedder
SEASON: Friday 13 to Saturday 28 May
WHEN: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm
BACKCHAT: Wednesday 18 May, Artist Q&A after performance
WHERE: Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre
TICKETS: Adults $20 Concessions $16
PERFORMERS: Damien Cassidy, Dan Crestani, Michael Futcher, Eugene Gilfedder, Finn Gilfedder-Cooney, Sasha Janowicz, Niki-J Price and Steven Tandy
SOUND DESIGN BY John Rodgers and Ken Eadie
LIGHTING DESIGN BY Geoff Squires
VISUALS/PROJECTION DESIGN BY Freddy Komp
Groups 10+ $12 Cheap Tuesdays $12 door sales only
Preview $12 (Tuesday 10 May)
Further information: http://www.metroarts.com.au
- The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero, and His City by Stephen Dando-Collins (collectedmiscellany.com)