Even its creator thinks this play might end up being a car crash

By John Bailey

William Henderson says Cavalcade is “quite a busy little thing”.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

William Henderson doesn’t mind admitting that his upcoming production might end up being “a total car crash”. Cavalcade is a description-defying blend of theatrical modes that takes in dance, speech and music with more than a hint of slapstick.

“There’s a circus mode going on, there are visual images that occur, there are dance motifs, and there’s quite a lot of music by Erik Satie, the eccentric 19th century French composer,” Henderson offers. “So I’m trying to spread the load. I got tired of language being the only propulsion and I’m interested to see how you can create a mix.”

Henderson knows words. For the first decade of this century he co-directed Eleventh Hour Theatre, an acclaimed company that got elbow-deep in classic texts to make sense of them in the present. With a dedicated venue in Fitzroy, each production was respectful of its source without being beholden to it, and the result was a string of works that attracted critical praise and a loyal audience hungry for more.

Cavalcade will still be performed in the old Eleventh Hour space, but under the aegis of his new company Wit’s End. It’s a marked departure from his previous M.O. He’s in the director’s chair, for one thing. He’s also written the thing from scratch.

There are “lots of playwrights hiding in it, not least Beckett and Wilde and Brecht and others,” he says. “It’s dripping with associations and echoes and support structures.” And as anyone familiar with his work will know, it’s grounded in erudite knowledge of theatrical and literary history, which stretches all the way back to Henderson’s beginnings in the Greek Theatre Project, Pram Factory and La Mama scenes of the 1970s.

Eleventh Hour productions of, from left, King John, Because of the Increasing Disorder, and Endgame. Credit:

It’s not quite accurate to say that Henderson is new to writing. He penned several plays early in his theatrical career (“in about 1789” he jokes) and much of his work with Eleventh Hour was at least playwright-adjacent – for the company’s powerful adaptation of Shakespeare’s rarely performed King John, for instance, he had to cut about one-fifth of the text and then find ways to reassemble the remainder coherently.

With Cavalcade, Henderson spent his time in lockdown penning something original. Theatre is a live art, and Henderson knows that Melbourne’s lockdown period “was appalling for any number of other people, theatre people in particular”. But writing is a solitary profession, and like many he found the silver lining of an extended period in which distractions were limited.

“Being probably the least disciplined person in the southern hemisphere, it allowed a flow, because there were so many things one couldn’t do. You just had to get on with it.”

He got on with it, and the result was a 160-page text that has subsequently been massacred on the rehearsal room floor and rewritten any number of times. While there’s a story that runs throughout the work, Henderson wanted to take a much broader view, incorporating a huge variety of theatrical modes through which to explore his themes.

William Henderson (right) with Cavalcade cast member John Jacobs. Credit:Chris Hopkins

There are seven episodes to Cavalcade, and there’s something musical about the way Henderson has employed different forms of theatre in each to create a kind of harmonic effect – just as playing three notes creates a particular chord, so does blending dance, speech and music have its own resonance. Switching out the choreography for a more sculptural element in the next scene allows for the same narrative to continue but with new inflections.

Samuel Beckett put a wrecking ball through the well-made play more than half a century ago, but the majority of Australian theatre still cleaves to a British-American model, says Henderson.

“In a lot of cases it’s money – theatre never has enough money – but it’s also training. Like every other theatre person in Melbourne, I taught briefly at the VCA, and it surprised me that there was no linkage whatsoever between the drama school, the music school, the dance school and the art school. It’s inconceivable in Europe that that would be the case. We have a major training institution which sees no connection between those art forms, which is staggering.”

Cavalcade brings together those different forms to create an experience that eschews the realist mode of performance. Think of the stream of consciousness narratives of Joyce and Woolf, but blown out into the three dimensions of theatre.

“It’s got a narrative but the engagement I’m hoping for is that the manner in which this story’s told produces images and understandings that are more important than the actual narrative itself. There’s the story of a life or something going on in the background and you can follow that, but my hope is that more is revealed by doing it this way than would be by a narrative delivered in ordinary terms.”

As the critic Walter Pater wrote, all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, and the abstractions of Cavalcade are all held together by the playful short works of Erik Satie. “He was an extremely funny man,” says Henderson. “He wrote a series of instructions for piano players which are totally nuts. Like ‘play with your head between your knees’ or ‘play it like a nightingale with a toothache’ or ‘play it even more whitely’. One of the tasks of the pianist in this piece is to follow those instructions, so I’ve given him a big headache and we may still be friends at the end, I don’t know.”

Though it might leave much of its interpretation open to audiences, Cavalcade certainly doesn’t sound like a minimalist work. It’s filled with surprise, from performers not listed in the press release to a variety of unusual objects Henderson has “constructed or stolen or motorised … I’ve got several players and a lot of things that come on and off. The stage area empties and fills endlessly with objects and people. It’s quite a busy little thing.

“It could be a total car crash, who knows? We’ll find out shortly. But I thought there’s so much we can use in the theatre, and I fear sometimes we don’t use enough of it.”

Cavalcade is at The Eleventh Hour Theatre, 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy, May 9-21.

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

Most Viewed in Culture

Source: Read Full Article