Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEON season, now in its third year, has once again provided Melbourne audiences with the work of some of the best independent artists this town has to offer. One artist involved in this season is the award-winning director Gary Abrahams of Dirty Pretty Theatre. Inspired by the Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf and the writings of American philosopher and psychoanalyst James Hillman, Abrahams has created The Lonely Wolf (or an incomplete guide for the unadvanced soul), which promises to be an irreverent dance-theatre production that chews up Hesse’s surrealist story and spits out an anarchic work about madness and love.
In Abraham’s new work, Harry Heller has two natures – a human and a wolfish one – and each exists solely to harm the other. The wolf is hungry and insatiable and won’t be tamed and the man cannot win until he meets the enigmatic Hermine who tells him to lighten the hell up. “I read Steppenwolf when I was very young – about 19 – and it stayed with me for many, many years as a novel and work I returned to as a reader quite often. Over the years, I’d always imagined it as a piece of theatre in some way or form. I’m always interested in works that explore the human experience and what it is to be human.” When speaking to Abrahams, he points out that this show is in part an adaptation of Steppenwolf but, in many ways, it is also a response to the novel, while Hillman’s work has bought the show to a level where it deals with heavy topics including the self, identity, the psyche, the ego, the super ego and the soul. However, on a much simpler level, “it is about encounters with art and artists and writers and how they influence us, as well as the pursuit of perfectionism,” explains Abrahams.
Dirty Pretty Theatre came about in 2010 after Abrahams graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with a Masters of Theatre Practice. After presenting his first show at La Mama Theatre, Abrahams has gone on to work with many of the same collaborators, most recently on The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and Thérèse Raquin (both at Theatre Works). With a desire to present evocative narrative theatre based on literary works created with a highly theatrical aesthetic, Abrahams explains how the name came about – “I guess my early work did kind of responded to the fact that I was concerned with beautiful aesthetics in storytelling but the content of the work for me always had to have a darkness and an ugliness – it had to explore some of the more ugly aspects of human behaviour.”
A new aspect to Abrahams’ work is his use of dance throughout the show. “I fell like as a theatre maker and artist, I’ve had my feet in two different worlds at one time. I do love well-structured narrative and text-based drama that is led by story and character, but, on the other hand, I’ve always had a real affinity for more contemporary theatre practices including dance, which I have always loved as a theatrical medium. Having worked across both forms – in my own work which has been very traditional in a sense but also collaborating with people like The Rabble, Adena Jacobs and Chunky Move, I felt it was time for myself as an artist to try and bring these two worlds together. I especially feel that the story lends itself to working within this form – Harry has a really hard time learning how to dance and really wants to learn, so I really felt that there was room for the language of dance within the story.”
With such an experimental piece, Abrahams ponders over how the audience will connect to the show. “I think what I most hope for is that they will find it intriguing and fascinating. I think the work has a secret inside it, which doesn’t reveal too easily, but perhaps there is a sense of a secret inside of it that will keep audiences captivated and watching.” With such heavy topics within the show, Abrahams hopes that the audience can also see the lighter side of the show. “I hope I’ve managed to inject a little bit of humour and lightness into the work – it is a work that on some level does refer to itself, it is sort of self-referential and a work that boldly says it’s a work of theatre and a work of fiction. There’s a direct conversation with the audience in regard to that,” explains Abrahams.
Abrahams feels that different audience members will get different things out of the show. As he explains, “I think one of the things that I really like about it is that dance audiences will get a lot out of it – I’m working with three very talented dancers and I think we’ve created some very interesting choreography. I also think people who know the novel will be fascinated to see our take on it and how we’ve responded to it in theatrical form. Personally, as an audience member, I like works that tackle big spiritual issues. It’s not a mundane work and it’s not a kitchen sink drama.”
The Lonely Wolf (or an incomplete guide for the unadvanced soul) will run from Thursday June 11 to Sunday June 21 at the Southbank Theatre, The Lawler.