Blood on the Cat's Neck at KXT PopUpstairs
"Phoebe Zeitgeist has been sent to the earth from a distant star to write an eyewitness account of human democracy. But Phoebe Zeitgeist has a difficulty: although she has learned the words, she doesn’t understand human language."
Seen through the eyes of the alien Phoebe Zeitgeist, Rainer Werner Fassbinder weaves a tapestry of petty nastiness, jealousy, insecurity, bullying and domination as an ever-shifting cast of characters move closer towards Phoebe’s orbit and their own bloody fate. Hilarious and horrifying, Blood On The Cat’s Neck is a vibrant reminder of why the German rebel remains one of the most unique and revolutionary voices in theatre history. As the first performance in KXT's exciting new PopUpstairs program, Kings Cross Hotel's unique Bordello room will be transformed into an immersive theatrical experience that is sure to be an unforgettable night out.
Sasha spoke with Director Saro Lusty-Cavallari this new immersive iteration, and how they've gone about creating what was once labelled an 'unperformable' show. Read the full interview below:
This is the Australian premiere of Blood on the Cat’s Neck. The show was first performed in Germany in 1971 - how did you come into contact with the text and what made you want to bring it to audiences today?
I came to the play through Fassbinder as a filmmaker. He’s been one of my favourite directors of the screen for a long time and though people had adapted his films or staged the plays that he later turned into films I was curious to see what his work solely for the theatre was like.
The man wrote some extraordinary plays; like a lot of Germans at the time he was really trying to experiment with form and push the limits of theatre – his own company was called the Anti-Theatre for a reason – but unlike most of his contemporaries he had a love of everyday observations and melodrama which makes his work subtler, more accessible and I think age a bit better.
The first thing that popped out at me with Blood On The Cat’s Neck was that the style was almost prophetic. Fassbinder was clearly interested in what the cinematic montage would look like in play-form and in doing so he anticipated a lot of the style that would make its way into mainstream British writing. You can kind of see an early form of Sarah Kane or Martin Crimp but I think the most obvious similarity is Caryl Churchill’s Love & Information which pretty much everyone thinks of when they first read the play. That was considered groundbreaking in 2012 and Fassbinder’s doing so much of the same stuff 40 years earlier but with a distinctly misanthropic spin: we’ve taken to calling it ‘Hate and Information’.
But apart from the stylistic concern I found its politics frighteningly relevant. Pretty much every German theatremaker in the 70s was grappling with how their parents’ generation could be responsible for Nazism and all that went with it. At first the play seems quite apolitical; it’s just a series of slice of life scenes but Fassbinder is always obsessed with finding the kernel of fascism underneath everyday interactions. We’re seeing the return of fascism throughout the world and I think plays from a time when it was not just a distant memory or a theoretical idea are more relevant than ever now.
The promotional material promises an immersive theatrical experience in the Bordello Room. Could you give us any hints as to what the audience can expect and how you go about creating this space?
When we pitched the play we were just intending to put it on in the distinctive KXT traverse but pretty much immediately after we entered the Bordello we realised that this was the world of the play. The Bordello has so much character of its own that we’re not doing any set design, we’re just using the perverse decoration of that space. But what we also realised was that every corner of the space needed to be used which is where the immersive element came in.
I’m not one for full on interactive theatre; I didn’t want to make an escape room or even a Sleep No More homage but what we saw was the potential to let the entire space be open for our performers and audience. It’s a play about an alien wandering through the world and seeing these little pieces of humanity and so we thought a space where the audience would join in on that sense of active investigation would be the most productive. The show is made up of 55 scenes and 10 actors so we’re using that freedom of space to just let the play spill out across the different nooks and crannies of the room: the audience are encouraged to just take it all in from whatever vantage point they like.
How do you approach the humour in an absurdist text that has also been translated? Does the writer or translation make it any easier for you?
That’s a good question. Translation is always a bit of a thorny issue for me because as soon as you’re changing the text – which translation is doing – I feel like you may as well let the creative team just have at it as they see fit. A text in translation can never have full fidelity to the original so faithfulness becomes less important than if you were doing a text in English and that’s definitely how I’d approach a public domain text like Chekhov for example.
But amazingly we’ve had no problems with this one. Denis Calandra has created a translation that feels very natural and even quite contemporary. You’ll always find the odd dated reference or weird turn of phrase but those have been few and far between. So if Denis is reading this I hope he knows that his translation sounds perfectly natural peformed by a bunch of Australians in 2019.
And this is really important because the absurdity and the humour don’t come from the scenes themselves. The writing is super naturalistic, almost banal, and then the stuff happening around it like the alien Phoebe is the weird part. But it’s been very fun to rehearse because you’re doing these very simple realist scene studies and then you’re throwing a comic alien into the mix. The strangeness of the play isn’t because the whole thing is bizarre; I think what’s weirdest is that there are very recognisable elements that then get juxtaposed with complete craziness. I think it ends up being more uncanny than an outright surrealist play ever could.
You’ve said in an interview with Broadwayworld that KXT originally thought the play was “unperformable”, but that their PopUpstairs program has given you the chance to really push expectations and experiment. It’s exciting to see the Sydney independent arts scene embrace the new. What is inspiring and driving you personally in the arts? What are you hoping to see more of?
The first show we ever put on as Montague Basement was at TAP Gallery which was such a crucial space for emerging artists but it closed the following year. Around that same time you had Redline taking over the Fitz, Bakehouse taking over KXT and the Old 505 moving to its new theatre in Newtown. So suddenly Sydney’s independent scene is of a higher production standard, spending more money and attracting bigger audience.
So obviously this was a great thing and it’s a scene I’m incredibly proud to be a part of but even the folks at Bakehouse are recognising that we’re at risk of stripping the independent scene of risk. At the moment we’re seeing a lot of quite expensive productions of big international plays dominating the independent stages – who wouldn’t want good plays performed at a high standard? – but we’re at risk of squeezing out the provocative theatre that the indie scene should be all about. Where’s the devised work, the experimental staging and non-traditional writing going to go? That’s what TAP provided and I think PopUpstairs could very well take that place.
What’s so wonderful about it is that the team at KXT have managed to have their cake and eat it too; it’s clear that the work being put up on their ‘mainstage’ was working for both artists and audience so they wanted to keep that while also recognising what may have not been getting a chance. Now we have a riskier place to play in but it’s attached to a recognisable spot within the indie scene – it’s really the best of both worlds. It’s almost like the independent version of the heyday of Company B/B Sharp at Belvoir.
And lastly - sell us the show in a dream sentence.
Nine people reveal their selfishness and cruelty to each other but one impressionable alien is watching… and learning.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Adena Jacob’s Oedipus Rex at Belvoir downstairs in 2014. It was naked Peter Carrol mumbling for an hour and it changed my life.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Melbourne. Don’t have time for a holiday right now and I got shit to take care of over there.
Dream show to direct?
To be honest my dream show was always Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, which I was lucky enough to do in 2017… so uh let’s say Sarah Kane’s Blasted… actually let’s just say I would like to direct every play by Sarah Kane before I die. There’s only five of them.
Plays or musicals?
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
I wish I had an interesting answer but it’s the usual; depending on where I’m at I’ll be watching movies or playing games or reading a book… okay I haven’t been reading as many books lately.
What’s next for you after this show?
I’m going to Melbourne to work on a new piece of writing. I can’t say too much but I’m working with Kim Ho who won the Patrick White Playwriting Award last year and let me just say… it’s gonna be one hell of a show
Blood on the Cat's Neck opens at KXT as part of the PopUpstairs program on May 23, 2019. You can get your tickets here.