Director Kim Carpenter discusses NIDA’s A Dream Play

Final year NIDA students are starring in Caryl Churhill’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1901 play A Dream Play at Kensington’s Parade Theatre this week. Directed by Helpmann Award winning director Kim Carpenter, the play uses surrealist elements to tell the story of Agnes (Emily Davison), a Goddess who falls from the heavens to experience the troubled lives of humans on Earth.

I was fortunate enough to talk to Kim Carpenter regarding NIDA’s production shortly before Monday’s opening performance.

Jonathan Chadwick: How does Caryl Churchill’s version of the play differ from Strindberg’s original?

Kim Carpenter: Her version is written in a different period so it’s a contemporary adaptation. It’s more economical; there’s not as much text as in Strindberg’s original, although the text is very faithful to the characters and the intentions of Strindberg’s original play. We never know what the original is like because we see it through English translations. But Churchill’s version is faithful, yet contemporary in its elegance and economy. At the same time she’s taken out any stage directions really. So if you were to pick up her version without knowing the original Strindberg you could well struggle because there are 11 episodes, and you don’t really know the beginning and end of each; you have to decide that yourself by filling in the gaps with your own interpretation and imagination.

JC: How loyal a production is it and how much room was there for interpretation on your part?

KC: There are gaps in the text on the page that [we had] to interpret and bring to an audience in a seamless production. In a sense, that actually appealed to me from a visual [point of view]. We had a one week workshop earlier in the year, with the nine actors who play 40 characters, and we improvised on a lot of the ideas to find links within the work. I think we’ve successfully achieved that. The first reading with the actors took 53 minutes. This is an 80-minute production, so there you can see the difference.

JC: So there was room for you to fill in the gaps?

KC: Yes, in a good way. There’s a lot of absurdity in the piece. It has a reputation for being predominantly dark, because it is a journey towards finding out the meaning of life. And of course there are no answers. However, we’ve been with a young enthusiastic company of final year NIDA students. We looked for the light in the dark. And there’s a clue in the piece where Agnes says “Light, dark, light, dark.” It’s a bit difficult to give you the context, but basically that’s how the production goes – just when you think ‘Oh, how sad, how depressing’ (although I don’t think it’s at all depressing, it’s turned out to be quite life affirming), it does a quick swerve into something that’s quite absurd and very funny, because life is absurd and very funny at times, even in tragedy.

JC: That was something else I was going to ask – Strindberg was going through some hefty psychological trauma when the play was written. Does NIDA’s production reflect that? Is it disturbing?

KC: I think there are some things in the text that people could be disturbed by, but ultimately I don’t think it’s a disturbing production. I think there’s a lot of tenderness in the piece. When Caryl Churchill read the original Strindberg and was commissioned to do this adaptation, she found that as well. It’s not until we really investigated it that we also felt the tenderness and beauty. When I asked the students of their individual reading experience before the project, I expected a lot of them to say that they didn’t understand it, or found it obscure, or depressing. But the word that was most commonly used was ‘beautiful’.

JC: Did your own experiences of dreams and the subconscious influence the production?

KC: Not really. We talked about it and I felt that if we started to go down the road of individuals’ dreams, we could have ended up in a mess. I felt that with this text (and combined with the fact that everybody had already read Strindberg’s original), we had enough material to go with. It was more important to explore the characters that existed in the piece and their dreams, rather than impose personal dreams that would be tenuous to the storytelling.

JC: How is Emily suited to the role of Agnes?

KC: She’s a natural beauty; tall, with long black hair and a beautiful open face. She’s also a country girl, and maybe that contributes to her demeanor. She has natural feeling in every way, and truthful quality. We also explored looking for the child-like quality, because there’s a lot of reflection on childhood in the piece, so we talked about other heroines, like Alice in Wonderland, who went from another place into a fantasy world. So in Agnes – a Goddess who has come to visit Earth – there’s a huge heightened curiosity, innocence and naivety in her approach to all the people and their struggles on Earth.

JC: A Dream Play has been referred to as a nightmare to produce. Did you cut or change any elements of the script to make it more practical or easy to bring to the stage?

KC: We added in order to make the piece holistic and a seamless theatrical experience for an audience, and also to make it very accessible, moving and entertaining. So I think that was a major mission. We’re in the big theatre at NIDA, which is a fantastic theatre that has everything that opens and shuts. The designer, together with myself, the sound designer and the lighting designer have all been very involved in making a dream world that supports the actors’ performances. One of the challenges has been technically how to actually fuse all the disparate episodes together as one. We open tonight and I’d say we’re 99% there.

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