A play of two characters

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Answers from Anya Tretyakova

Water Falling Down is a play of two characters, “Dad” and “Son”, who we observe on their final journey together.  This is a physical and emotional journey through their joint and individual past, present and tenuous future.  The ways in which this journey is presented and communicated to the audience necessitates some examination in order to gauge whether the contact was effective and ultimately successful.

Peter Brooke’s reference to the stage as first and foremost, an ‘empty space’ discernable from the rest of its environment via visual cues, is often cited in academic literature and is a helpful foundation from which to analyse Water Falling Down; specifically through the semiotic interpretation of the proxemic relationships in the play (Elam 50).  Notably, this play utilises a minimalist set design; arguably this bare use of space lacking in ornament and property serves to accent the plight of the two characters and greatly highlights the wanting nature of their relationship and shared experience.

It seems prudent to examine the proxemic elements of the production by employing Edward T. Hall’s categories of ‘fixed feature’, ‘semi-fixed feature’ and ‘informal’ syntactic boundary definitions (Elam 56).  Beginning with the first, the ‘fixed feature’ interpretation of the Cremorne Theatre at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Southbank.  The Cremorne is an intimate theatre space, simply constructed with a clearly demarcated floor and balcony-seating area for just over 300 guests in total (QPAC Website); the stage is raised and gives the theatre a rather box-like appearance.  Overall, the Cremorne’s unpretentious, small-scale interior enhances the intimacy of the play, allowing audiences a fly-on-the-wall examination of the interaction between ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’.  However, despite the closeness of the space it remains sociofugal, rendering the experience of watching Water Falling Down both ‘private’ and ‘personal’ (Elam 58).  Due to the confidential nature of the text – essentially, we the audience, are observing the characters’ cruelest and most affectionate communications between one another – the intimate but sociofugal venue considerably enhances both the tense and loving moments between ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’.

Moving on, the ‘semi-fixed features’ of the set such as the revolving portion of the stage and the screens on which the background graphics of the play are projected are cleverly manipulated to accent features of the text, but never overwhelm them.  At the opening of the play, we see what appears to be large, Japanese-style, screen sliding doors along the ‘up stage’ area, onto which a video of a couple dancing is projected; as the play unfolds, still and sometimes video images are projected onto these screens to serve as the background scenery of the action on stage.  Considering the limited stage space at the Cremorne, this set design is both pragmatic and visually intriguing.  Although reminiscent of the two-dimensional, static backgrounds of old Hollywood films and somewhat echoing the ‘picture frame’ style sets of earlier theatre (Elam 61), the effect in Water Falling Down is surprisingly refreshing.  The substantial size (and specifically height) of the screens amplify the stage size and add the much needed elements of grandeur you would associate with the trip ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’ take around Europe.  The screens exaggerate the virtual space of the scenes, particularly during the drive around Paris and the crossing of the bridge in Prague, adding visual splendor to what would be an otherwise barren stage in Water Falling Down.

Water Falling Down play - picture

Water Falling Down play – “bonding” of ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’.

The Cremorne stage features a circular, rotating, partition that is heavily utilised in the play; located approximately ‘centre stage’, the rotating portion of the floor allows ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’ to physically walk on stage during the aforementioned bridge-crossing scene, without breaking the illusion by having the actors walk in circles or pretend to walk on the spot.  Although seemingly trivial, this aspect of the scene in Prague allows the audience to focus on how ‘Dad’ struggles and falls walking, only to get back up again, his ‘Son’ finally helping him every step of the way.  The scene immediately preceding this one, again uses the rotating stage to ‘carry’ a bathtub in which ‘Dad’ is sitting whilst ‘Son’ tenderly washes his hair, adding a dream-like aspect to the characters’ nostalgic reversal of roles.  Apart from these two examples, the rotating stage is frequently used in scene changes to seamlessly transport one or two Roman couch style sofa beds to various areas of the stage; these serve as beds, benches, airplane seats and car seats at different points in the play, often being the only properties on stage.  This near-constant rotation beautifully reflects the cyclical tropes within the text, such as the circular nature of birth, life and death; the subsequent oscillation of roles between child and parent as caregiver; the physical journey the characters take around Europe; and of course, the emotional journey ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’ travel together, vacillating between hate and love, resentment and absolution.  These ‘semi-fixed features’ heighten the emotion of the story and reinforce its morals; although decidedly minimalist, the result is crucial to the play and characters’ whole development.

Finally, the ‘informal’ proxemic aspects of Water Falling Down may be separated into actor-actor, spectator-spectator and actor-spectator relationships for closer inspection (Elam 56).  As already mentioned, the spectator-spectator relationships, although proximate in space and time i.e. spectators are sitting close to one another, watching the same play at the same venue, remain proxemically distanced and sociofugal.  The actor-spectator relationship on the other hand, is far more varying.  During particularly conflictual points in the play, ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’ are positioned off-centre to the audience and somewhat ‘up stage’, rather than ‘down stage’ nearer the spectators.  Our first view of the ‘Son’ is such an instance, he appears ‘right stage’ in the very first scene when it is established that he and his father have an uneasy relationship, mirrored by his own son not wanting to speak with him.  Both ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’ appear ‘left stage’ and ‘right stage’ during the emotive Louvre cafeteria scene where their disturbing argument culminates in ‘Dad’ begging to be helped up by a reluctant ‘Son’.  The ‘right stage’ position is taken up again during the tense scene on the bench at Verdun, overlooking the WWI battlefields.  This skewed position of the actor-spectator relationship and distance, highlight the skewed relationship between ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’ in the play in times of peaking dramatic tension, whilst also emphasising the vastness of the virtual space (and actual stage space) during the iconic European scenes.  These scenes may be juxtaposed with more affectionate displays between ‘Son’ and ‘Dad’ such as the aforementioned bath and bridge crossing scenes, where their love and genuine care for one another is displayed ‘down centre’ stage in close proximity to the audience.

The proxemic actor-actor relationship between ‘Dad’ and ‘Son’ unsurprisingly changes most often during the play.  Predictably, the characters are close to one another during points in the text where they are ‘bonding’, enjoying pleasant conversation with each other and sharing jokes.  However, during scenes of conflict, ‘Son’ often stands up and walks away from ‘Dad’ and around the stage; even if both stay sitting during tense scenes, the ‘Dad’ will often look away from the ‘Son’ and stare into space or at the ground.  This behaviour appears melodramatic at times and overdone for the intimate venue, which allows audiences to see small changes in the actors’ expressions and hear even quiet dialogue.  Due to this overemphasis on blocking, the scenes sometimes seem disingenuous and ‘forced’, almost unnatural.  The change in physical proximity between the two characters is sometimes superfluously constant and exaggerated, marring what appears to be an otherwise sincere and personal story.

Water Falling Down is at heart a tempestuous account of a father and son’s utmost effort to repair and maintain a failing relationship in the wake of mutual loss.  The proxemic elements of the venue, stage design and actors mostly enhance the raw emotionality of the story, whilst taking the audience on their own visual journey around Europe.  The cyclical tropes act as warning to the spectator, exposing the folly of getting caught up in the past and failing to focus on the future.  Most of all however, the play invites the audience to consider the people in their lives to whom they may not have said “I love you” enough and encourages them to rectify this before it is too late.  A message that never fails to resonate with audiences.

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Written by Anya Tretyakova

Sometime thespian, wannabe film director. Lover of literature for life.