With an ingenious band of fabulous independent theatre makers conjuring up a veritable smorgasbord of fantastic and intriguing independent theatre, Melbourne Fringe is the place to be this October.
One of those intriguing works is the gripping premiere season of Ignis – a show that deals with love, class, sex, betrayal and the apocalyptic realities of a landscape on fire. The work is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 controversial play, La Ronde. A work familiar to Ignis director Bronwen Coleman.
“I actually knew the play (Ignis is based on) because I’d acted in an adaptation of the same text – Schnitzler’s La Ronde or Reigen – back in New York at the turn of the century,” she says. “I approached playwright Daniel Nellor, an old friend, and asked if he’d be interested in writing a contemporary adaptation, set in Australia.”
Nellor has worked in politics, academia, human rights and the welfare sector. He has a PhD in Philosophy and is also a sought-after speech writer in the world of politics
The play deals with sex and intimacy across class and gender boundaries. Coleman saw a tradie, a politician, a sex worker…”fascinating to think of the way these Australian figures might sit in Schnitzler’s circular structure, and to explore the way we deal (or don’t deal) with sex as a culture,” she says.
Running for nine nights only, Ignis will feature 10 actors across five rooms at the historical Toorak Manor in Toorak. Interesting and atmospheric in its own right, the Manor was built in the 1880s and isn’t a regular hotel but a converted mansion built for Dr Frank Nyulasy, a prominent physician and surgeon of the time.
Coleman was interested in creating a kind of intimacy at the Manor; both between the characters, and between the characters and the audience. “I want the play to be a kind of living museum, the character’s scenes playing out in a circular fashion as the audience wind their way through the museum, ” she says. “The fact that the building dates back to the 19th century is delightful for us, as does the original text.
I want the audience to feel whisked into an alternate reality. The house itself has a vibe – it has ghosts – it functions as another character in the play. My rehearsal style is around creating lived in, truthful performances that feel like life. This venue is a gorgeous, fun way to go even further into that. The different spaces used for different scenes offer us a visceral way to separate the two worlds each character is inhabiting.
We have a character, a guide (played by Caitlin Langridge), who is outside the action of the play, but who guides the audience around the house. She’s our link to the 19th Century and Schnitzler, one of his many mistresses we imagine, and the house as her backdrop is wonderfully ghostly.”
Coleman wants the audience to be gripped, provoked, and moved. She wants people to see themselves in the characters, to reflect on their own choices and complexities around intimacy. “I’m really hoping also that people think about the bushfires and by extension climate change, and the way we seem to be able as a society to go on with business as usual, as the world burns,” she says.
Coleman was up in Southern NSW during the bushfire of 2019/20. “At one point our town was surrounded by fire and we couldn’t leave. The roads were closed. Then suddenly a road to the north opened and we were ordered to evacuate. At one point, in a horrible traffic jam, I saw a guy standing by the side of road, barefoot, with a smudge of ash on his face. A bit further on, cows, in a tiny patch of unburned grass in an otherwise burnt paddock, huddled together. We got back to Melbourne and suddenly there was all these conflicting narratives about the fires and what caused them. It really worried me. Here was this massive, unprecedented wave of destruction and yet, for many, it had been exaggerated and life was business as usual. Even while we could all smell the smoke!”
The work had its first reading in 2020 and was further developed during a residency at Bunjil Place in early 2021. Playwright Daniel Nellor spent quite a bit of time with the original text. His adaptation deals with Australian characters and class structures, but he was also interested in the structure of the original (10 interlocking scenes, 2 characters each), and in the story of Schnitzler himself. Schnitzler was obsessed with sex, says Coleman, and kept journals where he literally recorded every orgasm. La Ronde (originally Reigen) was banned when first publicly published for indecency and Schnitzler was branded as a pornographer – though apparently Freud was a big fan.
Anthropocene Play Company (founded by Pia O’Meadhra, Clare Larman and Coleman) is a Method company wherein the actors research their characters as a way to understand and to begin to identify with them. For example, Sophie Muckart, who plays the nurse, visited a hospital to observe the nurses’ behaviour, as well as reading online nursing journals and the like. Pia O’Meadhra, who plays an ambitious policy advisor, is meeting with a real one, to see how they dress, behave, and tick.
Coleman is an award winning and proudly neurodivergent director, actor and teacher based in Melbourne. Having lived in New York for more than a decade, she is a Life Member of the Actors Studio, and has appeared in theatre, television and films internationally, including opposite Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the Academy Award winning film Capote. She is known for her “character-centered” approach, drawing on techniques developed at the Actors Studio. She is a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television (BFTV) and the Actors Studio Drama School New York (MFA).
Unfolding live in the unique and intimate setting at Toorak Manor, the Anthropocene Play Company brings Melbourne audiences a truly immersive experience. Says Coleman, “There is not another show like this in the Fringe, I can guarantee that. And hey, I’m an award-winning director. I’ll make sure it’s good.”
October 10 – 23