Rarely have I ever been part of something so beautiful and brutal. Gale Edward’s stunning vision for Monteverdi’s Poppea with Yarra Valley Opera Festival has been developing into a powerful and confronting work over last two weeks. It is no wonder YVOF have given fair warning and rated this production ‘Adults Only.’ Nero, Poppea, Octavia, Ottone, Drusilla and Arnalta are all driven together in a maelstrom of unstoppable passions in a world where morality and reason are in rapid disintegration. Seneca alone stands as a stentorian voice of stoic sobriety.
But the decisions of State are now infused with the sexual mores of an unstable ruler. Nero’s own rise to power was paved with the blood of rivals, all keenly dispatched by his mother Agrippina the Younger. (She was no stranger to the bloody machinations of court, growing up as the youngest sister of Caligula.) At 17 years of age, Nero was enthroned and given almost unlimited power over the known world, save for his mother’s guiding hand. But ultimately, her overarching grip on power could not be tolerated and Nero had her murdered shortly before Monteverdi’s opera takes place.
Nero is frequently described as “mad”, but to 21st century understandings of mental health, such descriptors are vague and simplistic. What causes a person to have such powerful and erratic egotistical needs, not to mention a flagrant disregard for human life? What does murdering your own mother do to a mind? And what vulnerabilities are then exposed that are ripe for manipulation? A child, born to the purple and bathed in blood, could only be thus.
And how could Poppea, a woman who has captured the Emperor’s obsession, not see this as an opportunity? The stakes are high in this affair –the Empress Octavia is powerful and holds sway over the people and the army. The only possible outcomes for Poppea are death by an assassin’s blade, or replacing Octavia as Empress of Rome. All depends on her ability to manipulate Nero’s decisions in her favour.
It will be an extraordinary night at the theatre.
Having said all that, the rehearsal process for Poppea has been quite challenging and thrown up some interesting issues.
Given the nature of the work, I’ve found it incredibly import to come out of character at the end of a day’s rehearsals. Unfortunately, this is a skill that was never really taught in any drama education I received. This is also true for many of my colleagues.
The emotional “hangover” of a character into everyday life can still be upsetting and destabilising, particularly if the subject matter of the work is confronting. Spending several hours a day inhabiting the often extreme emotional worlds of these characters, and searching for the truth of their experiences can be immersive and overwhelming. The actions and experiences of character can have triggering and painful resonances in a performer’s own life.
In this production, Nero’s dark and unstable world has strong parallels with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. At the time, Ledger was reported in the New York Times that this performance was exhausting and had taken a toll on his ability to sleep. Alfredo Kraus was said to have fallen into a deep melancholy surrounding his highly lauded performances of Massenet’s Werther. This is an occupational hazard many performers face.
Through this very intense process, I have taken the time to stay grounded and centred in myself after each rehearsal day. This has taken the form of meditation, jogging and significant debriefs with colleagues and friends. The blurring of reality between art and life is a hazard, but can be avoided.
As a male performer playing a sexually voracious and aggressive character, I’ve also sought to regularly check in with colleagues regarding some of our more confronting scenes on stage. It is right that people should feel safe in their workplace, and the unusual nature of theatrical work ought not to preclude this.
Given recent events in the Australian theatre world, I was quite wary and cautious going in. But in truth, being a considerate and kind colleague is easy. Each of us brings a part of ourselves to the work that we do. Finding truth in performance is ultimately a sharing our inner world with an audience. I deeply respect the generosity with which my colleagues have shared of themselves in this production, and am really looking forward to bringing it all to fruition on October 19 and 26.
Also, some acrostic poems, because why not:
Plays a dangerous game for
Perfumed pleasure and a
Poisoned tongue –
Empress of the Romans
At the pleasure of Nero.
No more unhappiness
Each life, each death is mine to control
Remember, I am a demi-god
Our love will burn worlds to ash.