September 09, 2009

Weathering the Past and Reconciling the Future: Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling

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Weathering the Past and Reconciling the Future:
Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling

Murray Bramwell

It is not often we see a play that has its first scene set in 2039 and features a fish falling from the sky. But When the Rain Stops Falling is no ordinary play. Even its genesis was a slow and sometimes arduous one. This work, as Chris Drummond’s introductory note has indicated, had its origins some five years before its premiere at the 2008 Adelaide Festival. It began as a project based around discussions of The Future Eaters, Tim Flannery’s book on environmental crisis, and involved a collaboration between Drummond’s company Brink Productions, the visual artist Hossein Valamanesh and the playwright Andrew Bovell.

Bovell recognized that the venture was well-timed. In his own words, he had “a sense of having lost my way theatrically. I thought : ’I don’t get theatre anymore.’ Then Lantana came out and film overtook that time of my life” (Personal Interview, Adelaide. 23.12.08. All subsequent details and quotations used here are from this source.) Drummond’s offer had appeal also because the project had a genuinely explorative purpose and a long enough time span to reflect and develop.

As Bovell recalls- “this was immediately attractive because he was offering me a chance to find my way back to this form and this medium. At the same time I was exploring this idea of superimposition, if you like – to find a theatrical language that goes beyond naturalism, that allowed me tell more than one story by layering things on top of each other. I still wanted to tell a good story but I wanted the way it was made to be intellectually engaging.”

The project was slow to generate, going through extended periods of discussion and workshops. For Bovell the writing came late in the process, most of it written in the last few months of 2007. But he vividly recalls a number of breakthrough recognitions – he calls them epiphanies – which helped to crystallize his ideas and the structure of the final draft. Part of the task was to find a focus for what was a very large and amorphous theme – climate change. How to talk about a subject that has a long time span ? And how to give it a human dimension ? That, Bovell recalls, “ was the initial dramaturgical question that we needed to solve.”

There was also the intrinsically pessimistic nature of the task. “The question we were considering was how were we as a species going to face the changes that were clearly coming . What is the value of life, and what if we lose life ?
There was a sense of helplessness, that it was too late, too difficult and that ordinary society lacked the capability to make these changes.

“I was also looking at the Gaia Theory- the idea that the earth will survive whilst human beings may not, because the earth will adapt and change to get rid of whatever threatens it, including human beings. This was an idea I was also exploring in a screen adaptation of Edge of Darkness [the 1985 BBC-TV series about a privatized plutonium proliferation crisis, written by Troy Kennedy Martin] This was a big Hollywood project which had preoccupied me for the past three or four years – exactly the same time that I was writing When the Rain Stops Falling. “

One prompt to his approach came to Bovell while he was living in Paris and visited a major retrospective art exhibition on Melancholy and Madness. “This is where the epiphany happened for me because I saw this continuum of human endeavour from pre-history to the contemporary period. This is also where I saw the Goya image of Saturn devouring his children which I refer to in the play.

“But what I also saw was that melancholy is not the point at which we become inactive, but the very opposite. It actually describes the deep thinking we need to do that precedes change. And I suddenly thought- ‘OK, we are feeling very melancholy about the world we actually live in, but what we are doing is thinking and imagining what the world must become if we are to survive.’ That brought a shift in the way I was looking at this work because it was no longer about warning and doom. This was going to be a play about the necessity to change, and the ability to change for the better. And that led me to look at the Enlightenment, another period of human transformation, if you like, a huge and significant shift in the way human beings thought about themselves.”

These were gathering precepts but all that existed at this stage was a 20 page treatment, no specific characters, settings, plot or situations. One connection had been made, however, and it is part of the dark and problematic fabric of the play as we now have it. Bovell explains:

“I had decided I would use pedophilia as some kind of metaphor for our relationship with the planet. There was somehow a parallel – that what a man does when he treats a child in that way, when he goes against nature to that degree, it says something about how we as a species have treated the planet since industrialization. I don’t think that metaphor was specifically brought to bear in the final version but it served its purpose in shaping my thinking. It also led me to the exploration of the father-son relationship – because I had the Saturn image already. And I was thinking –‘if children represent our future- and we abuse them both literally and emotionally- what are we doing to our future ?’ ”

Gradually the elements of structure and style of the play were emerging. In workshops with Hossein Valamanesh the idea of superimposition was being explored. As Bovell recalls : “We worked with a choreographer and Hossein. We created theatrical movements that allowed us to crack open some of the possibilities and at the same time I produced fragments of dialogue. The idea of the communal meal, the simple refrain of sitting down to fish soup provided an activity to bring the characters together. I am always interested in the ritual of eating and the table as a theatrical symbol- so that was present from an early time.

“The actors, bless them, were asked to dig very deep and tell stories – which they did – wonderful stories about things meaningful to us, including about our parents. Michaela Cantwell [who played the young Elizabeth in Brink’s production] talked about visiting Uluru with her father.

“A lot of my stories with my father revolve around a particular area in Western Australia near Mandurah, the estuary country around Peel Inlet which haunted my childhood and I felt uneasy about. Then I started to explore the idea of the Coorong at the Murray Mouth and what it meant to be estuarine. It was neither land nor sea, this in-between place. There is something uncertain about – it doesn’t belong to either and there is some kind of struggle going on. These landscapes are the first to be affected by climate change- as we are understanding with the Coorong now, if there is a rise in the sea level.

“It has an ambiguity that I find fascinating. So to take someone from England and someone who belonged there- two people from different worlds, two people with damaged pasts, who form a relationship in this uncertain place – it had a resonance for me.”

Then, on the final day of the workshop came another breakthrough when actors Paul Blackwell and Kris McQuaide improvised some scenes where a wife is telling her husband that she no longer wants to live. As Andrew Bovell describes it :

“Paul and Kris created such a world that I wanted to find a place for it and I thought –‘this is Gabrielle when she is grown up. This is the end of her life.’ I knew the beginning of it in her twenties, now it clicked into place. This is the idea of superimposition – I was superimposing time frames and the story I was explaining back here is now being looked at much later. Formally that allowed me to establish four worlds before revealing that they were connected. That was the Eureka moment.”

Turning to the text in the form it now is, it is clear that the playwright’s initial difficulties in formulating and shaping the play involved the kind of deep contemplation that he described as reflective melancholy and that the subsequent assurance and airiness evident in its final version in performance is a mark of Andrew Bovell’s very considerable command of his canvas and his inventive, often intuitive and lateral themes.

There is an audacity in this play which is set in London in the 1960s and 1988, in the Coorong and Uluru also in that year , in Adelaide in 2013 and Alice Springs in 2039 – and there is a powerful recognition by Andrew Bovell that actions have consequences, both in human experience and in nature. We take the weather with us and in the future lie reckonings brought on by events and actions of an earlier time.

In When the Rain Stops Falling, as in previous Bovell texts like Speaking in Tongues (and its film version Lantana) there are bold connections made. Coincidence is a magical expectation and predestination is the road most traveled. Gabriel meets Gabrielle, Diderot’s dressing gown is discussed in London and Alice Springs, fish soup and small talk about the weather in Bangladesh are both a continuity and a dreamy deja vu. And the future – 2039, on the 12th floor in Alice Springs, where the rain is torrential and fish are extinct (unless they fall unexplained from the sky) is not like something out of The Jetsons.

As Andrew Bovell observes, “ if I wrote 2039 and tried to make it some kind of futuristic science fiction world that would have been a mistake. I think an important meaning the play conveys is that our humanity will remain the same. We will be essentially the same human beings, preoccupied with the same sets of emotions we are trying to deal with now.”

When the Rain Stops Falling is a prophetic play – not in its insights about the future but, instead, into the present. As the playwright says – “it asks us –‘are we at the will of forces out of our control (as Henry Law says in self-justification) or do we (like Elizabeth) say we are in control of our destiny and can make the changes necessary to live according to the responsibility we have as human beings ?’”It also offers us alternatives to pessimism. There is optimism and forbearance in the young Andrew Price and a sense of a future even in duress.

As Andrew Bovell puts it – “Theatre can tell us hopeful stories , without avoiding the depth of difficulty. That’s what I am trying to communicate – past mistakes can be addressed in the future, and that must give us hope and a sense of purpose for why we are here.”

There will be other plays which explore these ideas and they are likely to come thick and fast as the global urgency of the subject keeps reasserting itself. But this play must surely be acknowledged as a pioneering shift in consciousness. It is masterfully written but also instinctive and often elliptical. It is tragic, about betrayal and disgrace, it is sometimes impish and strangely hopeful. It says people must change and by understanding their impediments and their unspoken history they will. It says we must forget the chit-chat and really talk about our weather. For all these reasons, When the Rain Stops Falling is a watershed.

Introduction to Currency Press edition, Sydney, 2009. pp.xiii-xvii.

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