National Treasure

[contains spoilers]

 There is nothing to find. Just a desperate woman being desperate.

In an interview with Leigh Sales in mid-December, the actress Yael Stone detailed uncomfortable sexualised encounters she has had in the past with the actor Geoffrey Rush. In revisiting allegations of behaviour that pushed the boundaries of acceptable workplace conduct, Ms Stone was also brutally honest about her responses to it, which included behaviour that could easily have been interpreted as encouragement. As Mr Rush’s suggestive behaviour escalated and she became more uncomfortable, she reflects that she did not have the language to challenge Mr Rush’s alleged behaviour, and believed that her work would suffer if she made a complaint. Towards the conclusion of the interview, Ms Stone strongly asserted that consent is “almost impossible in a dynamic where the power is so drastically imbalanced. And I would say in any working environment, where there is that imbalance of power, the subordinate doesn’t have a great opportunity for expressing themselves freely.”

Ms Stone’s compelling interview was a timely reminder that consent is a lot more complex than “yes” or “no,” and strongly recalled to me the 2016 British miniseries National Treasure. This series cut through the self-serving explanations about consent that are often bandied about by powerful men when they are challenged about their sexual behaviour. The plot revolves around a television comedian in the twilight of his career, Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane), who is accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls many years previously. Finchley staunchly maintains his innocence, and the series explores the tensions between the presumption of innocence and the need to protect children and bring perpetrators of abuse to account. It also portrays, with devastating acuity, the monopoly on “truth” that is wielded by those with unchecked power.

The series was inspired by Operation Yewtree, the investigation by British police into sexual abuse by high profile entertainers, including Jimmy Savile. This context is a backdrop for Paul’s spin on the charges levelled against him. From the moment he is advised of these allegations, Paul casts himself as a scapegoat: “they think I’m Jimmy fucking Savile.” Ambiguity surrounding his guilt or innocence is maintained well into the final episode. On the one hand, it is not hard for the viewer to imagine his guilt in light of the revelations of Operation Yewtree. On the other, apart from a certain understated repulsiveness that he occasionally exudes, he doesn’t come across as a monster. He converses respectably with his long-suffering wife, looks after his grandchildren, and taxi drivers accost him to re-enact scenes from his heyday. His long-time comedy partner sticks by him. He is also eager (too eager, according to his legal team) to face the media and profess his belief in punishment for paedophiles.

The ambiguous atmosphere surrounding Finchley’s guilt or innocence heightens the impact of the series’ main themes: the reliability of memory and abuse of power. Tension between truth and deception, reality and performance is established from the opening scene. He is filmed smoking in a floodlit basement, the walls a turquoise shade once found in hospitals and the floor blood red. It resembles a prison, but Finchley is actually waiting backstage in a theatre to present a lifetime achievement award to his comedy partner. This immediately establishes a link between the possibility of guilt, and his fame, which allows men like him to abuse. While a seasoned entertainer, he appears to suffer stage fright, invoking doubt in the viewer about the authenticity of his public persona.

Finchley’s trial brings to the fore the shortcomings of the adversarial legal system when it comes to sexual abuse and rape. Paul’s barrister, charging £400 per hour, and the ex-cop investigator assisting them in garnering evidence, are intent on winning. They blithely accept Paul’s history of infidelity and apparent compulsion to view pornography; their only qualm is that he did not forewarn them about it before they discovered it in the police’s brief of evidence. Every twist or turn can be manipulated, used to their advantage or turned against a complainant. This includes the serious injury of Paul’s daughter in a car crash, which his legal team believes is a publicity coup for him. It seems Paul and his family inhabit a murky world where everyone has an agenda, not just those with something to hide. This is strongly reinforced in the scenes shot inside the Finchley’s monstrosity of a house. The interior is constantly bathed in shade, with the odd bit of sunlight coming through a window only serving to illuminate dust motes. The walls are a shade of green reminiscent of a stagnant pond, and Marie wears an overcoat of a similar shade; her being is literally enveloped by the murkiness.

There is a courtroom scene strongly reminiscent of Ms Stone’s comments about being torn between admiration for Mr Rush and discomfort at his behaviour. Under cross-examination, it is revealed one of Paul’s accusers, Rebecca Thornton, sent Finchley a fan letter after the date of the alleged rape. The defence contends this proves she fabricated her claim; at most they had consensual sex, and her subsequent regret clouded the facts in her mind. Distressed, Ms Thornton says she can’t explain it, other than that it was a very confusing period in her life. Earlier, she confronts Marie in the court toilets, and is absolutely certain about the veracity of her memory. She says to Marie: “He did this to me. And to you. I feel like I’m doing this for you.” As the series progresses, flashbacks to the  alleged rapes become more frequent and revealing, and finally it is clear that Finchley did commit the crimes alleged against him. But time, memory, and the law take their toll. He is acquitted.

The position of the women in Finchley’s life is also a point of drama. His wife Marie is staunchly Catholic and, though she does not like her husband’s infidelity or predilection for pornography, she stands by him. In preparation for the trial, in which she will be called as a witness, the barrister probes Marie about her relationship with Paul, asking him whether her constant forgiveness and acceptance of her errant husband’s extramarital “needs” is a “Catholic thing.” No, Marie replies, “it’s a love thing.”

The public love and affection of a good woman is the ultimate saviour for men like Paul. The faithfulness of a wife allows the traditional double standard to be maintained- that women and daughters are sacred property, and other women are up for grabs. Distinguishing between these “types” of women is also the basis of public respectability. During the trial, the prosecution challenges Finchley about his use of prostitutes, including a propensity for BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism):

So sex with women who aren’t prostitutes never gets violent. But sex with prostitutes sometimes can.

They consent to everything that happens.

You pay them to consent. But with other women, no violence.


You have a code. If I’m paying for it I will do whatever I like. But with other women I will not do whatever I like.


That must involve restraint on your part. Clearly you like violence as part of sex otherwise why would you pay for it.

I don’t engage in BDSM with women who aren’t prostitutes.

You hate women, don’t you….

Marie and Paul’s troubled adult daughter, Dee, has her own problems with memory. She claims she cannot remember large swathes of her life. It is unclear whether this is due to her drug use or trauma. Her memory loss mirrors the way the defence paints Rebecca Thornton as an unreliable witness. And, like Rebecca, the possibility she was abused by Paul is hinted at, but in her case never settled. Dee is, however, strikingly intelligent, and challenges her father on his professed feelings of shame for his infidelity and penchant for violent sex. As a drug addict, she knows about shame, and doesn’t believe it is what her father is purporting to demonstrate. What Dee is alluding to is Paul’s ability to compartmentalise his behaviour, and his audacity to think he can redeem himself through a superficial display of regret.

Marie has also cottoned on to this by the end of the trial. Just before Paul is due to give evidence, she challenges him on the truth of his recollections, and his grip on the narrative, both public and personal, that he has spun around the allegations. She doesn’t think he is lying, she says. Instead, she thinks he has a broad definition of truth, and can make himself belief in contradictory facts at the same time:

There are layers of you aren’t there. You don’t lie, I don’t think you lie. I think you believe everything… You exist on one layer quite purely. Good husband layer, the good man layer. And then there’s another layer. And on that you’re less good. But you treat them both separately. And then there’s the third layer. And on that, you’re capable of anything…Be brave Paul. Try and remember the man you are, try not to lie. Look through the layers.

For a moment, his guard is down. A look of outrage flicks across his face in the form of a twitch that makes his lip momentarily curl before he delivers his verdict on her: “You never loved me the way you thought you did.” In his view, her failure of belief in him is tantamount to failure as a wife.

In the closing scenes of the final episode, Marie vanishes from their home, where a party celebrating Paul’s acquittal is in full swing. The series ends with Paul yelling Marie’s name into the void. He has lost her, her absolution, and with it, the ability to maintain both a respectable public image and to compartmentalise his crimes according to the women they were committed against. He can no longer pretend his behaviour does not harm his family. In fact, as his victim Rebecca Thornton pointed out to Marie, his crimes are also a violence against his family, and it is his willingness to make them suffer that is most revealing about who he truly is: that he believes a woman’s lot is to put up and shut up, and that, when pushed, women are not capable of making the truth stick.


Intimacy and Boundaries in the Rehearsal Room

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of the Street Theatre’s production of Venus In Fur for the ACT Writers’ Centre’s blog Capital Letters. Venus In Fur is a captivating take on sexism and male power both in the theatre and in life. In response to my review, Sue Terry of Whispering Gums posed the question “How do you think the current Geoffrey Rush trial and the discussions about what seems to have been accepted or tolerated, in rehearsals and on stage, fits into the issues explored in this play?”

The verdict in Rush’s defamation case is yet to be delivered. The award-winning Melbourne-based critic Alison Croggon has provided a synopsis of the trial so far on her excellent site Witness. Importantly, she points out that neither Rush nor Eryn Jean Norvill is on trial. Rush’s defamation case centres on whether the Daily Telegraph had enough evidence to publish its claims about his alleged behaviour towards Ms Norvill on the set of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of King Lear.

While I have no further comment on the Rush case, I feel Sue’s question warrants a look at the culture of the Australian arts scene more broadly, particularly as the #metoo movement progresses. This time last year, Alison Croggon wrote an informed and sensitive piece for Witness about the culture of sexism in Australian theatre [this is pay-walled but I encourage you to join]. Croggon wrote:

I put out a call on social media for anyone who wished to share their stories in confidence with me. The result has been some deeply distressing allegations, which run the gamut from harassment and bullying to serial predation and rape. They have come from women and men working not only in companies, as performers, back stage staff and so on, but in performing arts bureaucracies of every kind, in educational institutions, even in youth theatre. They include well known names and unknown names, and every level of theatre, from major state theatre to independent companies and venues.

Croggon also pointed out that inclusion is “are underwritten by a spectrum of behaviours that are in turn conditioned by grim histories, past and present, of sexual violence.”

When we talk about sexual harassment and violence in the arts, there are a couple of issues at play. One issue is how actors are asked to represent sex (and violence) and the implications for their own emotional, bodily and professional integrity, and another is about creating a safe working environment so that sexual harassment is not tolerated either on or off stage. A third issue relates to inclusion and diversity more broadly, and how the largely white, male gatekeepers create jobs for arts workers from certain backgrounds and perpetuate the telling of certain kinds of stories.

With regard to the first issue, I had until recently taken it for granted that rehearsals are negotiations of power and boundaries between performers. Surely, I thought, actors are carrying out a job, and during rehearsals they would agree on boundaries with their colleagues which should carry over to live performances. Boundaries are especially important where violence, physical contact or simulated sexual contact are directed.

But I was wrong to assume this automatically occurred. There is now a burgeoning profession called “intimacy coaching” which seeks to assist actors and directors navigate this space. An intimacy coach is a theatre professional who works alongside a cast to choreograph difficult scenes, but also, as Van Badham points out in an article for the Guardian, “facilitates a conversation between the production and the actors that affirms trust in what’s taking place.”

The ABC’s Beverley Wang spoke to Claire Warden, an intimacy coach based in New York, about the tenets of her practice. Warden says that because “when we’re acting, we have difficulty telling the difference between real and our imagination,” a key aspect of her practice is to help actors develop a shared sign for when a scene stops. She explains this technique as a reminder of the barrier between art and life:

And if you’re telling a particularly taxing emotional story, or if you’re a doing a particularly heavily intimate or sexual scene, it can be difficult if you don’t have a structure around it, and something that continually lets you know that this is work, and that we’re doing this to serve the story — and it isn’t real.

This is important because it draws a clear line. It is not unheard-of for an actor to use the explicit content of the play they are performing to carry on with sexualised behaviour off stage. It would be interesting to ask Ms O’Brien how this technique applies to a method actor, such as Daniel Day Lewis, given they do not distinguish between on and off screen.

It also seems to me that there is some confusion in public discussion about scenes created by two actors who “have chemistry,” and what actually constitutes that chemistry. In the Q&A episode of 29 October, filmed at the pop-up Globe in Sydney, the discussion turned to the negotiation of performances in sexual scenes. Tony Jones asked theatre director Neil Armfield whether the #metoo movement was having a “chilling effect” in the rehearsal room.  Armfield stated:

I think that there is …in the act of playing, whether…and acting, there is… sexual energy, which, in a sense, is part of an actor’s way of connecting to the audience, as much as connecting within the cast. And I just…and I think that means that we have to be particularly mindful and particularly respectful.

Armfield subsequently went on to say that, though respect and trust are important, the ability to engage in play should not be affected. I have paraphrased Armfield here and a long discussion did ensue on the program, so make sure you watch the episode or read the transcript on the website.

My point in raising this, though, is to question whether the connection actors develop with each other is sexual energy in the literal sense. I recently read the excellent addition to Black Inc.’s Writers On Writers series Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee. Dovey discusses jouissance, the psychoanalytic concept of intellectual ecstasy that was developed by the French theorist Roland Barthes. She quotes French actress Juliette Binoche, who has said that when making a film she needs to have an erotic relationship with the director. Dovey explains that La Binoche does not mean she sleeps with the director, but that they have an intense intellectual relationship that gives rise to jouissance. I wonder if it is this form of connection that actors are, or should be, striving towards. Because if it is not- if it’s sexual connection in the literal sense- surely we run the risk of perpetuating the key message underpinning our society’s sexism: that women only amount to their bodies, and what they do with their bodies is determined by other people.

So does Venus In Fur have anything to say about sexual harassment in theatre? Sure. To recap, Ives’ play revolves around a playwright and director, Thomas Novachek, who is staging an adaptation of the (real life) nineteenth century sadomasochistic novel Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. The two main characters of the book (and the play that Novachek directs within the larger play) are Vanda von Dunayev and Severin Kushemski. Thomas agrees to let Wanda, an aspiring actress, do a read-through, during which she displays an uncanny grasp on the character of the fictional Vanda. As the read-through progresses, the line between acting and reality becomes blurred, and power constantly shifts as Wanda probes Thomas’s motivations and interpretations of Sacher-Masoch’s work.

By unsettling boundaries between the audition and the play, the audience is pushed to think hard about which character wields power. This is reinforced by the dialogue which explicitly reflects on the roles of the theatre director and actor. After succumbing to Wanda’s goading, he shows her how he would perform both the roles of Vanda and Kushemski. With the shoe on the other foot, Novachek exclaims “This is so hard. I can’t believe I put actors through this.”

By blurring play and reality, Ives is also able to examine the casting of women in theatre and how the roles written for them are generated within a patriarchal, and, potentially, misogynistic context. Novachek says, “[w]e’re all easily explicable. What we’re not is… easily extricable.” The question “extricable from what?” is left hanging, but it raises the spectre of our socially conditioned biases and how those in power are not pushed to reflect on, or change, their attitudes. Further on this point, as I argued in my original piece, there are suggestions in the play that Vanda’s role is a projection of Novachek’s own unconscious desires, which bleeds into the bigger question in theatre and film of the substance of women’s roles, and how women exercise control over the way we are represented in cultural texts.

As Venus In Fur progresses it gets very heated and there are some scenes that portray physical and sexual contact. While watching the performance, I wished I had been present in the rehearsal room to witness how the action had been choreographed. Given Caroline Stacey directed the play, I can safely assume that teasing out the nuanced performances of Craig Alexander and Joanna Richards would be a great lesson for us in all the negotiation of boundaries and the unpicking of our society’s misogyny.