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Blood on the Cat's Neck

"an embarrassment of riches"

Rainer Werner Fassbinder "redefined prolific", writes Saro Lusty-Cavallari. Indie company Montague Basement follows suit.

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Five Years in the Basement

Date: 16 Apr 2019

“So do you think I’m crazy?”

“Ummm. No. I think it works.”

This exchange between producer Imogen Gardam and me is essentially the genesis of our company Montague Basement, which celebrates five years of continuous output this year. No small feat for an unfunded independent company that sprang out of a university dramatic society.

I had just proposed a way into the nightmarish myth of Procne, Tereus and Philomela, a violent story that anticipated the rape, dismemberment and cannibalism of Titus Andronicus.

There was no real strong commercial impetus for the work: it was not a particularly well known piece of mythology; I was a complete unknown as a writer, and the content warnings alone would turn off many audience members.

But we felt we had something to say, we had something to make with it.

And so we did.

If something sounds crazy then the operating principle of Montague Basement is that it just might work.

As Imogen put it in her keynote for the Rose Byrne Scholarship; “I’m not producing to get work. I’m producing to make work.”

Embarrassment of riches

The sheer joy of creating, of finding a home for theatre that otherwise wouldn’t have been, is what has driven us to create 15 shows over five years.

We’ve put on adaptations of Greek mythology, three quite radically altered Shakespeare productions, devised variety shows that tackled Ovid, Brecht and silent film, two original shows by Charles O’Grady about the contemporary trans experience, a new work for children about the effect of grief and two plays by the notoriously tricky Sarah Kane.

When taken as a whole Montague Basement’s output feels like a disparate series of passion projects that share little more than a company name and an overlap of creatives and that’s the point.

There’s no master plan that the company has been working towards: it facilitates the work for the sake of the work.

So how do you celebrate five years of this?

You keep making and the fact that we’ll be rounding out those five years with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Blood On The Cat’s Neck seems oddly fitting.

Of course that was never the plan; like everything else it was merely a play we wanted to see onstage and by complete chance it ended up where it was in our schedule.

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Blood On The Cat’s Neck

Rainer Werner Fassbinder redefined prolific; when he died at age 37 he had completed 15 plays and more than 40 works for television and cinema.

His filmography is an embarrassment of riches. His works are not great in spite of the rapid speed with which he worked through them but because of it.

Fassbinder never tried to pack everything into each new work: if something didn’t fit in one project there was always another one around the corner. As a result there is remarkable focus to each one of his projects; as distinct a vision as he possessed, the needs of each story always came before any desire to flex his skills.

Fassbinder’s ethos is the kind we have tried to bring to our own output as a company; the more work you make the less each work defines you as an artist and so its needs are allowed to take priority over yours.

Blood On The Cat’s Neck was written towards the end of Fassbinder’s career as a playwright/stage director, before he would shift entirely into making films. It exists in between his austere avant-garde output and his love affair with Hollywood melodrama that would define the second half of his career.

It features nine different characters navigating a total of 55 scenes under the gaze of the alien Phoebe Zeitgeist who observes and begins to learn their behaviour. The structure of the play anticipates Caryl Churchill’s seminal Love and Information over 40 years before that play was hailed as groundbreaking.

Yet despite the small-scale intimacy of each vignette the shadow of Germany’s history hangs over everything, as it did for all German artists navigating the crimes of their parents’ generations.

Within each petty squabble or interpersonal act of violence is the nasty potential that allowed an entire country to fall under the sway of National Socialism.

As the world today seems more and more intent on forgetting the dark tide that swept over Europe in the interwar years it feels urgent to re-explore art made within its living memory.

The petty dramas of these characters are not just apolitical observations about human behaviour but a link between the everyday cruelties that ‘normal people’ enact and the terrible political violence they can enable.

To bring Blood On The Cat’s Neck to life has been one of the most ambitious endeavours we have undertaken over these last five years.

It has involved finding ten talented actors – no small achievement in our unfunded indie landscape – and working together to make something meaningful out of Fassbinder’s frequently elusive script.

It has involved creating a world out of KXT’s absolutely surreal Bordello Room, rehearsing for an immersive experience where the actors occupy every corner of the room and the audience can move where they like, meaning that the final crucial piece of the production will not slot into place until first preview.

So here we find ourselves on the cusp of five years as a company bringing together the Australian premiere of an almost 50-year-old German play – a play that KXT’s team described as “unperformable’’ – with 10 people in our cast, an immersive playing space and a massive question mark hanging over our heads as we approach opening.

So … do I sound crazy?

Ummm. No. I think it works.

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