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sophia = (wisdom) part 3 the cliffs : pioneering experimental theatre

I attended the opening night of this show after seeing the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Both artists, Foreman and Kandinsky, in their respective artforms, question how we perceive and know the external world. Both disrupt traditions of mainstream style and the comfortable reception audiences are afforded. However Foreman joins a long twentieth century tradition of nihilism and absurdity, while Kandinsky continue to probe and reinvent visual language to maintain a foundation for hope and fresh perception despite the vicissitudes of world events (two war and depression) that he lived through. 

Foreman was younger than Kandinsky, and part of the large avant-garde movement of the late 60’s and following two decades, that shook complacent established art production. He inherited the axioms of Brecht, but instead of the political pedagogy of Brecht, or romantic spiritualism of Kandinsky, like Jackson Pollock or Jack Keroac Foreman retreats to the cryptic world of self consciousness and random existence. That’s what his plays, and Sophia=(Wisdom) Part 3 The Cliffs in particular, comprise – a postmodern collage of images, a very long performative installation, of rapid fire bursts of dissociative elements (including text, movement, recorded speech, props, costumes) captures like snapshots of moments of the writer’s stream of creative consciousness. 

The result is solipsistic, potentially annoying in its over-laboured disruption of theatrical convention, yet also a lot of fun, and also very beautiful. 

There is a strange control over the presence and freedom of the actor on stage – these seem to be mechanical shadows of the writer’s personal vision. This is compounded by the recorded voice of the overbearing writer or director being so often heard to disrupt performative flow – novel as such as a technique but seemingly overdone – and the altered voices of actors accomplished via radio mike distortion. 

On the other hand the writer invites the audience to join him (and the elevated faces continually watching the show from the rear wall) in interpreting and re-associating his material. The play then becomes a resource for the audience own creative consciousness and celebration. Where have we seen aristocratic costumes like those before? Who is that authoritarian male? What is that long wheeled cabinet? 

The second act is slower and more centred than the first, with some exquisite assemblage of performers, in mise en scene of sets, light, couture, and clever posture. The selection of aristocratic costume (worn with delectable elegance by Agustin Lamas, Lara Kocsis, Luke Visentin, Kirsty Saville and Beatrice McBride) was Kennedy’s own (the original Foreman cast being entirely unclothed). The costume types are not explained, but the effect is quite Stanley Kubrik (Barry Lyndon or Eyes Wide Shut). This production could well have featured some nudity.

The show is philosophically grounded, more in a Beckett like vision of the fragmented lonely world of individual experience. There are sequences on time, narration, gender, but they are all disrupted, repeated, delayed, in a clown-like, fitful, slow, endlessly distracted perambulation in all directions on stage.

Patrick Kennedy has directed and produced (and designed) a very developed tight show. The lighting, sounds and audio, and stage design, work seamlessly in a very busy score. 

There is a full constructed set with pulleys, little peep hole windows, doors, a large clock – a true deus machina for slapstick action. Lighting shifts attention continually, like a rabid spot, on disparate action. The action was de-centred as much as the text was incoherent. We do not know what the set represents – and don’t often see such stage design. The set in itself invites association by the audience. Is this a doll’s house? A factory? A manifest structured stage? A playground?

The show is best enjoyed when the effort to find meaning – which it encourages – is given up, and the montage of its elements is enjoyed very much in the spirit of a gallery installation or a radical clownish catwalk. “Sit back and allow your conscious mind to be enveloped in the cacophony of visuals, sounds and lights. Don’t expect catharsis and don’t expect a linear narrative.” The second act does offer a mock cartharsis, of arrival at the cliffs (think Beckett as Italian opera) – however Kennedy’s advice on the whole is well taken. The question remains. Is that all Foreman set out to do? If not what else should we be receiving as audience members 53 years after its premiere?


The young performers as a team can be congratulated for the controlled, organised and effective way they presented an unusual script – without the unusual platforms of character or plot. There was no lead in this truly ensemble work – Katie Regan, Charmaine Huynh-Encluescu, Celeste Loyzaga, Nehir Hatipoglu and Heather Tiege wear everyday clothes as the workers, and deep red lipstick. Izzy Azzopardi is dressed as a mountain climber, and performs a variety of the stilted movement that characterises all the roles.

Kennedy should be proud of bringing such an experimental show to Sydney, where naturalism still rules. The show deserves a good audience, it is worthy of attention. 

Watching Sophia reminded me of a night in Volksburne theatre in Berlin. The only difference between experiment German theatre and Sophia=(Wisdom) Part 3 The Cliffs is that German theatre is so consciously contemporary . Sophia was written in 1970 and the zeitgeist of that time has gone, and waves of experimentation have occurred in the intervening years. For one thing, Foreman claim to be doing a “total theatre,” uniting “elements of the performative, auditory and visual arts, philosophy, psychoanalysis and literature” seems quite simplified in view of the rich multimodal performances – much facilitated by visual and audio technology – that have flourished in the past two decades. On the other hand in any history of modern theatre all that Foreman has done (and his oeuvre is formidable, comprising 50 works) is of great pioneering interest.

Kennedy has displayed remarkable skill in this genre, which he rightly calls radical, and could perhaps undertake an original work that is motivated or driven by the undercurrents or material of the age in which we live. 

SOPHIA=(WISDOM) PART 3 THE CLIFFS written by Richard Foreman,directed and designed by Patrick Kennedy, produced by Phenomenological Theatre, is in the midst of playing a season at the New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown until the 27th January 2024.



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