Like the assassination of JFK, the collapse of the Twin Towers, it can be argued that one’s first kiss is equally a transforming experience. It is a powerful action which is emblematic of bravery and desire and focus for the risk is unrequited affection, embarrassment, humiliation and the prize is the first step towards ultimate intimacy.

To kiss – to touch or press with the lips in a token of affection (according to the Macquarie Dictionary) – especially when pressing one’s lips on another’s lips -to kiss is to offer softness and intimacy which only two people can share at one time (by virtue of the fact we only have one set of lips each.) The exclusivity of such an act makes it powerful.

It is no wonder that it is the focus of so much literature, art, music. The latest production in Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre, The Kiss is a neat quartet of theatricalized short stories by four very distinct writers -Peter Goldsworthy, Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin and Guy de Maupassant. Linked only by their title – this posy of plays spans time and geography as the blurb states:
Maupassant looks at sexual power and the politics inherent in relations between women and men. Chopin deals with deception and the choice between love and money. Chekhov shows how the imagination can take a single moment of reality and build it into a fantasy that becomes more important than the original. And Goldsworthy takes a kiss and turns it into an aching portrayal of Australian teenage bravado gone horribly wrong.”

I will not attempt to reveal the premise for each story here – but I think it is well summarized by Jason Blake’s review you can read here. And I quite enjoyed Helen Barry’s response tot he show and you can find it here.

With so much destruction, despair and tragedy in the world regularly televised via the news AND regularly sensationalized on Sydney’s stages – it is a delight to have a lighter, more intimate, tender topic explored on stage. It is then no wonder that due to the thirst audiences have for love and love stories that within 4 days of opening, The Kiss has been extended for an extra week because of audience demand.

The challenges in this production are many. First – how do you present four pieces of literature theatrically? How do you curate and arrange the pieces for maximum impact – and in a way in which the audience is happy to go along with the shift in gears between the pieces? How do you cast the four pieces, with four actors within each – especially when one of the pieces has an extensive carousel of characters? How are they visually linked? Will the audience applaud after each piece -or is it like a symphony with four distinct movements? How do you immediately establish time and space appropriate for the world of the story?

All interesting directorial challenges.

Most interesting for me is the curation of the pieces into a coherent production, and the challenges associated with the theatricalisation of literature. The unfortunate thing about the presentation of many short pieces in one evening is that invite unnecessary ranking and comparison – often evoking the “I liked the second one best” style of conversation. I’m not going to enter into that type of discussion – I chose to view the production as a whole, more than the sum of its parts.

It is in this instance I will look to Elevator Repair Sevice’s production of The Gatz – a full unabridged theatrical reading of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as an instance where this worked – when the text and the world on stage were parallel and complimentary, not an enactment of the story – but a physical world separate to the narrative was being played out on stage whilst the novel was being read with visual echos of the text.

For me, The Kiss was heavy on the text – without much visual relief, the exception of this is the piece by Goldsworthy. Largely though, the suite of plays felt like a moved radio play whereby the experience is one of the audience attentively listening – and there is a lot to listen to. In the case of the Chekov – holding all the characters in one’s mind is a feat of extreme memory -and the direct address is relentless as we are told everything, and shown very little. This is perhaps the flaw with the whole production – as an audience member we are fatigued by words – the anticipation of the moment of the kiss or significance of the kiss in each piece is well and truly drowned by literature. We sit as though children being read bedtime stories – passively consuming facts, opinions and intentions. As such there is little to be revealed or discovered in character or story which is truly surprising- there is no subtext to tease out, for the characters reveal their internal cogitations quite freely.

The immediate, spontaneous power of a kiss – the action – is deflated by words. The question is – how is this experience theatre and not merely a reading? Why stage “literature.” What makes a story a story, and what makes a play a piece of theatre?

Peter Brook says theatre calls for space, spectator and an event. And this is true of The Kiss, but does that also mean that if an actor read directly from the story without any movement or characterization that that too would be a piece of theatre?

The wonderful thing about literature (as opposed to plays) is that is a truly intimate experience. Sitting with two hands clasping both wings of a book, eyes lowered within a foot of the paper – silently ingesting the latent words within… The act of reading is private and personal and intimate. Theatre is less private by it’s very form – a public display of affection, if you will – and something of the small, tender quietness of a kiss (and of literature) is lost when it is declared in such an overt and open forum.

Perhaps I was hoping for something a little more action, I was hoping for a kiss and what I got was a lot of talk. And as some lovers may know, a tender moment can be crushed by conversation – it can fatigue or inhibit bravery and spontaneity and desire.

That being said, Susannah Dowling’s show is absolutely perfect for the new direction of The downstairs space – a space which is about development and experiment and forging new ground. Lighting design my Teegan Lee is beautifully warm, performances by Catherine Davies, Rita Kalnejais, Yalin Ozucelik and Steve Rodgers are energetic and bright as they cycle through an impressive kaleidoscope of characters, and the costumes by Luke Ede are particularly impressive and it is a well produced show.

For those keen on watching some kissing, you might be better off at Scruffy Murphy’s on a Friday night, those that love literature will delight in the language and the timelessness of love. And those who delight in the sweet agony of anticipation – a la Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn – “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;/ She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” you may also enjoy this diverse and beautifully written bouquet of stories.

For others… I offer you Elvis…