Fringe Festival ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 04, 2004

Fringe Festival

Fringe Festival: Into The Fire: Wallpaper by Lucy Stewart & Interrogation by Ben Noble, St Martins Youth Theatre; Spatial Theory, created and performed by Bill Shannon, music by DJ Richie Tempo, lighting David Szlasa, North Melbourne Town Hall.

First, a mea culpa: a lethal combination of the school holidays and severe laryngitis meant that my fingers slid nervelessly off the pulse of Melbourne theatre, right in the middle of one of its busiest times. And so, belatedly coming to, I realise I've missed out on a few things I would have dearly liked to see: the Theatre of Decay's latest version of intimate theatre, viewed from the back seat of a car, for example, or a production of a play by France's most eminent playwright, Michel Vinaver. And you can't exactly rent out the dvd if you miss the show: the beauty and terror of theatre is, alas, its ruthless temporality.

However, I collected myself in time to catch a couple of interesting shows. At St Martins Youth Theatre I saw Into The Fire, a double bill of two young Melbourne playwrights, Lucy Stewart and Ben Noble. They are part of a new generation of Melbourne theatre artists which looks restlessly beyond parochial influences, and these two demonstrate that contemporary British writing is beginning to make itself felt in new writing here.

Although very different from each other, both these works eschew conventional ideas of character and narrative in favour of splintered, disconnected realities. Stewart's play Wallpaper is a theatrical exteriorisation of disturbed subjectivities, with sharp, unheralded shifts between differing levels of actual, imagined, remembered or deranged states of being. It's a technique Sarah Kane exploited spectacularly, but Stewart uses it here to different ends.

At the opening of the play the central character, Nigel (Chris Jefferson), is celebrating his twenty third birthday. He is undergoing a kind of early-life crisis, with his marriage falling apart and his work in an introduction agency echoing hollowly the lack of love in his personal life. As his sense of self disintegrates into a chorus of mocking voices, he begins a relationship with a girl (Miriam Glaser) who emerges from the grey walls of his house. The people around him - his wife Kiki (Naomi Francis), her sister Jeannie (Hope Hayward Rowling) and his employer Malcolm (Kristian Sartori) increasingly become less real to him than the strange young girl who sinisterly demands his love.

This kind of writing is much more challenging than conventional plot-driven drama, and Stewart doesn't always manage to achieve her ambition. The dramatic dynamic falls on emotional contrast and metaphoric connections rather than narrative suspense, and such complexities require a concomitant clarity in the writing. While it was never difficult to work out what was going on, I felt that Stewart often flinched from the more difficult implications of what she was writing about, relying on a fey lyricism or absurd humour to get her through. This feeling was reinforced by James Adler's rather fuzzy and fussy direction. The play's virtues are its freshness and ambition, and I look forward to Stewart's future work, especially if she finds a drivenness and focus her work presently lacks.

Ben Noble's Interrogation is a much darker play, directed with a sure and spare hand by Julie Waddington to make compelling theatre. Noble is clearly a startling and intelligent talent: he is the only actor on stage, and has given himself the material for a virtusoso performance. The play also features filmed scenes acted by Alison Boyce, Shaun Brown, Sylvie de Crespigny, Daniel Frederksen, Fiona MacLeod and Peter Roberts. The videos are naturalistic grabs of story or conversation, captured voyeuristically (we are always aware of the camera), which are interspersed with quotes from the Bible and an obscure text called The Encridion, which I can find nothing about and so suspect may be fictional. The monologues performed by Noble are all characters whom we also see on the screen, which creates a number of gaps between the differing representations. These gaps grow perversely more dislocating as the stories become clearer.

The links between the narratives are the murders of three young women. The masculinist equation of eroticism and death is well-trodden ground, but Noble makes an interesting fist of it here, only stepping falsely when he makes the dead woman speak of her longing to be watched or even stalked. Even if it is a projection of the imaginings of the men, this is a moment which comes uncomfortably close to the notion that women desire the violence to which they are subjected.

Interrogation is vaguely reminiscent of Martin Crimp's tour de force Attempts on Her Life, but instead of a named woman whose identity and story shifts and fractures from scene to scene, there are three nameless victims and three potential murderers. The final opening out of the play into the literal realities of the writer and the audience/reader did seem, perhaps, a little pat: given the power of Noble's performance and the intelligence of the writing, I think I wanted something that more disturbingly revealed that a fiction is also a reality.

I also saw Spatial Theory, New York street performer Bill Shannon's attempt on theatre made, he says with contagious insouciance, because you make more money in theatre than in the street (a fact that, frankly, I find hard to believe).

Bill Shannon is a beguiling entertainer, his improvisatory repartee honed in the harsh market of the street where a moment's boredom means your audience will wander off, and he is dynamically supported by the amazing sound work of deejay Richie Tempo, a mixture of jazz, hiphop and percussive funk. The show is a bastard cross between dance, a lecture (complete with videos) and stand-up comedy, with all the joins showing. While each section is slick, the movement from one to the other is often awkward, and a director might have excised a few repetitive longueurs. However, this show is conscious and ambiguous enough to make a fetish of its own awkwardness, and to make discussing the whole idea of success an uneasy prospect.

Shannon was diagnosed at the age of five with Legg-Calve-Perthe disease, a kind of arthritis which means that he is dependent on crutches. He hasn't let that stop him, and Spatial Theory demonstrates that he is not called "The Crutchmaster" for nothing. With his especially designed dance crutches and a skateboard, he creates moments of breathtaking lyricism and grace out of an uncompromising street aesthetic. The crutches are extensions of his body and become elements of his fluid expressiveness - a cross, a cage, wings - both the badge of his limitations, and the means of his freedom. Perhaps the most interesting moment was a dance in which he performed more and more difficult tricks until he fell over, flat on his back, the music stopping instantly. The gasp from the audience was instantly turned back on us, the audience's willing him on to "success" gently satirised by his own dislike of being patronised, of help that is more about the helper excercising their own notions of themselves as humane people than anything the other person might actually need.

Underneath the comedy and strange beauty, Spatial Theory is mining some uncomfortable areas, exploiting the ambiguity and uncertainty the abled feel towards the disabled, and what it means to be a disabled person in a public place. He fearlessly launches himself into the pathos and comedy of failure, in the process both creating an aesthetic of heroicism and redefining that word "ability". How can a person of such abilities actually be "disabled"? And what was I watching? An artist making a show, or a disabled person transcending their disabilities? As Shannon says, turning the question back on us, "Is it a dance, or is it a trick? Is it a trick, or is it a dance?" The answer is, I suspect, that it is both of these things, or neither of them. The truth is, I still don't know.


Guy said...

Hey - there's a new production of Attempts On Her Life at the Diorama Oct-Nov:

Leah said...

This is one of the best written reviews of "Spatial Theory" that I have read.