TobyMacbethMinefields and MiniskirtsBlog reviewBedtime for BastardsThe EisteddfodThe Williamson Syndrome ~ theatre notes

Saturday, July 24, 2004


Toby by Abe Pogos, directed by Catherine Hill, designed by Peter Mumford, lighting by Richard Vabre,with Tim Stitz, Adam Cass, Janine Watson, Christopher Brown, Benjamin Fuller and Tess Butler. La Mama at the Courthouse Theatre, Carlton, until July 31.

The stage is empty, apart from a huge wooden desk on which sits a giant typewriter. Seated at the desk, the CRITIC is industriously at work, staring vacantly into space and drumming his fingers.

CRITIC: Tum te dum. Tum te dum.

The CRITIC picks up a book from the desk and prowls restlessly, muttering. Reads the back of the book and is illuminated. Leaps back to the desk and types, copying from the book.

CRITIC: A fable. "A timely and darkly comic fable, Toby explores racism, genocide and the politics of power." Oh yes. That's good, that's very good. But then...what about... the set? The set! The set, the acting, the directing....all these require attention...and they have written nothing here about the set!

The CRITIC throws the book down on the desk. He is disconsolate.

CRITIC: Why is it so hard to write? For example - if I was writing about - Joseph Roth - the words would fly off the tips of my fingers like - like bushflies in summer. But instead, I feel like I'm swimming through molasses. It's not a terrible play. If it was terrible, I would feel inspired, I would be inhabited by a daemonic wit. And yet, it's no work of genius, either, so all my sensitivities, my - aesthetic antennae - are to no avail. They twitch sadly, lost and discombobulated...


How to say - anything at all... It's the playwright's fault.

The PLAYWRIGHT enters.

PLAYWRIGHT: Did you say it was my fault?

CRITIC: Yes, it's your bloody fault. The first page or so, I thought to myself, hey, something is happening here. There's Toby, the village idiot, and your other character -

PLAYWRIGHT: Christie -

CRITIC: Christie, that's right. Having an argument. The idiot and the ambitious friend who is betraying him. But then, what happens?


CRITIC: Suddenly it's not about these people arguing, instead they're talking about the Law. Suddenly a whole lot of imponderables and abstracts enter the conversation. Suddenly the life goes out of it.

PLAYWRIGHT: But the directing is good.

CRITIC: Yes, the directing is good. Very quick, very fluid, so the audience doesn't get bored - all that getting people on and off stage is done very well - although sometimes the performances are a little - a little -


CRITIC: Something like that. But I think that's your fault too.

PLAYWRIGHT: Is everything my fault?

CRITIC: Usually. Usually. You see, if you're dealing in imponderables and abstractions, if the characters are telling us all the time what they're thinking instead of, well, just thinking it - or even not just thinking it, but being it, at a level below consciousness - then it all becomes a bit too self conscious. And seeing as it's set (The CRITIC checks the back of the book) in a nineteenth century European village - don't you think it could have been a little more - specific? More like a nineteenth century European village?

PLAYWRIGHT: It's a play, not a documentary. Aren't you being pedantic?

CRITIC: It didn't seem like a nineteenth century European village at all. Maybe that wouldn't have mattered, if I had believed the characters. But there were only a couple of times when I did.

The PLAYWRIGHT is suddenly burdened by the sadness and existential weight of life. There is a pause.

CRITIC: And yet - when I walked into the theatre, I thought, oh, what a beautiful set - just autumn leaves strewn over the stage, and a couple of branches, and it was a real wood - and I walked over the leaves to my seat, smelling the autumn, feeling the papery stuff beneath my feet - and that beautiful auburn light -

The CRITIC starts typing, inspired.

PLAYWRIGHT: I wanted to show how easy it is for people to become - other. For people to be made afraid of anyone different, and then to become cruel and murderous.

CRITIC: The Blood Libel.

PLAYWRIGHT: Yes, all that.

CRITIC: It's worthy. I don't deny that. I can see why you've attached the Blood Libel to Gypsies rather than Jews: it's been used against all sorts of minorities for millennia, including Roma, so it focuses on the mechanism rather than the issue of, say, anti-Semitism. And there are some terrific bits.

PLAYWRIGHT: I'll write the review for you, if you like.

CRITIC: There are a couple of really interesting performances. That Tim Stitz, who plays the idiot, he's something, isn't he? So unafraid, so full of young energy - But I just don't understand why that girl Joan - played by Tess Butler - had to be so Pollyanna. She seemed the most symbolic of the characters, she might as well have had "WOMAN" tattooed on her forehead, how the men all owned her, how obedient she was, how her sexuality was her only means of power. I didn't believe her for a second. What can a performer do with that? It all ends up being like the shape of things, rather than the things themselves. A little dull, maybe. Like this, to be honest, like this conversation, which is all rather -

PLAYWRIGHT: But some terrific bits.

CRITIC; Oh, yes, but where's the whole thing? I reckon you should have cut most of the scenes in half. (CRITIC holds up a piece of paper and dramatically tears it in two.) Like that! But tell me. I just didn't get the Silver Alien.

PLAYWRIGHT: That's what everyone says.

CRITIC: I thought the pods that hung around the play were some kind of fungus. I mean some kind of real fungus, not an alien creature. So when the Silver Alien first appeared, I just didn't connect it with the pods at all. And how did that fit with the nineteenth century European village thing? But anyway, there was this Silver Alien... So then I thought, well, the pods are supposed to be ugly, disgusting, the lowest forms of life, and when people try to kill them they are blinded by some poison that squirts out of them, and then the Silver Alien - who is a kind of pod or something - promises some kind of transcendent, pure moral life - and - I guess, it's about some kind of polarising perception, how an idea of absolute Good creates an idea of absolute Evil... But the more I thought about it, the less it made any sense. The metaphor seemed awfully confused to me. I thought maybe it was something about the lowest being the highest, about the meek inheriting God's kingdom, all of that. But then, I also wondered if it was a hallucination...


CRITIC: I thought and thought. Racism isn't about hallucinations and madness. Most racists aren't mad, even if their realities are strangely skewed. It's about a certain kind of emotional logic. I can see how you're trying to illuminate these issues - but aren't you meaning it all a little - earnestly? And doesn't the Silver Alien, and the nineteenth century European village which is not like a village at all - isn't this somehow a way of avoiding the very banality of evil? When neighbours start killing each other, isn't it somehow a lot simpler and a lot stupider and a lot more complicated and a lot more brutal than that?

And then, I remembered Woycek. Some of the scenes in Toby are very reminiscent of Woycek. But in Georg Buchner's play, there's no recourse to complicated plotting or any structural machinery which points towards a meaning. Buchner relies instead on an incandescent emotional realism which welds together the impressionistic nature of the play's structure and argument. It's why Buchner is still so modern, three centuries later. He didn't worry about other kinds of logic, about connective tissue - he took the essential parts of a situation and exposed them with an unflinching rawness, and it is left to the witnesses to draw their own conclusions. Even despite its intentions, perhaps, Toby still feels as if it is reaching for a moral, the instructive couplet which neatly ties up the fable; but the kinds of issues the playwright wishes to address - genocide, racism - just won't fold up into a moral...

Mumbling, the CRITIC starts typing again, then stops, defeated, and stares into space.


Picture: Tim Stitz as Toby

La Mama Theatre

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Sunday, July 18, 2004


Macbeth by William Shakespeare, directed by Fiona Blair, with Richard Bligh, Stewart Morritt, Julia Zemiro, Mark Hennessy, Grant Mouldey, Georgina Naidu and Jeannie Van De Veld. The Old Van, at Theatreworks, until August 1

In Macbeth, it is always night: an endless darkness which brings no sleep, a waking dream from which there is no escape. As the critic Jan Kott says, this is history as nightmare: not a grand cyclical mechanism by which power replicates itself, but rather the infection of a murderous insanity.

From the moment Macbeth is hailed as King of Scotland by the witches on the heath, he is doomed. Already, as he toys with murder and betrayal, his existence begins to enter the penumbra of madness. "Nothing is," says Macbeth, "but what is not". And so matter itself changes: darkness becomes corporeal, and what appears solid dissolves into thin air. In such a world, as obsessive as any Shakespeare created, the dead might walk again, the earth bubble with witches, the ground itself bleed crimes.

This is the night as an active, malign force, a "darkness visible", and it is the substance of The Old Van's magnificent production of Macbeth, now on at Theatreworks. The Old Van, based in Daylesford, comes to Melbourne under Theatreworks' new programming policy of sponsoring independent productions. This Macbeth, which premiered four years ago, toured regional Victoria last year, and so comes to this season with an unusual depth of performance behind it.

Director Fiona Blair begins the action outside the theatre, around a brazier which represents a man's burning armour and introduces an idea of human sacrifice. In the cold July drizzle, it wasn't hard to make the imaginative transition to the fog of a Scottish heath: and the ritualistic chanting of the witches accompanied the audience, now accomplices to a dark enactment, into the theatre proper.

The theatre is stripped bare, opening a cavernously empty space. Although visually impressive, this does have a downside; the bare walls bounce the sound around and muffle some of the dialogue. The set, if it can be called that, is basically Rob Irwin's ingenious and dramatic lighting design: the action moves through a dynamic sculpture of darkness and light, constantly various and surprising within its austere pallet, in which human figures appear and vanish like tormented ghosts. This visual richness is enhanced by a soundscape created by the actors: the cast is present on stage for the whole performance, and those who are not active in the scenes create sonic texture by singing, whispering, wailing, or creating a percussive score with their hands or with sticks.

The set and sound act as a burning glass, heightening the emotional power of the performances. Apart from Lady Macbeth, who is identified by a long skirt and a crimson sash, every performer is dressed identically in a black buttoned coat and trousers, conferring a sexless anonymity which permits some ingenious doubling among the cast of six. The doubling is used in part to highlight the idea that we are entering Macbeth's private nightmare: so the same actor who plays Duncan (Grant Mouldey) also plays Macduff, underlining the continuity of Macbeth's crimes and also his karmic fate: for it is Macduff who in turn kills Macbeth and exacts his revenge.

The costuming permits the actors to literally vanish into the dark spaces of the theatre, to move backstage as shadows or echoes of the foreground action, or to appear out of nowhere simply by turning around. The performance is all in their faces and hands, which are lit with spectral pallor. I was surprised, all the same, when they took their bows, to see how few they were - not counting sundry spear carriers and bottlewashers, there are forty three parts in Macbeth, and six actors play all of them.

The take on gender is particularly interesting in this production. One of the witches is male and many of the minor male characters are played by women. This permits a particularly Shakespearean fluidity of gender and identity, and highlights the play's concern with masculinity, most clearly written in the scenes between Macbeth and his wife, but recurring obsessively throughout the play.

It is clear that the mockery with which Lady Macbeth drives Macbeth to murder Duncan emerges from an unspoken failure in their marriage, and that Macbeth is driven by his fear that he is not quite a man. For all Macbeth's concern to protect his bloodline, he and Lady Macbeth have no children, and this childlessness sounds through the play again and again: in his jealousy and eventual murder of Banquo, who will, unlike Macbeth, father kings; and in the heartbreaking scene when Macduff is told of the murder of his family. "He has no children", says Macduff, in a particularly barbed line. And when Ross tells him to "dispute it like a man" and put aside his grief, Macduff posits a different view of masculinity, which does not eschew love: in order to act, he must first "feel (his love) like a man". Macduff knows he is a man, while Macbeth deeply fears that he is not; and the implication is that Macbeth's bloody tyranny stems from this fear.

But mainly this production is an evocation of insanity, driven by the tragic passion between Macbeth (Richard Bligh) and Lady Macbeth (Julia Zemiro). Early on, there are flashes of psychosis in Julia Zemiro's performance, but it is always controlled by a steely will. Macbeth's resolution to murder Duncan is the only occasion in the play when the two touch: after the murder, which Lady Macbeth demands as proof of Macbeth's love for her ("When you durst do it, then you were a man"), they are irrevocably divided. In a particularly poignant gesture, Macbeth reaches out to cup his wife's belly; but his hand is arrested six inches away, as if it strikes an invisible barrier. A void has opened between them, and all that is left of their erotic obsession is its sterility.

Richard Bligh's Macbeth travels through madness to total nihilism, unable to feel fear, or even grief for his dead wife. "I gin to be aweary of the sun," he says: his life and his death are now equally absurd and meaningless, and all that remains is the relentless playing out of the logic of murder. This total alienation makes Lady Macbeth's madness especially heart-wrenching, and Julia Zemiro's performance of this famous scene is both potent and poignant, escaping cliche through the sheer force of its emotional truthfulness.

This is true of all the powerful moments of the play; the performances are beautifully nuanced, working with admirable restraint until the crucial scenes, when suddenly there are no boundaries. In terms of invoking pity and terror, this production has scenes as powerful as any I have seen: the murder of Banquo is genuinely frightening, Macduff's grief and guilt devastating. Richard Bligh, Stewart Morritt and Grant Mouldey have peak moments, and I'm sure I was not the only audience member in tears. But it feels unfair to single out particular actors from this tight ensemble; those who played a dozen characters each are equally as responsible for the power of the whole.

In its conception and execution, this production is a brilliant vindication of poetic imagination in theatre: using the simplest of resources, The Old Van creates a complex and potent metaphor of the world. And it's a rare example of the idea of theatre as a holy space, in which all present participate in a cathartic enactment of ritual. It also struck me as particularly Australian, although this may sound like a peculiar observation: its approach to the text was utterly serious and committed, but without a trace of reverence, and nobody felt any need to be anything but unselfconsciously Australian in speaking Shakespeare's blank verse (unless they were English, like Morritt). And guess what? It works: Shakespeare's language comes fully alive with a touch of the vernacular. Underneath this production's boldness and ingenuity, there is a self-belief in the emotional arc of the play which can only emerge from a true naivety, a freshness that takes these old ideas and makes something utterly new.


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Friday, July 16, 2004

Minefields and Miniskirts

Minefields and Miniskirts, adapted by Terence O'Connell from Siobhan McHugh's book, directed by Terence O'Connell, with Robyn Arthur, Tracy Bartram, Debra Byrne, Tracy Mann and Wendy Stapleton. Playbox Theatre, until July 31.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who started reading about the Vietnam War again earlier this year, when the word "quagmire" was redefined as a no-go zone and the comparisons with Iraq started getting insistent. The US military were again talking of "winning hearts and minds" while Marines razed foreign villages and got blown up on foreign highways. General Kimmitt was holding his Five O'Clock Follies, and the indie journo was back, as hip as ever, telling the real stories: the art galleries in downtown Baghdad, the graveyards in Falluja, the deadly taxi rides to Baghdad Airport.

The first book I picked up was Michael Herr's Despatches, the classic account of his time as correspondent for Esquire during some of the worst years of the Vietnam War. It's a hallucinatory book which has fundamentally shaped the perceptions of the Vietnam War for later generations. His soundtrack is the suicidal guitar of Hendrix, and through his pages stumble the brutal, innocent GIs, out of their heads on fear and marijuana and speed: boys from the mid-West who had never left America before, poor kids from industrial cities, thrust into the adrenalin chaos of war. Then, as now, losing their friends, their legs, their minds, their lives.

No one has described the Vietnam combat like Herr, with a vividness that's as close as you will get to understanding without having been there: for there is a barrier between imagination and experience no words can bridge, no matter how vivid or how passionate they are, no matter how true. Herr put down on paper the unspeakable seduction of homicidal psychosis, later swollen to screen size in Brando's portrayal of Captain Kurtz in Apocalyse Now. He spoke, as Wilfred Owen did in an earlier age, of terror and pity: most of all, of pity. Though in an interview years later, he said he had no pity for the vets who beat up their wives, who sat in bars with dark glasses on, haunted by the awful things they had done. They deserved to be haunted, he said. I found myself admiring his moral pitilessness: it bespoke, I thought, a truer compassion.

This is, however intelligent, however aware, however passionately anti-war, the stuff of Boy's Own journals. War stories are traditionally the business of men: so Siobhan McHugh's book, a collection of interviews with more than fifty Australian women whose lives were touched by the Vietnam war, opens up a hitherto shadowy area of experience. This book has been adapted by Terence O'Connell into a play and, strangely, the territory covered by the play is only subtly different from Herr's. Maybe it's because atrocity doesn't distinguish between the sexes: men and women are alike capable of compassion, perception, cowardice, toughness, grief, appalling brutality and astounding love.

Here are the same soldier's wallets with the souvenir atrocity photos, the same heart-wrenching portrayals of civilian suffering, the same cruel interrogations, the same descriptions of Saigon prostitutes (but not the thuggish American contractors who bought them), the same choppers and ceiling fans, the same agonising, pointless deaths. I guess these things are now so familiar they amount to cliches. There are some gendered twists: the description of the birth of a baby, or the war correspondent condemned to the Women's Pages in civilian life, or the story of the veteran's wife, brutalised by her traumatised husband.

What you do get in this play, unlike most US portrayals, is a sense of the Vietnamese experience of the war, even though there is still a feeling that the Vietnamese were extras in this most Western of dramas. I had to wait until I read Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War until I truly understood that the Vietnam War was, first of all, a Vietnamese tragedy.

Although the source material is rich, as theatre it remains half-baked. For the purposes of the play, Terence O'Connell has adapted and conflated these fifty interviews into five representative characters: the Correspondent, the Entertainer, the Nurse, the Volunteer and the Vet's Abused Wife. He has then sliced and spliced to make five interleaving monologues punctuated by archetypal songs from the 60s and 70s - Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Joan Baez.

When I opened the play and saw page after page of dense prose, I felt apprehensive: I couldn't see how O'Connell's adaptation had grappled with the idea of what a theatrical utterance might be, what it means to say words on stage. This play relies heavily on the intrinsic interest of its source material, some snappy choreography and the charisma of its performers, but none of these are enough to make it theatre. It's not primarily a question of the play's structure, although that counts. The problem goes deeper, into what you might call the DNA of theatrical language.

The director Peter Brook put the problem of theatrical writing in his book The Empty Stage: "If one starts from the premise that a stage is a stage - not a convenient premise for the unfolding of a staged novel or a staged poem or staged lecture or a staged story - then the word that is spoken on this stage exists, or fails to exist, only in relation to the tensions it creates on that stage within the given stage circumstances. ...The choices (the dramatist) makes and the values he observes are only powerful in proportion to what they create in the language of theatre."

Which is to say that writing for theatre is an extremely specific art, in which, as David Mamet says, language is not about action: it is action. O'Connell's adaptation stays in the realm of the "staged story": little imagination has been devoted to making this material theatrical, except in the most superficial sense of that word. O'Connell, who also directs the show, says his major concern was to "give (the material) a beginning, a middle and an end", and this, in the most earnest traditions of deadly narration, is precisely what he does.

The signals are given early: there's a projection on a scrim as the audience enters which tells us exactly what we are about to see. After the first song, during which the characters are serially introduced, each telling the first instalment of their story, the rhythm is set: the women will speak their monologues, and sing, and speak their monologues, and sing; and you know they will do so until they reach the "present", which for the purposes of the play is an ANZAC Day march.

What saves the evening from tedium is the performances. Minefields and Miniskirts has a celebrity cast, and these women belt out some great songs. Perhaps it is worth it to hear these amazing singers tackle Carole King's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, which is a genuine show-stopper. But in all the performances there is a tendency to over-act, perhaps from a subconscious recognition of the inherent non-theatricality of the text; a dragging out of tears which has the perverse effect of draining the stories of their power.

The show's other saving grace is its visual spectacle. Catherine Raven's design, stunningly lit by Phil Lethlean, uses the simplicity of bamboo blinds to create a flexible and evocative theatrical space, swathed in the gorgeous colours of Thai silks. The set has some breathtaking moments of its own - when the blinds are drawn back and silhoheutted to reveal a backdrop of blue sky, for example, or a moment where it goes dark and "stars" come out all over the theatre. It reminded me of one of the most beautiful sets I've ever seen, for Steve Berkoff's Salome, which was also backgrounded by a luminous sky.

It is impossible not to wonder what might have been, if these resources had been applied to an inspired (or even slightly more imaginative) script: in the hands, for example, of a David Hare, whose Fanshen is surely the exemplary documentary play. O'Connell applies biopic conventions of music theatre to a "serious" topic, with mixed results, and the writing is bogged down by a ploddingly literal approach.

Sadly, the unsolved aesthetic dilemmas presented by the material muffle its political impact: for there is no doubt that these experiences have particular resonances today, when Australian soldiers are again at war in a far country. These stories simply should not be boring. It seems that O'Connell can't decide whether Minefields and Miniskirts is feel-good commercial theatre or worthy documentary, and so falls between two stools. Using the commercial musical as a vehicle does raise the question of whether the experiences described in the play can really be approached as sheer entertainment. In the end, it escapes trivialising them, I think; but only just. All the same, you are probably better off reading the original book.

Picture: Lisa Tomasetti

Playbox Theatre

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Thursday, July 15, 2004

Blog review

Theatre Notes has been going for six weeks! My, how time flies when one is having fun! And I think it's probably a good time to pause and consider what, if anything, the blog has achieved since early June, when I had a rush of blood to my head and began this quixotic enterprise.

I've remembered what I think a theatre critic can be: a privileged representative of the audience; a witness; a chronicler; a locus of theatrical memory; an informed and responsive subjectivity. And I've been revisiting a few favourite texts, among them Peter Brook's The Empty Space, surely one of the most inspiring books ever written about theatre. I'd forgotten that Brook speaks about criticism, and in terms very close to those in which I think of my aspirations and responsibilities as a critic.

The critic's angriest reaction, says Brook, is perhaps the most vital, because it is a "call for competence", when incompetence is "the vice, the condition and the tragedy of the world's theatre at any level". But he also says the critic is a pathmaker, one who collaborates with theatre makers in the desire for "a less deadly, but as yet undefined, theatre". "The vital critic," says Brook, "is the critic who has clearly formulated for himself what the theatre could be - and who is bold enough to throw this formula into jeopardy each time he participates in a theatrical event." Yes, that is precisely the kind of critic I would like to be. I see no reason why I should be any less at risk than anyone else in the theatrical equation.

But that doesn't mean that people necessarily like me for it. I am also remembering that slight social embarrassment, the natural resentment of those who wonder what gives me the right to comment on their work. It's a delicate business, my friends. There is perhaps something rather deformed about a compulsive desire to critique, something distasteful, like a vaguely unhygienic skin disease. Unlike everyone else, the critic says what she thinks in public; and although she has every right to do so, and even if she is as just as Solomon, who doesn't feel a slight frisson at her temerity? Conversely, I've had some astoundingly positive feedback, which confirms my suspicion that there is a real hunger for serious discussion of theatre, and a broad consciousness that the terms in which theatre is generally discussed are restricted and restricting.

So far, I think my six month experiment is justifying itself, and it's certainly enjoyable. My site minder tells me that in terms of readership, Theatre Notes has been modestly successful. Through June it had an average of 240 visits a week, climbing to an average of 336 in July. Bafflingly, most of my readers - 45 per cent - come from the UK, with the next highest figure - 17 per cent - from the east coast of Australia, mainly Melbourne. The rest are scattered fairly evenly through the rest of the world, with a couple of larger bumps in Western Australia and North America.

My reviews are also appearing in the State of the Arts ezine and are included in its email newsletter, which is sent out to 10,000 recipients every week. It's one of those mutually beneficial relationships, like those you see on natural history programs, and it means that the reviews are getting out to many more people than those who visit the blog. So many thanks to Chloe Flynn.

It's not a million hitter, but all in all it's not too bad, considering that Theatre Notes has come from a standing start. My first ambition is to pick up the local content. I figure, from various observations over the years, that there are probably about 5000 serious theatre goers in Melbourne; that is, those who are ready to follow new ideas in contemporary theatre, and whose interests might be provoked by the kind of ideas I'm pursuing here. I have had some postcards printed and am dropping them around Melbourne, to alert anyone who might be interested but might not otherwise hear of Theatre Notes (when I mention the blog to theatre people here, I most often get a stunned silence - cyberculture and the theatre world seem to have few intersections). So if you're reading this and think it's worthwhile, tell all your friends. And if you have any suggestions on how to spread the word, let me know.

I'm grateful to the theatre companies in Melbourne who have all politely, even if sometimes puzzledly, provided me with tickets. I like to think that I'm offering something positive in return, but of course I remember from the past that the recipients of my eager altruism haven't always been grateful for it. My one big disappointment is that almost no one has picked up on the interactive possibilities of the blog - that is, the ability to comment on my comments. If people have something to say to me, they email me privately. I can't believe that everyone who reads this blog agrees with everything I say, and I am always interested in conversation. And it's good to be diagreed with, it sharpens my own questioning of what I do. Are people just shy? Am I flogging a dead horse? Or is it true that in Melbourne, nobody hears you scream...?

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Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Bedtime for Bastards

Bedtime for Bastards, three plays by Van Badham. Directed by Dan Walls and Paul Shea, with Liv Hogan, Brett Whittingham, Paul Shea, Catherine Kohlen, Ron Kofler and Dan Walls. Upstairs at the Terminus Hotel, 605 Victoria St, Abbotsford. Until July 17.

The Terminus Hotel is a classic, sticky-carpet Melbourne pub, complete with open fire and space invaders machine, which has somehow escaped the developers. Upstairs, the bar is furnished with a rainbow of sofas in '70s colourings and fabrics: shiny black vinyl to orange to purple plush. I'm waiting for the Sunday matinee, and the light spilling through the windows is the dull silver of winter afternoons the world over, lending a melancholy tenderness to the faded faux-Gauguin reproductions which punctuate the crimson textured wallpaper. This decor calls up memories so old I can't even visualise them, imprints from the youths of my parents. It's far too authentic to be slick. The theatre itself is at the end of a passage: you step through a makeshift curtain, past the tiny stage, into a small, rather likeably proportioned room. The lights go down, there's that hush, the caught breath: and the show begins.

It's a while since I've been to this kind of performance, which is maybe why it strikes me with a particular force. This is the real poor theatre: two planks (or a borrowed lounge suite) and a passion. It happens the world over, in basements or warehouses or pubs or even somebody's loungeroom. Nobody might be there, or the audience might be crammed up to the rafters. No matter: this is theatre's lifeblood, the core of its self-belief. If it ever stopped happening, theatre would be dead.

I've caught the RER to outer suburbs in Paris, eating an unfeasibly huge baguette stuffed with egg and tuna in one of those tatty bistros crammed between concrete highrises, on the way to see some show in a basement. Because it's Paris, it's easy to believe it matters: everyone knows that new, significant work happens first in these out-of-the-way venues, and the show is preceded and followed by long conversations and passionate analysis. It lacks any genteel veneer of glamour: this is the undiluted romance, hard-core and memorable as home-brewed vodka. Without it, theatre is just what it often threatens to be, a mere commodity, a "leisure activity", an entertainment.

Bedtime for Bastards is certainly the real thing. Act-O-Matic 3000, an unfunded independent company of mainly young actors, presents three short plays by Van Badham, a young Australian writer who has been making waves in the UK. Over the past couple of years Badham's work, in productions at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Royal Court, has attracted favourable notice as a feisty theatrical voice speaking a new politics for a new generation.

And it's easy to see why: these plays, each very different from the others, reveal a tough and versatile talent. Badham has a vicious theatrical wit which is perhaps best displayed in the final piece, Capital, in which two PR flacks (Dan Walls and Ron Kofler) are given the job of a lifetime: to "positivise" a video which shows American Marines, high on crack, murdering and raping Afghani children. They have 15 minutes before Colin Powell phones them for their spin, and they use the time to role-play some scenarios of Sadean cruelty.

This is comedy so black you feel guilty for laughing, an unflinchingly angry indictment of a hype-driven, morally bankrupt society. It's intelligent political writing, intelligently directed and performed, which through its pitiless satire escapes the traps of agitprop and earnestness. As the cliche says, truth is the first casualty in war; but this play shows truth in the chair with its hands tied, getting the full Rumsfeldian treatment. From three feet away, the violence is real enough to make you involuntarily flinch. But it's the off-stage violence that stays with you; not only the atrocity of war, but that karmic sense of impending threat the CIA calls "blowback", which is, post 9/11, now an indelible part of the West's subconscious.

The opening play, Morning on a Rainy Day, is less successful. It's a straightfowardly naturalistic portrait of an obsessive and masochistic sexual "friendship". I liked the courage of Liv Hogan and Brett Whittington, who give performances of a disarming candour, but I preferred the heightened styles of the other plays. An Anarchist At Dinner is basically a one-joke play which knows exactly when to stop; I won't say more, for fear of giving away the punchline. It's a deadly accurate satire of the naturalistic conventions of middle-class Australian theatre, and performed with a proper edge of grotesquerie. But Capital is the main event, and tapes Badham as a writer to watch.

There's no credit for a designer, perhaps because there is nothing to design with. There is nothing pretty about Act-O-Matic 3000's production. They have at most maybe half a dozen lights and basic sound, and the props are what the plays require and no more. This theatre aims for a different kind of sophistication, a transparency of emotional affect which relies on nothing except actors and text. It doesn't always get there; but when it does, it's brilliant.

The Act-O-Matic 3000

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Monday, July 05, 2004

The Eisteddfod

The Eisteddfod by Lally Katz, directed by Chris Kohn, with Jessamy Dyer and Luke Mullins, Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre, The Store Room, Fitzroy. Until July 11.

The Eisteddfod is like a series of Chinese boxes - a play inside a play inside a play. And what do we find, gentle reader, once we peel back those endless layers of performance? As Peer Gynt discovers with his onion, there's nothing in the middle: just a comfortless question, which happens to be the same as Albert Camus' - given life's tragic absurdity, why don't we just hang ourselves?

In fact, this play provokes a veritable cornucopia of allusions, which is, I'm sure, a good sign - about the production, if not the junkroom of my brain. I found it intriguing both to watch and think over, and its every aspect - writing, direction, design and acting - is characterised by a witty, sardonic intelligence. The Eisteddfod might be subtitled "Kath and Kim meet Cocteau"; it is a kind of Les Enfants Terribles set in surburban Caulfield or Box Hill, the story of a brother and sister who withdraw into an imaginary world where they play out games of an increasingly disturbing eroticism.

Gerture (Jessamy Dyer) and Abalone (Luke Mullins) are orphaned early by a "pruning accident" and subsequently become agoraphobic, creating fantasy lives of a strangely rich banality. Gerture's private world is her career as a German teacher (her name is pronounced, for what it's worth, the same as "Goethe", just as, in a nod to Chekhov, the prize for The Eisteddfod is a ticket to Moscow). Abalone, threatened by his increasing exclusion from her private fantasies, lures her back into their mutual bedroom with his ambition to win the local Eisteddfod by performing Macbeth, with Gerture alongside as Lady Macbeth.

I wondered, given its play-within-a-play format, whether Hamlet might not be a better foil for the action, but this idea is raised and dismissed early on: Macbeth it is, not only for the chance to play off Lady Macbeth's ambition, neatly inverted in Katz's play, but also perhaps for how the sheer bleakness of Macbeth's famous valediction to his wife underlines The Eisteddfod's desolate subtext: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, / Who struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound fury, / Signifying nothing."

In between rehearsals, they play out various erotic roles - their parents' unhappy marriage and, in particular, an abusive relationship between Gerture and her lover Ian, a man who fully deserves the epithet "sleaze". The sexual games circle towards rape, touching a sadism disturbing enough to recall those notorious photos from Abu Ghraib (especially when Abalone dons a balaclava); but like most of the allusions in this play, these connections operate subliminally, flickering darkly beneath the surface sparkle.

And there's plenty of sparkle in this young company's production. Chris Kohn's direction is assured, whipping up a high level of energy from the start by precise shifts of orchestration, helped along with a cheesily bright sound design by Jethro Woodward and Richard Vabre's snappy lighting. Adam Gardnir's design is similarly smart: a raised platform which signifies the bedroom, with useful storage spaces and nifty detailing which permits this tiny space to have a surprising number of defined performing areas. Jessamy Dyer and Luke Mullins handle the shifts from grotesque parody to authentic grimness with a wholly engaging air of innocence, which gives the later shift to darker realities all the more punch. The only time I felt a glitch was in the final duologue, which seemed just slightly - three or four beats - too long.

The writer herself, Lally Katz, makes a couple of appearances as an introductory voice over and as a puppet, which serves to destabilise the already deranged theatrical realities even further. This introduces another level of satire: the vanity (in both senses) of performance itself. As the various layers of performance within the play - the Eisteddfod, the siblings' games, a puppet show - ripple inwards towards emptiness, so the idea that all human behaviour is performance ripples out into reality. The Eisteddfod is not only a mordant critique of the banality of suburban life, but also suggests that all the selves people present, even the most private, are merely surfaces; roles which play us, rather than roles we play. Its irreverent echoing of Cocteau, perhaps the 20th century's most profound artist of appearance, goes much deeper than surface allusion.

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Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Williamson Syndrome

So, David Williamson has announced he's retiring: it's time, he tells us, that he made way for new blood. And naturally, the tributes are dutifully rolling in. I have been reading so many nice words about David Williamson that I feel a bit misanthropic. It's not that I have any personal animus against the man; I wish him only the best in his new, stress-free life in Noosa. Neither do I believe that Williamson's plays shouldn't be done: he has an audience, and they have every right to see his plays. What gives me a pain in the cerebellum is the broad implication that Williamson is Australia's most important playwright, and if only those nasty critics would leave him alone, why, he might even be Chekhov.

Williamson is not, by a long shot, Australia's most important playwright. He isn't a patch, for example, on Patrick White, and he has never matched the craft of Peter Kenna's or Richard Beynon's plays, nor the imagination of Dorothy Hewett's. Every time I pick up one of his scripts, I am amazed afresh at how badly written it is. Since Travelling North, his last decent play, Williamson has churned out a series of formulaic duds: he picks a topic out of the newspaper headlines, and then fashions a drama around it which includes the usual set of vaguely glamorous middle class characters - journalists, footballers, socialites - who look at paintings and say things like "That's an Arthur Boyd, isn't it?", in between cracking an endless series of one-liners. Any subtext is usually worn on the outside, like Superman's underpants. When I watch stuff like this, I get a numb patch in the middle of my brain, about where the third eye is supposed to be. I think it's called boredom.

None of this would matter if people came clean and didn't try to pretend Williamson was writing great theatre. Williamson writes commercial plays, pure and simple, and his barometer of success is their popularity. This is not in itself a problem, or it wouldn't be if Australia had a healthy commercial theatre sector and a subsidised theatre which was funded sufficiently to pursue a truly artistic agenda. It is a problem when Williamson is placed in the same category as Chekhov and Shakespeare and when, to survive at all, our subsidised theatres are forced to program commercial plays.

Aubrey Mellor, artistic director of Playbox Theatre, compares Williamson to Chekhov; as indeed, Williamson does himself. Mellor says this is because Williamson has "a kind of humanism and genuine curiosity about people". I can walk down to the local supermarket and meet any number of humane, curious people, but this doesn't make them Anton Chekhov. Chekhov is a great playwright because (as reading his exquisite short stories confirms) he is, in the first place, a great writer: formally curious, subtle, perceptive, with a kind of lyrical wit which can blaze suddenly into moments of extraordinary passion. And crucially, behind all Chekhov's comedy is the consciousness of a tragedian.

David Williamson, on the other hand, is a journalist of the theatre, and his oeuvre is by no means tragic. He writes popular plays which aim to chronicle "relevant" issues and to present a middle class audience with reflections of themselves. When you compare Williamson's theatre to the equivalent writers elsewhere (the English playwright Alan Ayckbourne, for example, or Stephen Sondheim) the poverties of his writing become absolutely clear. Ayckbourne is a popular playwright with sufficient skill to sometimes write a genuinely interesting play. Williamson has never matched Ayckbourne's technical wit in, for example, the intricate structure of The Norman Conquests, nor the adventurous formality of A Woman in Mind, a dark theatrical exploration of mental illness. This is because, for at least the past decade, Williamson's theatrical world has taken its values almost wholly from the mass media: the factual issues-based universe of current affairs and the aesthetic of television naturalism.

This is one reason his plays are so popular: the conventions are as familiar to us as our own lounge rooms. Williamson's plays fulfil perfectly Peter Brook's famous definition of "the deadly theatre". They are examples of extremely conservative, even reactionary, theatre which challenges nothing; despite its claims to grapple with contemporary issues, its outcome is merely to confirm all the middle class values it represents.

The fact that our major theatres are funded so poorly explains why Williamson is a fixture on our subsidised stages. The MTC receives only 15 per cent of its funding from government sources, which leaves 85 per cent of its budget to be raised by box office and sponsorship. In 1996, the most recent figures I could find, the comparable flagship companies in France, the National Theatres, received 73 per cent of their funding from the State, 21 per cent through the box office and the remaining six per cent from other sales. (This doesn't count other indirect forms of funding, like the unemployment benefits for itinerant workers. The Chirac Government's decision to cut back these benefits, which take into account the seasonal nature of their work and is a major resource for French performing arts, has caused rolling strikes by arts workers across France over the past year, that among other things forced the cancellation of last year's Avignon Festival. Such activism is as impossible to imagine here as the existence of such funding in the first place.)

But even conservative governments in France acknowledge the central importance of culture, and French artists, true to their revolutionary tradition, are prepared to go to the barricades to defend it. In Australia, the very assumption that culture matters beyond its economic value has to be fought for, and for the past decade the arts have been losing badly. Hence the dilemmas faced by our major companies. Williamson brings in crowds, and the big theatres need hits; they can't afford to operate without them. Williamson is a commodity, and he has been - in Australia, if not elsewhere - an extremely successful commodity. But what is important about art is precisely what can't be commodified, and under the dominance of the Williamson aesthetic it has become much harder to argue for that non-commodifiable, indefinable, essential factor.

Because the big state companies which mount Williamson's plays are subsidised, they have to maintain the fiction that somehow his works contribute to Australia's cultural richness. My view is that for many years his work has done precisely the reverse, that Wiliamson has contributed to the creation of an orthodoxy of Australian theatre which is stiflingly narrow, to conventions which owe more to television naturalism than any theatrical tradition or innovation, to an ersatz convention of social critique which in fact challenges nothing. The terms in which theatre is discussed are those which fit Williamson's aesthetic; the diverse, unruly universe of theatrical form is divided neatly into two - "naturalism" and "non-naturalism" - and plays are judged by their "relevance" and "topicality". Words like "beauty" or "imagination" are off the agenda. You get the idea that they might even be considered embarrassing.

Once upon a time, Williamson's plays would have been, rightly, the province of commercial stages. When our subsidised theatres began to produce commercial plays that were previously put on by companies like Hocking and Woods, it signalled the beginning of a new era of conservatism in Australian theatre. For one thing, independent play producers could not compete with the funding of subsidised theatres, and disappeared: now commercial theatre is almost solely the province of musicals. And more crucially, the space for innovative theatre on our subsidised stages has grown more and more restricted. In New York, the ontological theatre of the bizarre Richard Foreman, or the Wooster Group, are so famous to be practically regarded as mainstream; in Paris, Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook work on main stages; in English theatre, which has lost the lustre it possessed in the '60s and '70s, you can still point to Sarah Kane. The only Melbourne director with anything like that stature of innovation, Barrie Kosky, is now working in Vienna. When a mildly experimental play by a writer like Harold Pinter is dismissed by a major company as a "fringe play", as happened a few years ago, you know you're in trouble - if even Pinter's recent work hasn't a chance of being performed on a big stage with major resources, what chance is there for any of our young, innovative theatre artists?

To be fair, this is hardly Williamson's fault; his dominance is not a cause, but a symptom of a much deeper malaise in the Australian arts. A large part of this problem is simply financial. I am all for the arts having economic recognition (ie, artists being paid). I agree that arts companies ought to be fiscally savvy and that, if they are to be given public money, they need to be accountable. But while they are important, those pragmatic considerations, it seems to me, should serve the arts. Most often, it seems to work the other way around. The arts are considered to have utility value, as educational aids, as employers, as tourism promoters, as generators of economic exchange. But the idea of the value of the arts as an expression of human imagination and intellect, as a vital arena of human activity which challenges and questions received realities, seems to have disappeared almost entirely.

Part of the problem resides in the issues of what form public accountability ought to take, and what arts advocacy might be; and these are genuinely vexed questions. I can remember when people started talking about the "arts industry", back in the early '90s. I thought at the time it was a harbinger of doom. The argument used to lobby for arts funding was almost exclusively economic: the arts created employment, generated tourism, and so on. (There was, I think, a little discussion about social capital.) This focus seems to have modelled almost all subsequent advocacy for the arts. And what we have created is a monster, to which all the arts must now pay tribute: the arts industry is here to stay, and arts companies are expected to function like other economic entities, and to justify their existences by making a profit for their "stakeholders". As the former Arts Minister Richard Alston breezily said in connection with yet another review of cultural funding aimed at cutting it back yet again, "You've got to look at results." Alston makes clear that he means financial results. It is more than a tired truism that in these terms, much of the most significant art of the past three centuries - from Paradise Lost to Madame Butterfly to Ulysses - failed dismally on its first appearance. This is not to say that great art and commercial success are mutually exclusive; Shakespeare is a case in point. But more often than not, artistic triumph does not translate to instant commercial success; that's why we have arts funding in the first place.

Cutting arts funding is most often censorship by stealth; it was one of the policies, for example, of Ceaucesu's totalitarian regime in Romania. Ceaucesu whittled away the funding of the eminent Bulandra Company by 90 per cent, a more effective way of stifling its voice than even the extensive censorship to which it was subjected. Ceaucesu did not dare to ban Shakespeare, despite the fact that his plays were staged as expressions of revolutionary freedom, but he could easily deprive the company of the resources to stage him. The Howard Government's campaign against the arts is the same mechanism under less extreme circumstances and, as our rights are gradually cut back under the pressures of the "war on terror", these issues go to the heart of our democratic freedoms. It is worth remembering here that cultural rights are enshrined as basic human rights under Article 27 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that the UN notes the responsibility of the State to "respect the freedom indispensible for scientific and creative activity" and to promote "the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture".

Given its devastating impact on these ideals, it is not surprising that the idea of the "arts industry" has been attacked recently by several eminent Australians, including Donald Horne. Horne says the "economisation of culture" is a fundamentalist creed. "It's not supported by public stonings or beheadings but its effect can be pretty ruthless," he said in a speech in 2002. "It's the kind of language that turns our society into 'the economy', our citizens into 'the consumers' and our public funds into 'taxpayers' money'." He described the phrase "the arts industry" and the adoption by arts advocates of the vogue-ish terminology of the markets as a Trojan horse. "How is it," he asks, "that people concerned with speaking up for 'the arts' and other cultural activities have been reduced to that kind of twaddle?"

Twaddle it is. But as long as theatres are forced into the kind of doublethink which requires them to talk up David Williamson as a major artist, as long as commercial values masquerade as tacit synonyms for artistic significance, there will be no change. What happens when "popular" is conflated with "good" is that you get the worst of both worlds: serious art loses its nerve before the exigencies of the "bottom line", and commercial art puffs itself up with pretensions to an artistic significance it does not possess. In this falsity, both lose their focus and vitality. Everyone is cheated - audiences, theatre companies and, perhaps most sadly, the artists themselves.


Fund artists, not buildings - The Age
Funding in the spotlight - The Age

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