Review: Entertaining Mr Sloane2006: The WrapHmmmmmmBlood sportHolly, mistletoe and other un-antipodean thingsIn Which Little Alison Gets CrossDebate? What debate?That "entertainment" wordStrong actionReview: Short & SweetExploding Melbourne blogsMIAF: The thrashing beginsMIAF: Edmunds scores another yearMore geek stuffCrampton on criticismHousekeepingReview: A Mile in her ShadowOn being niceReview: TranslationsCriticism and audiences ~ theatre notes

Friday, December 29, 2006

Review: Entertaining Mr Sloane

Entertaining Mr Sloane by Joe Orton, directed by Simon Phillips. Designed by Shaun Gurton, lighting design by Matt Scott, music by David Chesworth. With Ben Geurens, Bob Hornery, Amanda Muggleton and Richard Piper. Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax at the Victorian Arts Centre until February 10.

One of the most famous photographs of Joe Orton sums up his self-consciously louche vulgarity. He is slouched in a deckchair, naked except for a pair of white Y-fronts, smirking ironically at the camera. His immaculately tanned skin glistens, and a single lock of hair curls wantonly over his forehead. But the focus of the photo is his crotch: his legs apart, he is offering his cock for our awed delectation.

Orton was boastful about the dimensions of his penis, but in this particular photograph he is supposed to have stuffed his underpants with toilet paper. This theatrically staged image seems to sum up the flavour of Orton's plays, that sly mixture of self-mockery, frank lust and exaggerated fantasy, leavened with a casual brutality.

What's not so evident in this image is Orton's aesthetic intelligence; the comparisons with Wilde are not entirely unjust. But while Wilde's plays are exquisite machines, the works of a poet, Orton's precision was of another kind. His plays were satires on human animality, casting a sardonic eye on the hypocrisies and cruelties of middle class England. Crucially, as his biographer John Lahr points out, like all great satirists Orton was, first of all, a realist.

It seems to me that this is where Simon Phillips' production of Entertaining Mr Sloane goes dreadfully wrong: right at the beginning. This is a bafflingly bad production, so wrong-headed that it in fact makes nonsense of the play. Phillips takes Orton's disturbingly amoral universe and wraps it in a neat moral. He manages somehow to stage a play about sex without the smallest whiff of real, dangerous lust. Worst of all, he and his cast trample Orton's anarchic comedy into the ground. It's about as funny as a used condom.

Entertaining Mr Sloane, Orton's second play, was his first big hit. Mr Sloane (Ben Geurens) is a sexually charismatic youth who is pursued by both his landlady Kath (Amanda Muggleton) and her wealthy brother Ed (Richard Piper). Kath's father, Kemp (Bob Hornery) remembers Sloane's face as that of the man who murdered his former empoyer. By the end of the play, Sloane has murdered Kemp, and is blackmailed into a "practical" ménage à trois with both the brother and sister.

It's easy to see the spell of Harold Pinter in this early writing - with Samuel Beckett, Pinter was the only contemporary playwright whom Orton respected - and it has strong similarities to plays like The Birthday Party. There's the same focus on human banality, the same pervasive sense of sexual threat. And there is the same quality of edgily heightened realism, a quality Orton always claimed for his work. His plays, he said, were not fantasies: they were accurate portrayals of reality.

Loot, one of the plays that made Orton's reputation, was a disaster on its first outing for reasons that sound very similar to what's wrong here. A peformance of "outrageous mugging" from Kenneth Williams and confused performances from an all-star cast sent it to an early grave. "The play is clearly not written naturalistically," Orton said of Ruffian on the Stair, with the failure of Loot in mind. "But it must be directed and acted with absolute realism...No 'stylisation', no 'camp'. No attempt in fact to match the author's extravagance of dialogue with extravagance of direction."

Certainly, Phillips' production pays no heed to these admonitions. He directs the play as if it is an episode of Are You Being Served? - here are the same stereotypical characters, the same upper-lower-class English accents (with the concomitant laughter at lower-class pretensions), the same broad sexual innuendoes. The effect, predictably, is to terminally deflate every single comic line. I had to come home and read the play again to remind myself that it really is funny.

Perhaps the gesture that sums up the prurience of this production is the difficulty with Ed's smoking. In the script, he is a chain smoker who fetishises his silver cigarette case. Somehow Richard Piper manages to fiddle with cigarettes constantly without ever lighting one. He loses his matches; he takes a cigarette out and replaces it in his silver case; he does everything except actually smoke.

So far as I know, it is not illegal to smoke on stage in Victoria; perhaps the MTC has some sponsorship deal which prevents drug use on stage, or perhaps it simply doesn't want to offend its patrons. But then you wonder why on earth they decided to do this play. Just as this show attempts to show a chain smoker on stage without any actual smoking (despite an important scene where Ed smokes backstage, sinisterly watching the other characters) so we have lots of sexual innuendo - of the eye-popping, crotch-grabbing, bum-slapping kind - without any actual sex.

The performances are bogged down with stage business - the first two pages of dialogue take about 10 minutes - and make the play maybe half an hour longer than it ought to be. People seem to putting on coats and hats and taking them off every two minutes. The leering and winking at the audience seems to go for hours. This sense of everything being muffled by inessential detail is highlighted by Shaun Gurton's over-detailed set, an irritatingly intrusive score by David Chesworth that underlines every "significant" line and a lighting design that, like the production, permits no darkness on the stage.

The actors themselves each seem to be in a different play. There's nothing wrong with Amanda Muggleton's performance as such, aside from the fact that it's utterly wrong for the text. The tragedy that infuses Kath's life is muted into a mere joke, making the misogyny of the other characters both less palpable and less significant. As for Richard Piper: I am not at all certain what he is doing, but it's embarrassing to see such a good actor reduced to such unashamed mugging to the audience, such a meaningless constellation of tics and gestures.

About 20 minutes into the first act, as Mr Sloane (Ben Geurens) lounged unconvincingly on the couch, thrusting up his crotch in an uncomfortable simulacrum of adolescent seduction, an image flashed into my mind. I'm sure it was a photograph of the 1975 production of Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Royal Court, in which Sloane was played by the young Malcolm McDowell. The image of McDowell lounging on the couch showed me what was missing here: a charismatic amorality, a louche, dangerous charm that might, at any second, become threatening.

Geurens plays Sloane with none of the manipulative intelligence or incipient violence the role requires. This has serious ramifications later. When Sloane murders Kemp (Bob Hornery) the scene has no horror or pathos at all: it ought to be frightening. And it distorts the play grievously when it appears that a panicky Sloane - far from manipulating the situation to his satisfaction - has simply been trapped by the wily siblings. As I overheard one audience member say with satisfaction on opening night, Sloane "got what he deserved".

Orton must be spinning in his grave; such neat moralising symbolises everything he was against. The play itself makes no such suggestion. Sloane isn't punished at all. He uses his sexual power to literally get away with murder and to worm himself into a situation of considerable material comfort. And, aside from Kemp, no character in the play has any principles: each of them is prepared to do anything to ensure his or her own gratification.

Perhaps it's the ugliness of the characters in this play, their single-minded pursuit of their own gratification, which makes people flinch. Whatever it is, perhaps it's a tribute to Orton's continuing radicalness that his work must be so castrated before it can appear on stage. But it's a huge disappointment, all the same. One day, I'd like to see the play that Joe Orton actually wrote.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006: The Wrap

As I lay champagne on ice and chill the flutes, preparing for my Olympian end-of-year reflections, I realise that I've had a good year here on TN. I've seen some great theatre and had a most interesting time: what more could a theatre geek want?

Well, given that "divine" and "discontent" are my middle names, I guess there's quite a lot more to be desired. Imagine, for example, a Melbourne in which artistic achievement was greeted with discernment and enthusiastic curiosity, rather than hostile indifference. Where the arts were funded to achieve what they promised, and where no one was afraid of poetry. Brahms, Xenakis and DJ Spooky would battle it out in the iPods on the street. The Age's senior critics would be John Berger, Eric Bentley, Susan Sontag and Theodor Adorno, with whom everybody else would take issue on a regular basis in the huge opinion section of the arts pages.

Yeah, right. Dissolving back to the world I actually live in, it has been, nevertheless, a vintage year. It was really worth going to the theatre in 2006; I saw very little that was plain bad, and I got so used to not being disappointed that I was surprised when it happened. In all, I saw 62 productions - a respectable amount but by no means everything that was on. As I said when I first started this blog, I can't aim to be comprehensive; so regard this as a personal cross-section of the hundreds of events programmed in Melbourne this year.

A surprisingly high proportion of those 62 productions- 17, in fact, or 27 per cent - struck me as excellent: beautiful, thoughtful, exciting, intelligent theatre. Of those 17, 10 were programmed by either the Malthouse Theatre (six) or the Melbourne Festival (four). It confirmed my feeling at the end of last year that the most significant theatrical forces in Melbourne are these two institutions. But this year, the road for both of them has been far from smooth: they began to hit in earnest the conservative resistances that have always capped (and often destroyed) artistic ambition in this town.

The Malthouse has had a year of consolidation rather than triumph, continuing with a respectable mixture of success and failure to broaden the theatrical vocabulary of mainstream theatre in Melbourne. Its most ambitious show, a production of Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado directed by Benedict Andrews, was an unambiguous artistic success, and is one of my plays of the year. But it notoriously played to very poor audiences, rapidly turning this production into one of those legends which nobody saw. More seriously, the subsequent financial losses means that the Malthouse has had to pull in its horns. No big productions of Sarah Kane next year, folks.

My other picks from the Malthouse's 2006 offerings are Nigel Jamieson's Honour Bound, Ross Mueller's Construction of the Human Heart, Luke Mullins' adaptation of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, Kage Physical Theatre's Headlock and Anita Hegh and Peter Evans' adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper. And an honourable mention to Michael Kantor's production of Michael Watts' play Not Like Beckett, which featured Russell Dykstra's disturbingly hilarious performance of Walter Walloon Beckett. These productions demonstrate the depth of independent theatre in Melbourne (two, for example, originated at the Store Room). They are striking for the diversity of theatrical language they employed. And, most of all, for their unapologetic theatrical ambition.

The Melbourne Festival was a more qualified success than last year - Kristy Edmunds' debut as festival director in 2005 was the most exciting festival for years. It's fair to say that MIAF 2006 didn't quite reach that pitch, but I still found much to enjoy in a rich, various and brave program. The shows that have remained with me are Pichet Klunchun and Myself (possibly my favourite show of the festival), Romeo Castelluci's Tragedia Endogonidia, Robert Wilson's I La Galigo and Marie Brassard's Peepshow.

Meanwhile, smaller companies put on some very impressive work. VCA students were responsible for two of my favourites this year: John Bolton's production of Steve Berkoff's East, produced by La Mama, and Brian Lipson's production of Caryl Churchill's The Skriker: both stunning realisations of stunning plays. The Black Lung, a new independent space, hosted the rude, crude and wonderful Rubeville and Suitcase Royale's charmingly dishevelled Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon.

Stuck Pigs Squealing has seemed ubiquitous this year: if it's not Chris Kohn, it's some other artistic associate of the company infecting the body theatric. Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano was this company's most ambitious work so far, an anarchic work that plumbed oneiric depths. My other highlights were Eleventh Hour's production of Endgame, with Peter Houghton as an unforgettable Hamm, and Robert Draffin's beautifully poetic adaptation of Mishima's Noh play The Damask Drum.

Notably missing from this list is the MTC. I was overseas and so missed the one show that might have made it, Doug Wright's Broadway hit I Am My Own Wife. When I think over the MTC's programming this year, nothing stands out: there were inoffensively entertaining shows among the West End and Broadway imports, but nothing that seared itself into my memory, nothing that deeply excited me.

Yet Simon Phillips tried some (relatively) adventurous programming this year, including new Australian plays like Jane Bodie's A Single Act and Ray's Tempest. And he programmed at least one decent play - David Eldridge's adaptation of Festen was among the best writing on show this year, if fatally flawed by a performance of surpassing blankness from Jason Donovan. Probably the MTC's most successful productions this year were Sarah Ruhl's A Clean House and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The MTC does middle-of-the-road probably as well as anyone in the world, but vision and ambition aren't words that spring to mind when you consider its programming. Compare the MTC's program to subsidised flagship companies elsewhere - Britain's National Theatre, say, or Paris' Theatre de Ville or, closer to home, the STC, which this year hosted my most regretted miss, Barrie Kosky's epic The Lost Echo - and you'll see it lacks a certain flair.

2006 has been notable for drama off stage as much as on it. There was the scandal of La Mama being put "on notice" by the Australia Council, which exposes just how bad things have become for small-to-medium theatre companies in the funding world. There was the constant sniping against the Melbourne Festival, in which the Malthouse came in for a bit of collateral damage, and which came to a head late this year when Kristy Edmunds was appointed for another year.

These are all symptoms of a complex struggle that is happening on several fronts in Australian culture. As David Marr puts it in an incisive overview of arts funding under Howard, the present Federal Government supports institutions, not artists. John Howard doesn't, after all, hate the arts; he just wants artists to be well-behaved citizens of a relaxed and comfortable Australia. Artists, restless creatures that they are, don't do relaxed and comfortable very well. It's notable that the institutions that have come under the gun this year, from La Mama to the Melbourne Festival, are those which seek to support artists first.

In Melbourne, the battle lines were drawn after a lot of sniping across the bows. Conservative voices from Peter Craven to Andrew Bolt have lined up as one (maybe they are one) to express their disgust about, among other things, "fringe" theatre being done in "mainstream" venues. It's all been rather interesting.

What we've been witnessing in theatre this year is much more complex than a generational conflict. Mark Davis identified the syndrome a few years ago in his 1997 book Gangland, speaking principally about Australian literature (Peter Craven figures in that book, too). Says Davis:

The left liberals who I speak about in the book practice a cultural politics that is remarkably similar to the old white colonial liberalism that they profess to oppose. They practice what they call "tolerance" but in fact operate within and perpetuate what is largely a white, middle class cultural space.

This "white, middle class cultural space" - in theatre, perhaps exemplified best by the old Playbox - is under pressure, not only from younger artists, but from older artists who challenge its assumptions. (You can tell who they are, because they have all been marginalised in Melbourne for years.) Of course, those who were comfortable in the old snoozy hegemony are upset, especially as their barrage of sneers hasn't driven these impertinently interesting works off our stages. Nobody's backing down, and I predict an interesting 2007.

Finally: it might sound self-regarding, but 2006 was the year of the blog. I was a lonely little soldier when I first started TN in 2004, but a quick scroll down the sidebar will show how much the theatrical blogosphere has grown in the past year. TN's readership is steadily increasing with it: unique visits more than doubled, from 23,855 in 2005 to 58,777 this year. TN regulars hail from all over the globe, and grew from 2849 last year to 11,617 in 2006. It's a humble figure in the generality of the internet but, frankly, I'm proud of it.

As for the theatrical blogosphere: as a cybertraveller of some years' standing, I can attest that it's quite a classy little corner of the internet. It's fiercely local and proudly international, it's argumentative and fascinating, it's hungry for intelligent discussion. It's a place where the deadening dominance of places like the Age can be truly challenged.

It's worth remembering that Rupert Murdoch said earlier this year that mainstream outlets ignore bloggers at their peril. There's a lot of crap talked about the new media, but in the centre is simply this fact: blogs are public, accessible spaces that can't be controlled by traditional means. And in that fact is grounds for hope. I don't know what will happen this coming year, but I do know that bloggers will be part of it.


Pictures from top: Tragedia Endogonidia, directed by Romeo Castelluci, Societas Raffaello Sanzio, MIAF 2006; Alexandra Harrison and Brendan Shelper in Honour Bound. Photo: Jeff Busby; David Tredinnick and Peter Houghton in Endgame. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006


For reasons that utterly escape me, my feed is popping up old posts that I haven't touched at all. Is there a doppelganger reposting whilst I slumber? I have no idea why this is happening, but my apologies for any inconvenience...

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Blood sport

Over in his virtual Berlin, Daniel Schlusser thinks that artistic argument is all too polite. He wants blood. Says Daniel:

I suppose I am actually taking a different tack from the "why can't we have more sophisticated arts criticism" and going for the much more Australian excitement of, say, a kick in the head, or roo-boxing, or a game against Port Adelaide. "If you can't win the game win the fight," should be heard from the stands. Think of it as a kind of anti-nuance crusade.

Well, thinks I: let's have some nuance in the first place, before we start campaigning against it. But essentially, I agree with Daniel's main point: watching artists and critics be up-front about their aesthetic differences, ready to defend them with passion and wit, can be one of the great spectator sports. And - if it doesn't descend into brain-dead brawling, with polarised camps scowling at each other like chimpanzees and hurling excrement - it makes us all smarter.

There are two usual responses to challenge in this town: (a) pretend it didn't happen, or (b) smear one's opponent. (Or both). Daniel has a great example of the first strategy: he links to a letter he wrote to the Age after the first production under the new Malthouse team - Michael Kantor's repertory productions of Patrick White's A Ham Funeral and Tom Wright's Journal of a Plague Year - prompted reviews of hostile indifference from Helen Thompson. (My take on those productions, and Helen's responses, here ) Sadly, if predictably, Daniel's letter ended up being published in Real Time rather than the Age. And then no one took any notice, anyway.

In connection with the silence, and the silencings, I often think of Michael Dransfield's poem Like This for Years:

In the cold weather
the cold city the cold
heart of something as pitiless as apathy...

Or equally, of Pope's Dunciad, in which the goddess Dulness drowns everything in a giant yawn:

Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!

When you think that Horace was complaining about the same things, I guess there's one consolation, poor as it is: it was ever thus.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Holly, mistletoe and other un-antipodean things

As you all know, TN is a stickler for tradition. I even managed to arrange some snow for our bushfire-stricken Alpine regions and, since I believe that Christmas was invented by Charles Dickens, here present for your pleasure the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre's A Christmas Carol.

(For those who get that far, Part 2 is here, and features a version of Baby It's Cold Outside. Refreshing stuff as the wind clears the smoke from Melbourne skies.)

Merry Christmas to all TN readers, and here's to a brillo 2007. And many thanks to all of you for your support, encouragement and contributions throughout 2006. TN's 2006 round-up should be up by, well, the end of the year.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

In Which Little Alison Gets Cross

Here is a picture of TN this week. Not a happy blogger, is she?

To drive away the clouds louring o'er this house (and just before Christmas, too) I wrote yesterday to Mr Andrew Jaspan, Editor of The Age. And I instantly felt a lot better.

It probably won't achieve much, beyond slamming shut the teeny tiny door that has allowed me to masquerade as an opinion journalist in The Age now and again. (Though I have a feeling that I've already been crossed off Opinion Editor Ray Cassin's Christmas card list.) But it seems worth saying, all the same. I've been watching the most interesting things in Melbourne get squashed flat for 25 years and, my dears, I'm sick of it.

With any luck Mr Jaspan is squinting over his morning coffee at this letter:

Andrew Jaspan
The Age
250 Spencer St
Melbourne VIC 3001

December 21, 2006

Re: Balanced arts coverage in The Age.

Dear Mr Jaspan

I am writing because I am concerned about the balance of arts coverage in your newspaper. I am sorry for the length of this letter, but I wish to say clearly why, in this instance, I am moved to write.

I am a former journalist (Melbourne Herald, Melbourne theatre critic for The Bulletin) who now writes fiction for a living. One of my activities is the blog Theatre Notes, a theatre review blog I began in 2004. Since it began, it has become a respected and credible voice in the arts world: it was highly praised as an exceptional blog in the introduction to SMH arts writer Angela Bennie’s collection of criticism, Crème de la Phlegm (MUP), and your dance critic Hilary Crampton recently noted it favourably in an article on criticism in Artshub. And so on. I mention this in case the word “blog” makes you think of teenagers on My Space.

Occasionally I freelance – I review for the ABC Radio’s The Book Show and have written opinion pieces for your newspaper, usually in response to current issues of one kind and another. If you’d like to check them out, they are online. One of them, published on July 29, was a very different opinion on the Melbourne Festival than those expressed by Robin Usher and Peter Craven in your newspaper.

Last week, at a lunch for “key media people” to which I was invited, along with Raymond Gill, Robin Usher and other selected arts writers, MIAF announced that Kristy Edmunds’ term as artistic director was to be extended. Predictably, given his history of such pieces, Robin Usher then wrote an opinion piece (December 14) slamming that decision and attacking Edmunds’ programming. It was, in my view, a very slanted article that omitted some important points. Early on Friday morning (December 15), I submitted a short piece of my own (attached) to Opinion Editor Ray Cassin outlining a counter-argument. It was a little bit rude, but not much. I can’t see anything wrong with it as a lively piece of opinion writing.

Cassin’s first email reply was, I thought, very odd. He said:

Hi Alison,
Kristy Edmunds has privately replied to Robin Usher. As with the last round on this topic, she seems to prefer to leave it that way, rather than replying in print. I'll leave it that way, too.

I responded that “Usher's article is a broadside, and in the interest of balance, some corrective points need to be made publicly and with equal prominence. By someone else, if not me.” When I double checked on the meaning of the first mail, asking if he really meant that if Edmunds didn’t respond, no one would, he replied: “I think I said that I'd rather wait for a response ‘from the Festival’. As I did last time. As you'll recall, when that wasn't forthcoming I ran yours.”

On Monday, I checked with the MIAF PR whether Edmunds would be responding, and Prue Bassett told me that she thought it would be “inappropriate”. I then wrote to Cassin again early on Tuesday, informing him of this and asking whether he would be running my piece. He has not replied. Nor has he replied to my polite follow-up email, in which I said I was concerned that the story was getting cold and asked whether he intended to run any response, by me or someone else.

I have been checking The Age’s opinion and arts pages, and have seen nothing so far that answers Usher’s article. There have been, on the other hand, two interviews by Usher which bring up the Melbourne Festival “debate”, one with the Arts Minister Lynne Kosky and one with the leader of the Opposition, Ted Baillieu.

I wish to make clear that there is – in stark contrast to Usher’s reports – a constituency in Melbourne for the kind of things Edmunds does. I was amazed last year at the continual claims of poor attendance, when I went to so many events that were full. There might be division among Melbourne’s arts habitues about MIAF programming, and even those supportive of her general vision have criticisms; but there is no doubt that her program is sparking a lot of interest and discussion, especially among younger people.

In contrast to the picture painted by Usher, Edmunds strongly supports and programs local artists. MIAF private sponsorship is rising. The audience attendance figures and responses are in fact positive indicators. And so on. I don’t understand why there is no space for this to be said in The Age.

It makes it hard not to suspect that Edmunds is being targeted. Whether this is the case or not – I am perfectly aware of the issue of competing space – the evasion of the responsibility to run a differing opinion (unless it comes from Edmunds herself) gives the inaccurate and unfair perception that Edmunds’ ideas have no support in the community. And it can hardly be called “debate” if only one view is on show.

A festival focusing on contemporary art – especially one that foregrounds innovative artists from Melbourne – is always going to upset some conservative elements in Melbourne’s arts community, but they are not the only or even the majority voices. Of course I recognise that they are entitled to their opinion. What concerns me is that these voices are given an imbalanced prominence in The Age. Frankly, it’s not MIAF that’s “out of touch”.

As The Age is also a sponsor of the Melbourne Festival, this unremittingly negative coverage must be having a major effect on public perceptions. Most people without an insider knowledge of the arts read The Age as an authority on these matters. It may well be – and may well be intended to be – a self-fulfilling prophecy. If so, this seems to me an egregious misuse of the paper’s authority.

I look forward to hearing your response.

Your faithfully

Alison Croggon

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Debate? What debate?

Asks Supernaut (aka dancer Frances D'Ath) of the so-called "controversy" around the Melbourne Festival.

Slagging match of the week goes to Melbourne Festival vs. The Media, wherein Robin Usher tries to sound a rhetorical question and get us all wondering, "Hey, yeah, maybe the Melbourne festival has lost its touch".

Is this lame journalism trying to find an angle to cut down contemporary arts in Melbourne and put the big companies - Oz Ballet, Opera and Melbourne Symphony back in their rightful place as the upholders of culture?

Supernaut isn't a great fan of Edmunds - and says why - but looks with even more disfavour on the - well, shall we say one-sided? - mugging of Edmunds that's currently taking place in our august daily journals. And in articulating with scalpel precision the place of "debate" in mainstream media, she proves herself a mistress of snark:

"Robin Usher's extra-lame controversy-mongering and reductionist bottom-line dollar-dollar-bills-y'all art-as-finance in The Age is just puerile and asinine," lisps our fearless Naut, her voice sweet and low (an excellent thing in a woman). "...When the critical and intellectual position of the arts in mainstream Australia is represented by people like Robin Usher and Andrew Bolt, why should such debates take place where these pseudo-critics get a paycheck for mentally feeble drooling?"

Quite. Here we save our spittle for better things.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

That "entertainment" word

Prompted in part by a glum viewing of the Short & Sweet website, our favourite New York tragedian George Hunka lets rip on the commodification of theatre as mere "entertainment", which he calls "the new Fascism".

To say that every theatrical production must have an element of "fun" or spass, and then to drag Shakespeare and Brecht and Beckett and Bernhard and others down to our own professional purposes, in support of our own need to be distracted (Attention Deficit Disorder our psychic Black Plague: the iPodization of experience), is to befoul their work, disavow their pain. To take part in the entertainment culture. To paste over the tragic wound that the Art of Theatre can best present, to try to stop the gore with a designer Band-Aid ("Helps make healing fun!"), through which blood and pus continue to seep regardless.

Designer Lucas Krech points out that, nevertheless, play is an essential part of theatre, and that it needn't be synonymous - can in fact be resistant to - crass commercialisation.

George, it seems, is struggling against mindless commercial entertainment. The kind of fluff that does nothing more than causes small green rectangular pieces of paper to change hands quickly. But there is another kind of fun, a powerful and transformative type of play that could get lost were one to simply disregard the whole and focus only on the void. That fun is the kind that acts in counterpoint to tragedy and suffering. A kind of divine play. This is the morbid humor of the gatekeeper in MacBeth or the pathetic antics of Vladamir and Estragon. This kind of desperate humor is necessary in the midst of a world filled with so much suffering.

I agree with Lucas. The tragic and the comic can be equally profound, and they are equally cheapened by the mass culture anaesthetisations that George identifies here. Trevor Griffiths' brilliant play Comedians, for example, has a good look at these distinctions.

Meanwhile, speaking of grim things, Sydney actor William Zappa has started a blog, Acting for the Planet, which aims to be a locus for discussion among performing arts types about climate change. He kicks off with a serious question about the connections between the advertising industry - where most actors earn their bread and butter - consumerism and climate change. Check it out.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Strong action

Signs of hope? James Strong, the new(ish) chair of the Australia Council, has put his weight behind yet another inquiry into the "troubled" (read: financially strapped) theatre sector. More significantly, as the SMH reports, he has requested an extra $14 million for the small-to-medium company sector. And that, as anyone following the shenanigans earlier this year will know, is the locus of the real crisis.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Review: Short & Sweet

Short & Sweet 2006: Week 3 Top 30. Various artists. Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre.

As everyone knows who is not from Mars (or outside Melbourne, which local pundits sometimes seem to think amounts to the same thing), Short and Sweet 2006, "the biggest 10-minute play festival in the world", has been the subject of extensive discussion in the blogosphere recently.

So I took myself along to Week 3 with a certain curiosity, checking my preconceptions at the cloak room on the way in. Given the ferocity of the debate about its virtues, I wanted to know what I thought.

The 10-minute play festival is something of an institution in the United States. From Kansas to New York, from Ohio to Los Angeles, festivals of "shorts" pop up like mushrooms. And it's easy to see the appeal of the idea, in its many manifestations: they are a convenient form for play competitions and they can permit a handy showcase for new writers. And, finally, there is the considerable challenge of the form itself.

What you notice immediately about most US festivals is that they usually run a single program of 10-minute plays. The average seems to be about six works. In play competitions, for example, the theatre company generally broadcasts a call for entries, and then produces winning plays as a single program. Secondly, you notice that the ten-minute play has attracted a number of big names: short play festivals have included works by David Mamet, Christopher Durang, Woody Allen, Wendy Wasserstein and the man who is probably the grand master of the short play, Samuel Beckett.

Short & Sweet crosses the 10-minute play competition with Australian Idol. The idea is to select 30 "top" plays, plus another 20 "wild cards", which are all then given productions over three weeks. They are assessed by a panel of "industry judges" who, with the "people's choice" audience vote, narrow them down to a final few which are presented at the Gala Final. The various winners of the Gala are then showered with $30,000 in prizes and "priceless development opportunities", namely a chance for workshops with TILT, the Art Centre's new works showcase, and a free summer course at the VCA.

This, according to the guff, "encourages the participation of aspiring, emerging and established playwrights, directors and performers from the community to explore their creativity in a supportive, vibrant and creative environment". Note the buzzwords: I'm not sure I've seen so many in one place outside a grant application. It's all very feelgood.

There's also a whiff of the MFA creative writing circle here, a phenomenon common in the US, where aspiring poets (for example) learn how to write poetry in an MFA program, are published because they have an MFA, and go on to become creative writing teachers who run MFA programs...a rather pernicious professionalisation, as many have suggested, which explains the smooth edges of so much contemporary American poetry. Short & Sweet has its own version - aspiring S&Sers can enrol for the Short & Sweet playwriting course in early 2007, where they can presumably learn how to write plays for the festival.

Cynics might remark that it also has a built-in audience - 300 actors and directors means a lot of family and friends shelling out for tickets ($18-$27 for the competition, $26-$37 for the Gala Night). And certainly it was a partisan and supportive crowd the night I went, with whoops from different parts of the auditorium signalling supporters of each play. Eavesdropping confirmed that I was sitting next to someone's Dad and siblings.

But what was the work like? The evening was slickly presented - fast turnovers between plays, with the actors being efficient stage hands. Of the ten plays I saw, I thought three were decent: Andrew O'Keefe's Uncomfortable Silences, Jonathan Gavin's Sleepless Night and Billy Windlock by Hellie Turner (for me the standout piece).

The first two were well-turned comedic works on relationships, sharp and witty and ultimately without much weight, and performed with a lot of polish. Sleepless Night, directed by Nic Clark, was the only piece that showed directorial flair: it's not surprising to find that Clark ran a short play festival in the Riverina.

Billy Windlock
was the only play with real ambition: it evokes a kind of Carson McCullers picture of a small Australian town's secrets and hypocrisies. It was, in the best sense of the word, melodramatic, and despite some overwriting stayed poised with considerable flair on its theatrical conceit. Laura Bray gave a brave performance that only rarely tilted into over acting.

The rest of the program wavered between the usual variants of indifferent directing and acting and unsuccessful writing. There was a tired satire on Jerry Springer, a surprising number of critiques on the War on Terror with various degrees of heavy-handed politicising, and some meek or naive experiments in form.

Is a 30 per cent strike rate - from what I gather, around average for these nights - enough to justify putting on 50 plays? It no doubt gratifies the participants, but if one is serious about supporting new or emerging talent, why not simply select the 10 best plays, give them to the 10 best directors and run a decent season?

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Exploding Melbourne blogs

Metaphorically speaking, of course...

A number of new theatre blogs - mainly by theatre practitioners - are crossing my screen, and it occurs to me that Melbourne at last has something that could legitimately be called a theatrical blogosphere (ok, you think of of a better term). How things have moved on since I began TN, when my announcement that I had started a blog elicited blank stares of bewilderment.

Lauren at Credible Witness has overcome the terror of being seen and is quoting Beckett. And she leads me to Vlad at the excellently named Cowboy Mouth. And Rhys at Stop Panicking - Suck Your Thumb (ok...) has opened up shop as well. Welcome, one and all.

Meanwhile, Ming-Zhu at Mink Tails is logging some thoughtful posts after the storms of the past weeks. Check the sidebar for other local blogs, and then scroll down for some international conversation.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

MIAF: The thrashing begins

Predictably, the guns are out already on the Melbourne Festival's decision to extend Kristy Edmunds' term as festival director. Of course, Andrew Bolt is spitting chips (google if you want to find his comments, linking there makes me tired). More seriously, in a swingeing attack in the opinion pages of the Age, Robin Usher claims that the festival has "lost touch":

Its decision to make her the first director in the festival's 21-year history to serve for four years is nothing if not brave, because it ignores widespread criticism of the festival's recent direction. Until this week, it also seemed to have cost significant patronage. Schwartz said only a month ago that this year's ticket sales were 34,000, up by 3000 on 2005. But Edmunds contradicted this at the media conference called to announce her extension - ticket sales are now put at 57,000, which she says is similar to last year. The final result is comparable with sales a decade ago, which varied from 60,000 to 80,000. At least there is no dispute about box-office returns, which reached $1.2 million this year. But this seems a paltry return on an investment of about $7 million, including a $5.5 million state subsidy. It is hard to know how a Melbourne festival could ever not be considered a success if this is regarded as satisfactory.

Do I detect a note of pique here that the MIAF Board has not bowed meekly to Usher's complaints? The "widespread criticism" was mostly (if not uniformly) expressed in the Age's opinion and arts pages, and mostly by Peter Craven, Robin Usher, Cameron Woodhead and Andrew Bolt. This is a rather narrow spread, strictly speaking, if vocal and prominent. MIAF has also attracted much interest and support, as its ticket sales show, and audiences for MIAF 2006 - as a wide-ranging survey of audience demographics and responses concluded - was very largely positive. According to Edmunds, the rising level of private sponsorship indicates that the moneyed class are also supportive of her programming vision.

Australia has a long and ignoble history of hounding out festival directors who demonstrate that good art costs money. If Usher has a close look at the investment in a show like I La Galigo, the Robert Wilson piece that won unanimous plaudits this year, he will notice it lists no less than 14 producers. And if he thinks for another couple of seconds, he will understand that the vast expense of staging a show like that - with 50 cast members on stage, vast sets, long development times and so on - will never be recuperated by ticket sales, no matter how booked out. Nobody hosting a show like that expects to make a profit.

According to Usher, such realised ambition should never appear on our stages. Not even if 57,000 people want to see it.

If MIAF is attracting growing audiences that are comparable with those of the mid-90s - when people had more money and there was safer programming - then Edmunds must be doing something right. Perhaps part of what she is doing right is making ticket prices cheaper, which would bring down those returns and might also explain those rising sales and changing demographics. Perhaps she is extending the reach of the festival to regional centres, which costs money.

Perhaps what she is really doing wrong, in the eyes of those who criticise her, is making the festival less elitist.

Usher wants the Melbourne Festival to be like other interstate arts festivals, not other international ones. Australia, it seems, has to remain outside the mainstream of international arts practice. His main comparison is with Leo Schofield's heyday, which offered an avowedly populist agenda of "hits".

Nothing wrong with that, but Edmunds' vision is vastly more interesting and offers something potentially much more profoundly lasting to Melbourne culture. The links she is forging between local companies and international touring networks will benefit Melbourne for years to come. And, as Usher ungenerously refuses to note, the festival is putting Melbourne on several international maps. I can vouch personally for the surprise and interest its programming elicits from overseas observers.

Usher talks a lot, too, about Edmunds' disregard for "festival traditions". John Truscott - festival director between 1989 and 1991 - has turned up more than once as a stick with which to beat Edmunds. I remember Truscott's festivals fondly, and it seems to me that in the boldness of her programming, Edmunds is absolutely in Truscott's tradition - perhaps more than any subsequent director, although we've had some fine ones. Let's not forget, for example, Robyn Archer; in many ways, Edmunds is extending what Archer was already doing.

I remember that, like Edmunds, Truscott put his faith in local artists. I remember he staged challenging, controversial and ambitious works. His free outdoor program has not been matched since, perhaps because it was untrackable - no ticket sales there. And far from being lauded as a great festival director, I remember very well that Truscott was "widely criticised" as an elitist who spent too much money. This seems to have vanished into the memory hole that afflicts Australian arts.

Melbourne burned Truscott out - he was a much sadder man at the end of his tenure than he was at the beginning. He found that he couldn't win against the parochial incuriosity of the incumbent powers. I hope that in this brave new century, Melbourne proves bigger than than it did then.

UPDATE: Richard Divall, formerly resident conductor at the Australian Opera and and music director at the VSO, has a letter in today's (Friday's) Age warmly congratulating Usher on an "excellent" article. He gets a gratuitous swipe in at Robyn Archer as well. "There is a widespread apprehension among Melbourne audiences that the program is too narrow, and much of the content not up to an appropriate standard," he claims. "... Three years are sufficient for Ms Edmunds' type of programming — or six years, if we also consider the many similarities of the previous artistic director's choices."

It's not hard to read the swirls of discontent here, and to see that they emanate from sources such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Victorian Arts Centre and other "major arts organisations" (to quote Usher). The "standard" - if by that one means aesthetic realisation, technical knowhow or performance - of most work at MIAF 2005 and 2006 is as high or higher than at any other festival, and one thing commented on by many people is the diversity of the programs, so "appropriate standard" is code for something else. In other words, by programming innovative work, Kristy Edmunds has, intentionally or not, got Melbourne's arts establishment off-side. Expect more of this as things heat up for MIAF 2007.

Check out the comments here too for David Williams' observations on Usher's comparisons with the Sydney Festival.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

MIAF: Edmunds scores another year

It's official. After much speculation, it was announced today that Kristy Edmunds, Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, is staying on for another year. This will take her directorship up to 2008, an unprecedented four-year term.

Carol Schwartz, President of the MIAF Board, said the extension of Edmunds' term recognises the Melbourne Festival's growing international reputation. She said the decision reflects the State Government's desire for the festival to take a leading role in Victorian culture, and to diversify its audience base.

And some new audience figures came with the announcement. Total ticket sales for MIAF 2006 were 57,000 - not the 34,000 reported just after the festival - and grew by 3000 this year. The Visual Arts Program alone attracted 128,000 people. This doesn't look so bad beside the fabled years of the mid-90s (the Schofield era), which was avowedly populist and reportedly had ticket sales of around 60,000.

The new policy of extended AD terms is part of a "strategic plan" recently approved by the Board, which will offer all future artistic directors a three-year contract with an option on a further year. Schwartz said this decision recognises the long-term planning required to commission significant work, and permits the AD to develop relationships between the local artistic community and international arts networks.

Also, it brings Melbourne slightly more in line with general practice. Internationally, festival directors tend to have considerably longer lifespans, and this continuity permits them to exercise an influence on the culture around them, and to evolve and refine their programming and policies. Jean Vilar, for example, the famous French actor and director, founded the Avignon Festival - one of the biggest in Europe - in 1947, and ran it until his death in 1971.

Of course, limited terms prevent ossification, always a clear and present danger in Melbourne culture. But four years is a decent term. Perhaps most interesting is the emphasis Edmunds places on MIAF's place within what she calls the local "arts ecology". She doesn't just import headline international acts: this festival is conceived as a dynamic stimulus within our culture.

For TN, this is excellent news: we approve of Kristy Edmunds here, not only for the quality of the work she's programmed but also because of the enriching of local arts practice and dialogue that ensues. We're ready for the ride. But watch the Bolters howl.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

More geek stuff

Technophobes can shut their eyes now ...

I can't work out how to solve the post feed issue. Blogger has removed the handy "recent posts" tag in what is now, predictably enough, called "Classic Blogger". Instead, Beta uses atom feeds, which refresh the list every time I publish the damn thing, instead of ranking it by date. This is why miscellaneous posts keep popping out of the archives.

It is more generally annoying, because I do a fair bit of finicky rewriting, even after I've posted something (not just fixing typos, though that's common enough - ahem - alas, I am my own sub...) If I'm not to drive subscribers mad with out-of-date posts, I'm going to have to find a workaround. Even the experts seem to be stumped on this one - Feedburner simply says to stop updating old posts. As I've had to go through practically every post to get the Read More link working, this is no good to me. Even adding labels buggers it up. Humph.

Anyway, the bulk of the slog is done now, and things should begin to be merely chronological soon.

Also, I had a look at my Blogger feed. What a mess... I recommend the Feedburner feed, which will take out that unsightly html. Link on the sidebar or here.

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Crampton on criticism

UPDATE: Just caught up with Rat Sass's take on what he calls blogosphere "theatre talk" and the "contra-review". Among other interesting points:

If an artist has a practice, he has an aesthetic stake to defend or explain or propagandize. His criticism of others’ work will necessarily have both the bias and the integrity of this practice as its foundation. He is able to speak from this specific base of aesthetic knowledge – to define and delineate borders between his practice and others’. This kind of criticism creates a venue for an exchange of ideas outside the market, a discourse about the art form itself. This is exactly the discourse that the artist/critic Eric Bentley and others have defined as drama criticism. [My emphasis]

OVER at ArtsHub, respected Age dance critic Hilary Crampton (no, it's not an oxymoron) buys interestingly into the critical debate raging across the blogosphere. She recalls a 2005 essay, The Myth of the Mainstream, by former MIAF artistic director (and all-round star) Robyn Archer, in which Archer lays into Australian anti-intellectualism, including mainstream arts coverage. In response, Crampton writes:

As a practising professional critic, I inevitably felt defensive. Some of what Archer had to say rang true with respect to the mainstream press, but limited turnaround time, the requirement to write short snappy reviews, the positioning and timing of publication are factors entirely in the hands of the publishers and should not be blamed on the hapless critics.

What struck me more forcefully was that her critique positioned artist and critic simplistically as inevitable adversaries. Is this, or should this be the case? How might we foster instead an inclusive dialogue that expands the discussion to the mutual benefit of artists, audiences and critics?

Both of which are good questions. Crampton sees the blogosphere as providing at least the beginnings of an answer, noting how it opens up a space for debate between artists, critics and audience members that is not possible in the mainstream media. And she has some kind words for TN, for which we thank her. But that's not the only reason why we like what she has to say.

Crampton picks up on TN's recently controversial walkout and defends the critic's right to express outrage and "take strong action". And she makes the obvious point that "in claiming democratic rights to freedom of speech, artists must also allow critics the freedom to comment on their public presentations". Couldn't have said it better myself.

Meanwhile, tough case Casey Bennetto is grilling me in the comments here.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006


Since we've been talking about fairness all week, I feel obliged to point to this. I've given Cameron Woodhead some curry in these pages, but here in the Land of the Fair Go, we like to think that credit is given where credit is due.

But my heart has been with CSS. Readers, it's the heat. You'll notice that the blog has a New Look. This means that I have, with my heart in my mouth, upgraded to Beta (only those who have done so know what this means...) So far everything seems to be working, aside from the handy Read More tags (now fixed - note the groovy inline expandable posts. If you want to go to a separate page with comments, click on the post title or the "Permalink" at the bottom.)

On the other hand, we now have a Comments feed, to which you can subscribe if the spirit moves you. And two columns down the side for all the TN info. Also, some of you will have noticed the new labels recently - I haven't quite got around to thoroughly labelling all posts, but it will happen. Update: It did happen. I am the Queen of Geekdom. Note the pretty new label cloud on the right (it's hard to miss) - click any of those labels and all the associated posts come up. Fancy, no?

Some of you, like Paul below, will have been getting thousands of feed updates as I had to tinker with practically every post in this blog to put in a tiny scrap of code. (I've done a lot of writing here, I realise...) Consequently, Recent Posts has gone haywire and is showing all sorts of ancient posts... Also, people are complaining about Blogger comments. This is, as they say, a global problem: ie, not just this blog. They work if you try later. My apologies for any inconveniences as we renovate. All should now return to normal, or as normal as I get.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Review: A Mile in her Shadow

A Mile in her Shadow by Robert Reid, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Design by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Matt Scott, original music and sound design Kelly Ryall. With Ben Harkin and Katie-Jean Harding. The Store Room Theatre Workshop until December 10.

The Store Room has an enviable history of premiering excellent independent theatre - Construction of the Human Heart and The Yellow Wallpaper, among the best work on at the Malthouse this year, began here. Recently it proposed a fascinating new initiative, the Store Room Theatre Workshop, which asks theatregoers to subscribe to a notion of works in progress rather than a series of programmed product. To this end, artistic director Ben Harkin has collected a rather stellar group of theatre artists to develop work together over a three year period.

Each season, the Store Room plans to announce a series of works which will be put into development, some of which will go into production. This seems to be a flexible structure that permits artists to work seriously on projects without the pressures of programming work that isn't necessarily ready for it, while at the same time having the chance to try them out on a public stage.

A Mile in her Shadow is the first production from the Store Room Theatre Workshop, and it certainly bears out its creative promise. Robert Reid is a Melbourne writer of unruly but real talent, and here he attempts something very difficult: to create a theatrical analogue of the subjective state of mental illness; in this case, dissociative disorder.

Here comparisons become inevitable. It is impossible to watch this play and not to think of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis, to my mind the most brilliant of this brilliant writer's works. Reid doesn't possess Kane's faultless ear, the tough poetic that permits her to examine such a rawly subjective state as mental illness through the focus of fiercely disciplined language. Kane is both more extreme and more restrained than Reid.

That said, and given that it's no disgrace not to be as good as Sarah Kane, Reid has made a pretty good fist of it here. There is no moment of this play that slackens into the merely confessional, and despite moments of over-writing, it balances finely between the aesthetic demands of a work of art and the raw expression of the sheer terror and confusion of disordered mental states. It's well structured, effectively using repetition to destabilise its various realities, and shifts ingeniously between differing states of mental being.

True (Ben Harkin) is, in all senses of the word, the subject of this play, and we watch him play out his relationships with the Other, represented by She (Katie-Jean Harding). While True is always himself, She is many people - True's lover, his psychiatrist, strangers. True's distress and terror is played against his sometimes bewildering and cruel behaviour towards She, and his world, in which nothing is stable enough to be confidently called "reality", is compellingly evoked.

What makes A Mile in her Shadow so deeply interesting is the close knit between the text and all aspects of its production. Aidan Fennessy has given the production a stylised edge which at its best moments throws the molten emotional core of its subject into sharp relief. Anna Cordingley's design is both clever and beautiful. We witness the play through a curtain, drawn around the two sides of the L-shaped stage: when we enter it is black, but when action is lit behind it, it becomes as transparent as a scrim, alienating us subtly from the action on stage. In such a small theatre, this is particularly effective.

The set itself is an upside-down room of unrelieved squalor: on the ceiling are a mattress, a blanket, rubbish, a collection of empty bottles. On the floor are two chairs. The room at the back of the set, usually off-stage, is drawn surprisingly into the design by the ingenious use of a mirror. The whole is sumptuously lit by Matt Scott with a startling depth of sensual colour.

It's physically demanding of both actors. Harkin negotiates the extremities of his character with utter commitment and an ability to move precisely between contrasting states of mind, although there were moments when I thought a cool restraint might have been more effective than than reaching for emotional extremity, which risked being histrionic.

As all the "other" characters, Katie-Jean Harding distorts her willowy body with the grace of a dancer, creating a physical language that is dislocating and disturbing, although sometimes her vocal skills don't quite match her physical capacities: where Harkin was in danger of over-reaching, Harding's coolness could sometimes slip into mere blankness.

The text is presented almost like an aria or a musical poem, with Kelly Ryall's textured score of original music and sound punctuating the spoken language. It complements the action beautifully, except at times when it is simply too loud, and obtrudes over the words rather than bringing them to a fuller life.

A Mile in her Shadow is a compelling, if not entirely successful, production, which shows what can happen when artists are given the room to experiment. It bodes extremely well for the Store Room's future as a generator of independent theatre. The only real criticism is the shortness of the season, although perhaps there will be a chance for this production to return again, polished by the experience of this first presentation.

Picture: Ben Harkin and Katie-Jean Harding in A Mile in her Shadow.

The Store Room

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On being nice

UPDATES: Some well-considered words from Ben Ellis over at Parachute of a Playwright and gobsmacked disbelief from our man in berlin Daniel Schlusser. More tough words from another New York playwright, James Comtois, some useful (if depressing) background from Chris Boyd and Matt Scholten has the lowdown on the Arts Centre's official response.

ONE thing about the blogosphere is that your cyber-neighbours don't necessarily live around the corner. Away on the other side of the Pacific, some recent Melbourne shenanigans have raised a couple of those sceptical New York eyebrows. Isaac Butler of Parabasis, for instance, blasphemously suggested in a recent post that I don't wield magical powers: he thinks, despite the powerballs that zap from my fingertips, that other things might affect audience attendance besides blog discussion.

And today at Superfluities, George Hunka buys into another Melbourne stoush that, for once, I wasn't involved in. (For those coming in late, George backgrounds it well, so I won't repeat much here). Actor Ming-Zhu Hii, who recently began the blog Minktails, has found herself in the middle of a firestorm over her vocal criticism of the Short and Sweet festival, soon on at the Arts Centre. I can't give you a link, because the relevant posts have been taken down. As always, George has many interesting things to say, but the kernel is worth quoting in full:

I can't applaud Ming-Zhu's decision to delete her original post and the comments associated with it, though I can easily understand this decision; often enough I have been so tempted with my own blog. But the personal abuse to which she was subjected in the comments section of that original post demonstrates the hypocrisy of many artists who operate on the fringes of the mainstream theatre: they want attention, but only the right attention; regardless of the authority and persuasiveness of the argument, it is not the argument itself which is addressed. Instead, these artists believe that this marginalization (even self-marginalization) should protect them from honest response. Of course this is ridiculous. Any response to any artist, mainstream or avant-garde, needs to be honest; otherwise it is worthless; and contrary to what other bloggers may believe, this honesty must be reflected in our public as well as our private opinions if the blogosphere is to have any authority at all. Otherwise, yes: It does become a game of confluence of interest, we all self-congratulatorily scratch each others' backs.

If comments on the blogosphere about an individual show have repercussions in terms of a show's success or failure in terms of audience size--well, good on the blogosphere; that is the way criticism and reviewing works, and neither Ming-Zhu nor Alison can be accused of irresponsibility; five minutes reading their blogs, and recognizing the depth of their love for theatre, demonstrate that. And some theatre is bad. Some of mine is, some of yours is as well, and as artists we've all been there. But to lacerate sincere writers to the point at which they determine that their own criticial writing is detrimental to the atmosphere in which it is received is ridiculous. And unfair: The artists are trying to dictate the terms of the public conversation about their work. Their responsibility is to their work, not its reception, which is fair game.

Tough words, but in my view absolutely correct (aside from the implied slights against TN's commenters, who are generally a pretty civilised and interesting lot). The personal attacks against Ming-Zhu were driven in part by an alarmist email campaign, which claimed that the Short & Sweet festival was in imminent danger of being closed by her blog (she's also more powerful than she ever imagined).

"One of the Arts Centre Trustees stumbled on [Ming-Zhu's blog] and they are taking what she says into consideration - and are seriously considering the future continuance of the festival," claims the email. "The Arts Centre is monitoring the blog and whether Short & Sweet continues or not may well be decided by how many people get on to her blog and disagree with her...If you want Short & Sweet to continue - act now."

To suggest that Ming-Zhu's blog might be personally responsible for shutting down a festival is plainly risible. But there are other issues here which are more serious. I understand that Ming-Zhu also took her posts down because she was told they were libellous. This doesn't surprise me: I was alerted to the whole affair by this comment yesterday on a month-old post here which, among other things, suggested that Ming-Zhu's comments were defamatory.

So the question of defamation enters the issue of arts criticism on the blogosphere. This is where I start feeling alarmed.

Defamation law has traditionally been used in Australia as a way of closing down free discussion. Even the threat is enough to silence many people - witness what just happened with Ming-Zhu. It is particularly effective because, unlike the US, we have no constitutional protection for free speech. See this site for a clear explanation of how it has been used and what it is.

Legal action has been taken in several cases against critics, including myself - I was sued when I was the Bulletin's Melbourne critic - and I am personally extremely careful on this blog to work within the boundaries of libel. I urge all bloggers to make themselves informed about defamation law: know what is libellous, what is not and what your defences are. For arts criticism, the defence is "fair comment in the public interest", but sadly, no legal privilege attaches to criticism: a criticism may be legally libellous, but still defensible. A good site which outlines the recent amendments and the implications for cyberpsace is here - check it out. If you know what the law is, you are less likely to be vulnerable to vague threats.

George has adequately covered the other main issue this conflict brings up - if you can't be nice, don't say anything at all. To quote Nicole Rhys, the commenter I mentioned earlier:
I... undertand the Artistic Director and other Short & Sweet staff members have not been contacted by Ming with regard to her concerns. She could have written to them / spoken to them easily - their contact details are readily available on the Arts Centre website. Instead she uses a public forum, where her methodology is attack.

To me, this is one of the saddest and most discouraging things about the arts today. Without seeing the worst in everything, where is the real effort to constructively discuss and engage, if not celebrate effort made?
I would argue that Ming-Zhu was, in fact, constructively discussing and engaging. Provocation can be one of the most powerful spurs to thought. Of course she had every right to air her opinion. And those who disagreed with her - as Ming-Zhu freely acknowledged - had every right to air theirs. That was not what happened here: instead, what happened was a concerted attempt to silence debate.

Nicole says that instead of talking about her concerns and criticisms, inviting discussion from others, Ming-Zhu should have quietly and politely made her views known to the organisers. Me, I say bollocks to that. Aren't we grown up enough yet to wear a little robust discussion?

There's one important part of the theatre left out of this equation, in which no one says anything nasty for fear of hurting the artists: the audience. I have great respect for both art and artists, but I do not think that artists should determine or direct audience reaction. They might, and justly in my opinion, defend their right to small audiences, to "fail better", as Beckett so famously said: they might defend their right to be judged on the criteria on which their art is made. But as George points out, ultimately an artist's responsibility is to her work, not to its reception.

PS: I should probably make clear that I have no opinion on Short & Sweet myself. I am seeing Week 3 next week, and will make up my own mind. I may well find myself disagreeing with Ming-Zhu's opinion; but I believe she has every right to hold and express it.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Review: Translations

Translations by Brian Friel, directed by David Mealor. Design by Kerry Reid, lighting design Geoff Cobham. With William Allert, Michaela Cantwell, Elena Carapetis, Lizzy Falkland, Patrick Frost, John Kelly, Andrew Martin, Dominic Pedlar, Stephen Sheehan, Geoff Revell and Rory Walker. Flying Penguin Productions @ the Malthouse, until December 10.

Wandering through Irish galleries earlier this year, I was struck by the the similarities between Irish and Australian art around the turn of the last century. Ireland has, for example, its equivalents to post-Impressionist artists like Tom Roberts. If you felt like it, you could group most of this work neatly under the heading "Colonial Art".

But there are vast differences as well: we certainly don't have a visionary genius of the status of Jack B. Yeats painting in the early 20th century. And one genre of visual art that Australia almost completely lacks is that of the heroic revolutionary: the closest we got to anything like revolution was the little massacre of incipient capitalists at the Eureka Stockade in 1854.

Irish art is, by its very definition, political. Much of its seminal modern literature - Synge and Yeats, for example - is deeply veined with the issue of Irish nationalism. The inability to escape the "Irish question" may in part explain the fact that two of its most famous sons, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, were, equally famously, expatriates.

That same question is also, after all, responsible for a lot of sentimental kitsch, from the shamrock-laden souvenir shops in Dublin to Irish Australia's romance with the "old country" to the sodden cliches about alcoholic Irishmen with the hearts of poets. One can understand any writer's ambivalence towards his or her culture, but in Ireland's case it is particularly vexed. The issue of British occupation still runs deep and bitter, and much Irish art, overtly or covertly, constellates with varying degrees of suspicion around the questions of Irish nationalism, identity and rebellion.

In the late 20th century, many writers were influenced by the post-colonial critique pioneered by thinkers like Edward Said. They were, among other things, questioning the 19th century verities about Irish nationalism, when the continuing violence of the British occupation of Northern Ireland threw these issues into sharp relief. Among these artists was Brian Friel, who with the actor Stephen Rea founded the influential Field Day Theatre Company in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1980.

Field Day attracted a number of Irish artists (among others were the novelist Seamus Deane and the poets Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin). Field Day has also published widely - its releases include anthologies of Irish writing and a series of pamphlets by intellectuals such as Deane himself, Edward Said and Terry Eagleton - that place its theatre work firmly in the context of post-colonial thought.

The first play this company produced was the work widely considered to be Friel's masterpiece, Translations. Perhaps more directly than any of his plays, Translations illustrates this perceptive comment of Seamus Deane's:

Friel is unique his recognition that Irish temperament and Irish talk has a deep relationship to Irish desolation and the sense of failure. It is not surprising that his drama evolves, with increasing sureness, towards an analysis of the behaviour of language itself and, particularly, by the ways in which that behaviour, so ostensibly within the power of the individual, is fundamentally dictated by historical circumstances. His art, therefore, remains political to the degree that it becomes an art ensnared by, fascinated by, its own linguistic medium. This is not obliquely political theatre. This is profoundly political, precisely because it is so totally committed to the major theatrical medium of words.
This broadens Friel's concerns far beyond specifically Irish concerns. As its title suggests, Translations is a play about language: in particular, about the power of naming. It is set in 1833, when the British Army Engineer Corps conducted a major ordnance survey of Ireland, mapping and renaming the entire country. The act of colonisation is always also an act of language, as the governmental spin on in the invasion of Iraq shows all too clearly: and description is, as Said has argued, one of the first acts of colonisation. In Translations, Friel explores some of its ramifications, one of which was the death of the Irish language as a living tongue.

Perhaps what is most admirable about this play is how Friel has explored a subject that is, in his own country, of white-hot emotive power while evading easy vulgarisation or sentimentality. This compelling drama drives its exploration into the heart of language itself, as a living entity that both makes realities and is made by them. Friel refuses to present a simplistic view of the brutal British stamping down the rebellious Irish: rather, he gives a nuanced reading of the tangled relationships between language, power and identity.

And, although Friel is very clear-sighted about the realpolitick that attends cultural engineering, this play is by no means a simplistic nostalgic lament for the death of Gaelic. "Yes, [Irish] is a rich language, Lieutenant," Hugh remarks to Yolland, "full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception - a syntax opulent with tomorrows. ...But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. It can happen... that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact."

Set in a Hedge School in an Irish-speaking community in County Donegal, Translations covers the events of a few days in the life of a tiny community. The school is run by Hugh (Andrew Martin) and his son Manus (Rory Walker) and their adult pupils vary from the wild-haired Maire (Elena Carapetis), who demands to be taught English since Latin and Greek are no use to her, to Jimmy (Patrick Frost) who can quote reams of Ovid and Homer and to whom the Greek Gods are as real as any of his fellow villagers.

The drama begins as Manus' brother Owen (William Allert), who has left the village and found a well-paid job working for the British as a translator, returns home with two British officers, Yolland (Stephen Sheehan) and Lancey (Geoff Revell). Yolland, a shy romantic and a bad fit in the colonial system, finds himself falling in love with the countryside and the music of a language that he doesn't understand and, in particular, with Maire. Lancey, on the other hand, is there to do his job as efficiently as he can: to rename the land in the King's English.

The central scene in this play is a moving and funny dialogue between Yolland and Maire. Friel uses the conceit of replacing Irish for English, so while all the dialogue is transparent to us, it is not to all his characters: he exploits the comic possibilities of miscommunication and misunderstanding with a dab hand.

When Yolland and Maire slip out from a dance and attempt to express their mutual desire while barely having a word in common, Friel explores delicate human realities that language can, in fact, distort or conceal. These realities, he suggests, have very little to do with words. The tentative beginnings of mutual understanding expressed in this scene lead to tragic and brutal consequences, a fair metaphor for the bloody political dilemma of Ireland itself.

Flying Penguin have mounted a beautiful production of this play. Kerry Reid's design sets the tone: it is a naturalistic representation of the byre in which the scenes are set, aside from the Irish writing that covers every wall. David Mealor heightens the artifice by introducing John Kelly as a narrator, who reads Friel's stage directions at the beginning of the play, and by making the actors direct most of their speeches out to the audience; but otherwise he lovingly details it as the naturalistic drama it is. He has drawn excellent performances from his diverse cast, who work as tightly as an ensemble, though perhaps it isn't unfair to pick out Andrew Martin's magisterial performance of Hugh as a highlight.

Watching Translations, I couldn't help reflecting on what has happened to the naturalistic play in Australia. It hasn't been treated well: a while back, theatrical naturalism was colonised by television and voila! this fine form became synonymous with playwrights like David Williamson and Hannie Rayson, the apogee of dead bourgeois theatre. Yet it isn't as if it has always been a moribund form here - Peter Kenna and Richard Beynon wrote some fine naturalistic plays.

Still, its present zombiedom is a disappointing cul de sac for a theatrical form birthed by playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. There are profound pleasures to be had from seeing a superbly-written play done well. In its execution and intellectual context, Translations is an exemplary reminder that the naturalistic three-act play isn't necessarily a synonym for conservative, aesthetically bankrupt theatre.

Picture: Elena Carapetis (Maire) and Rory Walker (Yolland) in Translations. Photo: Shane Reid

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Criticism and audiences

UPDATE: In the comments, Ben makes clear that Chris Bendall's howl that he was taken out of context is perfectly just. My sincere apologies, Chris: as is probably clear, my past history makes me a little sensitive to perceived pressures, subtle or otherwise, to shut up.

Meanwhile, New York playwright James Comtois has some robust views of his own on critical walkouts.

The debate about the right and responsibilities of crrrritics continues apace. At Parachute of a Playwright, Ben Ellis rounds up some of the latest posts from the blogosphere and hosts some more discussion (and welcome to the blogosphere, Daniel Schlusser!) Ben also quotes from an email by Chris Bendall, artistic director of Theatre@Risk, who claims that this debate (on TN here and here) is "hurting audiences" for his show.

Is Chris seriously suggesting that a couple of posts on TN (readership last week, 4,250) is going to have more impact on GP audience numbers than a glowing review in the Age (daily circulation Monday to Friday, 658,000)? It seems absurd to me. But maybe I'm doing a Dragonball Z again and being more powerful than I ever imagined...

Without having read the entire email it's hard to be sure, but the strong implication is that Chris would like this debate to shut down because, rightly or wrongly, he believes that that it is affecting audience numbers for his show. In his email to me, his first impulse was to ask me to remove my comments altogether. My feeling is that I would like the discussion to continue, and to continue to open out past the question of the merits of a particular show. This debate was always about more than that.

My first question is: even if it were true that discussion about a particular production were affecting audience numbers, would that be a reason to stop talking about it? Is Chris seriously suggesting that a piece of theatre - a public act - is either to be spoken of in tones of reverent awe, or passed over in silence?

It reminds me, rather depressingly, of the Playbox days. My negative reviews of various productions in the early '90s led to a long and sometimes vicious campaign for my sacking by the Bulletin, and then, when that didn't succeed, to a high-profile banning.

I am not suggesting that Chris is being nearly as extreme as that; but there are shades of special pleading in his claim on Ben's blog. Playbox's argument was that my views were hurting the theatre, and I therefore should be silenced. My argument was that I was not an extension of a theatre's publicity machine.

In both these cases, there is the implicit equation of a negative review with bad criticism. As I have been saying - as was, in fact, the point of my original piece - they are by no means the same thing. A positive review can be bad criticism, and vice versa.

Secondly, is it really true that a negative review leads inevitably to poor audiences? Ben Ellis certainly has a different view about that. My experience as a practitioner leads to me feel that the relationship between critical reception and audience numbers - certainly in this town - is hardly so direct. Permit me a personal divagation.

There have been many times when I've been on the other side of the fence, both in the theatre and elsewhere. I know how much work it takes to make something. I also know that when I put something out in public, people are going to say whatever they like about it. And as far as I'm concerned, that is how it should be.

The first piece of theatre I ever had produced was an opera by Michael Smetanin, for which I wrote the libretto. The Burrow, directed by Michael Kantor, premiered at the 1994 Perth Festival and toured to the Seymour Centre in Sydney. That production, deservedly, created "a critical sensation". The opera was later picked up by Chamber Made and produced in Melbourne.

One thing I remember clearly about the Perth season was that the manager of one of the companies that produced the show was not very keen on it. It was, he said sneeringly, a "critical success", meaning that its audiences were poorer than he liked. As far as he was concerned, "critical success" was a euphemism for box-office disaster.

The next opera Michael Smetanin and I made together was Gauguin, which premiered at the 2000 Melbourne Festival. This was a critical debacle. The Melbourne reviews were, without exception, appalling: Michael and I were shredded (I, personally, thought that they had a point, even if they generally missed the point). The only positive reviews came from out-of-towners.

Despite this, the houses were full. I remember sitting in a packed theatre at the Arts Centre, thinking that this was the strangest failure I had ever had.

So it seems to me that audience attendance is about many things, and can't be tracked down simply to positive or negative reviews. And, frankly, if critics determined as much as they are sometimes thought to, Cameron Mackintosh would be a much poorer man than he is today. Remember, Mackintosh stopped inviting critics to opening nights, because they routinely took his lucrative musicals to bits.

It seems to me that the blogosphere offers a public space - at once international, flexible and dynamic - in which serious public discussion about theatre can take place in a way that has not been possible in this town before. I understand that Chris Bendall is smarting at my remarks. Were I in his place, I might well feel the same way. At the same time, I think he should be wary of attempting to curb discussion, which is something that hurts the theatre as a whole far more.

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