I don't know what happened to 2007. One moment it was shining before me, bright with everything that new years are supposed to be bright with, and then suddenly it was a long shadow streaming behind me. It's the sort of thing that makes you come over all philosophical, though I think some mischievous god has been playing with time.
2007 has been a big year for Little Alison. After seven years hard labour, I finished my fantasy quartet, all 2000 pages of it. I also completed my next collection of poetry, called (with only a smidgeon of irony) Theatre, which is coming out with Salt Publishing next year. The blog's had a good year - in 2007, TN had around 165,000 unique visitors (almost quarter of a million hits), an average of about 20,000 a month, almost tripling the traffic from last year.
I've gone full circle and ended up where I started, back in the hurly-burly of daily newspapers (where, as Stella Gibbons memorably remarked, one's style, like one's life, is nasty, brutish and short): I became Melbourne theatre reviewer for the Australian, and began doing the odd gig for the Guardian. And then Howard was voted out of government and I accidentally deleted four years of email. No wonder I'm tired.
In between all that, as a quick glance at a list of my reviews will reveal, I saw, and wrote about, almost 100 shows. Which seems like a lot to me, though battle-hardened veterans (I'm looking at you, Mr Boyd) might snort dismissively: a proper critic sees six shows a week, and tots up a total of something like 300. In my defence, I can only say that I've never pretended to be anything but an improper critic.
While I'm crunching the numbers - it's kind of fun and, in its own limited way, revealing - I count around 30 of those shows as things I wouldn't have missed for the world, making an excellence rating of about 30 per cent. That's pretty good going with something as volatile as theatre. This heads up to about 15 duds, shows that bravely challenged the trend of time's quickening and made it run like a river of porridge. This leaves around 55 per cent in the "good" category, shows I enjoyed without their blowing me away.
I've never been in a position to see everything on in Melbourne, and all through the year there have been shows I couldn't get to, and which - after hearing breathless reports from my extensive network of theatre spies - I'm sorry I ended up missing. But all the same, it's a fairly decent sampling. And it seems to me that, generally speaking, Melbourne theatre passes the medical with flying colours. The hue is rosy, the limbs are making lively gestures, the renaissance is on. There are those who like their culture dead, the chief zombie being Robin Usher of the Age, but me, I prefer to leave the theatre with my heart beating.
This liveliness has been driven by three major institutions - the Malthouse, the Melbourne International Arts Festival and the Victorian College of the Arts - with strong support from the independent theatre and dance scenes.
The Malthouse has had a year of consolidation, with an eye turned to crowd-pleasers like Geoffrey Rush in Ionesco's Exit The King or Sleeping Beauty, and return seasons of successful shows from the independent theatre scene - The Pitch, from La Mama, The Eisteddfod, from the Store Room, or A Large Attendance in the Antechamber, from everywhere.
But it's also found space for experimental gems like Anna Tregloan's Black, the Bessie-winning dance/theatre piece Tense Dave, or the unruly anarchy of Uncle Semolina & Friends with OT. They put on a cabaret season, including the incomparable Paul Capsis, and they produced one of the Melbourne Festival's highlights, Barrie Kosky's The Tell-Tale Heart.
I've enjoyed everything I've seen there this year - it's been various, stimulating, controversial and fun - and I can't say that about anywhere else. I'm not going to argue with any of those who are saying that the Malthouse is the most exciting theatre company in Australia.
And then there's the Melbourne Festival. Well, a lot of words have been spent on MIAF, so I'll just say that for this bright-eyed rabbit, this year's festival was, taken as a single event, the highlight of the year. Artistic director Kristy Edmunds delivered the goods bigtime: I spent 17 days buzzing around on a permanent high. If I lived in Singapore, I would have been arrested and sentenced to flogging. Aside from The Tell-Tale Heart, my highlights were Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On, Dood Paard's Titus and Athol Fugard's Sizwe Banzi is Dead (though Laurie Anderson was pretty cool...)
One of the peculiarities of Melbourne is that some of the best theatre here is made by students. The VCA sucks in talented youth, trains it within an inch of its life, and then gets the most interesting directors around town to throw it at fabulous texts. Ambition is the byword. The VCA production of Hélène Cixous's The Perjured City was one of this year's top shows. Their end-of-year productions of King Lear and A Dollhouse weren't far behind and I'm told that Yes, which regrettably I couldn't get to, was equally impressive.
This year dance indelibly entered my theatrical lexicon. It was, on the whole, a year to catch up - I saw several wonderful remounts. I've already mentioned Tense Dave, but there was also Lucy Guerin's Love Me and Aether, Chunky Move's Glow, and, courtesy of MIAF, a retrospective of Merce Cunningham. I might be learning something... Among the new work, last week's Brindabella from BalletLab was a knockout, and La Mama also hosted a memorable performance of Deborah Levy's B-File.
Outside the institutions, my top shows were Little Death's notable production of Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur, Simon Stone's wonderful adaptation of Wedekind's Spring Awakening and Ranters Theatre's gorgeous Holiday. Outside Melbourne, a tiny Adelaide company, Floogle, enterprisingly flew me over to see their production of Pinter's The Homecoming, which was as elegant a reading of that play as I am likely to see. There was Eleventh Hour's rivetingly erotic retelling of Othello. And - sacre bleu! - one of my theatre highlights was seen at the Melbourne International Film Festival - A Poor Theatre's The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, which counts because I saw it first as a play and because it's part of the Malthouse's first season next year.
In fact, there was a lot of Shakespeare around in 2007, with a decidedly mixed hit rate. Bell Shakespeare made me eat my words by putting on a good production of Othello, but the much-anticipated RSC production of King Lear, with Sir Ian McKellen notoriously shedding his underpants, was one of this year's huge disappointments. I was forced to watch Peter Brook's film to remind myself that the play really is more than a comic opera.
So it wasn't all champagne and skittles. Which brings me to the Melbourne Theatre Company, currently looking like the ailing limb in an otherwise rather fit theatrical body.
To be fair, it wasn't all bad. Arthur Miller's All My Sons was a straight production of a classic that went like a train, although I admit that contrary reports from many reliable sources of the subsequent season made me wonder if the cast had reserved all their vim for opening night. I thought the MTC's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the most moving of the three I saw this year, and Thom Pain was a delightful surprise. I had a long argument with Alan Bennett's The History Boys, but I felt it was worth doing all the same.
The rest was a mixture of the forgettable, the competent and the plain awful. The MTC served up some of the worst nights I've spent in the theatre this year. It began the year ominously with the bafflingly bad production of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane, and ended with what is my vote for worst show of the year, Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. Midyear there was the ineffably sentimental tedium of The Glass Soldier, one of the bottom five low-points of TN's theatrical year. It's notable that all three of these shows were directed by artistic director Simon Phillips.
I guess Phillips has had a distracting year - not only is the MTC building a new theatre, but he's been out and about in the commercial world. But given the liveliness and invention of the theatre culture around it, our state company ought to be doing better. Much better. To go back to the dubious number crunching: if the dud percentage of theatre generally was 15 per cent, the MTC's individual dud percentage was around a third. And although several shows made my "good" category, not one blew me away.
Next year's program is, in prospect at least, similarly uninspired. But to finish on a positive note, next month the MTC is importing the STC's magnificent production of The Season at Sarsaparilla, so Melbourne will have a chance to see what happens when a state theatre company attempts to make theatre, instead of just putting on plays.
Well, that was my 2007. It was a vintage year, and it's brought me a great deal of pleasure. I want to thank all the theatre companies who kindly provided me with tickets, the many people who have encouraged me through the year, my blogger colleagues and, most of all, my readers and commenters (especially those who take issue with me). I've had a brilliant time, and I hope it's mutual.
TN is now taking some badly-needed time off, and will be back refreshed and - theoretically, at least - raring to go in the New Year. Me, I'm heading back to my poetic roots over the Yuletide break, and writing a new translation of Beowulf. (I don't know why, but sometimes one can't help these things). So a happy solstice to all of you, and I'll see you in 2008.
Pictures from top: Glow, by Chunky Move; Luke Mullins in Little Death's Mercury Fur; Geoffrey Rush and Julie Forsyth in Exit the King, Malthouse; Black by Anna Tregloan, Malthouse; Kagemi, Sankai Juku, Melbourne Festival; Ben Hjorth in the VCA's King Lear; Ian McKellen in the RSC's King Lear; Don's Party, MTC; The Season at Sarsaparilla, STC.
Monday, December 10, 2007
I don't know what happened to 2007. One moment it was shining before me, bright with everything that new years are supposed to be bright with, and then suddenly it was a long shadow streaming behind me. It's the sort of thing that makes you come over all philosophical, though I think some mischievous god has been playing with time.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
I'm afraid it looks as if all those emails are presently irretrievable. Which includes (the real nuisance) my database of addresses for the mailing list for the blog. Any readers who want regular notifications of updates will have to email me again - alisoncroggon at aapt dot net dot au.
On the other hand, my empty inbox is a beautiful thang...
Friday, December 07, 2007
Brindabella, choreographed by Phillip Adams and Miguel Gutierrez, composed by David Chisholm. Set and lighting design by Andrew Livingston, Ben Cisterne and Ben Cobham of Bluebottle, costume design by Doyle Barrow. With Derrick Amanatidis, Tim Harvey, Luke George and Brooke Stamp. Music performed by Lachlan Dent, Peter Dumsday, Timothy Phillips and Nic Synot. BalletLab and Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse until December 8. Bookings: 9685 5111. ...every attempt Enough of the apologia, I hear you cry... So I’ll get down to that business of attempting the impossible, and tell you about the dances. Description will have to suffice. So hwæt, my little athelings. Between this flower picked and the other given Aether, with a deal of comedy and poignancy, explores this nothingness, a space that in the 21st century is overloaded with noise, and rather bleakly suggests that humans, for all their technological ingenuity, are still alone, still halted in bewilderment before the threshold that separates self from self.
Aether, choreographed by Lucy Guerin, composed by Gerald Mair. Motion graphics by Michaela French, costumes by Paula Levis, lighting by Keith Tucker. With Antony Hamilton, Kyle Kremerskothen, Stephanie Lake, Lina Limosani, Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle. Lucy Guerin Inc and Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse.
Last week the Croggon wordhoard collapsed in a heap of disconnected vowels. This poor minstrel stood in the halls of the thane – I’m speaking metaphorically, of course – and could spit out nary a hwæt. (Ok, I admit it: I’ve been reading Beowulf and the Geats have got to me). It was in this mode that your disconsolate bard took herself to the Malthouse to see Lucy Guerin Inc and BalletLab.
A major reason I enjoy dance is that it doesn’t have words in it. Or if it does have words in it – both Brindabella and Aether have a few – it doesn’t tend to have very many; and they function, as in poetry, as much in their texture and rhythm as in their meaning. So the conjunction of the wordhoard going awol and two pieces of contemporary dance was, as you might imagine, a happy one.
On the other hand, dance – being a medium that employs meanings and articulations very far from words – is, at the best of times, very difficult to write about. At the hoardless times, it’s just about impossible. And there are other considerations highlighted by dance that haunt all the writing I do on theatre.
Writing about performance of any kind is always an act of uncertain translation, a recording of complex sensory and emotional impressions that will, always and inevitably, falsify the experience. Words are slippery; they betray the wordsmith, they lock down the multiplicity of experience, they elide memory, they deceive and seduce into their own reality.
The act of writing is a translation, among other things, of the present into the past tense. This is one reason it’s so much easier to write about language-based art: anything written down is, a priori, in the past tense (this is why writers have a tragic view of life). It’s hardest of all to write about work that exists in time; unlike, say, a painting, it can’t be contemplated and returned to. All these things add up to a constant addressing of the impossible. The certainty of failure is, of course, no reason to refuse the attempt. In a way, this blog is a record of such attempts – as Eliot said:
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
The first thing is that these two pieces, run in tandem as a short dance festival at the Malthouse, are an exercise in contrast. Aether is all subtlety and complex motion, where Brindabella is a crude and sumptuous excess; the beauty of Aether is cool, intelligent and restrained, the passion throbbing beneath the icy discipline, while that of Brindabella is about the frank unleashing of the anarchies of sexuality.
As its name suggests, Aether – an ancient word for air – is a meditation on the medium of communication. Speech, written language, the technological means of communicating, are all (as I have suggested above) a third thing, neither what is said nor what is heard, and have their own determinations. To quote another poet (it’s a week for poets), Giuseppe Ungaretti:
the inexpressible nothingness.
The dance is divided into two parts, the first roughly about the medium of technology, the second about human attempts to communicate. When we wander into the theatre, the dancers are already on stage, idly fiddling with torn up pieces of newspaper that are arranged in coiling patterns on the stage floor. Even before Aether begins, Guerin is dividing our attention: it is impossible to watch all the dancers at once, and so you watch one and then another. The number of dancers on stage kept changing, as if by magic: I continually missed their entrances.
When the dance proper begins, some words creep across the bottom of the blank screen that dominates the back of the stage, as if unseen hands are typing them. Gradually the writing creeps up the screen, becoming more and more fragmented, and the screen fills up with numbers and graphics, obscuring the text until it becomes unreadable, one more broken sign among too many others.
Meanwhile the dancers, dressed in unisex tunics, perform increasingly complex movements, creating continual eddies of harmony that break into arrhythmic disruptions. There is a particularly beautiful sequence where the dancers link hands and weave in and out of each other’s bodies in a continually surprising fluidity, like a human Möbius strip. The dance demands that you choose where to watch – complex things are happening at extreme ends of the stage – mimicking the effect of information overload. And it’s beautifully detailed: in particular, you notice the subtleties of hands – fingers are compellingly expressive in Aether.
The screen narrows to a slit and then vanishes, signalling the second half, which concerns itself with the less abstract physicalisation of human communication. I mean no disrespect when I say that parts of this reminded me of Mr Bean: there are elements of clowning, especially in Antony Hamilton’s brilliant and disturbing performance of a man struggling to speak to others. Speech is evoked by wordless noises and intricate movements that mimic the patterns of conversation. But speech itself is not absent: there is another very funny sequence where, speaking in precise chorus, the dancers tell us about the vagaries of rehearsal.
Perhaps the most beautiful dance is created by a stroke of lighting genius. Keith Tucker opens a strip of white light across the darkened stage, as if using the shutter of a very big slide projector. It begins with lighting a single undulating finger, and gradually widens until the beam of light illuminates a strip of the whole stage, about a metre deep and a short distance above the floor. Only parts of the dancers are illuminated: their legs or their arms rise from a sea of darkness and dip back in, or a man sits up and is startlingly headless. The final image of Aether returns to darkness, the light dwindling until it illuminates one finger.
It’s compelling, intelligent work that moves you at obscure and unexpected levels of consciousness. And I was glad there was an intervening week before I saw Brindabella, which is an entirely different pickle. If nothing else, these two works indicate the depth and variousness of contemporary dance in Melbourne now.
It occasionally happens that a performance can produce a strange sense of dissonance. You realise that you have no idea whether it’s good or bad; all you know is that you can’t stop watching it. (This is, admittedly, true of a car crash: but I associate this feeling with some of the most exciting theatre I’ve seen). Moments in Brindabella, a collaboration between BalletLab’s Phillip Adams and New York choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, made me reflect that, although I had no idea if it was any good, I was quite sure that it was brilliant.
Loosely based on the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast, it cheerfully destabilises aesthetic judgement, pillaging influences as diverse as Jean Cocteau, Disney and porn flicks. Yet the effect is far from a flippant post-modern irony. It is, rather, a passionate work that at times attains the anarchic energy of a pagan ritual. It’s perhaps most like a 21st century Dionysian mystery, a kind of contemporary Bacchanal that releases bestial and divine energies through ecstatic dance.
Through its three acts – La Belle, L’Amour and La Bête – we witness a complex process of playful destruction. The four dancers gradually strip away their social dress, even their gender, until they are four possessed, erotic bodies, personifying the anarchies, clumsiness and beauty of raw sexual desire.
Bluebottle’s lighting and design is one of the stars of this show: it’s nothing short of stunning. The only design elements are the huge curtain - actually white, but painted with light and lifted or ruched in various ways (the curtain technician was working very hard) - and light itself. Behind the curtain is an utterly bare stage, and at one point the huge back door is opened to the yard outside, giving even deeper perspectives.
Brindabella begins with a coup de théâtre. The three musicians, in an orchestra pit before the brothel-red curtain that dominates the stage, begin the prologue to David Chisholm’s continually surprising score, in this case a sensual scraping of cello and percussion. The opening dance is the fascinating play of the musicians’ shadows across the curtain. Then the dancers step onto the forestage. The sole woman, Brooke Stamp, is dressed in a ball gown that is a Cocteau fantasia, holding a hand mirror, while the three men - Derrick Amanatidis, Tim Harvey and Luke George – dressed as elegant Beasts, whirl around her, in a dance that is a parody of the narcissism of Beauty. Finally the curtain lifts, and Beauty vanishes into the cavernous darkness behind.
The dance moves from an almost (but not quite) parodic evocation of classical dance towards an athletic nakedness, the beast inside the beauty. The transitional dance is a long and strangely compelling sequence where the four dancers simply jog around the stage. Their running is oddly formal – they are almost always facing the audience – but otherwise it is just running, an exhausting physical effort. As they run, they gradually strip off their clothes down to their underwear, throwing their garments into the audience in a dissociated strip tease, and gradually their unity begins to fragment, the physical effort becomes harder, one dancer outstrips the other in a burst of energy. Maenads, I thought. It must be my classical education.
Another highlight is a comically dark dance in which the dancers have pine trees strapped to their backs and howl like wolves, that again suggested an obscure pagan ritual; something perhaps to do with a winter festival of death and rebirth. There’s a gesture towards gay porn that involves assembling a surreal bicycle enhanced with dildos, and a long sequence to a screaming electric guitar and kitsch lights that is, well, simply about fucking. It is somehow glorious, transcending its own self-conscious tackiness to become a celebration of sexual bodies.
The final sequence is a brief coda of ethereal beauty in which the naked dancers, adorned with feathers that gradually are shed around the stage, are silhouetted against a golden light. It has a disembodied serenity that suggests the mystic edge of the erotic.
It’s a commonplace for artists to claim that they are exploring the nature of desire, but it is quite rare for someone to actually attain it. In this dizzyingly various dance, walking a very narrow line between self-conscious parody and the extremities of passion, Phillips and Gutierrez have made a genuinely erotic work.
Picture: Aether by Lucy Guerin. Photo: Rachelle Roberts
Enough of the apologia, I hear you cry... So I’ll get down to that business of attempting the impossible, and tell you about the dances. Description will have to suffice. So hwæt, my little athelings.
Between this flower picked and the other given
Aether, with a deal of comedy and poignancy, explores this nothingness, a space that in the 21st century is overloaded with noise, and rather bleakly suggests that humans, for all their technological ingenuity, are still alone, still halted in bewilderment before the threshold that separates self from self.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
In a moment of IT genius, Ms TN accidentally deleted her email program - and with it (temporarily, I hope) several thousand emails and hundreds of email addresses. I'm hoping this will be rectified in the next couple of days; meanwhile, if I owe you an email, you'll know why...
Monday, December 03, 2007
On Thursday...[executive director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, Helen] O'Neil sent a letter to the group's 28 member companies praising Garrett's appointment as minister for the arts. But she warned members, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Sydney Dance Company, of possible cuts under a razor gang directed by the new treasurer, Wayne Swan.
Garrett is not prepared to commit to funds allocated in the May budget, and will not use his position to influence the states on support for the arts.
UPDATE: Jim at Rage and Enthusiasm gives a must-read analysis of the implications for regional arts in Australia, claiming the Labor policy falls far short of what is needed. And fearing that the idea of arts "access" for regional areas might be skewed by a bit of urban snobbery.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Little Alison is still in reset mode. On Wednesday night she saw Lucy Guerin's Aether, a work of exquisite complexity and beauty, but can she find the words to describe it? (The audience is expected to shout out: "no, she can't!") It takes a certain answering complexity in the mind to respond to work, and for the moment - I live eternally in hope of tomorrow - TN has the aesthetic sophistication of a shoelace. This lack of creative brio must be why I find myself coming over all editorial. What the hell. It's Sunday, the newly cleansed house is sparkling, and I'm sure you've got a nice cool beverage by your elbow. Right then. There's 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. It's almost, as a quick look at the website will verify, a small industry, and it's expanding rapidly: there are now S&S festivals for dance and music theatre. On the face of it, as I said, it's mostly harmless. But if Short and Sweet is embraced as a way forward for theatre, I worry. In fact, says Nevin, the 2008 STC season includes seven Australian plays. "Forty-seven per cent of the plays done over my time here have been Australian," she says. "Thirty-five people have been commissioned and next year we're doing seven Australian works." But now I'm hot and I have to move my desk (only writers know what this means). So I'll leave it to others to tease that one out...
This week, for example, the Short and Sweet Festival is back again at the Victorian Arts Centre, apparently bigger and better than ever. Now, in blogland Short and Sweet has a controversial history. Some of you will remember the wrath visited upon Ming-Zhu last year, when she blogged as a participant in the 2006 season (Chris Boyd's useful summary here, my commentary on the commentary here, and my review of some plays here.)
Patrick White winner Patricia Cornelius is one of the participating playwrights this year, and she was in the Age last week doing the PR thing. Though I noticed Cornelius seemed to argue against the idée fixe that audiences now have the attention spans of the above-mentioned shoelace. (Wherefore the wowed audiences at Ariane Mnouchkine's six hour epic Les Dernier Caravanserail, I wonder? surely if theatre is considered exciting in itself, it doesn't have to be marketed as something that won't hurt for long? - but I digress...) It is this attention span that, it seems, necessitates such festivals, which provide "access" to the arts.
I have all sorts of problems with the word "access". For a start, in my experience the demand for "accessible" art usually comes from people like Andrew Bolt. I am all for community arts, an aspect of culture that was sidelined by the Australia Council's restructure under the Howard Government, which saw off the Community Arts Board and left institutions like La Mama struggling to carry the slack. But I'm hoping - given that S&S organiser Alex Broun has been very active organising arts policy forums for the new Labor Arts Minister, Peter Garrett - that S&S isn't seen as a model for a brave new accessible arts world, because I think it is, at best, harmless and, at worst, a way of seeming to support emerging artists while actually doing very little of substantial worth.
(Aside from good community theatre programs - of which I think organisations like Big hArt are a model - I actually think that the best thing that could be done for access to theatre would be to make tickets cheaper. In Paris, you can pay 10 euro to see Pina Bausch at the very comfy Théâtre de la Ville, whereas a ticket to The Madwoman of Chaillot in Melbourne will set you back almost $80. But again, I digress...)
The short play festival concept is at best a dubiously scattergun way of nurturing new work. But it's attractive in many ways - it's very feelgood, and it's cheap. Participants volunteer their services for a chance at the prize money, thus removing at one stroke the major problem in performing arts budgets: the wages bill. There's something strangely circular about it. As I said in my review of one of last year's shows:
But that's not what I wanted to talk about at all.
What caught my attention in the Age was a comment by Patricia, where she talked about the "desperation" felt by many writers about the lack of outlets for their work. I don't argue with the desperation; we have all - those of us of literary dispositions - felt this at one stage or another. "There are so few avenues for people wanting to write for theatre now," she goes on to say, "especially with the exclusion of Australian work from our major theatres."
This is where I do a double take. Which major theatres "exclude" Australian work? Even the MTC, which is surely among the most backwards of the major companies in this area, has this year programmed new works by David Williamson, Joanna Murray-Smith and Justin Clements (it has a rather better record in previous years). I can't say I'm excited by the Murray-Smith/Williamson duet, but there's no arguing that it's new and it's Australian.
Cornelius is by no means the only person to say this - it's a common perception. The formation of PlayWriting Australia out of the two former bodies, the Australian National Playwrights Centre and Playworks, is a new attempt to address the difficulties playwrights face. There's an organisation mooted called Melbourne Dramatists which, aside from having the worthy aim of getting playwrights to talk to each other, aims to mitigate the prejudice theatre companies allegedly hold against Australian work. There are playwrights' conferences all over the map, there are workshops and masterclasses and competitions. Playwrights, it seems, need all the help they can get.
I do not doubt that it's hard to get new plays on, despite the support of champions of new writing like La Mama or Griffin Theatre, nor do I wish to dismiss the concerns of writers. But I will point out that it was ever thus. I only need to ask my husband, who is now approaching (or even in) his third decade as a full-time playwright, a "profession", if it so might be called, which combined with my own, means that we do not own a house, a car, shares in Telstra, a country estate or any of the other material accoutrements considered necessary for a comfortable bourgeois life. (Although we do own a lot of books, cds and dvds). And he's successful, accounting - according to the Australia Council anyway - for a quarter of Australia's entire literary exports.
Yes, there's no doubt that it's tough - though equally, it's tough for directors and actors and all those other parts of the industry that face the prospect of 90 per cent unemployment. But is it really as bad as claimed? Do major companies really ignore Australian work?
Robyn Nevin, former artistic director of the STC, addressed this head-on earlier this year. "There's been a perception out there that I've been unwilling to program new Australian plays. Obviously there have been new Australian plays that I've not produced. I've rejected them. Perhaps that's what has generated this criticism because the facts tell a different story."
The company that gets most schtick for ignoring writers is the Malthouse Theatre. Rodney Hall was one of the first to accuse it of "abandoning" writers, just after the new team took over from Playbox in 2004, and it's been a constant bone of dissatisfaction ever since. The Playbox, the story goes, programmed playwrights, and the Malthouse doesn't. I've heard this so often that I think it's worth looking in detail at the facts.
The past three years' programming doesn't bear out this assertion at all. In 2004, the final Playbox year, the Playbox produced six new Australian plays, its total work for the year (the previous year, the Playbox presented eight). The following year, the new writer-free Malthouse put on, in a season of 11 works, seven new Australian plays - and I mean, plays, texts written for theatre - by Wesley Enoch, Tom Wright (two), Lally Katz, Patricia Cornelius, Margaret Cameron and Ben Ellis. Plus a production of Patrick White. There were seven plays- plus a literary adaptation - in 2006, as well. Since 2005, it's mounted new works by Stephen Sewell, Gareth Ellis, Michael Watts, Ross Mueller, Lally Katz, Tom Wright, Rebecca Clarke, Melissa Reeves and Peter Houghton.
It beats me how that is abandoning writers, although there's no argument that the Malthouse is programming a broader vision of theatre. But the perception that writers are ignored persists, despite the facts. Are writers simply responding to the fact that there are many more plays than stages to put them on? (And perhaps I have answered the S&S question above - is it a place for the overspill, a kind of valve to let the pressure off some dangerous cultural steam?) But it seems to me that these persistent complaints are actually part of a deeper and more complex conflict about the place of writers in contemporary theatre. Which is, actually, quite an interesting discussion.
There's 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.
It's almost, as a quick look at the website will verify, a small industry, and it's expanding rapidly: there are now S&S festivals for dance and music theatre. On the face of it, as I said, it's mostly harmless. But if Short and Sweet is embraced as a way forward for theatre, I worry.
In fact, says Nevin, the 2008 STC season includes seven Australian plays. "Forty-seven per cent of the plays done over my time here have been Australian," she says. "Thirty-five people have been commissioned and next year we're doing seven Australian works."
But now I'm hot and I have to move my desk (only writers know what this means). So I'll leave it to others to tease that one out...
Friday, November 30, 2007
I don't believe it. Robin Usher is at it again - there he is today in the Age's opinion pages (interestingly, not the arts pages), urging the government to set guidelines for the Melbourne Festival to stop dangerous art from erupting here at festival time.
"Is (the festival)," thunders Usher, "supposed to be an exploration of cutting-edge contemporary works or a more rounded presentation of the best acts available from around the world and locally?" I'm not sure why these two things are mutually incompatible, but there we are. Anyway, which is enough to send a shiver down any aesthete's spine, Usher predictably regards new artistic director Brett Sheehy as a "safe and sure pair of hands". Though I ought to add that it's not fair to judge Sheehy through Usher's glasses.
In a startlingly mean-minded attack on the present artistic director Kristy Edmunds, Usher goes on to work the familiar canards - that the 2005 and 2006 festivals were no good (TN and many others thought 2005 was the most exciting for years), that Edmunds is underqualified and knows nothing about classical music, that the festival "ignores an affluent segment of Melbourne's culture lovers". He even - scandalously - hints that Edmunds is only interested in contemporary dance because her partner is dancer Ros Warby. And he carefully doesn't mention that MIAF 2007 was both a critical and sell-out success.
The problem with Usher's criticisms is that they have never borne much connection to things like actual programming, or even facts. Where he claims that Edmunds changed course in her tenure, I see a singular evolving vision. Where he claims that the festival was "elitist", I saw enthusiastic audiences across a very various demographic. During Edmunds' first festival, which nobody was said to attend, I was astounded by how many queues I hand to stand in to get into theatres.
As for those "fringey" acts; well, the fact that Usher hasn't heard of an artist doesn't mean that he or she isn't internationally famous. This is the senior arts reporter who didn't know that the Avignon Festival is the biggest theatre festival in Europe, and had to ask how to spell "Avignon".
He brings up John Truscott again as part of the festival's "tradition". The thing is, I agree with Usher that Truscott was a great festival director. It's just that I think Edmunds is in the same tradition. Like Edmunds, he strongly supported local artists and brought in the most exciting "cutting edge" work (I see Usher is at least avoiding the word "fringe") from around the world.
And Truscott - for all the holiness of his memory, now he's safely in the past - was beaten around the ears for it by the grinches, just as Edmunds is being beaten now.
Usher's solution to the dangerous art problem is that the State Government introduce "guidelines" to stop the festival being at the "whim" of every blow-in director. Aside from the absurdity of the suggestion - what does he mean? Thou Shalt Program Carmen Every Festival Or Else? - it's unbelievable that any arts commentator should be seriously calling for state-sanctioned art. Yes, there's a tradition here too - ever heard of Stalin?
UPDATE: Ming-Zhu swings in with the observation that it's all so old and stinky and that her peers complain that MIAF is too full of Grand Masters. "What do you hope to achieve?" asks the redoutable Ming. "Melbourne as a silent pocket of doddering biddies dwelling eternally somewhere in the late nineteenth-century? One of the biggest problems with that idea, Mister Usher, is that I reckon that there are whole, affluent packs of doddering old biddies out there already who quite frankly can't get enough of Jan Fabre, Romeo Castellucci, Jerôme Bel, Forced Entertainment, The Sound Art Limo, or Sankai Juku..."
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Eagle-eyed TN readers will notice my last two reviews are not, as they normally would be, extended from the versions in the Australian. It's no reflection on the companies involved: this week, the needle on the fuel tank is swinging towards empty. Hoping for some re-energising soon...
Not What I Am – Othello Retold by William Shakespeare, directed by Anne Thompson. Conception and dramaturgy by Anne Thompson, Stuart Orr, David Treninnick and cast. Design by Julie Renton, lighting by Kick Pajanti, composer Wally Gunn. With Rodney Afif, Shelly Lauman, David Trendinnick, Jane Nolan, Stuart Orr and Greg Ulfan. The Eleventh Hour, The Eleventh Hour Theatre, Melbourne, until December 15. Bookings: (03) 9419 5649.
For several years The Eleventh Hour has been one of the treasures of the Melbourne theatre scene. From their base in an enviably beautiful little theatre in Fitzroy, they’ve built an enthusiastic following.
And rightly so. Under directors William Henderson and Anne Thompson, this company – which exists entirely on private funding – has offered fresh interpretations of playwrights as various as Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Miller, with a particular emphasis on Shakespeare.
They create a fascinating form of stylised physical theatre, with inventive mise en scène and choreography. As far as I’m concerned, their robust approach to plays can sometimes be controversial – for example, an otherwise superb production of Beckett’s Endgame last year suffered from extra-textual interruptions.
But, agree with them or not, their productions are always intelligent, beautifully performed and superbly produced. Their radically reworked version of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Moor of Venice, is no exception.
Not What I am – Othello Retold is a cut-and-paste of Othello which at times almost turns Shakespeare’s text into an oratorio.
Playing on the ambiguity of Moorishness, Othello (Rodney Afif) is Arabic rather than African. He and Desdemona (Shelly Lauman) form the central axis of the production. The rest of the cast – Iago (David Trendinnick), Emilia (Jane Nolan), Cassio (Stuart Orr) and Roderigo (Greg Ulfan) – doubles as a chorus, sinisterly cloaked in anonymous black.
The chorus represents Venice itself. They introduce themselves as the seven deadly sins, exemplified in Shakespeare’s play by Iago, one of his most charismatically evil characters. In this version, Iago’s wickedness is distributed through the populace of Venice, which collaborates to destroy Othello and Desdemona’s scandalously miscegenous marriage.
The lush design, a construction of Moorish walls and windows gorgeously lit in ochres and umbers, centres on Othello’s marriage bed. And from the beginning, the erotic marriage of sex and death is in the foreground: Othello’s final speech before he murders Desdemona is here performed as a seduction, exploiting the ancient pun that orgasm is a “little death”.
The other characters are as sexually charged as the central pair, drawing every erotic implication out of Shakespeare’s loaded language. As the tragedy nears its inevitable bloodbath, the production becomes almost hallucinatory, like a glimpse into Othello’s madness.
The excellent cast is equal to the extreme vocal and physical demands and is sometimes skin-pricklingly good.
As a colleague perceptively remarked afterwards, this is Othello as a revenge tragedy. Or, perhaps, as a spoken opera. Definitely one for the diary.
This review appeared in today's Australian.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Nicholas Pickard is tipping the hot word is Bob McMullan will be Minister for the Arts. Which I must say, makes me feel a bit more optimistic for the arts under Labor. More at Arts Journalist.
Update: Nah, it's Garrett. Why, I ask (a genuine question), do I feel so unexcited? Well, let's see...
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The appointment of Kristy Edmunds' successor as artistic director of the Melbourne Festival has been feverishly anticipated. Well, TN confesses to a deep interest, but I cannot match the enthusiasm of our favourite arts reporter, the Age's Robin Usher.
Usher has been a keen lobbyist against what he perceives as Edmunds' anti-mainstream programming. The most recent name he was gunning for was Brett Sheehy, whom Usher perceives as a director "more likely to return to a traditional programming mix". (Whatever that means.) He also suggested Lindy Hume earlier this year, prompting a sharp rebuke from MIAF general manager Vivia Hickman. And last night, festival president Carol Schwartz announced that Brett Sheehy is the successful candidate, and will helm the festival through 2009 and 2010.
So have the grinches won? Has the MIAF board blinked and gone for the commercial bling, despite the unqualified success of Kristy Edmunds' 2007 program? Or are they, perhaps, being very savvy? Your fearless reporter nailed the hapless Sheehy to the MIAF board table yesterday in order to investigate. And the result of my interrogation leads me to suspect that if Usher expects a sudden swerve to the "mainstream", he might very well be surprised.
I admit it, I was charmed. Although he had no doubt spent his morning being grilled by reporters, Sheehy showed no sign of weariness. His enthusiasm, which has almost a naive quality, is infectious. He says he is hugely excited and very nervous about his appointment. "I'm a huge fan of the Melbourne Festival, and I've attended every festival since 1992. Melbourne audiences are tremendously sophisticated and savvy, and it's a big challenge to present a festival here."
Sheehy has a long track record, and MIAF says he was the "stand out candidate" in their hunt for a new AD. Formerly literary manager at the STC, he's directed both the Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, winning various forms of kudos along the way. He's clearly good at attracting sponsorship - the 2008 Adelaide Bank Festival of the Arts, as it is now known, is the biggest arts sponsorship in South Australia's history.
But what are his plans for our favourite festival? "It would be insanely premature to say anything specific, especially given that Kristy has her own festival to run next year," he says. "But I am very conscious of the Melbourne Festival's Spoleto origins, and its international responsibilities. I am kind of... I am very ambitious and competitive for the organisations for which I work, I want them to strive for excellence in every possible way. And if I can do that, I know that Melbourne will be happy."
So far, so gold plated. But when asked what he thinks about Edmunds' programming, Sheehy is more than diplomatically polite. "Perhaps I'm a bit biased," he confesses. "I think Kristy Edmunds is a terrific artistic director, a terrific woman. But then, I've been programming people like Ariane Mnouchkine, Robert Wilson, Lucy Guerin, oh, for years.”
He is aware of the “vicious” commentary that Edmunds’s directorship has attracted – which he says that he doesn’t understand. “It’s not true, as some say, that she's changed her course,” says Sheehy, referring to the unanimous praise for this year's festival. “She's followed her vision from day one with a wonderful integrity and rigor." But he puts a positive spin on the debate. “On the other hand, it’s exciting that such robust and vigorous debates are happening,” he says. “And that there is this real sense of ownership of the festival in this city.”
Sheehy says he is keen to include organisations like the MTC – a notable festival absence – in his programming, while Usher notes approvingly that he’s all for symphony orchestras and operas. But I'm not panicking yet. It’s worth noting that this year’s Adelaide Festival includes Chunky Move and the Malthouse Theatre production of Marius von Mayenburg’s Moving Target. Mayenburg’s Eldorado, also directed by Benedict Andrews, was one of the works singled out by Peter Craven in a broadside against Edmunds last year, in which the “fringey” Malthouse was caught in the crossfire.
Sheehy, on the contrary, thinks the Malthouse is the most exciting theatre company in the country. To my surprise, he claims that the Malthouse has made waves across Australia, not just in Melbourne. “It’s a role model for all of us,” he says. “Recently I picked Michael Kantor as one of the top ten influential people in culture. It’s just astonishing what they’ve done here.”
Sheehy says a city festival is 50 per cent artistic vision and 50 per cent the milieu of the city itself. In Melbourne, as he says rightly, he can access an artistic community of richness and depth. There’s not much sign that he plans to change the festival's present direction in any significant way. He wants to plug into Melbourne’s visual arts scene and engender collaborations with other artforms, but that’s about as specific as he will get.
For now, he has to steer Adelaide 2008 first. He takes up his MIAF position on April 1 next year. In the meantime, he says that Edmunds’s 2008 program is “absolutely astonishing”. If it’s better than 2007, well, as incoming director, he’ll have to live up to that.
Sheehy will be seen as a “safe pair of hands” – the artistic equivalent of Kevin Rudd – but if he’s sincere about exploiting the vitality of Melbourne's artistic milieu he could be a very good strategic appointment, providing a period of consolidation. Perception is all, and a program strong on innovation under Sheehy – especially after the icebreaker years of Edmunds – might well defuse criticism before it occurs, and end up pleasing everybody. The proof is, as always, in the festival program he actually produces: but for the moment TN feels sanguine about MIAF. I think Sheehy's appointment is a smart move.
This morning Ms TN has some strange symptoms - sensation of a small animal decomposing overnight in one's mouth, an aversion to light, etc etc. They might indicate vampirism, but I blame the wine at the Spiegeltent. Along with a good proportion of the theatre community, I attended La Mama's 40th Birthday Party last night, and a rambunctious and enjoyable affair it was, too.
Vague memories swim back - Wes Snelling singing 99 Balloons, Caroline Connors dressed up as a Christmas tree, my 12 year old son chatting up the evening's MC, Julia Zemiro, Rockwiz host but - of course - best known to TN readers as a rather superb Lady Macbeth. (He really did buttonhole her, astonishing the lot of us and eliciting much envy from his older brother. Ms Zemiro was charming. I think he's now officially in love). La Mama and its artistic director Liz Jones has a lot to celebrate: it's been a crisis year for this much-loved Melbourne institution, and they've not only come through, but come through stronger. I raise my glass - rather shakily - to Liz Jones and her loyal and hardworking team. As I remember through the spots, I raised it rather often last night. Glasses can't be raised often enough. La Mama is special, and we're lucky to have it.
It was, inevitably, also a de facto post-election party. Being packed with Brunswick arts extremists, it would have been hard to find a single person not delirious with relief at the defeat of the Howard Government. However, Ms TN had a couple of sober moments before she got to the Spiegeltent, and wrote a piece for the Guardian's theatre blog on government arts policies, up there today, in which she expresses her scepticism on Labor's approach to the arts. (I made the front page, just under George Monbiot! Oh gosh! The headline, I point out, is not mine own...)
PS: This scepticism reinforced rather than otherwise by the strange behaviour of Arts Queensland - a Labor State, remember -which supposedly is seeking to make "the arts sector more commercial and self-reliant" and has been causing huge problems for a number of its most notable organisations, including the acclaimed Elision Ensemble. H/t: Supernaut.
Motortown by Simon Stephens, directed by Laurence Strangio. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting by Richard Vabre. With Richard Bligh, Brett Cousins, Cleo Coleman, Verity Charlton, Dion Mills, Sarah Sutherland and David Whitely. Red Stitch Actors Theatre @ Red Stitch Theatre, Chapel St, St Kilda, Melbourne. November 23. Until December 22. Bookings (03) 9533 8083.
Motortown was written in four feverish days, at the time of the 2005 London bombings. British playwright Simon Stephens wanted to write, he says, a play “which inculpated more than it absolved. I wanted to write about my guilt in creating and perpetuating the culture that drove these wars…”
It’s the kind of impulse that can easily result in theatre that’s about as exciting as muesli. Thankfully, Motortown is too angry, too pitilessly honest and too sardonically funny to be earnest.
Motortown comes from a recognisable genre of plays that draw from George Büchner’s 18th century masterpiece Woyzeck, a play about an alienated returned soldier whose damaged psyche explodes in violence. As in David Mamet’s Edmond, the protagonist is in every scene, a kind of dystopic Everyman spiralling towards inevitable doom. He’s a symptom of a wider social sickness, a psychotic expression of a general moral vacuum that gnaws at the very heart of what it means to be human.
Danny (Brett Cousins) has bought himself out of the army after serving in Basra. Through his encounters with his ex-girlfriend, a petty arms dealer and some wealthy swingers, Stephens paints a scathing indictment of contemporary Britain. “The war was all right,” says Danny. “I miss it. It's just you come back to… this.”
These plays are also disturbing explorations of the crisis in masculinity that’s reflected, among other things, in a high suicide rate among men. Danny only admits how deeply scarred he is by his Basra experience in moments of crisis. This disconnection is linked to his compulsive lying; he seems incapable of telling the difference between fantasy and reality, and in part the play is driven by his different accounts of himself: a suggestion in one scene appears as a lie in the next.
In a particularly cruel scene, he is mocked by his ex-girlfriend Marley (Sarah Sutherland) for his impotence. His violence – like that of Woyzek or Edmond – is ultimately directed against women. But it's clear that Danny's problems predate his war experiences: the war only gives them horrifying expression.
As in Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, a recent hit in Sydney and Melbourne, the only real emotional connection occurs between brothers. Motortown begins and ends with Danny’s relationship with his disabled brother Lee (movingly protrayed by Dion Mills).
Laurence Strangio gives it a swift and powerful production, driven by a couple of excellent performances in the central roles of Danny and Lee. It’s not without flaws – some performances tend towards the mannered.
And Peter Mumford’s design – a floor painted in what I presume is crazy paving, with seatbelts suspended from the ceiling – is puzzling and distracting. But it’s a creditable production, and this spare, compelling play shines through with mordant clarity.
Picture: Brett Cousins (left) and Dion Mills in Motortown. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson
This review appeared in yesterday's Australian.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
A Large Attendance in the Antechamber, written, designed and performed by Mr Brian Lipson and Sir Francis Galton. Tower Theatre @ The CUB Malthouse until December 9. Bookings: 9685 5111
Twist my arm even slightly, and I’ll break down and admit it: Ms TN is an unabashed fan of Mr Brian Lipson. His theatrical imagination has amused, intrigued and astonished me so much over the past three years that I’ve awarded him the Theatre Notes Seal of Approval (Class #1), a very pretty trinket that has myriad applications (eg, as a bath plug, a fishtank accessory or a very fetching hat). But up to now (I’ll whisper it), I haven’t seen his best known work.
A Large Attendance in the Antechamber premiered in 2000 and has had several seasons here, gathering enthusiastic praise along the way, as well as touring the festival circuit around the world. It even has its own Wikipedia page. Yet somehow, despite the glowing word of mouth, I missed it every time. This Malthouse season allows such delinquents as myself to catch up, and it seems I am not alone: the initial season booked out more than six months ago, and has been extended. Though it could be that it’s been booked out by those who want to see it again.
A Large Attendance in the Antechamber is a theatrical conceit concerning Sir Francis Galton, Victorian genius, founder of the controversial science of eugenics, discoverer of the anti-cyclone, inventor of the silent dogwhistle and cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton had the highest IQ ever recorded, though it seems that for all his brilliance, he lacked a little in what these days is called “emotional intelligence”. But this is as far from worthy biography as it is possible to get. Part scientific lecture, part séance, part slapstick and part theatrical essay, it’s riveting and intelligent theatre.
Lipson has made a kind of theatrical machine with which he investigates the workings of Galton’s mind. The title comes from a suggestive note of Galton’s, quoted in the program, in which he describes how he thinks. “There seems to be a presence-chamber in my mind where full consciousness holds court, and where two or three ideas are at the same time in audience,” he says. “And an antechamber full of more or less allied ideas, which is situated just beyond the full ken of consciousness…. The successful progression of thought appears to depend, first, on a large attendance in the antechamber.”
It’s a striking description that suggests the possible anarchy of the subconscious (those attendees in the antechamber are often a ragged and disreputable lot). The connection to Berggasse 19, Lipson’s wonderful conceit about Freud's psychoanalysis, is immediately obvious. Both works have a fascination with the ellipses and eruptions of the subconscious, and both are intricately designed shows with an obsession with objects. The set for Antechamber seems to be have been made out of a packing case, the interior of which is a simulacrum of Galton’s study, complete with oil lamps, ceiling rose, hat stand, pictures and strange instruments that are produced, like rabbits out of a hat, out of the crammed interior.
Galton – complete with sideburns, Victorian dress and high forehead – is waiting for us as we arrive, seated in his absurd box. When he begins to speak, it is to apologise for what he considers an unsatisfactory presentation – he is being impersonated by an actor. And so begins the long series of conflicts between Sir Francis Galton – the speaker – and his rebellious subconscious, the actor Mr Lipson, who clearly is outraged by some of Galton's ideas.
It’s a conflict that escalates throughout the show with increasing absurdity: since it is Galton who, as it were, holds court, Lipson’s presence is reduced to subversive gestures – notes pinned to Galton’s back perhaps, or suspended from a helium balloon. At one point, he invents a ridiculous mechanism by which to introduce the actor without actually breaking the conceit by speaking his name; at another, he arrests himself; at another we are presented what is surely the most devastating parody of blackface I have seen, fatally undermining Galton's account of his adventures with the Hottentots in Africa.
The ostensible subject matter – a kind of whistle-stop tour of Galton’s achievements – is fascinating in its own right. Galton lectures on the necessity for selective breeding to achieve the potential of the human race, on ideal female beauty and on how to make a perfect cup of tea. He gives a slideshow in which he demonstrates the creation of a virtual woman – a woman created with the new photographic technology out of the features of different sisters. Using the same technique, he creates a generic image of the "Jewish type". And later, underlining the instablility of performance, he melds Lipson’s face and his own photographic image to create a third creature, the fiction being created before our eyes in the theatre.
It was, of course, Galton's idea of eugenics, or selective breeding, which was picked up and obscenely taken to its logical conclusion by the Nazis. In this show, it's clear how the idea stems out of the British class system (a certain class has always insisted that its sons and daughters, like its horses, exhibit "good breeding"). Our - and Lipson's - awareness of this darker subtext gives a sharp and discomforting edge to Galton's eccentricities. Galton was of his time: racist, sexist, a firm believer in the Victorian virtues of categorisation, the imperial virtues of discovery and the superior qualities of the British male.
For all its slapstick subversion, Lipson's show evades mere caricature. Its playfulness, a series of mirrors within mirrors within mirrors, is deeply serious: it asks us to be conscious of the artifice of theatre, and becomes ultimately a metaphor for the performances and masks of the self. Beneath Lipson's portrayal is a constant and uneasy subtext of madness, an unexpressed pain that occasionally breaks the surface in some throwaway image of Galton's (his description of sanity, for instance, as a tabletop surface with no safety rails).
In its final few moments the entire theatrical conceit is dismantled before our eyes, and leaves us unsure whether we are looking at Sir Francis Galton or Mr Brian Lipson. Or perhaps we are given a glimpse of someone else, a man denuded of all titles and labels and masks, a strangely anonymous human being who is simply exhausted at the end of a demanding performance and, trapped in the gaze of his audience, is unsure how to finish it.
It's one of those moments when the artifice of theatre becomes a means of revelation; although a very different kind of theatrical epiphany, it's not so far from Lear's vision in the midst of storm, in which man, stripped of his hubristic self-importance as the centre of the universe, is revealed to be only "a poor, bare, fork'd animal". It's the kind of risk that can only be ventured by an actor as accomplished as Mr Lipson. It might require all his skills to get there, but this kind of exposure is not about the art or the craft of acting, but about the sort of courage that is prepared to destroy both.
Picture: Brian Lipson in A Large Attendance in the Antechamber. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti
Little Miss Alison has had a difficult week. My synapses have been dangling forlornly in empty space like shorting cables, and the crease in my forehead has been more suggestive of terminal stupidity than of signs of intelligent life. I think I caught the virus that I so successfully avoided during the Melbourne Festival. Anyway, I've been feeling miserable. It's very badly timed: I have a big black novelish deadline coming up at the end of the month, and a few thousand coherent words to smith before then (but a review of Mr Brian Lipson's and Sir Francis Galton's extraordinary A Large Attendance in the Antechamber coming up soon, I swear).
But I think I've also got the jitters. I'm not sure I've ever felt so anxious about an election. The thought of the Coalition continuing in office seems unbearable, and I almost daren't believe they will lose. I've even become an obsessive psephologist. Goddamit, Australia: surely it's time to kick these sneeringly complacent moral bankrupts out of office?
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Next week the MTC is running its sixth annual Hard Lines Play Reading Program, presenting selections from four new plays by Peter Houghton, Felix Nobis, Dina Ross and Nic Velissaris. It's the final play-reading overseen by associate director Julian Meyrick, who has coordinated the MTC's writers' development arm since in 2002.
Meyrick is leaving the company at the end of this year to assume a post-doctoral research fellowship at La Trobe University. As yet there's no word on who will be replacing him. (Or, indeed, if he will be replaced: the MTC website says that "currently there are no positions available at Melbourne Theatre Company". Although we also note that the information on Hard Lines dates from last year...)
This year, writers supported by Hard Lines won major awards - the Patrick White (Patricia Cornelius), Wal Cherry (Ross Mueller) and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Jane Bodie) - which shows that Meyrick has an eye for talent. He'll be speaking about his experiences with new Australian drama and the aims of the MTC's development program after Wednesday night's reading.
$5 entry, students free, at the Grant Street Theatre, Victorian College of the Arts, at 6.30pm on November 27 and 28.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Letters from Animals by Kit Lazaroo, directed by Jane Woollard. Design by Amanda Johnson, lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle, sound design by Colin James and Jane Woollard. With Glynis Angell, Georgina Capper and HaiHa Le. Here Theatre and Store Room Theatre Workshop until November 25. Bookings: 9481 8496 Unaccustomed as I am to putting pen to paper. I find myself in need of your assistance. I trust you haven’t forgotten me. I cut your foot once when you went swimming. You looked through the boards of the jetty and watched me push against the current. I was in a cage at the zoo. I lived under the roof of your house. I ate food from your bin. You saw me resting in the mud. You caught me in a glass jar and put me on a windowsill. I fell out of a tree when the sun was hot and spat at your feet. You kept me in a shoebox under your bed and fed me the wrong leaves until I died. Don’t forget me. Bring me back. Speak my name. Balancing the comedy, pathos and mystery of a play like this is not an easy ask, even in the best of circumstances, let alone in the confines of the Store Room. Here Theatre pulls it off admirably. After the theatrical excesses of The Madwoman of Chaillot two nights before, it was an inexpressible relief to be reminded that it really is true about two planks and a passion. It’s an exemplary demonstration of how theatre can be political and contemporary without being didactic or simplistic. In short, it rocks. Picture: Glynis Angell and HaiHa Le in Letters from Animals.
Kit Lazaroo, who’s been quietly gathering plaudits and prizes since 2003, has been sitting in my mental filing cabinet with the stamp “must investigate” for some time now. Big red stars in texta were drawn on the file after the sell-out season of her play Asylum at La Mama last year, of which much praise trickled Williamstown-wards. Well, I might be slow, but I get there in the end.
It’s hard to know where to begin with Letters from Animals, now on at the Store Room in a simple but beautifully realised production. It’s much more difficult to write about than it is to see; it's a delicate, complex work that can seem merely whimsical, when in fact a bleak and uncompromising intelligence runs through it like a steel rod. Perhaps it’s an indication of its richness that this play prompts comparisons in so many directions.
Lazaroo is one of a number of noteworthy new playwrights presently enlivening Melbourne’s stages (others include Lally Katz and Ross Mueller), although her imaginative diction also reminds me of Sam Sejavka, who has been writing since the 1980s. And these writers have something in common with others further afield, people like Britain’s Philip Ridley or Germany’s Marius von Mayenburg.
For all their variousness, these playwrights reflect a sensibility that seems to me quite particular and of our time, but I’m sniffing: I’m not quite sure how. I suspect it's partly to do with a certain formal playfulness, a post-television consciousness that returns to the basics and throws them up in the air for questioning; but they also have an underlying darkness, an uneasiness that reflects contemporary anxieties and uncertainties. All of them approach the world elliptically, avoiding the easy statement, the play-as-message; but that can be said of every serious artist. And certainly, all of them are writers who understand the inherent poetic of the theatre.
Letters from Animals is several things. It’s a sorrowful and absurdly comic fable on memory and forgetting; a bleak warning about stupidity, greed and treachery; a satire on bureacractic oppression; and a lament of considerable lyric power. One of the admirable things about it is how it keeps so many things in play at once, so nothing ever quite comes to rest on a conclusion.
It's set in an imagined future, in a world in which animals no longer exist. This is a world destroyed by pollution and global warming, flooded with poisonous water and “sludge”. The only living things on earth are human beings. Or, more precisely, women: there seem to be no men at all. No doubt they have mutated out of existence thanks to the oestregen in the water and perhaps the women all reproduce by parthonogenesis: the playwright doesn’t say. Every other living thing has been eradicated, as harbingers of disease and uncleanliness from the "Days of Filth".
Queenie (Glynis Angell) is a former scientist living on the margins of society, who is attempting to restore the animal world from the few fragments – biological and semantic – that are left. This is subversive work in a world run by the sinister and faceless Developer; here people are controlled by regular inoculations which wipe their minds clean of memories and dreams and guard them against the possibility of remorse. Queenie is being investigated by the bureaucrat Shelley (Georgina Capper), who sends the young and ambitious Gretel (HaiHa Le) to spy on her activities.
In the meantime, the animals themselves – in the form of a Rat, a Vulture and a Cockroach – are demanding their return, perhaps even planning a revolution. It is never clear whether the animals exist independently or as alter-egos of the three characters; in the oneiric logic of this play, they are both. And, being peculiarly literary animals, they are sending letters to the women, asking to be remembered, to be restored, to be mourned.
Most of all, this is a play about language: the extinction of our fellow creatures is reflected by a linguistic and, crucially, an emotional impoverishment. As we lose their names, their descriptions, so we lose the ability to understand ourselves. Animals are everything that escape human order and human law; but they are also in us, in our animal selves, and with us. In the terrible future imagined here, they need us. Or is it simply our need speaking through the memory numbed by their absence? As the animals say in one of the letters that mysteriously haunt the bureaucrat Shelley:
What counts most in making this imaginative world are the performances, and all three actors are equal to the task. Georgina Capper in particular, in the double role of the disintegrating bureaucrat Shelley and the French Vulture, is an actor I want to see more of. Director Jane Woollard deftly evokes Lazaroo's elliptical realities with the help of a lot of smoke, Bronwyn Pringle’s ingenious lighting, several buckets and an evocative sound design.
Unaccustomed as I am to putting pen to paper. I find myself in need of your assistance. I trust you haven’t forgotten me. I cut your foot once when you went swimming. You looked through the boards of the jetty and watched me push against the current. I was in a cage at the zoo. I lived under the roof of your house. I ate food from your bin. You saw me resting in the mud. You caught me in a glass jar and put me on a windowsill. I fell out of a tree when the sun was hot and spat at your feet. You kept me in a shoebox under your bed and fed me the wrong leaves until I died. Don’t forget me. Bring me back. Speak my name.
Balancing the comedy, pathos and mystery of a play like this is not an easy ask, even in the best of circumstances, let alone in the confines of the Store Room. Here Theatre pulls it off admirably. After the theatrical excesses of The Madwoman of Chaillot two nights before, it was an inexpressible relief to be reminded that it really is true about two planks and a passion.
It’s an exemplary demonstration of how theatre can be political and contemporary without being didactic or simplistic. In short, it rocks.
Picture: Glynis Angell and HaiHa Le in Letters from Animals.
For her sins, Ms TN is on a strict theatre diet of two shows a week, so I'm missing out on quite a lot; but the bloggers are out there and you can hear them scream... Bardassa at On Stage Melbourne catches up with one of the independents I like to keep an eye on, Act-O-Matic, with a review of Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone. Jana at Mono No Aware has two recent pieces on Melburnalia and The Chosen Vessel, which makes me wish she'd review more. I'm hoping (hint hint) that bloggers will catch up with Helen Noonan's Voicing Emily and Jane Montgomery Griffiths's Sappho, shows about favourite poets of mine, because I don't think I'm going to either of make them. This latter will be the last show at the Stork Hotel, which has been a notable venue for this kind of work, and is scheduled for demolition. Ah, progress. Me, I haven't been entirely idle; review coming up here of Kit Lazaroo's Letters from Animals at the Store Room.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
It's the zeitgeist. Not only are in we in election fever (well, a kind of low buzzing headache really), but it seems that for the theatrical blogosphere, politics is the topic du jour. Our favourite rabbit, Matthew Clayfield, was spotted by an Age journalist hounding the PM fondly known as "Calamity John" (you can follow Matt's adventures here on Election Tracker). He's doing a sterling job - Matt, I mean, not John - but hey Matt, we want you back here where you belong.
I had my own meditations yesterday, responding to Hilary Glow's new book on theatre and politics, but mainly the blogosphere is awash with responses to Jay Rayner's piece on the pressing need for right wing theatre "to take on the establishment". I'm kind of with George Hunka here: as he comments dryly, "if you want to fuss, fuss". George picks up on David Hare's bizarre comment about Samuel Beckett's "prettified acceptance" of suffering - an offensively mistaken view of Beckett, in my view, and amply countered by Trevor Griffiths' suggestion that Beckett was the most political playwright of his era (this via Abe Pogos). This kind of discussion sends me into catatonia, I'm afraid. It seems to comprehensively miss the point about theatre and politics, and I start wanting to instruct everybody to go back and read Susan Sontag again. But maybe missing the point is the point. I'm not sure.
Not that I'm against the intersection of theatre and politics; I just wish the terms were more interesting. So I'm glad to see that Lyn Gardner from the Guardian got along to Honour Bound in London and gave it a four-star rave, despite my esteemed colleague Mr Boyd predicting that it would be greeted with "contempt". (What was that conversation, Chris?)
I guess you're all sick of politics by now. Good. Let me point you then to a must-read - George Hunka again, this time on the blog at Ontological-Hysteric Theatre observing Richard Foreman in rehearsal. That'll scramble your binaries for you.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post responding to an article about Hilary Glow's new book, Power Plays: Australian Theatre and the Public Agenda, out from Currency Press. In particular, I was puzzled by Glow's observation that theatre had become less political in the Howard era, since it seemed to me that, on the contrary, it has become more so. To quote me:
What's shifted is the idea that theatre is primarily a socio-political document, and primarily the home of naturalism. The focus has moved from issue-based plays to a more multivalent awareness that representation itself, in this media-saturated world, is a deeply political issue, and that it is not nearly enough merely to state the issues. ...Puzzling over the claim that theatre is less political, when it is so manifestly not the case, I suspect that this shift away from naturalistic issue-based plays is the change that Glow notes, and mistakes for a lack of political engagement.
In the ensuing discussion, Ben Ellis, one of the playwrights interviewed for the Power Plays, pointed out, very reasonably, that Glow has every right to set her terms of discussion. "I think," he said, "that Hilary's choices allow her arguments about politics and theatre to be focused." And of course, it was unfair to speculate without having read the book. Surely the book is making a self-fulfilling argument in accepting those assumed limitations? The STC has been hosting things like Howard Barker's Victory, or Kosky's The Lost Echo. Benedict Andrews's production of The Season at Sarsaparilla critiqued modes of perception in its design and direction. And the politics in next year's STC program is quite difficult to escape, although at least a third of it eschews the naturalistic model of "unified narrative, psychologically plausible characters and emotional engagement" (although I always hope for emotional engagement). Which at the least brings into question the idea that the formal choice of naturalism has to be observed in order to be programmed. The mix gets more complex when you look at all the theatre companies supported by the Major Performing Arts Board, which include the Malthouse and Company B, as well as Bell Shakespeare and all the State companies, and if you include the Melbourne Festival. This insistence on a very limited view of "mainstream" theatre - and the associated claims for its political significance, which underlie this book's argument - is a critical weakness. Even on her own terms, Glow uses "mainstream" very loosely: sometimes, as in the introduction, "mainstream" becomes a synonym for "play". It's muddied further by Glow's many discussions of independent theatre or independently produced plays, such as Ilbijerri Theatre, The Keene/Taylor Theatre Project or Melbourne Workers Theatre. Why insist so strongly on the definition of "mainstream" in the first place if, in the body of the book, it means so little? It is hard to see it as anything more than a rhetorical claim. There are other strange acrobatics. Glow has already claimed that theatre's highest good is as a public forum for informed political discussion. She has a fair bit of trouble squaring this instrumental view of art with her own objections to the equally instrumentalist economic rationalist model that she objects to from the Howard Government, but solves the contradiction by ignoring it. Instrumentalism is, it seems, ok if in the service of one kind of politics, but not in another. Likewise, Glow quotes Terry Eagleton on ideology, which he says constructs a "reassuringly pliable" view of the world, and then speaks of theatre's capacity to unsettle ideological frameworks; but she nowhere questions the ideology adumbrated in the book. And this is an avowedly ideological argument, as expressive of a heterodoxy as anything it argues against. I finished Power Plays with the gloomy thought that this book reduces theatre and art as effectively as any argument by Andrew Bolt: it employs the same parameters of discussion, and merely mirrors the effect - left wing, instead of right. Passion, intellectual play, love, formal curiosity, actual social engagement, the very experience of theatre itself, seem very far away. No wonder "we no longer feel", as Glow says, "that theatre is as important as life itself". I hope some of you took advantage of Currency's generous offer last month, and bought and read the book. Now I've had my say, I'm fascinated to hear yours.
Well, now I have read the book: and then I re-read my earlier post and thought, damn right. But I have promised to discuss Power Plays, so I will, though I confess to some reluctance. I should point out at the outset that my response is no reflection on any of the playwrights mentioned in this book; that would be another post.
I tried, Ben, I really tried. It is only fair to read any book on its own terms, and I did make a brave effort. My problems begin with Glow's defining of her choices and her definitions of important terms. Her argument is so muddy, so riven with self-contradiction or received assumption, that it almost makes no sense at all. If you are to argue with something, you need an argument to argue with. I disagree, for example, with Michael Billington on many salient points, but Billington always creates an intellectual structure with which it's possible to disagree. And besides, he's a pleasure to read. I don't feel any such clarity about Glow's book.
My problems with Power Plays are on two levels. On one, I disagree with almost every critical assumption about writing and politics and theatre that Glow makes in this book. On the other, quite aside from my own take on these things, the book makes an argument that is often incoherent, and reaches conclusions that are often, on inspection, disappointingly banal.
It's the kind of critical writing about theatre that makes me deeply depressed. It demonstrates the pedestrian ideological mindset and intellectual shallowness that strangled Australian theatre through the 80s and 90s. It is hard to know how to begin to talk about it, partly because its argument is so unclear; so I thought I'd just briefly pull out some individual points.
Power Plays discusses primarily the work of eight playwrights - Stephen Sewell, Hannie Rayson, Katherine Thompson, Andrew Bovell, Ben Ellis, Reg Cribb, Wesley Enoch and Patricia Cornelius - whom Glow interviewed for the book. But she by no means confines her discussion of political theatre to these playwrights: in fact, there is a dizzying sampling of Australian plays and playwrights discussed in this book, from Richard Frankland to Michael Gurr, from Oriel Grey to Jack Hibberd.
Taking a leaf out of Leonard Radic's Contemporary Australian Drama, Glow approaches theatre primarily as a means of tracking social history: "This book contends," she says, "that the Australian theatre of the last decade has been a good place to find out 'what is really happening'." And she is concerned with plays that, as she puts it, reflect a "critical nationalism", which works "against the grain" of John Howard's vision of "One Australia". The writers of these plays "insist", she says, "that their highest motivation is to provide politically informed debate on key issues in the public domain". She is not writing a history of all political theatre, and she is not writing a history of performance.
The problems begin when she starts to adumbrate her definition of "mainstream". She is concerned with "mainstream" playwrights "whose work is performed in and by the leading state-subsidised theatres in Australia" to "middle-class, aging" audiences. "Mainstream" plays are further defined as naturalistic, character-based dramas: they alone "engage with forums of power" and reach a national audience.
Nothing in the book answers my earlier questions about this definition of "mainstream", which I might as well repeat.
The examples I've noted seem to me to be quite noticeable eruptions of political critique in mainstream venues that, yes, absolutely have to get those bums on seats, but are still exploring work that reaches beyond the model of dramatic naturalism. Isn't an important part of this discussion that the parameters of the "mainstream" have noticeably been changing over the past few years?
The definition of "political" is similarly problematic. After some discussion of the difficulty of defining political theatre, Glow accepts that political in this context means "the interrogation of systems of power". This might work if the book were more aware of, and interrogated, the systems of power at work in Australian theatre, but these remain largely unaddressed.
Glow has, for example, some strange ideas about agency: she says several times that writers "choose" to be mainstream playwrights. Hannie Rayson, it seems, "chooses" to have her plays performed at the MTC, rather than, say, at La Mama (oddly, given its noble history of political theatre, not mentioned in this book). Even the briefest consideration suggests that it is the MTC that chooses, otherwise we'd have mainstream playwrights coming out of our ears. No doubt this confusion stems from Glow's conflation of a formal style - naturalistic plays - with her definition of a category of theatre - theatre made in special buildings for middle-class audiences. But it is indicative of a general fuzziness.
Worse, this definition of the political as interrogating systems of power could be applied to almost every play ever written. Glow localises it by bringing in the notion of "critical nationalism": she is concerned with plays that argue against the prevailing nationalism promoted by the Howard Government. The danger of Glow's argument becoming purely reactionary ought to be obvious; especially if, as is widely expected, Howard gets voted out in a couple of weeks.
It is also very parochial: our theatre only counts as political in this purview if it explicitly addresses our "Australianness". There is no discussion of political theatre writing here in any wider context: you will look in vain for any references to Edward Bond, or Howard Brenton, or Augusto Boal, or even Bertolt Brecht. (David Hare gets a couple of mentions, but only because he visited Australia, and Samuel Beckett gets a very small guernsey in a discussion on Ben Ellis). One very serious problem with this book is that, while it might have a lot of breadth in the range of Australian theatre it discusses, it has hardly any depth at all.
Surely the book is making a self-fulfilling argument in accepting those assumed limitations? The STC has been hosting things like Howard Barker's Victory, or Kosky's The Lost Echo. Benedict Andrews's production of The Season at Sarsaparilla critiqued modes of perception in its design and direction. And the politics in next year's STC program is quite difficult to escape, although at least a third of it eschews the naturalistic model of "unified narrative, psychologically plausible characters and emotional engagement" (although I always hope for emotional engagement). Which at the least brings into question the idea that the formal choice of naturalism has to be observed in order to be programmed.
The mix gets more complex when you look at all the theatre companies supported by the Major Performing Arts Board, which include the Malthouse and Company B, as well as Bell Shakespeare and all the State companies, and if you include the Melbourne Festival.
This insistence on a very limited view of "mainstream" theatre - and the associated claims for its political significance, which underlie this book's argument - is a critical weakness. Even on her own terms, Glow uses "mainstream" very loosely: sometimes, as in the introduction, "mainstream" becomes a synonym for "play". It's muddied further by Glow's many discussions of independent theatre or independently produced plays, such as Ilbijerri Theatre, The Keene/Taylor Theatre Project or Melbourne Workers Theatre. Why insist so strongly on the definition of "mainstream" in the first place if, in the body of the book, it means so little? It is hard to see it as anything more than a rhetorical claim.
There are other strange acrobatics. Glow has already claimed that theatre's highest good is as a public forum for informed political discussion. She has a fair bit of trouble squaring this instrumental view of art with her own objections to the equally instrumentalist economic rationalist model that she objects to from the Howard Government, but solves the contradiction by ignoring it. Instrumentalism is, it seems, ok if in the service of one kind of politics, but not in another.
Likewise, Glow quotes Terry Eagleton on ideology, which he says constructs a "reassuringly pliable" view of the world, and then speaks of theatre's capacity to unsettle ideological frameworks; but she nowhere questions the ideology adumbrated in the book. And this is an avowedly ideological argument, as expressive of a heterodoxy as anything it argues against.
I finished Power Plays with the gloomy thought that this book reduces theatre and art as effectively as any argument by Andrew Bolt: it employs the same parameters of discussion, and merely mirrors the effect - left wing, instead of right. Passion, intellectual play, love, formal curiosity, actual social engagement, the very experience of theatre itself, seem very far away. No wonder "we no longer feel", as Glow says, "that theatre is as important as life itself".
I hope some of you took advantage of Currency's generous offer last month, and bought and read the book. Now I've had my say, I'm fascinated to hear yours.