Review: Villanus ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Review: Villanus

Villanus, by Vlad Mijic and Rhys Auteri. Performed by Vlad Mijic, with Raphael Hammond (video). Lighting and set design by Vlad Mijic, music by Raphael Hammond. Welcome Stranger Theatre Company, Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall, until September 2. Bookings: (03) 9782 2625.

Lately I've been thinking about the poetic language that's turning up in so much of Melbourne's contemporary theatre. There's a lot of it about, and it's an interesting - and I think healthy - phenomenon. Many inquisitive minds are turning back to the word, after a period of its banishment from any serious exploration of theatrical form.

A decade or so ago, "text-based theatre" was most often a pejorative term, considered synonymous with the faux naturalism that then dominated our main stages. But, as Robert Musil illuminatingly pointed out in 1926, this is a mistake, even if the so-called laws of the stage are "nothing but a dramaturgy of cutting real spiritual cloth down to marketable size". "Many of our contemporaries," he wrote, "have rebelled against the mindlessness of the stage, with the result that all parts of a stage performance were 'discovered' and made, one after the other, the chief part." He goes on to elucidate the "new theatre" of the time:

The actor's theatre, the director's theatre, the theatre of acoustic form and that of optical rhythm, the theatre of vitalised stage space, and many others have been offered to us.... They have taught us much that is worthwhile, but about as one-sidedly as the assertion that one should throw a man who has a cold into the fire,which is also fundamentally based on a correct idea. ... As incomparably as something unutterable may be expressed at times in a gesture, a grouping, a picture of feeling or an event, this always happens in immediate proximity to the word; as something hovering, so to speak, around its core of meaning, which is the real element of humanity.

Musil suggests that the danger of radical reforms that ignore the intellectual possibilities of the word is an inescapable inner banality. "The experience of our senses are almost as conservative as theatre directors," he says, and only language can take us beyond what we already know.

Musil's statements, which pertain to the German theatre of his time, are of course highly arguable. But they remain provocative and, I think, pertinent to some of the work I'm encountering around Melbourne. I'm thinking of, for example, the work of Stuck Pigs Squealing, who last week had a showing of a work-in-progress that dislocated linguistic meaning using techniques imported from sound poetry, or Luke Mullins' exploration of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, or Carolyn O'Connors' Material Mouth (having a remount soon at Arts House), or Adam Broinowski's unrapturously received Know No Cure, the text of which, at least, deserves some notice for its densely poetic attack on theatrical language.

There's a lot of rethinking of how written language can be used in theatre: attempts to expand the vocabulary, that are in part reactions to the banalities of both text-based and non-text based theatre. As Musil's statement shows, there's nothing new under the sun; but there are always new contexts in which these old things can be reilluminated.

Which brings me, at last, to Villanus, the latest work of Welcome Stranger, one of a rash of young independent theatre companies in Melbourne that are exploring a vein of what might be called junk theatre. This is theatre that questions conventional theatrical aesthetic, defying the idea that theatre is a consumable object. In junk theatre, you are unlikely to see anything resembling a three-act play, or expensive and lavish sets. What you will often encounter is a dramaturgy ordered along poetic, rather than narrative, principles. The connections in the text will be metaphorical and allusive, and its apparent meanings and stories will be ironised, subjected to an aggressive and restless interrogation.

It's all to different ends, of course, and very much a work in progress. Junk theatre is occurring under the aegis of tiny companies like the Black Lung, which last year saw its very rude – in all senses – Rubeville sweeping the awards at both the Adelaide and Melbourne Fringe Festival. Uncle Semolina and Friends presented a lo-tech version of Gilgamesh at the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival that featured toy cars and a sandpit. They appeared in a double bill with the charming Suitcase Royale, who make their ingenious and intricate props out of discarded objects like old telephones and typewriters.

Like these others shows, Villanus looks defiantly messy. The set consists of a jumble of television screens and other electronic equipment, a table, a bookshelf on which are placed random objects, and various rough scaffoldings. A major design element is packing tape. The apparent artlessness of the set belies the intelligence of the theatre that follows, a series of discrete verbal arias in which notions of self and identity are put under intense interrogation.

The show opens with a stumbling disclaimer from Mijic, in which he explains that although this performance is partly autobiographical, it is also a tissue of lies and half truths. Playing a version of himself called Vlad, Mijic launches into a paranoid exploration of what it means to be called a “villain”. Wearing a piece of paper taped to his back which says "Vlad is dead", he begins with the obsessively repetitive recording of a video diary. “If you are watching this now,” he says intently into a camera, “I have been murdered”.

Mijic and his co-creator Rhys Auteri are most concerned with the notion of mediation, with how much our self-image - individually and collectively - is formed by expectations projected onto it. Much of the text, which is both spoken and written in Texta on butcher's paper or projected onto a screen, consists of lists (a major trope of much contemporary poetry): lists of personal characteristics, of fragments of text rescued from unlikely places, of scraps of received reality that enter a world-view and then form it.

At the centre is the question of Vlad's Serbian ancestry: Serbs being, before the sudden stardom of Saddam Hussein, the arch-villains on the international global stage. He was born in Yugoslavia, he tells us, but now Yugoslavia no longer exists: like his primary school, which was shut down by Jeff Kennett, it is now a place that only lives in memory. What is the fiction called Vlad to make of this? Is his inescapable ethnicity a reflection of an inherent monstrousness, or is his villainousness simply a desire "not to disappoint" expectations (a desire immediately ironised by this show's anti-aesthetic presentation)? This question splinters and fragments through fantastic or even surreal obsessions, several posthumous death scenes and a comedically dislocated self-reflection on the process of making Villanus itself.

In its sensibility and diction, the text isn't a million miles from the Serbian poet Vasko Popa, who often explores how the hidden, even murderous self relates to its social masks. His unsettling poem In The Village of My Ancestors is not untypical:

Someone embraces me
Someone looks at me with the eyes of a wolf
Someone takes off his hat
So I can see him better

Everyone asks me
Do you know how I'm related to you

Unknown old men and women
Appropriate the names
Of young men and women from my memory

I ask one of them
Tell me for God's sake
Is George the Wolf still living

That's me he answers
With a voice from the next world

I touch his cheek with my hand
And beg him with my eyes
To tell me if I'm living too

Mijic is a strangely uncertain presence, at once summoning and deflecting attention; "acting" seems the wrong word for what he is doing here (in a short extract from Edmund's "bastard" speech in King Lear, he gives us an extreme version of acting that parodies the whole idea). But he holds your attention, standing in that uncomfortable place where a performer is not quite removed from his quotidian self, in which role-playing becomes the whole of identity.

In any case, Villanus is a show that provokes a lot of thought. I'm not sure that it's wholly successful - whatever success might mean in this context. For example, it feels tautologous to criticise its dramaturgy, which towards the end deliberately and wickedly tests the audience's patience, although I suspect that if there are future incarnations, it might be shorter and structured in such a way to make its final monologue seem less like a postscript. But it certainly transcends the dangers of narcissism that attend a project like this, and it's well worth a look for anyone interested in the livelier edges of Melbourne theatre.


naive theatre goer said...

I guess I didn't see it as being as radical or revolutionary in style as you seem to be suggesting. It's certaintly true that it did not have a narrative structure. However, the episodes did seem designed to illustrate some prominent themes (e.g., how people's "villanous Serbian" identity is shaped by others' actions and words, and how those being shaped deal with it). Given the common prominent themes throughout, there seemed to be a lot of structure to the play albeit not a narrative structure. I've seen a number of plays consisting of a series of "episodes" or "skits" organized around themes like love, boy-girl or parent-child relationships, etc.. The overarching themes in this play are quite different from those but the overall style/structure didn't seem all that novel or radical to me. And with that sort of style/structure, I guess I wasn't surprised that I thought some of the episodes worked and indeed sometimes were excellent, while others were (to me) more or less fizzers.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi NTG - I'm glad you saw it. (Btw, if you're getting around to all these indie shows, you're hardly a naive theatre goer...!)

To be fair, I never claimed it was radical or revolutionary. Though this kind of anti-aesthetic is a common line in much new and interesting theatre around Melbourne, to challenge conventions in this way is, as I said, not new. And what excites me about the text itself is that it's drawing on techniques that are common in contemporary poetry, but here used in a theatrical way.

naive theatre goer said...

Sorry, I shouldn't have said that you were suggesting that this particular play was radical or revolutionary, I should have read more closely. But what I had in mind was that I don't find a lot of this type of theatre that you can see around Melbourne as really all *that* different in style/structure from, e.g., Neil LaBute's "Autobahn", which Act-o-Matic did a few months ago at Cromwell Road Theatre. Or even all that different in style from John Cariani's "Almost, Maine", which I saw at Gasworks a while ago. Those don't have a narrative structure but would you say that they are a big challenge to established convention? Maybe I'm also influenced by that fact that a lot of film seems to have similar structure, e.g., Jim Jarmusch, etc.

I can't comment on the poetry issue since I'm afraid that I (almost) never read any, either classical or contemporary

Alison Croggon said...

Hi NTG - I think there is a difference. Autobahn for example is a series of small scenes, playlets really, that are snippets of naturalism: mini-narratives, if you like (as you say, Jarmusch does a lot of that too). Nothing wrong with that, I love Jarmusch, but it's only a small step away from the single, coherent narrative that drives a conventionally dramatic play. I think things like Villanus, or OT or the Stuck Pigs showing I saw (which pushes this impusle much even further) this play are doing something entirely different, that essentially begins from the artifice of theatre - the act of speaking on stage in front of others - and that it has an entirely different mode of attack - oblique, self-aware language that plays in ways poetry does (not that same, please note). Yes, there's a theme or central obsession, that drives the show; but there's no "character", and the theatrical nature of the event is absolutely central to what occurs. The DNA is different, if you like, and it derives from other genealogies of theatre (Mueller rather than Miller, if you like).

Even as I write this I'm aware I'm generalising wildly. Such are the perils of criticism...

This textual things btw is different from what I've called the junk theatre aspect.

naive theatre goer said...

OK, I think I see what you're getting at. Maybe I could put it this way (generalising wildly myself): The textual style/structure of "Villanus" is more like Sarah Kane's "Crave" than like LaBute's "Autobahn"--there are general themes that you can find throughout but without mini-narratives, mini-plots or much character development.

And I agree that the junk theatre aspect is separate--there wasn't any junk theatre in the version of "Crave" I saw (at fortyfivedownstairs), so "Villanus" would be very different there.

Alison Croggon said...

Apologies for the egregrious English and typos in my last post, I was rushing out. To the theatre, of course... Anyway, I'll try to tease out where I'm coming from. I hope it's not too confusing.

I think personally that theatre and poetry have a lot to say to one another (people forget for example that Ibsen's first plays, Brand and Peer Gynt, were in verse, and that feeds into his later plays foundationally - his naturalism has a strong poetic). And just as there are many kinds of theatre, there are many kinds of poetry, which express different relationships to and consciousnesses of language. There's a point where I resile against categorisation, it's in the end fairly meaningless, but nevertheless it can be useful to make distinctions between different kinds of practice... For example, JH Prynne, one of the giants of innovative English poetry, has a particular critique of language that he brings to his work that refuses easy meaning, part ofa thought critique of capitalism, while Kamau Brathwaite, a Caribbean poet, has an entirely different idea about language to do with colonialism. Australian poets like MTC Cronin and John Kinsella have their own takes on language which express their own constellation of concerns. These approaches operate at the level of syntax and diction and vocabulary, ie, at the nuts and bolts of language, and they forcibly inject other kinds of vocabulary and structure into literary written English, question the ways in which we assume knowledge, release new and surprising expressivities into written (and spoken) language, and so on and so on. Poets are always trying to find ways of saying things that language otherwise refuses to express. That's why the "cutting edge" (to coin a phrase) of creative language use is usually with the poets.

Theatrical language is different, as I keep saying, from poetry, and on the whole inherently more conservative. But a lot of interesting theatrical writing does press against the borders of poetry. Someone like LaBute interests me minimally because this consciousness doesn't enter his practice; someone like Pinter is totally alive to the poetry - in a very precise sense - of dramatic language. Sarah Kane and Howard Barker also. (Barker is himself quite a fine poet).

Speaking completely generally, this shift towards consciously poetic idioms in the theatre is an aspect of something that has been called the "post-dramatic stage" (I'm not sure I agree with the term, really, since I think it's more a redefinition of drama) - here's the Oz's John McCallum briefly talking about it in relation to Australian theatre:

"Artistically what has been exciting is the renewed emphasis on physical theatre, contemporary performance and non-realistic, often extravagantly theatrical, work -- and this has at last begun to creep into the mainstream. This new, post-dramatic theatre (American writer Richard Schechner coined the term in the 1970s and it has recently been theorised by the German critic Hans-Thies Lehmann) thrives on real actions and events in the performance space and direct dialogue with its audiences, not oblique representations, based in hackneyed conventions, of a fictional world outside it, usually far off and in another country.

"Shakespeare parodied such conventions in the play the rustics perform in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "All that I have to say is that this lanthorn is the moon; I the man in the moon; this thorn-bush my thorn-bush; and this dog my dog," says the actor, frustrated by the nitpicking mockery of the smooth-talking noble lovers lolling comfortably in each other's arms; those who wouldn't know a good story if it got up and bit them. By being frank, the rustics finally win them over, and that is what the theatre is trying to do now.

"The old model of worthy productions of classic plays and "sensitively" directed realistic productions of new ones will continue, but the best work now is that which transforms the classics and the conventions, or which uses new media and new forms to deal with urgent problems."

In the UK, you can look at what's happening at London's National Theatre (Katie Mitchell's controversial productions of The Waves and Attempts on Her Life) which is causing all sorts of fuss over there. Or the work of Chris Goode, who is making what many people say is among the most interesting theatre in the UK, and whom I met first as a poet.

I think the interesting explorations happening in Melbourne at present constitute a small and potent sub-set of this wider shift. To be honest, what's happening here is exciting by any standards. Some projects will work, some won't, that's the deal with new work, but we're watching theatrical language evolving.

gem.faber said...

Wow...this is a seriously brilliant and concise little blogpost Alison and covers about three continents in as many paragraphs! It puts its finger on one of the common misunderstandings; the difference between 'theatrical language' (i.e. the spoken word on the stage) and, for want of a more elegant term, theatre's language (i.e. the mise en scene, the dramaturgy, the actor's body, the architecture, lighting, sound....). As long as we treat theatre as an adjunct to the literary disciplines we'll keep finding it a pale and reactionary art form, obsessed with logocentrism. Many pieces in Australia become 'recitations'; live bodies memorising and regurgitating 'literature'. Not in itself dull or vapid but not really utilising the various grammars of theatre's language.

This comparison/analogy with poetic practice is very useful, partly because it's so counter-intuitive. The writing of poetry is the act of isolated creation par example (well nearly always); the single creative mind constructing meaning, observing and fashioning language on their own, and (perf poetry aside) read by another mind in isolation. The transaction between artist and consumer is relatively classical, unsullied. But the business of creating/ fashioning theatre's language is constantly subject to intervention; collaboration, discussion, 'takes', 'readings', anxious tension between design and word etc etc. Theatre's language isn't a voice, it's voices, sometimes in sync, sometimes out of sync, on the one stage. But we still persist in demanding/treating theatre as if it's 'writing', a la poetry.

Hmm...and who are our JH Prynnes, in the Australian theatre?

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Gem-.faber (great-looking blog you have there, btw!) I'd just suggest that the reading and writing of poetry is much messier than the "pure" model might suggest (and perhaps than poets might admit). There is of course a performative aspect to the act of reading, and the process of writing is indeed subject to all sorts of interventions, whether acknowledged or not. I guess one reason I like theatre is because it literalises those interventions and makes obvious things that are more subtle in other arts. Poetry is most certainly voices. (I was always puzzled as a young poet by the assurance that one day I'd "find" my "voice": but that's another discussion. Suffice to say I still don't know what that means, it's as much of a fiction as the unified self).

That said, there are no Prynnes in Australian or, so far as I know, any theatre, and just as well. If you know his writing at all, you'll see why. I name a few interesting writers in my review.

lisa said...

Interesting post and comments. I've been thinking a lot about words lately and how sometimes what we hear in a theatre seems like it could've been so much more powerful were it written on a page instead. I suppose it has something to do with expression, intonation and delivery, whereas if you read the words yourself, you can put your own meaning and diction to them.

I thought the visual elements in Villanus were more powerful than the dialogue - particularly when Vlad wraps himself up completely in packing tape. While there were heaps of interesting thoughts written in the script, I felt it was a little unfocused. But that's just me.

Another thing I've been contemplating recently is the use of repetition in plays. Sometimes it can seem tedious, and I suspect it has something to do with the phrases in between. If there is a revelation that changes the meaning of the same phrase, listening to it again makes you see it in a different light. However, if nothing much has changed for the audience member, the repeated lines start to feel like a cliche and in need of a good editor.

But perhaps that's my own obsessive need to have a narrative?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Lisa - no, those seem like fair comments to me. I think there were refinements to be made in this show. And it leads you (and me) to contemplation about what theatrical language actually is. Given that here you have a show that attacks the whole notion of "entertainment", of having expectations satisfied, it's an interesting problem. I was willing to go with it - there was enough happening to keep me interested and I was impressed by the text - but I think that if they do it again they can certainly cut it and focus it more.

Repetition is a brilliant tool that can work or not. The trick is in the variants, and that is a high art indeed imo, repeating a trope with just the right degree of spin so that it constantly surprises - the most brilliant exponent of that is probably Bach, in the Goldberg Variations for example.