Review: C-90/This Show Is About People ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Review: C-90/This Show Is About People

Melbourne Festival #3

C-90, written directed and performed by Daniel Kitson. Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 27. Bookings: 1300 136 166.

This Show Is About People, directed and choreographed by Shaun Parker. Musical direction by Mara Kiek and Llew Kiek, set and costume design by Robert Cousins, sound design by Peter Kennard. Collaborative performers Anton, Matt Cornell, Marnie Palomares and Guy Ryan, collaborative musicians Jarnie Birmingham, Tobias Coles, Sylvia Entcheva, Llew Kiek and Mara Kiek. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until October 14.

After an intensive weekend of theatre going, your faithful blogger is beginning to discern a Theme. I distrust Themes, and quite rightly, I think. It could be that all this art is doing something to my brain, and I am suffering from a benign form of the madness that afflicted Strindberg in his final illness, when he couldn't see a kettle or a piece of string without imagining that it was an Omen. But I shall be kind to myself. Luckily for all of us, I am not Strindberg.

However, certain preoccupations have been swirling through the shows I’ve seen. All of them have been urgently concerned with the life of the spirit, with what is unseen and immaterial. I’ve seen Edgar Allan Poe’s bleak existential madness and the tensions between Enlightenment rationalism and religion and an (admittedly not very exciting) meditation on love between the aged. And then there's these two shows, which rather disarmingly open up the depths and yearning that exist in what is so easily called “ordinary life”.

Daniel Kitson’s C-90 – named after the audio tapes which some of you might remember, although they have gone the way of the penny farthing and the manual typewriter – is a charming, funny and ultimately very moving exploration of redundancy, excavating the meaning of things that have been brushed aside by the brutal pace of contemporary life.

Not only things are made obsolete, but work, and people. Almost miraculously, in a tour de force of story telling that shifts between several different but linked narratives, Kitson evokes the human meaning that exists in the humble details of unnoticed lives. (I suspect that Kitson must spend a lot of time at the supermarket or on buses or trains. One of the things that is wrong with a writer like Joanna Murray-Smith is that she has clearly never travelled on the 10.35pm to Werribee, but that’s another discussion).

Unlike most of Melbourne, I have not seen Daniel Kitson before, so I have no way of comparing his theatre to his stand-up comedy. But it is very clear that, although he is most certainly a performer, he is not an actor. He lacks an actor’s polish and mask and poise. He talks too fast, and he suffers from a stammer which on a couple of occasions causes minor trip-ups in his delivery.

However, I had no trouble understanding his text, which he has written and directed as well as performed. It’s almost ornately literary, permeated by a sense of a love for the individual feel of words, their eccentricities and playfulness. Kitson’s mode of delivery is uniquely suited to his text. Like the odd characters he has invented – Henry the tape archivist, Millie the lollipop lady, or Thomas, the grumpy librarian – he is resolutely himself.

C-90 is about the last working day of Henry, whose job is to archive the self-made compilation tapes of popular songs that people used to to send to one another. He is bored by his work, and disappointed in life in general. For years he has received tape after tape, which he has patiently logged and shelved. But although he knows every scratch on the case, every individual piece of handwriting, even the smell that permeates the paper, he has never actually played any of the tapes.

On this fateful day, his last in his job, he receives two mysterious parcels. One is a tape saying “Play me”. The other is a tape recorder, saying “Use me”. And finally, after all this time, he actually listens to a tape, and at last understands what all those dusty remnants that clutter his bookshelves to the ceiling actually mean: they are not merely objects to be filed, but are infused with the feeling that have been invested in them by the people who made them. His life is suddenly illuminated. And in the few hours before he is instructed to empty his desk and leave the building, he decides to investigate who has sent him this tape.

Henry’s story serves as a spine from which are hung several other narratives, all detailed glimpses of differently lonely lives. In each case, it is a story of a final day of work. Without a hint of sentimentality, like a fragrance rising through the performance with increasing and finally overwhelming pungence, Kitson reveals how work, even the most humble and seemingly unimportant, is profoundly meaningful, and how meaning is a deeply human desire.

Shaun Parker’s piece of physical theatre, This Show Is About People, similarly opens up mundanity to reveal moments of strangeness or profundity. It’s a bit of a mess, and about half an hour too long, but I can forgive it all its awkwardness for several moments that really took my breath away.

The lights come up on a waiting room (the room of lost steps, as the French say) which could be a bus or train station. A number of people are scattered about, lounging vacantly on plastic orange chairs in front of a large glass sliding doors. A public telephone is at one end of the stage, a vending machine at the other. In one corner, high up, is a scrolling text.

The phone rings. A man moves to answer it, but he moves with glacial slowness, and just as his hand reaches the receiver, it stops. There is a pause and it rings again, and this time the guy with the ghetto blaster springs forward and answers it. And then the lute and the violin start and the sad man by the phone opens his mouth and sings in a voice of astounding purity, and a mediaeval song spills its amber through the air, and the hairs stand up on my neck.

Meanwhile, someone is interrogating the vending machine, but instead of a drink, he rolls out a man in underpants. Then a woman. Then some clothes for them. They get dressed. Two women are singing Bulgarian songs. One is staring at her reflection – or is it her twin? – in the mirror of the sliding doors. The man and the woman are dancing, desiring each other, not touching, longing to touch. The guy with the ghetto blaster is being a nuisance…

In its best moments, This Show Is About People plays beautifully with perception. Parker is a master of the art of directing your attention, which can make it seems like magic is happening at the other end of the stage, where things have changed completely while you weren’t looking. The choreography is sharp, witty, precise, full of violence and desire and longing. And the incongruity of the music, directed by Mara and Llew Kiek, opens perspectives of unexpected beauty that hang in the mind for a long time.

At its worst moments – and it has to be admitted there are a few of those – it falls into heavy-handed banality. Almost all the text could have been cut: it is by far the weakest part of the show, and aside from a one-sided phone conversation that consisted entirely of clich├ęs and proverbs, it was hard to see how it added anything. More often it reduced the show's polyphonity, nailing down meaning for us in ways the other aspects – the dance, the music, the performance - happily avoided.

Picture: Daniel Kitson in C-90.


Matthew said...

There are a few similarities between Kitson's stand-up and his story shows. The first is that "love for the individual feel of words" you note; the second is his interest -- and, I think, faith -- in the wonderful ordinariness of the everyday.

In terms of its narrative form, C-90 is obviously a little different from most stand-up comedy routines. But then, Kitson's comedy is itself far more concerned with narrative than most, and has a meticulously organised, almost essayistic, structure. Kitson's story shows are his short stories, his stand-up routines are his essays; C-90 is his fiction, It's the Fireworks Talking (to pluck an example from this year's comedy festival) his non-fiction.

Both forms are conducive to comedy, insight, marvelous flights of linguistic fancy, and fleshy, raw emotion. In fact, It's the Fireworks Talking may be the only stand-up show I've ever cried at.

I'm glad you liked C-90.

ben hjorth said...

i really agree with that analysis matt.

and spot on reviews, a/c. (if only it was spelt ceene, you two'd be acdc. and dang, that would be awesome).

thanks both.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for those insights, Matt, they're useful. And make me wish I had seen his other work.

AC/DC, Ben? That would be electrifying!

ben hjorth said...

oh god we are an embarrassment to ourselves. we should delete those comments or no-one will ever take us seriously.

apparently kitson said something wonderful the other day in a radio interview - when asked how it felt to be in an arts festival as opposed to a comedy one, he replied with something like: "Well, I'm an artist. Now I can be blatantly self-important, rather than surreptitiously self-important."

richardwatts said...

I cried in It's the Fireworks Talking too, Matthew. There was a point in the show where Kitson took me from gales of laughter to a pinpoint perfect evocation of sublime beauty, and I wept silently grateful tears of joy.

If he's back for the MICF next year Alison, you really must go: in fact, if I'm asked back to be a Barry Award judge again in 2008, I'd be honoured to take you as my date for the evening.

And yes, C90 was sublime; a deft evocation of the value of compassion and community from a man who claims to be an anti-social curmudgeon.

Alison Croggon said...

That sounds like an offer I can't refuse, Richard! If he's back next year, I'll hold you to that one!

richardwatts said...

It's a date!