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. Someone embraces me 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.
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 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
Someone embraces me
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.