The issue of "issues"Mopping the bloodMIAF: The wrap-upReview: Merce Cunningham Dance CompanyReview: GlowMoody MoodyMiscellanyReview: European HouseMe in the GuardianReview: TitusAlong the grape vine...Review: HungerReview: Meow MeowReview: Homeland/KagemiReview: The Show Must Go OnReview: Sizwe Banzi Is Dead/medEiaReview: C-90/This Show Is About PeopleReview: Half LifeReview: The Temptation of St Anthony/The Tell-Tale Heart ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The issue of "issues"

A bonus for all you happy readers: Victoria Chance from Currency Press has a special offer to TN readers: if you order Power Plays online before Monday (click here) and write "Theatre Notes" in the comment box, you'll get a 20 per cent discount when the order is processed. Note that the discount won't appear until the order is processed but, Victoria assures us, "we will do it".

Ms TN is surprisingly well after an intense three weeks of theatre. I put this down largely to having severely edited my diary so that I was only doing one thing. Next month I'm back to wearing three hats (I have to do the rewrite on my novel) but I'm beginning to see the point of a singly-focused life. Not that I seem very capable of it.

But today, swimming out of the post-fest haze, comes Corrie Perkin's preview of Hilary Glow's book Power Plays: Australian Theatre and the Public Agenda in the Australian. (Reviewed in Eureka Street here too: link via Ben Ellis, one of the playwrights discussed in the book, who also include Stephen Sewell, Hannie Rayson, Wesley Enoch and Patricia Cornelius).

The book is on my to-read list, so I can't comment on its substance. But a couple of Glow's comments made me pause. She says that under the Howard Government, theatre companies have been forced to adopt a more conservative repertoire and avoid risk. "I think there has been a change," says Glow, of the past few years. "And it's a change in which it's harder for critically adventurous work, challenging work, to emerge."

There is most certainly a truth in this - I've recently criticised the MTC for its conservative repertoire, which to me appears to emerge precisely from various kinds of risk avoidance. But equally, fresh out of a festival notable for its adventure and challenge, and packed with profoundly political works, ranging from Laurie Anderson's Homeland to Athol Fugard's Sizwe Banzi is Dead to Jérôme Bel's anti-spectacle The Show Must Go On, it strikes me that this is a very partial view. On the contrary, in many places I'm picking up an increasing political thoughtfulness, an increasing engagement with contemporary issues, an increasing sense of urgency among artists to connect, to speak, to make.

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. You can see this awareness, to cite a few examples among many, in productions like Stephen Page's Kin or Nigel Jamieson's Honour Bound, both on at the Malthouse, or in independently produced plays like Hélène Cixous's The Perjured City, or Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur. All of them wholly engaged political works which certainly meet the benchmarks of adventure and challenge.

Criticising the controversial Behzti by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, British critic/blogger Andrew Haydon recently observed: "Plays which 'expose secret, seedy worlds' in my experience often do so at the expense of pretty much anything else that might make a play watchable or indeed, uh, theatrical...The whole play would have sunk utterly without trace were it not for the disgrace of its being rioted off stage." He goes on to comment of "issue-based" plays:

...writers frequently appear to be encouraged to produce what amounts to emotional pornography - moreover: authentic, “urban” or exotic emotional pornography. And lastly, and worse, they appear to be encouraged to do this in a very narrow, restrictive, shallow sort of naturalism, which utterly refuses any use of language, metaphor, or most of the other things that actually make theatre vital.

I'm all for conversation, for art being on the public agenda. But as I said in my review of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, "political writing, if it is to mean anything, has to reach both higher and lower than the banalities of ideology". That means, among other things, an attention to the form of theatre itself, and not regarding it as simply a vessel into which are poured various worthwhile messages.

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. And while Glow's book includes a variety of writers, many of whom I admire, it has to be said that some of them have given me the most boring nights I've ever spent in the theatre.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Mopping the blood

So much for bloggers being scummy scandal-mongers only interested in drawing blood. In Sydney, Nicholas Pickard is scornful of the Fairfax shock-horror beat up on the STC, courtesy of a Colin Moody apparently bent on career suicide. Brief background, and an avalanche of lively comment, on TN here.

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MIAF: The wrap-up

In today's papers, the 2007 Melbourne Festival is annointed as a brilliant success. Kristy Edmunds' faith that Melbourne audiences could enthusiastically embrace contemporary art has been amply repaid. Over the past three years, she has patiently built an audience which is prepared to take a punt, to experience work which may be puzzling or challenging, but which might also rewardingly explode their expectations.

They've discovered that this work isn't about making the non-arty feel foolish, but about stimulating curiosity, humour, hunger for beauty, about opening the marvellous within the ordinary. It's about the conversations, the long arguments over a drink by the Yarra, about the skin-tingling buzz before a show, the exhilaration or disappointment afterwards. It's about being alive.

The chorus of praise is pretty much unanimous. According to the Age, "even former critics are lauding this festival". The box office, according to Corrie Perkin's excellent round-up in the Australian, is more than satisfactory:

Final figures won't be released until later this week but, by the third day of this year's festival, it had sold more tickets than the 2006 total of 57,000. This suggests last year's box-office takings of $1.245 million will be eclipsed, and the total attendance of 454,000 people to ticketed and free events will be exceeded.

Yay for Melbourne, you feisty little city you. There will always be naysayers, but I hope the conservative lobby takes proper note of Melbourne's appetite for this work. It's not as if, as some commentators claim, Edmunds has changed her tactics from earlier festivals. Rather, the critics have caught up.

Earlier this year, Age writer Robin Usher - a leading naysayer - said of this year's program that although Edmunds "concentrated on more cutting-edge works in her first two programs, she has included more mainstream artists this year." Au contraire, this year's program had much the same kind of mix as previous years.

Some of us hailed MIAF 2005 as the most exciting program for years. Like this year's program, 2005 and 2006 featured high-profile headline acts such as the Théâtre de Soleil or Robert Wilson, a diverse sampling of international contemporary practice, a large proportion of work from local innovative artists, and so on. However, in its richness, variety and depth, MIAF 2007 was clearly a result of long-term planning. And people - especially young people - have caught on. Something interesting is happening here.

This year's audiences were certainly notable for their diversity, but also for their generosity. Despite a tendency to emphysemic coughing in silent bits and a sprinkling of bad audience behaviour (most notoriously during the first night of Merce Cunningham's Program A, which fortunately I missed), the queues have been long, attention has been warm and applause often ecstatic. Even when, as I thought occasionally, the show didn't warrant it.

And, as a quick scan of my reviews will demonstrate (scroll down), I've had a ball. I didn't like everything I saw, but for me there were only two duds and, conversely, a generous serving of unforgettable work. The menu was various, and the general standard of theatre and dance was very high indeed. It's been a brilliant 17 days. Although, unlike some greedy types I was talking to this weekend, I'm not sorry it's all over, I can't wait for next year. But there's no question that MIAF 2007 will be a hard act to follow.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Melbourne Festival #12

Programs A and B, Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Choreography by Merce Cunningham, musical direction by Takehisa Kasugi. Danced by Jonah Bokaer, Lisa Boudreau, Julie Cunningham, Brandon Callwes, Emma Desjardins, Halley Farmer, Jennifer Goggans, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, Koji Mizuta, Marcie Munnerlyn, Daniel Squire, Robert Swinston and Andrea Weber. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre.

Program A: Suite For Five (1956), music by John Cage, costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, lighting by Beverly Emmons. eyeSpace (2006), music by Mikel Rouse, design by Daniel Arsham, lighting by Josh Johnson. Biped (1999), music by Gavin Bryars, design by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, costumes by Suzanne Gallo, lighting by Aaron Capp.

Program B: Views on Stage (2004), music by John Cage, design by Ernesto Neto, costumes by James Hall, lighting by Josh Johnson. Split Sides (2003), music by Radiohead and Sigur Rós, design by Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass, costumes by James Hall, lighting by James F. Ingalls.

It was a fitting ending to what has been a triumphantly successful Melbourne Festival. As Merce Cunningham emerged on stage last night at the end of Split Sides, a frail figure in his wheelchair, the entire State Theatre rose to its feet, whooping and clapping. It was a totally exhilarating moment: I think everyone there floated out on a cloud of high. I know I did.

I was standing as much out of admiration for this artist who, at 88, has never stopped thinking and wondering over more than half a century of work. Dammit, the man's an inspiration. And Cunningham's residency here was always the jewel in the crown of the 2007 festival. It was a chance to actually see for ourselves a revolutionary and seminal force in modern dance. A bit like going to see Rothko or Pollock at the art gallery, only with the artist himself still working on the painting. How cool is that?

Quite cool, as it turned out. I use the painting metaphor advisedly: I found it absolutely impossible to watch Program A without thinking about painting. De Kooning, Matisse, Gorky... and, insistently, the plastic arts of classical Greece, especially the pottery. And, as with painting, it is a challenge to write about anything as wordless as dance; I fear this review will simply be a long list of associations that floated up while I was watching, transfixed by the dynamic form that was unfolding before my eyes.

Perhaps it was only compensation for this wordlessness that an insistent subtext was the poetry of the New York School - poets like John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch, even Frank O'Hara. I decided later that this association was a function of the rhythms Cunningham exploits in his choreography, a certain interrupted grace that makes a larger beauty. And I guess also that Cunningham's long artistic partnership with John Cage embodies a certain aspect of New York culture that is practically legend now.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Cunningham's approach to movement and form, so radical and modern then in its dissociation, for example, of music from choreography, looks classical now. This is very clear in the 1956 piece Suite for Five, accompanied by John Cage's minimalist Music for Pianos 4-19, which is absolutely of its time, but still startling in the rigor of its pure movement. It was a series of dances - solos, trios, quintets - each defined from the other by a moment of blackout, which would then lift to reveal the next dancer on the stage as Cage's piano trickled its silence uninterruptedly throughout.

Suite for Five was the acme of style as bare simplicity - no decoration on stage, the dancers in Rauschenberg's citrus-coloured leotards that revealed every contour of their bodies. In its exquisite judgements of spatial relationships it was pure form, pure celebration of the classically beautiful human body. Perhaps this dance will stay with me most, lodging itself next to the poems of HD as an exquisite expression of a certain mode of classically rigorous modernism.

It was followed by eyeSpace, a dance dating from exactly five decades later, that featured the notorious i-Pod shuffles (dutifully picked up from a desk beforehand). At a signal from the conductor, every audience member pressed their button, and was immediately isolated in his or her personal earphones, listening to randomly selected tracks by Mikel Rouse - kitschy salsa music, for the most part, with a sense of subliminal menace.

If you took the i-Pods off, as some rebellious souls did, it revealed an ambient urban soundscape, which could be heard faintly through the headphones for those who kept them on. Much as what happens when you wear headphones on a train or when walking through the city. On stage was what appeared to be a sunken (perhaps post-apocalyptic?) railway station, and the dancers were clad in metallic costumes, rather like escapees from Star Trek. The dance here seemed less sharp to me, even at times distractingly loose, detracting from Cunningham's stern formality.

The last piece of the night, and the most spectacularly beautiful, was Biped, choregraphed to Gavin Bryars's sombre lyricism of low strings and woodwind. In front of the stage was a scrim which I didn't notice at first, so when the first projection - a blue bar - flashed up subliminally, I thought my eyes were playing tricks. This scrim permits Cunningham the full canvas of the stage - onto it are projected abstract drawings of dancers, that pirouette through the air in bright blues, reds and yellows, as well as a series of abtract patterns - lines, sweeping scans that run horizontally or vertically across the stage space, large dots. The virtual dancers were created by motion capture technology, which permits an exact mimicry of human movement, so effectively this piece exploits a double choreography of the projected body and living flesh.

In Biped, the pas de deux is a feature. As the men and women kept combining into strangely beautiful shapes of attraction and repulsion, melding sometimes into a single eight-limbed body, I kept thinking of Plato's story about how the original androgyne was split in two, fated to search eternally for its other half.

Program B, interestingly, didn't make me think of painting at all, although the dances - Views on Stage and Split Sides - were no less visual. Perhaps I had already thought enough about painting, or perhaps these dances focused less on the painterly aspects of space and bodies on a stage and more on the relationships of movement between the dancers. In any case, there was a palpable buzz of excitement beforehand outside the Arts Centre, and a noticeable sprinkling of Sigur Rós fans, there to see their Icelandic heroes. I must say, I couldn't help wondering what they would make of John Cage. I'd still love to know.

Unlike several others, I enjoyed the abstract beauties of Views on Stage, accompanied by a Cage score for piano and violin again notable for its silences. Again there was a classical edge - this time I kept thinking of those statues of Greek athletes or young maidens - reinforced by the short white skirts and bare arms and shoulders of both sexes. Gesture here was almost Egyptian at times, with a ritualistic, hieratic quality.

But the event of the night was, of course, Split Sides. It's introduced by Cunningham and a cast of dice rollers, including Kristy Edmunds and several festival artists, who determine the make-up of the piece. It is, as the title suggests, in two parts, each of them interchangable, and odd or even rolls determine the order of the music, by Sigur Rós or Radiohead, and which backdrops, costumes, lighting designs and dances will come first. Thus, for the mathematicians among you, leading to any number of possible combinations.

In this performance, Radiohead was first, which seemed somehow serendipitious: the electronic urban angst of Radiohead dissolved into the icy fantasies of Sigur Rós. We got the black and white background first, with the coloured, wierdly 70s costumes (reversed in part 2, which follows from the first without pause, to black-and-white costumes against a coloured background). And it was spellbinding, although to be honest I am really not sure why. The bewitching Icelandic electronica of Sigur Rós was accompanied by a strange kind of wooden clockwork sound, as if the stage were a rather anarchic music box, and the dancers themselves the wooden figures come desiringly alive.

Through these two programs, I began to evolve a theory that Cunningham is a master of the pas de deux, though I could be talking through my hat. In fact, I loved the pas de deux in all the works I saw: of all the dance passages, save for an enchanting trio in Suite for Five that made me think of the Three Graces, they were what most compelled me. Through his series of alienating strategies - chance, projections, use of the camera and computer technology - Cunningham strips back gesture and movement to something that at times seems like a pure expression of desire. The kind of thing Matisse can do with a single drawn line. It's probably very Romantic of me to say so, but there we are.

Photograph: Suite for Five. Photo: Tony Dougherty

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Review: Glow

Melbourne Festival #11

Glow, conceived and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek. Concept and interactive design system by Frieder Weiß. Original music and sound design by Luke Smiles, additional music by Ben Frost. Dancers: Kristy Ayre, Sara Black, Amber Haines and Bonnie Paskas. Chunky Move @ Chunky Move Studio, until tonight.

After 16 days solid theatre-going, TN is at the point where, when the program announces that a show is "30 mins, no interval", she gives a little skip and thinks hungrily of an early night. Appalling, I know, since this is the surfeit of privilege. But so it is. And Glow demonstrates that the length of a show is no measure of substance.

A collaboration between the endlessly ingenious Gideon Obarzanek and theatrical computer wizard Frieder Weiß, it's a richly detailed dance solo that exploits the technology of motion tracking, permitting the lighting to be responsive to the movements of the dancer's body. Performed on a white square with seating on four sides, it has the intimacy and some of the agon of a boxing arena.

When the lights go down, strips of light flash across the floor and vanish into darkness. And then a dancer, dressed in a simple white costume that suggests scales, scrabbles to the edge of the floor like some exotic sea creature. She writhes, contorts her limbs, utters inarticulate noises, as if she were an entity in the process of becoming.

For all its technological ingenuity, Glow, which is mostly performed on the floor, is an intensely visceral experience. It becomes a fascinating battle between the dancer's body and light and shadow: the luminous patterns enclose her, possess her, stalk her, stake her out. Her movements leave traces that fade out, gorgeous geometrical afterimages of gesture.

She cannot escape the light, because her body is defining and controlling it: it is like trying to escape one's own shadow. At one point as she lies on the floor, the purple strip of light around her body is exactly the shape of a coffin. At another, she is enclosed, even crushed, in moving grids of light. She is scanned and pinned, defined and darkened, or illuminated by auras that follow her every gesture. At times she is absorbed by the patterning, as if she is scarcely human, scarcely there at all; at others, we hear her panting, or the scuffle of her legs on the floor, and are made suddenly and intensely aware of her sensual body.

Perhaps the most compelling sequence is where the writhing dancer leaves body imprints of shadow on the white floor, which then coalesce into inky demons that stalk and repossess her. When the shadow leaps and shrinks into an ordinary shadow under her feet, she screams, and lunges desperately across the floor to rid herself again of her darkness. It is a startlingly nightmarish image, as if we are watching her soul being gobbled up.

For a dance-illiterate like me, it was fascinating to see Merce Cunningham the night before seeing Glow. Obarzanek is almost at the other end of the spectrum: where Cunningham creates form with the classical purity of a Greek vase, Obarzanek's choreography reminds me of the asymmetries and grotesqueness, the complex and unpredictable rhythms, the vulnerabilities, of the human body. The idealism of Cunningham here gives way to a darker but surprisingly humane vision.

Picture: A moment from Glow. Photo: Rom Anthonis

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Moody Moody

...while we're on the subject of State theatre companies, actor Colin Moody is in the Age today tearing strips off the STC. Moody's parting from the STC's Actors Company was a bitter one, and it's all come out here, with attacks on the Blanchett/Upton duo ("an Oscar for acting is not a suitable recommendation to run the biggest theatre company in the country") and the STC ethos of "office politics" and "hypocrisy".

There's justice in the criticism that Robyn Nevin has imported second-rung British directors. But I'm still baffled by the "observer" logic that the fact that a bunch of actors have a full-time job means that others are deprived. The pie's more complex than that, people.

The proof, for us audience types, is in the pudding. As I said earlier this week, the STC's 2008 season is looking very impressive. And "industry insiders" (to take a leaf from the Fairfax book), while critical of many aspects of the process there, are generally up-tempo and optimistic about the new STC leadership.

It's hard to see much in Moody's criticisms beyond a great deal of bile. Which is bad, of course, but not germane. TN's twitching journalistic antennae are still telling her that the real story is elsewhere, beyond the STC.

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Friday, October 26, 2007


I know that the Melbourne Festival has been the epicentre of the universe lately, but a couple of things have banked up while I've been hobnobbing with Merce and the lads. (Wowee, was that good; but I think I'll wait for Program B before I write anything). So this is a bit of a catch-up post.

Yesterday in the comments, Julian Meyrick denied rumours that his departure from the MTC was impelled by anger. If he wasn't cross before, he sure is now: he took the opportunity to have a few swings at the critical culture and, in particular, blogging.

Over the last two years especially, I have watched with dismay as the tone of local crits has increasingly muddled subjective response and dispassionate analysis. Like the judges in Australian Idol, reviewers seem less concerned to address work presented than to trial aberrant, at times bizarre sets of personal predilections. This is particularly true of blog coverage which, in its looseness and lack of protocol, ignores context, embraces personal comment, and makes frequent use of strong, vilificatory language.

Good to see the MTC at last getting into the commentary mix. For my part, this protocol-free, aberrant blogger hopes that a careful read of her reviews will reveal plenty of context and dispassionate analysis. (Even the odd positive review of MTC productions.) Meyrick also tells me rather startlingly that I inspire fear and dread. "Is that what you want?" he asks me. "For artists to be afraid of you?" Well, of course not: TN is really a fluffy little bunny with a heart of butter. But my motto is "without fear or favour", and that can sometimes get a little sticky with even the nicest people.

Meanwhile, the National Library has asked to include TN in its Pandora Archive, an ongoing project to archive electronic documents of "social, political, cultural, religious, scientific or economic significance and relevance to Australia", so all this can be recorded for a deeply puzzled posterity.

Finally, Matt Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit finds himself wishing audiences would spontaneously combust, and adds a few handy hints on protocol himself. They must have read his post, because last night's audience was very well-behaved, at least where I was sitting. Not a whisper of German Death Metal. And further afield (har har), Andrew Field addresses the faux Us v Them dichotomies of experimental v legitimate, mainstream v fringe (pick your poison) in an interesting post taking to task the reviews of Michael Billington.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Review: European House

Melbourne Festival #10

European House, conceived and directed by Alex Rigola. Design by Sebastià Brosa, Bibiana Puigdefàbregas, lighting design by Maria Domènech, costumes by M. Rafa Serra, sound design by Ramon Ciércoles. With Chantal Aimée, Àlex Rigola, Joan Carreras, Víctor Pi, Àngela Jové, Nathalie Labiano, Norbert Martínez, Alba Pujol, Alícia Pérez, Joan Raja, Julio Manrique and Ferran Carvajal. Teatre Lliure @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 27.

I guess no festival experience is complete without a major letdown. (What occasions the disappointment, and why, is of course the subject of much lively disagreement). And for me, the disappointment of MIAF so far has been European House.

Subtitled Hamlet’s Prologue Without Words (if only!), it’s strikingly designed, lushly lit and beautifully performed… but to what end is debatable. You can teasingly see how it might have been brilliant; there are moments that suggest what it might have been. But the problems with it, however you parse them, left me with a grinding sense of dissatisfaction that only increased as I thought over the show.

The conceit is simple. As the director, Alex Rigola, describes it: “A creative composition without words which, at a soft tempo, puts before the audience a cross-sectional view of a three-storey house owned by a well-to-do European family. A prominent businessman has just died. His widow and son return home after the funeral. By chance, the widow’s name is Gertrude and her son is called Hamlet.”

The focus, as is clear from the opening moments, is on the minutae of everyday existence, haunted by the subtext of Hamlet. We watch in silence as the household servant does the washing up, answers the phone and makes a cup of coffee in a miniature kitchen, which is realised in every detail. Above her, illuminated in the darkness, there appears a man in black: a ghost. Hamlet's father, in fact.

The kitchen/lounge area is on the ground floor of the series of illuminated boxes that make up the rather spectacular set, and pretty soon the doorbell rings, admitting the first of a string of people. In this case, it’s the fellow servant, a young girl. She is given a letter that she receives with excitement, reads it and bursts into tears. The older woman gives her, as a kind of compensation for whatever has upset her, a canary in a cage.

Other people enter: Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, who have clearly been at the funeral, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, Ophelia and Laertes, Horatio and Polonius – in fact, the whole damn cast. I spent quite a bit of time in lively speculation as to who was who. Hamlet retreats to his bedroom upstairs, undresses to his underpants, goes next door to the bathroom and has a shower. While he is soaping his hair, he takes some of the soap and writes a question mark on the shower wall. Which is, I guess, his soliloquy.

Although there was a puzzling formal fuzziness – if it was to be a “prologue without words”, then why were people speaking? If it was to be so ultra-naturalistic, why was there not more attention paid to the rhythms and performance conventions when it became something else? – I found myself increasingly absorbed by the action on stage. There was a beautiful moment, for instance, when the funeral party was downstairs, and Gertrude’s bedroom on the upper floor was suddenly lit in soft red, revealing the ghost of Hamlet's father sitting glumly on the bed.

But it all fell to pieces when some text began to scroll across the set. “Why do we die?” it asked us. Well, gosh, I thought, I never thought that before. “Choose to live and make changes,” it advised me portentously, “or simply die in life”. Like these people, it said, in this house. And so on. The text was also notable for some interesting misspellings.

There are a couple of ways of interpreting this astoundingly crass intervention (and some other infelicities in the show, like a long sequence of flashing boxes backed by Radiohead). One is that it is simply naff. Another is that its naffness is deliberate, a comment on the emptiness of European culture, the decadence that reduces the whole of Hamlet to a question mark. I incline to the first theory – there was nothing in the show to convince me otherwise – but the second is actually just as bad: if, as a friend said afterwards, they were doing that on purpose, it is such a cynical strategy that it makes the whole thing horribly depressing.

Playing with voyeurism, making the audience aware of the act of watching, is a commonplace in contemporary theatre; Benedict Andrews’s production of The Season at Sarsaparilla, for example, was a sharp and thoughtful take on the Big Brother concept. And it’s just not enough to make us witness intimate moments as if this on its own is somehow revealing: there has to be an intellectual and aesthetic structure that gives some shape and point to our watching, or it becomes a merely empty experience.

European House demonstrates not only how risky it is to work with banality, but also that it requires a great deal of intelligence. And, perhaps, a certain empathy of vision that is missing here. In this festival, there have been a couple of stunning examples of work that jumps off the banal: Jérôme Bel, for example, or Dood Paard. And even less successful shows, such as Shaun Parker’s This Show Is About People, made up for text that was (almost) equally egregious with some authentically beautiful theatre making.

But there was a superficiality in European House that didn’t survive the splintering blow of that scrolling text. It hit it like a rock on a windscreen, exposing all the faultlines that ran through the show. Its problem is not in design or performance: both of these are high quality. It’s much deeper, in the lack of rigor with which it is conceived and directed.

Done well, mundanity on stage can be compelling, even transcendently illuminating; but I felt some sympathy for the woman last night who, with some asperity, told the man next to her that she didn’t come to the theatre just to watch someone washing up. Her attention wasn’t rewarded, and neither was mine. Program notes in which the director waves vaguely at Joyce and Shakespeare don't help at all. A show like this isn’t going to convince the unconverted that contemporary theatre isn’t totally pretentious. Because that, ultimately, is what it was.

Picture: European House. Photo: Ros Ribas

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Me in the Guardian

Little Alison today makes her debut on the Guardian theatre blog page, with a short piece on the Melbourne Festival. Which is nice.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review: Titus

Melbourne Festival #9

Titus, after William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Created by Kuno Bakker, Manja Topper, Oscar van Woensel, Gillis Biesheuval, Sara De Roo, Ceon Jongsma and Anne Karin Ten Bosch. Translated into Dutch by Manja Topper and Juno Bakker and back into English by Paul Evans. Lighting and sound by Rene Rood and Iwan Van Vlieberghe. Performed by Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper, Kuno Bakker, Gillis Biesheuval and Sara de Roo. Dood Paard @ the Malthouse Workshop until October 27.

Titus Andronicus is the 16th century version of a splatter movie. Clearly inspired by Seneca, Shakespeare – then a relatively young playwright – enthusiastically stirred practically every gruesome element of classical revenge tragedy into the pot. This play has everything: murder, mutilation, extreme rape, revenge, adultery, cannibalism, political plots and blood in bucketloads.

In fact, so extreme is the ultraviolence that Harold Bloom said it was impossible to take seriously, and suggested that the best possible production would be directed by Mel Brooks. It’s kind of intriguing to imagine what Bloom might have made of Dood Paard’s attack on it: I’d personally put a bet each way. All the same, in this spirited adaptation there are moments that Mel Brooks might have been proud of.

But, almost miraculously, Dood Paard simultaneously invoke the grief and horror of this luridly coloured play, reminding us that – like Shakespeare himself, who lived in a society where bloody public executions were entertainment for the hoi polloi – we live in a world in which acts of extreme violence are not as fantastic as we might like to think. Ask the citizens of Darfur or Chechnya. Human beings are every bit as capable of horrible actions as they have ever been.

In Titus, the violence is inescapably male and sexual. The women are either - like Lavinia, Titus’s raped and mutilated daughter - victims of lust for both sex or political power, or - like the Goth Queen Tamora - vengeful manipulators of the action. The patriarchal inheritance of violence, from father to son, is made brutally clear. The mechanism of revenge, activated by Titus’ sacrifice of the conquered Goth prince Alarbus on his triumphal return to Rome, proceeds inexorably to a stage littered with corpses. Some of them cooked.

Dood Paard intitially adapted Shakespeare’s text in Dutch. For this season, we’re getting that adaptation – a clean, swift and intelligent take that surprisingly preserves much of the original poetry – translated back into English. While we’re not getting Shakespeare straight, we are definitely getting the play: all five acts, complete with classical references (they include a joke about Horace and Latin quotations) are followed faithfully. As is Shakespeare's rather confronting racism, in the person of the irredeemably evil Aaron the Moor.

The approach is as simple as it gets. On a stage crowded with a miscellany of lounge furniture, the five performers literally tell us the play, swiftly describing the setting, pointing fingers to actors and naming their characters as they take on different parts as required. The performers are dressed in everyday clothes that are adapted casually as required: when Lavinia’s hands are cut off, she wears a man’s shirt with the hanging cuffs dipped into red paint.

This loose-limbed theatricality is both compelling and flexible. It permits a double view of the play: a meta-theatrical and ironic awareness of its provenance as a work of art, and a feeling understanding of the realities that are imagined within it. When Tamora (Sara De Roo) pleads for the life of her son, or when Titus (Kuno Bakker) spies his mutilated daughter, their performances generate genuine pathos and horror.

The text swings between a pared down, direct take on Shakespearean poetry and the language of popular culture. In a moment that effectively catapults the sadism of Ancient Rome into the present day, Tamora’s thuggish sons quote Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man (thank you Mr Boyd) as they eye Lavinia, preparing to rape her. The bracing colloquialism also provides moments of fine black comedy. Just before the final act (when most of the protagonists meet their bloody demise), there is a lewd dance to the blasting disco beat of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive that is pure genius.

As in their other festival piece MedEia, the collaborators offer up a version of classical tragedy that is deeply intelligent about the form, at once questioning its formal propositions and exploiting its power. But perhaps what is most attractive about Dood Paard is how the company returns to the basics of theatre, the performer and the text. Titus is above all an exemplary demonstration of theatrical story-telling, and a forceful reminder of the naked power of words.

Picture: Dood Paard’s Titus. From left: Sara De Roo, Gillis Biesheuvel, Kuno Bakker and Manja Topper Photo: Sanne Peper Performers

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Along the grape vine...

...the word is that MTC associate director Julian Meyrick has resigned. And, according to several sources, he's resigned not in sorrow but in anger, although officially he plans to spend more time with his writing. (And not a bad thing, either: as his Platform Paper Trapped by the Past demonstrates, he's a nifty theatre historian and polemicist).

TN's flapping ears haven't picked up the inside story, but all the same, this strikes me as a very bad omen. The MTC is looking more and more rudderless compared to its Armani-coutured sister state company up in Sydney. Not only has the STC cornered the glamour market, it's just launched a 2008 theatre season that looks genuinely exciting. Among the sprinkle of obligatory Broadway/West End hits are seven (count that: seven) productions of new Australian plays, including a diptych from that Keene fellow, and major new works from some of the most exciting directors in Australia: Barrie Kosky (The Trojan Women), Benedict Andrews (The War of the Roses) and Nigel Jamieson (Gallipoli). The titles alone show that the STC is grappling with the major theme of our time: war.

Compared to that, the MTC's 2008 season looks a little wan. The Australian premieres are Joanna Murray-Smith's 90 and a vehicle play for Caroline O'Connors by David Williamson, both what the French call boulevard theatre. Aside from the brilliant Benedict Andrews production of Patrick White's The Season at Sarsaparilla, an import from the STC, and a pick up from Sydney's Griffin Theatre, Tommy Murphy's adaptation of Tim Conigrave's Holding the Man, it's basically a shopping list of tried plays from overseas.

I'm looking forward to David Harrower's Blackbird and curious to see Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll, but I can't say the program has me delirious with excitement. I'm not sure that I'd go as far as the prominent director who recently waved his arm towards the MTC and cried: "It's a disgrace!" But should the flagship state company, and the mainstream keystone of Melbourne theatre, look so dusty? And this at a time when Melbourne theatre culture is more electric than it has been for decades.

The program might explain Meyrick's acrimonious departure: Meyrick was, after all, a major force for new work within the institution. I can't say I feel good about it. And neither should any of us in Melbourne who care about theatre.

UPDATE: Richard Watts, who rang the MTC publicity department, tells me that the Age mentioned Meyrick's resignation last month. Missed that one, but then my eyes do glaze over when reading Robin Usher...

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Review: Hunger

Melbourne Festival #8

Hunger, devised and created by rawcus and musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, directed by Kate Sulan. Designed by Emily Barrie, lighting design Richard Vabre, dramatury/choreography by Ingrid Voorendt, original music by Jethro Woodward. rawcus @ Arts House Meat Market until October 24.

I wanted to like Hunger. It's a collaboration between rawcus, which creates theatre by and about disabled people, and musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, that explores the nature of longing and desire. And it's got music by the ubiquitous Jethro Woodward and completely gorgeous lighting by Richard Vabre. What's not to like?

Nothing, as it turns out, that you can really put your finger on. And maybe that's the problem. Hunger has many of the right ingredients, and achieves moments of truly memorable theatrical image-making: but a certain elusive, cohesive spark is missing. It reaches, and just misses.

As Andrea del Sarto says in Browning's poem, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?" There are failures that ought to be admired, and such failures are usually in proportion to a work's ambition. And there's no doubting the ambition of this work, a physical theatre piece that draws on the tropes of romantic love (and romantic music) to excavate the desires of the disabled, a section of the community usually denied such expression.

Director Kate Sulan takes full advantage of the perspectives of the the Meat Market theatre, which is surely, as Spark Online commented recently, one of Melbourne's most beautiful venues. As the audience files in, they are confronted with rows of paper shopping bags, propped upright to cover the entire stage. Against a wall at the back stand some musicians, bowing some gentle lyrical flights. Then the lights go down, the sound rises in an electronic roar, and a man in a beautiful brocaded dress enters and dances a balletic solo, knocking the bags over with the sweep of his gestures.

As a comment on how the anarchies of desire disrupt the manipulative order of consumerism, it's simple, effective and beautiful. The show is threaded with such moments: a woman emerging from a fantastic dress whose skirt is almost as big as the stage, its fabric surging around her like the ocean, and at last winding her in a blue whirlpool, or a man playing a clarinet, dragging a woman across the stage as she clutches his ankles.

Interestingly, the most effective moments were often those with text. At one point, for example, a woman standing at a lectern read the dialogue from Gone With The Wind where Rhett leaves Scarlett O'Hara, while others around her parroted the lines. It was at once touching, funny, and a pointed comment on the ways our desires are shaped for us by popular culture.

But too often I felt the stage metaphors lacked clarity; by which I mean, not that they ought to be instantly interpretable, but that their conception was somehow muffled. At one point, and no doubt unfairly, I wondered what Romeo Castellucci, master of the breath-takingly resonant stage image, might have done with this material; something much crueller, I imagine, and perhaps more moving.

While the show deals with dreams and fantasies, it all felt too lush. The set and costumes, which draw from the kitsch of fairytales and romantic love, were gorgeous, but there seemed to be too much of them. The danger in dealing with Hallmark imagery is, of course, becoming a little Hallmarkish oneself.

More troublingly, there were times when I felt a real - and I think unintentional - discomfort about watching, as if I were merely invited to something that amounted to an act of voyeurism. I'm not suggesting, by any means, that Hunger is done in bad faith, or is at all exploitative: it's manifestly not. But every now and then I was haunted by a feeling that I was merely witnessing the ablement of the disabled, that my response couldn't reach deeper than an inevitably patronising applause. I think this might be a function of the conception of the piece itself as spectacle, with images that don't quite reach across the space of difference into the sudden epiphany of mutual understanding.

I strongly suspect the real problem lies in the dramaturgy, the larger rhythms of the piece itself. Perhaps if they had been cleaner, if the show had had a more definable shape, the sense of clutter would have been abated. Comparisons with Back to Back's Small Metal Objects, its brilliant 2005 festival offering, are inevitable. Where Back to Back, which also works with a mixture of professional theatre artists and disabled performers, managed to open your perception to the fascination of the apparently mundane, Hunger seemed much of the time to be making a kind of costume party.

The music, which included Dvorak, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky as well as Woodward, was good to listen to, but it too tended to prettiness. In the end, although there were images of yearning and loss, and moments of wit that undercut the kitsch, Hunger felt too, well, nice.

Picture: the cast of Hunger. Photo: Paul Dunn

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Review: Meow Meow

Melbourne Festival #7

Meow Meow: Beyond Beyond Glamour: The Remix. Meow Meow with Paul Grabowsky on piano. The Famous Spiegeltent.

“What does a heart sound like when it breaks?” Meow Meow, disheveled kamikaze chanteuse, tired, bored and heartbroken, wants to know. One audience member suggests “crash”. Another says “horrible”. Several others deny having had their hearts broken at all.

“Mine,” says Meow Meow, “sounds like this”. She launches into a series of vocal acrobatics that sound like a cross between an animal being slaughtered and an orgasm.

Aside from its startling demonstration of the flexibility and power of that extraordinary voice, it’s a moment when the toxic fragrance that winds through Beyond Beyond Glamour rises pungently to the surface. Meow Meow’s anarchic seduction is all about sex and death.

I can’t think of anywhere better to see her than the Famous Spiegeltent. If it weren’t for the lack of clouds of cigarette smoke, you’d swear you were back in the Weimar Republic.

Like another Spiegeltent favourite, Camille O’Sullivan, or the brilliant Paul Capsis, Meow Meow takes the art of cabaret and splits it open, exposing the disillusioned, yearning heart that beats under the sequins.

She’s a comedian of extraordinary nerve: her act is continually on the verge of collapse, catching itself up at the last possible moment.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an audience so tyrannised. From the moment she appears in incognito diva uniform of big coat and sunglasses, several beats after her introduction by pianist Paul Grabowsky, she is the model of the monstrous narcissist.

In a cruelly hilarious parody of the femme fatale, Meow Meow dominates the room with her supposed frailty. She snappishly commands a series of hapless men to carry her suitcase, to lug her to the stage, to help her off with most of her clothes.

She uses them as props, even as bras; she sits on them and demands that they look at her adoringly. Sheepishly, they oblige. They also take full advantage of her invitation to touch her.

Complaining that “the management” has forced her to perform even though her heart is broken, Meow Meow teasingly sings a series of cabaret classics – in French, Italian, German, Polish and Chinese. If she weren’t so funny, you’d be wild with frustration: she never finishes any of them.

The show is really a lead-up to the final number – “a standard cabaret number, darlings, you all know it” – Brecht and Weill’s Surabaya Johnny.

Here Meow Meow stops the tease. Her performance of this well-worn classic – tender, aching, savagely disillusioned - is nothing less than revelatory. And yes, you really are there, in Berlin in 1920. Only it’s Melbourne 2007.

This review was published in today's Australian.

You can listen to Meow Meow's version of Surabaya Johnny here.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Review: Homeland/Kagemi

Melbourne Festival #6

Homeland by Laurie Anderson. Laurie Anderson with Eyvind Kang, Jamshied Sharifi and Skuli Sverrisson. Hamer Hall until October 19.

Kagemi: Beyond the Metaphor of Mirrors, directed, choreographed and designed by Ushio Amagatsu. Music by Takashi Kako and Yoichiro Yoshikawa. Dancers Ushio Amagatsu, Semimaru, Sho Takeuchi, Akihito Ichihara, Taiyo Tochiaki, Ichiro Hasegawa and Dai Matsuoka. Sankai Juku, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre until October 20.

Well, my dears, I know things are happening out there. Election campaigns, terrorist attacks, bodies in suitcases, arrested footballers… But TN’s world has been wall-to-wall art since last Thursday. I’ve selflessly sacrificed the cosy domestic circle every night, furrowing my brow to bring you the goods on the Melbourne Festival. (OK, maybe I haven’t been that selfless; let’s say that I am acutely aware of my privilege here.)

The festival is now at the half-way mark, and it looks like a brilliant success to me. The air is abuzz, the mood is festive, little children are carolling in the streets. As for me – I know you are anxious – I’m holding up well. Next week is just as heavy, so I like those early sessions. Why, sometimes I’ve seen a show and still been home in time for dinner.

I’m a bit tired from all that brow-furrowing – it’s more exhausting than you might think – but I attribute my general well-being to having seen so much good work. Bitter experience has led me to agree with Catullus that bad art can have a deleterious effect on one’s immune system. So I’m thanking the gods – or Kristy Edmunds, which might be the same thing by now – that this year’s program has been such a blast. If I were seeing soul-deadening shows at this pace, I’d surely have already been hospitalised.

Thursday and Friday brought two more winners – Sankai Juku’s miraculous Kagemi: Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors and Laurie Anderson’s Homeland. I fear my reports will be briefer than these shows deserve – I’m not joking about the tiredness – but I will do my best.

Homeland is a bit of a coup: a festival co-commission of a major new work by Laurie Anderson, electronic rhapsodist extraordinaire. I use the word rhapsodist advisedly: Homeland is essentially an epic poem, delivered with Anderson’s trademark restrained passion and cool, intelligent irony, about contemporary America.

“Homeland” is a charged word: in the 20th century, the Homeland, Heimat, was the blood and soil of the Third Reich. In the 21st, it’s at the heart of George Bush’s rhetoric on the War on Terror, and the Department of Homeland Security, which now has the power to eavesdrop on the private phonecalls and emails of ordinary US citizens, is tasked to "preserve" America’s freedom.

Anderson is one of a number of prominent Americans who are reclaiming the patriotism of their Founding Fathers from the authoritarian slogans of the Far Right. Like Naomi Wolf’s urgent (and surprisingly excellent) pamphlet The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Anderson quotes the revolutionary Tom Paine – one of those who fought against the British Crown for America’s independence from imperial tyranny. She invokes the American Constitution, the inspiring rollcall of freedom that guarantees all citizens the rights of free speech, fair trial and habeas corpus - and asks ironically, “was our Constitution written in invisible ink?” “Have we,” she wants to know, “forgotten how to think?”

And like Bruce Springsteen’s recent album, Magic, Anderson portrays a new, uneasy US, a US where the heart seems to be missing, a US where the average citizen is 1.3 paychecks from homelessness. For all its intelligent political edge, which is at once subtle and to the point, this is a show infused with personal longing and pain. When that famous voice whispers: “Welcome to the American night”, your heart chills with menace; when she laments the loss of truth in public and private speech in The Lost Art of Conversation, you feel the space of sadness open beneath your ribs.

It’s performed on a stage covered with tealight candles, and sumptuously lit. And the music – featuring Eyvind Kang on viola and Anderson on electric violin – is wound through with lyrical echoes of Celtic and Arabic music, giving a wild edge of lament to Anderson’s electronic cool. Their rhythms are underlined by Skuli Sverrisson’s mean six-stringed bass, and Jamsied Sharifi on keyboards. The mood is personal, acoustic, reaching for the heart. Homeland is a warning about the worst impulses of America and, in its passionate defence of its freedoms, a reminder of what has always been best.

Kagemi: Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors is, it’s fair to say, a complete contrast. For one thing, it’s about as deeply Japanese as Anderson’s show is deeply American. But it also represents a fusion of east and west: the butoh master Ushio Amagatsu fascinatingly infuses the avant garde ethos of butoh with classical western dance.

Kagemi is inspired by ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, and in particular by the work of the Japanese ikebana master Riho Senba. It reminds you that in Japan, the annual blossoming of the cherry trees is a major public event, and flower arranging is a kind of theatre. Indeed, of the demonstrations at the Ikebana International Ninth World Convention, it was noted that “the task of projecting out to fill a huge stage as well as capturing and holding an audience of over 1,000 experienced ikebana people is hardly easy. Clever theater is helpful but only goes so far, content and art must be present and take the lead. And at some point the magic appears, and, if we are lucky, it will enhance our lives.”

This might as well have been written of Kagemi. It’s the kind of work that so refuses words it’s very hard to write about: this is art that emerges from the silence and stillness of contemplation, opening doors of perception that are usually blurred shut by the speed of contemporary life. It’s full of the rhythms and grace of the vegetable world, here stylised to an exquisite abstraction: each tiny movement of each finger of each dancer is pregnant with significance. I can’t say I understood specific meanings, not being literate in either ikebana or butoh, but what I did understand was its dynamic harmony, the constant tension on stage between stillness and movement, creation and destruction, growth and decay, self and reflection.

Against a score that includes urgent drum rhythms, classical piano, traditional Japanese music and contemporary electonics, Amagatsu works an austerely minimal palette of gesture and colour; much of the the time the only colours he uses are black and white. But he finds in this austerity a nuance and depth that is wholly compelling. It was, as my theatre partner said, as if gods were dancing on stage.

It took a few minutes for Kagemi to work its spell, largely because the opening dance, a solo backed by minimal strings, was accompanied by such an outbreak of coughing and hacking that it was astounding that paramedics didn’t rush the State Theatre. I felt like personally issuing every patron with my theatre emergency kit of Anticols and tissues. But once the meditative rhythms took hold, the coughing stopped, and Kagemi was a totally immersive experience. It was also notable for the most beautifully choreographed curtain calls I have seen, when the audience made up for its earlier emphysemic behaviour with a tempest of applause.

Picture: Kagemi by Sankai Juku. Photo: Jacques Denarnaud

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Review: The Show Must Go On

Melbourne Festival #5

The Show Must Go On by Jérôme Bel. Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 18. Bookings: 1300 136 166

If you do nothing else at the Melbourne Festival, go and see Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On. I have no idea how to tell you why: I suspect that any attempt to recapture this event in words will run through my fingers, leaving behind a detritus of clichés and banalities. You have to be there. It’s about being there. So go.

Last year I took my then 11-year-old son to see Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and Myself. One would think that a two-hour dialogue about dance on a bare stage would be unpromising 11-year-old material, but the boy came out radiant. And when he saw that Bel was included in this year’s program, he lit up and insisted that I take him. In Ben’s world, Jérôme Bel, ferociously avant garde French choreographer, is up there with Andy Griffiths. He’s been looking forward to seeing The Show Must Go On for weeks.

Last night I shepherded a now 12-year-old, who was quivering with anticipation and excitement, to the Arts Centre. It’s fair to say that expectations were high. And when we emerged 90 minutes later, infused with the inimitable Bel effect of joyousness and loving-kindness for all of humanity, we both agreed that our expectations had not only been met, but exceeded.

But how to speak about what Bel does? It's difficult, because when you describe it, it sounds like nothing at all. It's at once incredibly simple and profoundly sophisticated. He takes the ordinary and puts it on stage. He recovers the real feeling that is hidden in sentiment and cliché.

It could so easily be the worst sort of pretension, but it isn’t at all. It’s a kind of grace: this work touches with such lightness, but it’s deeply thoughtful, deeply serious. It’s wickedly provocative, witty, even ridiculous; and then you find yourself overwhelmed by sudden emotion, by a sudden piercing recognition of the vulnerability and beauty and mortality of the simplest human gesture.

Bel strips theatre of everything extraneous. He totally destroys the barriers between the audience and the stage. With an austerity that strikes me as being very French, he refuses any hint of manipulation. The work is offered for us to make of it what we will, and we are free to respond however we like. The liberties he takes are audacious, but the hilarity that ripples through the auditorium is warm, delighted, amused. I can safely say that I have never been among an audience which responded to a show with such freedom and pleasure and lack of self-consciousness.

It is, as Ben said as we left the theatre, so human.

It’s obviously not for everyone: two women walked out stiffly around half way through, having had enough. I suppose if you’re expecting spectacular dance, Bel – whose work stems from some deep reading of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle - will be offensively disappointing. No, what Bel does is somewhat rarer than that. He gives us ourselves.

Picture: The Show Must Go On. Photo: Musacchio/Lanniell

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Review: Sizwe Banzi Is Dead/medEia

Melbourne Festival #4

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, directed by Peter Brook. Adapted into French by Marie Helene Estienne. Lighting design by Phillipe Vialatte. With Habib Dembélé and Pitcho Womba Konga. Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until October 27. Geelong (GPAC October 30-31), Bendigo (The Capital, November 2-3), Adelaide (Festival Centre November 6-17), and Sydney (Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, November 26 to December 16).

medEia, devised and performed by Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, Melbourne, until October 20. Bookings: 9685 5111.

Over the past couple of years, the Melbourne Festival program has copped a lot of flak for its supposed “elitism” and lack of interest in “ordinary” people. These criticisms emerge from a popular – if not very accurate – assumption that innovative art places itself, by its very nature, above the common herd.

So it’s fascinating to see that a major preoccupation emerging in the festival’s first week is one of the most ancient and popular arts of all – that of story telling. All the theatre I’ve seen, from Barrie Kosky’s uncompromisingly brilliant realisation of The Tell-Tale Heart to stand-up comic Daniel Kitson’s charming C-90, is about telling stories.

We tell each other stories for many reasons: to confirm our identities, to amuse each other, to understand and question the world. Most of all, story-telling asserts a sense of community, inviting us to consider not only the differences between us, but what we have in common. It is, crucially, how we build relationships with one another.

This is something the South African playwright Athol Fugard understands profoundly. The other thing he understands is the primacy of the actor in what he called “the pure theatre experience“. “The ingredients of this experience are very simple,” he wrote. “They are: the actor and the stage, the actor on the stage.”

It’s very easy to see the attraction of Fugard’s writing to an actor-centred director like Peter Brook. And Brook’s production of the first of Fugard’s famous Statement plays, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, is an exemplary demonstration of how performance and text can be united into the third thing that is theatre.

Athol Fugard wrote his three Statement plays, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, The Island and Statements After An Arrest Under the Immorality Act, in the 1970s, at the height of Apartheid, working from improvisations with the actors who first performed them, John Kani and Winston Ntshona.

They were acts of immediate (and at the time, perilous) political urgency, but Fugard – a theatre writer of sophistication as well as urgency – knows that political writing, if it is to mean anything, has to reach both higher and lower than the banalities of ideology, into the heart and mess of human lives.

So Sizwe Banzi Is Dead eschews any kind of moralising or lecturing. Its richly comic story is simply about the absurdity and tragedy of being Black in an Apartheid state, when every trivial detail of your life is ruled by your Pass Book and identity number.

Sizwe Banzi (Pitcho Womba Konga) has arrived in New Brighton from the country, seeking work to support his family, who are not allowed to move to town with him. But his residency rights are revoked when he is arbitrarily arrested in a raid.

When he and his friend Buntu (Habib Dembélé) discover a dead man in the street, they steal his identity, turning the illegal Sizwe Banzi into the legal Robert Zwelinzima; a move that will work, Buntu tells him, as long as he stays out of trouble.

“A black man stay out of trouble?” responds Sizwe with incredulity. “Impossible, Buntu. Our skin is trouble.” But, as he writes to his wife, “for the time being” his troubles are over, and that, in this world, is enough to ask.

This two-hander is infused with the irrepressible, contagiously subversive humour of the oppressed – it opens with a wonderful shaggy dog story, told by Dembélé, who plays multiple parts, which satirises a visit by the US chief executive to the South African Ford factory. But the play communicates, effectively and movingly, the heavy price of living in a police state.

And it’s impeccably realised. It is performed on a bare stage, on which are placed a number of simple objects – a rubbish bin, bundled piles of cardboard, wardrobe racks. The focus is on the performances, and these are, from the first moment Dembélé appears on stage as the young, mischievous photographer Styles, a rich, utterly seductive pleasure.

It’s deeply detailed work, every tiny gesture opulent with meaning. Dembélé is such a hugely gifted actor that he seems like some kind of magician: in the blink of an eye he transforms before your eyes into an old woman, an old man, a child. Konga, whose identity ironically remains stable as Sizwe Banzi/Robert Zwelinzima, powerfully and touchingly evokes his character’s simple dignity.

Dutch company Dood Paard’s medEia tells an older tale: the story of Medea, who betrayed her own people for the sake of her love for the invader Jason, only to be betrayed in her turn, and who murdered her own sons in revenge.

The spare, direct text has been devised by the performers, Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker, from Euripides’ original play. Where the ancient Greeks used tropes like “wine-dark sea” to prompt oral memory, the writers have employed a contemporary equivalent: immediately recognisable lines from popular songs prickle the text with sly humour.

For the first few minutes, my heart sank. I wasn’t in the mood for a lot of words. It was – as, in fact, is also true of classical tragedy – quite clear from the beginning what the performance was to be. But it wasn’t long before I found myself riveted: again like classical tragedy, the production has the clean, focused urgency of a single action.

The performers arrange themselves before a wide paper blind. Before them, on the floor, are laid two more blinds. They are successively hoisted up by the actors and then, literally, torn down (you understand swiftly why they are a maze of masking tape), bringing each act of the tale successively closer to the audience.

Medea’s story is told from the point of view of the chorus, those ordinary folk on the sidelines who watch and suffer with the protagonists, but are powerless to influence events. The performers enact, with scant attention to the gender of the actors, the roles of Medea and Jason and Creon as well as the old-woman gossips in the street.

And far from being dull or evasively ironic, this simple retelling is cumulatively powerful: our involvement deepens as the performances animate these ancient passions, until they resonate in our own contemporary language with a new and bitter clarity.

An edited version of this review is published in today's Australian.

Picture: Pitcho Womba Konga (left) and Habib Dembélé in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead. Photo: Pascal Gelly / Agence Bernand Performers

PS: Ms Pedant (recklessly ignoring the adage that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones) notes that the Age's Cameron Woodhead has Sizwe Banzi as "the second" of Fugard's Statement plays. It says so, after all, in the MIAF program (tsk tsk, copywriters). For the record, Sizwe Banzi premiered in 1972, The Island in 1973, and Statements in 1974.

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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 clichés 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.

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Review: Half Life

Melbourne Festival #2

Half Life by John Mighton, directed by Daniel Brooks. Design by Dany Lyne, lighting by Andrea Lundy. With Richard Clarkin, Laura de Carteret, Barbara Gordon, Carolyn Hetherington, Maggie Huculak, Robert Perichini and Eric Peterson. Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre, until October 15.

Half Life is, to say the least, a puzzling inclusion in the Melbourne Festival program. Although it occurred to me that it might have been imported all the way from Canada to make our own theatre look like genius.

Not that there's anything especially wrong with John Mighton’s play that the brusque excision of a couple of superfluous expository scenes might have amended. Even if it’s slight, it’s an intelligent and perhaps – it was hard to tell – felt exploration of the nature of aging, memory and love.

Set in an old people’s home, the story follows two abortive romances, one between the residents Clara (Carolyn Hetherington) and Patrick (Eric Peterson) and one between their children, Donald (Richard Clarkin) and Anna (Laura de Carteret).

Clara is suffering from senile dementia, but she and Patrick fall in love, a relationship that especially troubles Clara’s son, a scientist whose work is mainly concerned with Artificial Intelligence, and who, like Anna, is recovering from divorce.

Mighton’s script is generally a light-handed look at the infantalisation of our aged population, and pleasing poetic echoes run through its unobtrusive naturalism. However, what life it might have had is trampled by direction that pays little attention to the nuance of its dramatic rhythms. It makes a heavy-going 90 minutes of a play that could have been a sprightly hour.

Director Daniel Brooks had the bright idea of introducing blackouts between every scene, blackouts accompanied by a variety of sound effects and the swift shifting of stage furniture.

This was all right for the first half hour or so. By the final half hour, the rhythm had become so mind-numbingly predictable that I was having trouble staying awake. I began to think stern thoughts about the speed of light – surely some scenes could have tripped over each other’s heels to considerable profit?

The direction also makes it hard to judge the performances, which are on the whole surprisingly wooden. The three older actors – Hetherington, Peterson and Barbara Gordon as the grumpy resident Agnes – inject a little sparkle, but the rest err on the side of competence.

The real star of the show is Andrea Lundy’s lighting design, a precise geometry of autumnal colours that gives this show a gloss of class it doesn’t fully deserve. Though it’s only fair to add that the mainly grey-haired matinee audience with whom I saw Half Life seemed much more awake to its charms than I was.

Picture: L to R: Eric Peterson, Carolyn Hetherington, Magg
Linkie Huculak, Laura de Carteret, Robert Persichini and Barbara Gordon in Half Life. Photo: Tony Hauser

This review appears in today's Australian.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Review: The Temptation of St Anthony/The Tell-Tale Heart

Melbourne International Arts Festival #1

The Temptation of St Anthony, from the novel by Gustave Flaubert. Direction, set design and lighting concept by Robert Wilson, music and libretto by Bernice Johnson Reagon. Costumes by Geoffrey Holder, lighting design by AJ Weisbard, sound design by Peter Cerone, music direction by Toshi Reagon. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. October 11. Until October 14.

The Tell-Tale Heart (after Edgar Allan Poe)
, adapted and directed by Barrie Kosky, performed by Martin Niedermair and Barrie Kosky. Design adapted by Anna Tregloan (set) and Paul Jackson (lighting) from original designs by Michael Zerz (set and lighting) and Alfred Mayerhofer (costume). Malthouse Theatre @ the Malthouse Workshop until October 20.

The band struck up, the lights blinked on, and the weather, which had hitherto smiled benignly on the fair city of Melbourne, invited Mr Rain and Ms Hail in for a party. Yes, it’s festival time, when it is traditional for Melbourne’s skies to snarl, and woolly longjohns under the petticoat are now de rigeur.

Fortunately for those of us shivering on the mean streets, the heart is warm, even if the flesh is goose-pimpled. MIAF artistic director Kristy Edmunds has struck the requisite wow factor.

Last year’s headline openers were, it must be said, a little patchy: the astounding theatrical mysteries of Romeo Castellucci’s Tragedia Endoginidia on the one hand were counterbalanced by a damply earnest version of 1984 from Tim Robbins’s Actors Gang on the other. As a frisson between events, it failed on every measure of joissance (a mixture of the erotic, the mystical and the political, if you’re wondering).

This year, the joissance was bouncing. Edmunds has set up a conversation between two visionary auteur directors, Robert Wilson and Barrie Kosky. Although both draw from major writers in the Western literary canon, they are a complete contrast in style and approach, and, ultimately, in their conceptions of theatre.

Robert Wilson’s middle name is “spectacle”. For years, this leading practitioner of avant garde theatre has been providing luscious sensual feasts for the eye.

Last year, Wilson’s elegant theatricalisation of traditional Indonesian epic, I La Galigo, was a major festival hit. This year he’s brought an operatic adaptation by Bernice Johnson Reagon of Gustave Flaubert’s magnificent obsession, The Temptation of St Anthony, a novel in play form that Flaubert rewrote three times and claimed was his “life’s work”.

Flaubert’s story of St Anthony’s dark night of the soul, as he is assailed in his search for truth by temptations of the flesh, mind and spirit, is definitely an oddity. Ezra Pound’s view of the novel was rather less sanguine than Flaubert's, and has a certain justness. “[Flaubert] was interested in certain questions now dead as mutton, because he lived in a certain period,” said Pound. “Fortunately he managed to bundle these matters into one or two books and keep them out of his work on contemporary subjects. I set it aside … as something which matters now only as archaeology.”

Johnson Reagon is the founder of the acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and is a historian and venerable Civil Rights activist who works in the musical tradition of African-American gospel choirs. While you can see the thematic connection to Flaubert’s story, her soul-stirring rhythms don’t seem an immediate fit with Wilson’s cool, chic aesthetic; but in fact their warm immediacy, yin to Wilson's yang, do much to mitigate the distancing eye.

Drawing from spirituals and gospel can, however, induce a certain semantic confusion: when St Anthony is being tempted by the gifts of the Lord’s table, for instance, it suggests communal joy rather than any sense of gluttony. It’s hard to see what the Lord could possibly object to in anything so celebratory of Him.

As I followed the argument of Reagon Johnson’s libretto, I felt a certain wonder that the idea that religion is not the answer to every truth, or that there are contradictions in scripture that compromise its value as historical document, needed to be said quite so baldly. But then I remembered that the US has a president who claims that he invaded Iraq because God told him to.

Which is to say that, while I am not so convinced of the intellectual provenance of this show, I can see its contemporary aptness. But intellectual provenance is hardly the point here.

From the moment the performers enter the theatre in a slow hieratic procession to the show’s final ecstatic climax, Wilson’s stagecraft brings the State Theatre to radiant life. Johnson Reagon’s thrilling score embraces everything from gospel to African music to funk, and there’s the electrifying pleasure of hearing so many huge voices on stage at once, backed by Toshi Reagon’s admirably tight band.

This pleasure is heightened by the visual banquet of Wilson’s production. The costumes are gorgeous, and the simple neo-classical set, reminiscent of a church, is drenched in swathes of intense colour – azure, emerald, scarlet, gold.

And Wilson’s gift for breath-taking mise en scene is well in evidence. His masterly stage choreography is poised on what TS Eliot called “the still point of the turning world”: its potency emerges from stillness, just as its songs emerge from silence.

This maxim is, however, much more powerfully illustrated by Barrie Kosky’s brilliant adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart, as a monologue performed by Martin Niedermair. Here silence and darkness are invitations into Poe’s uniquely psychological horror.

Where Wilson asks us to admire – and we do – Kosky demands something more intimate, more difficult and, dare I say, more profoundly theatrical. This is theatre that plays in the minds of the audience as much as it does on stage, that invites us to come on a voyage into our own subconscious. In a way that strikes me as particularly Jewish, it is theatre that appeals to the ear rather than the eye, to the intimacy of hearing rather than to the dissociation of sight.

But this isn’t to say that the show doesn’t also have its visual pleasures. Anna Tregloan’s minimal set, adapted from Michael Zerz's design for the original production at the Schauspielhaus in Vienna, is remarkably beautiful. The single stage element, aside from the sumptuous red curtain that greets us as we enter, is a vertiginous wooden staircase that reaches up into the dizzy heights of the workshop.

The performance takes place entirely on the staircase, and here the lighting – an elegantly effective design adapted by Paul Jackson from Zerz's lighting – is crucial. For most of the show, the majority of the stage is in shadow. At times, the only illumination is on Niedermair’s face.

Poe’s story, the confession of a murderer betrayed by his guilty conscience, is performed almost in its entirety, but Kosky’s fidelity to Poe goes deeper than mere attention to his words. He creates an entire psychological environment that enacts the true horror of Poe’s tormented imagination.

The show begins and ends with a long interval of total darkness (a rare thing in a theatre) which acts as a liminal state, a crossing of a threshold into a different imaginative world. The text is interleaved with songs by Henry Purcell and Hugo Wolf, the accompaniment played live by Kosky himself, and the contrast between the yearning expressed in this sheerly beautiful music and the bleak story creates an unsettling poignancy.

Martin Niedermair gives an exemplary display of an actor’s physical and emotional expressiveness: here utterance is a struggle articulated by his entire body. He gives each word – and each silence between each word – a darkly gleaming emphasis that is completely compelling. And there is a totally unforgettable moment - the emotional climax of the show - when I swear he becomes the physical embodiment of a painting by Francis Bacon.

As Poe’s nameless hero, he achieves a poise between vanity and self-disgust that is sometimes genuinely comic. But what he communicates with disturbing accuracy is the dismaying self-delusion of madness.

The whole production features a restraint, even a sense of discretion, that intensifies its stark psychological realism. This is Poe naked, stripped of the rags of Gothic melodrama, and it is a terrifying vision.

Pictures: Top, Robert Wilson's The Temptation of St Anthony; bottom, Martin Niedermair in The Tell-Tale Heart.

A shorter version of this review appears in today's Australian.

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