Festival Diary #2: Saturday
The Big Game, directed by Sue Giles. Designed by Geoff Kennedy, lighting by Richard Vabre, music composed by Ania Reynolds, costumes designed by Ella Misso and Rebecca Clark. Polyglot Puppet Theatre, North Melbourne Meat Market.
Three, choreographed by Ohad Neharin. Costume design by Rakefet Levy, lighting design by Avi Yona Bueno, sound design by Ohad Fishof. Batsheva Dance Company @ the State Theatre.
Kitten, written and directed by Jenny Kemp. Set and costumes by Anna Tregloan, composition and sound design by Darrin Verhagen, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti, choreography by Helen Herbertson. With Christopher Connelly, Natasha Herbert, Kate Kendall and Margaret Mills. Malthouse Theatre until October 25.
It is, I suppose, part of The Festival Experience to find oneself waving a blue plastic plate on a stick at 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning. This, mind you, after an ill-advisedly late night. But there we were, me and the Esoteric Rabbit himself, amid a noisy bunch of small, enthusiastic children and assorted adults, barracking for Our Team in The Big Game.
This was Polyglot's free show for children, and it is no small tribute to note that it got jaded aesthetes like me and Matt into the groove, even though we're supposedly well outside the recommended age group (5-12). It was a heap of fun. When we arrived, we were given the said paper plates, which assigned you to a particular audience area and your "world". There you were greeted by a personal cheerleader, who explained the deal and led the waving and chanting.
The show itself is a kind of animated board game that fills the gigantic atrium space at the North Melbourne Meat Market. The plot involves a nefarious inflatable volcano king and the kidnapping of his daughter by three Game Masters, who thus blackmail him into permitting the game to be played. Volunteers are then chosen from each "world", massive dice are thrown, and children move around the board and perform various tasks - star jumps, drawing a picture, hooking a fish from a wooden boat - according to where they land. They are accompanied by Game Masters in huge purple top hats, Ania Reynold's bouncy music, played live, and the enthusastic backing of their worlds. Whoever gets home first wins.
It's a fun premise, and involved the best sort of audience participation. Certainly the children present responded vociferously. Our team (Ocean World) won, and our representative, Courtney, had to fight the volcano king. This involved a mass distribution of paper planes to the audience, which were then thrown on the count of three at the king. That huge space suddenly alive with a flock of paper planes was a joyous sight.
Those who wished could stay after the show and play the game themselves, or explore the colourful and intriguing installation that doubles as the set. Matt and I went off to find some coffee, feeling remarkably light-hearted.
My next appointment was a marked contrast: Batsheva Dance Company's Three, in the plush velvet and brass of the State Theatre. This is a triptych choreographed by Ohad Naharin, Batsheva Dance Company's artistic director for the past two decades, to three constrasting works of recorded music - one of Bach's Goldberg Variations performed by Glenn Gould, Brian Eno's minimalist electronica piece, Neroli, and a mashup of contemporary music.
This joyous and humane work is performed by dancers in an assortment of casual contemporary clothes with an clarity that is thrilling to watch. The design is very plain, the stage in shades of grey and black, with minimal lighting changes. The only objects are big grey speakers hanging from the flies, which remind us that this is recorded music, music to which any one of us might casually listen on cd players and ipods.
The three pieces are quite distinct, although the design and costumes remain unchanged for each. In the brief interludes between the first and second dances, a man (I presume Ohad Naharin himself) walks on stage carrying a small television, behind which drags a long lead, stirring ripples of laughter among the audience. He stands mutely while on the television screen he does a deadpan introduction to the next piece, and just as mutely walks off.
What's striking about Three is its lucidity and elegant, seemingly effortless, accuracy. It's a style of dance that carries the pure movement of classical ballet into contemporary gesture. In the first piece this clarity was so strong it made me think of those Assyrian reliefs at the British Museum, an association reinforced by movements from the dancers that recollected Egyptian heiroglyphs. The second involved all the women of the company, carrying a disturbing subtext of militarism and throttling conformity that played against a gentle satirical lightness. The last, with the whole company back on stage, sees the individuality of each dancer breaking out from the tyranny and harmony (both qualities were present, winding tightly against each other) of the group.
When the lights went up, I found myself moved and stirred without quite knowing why. Naharin's choreography holds a number of things in exquisitely erotic tension - the group and the individual, perfection and imperfection, the real and the ideal human body. And ultimately, for all its purity of gesture, it's a celebration of common humanity, all the more powerful for its understatement.
After a short break, I finished off the day at Jenny Kemp's new work, Kitten. This, Malthouse Theatre's contribution to MIAF, was a keenly anticipated show. Jenny Kemp is a respected auteur, a theatrical visionary whose dreamscapes in her 1989 show The Call of the Wild still vibrate hauntingly in my memory.
This is Kemp's first work for five years, and she is backed by a top-flight production team - Anna Tregloan, Niklas Pajanti, Darrin Verhagen - who are people behind a string of mainstream and indie hits. On paper, it looked like a surefire winner. So what went wrong? Kitten is a woeful disappointment, a show of embarrassing banality.
The play traces the mental breakdown and ultimate healing of a woman whose husband Jonah has disappeared at sea, leaving no trace. Kitten is played by three actors - Natasha Herbert, Kate Kendall and Margaret Mills - who articulate her warring selves as she disintegrates into madness. A fourth actor, Christopher Connelly, plays Jonah's best friend and Kitten's future lover Manfred, a role which is practically redundant: he exists so wholly as an extension of Kitten herself that one wonders why he's there in the first place.
The whole is informed by an excruciating sincerity which, in that Wildean paradox, makes the show almost unbearably dishonest. It is impossible to buy Kitten's return to mental health, which occurs after a breakdown and hospitalisation and a visit into an interior world which I can't quite bring myself to describe.
I sat through Kitten waiting for some sign of irony, some sign of real complexity, with a dawning sense of doom that what was on show was all there was. I felt nothing at all, save an increasing amazement that anyone, let alone Jenny Kemp, could present something so simple minded after Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis.
There is little sign in the production of the talent at Kemp's disposal: Tregloan's set, for example, looks like a bad copy of Tregloan. I went home very depressed, wondering if, after all, the Australian component of the festival was going to be a terrible letdown.
Luckily Sunday restored my spirits. But more of that tomorrow.
Monday, October 13, 2008
Festival Diary #2: Saturday