MIAF: The Grey Autombile, England, 7 Important Things ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 20, 2008

MIAF: The Grey Autombile, England, 7 Important Things

Festival Diary #7: Thursday, Friday and Saturday

El Automovil Gris (The Grey Autombile), directed by Claudio Voldes Kurt. Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes. Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse.

England, by Tim Crouch, directed by a smith and Karl James. Sound design by Dan Jones. With Tim Crouch and Hannah Ringham. The Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia.

7 Important Things, by Nadia Ross and George Acheson. Designed by Barry Podolsky, lighting design by Steve Lucas. With George Acheson and Nadia Ross. STO Union @ Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre. STO Union.

AS this year's Melbourne International Arts Festival enters its second week, I am a little dizzied by the variety of performance I've encountered. It has ranged from the multimedia total theatre of DJ Spooky to the mischievously schizoid stage of Chunky Move's Two Faced Bastard, from the environmental children's theatre of Polyglot to the spectacular image-making of Back to Back.

Beyond the focus on human connection that has characterised all of Kristy Edmunds's festivals, the 2008 festival could be thought of as a showcase of the possibilities of performance, a celebration of artistic inventiveness.

El Automovil Gris (The Grey Automobile), for example, is a famous Mexican silent film made in 1919 about a bunch of gangsters who terrorised Mexico City four years earlier. The film is a classic cops and robbers melodrama, but it is also a fascinating historical document, starring some of the gang's victims re-enacting the crimes in their original locations.

And it has scenes of violence that still have the power to shock. One is a cock fight, for which director Enrique Rosas filmed the real thing; another is the execution of the criminals, for which he used real footage he shot himself. Cinema-verité indeed.

Mexican company Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes presents it using (and abusing) the traditional Japanese art of Benshi, which flourished in the era of silent films and died with the talkies. Feeling that a performance wasn't complete without the voice, the Japanese showed films with actors providing commentary and dialogue, transforming film into a live medium.

The Grey Automobile is not merely an exercise in live dubbing, although the vocally dextrous performers, whose interpretations range from straight dialogue to sheer nonsense, manage this with wit and inventiveness. The film is a text on which the performers write their own theatre, resulting in bizarre incongruities and subversively funny images.

The film’s subtitles, for example, are feral: they begin somewhat uncertainly, appearing at eccentric intervals in Spanglish, before settling down and obediently translating the dialogue in correct (if colourful) English. About half way through they rebel and begin to appear anywhere they like on screen, in different fonts and sizes.

The chaos deepens when the voiceovers become animal noises and we get subtitles of barking in seven different languages. Or when the film briefly turns into an opera. Sometimes the actors speak in English and the subtitles are Spanish. Sometimes the dialogue is Japanese, or Russian, or German. In between are a couple of song and dance routines and helpful commentaries on the history of Benshi. It’s an often hilarious conceit which manages to be constantly surprising.

Underneath, as in the film, one is constantly aware of the subtext of the Mexican Revolution, the first of the 20th century, which occurred just before the film was made. The increasingly surreal humour destroys the film's moralistic intent ("work alone is the most noble way of life!" admonishes the original movie), while at the same time intensifying its violence, which emerges from the chaos with a sudden shocking clarity. The final brutal scene, for example, can't but recall Goya's famous painting of execution, The Third of May, 1808.

In contrast to this delirious excess, Tim Crouch’s England is a sly and cumulatively powerful critique of the crass consumerism of contemporary Britain which is performed in an art gallery. It’s a tightly-written and precisely acted piece, performed by Britons Crouch and Hannah Ringham with deliberately alienating restraint.

Both interchangeably play an unnamed character whose boyfriend is a wealthy dealer in contemporary art. When this character becomes ill with heart disease, he or she receives a life-saving heart transplant, taken in dubious circumstances from an injured man in the Middle East.

The play is structured as a kind of cross between a straight narrative and a guided tour of the gallery (it opens with a lecture on the history of the Ian Potter Gallery). The audience trails around behind the actors, who stand with uncomfortable smiles and empty eyes among the rest of us. We are abjured, always, to look!, an instruction which I found cumulatively irritating. And rightly so: as the play proceeds, we are told, almost in passing, that there is a great difference between looking - the consuming gaze - and seeing, the act of generous exchange.

Among other things, this play is a wholesale attack on the commodification of art and, by extension, of people. As the narrative evolves, it becomes a metaphor for England's colonialism (the third world heart stolen for the good of the first). The mannered performances initially made me feel hostile, but as the work unfolded I found myself drawn into its shifting realities. In its insistence on provoking thought rather than easy empathy, this work is authentically Brechtian.

The Canadian company STO Union, on the other hand, creates a kind of confessional documentary theatre using simple technologies - tape recorders, slide projectors, a pitch shifter - and a minimal stage that focuses on the two performers. 7 Important Things investigates the life of one of its performers, George Acheson, a “failed utopian” who hit the hippy trail before becoming a punk and heroin addict and, finally, a hairdresser in Toronto.

The show examines the failure of the radical alternative society of the 1960s, which is here portrayed as an exercise in privileged rebellion that plunged ultimately into self-destructive nihilism. It’s a well-written show that Acheson and his co-creator Nadia Ross perform with intelligence and humour, and it mostly charmed its audience, including my theatre partner; but its bald intersection of the real and the theatrical led finally to a pop-psychology earnestness that ultimately left me cold.

When I hear media generalisations about Baby Boomers, Generation X and Y and so on presented as guides to reality, I begin to wonder what is really being questioned: and Acheson's final admission of love for his estranged and dead father, made at the suddenly sharp insistence of his interrogator, Ross, felt humiliating rather than moving, manipulated rather than achieved. There's a truth inside it, of course; but I felt it was a truth that elided too many questions.

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


Thoughtful Theatre said...

I too was left underwhelmed by this...as my colleague put it it was "beige theatre"

Bastard? said...

I have to say I am relieved to finally find someone who agreed with me on 7 important things. It too left me cold. I felt that both the content and the form I had heard and seen so many times before- I wasn't engaged on any level, swinging between boredom at the cliched political trajectory and embarrassed at the thin dramaturgy.

And yet so many people I talked to liked it! No! Loved it! I'm used to a variety of opinion amongst my peers but all, without reserve, admitted to tears, ovations, cries of recognition, recovery sessions. I had begun to feel that perhaps I'd seen a different show, or was indeed the callous bastard they labelled me ages ago. In fact perhaps I am, and I've just found other ones- the internet being quite good for that.