Review: Rock'n'RollReview: AsylumHamlet, cigarettes, that kind of thingInterview: Marius von MayenburgThe Empire Strikes BackReview: TartuffeHow theatre is saving the soul of Australian fillumsThe intellectual criticAnd on the national stage...Young peopleReview: The Mercy SeatA point to Facebook"We will do some remarkable things"On Joanna Murray-SmithFrom the news deskHousekeepingReview: This Is Good AdviceAccessing my inner GrinchPromises, promises ~ theatre notes

Friday, February 29, 2008

Review: Rock'n'Roll

Rock’n’Roll by Tom Stoppard, directed by Simon Phillips. Designed by Stephen Curtis, costumes by Tracy Grant Lord, lighting by Matt Scott, A/V by Josh Burns, sound design by Kerry Saxby. With Chloe Armstrong, Christopher Brown, Melinda Butel, Grant Cartwright, Danielle Cormack, Alex Menglet, Matthew Newton, Genevieve Picot, Richard Sydenham and William Zappa. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, until March 29, Sydney Theatre Company April 11-May 10. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

It’s kind of weird to scroll through the pull-quotes for the Broadway season of Rock’n’Roll, Tom Stoppard’s unstoppable hit about, well, everything except rock and roll. The critics reach for their superlatives and then keep hopping up ever more vertiginous cliffs of fancy. I know I start foaming at moments of excitement, but this mass froth-fest could float a Titanic.

“Triumphantly sentimental,” cries Ben Brantley of the New York Times. “Rock’n’Roll is arguably Stoppard’s finest play. He is a magician, and this is a passionately acted, decades-spanning tale of love, revolution and music. …Stoppard treats the characters of for Rock’n’Roll with a deep affection I've never encountered from him before.” Clives Barnes of the New York Post hands it four stars and says it is "funny and enthralling". “Rock’n’Roll offers you something to take out of the theater you didn’t come in with… revealing the human face of Stoppard behind all the nervy, nervous brilliance.” While Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal finds it “an intellectually challenging, intensely theatrical piece of work that is destined to be talked about wherever playgoers gather.”

Though a mere drop of what’s out there, that is probably enough lurv; if you want more, you can google the reviews yourself. It’s a fair sampling of how Rock’n’Roll has been received by critics in the US and Britain. Of course, my worthy colleagues were speaking of Trevor Nunn’s production, which opened to similar plaudits at the Royal Court in London before doing Broadway business in New York; but I’m certain that Simon Phillips has directed the same play.

I can’t really fault Phillips’ production at the Playhouse. Brilliantly cast, swift, economical, and stylish, it demonstrates the kind of panache that was missing from Phillips’s directorial vocabulary all through 2007. Stephen Curtis’s design wisely eschews Nunn's revolve in favour of a concert stage dominated by a huge screen, on which is projected a collage of documentary footage – the fall of the Berlin Wall, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in, even (briefly) the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. These shift when necessary to scenic backdrops such as Cambridge oak trees or Prague buildings thrusting up through snow, with tables and chairs being whizzed on and off stage by the actors. It all works, and sometimes it works very well indeed.

And then there’s the play. The problem is, I just don’t get it. Let me, for the briefest moment, place my glasses over your eyes. Rock’n’Roll looks to me like a rather pedestrian history play. It plods through the final decades of the 20th century, with the odd burst of Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd adding a brief glamour to grim images such as the Soviet tanks in the streets of 1968 Prague. With the exception of a couple of undeniably powerful moments, I simply don’t understand why it’s made rational people go weak at the knees. Maybe it's just a function of nostalgia for the 1960s. Maybe you had to be there.

Stoppard gives us a potted history of Czechoslovakia’s adventures behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, through the figure of the dissident rock and roll fan Jan (Matthew Newton). Simultaneously, he follows the fortunes of a small family in Cambridge, friends of Jan – the classics professor Eleanor (Genevieve Picot) and her grumpy Communist husband Max (William Zappa). And in between the familial and social histories, we are told how the anarchic wisdom of the body, the joyous, erotic freedom of rock and roll, is the real revolutionary beat of the 20th century.

Punk, briefly the most anarchic music of them all, scarcely scores a mention. The closest we get is The Cure. I’m not enough of a rock snob to follow the semiotics of this, but somehow it is of a piece with the play. Punk wasn’t nice and – when it started, anyway, which was also more or less when it finished – it was about poor kids. This is not a play about poor people, in the same way it’s not about rock music. It’s about people who worry about poor people, and who have record collections. It talks about passion, which can often be mistaken for passion itself, but – as Osip Mandelstam once said of some unfortunate poet – the sheets are unruffled: the muse has not spent the night.

Rock’n’Roll is by no means a great play, and certainly nowhere near Stoppard’s best. I’m not even sure if it’s a good play. It’s just... determined. You know that Czechoslovakia is going to get the Rolling Stones, and by gum they do; and freedom radiates everywhere, as if the Stones were the model of democratic equity.

Stoppard wisely stops history in 1990 - before the Balkan Wars, the razing of Grozny, the rise of the Russian Mafia and the increasing tyranny of Putin’s leadership can make his thesis about capitalism’s essential benevolence a little strained. You can see that a little handkerchief is fluttering for British decency and oddness, which is so much nicer than almost anything else. The faithful old Cambridge Marxist Max (William Zappa) is politically compromised and ideologically wrong, but underneath it all, he's really a loveable chap.

There is one extraordinary speech from Eleanor, who is dying of cancer, which is delivered with such passion by Genevieve Picot that the hair stood up on my neck. And the other real moment of the play also belongs to Picot, this time as Eleanor’s daughter Esme. Both are moments when eros becomes more than an interesting word, but rather the vital, dangerous and powerful force that underlies life itself.

But these come out of nowhere. Between them are many tedious set pieces where different characters argue about, for instance, What Went Wrong With The Revolution in a kind of sub-Trevor Griffiths way, or in which we’re clunkily given the intellectual subtext (Pan, Eros, Sappho and Pink Floyd versus Marxist collective consciousness and the Eastern European police state).

Phillips has such a good cast that they mostly make a silk hearing aid out of the sow’s ear. They can’t transform the script into something it's not, but they create a fluid dynamic on stage that injects a lot of pleasure into watching the production. There are no weak performances: besides Picot, who reminds us that she is a major talent who is not seen enough on our stages, I enjoyed Matthew Newton’s portrayal of Jan, the reluctant Czech dissident who, in spite of himself, finds that wanting to listen to rock music is a subversive activity, and Chloe Armstrong's disarmingly passionate performances as the young flower-child Esme and Esme’s daughter Alice.

There are a couple of excellent thumbnail sketches: Grant Cartwright’s vivid appearance as the new generation Cambridge Marxist, and Danielle Cormack as the Czech intellectual exile, Lenka. William Zappa bears the brunt of Stoppard’s desire to turn drama into a history of ideology, and all I can say is, he does his best, finding life even there. But with all this talent, all this energy, all this style and money, it’s still an ordinary play.

There’s a very strange scene in which Stoppard makes a clumsy attempt at Pinteresque menace, and achieves something rather like the Monty Python sketch where Inquisition victims are threatened with a comfy chair (or, in this case, a stale biscuit). Our dissident’s record collection is smashed up, but we understand nothing about his prison sentence: everything remains at the level of idea. You no more feel the visceral terror of the secret police (as you do, say, in Kafka’s The Trial or Ismael Kadare's The Palace of Dreams) than you want to get up and dance.

It did make me wonder why I wouldn’t be better off reading a book. A decent post-war history and Anne Carson’s excellent book on classical poetry, Eros the Bittersweet, with Pink Floyd on the turntable, would basically cover all the necessary territory.

Stoppard recently turned 70. It's been a long time - more than four decades - since the wordplay and irresistible intellectual conceit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead dazzled English critics. Since then he's written about the failures of ideology, the drama of the Cold War and the nexuses between art, science and politics in play after play - Travesties or Hapgood or The Real Inspector Hound or Squaring the Circle, to name a few. He could write about this stuff in his sleep; and, judging by the linguistic vitality of Rock'n'Roll, he probably did.

I have formed a theory that Stoppard is no longer a playwright, but a phenomenon (JK Rowling is another). There is nothing you can do about a phenomenon, since the responses to the phenomenon have very little to do with what said phenomenon actually writes.

If this play were written by Tom Smith, you can be pretty sure that nobody would have noticed it. But because it’s by Tom Stoppard, it is automatically “witty” and “intellectual”, whether this is borne out in the script or not. We can laugh while chewing on the roughage of, say, Sapphic scansion in the Latin poetry of Catullus, and feel perhaps a teeny bit intimidated and maybe, too, a teeny bit superior.

It makes us feel that culture is good for us: we're learning something. And that saves us from the existential doubt that might otherwise erupt from art's joyous and revolutionary purposelessness. If the medium is the message, then Rock'n'Roll has it all backwards. This isn't a play about rock'n'roll anarchy and erotic passion. No, it's where Apollo KO's Dionysius with a text book, and then he pinches his t-shirt.

As I left the Playhouse, I had a brief conversation with a nice man who had obviously enjoyed himself. He became a little annoyed when I said that I had been mostly bored. He said that Rock'n'Roll was entertainment, and couldn't be held to the standards of serious art (and that, basically, I was being a snob; only he was too polite to say so). But I don't think it's as easy as that. A huge element of the dazzle that surrounds Stoppard is the illusion that he makes a "theatre of ideas"; that in fact, this isn't mere "entertainment", but a worthy kind of art. It's art as social artefact, as intellectual trinket, for an economy that values information over wisdom.

Me, I'm unable to tell where art finishes and entertainment begins. I find Pirates of the Caribbean or Chicago entertaining, but I think Waiting for Godot is entertaining as well. On the one hand, I don't think Rock'n'Roll is entertainment; but on the other, I don't think that it's art, either.
It's something else. I'm not sure quite what it is, but I suspect it's some kind of mass hallucination. The real question is whether it is, as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy said of Planet Earth, mostly harmless. Or not.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Review: Asylum

Asylum by Kit Lazaroo, directed by Jane Woollard. Design by Amanda Johnson, lighting design by Richard Vabre, sound design by Peter Farnan. With Glynis Angell, Tom Considine, Fanny Hanusin and Tim Stitz. La Mama Theatre, Carlton, until March 8. Booked out, but tickets possibly available: 9347 6948 weekdays.

I've seen two of Kit Lazaroo's plays - the beautifully lyric Letters from Animals and now Asylum - and both productions left me wondering what would happen with these texts if they were given time, money and a large theatre.

This is an unusual thought for me, since I believe that theatre is a cheeringly democratic artform: money is no guarantee of imagination, nor resources of success. Think of Jan Kott's recollection that one of the best productions of Richard III that he ever saw was on top of a table in a Polish student cafeteria. It is belief that transmits belief.

All the same, it seems to me that Lazaroo creates a theatrical artifice that would reward a visionary approach - the kind of direction that, instead of attempting merely to realise the writing, could catch it up and play with it. I suspect that it's a writerly vision that is most effective when seen through a proscenium arch, rather than in the exposed intimacy of a small theatre like La Mama.

I mean by this no disrespect at all to the hard-working cast and crew on the deservedly praised La Mama production of Asylum. Amanda Johnson's set, consisting of a multi-level wall of filing cabinets that opens to reveal miniature puppet stages, is as striking as any I've seen in this space, and it's beautifully lit by Richard Vabre. But the very achievements of this production make you hanker for more.

Asylum follows the machinations of an HIV-positive asylum-seeker, Yu Siying (Fanny Hanusin) as, with increasing desperation, she attempts to avoid deportation back to China. Psychologist Lally Black (Glynis Angell) and immigration official Turlough Dando (Tom Considine) both become as obsessed with the young woman as she is obsessed with her own case, even dragging in Lally Black's brother, Smudge (Tim Stitz), a prison guard who is on stress leave after shooting an escapee.

The immigration case is loosely based on fact, but rather than an earnest docudrama, Lazaroo has chosen to write a strange, haunting melodrama, leavened with black comedy. Each one of these characters - from the asylum seeker herself to those who seek to help or thwart her - is culpable and yet each is also, in some essential way, innocent. What's interesting is that their innocence means that, like small children, they are also amoral: it's not that fault or blame cannot be traced to their actions, but that judgement is suspended here: such values do not apply.

What dominates the play, as the ceiling-high block of filing cabinets dominates Johnson's set, is the surrounding bureaucracy of the Department of Immigration, which creates its own inescapable realities. As in some of Kafka's stories, this bureaucracy is a meaning in itself, creating and maintaining the known parameters of the world with which all these characters must deal, for good or ill.

Its laws are implacable and unquestioned: when bureaucratic imperative collides with human need, need has no chance. The run-off is an uneasy psychosis, a miasma of guilt and dread that haunts all these characters. There is certainly no sense that anyone is "right": rather a sense of a deep, endemic wrongness that can't simply be fixed by a superficial shift of regulations. It's a vision of pessimistic irony that undermines the apparent optimism of the end.

Here Theatre's acclaimed production, back for a return season at La Mama, is faithful to Lazaroo's text, if it seldom surpasses it. As if to compensate for the lack of distance which might otherwise create the necessary artifice or alienation in a larger theatre, the performances tend to the quirkily comic, which can obscure the more serious or moving elements of the play. But each actor manages, at one point or another, to reach past the vaudevillean mask and touch genuine emotional depths.

Picture: Fanny Hanusin in Asylum. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hamlet, cigarettes, that kind of thing

It's been a busy week. Not only have I been fending off the blunt pikes and grammatical shambles of that Lilliputian literary intellect, Peter Craven: I've stopped smoking, No, really. From henceforward I shall be high-stepping keenly about the cultural hotspots of Melbourne, clear of eye and luminous of skin, smelling of neroli essential oil and murmuring holy mantras under my breath...Ok, I agree that is a sickening enough vision to drive one back to the dreaded weed. I promise not to get too wafty.

Anyway, my first official outing as a non-smoker was to see The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark at the Malthouse in Anna Tregloan's fantastic ersatz cinema (complete with fake distressed walls covered with tags and 17th century posters for Hamlet, and wheelie bin lights pierced with some kind of coats of arms). I love this film. The wobbly camera hurts my eyes and the film, like the play, is demanding and difficult. And on this viewing, a couple of minor technical problems - fuzzy, bled-out vision and slightly muffled sound - made the film more difficult than it need be.

Yet it is, if anything, better on a second viewing. Reader, by the time they got to the final line "good night, sweet prince", my heart was broken. There are moments in this film - among many, a couple of Richard Pyros's soliloquies, Adrian Mulraney as the Player King, Beth Buchanan's speechless despair as Ophelia, Heather Bolton as Gertrude weeping in a tiny bathroom, the final few seconds - that I think are completely breath-taking, as good as anything I've seen. I feel about Hamlet a little like Tynan when he claimed that he couldn't love anybody who didn't love Look Back in Anger; but I can't say that, of course, because I'd end up with no friends. For those alive to its rewards, however, it's a wonderful, vital film of one of the great plays of the western canon.

Meanwhile, I am running slow on a review of Kit Lazaroo's Asylum, now on at La Mama, which I hope to upload later today this week. I'd urge you to go, except that the season is totally booked out. (Update: Maureen from La Mama writes to let me know that if you call during office hours - 9347 6948 - you might score "the odd seat here and there"). And then there's Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll, opening tonight at the MTC. And the Hayloft's Platanov, later this week. My goshness, it must be theatre season again. Smoke-free, of course.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Interview: Marius von Mayenburg

If you were looking for a model of a writer in the theatre, you could do worse than point to Marius von Mayenburg: playwright, translator and, for the past eight years, full-time dramaturge at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, one of Berlin’s major theatres. As he says, for a playwright he has the ideal job: it may at times be stressful, it may deprive him of sleep or even sometimes interfere with his own writing: but on the other hand, he is right where the action is.

“All my work is somehow related to dramaturgy,” says Mayenburg. “I react to the traditions we are working with in the theatre, I react to the actors. And in my work, I am reading all the time. I’m always looking for what’s ‘missing’, for what isn’t being addressed in the plays around me, and then I try to write those plays myself.”

Born in 1972, Mayenburg is one of the rising stars of European theatre. His plays are garnering a growing international audience, winning productions throughout Europe and, increasingly, further afield. Last year his play The Ugly One, a sardonic drama about the contemporary obsession with physical appearance, created a small sensation at the Royal Court (ensuring itself a return season later this year).

His widely produced play The Cold Child deconstructs the bourgeois illusion of “family values” so beloved of politicians, unearthing a nightmare overlap between hatred and love, narcissistic self-obsession and self-contempt. His 2004 play Eldorado, which was given a stunning production at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in 2006, mapped these familial passions onto a larger palette that overtly drew on terrorism and the Iraq war to show how capitalism destroys both intimate human relationships and the planet.

And now he is in Australia for the rehearsals of Moving Target, his newest play, which has been commissioned by the Malthouse Theatre. It premieres later this week at the Adelaide Bank Festival before a Melbourne season from March 12 at the Malthouse. Moving Target has emerged from an intense process of collaboration, not unlike those Caryl Churchill used with Joint Stock or Monstrous Regiment in the 1970s to create plays like Vinegar Tom or Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.

It began with a two week workshop in 2006. Mayenburg had a director - Benedict Andrews, with whom he has worked with for five years in both Germany and Australia - a designer, five actors and an idea – the childish game of hide and seek. He returned to Melbourne the following year with a play that drew on the ideas improvised and explored in the workshop, and worked further with the same creative team, and then came back again two weeks ago for rehearsals.

For Mayenburg, who says he has never worked this way before, it was a “liberating” experience. “I didn’t have to invent everything for myself, I didn’t have to worry about the dramatic structure,” he says. “It was good to start from zero to somehow collectively create this work. I enjoy working on my own, and I am very cruel to myself, I throw work out if it’s not working, but here I could give some responsibility to other people.”

Moving Target examines society’s fear of its own children to create a dark work about repression and paranoia that resonates far beyond the domestic sphere. It is a play that doesn’t have characters, as such: rather the actors collectively explore the parental fears prompted by the behaviour of a prepubescent girl. As in Mayenburg's earlier work, the familiar domestic world is peeled back to reveal uncanny and sinister shadows. He directly links the domestic darknesses to larger communal fears. As his work makes clear, he is one of contemporary theatre’s most sensitive observers of terror, tracing its fault lines from the minutiae of domestic relationships to the nuances of global paranoia.

“I am always trying to write about things that irritate me,” he says. “I try to write about things I know about. Fear is so individual, and yet it’s something that we all share: so many terrible things have happened in the world. I didn’t intend, when I started the play, to write about terrorism, but that’s one of the things it’s ended up being about.”

Because of its elliptical lyricism and strangely surreal realism, English speakers most often compare his writing to the plays of Caryl Churchill (Mayenburg himself traces his lineage from Georg Büchner - the only playwright, he says, that he can't work out). Churchill is not a comparison he quibbles with: his dramaturgical work has led to a deep familiarity with contemporary English playwrights. Among others, Mayenburg has translated the work of Sarah Kane (although he hardly confines himself to contemporary writers: he is currently translating Hamlet) and he says the present generation of playwrights is unimaginable without the example of Churchill’s work. “They are all,” he says, “Churchill’s children.”

But he quibbles with the word “poet”, although he has been described as a poet by his own theatre’s director. “I wouldn’t say I was a poet,” he says. “Poets live in their own bubble of genius, waiting for inspiration, for the muse…” (Reader, I confess I laughed out loud at this point, but perhaps I am not a German poet). “Yes, yes, this idea about poets is still quite prevalent in Germany. But if you think like this, you can’t learn, you can’t improve. If you look at the first drafts of a famous writer like Schiller, for instance, you will see it is first written in prose…”

And besides, Mayenburg maintains – I think correctly – that writing for theatre is among the most strict of literary arts. “There are rules in writing for the theatre,” he says. “You have to be aware of physical distance, what people will understand in the first row and in the back row. You have to understand that people will only hear it once – unlike a poem, where you can go back and reread something you don’t understand. You have to be aware of acoustics, how much more important that is in the theatre than it is in film. And theatre is linear, things happen one thing after the other. You can bend these things, but there’s no way of avoiding them.”

Where theatre is poetic, he says, is in how it condenses thought. And in how its images must be immediately physical, in order to communicate complex ideas and feelings. These are certainly qualities of the text of Moving Target: on the one hand, it has the tensile strength, economy and beauty of poetry, and on the other, it is clearly drawn from and written for performance. I can’t wait to see how it plays on a stage.

Another version of this interview appears in the Guardian's theatre blog today.

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The Empire Strikes Back

That monstrous crrrritic Ms TN gets a bit of what's coming to her in Crikey today. My spies tell me that Peter Craven has gone for the throat in a piece that attacks my recent overview of Joanna Murray-Smith's plays in the Australian. I have little to say in response: on the strength of what he says here, I expect Craven and I will never agree on what constitutes serious writing. But I will say that I thought my piece was in fact very fair: for instance, I clearly acknowledged Murray-Smith's achievements as well as my reservations about her writing.

Moreover, Craven himself has made a serious "category mistake": I was not asked to write a "profile", and neither did I "interview" Murray-Smith. I was asked to write a critical overview of the playwright, not a puff piece. And that is precisely what I did.

This is part of what Craven has to say:

It was astonishing to see the profile of Joanna Murray-Smith by Alison Croggon that was published in the Arts pages of The Australian on February 8. Croggon, the paper's Melbourne theatre critic, suggested that Murray-Smith (whose play, The Female of the Species, is being done in Brisbane) was a right-wing purveyor of soap, that her "anguish" was all a matter of upper-middle class aspirationalism, and that she was essentially a vapid, self-involved commercial hack who had turned her back on any form of artistic seriousness or political commitment -- Murray-Smith is the daughter of the left-wing intellectual and editor of Overland, Stephen Murray-Smith -- and that her comprehension of feminism (The Female of the Species plays on a famous incident where Germaine Greer was tied up by a young female intruder) was shallow and self-dramatising.

Murray-Smith's conflicts with Robyn Nevin, the former head of the Sydney Theatre Company, are presented as the real wellspring for her comedy's conflict between an older and a younger woman.

The overwhelming implication is that Murray-Smith is only concerned with motherhood issues in the pejorative sense because her work and her statements about it are so many walking cliches.

Croggon's piece is an odious piece of work and has caused widespread dismay. This so-called profile is an extraordinary case of poisoning the wells and it is also a category mistake. Alison Croggon has written a hatchet job opinion piece and served it up as a profile in a way that (if it were to set up a precedent) would make anyone apprehensive of an arts interviewer.

Reminds me of the good old days. Though I'd remind Craven there is plenty of precedent for this kind of thing. F'rinstance: Kenneth Tynan, Michael Billington, Robert Brustein, Eric Bentley...

One final point. In the fuller article, which gets a fair bit nastier - and is also wildly inaccurate insofar as my personal taste is concerned - Craven claims: "Alison Croggon can't stop herself from saying that the Australian playwright who vies with Joanna Murray-Smith in terms of how much his work is performed overseas is her own husband, Daniel Keene." If he had a better memory, Craven would realise that factoid comes, almost word for word, from an MTC press release for Murray-Smith's play Ninety (sent out at the beginning of the 2008 season). I don't in fact know how the precise figures divide between the two playwrights. He uses this to suggest that my criticism of Murray-Smith's work wholly stems from a competitive and personal agenda.

(In retrospect, it might have been wiser to ring the Australia Council and get the precise figures. But it hardly seemed worth the trouble, and I had a deadline. It is a detail that has already been widely reported, is merely a straight fact and is hardly promoting Daniel's interests. I would personally add - in the nicest possible way - that to be at once a theatre critic and married to one of the more significant Australian playwrights is more of a pain in the arse than anything else, since anyone who wants to smear your motives has a faecal missile ready to hand. In such moments, I remember that I am an artist first and a critic second, and that I am interested in the art of theatre, not its tawdry politics.)

And I reject Craven's insinuations absolutely. It's not personal, Peter: it's business. At least in this neck of the woods.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Review: Tartuffe

Tartuffe by Molière, adapted by Louise Fox, directed by Matthew Lutton. Companion artist Neil Armfield. Set and costumes by Anna Tregloan, lighting by Paul Jackson, composer Peter Farnan. With Laura Brent, Marcus Graham, Francis Greenslade, Peter Houghton, Rebecca Massey, Barry Otto, Ezekiel Ox, Luke Ryan and Alison Whyte. Malthouse Theatre until March 8. Bookings: (03) 9685 5111.

A minor puzzle of 2008 is that, as if we are suddenly a small outpost of France, Melbourne’s two major companies are hosting three plays by Molière, including two productions of Tartuffe. It remains to be seen if this is too much of a good thing. But the sizzling adaptation of Tartuffe now on at the Malthouse demonstrates that Molière’s joyously wicked satire remains as apt now as it was four centuries ago.

Molière’s comedy is founded on the gloss of human appearances, on the slippery gaps between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. In his own time, his relentless satirical attacks on the hypocrisies and vulgarities of the elite made his plays immensely popular, and also caused them to be banned for offending against religion.

It is moot whether Molière's defence - that rather than attacking religion itself, his plays were truly pious in attacking those who adopted the trappings of piety without the substance - holds true or is a little disingenuous. Certainly, in this version he is presented as the uncensored atheist he might have been if the mores of the time had permitted such frankness.

Without a whiff of deadening reverence, Louise Fox’s adaptation sticks closely to the spirit and structure of the original play. The action is transposed to a garishly imagined version of contemporary Toorak, where the wealthy patriarch Orgon (Barry Otto), after narrowly surviving a heart attack, has been born again under the insidious influence of the charismatic charlatan Tartuffe.

Tartuffe (Marcus Graham) is an evangelist Christian in the mode of Tom Cruise – handsome, cut (we get plenty of opportunities to admire his torso) and deeply creepy. And beneath his slickly pious exterior beats the heart of a conman. Having gained Orgon’s unwavering trust, Tartuffe ruthlessly exploits his position, causing havoc in Orgon’s dismayed family. He attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife Elmira (Alison Whyte), gains power of attorney over his fortune and is promised in marriage to his daughter Mariane (Laura Brent).

Fox’s version, written in robustly colloquial rhyming verse, finds contemporary equivalents for Molière’s targets, and makes merciless fun of Melbourne’s suburban mores, from Toorak to Werribee. Her biggest departure from the text is a boldly blasphemous reworking of Molière’s original deux ex machina ending. In the hands of Peter Houghton, here given a touch of divine amplification, it's a theatrical coup.

Despite his absence due to illness, the production still bears the mark of Michael Kantor's fascination with rough theatre, and it's hard to disentangle Matthew Lutton's directorial vision from Kantor's. It's certainly directed with a lot of vim. Just as Molière fused the vulgar theatre of his day – farce and commedia dell’arte - with literary drama, Lutton’s production weaves together the conventions of traditional French farce and contemporary popular culture. The result is feisty and very Australian, drawing on local traditions of clowning and physical theatre that date back to the Australian Performing Group. It’s rude, crude and vulgar, animated by a lively intelligence.

And again like Molière’s play, it doesn’t make a lot of sense so much as a lot of pointed nonsense. Orgon’s family – shallow, narcissistic, materialistic and selfish – lounge around the pool in their gated mansion in white bathers and sunnies, presenting a series of immediately recognisable social “types” that are contemporary equivalents of the stock characters of commedia dell'arte.

Alison Whyte is Elmire, Orgon’s second wife, the blonde, toned, spoilt socialite; her daughter Mariane (Laura Brent) is a not very bright innocent with the hint of an eating disorder, and the son (Luke Ryan) is an inarticulate, violent private schoolboy who is no good at school but excellent at rowing. Francis Greenslade is Cleante, Orgon's brother, a Toorak Buddhist who is one of the two oases of common sense in the play, while the other is provided by the voluble Dorine (Rebecca Massey) as the Russian maid. Mariane’s fiance Valere (Ezekiel Ox) is a Lebanese homeboy who hangs out at the local mosque when he’s not (presumably) doing wheelies in his doof-doof Valiant.

At the centre of the action is Barry Otto’s performance as Orgon, an exquisitely poised balancing act between genuine poignancy and vulnerability and self-interested blindness, folly, selfishness and greed. He plays both Orgon and his mother, Madame Pernelle, which necessitates at one point, in a comic highlight, a phone conversation with himself. It’s a truly virtuosic performance.

Anna Tregloan’s set is designed in traverse, with a narrow stage running through the centre of the theatre that features a stylised pool and dayglo turf. It gives the audience the opportunity to study one another across the stage, perhaps leading to further reflections about Molière’s observations of human folly. And the action is heightened by a mishmash of popular music, courtesy of a lively score from former Boom Crash Opera soundman Peter Farnan.

It’s a high energy, irresistibly funny production. And perhaps as close as we can get to the vitality and contemporary bite that Molière’s work had when it was first produced.

Picture: publicity shot for Tartuffe featuring Marcus Graham and Barry Otto.

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

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

How theatre is saving the soul of Australian fillums

But does Australian film know this? Lately, TN - lynx-eyed in all things theatrical - has noticed that a number of theatre artists are quietly invading the hallowed realms of cinema. But they're not jumping up and down at the edge of the crowd shouting "Me! Me! Pick me!" like Donkey in Shrek. No, these theatrical types - used perhaps to the unglamorous task of getting the job done with almost no money - are just getting out there and doing it. Instead of blinking in the headlights of an industry that wants to turn Australian films into a low-rent version of Hollywood, or buckling under a bureaucracy that panics at any sign of artistic seriousness or originality, they are making their own rules.

It's traditional for film types to scoff at the theatre, but these people are winning prizes and plaudits. There's Chunky Move's utterly charming 10-minute documentary, Dance Like Your Old Man, directed by choreographer Gideon Obarzanek, which has so far taken home three "best documentary" prizes, beginning with the Melbourne International Film Festival gong. There's Mark Constable, a fine theatre actor and director, who took the second prize at Tropfest recently with his self-written, self-acted, self-directed (and self-funded) short film Uncle Jonny.

And there is local Dogme-style auteur Oscar Redding, whose astonishing version of Hamlet, shot at night in the mean streets of Melbourne, opens next week at the CUB Malthouse. I hope that you've booked your tickets: this will be a rare chance to see this film, which evolved from an equally astonishing Poor Theatre production performed in a Northcote shop front in 2004. It premiered at last year's MIFF, creating a lot of excitement - at least among theatre types - but you can be sure that, given the nervousness of Australian film distribution, it won't be coming to a cinema near you. Fortunately for those who like their Shakespeare hot, the Malthouse is briefly turning the Tower Theatre into a boutique cinema and giving it a season. If you missed it first time around, now is your chance.

And now, via Oscar Redding again, I've encountered Hell's Gates. Redding's involvement this time is as an actor and script adviser; the film is actually the brainchild of Jonathan Auf Der Heide, who took time out of a career as an actor - I first saw him, as a very young actor, in the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project - to study film directing at the Victorian College of the Arts. Hell's Gates is his graduating film, and - wholly deservedly - scored the three top prizes for his year.

It's fair to say it's brilliant. It's based on a very grim true story: an escape from the notorious penal colony of Port Arthur by eight convicts, who struck out with limited food supplies across the wilds of Tasmania and, unable to feed themselves off the land, ended up eating each other. I first read this story in Robert Hughes's history of convicts, The Fatal Shore, and at the time I wondered why no novelist or playwright or artist had tackled it. It's as dramatically intense as anything out of Dostoevsky, it has the murderous absurdity of Kafka and the bloody logic of a Webster revenge tragedy, and it's wholly our own. (Bizarrely enough, ABC-TV is making a documentary re-enactment of this story as well: it must have struck its time.)

I'm told the short film was made for a grand total of $13,000. I don't know how Auf Der Heide and his crew conjured such breathtakingly lush cinematography out of their minimal budget - the film includes panoramically brooding landscape shots worthy of Planet Earth, and has a visual depth and clarity that you associate with infinitely more expensive productions.

It's also beautifully acted (the cast features some notable theatre actors, including Greg Stone, Oscar Redding and John Francis Howard), beautifully scripted and beautifully edited, and features a haunting score by theatre composer Jethro Woodward. It's not hyperbole to say that this genuinely poetic film recalls Werner Herzog (it bears affinities with Aguirre: The Wrath of God, but lacks Herzog's Eurocentric shonkiness), or that in its poetic rhythms, particularly in how it makes landscape a character in the film, it has qualities you see in the work of Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick.

And it consciously reaches towards Senecan tragedy - the film opens with a startling and blackly ironic quote from a 1786 edition of the London Morning Post: "This thief colony might hereafter become a great empire, whose nobles will probably, like the nobles of Rome, boast of their blood". With neither false drama nor rhetorical bombast, but rather a poetically-inflected, unflinching realism, it unfolds a bleak fable about the self-devouring nature of colonialism. In short, it's the kind of thing that makes TN's heart beat fast with excitement.

However, in the space of 20 minutes Auf Der Heide can only tell part of the story. So cast and crew are off to the wilds of Tasmania in July, in a quest which seems to this soft-skinned urbanite to be of almost Quixotic difficulty, to shoot the feature-length version on a laughably tiny budget. I wish them luck; if the resulting feature bears out the promise of the short, this will be a film to watch out for. Whether such a film can make any purchase in the current context of the Australian film industry remains to be seen. I don't doubt I'm partial, but I think that the local film industry has largely forgotten that film can also be an art. Maybe these theatre types will jog its memory.

Video: Trailer for Hell's Gates

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Friday, February 15, 2008

The intellectual critic

Three giants of American criticism - Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and Stanley Kauffmann - got together last October at a place called, rather charmingly, the Philoctetes Center of New York City and talked about theatre. The result, published in the current issue of American Theatre, is a conversation full of fascination for anyone interested in serious theatre or serious theatre criticism. They discuss American theatre and the "middlebrow", comment genially on the rise of the woman writer, and wonder where the new impulses in theatre will be generated in a theatre culture in which the role of the playwright is no longer as clear as it once was. Most hearteningly, they speak about theatre, without any qualifications, as an art.

The central question is raised by Kauffmann: "What’s the future for the intellectual critic?" (Blogs, obviously: but blogs are part of a decentralised and perversely counter-intuitive world that some have difficulty mapping - as Kauffmann confesses, "I’m so adrift, so bewildered, so lost in the current cultural situation.... Once there was—at least I believe there was—a structure that I could like and loathe. I have no sense of that now. I have only a sense of continual flow and whirl and change and rampant hedonism.")

A comment of Brustein's resonated particularly for me, as an expression of something that I would like to approach in my own work. It reminds me that he was one of the formative writers who shaped my critical aspirations when I began to write about theatre:

More and more, I found myself subordinating the judgment that was so necessary to criticism, and that we’re all looking for: Does he like it? Does she hate it? When I read criticism, I find that to be the least interesting part. I began to call that “Himalayan criticism” after Danny Kaye—when he was asked whether he liked the Himalayas, he said, “Loved him, hated her.” (Laughter.) It’s essentially what we’ve all been practicing—Himalayan criticism.

Especially when I began practicing as a director—as an artistic director, an actor, a playwright—I knew that that kind of criticism did me no good whatsoever. I was trying, really, to find what it was that was helpful and useful, without in any way deferring or cheating or cheapening or lying. I wanted to see what it was that could possibly help a theatre artist to advance. And so I thought my most important function as a critic was to try to find out what these artists, if they were artists, were trying to do, and then to see whether they did that successfully. But at least to try and find out what the intention was before I rejected it.

An edited transcript can be downloaded here. Thanks to Superfluities Redux for the headsup. I notice that George prefers Bentley's notion of the critic as a Shavian "crusader". We all have a little of that in us, without a doubt: although I like the word "advocate". But I suspect that my desire is less to shape theatre than to try to see what it is.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

And on the national stage...

I am proud of Australia today.

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Young people

One of my minor obsessions is the question: what about theatre for young people? Theatre for children and young adults is generally marginalised as a minority sport. Being a keen reader of children's fiction, I know that some of the work written for young people is as fine as anything written for "grown ups" (try Alan Garner, Sonya Hartnett, David Almond or Alice Hoffman). And so it is with theatre.

In our culture, theatre for young people is either hived off into specialist companies - not that I mean to dismiss what can be wonderful work - or into educational programs. What doesn't happen in any of our major companies is main stage programming of work that is specifically made for young people: that is, a sense that this theatre audience is taken seriously.

Yet this happens routinely in Europe, where major companies commonly program plays for young people alongside their productions of Kleist or Euripides. The National Theatre in London puts on a massive production for children each year (most recently, a very successful adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel Warhorse). Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I can't remember the MTC, for example, ever putting a show for children into its mainstage programming. (Update: I was mistaken, as a commenter below points out). Last year the Malthouse came close with their production of Stephen Page's Kin, which I saw with a lot of children in the audience, and it made me wonder why more of this kind of programming doesn't happen.

It's not as if there are not beautiful works written for young people. To take a couple of English writers, try David Almond's Wild Boy, Wild Girl, or the extraordinarily lyrical The Lost Child by Mike Kenny (who is, oddly, extremely popular in France). There's no reason why theatre for young people ought not to be as artful and profound as theatre for anyone else; and to me it seems like such a strange oversight. Young people are, after all, every theatre's future audience.

We can't just leave the anklebiters to the Wiggles. I deeply worry that all the smart young adolescents I know hang out at art galleries and concerts, and scarcely ever think about going to the theatre; they are literate, sometimes scarily so, in film, visual art and music, but not in theatre. (My children are an exception, because they've been indoctrinated).

There is, of course, a lot more to say about all this, and some of those who ought to be saying things are young people themselves. Which brings me to Theatargh, a new blog started by 19 year old arts/law student Chris Summers which promises "thoughts and frustrations on Melbourne theatre through bright young eyes". He aims, he says, to explore "youth and emerging forms of theatre". The blogosphere is of course full of startlingly young persons who make me feel like Methusaleh (hi there Avi and Matt) but Chris is highlighting an area that is sadly overlooked. And he's made an excellent beginning with an interview with Platform Youth Theatre's Nadja Kostich on her upcoming show Tenderness.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Review: The Mercy Seat

The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute, directed by Alex Papps. Designed by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis, sound by Alex Papps and Mike Levi. With Jane Badler and Simon Wood. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Red Stitch, until March 8. Bookings: (03) 9533 8083

Neil LaBute takes on the persona of the gritty, macho American playwright (as patented by David Mamet) bigtime. He is a controversialist, a Mormon who was “disfellowshipped” (the stage before being excommunicated) for his negative portrayals of the faithful, and is a prominent member of the "new wave" of US playwrights. In a typical flourish of rhetoric, in which he claimed more or less that American playwriting had lost its balls, LaBute recently accused most writers of being “pussies”.

"We sit back and watch the world go by, writing down the things we find funny or sad while trying to make a buck off it," he said. "We use our lives, or the lives of others, for personal gain, and we defend it by saying it's 'in the public domain' or 'true', and therefore OK to slop around in someone else's pain."

It’s a statement which calls up the ambivalence I feel towards LaBute. He uncovers a certain (partial) truth that writers would do well to remember; on the other hand, the implied sexualised tone of the criticism (you can be sure that LaBute isn’t referring to felines when he says writers are pussies) underlines a macho posturing that is difficult, as it were, to swallow.

I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse LaBute of writing misogynistic plays (others have), but the line between portraying misogyny and endorsing it can be perilously thin. And his plays can get uncomfortably close to blaming feminism and the supposed rise of the strong, autonomous woman for disempowering men, identifying women as the real cause of bad male behaviour.

As LaBute says, “I make trouble for a living”. I share LaBute’s open admiration for playwrights like Caryl Churchill, Howard Barker and Harold Pinter, and admire his bracing desire to ruffle some feathers among the certainties of comfortable American liberalism. But I sometimes suspect that ruffling these feathers takes the mildest of breezes.

In other words, is LaBute the radical force he claims to be? Certainly not on the evidence of The Mercy Seat, a play that bruised some sensitivities because it deals with the aftermath of 9/11 and takes issue with the rhetoric of heroism that surrounded that catastrophe. It was one of the first theatrical responses to the terrorist attacks, and on its premiere in New York in 2002 it no doubt had a resonance that it signally lacks in Melbourne in 2008.

As LaBute describes it, The Mercy Seat focuses “on the selfish acts of my protagonist on a day that most Americans still want to believe was filled with heroism and personal sacrifice. Bullshit. …That day did indeed see many heroic acts, but not everybody who died was a saint, and a good many people felt the ol' US of A finally got what was coming.”

On the surface, the premise is intriguing. Ben Harcourt (Simon Wood) is a married man who is having an affair with his boss, Abby Prescott (Jane Badler). When the Twin Towers were attacked, he was supposed to be inside; but instead he skipped work and headed over to Abby’s place for a swift head job. But the earth moved in rather unexpected ways, leaving the apartment covered in a thin layer of dust and both Ben and Abby shocked and dazed.

The play opens a day later. Ben is still at Abby’s apartment, hiding out. His first response to the disaster is to see it as an opportunity: it’s a chance to leave his wife and children without the mess of painful explanations and to make a run for a new life (or, as he has it, to “walk into the sunset”). He is refusing to answer the frantic calls from his family, who believe he is among the dead. Narcissistic, inarticulate and irredeemably selfish, Ben is revealed to be that classic LaBute creation, a jerk.

On the other hand, the terrorist attacks prompt Abby – shocked, but only up to a point, by Ben’s self-interested response to the deaths of thousands of people – to question some of the verities that have driven her life. This doesn’t prevent her from being seduced by the fantasy of beginning again with a clean slate, the chance to sweep away the lies and start afresh. But the self-revelation that is the engine of this kind of play has a twist that she doesn’t expect.

The central mystery is why a seemingly smart woman would spend more than a single night with this man, whom at one point she claims is merely “a piece of ass”. He is a particularly unimaginative lover, who in three years of enthusiastic bonking has never once looked her in the face, and whose erotic inventiveness is limited to banging her from behind and a little oral sex. (She is so bored she makes shopping lists during the act). Does she put up with him because she’s unconsciously expiating some feminine guilt about earning more money than he does? On the other hand, why is he so obsessed with a woman who is either a mass of spikes or a swamp of neediness?

Who knows? Who cares? I lost interest pretty early on as a certain familiar depression settled over what’s loosely known as my aesthetic senses. The conversation continues in real time, with a bunch of predictably unpredictable revelations and the familiar diversionary monologues that expose the characters’ “real” thoughts, cranking up the emotional mechanics in ways that recall American television or film conventions more than the radical unexpectedness of, say, a Pinter or a Barker.

It’s easy to map the personal onto the political here: the national self-absorption that is blind to the suffering of others, even the suffering of its own; the corrupt corporate ambition that rewards success above all, no matter what it takes to get there. As Ben says: ''I always take the easy route, do it faster, simpler, you know, whatever it takes to get done, be liked, get by. That's me. Cheated in school . . . took whatever I could get from whomever I could take it from.''

But somehow all these metaphorical speculations end up feeling banal: it's full of ideas that are legibly signalled but that fail to lodge at any intellectual or emotional depth. There’s something important missing that I can’t quite put my finger on, although I think it comes down to a certain formal slackness, a lack of theatrical poetic and linguistic excitement. Put The Mercy Seat next to, say, Sarah Kane's Blasted or Pinter's The Homecoming, and it practically goes miaow with pussiness. And without this sense of poetic, the work isn't much more than a low-octane version of the battle of the sexes exemplified in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It’s not the fault of Alex Papps’s production, which features a beautiful design by Peter Mumford that exploits the claustrophobic intimacy of the space: an ordinary living room covered with a thin layer of dust with the shadows of objects painted on the walls, an uneasy allusion to the shadows that imprinted walls when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Backstage a wide doorway opens onto darkness, a nice metaphor for the emptiness of the lives portrayed here.

Jane Badler and Simon Wood work hard, and produce creditable performances that never quite manage to transcend the limitations of the play. Wood has the harder job: portraying a character who at times verges on the catatonic can sometimes result in a catatonic performance, and he doesn’t always escape this danger. Badler manages the spiky vulnerability without revealing what exists underneath the spikes. There’s a fair bit of aimless prowling around the apartment, but I guess you have to do something with a play which is basically two talking heads. It’s a longish 90 minutes.

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

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

A point to Facebook

Facebook has its drawbacks (bacn, anybody?) But it does have the Geoffrey Milne Appreciation Society, which I stumbled across this afternoon. If anybody deserves an appreciation society, it's Geoffrey: as a teacher, critic and practitioner, he's been an unsung hero of Australian theatre for decades, and is far too modest to make a fuss about it himself. So off you go: join up and appreciate him.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

"We will do some remarkable things"

In a move that confirms its ambition and vision, the Victorian College of the Arts has appointed Melbourne Festival artistic director Kristy Edmunds in the newly created position of Head of VCA Performing Arts. She will take up the position in November this year, after she has finished her work on the 2008 festival.

The appointment was announced yesterday by VCA Dean, Professor Andrea Hull, and a phalanx of VCA honchos, including Head of Production Richard Roberts, Acting Head of Drama Richard Murphet and Head of Dance Jenny Kinder. And everyone looked as pleased as punch. I've seldom been at such a feelgood press conference.

Edmunds’ brief will be to oversee the performing arts disciplines Dance, Drama and Production (which includes puppetry), and to support the creative visions of VCA staff and students. She will help to foster collaboration between disciplines and, in particular, to promote the national and international reputation of the school as a leading centre of artistic excellence by forging relationships between students and staff and the larger artistic community.

“This is a new brief,” said Professor Hull. “We wanted someone inspirational, someone who understands where the students and staff are coming from, someone who understands what drives artists.

“Kristy is an artist in her own right, she has the academic background – and that’s our language - and as an experienced festival director, she brings solid executive experience. We are delighted that she’s agreed to take up this position.”

Edmunds said the position was an exciting prospect. “This is a place of impassioned endeavour,” she said. “It’s a place where people do things, they don’t just think about doing things. I have so many ideas.

“There’s no doubt that internationally the arts are under pressure. There’s a kind of urgency about it. And in a digital age, a mediated age, the intimacy of performance has unlimited potential. It will be a privilege to help a new generation of artists find their uniqueness and integrity.

“We will do some remarkable things.”

Edmunds brings some invaluable assets to the VCA – the networks, both local and international, that she has built up in her four years as artistic director of MIAF, and the respect and trust of Melbourne’s artistic community. She has already fostered some exciting schemes for young Australian artists – Merce Cunningham’s residency at MIAF last year, for example, led to his instituting a scholarship for young Australian dancers to study at his company.

She says her first job is “to listen and to learn”, to find out what the energies and desires are within the institution, and then work out how best to manifest them. As Richard Murphet said, “she is someone who can communicate in ways that students won’t feel alienated by, or imposed upon.”

And the ambition is quite clear – to put the VCA firmly on the map as one of the leading performing arts schools in the world.

Murphet said the appointment was an expression of the VCA’s commitment to growth and change, and especially to being a leading engine of artistic innovation. “If we don’t change, we die,” he said.

Hull said the appointment – the first significant appointment the VCA has made since it became a faculty of the University of Melbourne at the beginning of last year – had been “enthusiastically supported” by their academic colleagues at Melbourne University. It certainly appears to confirm the autonomy of the VCA within the larger institution.

Well, so much for the official report. As far as TN is concerned, this is excellent news. More than just good news for the future of the VCA, it’s good news for Melbourne. It means that when Kristy Edmunds leaves the Melbourne Festival, this city won’t lose the resources and energies, both national and international, that she has created here during her artistic directorship of MIAF.

Instead, they'll develop into long-term influences in our performing arts culture, within an institution that is the driving force for some of the most exciting artistic energies in this city. Look out.

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On Joanna Murray-Smith

The Australian asked me to write a feature on playwright Joanna Murray-Smith for today's paper. So I did.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

From the news desk

This weekend the National Play Festival kicks off in Brisbane. Under the aegis of PlayWriting Australia, the national body that has absorbed the Australian National Playwright's Centre and Playworks, artistic director Chris Mead has put together a program of showcase readings, seminars and performances that aims to get some blood moving through the blocked arteries of Australian playwriting. As he says, he is encouraging people to talk to one another - for example, working to bridge the apparent gulf between those who devise and those write. An admirable aim, and Mead has put together an interesting and diverse bouquet of talkers, with a wide range of both public and private events. Writers - and not only writers - will be watching this event with deep interest.

Meanwhile, closer to home (in my case, much closer), last weekend saw the launch of a new theatre space, the Hayloft Theatre Project, at the corner of Whitehall and Harris Streets in Footscray. It's the brainchild of Simon Stone and company, who pulled off one of the highlights of last year, a skin-tingling realisation of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening. No word yet on what they will do there, but Ming has a full social report on Mink Tails, and it sounds like some soiree (I was being even older than Ming, and stayed home altogether). I am of course delighted that they've chosen to open their new venue just down the road from me, since verily the West Rocketh.

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Monday, February 04, 2008


I dug out the dusters and polishers and have finally updated that theatrical blogroll. A few new names, including hopeful indications that blogs are making their feral presence known in Sydney, like those spidery starfish that are taking over Port Phillip Bay: former National Times critic James Waites is sticking his toe in, as is an Australian stablemate Lynden Barber, with his blog Eyes Wired Open. Also check out a couple of interesting blogs from Europe. I've helpfully put the new listees in bold, so you can tell which ones they are. The roll continues incomplete, but there's some good hunting there all the same. Avant and tally ho!

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Review: This Is Good Advice

This Is Good Advice: This Is A Chair by Caryl Churchill, Advice to Iraqi Women by Martin Crimp, directed by Lauren Barnes. Sound design by Rueben Stanton, set design by Rhys Auteri and Vlad Mijic, set illustrations by Vlad Mijic and Harriet O'Donnell. Welcome Stranger @ Trades Hall, Carlton, until February 10.

Sometimes the concept of "British Political Theatre" seems synonymous with David Hare, whom the SMH describes this week as "Britain's most committed left-wing playwright". I'm not sure how one measures such things, but in a field that includes barnacled warriors like Edward Bond or Harold Pinter, this seems, to say the least, highly arguable. Hare takes the prize - in the mass media, at least - because he writes about issues that everybody recognises as politics, from Israel to Iraq, in ways that are utterly familiar to anyone who has watched television. Hare's finger, it seems, is ever sensitively pressed to the pulse of current affairs.

But Britain has produced deeply committed political playwrights whose artistic achievements far overshadow the narrow oeuvre of David Hare. Caryl Churchill is among the first rank of these. Since the early 1960s, she has steadily written plays that express her commitment to socialist and feminist ideals and, later, a disturbingly prescient vision of a natural world being destroyed by the relentless progress of global capitalism. She is also one of the most exciting formalists now writing in the theatre.

This Is A Chair is a case in point. This short and elegant play, premiered by the Royal Court in 1997, is a sardonic evolution of Bertolt Brecht's Fear And Misery of the Third Reich, a series of fragmentary and realistic sketches of the impact of Nazism on the ordinary lives of Germans. Brecht's examination of the nexus between politics and social behaviour is at once oblique and direct, focusing on the apparently inconsequential to illustrate the rapid erosion of rights and freedoms under Hitler's regime.

Churchill has shaved this form to the bone; at first sight, her sketches of mundane social interaction have nothing to do with their purported titles - War in Bosnia, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, Genetic Engineering. They are at once domestic and strangely iconic: a young woman stands up a man with whom she has a date, a couple order their child to "eat up", two old women watch television while discussing a medical procedure. The only overt sign that something else is going on - in the text, at least - is in the scene titles, which, in classic Brechtian fashion, are to be displayed or announced before each scene.

The cognitive dissociation that vibrates between the labelling of significant public events of the mid-90s and the brief sketches that supposedly illustrate them has an effect that becomes progressively more and more uneasy. One hunts for the connections, and finds more usually a disconnection. What comes closer and closer to the surface is the carelessness people display towards each other in their ordinary lives, an ethical callousness that might appear minor and unimportant, but which, in the magnification of the theatre, demonstrates how little people actually perceive each other's pain.

The amplification from the micro to the macro is not a simple question of metaphor, of these domestic mise en scenes illustrating in miniature the larger public events. Rather, Churchill is sketching out an ecology of human affairs, creating a sense of how these small events accumulate into a social ethos. Just as climate change is created by billions of individually insignificant choices, so a callous public ethos is linked to countless smaller events, such as a doctor persuading an old woman not to use anaesthetic during a procedure in order to save money. In each case, the capacity of empathetic responsibility - one of the better human traits - is imperceptibly worn away.

More, Churchill is playing with the nature of knowledge and its relation to reality. The statement "This is a chair" is a common philosophical cue for investigating knowledge: how we know things, whether they exist apart from our knowing of them, what the nature of this knowing is, what role language plays in constituting human realities, and so on. These are the kinds of questions at play, as the program points out, in Magritte's famous painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). All the same, I can't escape a nagging suspicion that Churchill is also employing a playwright's direct literalism in her titling: an insistence that, indeed, things are as they are seen, which is not at all the same as how they are said to be.

It's a subtle thesis which is largely trampled by Lauren Barnes' production for Welcome Stranger, although she makes a creditable attempt at what is an extremely challenging play. Only a writer of Churchill's calibre and precision could even attempt such a stylistic coup, and the demands of this kind of spare text are unforgiving to even the most experienced actors. The actors employ blackboards, emphasising an pedagogic element that might exist in Brecht's play, but which in Churchill's remains ambiguous: it is not a lesson play, a Lehrstücke, so much as an attempt to destabilise the simple categorisations that make it easy for us, in our media-driven age, to ignore the actualities of our actions.

So what is written as a simple interaction is labelled for us: the opening scene, for example, has blackboards behind each actor: He is Bosnia, She is Britain. (I confess, I was at first confused: I thought they had just got their grammar mixed up, not that they were different nations). The effect is to simplify its complexities, to read the play in a directed way that removes much of its jangling affect. In order to play with a proper metaphorical potency, a text of this kind requires an intensity of realism in the performance which is here side-stepped by the approach: the subtext is, as it were, written out for us, and I'm not certain that it's the correct subtext.

All the same, there is enough ingenuity in this simple staging and enough energy in the performances to keep it interesting. It's not surprising that the lesser play - Martin Crimp's 10 minute Advice to Iraqi Women - is by far the more successful piece. Here the actors are working well within their limitations, and Crimp's piece, which depends - albeit in a far less nuanced way - on an ironic dissonance between its text and its content, finds the comedy and depth that eludes the earlier piece.

Advice to Iraqi Women is a litany of the advice routinely given out to mothers to ensure the safety of their children - always supervise children near water, lock away poisons, give them good food. It has long irritated me that such advice is couched in terms that feed parental paranoia, thus no doubt ensuring that we are the most protective parents in history. (Yes, I am all for sensible safety standards...) Crimp picks up on this rhetoric to create what becomes a blackly ironic comment on the hypocrisy of the British Government's slogan "Every Child Matters" while it was simultaneously bombing children in Iraq.

It's performed by three actors seated in a row on three chairs. Beneath them is a stretch of sand, scattered with lit tealight candles that suggest a memorial to the dead. They glance anxiously at each other before blurting out the standard exhortations. "Your kitchen," they intone, "is a warzone." Your garden is a minefield. Death awaits your children around every corner. Beware! Beautifully judged performances, taking their cue from the tone of earnest social welfare and magazine television, highlight the comic unreality of the rhetoric in the face of those who live in actual warzones. It's simple and powerful and very effective.

For all my reservations, This Is Good Advice is a chance to see a couple of plays by two of Britain's major playwrights that otherwise wouldn't get an airing here, performed by an interesting young company. Well worth a look.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Accessing my inner Grinch

I see that the Sydney Festival has been generally greeted with hosannas, palm leaves and so on, with only a few grumpy souls daring to swim against the popular tide and ask "where's the meat?" Much as I hate to align myself with Fairfax critics - or, worse, the "elitists" - and given that my experience of the festival is limited to viewing the program (although I've seen a sizeable proportion of the programmed work and, yes, liked it), I have to place myself with the questioners. A keen sniffer of the wind, I wonder if this festival's unarguable commercialism will indeed be taken as the "gold standard" for Australian arts festivals. In the current funding climate, which is gleaming with the steel of promised razor gangs, it doesn't seem unlikely. And the prospect fills me with gloom. I hope it's unwarranted, but pessimism - if undesirable as a default position - is often borne out in contemplating Australian cultural policy.

Sydney attracted an attendance of an estimated 1 million people (as a proportion of population, a figure of 23 per cent), as opposed to half a million for Melbourne - around 13 per cent. It was an undeniable crowd pleaser, with headliners like Björk, Brian Wilson and Joanna Newsom, some interesting dance, a minimum of theatre and absolutely no "art" music, whether contemporary or classical. There's no doubt in this little blogger's brain that the artistic substance and energy lies with the Melbourne programs over the past few years. (Just compare the programs: MIAF 2007 here, Sydney 2008 here.) As a commissioner and programmer, MIAF artistic director Kristy Edmunds, following on from Robyn Archer, has led the way in curating some of the most exciting and ambitious festivals of recent years, in the face of some of the most vicious public attacks ever seen on a festival director.

The question is whether an arts festival is about, well, art, or whether it has to disguise itself as a big party in order to survive. Those of us who love art have had a good run in Melbourne these past few years. But Toto, I've got a bad feeling about this... are we going see the fabulous land of Oz dissolve back into the grey plains of Kansas? Maybe it was but a fitful gleam that oh so briefly illuminated the antipodean shadows. Maybe I need to get out of the country for a while to regain some perspective. Maybe I'm talking through my hat. Sydney was always a different city to Melbourne, after all. I guess time will tell.

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Promises, promises

A helpful reader pointed out recently that my blogroll has an outdated link (ie, George Hunka can be found at Superfluities Redux these days). But worse than that, it is woefully behind on a number of excellent blogs that have been swimming into my purview over the past months. Not to mention some fascinating net links I've been gathering with those good intentions that pave the way to hell... Herewith my solemn promise to catch up within, well, a few days. The truth is I've been tired. Very tired. But this too is passing...

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