Quick notesSporrans of optimismMIAF 2008: The WrapMIAF: That Night Follows DaySunday morningMIAF: AppetiteMIAF: Romeo and JulietRhubarb rhubarbMIAF: EndgameMIAF: CorridorMIAF: The Grey Autombile, England, 7 Important ThingsMIAF: DJ Spooky, The Book of LongingOne week in...The death of ABC Radio NationalMIAF: Food CourtToday's essays for serious young insectsMIAF: Two Faced Bastard, Interpreti Veneziani Baroque EnsembleMIAF around the blogsMIAF: Patti SmithMIAF: The Big Game, Three, Kitten ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Quick notes

Brett Dean, artistic director of the Australian National Academy of Music, passionately defends the academy in today's Age against the funding cuts that presently mean it will cease operations forthwith. He's backed by Richard Tognetti, head of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who today condemned the cuts and called for Arts Minister and Chief Axe Peter Garrett to rethink the decision (Garrett says, in his usual decisive way, that "talks are continuing").

The ANAM receives $2.5 million a year, which trains 55 elite musicians on a model derived from the Australian Institute of Sport (and with, Dean notes with subdued irony, one fifteenth the AIS budget). According to Dean, this training stems the otherwise inevitable flow of ambitious Australian talent to the US and Europe. It's peanuts in the larger scheme - especially when you think of Scotch College's government grant of $4.3 million, which helped it to post a profit of $12.7 million last year. If only the ANAM owned a cricket pitch that a freeway authority needed to buy...

Meanwhile, let me point you to a fascinating post by Guardian critic Lyn Gardner, which discusses theatre created with young people - among other works, Tim Etchell's That Night Follows Day (seen here last week). It's prompted some deeply interesting responses from the theatre makers themselves that are well worth reading.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sporrans of optimism

The Malthouse Theatre launched its first 2009 season last night, with a bunch of kilted bagpipers doing the full skirl. The pipers cued enough mysterious references to Scotland for a conference on Macbeth, but nary an explanation passed the tight lips of Michael Kantor (or his henchmen or women). However, there's a hint in Robin Usher's Age preview today that these vague allusions might have had something to do with the Edinburgh Festival and a possible interest in the big show of the season, Optimism, an adaptation by Tom Wright of Voltaire's Candide, to be directed by Kantor.

Whatever the case, we got to admire the Highlanders' kilts and spectacular socks. And sporrans, of course. But on with the season, which looks good even through the fog of hangover.

First cab off the rank is Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, a play often cited as the beginning of modern theatre, in an Icelandic adaptation that premiered at the Barbican Centre. This version features songs by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which for this production will be performed by Tim Rogers. There's a new collaboration from Lally Katz and Chris Kohn, a step back to Melbourne's vaudeville history called Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, which stars Julia Zemiro, and a new play, A Commercial Farce, from Peter Houghton (who can be presently seen in The Eleventh Hour's brilliant festival production of Endgame).

Acclaimed British actor Kathryn Hunter is performing Kafka's Monkey, her adaptation of Kafka's short story, A Report to An Academy. And the Malthouse is also remounting the Fringe hit, Adam Cass's I Love You, Bro, which is a show I missed but which prompted a lot of enthusiastic emails to the TN inbox.

In case people think the Malthouse is getting all logocentric, there's also a showcase of our lively contemporary dance scene, Dance Massive, which is an exciting initiative that formalises the company's continuing connection to dance. It kicks off with Chunky Move's Mortal Engine, which follows on from the exquisite Glow to explore the choreographic possibilities of responsive technology, and Brisbane-based Splintergroup's Lawn. And Rogue, a season in the Tower theatre, showcases the work of some of our most promising new dance talent.

Changing the subject, sort of, I was wondering whether to respond to Peter Craven's odd attack (or was it?) in yesterday's Age on the Melbourne Festival and all things Avant Garde. Under the headline "Avant Garde is all very well, but what about the rest of us?", he reprises his tired argument about how "post-Edmunds" Melbourne ought to get all mainstream. Edmunds, he says, ignored the great writers. Aside from Shakespeare, of course. And they should have stars, like Patti Smith. Oh, they did have Patti Smith. And the Romeo and Juliet was pretty good, actually. Where were the Young Turks? (Aren't Young Turks by definition Avant Garde? - Ed) Or Jack Hibberd or Hannie Rayson? But still, mumble mumble mumble... Actually I couldn't make head or tail of it. Which makes it hard to take issue with.


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Monday, October 27, 2008

MIAF 2008: The Wrap

The Melbourne Festival this year had a surreal edge. As capitalism crashed about our ears amid headlines of financial doom, it had the air of a dance at the edge of the abyss. I kept feeling that we were standing in the etched light of an oncoming storm, with long shadows streaming behind us. A little voice kept saying to me, This won’t happen again.

As we all know, it’s the last of Kristy Edmunds’ festivals, and boy, has she given us a party for the past four years. From 2005, her first festival and still one of the best this city has seen, she’s changed the main stage aspirations of this city. People started going to events with intense curiosity and emerging to have fierce arguments (I still remember the couple having a stand-up fight over asylum seekers after Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le Dernier Caravansérail). They were festivals of passion, excitement, artistic depth and, often, controversy. Her programming attracted some of the most vicious and sustained media attacks I’ve seen on an artistic director - first for being too “elitist” and then – when it was clear people were going – for being too “populist”.

Despite the attacks, she steadily continued to follow her nose, attracting a younger demographic with programming that reached into both popular culture and high art, and which unobstrusively demonstrated the humane and complex politics of art. Most importantly of all, she brought us great work, from Peter Brook to Jérôme Bel, from Romeo Castellucci to Diamanda Galas. This year has been no different: looking over what I’ve seen, the quality has been just as high. Possibly higher: festivals can be cut in an infinity of ways, but I’ve had a brilliant time. As in previous years, there have been some disappointments. But what would a festival be without something to argue about?

Over the 17 days of the festival, I got to 21 events. I’ve seen a lot of international work of outstanding quality this year – the Schönberg Ensemble, OKT/Vilnius City Theatre, Tim Etchells & Victoria and both Patti Smith performances were all five star events. And for the first time, Australian works stood substantially beside them – Chunky Move, Lucy Guerin Inc, Back to Back, The Eleventh Hour and the Black Arm Band – without inviting invidious comparison.

Doing the stats, that adds up to half my festival experience being pure gold: a high proportion by any standards. And I missed some of the buzz-making stuff – Wendy Houston, Deborah Hay, Ben Cobham and Helen Herbertson, Goran Bregovic – which by all accounts would have added to my tally.

Around these events was a lot of high-quality work that was fascinating or moving without grabbing my whole heart – Tim Crouch’s ENGLAND, for instance, or DJ Spooky’s Antarctic symphony, or Batsheva – or was just plain enjoyable, like the Interpreti Veneziani Baroque Ensemble (as an aside, I read Clive O’Connell’s dry, indifferent Age review of this inspiriting concert and decided that I don’t want to be a music critic). There were a couple of disappointments – Barrie Kosky and Liza Lim's The Navigator was one of those, and the markedly unremarkable Glass/Cohen collaboration The Book of Longing. And then there were a couple of dismaying failures, both Australian – Jenny Kemp’s Kitten and, notoriously, KAGE’s Appetite. Of which more in a moment.

That seems like a pretty successful festival to me, and certainly no less successful, aesthetically speaking, than in previous years. At the closing night party, Edmunds revealed her “theme”: the fragility and strength of human beings. The theme I kept tripping over was poetry, which perhaps might add up to the same thing. Certainly, this was a festival that kept reminding me, with exquisite poignancy, of my own mortality, of the complexity and pain and joy of existence.

But I constantly encountered people who expressed disappointment. There wasn’t, they said, that one inspiring event; or there wasn’t enough edge; or they had just been to see Appetite (which generated an extraordinary level of hostility).

Given what I was experiencing, I kept wondering why. I looked through my reviews of previous years, and couldn’t see how what was on offer was any less substantial or interesting than previous years. This could of course be my own incapacity. But it made me think.

I suspect two things changed this year. Firstly, Edmunds has been hoist on the petard of her own success: her last three festivals have lifted the bar out of sight. She generated such enormous expectations that it was perhaps impossible for people not to be disappointed with something. And the other was what I thought one of the strongest aspects of this festival, its Australian content. This was a brave move on Edmunds’ part, a long-term expression of faith in our local talent. In terms of overall work, we saw some extraordinary things; but I think it also backfired.

Instead of the unexpected, we got the familiar: Chunky Move or Back to Back didn’t erupt as new discoveries, but as work we can see in our own backyard. And perhaps we primarily expect the festival to bring us amazing discoveries from elsewhere, rather than to show us ourselves.

Also, programming local work changed the politics: it was easier then to question what was not chosen, and for a certain schadenfreude to emerge when the annointed didn’t deliver. I suspect that’s part of what happened with Appetite.

In a way, this year’s MIAF showcased both what is best and worst about our culture. My god, we can do extraordinary work. Most of what was there deserved to be there, to stand beside the best work that came from the rest of the world. And the work that collapsed dramatically in the face of comparative pressure – Kitten and Appetite - seemed to epitomise the failures of our theatre: shocking writing, fuzzy conceptualisation, narcissistic self-involvement, a tendency towards shallow moralising. Which is perhaps why they felt so scarring.

If my speculations are correct, it’s rather depressing: no matter what our achievements, value still lies elsewhere, rather than here. However, we can be almost certain it won’t happen again. The incoming artistic director, Brett Sheehy, is not notable for the same kind of programming depth that Edmunds has brought to Melbourne over the past four years.

Moreover, my instinct is that the arts are heading into rough times under the dubious rudder (pun intended) of our Arts Minister, Peter Garrett, who has not demonstrated, at any point since his appointment, an iota of moral courage. Nor much interest in the arts. His first act was to cut the staff at the Australia Council – a decision that didn’t create much protest, because who cares about bureaucrats? But I thought it an ominous straw in the wind.

And now it seems he's the smiling man with the axe. Last week, the Australian National Academy of Music received a peremptory fax from Garrett telling them that their funding was to be summarily cut: a decision that artistic director Brett Dean (composer extraordinaire and internationally famous viola player) says he refuses to accept. Today the Australia Council – buckling under an inflexible budget that has been straining at the edges for years – announced that 11 companies, including Queensland’s La Boite, have had their funding cut. This despite the new artistic directorship of David Berthold, who suddenly finds himself not at the helm, but out of a job. (Update: David Berthold assures me in the comments that he most certainly is still in a job, and that La Boite - unlike ANAM - will be going strong next year, albeit on a smaller scale than originally planned).

This is in a climate in which the arts are on the back foot in many ways. There is the dwindling quality of mainstream arts coverage. The brutalising idiocy of so-called cultural commentators like Helen Razer or Age arts editor Raymond Gill doesn’t help. And this in part accounts for the hostility towards the arts community expressed in the Henson brouhaha earlier this year, which itself is heralding a new form of puritan repressiveness, best summed up by the campaign to cut funding to companies that depict smoking.

But it seems wrong to end on a note of doom after such a brilliant time. I want to thank the 13,500 readers who accompanied me on this 17-day wild wild ride. And, as I thought after the inspiring Black Arm Band concert, it’s gutless to despair. As the man said, climbing the mountain in Longfellow's bizarre poem: Excelsior!

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MIAF: That Night Follows Day

Festival Diary #12: Friday

That Night Follows Day by Tim Etchells. Tim Etchells & Victoria. Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse. October 24.

Some theatre refines its form to such a degree of purity that it seems almost indescribable. It simply won’t translate into language that effectively communicates its experience.

This struck me forcibly when I attempted to describe That Night Follows Day to a friend. This exquisite show is a collaboration between British innovator Tim Etchells and the Belgian company Victoria, which features 16 children between the ages of nine and 15.

“They were lined up in chorus on what looked like a school basketball court,” I said. “And they listed all these ways that adults shape the reality of children. Things like ‘You cut our hair and our fingernails,’ or ‘You take the coins from our money boxes and promise to pay it all back later’.”

“And…?” said my friend.

“Well, that’s all it was,” I said.

“For an hour? In Flemish?”

"Well," said I defensively. "They had surtitles on a blackboard above the set..."

Clearly this was inadequate.

That Night Follows Day is in fact a quietly revolutionary work which, with immaculate artfulness, strips theatre back to the barest essentials. Performance is the simplest utterance, and the text – a beautifully modulated series of variations on a theme – is a sequence of statements.

With the clarity and poise of a poem, these statements accumulate to become a complex portrait of the relationships between adults and children.

It is wholly recognisable without ever becoming cliched, delicately exploring the truths and untruths with which parents condition their children, and revealing the complex mutual dynamics – love, play and betrayal, dependence and rebellion – that underlie these relationships.

As the recitation evolves, the military ranking begins to dissolve: children wander to the back wall, where they hang upside down, or sprawl on plastic chairs. At one point they break into playground mayhem.

The chorus speech is counterpoised with solos and duos and trios and undermines any tendency towards cuteness by giving the smaller children some of the more confronting lines.

Etchells directs his impressive young performers with an austerely profound understanding of the stage. The children move with a precision that itself comes under question during the performance, as one more instance of how adults control children. But, like everything else in this show, this is done with a light touch.

That Night Follows Day demonstrates how few elements are required to make compelling and moving theatre – words, a stage, performers. And, perhaps most importantly of all, unsparing intelligence and honesty.

Picture: That Night Follows Day. Photo: Phile Deprez

This review appears in today's Australian. Ms TN isn't up to an extended review today.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday morning

And I'm still standing! Quelle amazing! I can't match The Boyd's 30 shows - I have very definite limits before everything begins to break down - but I saw a fair proportion of MIAF 2008 all the same, and blogged my fingers raw. The last of my reviews (the exquisite That Night Follows Day) will go up tomorrow, when it appears in the Australian. And I'll do a wrap-up in a couple of days, when the dust has settled. I've had many interesting conversations over the past fortnight that have sparked a fair bit of sober thought, and I feel compelled to share it with you all.

I finished my festival on a blast with last night's performance of The Black Arm Band's Hidden Republic - a brilliant concert from beginning to end, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra powering up incredible performances from some of our most spine-tingling Indigenous singers, from Ruby Hunter and Lou Bennett to Archie Roach and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, in a joyously literal celebration of racial harmony.

It was more than just a concert. It was, as a friend said afterwards, a ritual: a summoning of hope and possibility, a mourning and expiation, a gift of huge spiritual generosity, a Damn Good Time. The evening was punctuated with readings from Oodgeroo Noonuccal's poem Song of Hope. Kutcha Edwards got up and listed his 17 dead relatives, each a stone he kissed and threw with a clang into a bin, and then sang: Is it only a dream? Tell me it's not just a dream... Let's make it more than a dream. For those two hours, it was more than a dream. And this morning, it seems frankly gutless not to hope.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

MIAF: Appetite

Festival diary #11: Thursday

Appetite by Ross Mueller, directed by Kate Denborough. Set design by Kennedy Nolan Architects, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti, costumes by Paula Levis, composer New Buffalo (Sally Seltmann). Kage @ Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until today.

As we barrelled down St Kilda Road in search of post-show consolation, my outraged son told me that Appetite had bruised his soul. I guess he takes his theatre very personally. But then, how else is one to take it?

And I was right with him. Appetite was one of those dismaying experiences which make you flee the theatre in search of strong alcohol, so disheartened that targeted destruction of the relevant memory cells seems like a top priority.

I'm sure I sat through most of it with my mouth open in disbelief. Kage is, after all, the same company which made Headlock, and Headlock was, in stark contrast to this show, a visually thrilling piece of physical theatre that was an intensely moving and honest exploration of masculinity. (It also, signally, didn't have any words in it). Appetite, on the other hand, was a very bad play punctuated by some ordinary songs and uninspired dance.

I wanted to stand up like John McEnroe and shout, You can't be serious! Being a well-behaved little crrritic, I didn't. Alcohol was the only option. (This is why theatre can be so bad for you.) But onto the post mortem.

The text of Appetite seems, in fact, like a bad imitation of Moira Buffini's West End hit Dinner, which was produced by the MTC back in 2004. Dinner is the story of a woman who throws a celebratory dinner party for a representative bunch of friends, during which their hypocrisies and moral emptiness become manifest and the emptiness of their lives is exposed. I am almost going to sleep describing it, although to be fair it wasn't a bad couple of hours in the theatre. For all its superficiality, it was sharp and funny.

Take out Buffini's mordant, literate wit and throw in a good dose of moral sentiment, and you have the premise of Appetite. Catherine McClements plays a woman who is turning 39 and, in celebration, throws a dinner party with 39 courses - one for each year - for some badly chosen friends. As they consume various courses and drink excessively, they degenerate into an orgy of drug-taking and sex.

At about course 124, over the suckling pig, McClements begins to see the emptiness of her careless, middle class life and rediscovers her love for her husband. It ends with a cosy uxorial chat over the wrecked dinner table in which the happy couple croon truisms to each other about living each day as if you are falling in love, instead of doing the proper thing and shooting each other.

In between the excruciating dialogue, there were sequences of dance or almost dance that failed almost completely to exploit the accomplished dancers in the cast. The only interest I managed to get out of the evening were moments in which something in the movement began to come to life, but these were shortlived. Certainly, New Buffalo's trite songs (originally intended to be played live, but delivered as a recorded score due to the artist's illness) did little to enliven proceedings.

It was nicely lit and quite pretty. But seldom has decadence been so dull.

It's only fair to say that this show cued a lot of enthusiastic applause from the capacity audience. (My inner McEnroe stood up and shouted again). OK, I'm cantankerous, but my feeling of utter discouragement was quite real. There was not one point where the self-involvement of the characters on stage cracked open, not one point of imaginative contact where the script - and I blame Ross Mueller's text for this debacle - opened up into actual complexity. As an audient, I was expected to run along the rails of this moral fable to its banal revelation, when the playwright offered up the Meaning of Life as a reward for obediently making my way through the rat maze of Art. The only other possibility was total revolt.

So, gentle reader, I went out and was revolting. And then I wrote this purgative review.

Picture: Catherine McClements and Michelle Heaven in Appetite. Photo: Jeff Busby.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

MIAF: Romeo and Juliet

Festival diary #10: Wednesday

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Oskaras Koršunovas. Designed by Jurate Paulekaite, costumes by Jolanta Rimkute, lighting design by Eugenijus Sabaliauskas, choreography Vesta Grabštaite, music composed by Antanas Jasenka. OKT/Vilnius City Theatre @ the Playhouse until October 25.

Freud would have a field day with this remarkable production of Romeo and Juliet. Oskaras Koršunovas, director of Lithuania’s OKT/Vilnius City Theatre, never permits a cigar just to be a cigar. A dizzying range of objects – a length of dough, a ladle, a knife, a tie - become ribald symbols of masculine power. Or, as the case might be, impotence.

However, this cheerful obscenity is far from gratuitous. Here Romeo and Juliet is a satirical and ultimately deadly critique of male violence. A theme that begins as a joke transforms inexorably into a savage attack on the macho culture of vendetta.

This is, of course, a prominent theme in Shakespeare’s play, but seldom drawn out with such theatrical power. Koršunovas’s rambunctious production is not concerned merely with telling the story of star-crossed lovers. Rather, the child lovers are stark symbols of a possible freedom that is murdered by the harsh exigencies of their warring society. It's a theme which has considerable contemporary poignancy.

The play is set in the kitchens of rival pizzerias, with a design cluttered with objects that reminded me of nothing so much as the surreal illustrations of Maurice Sendak. The stage becomes a setting for extreme theatrical and emotional transformations.

It begins with the cast looking blankly out into the audience, as if posing for a photograph. This pose is held so long one cast member falls asleep against another, stirring laughter at its audacity, until at a signal the stage is instantly alive with activity. The play ends with another still pose, only now this is the stillness of death, not life.

So much happens in between that it’s difficult to encompass in a review. This is a production of enormous detail that plays with extremes. The comedy does not relieve the tragedy so much as clash electrically against it, the pathos or passion or sheer uncanny beauty of some scenes heightened by the parodic clowning of others. The dramaturgy is driven by emotional shifts that turn on a knife edge: in a split second, the stage transforms from absolute stillness to frenetic movement, low comedy to high tragedy.

The first two acts are grotesquely playful satire that scrapes against the shy passion of the childish protagonists (one thing we never forget in this production is how young Romeo and Juliet are). There are gorgeously choreographed street scenes that are reminiscent of parts of The Godfather, leavened with a good deal of that lewd comedy. A sense of what is to come occurs during Mercutio's speech to Romeo before his fateful meeting with Juliet: a dramatic shift of lighting transforms the stage into a dreamlike moonscape, hinting of the inhuman workings of fate.

After interval the mood changes irrevocably: the stage becomes a memento mori adorned with skeletons and coffins. The final three acts are stunning, a danse macabre in which Romeo and Juliet’s doomed marriage is played out as nightmare. The comedy becomes a blackly sardonic note against which is played some startling stage images: when Romeo hears of Juliet's death, for example, it comes from a bestial spirit, a boar, in a scene that genuinely touches the uncanny. And the violence is disturbingly real, as in a brutal scene where Juliet's father - heretofore a mildly comic patriarch - demands that she marry Paris, in which the physical force that underlines his familial authority is revealed in an ugly enactment of domestic violence.

Koršunovas's employment of objects is dizzyingly imaginative, richly detailed and constantly surprising. In the first half there is much use of dough, a symbol of life. In the second, the performers use flour, most notably masking their faces white in a spookily effective image of death. When the mourning families gather on stage for the final scene, they sift flour onto the floor, like a constant fall of tears or rain. The final image of the dead young lovers slumping into the huge dough basin - an object which itself has been many things in the course of the play - is one of those indelible theatrical images that sear themselves into memory. It had the chilling finality of corpses being thrown into a pit.

The performances are fantastic, meeting the demanding extremities of the production. The only bother was the sound design, which was frankly naff, and only saved by its abrupt switches from one state to another: at no point did the sound seem integrated with the production, serving rather as sonic wallpaper. Compared to the rest of the production, it seemed surprisingly naive. The other minor irritation was the sometimes puzzlingly ill-spelt surtitles (a feature, as someone remarked last night, of many festival shows). But it's more than worth these glitches to experience Koršunovas’s depth of imagination and masterly command of theatrical image.

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

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rhubarb rhubarb

Talk among yourselves while Ms TN sits at her desk in strenuous attitudes of thought, wondering how to write about Oskaras Koršunovas's remarkable production of Romeo and Juliet, seen at the Arts Centre Playhouse last night, in 400 words. (TN review tomorrow, when my pithy note comes out in the Australian). See this if you can - it's more than worth the eye-watering struggle with surtitles, and this despite a very cheesy soundscape. (Appropriate, I guess, for a play set in a pizzeria.)

Three days from the end, Ms TN isn't holding up badly on her MIAF marathon, though I confess the daily treadmill of see-and-write has been rather (no, extremely) demanding. One has, after all, and despite all evidence to the contrary, a life as well. In my case, several lives, though I put the others on hold for the duration. I see other crrrritics around town with their eyes falling out of their heads. Thank god for spackle make-up, I say. Even the bloggers are flagging (where are you, Chris Boyd?) although Born Dancin' is still present and correct and well worth a visit, and Jana and I are having some friendly skirmishes at Mono no aware.

Meanwhile, in the Australian this morning I see that the Arts Centre is living up to its reputation for hard-hitting, cutting edge, courageous work by dropping a play about the Henson case from the upcoming Short & Sweet season, apparently on legal advice. I'm assuming it probably wouldn't be Henson who would want to sue. (Me, possibly? Luckily I have taken an oath never to speak to lawyers).

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

MIAF: Endgame

Festival diary #9: Monday

Beckett: Endgame/Bach: Chaconne
by Samuel Beckett and JS Bach. Directed by Anne Thompson and William Henderson, designed by Julie Renton, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With David Tredinnick, Peter Houghton, Evelyn Krape and Richard Bligh. Violin by Miwako Abe. The Eleventh Hour, Leicester St, Fitzroy, until October 25.

(Note: season extended to November 8, bookings 1300 136 166)

Every time I visit The Eleventh Hour's beautiful little theatre in Fitzroy, it seems to me that this company is just getting better. Over the past few years, directors Anne Thompson and William Henderson have built up a loyal audience with their vital productions of classic texts. The Eleventh Hour eschews museum performances, searching instead for the live spark of creation, and they've often taken a robust approach to the texts they've produced. Sometimes this has been less than successful, but you can never claim that they are not interesting.

They seek, as they say, "poetry in the theatre, theatre in the poetry" (it seems I can't avoid poetry in this year's Melbourne Festival). Hence their interest in the arch poet of the theatre, Samuel Beckett. This superb production of Endgame premiered two years ago as A Tribute to Samuel Beckett, and was justly lauded for its remarkable performances, which netted Peter Houghton a Best Actor gong in the 2006 Green Room Awards.

They've remounted Endgame for the Melbourne Festival, and among other things this production demonstrates the immense value of revisiting successful work after it's been seasoned in front of an audience. It gives a company a chance to deepen and refine their understandings, to make a clearer draft of something that was already good. And The Eleventh Hour has taken this opportunity and run with it.

This production has certainly evolved from its last outing, and has ironed out all its bumps. Originally it began with a showing of several scenes from Buster Keaton's films, which then segued into a live performance of a Chaconne from Bach's Partitas for solo violin, played by Miwako Abe. The play itself was introduced with an extract from Molly Bloom's monologue from James Joyce's Ulysses. The aim was to contextualise the work, but the effect was distracting and effectively destroyed the play's beginning, with knock-on effects on its rhythm. Beckett is such a stringent and unsparingly intelligent theatre writer that it's very difficult to depart from his vision without making it lesser.

This time, the contextualisation works just fine. The production opens and closes in total darkness, with the violin playing close by. Sitting in in the dark listening to a live performance of Bach is an experience I can recommend; you will seldom hear music with such sharpened ears. And Bach's stern, formal loveliness is an excellent counterpoint to Beckett's writing, a kind of aesthetic cleansing for what occurs in between.

Keaton now is a graceful allusion, rather than a didactic lecture. A brief film, Neighbours, plays above Clov's head as he appears as a grotesque still life framed in the doorway in the final few minutes of the Chaconne. The music ceases, the lights come up and the play begins.

Julie Renton's traverse design has been turned around, and is at once simpler and more essentially playable. At one end the door in the wall, which was basically ignored last time, becomes the door to Clov's kitchen and Hamm's chair (throne? cupboard?) is on a dais at the other, reached by a ramp. There's less white and more distressed grey around the walls.

But where the remount really pays off is in the detail of the performances. They were already blindingly good; now there are deeper resonances - the Shakespearean echoes in Beckett's text are, for instance, beautifully played - and a more confident theatricality. And as with Shakespeare, there are no small parts: Evelyn Krape and Richard Bligh as Nagg and Nell reprise the cruel comedy of their roles, with a shade more pathos this time; Nell if anything seemed more wistful, more despairingly bleak, in her impotent lustfulness.

David Tredinnick as Clov gives a performance of startling physicality, striding awkwardly around the stage on unbending legs, all savage clownishness. His final monologue - the only time when Clov really gets to be more than a peg to Hamm's mallet - is as finely honed acting as I've seen, each phrase edged with passionate bitterness that plays hard against his liberation from the game of life ("When I fall I'll weep for happiness").

But the night again belongs to Peter Houghton's portrayal of Hamm. I don't know how he managed to age 30 years for this production - it's not merely an effect of make-up - but that impatient, imperious, cruel profile dominates the production. It's a marvellous performance, rich in actorly flourish that exploits every nuance of Beckett's language.

If there's a criticism to be made, it's that occasionally in the vaudevillean to-and-fro the dialogue was a little rushed; sometimes I wanted a little more air. But I suspect that was an effect of opening night, as it abated as the play progressed. And that's really picking nits. This is a work of deep and thoughtful integrity, that finely balances Beckett's merciless humour with his profound compassion. You'll rarely see such a vital production of Beckett's work, and all those who managed to get their hands on tickets can feel justly smug.

My review of the original production (where I talk a little more about the play) is here.

Picture: Peter Houghton (Hamm) and David Tredinnick (Clov) in The Eleventh Hour's production of Endgame. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

MIAF: Corridor

Festival diary #8: Sunday

Corridor choreographed by Lucy Guerin. Set design by Donald Holt, lighting design by Keith Tucker, costumes by Paula Levis, paper coats by Susie Gerraty, sound design by Haco. With Sara Black, Antony Hamilton, Kirstie McCracken, Byron Perry, Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle. Lucy Guerin Inc @ the North Melbourne Meat Market until October 25.

The more I watch contemporary dance, the more it seems to me the closest performing art to poetry. It might seem an obvious connection, but it's quite a complex thought, which I'll do my best to unpack in a few brief, well chosen words.

Like novels or short stories, theatre finds its poetic through narrative. The narrative might be displaced or distorted or multiple, or it might be absolutely linear; but however it appears, narrative is a tendency that the form must wrestle with, either to reject or to accept, to reveal or to distort. Poetry, on the other hand, need not deal with narrative at all: a poem might be an epic story like Paradise Lost, or it might be a vivid glimpse of a moment, as in Ezra Pound's In a Station of the Metro. It's up to the poet, a decision that can be freely asserted because of the nature of poetry itself.

What is primary in both poetry and dance is its materiality. Just as poetry foregrounds the sensuous and rhythmic qualities of language, so dance celebrates the sensuous and rhythmic qualities of gesture. Neither needs to be more than the dynamic and immediate movement of exchange between reader and page, singer and listener, audience and performer, and for each this contract is more easily grasped than in theatre or in novels, where the tending towards narrative and explication must be resisted with active violence.

In Corridor, Lucy Guerin makes this connection absolutely explicit by bringing language into dance. It's a preoccupation she's brought subtextually to other works - Aether, Love Me - but here she directly engages with the didactic function of words, their shaping and direction of reality. Corridor is a fascinating exploration of the contingencies of communication and the evolution of meaning. In this dance, as in poetry, there is a constant war between the legislative impulses of words and the incorrigible subversiveness of bodily experience and communication.

In particular, Guerin is concerned with instructions, the act of choreography itself - an instruction to a dancer to move in a particular way - expanding into larger questions about the instructions that saturate our daily lives with imperatives that inflect our behaviour. The dancers respond to directions that emerge from a variety of media - spoken instructions, iPods, mobile phones, words written on screens or paper. They vary from the possible (touch your head, twirl your finger, act as if something has bitten your neck) to the impossible (float, stop global warming, make sure no old person in the world feels lonely).

The dance occurs in the gaps between the possible and impossible. As promised by the title, the set is a long corridor, with the audience seated in a single row on each side facing each other on the narrow space. At either end are mirrored walls. If there is no place to hide for the audience, there is none for the dancers, either: they pass us close enough to touch, giving the performance a particular sense of intimacy, standing on the margin between the public and private.

It begins with one of the most effective transitions into performance I've seen. The dancers are seated anonymously among the audience, and people are still coming into the theatre and finding their seats. Suddenly, three people up from where I am sitting, a mobile phone rings and someone answers it. A man (Antony Hamilton) stands up, crouched around his mobile, and walks off from his chair in that bubble of privacy that mobile phones create, a strange obliviousness to the fact that they are in public space.

The muted rustle of irritation this causes in the audience is suddenly rebuked when you see that another dancer is doing the same thing, and then another, and understanding dawns that this is the beginning of the performance. The dancers roam up and down the corridor, each having inscrutable conversations. The lights dim and the dance begins to evolve.

The text itself - at least, that which is audible - is present as much for its sonic and dynamic qualities as its meanings. When Lee Serle issues spoken instructions to the dancers, for instance, his voice is distorted, so sometimes it is difficult to understand him. Sometimes it becomes, like the dance itself, something like pure form, as abstract and open to differing vectors of interpretation as the movement itself. Sometimes it is straight, direct and unambiguous, something that can only be brought under pressure by the dance itself. The question of intention is always in suspension.

Guerin builds meaning slyly, from one gesture to the next. Each sequence emerges from the banal or everyday to reach towards the mysterious, creating arcana of desire that can seem neurotic or despairing, or desperate grapples of eroticism, or simply the joy of danced flight. There's a disturbing sequence, for example, where Byron Perry is trapped by the other five dancers, who are running in martial formation up and down the strip, and Perry can neither merge with their rhythm nor escape it, and throws himself violently about the stage, muttering half audible, broken sentences. Or another where all six dancers are suddenly a group, dancing in a harmony that evolves seamlessly out of the various conflicts on stage. Or a comic duet comprised of minor pain - a hurt finger, vomiting - in which the involuntary, non-verbal body takes precedence.

It's a dense, intensely absorbing experience which demonstrates Guerin's command of space and focus and the skills of her dancers (especially the compulsively watchable Kirstie McCracken). Because of the shape of the stage, it is impossible to focus in one place; you are forced to choose what to watch, and are constantly becoming aware of shifts that are already in evolution. This slight disorientation is reinforced by Haco's extraordinary sound design, a mixture of ambient sound - foyer chatter, spruikers at a market - and music. The sound craftily shifts direction all the time; sometimes it's wholly environmental, coming from all directions at once, and often, rather disconcertingly, it seems to be emerging from the floor.

Perhaps what made Corridor most enjoyable was the play in it, how play escapes the fatalities of language, creating its own laws and order and beauty. The physically various bodies of these six very different dancers become battlefields of meaning and resistance, the dance constantly escaping from the limiting definitions of words. This struggle towards flight or liberation or simple gut-level physical disobedience makes Corridor a singularly joyous experience, a celebration of the innate subversiveness of the human body.

Picture: publicity shot for Corridor. Photo: Jeff Busby

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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.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

MIAF: DJ Spooky, The Book of Longing

Festival Diary #6: Wednesday and Thursday

Terra Nova Sinfonia Antarctica by Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, performed with Alterego. Visual design by AJ Weissbard. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until Sunday.

The Book of Longing, lyrics, image and recorded voice by Leonard Cohen, music by Philip Glass. Directed by Susan Marshall, musical direction by Michael Riesman. Set design by Christine Jones, lighting by Scott Zielinski, adapted by Doug Witney. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, closed.

It's a bit like a riddle. What do you get when you take the "urban" out of urban music? On Thursday night, when he presented the premiere of his multimedia symphonic portrait of Antarctica, DJ Spooky provided one answer: you get something that looks very like contemporary Romanticism.

Certainly the Romantic notion of the sublime, the subjective response to vast, incomprehensible natural beauty, can't but be in play in a meditation on the most inhospitable continent on the planet. The Terra Nova Sinfonia Antarctica emerged from a four week visit to Antarctica, with the idea of making a film about the sound of ice. As Paul Miller says of being there: "It was vast, silent, calm...the sun didn't set for most of the time I was there. Things like that blur your normal sense of duration and time..."

For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the greatest poetic theorist of Romanticism, the sublime was not, as it was for others, an experience most deeply characterised by terror. Nor was it expressive of the struggle and crisis of human consciousness when faced with something vaster than itself, with human reason breaking the crisis by recognising its own absurdity and so asserting its superiority. Rather, the sublime was an expression of transcendent unity, and the natural world which provokes this state of subjective being was the medium "through which the mind discovers and presents itself".

This might almost be a modus operandi for Sinfonia, which is above all an exploration of the human imaginings - mathematical, geological, topographical, political, artistic - that have been projected onto the idea of Antarctica. There are, of course, several important differences between Miller and the Romantics: since Coleridge's time, our relationship to nature has changed radically, to incorporate not only the possibility of nature destroying us, but of our capacity to destroy nature. The very notion of climate change, the possibility that something as constant as the seasons could be disturbed by human activity, violently upends the few certainties of the 19th century, which was a time which prefigured our present era in its social turbulence.

This reality - mass species extinction, global warming, planet-wide industrial pollution - is paradoxically enough why Romanticism, which only 30 years ago seemed old-fashioned and naive, is back in a big way, refashioned and reformed for a new century. The godlike "I AM" of Coleridge's "primary poetic creation" has decayed and broken with the certainties of the West, leaving in its wake something very like what he called "secondary creation". Foremost among the practice of many contemporary poets, and signally in the remixing and "creolising" of culture by artists like DJ Spooky, is the imagination that, as Coleridge put it, "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create".

Which maybe is a way of saying that, while this lush sonic portrait of a continent might seem like a radical departure for DJ Spooky, who is more usually associated with the sounds of urban hiphop, it looks rather more like a logical step for this least easily categorised of artists (Miller has worked with artists ranging from Iannis Xenakis to Yono Oko). Here he moves from his preoccupations with how "the mass-media landscape inadvertently invades and splinters the private mind of the individual", to how the realities we create impact on a continent.

The Sinfonia is performed live by the three musicians (violin, cello and piano) of AlterEgo, mixed on stage by Miller. It creates an insistent wall of sound, a landscape of always various arpeggios that leap from the work of Philip Glass, music that swells up from grand brooding chords and is continually richened by echoes and repetitions. Wound in with this is the collage of animated images, projected in mirrored double screens behind the performers.

The images begin with footage of Antarctica - icebergs like cathedrals, endless snowscapes, harsh spines of rock draped with rags of white. Then there are the many ways we imagine and map realities: the votatile national borders of maps, graphs of temperature change, dynamic topologies of attractors and Mandelbrot diagrams, microscopic images of the crystal structure of ice, dancing molecules of water. A major component is extracts from a Soviet propoganda film (the cyrillics liberally littered with exclamation marks) about the Progress of Science in the service of the People's Revolution, with huge trucks blasting through the landscape and heroic drivers with iced eyelashes, man subduing the hostile natural world with technology and reason.

At several points, underlining and questioning the relationship between abstraction and reality, the score we are listening to becomes part of the animated dance. The effect is to at once reinforce and destabilise the connections between fiction and reality, human imagination and the material world, giving some idea of its true complexity. The performance was wholly absorbing; I found myself in an interesting state of alert meditation. The music never became the background noise to thought, but rather its rhythm and stimulus.

The Sinfonia was, paradoxically enough, a truer tribute to the musical inspiration of Philip Glass than The Book of Longing, Glass's collaboration with Leonard Cohen. A record company executive is said to have once told Cohen: "Leonard, I know you're a genius. I just don't know if you're any good." There's no denying Cohen's achievement as a songwriter: he's written some of the great ballads of our time, as attested by their countless covers. As with most artists, his strengths are also his weaknesses: emotional passion can too easily turn into mere sentiment, lyric simplicity into lyric simple-mindedness, tormented inner examination into, well, plain self-absorption. And the lesser sides of his virtues are abundantly on show in The Book of Longing.

The stage is dominated by a collage of Cohen's own drawings, which reveal that he has a considerable, if ultimately derivative, gift for a line. In the centre of a Mondrian-like grid behind the performers is one space where drawings continually change, so we get to see a lot of them. There are enough self-portraits and tasteful Matissian nudes to launch a thousand feminist essays on the possessive eye/I. The nudes in particular got old rather quickly, as did the songs about deceptive, alluring Woman. I felt like I was trapped in some middle class loungeroom sometime in the 1970s. But somehow, and perhaps most tellingly, it was all strangely inoffensive.

It's presented as a theatrical concert, with the ensemble on stage and four singers entering and exiting on cue. It was pretty much what was written on the box: if you went expecting Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen, that was what you got. The music was signature Glass, and it made me reflect that it's been a long time since Einstein on the Beach. The highlights were the musical solos, which lifted the music to another place, in particular Gloria Justen's vivid violin.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect was that the collision of Glass and Cohen resulted in pure Broadway. I'm not quite sure how to explain that: perhaps it was the Broadway voices. It was all beautifully performed and realised with style, and it came with a gorgeous little booklet of Cohen's lyrics, which would be an excellent idea for all libretti. Definitely one of those pieces where you knew you were getting your money's worth, and which makes clear that getting your money's worth is not quite enough.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

One week in...

...and taking a breather today. I'll catch up with DJ Spooky's Terra Nova Sinfonia Antarctica (hypnotically beautiful) and Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass's The Book of Longing (my mother would have loved it) tomorrow. Tim Crouch's England and some others will have to wait until my reviews appear in the Australian on Monday.

Almost at the half way mark, the Croggon tally is a total of 13 shows. For what it's worth, the breakdown on the TN pleasure scale so far is quite top-heavy:

Totally awesome: 3
I wouldn't have missed for anything: 5
Deeply interesting or fun: 2
Indifferent: 1
Honourable failure: 1
Dismaying disappointment: 1

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The death of ABC Radio National

I've long contended that the arts are the canary in the coal mine of media quality. Healthy arts coverage signals a wider vitality and depth. And bad arts coverage is the beginning of the end for quality journalism.

My thesis has been proved mournfully correct by Radio National, which has been steadily whittling away what was once impressive arts coverage, over the past few years cutting its daily arts program and Julie Copeland's Sunday Arts. Now they've decimated the arts, they've moved on to axe some major flagship programs. Yesterday they announced the axing of The Media Report, The Religion Report, The Ark, In Conversation, Perspective, Sports Factor, Radio Eye and Street Stories. Can't say I didn't see it coming. Lynden Barber and Nicholas Pickard have the goods.

Which brings me tangentially back to the Melbourne Festival and to something that's been bothering me for a couple of days. In their print edition, if not their disgraceful online coverage, the Age has been doing some thorough coverage of MIAF. I haven't had a chance to see the visual art (although I did have an enjoyable wander through Rita Antoniol's vivid photographic portraits of musicians at the Arts Centre) and the general media consensus seems to be Could Do Better. Fair enough.

But Robert Nelson's review of the visual arts in the Age is deeply puzzling. He attacks the program for making the visual arts a "handmaiden to the stage", and opens his thesis with complaints about - a play and a film! The confusion seems to be that they're occuring in galleries, but still, that's what they are, and thus they do indeed follow "the conventions of the performing arts". "Unless you can get to ACMI on October 17 to 19 at an appointed hour, [Eve] Sussman's seductive film will flit by," grumbles Nelson. "So will Tim Crouch's play England, at the NGV Australia, where 'no latecomers will be admitted'." Ah, the rigors of performance. You have to be on time and everything.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

MIAF: Food Court

Festival Diary #5: Sunday

Food Court, devised by the company, directed and designed by Bruce Gladwin. Lighting design by Andrew Livingston (bluebottle). Performed by Mark Deans, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price. Music by The Necks, Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton. Back to Back Theatre @ the Merlyn Theatre (closed). 29-31 January 29-31, 2009, Geelong Performing Arts Centre: Bookings 03 5225 1200

Every now and then a show comes along and reminds you that theatre is a burning glass, that it can be an art that focuses experience into an emotional thermic lance which sears through the intellect into the tissue of deep feeling, right where it hurts. Such theatre reminds you that, as Artaud said in his final madness, being alive is difficult; it reminds you that existence is cruel and painful, and - crucially - that the only way we can experience beauty is if we also open ourselves to pain and sorrow.

It's a rare experience which only occurs when all the different elements of a production click mercilessly into focus, when they expose the simplicity, even the naivety, of performance and so open up the full possibilities of its devastating power. Food Court is this kind of show.

The last time I emerged so shattered from a work of theatre was in 2005, at another festival show: Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées). After that one, I had to hide behind some handy rubbish bins at the Exhibition Building until I was able to piece myself together. These responses emerge, after all, from places that one doesn't necessarily want others to see. The land of tears, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once remarked, is so mysterious.

Food Court is very unexpected, a quantum leap from Back to Back's hit small metal objects, which premiered at the 2005 Melbourne Festival and catapulted this company of disabled actors into the international theatre scene. small metal objects was exciting theatre, but Food Court is something else. It's this company's first work in a theatre, rather than in a public space, and demonstrates how well Bruce Gladwin and his company understand the dynamics of space and audience: it's visually and technically astonishing. But that's not what breaks your heart.

It is essentially a very simple enactment of a mundane but brutal story of bullying, set in a suburban shopping centre. What is masterly is how it communicates the experience of human disempowerment and humiliation. It's one of the most pitilessly honest pieces of theatre I've seen, driving unwaveringly into the core of the experience it narrates.

It is, in many ways, very cruel. But cruelty alone would not be enough: if we were not acutely aware of the humanity that is damaged, of the ambiguities that twist into human brutality, it would be simply an exercise in sadism. And this show is much more than that: it is also resistance, a cry to what is common between us, to the naked and hurt lives within us all.

It opens in complete darkness and silence. Then we see a torch, lighting the musicians to their pit in front of the stage. More silence. And then the quiet thrum of a bass guitar, slow percussion, a piano, the minimal beginning of a score that deepens and expands with the show, a relentless emotional pulse driving the action.

The lights come up, revealing a forestage backed by a black curtain. A man comes out through the curtain onto the stage, carrying a chair, and places it carefully on its mark. He retreats and brings out another. Other performers emerge, including two women (Rita Halabarec and Nicki Holland) dressed in tight, bright yellow leotards. They are grotesquely fat, but come on like movie stars, posing for the audience.

This is the first moment of discomfort. People laugh, but uneasily. Is it wrong to laugh? The performers are mugging for our laughter, but is it right? There follows a bit of comic stage business involving the male performers scurrying after the women with a boom mic to amplify their lines, which introduces one of the powerful conventions of this show: spoken lines are also projected onto the curtain. Then another woman (Sarah Mainwaring) comes on stage. She curls in a chair, her head bowed. The other women begin to abuse her for being fat. (She isn't fat). She makes no response; she sits on the chair, hunched against the tirade, her hands and head shaking with involuntary tremors. They abuse her again, and it begins to get seriously unpleasant.

The performers leave the stage and the curtains lift, revealing a scrim behind which is a blue light, disconcertingly without perspective. We have left the food court, left the shopping centre: we are now in the "forest". The three women are silhoettes behind the scrim. The bullying gets more intense: the two women order Mainwaring to take her clothes. Slowly, she does. Then, in a moment which made my entire body cold with horror, they tell her to take off her bra. She does. Her knickers. She does. And then, as she stands naked, in a dim pool of light, they tell her to dance. She does, and as she does so people come onto the stage and look at her, one after another, more and more; they stare at her humiliation as she dances, and then they lift their hands and point.

One of the disturbing aspects of this scene is that Mainwaring's dance is beautiful; vulnerable and naked and humiliated, yet oddly free. It scrapes horribly against the visceral mockery and contempt.

After this sequence, the blueish, shifting no-place behind the scrim begins to transform into a forest, with black trees that shift in and out of focus, slowly and dizzyingly, as in a dream. Most of the silent witnesses leave. The two women beat and kick Mainwaring, who curls naked on the ground, lying in a dimly lit space in a grove of nightmarish trees. The other women back away, perhaps afraid of what they have done, and a man comes up to Mainwaring and speaks to her. It's a disturbing conversation, thick with the threat of rape, but deeply ambiguous because the man is also speaking his own damage and longing. And then, without touching her, he leaves.

Mainwaring rises and puts on her clothes. Then she stands and passionately quotes Caliban's speech from The Tempest, the letters scrambling onto the scrim as she struggles to articulate them. She said these words with such longing, such fierce pride, such humility, that something within me broke:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

The final image is of her standing, human and alone, on the bare stage.

In the long silence that followed, before the lights came up and the audience broke into a storm of applause, I think everyone there was holding their breath. "Stunned" is a word that is easily reached for, but in this case, I think it a precise description.

For all its visual splendour and astounding technical accomplishment, Food Court is theatre stripped back to its essentials. The one weakness of small metal objects was its devised script: here the text, under the eye of script consultant Melissa Reeves, is spare and telling, not one syllable out of place. Part of Food Court's power derives from the knowledge that the experience enacted here is one familiar, in one form or another, to its performers; but this potentially sentimentalising knowledge is undermined by the hard recognition that victimhood and brutality are common to every human being. It's one of the most unsparing theatrical explorations I've seen of this universal and tragic understanding, forged from the most ordinary, most mundane of stories.

If I could think of more superlatives, I'd list them. Food Court is the revelation of my festival so far.

Another version of this review appears in Friday's Australian.

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Today's essays for serious young insects

Matt Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit on Elision Ensemble's The Navigator and his conversation with Jana on Chunky Move's Two Faced Bastard. Go to it.

Also, seems I am missing one of the hits of the festival - Ben Cobham and Helen Herbertson's Sunstruck. And a PS, outside MIAF: Jana's review of Liminal Theatre's Oedipus at Laneway Magazine, which to my enormous distress I only heard about once it was absolutely impossible for me to attend.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

MIAF: Two Faced Bastard, Interpreti Veneziani Baroque Ensemble

Festival Diary #4: Sunday and Tuesday

Two Faced Bastard, directed and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin. Set design by Ralph Myers, lighting design by Philip Lethlean, costume design by Paula Levis, composition by Darrin Verhagen, sound design Russell Goldsmith. With Vincent Crowley, Antony Hamilton, Michelle Heaven, Stephanie Lake, Brian Lipson, Byron Perry and Lee Serle. Chunky Move @ North Melbourne Meat Market.

Interpreti Veneziani Baroque Ensemble, Program 2 (Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi, Giovanni Paisiello and Felix Mendelssohn). BMW Edge.

Peter Brook once said that contrast was the essence of theatre. If that's the case - and I believe it is - then I've had a markedly theatrical festival so far. The past few days have seen Ms TN negotiating a bit of a rollercoaster. There was the thrill of seeing some masterly artists at work - Reinbert de Leeuw and the Schönberg Ensemble, the dancers of Batsheva, the musicians of Elision - mixed with some major disappointment. There was the ecstatic shamanism of Patti Smith, which is probably more than enough for one weekend on its own.

And then on Sunday I collided with Back to Back's Food Court (of which more tomorrow - the exigencies of reviewing for the Australian mean that I have had to delay discussing it here). It's no exaggeration to say that show left me emotionally shattered. And it felt plain wrong to scramble off immediately to see something else, like a rabid consumer tossing one disposable experience aside for the next sensation.

Frankly, any show after Back to Back was facing a major challenge in what was left of the Croggon psyche. Fortunately, my guardian muses led me to the playful intelligence of Chunky Move's Two Faced Bastard, which was somehow the perfect complementary experience to what I had just seen. For one thing, it couldn't have been more different, while at the same time it kept me on an aesthetic high.

A major part of Chunky Move's practice has been the exploration of what it means to perform in front of an audience, and how the configuration of a space determines that relationship. Restlessly experimental, they've explored a dizzying range of permutations of staging and process. Two Faced Bastard brings this subtext to the fore, dividing the audience in two across a traverse stage which is split by vertical blinds.

Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin have effectively devised two shows for two audiences, with each uneasily aware that something else is going on behind the blinds. Roughly speaking, one side of the blind focuses on language, while the other side is dance, although each invade and question the other, making such divisions ambiguous. It's a show that riskily places frustration and curiosity at the core of its experience, and exposes the duality of performance itself, the unease and distrust sparked by the persona of a performer, who is, after all, pretending to be someone else. Or perhaps not.

The performers include actor Brian Lipson, as well as Chunky Move's core dancers and actor/dancer Vincent Crowley. All of them play themselves and refer to each other by name, although what that identity means in performance is always up for grabs. On my side, the show began with an exquisite solo by Stephanie Lake backed by a minimal sound score, while the unseen performers appeared to be in some kind of collegial forum where Lipson, as ringmaster, was exploring why they chose their vocation and whether it was worth doing. Their dialogue was always audible to us, just as the swaying vertical blinds provided tantalising and often mysterious glimpses of what was happening on the other side.

The solo expanded into a group piece as dancers slipped through the blinds and joined in. And then Lipson's face peeked through, reporting on our behaviour to the other audience. The division broke down further when Lipson came over to the dark side and began to interview the dancers, who politely took the microphone and attempted to answer his questions as they executed some pretty difficult moves. The banality of explanation and the limitations of spoken language became comically alive.

As the show evolved it became more and more anarchic, although you were always aware that this chaos was precisely choreographed. Vincent is teased for his preference for Stephanie, a flirtation that results in a beautifully erotic entanglement with a table. The increasing disorder culminates in a deliriously funny moment where the dancers, having dressed themselves in absurd mediaeval armour made out of cardboard boxes and styrofoam, invade the talkers. When the curtains stopped swaying, we could only hear the laughter of the audience and the sounds of manic styrofoam destruction. On our side, Antony Hamilton performed a comic solo that emerged from a very clever moment of self-consciousness: watched intently by three performers sitting at a table, he is urged to dance. But the outbreaks of mysterious laughter on the other side of the curtain initially disable him: are they laughing at him? If so, why?

At another point the show was stopped altogether and the audience was asked if they would like to swap sides. A lot of people did, although I was quite happy where I was, and sat stubbornly clutching my handbag, refusing the inner siren call that claims other pastures are greener.

The blinds are lifted for the final few minutes, revealing mysterious landscapes: neither side of the audience has any idea how the performers or objects on stage came to be where they are. At the moment of revelation the dancers are in a diagonal line bisecting the whole stage, which is strangely moving: there's a sudden understanding of wholeness and binding where before all has been division. And the final word is left to dance.

It's an exhilarating show, featuring some fine clowning, but its intelligence ensures it never becomes merely clever or flippant. The divided stage is a cumulatively compelling metaphor for the workings of consciousness, an enactment of how the mind hides from itself, providing only fragmented glimpses of its inner workings.

Similarly, the Interpreti Veneziani Baroque Ensemble provided some delicious moments of lightness on Tuesday. I always feel a bit of a fraud writing about music; however enthusiastic an audient, I have little technical understanding and some appalling gaps in my musical knowledge. But I know good performers when I see them.

This was a beautiful concert, perfectly framed by the glass amphitheatre of the BMW Edge, where the twilit sky gradually darkened behind the ensemble. They played a selection of baroque concertos from Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli and a later piece by Giovanni Paisiello with verve and exuberance. Paolo Cognolato's piano solo in the latter work was a highlight in a performance that reached well beyond the virtuosic.

The concert finished with a magnificent performance of Felix Mendelssohn's Concerto in D Minor for violin and strings, with a passionate solo by Guiliano Fontanella. After the intricate formality of the court music, Mendelssohn's Romantic expressiveness took glorious flight. (Then came four encores - the only name I caught there was Vivaldi, but one involved two soloists plucking their violins like banjos).

Aside from being formidable musicians, the ensemble is irresistible to watch. Each performer plays with a vitality and intensity that is infused by what I can only think of as sparkle, a contagious joy in the music that is expressed in their entire bodies and in the suppleness and ease with which they play together. This was music as absolute pleasure, a feast for the ear and eye.

Photo: Stephanie Lake, Vincent Crowley and Brian Lipson in Two Faced Bastard.

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MIAF around the blogs

Melbourne bloggers are out in force at the festival, many of them seeing things that Ms TN, despite her most heroic efforts, is missing. Tim Crouch's The Oak Tree seems to get a pretty universal thumbs down - Born Dancin' - who's still alive and conscious after his Fringe adventures - Long Sentence and Ming all have lively and deeply interesting objections. I won't see this one, as I'm booked for his other show, England, on Thursday. Check out too Chris Boyd's midnight musings at The Morning After, and don't miss Jana's reflections on Batsheva Dance Company. (I liked her response to Patti Smith, too - very appropriate). And I almost forgot Michael Magnusson at On Stage... Outside the blogs, although with some bloggers in tow (hello Avi!), Australian Stage Online is providing very thorough coverage.

This more than makes up for the fact that the Age seems to have all but given up online arts reviews. So far they've only uploaded a review of Crouch's show. And this in the Century of the Fruitbat, er, the 21st Century! No doubt such coverage confirms the wisdom that we on the interwebs are not interested in the arts...

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

MIAF: Patti Smith

Festival Diary #3: Sunday and Monday

Patti Smith in Concert, Hamer Hall; Patti Smith and Philip Glass: A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg, Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre.

The duende is a power, not a work; it is a struggle, not a thought.... It is not a question of ability, but of true living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.

The muse and the angel come from without; the angel gives lights, and the muse gives forms (Hesiod learned from her). Leaf of gold or tunic fold: the poet receives norms in his bosk of laurels. But one must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.

And reject the angels, and give the muse a kick in the seat of the pants, and conquer our fear of the smile of violets exhaled by eighteenth century poetry and of the great telescope in whose lens the muse, sickened by limits, is sleeping...

Years ago, an eighty-year-old woman won first prize at a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera. She was competing against beautiful women and young girls with waists as supple as water, but all she did was raise her arms, throw back her head and stamp her foot on the floor. In that gathering of muses and angels, beautiful forms and beautiful smiles, who could have won but her moribund duende, sweeping the floor with its wings of rusty knives?

Play and Theory of the Duende, Federico Garcia Lorca

Bring on your wings of rusty knives, Patti. Bring on your soaring, shamanic voice, your unbrushed hair, your face with its stern profile of an Incan priest, your skinny upraised arms. The loved dead gather to listen and the living rise up and cheer, they rise up with their shining eyes, they rise up and you smile like a little girl, or you sag suddenly, tired and sixty years old, vulnerable and needing a sip of water, needing to touch someone's shoulder, you turn away and turn back and the chords begin and from nowhere, again, how do you do it, from nowhere the duende enters and here there is no tiredness, no pain, no death, only the song of celebration, the rebellious dance of living itself, the heartbeat triumphant into eternity, for this moment, this moment only.

All we do is for that frightened thing we call Love, want and lack -

O but how many in their solitude weep aloud like me.

Wichita Vortex Sutra, Allen Ginsberg

Or gentle in a theatre, leaning into the microphone, leaning into the music, the piano rushing like a river you can never enter twice, only now, shy and inhaling all that water, glancing over to Philip who sits at the keyboard soberly possessed by his hands. And the words struggle out of your mouth and transform the air we breathe, the words are your own and you weave them into a paean, an elegy, a chant that celebrates living with all its imperfections, all its fleshly mistakes, and the girl next to me is weeping, what has she remembered, what has she touched in the soft, dark vaults of her body?

And yes, this is poetry, one flame that leaps from mouth to ear to heart and burns the living and the dead, no distance here, no mask to save us from ourselves, only the cleansing rush of laughter, that naughty Buddhist Allen, bless and forgive him for he knew what he did all the time, an old man in his old body with the soul of a damaged, hungry, joyous child, an old man who wrestled with shame until it danced as a fiery angel, an old man who lived his life and wrote it down in poems, uncensoring and tender, with a hand that smelt of mortality and sex. A simple thing, the gifts of those who loved a poet and pledge them in his name, saying this is what I can give, these things I make with my hands and my voice, unchained from the page and in flight, here they are, blazing wings and broken feathers, a body of light and music, poems, in your desiring body, now.

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and asshole holy!

Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel!

Footnote to Howl, Allen Ginsberg

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Monday, October 13, 2008

MIAF: The Big Game, Three, Kitten

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.

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