Review: Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd ~ theatre notes

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Review: Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd

Back in 2000 I was, for six months, a writer-in-residence in the hallowed halls of academe, viz. Cambridge University. This was a most interesting time in my life, not least because I am completely innocent of academic qualifications. This didn't prevent my hosts from (just in case, I suppose) painting DR CROGGON in gold lettering above the door of my rooms, which is the closest I will ever get to a PhD.

While I was there, I was granted an audience with JH Prynne, whom a number of smart people regard as the most significant English poet of the late 20th century. (Read him. He probably is.) With an austere but friendly courtesy, one of the most subtle and formidable minds I will ever meet took me for tea and buns in the Senate House, where dark polished wood tables and leather armchairs nestled comfortably on a huge and no doubt uninsurable William Morris carpet.

Naturally (he was talking to me, after all) the conversation at one point turned to theatre. "The problem with theatre," said Prynne, "is that it's crude." "Oh!" said I earnestly. "But that's why I like it so much!" It was barely perceptible, but a sort of pained shudder passed through him, a seismic quiver as of an oak whose roots are subtly disturbed by some hidden monster... We moved on to discuss other things. But I think I did my dash with Jeremy Prynne right then.


I guess it's the irrepressible vulgarity of Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd that made me think of that meeting with Prynne. It's crude, all right. It exploits the tricks and illusions, the painted faces and acrobatics and coarse jokes, that make up the vulgate of theatre; in this case, vaudeville around 1914. And yet it demonstrates precisely why this crudity can be so enchanting, and ultimately profound. Samuel Beckett, for example, was a huge fan of vaudeville, and exploited it in his own plays. Aside from its robust, even brutal liveliness, he understood how it can reveal, with an irresistible poignancy, our human absurdity, our fragile, self-blind mortality.

The parallel universe of Lally Katz’s imagination has always had something vaudevillean about it. It's an estranging, breathlessly anxious, uneasily hilarious place, a mirror in which the world is not merely backward, but upside down and inside out as well. Her long-term collaboration with director Chris Kohn has been one of the most fruitful in independent theatre, with award-winning productions such as The Eisteddfod and The Black Swan of Trespass establishing them among the most striking talents on the Australian stage. Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd brings their collaboration to a new level.

It echoes elements of all their previous work, but its extrovert theatricality and emotional richness reminds me most of the haunting sadness of Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano, an extraordinarily original dramatisation of fractured solipsism. Like all of Katz's plays, her characters exist in a claustrophobic, self-contained fantasy world, a world of sinister and seductive charm tinged with nightmare. As the plays progress, they become - I can't think of a better word - unhinged: a kind of centrifugal force undoes the tendons of the characters, revealing beneath their artifice a terrible emptiness: an anguished longing, perhaps, or something as simple as the recognition of death.

This makes her oeuvre sound repetitive and even gloomy. On the contrary, the restlessness of Katz's imagination ensures that her creations have been enormously various, and they're always funny, with her spiky lyricism generating moments of genuine beauty. In this latest work, the tatty charm of vaudeville in the brief moment of Edwardian sunshine before the outbreak of World War One (beautifully realised in Jonathan Oxlade's set and costume designs) is re-imagined as a distorted fairytale, a fable about love, time and change.

Charlie Mudd (Jim Russell) is the not-so-successful impresario of Charlie Mudd Vaudeville Castle, a down-at-heel theatre that in this alternative Melbourne is situated on the bank of the Swanston River. He leads a strange band of misfits: Maude Adle (Christen O’Leary), “ventriloquist, singer and musical paper tearer”; Knuckles (Circus Oz star Matt Wilson), “acrobat and domestic balancer”; Allarkini (Alex Menglet), “magician and man of mystery”; Ethylyn Rarity (Julia Zemiro), “insect impersonator and singer of dramatic arias”; and Bones (Mark Jones), the “End man”. They are framed in an old-fashioned 19th century stage, complete with red velvet curtains, and their performances are drawn from genuine Tivoli variety acts. But in Mudd's theatre, there is no difference between the performer and the actor; both are the same person. As the Great Allarkini says, the magic is real.

Although the Tivoli acts have been, as it were, lallykatzed, there is a feeling of authenticity in the peformances that make up the bulk of the first half, which is structured - sort of - as an improvised and notably unsuccessful performance before an absent audience. The racism and sexism of the early 1900s haven't been airbrushed out of the picture. When Bones walked onto the stage in full Black and White Minstrel blackface at the beginning, sitting down at a piano decorated with a watermelon, the audience gasped audibly. Even more so when the new ingenue Violet - soon to be drawn into the theatre's sinister dreamworld as Ethylyn - commented that it must take a long time to make up before his performances. He is uncomprehending: "I'm sorry, Miss Violet," he says. "You done lost me there." In this theatre, to perform is to be; outside the act, there is nothing.

What you understand primarily is the essential innocence of each character, a sense that deepens in the second half, when the back-stage realities come to the fore. Each character is damaged - Bones suffers the pangs of unrequited love, Maude is a victim of incest, Allarkini's only magic trick is to suck worms out of the veins of the living, demonstrating that they are the walking dead. Charlie Mudd himself is a kind of Bluebeard who would rather kill than accept the death of love. (There is even the fairytale forbidden door, but it reveals not the corpses of dead wives - they're beneath the floor - but the possibility of freedom).

As with the Katz/Kohn Ern Malley, I found myself sympathising with these greasepainted characters, who are half-aware of their vertiginous fictional status. Like them, we all believe that our roles are real, acting them out in the tawdry theatres of our imaginations; like them, we're afraid to let go of our illusions and assigned roles, in case we find a yawning vacuum beneath. And we too hover with blithe unawareness on the edge of global catastrophe. It's hard not to laugh uncomfortably at the opening song: "Welcome to 1914... the people are peaceful, the economy is strong / There's nothing that could possibly go wrong". Yeah, right.

What begins as a warts-and-all evocation of a mostly forgotten past morphs into an unexpectedly moving meditation on time, nostalgia and mortality. And, perhaps most importantly, a meditation on both the imprisonments and freedoms of love. It's as much an essay on theatre and the nature of illusion as distorted fairtale. The final scene is a dismantling of theatricality that reminded me of nothing so much as Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest, when the enchanter breaks his magic staff and pleads for his release from the audience “with the help of your good hands”.

The performances are exhilarating, striking a note between heartless caricature and possible sentimentalisation, discovering an uneasy, even grotesque realism. Every cast member finds at least one moment of genuine tenderness - Christen O'Leary's lovelorn ventriloquist, for example, reflecting that the only man who loved her was her incestuous father, or Mark Jones (who also composed the music) when he sings Bones' song of unrequited love, which is the show-stopper of the evening. Jones is in fact the lynchpin of the show, his piano punctuating the dialogue and action just as his emotional story provides the backbone of what passes for plot. (I'm not sure Katz does plot, as such).

Chris Kohn's meticulously orchestrated production grabs your entire attention for two and a half hours, stepping deftly between comedy and tragedy, illusion and reality. While you might miss the vertiginous sense of risk that characterised some of Katz and Kohn's earlier work (notably in Volcano, which somehow maintained throughout a sense of imminent collapse, and seemed to be a play imagined as a acrobatic feat), it's more than made up for by the sureness with which unlikely imaginings are here realised on stage. This is deeply accomplished work, darkly beautiful theatre that resonates in the intimate chambers of the mind.

Picture: Julia Zemiro and Christen O'Leary in Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd.

Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd by Lally Katz, concept and direction by Chris Kohn. Set and costumes by Jonathan Oxlade, music composed by Mark Jones, sound design by Jethro Woodward, lighting design by Richard Vabre. With Mark Jones, Alex Menglet, Christen O'Leary, Jim Ruseell, Matt Wilson and Julia Zemiro. Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until March 28. Bookings: (03) 96855111.

30 comments:

Beeotch said...

I came here, Alison, hoping you would have torn this play a new one. Instead I see you've written a Clayfield review. If only I had seen the same (mythical?) play!!

Alison Croggon said...

You've lost me, Beeotch. What's a Clayfield review? Fwiw, I've read the play as well as watching it, and that's what I reckon. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it - what were your problems?

Nathan L said...

I love the fact that you celebrated the crudeness of theatre! Another reason to go to the theatre rather than the cinema.

I wish I could get over to see it, it sounds fantastic.

Beeotch said...

A Clayfield review is in the manner of Len Clayfield, a distinguished academic and later pig farmer in Essex, whose reviews were often garbled due to dermatitis.

You haven't heard of old Len?
He's certainly heard of you, Al.

Matthew said...

I'm going to take a punt and suggest that a Clayfield review is a review of a show that never happened.

I would like to think I've only ever written one such review, but Beeotch might think differently.

Not that my first name is Len, of course.

Len Clayfield said...

I'm itchy.

LC said...

And my ears are burning

Alison Croggon said...

You could well be right, Matthew. At least, that makes some kind of sense. And I guess it's not entirely inappropriate that a review of a Lally Katz show should inspire a legion of sock puppets.

Beeotch - you sound quite discombobulated. Am I to assume that you have totally agreed with every single word I've written on every production we've both seen in Melbourne, only to find in this instance that our spiritual kinship is betrayed? If so, my apologies. But that's theatre.

You could offer your own opinion of the play, and promote some conversation. Admittedly, it's a fair bit of work to do so, and far be it from me, &c &c...

Michael Magnusson said...

You say you have read the play. Where did you get a copy, I'd love to read it.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Michael - I ask the PR people at the theatre. Both the MTC and the Malthouse have been very obliging when I've requested scripts of new work.

Anonymous said...

It was an agonising two and a half hours in the theatre.

A truly awful play.

Matthew said...

I would really love it if someone who disliked the play could give a detailed reasoning as to why.

Alison Croggon said...

...or even some reason! Aside from perhaps introducing some interest, which would be a pleasant and stimulating thing, it might dispel the feeling that a single hand is behind these various anonymous posts...

Beeotch 1 said...

Do we need to identify outselves to prove more than one person hated this play? Sockpuppet 1 is at least 2 people. Someone took my name and ran.

What about Boyd's (generous) review Monday? cluelessa ctors...a conjuring act without interest...tired and daggy...nothing sensible to say....

Alison Croggon said...

In the absence of any expansion, all the people in this thread who disliked the play sound the same. I haven't checked isps, because I can't be bothered, but it's easy enough.

Brute opinion is the least of a response; I personally think whether one "likes" a show or not ("Himalayan criticism", as Brustein calls it) is pretty immaterial. The "why" is what's (potentially) interesting. And actually what this blog is about...

Boyd and I often disagree wildly. As in this case. Can't agree at all about the clueless actors, etc. And Boyd, what is this about art having to "say something"? You've been banging on a bit about this lately... wtf? Art isn't a newspaper. Or a textbook. But Beeotch, no need to wave to authority - what do you reckon?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison for another astute and thoughtful piece of theatre criticism. Unlike JH Prynne, your chorus of shudderers don't seem particularly delicate in their visceral resistance to what I would agree with you is a landmark piece of Australian contemporary performance. I haven't had the opportunity to read the script - I thought I could identify passages, especially in the second act, where the usual free-looping lallykatzising ran up against what felt like a too freshly acquired consciousness of a debt to nineteenth century plot conventions - at all events, somewhat clunky gear changes as the act progressed and rather too many endings, when the point seemed to be that it didn't ... at all events it could still do with some judicious editing in my humble opinion.

But the production overall was outstanding, a completely imagined world built with strong contributions from each member of the creative team. Chris Kohn can clearly pick 'em and play 'em. There was evidence, both of solid research and of a capacity to reimagine the past that brought what you describe as the vulgate of vaudeville into a creative tension with the language of contemporary cultural anxieties.

As far as I know neither Katz nor Kohn knew much about this particular stream of Australian theatre history before they began work on the project. All the more credit to them and to their collaborators - including the performers who I think deserve bouquets not brickbats - for producing such a rich and provocative work of theatre.

For me it stood up well as the most recent in a series that might include the APG's Marvellous Melbourne and the Hills Family Show,Dorothy Hewett's The Man from Mukinupin and maybe Timberlake Wertenbaker's For Our Country's Good, plays that take Australia's cultural history and specifically its theatre history as the frame for reflection on where we've been and where we might be going - or failing to go ...

This is a much more serious and substantial piece than other critics and many of your correspondents appear to have appreciated - perhaps the avant garde is not yet dead after all? Ah, plus ca change ...

My apologies for sending this in as 'anonymous' but I'm not a habitual blogger - just so you know you're not alone out there!

MAR

Chris Boyd said...

And Boyd, what is this about art having to "say something"? You've been banging on a bit about this lately... wtf? Art isn't a newspaper. Or a textbook.

Boyd, here. Who spiked your Weeties Alison? Jeez. If I'm Michael Billington, then you're Andrew Bolt. Actually, you do argue a bit like AB at times. Take a quotation, willfully misinterpret it and damn your vic to hell.

Here's a definition of the verb "to say". Some of it, sure, is about making socially meaningful declarations, but a helluva lot of it is about communicating or even, dammit, about expressing only of itself. I don't go into a theatre demanding it have an agenda.

Hell, I'm the guy who damns art for having correct lines instead of straight ones.

And, on this particular occasion, I have nothing to say. What I think, I don't care to share in a public forum. (Beyond, obviously, my pro duties in print.)

Alison Croggon said...

*Ouch* You know where to hit a gal where it hurts, Mr Boyd. That's almost as bad as comparing me to Maggie Thatcher!

Well, having not seen your review, I was only taking issue with a report on it, and if that was inaccurate hearsay, mea culpa. But you did take Gerard Manly Hopkins to task the other day for squandering his talents on having nothing to say, most unjustly imho - So there's still stuff about "message" coming through to these tin ears.

What about Cage's poem (which you almost quoted here, perhaps your ironies winking all over the place?

"I have nothing to say and I am saying it."

And many, many thanks, MAR, for that thoughtful post, which contextualises this work very nicely.

Chris Boyd said...

You didn't much like me hailing you as Australia's George Bernard Shaw either, didya?

Funny you should mention the Margaret Thatcher incident. I at least thought about quoting your letter to the editor [ah, those were the pre-bloggy days!] in response to my Thatcher accusation in my last comment!! In my recollection of that letter, you described yourself as feminist and "broadly humanist."

What reminded me of the Thatcher incident?

Oh yeah... The Billington bit. I was gonna say something like I've shared a platform with Billington -- you remember, you were in the audience -- in 1991? give or take a year. And that brought the Atlanta &c. mugging to mind and my rather injudicious "review of the reviewers" at the time.

Alison Croggon said...

I wish I had a better memory. You called me Australia's GBS? Gosh. Although perhaps it was a little warranted back in them days. Nor can I remember your "injudicious" review of the reviewers. There's a whole lunch of grudges I forgot to hold! Nor can I remember what I said in that letter (one only hopes that those memory cells have been stocking themselves with useful and fascinating info instead). I'd still describe myself as feminist and broadly humanist, although these days I might, in the odd reflective moment, also add the label post or neo Romantic...

No, the Maggie Thatcher one stuck bitterly in my pelt, although come to think of it, the Bolt one is worse. At least Mrs Thatcher was PM of Britain, where Bolt is more PM as unbalanced hormonal syndrome...but enough with the navel gazing!

Matthew said...

-- in 1991?

In 1991, I turned six.

Anonymous said...

Good on you, Matthew.

Congrats on being a sprog.

Gilligan said...

Hi Alison,
I thought your review of Vaudeville was pretty accurate, but probably a bit generous. This was certainly a very unique piece of theatre.

Firstly, Katz and Kohn have been very daring in exploring the subject matter of the play. I suspect most Melbournian's, like myself, don't really associate vaudeville and the history of our city together. In fact, the style of the play is more likely to resonate with audience members memory of old style American films. The play is certainly very successful in bringing to life 1914 Melbourne in a way none of us would have imagined it. The creative license taken by Katz helps fuel our intrigue.

Kohn creates a very surreal and somewhat unsettling world for the extraordinary characters to play in. I found the design of both set and sound very effective, particularly the subtle reverberation of the actors voices through mics.

In terms of the acting, the show was somewhat uneven. Julia Zemiro was undoubtedly out of her depth. She lacked the presence and skill necessary to make her very abstract character work. However she was held up by the incredible performances of the rest of the cast, particularly Jones, Wilson and O'Leary. The dance between Jones on piano and Wilson's hands was the highlight for me.

Overall I felt the show was conceptually a bit loose. There were a lot of ideas floating around that didn't all fit. The high level of energy required to support the style wasn't always present either. However, this was a very entertaining, unique, and thought provoking piece of theatre.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Gilligan - I agree that there are polishes to be made, a la MAR's comment earlier. At the same time, one of the things that has always attracted me in the Katz/Kohn shows has been that tension between a plethora of ideas that threaten to fly off into total disorder and the way performance tethers together into a wonky but riveting whole. It seems to me that to ask for it to make a merely rational sense, to "fit", would be to lose something vital.

Gilligan said...

I agree Alison, the mish mash of ideas and plots is certainly crucial to this shows success. However I felt that the weaving of these elements could have been more precise, it seemed a bit slapped together for me. It's not that it should have been more clear cut cut, but more that it got quite clunky in the second act and lost effectiveness.

However this certainly didn't overshadow the great things about the play, especially the incredible peformances from most of the cast.

st genesius said...

Sorry Alison for once I disagree with you almost completely. I went to see this yesterday on your recommendation and think the critical reaction has been so generous as to border on the dishonest. Lally Katz is an exciting writer, but this is a second rate production--a terrific set but the two central performances of Mudd and his female "star" are so weak as to take all the life out of the piece. Unless you love protracted mime sequences from the mute character and are charmed by amateur acting and directing, this play will feel endless. I cannot help but feel that if you had seen this standard of work at a state theatre company you would have eviscerated it, but perhaps I'm still just grumpy from a wasted Sunday.

Alison Croggon said...

Hmmmm....

Fair dos, St Genesius, and I hate to think that I was responsible for your feeling that you wasted your time. One thing I'm absolutely sure of, however, is that it makes no difference what stage it's on: both Malthouse and MTC are main stage companies, and so suffer fewer excuses so far as that vexed thing "standards" goes. For me that two and a half hours whizzed by, and that's something that can't be faked, no matter what your preconceptions are. More specifically: I had no problems at all with Zemiro's performance - she's a good actor (before she was a celeb I saw her doing a really fine Lady Macbeth). Maybe it was that kind of broad acting that got up your nose? Yes, I did enjoy the mute sequences, which were great clowning (imho, of course). And I'm genuinely puzzled by your saying the directing was amateur. To me it looked sharp and smart. Unless it happens that the performances are losing their edge during their run - a show like this is so much a tightrope, with abysses either side - which is always possible. Otherwise we might just have to agree to differ here.

st genesius said...

I have great respect for your opinion and can only think that I saw a performance that was flaccid and perhaps self indulgent, and whatever sharpness it may have had on opening night had been dulled by complacency. At least inmho, to use your acronym. I did amuse myself by recasting in my head, imaging how Katz's words would have taken off and soared if Mudd had been Geoffrey Rush or Bille Brown, and the fem lead (I've blocked the name) played by the theatrical wonder, Helen O'Leary (the only one up to scratch last Sunday). Good luck with reality TV and Tasmania.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks St G - Rush would have been brilliant, I agree, and would have given it another dimension entirely. But he's busy on Broadway ... I wonder how all that is going?

Tim D said...

Some great elements and characters but the second half was too packed with happenings and by the end of it it just got confusing (silly?) and seemed like a (non-funny) mental asylum.

PS. We hated the deafening, noisy bit towards the end - We get the point playwright, we just don't want to go deaf in the process thanks!