Four Days on the Island ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Four Days on the Island

Last week was, I'm ashamed to admit, Ms TN's first visit to Tasmania. It won't be my last: I've returned enamoured, feeling my four days there were all too brief. Hobart has a physical setting to rival Sydney, with Mt Wellington rising over the city like a benign god. It has managed to retain much of its splendid Georgian architecture, and its suburbs clamber out from the harbour over the forested hills that hug the Derwent River, so it still looks a little like those 19th century paintings of early colonial settlements.

This is a city which punches well above its cultural weight. I've long suspected that much of the most exciting Australian literature comes from Tasmania (Richard Flanagan is only the most famous) and it boasts a thriving visual arts culture. Although its population is tiny - 200,000 - the city has a surprising concentration of galleries, theatres, cafes and bookshops. In short, a peripatetic Melburnian can feel quite at home here.

In his Vandemonian Essays, Tasmanian poet Pete Hay quotes James Boyce speaking of an "enduring Vandemonian spirit". (Here I should add that last week James Boyce won the Tasmanian Book Prize last week for his massive history, Van Diemen's Land). "This [spirit] connotes," says Hay, "the persistence of a vernacular social and economic resilience; a combative communal and individual independence." It's a quality that is palpable, even on a brief visit. And it is, I suspect, a quality at least partly generated by island culture.

I came in towards the end of the impressively programmed Ten Days on the Island, a biennial international arts festival curated by Elizabeth Walsh. The first thing you notice about the program is how many events also come from islands - Sicily, Taiwan, Iceland, Corsica, New Caledonia, Anglesey. The second thing you notice is that this festival is, uniquely, programmed around Tasmania, with events travelling all over the state, rather than centering itself in the capital city.

This year the National Play Festival, a talkfest run by PlayWriting Australia that incorporates a generous program of public play readings, was also nestled into the program. Yep, Hobart was jumping.

I didn't see much of the Play Festival, turning up bug-eyed for a reading of Lally Katz's Return to Earth after a sleepless night making the epic journey from the Flinders Ranges to Hobart. I retired soon afterwards so I wouldn't be seen snoring gently through later readings (a very bad look for an alleged critic). Although I admire Katz's text - it was a unanimous winner in the RE Ross Trust Play Award which I and two colleagues judged last year - I found myself squirming. I don't usually enjoy moved readings, which always seem to me a half measure: the performers have not had the time for the exploration of a full production, and yet the blocking means that they're distracted from the pure business of dealing spontaneously with spoken language, which is often the chief genius of a play reading.

Even this brief visit showed that the Play Festival was a veritable hive: if a bomb had been dropped on the building, it would have taken out a good percentage of Australia's theatre community. I wish I'd had time to spend a few more hours there: as a ferociously private writer, I'm intrigued by and ambivalent about this whole notion of exposing writerly process, and it would have been fascinating to have a closer look to see if and how it works. Next time.

But on to the Ten Days festival itself. Over the next two days, I caught four shows. Perhaps the performance which will stay with me longest was an installation and performance called Ruined. Composer and musician Ross Bolleter has specialised in playing ruined pianos for some years, a practice that seems a natural evolution from his earlier interest in prepared pianos, a la John Cage. For this event, he toured Tasmania, collecting pianos in various states of dishevelment.

In the dim light of the warehouse space of the Bond Store - dark enough to force your eyes to adjust when you enter - Bolleter has gathered almost 20 pianos in various states of decay and degradation. (He has a precise taxonomy of ruin - the states vary from neglected, abandoned and weathered to ruined, devastated, decomposed and annihilated). During the installation, Bolleter also gave several free performances, which were so well patronised that on the day I went, around 100 people were turned away by the harassed ushers.

Bolleter simply stood before his audience, explaining the history of each piano, and then improvised. One piano - rescued from a tip where it was being dismembered by a man with an axe - was merely a frame of strings on the floor; on others keys were missing, or the hammers appeared to have been eaten by small marsupials (certainly, Bolleter explained that some of the pianos have housed an array of fauna). What emerged was a cross between a concert and social history, in which the pianos embodied the collision of European culture with the Australian environment, and the extreme efforts people employed to have a piano in their home in even the most remote of regions.

Bolleter drew extraordinarily beautiful improvisations from these degraded instruments. Sometimes all you could hear was the percussive sound of his fingers on the keys, or an unexpectedly pure note might resonate in the air. There were recognisable melodies - a ragged version of Schumann, for instance - which were as eccentrically decayed as the instruments. This music was particular to each piano, notes stroked and coaxed from its individual capacity. The quality of Bolleter's attention, the love with which he touched the keys or knelt and plucked the strings, made his performance riveting. And in its evocation of the process of mortality, its haunting ephemerality ("each thing once, only once", as Rilke said in the Duino Elegies), Ruined was profoundly moving.

Florence was a multimedia dance work by Newfoundland performer Louise Moyes. It was divided, somewhat uncertainly, into two parts: a short dance which supposedly told the story of the physical labour performed by Newfoundland women in the days before electricity (and which I thought was about birds), and a longer narrative piece, part dance, part video, part story telling, which focused on the life of Florence Leprieur, a native of the Port-au-port Peninsula in Newfoundland. This show had undeniably lovely moments, but these were dissipated by its formal uncertainty: at times it seemed like two different shows nailed clumsily together. The differing elements often worked in unfruitful contradiction, the literalness of the video and storytelling undermining the poetic flights of the dance.

Hoipolloi's Floating, on the other hand, was one of the most successful feel-good theatre pieces I've seen. A tall tale about the Welsh isle of Anglesey taking off from its moorings and travelling around the Atlantic to the Arctic and back again, it's a comic delight that underneath its picaresque dress explores notions of islander identity, belonging and alienation. Hugh Hughes and Sioned Rowlands generate their world before our eyes, using an eccentric array of lo-fi equipment and various props (wrestling magazines, rocks, photographs) that are handed around the audience. In its low-tech aesthetic, it's not so far from the theatre of groups like Suitcase Royale or Black Lung, and like them it depends, for all its surface disorder, on a deep theatrical discipline.

It's also a glorious pisstake on theatre itself. Hugh Hughes po-facedly explains the structure of the evening during a shambolic introduction: theoretically, at least, Floating will follow the map of the well-made play, with a beginning, middle, end and morally sound conclusion, and with various characters embodying various themes. Naturally, none of these intentions are ever realised.

Where this show is extraordinary is in how it invites the audience into the performance. It's almost the opposite of audience participation, where embarrassed audience members are at the mercy of the performers' authority: somehow these two performers are so friendly, so accepting, that the audience feels that it can take over the show. I'm not sure I've ever seen an audience so willing to interrupt proceedings. This controlled chaos generates, almost by the bye, a sense of ownership in those who watch it, destabilising expectations from moment to moment, so the show seems continuously on the verge of total collapse, without ever quite disintegrating into complete anarchy. It's ingenious and brave theatre, and its charm is impossible to resist.

I reeled out of Wu Hsing-kuo's version of King Lear with no such feelings of satisfaction. Ms TN, as you all know, is enormously tolerant of the ambitions of artists, happy to wander whither they lead: I'll seldom question a work's intentions, feeling they are none of my business. But I sat through this performance with a cloud of questions buzzing about my head like particularly irritating blowflies. Of which the biggest and fattest was, why?

Wu, the artistic director of Taiwan's Contemporary Legend Theatre, is a former star of Chinese Opera. And he is, unarguably, a remarkably accomplished, even astounding performer of his art. His ambition to do a one-man version of King Lear is so bonkers, in conception as much as in performance, that you have to value its sheer madness. More seriously, the fusion of western and eastern theatrical practice has a rich and fruitful tradition which has often illuminated and enriched both. One only has to think of Artaud, enraptured by Balinese puppet theatre, or Brecht's revelations after seeing the Chinese Opera (which deeply influenced his conception of Epic Theatre); or, from the other end, Suzuki's theatrical attacks on Greek tragedies or Kurosawa's plundering of Shakespeare's plays in films like Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth) or Ran (also based on Lear).

Wu's interpretation of King Lear so profoundly misunderstands Shakespeare's play that it made me wonder why he picked this story to work on, rather than, say, any number of other fables about a monstrously egotistical king. On the plus side, it features a very interesting score by Lee Yi-chin, a fusion of traditional Chinese instrumentation, modern electronics and ambient noise, performed live on stage by a nine-piece band, and lots of spectacular lighting and smoke effects. And it's a chance to see some virtuosic performance out of the tradition of Chinese Opera.

But the larger meaning eluded me. In this production, Lear begins as a madman and ends as a narcissist. The crucial aspects of the tragedy - Lear's self-realisation and journey to humility through the recognition of his mortal limitations - are simply ignored. Wu transforms King Lear into a dialogue between the actor and his roles, a conceit that works in the short sequence where he becomes Lear's Fool but which otherwise is dramaturgically baffling. Shakespeare's tragedy becomes a Confucian fable about the evils of filial impiety, with a final scene in which Lear excoriates his three (!) disloyal daughters and laments the darkness of life - even as he holds the corpse of Cordelia (or at least, I assumed it was Cordelia). It's hard to think of another interpretation that so badly misses the point. So, to return to my original question, why do the play at all?

I probably should mention the people who stood and cheered at the end, as Wu emerged, as theatrically modest as Albert Finney taking his bows in Ronald Harwood's marvellous film The Dresser. In which, not unincidentally, Finney also played an actor playing King Lear. For an exploration of both the play and the relationship between an actor and his role, you'd be better off hiring the DVD of that film.

It has to be said that the surtitles, which were translated from Mandarin via Babelfish, didn't help one whit. Much of the adaptation is written by Wu and bears no relationship to the original play at all. Which is fine: I am no purist when it comes to the classics. But every now and then a shred of original Shakespeare, distorted almost out of recognition, would flash up to remind me of what was missing: Shakespeare's complex humanity. In any case, I'll certainly treasure this Lear as one of my more bizarre theatrical experiences.

Pictures: top: a ruined piano rotting gently into the landscape; bottom: Wu-Hsing-kuo in King Lear.


Anonymous said...

"The first thing you notice about the program is how many events also come from islands"

Well, Ms TN, one would hope so. Given the premise of the festival is programming islands' arts...

Alison Croggon said...

I am not sure of your point, Anon ... My readers won't necessarily know this. Or should I have just assumed?

richardwatts said...

So glad you enjoyed the sublime Floating, Ms Croggon...

Anonymous said...

Don't know about the piano thing...
Did it really sustain your interest?

I admire your tolerance, Alison.
And your lack of cynicism.

Alison Croggon said...

I can assure you that if my attention had wandered I would have said so! I found the music quite beautiful - in some ways some of the more minimal pieces reminded me of Feldman, but with an added freighting nof the embodied memory of the instrument. But what is there to be cynical about in a show like Ruined? Aside from anything else, what you get is exactly what's written on the box.

Anonymous said...

I suppose so.

I just wonder if I could sit through 20 pianos telling their story.

Can I ask, how advanced are the play-readings at the NPF? Are they entirely on book? I'm not sure what the point is if it's as awkward as you say.
Why don't they just sit and read them, or invest more time and have very basic productions?

Even the most transporting actors are usually shite until they dump the script.

Alison Croggon said...

I should have said that Bolleter didn't play every piano in the installation. The entire performance was quite brief - around 45 minutes.

As for the NPF - I only attended one reading out of a very wide schedule, so my comments are by no means a general reflection of the event. But readings can be fabulous events in their own right - sometimes they have a freshness and spontaneity that is revelatory.

Anonymous said...

Aye aye. I suppose so.

Anonymous said...

Shame you missed the majority of the play readings in Hobart. I agree they can feel a little uncomfortable at times. For me it is the sense that there are so many industry people assessing and a feeling of such pressure behind it.

I thought it was worth noting I did have a rather remarkable experience on the Friday where 25 odd Vietnam veterans turned up to the reading of The Berry Man by Patricia Cornelius. In a room full of industry 'folk' sat this group, most who had never been to the theatre in the past 10 years let alone a playreading.
They so got it. They laughed they breathed heavy, the cried, the hugged each other at the end and they stayed in the bar to give notes. One of those rare wonderful moments.

Plinius said...

I was interested in your review of the Ross Bolleter concert which makes it sound great - would love to see some of this in England. I've linked to this posting from my blog.