Australian theatre ~ theatre notes

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Australian theatre

My thoughts on the shifting main stages, the decline (and rebirth) of naturalism and other symptoms of the current renaissance in Australian theatre are published in today's Australian. A sample:

During the past few years, our small but vibrant theatre culture has begun to produce some of the most intelligent and, yes, entertaining theatre in the English-speaking world.

The Broadway success of the Belvoir St-Malthouse Theatre production of Exit the King, which has been nominated for four Tony awards, is only the glamorous tip of a wave generated by seismic shifts beneath the surface of the culture during the past decade. Partly this is due to the influence of the coruscating questioning of the form led by directors such as Kosky. But that's by no means the whole story.

These changes inevitably have led to conflict, most often portrayed, as in Williamson's comments, as a war between writing and directing. It's an argument that reaches far beyond our shores. Only last month, The Guardian's critic Michael Billington prompted howls of derision by warning against the cult of the auteur director, which he claimed was at the expense of the writer and would seduce British theatre to artistic bankruptcy.

At first glance, the ascendancy of the director may seem to be a fait accompli. Auteur directors such as Kosky and Benedict Andrews, or the brash young Melbourne group Hayloft, which recently caused a storm of debate with its interpretation of Chekhov's Three Sisters, offer interpretations of classic plays that can seem to be -- and sometimes are -- radically disrespectful of the art of writing.

But a closer look complicates the picture. Kosky is, after all, one of our most literate theatre artists and is a long-term collaborator with Tom Wright, who was short-listed for this year's NSW Premier's Play Award. Andrews also collaborates with writers; for several years he has worked closely with German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, a regular at London's Royal Court, itself the original writer's theatre.

Just as Williamson's complaints about his marginalisation chime oddly with his continued presence on main stages, the contradictions suggest there is more to this than meets the eye.

You can read the whole piece here.


Anonymous said...

THANKYOU for your clear eyed comments on Naturalism - I had never understood the accepted division between Naturalism and non.

I still wonder how original Naturalism, that is Ibsen's, with all its symbolism and weird notions of heredity could become the default label for 'television theatre'...

Justin Cash said...


A fabulous article on modern Australian playwriting, the state of our theatre and performance styles. All Drama and Theatre teachers should be reading it. I, for one, will be sharing your observations with my senior Drama students. Very educational. Thank you.

Justin Cash
President, Drama Victoria.

Matthew said...

What's fascinating to me is that many of the ideas you've express in your article - about the changing role of the writer in theatrical ensembles, about the tensions between writers' and directors' theatres, about questions of creative control and authorship - are questions central to much of the discourse surrounding screenwriting and screenwriters in the cinema, too. I've just finished reading a book about screenwriting that echoes many of your key themes, perhaps the most interesting of which, to me, is the normalisation and institutionalisation of certain forms and the ways we think and speak about these arts as a result. In mainstage Australian theatre, Williamson's brand of soapy naturalism, and certain ideas about the sovereignty of the playtext (Andrews notwithstanding), have long held sway; in cinema, the normalised forms are the narrative feature film and the well-written screenplay, the latter of which complies to certain ideas about story, structure and character, and which is not only central to the Hollywood system, where it originated, but also to systems like ours, where it has become the normative standard for funding bodies, too. Of course, certain forms and the ways we think and talk about them become dominant in all the arts, and thankfully only rarely without spawning some kind of alternative. But it is fascinating the extent to which, in both mainstage theatre and mainstream cinema, keeping in mind the obvious differences between the two, the writer and the written text are so often the points around which these arguments pivot.

Nice to see someone smacking Williamson down in the mainstream press, by the way.

George Hunka said...

As always interesting comments, Alison (worthy of a Pascall Prize winner -- congratulations on that as well!).

I wonder first how much of that original division between naturalistic and non-, traditional and experimental, began in the critical community itself and then spread rather like a virus to theatre practitioners. Literary naturalism/realism itself began with a series of critical and essayistic manifestoes by Zola and the Goncourts. In the theatre, Ibsen wasn't much for theory, but Strindberg was, and that preface to "Miss Julie" -- often taken for a call to naturalism and realism in theatre -- is a curious thing, considering Strindberg's later proto-expressionistic plays. It's as if, as revolutionary as the naturalist playwrights considered themselves, it was more of a temporary phase in the careers of these artists, a passing-through. Ibsen's final quartet points to the Symbolists rather than Zola or the Goncourts -- to that "difficult," "non-naturalistic" work. And seemingly always, the traditional work manifests a social-realistic form, closely resembling the form of Ibsen's early "realist" work ("Ghosts," "A Doll's House") that can be found each night on television. As revolutionary as it might have been, it's now beamed into the homes of millions.

In part it may be the recognition that the nineteenth-century faith in science to improve the human lot slowly disintegrated. The naturalist/realist approach (and there's a dichotomy about which volumes has been written) is an outgrowth of the rationalistic, Enlightenment ideal: Zola and the Goncourts considered their work scientific, an investigation of nature or, perhaps at the least, what we like to call "human nature." And the underlying assumption there is that, once understood, nature itself can be manipulated to serve the ends of only one species of nature, humankind. This remains the progressive liberal ideal, an ideal found in social realistic theatre: that once society can be understood, it can be changed.

And we cling to that, despite the irrationalism that Freud said was our destiny. Non-traditional theatre makers, both individual playwrights and more collective troupes, constitute a threat to the social-realist genre: they deny, or at least call into question, the utility of the realist and naturalist genres in the remaking of individual perspective and society. And undermine instrumentalist political theatre as well, which in its journalistic approach depends upon the realist/naturalist form for its validity.

Not to say that the work of, for example, dramatist Edward Bond and director Ariane Mnouchkine, both explicitly political theatremakers who abjure the realist genre yet maintain a faith in the journalistic approach, don't embody precisely that neither/nor cross-genre style that you note may be the best way to approach this theatre. But so much of it remains entrenched in that watered-down Ibsenism that seems to be the legacy of the "commericial" thatre (and so much of the non-commerical theatre as well; realism and naturalism still live on the stages of the non-commerical theatre). Brecht is another question: despite his seeming disruptions of form, his theatre might be said to be the utmost exemplar of the realistic and naturalistic ideology; for he too considered his theatre scientific.

I can't speak for Australia at all, and am sorry I don't have the time at the moment to take up the same question as it applies to the American stage. But thanks for the chance to parse some of this out.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks all for your comments. Matthew, the question of writing in film seems to me even more vexed than in theatre! My agent says writers don't belong in the movies, certainly the way the industry (and it is an industry) is presently structured; and I agree with her. And yet it seems to me that everyone is correct in pointing to screenplays as the major weakness in contemporary Australian films. That's surely about the process as presently conceived - it's hard to imagine Bergman submitting one of his gorgeous scripts to a funding body and having it come through... It wasn't always so here - The amounts of money involved in making a film perhaps entrench those attitudes; the normative narrative structure is certainly easier to sell. Theatre is cheaper and so there's more wiggle room, maybe...

Thanks George for those thoughts, which chime with other speculations I'm turning over about Voltaire and other things. I don't have a problem with naturalism/realism per se; I've seen enough work that uses the form to make theatre that is anything but instrumentalist and maybe works closer to tragedy (Harrower's Blackbird, for instance) to think there's life in the old dog yet.

Justin Cash said...

I recall Edward Albee (who these days is a voting member for the annual Tony Awards) saying in an interview in August 2006 that "Of the eighty or so plays that get produced on Broadway each year, only two or three of them are any good. The rest are just commercial junk" (ABC Sunday Arts).

After personally spending years frustrated with commercial theatre companies producing banal naturalistic dramas with four characters on minimalistic or boring sets, slowly these mainstream theatre companies are taking risks and are now producing eclectic and exciting works on the popular stage (just an observation, I'm not whinging as we are truly blessed with a vibrant theatre scene in Melbourne ... if one shops around for the right product, there's always plenty on offer).

But curiously, it was a blast from the past that last night caught my attention. Of the 72 plays produced on Broadway last year, one only has to stop at the top of the list, alphabetically, to see their faith in mainstream, commercial naturalistic theatre restored.

Tracy Letts' August Osage County (MTC) has a naturalistic three-storey house for a set, so detailed Ibsen would have been proud. Add to this, naturalistic acting by 13 fully-rounded characters; a cast two to three times that of most mainstream modern plays. All of this, neatly wrapped up inside a well-made three act, three and a half hour play and you have to applaud Letts for pulling off the best old-fashioned drama in years.

Surely the audience was bored? This is not how modern theatre should be? Nope. Moments of absolute silence were followed by 800 people in hysterical laughter. This play engaged its audience like no other.

I saw August Osage County on Broadway last March and again in Melbourne last night and it was a beautiful example of naturalistic playwriting realised for the stage. I could have sworn I was watching a darker version of A Doll's House, such was the play's structure, with remnants of Albee's own Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, everywhere.

Thanks to Letts, "good" naturalistic theatre lives on.......

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Justin - Ye-es... I thought it a fantastic production, and that play is definitely a winner in lots of ways; if only our David could write that well. But I'm a long way from thinking it the saving grace of naturalism. More to follow on this one here next week...

George Hunka said...

Actually, the form of naturalism if not its emergence as a genre may have appeared even earlier than Voltaire -- when Moliere had M. Jourdain realize in 1670 that he had been speaking prose all his life; this may have been as much a signpost of naturalism as "Ghosts." And of course the seachange in the English theatre that followed the Restoration in 1660. The emphasis on prose that one finds in Wycherley's plays, as well as their confinement to domestic spaces, points the way to that new naturalism. Comic and satiric, but far more a reflection of the rise of the industrializing and imperial middle class than earlier theatre.

But enough.

Anonymous said...

Alison, I'm the David Williamson one of your readers enjoyed being seen knocked down. I'm not quite sure why as my only sin in my eyes is to have written plays people have come to and enjoyed for a long time now. Your article was well researched and well written and adds to theatre debate. Could I make a few points. The supposed spat between myself and STC is largely a beat up. When asked what direction STC wanted to go in I said I thought it would be a combination of Capital T theatre (director's theatre) and interesting new writing. The latter was left off. I also said director's theatre has a valued place in repetoire and that I myself enjoyed "War of the Roses". I also said that Cate and Andrew had been good enough to talk to me face to face about the new directions they wanted to take and I accepted that. I have never seen my type of theatre as the only one or ever wanted to hog our stages. For many years (13) as President of the Writer's Guild I helped fight for more new writing on our stages and screens and had a heated argument in public with Robyn Nevin some years back at a writer's conference about what I saw as insufficient new writing in the STC repetoire. This does n ot mean I intend to politely step down in favour of new writing. I believe many types of theatre can co exist.I enjoy connecting with my audiences and as long as I still do I want to keep writing. The great buzz for me is not the money but that sense of connection and communication. Sitting in the audience of my new play LET THE SUNSHINE in Sydney the other night was terrific. I don't believe that audience was full of theatrical ignoramuses who if they knew better wouldn't be appreciating my work. Nor do I think that creativity stops at 60. Three of my favourite films last year were made by eighty year old Clint Eastwood (2) and Woody Allen 73. I did have a small jibe at Barrie Kosky while at the same time admitting his powerful theatrical imagination. Barrie has been saying quite vicious things about me for years and no theatre writer ever sprang to my defence but when Barrie is questioned, even lightheartedly, it seems the theatical skies fall in. I admit without shame that most of my work is comedic. In London Alan Ackybourne is critted within the category of writer of comedy not as a failed Ibsen which sometimes seems to happen here. I am reminded of the words supposedly said by Edmund Keene of his deathbed. "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." Very best David Williamson.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi David - welcome, and great to see you here! Thanks for your post, and also for clarifying what you said to the SMH. Really I used your comments as a springboard to discuss some things I've observed over the past few years; as I said, you're not the only writer who has said similar things. (Fair dos btw on being misquoted. It happens to me quite often, and I never enjoy it either. I will point out that Barrie K gets his share of spectacular bad press, so I don't think it's exactly one-sided.)

Personally, I have always placed your work with people like Ayckbourn. No, there's absolutely nothing wrong with comedies, and certainly you have a wide and loyal audience. Nobody - and certainly not me - has ever argued that your work should not be done. The question of diversity is the real one. And what I was attempting to track in that article was a major shift on the main stages over the past few years, which to my mind has opened up a real possibility of diversity. Although it does remain to be seen whether this freeing up survives the next few years of straitened economic conditions. I'm crossing my fingers.

Anony-mouse said...

Gee...fancy crits and other journos inventing a non-existent spat/split/culture war and then to stand as the omnipresent voice of reason and unbiased reportage. Unthinkable..