Review: WretchBe a WretchSeven Jewish ChildrenReview: I Love You, Bro; PoupeeReview: The War of the RosesSmoke, war and MuddOptimism...Review: Yellow Moon, JerkerReview: WoyzeckInspiration elsewhereScriptoria unbound ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 23, 2009

Review: Wretch

A prison is a place where people are watched, and know that they are watched. In these spaces, behaviour shapes itself beneath the pressure of the assumed gaze. Human action becomes, in a disturbing sense, pure performance. As the Abu Ghraib photos brought home brutally by implicating all who looked on them in the act of torture, there can be an uncomfortable element of sadism in the act of looking.

It's an irony of history that the man who first theorised total surveillance, the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was an influential progressive. The panopticon - the institution in which an inmate is watched all the time - has become the symbol of the repressive surveillance state; and yet Bentham opposed slavery, campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality and advocated rights for women. For all his humanitarian views, the chilly intellection in the idea of the panopticon makes mere brutalisation seem almost friendly.

Plays set in prison enact this discomforting element in the relationship between actor and audience. They derive their unsettling power from a meta-theatrical consciousness of the parallels between theatre and prison, heightening the awareness of the mutual confinement of the watchers and the watched, and dramatising the predatory gaze of the audience. This is true of plays as formally various as Athol Fugard's The Island, Jean Genet's Deathwatch or Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade. And Angus Cerini's Wretch is yet another.

Wretch is, in many ways, a wholly uncomfortable experience. Marg Howell's confronting design transforms La Mama, almost placing the audience inside the white box of the set. The friendly stairs are hidden completely, which radically changes the nature of the space: all that is visible is a floor and overarching ceiling of institutional white tiles, illuminated harshly by fluorescent lights.

The two performers are already seated on stage when the audience enters. When we sit down, we know we are as visible to the actors on the stage as they are to us, and their exposure is a reflection of our own: we cannot conceal from ourselves that our watching is active. As witnesses, guards, silent bystanders, we are implicated in this act of theatre and, by extension, in its social meaning.

The fictional conceit of the script - the co-winner of the 2007 Patrick White Playwrights' Award - is that it is visiting hour in prison, where a mother (Susie Dee, who co-directs this piece with Cerini) is visiting her criminal son (Angus Cerini). At first, as the banal conversation unfolds into an argument about cigarettes, Wretch appears to be a naturalistic piece enacted in real time, but this soon shifts into another, much more heightened register. Cerini's densely poetic text attacks language at its most brutalised and grotesque, and wrings out of it a starkly lyric beauty. The play itself sculpts experience into a single, unbearable present, where the past erupts in sudden psychotic shifts, beautifully signalled by Kelly Ryall's sound design and Richard Vabre's lighting.

The young criminal in Wretch bears striking similarities to the 15-year-old boy in Cerini's extraordinary 2007 show, Detest. Although they clearly ring fictional variations on each other, they are not the same man: the story in common with both is that of a young man who beats to death the killer and rapist of an old woman. Here the abjection of Cerini's brutalised character is, if possible, even more exposed: but this time it's seen in relationship to his mother, a former street prostitute who is suffering from breast cancer. She has had one mastectomy, and is facing another; but we know as well as she does that she is dying.

Possibly only Susie Dee - whom I last saw on stage 15 years ago - could match Cerini's style of extreme grotesquerie, which marries outrageous, even Hogarthian, caricature to a pitiable yet complex humanity. Slouched on stage, their bodies somehow deformed and twisted under the lights, Dee and Cerini are two tragic clowns, creatures whose abjection is so extreme, so humiliating, that our witnessing is painful. And yet they are stubborn, they make us laugh, and there are telling moments when the slyness of their understanding, their subversive humour, slide in and slash away any possibility of patronising pity.

This doomed pair confront each other, accuse each other, hate each other, humiliate each other. They reveal their brutalising histories, and we understand that both of them have always, from the moment of their births, been imprisoned: by lack, by cultural deprivation, by the inability to articulate their desires.

We know there is no redemption for either of them, just as there is no escape from our gaze. And yet, just as clearly, we see how much they love each other. There is no moral to this story (for which, more than anything, I thank Cerini); just the fact of their love, in the midst of so much ugliness. And the difficult act of looking.

Wretch by Angus Cerini, directed and performed by Angus Cerini and Susie Dee. Design by Marg Horwell, sound design Kelly Ryall, lighting design by Richard Vabre. La Mama Theatre until March 8. Bookings: 9347 6142.

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Be a Wretch

Ms TN is having lively dialogues with her brain, which have currently gone into arbitration. Viz.: said brain refuses to go to work. While I await the results of said arbitration, which I'm hoping will be swift and brutal, let me recommend a visit to La Mama to see Angus Cerini's latest creation, Wretch, which among other attractions features Cerini and Susie Dee on stage together. Review to follow once the parties in my skull reach agreement.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Seven Jewish Children

Update: George Hunka on British playwrights, responding to David Cote's Time Out blog, is a must-read. And see Andrew Haydon in the Guardian on the banning of a play by Anthony Neilson in Malta. Godwot, it's been a busy week in Britannia...


Caryl Churchill's new play, Seven Jewish Children, is presently stirring up a huge brouhaha (or is it a furore? Anyway, one of those words that you never read outside articles like this one).

Billed as a "ten-minute history of Israel, ending with the bombing of Gaza", it is being staged as a free event at London's Royal Court, after performances of Marius von Mayenburg's play The Stone, which is about German attempts to deal with its Nazi past. Predictably, given its implied critique of the State of Israel, Churchill's play has been accused of being anti-Semitic, and even of bringing up the blood libel. This stems from a line that reads: "tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her." Which is a tough line, yes, but is also plainly a response to the kind of commentary which also sparked articles like this one from Gideon Levy in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

You can read Churchill's text for yourself here. The dingdong argument at the Guardian theatre blog continues here, Andrew Haydon has a review and discussion here and George Hunka has more here. George intriguingly reports that the New York Theatre Workshop - which caused another furore when it first booked, then cancelled, a NY production of My Name is Rachel Corrie (TN background here) - is putting out feelers about putting on Churchill's play.

The accusations of anti-Semitism made against Churchill are very depressing. They are part of a political strategy to undermine critique by conflating legitimate criticism of a state with the ugliest racism. What is worse is that the bombing of Gaza has prompted some of the vilest anti-Semitism I have seen recently, which seems - erroneously - to legitimise this stance. However, confusing Churchill's play with anti-Semitism helps nobody, and worst of all, trivialises what anti-Semitism actually is.

Coincidentally, an email from the distinguished US poet Adrienne Rich recently landed in my inbox, in which she explains, not without anguish, her reasons for joining an academic and cultural boycott against Israel. She also outlines this particular mechanism of repressing political critique as clearly as anyone I've seen:

As an American Jew, over almost 30 years, I’ve joined with other concerned Jews in various kinds of coalition-building and anti-Occupation work. I’ve seen the kinds of organized efforts to stifle — in the US and elsewhere -- critiques of Israel’s policies -- the Occupation’s denial of Palestinian humanity, destruction of Palestinian lives and livelihoods, the “settlements,” the state’s physical and psychological walls against dialogue—and the efforts to condemn any critiques as anti-Semitism. Along with other activists and writers I’ve been named on right-wing “shit-lists” as “Israel-hating” or “Jew-hating.” I have also seen attacks within American academia and media on Arab American, Muslim, Jewish scholars and teachers whose work critically explores the foundations and practices of Israeli state and society.

Me, I'll just point out that libelling artists of conscience as anti-Semites in order to stifle debate and criticism is as wrong as racism itself.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review: I Love You, Bro; Poupee

“I am a famous liar,” boasts Johnny, the swaggeringly vulnerable teen protagonist of Adam Cass’s fascinating one-man play I Love You, Bro. He is, he hints, a bigger liar than Shakespeare himself.

Certainly Johnny sees himself as a tragic hero, or perhaps heroine. He might be only 14, he tells us, but that doesn’t mean his feelings are childish; after all, Juliet was 14 when her love for Romeo drove her to kill herself. And you don’t doubt for a moment the truth of Johnny’s emotions, although he reveals a bizarre story of cyber-deception that can have few parallels.

I Love You, Bro tells the story of extreme obsession: Johnny’s crush on the popular but slow-witted schoolboy Mark. Truth and fiction are entwined from the very conception of this intriguing one-man show, which is about much more than the shadowy perils of cyberspace and teen sexuality.

This play was an award-winning hit of the 2007 Melbourne Fringe and garnered a swag of rave reviews at the Edinburgh Festival. Its return season at the Malthouse allows those of us who missed it the first time round to see what the fuss is about.

Perhaps the strangest thing about it is that it is closely based on a true story about a 14-year-old Manchester boy, who was convicted of inciting his own murder by his best friend. Although the actual case is even crueller and more sad than the story presented here with such actorly élan by Ash Flanders, Cass sticks pretty closely to the reported facts.

That this is more than a piece of documentary theatre is largely a function of Cass’s stylised writing and Flanders’s brave performance, which is elegantly directed by Yvonne Virsik on a bare, raised stage with minimal lighting. Johnny’s invented characters seem to possess him: he claims that they have lives of their own, and that while he is pretending to be the different characters, he believes in them totally. His behaviour raises profound questions about the nature of identity and the essential amorality of human imagination.

Cass’s language, a motley vernacular reminiscent of Stephen Berkoff’s argot of Shakespearean language and cockney slang, is a striking fusion of chatroom slang and poetic invention. As the monologue unfolds, Johnny's cockiness and aggression become more and more infused with bewilderment and loss, until the show is finally about the longing for emotional contact that drives him to such furious and destructive invention.

It’s a dense text, and the decision to perform it with a midlands accent means that for the five minutes or so, until the ear adjusts, it’s sometimes hard to catch its complexities. The play doesn't escape the odd feeling of longueur; just after half way, once everything has been revealed and all that remains is a nightmare of repetition, it loses dramatic energy. But this picks up swiftly. It’s certainly a show that demands attention; but it also rewards it.

Poupée, a short dance work choreographed by Trudy Radburn at fortyfivedownstairs, is a light but sharp-edged exploration of feminine identity. The two dancers, Sally Smith and Trudy Radburn, first appear as four legs emerging from a huge mass of white tulle: above the tulle arms pop up and vanish, like puppet birds casing the landscape.

The bird motif returns often through Poupée, which moves lightly through different phases that explore various rites of feminine passage - birth, childhood, awakening sexuality, marriage, loneliness. At times the bird gestures throw human agency into serious question, as they recall territorial or mating behaviour, trapped in the shapes of instinct; sometimes they are simply joyous or absurd; sometimes they celebrate our closeness to the natural world, and and others seem sinisterly reductive.

It's funny, moving and multifaceted performance. Like last year's enchanting Care Instructions, it explores the dilemmas of gender with grace and wit and lightness. The dance is rich with constant surprise, of which perhaps the coup is the appearance (apparently from nowhere) of the pianist and composer, Madeleine Flynn.

As its name indicates, the other major motif of the dance is that of the doll, the plaything that is all outer appearance and has no inner life. The dancers are, at different times, warring aspects of the self, mirror images, enemies, rivals. Ultimately, they are doleful and exhausted, their desire for friendship or communication thwarted by the feminine selves that hide them from each other (or themselves). So for all the frou frou of Emily Barrie's simple but lush design, it's ultimately a rather bleak show. But no less beautiful for that.

Part of this review was in Monday's Australian.

Pictures from top: Ash Flanders in I Love You, Bro; Trudy Radburn in Poupée.

I Love You, Bro, by Adam Cass, directed by Yvonne Virsik. Design by Jason Lehane, music by Nick Wollan. With Ash Flanders. Three to a Room and Malthouse Theatre @ the Tower Theatre, until February 28.

Poupée, choreographed by Trudy Radburn. Design by Emily Barrie, lighting design by Efterpi Soropos. Danced by Trudy Radburn and Sally Smith. Fortyfive downstairs. Closed.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review: The War of the Roses

History is the discourse of power

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended

Here's a good world the while! Why, who's so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?

Richard III, III, 6

Borders are always drawn in blood and states marked out with graves.

Ratko Mladić, Serbian Army Chief of Staff during the Balkan War

Beginning with King John and ending with Henry VIII, the ten works known as Shakespeare’s History Plays dramatise five generations of brutal power struggle in mediaeval England. Although they were never written to be performed as cycles or as single epic works, the contemporary stage has seen a number of notable versions of the history plays as epic theatre. Peter Hall inaugurated the Royal Shakespeare Company with a cycle of eight plays, The Wars of the Roses, in 1964; again with the RSC, Adrian Noble made The Plantagents, an adaptation of the second tetralogy in 1988. Michael Bogdanov directed another famous seven-play adaptation, The Wars of the Roses, at the English Shakespeare Company in 1987. And so on.

Less illustriously, Bell Shakespeare did their own version, Wars of the Roses, in 2005. That production begged the question: why should 21st century Australians be interested in plays that are so crucially concerned with the question of Englishness, and which in fact have been formative of the fiction of English national consciousness? Can our staging these plays be anything more than a colonial gesture of defiance or obsequiousness, either being different sides of the same cultural coin? Or is there something else going on in these plays that can elicit a proper contemporary attention? Is there still something they can reveal?

Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews answer these questions authoritatively with their adaptation, The War of the Roses. Rendering eight plays in four acts over eight hours, this is a work of massive intellectual and theatrical ambition that will be impossible to encompass properly here. Trying to think about it is rather like a pleasurable version of Hercules's adventures with the Hydra: every time I address a thought, another two spring up and demand attention. But, as Wittgenstein so comfortingly says, one has to begin somewhere.

The War of the Roses is theatre of a rare and desolating beauty. It generates its startling visual richness from a poverty of illusion. Andrews strips the stage to its back walls and finds for each of the four acts a single informing (and utterly transparent) theatrical metaphor. This lyric simplicity has the effect of framing and foregrounding Shakespeare's language. It highlights the literary beauty, wit and power of the speeches, not by reverent attention to their formalities, but through excessive physical demands on the performers, which excavate the visceral truths of poetry.

In these plays, The War of the Roses is no longer plural. It is a single war, an Orwellian total war without end, a war in which peace is only war by other means, a war very close to that within which we live. And yes, in this intellectually epic realisation, Wright and Andrews demonstrate that there is indeed a reason to mount these plays in this day and time. Yes, they are parables that concern themselves with much more than narrow questions of British nationalism or pretty kings. Yes, in these old stories of English kings we can see, reflected in their faces, our own complicities, our own shames. They reflect for us the nightmare of our history, the blind, murderous tragedy that continues in our own time.

Power never goes out of fashion.


Giving it the proper capitals, Shakespearean critic Jan Kott called it the Grand Mechanism: the eternally revolving machine of History that raises high and casts low, so that he who at first believes he makes history becomes at last history’s plaything, the executioner executed. In the History Plays, the primal violence that inaugurates the State is laid bare; the illusions that conceal its bloody origins are torn roughly aside. Pomp and ritual, the notion of justice, the vision of an “anointed king” whom God blesses, or a President with a personal phone line to the Almighty, all fly up like the painted scenery on a stage to reveal a bleak world driven by the machinery of power, in which the only thing that counts is who is stronger. In this world, the world that Shakespeare brought to artistic fruition in the dark, bestial universe of King Lear, history is Godless and bereft of meaning.

The wheel turns: the pretender murders the king and seizes the crown, only to become himself a victim. Thus, as Camus sardonically observed, you might witness the true meaning of Revolution. Hegel thought history had a deeper and rational purpose, the evolution of the human spirit towards freedom and enlightenment: Marx, following Hegel, thought it a mechanism that would generate freedom for the masses enslaved by capital. But Shakespeare’s view of history is altogether starker.

It is, in many ways, a pre-Christian vision. As a young man, Shakespeare encountered the Latin poets, in particular Seneca, whose bloody tragedies influenced works like Titus Andronicus, and Lucan. Marlowe's translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia, his epic poem about the Roman Civil Wars, was popular in Elizabethan England when Shakespeare was writing the Henry VI plays, and may in fact have been their model. In this poem, Lucan describes the cosmos as a malfunctioning machine facing inevitable collapse under its own weight, a universe without meaning or purpose. Certainly in both works, ruinous civil wars lead to the creation of a tyrant – Caesar in one, Richard III in another.

Like Lucan and Seneca, Shakespeare saw history as an endless wheel of pain, a cycle of suffering that serves no purpose but its own continuation, and whose only production is corpses. The wheel turns and turns again: blood oils the axle, its iron rim crushes the human body under its irresistible weight, the next king rises and murders and falls. And for what? For the golden circle that is without beginning or end, the empty crown of state, the beautiful delusion that, once it has seduced its victims, reveals its true face:

...for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court...

Richard II, III, 2


Eight hours, eight plays, one hundred years. Shakespeare’s medium was time, his tool was language. He used language to sculpt time, revealing the sinews of History, its dynamic, dramatic form. Andrews and Wright have sculpted Shakespeare, cutting back the eight plays to their essential speeches, laying bare the bones of language and time that underlie the flesh of history.

The War of the Roses is an oratorio, a series of soliloquies made by people in agonising solitude. The protagonists are caught outside historical action, in the isolating interstices when they become conscious of the implications of their acts. As the audience, we become their silent witnesses, their co-conspirators, their allies and enemies and subjects. It's a bold reworking that seems to create theatre at its purest and most essential, and yet the result continuously demands comparison to other arts, demonstrating its essential impurity: you think it is pure music, pure sculpture, pure poetry. Pure vision, pure dream.

Wright and Andrews have loosened the self-consciousness of the Renaissance stage, summoning an earlier idea of theatre. As the Shakespearean scholar Anne Richter noted, mediaeval drama implied both audience and player in one transcendent reality: the Easter plays were originatory rituals, where time future and time past were resolved into an infinite present. Shakespeare’s plays were part of a reality that splintered this holistic pageantry: his plays were the culmination of the secularisation of the dramatic stage, the zenith of the self-contained, self-conscious, articulate world that was the great invention of the Elizabethans.

Yet when the fire-curtain silently rises on the first stunning image of the cycle – Cate Blanchett as Richard II seated in a throne, surrounded by her unmoving courtiers, while an endless fall of gold leaf rains down onto the stage – what we see is not a Renaissance image, nor even a modern image. It is a mediaeval image, recalling in its hieratic formality nothing so much as the famous portrait of Richard II that is now in Westminster Abbey. And like the mediaeval pageants, this is a theatre that directly addresses us, which seeks to makes us implicit in its world. Through the four acts, we are begged, importuned, commanded, rebuked; we weep and laugh and are bewitched. We are not apart from this world. It even makes us flinch in immediate, visceral fear at the end of Part One, in an extraordinary coup of lighting: a huge shadow seems to fall from the top of the theatre as the curtain closes, as if a wall of darkness is falling onto us, a winged omen of dread. This theatre is more than a mirror. It is us.

There are of course still dialogic scenes – most notably the brilliant scene in Richard III when Richard (Pamela Rabe), the killer of Anne’s (Cate Blanchett) father and husband, seduces her as she follows the corpse of Henry VI, whom Richard has also murdered; or the scenes between Falstaff (John Gaden) and the wild, contemptuous young Hal (Ewen Leslie) in Henry V. But these play out in relief against a frieze of grinding existential solitude, and call into question the very basis of human communication. This is what makes The War of the Roses a contemporary production, rather than a nostalgic glance back to a romantic history: each character here is as pitilessly exposed, as cruelly alone, as any character in Beckett.

The War of the Roses begins and ends with two tragedies, Richard II and Richard III, which between them comprehend the decadence of power. They rhyme in more than name. Where Richard II is accompanied for more than an hour with a rain of gold, Richard III is performed on a children’s playground on which falls, silently and mercilessly, an endless rain of ash that blurs and conceals the corpses that accumulate about the stage.

In Richard II, we witness something more profound than mere regicide: we see the death of the idea of the king, the humanising of the sacred mouth of God to a mere mortal man, a foreshadowing of Lear’s realisation that he is but a “poor bare, forked stick”. In Richard III, we see what happens when desacralised power is put into conscious action. Richard II believes, up to the moment of his death and despite his forced abdication, that he is a king by divine right; Richard III knows he is king by right of his own malice, deception and violence. Richard II is a melancholy dream of a vain but sacred illusion that is ultimately destroyed by the concealed power that sustains it; Richard III a terrifying vision of amoral brutality.

In between the two tragedies, six plays are compressed into two acts. These follow the histories of three King Henrys, IV, V and VI. We witness the remorseless mechanism that is the engine of historical tragedy: an abattoir, an endless parade of death played out across the rich garden of the kingdom, ultimately reducing it to the final desert of ash, an endless winter of discontent.

In Part One, Act Two, a conflation of Henry IV and V, the stage is utterly bare, the only decoration to the action the guitarist Stefan Gregory, who stands by a giant amp, his back to the audience, picking out a growling lyric on his guitar. This act plays out the crisis of royal legitimacy, reminding us that the etymology of the word “royal” is the same as the word “real” (and that the Real was also a currency of the Spanish realm: gold and divine authority, the ultimate realities, were – and still are – closely linked). Henry IV (Robert Menzies), the murderer of Richard II, the anointed king, is haunted by doubt in the legitimacy of his power. He rules a realm riven by rebellion and is shamed by his wastrel son, Hal (Ewen Leslie), a stark contrast to the bellicose young Hotspur (Luke Mullins), who is fomenting rebellion against the monarch.

Henry IV's desired legitimacy only comes after his death, when Hal, now Henry V, forswears his debauch. The state demands sacrifice for its inauguration and legitimation, and Henry expiates the sin of regicide with French blood. Defeated France marries Henry V in the person of Katherine of France (Luke Mullins), who, in one of the more chilling images of the play, rises from the floor as a French corpse covered with blood, and is washed and dressed in wedding clothes before being offered to Henry V.

This foreshadows the mechanical violence of Part Two, Act One, which follows the conflicts between the houses of York and Lancaster, symbolised by the white rose and the red. This slaughter takes place on a ground of flowers, a garden that becomes a battlefield. Each character plucks out their assigned colour in the legendary scene in the garden, when the nobles chose the red rose or the white to indicate their loyalties. But the colours are given a darker meaning: they are echoed in the blood spat into the face of actors, to signify murder, and the flour thrown over their bodies as corpse pallor. The flour hangs in the light like the phosphorous bombs hung over Gaza at Christmas time.

The Players

A hundred years, five kings. Outside the Globe Theatre, a sign read Totus mundus agit histrionem: All the world’s a stage. It’s a sentiment as ancient as Petronius, who is credited with its invention, and it was a commonplace of the Elizabethan age, when theatre was considered the mirror of the times. No one worked this metaphor with more variety, wit and point than Shakespeare.

This metaphor is woven through the entire production, but there are telling moments when it steps into the foreground. One is in Richard III, when Richard is plagued by nightmares before the Battle of Bosworth Field, assailed in his dreams by all those he has murdered. Each ghost curses Richard – Pamela Rabe in bloodied t-shirt and black trousers, her hair curtaining her face like an evil Joey Ramone – and blesses his enemy, Richmond (Luke Mullins). And then they all gather front stage, as actors do when the show is finished, and bow. And we see that the stage is Richard’s mind, a macabre playground where at first he is king of the castle, the playground bully and liar murdering his way to the top of the class with macabre glee. When the ghosts bow to us, heedless of death since the worst has already happened to them, Richard discovers that he is no longer playing history. Now, like all his forbears, all those kings who thought they were the authors of their own action, Richard finds that he is merely history’s plaything, after all. The role is playing him.

In this moment and others like it, we are also made pricklingly aware that Richard is an actor, a player who is, moreover, a woman, Pamela Rabe, who after the play is over will walk off the stage, strip off her costume and take a shower. This double consciousness of performance is a particularly Shakespearean trope, and Andrews has exploited it to the hilt in The War of the Roses. The ambiguity of the Player King – the king whose pomp is all performance, the actor whose performance is all kingliness, each reflecting the perilous illusions and realities of the other – is a constant motif through the History Plays and the tragedies, and its double meaning expands still further in this production in the ash-strewn playground of Richard III.

The metaphor generates its power from the compelling reality of the performances: if we did not believe in the cruel grace of Richard II, if we were sceptical of the grief opened on the whetstone of Bolingbroke's ambition, if the lewdness of Hal and Falstaff played false or Anne’s tragic death were laughable instead of pathetic and sad, then the mundane reality beneath the playing would have no power to enrich our watching, and to unite our quotidian and imaginative worlds into a single complex reality.

What does it mean to “believe” a performance? This production gives plenty of occasions to consider this question: the acting is superlative, as good as you will see anywhere, with performances of breadth and disturbing depths, with nuance and skill and delicacy and the kind of passion that hooks the heart on barbed wire. To "believe" an actor means, I think, to become more conscious, to open the imagination to the full scope of emotional possibility. It means to understand better the meaning of our own humanity. It is not always comfortable.

This is the final production of the STC’s Actors Company, the beautiful dream of a permanent ensemble that foundered on the Scylla and Charybdis of Sydney public opinion and uneven programming. To my mind miraculously, the Actors Company produced some unforgettable work along the way. And it seems to me that if it took three years to make this show, and The War of the Roses were all that the Actors Company produced, it was well worth the bother. After all, there are companies in Europe – much lauded by critics here who have been very quick to claim that the Actors Company was a waste of resources – who have done no more than work on a single production for three years.

Every time I’ve seen the Actors Company, I’ve been impressed by the fluidity of its performance, the depth of the ensemble's dynamic on stage. The War of the Roses takes this several steps further, with Andrews’ direction springing off those relationships to generate the terrifying alienation that is the harsh lesson of this production. Above all else, one is watching a practised group at work, by now polished by three years’ daily intimacy. The stage glows with the genius of the ensemble, which generates a lucidity of performance that you simply cannot attain in the job-to-job schedule of normal acting work.

A month into the season, I didn’t see a single weak actor, and the two guest actors – Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies – sit brilliantly within the cast. And this show features individual performances that are simply remarkable, portrayals that deserve to be lauded and remembered years hence as moments when greatness graced our stage.

Images that remain with me: Cate Blanchett as Richard II, luminous and sly, the image of arrogant wit and grace, heartless and heartbreaking, walking over broken glass to the crown; Robert Menzies as Bolingbroke, Henry IV, driven by anger, grief, regret and bitterness, surrounded by his likenesses in a macabre dance that stirred real horror; Ewen Leslie as Henry V, a revelatory performance, charismatically sexual, violent, his body drenched with honey and oil and blood in a diabolical anointing of royalty; John Gaden, brilliant and desolately moving as John of Gaunt and Edmund Duke of York, wickedly knowing and irrepressibly lustful as Falstaff; Marta Dusseldorf, terrifying in her hatred and ambition as Margaret of Anjou, teaching Queen Elizabeth (Amber McMahon) how to curse; Eden Falk, fumblingly innocent and somehow frightening as the child king Henry VI; Pamela Rabe, wickedly juvenile, blackly witty, clumsy, terrifyingly amoral and charismatic as Richard III. But none of these individual moments would be possible without the context around them.

And now, having reached this pitch of real greatness, the Actors Company is to end, to be replaced by a humbler workshop version of fresh faces that, according to the 2009 program, will be mainly working behind the scenes, “refining new work in the rehearsal room”. No doubt it is a sensible decision, given the controversy that has surrounded the Actors Company; perhaps Sydney will heave a huge sigh, to be relieved of such difficult and expensive beauty. But I can't help wishing that Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton had held their nerve and persisted in the grand folly of the Actors Company. Having seen the brilliant work that is The War of the Roses, dropping the company that made it seems like nothing so much as a terrible failure of imagination.

The War of the Roses photos: Tania Kelley.
The War of the Roses Part 1 and Part 2, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews. Directed by Benedict Andrews, designed by Robert Cousins, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music and sound design by Max Lyandvert, musician Stefan Gregory. Performed by Narek Armaganian, Cate Blanchett, Brandon Burke, Peter Carroll, Marta Dusseldorp, Eden Falk, Holly Fraser, John Gaden, Louis Hunter, Michael Kilbane, Ewen Leslie, Steve Le Marquand, Hayley McElhinney, Amber McMahon, Robert Menzies, Luke Mullins, Pamela Rabe, Emily Russell, Billy Shaw-Voysey and Leo Shaw Voysey. Sydney Theatre Company @ Sydney Theatre, season closed. Perth Festival, Her Majesty's Theatre, February 27 - March 8.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Smoke, war and Mudd

Ms TN flew back into the smoke haze of Victoria yesterday afternoon. It was all a bit spooky, peering out from my little metal tube 38,000 feet in the sky and watching this sunburned, smoke-scarred landscape below, all dry dams and empty rivers and bare paddocks. An aerial view gives a dramatic and rather frightening picture of just how drought-stricken Victoria is: you just can't see its aridity from ground-level. I really do think it's about time Queensland stopped pinching our water.

The War of the Roses will take a few days (weeks?) to process; it was a massive experience. I am, however, heroically aiming to post about it early next week. It finishes in Sydney this week, and then heads off for a season at the Perth Festival. Perth persons, if you haven't booked your tickets, go hence immediately. You'll regret it if you don't.

Meanwhile, let me point you to a charming and fascinating rehearsal blog being kept by Christian Leavesley for the production of Lally Katz's Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, a co-production between Arena Theatre and the Malthouse. Videos, mathematical posts, reader surveys, bizarre advertisements - what more does a cybergal need?

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009


...seems to be the word for the zeitgeist. A brief hoy before I step on the plane to Sydney to see The War of the Roses, so I can point you to David Jay's marvellous blog Performance Monkey, which will keep you busy while I'm away. Today a fascinating piece suggesting (acutely, I think) that classic German language plays might be the literature to see us through the recession. "We're going to have to take a long hard look at optimism in the coming months," he says. "There's cheerful and then there's deluded. Buchner, Wedekind and their heirs may not comfort us, but they might help." (And thanks too for the compliment, David.) I'll see y'all in a couple of days.

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Review: Yellow Moon, Jerker

We're all a bit shellshocked here in Victoria, as the death toll from the weekend's bushfires keeps spiralling up. Saturday was a terrible day. Even in the city, where we were safe from fire, the heat was apocalyptic: there were leaves in our backyard burned black, as if they had been blistered by a blow-torch. We found little geckos that were vainly trying to escape the heat completely dried out on the concrete, and the birds were absolutely silent all day, which was spooky. But the fires were deadlier than anyone imagined.

All the same, the shows went on. It's good to see that the Malthouse - presently staging Woyzeck - donated its entire Saturday night's takings of $11,872.38 to the Myer Bushfire Appeal. Meanwhile, I managed to get to two plays last weekend, and neither was cancelled (which happened across the board last week when the city infrastructure imploded in the heatwave - I guess this is theatre in the age of climate change).

David Greig's Yellow Moon, the opening play of Red Stitch's 2009 season, was first cab off the rank on Friday night. Greig is an intelligently contemporary (and frighteningly prolific) Scots playwright. Yellow Moon (subtitled The Ballad of Leila and Lee) was commissioned by a company that specialises in the theatre for young people, and there are certainly shades of young adult fiction in this play, with its story of two damaged urban teens from the tiny Scottish town of Inverkeithing.

Stag Lee (Martin Sharpe) is an alienated 15-year-old who spends most of his time fantasising about how he will make his fortune from a life of crime. His mother is seriously depressed, his father left when he was five, and he fights with his stepfather, Billy (Dion Mills). Silent Leila (Erin Dewar), on the other hand, is a well-behaved, studious Muslim girl whose vices are reading celebrity magazine and self-harming. For all his difficulties, Lee is quite certain that he exists, swaggering about "as if he owns the place", but Leila (Erin Dewar) - who has given up talking because she believes that people only hear what they want to - suspects that she doesn't. The only time she feels real is when she cuts her arms.

So begins an unlikely saga where these two children meet by chance, and are together in a cemetary when Lee sem-accidentally murders his stepfather. They flee to a hunting estate in the Highlands, where Lee believes he will find his errant father. Bizarrely enough, they find their way to the lodge, and meet its keeper, Drunk Frank (Dion Mills again) where, through a kind of purgatory of hard labour, they claim their identities, rediscover their innocence and fall awkwardly fall in love. Leila also meets an actual celebrity Holly (Ella Caldwell), before a melodramatic finale.

Director Alex Menglet emphasises the play's artifice with a gorgeous red curtain, spotlights and some spectacular actorly playing. There is the odd bum note: when Leila first appears, she is full chadoor, which seems at once inaccurate (most good Western Muslim girls go for the hijab, if they bother at all) and gratuitous. What kept me paying attention were the sharply detailed, virtuosic performances: Martin Sharpe and Erin Dewar in the central roles generate an appealing and unsaccharine innocence, which moves between comic and poignant without a trace of manneredness, something that has sometimes bothered me in Sharpe's previous performances. Dion Mills gives a physically electrifying performance in his various roles as narrator, Billy and Frank, and Ella Caldwell is fun in her role as the vacuous celebrity Holly.

The writing depends heavily on narration, with Dewar, Sharpe and Mills slipping constantly between story telling and direct enactment. It's all very epic in that Brechtian sense, and the alienating effect of the narration works brilliantly for one quarter of the play. Once the action headed into the highlands, I found myself more often puzzled than not, and it began to feel as if the play was trapped in its devices. Narrative devices were ingeniously exploited, but eventually they seemed to run out of steam, which is perhaps why it had to explode into sensationalist melodrama. I guess...

This is in fact a deeply strange play: it might look like a classic coming-of-age tale of teen angst and the emptiness of celebrity consumerist culture, but at the same time, it is redolent with pagan imagery. Deer, especially stags, feature heavily, and I wondered if, what with the gruesome stuff about deer being gutted, pulsing hearts, cleansing rings of fire and so on, there was some subtext of the Corn God, with the father sacrificed to the fertility of the ensuing generation. Or was it something about Scottish identity, the true heart of the Highlands and all that? Whatever it was, I missed it.

Of course, my imagination might have been a bit hysterical with the heat. All the same, I kept feeling that there was some dimension of this play that I just wasn't getting. For all the appealing performances and inventive direction, it ended up just being a road movie, with not much going on aside from the plot.

On Saturday - the hottest day since records began 150 years ago - I ended up in a sweaty little theatre in South Melbourne at the last night of a play about gay men masturbating to phone sex. This could have been one of those evenings that make you regret that first insouciant moment when you thought that theatre criticism sounded like a dandy way to pass the time. But it wasn't.

What attracted me to Jerker in the first place was the production team. (Call me a geek if you like, but I'll follow production people as closely as performers and directors). The show is designed by Adam Gardnir, who has worked with everyone from Stuck Pigs Squealing to the STC, with lighting by Danny Pettingill, who among many other things designed the lights for Hayloft's spectacularly beautiful production of Platonov. And Kelly Ryall, the sound designer, is one of the justly lauded theatre composers-around-town. My nose led me right: this production is a little gem.

Jerker, by San Francisco theatre critic and playwright Robert Chesley, is one of the signature plays to come out of the AIDS epidemic. Consisting entirely of phone dialogues between two men, JR (Gary Abrahams) and Bert (Russ Pirie), it records the arc of a relationship which begins with phone sex and evolves to some surprisingly tender moments without their ever meeting in the flesh, foreshadowing the curious intimacy of cyber relationships in the 21st century.

It was originally aired in 1986 as a radio play and its frank sexual language stirred up considerable controversy, culminating in the Federal Communications Commission rewriting its rules. Yet for all its history as hot political potato, this is a play with a light touch, deftly and often comically humane, shamelessly erotic and, ultimately, deeply moving. It survives its genre as AIDS play and its age surprisingly well: although Gary Abrahams wisely directs it as a period piece, with dial telephones and so on, it almost wholly escapes a feeling of datedness.

This is partly because its rigorously limited form means that it hasn't a lot of time for polemic. It's there, of course, in a scene that might be the hinge of the play, when we find out that JR is a Vietnam vet who says, impassionedly, that he has seen what evil is, and that it's definitely not the hedonistic gay promiscuity of the '70s. Chesley's frank defence on sexual libertarianism - an insistence that put him heavily at odds with Larry Kramer during the AIDS crisis - is passionately argued throughout the play. It's an argument that is still confronting, although the way AIDS was parsed as a moral punishment for gay men makes Chesley's anger understandable. But mostly we are focused on the fragmentary intimacy of the phone conversations, the obscenity and surprisingly tender innocence of the relationship between these two men.

As you might expect, production values are low on budget and high on sophistication. The keyword is simplicity. The design is a small raised stage on which stands a double bed split down the middle to represent the two bedrooms. As JR and Bert become more intimate, their relationship begins to generate its own reality, and the borders between the spaces, at first rigorously observed, become permeable; they lounge across each other's beds, even touch each other. It's gorgeously, intimately lit, with effective blackouts between each scene.

As Bert, Russ Pirie, whom I last saw in Little Death's brilliant production of Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur, gives a remarkable performance: this is a beautifully nuanced portrayal, superbly cadenced in its shifts from ironic restraint to full-blooded sexual ecstasy to grief, and Gary Abrahams as JR is an able foil. Certainly, the rising heat in the theatre that night wasn't just about the weather.

Picture: (L-R) Dion Mills, Martin Sharpe and Erin Dewar in the Red Stitch production of Yellow Moon. Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson

Yellow Moon by David Greig, directed by Alex Menglet. Set design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis. With Ella Caldwell, Erin Dewar, Dion Mills and Martin Sharpe. Red Stitch Actors Theatre until March 7.

Jerker by Robert Chesley, directed by Gary Abrahams. Set design by Adam Gardnir, costume design by Micka Agosta, lighting design by Danny Pettingill, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With Gary Abrahams and Russ Pirie. Milky Way @ Gasworks Arts Park, Midsumma Festival. Closed.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

Review: Woyzeck

Before I begin today's sermon, it might be worth pondering for a moment the meaning of "masterpiece". My favourite definition, which comes from the great American poet Randall Jarrell's consideration of the great Australian novelist Christina Stead, is that a masterpiece is a work with something wrong with it; which reminds me, tangentially, of how Persian carpet makers always put a mistake into their work, so they will not offend God by presuming to rival His perfection.

A masterpiece is, on the one hand, an act of hubris, a work of poiesis that challenges the assumed perfection of God's universe. On the other, what matters most in the midst of this act of making, the element that makes the heart beat faster in its encountering, is the flaw in the glass, the necessary imperfection of beauty.

Considering ideal perfection in his exemplary short story Lenz, Georg Büchner wrote: "Only one thing abides: an infinite beauty that passes from form to form, eternally changed and revealed afresh, although you can't always capture it and stick it in museums or put it into music ... You need to love mankind to be able to reach the essential being of each individual, you must consider no one too lowly, no one too ugly .... the most ordinary of faces makes a deeper impression than any contrived sensation of beauty..." This is still, two centuries later, a revolutionary statement.

Which brings me to Woyzeck, the ur-play of modern theatre that is at once a work of revolutionary realism and of jagged poetic beauty. There are two major schools of thought on this play, both of which are completely valid, except when the extremes of one blot out the possibilities of the other. One is the school that sees Woyzeck as a major work of critical social realism, and annoints Büchner as the precursor of playwrights like Franz Xavier Kroetz. The other places it as a seminal work of German Expressionism, foreshadowing writers like Franz Wedekind.

As is the case with those rare works that can be authentically called masterpieces, both are correct. This complex provenance is illustrated by the history of the play. Woyzeck was still in progress when Büchner died of typhus in 1837, at the ridiculously young age of 23. The play languished in obscurity for decades until it was premiered by Gerhart Hauptmann - the leading dramatist of German Naturalism - in Munich in 1913. When Alban Berg used the play as the basis for his famous opera, which premiered in Berlin in 1925, the work's place in the canon was assured.

That Woyzeck was championed by both the Naturalists and the Expressionists, movements usually considered to be at each other’s aesthetic throats, is an indication of Büchner's range, his ability to absorb what superficially seem to be contradictory impulses. Like Ibsen, whose work influenced writers as diverse as George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce, Büchner is at once a realist and a poet. And like Shakespeare, whom he fervently admired, his work is impossible to confine in a single ideology.

His complementary impulses are nowhere clearer than in Woyzeck, which must be among the most disputed literary texts ever. There has been endless shuffling of the scenes as different interpreters attempt to divine Büchner’s intent; I have four different versions on my desk as I write. This formal instability, married to the undeniable brilliance of its writing, makes it arguably the most influential single play of European theatre, and it's commonly positioned as the beginning of modern drama.

Yet it's hardly ever done here. Our brethren bloggers in New York might be calling for a five-year moratorium on the text, but in Melbourne it's not like we're tripping over productions every week. Or even every year. My performance experience is limited to Barrie Kosky's exhilarating production of Alban Berg's opera for the AO in 1999 and Werner Herzog's film, featuring the psychotic performance of Klaus Kinski. Plus whatever imaginary performances have peopled my head whenever I've read the variously ordered versions.

The Malthouse's production of this new adaptation is thus a keenly anticipated event. A bold take by Icelandic playwright Gisli Örn Gardarsson, it features songs and music by Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis. The provenance is in fact a little muddy - Gardarsson's original production by his Reykjavik-based Vesturport Theatre seems, from squinting through its various reviews, to have erred rather on the side of spectacle. It also cut out some elements of the play (Marie's child was, for example, mystifyingly absent) and was also accompanied by pre-recorded music, albeit with the voice of Cave.

In the Social Realist/Expressionist equation, Michael Kantor’s passionate production comes down squarely for the Expressionist tradition. All the same, it seems to me that Kantor has stemmed the spectacular excesses of Gardarsson's work, which was heavily circus-based, injecting it with some necessary realism. He restores to the play its original unruliness and many of the cut scenes, and the emphasis is on performance, with the music, orchestrated by Peter Farnan, played live on stage by a tight band. It's a sexy, exciting and ultimately moving production, treading (if sometimes with a few wobbles) the narrow margin between spectacle and intimacy. But perhaps its greatest achievement is that, for all its technical complexity and rock’n’roll energy, Büchner’s text shines through, luminous and clear and sharp as an open razor.

Gardarsson’s adaptation chimes with the standard scholarship, beginning with the disturbing scene at the quarry that is generally agreed (by those who argue about these things in obscure cafes on the Continent, scratching their bunions and polishing their pince-nez) as the most likely - and certainly, the most dramaturgically satisfying - place to begin. An innovation is the introduction of the Entertainer, a kind of Mephistophelean narrator cobbled out of lines from other characters and played by singer Tim Rogers. It is Rogers's first time in a play, but I wager it won't be his last: his presence is electrifying, bringing a devilish Keith Richards physicality to the stage. There's a man who knows where his towel is.

Nick Cave as the lyricist is a no-brainer. It's hard to think of a contemporary rock musician whose work would be more appropriate to this play's tragic glamour. The high romanticism of Cave's driving murder ballads sit brilliantly in the text, vamping up its heightened vernacular. The music is much more deeply integrated into the performance than I expected – this is almost an opera, with scenes scored through with brooding electric violins, throbbing guitar solos and menacing percussion. Here music works as the theatre's blood, pumping oxygen through each scene and driving the staged rhythms.

Peter Corrigan's monstrous modernist set confirms the aggressive, in-yer-face tenor of this production. Corrigan has created a multi-level architectural construction that unabashedly draws on the excesses of Expressionism as well as the Vorticist fantasies of Wyndham Lewis to create the hollowed-out, broken earth of Woyzeck's hallucinations. Its nightmare geometries are lit sumptuously by Paul Jackson - jarring greens and reds and blues, corpselights and blood, which contrast with gentler, intimate ambers. It's an outrageous design, offensive, rude and sometimes incredibly beautiful. (And I hear too that in the very front rows it obscures a fair bit of the stage action - so be warned).

Kantor has cast a wide net in his cast, exploiting a variety of performance styles, and here his gift for excess is reigned in with a surprising subtextual discipline, with mostly rich results. Where this production misses out, at least on opening night, is in the emotional detailing of some scenes. When that detailing is there, it really hits the mark. There are moments such as a scene between Andre (Hamish Michael being quietly brilliant) and Woyzeck (Socratis Otto), or a moving admission of shame from Marie (Bojana Novakovic), where I felt my skin go cold or my heart leap into my mouth.

Without this detail, the characters are in danger of being emotionally generalised puppets; but there is enough complexity already present to make me suspect that the sketched-in scenes will fill out as the season progresses. Meanwhile, filling up the stage are performances of bravura grotesquerie from Marco Chiappi as the Drum Major, Merfyn Owen as the Captain (looking rather like a Roman soldier from the Asterix comics) and Mitchell Butel as the sadistic and obsessed Doctor, who generate a vision of orgiastic paganism that is like the worst party you've ever attended. And I've already mentioned Tim Rogers.

The ill-fated lovers Woyzeck and Marie are played as naifs destroyed by a predatory and exploitative society. Interestingly, the actors who play them - Socratis Otto and Bojana Novakovic - are the only performers who are not singers, in a cast that is otherwise pretty gifted in the voice department. I felt ambivalent about this decision, and still do: but I admit that it's dramatically powerful, highlighting their vulnerability and, by extension, the ambivalence of the whole act of performance.

In fact, a sense of restless ambivalence, even contradiction, rives this show and generates a lot of its energy. For this reason among others I feel absolutely certain that this is a production that will provoke serious arguments. It's too jagged not to: it has flair, spectacle, emotional excess, even the odd dubious decision (why the bombs?), drawn together into one unlikely and surprisingly cogent whole. But I liked it a lot.

To return to my beginning, it seems to me that Kantor's Woyzeck has the friable sense of "beauty that passes from form to form" that Büchner described in Lenz. It's a beauty which dramatises with disconcerting clarity how little it takes for our self-preserving illusions to break open and reveal a comfortless and hollow reality. As Woyzeck says:

It’s lovely weather, Captain, such a beautiful solid grey sky, makes you want to hammer in a piece of wood and hang yourself from it. All because of that little dash between yes and no. Yes - and no, Captain, yes and no? Did No make Yes or Yes make No? Oh, I need to think about that...

It's that moment of fracture that is written large here. This is art that offers no redemption, but we ought to know by now that the idea that beauty might redeem anything was always a self-serving and manipulative lie. What I do know is that I walked out of the show thinking to myself that Woyzeck is as great a play as has been written. A masterpiece, in fact.

A shorter version of this review will no doubt appear in the Australian in due course.

Pictures: (Top) Socratis Otto as Woyzeck; (Bottom) Left to right - Tom Rogers, Merfyn Owen and Marco Chiappi. Photograph: Jeff Busby

Woyzeck by George Büchner, adapted by Gisli Örn Gardarsson, English translation by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Ruth Little. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Directed by Michael Kantor, sets, costumes and mask designs by Peter Corrigan, musical direction, sound design and additional composition by Peter Farnan, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Mitchell Butel, Marco Chiappi, Hamish Michael, Bojana Novakovic, Socratis Otto, Merfyn Owen and Tim Rogers. Music performed by Simon Burke, Xani Kolac and Dan Witton. Malthouse Theatre at the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until February 28.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Inspiration elsewhere

Every now and then the absurdity of my existence bursts on me afresh. There is that French existential sense, ie, M. Camus (how cool was he?) and his Sisyphean metaphors and the question of why we don't just kill ourselves this instant; but at the ridiculous end of it, there's me, sitting at my computer trying to make things up. Why? Why do I do this? And the answer floats back, like Echo... " want to..." Oh. I see. What was I thinking?

Well, in such moments, one can always turn for some inspiration to the blogosphere, which is perking up out of its summer torpor. There's Born Dancin's Ant Fact Mondays, which are guaranteed to be both educational and amusing. Refreshed, one can move on to another essay from Chris Goode on Thompson's Bank, A Quick Note on Likeness, in which he considers "the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive, between what is and what if". Then you can head towards Superfluities Redux, which is positively bristling with stuff these days, and, among other fascinating posts, check out a moving meditation on the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Don't forget a stop at Andrew Haydon's blog, Postcards from the Gods, which has livened up considerably in the past month, and has some interesting thoughts about that old shibboleth, theatre criticism. Then head to James Waites, who has apparently written a short book on the STC's The War of the Roses, starring our Cate and directed by Benedict Andrews, which also happens to be the last of the Actors Company productions. I confess that I have carefully not read James's meditations yet, because I will be seeing the whole thing for myself next week, which is actually pretty exciting. So I am saving the Waites thoughts up for afterwards, like a special dessert.

Does all that make my own life less absurd? Of course not. But maybe it's more richly absurd, which is probably the most one can ask for.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Scriptoria unbound

The virtual library thing is now escaping from Borges' imagination and into the real world. Consider, for instance, the Australian Script Centre, down there in Tasmania. The ASC is now under the directorship of Gail Cork, whom some might remember from her Australia Council days, and has just received a considerable boost from the Theatre Board - $600,000 over the next three years.

In collaboration with Currency Press, Playlab and Playwriting Australia, the ASC has put together, a smart new e-commerce portal, which will be officially launched at the National Play Festival in March. What this means is that practically every Australian playwright you can think of is now for sale online in digital format. This makes up a little for the pathetic shelf-space most bookshops give to plays (which might be even worse than the space they give to contemporary poetry).

Aside from this brilliant online resource, the ASC itself boasts a vast archive of Australian work, including some interesting anthologies. I've been browsing the CD Collection #7, which consists of 27 new plays, many of them award winners. It's a diverse bunch, ranging from Version 1.0's Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue to Patricia Cornelius's The Call to Kit Lazaroo's True Adventures of a Soul Lost at Sea. A steal at $25. Hie thee hence and check it out.

Meanwhile, I have a problem. How do you stop listening to Antony and the Johnsons? I seem to be under a strange and intoxicating enchantment...

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