Australian theatreReviews: Gatz, Clickity Clack & Aoroi, The Wonderful World of DissociaA reminderSOS updatesAgain back againAnd now to Sydney againLife! Don't talk to me about life!Back in townAustralian Theatre forumReview: Tom Fool, Leaves of GlassHolding noteMeaty conversationAward seasonMalthouse Season 2KetchupReview: Kafka's Monkey ~ 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.

Read More.....

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reviews: Gatz, Clickity Clack & Aoroi, The Wonderful World of Dissocia

At first blush, the idea of reading the entire text of The Great Gatsby on stage seems intriguing. Rather than approaching F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel through the inevitable reductiveness of adaptation, New York’s Elevator Repair Service would, presumably, present us with the Real Thing in Gatz. All seven hours of it.

Novels are mostly read in silence, their imaginings populating the fluid stage of the mind, but there remains a child-like pleasure in being read to. All the same, writing for the stage has different imperatives to those of prose; as Peter Brook points out, speaking of the particular problem of writing for the theatre, words on the stage “are only powerful in proportion to what they create in the language of theatre”. An author “is compelled to begin at the very root – by facing the problem of the very nature of dramatic utterance. There is no way out.”

I suppose I arrived with expectations. Foremost was that this exercise would force the company to face the question of language in the theatre “at the very root”. How would they deal with the interior imaginings of prose in the exterior world of theatre? What would this exercise reveal about language on the stage? About theatre itself? And in the end, this is my disappointment with the show. Instead of bringing the novel to life, Elevator Repair Service turned it into a fetish object. Yes, every word, down to the last “and”, was there. Why it was necessary or interesting to do this escaped me entirely.

It begins promisingly enough. Louisa Thompson’s set is a hyper-realistic, dingy office (perhaps a business selling bonds, like Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway). On one side are shelves of dilapidated files, in the centre a desk with an ancient computer, to the back a windowed wall with a door, and a glassed reception area. A rumpled man (Scott Shepherd) enters with a take-away coffee and begins his working day. He hangs up his coat and turns on his computer, but it won’t start. He presses the reset button, takes a swig from his coffee, opens a file and discovers a battered paperback copy of The Great Gatsby. Out of boredom and curiosity, he begins to read it out loud as the office comes to life around him.

Stroke by stroke, the office workers become the characters in the book, the fictional reality gradually inhabiting the humdrum world of the office until it takes over entirely. This transition, which takes place slowly (some might say, unremittingly) over the four parts of the show, might have had more power if the world of the office had had more reality in the first place. I began to get twitchy in the first twenty minutes: the actions of the workers made no sense at all. Every gesture was incomplete: the performers opened files and closed them, they waved bits of paper in each other’s faces, they made inaudible phone calls. Shepherd kept pressing his reset button, but without waiting for the necessary time for his computer to reboot. (I once had a computer just like that). I began, even then, to wonder how deeply thought this production was.

Part of my impatience stems from having recently seen Daniel Schlusser’s Peer Gynt, which similarly posited two simultaneous stage realities, a mundane present and a fictional imagining. In this case, the relationship between the two realities was complex and shifting; both were highly stylised, but each had its own integrity, a quality emerging in part from some profound theatrical thinking about the source text and its relationship to the present, and by focused performances. The approach in Gatz seemed, in comparison, startlingly tame and unthought. The office world looked more and more like a gimmick which never paid off: it was abandoned early, with scarcely a glance back, and the novel took over. This sense of uncertainty was intensified by the uneven performances, which ranged from Gary Wilmes’s powerful evocation of Tom Buchanan to shallow and obvious parody which involved a lot of mugging to the audience.

By part two, the company was – with occasional meaningless office interruptions - “acting out” the novel. Shepherd read every word of the narrative, with the actors providing the dialogue, down to the last “he said”. (This particularly bothered me, and is part of what I mean by their fetishising the prose. Why not cut these phrases? The tautological joke was funny for ten minutes but soon became merely tedious: dialogue indicators in novels are designed to be invisible to the reading eye, necessary pointers that become wholly redundant on stage). I began to suffer from a strange sort of double vision: every action described in the prose was slavishly illustrated by the performers. I began to long for the actors to do something different from the writing, for a little bit of spin or wit. Or anything, really. But no. This went on for the next three thousand hours.

You have to admire the athletic persistence of the actors, and it must be said that Shepherd has a nice reading style, although with a tendency, forgivable perhaps, to lose himself in the hypnotic rhythms of the prose. To be fair, there were times, amounting to perhaps an hour or two of the whole show, when I began to see how this approach might make exciting theatre – but these moments were always the most dramatic parts of the novel, where the dialogue was closest to a conventional play. The theatre presented was, in the end, informed by wholly conventional ideas and never questioned anything, beyond some obvious grammatical jokes, about the qualities of written or spoken language.

What saved me was the novel itself, which remains as brilliant as it ever was. But Gatsby’s tragedy and the “foul trash” floating in the wake of the American dream remain all Fitzgerald’s vision. If anything, Gatz demonstrates how futile the idea of geekish fidelity can be on stage. Or how contradictory it is: this faithfulness, if it did anything at all, merely diminished Fitzgerald’s prose.

It was a relief, then, to see Rochelle Carmichael’s Clickity Clack and Aoroi, two short dance pieces presented at Theatreworks. They are backed by a miscellany of music, including the soundtracks from The Matrix and Donnie Darko, a strange mulch that I ended up enjoying more than I expected. Combining circus, black light puppetry and physical theatre, Clickity Clack is a witty take on the erotics of dress with some wonderful costumes – a skirt levitated by red helium balloons, a cut-out paper business suit with a huge bow tie – and some fun reveals. Aoroi seems to be a concept taken straight from a fantasy art website, with fairies creeping out from beneath a curtain, half insect, half human, to play their amoral and predatory games. Despite some muddy movement, which took the edge off a little, these are seductive pieces, with a touch of the exuberant embrace of popular kitsch that animates so much of BalletLab’s work.

Lastly, I made an unplanned visit to the STC’s production of The Wonderful World of Dissocia, Anthony Neilson’s play about the psychotic breakdown of a woman called Lisa Jones (Justine Clarke). There’s something brilliantly crude about this work: the first half is a subjective enactment of delusional reality, the second a starkly minimal picture of its consequences. The excess of the first half is characterised by over-the-top, cabaret theatricality, delivered through some first-class performances. Lisa’s journey through Dissocia shows us a world that, like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, is at once funny, disorientating and darkly violent, a place where words have their own sinister life, like the ambiguous smile of a Cheshire cat. The second half shifts to another kind of theatre altogether, a minimal and unsparing realism that is all the more powerful for its contrast to what has happened earlier.

Marion Pott’s production is beautifully modulated. She catches the surreality of the first half through some hilarious and inventive theatre-making (with the help of some truly eye-burning costumes by Tess Schofield and Nick Schlieper’s lighting). After interval, the grassy field that constitutes the first stage lifts to become the oppressively low ceiling of the second set, lit with a neon harshness. Lisa’s bed and bedside table huddle forlornly in the corner, and the various staff and visitors who interact with her – making sure she takes her medication, confiscating her Walkman, blaming her for her lack of responsibility – have to walk in and out for the length of the stage. These scenes were delicately handled and cumulatively very moving. I don’t think I’ve seen a more compelling evocation of the isolating loneliness and disempowerment of mental illness.

Pictures: top: Elevator Repair Service's Gatz; bottom: The Wonderful World of Dissocia, STC.

Gatz, from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Directed by John Collins, set by Louisa Thimpson, lighting design by Mark Barton, sound design by Ben Williams. With Scott Shepherd, Jim Fletcher, Kate Scelsa, Sibyl Kempson, Lucy Taylor, Gary Wilmes, Vin Knight, Frank Boyd, Annie McNamara, Ben Williams, Laurena Allan, Mike Iveson and Ross Fletcher, Elevator Repair Service @ the Sydney Opera House until May 31.

Clickity Clack and Aroi, directed and co-choregraphed by Rochelle Carmichael. Lighting design by Thomas Lambert, costumes by Rochelle Carmichael, Michael Kopp, Sera Carmichael and Christina Smith. Danced by Kathryn Newnham, Caroline Meaden, Alice Dixon and Michael Kopp. Liquid Skin @ Theatreworks until May 31.

The Wonderful World of Dissocia by Anthony Nielson, directed by Marion Potts. Set design by Alice Babidge, costumes by Tess Schofield, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, music composed by Alan John, sound design by David Franzke. With Kate Box, Justine Clarke, Matt Day, Michelle Doake, Russell Dykstra, Socratis Otto, Justin Smith and Matthew Whittet. Sydney Theatre Company, closed.

Read More.....

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A reminder

The more a critic becomes an insider, the better. I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself. Certainly, there is a tiny social problem - how does a critic talk to someone he has just damned in print? Momentary awkwardnesses may arise - but it is ludicrous to think that it is largely this that deprives some critics of a vital contact with the work of which they are a part. The embarrassment on his side and ours can easily be lived down and certainly a closer relation with the work will in no way put the critic into the position of connivance with the people he has got to know. The criticism that theatre people make of one another is usually of devastating severity - but absolutely precise. The critic who no longer enjoys the theatre is obviously a deadly critic, the critic who loves the theatre but is not critically clear what this means is also a deadly critic: the vital critic is the critic who has clearly formulated for himself what the theatre could be - and who is bold enough to throw this formula into jeopardy each time he participates in a theatrical event.

Peter Brook, The Empty Space

Read More.....

Monday, May 25, 2009

SOS updates

Lately I've been getting emergency notices for a couple of cultural institutions close to my heart. As someone who gets around to quite a bit of theatre, it's hard to miss the importance of Victorian College of the Arts graduates for the cultural richness of Melbourne. They're everywhere, and they're a major reason our independent theatre scene is so interesting. The rumbles on the implications of the VCA's merger with the University of Melbourne have been gathering for some years now, but now it's hitting crisis point. This month, college staff have been saying straight out that the VCA is under threat, and a recent series of articles in the Age has been highlighting the alarm.

Full background, and links to more stories, are on the Save the VCA website. Read it. And then sign the petition.

Meanwhile, Salt Publishing has been sending out distress signals. Salt is my publisher, and so I have a certain personal interest; but beyond that, Salt, a press founded by Australian poet John Kinsella, has one of the broadest and most innovative lists of new writing in the English-speaking world, publishing poets, playwrights and prose writers available nowhere else. Among many other things, they have been intrumental in bringing Australian writing to a wider international readership. It would be nothing less than a tragedy for contemporary literature if it went under.

Last week Chris and Jen sent out a circular, in which they frankly asked for help.

As many of you will know, Jen and I have been struggling to keep Salt moving since June last year when the economic downturn began to affect our press. Our three year funding ends this year: we've £4,000 due from Arts Council England in a final payment, but cannot apply through Grants for the Arts for further funding for Salt's operations. Spring sales were down nearly 80% on the previous year, and despite April's much improved trading, the past twelve months has left us with a budget deficit of over £55,000. It's proving to be a very big hole and we're having to take some drastic measures to save our business.

Here's how you can help us to save Salt and all our work with hundreds of authors around the world.


1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

So that's the message. Those of you who have unaccountably failed to purchase my book, the beautifully designed Theatre, can remedy their sins now. Or you could catch up on my previous collection, Attempts At Being. But if your library is already bursting with Croggon, there are hundreds of other very tempting options. British playwright Howard Barker's new book of poems, Sheer Detachment, and The Poems of Sidney West by Spanish poet Juan Gelman (described by Nobel prize winner José Saramago as "One of the greatest poets the world has today") immediately catch my eye. You can get the only collection of Daniel Keene plays published in English, Terminus and Other Plays. Or just browse Salt's excellent list of writers until something strikes a chord. Here's the Salt website. Go for it. Just do it now.

Read More.....

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Again back again

Sydney yesterday was a blast. The Geraldine Pascall Foundation event at the Bangarra Theatre was packed, and the panel debate, chaired by the new director of the Sydney Writers Festival, Chip Rolley, was lively and interesting. (The topic was, Should the critic be fired?, and there were varying robust opinions on whether or not this was a good idea). In a nice serendipity, at exactly the same time, the announcement of the winner of the Patrick White Playwrights' Award was occurring just down the pier at the the STC; although I was unable to attend, I did poke my nose in beforehand and met the winner, Nicki Bloom, who was indeed blooming despite having just returned from Germany.

Then Ms TN and friends drank industrial quantities of champagne and, perhaps inevitably, I ended up at the theatre, at the closing night of Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia. Which impressed me a lot more than my first meeting with his work. Afterwards, I bumped into an acquaintance who said sternly, I've been checking Theatre Notes every day for a report on the Australian Theatre Forum - what's happening, Croggon?

What's been happening is simple: for the past fortnight (in between, admittedly, a couple of furious bouts of non-blog work) Ms TN has been on a big, shiny carousel. It's covered with colourful paintings and strings of lights and people laughing and cheering, and there are mirrors everywhere. Now I'm slowly climbing down. I can only go round so often before I start feeling sick and dizzy.

Today, with a cold compress affixed to my forehead with gaffer tape, I am really looking forward to some sober, steady work in my quiet and boring study. There is stuff to do, piling up like the rubble in front of Benjamin's Angel of History (who, as you will remember, has his face turned to the past). The promised reviews will begin to emerge this week, once the judging for the RE Ross Trust Play prize is dealt with. They might, in the interests of catching up, be a little shorter than usual. I'm not sure that I'll find the time to write about the forum. It was, I think, a Very Good Thing, and I suspect that good things will emerge over the next year as a result of it happening. I'm also not sure I've had time to process it. Now, back to normal broadcasting...

Read More.....

Saturday, May 23, 2009

And now to Sydney again

This time it's my turn. I was flabbergasted (but delighted) a couple of weeks ago when a nice man phoned me, told me to sit down and informed me that I'd won the Pascall Prize for excellence in arts journalism, the only award for arts criticism in Australia. The prize is named in honour of the flamboyant journalist Geraldine Pascall, who died tragically young in 1983, when I was half way through my cadetship on the Melbourne Herald and the thought of being a crrritic hadn't entered my head. I wish I had met her. To say I am honoured doesn't really cover it.

I won it for both my reviews for the Australian under arts editors Miriam Cosic and Matthew Westwood, who have been the best editors I've worked for (and whom I now realise were quite brave to employ me), and for my work on this blog. Word of the prize got out yesterday - not from me, as I've been the soul of discretion - and it seems that the news has caused a bit of flurry. The Australian has a story this morning, of course, and there's also a piece in the Age. Odd, as always, to see how I'm seen.

And now I have to catch a plane.

Read More.....

Friday, May 22, 2009

Life! Don't talk to me about life!

Actually, you can if you like; but Ms TN can't quite believe how difficult it's been to get to the blog this week. I'm still intending to write about Gatz, which bothered me in so many ways that rants have been rising in my head like clouds of bats, and now the to-do list has been lengthened by the seductively charming dance/physical theatre pieces Clickety Clack and Aroi at Theatreworks (go see). At this point, I can't see either happening before early next week... as long as I don't plan to sleep between now and then.

This isn't, mind you, a complaint. The gods are being kind and life is good. Keep chatting amongst yourselves, and focus will be had when life stops getting in the way.

Read More.....

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Back in town

By now, most of you would know I have been in Sydney being Daniel Keene's handbag as he picked up the NSW Premier's Play Award for The Serpent's Teeth, which was commissioned for the STC's Actors Company last year, and which, incidentally, will have a season at London's Riverside Studios in September. A jolly, if not precisely Bacchanalian, evening was had by all, and I caught up with some of those charming Sydney people, including Louis Nowra (who with Rachel Perkins and Beck Cole won the script writing prize for the brilliant SBS series First Australians) and fantasy queen Kate Forsyth. But enough of the social pages.

I grabbed the opportunity to catch the New York company Elevator Repair Service enacting the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, an achievement I felt a little ambivalent about. I'm hoping to write about it once I've ground down the long list of urgent non-blog tasks that await me, which will take a couple of days. And I realise I haven't had a chance to report on last week's fascinating Australian Theatre Forum, which seems to have been an unmitigated success. Bear with me as I readjust to the mundane duties of my desk...

Read More.....

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Australian Theatre forum

Posting will probably be a little light over the next few days, as I am attending the Australian Theatre Forum. This is a gigantic event which will gobble all my waking hours over the next three days, and the first thing of its kind to happen here for more than two decades. It's described as "a unique gathering of Australia's theatre practitioners, producers, presenters and commentators to explore the urgent issues of our time and imagine possible futures for the Australian theatre sector". There's obviously an enormous desire among practitioners for dialogue: there are 240 attendees from all over Australia and from all areas of theatre, and that's not counting the waiting list.

I'm an official respondent, and in some dauntingly distinguished company. Respondents are apparently "theatre luminaries". (From now on all Ms TN's correspondence is to be addressed to "Your Luminariousness" - or possibly, "Your Luminosity". And I expect our power bills to diminish considerably.) Respondents are there to promote general talkativeness, an aim of which I approve, so I will do my best. I'm taking a big notebook and plan to report back when I can.

After that, I'm off to Sydney for a couple of days, among other things to see Elevator Repair Service's lauded show, Gatz, at the Sydney Opera House.

Read More.....

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Review: Tom Fool, Leaves of Glass

I keep hearing, here and there, that these days "text-based theatre" (to you and me, "plays") is out of fashion. The contemporary stage, the whisper goes, is hostile to the writer: in these post-dramatic, post-structural, post-everything times, the director has seized the crown in the theatrical hierarchy and the playwright is out in the cold, shivering in his underpants.

The truth is, just as the masculine pronoun is no longer a default grammatical device, so theatre's practice has shifted to a broader consideration of the semiotics of the stage: meaning is expressed through movement, design, music and performance as much as through words. On the other hand, is that emphasis really new? Meaning is an unstable quiddity, sure, but it's been unstable since modernity began to erase the certainties of church and state (and reading Lucan can make you realise that such instabilities are about as ancient as human civilisation). And after all these years, I'm still not sure what a "linear narrative" really is: I'm not sure I've ever met one.

In any case, I see text everywhere. Even an exploration like 3xSisters (which must by now have generated the longest ever discussion on this blog) depends on a source text, however it spirals around it. And that old-fashioned concept, the play, is a hardy one. People keep writing them, and people keep putting them on stage. I saw two last weekend. They were definitely plays, done in the old-fashioned way of getting actors to remember the words and enact them on stage. They were even, in very different ways, naturalistic plays.

In fact, I think that the diversity of contemporary practice means that the grim days of default naturalism - the idea that theatre is divided into "accessible" (meaning televisual) "naturalism" and weird "non-naturalistic" experiment - are well and truly over. Instead, naturalism as a formal device has been injected with something like its original energy and urgency. Recently there have been some vivid reminders of how powerful - and how poetic - naturalism can be in the theatre - Peter Evans' brilliant production of David Harrower's Blackbird for the MTC, for example, or Duncan Graham's Ollie and the Minotaur.

Perhaps this is why Hoy Polloy's production of Tom Fool by Franz Xaver Kroetz seems so timely: Kroetz is one of the major invigorators of naturalism in post-war theatre. Although there are more obvious reasons for its aptness: Kroetz's portrayal of the alienating mechanisms of capitalism, of how human beings are reduced to disposable cogs in a gigantic economic machine, is as relevant in 2009 as it was in 1977, when it was first written. Beng Oh's exemplary production, directed with a profound and compassionate clarity, brings this home with devastating, painful emotional force.

Tom Fool (a loose and perhaps slightly judgmental translation of the more neutral Mensch Meier, which means, more or less, "Everyman Meier") is a fable of late 20th century capitalism. It's the story of Otto Meier (Chris Bunworth), a semi-skilled factory worker who lives in a tiny apartment with his wife, Martha (Liz McColl) and son Ludwig (Glenn van Oosterom), and is written in a series of short, titled scenes that focus on the banal domestic minutae of their lives. Kroetz is a master at digging the tragic meaning out of moments that appear on the surface to be trivial, and this production meets his demanding poetic with an admirable honesty.

Tom Fool would be very easy to get very wrong; so much depends on the play of the emotional subtext of each moment, and that in turn depends on a larger wisdom about human behaviour that must meet the playwright's. Every decision in this production hits the right note, neither overdone nor glossed. Beng Oh hasn't attempted to update or Australianise it: Chris Molyneux's stylisedly naturalistic set is a perfect simulacrum of late 70s decor, and the actors, speaking an unobtrusive lower-middle-class Australian, refer to German currency and social conditions.

The scenes are punctuated with a sure rhythmic hand: as the scene title is projected onto the wall, the actors and a couple of stage hands arrange the props, which becomes in itself part of the texture of domestic routine. Then there is a snap, the lights come up and the scene begins.
(Tim Bright's sound design and Ben Morris's lighting find a brilliant variousness in this stern aesthetic.) These structural decisions create a solid frame for the actors, which permits them to explore the emotional nakedness of the play. Bunworth, McColl and van Oosterom generate their characters with deft, accumulating touches, gradually excavating their extreme loneliness. This production is notable for its precise detail, which is particularly noticeable in Kroetz's long silent scenes - here the smallest gesture, a shrug, a glance, becomes pregnant with meaning.

They create unforgettable portraits of the fragmentation of the self in contemporary capitalist society. Otto Meier, the "human screw-driver", a "car-screw in-screwer, a screwologist", knows he is dehumanised by his work, but the knowledge doesn't help, as he sees no way out: it emerges in violent rages of frustration that only serve to further alienate his family. Each character becomes more alone, more isolated, although each deals with their alienation in a different way. What makes this play so painful is that their recognition of their isolation, their abandonment of their various dreams in the face of obdurate reality, collides with a heightened realisation of their yearning: the further the dream retreats, the more they desire. It is all the more painful for their inability to communicate their longings to each other.

It's a beautifully performed, tactfully produced realisation of a play that is, for all its apparent banality, a work of great poetic delicacy. The evening passes with astounding swiftness; for all its grim concerns, this production has a nicely judged lightness of touch, and is infused with moments of surprising comedy. It's a rare chance to see Kroetz done as he ought to be. Don't miss this one.

Inevitably, Philip Ridley's Leaves of Glass suffers by comparison to Tom Fool. It's another family drama, and again written in a series of naturalist scenes. Although it features some astounding writing, especially in the monologues, it's doesn't have anything like the imaginative sweep of Ridley's Mercury Fur, a dark fantasia about snuff parties which also centred on the relationship between two brothers. Put next to Kroetz's sparely judged writing it seems fussy and melodramatic, and its social commentary - an exploration of the human capacity for denial, of how we can erase reality with language - not nearly as deeply thought.

I suppose the title, Leaves of Glass, is an elliptical nod to Whitman's Leaves of Grass, though it's difficult to make the connection. There are certainly touches of Tenessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie in its exploration of human fragility and damage. It's a family drama with all the expected Ibsenite elements - dark secrets, deaths, dramatic revelations, murderous sibling rivalry - given a 21st century twist. Steve (Dan Frederiksen) is a picture of materialist Britain, a successful, emotionally stunted businessman married to a WAG-style shopaholic wife (Amelia Best). His younger brother Barry (Johnny Carr) is an artist, traumatically scarred by the suicide of his father, and both still live in the shadow of their mother, Liz (Jillian Murray). What makes it interesting how the writing turns on its cliches, especially in the climactic scene where language itself becomes a means for murder.

Simon Stone gives it a spare and well-judged production, with a design by Peter Mumford in which the stage is divided into parallel sections by clear plastic curtains, which are drawn back or closed to reflect the degrees of separation between the different characters. The performances are excellent; I especially liked Johnny Carr and Daniel Frederiksen as the two brothers. Although it's a bit of a disappointment after Mercury Fur, it's well worth seeing all the same. And certainly the best production at Red Stitch since Tom Holloway's Red Sky Morning.

Post script: my opening speculations are further illuminated by David Williamson's attack on "capital-T theatre" in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

Picture: Chris Bunworth as Otto in Tom Fool. Photo: Tim Williamson

Tom Fool by Franz Xaver Kroetz, translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, directed by Beng Oh. Design by Chris Molyneux, lighting design by Ben Morris, sound design by Tim Bright. With Chris Bunworth, Liz McColl and Glenn van Oosterom. Hoy Polloy, Brunswick Mechanics Institute until May 23.

Leaves of Glass by Philip Ridley, directed by Simon Stone. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Kimberley Kaw. With Dan Frederiksen, Johnny Carr, Jillian Murray and Amelia Best. Red Stitch, until May 30.

Read More.....

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Holding note

Today I planned to write reviews of Hoy Polloy's Tom Fool (highly recommended) and Red Stitch's very creditable production Leaves of Glass, but I received some good news (which was a big surprise and which I will share with you in due course) and find myself knocked deliriously off course.

I'll put myself back together and finish the reviews tomorrow: in the meantime, let me note in passing that suddenly Caryl Churchill's controversial playlet Seven Jewish Children will have three separate readings in Melbourne, after the STC's Australian premiere reading last month. The first will be at the State Library on May 18, and features Max Gillies and Miriam Margolyes (other dates reported as they come to hand). The Age reports this morning that Ms Margolyes, an Anglo-Jewish actor, has been dropped from a Jewish charity appearance for her participation in an allegedly "anti-Semitic" work. To quote the redoutable Ms Margoyles, "That's bollocks". You can check out a video of the Royal Court reading on the Guardian site here, and make up your own mind.

NB Details for Monday's reading, which features a stellar cast, here (thanks Michael Magnusson!) It's first come, first served, and has been generating a lot of publicity, so get there early...

Read More.....

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Meaty conversation

This Sunday The Hayloft Project is hosting a panel on “the art of direction” with some of Melbourne’s leading directors. Mediated by your humble blogger, the panel features 2008 Green Room Award-winning director Mary Sitarenos from Liminal Theatre, Daniel Schlusser (Peer Gynt), Hayloft’s Artistic Director Simon Stone (Platonov), Mark Winter (The Black Lung) and Benedict Hardie (3xSisters). Rather than a discussion of 3xSisters, which has generated a long and passionate debate here, this conversation is intended to throw some illumination on what it is directors do.

It's at 1.30pm on Sunday May 10 in the Meat Market at 5 Blackwood St, North Melbourne, and admission is free.

Read More.....

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Award season

Yes, it's that time of year: I seem to be knee-deep in nominations. The shortlist for the 2009 Australian Dance Awards was announced today, and an interesting list of performance it is. The nominations are dominated by the Sydney Dance Company, with Tanja Liedtke's last work, construct, made before she was tragically killed last year, garnering four nominations, and four others for different works.

Melbourne dancer/choregrapher Antony Hamilton recieved two nominations, one for his choreographic work in BlazeBlue Oneline, and one for his work in Lucy Guerin's Corridor, and the Australian Ballet three. And Eddie Perfect gets a nod too, for Shane Warne the Musical. On a personal note, Ms TN is delighted to see that her colleague - or former colleague these days, now he's left the Australian for the delights of Canberra - Lee Christofis has been nominated for services to dance. You can find the full list of nominations here.

Meanwhile, the Malthouse's Broadway debut, Exit the King, is collecting nominations like, well, like a very successful show. The Tonys, announced yesterday, are the big ones, and they've got four - one for Geoffrey Rush, two (best design and best costumes) for designer Dale Ferguson, and one for best sound design for Russell Goldsmith. Congratulations to all of them.

Read More.....

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Malthouse Season 2

Last night the Malthouse announced its second season for the year, and Ms TN selflessly trotted along and consumed the bubbly in order to bring you, dear readers, the news. I do think the Malthouse programming this year has a certain assurance, joi de vivre, whatever, which gives the seasons an immediate attraction... nothing to do with the champagne, of course.

What first catches Ms TN's eye are the plays. Many years ago I saw Julie Forsyth perform Samuel Beckett's Happy Days at Anthill, and the first play this season is a reprise of this performance, directed by Michael Kantor, with the inimitable Peter Carroll playing Winnie's husband. Back then Forsyth was riveting: now she's older, I anticipate something even more special. The other play is David Harrower's elemental masterpiece Knives in Hens. Anyone who saw the MTC's production of Blackbird last year will know how well Harrower writes: this, his first play, is an entirely different proposition, set in pre-industrial England. Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman will be on stage with Kate Box, directed by Geordie Brookman.

Away from chamber theatre, John Romeril makes a welcome return to the stage, with a theatrical adaptation of his film One Night the Moon, with music by Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody and Mairead Hannan performed by, among others, Mark Seymour, and directed by Wesley Enoch. The dance component continues with performances of Lucy Guerin's Structure and Sadness, her dance about the collapse of the West Gate Bridge which I missed on its premiere; a new commission from Meryl Tankard for dancer Paul White, The Oracle, which is based on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and a new work from butoh cabaret artist Yumi Umiumare, En Trance. Also on in the Tower is Aphid's Care Instructions - a delightful show I saw last year at La Mama. And the Malthouse have continued their three month residency program, this year inviting My Darling Patricia in to make their show Africa.

Read More.....

Monday, May 04, 2009


Or was that catch-up? Or just sauce? Ms TN is getting very behind, wandering off on the Primrose Path of Good Intentions while up-to-the-minute press releases sob forlornly in her inbox. I bame all you keen commentators, who are making the blog so interesting at present that I forget about other things. All the same, I feel obliged, for example, to say something about the 2020 Summit, now that Mr Rudd has sent a nice email to all us summiteers and some hardworking bureaucrats have slogged through all the proposals, marking them with ticks or crosses or maybes. The government responses are here.

I read the Creative Australia document and I think a Children's Channel is an excellent idea, as is the artists-in-residence scheme for state schools, and I'm glad they're being done; and some of the marginalia about what wonderful things the Rudd Government is doing for Creative Australia - given several simultaneous government proposals, like abolishing Territorial Copyright for Australian writers, or the unworkable plan to censor the internet, or the general outcry about saving the children of Australia from paedophile artists - make me see red spots; but what happens when I start thinking, oh, I should write some kind of judicious analysis, is that my brain goes crackle ftz zzzzzz... So I think you should read it all and form your own opinions and write them below, to save me the trouble.

Meanwhile, the Malthouse/Belvoir St production of Exit The King continues its triumphal progress on Broadway, with four nominations for the 54th Drama Desk Awards. They are for outstanding revival, outstanding actor, outstanding featured actress and outstanding set design. Which is pretty cool, and figures as a very big feather in Neil Armfield's hat. And which reminds me that the Malthouse's second 2009 season is being launched tonight, and Ms TN will bring you all the guff tomorrow.

I'm sure there's more, but I have to go and wash my hair. Mainly to get over the Logies, which I watched for the first time in my life last night, and which made me realise how much I miss by not watching Australian commercial television. It was notable for some amazingly awful frocks: at one point Gretel Killeen looked as if she were being eaten alive by an alien sea cucumber. I thought Kat Stewart (a theatre actor, so we can all take credit) showed up everyone except the inimitable Annie Lennox in the drop-dead glam stakes, but she didn't make the Age's best dressed list, while the salmon-pink satin upholstery that encased Jennifer Hawkins did. But then, what would I know? Over and out...

Read More.....

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Review: Kafka's Monkey

Kafka's Monkey is based on Kafka's darkly comic story, A Report to An Academy, in which an ape, Red Peter, lectures the "honoured members of the Academy" on his transformation into a cultured European man. Shot and captured on the Gold Coast of Africa, Red Peter is then confined in a cage in the bowels of a ship, where he learns the niceties of human behaviour - spitting, drinking rum and finally speech - as a means of survival, a "way out" that, he is at pains to point out, has nothing to do with freedom.

It's often said that this story, first published in a Zionist magazine, is a satire on the assimilation of Jews into European society, but it's impossible to read it and not to think also of the "primitive savages" - Indigenous people from Africa, the Americas, the Pacific and Australia - who were exhibited in sideshows even as recently as the early 20th century. Red Peter remarks that when he arrived in Europe, he had a choice between "the Zoological Gardens and the variety stage", which is not so far from the historical truth; Carl Hagenbeck, often considered the father of the modern zoo, was also a famed exhibitor of "primitive" people, whom he displayed in simulacra of their natural habitats, frolicking near the exotic animals.

Part science exhibit, part freak show, Red Peter embodies those who are "other" in colonialist western culture, burying their former identities beneath the conventional apparel and habits of so-called civilised man, or even, as Red Peter says, forgetting them. "Without the most profound inward calm," says Red Peter, "I could never have found my way out"; but the calmness he describes - attained as he is crushed into a tiny barred cage - is the calmness of trauma, the stillness that emerges from the clarity of knowing that the only choice he has is between acceptance of his situation, or death. And Red Peter - unlike the "bewildered, half-broken" chimpanzee from whom he "takes comfort" at night - is a survivor.

It's unsurprising that this fascinating fable should be a popular target for theatrical adaptation: according to the program, it's often performed unadapted in Germany. I saw a performance of it at Anthill many years ago featuring Bob Burton, and of which regrettably I remember little, aside from the fact that I thought it very fine. This acclaimed production from the Young Vic features a remarkable physical performance from Kathryn Hunter, with an adaptation by Colin Teevan that imports some details from two extra fragments Kafka wrote about Red Peter that never made it into the final draft, but which otherwise doesn't mess much with the text.

The strange thing is that the production didn't seem to me at all like Kafka. Yes, it's his text, albeit translated and slightly adapted; yes, it's his concept. But the opaque darkness that moves under his sardonic humour, even the strange surreal precision of his unique vision, seem blurred, withheld; this monkey wants us to like him. The calm, even arrogant self-contempt that strikes me most forcibly in the story seems here transformed into a plea for understanding. It's a subtle transformation that changes the story into something less pitiless, and less cold. And, for my money, much less powerful.

There's no denying the quality of Kathryn Hunter's performance. She emerges on stage in a black hat and frock coat, her body subtly distorted by both her costume and her stance, her arm twisted up behind her in an ape-like gesture that thrusts her torso forward, even her hands twisted into longer, prehensile shapes, her eyes shifting from side to side in a kind of slow motion panic. You have absolutely no trouble believing in her half-human, half-ape condition; she apes humanity, just as she humanises the ape.

Within the performance are little eddies of comedy: she offers a banana to audience members ("I am banana intolerant"), and searches for lice in another's hair. Under Walter Meierjohann's direction, her performance is beautifully modulated, physically astounding and always riveting. Yet I walked out feeling that I had witnessed a virtuosic diversion, a highly skilled rendering down of a complex and disturbing text into something more easily digestible.

Aside from the little comic apologias, which distract from Kafka's sternly impersonal reportage, the production seemed uni-dimensional. Nikola Kodjabashia's soundscape - silence for most of the time, punctuated by abrupt snatches of music hall, or a dim chord - seldom went beyond the illustrative, and felt puzzlingly unintegrated; the lighting and set somehow fell between two stools, being neither rich nor detailed enough to become meaningful elements of the production, but not minimal enough either to be a stark framing of the performance (I found myself longing for no lighting or design at all). The production seems tacked together, a vaudeville that assumes a comfortable relationship between audience and performer, and which takes care never to disturb it. Which in itself feels rather un-Kafka.

Picture: Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey.

Kafka's Monkey, based on A Report to An Academy by Franz Kafka, adapted by Colin Teevan, directed by Walter Meierjohann, performed by Kathryn Hunter. Set by Steffi Wurster, costume by Richard Hudson, lighting design by Mike Gunning, sound and music by Nikola Kodjabashia. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until May 9.

Read More.....