PinterReview: The Man from MukinupinCircus OzSunday nightBits everywhereReview: Poet No. 7Pascall Prize speechReview: Oh the Humanity, A Commercial FarceSigns of the timesRush againMainstage explorationsGo Geoffrey!Review: August: Osage CountyLaid low by lurgyReview: Optimism ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


My review of the MTC production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party was in yesterday's Australian. Lots more to think about, and I hope I get a chance to do so (time is in short supply in Ms TN's world): on the one hand, how liberating to see these excellent Indigenous actors on the MTC stage; on the other, how disappointing that their talents are not fully exploited. It's an intelligent production that soft-pedals the underlying violence and terror of the play. I see that Captain's B'log has no such reservations: but he has uploaded a clip from the original film, which shows how absurdity and menace can run together in the same breath. My god, that Patrick Magee was something, eh?

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: The Man from Mukinupin

Dorothy Hewett would have been amused. Last Tuesday, Ms TN high-tailed it to the Sumner Theatre to see The Man from Mukinupin. I turned up to what I thought was the pre-show scrum, wondered why no-one was checking tickets at the theatre door (how odd, I thought, and shrugged, dismissing the thought), and sat down to enjoy the show. Which I did.

On my way out, still vibrating with Hewett's lyrical passion, I bumped into a well-known Melbourne poet. What did you think? I asked. Oh, he said, it's Hewett attempting to write a Shakespearean comedy, and, well, frankly, it's a bit of a mess... At which point, my mind became a series of exclamation marks. How, I wondered, could you see that play and think first of all about messiness? And a familiar cloud that I associate with the world of poetry, which so often seems like a tea party of Victorian ladies carefully arranging the doilies of reputation, rose like a dank miasma in my brain.

But there were a couple of alarm-bells. The program said the show went for two and a half hours, with a 20 minute interval: but we were clapping the actors after 90 minutes. How strange, I thought, they don't usually make that mistake on a program: and off I went home, beset by vague worry. Over the next couple of days I hunted unsuccessfully for my copy of the play, which along with a whole bunch of other feral books, seems to have vanished into the dimmer recesses of L-space. Finally abandoning the quest, I rang the MTC's PR staff to check the discrepancies.

You will, of course, be way ahead of me. I had turned up at interval, not realising that Tuesday shows start at an hour and a half earlier than usual, and I had happily watched half a play, thinking it was the entire show. Perhaps, thought a chastened Ms TN, I had been mistaken in so hastily condemning the doily-ideology of the poet: perhaps the play really was a shambles. So this Tuesday, neurotically checking my watch, I once again wended my way to the MTC, and saw all of the play.

Is it a mess? Perhaps. I'm not so sure this matters very much. Such cavils remind me of John Dryden's discussion of "dramatic poesy". (Dryden was the first Poet Laureate, and in his day a shining light of the Restoration stage, newly emerged after a long hiatus in English drama caused by the closing of the theatres.) While allowing that Shakespeare was paramount for his vital portrayal of Nature, being superior in his imaginings to the nancy classicism of the French, Dryden concludes his discussion by suggesting that verse is "a rule and a line by which [the poet] keeps his building compact and even, which otherwise lawless imagination would raise either irregularly or loosely".

Order and regularity - if perhaps trumped by the radiant sun of Shakespearean "genius" which is, fortunately, very rare (and he was already a dead poet) - was all. To this end, Dryden rewrote several of his forebears, including an operatic adaptation in rhyming couplets of Milton's Paradise Lost, one of the greatest works of blank verse in English. Given Milton's famous attack on the "the jingling sound of like endings", rhyme being "a troublesome and modern bondage" that shackled the "ancient liberty" of poetry, it seems a foolhardy and impertinent exercise. Dryden's Miltonic adventures suggest that metrical propriety is is merely the outward clothing of an unpoetical moral obedience.

Dorothy Hewett would have given Dryden conniptions. She was lawless in her writing and her life, bowing to no rules. She wrote good verse if she chose to, and ignored it when she didn't; she acted with a fine inattention to propriety of any kind, but always with a passionate truthfulness. Worst of all, she was a woman. In the 17th century, an outspoken woman of letters was considered at best an absurdity and at worst an obscenity. Although things have certainly changed since then, the rags of those attitudes have a strange persistence in many literary circles.

Certainly The Man from Mukinupin demonstrates none of the tidy formality so admired by Dryden. It is a glorious patchwork of pastiche, merrily stitching Australian folksong, vaudeville and Elizabethan epithalamion to some wicked imitations of the more moralistic Victorian poets. It's structured as a classic comedy (everyone gets married in the end). But this is a comedy that talks about Aboriginal genocide, and that takes a satirical glance at the myth of nationhood forged through the blood sacrifice of World War 1, situating both in an evironment degraded by salination caused by farming. The erotic relationships of each of the couples are underlaid by a dark subtext of violence, self-destruction and despair.

In short, Hewett breaks every rule going, which is perhaps why she is often treated with suspicion (as she said, theatre critics always called her a "poet", and poetry critics always said she was a "playwright"). But she breaks the rules with irresistible elan. The patchwork becomes a whole thing because of the fusing force of her passion: passionate anger, passionate desire. And perhaps most importantly, by her direct, unembarrassed desire to make beauty.

For those unmoved by such passions, it's easy to find fault with the text: the first act is perhaps a little clumsy, and the second act (which on two viewings I decided was quite brilliant) features some contrived deux ex machina plotting. And so on. Certainly it's not neat, and perhaps the first act could have benefited from some cutting. But to me such suggestions are a little like saying that Blake ought to work more on his scansion: they miss the point. Quod scripsi scripsi and all that: chilly perfection was never Hewett's bag. And the fact is that the flaws are a little like the asymmetries and blemishes of a loved face: they are its living imperfections, the idiosyncrasies that make it unlike any other.

Wesley Enoch has given The Man from Mukinupin a vitally lucid production that is very much in the spirit of the writing. It subtly highlights the subtext of racism by casting Indigenous actors wearing whiteface, but otherwise lets the writing speak for itself.

Richard Roberts's set is beautiful. Much of the action takes place before a curtain of calico sheets, hung as if on a washing line, which he also uses for some great shadowplay. When the curtains are drawn back, it reveals an edgeless space behind it, a sand-floored, impressionistic picture of Mukinupin seen through the imagery of fringe-dwellers: a broken down caravan with cheap cotton curtains, a stone-edged campfire, the naked limbs of trees, moodily lit by Rachel Burke. The band, playing Alan Johns's arrangement of Jim Cotter's original music, are seen in half-light backstage, near a wooden counter that represents the General Store.

Enoch has directed it as music theatre rather than a musical, with an emphasis on theatricality that generates hugely enjoyable performances from his excellent cast. Suzannah Bayes-Morton, in the double role of Mukinupin belle Polly Perkins and her outcast half-white half sister Lily, perhaps has not the strongest of voices, but makes up for this by the impure poignancy of her singing. Her songs, backed by a wittily directed chorus, were highlights.

Many characters are twinned, with siblings acting as archetypal mirrors of the light and dark sides of Munikupin: the brothers Jack and Harry Tuesday, played by Craig Annis, or Eek and Zeek Perkins (Max Gillies). Others, like the damaged wife of Eek, Edie, are double-natured. Edie is possessed by an oracular spirit which speaks her crushed desires and hatreds, her amplified voice echoing through the theatre like a dark angel. But all of them - David Page, in three roles, Valentina Levkowicz as Clemmy Hummer, Melodie Reynolds as Clarry Hummer and Widow Tuesday, and Amanda Muggleton being fabulous as the melodramatic actress with an eye for the main chance, Mercy Montebello - deserve mention.

Although I was never bored, I was ready for the first act to finish when it did. But the second act - and as you know, I speak from dutifully repeated watching - runs like a river in flood. It's a wonderful play, here given a revival that respects it in all the right ways. It shows that in her political intuitions, Hewett was way before her time, and that stylistically she deserves to rank with Patrick White as a defining Australian playwright. Like White, she draws her theatre from vulgar traditions such as vaudeville as well as modernism, but her attack on vernacular speech has more sheerly joyous vigor, a knowing intimacy that White could not quite attain. And her anger and passion are still startlingly contemporary.

Picture: Suzannah Bayes-Morton as Lily Perkins in The Man from Mukinupin. Photo: Earl Carter

The Man from Mukinupin by Dorothy Hewett, directed by Wesley Enoch. Musical direction Alan John, set and costumes by Richard Roberts, lighting design by Rachel Burke, choreography by Jack Webster. With Craig Annis, Suzannah Bayes-Morton, Max Gillies, Valentina Levkowicz, Amanda Muggleton, David Page, Melodie Reynolds and Kerry Walker. Company B and Melbourne Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, until July 19.

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Circus Oz

My review of Circus Oz's fab new show, Barely Contained, was in Monday's Australian.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday night

'Twas the night before Monday, and all through the house, the only thing stirring was Alison's mouse. Or so quoth the poet, poets having leave to lie when quothing. (As you no doubt know, it's called Poetic Licence, and means that outrageous untruths about dragons, the interior design of the heart or swine flu are permissible in the interests of Higher Things. The CIA has a similar licence, but uses it to less aesthetically pleasing effect. This is why Plato thought poets ought to be tarred, feathered and run out of town, since in his view it was much better to leave lying to the real professionals rather than to disreputable jongleurs. And quite right too).

Anyway, it's a pitch-black Sunday evening in the depths of a Melbourne winter, and the mouse has been busy, scurrying over some interesting new blogs. I'll list some that have caught my eye recently (in strict alphabetical order, to save my getting confused). Check 'em out.

ArtKritique: the "secret life" of John Matthews , marketing expert. Eclectic blog commenting on all sorts of artforms, including theatre.

Actual/Ideal: Ming Zhu-Hii's new blog. Many of you will remember Mink Tails. This one is a fascinating trek through Ming's mind.

Captain's B'log: White Whale Theatre talking about Everything. Oh, and theatre too.

Cluster: A new blog for playwrights, begun by Joanna Erskine. The idea is for playwrights, usually solitary types, to "discuss, debate critique, create, inspire, connect". It's started off with a bang, with some wonderful quotes from Augusto Boal.

Neandellus: My latest must-read review blog. Neandellus gets out and about with his Platonic friends and does a bit of philosophising about theatre.

The Perf: Review blog kept by two University of Wollongong students, Simon and Mark. Full of sharp and perceptive stuff.

Performance Monkey: Great blog kept by UK theatre critic (Sunday Times, Literary Review) David Jays. Always well worth reading.

Tony Reck 21C: Commentary blog including a lot of reviews of local theatre.

What with old faves like Guerilla Semiotics (Jana Perkovic, who is getting better and better), David Williams at Compromise is our business (check out the fascinating interview with Andrew Morrish on improvisation), Superfluities Redux (my old mate George Hunka in New York, steadily keeping the aesthetic flame burning white hot) and Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire - where UK theatre artist Chris Goode recently posted one of the most impassioned thinkings about theatre I have read, beginning: "Another word for theatre is desire" - you'll find plenty of inspiring reading for a mere flick of your mouse's whiskers. Not to mention the many other sites on the TN blogroll. (Which I promise I will update, any day now.)

I'd also like to draw your attention to a couple of interesting recent posts. Both, in different ways, are about sex. 7-On Playwrights examines the recent Belvoir St season which is, not untypically, very light on women directors and features a total absence of female writers. Where, 7-On wants to know, are the wunderkind female directors? The male kinder, after all, pop up like meerkats all over the prairie. It's a good question.

And in the Guardian, playwright Wallace Shawn writes about why he writes about sex. It's a subversive document: "...perhaps it would be a good thing if people saw themselves as a part of nature, connected to the environment in which they live. Sex can be a very humbling, equalising force. It's often been noted that naked people do not wear medals, and weapons are forbidden inside the pleasure garden. When the sexuality of the terrifying people we call "our leaders" is for some reason revealed, they lose some of their power - sometimes all of it - because we're reminded (and strangely, we need reminding) that they are merely creatures like the ordinary worm or beetle that creeps along at the edge of the pond. Sex really is a nation of its own."

Enjoy it all. I'm off to find the Pierian Spring, although for some reason it doesn't come up on google maps. Ooroo!

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bits everywhere

Ms TN is showing signs of wear and tear. (Not the usual ones that are to do with aging gracelessly, which would be ok...) Anyway, what with leaving things in taxis, almost reviewing half a play and various other symptoms of distraction, it's clear that I've failed dismally in my major New Year's Resolution, to wit, to find some balance in my life - or, more properly, lives. (The sign of total discombobulation is when I lose my wallet, which I've done without fail in moments of great stress: oddly, the God of Lost Objects has given it back every time, even when I left it on top of a public phone at Plymouth Station, a grim temple to junkiedom, at 11.30pm one memorable night...I'm not at the wallet-losing stage yet, and planning not to get there - the god is probably running out of patience and will probably refuse to give my mind back.)

Next week, in one of my other lives, I'm starting a full-time creative development, so I'm going to be kind to me and pull back playgoing to the minimum - that is, what I'm obliged to do for the Australian. I'll be posting minimally, but you needn't fear there will be lack of reading material. I'm planning a long overdue catch-up on Other Blogs and Items of Interest. In the meantime, please forgive any unintentional loopiness.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Poet No. 7

Any play with "poet" in the title is going to catch Ms TN's attention, although I have to admit that poetry doesn't necessarily fare well on the stage. Some of the worst nights of theatre I've suffered through have been misguidedly romantic imaginings about famous (and satisfactorily tragic) poets. Oh, the sins that have been committed in the names of Akhmatova and Mandelstam...

Ben Ellis is, however, far too tactful a writer to do this to us. The poet of his title is nameless: he has reached a truly poetic state of anonymity, and has even forgotten his own name. When X, a character driven mad by war, love and psychotropic drugs, takes his hand in greeting, the poet is dismembered by a bomb. X runs in a blind panic through burning GM crops (grown for military purposes) holding the poet's hand. "and i realise", says X, "that i have been running / for several kilometers of corn / with a dead man's arm / still shaking my hand".

This fragment of poet represents the fragment of poetry that informs the structure of this play - the idea that the light of stars is, literally, the manifestation of different times. As X says, the poet tells him that "that star there / that's three million years ago / and that star there / that's four years ago / what you are witnessing / is all different times / converging upon you". For Ellis's poet, this is a sign of hope. Andre Schwarz-Bart's brilliant novel on the Holocaust, The Last of the Just, works with a similar idea - "our eyes register the light of dead stars" - but more bleakly. For Schwarz-Bart, starlight is the touch of death, the irrevocable past that is only now news to us, but which in our belated present we can we can neither enter nor correct.

Nevertheless, like Schwarz-Bart (whose novel has other resonances with this play, including a character who turns into dog), Ellis is concerned with a series of apocalyptic presents, at once individual and global. Poet No. 7 is a series of four interwoven monologues that come from different fictional times and collide in the present of the stage. The four voices are Ella (Edwina Wren), a librarian who has fallen shatteringly in love; Mark (Merfyn Owen), a corporate executive in love with a younger woman who is selling patented indigenous crops to a big US company; Gillian (Georgina Capper), a woman who investigates the deaths of isolated people and who has to deliver a eulogy for a dead woman, and X (Simon King).

Through these monologues, Ellis creates a fictional world a micro-step away from ours. Australia is torn apart by some undefined war, its indigenous berries patented and genetically modified by corporate interests to make deadly military weapons. And in this imagined world, as in ours, people fall blindingly in love and die alone in apartments to be discovered weeks later.

It is an ambitious work, written in a plainly poetic vernacular that segues to moments of almost surreal lyricism. And as part of the Arts Centre's Full Tilt program, it's given a fascinating production by Ellis's long-time collaborator, Daniel Schlusser. The disappointing thing is that the writing can't sustain the pressure of the production: for too much of the play, the production and text are working at cross-purposes.

The first ten minutes or so, before any words are spoken, are riveting. Meg White's design, a thrust with audience on three sides and the sound and light technicians visible at a raised desk on the fourth, is plunged into darkness. What we see is a series of shrouded shapes, briefly illuminated by deep amber lights that pulse up to an unbearable brightness and then at once sink back into darkness. Then there is a camera's flash, illuminating three performers in face masks and rubber gloves and a fourth lying on the floor, a corpse draped in a plastic sheet. As we watch the performers scrutinise and file the objects on stage, we begin to understand that this is a forensic investigation.

The performers draw plastic sheets off the shrouded objects and turn on lights, revealing a strange landscape of glass tanks with a miscellany of things inside them: stuffed animals, a plastic penguin stranded in a desert of sand, even a live white mouse. It's unsettling, sinister and mysterious. One performer (Simon King) is creeping around the edges of the stage, hiding from the others. Later we discover that he is X, at once marginal and central to the action, the character through which the emotional action flows through madness and violence towards forgivenness.

By the time the performers begin to speak, we are already in another world. The transition to the text, which is already fragmented, is confusing: it takes quite a while to work out that the four monologues are autonomous, even if (as we discover) related, and to sort out their various stories. For the next fifteen minutes or so, I found my concentration constantly shifting, and mostly away from the text: I was so busy watching the various performers (and, at times, the very sanguine mouse) that sometimes I forgot to listen to the text altogether.

Then it began to come together in a different way, and the voices in this richly detailed production began to resonate against each other and drive its splintered narrative. This generates moments of real theatrical power, a poetic suspension of everything except the present moment. And in these moments, the whole thing begins to flower as a wholly integrated work of theatre.

There's much to see here, not least some astounding performances. The actors are totally focused for the duration, bringing a coherence to their stage presences that binds their often inscrutable actions with a compelling intention. There are three sound designers - Darrin Verhagen, Martin Kay and Nick van Cuylenburg - that provide collectively an elegantly evocative sonic environment. And Kimberly Kwa's lighting design, which uses both theatre lights and found lighting turned on and off by the performers, is stunningly good.

All the same, I suspect Ellis's play might have been better served with a production that tried to do less with it, with minimal staging and without the meta-narrative that Schlusser weaves around it. A lucid introduction of the different monologues might have solved a lot of my initial confusion. But then, perhaps the text's weaknesses would have been more exposed: I'm not entirely sure it could sustain a barer production. In any case, I had to go away and read it afterwards in order to understand better what the play was doing.

It's by no means badly written, and it's an interesting and ambitious take on a difficult theme: or maybe more accurately, many difficult themes (it's kind of like Ellis is dealing with Everything That's Wrong With The World, refracted through intimate moments of passionate human interaction). But I think that the text has dramaturgical problems: the voices, despite their differing narratives, are all too rhythmically similar to generate the electrifying contrasts that otherwise might have more clearly driven the play's emotional arc.

What I missed most was the steely language and rhythms that are the heart of lyric, a certain torque in the language itself. There are too many lines like " i look at flowers and cry / once i cried for longing / now i cry for sharing the beauty", lines that signal emotional intention but are too poetically generalised to rise past the bathos of cliché. And Ellis's writing can fall jarringly into didacticism. As soon as the torque in the language loosened, it ceased to be amplified by the theatrical context, but rather disappeared behind it.

Which makes it a deeply interesting production to think about, especially given the contemporary arguments about the relationship between writing and theatre. And, for all my reservations, it's well worth a look.

Picture: Edwina Wren in Poet No. 7. Photo: Daisy Noyes

Poet No. 7 by Ben Ellis, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Meg White, sound design and composition by Darrin Verhagen, Martin Kay and Nick van Cuylenburg, lighting design by Kimberly Kwa, costume design by Jemimah Reidy. With Edwina Wren, Merfyn Owen, Simon King and Georgina Capper. Full Tilt @ the Black Box, Victorian Arts Centre, until June 20.

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Pascall Prize speech

My acceptance speech for the Geraldine Pascall Prize for Critical Writing is now online at the Geraldine Pascall Foundation site. The important bit:

But I also see some sparkles in the gloom. There are a lot of smart young bloggers in Australia, hungrily seeing art and responding to it. And artists themselves are vocal in demanding more and better responses to their work. The internet has stepped into the breach. Theatre Notes was the first theatre blog in Australia, but these days it’s by no means the only one. Melbourne in particular has a rich and lively culture of theatre blogging. This prize means a lot to me in many ways, but a major reason is that it demonstrates conclusively that blogging is not just the province of bored teens. And I hope it will encourage not only me, but the talented younger critics I see developing around me. They need encouraging. As we all know, criticism is no easy career choice. It sometimes feels thankless, and it requires the skin of a Sherman tank.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Oh the Humanity, A Commercial Farce

Feeling, real feeling, is the hardest thing to recreate in art. Too crudely represented, and it is coarsened to sentimentality, a victim of the limited vocabularies we have for emotional nuances and extremes; too refined, and we miss the point altogether, in a maze of cerebrations that elide its visceral genesis. The phenomenon of feeling encompasses everything that makes human beings such contradictory creatures: feeling is our consciousness of emotion, a heightened and subtle state of being that, on the other hand, is driven by a little almond-shaped piece of porridge, the amygdala, which is lodged in the primitive reptilian part of our brain.

Language is one of our primary ways of expressing feeling, but it is also one of the best ways of repressing it. This is, of course, why poetry was invented. Poetry is the art of creating fractures in language through which feeling can emerge. Language - especially official, legislative or bureaucratic language but also, less obviously, the social codes through which we organise our most mundane social interactions - orders our realities in recognisable chunks, which at their crudest become clichés that determine our responses. Poetry attempts to smash the cliché in order to release the feeling beneath it.

In this sense, Will Eno is certainly a poet of the stage. Eno is one of the most interesting writers to emerge in the US in the past few years. He is best known for his theatrical monologue Thom Paine (Based on Nothing), which premiered here in an elegant production starring Neil Pigot at the MTC a couple of years ago. Oh the Humanity (and other exclamations), which has just closed after its Australian premiere at La Mama, is a series of attacks on language that attempts precisely to discover the feeling beneath the shells of words, the hidden universe of the self that aches for expression.

Oh the Humanity is a recent play that consists of five short, unrelated playlets that in different ways directly address the audience. In each piece, Eno sets up a recognisable situation and then collides public speech with interior musing. There's the football coach at a press conference explaining his team's failure ("The phrase, of course, you are familiar with. It was a ‘building year,’ this last year was. We suffered some losses...") There's the two people recording a self-advertisement for an online dating service, and the airline PR woman who is speaking to grief-stricken relatives after an air tragedy.

In these three works, the expected is invaded by the unexpected, as inappropriate privacies are made public. The coach suddnely reveals his inability to love and the crises of his life. "I found myself standing in the unforgivable light of a grocery store, staring at my reflection in a freezer, and realising: 'You’re not having a bad day — this is just what you look like, now. This is who the years are making you'." (Shades here of the American poet Randall Jarrell - "if just living can do this to you/ living is terrible").

The two lonely hearts describe themselves in unlikely ways and reveal fragile fantasies of connection, almost visions, in which they are simply recognised or heard. The PR woman attempts to speak about her own grief in a context in which it is simply unacceptable to do so, revealing the lies she tells herself about death to comfort herself. But spoken to a roomful of devastated families, these understandable self-deceptions become monstrous. They open out as an anaesthetisation against reality, a fantasy of empathy which reveals itself as a kind of callousness.

The final two pieces intensify the ambiguities Eno has set in play. The Bully Composition features two photographers recreating a historical photograph from the Spanish-American War (with the audience as models), in which the desire to recapture the reality of a past trauma becomes frankly predatory, a kind of ghastly pursuit of authenticity that betrays the emptiness of those who seek it. But even this is fractured by a brief, vivid vision of the reality behind the photograph, a flash of imaginative insight. And the final piece, Oh the Humanity, is a dialogue about mortality between a couple, apparently on the way to some event (either a funeral or a christening) in a car. Here Eno smashes the pretence of theatre. Their car - represented by two chairs - won't start. Pier Carthew, playing the husband, carefully mimes opening a door and stepping out of a car. He circles behind it, staring hard. What's wrong? demands his wife (Emma Officer). "It's just two chairs," he says.

The constant slippages of meaning and register that characterise Eno's writing make these pieces a difficult ask, and neither Eno's writing nor the production escape the odd moment of easy sentiment. That is, of course, the risk of so directly asserting the place of feeling, although it must be said that the script is intelligent enough to avoid bathos. Director Laurence Strangio gives the production an appropriately minimal theatrical frame, with the actors changing and setting up new scenes in full view of the audience, but the suppleness of Eno's linguistic shifts are sometimes dealt with a little crudely: for example, when the football coach segues into a poem, it's signalled with lighting and sound changes that paradoxically made it less effectively strange. Carthew and Officer give focused performances that nicely articulate the script's ironies and delicacies, although I felt there was more to exploit.

When Dion Mills made an appearance at the end as "the beauty of things, the majesty of — I don’t know — the world? The universe?", his sure actorly presence gave that brief role just enough ironic spin to get away with the audacious metaphysical abstraction of his role. He generated the poetic suspension between belief and disbelief, irony and sincerity, that the other actors couldn't quite attain. But it's a near miss. I liked this show a lot.

As a writer, Peter Houghton could do with some of Eno's dramaturgical poetic. He is by no means an elegant playwright, and his new show, A Commercial Farce, has a lot of visible joins and is still a little over-written. But these quibbles are erased by the sheer bravura of its execution and by Houghton's gift for devastatingly witty one-liners. This sets out to be a very funny show, and it is. Like Eno, Houghton is interested in cliché, but his treatment is more violent: he simply pumps it up until it explodes.

Houghton is a fine actor – he recently played James Joyce in the STC’s glittering production of Travesties, and last year gave us a memorable Hamm in a brilliant Melbourne Festival production of Endgame, produced by Eleventh Hour. He specialises in a particular kind of backstage comedy that he performs himself. Collaborating with his wife, Anne Browning, he’s written and produced a trilogy of monologues, beginning with the hit show The Pitch, a perilously funny satire of the film industry, and culminating in The Colours, which opens this August as part of the MTC’s new Lawler Studio season.

In A Commercial Farce, directed at the Malthouse by Aidan Fennessy, Houghton turns his laser wit onto commercial theatre. It’s as much homage as satire: Houghton has his cake and eats it too. It’s funny for all the reasons that Alan Ayckbourn or Michael Frayn are funny, with added meta-text. It takes all the hoariest jokes of farce - symbolised by the banana-skin and the nose-flattening rake, both awaiting the unwitting foot - and delivers them up crooked. Some of the best jokes involve Ben Grant's sound design, and Anna Cordingley's ingenious double-level set is basically a comic booby-trap.

The set-up, as with all farce, is simple, with the necessary spice of panic. Middle-aged director Bill (Houghton) has poured all his money into a production of a farce by popular playwright Dylan Crackbourn, which opens the following night. It’s Bill’s 20th wedding anniversary, it’s nearing midnight, and he’s fighting with his aggrieved wife on his mobile. Instead of popping the champers with Bianca, he’s having one last desperate rehearsal with Jules (Luke Ryan), a television star with no experience of the technical demands of comedy.

Jules is a Generation Y opportunist with an undertow of violence whose every second exclamation is “awesome!” And he simply doesn’t see why he has to slip on the banana-skin or step on the rake. What, he wants to know, is the theme of the play? As he gulps down the sponsor’s wine, Bill despairingly explains the mechanics of farce and its relationship to the tragic absurdity of living. And this in turn lifts the stakes higher: having exposed the bones of comedy, how do you subvert the form enough to make it, well, funny?

The answer lies in two bravura performances that mercilessly expose the close relationship between farce and tragedy. Both performers bring a luminous physical ebulliance to their roles and invest what could be empty stereotype with unexpected flourishes that flesh out their complexities. Ryan is a brilliant fool, but it becomes clear that this youthful scion of Howard's Australia is not nearly as stupid as he looks. Houghton's performance brings a genuine pathos to his role: he plays resigned hangdog with a painful verisimilitude, generating the anxiety that gives this comedy teeth. As Bill’s mid-life crisis takes florid flight, it demonstrates the unpalatable truth that nothing is as funny as another person’s pain.

Pictures: (Top) Emma Officer in Oh The Humanity. Photo: Daisy Noyes. (Bottom) Peter Houghton (above) and Luke Ryan in A Commercial Farce. Photo: Jeff Busby

Oh, the Humanity (and other exclamations) by Will Eno, directed by Laurence Strangio. Sound design and composition by Neddwellyn Jones, lighting by Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist, designed by Laurence Strangio and cast. Performed by Pier Carthew and Emma Officer. La Mama @ the Courthouse Theatre, closed.

A Commercial Farce by Peter Houghton, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Set and costume design by Anna Cordingley, sound design by Ben Grant, lighting by Matt Scott. With Peter Houghton and Luke Ryann. Malthouse Theatre @ the Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until June 27.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Signs of the times

The worst of the GFC (which, incongruously, always makes me think of Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant) is yet to hit us here in Australia. I suspect that its real impact will begin to be felt in the arts next year, as major companies deal with tightened budgets caused by dwindling sponsorships, and the effects of fewer opportunities trickle down (trickle down economics, I've noticed, only works in a negative way) to smaller outfits.

The initial impact is being felt at the top end of town, as patrons cut back on expensive tickets. Opera Australia yesterday announced a review of its organisation, following a 10 per cent drop in ticket sales and a $4 million write-down in its capital funds. The new Music Recital Centre has cancelled several concerts scheduled for September, which may not be linked to the GFC, but on the other hand, may well be. And the Melbourne City Council - a major supporter of the arts here - has cut its arts budget by 20 per cent. (I'm sure, of course, that decision has nothing to do with this Bolt-worthy beat-up).

Arts organisations are responding by turning to their supporters for help. They have always depended on private support, but this time there's a desperate edge - many are talking about their future survival. This might make good sense - our very own Michael Lynch, who has been running London's Southbank Centre for the past few years, caused a flurry in Britain this week when he blasted private industry for dropping the ball on arts sponsorship, claiming that the bulk of Southbank's multi-million pound refurbishment was supported by private individuals.

Certainly there's been a recent upturn in appeals. I reported a couple of weeks ago on the international poetry publisher Salt Publishing, a major literary casualty of the GFC, whose imaginative Just One Book campaign has been a stunning success. (If you haven't bought a book yet, go there now). But they're not the only literary organisation with their cap out - the Melbourne Writers Festival is also asking for private donations to bring over some star guests. And Polyglot Puppet Theatre - hit by funding cuts as well as the economic downturn - has also launched a public appeal to help it continue its work for children. (Donations can be made here). I suspect these appeals will become a common feature of the post-crash arts landscape.

It remains to be seen how deep private pockets are, and how the culture weathers the storm. And I can't help wondering how the brilliant upsurge in creativity that has characterised so much recent Australian theatre will negotiate these hard times, as companies inevitably turn to programming with more guaranteed commercial appeal. On the other hand, those at the smaller end of the cultural scale might paradoxically suffer less: what's the difference between poor and poor?

On a brighter note, as Marcus Westbury points out, the fallout can also be positive, as hard times force some creative thinking. "Looking at a post boom Melbourne it is easy to forget how much of what I love about this city is the product of the last great recession of the early 90s," he says. "Its laneway bars, its smart graffiti, its living CBD, its distinctive inner suburbs of eclectic shops and retail strips, its creative community are not the product of arts agencies or central planning but of the fertile ground, cheap space, and hard working initiative of a decade ago. The city is a rich ecology not created through central planning but grown in economic detritus and forged in the harsh and searing furnace of hard times."

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rush again

My profile of Geoffrey Rush, post-Tony Award, is in today's Australian.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Mainstage explorations

Ms TN was intending to be at this morning's launch of the Melbourne Theatre Company's Lawler Studio Season, an event I was anticipating with lively curiosity, but my plans were derailed by an early-morning phone call from my editor. So instead of venturing out into the pleasant sleet and hail of a Melbourne winter morning, I spent the day at home writing furiously to a 4pm deadline. Such are the travails of a theatre writer.

Luckily, the wonders of email mean that it all landed in my inbox, sans champagne and croissants but with all the right spelling. And this season of three new plays, curated by MTC associate director Aidan Fennessy, looks very interesting indeed. In fact, it opens the MTC programming right up.

It kicks off on July 22 with Savage River by Steve Rodgers (last seen at the MTC with Ray's Tempest). This is a co-production with Sydney's Griffin Theatre and the Tasmanian Theatre Company, and will be directed by associate director Peter Evans. Next is The Colours, a one-man show written and performed by Peter Houghton and directed by Anne Browning (coincidentally, Houghton's Malthouse play A Commercial Farce opens tomorrow night). Lastly is a Stuck Pigs Squealing production, Lally Katz's Apocalypse Bear Trilogy, opening on October 8. This will be Luke Mullins's directorial debut, as he returns to Melbourne after a year as a member of the STC's Actors Company. Mullins is co-directing with Brian Lipson and both will be starring with Katherine Tonkin.

The MTC has also scrambled together funding for a three-year program of playreadings and workshops for emerging playwrights, which will begin later this year. You can find more details on the Lawler Studio Season here.

Which reminds me that, what with this and that (there's been a lot of this and that about lately), I have neglected to mention the announcement of the STC's new ensemble, The Residents, last week. The Residents replaces the Actors Company with a full-time ensemble of younger actors, who will work in the engine room of the company, presenting main stage works but also working on developmental projects such as Rough Drafts - rehearsing and presenting a play in a week - and plays for the educational program. They include a bunch of very talented performers, including Melbourne actor Richard Pyros, whose performance of Hamlet for A Poor Theatre (film and play) was a knockout. Watch out for The Residents' debut later this year with The Mysteries.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Go Geoffrey!

Yes, a little bit of parochial preening is in order. Our Geoffrey just won the Tony for best actor for his role in the Broadway run of Exit the King - which premiered at our very own Malthouse, of course, in a Belvoir St co-production. What larks, eh?

Meanwhile, my review of the Broadway show Avenue Q is in today's Australian.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

Review: August: Osage County

The first thing to say about the MTC's production of August: Osage County is that it is a brilliant example of this kind of well-made theatre. You know, as soon as you walk into the Playhouse and see Dale Ferguson's triple-level set, that you're in for a big soap opera of a play. It's a house in almost cubist cross-section, the upper bedrooms perilously exposed like those pictures of bombed London houses in the second world war. Every naturalistic detail is there: the papered-over windows, the family snapshots on the sideboard by the dining table, the bookshelves, the old record player. It screams "multi-generational family drama".

And you get precisely what is written on the box. Tracy Letts' play, written for the Chicago company Steppenwolf, is a sprawling family tragi-comedy (some wags over in the US have called it "situation tragedy") which attempts to diagnose the pathologies of contemporary mid-west America, and here it's given a bravura production by Simon Phillips. August: Osage County comes to Australia on a wave of press adulation: a Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s been hailed as the best play to hit Broadway for a decade.

The play dances on the exposed nerves of the Weston family, who are in the midst of spectacular meltdown. Beverly (George Whaley) and his wife Violet (Robyn Nevin) observe what Beverly calls the “cruel covenant” of marriage. As he tells the hired Native American help Johnna (Tess Masters), “The facts are: my wife takes pills, and I drink”. When Beverly suddenly vanishes, their relatives descend on the house, partners and children in tow, setting the stage for a fraught process of revelation and damage. Family secrets rattle out of the closet and lives are destroyed with a flick of the tongue.

It’s an ambitious play in a grand American tradition, but Letts has incorporated other contemporary influences – notably television – into the mix. The odd thing is that the televisual influences are pretty dusty. Over the past few years, some of the most exciting television in the world has been made in the States - bold, formally imaginative and uncompromising stuff like Deadwood or The Wire - but Letts' play reflects an earlier era of traditional soap opera and situation comedy. This makes it comfortably familiar, but gives the writing a sepia tinge.

And the rapturous claims that August: Osage County is the new Great American Play make me wonder what has happened to the Great American Play. Letts references practically all of them - the drug-addled shamble of Violet Weston echoes the morphine-heavy steps of Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night; the inter-generational savagery and destructiveness reflects Tennessee Williams, especially The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; the tragic inexorability of family secrets outing themselves into the next generation is like Miller's All My Sons. And so on. But when you put this play in the company of O'Neill et al, it shrinks to its proper size. It's a potboiler.

The play opens, via a rambling monologue from Beverly (a former poet and English professor) with some self-conscious literary referencing - John Berryman, a suicide, and TS Eliot. (Eliot's poem The Hollow Men is in fact the play's shaping metaphor). But this, like most of the first act, is basically naked exposition: the themes that are to follow are all carefully flagged, as if the text is designed to be written about by English students.

We are told that August: Osage County is about Bush’s America, the corrupted and shattered ideals of post-9/11 society. It's about "the greatest generation", struggling out of poverty into the middle classes, and their spoiled, confused and scarred children and grand children. It's about addiction and generational inheritance. It's about the mid-west. There's enough there for scads of comprehension essays, all laid out carefully like cutlery on a dinner table.

This is particularly clear in the weakest part: the Native American servant, Johnna, is the spiritual blessing and refuge of the house, just as Native American spirituality is the true authenticity of America, yada yada. This woman appears to have no character or motivation outside her heavy symbolism; she sits patiently in her attic room in a lotus position reading books and offering advice to various troubled family members, unless she is called upon to make dinner or lay the table or to hit a lecherous man on the head with a frying pan. Unlike everyone else, we never know why she is there (aside from needing a job) and why she puts up with this family. I guess it's her indigenous saintliness.

What happened, I wonder, to the poetic of subtext? Here it's all worn on the outside, perhaps out of fear that otherwise we'll miss it. Perhaps this accounts too for some of that clumsy plotting. And all the trauma this family undergoes is made palatable by the laughter: it's sometimes uncomfortable, true, as when you find yourself laughing at a drugged old woman gracelessly dancing to an old record. But the eviscerating emotional catharsis attained by the earlier dramatists doesn't exist here: it's soft focus tragedy that never actually pierces your heart with painful interior knowledge.

When you think of the explosive nuclear energy of Sam Shepard, whose play Buried Child was a celebrated Steppenwolf production in the 1990s, it's hard not to speculate that something has gone rotten in American drama. (Maybe it was always rotten, pace Peter Brook - Shepard never sat easily in the mainstream, after all...) While Shepard picked up the popular culture of his day - rock and roll, country and western, science fiction, Hollywood westerns, television, drugs - and used them to generate a new energy in the theatre, Letts is rather bringing these mass culture influences into play as pacifying devices, comforting recognitions that sweeten bitter truths.

The great strength of this play is, however, that it's written for actors. It's full of fabulous roles, and Phillips' cast, particularly the women, makes the most of their opportunities. It's dominated by a scorching performance by Robyn Nevin in the central role of Violet Weston, a drug-hazed wreck whose truth-telling has the compassion of an open razor. This is Nevin at her best, playing a complex, sardonic, damaged monster, unnervingly savage and vulnerable. Meeting her in savagery and depth is Jane Menelaus as Violet's daughter Barbara; these two play out the central conflict of the drama, as Barbara, reeling from a failed marriage, reverts to family patterns and finds that, of all the sisters, she is most like the mother she rejects.

Around them in an almost uniformly strong cast, performances notable for their passionate complexities include Deidre Rubenstein as Violet's blowsy sister Mattie Fae, Heidi Arena and Rebekah Stone as Barbara's two damaged sisters and Roger Oakley as Mattie Fae's put-upon husband. It's good to see Simon Phillips back in form: this is an intelligently orchestrated production. The flexible set permits swift scene changes, signalled by Matt Scott's lighting changes, so the play moves fluidly, with the minimum of distraction. It all, basically, works.

In short, it's a fine production of a play that doesn't live up to its hype. I can't help wishing it did: perhaps the reason that it's been so welcomed is that this scale of ambition and staging is relatively rare in contemporary theatre. It's still enjoyable, in that melodramatic soap opera way, and ought to be a popular hit for the MTC. And it's worth a visit for the performances alone. But in the end, it makes naturalistic drama look old fashioned. Maybe the clue to its future vitality really is in contemporary American television, but this play is looking in the wrong places.

Picture: Sean Taylor, Robert Menzies, Rebekah Stone, Robyn Nevin and Michael Robinson in August: Osage County.

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, directed by Simon Phillips. Set and costumes by Dale ferguson, lighting design by Matt Scott, sound design by David Franzke. With George Whaley, Tess Masters, Robyn Nevin, Rebekah Stone, Deidre Rubenstein, Roger Oakley, Jane Menelaus, Robert Menzies, Kellie Jones, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Heidi Arena, Sean Taylor and Michael Robinson. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until June 27.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Laid low by lurgy

Along with half the population of Williamstown, Ms TN has been struck by a nasty cold. No sign of trotters and snouts as yet, (though obviously, since I live in Plague City, it's only a matter of time) but it's definitely made action of any kind a bit difficult this week.

I have been thinking, through the fog, about Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. (The Australian review was in on Monday). I've been reading Sam Shepard and hemming and hawing about American drama. In short, my dears, Ms TN has been a dutiful and beetle-browed crrrritic in her own trousers all this week, but every two seconds her brains explode out of her ears and she has to begin all over again.

Speaking of which, the cartoon below has been doing the rounds for weeks, so I realise it's old news. But it still warms the cockles of my nasty heart.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Review: Optimism

In 1958, when the horrors of World War 2 were still fresh, Roland Barthes wrote a fascinating essay about Voltaire. Voltaire, said Barthes, was outmoded. For one thing, his enemies had all vanished - no longer were deists and atheists slugging it out in the public arena - and with this had vanished the spectacle of Voltaire's thought. "Better than anyone else, he gave reason's combat a festive style. Everything is spectacle in his battles ... the skirmishes between Voltaire and the world are not only a spectacle but a superlative spectacle, proclaiming themselves such in the fashion of the Punchinello shows Voltaire loved so much."

He was, said Barthes, not entirely as a compliment, "the last happy writer". "Voltaire's first happiness was doubtless that of his times," says Barthes. "Let there be no mistake: the times were very harsh, and Voltaire has everywhere described their horrors. Yet no period had helped a writer more, given him more assurance that he was fighting for a just and natural cause....What has disappeared is the theatre of persecution, not persecution itself: the auto-da-fe has been subtlilised into a police operation, the stake has become the concentration camp, discreetly ignored by its neighbours." The very enormity of racist crimes backed by a state and concealed by the apparatus of ideology "demands a philosophy more than an irony, an explanation rather than an astonishment".

No doubt Barthes would have been astonished to witness the contemporary return of theism as a force in fundamentalist ideologies of all stripes, so that court cases about the right to teach evolution in schools are as much as feature of contemporary life as they were in the late 19th century. And with the return of fundamentalism, so much a feature of millennial modernity, came the return of spectacle. The German avant garde composer Karlhein Stockhausen prompted a scandal when he remarked, a few days after 9/11, that the attack on the Twin Towers was Lucifer's "biggest work of art". (I feel compelled to explain that in Stockhausen's work, Lucifer is a figure of pure intelligence unmoved by love, whom even in that notorious press conference Stockhausen explicitly rejected).

Yet Stockhausen was correct in seeing 9/11 as an unparalleled media event, a murderous spectacle that galvanised the entire world, at once intimate and alienated as our own television screens. We had a preview of media war spectacle in the first Gulf War, but that was managed with admirable finesse: the graphics and distant tracer fire portrayed a technological fantasy, with surgical weapons making hygienic strikes that scarcely ruffled the hair of babes. In 2001, the Twin Towers collapsed again and again in our living rooms, and suddenly the spectacle of death was scorched again on the western retina: atrocity no longer occurred in secret, the product of mysterious famines or obscure ethnic wars. Three years later, we had the grim theatre of torture in Abu Ghraib, beamed out to a billion homes. The auto-da-fe as public spectacle was back.

So if the theatre of atrocity is returned to us, does it mean that Voltaire's sceptical game of reason, his stylish gaeity, has a new aptness? Is his theatrical irony again available as a response? Does, perhaps, the intimacy of theatre make it one of the few places where Voltaire can be realised, since it is a place where the massive scale of contemporary atrocity can be scaled back to a human size? For the counter-argument to Barthes' point about the "enormity" of the Nazi Holocaust is surely Genet's: that murder is an absolute crime and cannot be multiplied, for a universe is destroyed in each death.

Well, that's a long preamble, and it all spirals out of seeing Optimism, Tom Wright and Michael Kantor's adaptation of Voltaire's Candide, at the Malthouse last week. The word “optimism” first appeared in print in 1737 ("pessimism", which appeared around 60 years later, is supposed to have been coined by Coleridge: I guess it makes sense that a poet invented the term). At that time, optimism referred to a specific philosophical position embraced by thinkers like Rousseau and Leibniz: that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that all is for the best.

The anti-philosophical satire Candide (Tom Wright’s adaptation uses its subtitle, Optimism) was Voltaire's famous riposte. It’s a picaresque, episodic frolic through catastrophe, in which Voltaire’s wide-eyed hero, clinging desperately to his doctrine of optimism, is exposed to all the reasons for despair: war, treachery, greed, folly, natural disaster and, finally, human mortality. Even so, Voltaire wasn’t arguing for pessimism. Rather, he was savagely challenging optimism’s claim that life was ruled by immutable forces, which was in Voltaire’s view a covert form of pessimism.

Optimism made me think that Voltaire's scepticism of systems and faiths is peculiarly apt now, his insistence on a human scale not merely a bourgeois evasion of responsibility, but a necessary ethics from which the only justice that means anything might emerge. There is something of Voltaire's scorching scepticism and supple wit, for instance, in the political writings of Slavoj Žižek.

Wright's script cuts Candide to the bone, but remains a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Candide's quest through catastrophe, preserving the essentials of Voltaire's story and argument. And there's no doubt this project plays to both Wright's and Kantor's strengths. Kantor's direction transposes Voltaire's relentlessly cheerful prose into a theatrical world of glittering curtains, puppet-like clowns and Eurovision musical kitsch. It's a world of constant speed that ultimately manifests, as Barthes points out, as immobility.

On Anna Tregloan's brushed steel set, a strangely modernist construction adorned by at least a dozen fans, the abiding metaphor is air travel, which at once encapsulates the hope and destructiveness of modernity. The show is punctuated by the brutal, obliterating noise of jet engines, and the chorus is provided by a series of air hostesses in purple uniforms, interchangeably played by the cast with no attention to gender. Frank Woodley, with his air of bewildered decency and unkillable hopefulness, is an inspired choice for the role of Candide, and provides some necessary intimacy with his stuttering monologues in front of the curtain. And he's an apt foil to Barry Otto’s Pangloss, the absurd philosopher who, despite everything, sees no reason to change his mind about anything.

They are backed by a superb cast, which includes the musical director, Iain Grandage. The characters, like Voltaire's "beloved Punchinello", are all puppets, or perhaps more properly in these times, cartoon characters: they undergo multiple rapes, obscene mutilations, horrific disease, even dissection, only to bounce back, scarred perhaps, but strangely unharmed, like Wil E. Coyote after he has been flattened by a hammer. When Alison Whyte in one of her several roles recounts her unlikely and tragic history as a former daughter of a pope, raised in luxury, the first response is laughter: Voltaire has her regaining consciousness after a massacre to a eunuch despairing that he is unable to rape her, and her buttock is sliced off and eaten by the starving defenders of a siege. And Amber McMahon's bitter despair as the prostitute Paquette is one of the funniest parts of the show.

Which begs the question: is such laughter inevitably heartless, unthinking and empty? I'm not so sure, although it is a real question. Perhaps the most uncomfortable parts of the show are those which reflect Voltaire's exoticising of the non-European world: the inflatable sufi mystic, for instance, or the ape-ish natives of El Dorado. When Candide reaches Surinam, he is confronted by a man who is missing an arm and a leg, both cut off by the colonial powers: this, he tells Candide, is what it costs to get cheap sugar in Europe. On stage, he is played by Hamish Michael in a bizarre plastic suit and blackface, howling a bleakly passionate version of Altered Image's I Could Be Happy. That was certainly not funny, but it's hard to say what it was. Do such images perpetuate or undermine racism? Or both? It seems to me suspended in its absurdity, at once tragic and bitterly grotesque; but perhaps its most unsettling aspect is what we might make of it.

Maybe the point is that the world, like the Eurovision Song Contest, has gone beyond parody, in the same way that no artistic spectacle can compete with the spectacles of our times. Is it brave or mistaken to tackle spectacle in the theatre, can entertainment ever really spark serious thinking about the issues it raises? Is it always merely evasion? Personally, I prefer this approach to the heavy-handed tackling of issues in so-called political plays; but it's worth remembering that Barthes accused Voltaire of being the arch anti-intellectual. "As a system of the non-system, anti-intellectualism eludes and gains... perpetually ricocheting between bad faith and good conscience, between a pessimism of substance and a jig of form, between a proclaimed scepticism and a terrorist doubt". Perhaps. But the downbeat image with which the show closes, with the cast members grouped hopefully around a pile of earth as Candide holds a watering can, stays with me, as a symbol of all that is beautiful and foolish about human beings.

Picture: (From left) David Woods, Francis Greenslade, Amber McMahon, Hamish Michael, Barry Otto, Frank Woodley and Alison Whyte in Optimism. Photo: Jeff Busby

A short review of Optimism was in Friday's Australian.

Optimism, after Voltaire's Candide, by Tom Wright, directed by Michael Kantor. Set and costume design by Anna Tregloan, composer Iain Grandage, lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound design by Russell Goldsmith. With Caroline Craig, Francis Greenslade, Amber McMahon, Hamish Michael, Barry Otto, Alison Whyte, Frank Woodley and David Woods, music performed live by Iain Grandage. Malthouse Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until June 13. Edinburgh Festival 2009, Sydney Festival 2010.

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