PackingFringe: A Black Joy, Yuri Wells, In the Absence of SunlightFringe: Attract/Repel, The Ridiculusmus ReadingsSex and stuffThe trouble with Craven ~ theatre notes

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Tickets, check. Passport, check. Itinerary, check. iPhone A-Z, check. Ms TN is a traveler who likes to know where her towel is, and most particularly wants maps, even if she has a record of holding them upside down and striding optimistically in exactly the wrong direction. (I'm hoping the GPS thing on the iPhone will make this less likely.) But at last I'm feeling more or less prepared.

As some of you will know, earlier this year I won the Australian Poetry Centre's International Poetry Tour ("international" meaning England, Scotland and Ireland), which is an initiative funded by the Australia Council and launched for the first time this year. Practically every poet in Australia applied for this one, and to say I was surprised to get it is an understatement. From next week, I and my fellow winner, Sydney poet Robert Gray, will be spreading the word on Australian poetry to a variety of northern hemisphere persons; but I am looking forward most of all to a week's "writing time" in the Lake District at Dove Cottage, which was Wordsworth's house in Grasmere. (Or, to be exact, I'll be in picturesque lodgings 50 metres from Dove Cottage, as well as doing a reading and a chat about Australian poetry with its present resident, Emma Jones). A list of my appearances is on the Salt blog, and there's a poetical biography on my website for those who like some background. If any of you are anywhere nearby any of my readings, it would be brilliant to see you there.

On the down side, it means that I am missing the Melbourne Festival. So this weekend I am doing a bit of hobnobbing: last night, the festival's opening night, I saw Lally Katz's The Apocalypse Bear Trilogy at the MTC's Lawler Studio (don't miss it) and tonight I'm booked for Sascha Waltz's Medea, an opera/dance piece based on Heiner Müller's Medeamaterial. Aside from any other things I can fit in, like Peter Greenaway's multimedia piece on Leonardo's Last Supper, that will be it. I'm sorry to be missing the buzz, although I admit there's certainly a lining to the cloud.

I'll also be taking the time to do some reflecting. Over the past few months, it's become very clear to me that TN is unsustainable. I love doing this, but it eats me up; and I can't delude myself any more that it isn't at the expense of my own work. I haven't finished a single project now for more than 18 months, and that is beginning to weigh heavy. I'll be considering a number of options, but I might as well warn you that one of them is ceasing blogging (if not theatre going) altogether next year. Reading Roberto Bolaño's extraordinary 2666 recently reminded me again how much I love the form of the novel; and it pricked my conscience, yet again, about my own unfinished folly, The Gilded Man (extracted here), which has been languishing since 2001. Not to mention a number of other stalled projects, at last count four, which I dearly want to complete.

I might blog while I'm away, but I may not. I'll certainly be uploading responses to the two Melbourne Festival shows I'm able to see. In the meantime, au revoir. I'll be back in mid-November.

Read More.....

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Fringe: A Black Joy, Yuri Wells, In the Absence of Sunlight

In the interests of organisation, Ms TN has been tidying her desk. This bland, anodyne phrase cannot begin to comprehend the dimensions of the task. It's like the fifth labour of Hercules (Augean Stables, Cleaning Of), only instead of incontinent cows, I have constant incoming drifts of press releases, programs, drafts, invoices, notebooks, permission requests, bills, receipts, postcards, lists, chocolate wrappers, magazines and books, books, books - phalanxes of them diving in like migratory flocks of starlings, and taking up disordered residence anywhere there's a spare centimetre.

I have often thought my desk is a reflection of my state of mind, and this tells you more than you, gentle reader, need to know. But having reached the point where annihilation by domestic avalanche was more probable than not, I girded my loins, sinews, teeth and anything else that needed girding, and now my study appears to be the habitation of a marginally sane and reasonably organised woman. Appearances may deceive, certainly, but it's nice to have the surface at least, even if it's undermined by a faintly hysterical loquacity.

And now at last I can begin to speak, if briefly, of last week's fringedwelling, which has been sidelined not only by the Labour of the Desk but by my upcoming departure from these sea-girt shores next Monday. I saw three shows last week, making five in all out of a possible menu of around 400 acts, which is pretty wimpy compared to some others. On the upside, I enjoyed all of them. And if the Fringe is conceived as a showcase for the energies throbbing beneath Melbourne's sedate skin, I reckon it's filling its brief nicely. Perhaps what I found most interesting about these shows is that there are all, crucially, works of imagination. It's about time imagination came back.

A Black Joy is one of two Declan Greene plays on at the Fringe. The other, Home Economics, is running at the Store Room until Saturday, so if you missed the first, I recommend the second, sight unseen. I wasn't especially enamoured of Greene's Rage Boy, which I saw in 2007 in a production directed, like this one, by Susie Dee; but two years is a long time in an artist's life, and Greene's been working hard. Now his quality is clear and unambiguous. He's a dark, explosive talent, a playwright who channels the anxieties of 21st century living into a tunnel of comedic nightmare that is as grotesque and pitiless as Bosch.

The conceit of this play is that the characters are all celebrities - John Candy (Tom Considine), Diane Keaton (Anne Browning), Bette Davis (Carole Patullo), Joseph Cotten (Chris Bunsworth), Dakota Fanning (Miriam Glaser), Corey Haim (Ash Flanders) and Megan Twycross playing a character who looks suspiciously like Paris Hilton. They are addressed, all through the play, by their full names, which is a device that gets weirder through repetition. As the author says in the program, the play emerged from a documentary about the fetish called "Feeding", where one partner overfeeds the morbidly obese other in a perverse co-depedency. The centre of A Black Joy's action is John Candy lying beneath his enormous stomach, being fed baked beans by Bette Davis.

This morbid dysfunction sets the cue for the action in the play - the plot, as such, includes Diane Keaton neurotically pumping iron so she won't be raped by her lesbian house cleaner; Keaton's husband Senator Joseph Cotten imprisoning Paris Hilton and feeding her the liver of her murdered daughter, Dakota Fanning; and Corey Haim's romance with Dakota Fanning and the Neo-Nazis. It could be simply a schlock-fest, but Greene's frankly beautiful writing - which ranges from spikily hilarious dialogue to extraordinarily lyric monologues - and Dee's focused and unafraid production makes it something else altogether.

Each time I've contemplated this play, I find myself thinking about mediaeval or Renaissance art - yes, Bosch, because it's enacting a kind of hell; but the celebrity "characters" also recall the stock characters of Commedia dell'arte or even Punch and Judy, obscene and grotesquely exaggerated types who refract our human foibles. It's maybe not so odd - Bosch and the vulgar theatre emerged from another age haunted by apocalyptic fantasy, a world as unstable and strange as ours. It's a comedy for a contemporary apocalypse, underpinned by millennial fears - climate change, mass species extinction - in which the idea of the self is emptied out by celebrity-fuelled consumerism, in which appetite devours itself.

The production is done in the round, with Candy's prone body - swollen under a huge sheet with horrifically rotting feet poking out the end - the centrepiece around which the action revolves. The performances tackle the extremity of the text with relish, excavating at once the cruel comedy and strange pathos of the text. They're all good, but I particularly enjoyed Carole Patullo's Bette Davis, Tom Considine's John Candy and Anne Browning's hyper-neurotic Diane Keaton. Really something.

From the large to the small: Yuri Wells is a one-man show (with added musician) written and performed by Benedict Hardie, and co-devised and directed by Anne-Louise Sarks. It's a change of direction for Hayloft, whom we last saw creating mayhem among the commentariat with their huge and ambitious production 3XSisters, for which Hardie directed a third of Chekhov's play. Maybe it's not so much a change of direction as of scale: in its conception it's as ambitious as anything this company has done.

Yuri Wells is a beautiful piece of theatre, created with deeply thought artfulness and craft. It begins as the audience enters the small, curtained space, with Hardie and musician Stuart Bowden doing a kind of pre-show warm-up, greeting audience members, playing the odd song and passing a toy xylophone around for people to cautiously plink. It's all very relaxed, and with lots of meta-theatrical friendliness. Once it's time to begin, Hardie tells us he's starting the show. So far, so avant garde familiar. Then Bowden sits down among the audience, and Hardie removes all the props from the stage, leaving it totally bare. (The props all gain their significance in the subsequent monologue, but by then we must imagine them).

Hardie tells us that he is playing Yuri Wells, an aged care nurse who, it is rapidly clear, has problems relating to women. And then comes a miraculous and unexpected transition, from an actor playing an actor, with the expected nods to the audience, to an actor becoming Yuri Wells, lonely and possibly homicidal human being. The power of this transition is in the words as much in Hardie's strangely unsettling performance: he takes techniques more at home in contemporary lyric poetry and applies them to theatre, creating an allusive, rich language that is subtle and full of ambiguity, while still remaining emotionally lucid. The writing is theatrical in the best way, and turns on a dime. Yuri Wells is, in the end, a portrayal of human loneliness; but its power comes from its being a portrait of a particular person's loneliness, and all the more desolate and complex for that.

The show is unsettling, disturbing and surprisingly gentle, all at once. But perhaps its greatest invitation - and reinvention - is into the world of imagination, ours and the actor's. I thought this show utterly enchanting, in the proper sense of the word: "to subject to a magical influence, to bewitch", "to delight". Remembering of course that spells have their darker side.

Finally, I saw In the Absence of Sunlight, a one-on-one show that began at the Town Hall pub in Erroll St, North Melbourne, as an assignation in a bar with a stranger. I confess that, given its set-up, I was expecting something like the controversial hit of the Edinburgh Fringe, Ontoerend Goed's Internal: something that turned the intimacy of theatre into a disturbing collision between fantasy and reality. It turned out not to be that at all. Or if it turned out to be something like that, it was not in the way I expected.

When you arrive at the right table, there is a card under the "reserved" sign that says: I need to ask you something. The performer, Tamara Searle, turns up and there's a stilted conversation, the kind that happens between strangers who are meeting for a reason only one of them understands. She talks about where she lives, about John the barman, her room upstairs. She talks about how she has seen me in the street (and I almost say, but I never hang out around here, but don't). Then I'm invited upstairs, to a room that opens out on a balcony. She pours some elderflower cordial, she tells me she has been ill, she takes me out on the balcony and we blow bubbles.

By this time it's clear that the invitation of this show is to be part of the fiction. I am the woman that she has observed obsessively during her illness, unknowingly seen in all my intimate moments. And I guess how you might respond to this show would depend on how you feel about entering a fictional self. It's something I do all the time, one way or another, so once I understood this, I found myself playing this woman. After all, I might have lived on my own across the road from the pub. I might have been observed in my solitude. I might have something to forgive a woman I have never seen in my life.

I thought it a delicate and brave performance, only half shielded by its fiction. Oddly, the more I became my fictional character, the less chatty I became: the more prepared to be silent, to watch Tamara to see what she would do or say next. It was strangely liberating, just as sitting in the dark of the theatre is liberating. Perhaps one of the fascinations of art is the chance not to be yourself, or to escape the carapace of imposed selves into other aspects of who you are. I don't know how useful it is to know that this theatre piece is an adaptation, or perhaps more strictly speaking a kind of coda, to Marjorie Barnard's lyrical short story about illness and recovery, The Persimmon Tree. It gives it an added depth, I guess; but I'm not sure that it matters.

Picture: Benedict Hardie in Yuri Wells. Photo: Lachlan Woods

A Black Joy by Declan Greene, directed by Susie Dee. Design by Emily Barrie, lighting by Katie Sfetkidis, audiovisual by Nicholas Verso, sound design by Ben Bourke. With Anne Browning, Chris Bunsworth, Tom Considine, Ash Flanders, Miriam Glaser, Carole Patullo, Megan Twycross and Alastair Watts on cello. Fortyfive Downstairs, Melbourne Fringe Festival, until October 4, closed.

Yuri Wells, written, co-devised and performed by Benedict Hardie, co-devised and directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, music and performance by Stuart Bowden. The Hayloft Project, Melbourne Fringe Festival, North Melbourne Town Hall, until October 10.

In the Absence of Sunlight, devised by Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy, Dayna Morrissey, Danny Pettingill, Ivanka Sokol, Xan Colman, performed by Tamara Searle. A is for Atlas, Melbourne Fringe Festival, until October 11. Bookings here.

Read More.....

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Fringe: Attract/Repel, The Ridiculusmus Readings

Attract/Repel is an intriguing work of theatre at the Store Room which meets, head-on, the question of racism. One of the best things about it is how it does so without fuss or apology, yet instead of visiting the expected arguments of victimisation or entitlement it manages - delicately and with humour - to excavate something of the complexities of human social relationships, to explore the fluidity of the categories of "us" and "them".

A devised work directed by Ming-Zhu Hii, and generated in collaboration with the performers (Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu and Terry Yeboah), Attract/Repel it has a pleasing transparency about its motives and aesthetic which focuses on the particularities of experience to illuminate general truths, rather than the other way around. The most important aspect of this approach is that contradiction is embraced rather than glossed.

As it begins, the four cast members enter the space one by one, each carrying a suitcase. Each is regarded with suspicion by those already occupying the territory of the stage, until they find their own space. It's an elegant introduction, and is almost a theatrical illustration of an image used by the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In an essay on migration, he describes how one passenger in a train carriage will immediately occupy it. When another enters, he is regarded with mistrust, even veiled hostility; but once he has settled in, he too occupies the carriage. When a third passenger enters, both will regard the new occupant with the same mistrust, until she too has settled in. Enzensberger uses this metaphor to describe the tensions between successive waves of immigrants, pointing out that migration has been the essential history of human beings for millennia. Difference always generates hostility until it is absorbed into the fabric of a society, at which point it becomes part of the "us" that makes a "them".

Once all four performers are on stage, they introduce themselves by asking each other their full names. Because they are from different cultures - Chinese/Australian, Chinese/Indonesian, Indian/Celtic, Ghanaian - they each have names that immediately signal their differences: none has a standard western christian and surname, although their names have all been "translated" into western formats. They ask each other how many languages they speak (an average of about three each, as I recall). They ask each other to say "I love you" in their native language. Georgina's native language is English.

And so begins an intriguing exploration of the mechanics of making human beings "other". The achievement of Attract/Repel is that it at once enters the realm of personal experience and frames it in a series of wider questions: what is racism? Who is racist? Is racism only a question for white privilege? How, in a supposedly multicultural society, does it actually function? What does it feel like to encounter racism? And through these apparently simple questions, which immediately subvert themselves in ways that are comic, unexpected and moving, a picture emerges of something that is not simple at all: a social texture that is full of ambiguity and contradiction, and which is reinforced by the most apparently trivial of gestures as much as by its coarser manifestations.

Ming-Zhu Hii has learned a lot from Jérôme Bel, notably from the apparently straightforward simplicity of his approach in Pichet Klunchun and Myself. However, she has framed this work in a sculptural installation of neon lights designed by Damien McLean, originally inspired by a Dan Flavin installation. This framing makes it more self-consciously theatrical and less joyously transparent than Bel's work, but has its own attractions. The cast use chalk to write on blackboard walls, giving the work a pedagogical frame that is undermined by the playfulness of the performance. There is some stylised movement which doesn't always throw off the smell of studio improvisation, but on the whole the conceit is startlingly successful. The stern simplicity of the work liberates a sense of play, which in turn releases a very human complexity that evades the traps of earnestness or simple moralising.

What makes this work is ultimately the generosity and skill of the performers; they slip with grace and subtlety between raw expressiveness and artifice, keeping both qualities constantly in play. We are never quite permitted to forget that this is a performance, that these performers are playing characters, even if those characters are themselves. At the same time they bring to this consciously theatrical construction a disturbing ability to generate authentically naked emotion. It's intelligent and deeply felt theatre, alert to all its possible pitfalls and evading most of them. Ming-Zhu Hii and her collaborators have created a work that seems to be all light surfaces but which resonates in some deep places.

The Ridiculusmus Readings were, as the name suggests, a series of play-readings of works in progress by Ridiculusmus, the British comic duo, David Woods and Jon Haynes, who brought us an unforgettable The Importance of Being Earnest a few years ago. Over four nights, they read differing combinations of three plays, one of which involved a volunteer cast of around 50 people.

I'm not quite sure how to describe the reading I saw, which included the play with the cast of 50 (a hyper-theatrical and possibly awful play about Princess Diana called Goodbye Princess). For one thing, in the tiny La Mama space, the cast outnumbered the actual audience, although maybe it's truer to say that in many ways the cast and the audience were the same. Which made it a peculiarly immersive experience.

Both plays were reflections on contemporary Britain. Total Football is a two-hander about a PR campaign to jazz up enthusiasm for British Identity by finding golden moments in British public history (including Winston Churchill's declaration of war on Germany and a winning goal by David Beckham). It was a sly and hilarious pisstake on nationalism as a brand, performed with faultless comic timing by Haynes and Woods. Goodbye Princess was read by practically everyone. I guess it had the same concerns as the first play, with added metatheatrics and idiot royals. But what made it totally enjoyable was being in the middle of this anarchic communal reading, complete with misreadings, missing characters and lots of coarse acting. Totally irresistible fun.

Picture: Attract/Repel at the Store Room Theatre.

Attract/Repel, conceived and directed by Ming-Zhu Hii. Lighting design and dinstallation by Damien MacLean, with Rachel Burke, music by Yusuke Akai. With Jing -Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu and Terry Yeboah. The Melbourne Town Players @ The Store Room, Melbourne Fringe Festival, until October 10.

Ridiculusmus Readings by David Woods and John Haynes. La Mama Theatre, Melbourne Fringe Festival. Closed.

Read More.....

Friday, October 02, 2009

Sex and stuff

Fringe shows are now piling up, but not the wherewithal to write about them. Ms TN's got a headache, not of the hangover variety but of the Jane Austen sick-headake kind. I need a shadowed bechamber and some lavender water. But some pointers, all the same, and not only because it's easier to point than to think. If you want reviews now as opposed to later, click through at once to "John Bailey's" excellent new review blog, Capital Idea. It is, as the man says, "a very important blog and should be read frequently". Quite. He's better known to bloggers as Born Dancin', and to others as a Sunday Age reviewer of rare (if condensed) acuity.

Meanwhile, the big talk is women in theatre. After the Belvoir PR disaster, and Neil Armfield's patently inadequate defence, Melanie Beddie has moved the debate south by complaining to the MTC about their lack of the XX chromosone. Blogs and commentaries are catching fire up and down this wide brown land.

What do I think? A lot of things, actually. I have never stepped back from calling myself a feminist, but I hate that thinking feminist ends up imprisoning me in my gender. And I think it's quite right to regard the fact that women are so poorly represented in powerful mainstream artistic positions as a scandal. And I'm also thinking about the essentialist problem (women, being communicative mammals, make a certain kind of collaborative theatre, that is itself marginalised) and the quota problem (it is a step forward for women to be counted on the mainstream stages, even if in aesthetic/ideological terms they do as much for women in general as Margaret Thatcher did for miners).

I'm thinking the question is complicated because of the whole baggage of being a woman, which means millions of signals from babyhood, reinforced if necessary by psychic or physical violence, to stay quiet, to be helpful and selfless and small, to not put oneself forward, to never, ever, ever say how good you are, to speak low and soft lest one be called shrill and monstrous and not-a-proper-woman, to self-efface, to stay away from boring women's business, to hide your intelligence lest a man feel his balls shrink, to remember that to point out that it's a man's world makes you a man-hater, that an outspoken woman will get twice as much shit as an outspoken man, and will have to be twice as smart even to be heard, and that every woman knows underneath, in the reptilian bits of her brain, that the threat of physical and sexual violence is always there to keep her down if all else fails. And so on and so forth in all its infinite variety. And it's not simply about what all this does in the externals of making a career, but what it does to the inside: to what you choose, what your ambitions are, where you flinch, where you don't. And that it's the internals that really count when you're an artist.

And I'm pondering the fact that every woman will experience these things differently, but negotiating them is something every woman has to do. Maybe if a man is gay or black or brown or disabled or lower class, he might have some insight into the insidious effects of this conditioning. But not always. And I think that maybe sometimes, like Frederick Douglass, you have to use the vocabulary of power in order to have a chance of changing things, not the vocabulary of entitled victimhood, and I'm thinking that that is complicated too. And that it takes a long time to change the world, and sometimes those changes aren't as big as they're claimed to be.

Like I said, it's complex.

And while we're on the topic, we might as well give Bell Shakespeare a huge gong, since its 20th anniversary mainstage season - Lear and Twelfth Night - is 100 per cent directed by women. But maybe that's just smart, hip programming.

Read More.....

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The trouble with Craven

The National Times - aka Fairfax's op-ed pages - yesterday hosted a Peter Craven polemic which purported to analyse "the trouble with Australian theatre". I feel I ought to point to it (and to the anger which it has provoked): but is it possible to argue with a critic who, although he writes with an air of impenetrable entitlement, clearly knows so little about theatre?

It's the old wrestling matches - "naturalism" vs "non-naturalism", "writers" vs "directors" - a divide which, it seems, must be preserved at all costs, even if it illuminates nothing about the contemporary scene. In the "Naturalism" corner are Hannie Rayson and David Williamson, playwrights who in fact write television for the stage and have as much to do with naturalism as McDonalds has with haute cuisine. But this is not surprising in an intellectual world in which Robert Wilson makes "mime-oriented experimentalism"; in which a "naturalistic and muted" production of a Tennessee Williams play is a good idea (try reading the playwright himself on what he thought his work should be); in which the desolating Barrie Kosky adaptation of Euripides' The Women of Troy is simply about "standing a play on its head until its teeth rattle to see if it's alive" or the most notable features of the revelatory STC production of The Season at Sarsaparilla were "Peter Carroll in drag and a Big Brother-style camera".

In short, this is Australian theatre criticism as we know and loathe it: ignorant, incurious, self-satisfied and parochial. It's an intellectual world defended by empty rhetoric rather than reasoned argument, claiming to be defending "emotional truth" when in reality such truth is the last thing it's interested in, making spurious claims towards theatrical "cutting edge" and "tradition" while calling for a theatre that has neither. Its sole interest is the boulevard stages of the middle brow.

It's a world with carefully policed borders that stop at the Australian coastline, where we all stand and wave, with a proper deference, at the West End and Broadway. These borders have to be policed because otherwise the absurd implicit claim that Williamson and Rayson could "take their place with Pirandello and the Greeks" would fall apart in the two seconds it takes to write it. They have to be policed because otherwise one would be ashamed to write such insupportable tosh about Robert Wilson or Tennessee Williams. They have to be policed because the only thing that permits such claims to be sustained is a total incuriosity about the arts and traditions of theatre. Can you argue with that? No. In fact, you can't.

Read More.....