Review: Madagascar ~ theatre notes

Friday, February 19, 2010

Review: Madagascar

J.T. Rogers's play Madagascar made me think of American MFA programs. When I looked him up, it was no surprise to discover that he graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts. From a distance, the writing that emerges from these programs has a particular, but very identifiable, smell.

They've more or less done for contemporary American poetry. There are always exceptions that prove the rule, of course - Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg, who both taught poetry programs, spring lawlessly to mind - but the proliferation of polite, competently-written, dull poeticisms that presently clog the arteries of US lit are a direct result of the MFA creative writing programs, which raise well-meaning young poets to be well-meaning teachers who, in a kind of nightmare of eternal recurrence, then publish each other.


Madagascar is of this ilk. You can almost hear the sawing in the background as the metaphors and themes are workshopped. But most of all, what gives it away is the closed mental universe it inhabits. It's about the thoughts and sufferings of wealthy Americans, for whom the world is a giant mirror in which the poverty of their aching selves is revealed. It's a play that wants to be liked, that assumes - perhaps cleverly - that its audience is a middle class, liberal bunch with vague concerns about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The audience gets to hear a lot about themselves, and even more about the meaning of life.

It's an odd choice for the MTC, although you can see why Sam Strong might have chosen to direct it. Like Red Sky Morning, the Tom Holloway play he directed for Red Stitch to deserved acclaim, it's a play that consists of three interwoven monologues that explore the interior lives of three intimate but tragically estranged people. In Holloway's case, the conceit was brilliantly effective: sensitive to the patterns of colloquial speech, he created a poetic oratorio that wrenchingly revealed the inarticulate desires and loneliness of his characters. Rogers, on the other hand, failed to make me care at all about his characters.

The failure is all in the writing. The production was as good as is possible with this text: if the orchestration of the lighting became a bit soporific, or if the design seemed emptily pretty, it was hard to think what else the production team could have done. And the three actors - Noni Hazlehurst, Asher Keddie and Nicholas Bell - bring real and feeling presences that do much to mitigate the banality of the writing. Because of the excellence of the production, it makes it the kind of experience that is chiefly irritating in retrospect, when you think over what it is actually saying.

According to Rogers, he is unusual among US playwrights because he looks beyond America. "The truth is, we don’t have the luxury any more of making theatre that just reflects us," he said recently in New York. "Why should the world listen to us if we’re just talking about ourselves?" Indeed. If this is really an outward-looking play, then American theatre culture must indeed be a hall of mirrors. (Luckily, at this point one thinks of Tony Kushner.)

Rogers's idea of "dramatizing the stories of people from countries and cultures different from our own" is to change the wallpaper: viz, put an American family in Rome. In Madagascar, he treads in a fine tradition of works about Americans abroad: the film Three Coins in a Fountain, say, or Tennessee Williams's The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, or James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, which was recently beautifully adapted for theatre in Gary Abrahams's Acts of Deceit. But here, the lost American is just a cliche.

June (Asher Keddie) is a young woman who has fled her wealthy family to live as a tourist guide in Rome after her brother Paul has gone missing in Africa. Five years before June’s residence, her mother Lilian (Noni Hazlehurst) is waiting in the same apartment to meet her son, and June's brother, after a six-month estrangement. Lilian is married to Arthur, a charismatic, world-famous economist who spends most of his time in Africa. Nathan (Nicholas Bell), who turns up a few days after June, is Arthur’s colleague: a mid-level, middle aged economist who is Lilian’s long-term adulterous lover.

Together they narrate in a mildly fragmented fashion the story of a privileged, self-destructive family hypnotised by self-delusion: perhaps chiefly by the notion, symbolised by the figures of the economists, that there is a legible pattern in even the most random coincidences. There were hopeful moments in the first twenty minutes or so when I thought I was in for an interesting night: some good one-liners, some promising arcing of narrative spark. But as the story devolved into clunky melodrama, and the characters became more and more inexplicable, and the message got heavier and heavier, I found myself just admiring the actors for making as much sense of it as they did.

The rest of the world doesn’t get a look in, except as furniture to decorate the characters' self-obsessions. Rome is a collection of ancient tourist attractions, rather than a living city full of Italians. The Third World – represented by Lilian’s fanciful imaginings of Madagascar – functions as a mirror in which their self-delusion explodes, or as a fantasy of escape, or a paradigm of distressing disorder and violence.

Most of all, the Third World represents American GUILT, for which they must all be PUNISHED. Every character went on and on about punishment. What a relief, really, to find that it was the fault of the over-possessive, selfish mother. (As an aside, the playwright's idea of female sexuality seems drawn from bodice-rippers - the women both want to penetrated and ravished and dragged off by Dark Gods to the Underworld - and comes across as borderline misogyny).

If there were an iota of irony in Rogers’s perspective, this might have made an interesting play. But it never expands its vision past its unconvincing characters, with whom we are meant to identify and sympathise. The writing is surprisingly coarse and undramatic: metaphors and repetitions are laboured to within an inch of their lives. Its banality is excused by gestures towards mystery. But when you examine the mystery you feel, as Gertrude Stein once said, that “there is no there there”.

Picture: Noni Hazlehurst (top) and Asher Keddie in Madagascar.

Madagascar, by JT Rogers, directed by Sam Strong. Sets and costumes by Jo Briscoe, lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound design by Darrin Verhagen. With Asher Keddie, Noni Hazlehurst and Nicholas Bell. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until April 3.


44 comments:

Anonymous said...

This review absolutely nails my feelings, Alison, thank you! I wanted to feel for the characters but I was incredibly unmoved.There was no real connection between characters, either physically or emotionally. I didn't care what happened to Paul.
I kept comparing to last year's production (sorry, name of play eludes me)by The Abbey Theatre. Similar style of theatre but so much more engaging.
And the accents- why? If JT Rogers is 'looking beyon America' in his writing, can't our wonderful actors use their own voices?
Josie

Geoffrey said...

"The Faith Healer" by Brian Friel, the master?

Troubador said...

I believe Josie means Terminus by Mark O'Rowe, my personal favourite show of last year.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I think Josie did mean Terminus. All the sorrier I missed it.

4 Coffins said...

Thanks Alison - there's nothing wrong with this but I sat there wondering why it exists. Why is it in the season? Why do I want to see it? Why do people want to make it? Why did he write it? etc.

I felt at a loss to explain the play at the end of it and it didn't help explain my own life at all.

There's talented people working on the show, obviously, but because I couldn't find the purpose it all became a bit futile.

I found Paul Jackson's lighting wonderful, however (how did it induce your sopor?). It told a nice little story for me. I ended up watching the lights on the water most of the time reflecting up onto the backdrop, which was in itself an amazing experience, (perhaps not in itself worth the price of a ticket as one can set up a similar state in the kitchen).

Alison Croggon said...

The sopor was the lights-up lights-down lights-up thing. When even Paul Jackson's stumped, there's something wrong...(I agree, the water was pretty - though water on stage is getting a bit of a trope these days.)

silent nic@knight said...

"J.T. Rogers's play Madagascar made me think of American MFA programs. When I looked him up, it was no surprise to discover that he graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts. From a distance, the writing that emerges from these programs has a particular, but very identifiable, smell."

I relieved that it doesn’t surprise you that American writers have attended graduate school. There are hundreds of MFA writing programs in the US, but this is first time I have heard they all attach the same identifiable whiff on all those who graduate.

You have been skim-reading the American blogosphere who have been skim-reading Outrageous Fortune so they can serve half-baked opinions to one another about what’s wrong with the American theatre system.

What a silly assertion. You will likely be ridiculed for it. It should give the theatrosphere something new, by that I mean old, to talk about. You have essentially said that probably 2 out of 3 American writers have an identifiable smell. May I suggest an adjective for the aroma and a rewrite for the opening line of your review.

"J.T. Rogers's play Madagascar stinks of being American."

isaac butler said...

Alison,

While it's all well and good for you to use a play as a prop in your ongoing campaign to convince the internet that the Untied States is culturally inferior, it would be good to get your facts straight.

NCSA does not offer an MFA, it is an undergraduate conservatory. Furthermore, JT Rogers' degree is not in writing, it is in acting.

You know who does have an MFA? Tony Kushner. It's in directing.

And to answer Nic for a moment... I've worked with writers who have MFAs and once who don't, there are good programs out there and bad. I think the thing that aggravates people is the seeming necessity of having one in the states in order to get noticed, and the influence it gives certain people in the field over the field in general.

Art said...

I know this isn't your larger point Isaac, but i just want to defend Alison., (not that she can't defend herself.)

I didn't think she was saying that Rogers had an MFA, specifically.

I thought is was pretty clear that the play made her "think of" MFA creative writing programs.

And, after her description, she said the play is very much "of this ilk."

Not a big thing, but just thought

silent nic@knight said...

Isaac said: "there are good programs out there and bad."

How profound.

Please elaborate. You can't.

Alison is right about Charles Olson as a teacher. But we only know that from a from a 50 year perspective.

Anonymous said...

What is an MFA, a Master of Fine Arts? I don't get it.

Why would that make any difference to your writing, unless you were a particular kind of asshole?

Anonymous said...

Actually, why would you do one? Unless you were a particular kind of asshole...

Alison Croggon said...

Isaac, Nic: I'm kind of amazed that you can take a review that admiringly mentions Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner and James Baldwin, and claim it's part of a campaign "to convince the internet that the United States is culturally inferior". That's taking thin skin a little far. Unless you think they're not part of American culture or something? Or maybe you just read the first paragraph and didn't get any further?

I said this particular, rather mediocre American play reminded me of a lot of competent but dull and certainly complacent writing that has emerged from MFA (yes, Master of Fine Arts) creative writing programs. Yes, it's very American. We have bad plays that in the same way encapsulate a certain Australianness.

In the US, there is this weird idea that you have to have an MFA to even begin to be an artist. As you above have confirmed. I encountered it personally when I gave master classes and workshops in poetry in California universities a few years ago, and it staggered me: we don't have that idea here in quite the same way, although like everything American we're importing it. It appears to me to generate a cultural milieu that is obedient, hierarchical and career oriented, a kind of "professionalism" that smooths out the odd, the unconforming and the passionate, and I can see the same thing happening here.

Yes, of course there are exceptions. That's why my statement included a caveat.

Alison Croggon said...

...and speaking as a shameless autodidact myself, of course...

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, I quoted Gertrude Stein too. Damn Americans and their inferior writers.

(Should I put an irony alert around that? Just wondering...)

silent nic@knight said...

Alison,

You are right. I only read your first paragraph where you absurdly claim you can smell an American writer who has an MFA. I guess while teaching that one poetry class in California some freaky X-files thing must have invaded your nasal cavity giving it superpowers. And unlike you and Isaac, I won't claim I have any detailed, authoritative knowledge on what's going on in the hundreds of MFA writing programs across America.

Alison Croggon said...

No, I said I can smell the writing. (A writer's personal hygiene is none of my business.) And I can. I have a superlative nose.

It might be illuminating if you could point to where I claim to have a "detailed, authoritative knowledge on what's going on in the hundreds of MFA writing programs across America". As I recall, I claimed to be looking from a distance. *Checks*. Yes, I did.

Interesting that no one here is taking issue with what I said about the actual play.

Anonymous said...

Nic, does your defensiveness have anything to do with the fact that you have an MA in Creative Writing?

I'd totally concur with Alison that there are definitely characteristics that seem to epitomise American theatremaking emerging from the institutionalisation of the education system. I am perhaps less conscious of playwriting, but would concur there is a certain style of scenic and costume design that I could tell was American from a mile off.

Perhaps particular stereotypes are more evident to us because Australian theatremaking practices aren't yet as canonised as the US. We have significantly less vocational training programs than the US, and the theatre schools that do exist (or perhaps the industry itself - case in point, "VCAM") have been resistant to models of hierarchical academia and professional qualifications. I find it staggering to think that, were I training in the States, I'd need to spend the same amount of time training to be a designer as to be a lawyer to even begin to get my foot in the door.

I don't think that Alison was trying to suggest that American culture is in anyway inferior. Just because there are certain things that we disagree with doesn't mean that we don't possess hopefully mutual respect of American theatre.

isaac butler said...

Nic,

Are you for real? Are you really saying that I can't have an opinion on the quality of MFA programs (or their writers) because I haven't attended hundreds of MFA playwriting programs?

The point I was making is that you were claiming that everyone in the blogosphere is down on MFA playwrights. I was saying "well, I'm not, the thing I get down on is the necessity of having one for having a career in the theatre these days".

Alison Croggon said...

So, I'm right about MFA programs and the necessity to be "qualified" to be an artist. Might I not have a point then about the institutionalisation that follows?

silent nic@knight said...

Isaac,

What I said was that your stated opinion: "there are good programs out there and bad" is not much of an opinion. If you had a column A with listing good MFA programs and a column B listing bad MFA programs-- that would be an opinion.

Alison is saying there are no good programs. So technically I guess you both have an opinion. But both are broad generalizations based more on ignorance than fact.

Most consider wrighting a craft? Most consider a craft as something one learns. Learning comes through practice. Practice can often be facilitated with the help of peers and/or mentors and schools. However, sometimes a craft is better self-taught and schooling becomes an obstacle to learning instead of an aid. This would be different for each individual playwright and heavily dependent on innate talent.

There is an old argument here as well. Ben Jonson's reputation was equal if not greater to Shakespeare's in the seventeenth century. Critics have often contrasted them in the simplistic way of saying Jonson represents art or craft and Shakespeare represents nature or untutored genius.

Jonson graduated from an MFA program, Shakespeare did not.

Alison Croggon said...

Nick - I realize it's a bit of bother, but before you get all hot under the collar about a blog post, it's a good idea to actually read it. It would save me the trouble of pointing out, yet again, that i at no point claimed that there are no good MFA programs. I must say that right now your lack of comprehension skills are giving me a rather negative perception of the education they might provide, if you are indeed a product of them.

I'd suggest too that this argument is kind of missing the point, which is about the impact this institutionalisation has on the wider culture. Isaac seems to agree with me, despite wanting not to. Rob Kozlowski says I seem to be accurately describing the New American Play. You?

Mel said...

As an ordinary punter who fits your description of the anticipated audience quite well, I enjoyed the play very much. I used to babysit for Americans like this in London hotels when I was a student. I think Rogers portrayed very well the ironies and unrealities of Americans in Europe. As a mother of teenage children I was surprised at his understanding of themes that are beyond his age and gender. I thought it was a very good production and the difficulty of staging a three monologue play was overcome by engaging writing and well-tuned acting.

silent nic@knight said...

Alison,

I have now read the post.

It's a review of a failed theatre production. "The failure is all in the writing." This failed writing is the "direct result of the MFA creative writing programs."

All American MFA writing programs contribute to this bad writing but "there are always exceptions that prove the rule, of course - Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg, who both taught poetry programs, spring lawlessly to mind"

Am I misrepresenting your intent here? Please clarify what I am missing or misrepresenting.

Who is Rob Kozlowski, and what the f--- is the "New American Play?" That's an appropriate term for some kind of PR hype, but nothing else.

Anonymous said...

Nic, it's already been established that Rogers doesn't have an MFA in creative writing. Alison never claimed he did. The piece reminds her of a particular pattern of writing that she's noticed emerging from such MFA programs. Nowhere does she claim that the failure of the production, the writing, or otherwise, has any direct correlation to Rogers' academic qualifications.

You know, Alison, if I didn't know any better, I'd call Nic's comments antagonistic. To my eyes, at least, he doesn't seem to be making any particularly illuminating dialogue because he doesn't seem to be able to move beyond grinding his proverbial axe (to ingratiating effect, might I add). I'm sure you wouldn't have any arguments from any of us if you blocked him from further comments ...

Alison Croggon said...

As a general note, I dislike removing comments that don't directly contravene the TN comments policy, even if they seem tiresome or not especially rewarding. Basically because this space is ideally a forum for open debate. Nic might be borderline trolling (as he has here before) but he isn't being outright offensive. In fact, I see he is touchingly careful to shield our delicate ears from profane language! Onya Nic!

And thanks Mel for your comment. It's good to get a view from somebody who enjoyed the play. Although as the mother of teen/young adult children myself, I have to say that the stuff in that area really made me wince!

silent nic@knight said...

A subtle distinction, but by taking the ucky part out the out of the F-word, I would be more accurately shielding delicate eyes, not ears. Of course I suspect all the orifices in the head are interconnected. Note particularly how Alison has used her phenomenal nasal gifts in isolating the stinky writing as the cause of this failed production. And further, she was also able to detect with a single whiff from Down Under, that there’s something rotten in the state of American Theatre wrighting.

Thank you, too, Alison for tolerating my borderline antics. I do hope to become a troll when I grow up, so I truly appreciate you providing a forum for developing my craft. You and theatrenotes dot blog have been a mentor in many ways.

At my blog I generally filter out Anonymous Cowards or torture them relentlessly. (Hi Troubador. It’s truly a pleasure to see you again.) But I realize that in this forum such behavior would be totally inappropriate, so here I simply ignore their comments.

And also, Alison, a special thanks for “onya.” I love being introduced to new words.

Alison Croggon said...

I guess, in this synaesthetic world, that's the sodden sound of a man without an argument. Kind of a nasty cross between a sneer and a smear, and nothing like a conversation.

I haven't seen Troubador here. And I don't do sockpuppet wank. Ever.

But always pleased, all the same, to help expand anyone's vocabulary.

silent nic@knight said...

Sorry, for the misunderstanding, Alison. I am not accusing you of sockpuppet wank (not sure of the precise meaning of the term) or anything dishonest. I know you speak directly. But the anonymous commenter muddles the water of discussions.

Alison Croggon said...

It's not anonymity that muddles discussion, so much as an inability to listen as well as talk. (This is the internet, reading is like listening). Granted, there's perhaps a higher percentage of shouty peeps among the anons; but identities don't necessarily solve the problem. I'd always rather be in a discussion that generates light rather than heat.

An apology to Nick: I see Troubador is after all on this thread, rather higher up. I did misunderstand. Fyi, here's a useful definition of sockpuppet wank.

silent nic@knight said...

“This is the internet, reading is like listening.”

And writing is like talking. So I appreciate whenever I detect snippets of reading or writing.

“the sodden sound of a sneer and a smear.”

Onya Alison!

Jel in Seddon said...

Won't even pretend to understand what all the above is about...funny how often the conversation seems to get overtaken by North Atlantic literary bees in bonnets.

Back to topic, what about the report in The Age about the Lawler space? I thought one of the reasons we endured fluff like Chaperone and watched the coffers groan was that the company can actually then afford somewhat more adventurous work...and now we hear that it's reduced to readings and workshops. If that glitzy cruise ship in Sydney can produce work consistently in their development spaces, why can't we? I don't resent stuff like Chaperone or the Swimming Club but they're a bit...you know, easily digested. Madagascar was good but it was pretty safe, just people talking into their navels. Wouldn't mind if we were getting a bit more Season at Sarsaparilla or a Poppaea but you do feel that we've been left behind.

If what the paper says is right then both companies have about the same amount of subscribers. So why can they use their William Hurt and Uncle Vanya to underwrite seasons of Suitcase Royale, Oresteia, Border Project doing Macbeth, a new Polly Stenham, a new Anthony Weigh,a show with Onroerend Goed, a season of new Short Australian plays and all that, and we can't?

Angelika

(Still loyal MTC sub but I must admit my grandad pays for it!)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Angelika - trust a Western Suburbs gal to get us back on topic.

And you're on the knocker. I've nothing to add to what you say, except that it is THE begging opportunity in Melbourne at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to add my 5 cents worth to the Lawler Studio comment above. Very disappointing that such a promisingly rewarding space and concept won't be used to its full potential. What a waste.

Gabi

Chris T said...

Get your own Cate B and you too will garner more in sponsorship dollars than you can poke a stick at....at least that might be one of the [totally uninformed and guessed at] reasons the STC can afford stuff like that.

silent nic@knight said...

Sorry Angelika, Alison, and all,

I missed the provincial fence line around the topic. And I haven’t visited lately, so I was definitely not aware of the plague of North Atlantic literary bees that the outback has been suffering. My suggestion on how to counteract that plague would be to edit your flower garden. The perennials that emit an aroma of broad, ill-informed generalizations about American poetics are probably the source of your trouble.

Alison Croggon said...

Gracious. We talk about the local ramifications of an Australian production of an American play, and it's "provincial". (New Yorkers talking about their local concerns is terribly cosmopolitan, I suppose). Put the argument in a wider context, and it's "ill-informed". (Not that ill-informed, I'm afraid, Nic). Your inability to deal with a commonplace and frankly just observation of a particular cultural phenomenon and, in particular, your inability to mount a counter argument that adds up to more than snide abuse, says more in support of those criticisms than anything else. You've had plenty of opportunity, and you have not said one single thing that refutes anything I've said. Sad, because it might have been interesting.

And you really are trolling now. I'm going to delete any more comments of this ilk.

Anonymous said...

Re the Lawler comments - particularly Chris T's. As the partner of an erstwhile STC insider under the previous regime, I know that the STC's development programs predate Cate ascension. STC just decided to do them - they never received funding for them. They simply prioritised these programs in their various former incarnations - Blueprints, Blueprints Literary progam and Wharf2Loud - and went out and worked very hard to raise the necessary funds.

Once the programs were up and running and proved their worth, sponsors became interested but that was some years in and after the STC invested time and effort persuading said sponsors to get on board.

None of which is beyond the ken of MTC, one would think.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the insight on those STC devlopmental programs, Anon. It's absolutely about institutional will.

J-Lo said...

Back to Madagascar ... I got a friend's friend's ticket at the last minute, so went with zero expectations [indeed, of the 3 MTCs I have chosen this year, it never got a look-in from the subscriber program...]

But - quite enjoyed it. I fully acknowledge Alison's observations that some of the writing was clunky/repetitive, in a "this is one of our themes" kinda way. I did also feel that some of the "left unsaid", "did they/ didn't they" threads were, by the end, overdone; although that response of mine is partly the result of being exposed to theatre practitioners who claim to want the audience 'to have to work' (not itself a bad thing, but can be used as an excuse for not developing a coherent argument or thesis within their text). And yes, totally agree that the 'water on stage' initially put me off as a 'done thing' - but as I went on "forum night" I was interested to hear some of the design thinking that went into it.

So, in short: it was ultimately a family melodrama, well acted and executed, with the faintly annoying sense that the writer didn't have a definitive vision. Yes, it would play well to high school English essays and middle-brow audiences, but on the night I was perfectly happy with that.

Good to see TN still up and going - haven't been back for awhile.

simbo said...

Yep, the, if you like, "over-academic-ising" of theatre is one of my hobby horses - there are a couple of directors out there (and I'll name names, Lee Lewis and Julian Meyrick), who I believe write very good, perceptive essays about theatre, but are often unable to actually pull it off in production (Lewis' current production of "That Face", Meyrick with "Birthday Party"... which he then defended by Writing Another Essay!!)

Anonymous said...

Just got home from the play. I got on the net to work out why this play was put on.(Interesting comments noted).
I liked the set and the acting, but the play did not engage me.

Can anyone tell me why the play was chosen?

Nico Beselas said...

I think it's cheap and appeals to certain prejudices in the key demographic, if you want to be gratuitously cynical.

It seemed OK to me; solid, safe, it plodded along, some ideas and insights scattered throughout, you couldn't see any theatre in the midst of all that writing, but that didn't bother the audience as far as I could make out. If you were negative you'd say the competition was to see who was more passive and bored, the actors or the ticket-buyers. But you could be positive and say it had an intelligence & competence to it and didn't feel facile and thrown together in five minutes like many other things you see at both the big compnies in this town.

By the way, this is the only play in the company's year that is directed by a freelancer. The others are all in-house or visiting artistic directors of other big state companies. Maybe that's why it feels an odd choice.

Nico

Anonymous said...

Agree with Alison. I didn't give a damn about Paul or any of them. I found it odd that so much attention was given to the affair between Nathan and Lily, kept saying to myself this can't be as a banal as I think it is. Surprised that no one mentioned Asher Keddie's dreadful diction. I find it incredible that a professional actress can be so bloody hard to understand.