Review briefs: Superheroes, 2 Dimensional Life of Her, Fraudulent Behaviour ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review briefs: Superheroes, 2 Dimensional Life of Her, Fraudulent Behaviour

I have been squinting at these unwritten reviews for a few days now, pondering my complete inability to write a legible paragraph. Why is it that one day sentences can shimmy like Heraclitan paisley, and yet the very next, for no apparent reason at all, the brain makes a sad phut sound, as when you accidentally stand on a puffball mushroom? If I'm smart on Monday, why on Wednesday am I so stupid? Who turned my brain into fudge overnight, and why, and can I mince them?

I am still at the phut stage, as might be obvious from the tortured metaphors. But I am conscious that this week, starting from tonight, I am seeing three more shows, and if I continue with the phutting, that would make a queue of six undone reviews. On the other hand, if I don't write about them, it will be thought that the fault is not in myself, but in the stars, which is not really the case. (Or maybe, really, nobody cares, and all this super-ego melodramatics is a way of avoiding the washing up, or life, or something.) Anyway, with no further apologia, herewith some brief responses to last week's viewings.

All these shows were at North Melbourne Arts House, and due to the Arts House blink-and-miss-it programming, they're all closed in Melbourne (although some are touring further around Australia). I caught a cold late in the week and so missed what several people have told me was the best of the week's openings, The Bougainville Photoplay Project, a theatrical lecture on colonialism that opened on Friday and closed on Sunday.

Superheroes, by Jo Stone and Paulo Castro, is set in an institution for the mentally ill, and out of that reality spirals some really effective moments of physical theatre. It suffers from Castro's sledgehammer script: the focus on atrocity, especially through the character of the soldier, is both crude and politically problematic. Superheroes certainly confirmed that my practice of reading programs after a show is sound; if I had read the notes beforehand, I would have enjoyed the show rather less.

Superheroes is, according to the director's note, "a play that explores the chaotic human mess that is not only brought about by war but that initiates war and violence". The notes go on to quote Edward Bond, while talking about the alienation of mediated violence in daily life. "If society is violent," says Castro sententiously, "the theatre needs to reflect this violence". If that is indeed what Superheroes was attempting, it seemed to me to be ill thought-through: especially in how the script seemed to be using sensationalist gestures of violence for theatrical affect, in ways that were ethically parallel to media exploitation. It's a fine line, and it needs better writing than Castro's to negotiate.

What was most interesting about this show was not the "epic" themes, the big questions of war and violence, but the humbler questions that spiralled out of Jo Stone's staging, especially in the relationship between imagined and mundane realities, and the fractured dependencies and shifting power dynamics between the different people - guards and inmates - on stage. These created genuinely complex theatrical moments out of very simple elements, and rather than ambitiously illuminating themes of global import, revealed something about the fragility of human presence.

Fleur Elise Noble's 2 Dimensional Life of Her was probably my favourite of those I saw: a beautifully contemplative uniting of film and sound in a theatrical space. It exploits black and white film and puppetry to follow the adventures of a projected girl, whose elusive presence becomes disconcertingly real through some clever sound and visual design that bring the two-dimensionality of film into a three dimensional, human-sized space.

The result is unexpectedly affecting: as we follow the projected girl's adventures through differing layers of reality - William Kentridge-like transformations, filmed puppets, flats that trickily opened or or were torn out into unexpected perspectives - I found myself more and more drawn in by how these figures of light and shadow, momentarily so real, would completely vanish off screen - much more completely than, say, an actor going off-stage. There was a poignancy in this poetic dance between imagined presence and absolute absence, the real and the unreal, which in the end remained unexploited, and could have been explored much more deeply.

I also enjoyed Rosie Dennis' s beguilingly low-key Fraudulent Behaviour. Dennis creates a seductively transparent performance, part dance, part surreal monologue, that is by no means as artless as it appears. It opens with Nietzsche's proposition that "we need lies in order to live”, which she writes up on a whiteboard. It's probably worth digging out the whole quote: "There is only one world, and this is false, cruel, contradictory, seductive, without meaning - A world thus constituted is the real world. We have need of lies in order to conquer this reality, this 'truth", that is, in order to live - "

According to Nietzsche, truth is unbearable without the human fictions (science, religion, morality) we create to make sense of it. Greatest of all of those fictions is art: "stronger than pessimism" and "more divine" than truth, it is the lie that knows it is a lie. In Fraudulent Behaviour, this bleak view of truth cuts against another quote from Emily Dickinson: "Truth is so rare that it is delightful to tell it." On Dickinson's side, truth is joy; on Nietzsche's, it is intolerable, terrifying reality.

Dennis dances through these polarities to a Tom Waits sound track, denying neither. The show explores a desolating loneliness, expressed by her one-sided and absurdly comic "conversations" with a decoy duck and her imaginary (and treacherous) friend Elise, and yet also creates its joyous fictions for their own sake, culminating in an unashamedly beautiful (and transparently manipulative) trumpet solo from Simon Ferenci. This is of course immediately undercut: this show is not about seduction. Dennis teasingly leads you to expect that her lies will be stripped aside to reveal some "actual" truth: but instead she leaves you with only the immediate, ephemeral truth of performance.

Picture: 2 Dimensional Life Of Her.

Superheroes: concept and direction Jo Stone, written by Paul Castro. With Julian Crotti, Nick Bennett, Lewis Rankin, Jo Stone, Paulo Castro, Hew Parham, Nigel Major-Henderson. Stone/Castro. Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall. (Closed)

Fraudulent Behaviour by Rosie Dennis and 2 Dimensional Life of Her by Fleur Elise Noble. Arts House Meat Market, Melbourne. (Closed). Darwin Festival, Aug 18 – 29; Brisbane Powerhouse Aug 20 – 28; Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts Sep 2-5; Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, Sep 8-11. Mobile States.


noplain said...

Absolutely agree on SUPERHEROS. I thought Stone's staging brought out of some really interesting moments, which I'd like to see more of, and the script was too repetitive, stilted and didn't achieve what it set out to.

On another note, I had a few people come up to me and comment on how my review seemed to quote from the notes a lot (three times), so it makes me glad to see you did, too. I thought it was necessary to explain how it missed the mark.

Born Dancin' said...

Superheroes was one of my favourite experiences of the year so far. I left the venue utterly bouyed up by it. I may just have had a different perspective on the thing, though (I was sitting one row down after all).

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Noplain - programs are probably worth treating with healthy distrust, as are all artist's statements, really. But programs can be very useful in terms of setting out the artist's desired context. BD, I saw you loved this show, and that buoyancy is something one can't ignore. One row down can make all the difference...

Patrick McCarthy said...

Hi Alison,

It's a shame you missed The Bougainville Photoplay Project. It was a really beautiful piece that demanded your attention and engagement in a really gentle way. Moving, funny and informative theatre that was more artful than one might expect from a 'theatrical lecture'. I enjoyed all the shows you reviewed here too, Arts House are doing a wonderful job.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and why was it exactly that you didn't get to Jenny Kemp's show... oh too busy was it.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Patrick. Yes, it was a shame. And yes, Arts House are always worth keeping a close eye on: I do wish they had longer seasons, which would make it easier for me, but you can't fault them for the depth and variety of work they put on.

As for Anon - what's with the entitlement? Frankly, fuck you. Yes, I was too busy that week. I was at five events, which is already way over what I aim for. (My ideal is two shows a week - I have a life to live, a living to earn - which I earn, by the way, from writing novels, NOT by writing reviews - and a family, three kids etc, who like to see me outside a theatre now and again).

I could easily not bother with anything beyond what I review for the Australian, which is the least of what I do: about three shows a month on average. Nobody pays me for what I do on this blog, or covers my expenses.

Sure, my choice: I'm not complaining. But given that, how DARE you snark at me about what I do or do not see.

Willing to pay me what my time and skills are worth? Then you might have some right. But I doubt I would work for you.