KO: REVOLUTION. What takes place as indicated by Ko is believed in only after it has been accomplished. Hexagram 49, I Ching.
It's no exaggeration to claim that there has been a revolution in local theatre over the past five years. From this end of the telescope, it might appear to be a Boojum revolution, during which certain verities about theatre have "softly and suddenly vanished away". Consider how times have changed! Next year almost every major company in Australia, from Melbourne to Brisbane, has a new artistic leader, ushering in a new generation of theatre makers. Even that stalwart defender of the deadly middlebrow, Robin Usher, is writing laudatory pieces about independent theatre, and I haven't seen a snarky mention of "the fringe" in the local mainstream press for ages. Suddenly everything, it seems, is groove and roses.
It was not always thus, and I'm not sure that it is thus even now; the present accord on the virtues of the young seems more to me like a strange detente. The amnesia and kneejerk conservatism of much mainstream commentary is, after all, as evident as it ever was, and its capitulation to the inexorable rise of a new generation of theatre makers probably signifies less than it seems. For once, vital theatre is where it belongs, in the limelight. Theatre has even become hip. Yet our media culture, with certain honourable exceptions, has a short attention span and an even shorter memory, as every artist who has worked for more than a decade knows to his or her cost.
For all that, it's beyond argument that Melbourne's theatrical landscape - and more widely, Australia's - has changed out of sight over the past five years. In 2004, a main stage hit like Hayloft's Thyestes was all but unimaginable in Melbourne. You might have seen something like that in the "fringe", heroically staged without sufficient resources or time, as Australians have always had a talent for poor theatre. But rapturously received on a main stage? Only by the rarest of accidents. Now the presence of work from companies like Hayloft or My Darling Patricia in main stage seasons around Australia barely makes anyone bat an eyelid. This change has happened so rapidly and so completely that it's easy to forget how impossible it once seemed.
There are many reasons for this shift, and to talk about all of them requires a book. This post will focus on Melbourne, with the caveat that there were other, equally important things happening elsewhere. In a few years, somebody else will write the history of what happened in Australian theatre culture in the first decade of the new millenium (and I seriously doubt it will be me). This is my report, from one of the many frontlines. And it is, as this blog has been from the beginning, a personal account.
There are four major reasons why Melbourne's surge of artistic vitality flourished and evolved, rather than its promise withering, as happened so often in the past, on the vine. Two were major institutional appointments. The most significant was the remaking of the moribund Playbox Theatre as the Malthouse, after the appointment of Michael Kantor as artistic director and Stephen Armstrong as executive producer, on which I'll mainly focus in this post. As Kantor and Armstrong leave the Malthouse and usher in a new team headed by Marion Potts and - later in 2010 - associate director Matt Lutton, it seems timely to reflect on what has been achieved over the past five years.
Another crucial appointment was Kristy Edmunds as artistic director of the Melbourne Festival, a position she held for four years from 2005, building on the artist-centric festivals that characterised Robyn Archer's tenure. Equally important was a surge of new talent - especially from the VCA, perhaps the true heritage of the radicalism of the Australian Performing Group and the Pram Factory - which has seen a generation of autonomous and skilled theatre artists who were not prepared merely to be industry fodder, and who sought to shape the culture to fit their ambitions, rather than the other way around.
And lastly, there was the rise of the theatre blog. For I've been part of this change as well as a witness to it, bearing out the adage that observation inevitably changes what is being observed. There are, as I've often pointed out, many theatre blogs; but Theatre Notes was the first in Australia, and can take a little credit for the changes in public discussion that followed. Not all, by any means: a conversation cannot exist without other voices. Nevertheless, the story of the past six years is, in part, mine as well; and if I don't tell it, nobody else will. (I feel I ought to do as Neil Gaiman does in his twitter notices, and label this: WARNING: Blog post contains me.)
What has been at stake in all the cultural conflicts of the past few years has been the question of legitimacy. When Peter Craven and Robin Usher attacked Kristy Edmunds's festival programming in 2006, part of one of the most sustainedly vicious campaigns I've seen against an artistic director, it was on the grounds that the work she programmed was "fringe" work, not fit for our main stages. Since the issue was the main stages of Melbourne, it was unsurprising that the Malthouse came in for some collateral damage. Craven described Benedict Andrews's brilliant production of Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado as "resolutely anti-mainstream, sometimes to excruciating effect". Whatever that means. The message was clear: "fringe" theatre, whatever that was, was ok in dusty church halls and small theatres, where it could be safely ignored: but an anti-mainstream mainstream (whatever that was) was an abomination not to be tolerated.
I wrote an opinion piece for the Age in response, in which I pointed out that the term "fringe" was meaningless, and that the fringe/mainstream dichotomy was almost entirely false. And there it might have rested, as a minor flurry in the press that passed without disturbing the status quo. This is certainly how it always worked in the past; theatrical energies have, again and again, been successfully marginalised by attacking and, at the last, ignoring them. Once a show closes, the only place it exists is in the memory of those who were there: in the absence of meaningful critique, the public record becomes a record of amnesia. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: the forum changed. The internet, with its challenge to the monopoly on public discourse held by the mainstream press, came into its own.
The web was so foreign to theatre culture in 2004 that, when I rang theatre companies to give them the glad news that I was starting a review blog, almost everyone asked me what a blog was. As I outlined in my first post, Theatre Notes was an experiment: I had no idea whether a critic with no institutional ballast behind her could create an online readership. Three years later I was straddling the print-digital divide as Melbourne theatre critic for the Australian, a post I enjoyed but never sought, and which I have now resigned. (And hello to my successor, my Esteemed Colleague Mr Chris Boyd!) Last year I won the only prize that exists in Australia for critical writing, the Geraldine Pascall Critic of the Year. The speed of the transformation of Ms TN from unknown blogger to one-woman cultural institution was startling, and it's fair to say that I feel deeply ambivalent about it. But there's no doubt it's been a fun ride.
What I didn't know six years ago was how exceptionally lucky I was. There could not have been a better time and place to begin a serious theatre review blog than Melbourne, 2004. Unlike London or New York, Melbourne is a relatively small city, but large enough to sustain a diverse culture and, significantly, to support audiences for independent theatre. At the same time, the theatre culture in particular suffered from limited arts coverage in the major dailies, where it was mainly regarded as a branch of "entertainment". Aside from Real Time, there was almost no serious discussion of the performing arts anywhere. Theatre Notes was the right thing at the right time: an independent review blog that by the sheerest chance was launched right at the beginning of a theatrical renaissance. What a gift.
I was also - and have always been - a different kind of theatre critic. Not a new kind, despite using pixels instead of print. My idea of criticism is, in fact, rather old-fashioned. Since I began reading critics in my 20s, those I found most illuminating were almost always artists. My models included the visual art criticism of Frank O'Hara, who wrote about his colleagues and friends Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombly; the poetry criticism of Octavio Paz or Randall Jarrell or Yves Bonnefoy; or the literary thinking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who practically invented modern literary criticism. It seemed to me that practising artists who worked as critics brought a different weight, tact and imagination to their writing about art, and I aspire to do the same. (Aspiration, I might add, doesn't mean achievement).
I have never been interested in writing consumer guides, which is generally what theatre reviewing is considered to be. I wanted to talk about art - what it is, what it might be - which can only be done with any real meaning by considering individual examples. I wanted to think about theatre seriously, as a unique, fascinating and volatile form and a socially embedded art. I am, I guess, a rather literary theatre critic: writers reviewing their peers has been commonplace in literature since Goethe. That there is a place for this kind of criticism in the theatre became evident very quickly.
Like the critics I admired, I was reviewing my peers and colleagues. Michael Kantor, for instance, has directed my writing twice. The first was The Burrow, an opera based on Kafka's short story with a score by Michael Smetanin that premiered at the Perth Festival in 1994 to, as the Song Company's manager remarked with disgust, "critical acclaim". This remains one of the works of which I am most proud: I thought it beautiful, strange, powerful and moving. A couple of years later, Kantor directed a theatre text I wrote based on Georg Büchner's story Lenz, which premiered at the Melbourne Festival. I was so dismayed by the production that I wanted my name taken off the credits and refused to attend the opening night. Perhaps these polarised experiences might balance out as "objectivity"; it's more likely, I think, that they add up to a lively appreciation of Kantor's virtues and faults as a director.
I mention this history because of the oft-cited "bias" that my critics claim I have toward the Malthouse. For all my distaste for generational generalisations, it's perhaps not surprising that I should have similar values to others my own age, who were, for better and worse, young artists under the Baby Boomers. At their best, the Baby Boomers remain keepers of the radical flame, and are invaluable repositories of cultural memory; at their worst, schooled in bitter divisions and simplistic binaries, they became ever diminishing defenders of their own power bases. (I am speaking here of poetry as much as of theatre).
Just as I was excited by the possibilities unleashed by Edmunds's Melbourne Festivals, and have always kept an interested eye on Melbourne's independent artists, I have never made any bones about supporting the Malthouse's project to enliven and diversify Melbourne's main stage theatre. God knows that it needed to change. My interest in this was entirely selfish: having decided to stay in Melbourne, after several years dithering over whether to move to Europe, I would much rather live in an exciting culture than in a dull one.
This has never meant that the Malthouse gets a free pass, and there are reviews on this blog to prove it. Like Robert Brustein, Michael Billington or Kenneth Tynan, I consider myself a critic-advocate, but I have never believed that advocacy is an uncritical act. Bias, at least in the conventional meaning of the term, always is.
Six months after I started TN, Kantor and Armstrong took over the Playbox and redesigned its corporate structure from the ground up. Kantor's first production, early in 2005, signalled their intent: to redefine Australian theatre. It was, shamefully, the Melbourne premiere of Patrick White's The Ham Funeral, in repertory with a new adaptation by Tom Wright of Daniel Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year. As I said in my review, "Michael Kantor's first presentation ... offers an alternative means of imagining Australian theatre, outside the narrowly nationalistic or topical concerns which have dominated the Playbox aesthetic since the early 1990s. And although I don't feel it's an unqualified artistic success, I left feeling more hopeful about Melbourne theatre than I have for many years."
The significance of headlining White, our only Nobel laureate, was clear: it was about choosing the road less travelled, looking back and picking up the threads of a modernism that had been abandoned in favour of an increasingly jejune blend of naturalism and "issue-based" plays. Most importantly, it was about seeing theatre as a whole phenomenon, in which design and performance were as important (not more important) as the writing. Predictably enough, this led to the Malthouse being attacked for abandoning writers, a puzzling criticism given that they premiered at least as many new plays as the Playbox. But it's true that they have never programmed David Williamson.
My hopefulness was borne out in the work that followed, in a series of seasons that plugged into and, crucially, encouraged the richly diverse independent scene. It's hard to over-emphasise how important this has been: not only directly, in commissioning and re-staging work, but in how it legitimised a diversity of theatre practice that had formerly been consigned to the "fringe" as minor and unimportant. This second point is more significant than the first, although less easy to measure. The Malthouse encouraged a culture of dialogue and exchange, a culture that welcomed intelligent criticism, rather than attempting to shut it down, and in tandem with the increasing digital conversation, and a good bar, it began to be a social and artistic hub.
A notable feature of the Malthouse under Kantor and Armstrong has been its fostering of younger talent, giving proper support and productions in the main season, rather than fobbing them off with workshops and readings. And it was the first company to recognise the potential of the blogosphere, one year printing a long list of theatre blogs in its program. In tandem with Edmunds's festivals - and, importantly, Belvoir St and the STC in Sydney - it fostered an outward-looking, internationally confident theatre culture that was unapologetic about taking the art seriously.
This institutional support in turn led to an increasingly confident independent scene, which at last had an intelligent establishment to both woo and resist. One of the great pleasures of the past five years has been watching the evolution of so many young companies from small, co-op productions in venues such as La Mama or Fortyfive Downstairs or tiny rooms in Brunswick or Northcote to main stage triumphs (and back again - the preferred "career" model is not so much a ladder leading upwards in a straight line, as multiple platforms of parallel practice). I've seen so much good theatre that I have become parochial (me!): there are times when I can't imagine a better place for a theatre enthusiast to be.
One should always resist triumphalism; as the UK government is presently demonstrating with alarming brutality, decades of work can be destroyed with the mere stroke of a pen. As a more diverse menu of theatre has been offered by the Malthouse and the Melbourne Festival, public taste and curiosity has, however slowly, widened. Importantly, young people are now going to see theatre again.
This influence has filtered through to the Melbourne Theatre Company, both by raising the bar and suggesting possibilities. This year the MTC will produce Malthouse regular Lally Katz for the second time. Benedict Andrews's first adventure in Melbourne, the aforementioned Eldorado by Marius von Mayenburg, was critically slammed (though not by me) and a box office disaster. A year later, in 2007, his STC production of White's The Season at Sarsaparilla, artistically the equal of Eldorado, swept the Green Room Awards when it was programmed at the Melbourne Theatre Company. And earlier this year, Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One was given an exquisitely elegant sell-out production in the MTC's Studio by Peter Evans, which deserved way more kudos than it received.
It's impossible to second-guess the future of the MTC after the departure of Simon Phillips, since there is no word yet on the new artistic director; but a critic is always hopeful. If the MTC continues to broaden its aesthetic purview, and especially if it continues to support the new works program fostered under Aidan Fennessy, Melbourne theatre will thrive.
Melbourne's contemporary theatrical landscape has been created by many hands, but it is simply unimaginable without the Malthouse. Having transformed the view, it's right that Kantor and Armstrong should leave the company in the capable hands of new AD Marion Potts, again breaking the rules: it used to be that artistic directors hung on to the plum jobs with every fibre of their being, until forced out with a crowbar and/or death.
But what of Kantor's artistic achievement over the past five years? It bears some examination, and not only because Kantor has often been dismissed, inaccurately in my view, as a mini-Kosky. In a familiar pattern, Age critic Cameron Woodhead, while saluting the institutional legacy outlined here, savaged Kantor's work in his year-end wrap-up this week. "When Patrick White said that the enfeebling vice of Australian theatre was amateurism," says Woodhead, "he couldn't have picked a better example than Kantor."
Woodhead labels Kantor's work as part of a "wider movement" called "post-dramatic theatre". He vaguely equates this with the director-auteur, who "devalues" narrative and character and claims that the text is dead. It's not at all clear that Woodhead has a clue what post-dramatic theatre is: he dismisses it as "really just a modish phrase for postmodern theory applied, belatedly, to theatre", and furthermore declares that it refers to no art of any interest. Woodhead's excoration is even more puzzling when you consider that he lauds Thyestes - as pure an example of the post-dramatic theatre as one could point to - as one of the shows of the year.
For the record, "postdramatic theatre" is a term that was first used in the 1970s to describe "happenings". It was given ballast by German critic Hans-Thies Lehmann in an influential 1999 book, Postdramatic Theatre, in which he analysed through a broad theoretical lens some of the most important post-war theatrical experiments. Artists he considered included Robert Wilson, Tadeusz Kantor, Heiner Muller, the Wooster Group, Forced Entertainment, Theatre de Complicite and Societas Raffaello Sanzio. (And what a bunch of mediocrities they are.)
Kantor is, like his peers Barrie Kosky and Benedict Andrews, an inheritor of these late 20th century influences, and like Kosky and Andrews, he has forged his own aesthetic. Unlike both of them, he draws from profoundly Anglo traditions of performance. I haven't always liked the results, but I've enjoyed a lot of them; and some deserve to stand with the best theatre Melbourne has seen in the past five years. His directorial strengths and weaknesses were on show in his first productions of The Ham Funeral and Journal of a Plague Year, and over the past couple of years I would argue that his work has refined into considerable achievement. There have certainly been occasions when I agree that he simply settled for empty visual spectacle. But to claim this comprehends the entirety of his work, or to mistake his various explorations of rough theatre for "amateurism", is deeply unjust.
What has often been most striking - and often controversial - about Kantor's work at the Malthouse is its cheerful mixing of high and low art. One of the most common criticisms has been that "it's just pantomime". To which I would answer, why, yes! Stripped of its pejorative overtones, it's an accurate description of a key part of Kantor's aesthetic. Especially early in his tenure, he commonly drew on lowbrow forms such as pantomime, vaudeville or the rock eisteddfod to explore his particular brand of rough theatre.
Perhaps Kantor's greatest sin was to bring these manifestly uncool popular forms into the purview of the serious stage (it wasn't long before criticisms moved from the Malthouse being "too elistist" to its being "too populist"). Underneath all this, there's a strong argument to be made about the connections between the deeply English phenomenon of pantomime and Brechtian epic theatre; among other things, it seems to me that Kantor was nativising some European ideas in Anglo traditions. At the same time, it's salutory to remember that he was reaching into other areas of contemporary art: he brought dance into theatre not only in his programming, but in his Bessie-winning collaboration with Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin, Tense Dave.
In the past couple of years, Kantor has applied his understanding of vulgar performance to serious writing and created some stunning theatre. He has always been at his best when, as in The Ham Funeral, he is constrained by a brilliant text. His tragic-burlesque production of Dario Fo's Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman in April this year was absolutely true to the spirit of the playwright, and one of the most restrainedly stylish shows he has done. And it's churlish to ignore his brilliant 2009 production of Happy Days, which miraculously sited Beckett in a set of visual lushness and framed one of the most moving performances of the year, in Julie Forsyth's portrayal of Winnie. Now that Kantor is freed of administrative pressures, it's going to be fascinating to see what happens next.
As always, there are many more narratives to unfold, but they'll have to wait for another time. I'm winding up a year in which I've said plenty, and looking forward to a 2011 which promises to be as theatrically rich as the last. I'll be continuing the blog, but in what shape is a question for the future: at this point, I have no idea. On my holidays I'll be rewriting my novel, summoning up my first column for Overland and working on the opera libretto. And maybe doing some web tinkering - it's about time I made a version of this blog for mobile phones. There is, as they say, no rest for the wicked.
See you next year. And prost!
Picture: Julie Forsyth as Winnie in Happy Days.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
KO: REVOLUTION. What takes place as indicated by Ko is believed in only after it has been accomplished. Hexagram 49, I Ching.