Le Mort de Theatre - againTheatre ForumHappy Invasion DayReview: The Drowsy Chaperone/Acts of DeceitReview: 66a Church RoadFestival seasonSpam ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Le Mort de Theatre - again

According to Guy Rundle, theatre isn't just dying, it's dead. In a piece in today's Crikey in relation to e-books, he claims in an aside that radio and movies killed theatre, leaving "existing theatre as a mix of largely subsidised, state and philanthropic funded events, non-commercial avant-gardes and occasional large spectacles".

This got me thinking, mostly because I don't see a lot of signs of rigor mortis: although maybe I'm seeing theatre through less jaundiced glasses than Rundle. What was theatre before the invention of the mass market? Surely it too was a mixture of the popular vulgate (music hall, melodrama, the huge spectacles of Victorian times), "largely subsidised, state and philanthropic funded events" like the court theatres (Shakespeare and Moliere) and avant garde or "non-commercial" ventures such as Artaud's theatre or the communal mystery plays. Which is to say, was it so different to what it is now? Does this mean it was always dead? Or is it always, despite everything, stubbornly, recalcitrantly alive?

The difference from the 19th century is the mass market, made possible by the invention of reproducible art in film, photography and now digitisation. Theatre was never going to be a mass market phenomenon, aside from the franchise model of a Cameron Mackintosh or Cirque du Soleil: it's at its best in intimate spaces. And intimate spaces co-exist quite happily alongside the mass market, because people seek different things from both of them. As with the e-book argument, people can walk and chew gum at the same time: the rise of one doesn't mean the end of the other.

Anyway, just wanted to wave at all you corpses out there...

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Theatre Forum

Your correspondent was most pleased today to receive her copies of international theatre journal Theatre Forum, a fab magazine focusing on innovative theatre that is published out of University California San Diego. My interest is particular - I was invited to write an introduction to a play of Daniel Keene's. It's nice to be in glossy print, and there will be more - I'm working on a longer piece on direction for the next issue.

Keene's The Architect's Walk is one of two scripts published in the magazine. It's printed with some gorgeous photos of Tim Maddock's premiere at the 1998 Adelaide Festival, and of the French premiere, which was directed by Renaud Cojo at the Cloître des Célestins for the 2002 Avignon Festival.

The other published script is US Latina playwright Caridad Svich with her adaptation of Allende's The House of the Spirits, which premiered last year at the Repertorio Espanol in New York and in English at Houston's Main Street Theatre.

On the critical front, there are meditations on Jan Fabre, the Catalan group El Joglar, the Auckland troupe Playground and Romeo Castellucci's recent Dante extravaganza, as well as a comparative study of Japanese playwright Ota Shogo and Wang Chong. In other words, like the other issues I've got, it's a feast for the theatre gourmet.

You can subscribe through the web page here. Well, what are you waiting for?

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Happy Invasion Day

Happy Invasion Day 2010 from Fear of a Brown Planet on Vimeo.

Courtesy Footscray Arts.

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Review: The Drowsy Chaperone/Acts of Deceit

It's Australia Day today. As our national day of celebration, it acts as a post for all sorts of flags. Once, in more innocent times - or at least, in the days when White Australia was a harmless nationalistic masthead that merely signified cutting off the pigtails of Chinese goldminers - it meant the Land of the Long Weekend was nearing the end of its summer hols. The Australian Worker returned to his factory in the worker's paradise, there to cock his snook in a suitably larrikin fashion at the Boss, while stealing his copper piping.

Then our Indigenous people were given the vote, and we found that a sizeable slice of the Australian population thought that Captain Arthur Phillip's arrival at Botany Bay marked a day of calamity. In response to this and other kinds of thoughtfulness, Australia Day has become an occasion for bashing Indian students, dubious dress-sense and general boganoogery, which itself prompts a wave of horror from the anti-thug brigade in the national press.

I'm not sure that Australia is more racist than it has been. A certain zombie element is certainly expressing its racism in worse taste and with more confidence, and - seizing the commercial opportunity - supermarkets, insurance salesmen and furniture barns are cashing in on the patriotic ka-ching. Luckily, that's not all of Australia. It's certainly not the Australia I know. As a proud, card-carrying "arts extremist" and, well, ordinary urban citizen, I can testify to the tolerance, intelligence, ingenuity, passionate thoughtfulness and, yes, decency (George Orwell valued decency highly, and so do I) of the Australia I inhabit.

Phew. Just had to get that off my chest. Now from the editorial to the reviews: which will, I fear, be brief. Today is somewhat crowded. and I am working against other deadlines at present which limit my time.

The splashy opening of last week was, of course, the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of the Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone. If anything expresses Australian colonialism, it's a willingness to take the cultural lead from the traditional Anglo centres of culture, Britain and the US; in theatre's case, Broadway and the West End. However, the paradox of colonialism - as cricket and soccer demonstrate so well - is that the damn colonials end up doing the mother country's culture better than the mother country itself: and Simon Phillips's production here is a case in point.

The Drowsy Chaperone might usher in a subtext of nostalgia for the days when we - meaning white, middle class audiences - could comfortably laugh at wops and dagoes with funny accents. And it unashamedly claims that theatre is about entertainment and escapism, and nothing else. (It's actually the "nothing else" clause that I object to - I know very few extremist arts elitists who aren't up for popcorn). But its ironic self-commentary means that it has its cake and eats it too.

Disliking The Drowsy Chaperone would be like disliking kittens: pointless and somehow inhuman. This is a preposterous cocktail of a show, delivered with just enough lemon to cut against the syrup, and Phillips has given it a superb production. It plays homage to the golden age of musicals, when life was grand (if you were rich enough): it evokes 1920s Broadway, when Dorothy Parker was sharpening her pen at the Algonquin Round Table, Gershwin and Cole Porter were shaping the tunes and the Great White Way was paved with rhinestones and sequins.

What makes it more than merely an exercise in nostalgia is its simple but ingenious framing. When the lights go down at the start, they stay down: we sit in the anxious darkness that precedes every show, and Geoffrey Rush’s voice, refracted through a New York accent, floats across the auditorium. "I hate theatre," he says. "Well, it's so disappointing, isn't it?" And he tells us the prayer he delivers before every show: that it will be fun, that it will be short, that the actors will strictly observe the fourth wall and stay out of the audience, and that it will deliver an escape from the mundane travails of ordinary life.

The light lifts on a small, unimpressive apartment to reveal Rush, whose character doesn’t even have a name – he is simply the Man in the Chair. He is a musical theatre geek – for him, Elton John is a decadent shadow of Gershwin, and Cameron Mackintosh’s spectaculars are an unspeakable vulgarity. The Man has the blues, or at least an ill-defined anxiety he calls the blues, and to combat his melancholy, he proposes to share one of his favourite albums – a 1928 cast recording of a chestnut called The Drowsy Chaperone. He fussily puts it on the turntable and the overture begins.

And suddenly the blinds lift on his windows to reveal a real band playing outside. The walls ascend to reveal another, more glamorous world, the characters enter one by one, and the musical comes to life in his apartment. The musical itself is a ludicrous parody, performed by an outstanding cast with a brio that lifts it beyond its undistinguished score. It’s wittily annotated throughout by the lugubrious Man in the Chair, with occasional unwelcome interruptions from the “real” life he wishes so desperately to escape.

As well as theatrical stars like Rush, Richard Piper and Robyn Nevin (whose technical control is, in case we've forgotten, superb), Phillips has cast from experienced music theatre stagers, with a lineup that includes Adam Murphy, Shane Jacobsen, Rhonda Burchmore. And it's the cast - which has depth as well as breadth - that makes this show. Choroegrapher Andrew Hallsworth has put together some ripping dance routines - I'd forgotten, for example, how sheerly pleasurable it can be to watch a great tap duet. It all generates pure comic showbiz, with a sparkle heightened by Dale Ferguson’s ingenious set and spectacular costumes. A sure-fire crowd pleaser.

At the other end of the scale is Gary Abraham's Acts of Deceit (Between Strangers in a Room). At La Mama's Courthouse Theatre as part of the Midsumma Festival, this shows Melbourne's indie scene at its considerable best. It's loosely based on James Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni’s Room, which explored the alienation of a young, gay American man in 1950s Paris, his inability to reconcile his homosexuality with his ideals of manhood, and the catastrophic consequences. It is, in fact, the kind of thing that in lesser hands could be teeth-achingly pretentious. When delivered with the skill and passion you get here, what occurs is gut-wrenching, compelling theatre.

David (Jay Bowen) is waiting in Paris for his would-be fiancee Hella (Joanne Trentini), who is travelling Spain as she decides whether to marry him. While she's away, he meets a young West African barman, Ku-Jean (Terry Yeboah), and begins a passionate affair. His deceptions of his lover, his fiancee, his gay friend Jacques (Dion Mills) and a young woman whom he sexually exploits (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley) begins, of course, with his self-deception.

The major change in Abrahams' sensitive adaptation of Baldwin's novel is to transform the race of David's lover from Italian to West African. It's appropriate: as a black, gay man, Baldwin was himself one of the most insightful commentators on race relations in post-war literature; it also introduces a subtext about illegal immigrants that gives the text a contemporary spin. Also impressive is how the text wears its intelligence lightly, echoing Baldwin's literary sophistication without weighing down the play's dramatic force.

Perhaps what I most admired about this show - besides the passionate and, above all, accurate performances, which are truly extraordinary - is the delicacy and honesty with which the production explores a complex emotional and moral situation, eschewing judgment for insight. The design team - lighting, sound and set - use simple strokes to effectively evoke the glamorous squalor of jazz-era Paris. But don't take my word for it. Go see it for yourself.

Picture: The Australia I adore: Melbourne cafes.

Shorter versions of these reviews appear in the Australian.

The Drowsy Chaperone, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, directed by Simon Phillips. Melbourne Theatre Company. Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre. January 21. Until February 27. Tickets: $115. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

Acts of Deceit (Between Strangers in a Room), directed and written by Gary Abrahams, from a novel by James Baldwin. Sets and costumes by Kat Chan, lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, sound design by Jim Westlake, music composition by Lachlan Tan and Geoff Chan. With Jay Bowen, Terry Yeboah, Dion Mills and Zoe Ellerton-Ashley. Dirty Theatre and La Mama Theatre, 2010 Midsumma Festival. Courthouse Theatre. January 22. Until February 7. Bookings: (03) 9347 6142. Tickets: $25.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: 66a Church Road

Daniel Kitson - a shy, rather literary man with a stutter and a protective beard - is the most unlikely of stand-up comics. It isn't surprising that his work has evolved into a niche all its own, somewhere between theatre, story-telling and comedy, that is probably closest to the work of Spalding Gray. Nor is it surprising that over the years his work has attracted a loyal following.

The secret behind Kitson's self-deprecating allure is his unabashed embrace of the mundane and quotidian. He dares to risk sentiment and cliche in a search for the passions that burn inside the most ordinary realities. Cliches are cliches, after all, because they express commonly held truths. Kitson's gift is to pick up shopworn phrases and commonplace observations and to polish them lovingly, so that the tarnish of their constant usage acquires the lustre and depth of real feeling.

The sparkle of novelty holds no attraction for Kitson: he celebrates instead the beauty of imperfection. He lives in open rebellion against today’s consumerist, disposable, youth-oriented society: he values, passionately, the patina and wrinkles of age, the fingerprints of memory, the chips and cracks of use and experience, which for him define the human capacity for love.

The title of his new show, 66A Church Road: A Lament Made of Memories and Kept in Suitcases, is fairly self-explanatory: here, through his detailed recollections of a much-loved flat, he explores with his trademark wit and poignancy the meanings of memory and home.

Nostalgia, he explains in the recorded voice-over at the beginning, isn't simply muddy sentiment for time past. It derives from the Greek words nostos, meaning to return home, and algos, meaning pain. It expresses the bittersweet longing for home - that yearning for a place that is our own which is at the centre of what makes us human.

A home is much more than a house or a financial investment: it is thousands of minute sensory details - the angle of a floor, the precise alignment of shadows at particular times of the day, irregularities in a wall, a cracked window, a certain smell - that are the habitations of memory. And it is memory, as Kitson says, that makes what we call a self.

In this ninety minute show, Kitson evokes his six-year love affair (the longest relationship, he tell us, in his life) with a rented flat in the London suburb of Crystal Palace. The show is a long, demanding and often very funny monologue: he recounts finding the flat, its virtues and its inconveniences, his vexed relationship with his landlord, his dream of buying the building and opening a record shop with a miniature cinema in the basement. Punctuating his chronological account of discovery and, ultimately, loss, are recorded fragments which tell of a parallel relationship with a lover, the story of which is bound with the flat but which remains, nevertheless, deeply private.

In fact, one of the paradoxes of 66a Church Road is that it is deeply, exposingly personal while at the same remaining profoundly private. I think that's largely a function of how it's written. Kitson's disarming orotundities and bizarrely-stretched comic metaphors translate personal experience into a public language, so that the more he reveals, the more something essential is hidden, even if we feel its presence pulsing beneath the surface of the language.

The personal becomes a mask: the mask in this case is language and performance itself. We know that there's a gap between the performer and the private individual before us, even if they are also the same person. It's this gap that permits the comedy and, perhaps more crucially, the feeling to emerge within the show.

It's an irresistibly Proustian exercise, in which Kitson attempts to recapture in words the multiplicities of memoried experience; and yet, as he explains at the end, immediate experience is precisely what always, in the final accounting, evades language. The act of translating experience into words inevitably reduces memory, fixing it in the past: details are lost or fudged, and feeling is emptied out in the tasks of remembering and saying. And this is why, he tells us, he has kept the most important memories for himself.

Kitson performs on a set which consists of a host of battered suitcases placed on an old Persian carpet. The suitcases are themselves boxes of memory: he opens them during the performance to reveal beautiful little models of his flat. He gives a generous, energised performance that demands and keeps your attention (and which makes me wonder how he can possibly do a late show in the Black Box afterwards). It's a show of great charm, in its original sense: an incantation of a magic spell, in which things that are irrevocably lost shimmer in our minds, briefly alive again in the parallel world of imagination.

66A Church Road: A Lament Made of Memories and Kept in Suitcases, by Daniel Kitson. Victorian Arts Centre. Fairfax Studio. January 15. Until January 31. Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Arts, February 2-7; Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth Festival, February 17-28.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Festival season

My feature on what arts festivals mean in our culture is in today's Australian. It gave me a chance to do some happy reminiscing:

These shows changed how I saw the world and how I think about it. And as a result, they changed the way I act. I can see the influence of these artists in countless tiny ways in the theatre that I encounter in Melbourne.

Multiply those individual experiences by millions of festivalgoers over several decades, and that's a big cumulative effect. It's also untraceable: a stimulus might bear fruit decades later, in ways that no one can foresee or quantify.

Yeah, ok, that's how I think art works in general.

Meanwhile, the year is beginning to stretch and turn its scary head me-wards, and the blog will be swinging into slow (but undeniably graceful) action very soon. From now on I'm going to use Twitter to post interesting links, brainless chatter, personal confessions and witty observations on issues of import. This is because it stems my natural loquacity, thus permitting me to direct it in more financially rewarding directions. You can find my Twits at twitter.com/alisoncroggon.

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Friday, January 15, 2010


Spam posted to this blog will be removed immediately.

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