Review: Furious MattressReview: MadagascarGreen Room AwardsNothing at all to do with theatreReview: Lloyd Beckmann, BeekeeperYes, yes, yes...One for QueenslandersReview: The Swimming ClubMarion Potts new Malthouse AD ~ theatre notes

Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: Furious Mattress

Furious Mattress is a vastly disconcerting experience. I walked out of it more than usually unsure what I thought. The last time I felt something like this aesthetic dizziness was when I went to see Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players at the 2005 Melbourne Festival. Good Samaritans was a play which my conscious mind told me was of execrable banality, but which alerted something deeper – an unignorable, visceral response – that forced me to reconsider all my previous conceptions about what constitutes “good” theatre.

In Furious Mattress, the writing is superb, the performances admirable, the direction and design excellent. The discombobulation emerges more from the effect of the whole piece, which at first masquerades as a naturalistic play, and which proceeds to juggle gothic, horror, comedy, camp and tragedy, often simultaneously, in ways which not only are unpredictable, but which don’t permit you ever to settle on a way to view it.

It’s clear this apparent mess of styles isn’t simply an inability to decide what kind of play this is, but rather the thing itself. And it’s peculiarly disturbing. It took me a while to shake off the feeling of sick disorientation it inspired, and it certainly gave me some very weird dreams.

Melissa Reeves’s play is loosely based on Australia’s most notorious exorcism case: the 1993 death of Joan Vollmer, who died of heart failure after a three day ritual enacted by her husband Ralph and some associates from a small charismatic Christian group. Mrs Vollmer had been diagnosed as schizophrenic two years before, but her husband saw her behaviour as evidence of demonic possession. After she died, the group prayed for two days in 40 degree heat as her body swelled and decomposed, convinced that God would bring her back to life.

Reeves transforms the bones of these events into a grotesque parable about marriage. Pierce (Robert Menzies) becomes convinced that his wife Else (Kate Kendall) has become possessed, and calls in a church associate Anna (Rita Kalnejais) to help him exorcise her demons. When the exorcism becomes difficult, they call on a young “expert”, former plumber Max (Thomas Wright), who helps them to finish the job and, along the way, Else herself.

Spare, intelligent, unpretentious and bold, Furious Mattress demonstrates that Reeves is one of our most accomplished playwrights. The structure is simple and dramatically sure. The first scene occurs after the catastrophe, with the rest of the play recounting what happened up to that point in a series of brief, carefully turned scenes that rely on vivid contrast to generate an electric unease. In a classic dramatic trope, a new character is introduced in each act, thickening the action as the play progresses.

The play is set in a western Victorian farmhouse which, through Anna Cordingley’s beautiful split-level design and Paul Jackson’s moody lighting, is framed with a gothic theatricality: like the dialogue, it incorporates an attention to domestic detail that brings the extraordinary into the realm of the ordinary. The whole is held together by Jethro Woodward’s score, which incorporates mundane sounds – buzzing flies, household noises – into a soundscape of lyric intensity. In this world, visions of angels and other supernatural events are only what one might expect, as much part of the everyday as Nice biscuits. And things - including its own theatrical conceits - fall apart. The centre doesn’t, cannot hold.

This habituation of psychotic delusion in mundane reality is the faultline through which both the tragedy and comedy erupt. The grotesquerie is elegantly balanced against acutely observed vignettes of domestic minutiae; and as the play progresses, you realise that these small moments of human disconnection are where the true creepiness lies. Maybe the grimmest lines in the whole play are where Pierce gives his reasons for believing his wife is possessed: she is not her “old self”, she looks at him sideways without moving her head, she curls her mouth up in a funny way which she never used to do.

In these and other dialogues, Reeves exposes the dark side of love: the fear of and desire for the stranger who lives within the beloved. At issue is the female body, traditionally in Christianity the site of spiritual corruption: to exorcise the demons, the body must be punished. Yet the real demon, the real act of possession, is the husband who desires his wife to remain as her “old self”, who fears the parts of her that he does not possess and recognise, and who will even kill her – however unwittingly – in order to keep her “safe” in his idea of her.

Tim Maddock gives the play an intelligently disciplined production that shifts surely between its differing registers, from naturalism to over-the-top theatricality, from horror to camp to tragedy. I was surprised how quickly the time went – perhaps because the writing and production always feel very accurate, even if what is happening on stage seems crazy.

And he gets the best out of his cast, who deliver compelling performances. Robert Menzies plays Pierce with an air of bewildered innocence that cuts chillingly against his actions, and Kate Kendall as Else – frightened, defiant, tragically unhappy – is simply excellent. Some of the most exquisitely written scenes are intimate dialogues between these two. Thomas Wright, unrecognisably bleached and clean-shaven, and Rita Kalnejais as the tense Bible-bashing housewife, add to the surreality by playing the everyday surfaces of their characters.

The violence is cartoon – slaps don’t connect and are amplified as whip noises – which contributes to the general sense of disconnected reality, although there’s also a physical awkwardness in some interactions which comes across as undeveloped. These might be better handled as the season progresses. In any case, this is a fascinating piece of theatre, and well worth the seeing, if only because you’re unlikely ever again to see Robert Menzies wrestling a giant rat on stage.

Picture: Kate Kendall, Thomas Wright and Robert Menzies in Furious Mattress. Photo: Jeff Busby

Another version of this review is in today's Australian.

Furious Mattress by Melissa Reeves, directed by Tim Maddock. Set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design by Jethro Woodward. With Rita Kalnejais, Kate Kendall, Robert Menzies and Thomas Wright. The Malthouse @ The Beckett Theatre, until March 13.

Read More.....

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.

Read More.....

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Green Room Awards

The 2009 Green Room nominations were announced today. You can peruse the nominations - in music theatre, main stage theatre, independent, alternative and hybrid, opera, dance and cabaret - at your leisure on the Green Room website. Congratulations to all those nominated, and to the hard-working panels (of which I am no longer a member - over-commitment forced me to resign at the beginning of last year). Most of all, congratulations to Melbourne theatre, for serving up such a diverse feast of performing art.

Read More.....

Nothing at all to do with theatre

This morning, I heard that Bree died. She was 29 years old.

Bree lived down the road, at the commission flats. I didn't know her very well, but I knew a little about her life. Every now and then she would turn up at the front door. Usually she needed money. If we had it, we gave her some. Sometimes we were as broke as she was, and she got nothing.

She always had a story. Sometimes I knew it was true, sometimes I knew she was lying. I told her once not to insult me by making up stories, and after that I don't think she did. Sometimes she needed $10 to pay for prescription drugs, or to buy toilet paper, but most often she spent it on alcohol. Sometimes she just wanted advice: she had a legal letter that she didn't understand, or she wanted to know where she could find information about epilepsy. A couple of times she turned up because she wanted a hug and a kind word. "I'm so lonely," she said once. "I'm just so lonely."

Whether she was lying or not, whether or not she turned on the waterworks, the sorrow was real. I never felt able to judge her.

Over the past five years, we've been watching Bree kill herself. She had multiple problems: as well as her alcoholism - sometimes she turned up stinking of meths - she suffered from epilepsy, and a host of other illnesses that stemmed from her addiction. She had two children whom she saw occasionally, when they visited. They lived in Geelong with their father. She was a terrible mother, but she adored her son, a sweet-faced blond boy. A couple of years ago, she had another baby, but it died.

It wasn't as if Bree didn't understand that her life was shit. She was poor and ill-educated and sick, but she wasn't stupid. She was ashamed of what her life had made her. For a long time, she struggled: she wanted dignity, she wanted to live a better life. Once she turned up, clean and shining with hope. She had got a job through the social services, and was on a program to combat her alcoholism. For a week, everything was looking rosy. Then she lost the job: she said it was because she had an epileptic fit at work and they told her they didn't have the resources to cope with her illness. She might have just fallen off the wagon. I don't know. But after that, something in her gave up.

She was sexually promiscuous. I'm also sure that she was raped. She was certainly often on the wrong end of violence. She stole things, although she never stole from us. She was despised by the people at the commission flats. "She was still warm," said the woman who told us of her death. "And they were already ripping her to pieces".

A few months ago, the doctors told her that if she didn't stop drinking, she would die. The next day she was pissed.

There are no homilies to be drawn from her life. Many people tried to help her, and they couldn't. She was part of the underclass that we won't admit we have, and she couldn't climb out of it. Too many things were against her: her poverty, her health, her class, her lack of education, the brutal facts of her life. I could never find it in me to blame her for wanting to escape into an alcoholic haze.

I can't get over the sadness I feel at the terrible waste of Bree's life. No, she wasn't important, and she wasn't good, and some people will say that trash like her won't be missed anyway. But she was a feeling, living human being, and now she's dead. And I want to pay my respects, because I have nothing else to give her.

Read More.....

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper

Lloyd Beckmann Beekeeper, a particularly personal show devised by Tim Stitz and Kelly Somes, is suffused with an old-fashioned, home-made charm. In the sympathetic environs of La Mama, Stitz summons up his own grandfather and, sometimes in dialogue with himself, unearths some painful family history. And, as the title suggests, the audience learns a lot about bees and beekeeping along the way.

For millennia, bees have been a symbol of fertility and industry. They are a miracle of natural production: they gather pollen and transform it into honey. But this symbol has a sweetness cut with a bitter tang: in Lloyd Beckmann Beekeeper, the old man narrating his story uses the brutal life cycle of the bees, who evict their queen from the hive when she gets too old to be useful, as a metaphor for the inevitability of his own aging and death.

The show begins outside, in La Mama's newly extended courtyard, as Lloyd Beckmann, in full bee-keeping regalia, enters with his smoke machine and welcomes his visitors. After a short lecture on the habits of bees, larded with some comic gallantry for the ladies, we are invited into the theatre, which is transformed into a simulacra of an old man's bedsit, complete with family photos, old furniture and pot-plants. Here we are given drinks and nibbles, and a taste of honey, and learn a little about Mr Beckmann.

Gradually, the conceit shifts from our being visitors to Beckmann's bedsit, to our being witnesses to the relationship between Stitz and his grandfather, with Stitz playing both roles. Stitz's performance is slightly stylised and heightened, with a touch of music hall. In his grandfather he recreates a recognisable Australian speech-pattern that is now mostly lost, except perhaps in the country. It's careful to the point of pedantic, and the major curse-word is "flaming". Beckmann also reanimates a kind of courtesy that is forgotten in our tell-all age. We now assume talking out our troubles is therapeutic, but to another more stoic, and perhaps more proud, generation, any self-dramatising was considered in the worst of taste. Sorrow and pain were private matters, and self-pity was for sissies.

It's a reticence that can't but be admirable, but it's also frustrating for anyone who wishes, like Stitz himself, to push past the boundaries of silence. A major tragedy in Beckmann's life is the death of his baby grand-daughter in a car accident and the subsequent suicide of his son, who is Stitz's father; but when Stitz asks what his father was like, all Beckmann can do is offer him some of his old belongings, his boots and clothes.

The show is in fact a complex meditation on memory and the scraps and fragments that ultimately constitute history. It exposes how the act of remembering is not only a reclamation but an act of imagining. Imagination, in the best Proustian tradition, is helped along by sensory triggers: taste and smell matter as much as hearing and sight. The emotional tenor is calibrated by a supple and effective lighting and sound design, which allows Stitz to shift between direct, unadorned performance and a heightened theatricality.

It's charming for its conceit, which literally invites the audience into the experience (it's something to see a theatre full of people unselfconsciously craning their necks to look at a family photograph, as if they really were visiting an old relative). But its achievement is in its tact, which leaves the unanswerable questions unanswered.

Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper, devised by Tim Stitz and Kelly Somes, directed by Kelly Somes, performed by Tim Stitz. Lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle, composition and sound design by Li Stringer, sound design and realisation by Neddwellyn Jones, aroma design by Jodie Ahrens. La Mama Theatre, closed.

Read More.....

Friday, February 12, 2010

Yes, yes, yes...

Because I have a sadistic superego, I feel vaguely conscience-stricken by the couple of commenters making sad cheeping noises about my (relative) absence on TN. Come on, admit it - you wouldn't notice if I wasn't tweeting and thus reminding you that I am alive!

And anyway, I haven't been to the theatre this week. Yet.

So this is to remind you that I resolved late last year, since I was worn down like an old stubby smudged pencil, that 2010 was to be a year of saner blogging. I presently am finishing a novel and beginning several other projects, as well as working on a long essay (which is in fact about theatre). More generally speaking, I have always been a writer who criticked rather than a critic who wrote, and the blurring of my writing self has not been good for me or for anything else. Also, in one of those weird reversals that seem to characterise my life, I actually fund my criticism by my novelising. I'm earning my living, folks.

I'm still posting interesting links on Twitter, so join the world of the thirty-second attention span. Seeking, as ever, the elusive via media....

Read More.....

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

One for Queenslanders

New York playwright Will Eno joins David Williamson and Michael Gow in Staged Lives: a conversation on theatre, writing and the line between life and fiction on March 9 at State Library of Queensland.

Jane O’Hara, Brisbane Writers Festival Director and host for the evening, says: "Audiences can engage in an open discussion with three very talented and different writers – Michael’s work is a well-crafted mix of the personal and the political, with touches of the fantastic and a ready wit, whereas Will Eno’s writing is considered subversive, challenging and evocative. Australians universally acknowledge the popular appeal of David’s writing and the incredible craft that goes into reflecting our politics, society and foibles on stage".

(Well, I don't know about the "universal" acknowledgment of "incredible craft", but hey. It's a press release.)

As a side note, Melburnians get to see Will Eno's Lady Grey, which premieres in Australia at the Lawler Studio, MTC Theatre, next week. And permit me to point out John Bailey's excellent interview with The Man here.

Staged Lives is free, but RSVPs to are essential. At the State Library of Queensland Auditorium 2 on March 9.

Read More.....

Monday, February 08, 2010

Review: The Swimming Club

Hannie Rayson's new play, The Swimming Club, picks up the classic trope of middle-aged friends reuniting to relive their youth. Six people who met on a Greek island in their 20s gather again on Lesbos at 50, giving them plenty of opportunity to quote Sappho and Homer, or at least to mention the Iliad.

This kind of play is in the tradition of theatre holding "a mirror up to nature". The charm is supposedly that, as an audience member, I see my personal situation amplified on stage. About halfway through the first act, it dawned on me that I was in the target age-group.

I had been thinking that it was about people rather older than I am, an impression reinforced by the casting. For instance John Waters, who plays PR flack Dave Flinders, is, whatever the text says, at least a decade past 50.

The text plays bingo with every sociological cliche about middle age that ever peppered an opinion page, and includes a bonus goth rebel teen called Sappho (Megan Holloway). As the play's central character Kate Morton (Angela Punch McGregor) exclaims several times, "We are so bourgeois!"

This "we" has hefty mortgages, and teenage children in private schools who have ponies and ballet lessons. Or they were rockstar hippy chicks who began Lonely Planet-style publishing companies or became millionaire entrepeneurs. The characters are, I suppose, having midlife crises: cancer, divorce, disappointment. Certainly, they have the global financial crisis.

Most of all, they long for the sunny, innocent days when they were young and free and wild and splashing about with their friends in the Aegean, before carelessly motorcycling over to Troy (or maybe swimming to Turkey). Did I mention they were young and free?

The Swimming Club presents a fantasy vision of the post-boomer generation and will no doubt do for some of us what David Williamson did for the generation before. Kate Cherry's production does the job, if at times a little clumsily, on an elegant, sand-floored set that acts as a canvas for some very beautiful lighting effects.

Rayson overdoes her repetitions, which bogs down action that otherwise might flow more freely. And she rather oversalts the classical references - what does the Iliad, the original epic war poem, have to do with anything, really? Was it mentioned so often because no one had got around to reading The Odyssey - which, after all, has much more to do with aging? But there is a lightness and polish in the dialogue that gives it some welcome sparkle.

The play's worst flaw is a complete lack of structure, which means panic sets in through the second act. Scene follows scene in a way that could conceivably go on indefinitely, with new plot points turning up every 15 minutes. As it is, the play burbles on for almost three hours, rather like a myopic, well-meaning uncle looking for the exit door, and is saved only by recourse to deus ex machina. One for the Rayson fans.

This review is published in today's Australian.

The Swimming Club by Hannie Rayson, directed by Kate Cherry. Designed by Christina Smith, lighting by Matt Scott, sound design by Russell Goldsmith. With Tina Bursill, Caroline Gillmer, Megan Holloway, Nicholas Papademetriou, Angel Punch McGregor, Igor Sas and John Waters. Melbourne Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne. Until March 14. Playhouse Theatre, Perth, March 27-April 18.

Read More.....

Friday, February 05, 2010

Marion Potts new Malthouse AD

After months of fevered speculation, the Malthouse Theatre announced today that Marion Potts, currently Bell Shakespeare's associate artistic director, will be its new artistic director. She replaces Michael Kantor, who leaves at the end of this year.

With last year's appointment of Ralph Myers as the successor to Neil Armfield at Company B, this completes the picture of what the theatre culture will look like in Sydney and Melbourne over the next few years. It's a cheering view: both bring to their posts diverse experience in mainstage and independent theatre, and both are responsible themselves for some of its liveliness.

Potts brings to the Malthouse a keen theatrical intelligence and formal curiosity, qualities that are aligned to a substantial history of directing plays, from classics to new work. She is less well known in Melbourne than she is in Sydney, where she has been active on main stages for the past few years, and one of her immediate tasks will be to forge relationships with Melbourne's indie theatre scene.

As part of her position as Bell Shakespeare’s associate artistic director, Potts is artistic director of its development arm, Mind’s Eye. For Bell she has directed Hamlet, Othello and Venus & Adonis (a co-production with Malthouse Theatre) as well as the Actors At Work programme, and this year will be directing John Bell in Lear. She was resident director for the STC from 1995-1999, and has also directed for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, the Queensland Theatre Company, the Melbourne Theatre Company, Company B, HotHouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House and Griffin Theatre Company.

She will have to endure speculation that her appointment is, at least in part, a response to the controversy last year about the lack of women in key creative positions in Australian theatre. I shall point out here that no man with Potts' CV would face any such speculation. But let's face it, the fact that a woman has been appointed to one of the nexus positions in Australian theatre is worth a quiet cheer or three.

Read More.....