Review: A Golem StoryReview: Moth, The Joy of TextBriefs: Much Ado About Nothing, CrossedReview: Princess DramasA divagationReview: The GiftReview: Dwelling Structure, Animal, Inside a Mime's CompactBack in ten mins ~ theatre notes

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Review: A Golem Story

*Spoiler alert*

In A Golem Story, Michael Kantor and Lally Katz reach into Judaeic folklore and mystic traditions, fashioning a work of theatre which is at once outstandingly beautiful and frustratingly perplexing. Mounted in the Merlyn, this is one of Kantor's most compellingly conceived works. The action occurs in a simulcrum of a candle-lit 16th century Prague synagogue, sketched by a scaffolding of iron geometry and bare wood, the sole decoration an elaborate candelabra. The performance is punctuated by Hebrew and Yiddish songs, led by cantor Michel Laloum, so the whole work has the gravity of religious ritual.

Ambitious, starkly simple and often brilliantly performed, I still felt naggingly that something was missing. I missed a sense of cross-grained complexity, a counter-argument, that at first I attributed to Katz's text. The odd thing is that the text reads with more complexity than it performs. I suspect that as theatre, the whole has the air of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork (first theorised, ironically enough given the subject matter, by anti-Semite Richard Wagner) in which all elements are sternly subordinated to a single idea, and that this has the effect of flattening out some of the textual ambiguities.

A Golem Story is based on the most enduring of golem legends, the Golem of Prague, which exists in many variations (a major source, peculiarly enough, is called the Katz manuscript). Most literary scholars date the legend to around the 1750s. It runs more or less like this: under the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II in the 1500s, the chief Rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Loew, created a golem from the mud of the Vltava River to protect Jews against anti-Semitic pogroms. A golem is an automaton activited to life by language: in this version, the golem is given life by the name of God inscribed in a tablet kept in its mouth, its chem, and is destroyed when the tablet is removed; in others, the word Emet (meaning truth or reality) is inscribed on its forehead, and the Rabbi destroys the golem by rubbing out its first letter, making the word Met (death).

The Golem legend has inspired writers from Mary Shelley to China Mieville. It persists for its compelling metaphor, in which man's hubristic creation of sentience destroys him. Most often it's a narrative of transgression, as in Frankenstein, when a scientist follows his highest idealisms, only to create a misunderstood monster. Likewise, the Golem of Prague escapes the Rabbi's control and rampages murderously through the city killing Gentiles and, in some versions, its creators. It's a legend which reaches deeply into Judaic mysticism, and especially into the Kabbalah, a mindbendingly complex collection of esoteric lore which originated in 13th century Europe. The Kabbalah weaves a dizzying range of influences, including Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism, into Jewish theosophy. Central to the Kabbalah is the Sefer Yesirah (The Book of Creation), a text which dates from somewhere between the 1st and 6th centuries, in which are instructions for making a golem.

The last director to investigate these traditions in Melbourne was Barrie Kosky, in his early works for Gilgul in the 1990s, and here Kantor demonstrates that he is by no means an identikit of Kosky: this is a vastly different theatrical take on the same material. Kosky's interest in mysticism is evident in almost all his work: it manifests as a fascination with ecstatic states, in the uniting of the sacred and the profane. Kantor is, unexpectedly perhaps, more interested in the aesthetic shapes of ritual and, perhaps even more unexpectedly, in the word itself. This is not a theatre of irrational extremity, but of rational argument.

Katz's text is a parable of power, politics and transgression. My first thought was that there seemed to be a remarkable absence of Katz: there is little of that sense of barely restrained anarchic imaginings and unexpected collisions that characterise her work so far. Instead, she creates a disciplined, episodic narrative that draws on a number of golem stories and gives a contemporary twist. The play works as a fable, with each character carrying a symbolic charge: the Rabbi (Brian Lipson), the Student Amos (Dan Spielman), the woman Ahava (Yael Stone), the Guard (Greg Stone) and the Emperor (Mark Jones). So the Rabbi represents one argument about Judaeism and God, Amos another, the Guard represents the anti-Semitic Gentile, the Emperor the civilised Gentile, and Ahava - her name one letter away from the Hebrew for Eve - represents Woman.

None of these representations is quite so stark as written here, as I'll tease out below. But it does ask for an allegorical reading, and here I found myself confused and troubled. Although it can be read as a story about the perils of technology - genetic experiment, nuclear power - it's presented as a specifically Jewish story, exploring the dilemma of a persecuted people. The program features a quote from a children's book which comments: "Considering the Jewish people's long history of conflict and suffering, it is no surprise that the legend of the Golem, in which massive physical strength defeats overwhelming persecution, remains one of the most powerful traditional stories". And from there, it's a short step to contemporary Israel, which perhaps is its own Golem: the armed state lurching out of control into destruction.

Most reductively, it can be construed as a parable of Zionist militarism; and here the character of the Guard is especially problematic. The least nuanced of all the characters, he is a fanatic anti-Semite, driven by the mingled loathing and desire that constitutes hatred. When the Emperor decrees that the Blood Libel - the canard that Jews killed Gentile children to drain their blood for religious rituals - can only be reported by parents, he prepares to kill his own son, in order to unleash the slaughter of the Jews of the city.

The Guard's murder of his own child is so close to claims that Arabs slaughter their own children in terrorist attacks or, closer to home, to the Children Overboard affair, that it pulled me up short. In mediaeval Europe, Jewish communities were often accused baselessly of the murder of dead or disappeared children, but I don't know of any mediaeval precedent of Gentile parents killing their own children in order to libel Jews. (The closest is accounts, during the Crusades, of Jewish parents killing their own children and themselves, to save them being murdered by Crusaders.) As in these contemporary narratives of Arabs, the Guard is driven by reasonless, fanatical hatred.

Yet there is another major thread in the text - that of misogyny - which remains subliminal in the production, and which is perhaps the missing counter-argument. Most of the time it exists as a puzzle: it only becomes clear towards the end, when you realise that in this world, women are completely absent, except in the form that men have created: the feminine.

The play opens as Ahava wakes painfully from unconsciousness. She is told by the Rabbi that she has been possessed by a Dybbuk, the ghost of her former fiance, Israel Hasidim, who cut his own throat. Ahava herself has no memory of anything: she has no self, and worst of all, no sense of God. Throughout the play this emptiness exists as sexual longing: she pleads with both the Guard and Amos to touch her, to fill her up. The only female character in the play, she exists as sexual and spiritual absence. Amos, the student, regards her with terror as a blasphemy who will bring down destruction on the Jewish people. The only creature who responds to her panicked desire is the Golem.

The source of this emptiness only becomes clear towards the end of the play, when we find out that Ahava is a Golem herself, created by Israel Hasidim. Ahava is not a person, but an object, created by man to answer his own desires. She represents not so much Woman as the Feminine, the male-created sex: and as an object or chattel, she is the subject of bickering: the Emperor claims she is his commissioned artwork, while the Rabbi claims her for himself.

This twist is drawn from another Golem legend, but it suggests the rather more benign myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who makes a woman of ivory so beautiful that he falls in love with it. For me it most compellingly recalls the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd, one of the tales from the Mabinogion. Blodeuwedd was made out of flowers by the wizard Gwydion, to be a wife for the king Llew Llaw Gyffes. Blodeuwedd has an affair with Gronw Pebyr, together they plot to murder Llew, and as punishment Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl. Here the feminine turns deadly, defying the will that creates her in her will to selfhood. In A Golem Story, this doesn't become explicit until the very end, when Ahava claims her selfhood. She rejects her status as object and claims her place as a creator: "All these men - these men from God - but no man but the Golem loved me. I was made by them. But only the one I made held me."

The Guard's fanatic anti-Semitism becomes explicable when read as a form of misogyny. In her book Powers of Horror, Julie Kristeva links misogyny and anti-Semitism closely: she reads it as the forcible expulsion of the Other, as a symbol of the filth rejected from the self. The Jew and the Feminine are both, in this theory, expressions of the same horror. "There looms, within abjection, one of those dark, violent revolts of being ... a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the hope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable... The abject has only one quality of being - that of being opposed to the I." The master ego defines itself, in fact grounds its being, on what it rejects. "I sometimes wonder," muses the Guard earlier in the play, "if my elder son is more female..."

And here is the click, the mechanism of violence: the Guard's loathing of Jews and the violence against his own son emerges from the same source. "It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection, but what disturbs identity, system, order," says Kristeva. "What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite..." The Golem, poised between humanity and inanimate mud, life and death, male and female, is this ambiguity personified. So, as it happens, is the Emperor, whose almost amoral passion for art and hunger for knowledge is presented as feminine, even camp. Between the Golem and the Emperor are the Rabbi and his student: Amos will have no truck with this ambiguity, whereas the pragmatic Rabbi is prepared to negotiate. But in their rejection of the female, they are closer to the Guard than either would like to admit.

This thread is certainly present in the play (although it still seems unclear to me, perhaps because of the complete absence of an actual woman) but it sinks almost to invisibility under the production. I picked it out afterwards, thinking backwards from the end and from reading the text; and I know I wasn't inattentive while I was watching. This is partly because the episodic argument of the text is fragmented by the songs. Sometimes the singing acts as a kind of oratorio, and replaces action: at these points, especially in the final song (A Pastochl A Troimer, a song which berates God for His lack of care and calls for His burial), I found my inability to understand the words critical. The sheer beauty of the voices and performances paradoxically intensifies this sense of confusion. The critique of militarised masculism that is embodied in Ahava is obscured by a sense of reverence for the very things criticised.

It certainly makes for a fascinating evening of theatre. For all my reservations, I think A Golem Story demonstrates Kantor's strengths as a director: and the performances, by a top-rate cast, are compelling. It's an especial treat to see Dan Spielman back on stage - a scene where he describes the Golem's attack on the soldiers of Prague is a highlight - and Yael Stone's anguished performance physicalises the agony of growing consciousness. In Anna Cordingley and Paul Jackson's stunning design, the Golem is represented by a beam of light, a simple solution to a difficult theatrical problem. It's elegant, beautiful and powerful; perhaps too elegant, beautiful and powerful. Definitely not to be missed.

Photos: Top: Yael Stone in A Golem Story; bottom (foreground) Yael Stone, (back) Mark Jones and Brian Lipson. Photos: Pia Johnson

A Golem Story, by Lally Katz, directed by Michael Kantor. Sets and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson, musical direction and vocal arrangements by Mark Jones, Jewish/religious consultant Michel Laloum. Performed by Nicholas De Rossos, Joshua Gordon, Mark Jones, Michel Laloum, Brian Lipson, Dan Spielman, Greg Stone and Yael Stone. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, until July 2.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Review: Moth, The Joy of Text

Last Wednesday, Lally Katz's A Golem Story and Robert Reid's The Joy of Text premiered at the Malthouse and the MTC. The same week, the Malthouse opened its remount of Declan Greene's 2010 hit, Moth. Meanwhile at the MTC, Joanna Murray-Smith's The Gift is running at the MTC's Sumner Theatre, and tonight Ian Wilding's new play The Water Carriers opens at the Lawler Studio. At the moment, Melbourne's main stage theatres are exclusively devoted to new Australian work.

Has this ever happened before? If it has, I missed it. For this reason, and not without a certain astonishment, it's worth sticking a small, patriotic and ironically tasteful flag in June 2011 and admiring the view from the hill. Well done, MTC and Malthouse: despite all the commercial wisdoms that mitigate against producing contemporary Australian plays, together you've curated a mini-showcase of new writing, flung a spotlight on it, and put it out there.

Last week's openings are noteworthy: they're all well worth seeing, and they're all very different from one another. (Discussion of A Golem Story will follow in a separate post, because it started going on, and on...) Katz, Reid and Greene all grew up in Melbourne's independent theatre scene: Katz developed most of her early work with Chris Kohn and Stuck Pigs Squealing, while Reid had, and Greene has, their own companies, respectively Theatre in Decay and Sisters Grimm.

It's a point worth noting: these playwrights learned how to do it just as Shakespeare did, by writing plays, finding collaborators and putting them on. They put them on in carparks (and sometimes in cars), in tiny alternative venues, under the umbrella perhaps of institutions such as Theatre Works or the Melbourne Fringe or the Store Room, sometimes with money, often with no funding at all. They didn't ask permission, and they created audiences.

Moth, a co-production by Malthouse and Arena Theatre, is unquestionably the pick of the bunch. This is exquisite theatre: in my view one of the most accomplished new plays of the past few years, here given a superbly restrained and devastatingly powerful production by Chris Kohn. This is a remount of last year's sell-out production, and what I said the first time round still holds: it's a play notable for its needle-sharp accuracy, its sure theatricality and its unforgiving emotional honesty.

Its conceit - a retelling by two friends, Claryssa (Sarah Ogden) and Sebastian (Thomas Conroy) of a traumatic incidence of schoolyard persecution and subsequent breakdown - is both ingenious and cleverly maintained, but its heart-cracking power exists in our understanding that this retelling is impossible: reality, it tells us, is different from what we hope.

As enactment, Moth has a sense of the un-illusioned redemption Allen Ginsberg grasps in Kaddish, his great poem of mourning for his mentally ill mother Naomi: "Work of the merciful Lord of poetry, / that causes the broken grass to be green, or the rock to break in grass - the Sun to be constant to Earth - sun of all sunflowers and days on bright iron bridges..." Suspended in the force of this impossible longing, the tragedy of madness - in all its horror, obscene comedy and abjection - opens as an unhealed wound. The truth of that unhealedness is the only redemption there is: it's the ferocity of the desire that things be otherwise that most tellingly reveals its pain.

This production demonstrates the value of remounting work. The premiere was hugely impressive: this time round, with a new cast member replacing Dylan Young, I was struck by the beautiful detailing of Ogden and Conroy's performances: every moment thought through and articulated, every gesture accurate. Each aspect of the design - Jethro Woodward's soundscape, Jonathan Oxlade's set, Rachel Burke's lighting - unobstrusively strokes in texture and contrast. I don't remember the script well enough to know how it's changed, but its fragmentations seemed sharper to me, the comedy more telling, the action more lucid. Small, but perfectly formed.

The Joy of Text, on at the Fairfax, is another kettle of sardines altogether. Robert Reid has clearly considered a major problem of contemporary art: how do you deal with complex ideas and simultaneously find a wide audience? "It is not enough to simply preach to the converted," he says in a program note. "If it is not kept open and accessible to us all, cultural discussion risks becoming obsessively self-referential and irrelevant to all but a narrow band of self-elected cultural elites." Quite.

Reid's solution is to take a popular generic form and remodel it to his own ends: in this case, farce. The Joy of Text is a satire on language and authority, and examines how language, far from being a vehicle for truth, creates its own destabilising realities. Here traditional reason and authority grapple with irrationality and inauthenticity. It's no accident that it's set in a school, where authority and anarchy regularly meet and attempt to discipline each other: nor that the play's title spins off a famous 1970s sex manual.

From its opening scene, in which the acting head master Steve (Peter Houghton) and English teacher Diane (Louise Silverson) have an argument about syntax, it's clear that we are in a parallel reality close to, but by no mean identical with, our own. For one thing, people speak in perfect sentences, like Samuel Johnson. I've never been a teacher, but somehow I doubt that most of the staff-room conversation concerns itself with the finer points of grammar, debating favourite authorities. They're mighty creaky ones too - Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) and Strunk and White's Elements of Style (1918) - which place the arguing teachers in a fustian, outmoded matrix of authority, of certainty shored up by textual jurisdiction about correct modes of behaviour.

This mode of authority meets its nemesis in the persons of a bright student, Danny (James Bell), and an ambitious young teacher, Ami (Helen Christinson), both of whom represent different models of inauthenticity. Danny appears first in an argument with Ami, where he is heatedly accusing her of humiliating him in front of the class. Asked to deliver an essay on satire, his assignment consists of a copy-and-paste of the Wikipedia entry on Jonathan Swift. Ami is not impressed by his argument that his essay is a performance of satire itself ("We are all Lilliputians!) and Danny retires, hurt and vengeful.

Meanwhile, Ami's identity is called into question when Diane decides to put The Illusion of Consent - a book written by a 16-year-old schoolgirl which details her alleged affair with a teacher - on the school syllabus. Ami is fiercely against it, claiming that the book is a fiction by a girl seeking attention, and pointing out that the publication of the book led to the teacher's suicide. When Steve casually gives the book to Danny to read, Danny (in an unlikely feat of textual scholarship) deduces that the book's author is Ami herself. And then, pursuing his performative method of learning, he re-enacts scenes from the book with various teachers, spreading chaos and confusion.

Farce, the most self-conscious of theatrical modes, is in fact the perfect form for a satire of language - it is all about confused identity, self-destructing authority and sexual shenanigans. Joe Orton took farce to a logical conclusion, becoming, as the critic CW Bigsby said, a "crucial embodiment of the post modernist impulse": "by means of farce he gives expression to the conviction of a dislocated self, of a reified experience, of a brittle and contingent language". Here Reid takes that post modernist impulse and makes it explicit.

Marx's famous dictum about history repeating itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce", is not wholly inappropriate here: the first time the teacher shoots himself, the second time the teachers, as a result of the first event, find themselves lost in a maze of bureacracy, definitions of "appropriate behaviour" and uncertainty.

Reid's play is an often brilliant, and very funny, enactment of all these ideas: the first act steps through a minefield of uncertainty with a deft theatrical wit. The second act, in which all these energies reach their various climaxes, collides with an impulse hostile to the suspensions of farce and somehow collapses under its own weight.

Behind this is a desire that these characters be relatable, that we identify with them and feel sympathy with them: a laudable desire for human emotion to emerge from these alienating language games. Characters in farce provoke interest and hilarity for different reasons: because they are absurd, because the unremitting logic of their behaviour inexorably leads them into chaos. Act Two changes gear into something more akin to naturalism (with the odd reference to tragedy), and Reid hasn't quite managed the marriage of these opposing impulses in his text or, I suspect, in his ideas. It feels grafted in, rather than an evolution from the premises of the first act.

For all that, it's a very enjoyable production. Aidan Fennessy's direction straddles, somewhat uncomfortably, the contradictions of the text, approaching it primarily as farce; the actors deal with the stage business very well, but then are left with the difficulty of creating empathic characters out of these brittle theatrical constructions. Houghton as the morose acting head master, both panic stricken by his temporary authority and longing for its status, manages this best of all the cast, although I liked Louise Siversen's astringent Diane. And Andrew Bailey's multilevel institutional set places the action gloriously in a mundane, utterly recognisable present which, fascinatingly, works best of all in the dislocations of the first act.

Pictures: top: Sarah Ogden and Dylan Young in Moth; bottom, James Bell and Peter Houghton in Joy of Text. Photo: Jeff Busby

Moth, by Declan Greene, directed by Chris Kohn. Designed by Jonathan Oxlade, lighting design by Rachel Burke, video design by Domenico Bartolo, composition and sound design Jethro Woodward. With Thomas Conroy and Sarah Ogden. Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre Company, Beckett Theatre at the Malthouse, until June 25.

The Joy of Text by Robert Reid, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Sets and costumes by Andrew Bailey, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition by David Franzke. With James Bell, Helen Christinson, Peter Houghton and Louise Siversen. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, until July 23.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Briefs: Much Ado About Nothing, Crossed

I'm a sucker for Shakespeare's comedies. They reveal his profound knowledge of the stage, and his pleasure in its vulgar tricks and conventions gives us some of the most sublimely funny scenes ever written. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare steals freely from a bunch of popular contemporary sources, from Luigi Pasaquaglio's Il Fedele to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, in which a virtuous woman becomes the victim of vicious intrigue. Transposing the story from tragedy to comedy through the language of courtly wit, he invents two of his most charming lovers, Benedick and Beatrice.

It's a deeply enjoyable play, in which Shakespeare modulates his comedic satire with scenes of real feeling. And John Bell's production for Bell Shakespeare, now on at the Arts Centre, uses his own profound knowledge of stage business to burnish its pleasures to a deep lustre. This is the best production of Bell's that I've seen: exhilarating, vital and surely crafted, with nothing of the fustian.

Stephen Curtis's design sets the action in a quasi-fifties Messina, with full-circle skirts and army uniforms with red sashes. Here the concept runs seamlessly with the play, a fantasia that gives its fantasies life without intruding itself. The action takes place in a basketball court, an institutional setting wrested to other uses of pleasure, with lush Tintoretto-esque wall murals to lift it out of the literal. Alan John's music, performed live, springs organically out of the performances, heightening its sense of carnival. And in the play's tomb scene, a central turning point of death and rebirth, the music becomes ritual itself with a glorious a cappella drawn from male voice Corsican choirs.

Benedick and Beatrice are equals in intelligence and vivacity, sceptics whose condemnation of love arises from their distrust of its sentimental cliches. Their verbal fencing is, as their mischievous friends recognise when they decide to trick the two into marrying each other, the showiest of courtships. They keep each other "waking and in continuall exercise", each pushing the other to more dazzling feats of wit. As in almost every Georgette Heyer romance, all that needs to occur is for each partner to recognise this as attraction, rather than as hostility: what occurs through the play is not a transformation of feeling, but an understanding of it.

This love story runs parallel with the fortunes of Hero (Alexandra Fisher) and Claudio (Sean Hawkins). When Hero is maliciously framed as unfaithful, Claudio mercilessly shames and abandons her in the midst of their wedding. Here, despite his lack of faith in his beloved, he is not portrayed as merely shallow; the insecurity of his passion drives him to a display of cruel machismo. Both couples must negotiate the deception and tricks of others to find the truth of their feeling through the miasma of appearance.

The key is the depth of its casting: every performance is worth the watching. Toby Schmitz and Blazey Best as Benedick and Beatrice create true electric play, the enlivening contrast to the more conventionally drawn lovers of Hero and Claudio. The whole is rich with comic invention: notably Max Gillies's Dogberry, the malapropic watchman, and Sean O'Shea's Don John, a kind of evil Mr Bean in a Mafia suit, the asocial wrench in this otherwise genial machine of sociality. The darker themes of war and malice are threaded lightly, present as shade in a complex comedic texture. A delight.


Chris Summers's Crossed was the second of two plays by this promising young writer to premiere within weeks of each other. It consists of five intersecting monologues, all revolving around the same traumatic event - the police shooting of "the smiley-faced boy" - which loosely recalls the fatal shooting of a 15 year old boy in Northcote in 2008. It's hard to imagine a better production, done in traverse in La Mama's Courthouse Theatre under the direction of Matt Scholten with a more than capable cast. And it shows that Summers has a sure gift for demotic speech, and an ability to create contradictory characters that lift out of stereotype into vital life.

There's a touch of the worthily sociological here, however, that the play doesn't quite escape, and I couldn't help feeling that the play trips over its own ambition. Crossed consists of two distinct parts: an interwoven narration that culminates in the climactic shooting, and an afterword in which each character adds a postscript to their experience. Aside from the final scene, which ends the play powerfully, most of the epilogue could have been cut without hurt: mostly the writing here gives an unnecessary sense of ends being tied up, and it certainly has the clunkiest lines.

The most compelling role is that of Lee (Ioan Roberts), the young gay man with a cyber-crush on the absent protagonist. The other characters sometimes fall into a sense of having been constructed rather than imagined. The rebellious Muslim teen, the aging, ill mother missing her son, the bright wog boy, the surfie nationalist, are all carefully - maybe too carefully - turned to avoid cliche. But maybe what I wondered about most was the tense of the writing: it can slide into a prosaic sense of text written firmly in the past tense, rather than unfolding in a remembered present. As a consequence, there are moments when the writing seems more description than gestus. These are marks of an early work: equally clear is that Summers is a writer to watch.

Picture: Toby Schmitz and Blazey Best as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, directed by John Bell. Designed by Stephen Curtis, lighting design by Matt Scott, composer Alan John. With Toby Schmitz, Blazey Best, Max Gillies, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Matthew Walker, Sean O'Shea, Sean Hawkins, Alexandra Fisher, Nathan Lovejoy, Robert Alexander, Arky Michael, Andrew Tighe, Megan O'Connell, Lizzie Schebesta and Tyran Parke. Bell Shakespeare @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until June 25.

Crossed, by Chris Summers, directed by Matt Scholten. Set and costume design by Kat Chan, lighting design by Lisa Mibus, music and sound design by Pete Goodwin. With Prag Bhatia, Matthew Candeland, Nicholas Linehan, Jenny Lovell and Ioan Roberts. Platform Youth Theatre, Appetite Arts and La Mama, Courthouse Theatre. Closed.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: Princess Dramas

Princess Dramas, now playing at Red Stitch, is the first play by Elfriede Jelinek ever to have been produced in Australia. And massive kudos to Red Stitch for finally giving us a chance to see her work. Jelinek - probably best known for her novel The Piano Teacher, which was adapted into a film by Michael Haneke - is an Austrian writer and intellectual, and a major contemporary German dramatist. She has won, for what it's worth, the Nobel Prize for Literature. She's a Marxist feminist whose work is underlaid by a continuing critique of Austrian fascism, and by extension, of the fascism which underlies western capitalism.

However, none of these things means that Jelinek is without humour or a wicked wit: and director Andre Bastian gives Princess Dramas a grunge production that is often hilarious and always surprising. But it does ask that its audience listen in a way in which we are not often asked: here language is an autonomous entity, not an expression of character nor even of the author. What struck me first was the freedom of the writing. It's as exhilarating as reading Hélène Cixous's prose, which runs without inhibition, intelligence leaping wherever it likes, untrammeled by rule or convention. Here is a writer who feels no need to pander to anything except the imperatives of the work she is writing.

Jelinek is a bit of a leap for audiences used to the idea of theatre as an empathy machine, by which its success is measured by how much one identifies with characters. Jelinek doesn't play for feeling. Although she deals profoundly with narrative, she is not especially interested in plot, which is the least interesting aspect, after all, of story-telling. What's impossible to ignore in this is the influence of Brecht, who perhaps did more than any modern writer, through the utopia of the collective, to redefine the notion of the individual in art.

Jelinek's interrogation of language and her nearly absolute refusal of the empathically-imagined subjective self is the source of much discomfort in the English speaking world. When she won the Nobel, outraged editorials demanded to know why an obscure Austrian had been chosen over manifestly more worthy candidates, such as Philip Roth (to be fair, Jelinek was as surprised as anyone). There's a typical 2007 response in the New York Review of Books (called, ironically enough, How To Read Elfriede Jelinek), in which translator Tim Parks castigates her novels for their lack of authentic subjectivity.

He seems to read her novels as direct expressions of ideas or experiences, which is perilously close to assuming that Hamlet is Shakespeare. He begins the review with a conflation of the author and her narrators, and discusses her work consistently throughout the review through the lens of autobiography. (This is difficult: Jelinek herself exploits autobiography in her work, but it is surely a mistake to use it as a reference for authenticity.) At one point, he says a particular book "might just have worked had Jelinek dedicated any energy at all to creating the dramatic encounters and characterizations that make The Piano Teacher such a strong novel, or alternatively if her ruminations were sufficiently coherent and convincing for us to take them seriously." It's hard not to conclude that he has almost completely missed the point.

When Jelinek's translator, Gitta Honneger, takes him to task for ignoring all Jelinek's dramatic work, at least half her output and the source of a great deal of her fame, Parks claims that her plays - which he claims feature "unnuanced denunciation" - are only applicable to certain very localised political struggles in Austria, disclaims any literary prejudice against drama per se (Beckett! Shakespeare!) and finally suggests that she is ultimately untranslatable. It's possible to argue that every writer, embedded deeply as she is in her own language or locale, is untranslateable; it seems absurd to single out Jelinek as especially untranslatable.

But it does expose a stubborn, even wilful, refusal to accept a central tenet of her writing; in particular, it suggests a misread theatricality in her prose. Speaking of her plays, Jelinek describes how she uses "language surfaces" ("Sprachflächen") in juxtaposition, in place of dialogue. Language here is a behaviour, from which meaning might be discerned only through the fractures where its tyrannies collide and break. The idea of "language surfaces" actively refuses the depth that Parks claims is a crucially missing aspect of her writing, and suggests a more supple, less literal and crucially ironic reading of her work.

The autonomy of language is a commonplace in any engagement with modern poetry, and hardly unknown in English plays: Martin Crimp exploits the same ideas, but in a far less spiky fashion. It is an approach particularly suited to theatre, where performance is already a metaphor, where language is already a mask, already ironic, already a supple and elusive thing. What seems complex in description is, when enacted, made manifest. This doesn't mean it is necessarily simple: it forbids transparency, focusing on speech as an act rather than an expression. In Princess Dramas, Jelinek is especially interested in language as an imprisonment, exploring the creation of the feminine and its relationship to death in the communal psyche. She uses every linguistic resource she can, from fairytales to soap opera to philosophy, as weapons to break the prison open.

The result is an avalanche of text, dizzying, fracturing, impossible to pin down. I thought of hunting down the text before writing this review; but on reflection, I decided to attempt to think about it as I experienced it in performance, with much of it simply flying past my ears, experienced as texture as much as meaning. Inevitably, I am merely scratching the surface.

These texts, first performed in 2002, use a commonplace of feminist writing: the reworking of myth or folklore to subvert common ideas of the feminine in popular culture. Jelinek, however, is not so much rewriting the myths as empowerment, as demonstrating how profoundly their cliches infect every aspect of self. Princess Dramas consists of three short plays. The first two concern themselves with fairytales, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty: the final work is an extraordinary monologue by a modern-day princess, Jackie Kennedy.

All three are conversations with death. In the first two, the Princess is talking to the Prince who rescues both from sleep: the princesses here exist in a blackly ironic gap between sleep, death's counterfeit, and a waking into the happily-ever-after marriage with the Prince, which is also represented here as death. Jackie Kennedy Onassis - aristocratic, tragic, chillingly tough - compares herself to Marilyn Monroe, in whose image sex and death unite in all their seduction: Monroe is the ultimate sexualised flesh, to be inevitably consumed and discarded into her self-destruction.

Jackie escapes this fate by becoming her image: she is her clothes, impeccable, untouchable, icily self-controlled. Here fashion is not imagined as a symptom of the male domination of women, but as a weapon of survival. (This becomes most chilling in meditations on Kennedy's assassination, where his exposed brain is compared to fabric.) Its price is the dissolving of self into the abstraction of image, narcissism as brutal survival technique, that scorns the women who permit themselves to be merely victims by remaining flesh, and ultimately scorns her own body.

This suggestion of complicity makes Jelinek's feminism deeply complicated, and situates it in a much larger political argument. Rather than simply outlining the inequalities of gender, she is interested in how, as the critic Helga Kraft puts it, to "unmask social practices as they influence the body, and by doing so... illuminate the artificiality and brutality of this process". The yearning for power "leads to dehumanisation against the body, against the other and the self", in both men and women.

The multiplicity of referents and the shifting vectors of the text create constant small collapses of cognition. It's text working most closely as a kind of collage, a complex tessellation of meaning that is constantly calling itself into question. As Bastian says in his director's note, the complexity of this text puts "our relationship with language into crisis". Language no longer behaves as a vehicle for expression, but as a kind of kind of neuroticised symptom of national (here both Australian and Austrian), ideological and personal crisis. The polarities of gender buckle under the weight of its dizzying representations: as irony piles on irony, the vacuum at its centre - the absence of a feminine self free of prior definition - becomes more and more evident. This is how Woman becomes Sartre's "hole", the very definition of absence.

Bastian and his performers give us a suitably unreverential production which is often, as I said, very funny. Peter Mumford's design exploits every kind of kitsch, creating a picket fenced backyard that ends up festooned with washing, backed by a garage door painted with some sort of tourism ad for Austria. The casting is deliberately cross-grained and the costumes absurd. The first Prince (Andrea Swifte) is in lederhosen and an over-the-top Tyrolean uniform, while Snow White (Dion Mills) is dressed in a Disney dirndl skirt embroidered with swastikas. Genders are conventionally assigned in the Sleeping Beauty play, where the Prince is sulking in a lycra Rabobank cycling top and the be-wigged Princess gasps out her monologue between sudden collapses into catatonia.

Jackie is played by Indigenous actor Melodie Reynolds; at first we only hear her miked voice, as she stand behind a projected, shifting image of Jackie, then we see her silhouette, apparently reading from a lectern; finally we see the performer herself, but then, at various points, the text is distributed between the three performers, and the performer herself is replicated in projected images. The production alienates and overstimulates in ways analogous to the text: we are literally swamped with semiotics.

I'm not sure the production is entirely successful, although the second half is riveting: you feel at times the actors are still finding a way to deal with this language, and, as I have found in this review, there is no doubt more to be said and done. But it is certainly impressive, and it's a welcome introduction to a writer who should be better known here, if only for all those uncompromising gauntlets thrown down in the face of our expectations.

Princess Dramas, by Elfriede Jelinek translated by Gitta Honneger, directed by André Bastian. Designed by Peter Mumford, costumes by Olga Makeeva, lighting by Stelios Karagiannis. With Dion Mills, Andrea Swifte and Melodie Reynolds. Red Stitch until July 2.

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A divagation

I've often thought that the major weakness in Australian theatre is its writing. We have an astonishing design culture, an embarrassment of talented actors, and directors, young and established, aplenty. But while our theatre artists can work as if they live in the 21st century, writers are trammelled in expectations and conventions that seem to belong in the Menzies imaginary. This struck me forcibly while watching André Bastian's fascinating production of Elfriede Jelinek's 2002 plays, Princess Dramas, at Red Stitch last week. Scandalously, this is the first production of Jelenik's work in Australia. The introduction to the review got longer and longer, and still I wasn't discussing Jelinek. So I'm getting this out of my hair, and the review should follow directly.

In Australian theatre, we have an obsession with the "classics". Do we produce too few? Do we do too many, at the expense of "new work"? Is it legitimate to rework them? What is a "classic", anyway? In the most recent spin on this question, Peter Craven briefly examined the canonical plays routinely done in London, and compared them to what appears on our own main stages. Unsurprisingly, this shows that we do "lesser" classics (and that term is a whole argument in itself) much less frequently than in London. I am reminded of Michael Billington's shock a couple of decades ago, outside a Cheek by Jowl production of The Duchess of Malfi in Melbourne, that most people he had spoken to had never read the play before, let alone seen it.

Given the population of Greater London is about two thirds of the entire population of Australia, it's unsurprising that there should be a smaller ecology. This needn't mean a narrow focus, although in practice it often does. I've thought for years that this obsession with classics prompts a deeper question, which is touched on by STC associate director Tom Wright in Craven's article: the narrow range of theatre that makes its way to our main stages and into our cultural memory. Wright labels it "canonical collapse", "a failure of cultural memory or curiosity". Ominously, Wright comments: "the pool shrinks every generation and we just get more and more versions of the same". The only argument I'd have with Wright's proposition is a question: where was the canon to begin with?

In saying this, I don't want to erase the work that is achieved here, often in the teeth of considerable odds. Look through the reviews logged on this blog over the past seven years, and you'll see many productions that give the lie to any easy generalisation. The danger of any polemic is that it can simply sweep aside what has been achieved in terms of expanding possibility: I don't wish to do that. It's not true of all our main stages, either: the Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir St, to pick a few, have shown over the past few years what main stage companies can do to widen our theatrical language. But I'm sure even they will admit their limitations. What I'm chasing here is a pervasive anti-intellectualism in our culture, which, like the Christian Right in Victoria, exercises a disproportionate influence over our collective theatrical imagination.

What we have in our main stage culture - and often off the main stages too, although independent theatres heroically attempt to broaden the meme pool - is a limited theatrical vocabulary. It's far too easy for a single idea of theatre to dominate the culture; and, as the responses to the Malthouse/STC's Baal demonstrated amply, we have some very sentimentalised ideas of what theatre can be, which automatically discount anything that steps outside them. We can admit a few exceptions (after a struggle) such as the work of Benedict Andrews, but then these become their own hegemonies, representing a singular "alternative".

It's as if the culture can only ever be a binary, two things in conflict. Since when was that true about anything? It's perfectly possible for a single human being to enjoy all sorts of things, from video games to the poetry of JH Prynne. A culture can, ideally, simultaneously sustain all sorts of activities. If it does so, each enriches the others: possibilities open for cross fertilisations that can lead to something genuinely new. But there's no getting away from the fact that we're looking through a narrow window.

Compare, for instance, the MTC's current season with the 2010-11 season at the Théâtre de la Ville. The Théâtre de la Ville is Paris's most mainstream subsidised theatre, the French equivalent of the MTC. There's Shakespeare (As You Like It, A Winter's Tale), Ionesco (two plays - Rhinoceros and A Frenzy for Two) and Chekhov (The Wedding). Plus a menu of "classics" we never get to see, including but not limited to Giacomo Leopardi, Maurice Maeterlink, Pierre Corneille and Christopher Marlowe. Plus a bunch of contemporary theatre, including Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse (although perhaps the most produced contemporary European playwright, again seldom done here), Katie Mitchell, Theatre de Complicite's take on the modern Japanese master Jun'Ichiro Tanizaki, and, interestingly, 1927's The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, which actually premiered in Melbourne at the Malthouse. There's even a reading of Afghan women's poetry, in French and Persian. And that's only some of it.

There are complex reasons for this difference, funding being only the most basic. Even given Sarkozy's swingeing cuts to the arts budget, French theatre, like much European work, is massively better subsidised than ours. In practice, this means not only a wider range of work; crucially, it means cheaper tickets and thus bigger audiences. And because these audiences are exposed to a huge range of theatre, both contemporary and classic, they tend to be informed, unabashed, curious and critical. After all, the only way to learn about theatre is to see a lot of it. And it also, crucially, means that contemporary work has a far vaster range of possibilities from which to begin.

Figure it out for yourself: the most expensive tickets for the most lavish productions at the Theatre de la Ville work out to around $40. We can pay three times as much for comparable productions, even if we have the chance to see them. What makes theatre elite here is not the ideas that inform it, but how expensive it is. And the less that is offered, the more parochial and intimidated the audience; the more parochial and intimidated the audience, the more parochial and intimidated the programming. So it is that what is considered mainstream fare elsewhere becomes risky and dangerous here. This is the problem of "canonical collapse" in its true vicious circle.

I'd argue that the most grievous impact of canonical collapse is on new writing. It's a simple equation: the richer the cultural soil, the more diverse, more confident, more informedly experimental is the work that comes from it. Writers can make do by amassing libraries of work they might never see performed, but then what? The culture itself discourages the work that might emerge from that stimulation. Without a cultural context which recognises the forces, influences and ideas that informs what they write, without audiences driven by curiosity rather than a fear of seeming stupid and a desire for confirmation, they might as well be writing in an alien language.

One virtue of Australian theatre is that it tends to be less Anglocentric than the rest of the English-speaking world: this is the advantage of being a satellite colony rather than a theatre centre like London or New York. Festival directors from Anthony Steel to Kristy Edmunds have introduced audiences to contemporary international work; directors such as Barrie Kosky, Michael Kantor, Benedict Andrews, Daniel Sclusser, André Bastian and others have forged a Australian-European aesthetic which has done much to expand our stage language. But almost all our theatrical innovation, by default, has been in design, performance and direction.

Of course there are contemporary writers who are working outside the conventions: Cynthia Troup, Margaret Cameron or Jane Montgomery-Griffiths are excellent examples of just that kind of theatre writer. This kind of work, which springs intelligently from the the complex meld of ideas called (often dismissively) post-modernism is permitted to exist on the edge of things. (As an aside, it's provoking that my first reach in thinking of this kind of work comes up with all women, whereas the directors are all men). In a culture which has never put a main stage spotlight even on Sarah Kane or Jon Fosse, who are among the major playwrights of our time, it is difficult to see any of them existing outside the margins. It's simply impossible to see them inhabiting the kind of central cultural position of a writer like, say, Elfriede Jelenik. And my concern is that this blindness impoverishes all our writing, from the most marginal to the most mainstream. It's as if are starving to death in the midst of infinite plenty, totally unaware that we are hungry.

Aside from poetry (and even there, not all the time), almost all of our literary art, inside and outside theatre, assumes that writing is an expression of a prior subjectivity, which most usually devolves to the author (this is allied to an anxiety about "authenticity", which has most often seemed to me to be a covert hatred of imagination, and which has given rise to at least two famous hoaxes - Helen Demidenko and Norma Khouri). Within this assumption is a bunch of implied conventions about character and narration.

These assumptions function invisibly, like the air; because they are ubiquitous, they are considered "natural"; but in fact, they are no more natural than guitars or monorails. What's ever been "natural" about a bunch of people in costumes pretending to be other people in front of a third bunch of people who have paid for the privilege of watching them? Audiences are merely trained to expect character, plot, and their ensuing emotional gratification, and to think this is "good theatre". But a downside of these expectations is that is that they are also trained to almost completely ignore the language that creates these things: like the conventions, the language is invisible. When language becomes visible, when it insists itself by becoming less than transparent or even poetic, there's trouble.

This is not to say that plays that work with character, plot et al are without pleasure (see above note about negative capability); but the lack of this linguistic awareness does considerably limit the possibilities of writing in the theatre. Worse, this linguistic unconsciousness actually makes it difficult to see the virtues of those "classics" that operate either outside or more freely within those conventions: Ibsen suffers from this as much as Kane. I'd say this content/style division is pretty much universal in the English-speaking mainstream theatre; in fact, as Susan Sontag pointed out decades ago, it's pretty nigh impossible to avoid it in any discussion of art, as it's so deeply embedded in our aesthetic assumptions. But it reaches a particular crisis in writing for theatre. While design and direction are permitted to be as conscious and metatheatrical as you like, writing tends to be imprisoned in one version or other of these central conventions, and is expected to deliver accordingly.

These assumptions are, most baldly, commercial considerations, more concerned with attracting audiences than with the work itself. So we get the toxic questions that circle around Australian writing: who is your audience? to whom are you marketing your product? And this automatically slams down on possibility, becoming a self-censorship that is much more effective than any conscious policy by any company or any individual.

I don't wish to point fingers here. I'm as aware as anyone of how hard many people work, both inside and outside institutions, to expand possibility, only to find themselves stumped by something that is in fact a self-perpetuating macrocosm. Articulating a problem is one thing: what to do about it, even whether anything should be done, is another question altogether. If you look at the culture as a whole, it seems the battle is overwhelmingly lost: the mass media marginalisation of art is a given; art as a commodity, despite flurries here and there, is a given; and artists continue to struggle to make art despite it all. Does it matter if our theatre culture - and by this I mean, equally, audiences as well as the rest of us - is fundamentally anti-intellectual? Is it enough to have small pools of questioning around the edges, to pay our way to heaven? Is what we have as good as it gets here? I actually don't know.

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review: The Gift

*NB: Major spoilers after the fold*

Deadpan irony is a perilous art. Australians are reflexively ironic, and can find themselves disconcerted when the irony doesn't carry, when a flip statement intended by its very outrageousness to highlight some absurdity or injustice is, contrary to its intention, read straight. This is particularly perilous when spoken statements make it into print. For example, Joanna Murray-Smith caused a minor flutter last week with a Q and A in the Sunday Age in which she was asked what it was like, as a writer, to be in a female "minority".

"The trouble is that most women are much more interested in getting the darn ironing under control, or shopping for something cute to get into when hubby gets home from the office," said Murray-Smith. "Guys are just a whole lot more likely to be geniuses. You can't fight human nature." Jaws dropped all over Melbourne, emails were emailed, tweets were tweeted. Surely, they all said, she can't be serious? Surely? And no, of course she wasn't serious: she was dropping some heavy irony, perhaps tired of being asked a stupid question yet again, and it didn't translate into the straight-up-and-down, toneless format of the quiz.

Her plays, especially her dramas, can prompt the same reaction, and here the question is much more complex. She is at her best as a comic writer (and in her monologues for particular performers, such as Bombshells or Songs for Nobodies), and at her weakest when she attempts drama. Her new play The Gift is a largely unsuccessful shot at combining satire and drama, switching to more serious concerns in the second act. You read Murray-Smith's plays without irony at your peril, but the nagging question, "surely she can't be serious?", has a long shadow in this play.

The Gift is a tale of a friendship between two couples that unfolds in real time conversation - in a bar, on a boat, in an apartment. Ed (Richard Piper) and Sadie (Heather Bolton) are self-made millionaires, childless and comfortably middle-aged. On a break at a thousand-dollar-a-night resort in the tropics they meet Martin (Matt Dyktynski) and Chloë (Elizabeth Debicki), the former a struggling conceptual artist, the latter a wannabe writer, who have won a holiday in a raffle.

Mutually attracted, the couples strike up a friendship over a lot of Chateau Expensive in the bar, and plan a boat trip the following day. A storm rises, Ed falls off the boat and is almost drowned, and Martin brings him back from the dead. Despite Martin and Chloë's demurrals, Ed and Sadie insist they want to give the younger couple a gift for saving Ed's life. They plan to meet a year hence, during which time Martin and Chloë can decide what it is they want most.

The second act follows their later meeting, this time in a luxurious high-rise apartment. Ed and Sadie recount their past year. Rejuvenated by their brush with death, they have discovered art: they have flown from capital to capital, hungrily consuming whatever they find. Ed has the jargon down pat, too. Then it's Martin and Chloë's turn. After a lot of prevarication, they announce that they would like Ed and Sadie to take their four-year-old daughter Eleanor, and give them back their pre-parent lives. Ed and Sadie are horrified and angry, Martin and Chloë alternately abashed and heartbroken. It finishes with a mutual vision of Eleanor, summoned by the two parents, playing in her unspoilt world in the background.

Woven into this bald plot are arguments about class, parenthood and, in particular, art. It is almost a stinging parody; its self-obsessed characters expose the tedium of a life of consumerism, the narcissism of contemporary mores, the emptiness of the commodification of art, the guilt that seems hard-wired into middle-class parenting, the poisonous nature of nostalgia. But The Gift demonstrates the paradox of parody, which half-worships what it seeks to excoriate. In this case, the blackness of Murray-Smith's satire is blunted by a pervasive sentimentality. The sentimentality originates in the script, but Maria Aitken's slick production heightens it to the point where it undermines any sense of irony.

And clearly these characters are meant, at one level at least, to be ironically rendered. The most sympathetic are the older couple, who remain oddly innocent: their wealth has been almost accidentally acquired, and they delight in it like children. Sadie shops, Ed - a bluff-spoken self-made man - runs the business. They are, however, a little bored. Chloë and Martin seem to them to embody a vitality and curiosity about life that they have lost. The younger couple, on the other hand, see people who have attained a success to which they aspire: Chloë forlornly confesses that, more than anything, she wants a dishwasher; Martin is impressed by Ed's plain-spokenness, his manly decisiveness in a competitive world. And both Chloë and Martin envy Ed and Sadie their childless irresponsibility: they have a playfulness which the younger couple, ground down by the everyday, lacks. Both couples are, they tell each other, honest people.

This ecstatic mutual discovery is a set up for the crisis, where scales fall from eyes and the uglier sides of these couples are exposed. And there's no denying that the artistic couple comes off worse in these revelations: they are not only pretentious, they are self-servingly blind. Ed, disgusted that Chloë and Martin could even think of getting rid of their daughter, summons an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong when he speaks of "seeing things through" (also, perhaps accidentally, one of the phrases that crops up in debate about wars in the Middle East). The two represent ordinary decency, which may be consciously compromised (they laughingly speak of their carbon footprints before dismissing the thought of actually doing anything about them), but is decent all the same.

It's no accident that Martin is a conceptual artist. Ever since Tom Wolfe's satire The Painted Word, conceptual art has been a rich field for those who want to claim that artists are wankers. Not that Murray-Smith is doing anything quite so crude. Martin and Chloë talk about little except art, and the play is rich with references to famous conceptual art installations: Ed waxes lyrical over Richard Wilson's 20:50, an installation in which an entire room is flooded with black oil, and Martin Creed's A door opening and closing and a light going on and off. He has discovered the wisdom of Martin's exhortation to him a year earlier: "Suspend doubt". He has suspended doubt, and life is marvellous.

This phrase, which recurs through the play like a mantra, is a sloganistic reworking of Coleridge's passage in Biographia Literaria on "the willing suspension of disbelief". Coleridge's catchy formulation has been used and abused ever since: it constitutes a central tenet in Romantic theories about art, and is certainly a useful reference in speaking of forms such as theatre. It's worth examining how its meaning is changed here, when "disbelief" is translated into "doubt". Coleridge originally was talking about narrative poems like the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which were published next to Wordsworth's poems of the everyday in their radical book Lyrical Ballads. "My endeavours," said Coleridge, "[are] directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

The aim of Coleridge's evocation of the "supernatural" was to coax from the imagination a "semblance of truth", with the willing collusion of the conscious mind. That willing collusion constitutes a fleeting "for the moment" act of faith, a leap into the unknown. So we choose to consciously accept the artifice, even the absurdity, of art, in order to experience the inner truths it might illuminate.

To "suspend doubt" suggests something entirely different: the suspension of doubt is an invitation to certainty. Rather than a willing and conscious collusion, it suggests a giving over of mental authority to the artist: questions must be quashed, scepticism put aside, in order to enter the sacred inner world the artist offers. In this formulation, the imagination of the artist is a kind of tyranny. In The Gift, this is represented by Martin's sculpture (exhibited at Tate Modern) of a holographic child inside a glass box. I guess, in the context of the play, it represents what has happened to Martin's "inner child" under the stress of parenthood; it also may represent Eleanor herself, trapped inside her parents' self-obsessed anxieties.

This bowdlerisation of a complex idea sits at the heart of my unease with The Gift: it is full of cod-Romantic ideas about art, which seem especially strange when applied to sternly anti-Romantic work such as conceptual art. The Romantic imagination is here transformed from a mutually enriching dynamic of inner imagination encountering the outer world, to a hermetically-sealed narcissism. Both Chloë and Martin are thorough-going narcissists: they lament "the world inside my head", the imaginative world here presented as the realm of art, which is "ruined" by its exposure the world outside.

The "unruined" child Eleanor, whom we glimpse at the end of the play, is ruining their artistic lives; she is nevertheless a symbol of primal innocence. It's unclear, in the end, why they wish to give her away: on the one hand, they can't bear to watch her childhood purity ruined by contact with reality; on the other, she has destroyed their own childish freedom. On another hand altogether, they insist that they love her.

The whole argument sets up a fake dilemma - art vs "ordinary" life - as a central condition of art. It elides some important things, such as art being impossible without life. The everyday is, after all, deeply embedded in the Romantic tradition. As Coleridge puts it, poetry should "awaken the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and direct it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand".

Is Murray-Smith's decadent echo of Romanticism meant to be satirical? For all its absurdity, there is no dialectic of a possible artistic truthfulness that rubs against it: instead, it is placed next to the common middle class decency of Ed and Sadie and the final vision of childish innocence. Her propositions are certainly too easy to take at face value: such ideas accord very neatly with common conceptions about art as self-indulgent wankery, a refusal to deal with the "real world", a state of pickled childishness.

Which brings me to the point which maybe bothers me most of all. The first act features a Waiter performed by Leighton Young, which is perhaps one of the most thankless roles seen recently in Melbourne. The Waiter has notably darker skin than the white, middle class cast, and he floats about the stage, serving drinks and occasionally moving scenery. He says not a word. I found myself waiting for him to break out of his waiterly role, to perhaps make some comment or otherwise show us that he was a actual character, rather than the useful prop he seems to be. Then I wondered if his mute, dark-skinned presence was an ironic visual comment on the unthinking first world consumption, insulated by privilege and money, of third world labour. It may have been intended in that way - again, you are left with a troubling ambiguity - but whether intended or not, what he ended up being in actual effect was the help: discreet, other, and all but invisible, hovering anonymously on the edge of the action.

The playwright wavers between making her characters unsympathetic parodies with repulsive excesses, or empathetic; in the end, she plumps for a simple empathy to dissolve the dilemma. It's possible to straddle this division (Ricky Gervaise's monstrous David Brent being a case in point), but here it panders to its audience. It's the sentimentality that does for it. "No one," says Milan Kundera, "is more insensitive than sentimental folk". This play, with all its problematic aspects, could almost be an illustration of that aphorism, but that we are clearly meant to identify with the characters' distress (especially Chloë's tormented motherhood confessions) and are forced to accept that its finale - a kitschly sentimental vision of childhood - is supposed to evoke a kind of redemption. If that is so, the play embodies nothing so conscious as satire. Rather, it seems closer to Kafka's comment on the novels of Dickens: "Heartlessness masked by a style overflowing with feeling".

Certainly, nothing in Aitken's production sharpens the satire beyond some comfortably comic self-deprecations. Its cast performs the characters with sincerity, which perhaps is not the best way to serve the script; the only character who seemed at all real to me was Richard Piper's (admittedly over-acted) Ed. Richard Roberts' set delivers aspirational theatre - glamorous tropical bars, city skylines seen from picture windows. Even the poverty-stricken artists wear designer clothes. It works elegantly for most of it, aside from a clumsy evocation of a storm at sea using the bar with a revolve and projected backdrops, but if this play is supposed to stick pins into middle class anxiety and narcissism, it also makes it look pretty damn desirable. And, like Hollywood religion, it assures us that we are all really nice, well meaning people underneath.

It seems to me that Murray-Smith wants to have her cake and eat it too. If she really let loose the black impulses that lurk beneath some of her lines, she risks alienating her major audience. So we are comforted instead, and leave unawakened.

Picture: Richard Piper and Heather Bolton in The Gift. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Gift by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Maria Aitken. Set and costumes by Richard Roberts, lighting by Hartley TA Kemp, composer Ian McDonald, choreography by John Bolton. With Richard Piper, Heather Bolton, Matt Dyktynski, Elizabeth Debicki and Leighton Young. Eirini Kosmidis, Chloe Guymer or Nyah Hart as Eleanor. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until July 9.

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Friday, June 03, 2011

Review: Dwelling Structure, Animal, Inside a Mime's Compact

A home is much more than a building. "Originally," says John Berger in his almost unbearably beautiful book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, "home meant the centre of the world - not in a geographical, but in an ontological sense. Mircea Eliade has demonstrated how home was the place from which the world could be founded. A home was established, as he said, 'at the heart of the real'."

The loss of this ancient sense of home, says Berger, is at the centre of much of the modern experience of displacement. And the word "home" itself has been hijacked: it's become a metaphor for domestic morality, a propriety that safeguards property (including women and children); "homeland" is the patriotic article of faith that persuades people to kill and die in foreign countries. Yet that ancient desire for a place in which to ground one's own reality stubbornly persists. People make homes, however temporary they might be, out of habits, of memories, out of cardboard: without some place, however humble, in which our souls might be housed, we feel lost.

As librettist Cynthia Troup points out, the Australian Bureau of Statistics uses the term "dwelling structure" to cover the buildings in which people find shelter. There is a code which classifies the various structures, from "1. Separate house" to "6. Improvised home, tent, campers out" to "9. Other." Government agencies analyse the idea of home for economic modelling, to trace populations, abstracting complex space to make it orderly. But these terms cannot speak to the inner human idea of what a home is, what it might be.

The tension between these two ideas informs Chamber Made Opera's Dwelling Structure, which is perhaps the most beautifully judged site-specific work I have seen. Here the meanings behind that phrase "dwelling structure" are opened out, to create a moving evocation of how memories and things are inextricably bound together in our notions of home, and of how much is lost when we only measure our lives by economic value. It's one of a series of "living room operas" that Chamber Made Opera has recently introduced, but in this case the work occurs in the home of the two artists, Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, who composed it.

The opera is, first of all, a social gathering - a bunch of around 20 strangers is invited into a home, welcomed with wine, and look about curiously (as one does). It's an unusual home, formerly a Rechabite Hall, with a small hall at the front that now functions as a studio. And there is much to look at - a "visual assemblage" by Neil Thomas, surrounded by QR codes which can be scanned by iPad-like screens to bring up fragments of the libretto and score.

The opera itself is structured in eight "time-use episodes", another term taken from governmental language, where it is used as a means of calculating monetary value. Troup's libretto is notable for remaining mostly unspoken. It's largely a poetic list of sound cues - "Feet on carpet. Cushions plumped and patted. Wind through trees and under eaves. A rattle of windows." These are interspersed with fragmentary texts - scraps of Rechabite songs, newspaper clippings, radio announcements - from the building's history.

The first episode occurs in the kitchen. Flynn and Humphrey make coffee and tea, weaving between each other as intimates do. The score is an almost Cageian collage of noises - windows opening, gas clicking on - slightly exaggerated to become percussive, with an electronic wind rising behind these domestic rhythms. Then we are led to the living room, where we are seated for the next seven.

The score is constantly surprising, inflected by wit and careful precision. The text is projected onto the wall, and sometimes its instructions are literally followed ("from a great distance ... a party group singing Auld Lang Syne"), or the score lifts to some unexpected musical expression. We hear the sound of a distant vacuum cleaner, beachballs bouncing down the stairs followed by the tumbling steps of a child who runs through the living room, birdsong, wonky organ music. Live and recorded sounds are woven together, and microphones are ingeniously placed so that listening becomes an experience of contantly shifting aural space and of increasing complexity.

It draws you in and makes you listen, quite involuntarily. And gradually it is as if the history of this building - its ghosts, its past - is awakening around you, and you have a strange feeling of past and present folding together into some infinitely complex texture of simultaneous time. By the end, I felt exactly the kind of effect that Octavio Paz claims for poetry - that it takes you from silence to silence, but by the end the silence has changed. It is mysteriously joyous, and profoundly beautiful.


A couple of brief notes on two other recent outings (both also closed). Jack Productions, formed last year, brings the language of classical ballet into the purview of contemporary dance. Their new work Animal - a meditation on the deep connections between animal and human behaviour - features some notable retired ballerinas: Kirsty Martin, Lisa Pavane, Alida Chase, Christine Howard and Shane Carroll.

Claude Marcos's design is typically striking. The dance occurs on a highly polished black stage, which reflects the dancers as if in a dark pool and by the end is smeared with footprints and the marks of human sweat. When the dancers enter, they open tiles in the floor and bring out ingenious fold-out chairs of pale wood that become the single props of the dance. Lucas Jervis's choreography, set to a percussive score by Eugene Unghetti, lyrically explores the dynamics of group behaviour: exclusion, inclusion, acceptance, individual rebellion and expression.

There are - perhaps because of the chairs - echoes of Lucy Guerin's work here, less intricate and more conventionally lyrical. Perhaps this is because the focus is always, for all its metaphorical exploration of animal gesture, on the literal bodies of the performers. And what I enjoyed most about this was watching these dancers perform. Their bodies might be less supple than when they danced as prima ballerinas, but now they give us another aspect of performance - an assurance of presence, a certain quality of beauty - that can only come with age. I'd like to see more older dancers on stage.

Lastly (and how belated am I - this has been a long silence): two weeks ago I found myself one cold night hovering next to a phone box in Russell St. From the streets of the naked city I was led to a bedsit temporarily transformed into a theatre, where I was offered popcorn and witnessed Inside a Mime's Compact, a work made and performed by two young theatre makers, Camilla Buckthorpe and Lily Beaux-Lyons. This is definitely a young work, unfocused and undeveloped in its thought, but it nevertheless had an energy which charmed me.

It's a kind of fairytale about three sisters, the youngest sister represented by a chicken - a raw, dead chicken - to which some terrible things are done. Buckthorpe and Beaux-Lyons explore, in a short fragmented performance, the sibling savagery and self-alienations that underlie the notion of femininity. It generated a promisingly absurd sense of disgust underlaid by a not-quite articulate anger; aside from exploring their ideas, I thought they needed to explore that darkness further. Perhaps Buckthorpe and Beaux-Lyons could read some Kathy Acker. Noted for future reference.

Dwelling Structure: An Opera in 8 Time-Use Episodes, created by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, libretto by Cynthia Troup. Visual assemblage by Neil Thomas and neighbourly interruptions by Suitcase Royale. A living room in Northcote. Chamber Made Opera.

Animal, choreographed by Lucas Jervis, music by Eugene Ughetti. Designed by Claude Marcos, lighting by Robert Cuddon. With Alida Chase, Shane Carroll, Christine Howard, Kirsty Martin and Lisa Pavane. Jack Productions at the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse.

Inside a Mime's Compact, devised and performed by Camilla Buckthorpe and Lily Beaux-Lyons. Smootz and Hovering Ponies Take Umbrage at a city apartment.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Back in ten mins

As some commenters have ruefully noted, TN has been on a lull for the past fortnight. I have a few reviews to write - and will, I hope, in the near future. This time I don't even have the excuse of being distracted by other work: I simply seem to have run out of words. It's a mysterious inability: as Orwell noted once, when a writer says he can't write, he really can't. However, this paragraph is a note of intent, and perhaps returning writerliness.

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