Last week in Melbourne ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 20, 2012

Last week in Melbourne

Regular readers will know that Ms TN has spent the past few years vainly attempting to find a balanced life. Every year I vow to see less theatre; every year my vow crumbles spectacularly, like a meringue in the hand of a greedy toddler. 2012 may be the year where I give up vowing altogether: perhaps at last I will enter a Zen state of bug-eyed acceptance of my lot. I may have novels to write, publishers to feed, roofs to thatch securely against oncoming extreme weather: what does it matter when the monster wakes within? As with every serious addict, even the sight of my hollow-eyed children weeping as I vanish into the dark grip of the thespian world fails to touch my corrupted heart.

Still, I've been trying. (Very trying). I have plans to write an epic novel this year, a long, dystopian, thundering narrative that condemns the entirety of contemporary society, a novel that is all about "how terrible orange is / and life". Really, I do. And if I can't attain balance, perhaps I can find a sense of irresponsibility that will allow me to stay home and make things up, rather than distracting myself by writing about things other people do. But Melbourne makes this very difficult. Last week, for instance, I was tempted out three times. Two of them were events that, admittedly, weren't strictly to be reviewed. One was a "showing", a performance of a sketch of a production that may happen later this year. One, according to the director, wasn't even that, but a public glimpse into the process of rehearsal. The third was a work of visual theatre performed for free in the City Square.

Nick Barlow and Angela Orrego in A Bird, A Tree, The Moon

The puppet show, A Bird, A Tree, The Moon, was by Peepshow Inc, a visual theatre company which has been around since 2003 and which, on the strength of this, I should have attended a long time ago. The venue was "Under the old elm tree, City Square". (If that doesn't sound enchanting, it ought to.) The performance area was defined by a bunch of chairs and chalk graffiti declaring hearts for "Occupy Melbourne", but as the half hour show continued, more and more curious passers by stopped to watch, crowding around on the pavement. The Occupy signs weren't accidental. A Bird, A Tree, The Moon did feel like a reclaiming of the commons: an act offered to anybody interested, with no advertising, no hard sell, no consumerism in sight: it was an open attempt merely to delight, a reminder of a possible generosity. Sadly it was only performed for four nights, so if you didn't stumble across it last week, you have missed it.

The show itself, performed by Nick Barlow and Angela Orrego and directed by Melinda Hetzel, is a surreal visual narrative about a young woman and a mischievous skeleton bird that lives in her handbag. The action occurs around a park bench beneath the tree, and it begins with the simplest of conceits: a woman walks into a park to eat a packet of chips. Then, over the next half hour, it becomes about friendship, freedom, grief, alienation and transformation. What's striking is the imaginative ingenuity of the puppetry, which is the simplest kind of transformative animation, the closest thing you get to magic in the theatre, and the physical precision of the performances. It's comic, moving and utterly joyous.

Showings have become a common part of the process of developing a work. After a period of development, the unfinished performance is exposed to a small invited audience, partly to give some punctuation to the process, partly to see what happens and partly to invite feedback. I can tell you first-hand that it can be a very useful thing; it's one thing to be in a room with other makers, but the dynamic changes radically once a work has an audience. The other two theatre pieces I saw last week were events of this kind. I won't say much about them, except that they promise deeply interesting shows over the next year or so.

The first was an extraordinary monologue about grief, performed by Oscar Redding. It was held in an office room in the city at twilight, with no lighting and no set, aside from a small circle of chairs for the audience, so the room slowly darkened as as the monologue progressed. What I saw was the result of a fortnight's work, and it suggests that if this goes ahead to production later this year as planned, you won't want to miss it.

The second was a performance that also marked the launch of Theatre Works' 2012 season, now under the creative production of Daniel Clarke. Clarke seems to have quite suddenly transformed Theatre Works into a creative powerhouse, offering a home to some of Melbourne's most interesting artists - Adena Jacobs, MKA and The Rabble all feature in this year's program, which is well worth checking out.

The evening's event was a glimpse of what's happening with Daniel Schlusser's development of a work based on Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, which had just finished a two-week development at Theatre Works. Bulgakov's novel has, mystifyingly perhaps, been adapted for theatre over and over again: part fantasy, part love story, part political satire and critique, part philosophical argument, it remains one of the most astonishing novels ever written. This, like Schlusser's other work, doesn't qualify as an adaptation: it seems to be rather a staging of the impossibility of adapting such a work for the stage, with moments of unabashed, surprising theatricality spiralling out of the mundane and literal. It will be fascinating to see what happens.

So, you see, it's going to be hard to stay home, but I'll be doing my best. Now I'm off to Perth, to see the festival. Failing again, but maybe this year failing better...

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