Over the past week or so, I have announced in every possible internet way my intention of seeing less theatre and giving some necessary time to my other writing hats. It is somewhat awkward to find that while I was, perfectly sincerely, proclaiming my stern resolution, I managed to see four shows last week. As the poet said, Between the idea. And the reality. Between the motion. And the act. Falls the Shadow... Oh well. There's always next week.
|Anthony Phelan and Anita Hegh in The Wild Duck.|
One of the shows I saw was the Malthouse edition of Belvoir St's production of The Wild Duck. Luckily I saw that one in Sydney. I don't have much to add to what I said then: the production has transferred triumphantly to the Merlyn, basically replicating the space at Belvoir Upstairs. There are subtle refinements, but it is the same show: the performances remain remarkable, the emotional impact devastating. It's deeply intelligent, beautiful theatre, and pairs with Thyestes as Simon Stone's best work so far. And it's selling out fast: best to book now, if you don't want to be disappointed.
At the other end of the scale, I caught the train to Thornbury to see a play in a backyard shed. It was Summertime in the Garden of Eden, the latest offering from Declan Greene and Ash Flander's queer theatre collective, Sisters Grimm. This was, in its own way, as remarkable as The Wild Duck. Both shows, in completely different ways, demonstrate how little (and how much) it takes to make compelling theatre: you can make it with almost nothing, if you invite the imagination of the audience in to open up its dark and tender places. It's the one thing theatre can't fake, and no amount of plush can cover its absence.
Sisters Grimm has created quite a following in Melbourne for their scratch shows, often mounted in a matter of weeks. Summertime is a big step up from their last, wickedly enjoyable creation, Little Mercy (staged in the Collingwood Underground Carpark). It's a southern melodrama set during the Civil War, drawing on Tennessee Williams, legendary shlock like Gone With the Wind and Melbourne's drag culture to create a potently subversive work. Aside from the spectacular costumes, the production's trash aesthetic - sheets for curtains, random chairs drawn from somebody's kitchen, the shed itself, the suburban back yard that acts as a foyer - belies the sharpness of the production. This is classy theatre.
Summertime gleefully exploits all the Gothic cliches. The story begins with the return of an estranged sister, Honey-Sue (Mummy Complex), to the family plantation. She is reunited with sister Daisy Mae (Agent Cleave), who is newly engaged to the dashing Clive (Peter Paltos), and her proud patriarchal father Big Daddy (Mzz Erin Tasmania). The scene is set for the revelation of Dark Secrets. The Dark Secrets keep on revelating, until the snake in the Garden of Eden (it's full of Biblical allusions) is revealed to be the homosexual desire hidden shamefully at the heart of the patriarchy.
The darkest secret of all, the racist slavery that underpins this privileged society, is in plain view from the start. Here Sisters Grimm outrageously portrays the family slaves as golliwog puppets, with Mammy manipulated by Genevieve Giuffre. If you're not uncomfortable with that, you ought to be: it's an excoriatingly disconcerting exposure of how racism functions in Gone With The Wind and countless other Hollywood films, a dehumanising trivialisation that is shown here to be the precondition for rape and murder.
The play, co-authored by Greene and Flanders, is as sharp as a pin, deftly walking the impossibly narrow line between meta-theatrical self-consciousness and the emotional heat necessary to make a successful melodrama. Summertime draws as much from the mannered theatre of Oscar Wilde, in which the charm of his improbable characters emerges from their consisting entirely of surfaces, as it does from the histrionic theatre of Williams. It's hard not to recall Susan Sontag's Notes on Camp when thinking of this kind of theatre. "The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration..." says Sontag. "To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater." Also, crucially: "Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp."
Many of Sontag's observations can be folded into the Sisters Grimm's explorations of camp popular culture, but for all its hilarity, the political subtext here is far from frivolous. It goes beyond Sontag's Notes to give us a dark reflection of the tyrannies of normative heterosexuality. As the Southern Belles, Agent Cleave and Mummy Complex (gorgeously attired in crinolines from Rose Chong Costumiers) give us the Feminine as the pure performance it is; Agent Cleave as the ingenue Daisy Mae is extraordinarily beautiful, a response only made complex by her beard and tattoos. To dizzy up the gender play, Mzz Erin Tasmania is a full-blown Big Daddy with enormous breasts.
As in all good melodrama, the emotional extremities are played straight. The scenes of lovemaking invest all this artifice with some confrontingly real eroticism, and Miss Honey-Sue's descent into broken madness is genuinely distressing. Gender in Summertime is a play of desire made toxic by repression; madness or death are the only escape, and the guns of the revolution are coming up the hill. It's very funny, but the laughter here has an edge of steel.
On Saturday, I spent twenty minutes at North Melbourne Arts House with Il Pixel Rosso's And the Birds Fell from the Sky. Described as an "immersive video-goggle experience", this show combines "instructional theatre" with the so-hot-right-now immersive theatre experience, to create a futuristic fantasy involving the audient in an post-apocalyptic mythos involving, well, clowns.
You see it two at a time, even though it's essentially a private experience. I should say at the outset that my theatre partner totally enjoyed himself. He said it was like one of his dreams: and indeed its brief, strange narrative is something like a dream. I didn't enjoy myself nearly so much. Among other things, only the week before I saw the extraordinary Oráculos, a genuinely profound work of immersive theatre. It's almost an unfair juxtaposition, because it draws the differences between the two works so starkly, especially in their thinking about imaginative and sensory stimuli.
At the beginning you are given noise-cancelling headphones and a pair of goggles, inside which is projected a film. Once deprived of all other senses you are put in a wheelchair, as per careful instructions from the headphones, and witness the story. The soundtrack tells you where to look, how to move, what to expect, and the video plays in front of you, within the frame of the goggles. Occasionally there's some physical stimulus - a quick spray of alcohol, mirroring an event in the film, or some air-freshener and a fan to simulate the outdoors - but these felt as inexact as seeing someone else's hand substituting for mine in the visuals. This inexactness made the dissociation between the sensual expectation and reality jarring, and if anything it placed me further outside the experience.
It was quite the most passive experience I've ever had. It's more passive than watching television or a film, and different from other instructional theatre (say, Bettybooke's En Route, which I saw at the Adelaide Fringe a couple of years ago) in the severe limitations it places on choice. There isn't any, as there is no interactivity built into it; even if I chose not to "look out of the window" as instructed, the camera still made me do it.
It meant that rather than being, as per the expressed intent, at the centre of the experience, I felt only subject to it. If I were really one of the performers, I could choose not to look or not to move or to do something else, but these weren't options. I thought about the imaginative projection that happens when you play an RPG video game; this wasn't anything like that, because what makes you invest in a game is the illusion of decision, however guided by the perameters of the game. My being there, aside from the brute fact of my physical presence, didn't make a whit of difference to what happened in And the Birds Fell from the Sky. I felt curiously cancelled out.
It made me think that one of the things I value about theatre is the sense that the audience's presence, even in the most straight-up-and-down proscenium play, makes an active difference to the show. After all, theatre is, among other things, an exchange. It's not something that's done to you.
The Wild Duck, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, after Henrik Ibsen. Set by Ralph Myers, costumes by Tess Schofield, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, composition and sound design Stefan Gregory. With Johngaden, Anita Hegh, Ewen Leslie, Eloise Mignon, Anthony Phelan and Toby Schmitz. Merlyn Theatre, Belvoir and Malthouse Theatre, until March 17.
Summertime in the Garden of Eden, created by Ash Flanders & Declan Greene. Costumes styled by Anthony Cleave of Rose Chong's Costumiers. With Agent Cleave, Mummy Complex, Genevieve Guiffre, Peter Paltos and Erin Tasmania. Sisters Grimm. Closed.
And the Birds Fell from the Sky, written and directed by Simon Wilkinson and Silvia Mercuriali. Il Pixel Rosso at North Melbourne Arts House, until March 18.