Today the Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, is announcing the long-awaited review of the Australia Council. Early reports indicate that one of its major recommendations is the abolition of the boards that overlook dance, music, literature and so on in favour of a single board responsible for all artforms, to reflect contemporary fluidities of practice. Another recommendation, which is likely to get far less airplay, is that Australia Council funding is increased. It's that last one, however, that strikes me as most urgent; and never more than when I look at what's known in theatre as the "small to medium sector".
|Haiha Le, Christopher Brown and Naomi Rukavina in The Seizure. Photo: Lachlan Woods|
Due in part to government investment - in organisations, in arts training institutions, and in artists themselves - we have seen an explosion in independent theatre over the past decade. Artists have been encouraged to be skilled, inventive, imaginative, entrepeneurial, adventurous and smart. The point is that this has worked. My inbox, which is flooded with invitations, is just one symptom of what has happened in Melbourne. I am constantly turning down invitations to work that I know very well is significant, and not only because I am trying to live a saner life. And that is markedly more the case than when I began this blog in 2004.
All sorts of initiatives have, as intended, nurtured a remarkable diversity, depth and - crucially - quality, in our theatre culture, but our funding mechanisms can't reflect this vitality. Artists have done exactly what they have been asked to do, and the result has been astonishing. Expectations of independent theatre are high, and that's because there's been so much good work to create those expectations. But even attaining "excellence" isn't enough when there simply isn't enough of the arts dollar to go around. Funding has always been a lottery, and competitiveness isn't always a bad thing: but when only a small percentage of those who have earned support can get it, judging by even the most rigorous standards, you wonder how this present richness can possibly be sustained. I guess the short answer is that it can't be.
To turn to matters at hand: it is telling that The Hayloft Project's latest show, The Seizure, is unfunded. Since they first appeared on the scene with Spring Awakening in 2007, Hayloft have established themselves as one of the most significant companies-about-town. Since then, the founding artistic director Simon Stone has moved on to main stages in Sydney (Stone's latest show, Strange Interlude, opened this week at Belvoir St). But, as those who remember shows like Yuri Wells or The Nest will know (both were directed by current AD Anne-Louise Sarks), Hayloft has always been a collective of interesting minds rather than the product of a single vision.
One of those minds is the mercurial Benedict Hardie, writer and director of The Seizure. Hayloft has in part made its reputation with radical adaptations of the classics, from Chekhov's Three Sisters to Thyestes. The Seizure, a modernisation of Sophocles's play Philoctetes, is no exception. However, in this production the team has turned from the almost post-narrative heightened naturalism that characterised shows like Thyestes or The Wild Duck, and instead returns to the very basics of story-telling. The result is a clarity and elegance of performance that recalls nothing so much as the work of Peter Brook.
The story itself is a splinter from the ur-text of Western civilisation, Homer's Iliad. Philoctetes (Christopher Brown) is one of the captains who follows Menelaus to lay seige to Troy in order to take back Menelaus's wife, Helen. On the voyage there, he is bitten on the foot by a serpent and suffers a wound that not only won't heal, but which stinks so badly it demoralises the crew. It also causes him to suffer convulsions. Consequently Odysseus (Brian Lipson) suggests that he be abandoned on the isle of Lemnos. The play begins ten years later, when a prophecy claims that the war won't end without the Bow of Herakles, which belongs to Philoctetes. Odysseus and Achilles's son, Neoptolemus (Naomi Rukavina), return to Lemnos to persuade the betrayed Philoctetes to return to the war.
Zoe Rouse's set is defined by a white diorama, a sheet that unrolls from backstage like a sweep of paper. It's bare, aside from some inky feathery designs that are further drawn on by the cast: the performance is pretty much inscribed on the set, like a text, or perhaps like the figures on classical Greek vases. The costumes are similarly ahistorical: theatrical representations that hint both at now and classical Greek imagery.
The design's classic abstraction is reflected in Hardie's script: Sophocles's already spare text is cut back to the bone. The narrative and background is told directly to the audience by Odysseus ; the chorus is replaced by a Crow (Haiha Le). For the most part Hardie goes for a poetic purity of diction, but this is barbed with enough of contemporary colloquialism to prevent it becoming anodyne. The argument of the play - and here it's a moral argument about war, deception and betrayal - plays out its trauma starkly before us. It's a parable from the deep past that strikes uneasy resonance now, in a time when wars in foreign lands are a commonplace of policy.
The performances are utterly compelling: here is a cast with total authority over the stage, comfortable with the naked stylisation the production demands of them. The emotional timbre of the performances is heightened, or perhaps punctuated, by Alister Mew's brilliant sound design, which works almost subliminally to generate a powerful, almost hypnotic intensity. This is, by any measure, work of the first water. And it suggests a fertile new turn in the always fascinating evolution of Hayloft.
It's difficult to think of a greater contrast to Hayloft than the work of the German company Rimini Protokoll, who premiered here with their work 100% Melbourne. Although the artists themselves are dubious about the appellation, the three brains behind the company - Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel - are considered the leading producers of so-called "reality theatre". They made their reputation creating works of theatre that explore aspects of contemporary society, using non-professional performers, and often in non-theatrical spaces. I've read a lot about them, but this is the first time I've been able to experience their work.
Rimini Protokoll's work takes its inspiration from the economic relationships that dominate our understanding of society. One of their recent works is, tellingly, a theatricalisation of Karl Marx's Das Kapital. What transforms this into theatre is the eruption of unpredictable, perhaps unmeasurable, human experience into the structures that are usually abstracted under economies or statistics: it is a theatre that seeks to explore and perhaps undo social alienation. 100% Melbourne, for example, is a project that is presently traveling the world - there has been a 100% Berlin, a 100% Vienna and upcoming is 100% London - which creates a portrait of a city through the representation of statistics.
Statistics are usually thought of as dry and alienating, but Rimini Protokoll seek to remind us that they represent actual people, complex social creatures of flesh and blood. 100% Melbourne is a powerful reimagining of the tired trope that theatre should reflect its audience. Here our city is literally being shown to us, through a representative hundred people chosen, through a carefully filtered process, to represent 1 per cent each of our 4.1 million population.
Participants were selected from a chain that began with the first representative - the statistician, Anton Griffith, who worked out the demographic shape of the show - recommending someone he knew. The show begins with each participant introducing him or herself, and it rapidly becomes clear that this process immediately opens out the inner-city, middle class bias that self-selects the arts community: we see all sorts of people from all of Melbourne's suburbs, from babies to the elderly, from Dandenong to Werribee.
After that, the participants begin literally to perform various statistics on the stage: where they are from, their political allegiances, their beliefs, their genders, their ages. These questions are interspersed with random playfulness - "Do you like Vegemite?" - or the unexpectedly personal - "Have you cheated on your partner" - or the self reflective - "Did you lie today?" These are punctuated by short, personal monologues from some of the participants. As the show evolves, you begin to have a movingly complex and often surprising sense of where you live. It's both familiar and unfamiliar, surprising and unsurprising.
The idea and structure of the show is very simple. What makes it compelling is the meticulousness with which this theatre has been visualised and prepared: the performance clearly reflected months of work. Most of the action occurs on a plain round revolve, which is projected simultaneously as an overhead shot backstage. The visual design is constantly inventive, but always plain and clear.
I was totally unprepared for 100% Melbourne's cumulative emotional power: it was often comic, sometimes deeply moving, always interesting, and finally celebratory. The final questions were about death: for all our differences, what we all have in common is that we will die. By the end of the show, this is far from a banal observation: it's profoundly present, in the way that all these breathing bodies are present on stage, in our own presence as audience members. And, in the best and most subversive sense, it was deeply human.
The Seizure, written and directed by benedict Hardie, after Sophocles' Philoctetes. Dramaturg, Anne-Louise Sarks, set and costume by Zoe Rouse, lighting design by Lucy Birkinshaw, sound design by Alister Mew. With Christopher Brown, Haiha Le, Brian Lipson and Naomi Rukavina. Studio 246A Brunswick, until May 19.
100% Melbourne, by Rimini Protokoll. With 100 Melburnians and The Bombay Royale. Melbourne Town Hall, May 4-6. Closed.