Review: The Seizure, 100% Melbourne ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: The Seizure, 100% Melbourne

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.

100% Melbourne

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.


Cameron Woohead said...

"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."

While I agree our independent theatre scene is strong, I'd be careful of attributing entirely to the scene itself what seems to me as much a shift in your own perspective.

I count 18 independent productions from 2004 you reviewed on this blog. Given you started at the beginning of June, that's only 3 per month - hardly enough to give you any real sense of the diversity of the independent theatre scene at that time.

Of these reviews, the vast majority were restricted to La Mama, The Store Room and Theatreworks. Again, a very limited view.

It's to your great credit that you now attend a much more diverse array of performance, of course, but one can only get anything approaching a comprehensive view of what's happening on the independent scene by attending performances that one does not anticipate will be significant. Naturally, this is much easier for a critic to do if she's paid.

Regarding Hayloft's latest, Benedict Hardie's writing seems to have improved markedly, and I agree this is a show people should line up to see. However, I rather thought they threw away the ending, in terms of "the argument of the play". What did you think of it and why?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron: Fair comment, although whether I attend a show or not, I usually know if it's on. It's unarguable, all the same, that there's a much heavier (and increasing) demand on the funding pool, which nevertheless remains static, or even diminishing in real terms. Which is actually my point, and is an observation not drawn from reviewing.

Speaking as a critic who WAS paid, by both the Australian and the Bulletin, I'd say that inclination is far more of an incentive to see theatre than those demands: my duties for those publications were relatively minimal. Maybe two or three shows a month for the Australian, on average, with a few more around festival time. If I had only attended performances I was paid to write about, I would have seen hardly anything.

Agree also on problems of self-selection; I'm much more likely to go to shows I think I'll find interesting, and yes, I exploit that luxury. These days I'm turning down a lot that qualify as of real interest, many more than I used to, and not only because I'm busy in other ways. This blog, as I've said on many occasions, has never pretended to be comprehensive. It can't be. Nature of the beast, I'm afraid.

You think The Seizure is better written than Yuri Wells? I thought that was a gorgeous piece of writing, though very different from what was offered here. I liked the brutality of the ending, myself. You make an interesting point in your review about the cycle of humiliation and addiction, but how the appearance of Herakles would illuminate that in contemporary terms (by promising a cure) escapes me rather. I think leaving that out made the choice starker.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Ah yes, Yuri Wells ... liked it a lot, now I think about it. That was a while ago. I was comparing The Seizure to Hardie's most recent offering, Delectable Shelter, which I disliked and didn't think was up to much.

I'm not sure how you'd represent Herakles (lots of imaginative possibilities - through music, I should have thought in this production) ... but I think it's important that you do. The dramatic point is merely - without wanting to get all Alcoholics Anonymous about it - that Philoctetes needs something *more than himself* to escape. I don't think what we got represented that, and so what was embodied was, in effect, the opposite idea.

Regarding payment, it fortifies me to advocate for, attend and review productions from new artists of all stripes, despite the fact that I *know* much of the theatre they produce will make naive mistakes, and a significant fraction of it will be dire. I think that's a desperately important function of professional criticism. So much more talent would go undiscovered otherwise. Payment just helps me bite the bullet.

Alison Croggon said...

The "more than himself" here is the collective slaughter of war. Whether Philoctetes gives up his island of suffering because Odysseus misleads him or out of fraternal loyalty to Neoptolemus, the result is the razing of Troy. (And then, as the narrative noted so bleakly, "they all went home", which is another story...) For me, it highlighted the meaninglessness of the suffering: it has no meaning beyond itself, there are no gods or myths to glorify it.

Totally agree on the necessity of seeing and noting the range of new work. Having various critical voices is crucial: I wish there were more, but as you know, Cameron, it's a hard remit, and no critics are properly renumerated. I'm not sure we've ever had a tradition of full-time critics here, and it seems that age is over anyway. For me, it works better here if I'm not, for various reasons, but it does mean I have to earn a living elsewhere. One does what one can.

Cameron Woodhead said...

I don't mean to belittle your efforts; quite the opposite. Given general hostility to the critical enterprise in Australia, and the almost total lack of institutional support, Theatre Notes is remarkable.

I should clarify my point about the something *more than himself* needed to release Philoctetes from his "island of suffering". To my mind, the essence of the play is that every human effort to do so is in vain. Philoctetes will not go - not out of fraternal (?!) loyalty to Neoptolemus, nor as a result of Odysseus' deception, not to see his homeland once more, nor even to end the immense suffering of the Trojan War.

How do you cure a patient whose suffering is so much a part of who he is that he does not want to be cured? Medicine still has no good answers on this one, and indeed Sophocles' play is taught at some medical schools to illustrate this perverse and intractable difficulty.

The answer lies beyond the merely human, and Herakles' arrival (which reminds me of nothing so much as the late Shakespearian romances) represents whatever you want to call that numinous force.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Cameron. Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose my response comes from the feeling that there is no numinous force, aside from what we imagine: which is, admittedly, a powerful thing. I certainly don't read the story as a fable of redemption: something more troubled, I think.

Cameron Woodhead said...

I don't read it as a fable of redemption either, especially. Or not a comfortable one. The analogy with Shakespeare's romances seems relatively precise though, and to me dispensing with Herakles without a thoughtful replacement seems as wrong-headed as reworking The Winter's Tale without the scene where the statue of Hermione comes to life.

"Numinous force" sounds a bit wanky I admit, although the fact that Herakles is a demigod, a transfigured human, certainly allows an interpretation that doesn't rely simply on religious or even overtly spiritual thought. He could as easily be read, as you suggest, as the strength of imagination, fiction, poetry, myth, idea.

Anonymous said...

Could one be so bold to suggest that given the playwrights (Hardie's) obvious writing skills, and gig en the commitment to create a sterling production, and given the fact you are both (Cameron and Alison) identifying matters of which the play might concern itself (a fable has been mentioned)... why is it the trend to 'adapt', 'translate' or 'after' something? Why is it that the story or the plot or the narrative or whatever it is cannot be just taken from the myth, that underlying thing and a new play written? After all, those ancient greek things underly pretty much the entirety of human history, endeavour, etc.

Is this okay to suggest that Benedict Hardie (and all those other doing these 'after so and so' things these days) could just rip them off, change the character names, change the setting and away we go, brand new play?

In this instance, couldn't you have some dude called phil, in a hospital for the mental, and he's feeding some birds in the courtyard and then they need him for something so they come to get him, but he reckons he doesn't want to leave?

I haven't really read much ancient greek stuff, barely have time for a newspaper actually, but would this be an okay thing to suggest?

I suggest it, because I think the talents, skills and abilities of all concerned in this production are of an enormously high standard and I think it's a shame that they're relying on some old story (yes which may have resonance still) when they could easily and successfully render a new world of their own making.

Did something happen in this country when we all weren't looking? Was there some response to the Howard Years that we are now seeing all of these adaptations and afters? Is there something so culturally cringeworthy about making new Australian writing? New Australian Writing that does naturally of course come 'after' every myth and every other piece of text before it?

I just wonder. Just wonder is all.

Cameron Woodhead said...

I don't think engaging with what has gone before should be discouraged, Anon. As you say, it is bound to happen whether you do it overtly, i.e. 'after Sophocles' or make it up. If you are going to write something after Sophocles though, you'd better be prepared to be withstand the comparison. You could, after all, just stage his play.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible, Anon, just possible, that the Australian experience might be equally as enlightened, equally as examined by not renaming Philoctetes as Phil? Why must he be given an Anglophone name? Why must he be in a hospital and not on an island?

Is it really that difficult, on Sydney Rd, of all places, to imagine that a Mediterranean name might be an Australian name? That a Greek story might be a human story, thus an Australian story?

Was there some response to the Howard Years in yourself that means you feel, as Howard did, that you'd rather close the door and look inwards ... forgetting that we are part of something bigger and not a metaphorical island to which boats arrive bringing trouble?

Is that the Australian story you wish to tell?

anonymous the first said...

Okay, call him Abdullah then, or Nguyen or Vince or call him bloody anything you want. That's not the point I was trying to make.

I understand what you are saying, but geez Shakespeare tells human stories too right, and all them greek myths are telling human stories, but then so do Cirque du soleil and goddamn QI on ABC.

The question I was asking was why there seems to be so much adapting, translating, altering going on of late and why is it that our artists can't use that human story and create an experience more readily Australian in it's rendering?

I ask because there seems to be so much of this sort of highly skilled recreation going on and I wonder whether our artists who are doing such fine work are not compelled to create original new works for the theatre. Heck, the story is already there, I'm suggesting that the story be borrowed and the context be shifted.

I mean the writing was excellent, so if you take out all the greek myth stuff, and keep the structure (dudes been banished, they try and get him back to get him to help them do something, etc) then why not?

Is all I was asking.

And if you want to know. I feel, and can back up this feeling with some pretty stark proof that the Howard Years will prove to be a truly sickening episode in our country's history. That the direction that man and his government took us on demeaned us all, threatened us all and remains a curse upon us. If you really want to know, to the extent that we need to tell stories of us, back to us, and then to the world, then that need is especially high right now. It always has been, I just feel it is more urgent than ever.

PS: Unlike John Howard, I am proud of this country and brave with our truth, brave enough to own up to it all. Unlike him, who took the coat tails from an ogre, who used sport and racism to define us, who created slogans such as 'we will choose who comes here and the manner in which they come', who tagged lines including 'relaxed and comfortable' and 'black armband view of history.' He was afraid of being bold and being a nation alone and proud. The glibness of his deceit, still so present. Yes I loathe his memory, I rejoice at the removal of his presence from our lives. Though I despair at the direction he took us, and the leftovers this country hasn't even begun to truly gag on. But we will, and that is why I feel Australian stories are crucial. For if there was one thing he did, is he denied us a real voice.