Review: National Interest, Keep Everything, Glory Box ~ theatre notes

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: National Interest, Keep Everything, Glory Box

First, an apology and an explanation. Your humble blogger is heroically attempting to get out less, but Melbourne, you make it hard. I seem to be presently measuring the worth of Melbourne performance by the quality and number of invitations I am forced to turn down. I feel a twinge every time I refuse an event that ticks my boxes of potential interest, and there have been a lot of twinges lately. Extrabloggish activities - talks and panels, literary reviewing and countless other sundries - are certainly gobbling much of my time. But the major distraction is making a living, which for me means novels.

Finucane & Smith's Glory Box

Looking back at the halfway mark of 2012, I realise this year has been pretty busy. My British publishers, Walker Books, have this month re-released my Pellinor quartet, in schmick new editions, with new translatory introductions (and a light edit). My Gothic novel Black Spring will be out in Australia at the end of this year with Walker Australia (early 2013 in the US and the UK). Last month I finished a new novel, Simbala's Book, another stand-alone speculative fiction work, which is now with my agent. And I am presently about a quarter of the way through a Pellinor prequel, which I haven't titled yet - titles are a constant bother for me - but which I hope will be finished to first draft status by September. Somewhere in between all the writing and editing, I also wrote a libretto for composer Gerardo DiriƩ, head of music studies at Queensland Conservatorium, for an opera project called Flood.

It adds up to a lot of words being pounded out on this old keyboard. I am very loath to stop seeing theatre, which gets me out of the house and which - most crucially - is not about my own work. Writers spend a lot of time in their own heads, and a large part of the value of theatre for me is that it gets me out of mine. A selfish motivation, I agree, but it probably explains why the blog is still alive after all these years. All the same, it's fair to say that at the moment I am feeling the pressure. I am considering shutting the blog down soon for a few weeks to enable me to get some serious pages under my belt, and to catch my breath.

To all those whose work I'm not getting to: don't imagine I'm not conscious of it. It's not you, it's me. I love that you want me to come to your shows, and I deeply appreciate your asking: I just wish there were more of me to go around. The fact remains that for all my resolutions, I seem to be seeing very little less than I did last year, or the year before. I'm simply refusing more invitations. There's something to consider in this, which is more broadly reflected in the "unfunded excellence" presently bedeviling funding bodies. I hope to find some time to discuss this properly, because I believe it's a chronic, and mostly hidden, problem in our performance culture. But later, people. Later.

Last weekend I saw three shows, which as much as my overflowing inbox prompted this divagation on my abject failure not to go to the theatre, despite refusing almost every invitation in sight. Each show was vastly different from the others in intent, tradition and form, each deserves more attention than I can give it here and, for vastly differing reasons, I recommend all of them.

L-R: Grant Cartwright, Julia Blake, James Bell and Stuart Haluzs in National Interest. Photo: Gary Marsh

Aidan Fennessy's National Interest at the Melbourne Theatre Company is a play about the Balibo Five, the Australian journalists murdered in East Timor in 1975 during the Indonesian invasion. This had a direct impact on Fennessy himself - Tony Stewart, the youngest journalist killed, was his cousin - and it's unsurprising that he should have written about it. Given my own strictures on the tyranny of authenticity in imaginative writing, it's not surprising either that I should have approached this play warily.

Fennessy gives us intelligent theatre that is a powerful political indictment and which, by addressing complexity in both its staging and writing, mostly escapes the earnestness that weighs down plays about "issues". It falls into three distinct acts, each labelled by a word projected on the stage floor. The first, FICTION, is a domestic scene which touches obliquely on the putative subject of the play. The second, FACT, is a theatricalised documentary collage, and the third, CONJECTURE, teases out some of the implications of the first and second acts, and attempts a dramatic resolution.  I think the play has some major dramaturgical flaws, but the elements that work are so very, very good they shine past its problems.

The murder of the Balibo Five and the subsequent cover up is only a small aspect of the invasion of East Timor, which resulted in the deaths of 160,000 people. The Indonesian invasion is a shameful episode of Australian history. It's some challenge to create theatre about this incident after Robert Connolly's powerful film Balibo, but Fennessy mostly succeeds. It's a glimpse into a more innocent age: it's sobering to reflect that the deliberate murder of journalists in war zones is now routine.

Christina Smith's design summons a middle class, suburban home: the remains of a meal are on a table forestage, and scrims disguised as walls show interior rooms - hallways and a bedroom. The home, with its insubstantial walls, becomes a stage for spectral memories. Fennessy's major interest is the the difficulties of reconciling personal and public memory: the murder of the Balibo Five is "too big" for those directly involved to feel anything but powerless.

National Interest opens with a monologue by June Stewart (Julia Blake), which at once touches on the unreliability of memory, and in particular its close relationship to fiction. The monologue, which introduces many of the complexities of the production, gives way to a dialogue with Jane Stewart (Michelle Fournasier), June's daughter. Fennessy's text attempts something very tricky, an apparently artless naturalistic scene that touches obliquely on deeper themes, and it's here the play is in most danger of sinking: as in the final act, the dialogue seldom reaches past the banality of its surface, and the energy drains from the stage. What's lacking in the first and last acts, more than anything, is emotional finesse.

Ghosts wander into June's solitude: her son Tony (James Bell), and his fellow journalists Grant Cartwright (Gary Cunningham) and Greg Shackleton (Stuart Halusz), and the performance segues into FACT. Here the performers enact a torrent of documentary images and texts: sequences from inquiries and inquests (performed by Polly Low), diplomatic cables, news reports (including Shackleton's famous broadcast on the eve of the invasion). These are interspersed artfully with short scenes that, perhaps, are not quite fact: conversations between the young journalists in Balibo, or with June.

The impact is cumulative, and devastating: the powerlessness of individuals caught in large events - whether it's those killed in East Timor or the families who grieve them - is shown graphically and feelingly, without stepping back from their wider political implications. This middle act contains some of the most sensitive and intelligent political theatre I've seen.

At the centre of the production is Julia Blake's performance as June - stubborn, prickly, sceptical, her memory crumbling, she is the frame through which the events are filtered. Blake provides the necessary unreliability that refuses (despite the attempted conciliation of the end of the play) the easy moral let-outs, and makes us perceive the implications, large and small, of this brutal story.

There's no disputing that Fennessy's production illuminates the strengths of his script, but you wish that it had equally dealt with its weaknesses. A major problem is the character of Jane, of whom we learn precisely nothing during the course of the play: she exists merely as a dramatic enabler for June, and her wider motives and desires remain a mystery. A sterner dramaturgy might have extended the opening monologue, dispensed with Jane altogether, and left the epilogue even more ambiguous, dispensing with the elements that diffuse its power. This is a good production, but in its best moments, it's much better than that.

L-R: Lauren Langlois, Benjamin Hancock and Alisdair Macindoe in Keep Everything.

I laughed almost all the way through Anthony Hamilton's Keep Everything at Chunky Move, but for me it had an almost apocalyptic subtext. Perhaps this was a hangover from its opening sequence. From total darkness, the stage is gradually illuminated to a growling, rumbling soundscape: a cloud of smoke, that looks irresistibly like a mushroom cloud, creeps over the space, lit by violent flashes. On the ground is partially revealed something that looks like a rubbish dump, or perhaps a landscape of rubble.

Gradually two figures coalesce out of the murk until the stage is utterly exposed in harsh white light. The rubbish dump looks innocuous now: two piles of what look like randomly shaped foam offcuts. The dancers are crouched on the ground, ape-like, their knuckles brushing the ground in closed observed mimicry of simian movement. Then we hear a voice, articulating a dialogue that the two dancers seem to perform, although their lips aren't moving. The voice sounds live, but you can't locate who is speaking: I had all but decided that it must be an exceptionally good recording, when one of the piles of offcuts moved, and the third dancer, until then wholly concealed, rolled out into sight.

Hamilton works his three exceptional dancers - Benjamin Hancock, Lauren Langlois and Alisdair Macindoe - through several sequences of inventive movement, before returning to his opening image: homo sapiens evolving, a la 2001, from apes. Speech is used very much as it is in contemporary poetry, its sonic and rhythmic qualities foregrounded so its meanings are thickened and made unstable.

There's some brilliant chorus work in which dancers recite, with extraordinary accuracy, long sequences of numbers, or repeat random phrases over and over again so they evolve (as it were, before our ears) into different phrases: irony becomes you're fired which becomes you're really cool. There are sequences springing from sexuality, domestic squabbles, or cerebral attempts to theorise the "human" that waver through sense and nonsense. The whole is like a series of forensic glimpses into human behaviour, observed with an eye that is equally attentive to the natural historian and the comedian.

The performance is framed by Benjamin Cisterne's lighting design, which literally shapes the stage, from amorphous, blindfolding darkness to merciless white nakedness. And Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes's sound design is an environment in itself. It makes a work of such acute obliquities that it cuts through to a different way of seeing.

Ursula Martinez's Hanky Panky. Photo: Prudence Upton

Lastly, but by no means leastly, I spent my Sunday evening with the good women of the Burlesque Hour: Glory Box at Fortyfive Downstairs. Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith have built a loyal audience over the years of presenting the Burlesque Hour, and so the long queue outside the venue should not have been a surprise: I can't think of a better way to spend a gloomy winter evening in Melbourne. Hilarious, witty, erotic, liberating and beautiful, they put the "adult" into adult entertainment. I have sometimes thought that anyone who claims - as is said with monotonous regularity in comment threads on the web - that feminists are humourless, sexless misandrists should be forced to watch a Finucane and Smith show. But they don't deserve to have so much fun.

The venue has been transformed into a cabaret club with a long catwalk, decorated with festoons of Chinese lanterns, and with candle-lit tables crammed into every available space. The only thing missing from the Weimar Republic millieu is Bertolt Brecht puffing cigars in a corner. The theme for Glory Box is, well, forbidden fruit, and it's introduced by Finucane, in a plastic bikini decorated with sequinned fig leaves, eating an apple in one of her more outrageous characterisations: the apple is forbidden to everyone else, except for those sitting close enough to be showered with pips. These women own their sexuality: they might bare everything, but they don't offer passive meat for the eye's entitled consumption. These are bodies that look back. And shout back.

As always, there are favourite acts from former shows, interspersed with new work, and a few guests. In the show I saw, the guests were international cabaret superstars Meow Meow and Ursula Martinez (she of the Hanky Panky strip tease); upcoming is sword swallower Miss Behave. Meow Meow is as bewitching as ever, the dominitrix who suddenly turns around and breaks your heart. Martinez performs Hanky Panky, still one of the best and funniest magic acts I've ever seen, and her new act is literally on fire.

The regular acts include Finucane's outrageous monologues (Get Wet for Art, which requires those seated around the stage to be swathed in plastic and armed in umbrellas) and Medusa, a dance of marine eroticism choregraphed by Yumi Umiumare. There's a work written by Christos Tsolkias performed in thrilling formal chorus by all the artistes. The extraordinary Maude Davey produces one of the heart stopping moments of the show when she appears, naked except for antlers and bodypaint, singing Portishead's Glory Box. She holds a cow's heart to her breast, lifting it out from her body so it leaves a bloody stain, creating a breathtaking image of wild female desire, vulnerable and powerful. And she performs a version of Patti Smith's Gloria that has to be experienced to be believed.

Harriet Ritchie and Holly Durant give us variations on their duo act, including a surprisingly moving robot dance, and stunning solo moments: I loved Durant's tribute to Donna Summer, a fantasy of rhinestones and veils that's like something Meyerhold might have directed in Paris in the 1920s (yes, I've seen pictures, he did). There's trapeze and hula hoop action from Anna Lumb. It's everything you expect from a Finucane and Smith show, rolled up into a glorious and breathless two hours.

All of which explains why I am finding it so difficult to stay home. Melbourne, you are a harsh mistress.

National Interest, written and directed by Aidan Fennessy. Design by Christina Smith, lighting by Trent Suidgeest, sond by Ben Collins. With James Bell, Julia Blake, Grant Cartwright, Michelle Fournasier, Stuart Halusz and Polly Low. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, until July 21.

Keep Everything, directed and choreographed by Antony Hamilton. Lighting by Benjamin Cisterne, sound by Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes. With Benjamin Hancock, Lauren Langlois and Alisdair Macindoe. Chunky Move, Chunky Move Studios, until June 23.

Glory Box, created and directed by Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith. Design by Barrie Michael Baxter and Issac Lumis, light by Marko Respondek, sound by Adam Hunt. With Moira Finucane, Maude Davey, Holly Durant, Anna Lumb, and Harriet Ritchie. Guests: Meow Meow and Ursula Martinez. Finucane & Smith, Fortyfive Downstairs, until July 1.


Theatre Virgin said...

Hi Alison,

Just wanted to say I loved your review of National Interest. Reading the news about the different types of writing commitments you have and how you juggle them is inspiring for me. I don't know how you fit it all in, but I'm grateful that you do, I couldn't imagine not reading your reviews on Theatre anymore - so keep them coming if you can!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TV - If I'm going to have dilemmas, they might as well be like this - of my own making, and the result of doing exactly what I want most to do! Thanks for your comment, and it's great to see you here. I wish I could return the compliment, but the software still rejects me!

I am enjoying your blog very much, by the way. It's really good to hear a fresh and thoughtful voice in the mix. I've let the blog roundups slip a bit this year, but it reminds me it's about time I did another.