Perth Festival: Beautiful Burnout, Driving Into WallsPerth Festival: Lucinda ChildsPerth Festival: The 14th TalePerth Festival: The Winter's TalePerth Festival: A Magic FlutePerth Festival: OráculosLast week in MelbourneQuick aside: The Duino ElegiesThe dark art of the slagFrom the archives: The Poetic of TheatreReview: Tribes"Sh*t self-righteous theatre bloggers say"Review: The Year of Magical Wanking ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Perth Festival: Beautiful Burnout, Driving Into Walls

When I emerged from Beautiful Burnout, the National Theatre of Scotland and Frantic Assembly’s examination of the art of boxing, I tweeted enthusiastically (in twitter language, which as you might know is its own special dialect) something like “awesome!” To my surprise, this created a minor avalanche of replies to @alisoncroggon, almost all of them variations of “Rlly? Shocked!!!!”

Ah, the instant responsiveness of the internet age: it’s twitchier than the skin of a thoroughbred racer. I am long used to being a minority opinion, even a minority of one, but this gave me unusual pause. I had just seen what I thought was a powerful and moving show – it certainly left me in tears - and my interlocutors, none of them fools, were telling me they found it boring, old-fashioned, unengaging and stale.

Beautiful Burnout: from left, Eddie Kay, Kevin Guthrie and Taqi Nazeer. Photo: Brett Boardman

I can’t presume to second-guess the other responders, all of whom saw this production in Sydney. Aside from differences in taste, I wonder how much this division of response has to do with the venue: in Perth Beautiful Burnout was staged in the ABC studios in East Perth, a huge unadorned space which allowed the set to function very like that of a real boxing ring.

I also wondered how much these responses have to do with our expectations of physical theatre. Australians do physical theatre exceptionally well: it’s a tradition that stretches back to the early days of Circus Oz and the Pram Factory, and given a particular fillip by the tours of Pina Bausch's dance theatre in the 1970s. In recent years this tradition has cross-pollinated with local dance culture to produce work of astounding quality and variousness. If you think of collaborations like Chunky Move’s Tense Dave, Nigel Jamieson’s Honour Bound, Splintergroup's Lawn or Kage's Headlock, to randomly name some notable examples, it’s clear that much of the innovative thinking in Australian theatre has focused on physical theatre.

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Perth Festival: Lucinda Childs

From the moment that Philip Glass's insistent, spiralling score erupts in the auditorium, this revival of Lucinda Child's 1979 work Dance is relentless. Each dance in this trilogy begins and ends abruptly, filling all available space and then stopping. It's a thing that is and then isn't, in a way that I haven't seen very often, and watching it feels a little like being possessed and then released.

Lucinda Childs Dance Company

Yet Dance is a far cry from the Bachannalian. Its cool, formal loveliness is the acme of Apollonian art: these are not erotic bodies, but avatars of pure form. Its classicism shows the influence of Merce Cunningham, but unlike Cunningham's work, the dance is precisely relational to the music: every movement seems to have its instrument, every note its gesture. Childs's choreography is the analogue of Glass's continuous variations, the swirling, ever recurrent arpeggios and bursts of voice that are always the same and always different.

Its distillation of form made me think of nothing so much as the paintings of Matisse: the movement is like an idealised folk dance stripped to its most essential gestures, and then sped up. The pleasure is in the precision, both in each individual dancer but also in their spatial relationships on stage, and in the increasing depth of the work's texture. As with Glass's music, its complexities spiral out of its constant subtle variations.

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Perth Festival: The 14th Tale

On this mercifully cool Perth day, Ms TN found herself in a fragile state. This is entirely the fault of the "festive" part of "arts festival". After last night's show I met some writerly friends at the Festival Gardens, the pleasantly democratic festival bar. The gardens are a wittily designed astro-turfed space strung with rows of lamps and stocked with reclaimed furniture. There's a looping video of circling rubber ducks where the cool kids dance, and right next to the lounge is the Main Stage, where the music acts are performed (last night it was Bonnie Prince Billy).

Inua Ellams in The 14th Tale

It's in these kinds of hubs that you feel the life of a festival gather and lift. A festival is much more than just a bunch of acts, and venues like the gardens provide a focus for the quickening it also represents. The night was balmy, the conversation delightful... And in the way of these things, one drink led to another and, well, here I am, facing my busiest two days in Perth, with a vague space where my brain used to be.*

This weekend's shows include the National Theatre of Scotland's Beautiful Burnout, Lucinda Childs's Dance, Raoul and Barking Geckos Driving Into Walls. I plan to write about them when I return home to Melbourne and am safely locked in my study. But before I sign off for an emergency dose of alka seltzer, let me briefly tell you about The 14th Tale, Nigerian poet Inua Ellams's irresistible one-man show. It was a last-minute booking for me, and I attended with no idea of what to expect.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Perth Festival: The Winter's Tale

UK Shakespearean company Propeller is an odd beast. Under the artistic direction of Edward Hall, its mission is to refresh Shakespeare using physical theatre. With this goes an attempt to recreate the rough-house theatre of Elizabethan times: without claiming that Propeller is a theatrical version of those early music groups that play baroque scores using authentic instruments of the time, the company calls on some familiar tropes of the Elizabethan theatre, reworking them for a contemporary audience.

From left: Gunnar Cauthery, Tony Bell and Richard Dempsey in The Winter's Tale. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Hall takes a populist, irreverent approach to the plays, importing quotes from British popular culture into their productions, just as the 16th century playhouses had acrobats and jugglers to entertain the groundlings. As in Shakespeare's day, Propeller is an all-male troupe. This might in fact be the most interesting aspect of their work, as it promisingly highlights the playfulness of gender in Shakespeare's texts. Even the set design is a take on the classic Elizabethan stage: it's a bare playing space with a balcony back stage over doors leading to the tiring room, the whole capped by representations of the heavens - a full moon in the first half, stars in the second.

For the Perth Festival, the company brought out Henry V and The Winter's Tale, which are playing in repertoire. I wonder in retrospect if I made a mistake only choosing to see the latter; it is certainly the lesser play. The evening passed painlessly enough, and there are certainly things to admire, but I was curiously unengaged for most of it. It felt as if I were witnessing all the appearance of theatre with not much of the substance.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Perth Festival: A Magic Flute

Mozart's The Magic Flute often seems to me like a quintessence of opera, equal parts nonsense and delight. It's an absurd fairytale, with all that form's arbitariness and illogic. It also includes some of Mozart's most sublime melodies and dazzlingly playful conceits.
The arcane Masonic symbolism that informs much of the story suggests a multitude of possible meanings, but the truth is that this opera has never made much sense to me. Perhaps I wished to resist the sense that is there to be made: The Magic Flute is above all else a celebration of masculine power subordinating the feminine to its proper secondary place.

Peter Brook's A Magic Flute. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

And yet the opera's nonsense in no way obscures its capacity to delight. It flowers out of the irresistible sensual power of the music, which bypasses the conscious mind and subjects us to the operatic ordeal of beautiful anguish.  Maybe beauty has its own wisdom and its own subversion. Or maybe it is, as has so often been argued, a seduction that obscures a darker intent.

Peter Brook's stripped down version, A Magic Flute, preserves both the nonsense and the joy. You'll go a long way before you see theatre this elegant. Here a lifetime's theatrical thought is distilled in a painstaking search for lucidity: the simplest, most pregnant gesture; the least obstrusive, most effective design elements; the most transparent performances. This is exquisite theatre-making; Brook and his collaborators Franck Krawczyk and Marie-Hélène Estienne have created a performance language that is as pure in its own way as Noh.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Perth Festival: Oráculos

NB: Serious spoiler warnings.

After I left Teatro de los Sentidos's Oráculos last night, I wandered back to my hotel room through the Perth streets feeling as if my skin were luminous, as if I moved through the luscious darkness like a soft, cool flame. It was the kind of night when the air is exhausted after a day of brutal heat and now wants only to touch you tenderly. And, as is often the way when I am away from home, my own exhaustion rose up out of me, up to the surface of my skin, but now it evaporated, along with all my anxieties, all my dreads and fears. For those moments, I was simply present. I couldn't tell whether I was wholly empty or wholly full: perhaps I was both at once, in that state in which plenitude and poverty meet in the possible.

The flour mill: Oráculos

I had been treated gently. I had been invited by many hands that beckoned out of the shadows, and I had been given a key and led to a door. The door opened me back to my present, out of the dark labyrinth of memory. I could have stayed there, in the labyrinth: it contained my childhood, but it was a childhood transfigured, made into a thing of wonder, leached of hurt. It is easy to remember the wounds, those defining scars that make us who we are. It is less easy to remember the small moments of joyous pleasure: standing on dead leaves in your bare feet, dry sand between your toes, the warm, live smell of yeast as you push the heel of your hand into bread dough, the dry liquidity of wheat as it runs through your fingers. They arrive in little shocks of sensual recognition as you move, your arms outstretched to guide you through a warm, blinding blackness, a soft labyrinth. Sometimes you stand, sometimes you stumble, sometimes you crawl. A light blooms and you turn and follow. Here, you are your own oracle.

The condition of entrance is that you must ask a question. I had a question, but it is personal.

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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.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Quick aside: The Duino Elegies

After an interesting week in Melbourne, about which more soon, Ms TN is off to the Perth Festival tomorrow. It may do me good to be locked in a hotel room for a week, with my scope for procrastination firmly curtailed. Meanwhile, I have uploaded all my translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's The Duino Elegies, as well as an essay about the poems that was published in the UK poetry magazine Agenda, at Lost Poems.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

The dark art of the slag

In today's Age, critic Cameron Woodhead buys into the recent controversy around Shit on Your Play. For once, a sensible, informed piece about theatre blogging in the mainstream press. As he points out:

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Simmons' writing is that her relentless formula, which runs something like - ''I couldn't give a toss about this show. It's the director's fault. Pretentious wanker'' - risks hijacking genuine aesthetic debate and confirming audience prejudice against all but tried and true theatre. It militates against the most difficult aspect of criticism, the role critics play in equipping audiences to appreciate challenging art and in expanding their taste for novel pleasures.

Indeed. Read the whole article here.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

From the archives: The Poetic of Theatre

This really is from the archives. I was looking for something else when I stumbled across this piece, which I have no recollection of writing. It was in a folder that dates from when I was Writer in Residence at Pembroke College in Cambridge, in 2000. It must have been written for a series of workshops I gave there at the time. I'm putting it up here in case it interests any of you. It pretty much sums up what I still think.

THEATRE is a profoundly poetic art.  In the days of classical Greek drama, playwrights were unknown: they were all poets, involved in poeisis, “making”, a word that, like opera, which means “work”, focuses the mind wonderfully on the less ethereal senses of the word.  Poetry has nothing to do with vacant gazing at the moon and a lot more to do with the business of perceiving the world around us and making of that perception – what? something new, something alive, something beautiful.

Beauty is a word very much out of fashion at the moment, except, I think, among physicists.  I believe that if poetry has a function, it is the perception of beauty.  The problem with the word beauty is that in art it has been associated with all sorts of banalities and exclusions, with idealisations and untruths.  Yet artists of every kind have always worked against these perceptions to make new perceptions of beauty, often a beauty which creates dissonance in the minds of those who consider beauty to adhere to certain recognisable conventions.  Beauty smashes these conventions open, although the paradox is that this dissonance all too quickly is neutered, absorbed back into social and aesthetic conventions. 

This is a dilemma every contemporary artist has to acknowledge and deal with, and has no easy solutions, if it has any solution at all.  Howard Barker examined this question directly in his bleak play Scenes from an Execution, in which the work of the rebellious artist is wholly appropriated by the state: the more radical the achievement of the artist, the more the cachet for the state in absorbing it.  He doesn’t leave a way out in this play, and it’s still a question I find myself arguing with.  The clue lies, I believe, in the individual perception of a work of art, and the faith one must have in the nature of this perception: but it requires a certain circumscription of ambition to accept that.  No work of art will change society, but it may prompt a question, set a thought going, in the mind of an individual, and that process, although totally unpredictable, can be profound.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Tribes

Ever since the Atreides clan established the dramatic template for dysfunctional relationships, the theatre has been a burning glass in which the psychoses of everyday life are focused to a white-hot lance. It's no mystery why Freud loved the Greeks. Nina Raine's noisy bohemian family in Tribes, now on at the MTC, is a worthy addition to the canon of patriarchal disaster.

From L: Brian Lipson (Christopher), Julia Grace (Ruth), David Paterson (Daniel) and Luke Watts (Billy) in Tribes. Photo: Jeff Busby

This family, dominated by their writer father Christopher (Brian Lipson), sets the decibel level at high aggression from the opening moment: their hobby is to be in each other's faces, tearing down each other's achievements. With one exception, they're all masters of the savagely witty putdown; for them, language is not so much a means of communication as a cudgel. They identify each other by their mutual scars, and their wars are the means by which all of them express their mutual dependence. So far, so familiarly neurotic.

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Monday, February 06, 2012

"Sh*t self-righteous theatre bloggers say"

Update: Jana Perkovic weighs in at Guerilla Semiotics. Well worth the read.

Update 2: The Guardian's Noises Off rounds up the brouhaha.

Update 3: And now Ben Eltham in Crikey.

Update 4: Ray Gill in the Age. Also, see the postscript below.

Update 5: Cameron Woodhead restores some balance in the Age.


The launch of an independent news organisation is a major event in Australia, where the fiercest debates about our media circle around the fact that we have the highest concentration of media ownership in the western world, with Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd owning 70 per cent of Australian newspaper circulation. And the interest in The Global Mail, which launched today, is surely intensified by the recent headlines about Gina Rinehart's aggressive bids for Fairfax, which raises the real fear that three major broadsheet newspapers - The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Financial Review - will be reduced to mouthpieces for the interests of the mining industry. The philanthropically funded Global Mail is an ambitious, nay, quixotic enterprise, and one we all wish well. Go read it, minions.

However, its first article on the arts - Now everyone is really a critic - caused a minor storm this morning among the theatregoers, bloggers, critics and journalists who hang around twitter. Stephen Crittenden, the arts, culture and religion correspondent, writes a feature tagged "Out, damned mainstream review! Bloggers are rising up to tell Sydney theatre lovers what they really think of the latest plays, with no punches pulled."

Well, one blogger, anyway: it's not really about theatre blogs in general, so much as a profile of Jane Simmons, head of drama at Sydney’s Anglican St Andrew’s Cathedral School, who runs a provocative blog (hitherto unknown to me) called Shit On Your Play. Until now, it has been anonymous, notable for its title, its hating on Benedict Andrews, and Simmons's mission statement: "No more pandering to the wank of theatre without it being called exactly what it is." 

No one is arguing that Simmons doesn't have every right to think and blog whatever she likes about theatre, in Sydney or anywhere else. What's baffling is why this blog - with some extra comments from Kevin Jackson and a nameless former print critic - has been uncritically chosen to represent the theatre blogging culture in Australia, in the introductory arts feature on a high profile new media site.

If the feature is supposed to be about theatre blogs as a whole, it's a woeful misrepresentation: blogging is much more interesting, diverse, porous (and long-lived) than is represented here. (For a thoughtful look at new media and theatre, check out Robert Reid's comments here, and then buy his Platform Paper, Hello World!, from Currency House). It seems like an enormous missed opportunity to explore the pros and cons, the challenges and problems, of current blogging and critical culture. Because it's not as if there aren't things to talk about or criticise.

Most depressingly of all, Simmons's profiling seems to be the occasion for a bit of arts-bashing in the finest traditions of Australian anti-intellectualism. For example, here's Simmons's take on all of German literature, as admiringly quoted by Crittenden: "German surrealist literature … well, perhaps all German literature actually, can often be categorised as reflecting a people who understand that everything turns to shit. This being the case, Gross und Klein fulfilled its objective.Take that, Goethe! And Botho Strauss, you bad "surrealist"!

It's a puzzling opener for a magazine-style outlet that claims to offer "perspective and information outside the clamour". Rather, it's an all-too-familiar approach to arts reporting: controversy-led, polarising, reductive and blandly conservative.

Ah well. Let's hope for better.

A postscript: I've resisted pointing out that Shit on Your Play had, up to the publication of the Global Mail article, (after this flash of notoriety, who knows what will happen?), gained as many hits - or maybe pageloads - in its entire life as TN averages in a month, because saying so lays me open to the kind of attacks that claim I wrote this because my nose has been put out of joint. But put it this way: the West End Whingers began to attract wider notice in the press because they were so popular. If SOYP were a similar popular phenomenon, the attention paid would not be puzzling at all, and there would be a different sort of argument.

* Thanks to Laura Parker for the header.

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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Review: The Year of Magical Wanking

The Midsumma Festival occurs at an awkward time of year for Ms TN. Through January, I am usually cowering in a bunker, resolutely ignoring the explosions as the year's first press releases burst overhead in showers of light and noise. This year was the same, only more so. But a letter trickled through my defences, despite everything I could do; and so last Sunday I found myself at Theatreworks, to see the final Melbourne show of Neil Watkins's The Year of Magical Wanking. This is a one-man monologue from Ireland's queer theatre company THISISPOPBABY which is presently touring Australia, and you can catch it in Sydney and Adelaide over the coming weeks. 

Neil Watkins. Picture: Peter Fingleton

It's a confessional monologue about gay shame written in rhyming verse, promoted as a journey towards healing. All these things are red lights, as far as I'm concerned; Bully, a show with almost exactly the same job description, caused me much anguish during the Adelaide Fringe a couple of years ago. But The Year of Magical Wanking is a different fish altogether: it's a stylish, searingly courageous work of theatre.

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