Briefs: Tina C, The Rake's Progress, ZombatlandThe Agony of Mike DaiseyThe Wild Duck: ReduxReview: The SeedReview: Summertime in the Garden of Eden, And the Birds Fell from the Sky, The Wild DuckHouse noticesPerth Festival: Raoul ~ theatre notes

Friday, March 23, 2012

Briefs: Tina C, The Rake's Progress, Zombatland

Once upon a time, O my best beloved, when the jungle was so primitive that not one animal had an iPhone, Ms Alison did one thing at a time, and that thing was mostly poems. But the gods of boredom, or the current economic imperative, or fatal curiosity, have meant that over the years Ms Alison has divided and multiplied in an amoebic fashion into all sorts of different Mss. This has all been great fun, and most deeply interesting, but it does result in periods of deeply uninteresting strife, when all the different Alisons start fighting among each other, and the Boss Alison can't get any of them to shut up and behave themselves.

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word: L-R, James Henry, Christopher Green as Tina C, Auriel Andrew

The only answer to such a situation is to start doing something else. (Obviously.) So, in a sudden clarifying blaze of financial panic, I began another novel. In her transcendent wisdom, Boss Alison also accepted an invitation from Overland Literary Journal to review poetry regularly for their blog. My first review, of UK poet Sean Bonney's collection Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud, was uploaded yesterday. Meanwhile, an offering from another Alison, an extract from the libretto for the opera Mayakovsky, is in the Autumn issue, which has just been published. You should all subscribe: not because I'm in it, but because of everything else that is.

Meanwhile, Ms TN, the Alison who attends to this blog, has found herself severely behind her own schedule. So she begs, as she emerges in a disheveled fashion from the recent scuffle holding a steak to her eye, that you excuse her brevity. She hopes she will not be forced too often to short notices, but what with one thing and all the others, that is how it is at present. Herewith is a brief record of the past fortnight's theatre attendances. I can't find a through line: these are all completely disparate experiences.

Last night I went to see Tina C: Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word at the Malthouse. Country star Tina C is the invention of British theatre maker Christopher Green, and she brings an excoriating experience of cultural imperialism to her hapless audiences. Just as the intrepid explorers "discovered" Australia and scrawled their own names over the map, ignoring the perfectly good names that had been used for thousands of years, Tina C offers us an Australia redrawn through the naive gaze of a celebrity outsider.

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Agony of Mike Daisey

A quick pointer to George Hunka's excellent roundup of the scandal unfolding around Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which journalistic and theatrical ideas of truthfulness have collided head on. The ensuing debate opens a can of worms about documentary theatre. My comment on Superfluities, which I'm pasting below:

It seems Daisey – unwittingly, I think, in that I don’t believe he did anything in bad faith (update: it is undeniable that Daisey lied, both to his audiences and to TAL about the nature of his work) – encouraged people to think of his work in the ways it was received. There’s no doubt that the facts he’s retailing are pretty much true, whether or not he personally witnessed them, as anyone who reads the accounts of Foxconn elsewhere would know; but putting his work in the context of TAL would only make the distinction between the ethics of journalism and theatre more confused. There’s a larger question underneath there, about the illegality of imagination in contemporary culture, and the passive acceptance of various kinds of authority, that I find disturbing. I haven’t seen Daisey’s shows, but it seems clear that he’s not making verbatim theatre, where one might be on surer ground. But he has created a persona who acts very much like an investigative journalist, and that brings him up front in conflict with the ethics and responsibilities of journalism. My first thought was the scandal around the fictionalisations of the Independent journalist Johann Hari, whose career was basically destroyed when it was discovered that he was taking imaginative liberties in his stories, placing himself at the centre of events or conversations where he was not present and, worse, which might not have happened. This is the same problem, but from a different practice in which fictionalising is part of the practice.

But I agree, what’s mainly disturbing is the complacent acceptance of the “authentic” in the audience. Brecht’s practice was about stimulating the performance of thought, both in his actors and in the audience. This is the reverse of that: it’s about different kinds of authority which anoint the transmission of information with veracity, and that veracity then driving action. I am mainly surprised, perhaps because I haven’t seen Daisey in action, that so many people who ought to know better took Daisey’s monologues as literal fact, which suggests a shocking naivety: it’s like those people who send wedding presents when characters get married in soap operas.

Just a note on the “willing suspension of disbelief”: Coleridge specifically was speaking of the fantastic, works like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which it was wholly clear to any reader that the story wasn’t “true” in any factual sense. “My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” In other words, the disbelief comes first, and then is suspended. This work, it seems to me, asked for belief without any sense of disbelief, and therefore contains no moment of suspension, or of movement to what Coleridge calls “poetic faith”: and that is clearly its problem.

You can read George's editorial, with handy links, here. Footnote: the real issue with This American Life is that Mike Daisey misrepresented the nature of his work to Ira Glass, and misled the program. The lie exists in that action, not necessarily in the work of theatre itself. The ethical problems around it do raise questions about documentary theatre, or theatre that presents itself as factually true.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

The Wild Duck: Redux

A quick pointer to Jana Perkovic's fascinating critique of The Wild Duck, and the conversation which it's prompting. Warning: long. But stimulating.

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Friday, March 09, 2012

Review: The Seed

I missed the opening night of The Seed. From other reviews I've read, this was probably a good thing: sometimes it strikes me that press night is probably the worst time to review anything. Instead, I attended a matinee a week or so after the opening, and saw a work that had been run-in in front of audiences and was probably closer to the director's intention. I walked out with one big, nagging question. What's wrong, I thought, with making things up?

Tony Martin, Sara Gleeson and Max Gillies in The Seed. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Seed is a fictionalised autobiographical play by Sydney actor/writer Kate Mulvany (as the program explains, it's based on her own family history, reinforced by interviews from Vietnam veterans). Before this production, directed by at the Fairfax Studio by Hayloft artistic director Anne-Louise Sarks in her MTC debut, it had two successful outings at Belvoir, in which Mulvany played the role that is presumably based on herself.

The play itself shows that Mulvany is a writer of considerable talent, with a good line in tough, sparky dialogue and an actor's understanding of the stage. But its framing and structure are clumsy: The Seed feels chained by its roots in biography and social issue. It's a text struggling to take imaginative flight, a play that wants to be a play but is bogged down somewhere in a no man's land between documentary and fiction. This is reinforced by the meta-fictional figure of Rose, who carries a tape recorder as part of her mission to note down her family history, presumably so she can write the play we are watching, and flicks it on whenever her father or grandfather threatens to launch into a speech.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Review: Summertime in the Garden of Eden, And the Birds Fell from the Sky, The Wild Duck

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.

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Saturday, March 03, 2012

House notices

Ms TN is heading up to Sydney tomorrow to participate in Belvoir St's upcoming Sunday Forum on Reviewing Theatre: In Print and Online. My fellow panelists, moderated by The Chaser's Chris Taylor, are Chris Hook (The Daily Telegraph), Elissa Blake (The Sun Herald), Jane Simmons (Shit on Your Play) and Darryn King (Time Out Sydney). Me, I'm hoping for more light than heat, but we'll see how events unfold. 3pm, Belvoir St, free but bookings essential.

I'll be taking a couple of days out in Sydney - yay - and then I'll be back in the saddle. Come Wednesday I'm starting a new novel, which means I'll be on the 2000-word-a-day treadmill for the next three months. (Deadline: June.) I'll still be regularly at the theatre - I can't seem to stop - but I have to be realistic about what I can see and write about: a review takes a lot of hours and a lot of brainspace. This in turn means that I'll be firmly saying no to many companies which otherwise I would like to see. Be patient with me, folks, and remember that this novel malarky is how I make my living.

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Perth Festival: Raoul

Under the curation of new artistic director Jonathan Holloway, the 2012 Perth Festival generated more energy than a windfarm in a tornado. My only real regret - and regret it I do - is that I missed out on Matthew Lutton's production of Richard Strauss's Elektra, of which the word of mouth was ecstatic. (You can read Cameron Woodhead's review here. As an aside on Lutton's direction, it's fair to say that I differed enormously in my response to his production of The Trial. Moreover, I recommend my ponderings on The Trial to new readers of this blog as a clear statement of my ideals as a critic). Elektra is rumoured to come here in 2014, so perhaps I haven't missed out entirely; but it's a long time to wait, and there's many a slip twixt cup and lip, etc. Cross your fingers, Melbourne.

James Thiérrée in Raoul.

What struck me generally about the theatre I saw was Holloway's inclination toward works with a clear, uncompromising aesthetic. Peter Brook's final show as artistic director of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, A Magic Flute, showed the maestro of the essential theatrical gesture at his most lucid. The Lucinda Childs Dance Company's revival of Childs's groundbreaking minimalist work, Dance, was equally an unwavering, incomparably realised exploration. These were among my highlights, although perhaps the show which will stay with me most was the Teatro de los Sentidos's extraordinary immersive experience, Oráculos. This was the major attraction for me before I went: I had heard of this show, which is one of the iconic works of immersive theatre, but never thought I would be able to experience it.

The last show I saw was the final Perth performance of James Thiérrée's Raoul, of which many words have already been written. This is going on to the Adelaide Festival, so be alerted: Thiérrée is surely one of the best clowns working today, quite the equal of Jacques Tati, whom some of his work irresistibly recalls. Aside from his astonishing physical abilities, which include acrobatics, aerial tricks and some of the funniest body work I've seen, this is glorious visual theatre. Raoul is a particularly French combination of puppetry, clowning, dance, circus and visual theatre, and it makes utterly beguiling theatre.

Thiérrée introduces us to a world in which dualities are animated and smashed: divisions - between human and animal, self and other, inside and outside - appear, waver and vanish. There are two Raouls, each seeking the other, achieved by some clever theatrical doubling.
In the course of events, such as they are, Raoul is visited by some benign giant puppets (a catfish, a jellyfish and a very peculiar elephant) and he quarrels with his own body, his reflection, his house, his other self. At last, when all his protections have been destroyed, we find him alone in the darkness, a joyous explorer of a new, mysterious world.

The production itself is impeccable. The entire set, a kind of post-apocalyptic shipwreck, is ingeniously animated as if it's an extension of Thiérrée's body. It's a collection of junk - patched, billowing sails, an old gramophone player, a worn velvet curtain on a rail, a square of threadbare carpet - which takes on its own, unpredictable life. The clowning is punctuated by a precise and hilarious sound design.

The echoes of Beckett are strong. Raoul himself is like one of Beckett's tramps, his doppelganger is very like the doubles in Beckett's Ohio Impromptu, and at one point he even hides in a dustbin, appearing from underneath the lid like Nagg from Endgame. Contingency is all, and nothing in this desolately beautiful world is what it seems. And it's a total crowd-pleaser: the afternoon I saw it, a delirium of delighted gurgles from a small child in the stalls rose above the rest of the audience, sparking more laughter. It's that kind of show.

Raoul, designed, directed and performed by James Thiérrée. La Compagnie du Hanneton/Junebug, Perth Festival. Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide Festival, March 1-6.

Disclaimer: Theatre Notes visited Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival. 

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