ArchiveThe Last PostReview: Pompeii, LAReview: Wild Surmise, I am the WindSo, that was a blastMelbourne Festival: Dance TerritoriesMelbourne Festival: Before Your Very Eyes, The House of DreamingMelbourne Festival: An Enemy of the PeopleMelbourne Festival: The Minotaur TrilogyMelbourne Festival: An Act of Now, Weather, DESH ~ theatre notes

Friday, December 14, 2012


Theatre Notes will remain here as an archive. The blog is fully searchable using the search box to the right, and there are browsable lists of all reviews since 2004 and of notable interviews and essays.

Update, February 2013: After receiving an offer I couldn't refuse, I am now Performance Critic At Large (they said it) for ABC Arts Online. I'll be writing monthly reviews/essays throughout the year, which is pretty much perfect and is also, frankly, mega-cool.

You can find my ABC Arts critical pieces here. And my poetry reviews and columns for Overland Journal are archived here.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Last Post

Dear Readers

As some of you will already know, I've decided to close down Theatre Notes. It's a decision that's been staring me in the face for a while now, and it's fair to say that I've been in furious denial for months. Having to finish up here makes me more sad than I can say. Making TN has been more rewarding than I ever imagined when I idly thought, back in 2004, that it might be an interesting idea to begin a theatre review blog. It's been my privilege and joy to chronicle the theatre I've seen over the past eight years, and to bear witness to what I am quite sure will be seen as one of the richest periods of Australia's theatre history.

The reason is simple: I can't sustain the work of serious theatre criticism and also be a writer, without regularly slamming into the walls of exhaustion that have bedevilled me this year (and not only this year). It's a lamentable fact that writing doesn't get easier: it gets harder, as each new work demands that you reach further. I suspect the same is true of reviewing. I have always hated repeating myself, and aside from the works I'm already writing, the various projects I have in mind demand and deserve my proper attention. Despite all my flailing attempts to avoid it, I find that I have to make a choice: and it has to be for my own work.

This hit me with particular force a month or so ago, when, wondering why I was (again) so deeply tired, I tallied up my wordcount for this year. In 2012 I have written, at a conservative estimate, around 180,000 words. Of those, about 120,000, or two-thirds, are words of criticism, the vast majority of it for TN. The rest are accounted for by a short novel I finished in June, another novel which I have now half completed, and two libretti. Numbers are crude and, in matters of creative output, often misleading: but staring at those figures (and also at the notebook in which I record my progress with my novels), I couldn't any more deny to myself that this blog interferes with my work.

I've attempted to battle TN down to something sane, but I can't: TN is the kind of blog it is because of the hours it takes to make it. To turn it into a TN-lite would defeat its purpose more thoroughly than actually ceasing to do it. In the past few weeks I have gone over this decision again and again, and I always reach the same conclusion. It's painful but it's also right. Some people have suggested that perhaps I could find a way for TN to make money. But it's never been about the money: I've been able to afford to do it because of the income I made from my books. The resources that are most scarce are time and creative energy.

A disbelieving colleague whom I told a couple of weeks ago said, Nah, you'll miss it too much. And I will. I really will. I'll miss the shows, I'll miss the challenge of thinking and writing about performance, I'll miss the whole damn thing. I've long thought the Melbourne theatre community, in its generosity and robust vitality, its argumentativeness and its curiosity, is something special. It's a huge and precious part of my life, and will no doubt continue to be so. However, if I'm part of it, I will be mostly be on the other side of the fence. I can't imagine that I'll cease criticism altogether, as that part of me continues restless; but it will be an art I pursue as a secondary practice. And, yes, I've learned through experience never to say never. But this is it for TN. Eight years is a nice, sacred number. If you turn it sideways, it means infinity: and it's true to say that this period of my life has been infinitely rich.

I want to thank the theatre companies, here and interstate, who have supported TN over the years, and here I especially want to thank Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong at the Malthouse Theatre, who in the early days of blogging were miles ahead of the rest of the world, in actively encouraging the debate that happened here and in other theatre blogs around Melbourne. Thanks too to the many institutions who supported TN over the years, especially the Perth and Melbourne Festivals. My heart broke when I had to refuse a visit to the next Perth Festival in February, and yes, that was when I understood that I was serious. I must thank my family for routinely standing me up at the theatre doors and for patiently and sweetly supporting their obsessive mother and wife; my colleagues, both bloggers and print critics, and the countless TN commenters for the many stimulating and fascinating arguments; and most of all, the hundreds of artists who have given me so much delight and inspiration over so many years. And lastly, I want to thank you, the reader. There have been a lot of you: the total for unique visits to TN now stands at 1,250,050. That works out as an average of about 17,000 visits (or 23,000 page loads) a month over the past two years. Not bad for a determinedly local, specialist blog. Your interest made it all possible.

Over the next few weeks I'll do some housekeeping, to make TN more useful as an archive and resource. Several people have suggested that I should put together a book of reviews and essays, and when I have caught my breath, I will think about doing so. (Publishers are welcome to flood me with offers.) In the meantime, dear friends, again thank you. I'll see you on the other side.

With my love


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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Pompeii, LA

Warning: here be spoilers

From medium to medium, the real is volatilized, becoming an allegory of death. But it is also, in a sense, reinforced through its own destruction. It becomes reality for its own sake, the fetishism of the lost object: no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of denial and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal.... 

Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard

America is burning. In Declan Greene's new play, Pompeii, LA, there is no reality except death. Everything that exists is simulation: LA is the imaginary city whose representation has become so much more real than the city itself that it has devoured its original referent. The City of Los Angeles evaporates in the toxic dream-machinery of Hollywood: all that remains are the volatilised hallucinations of corporate capital, in love with its own terrors, which it stages again and again on the dreaming screens of the American Empire. Earthquake, volcanic eruption, environmental desertification, murder, accident, psychic breakdown, economic disaster, the annihilation of meaning. What are you so afraid of?

David Harrison, in Pompeii, LA. Photo: Pia Johnson

Pompeii, LA is Greene's most ambitious work yet. Here are obsessions familiar from his earlier work - the apocalypse of the individual in Moth, the B-grade Hollywood camp of Little Mercy, the self-consuming fetishes of 21st century trash culture of A Black Joy. Green's discontinuous text is rendered through the spectacle of Matthew Lutton's direction to create a work of theatre that compellingly expresses, through a glass darkly, the present cultural moment. 

In the opening sequences, reality shifts from scene to scene, even from sentence to sentence, generating an increasing sense of vertigo as it becomes clear that there is no original "reality" from which these scenes depend, no ground on which this narrative can stand. The scenes are all "back stage", at first posing as the banal realities behind the fantasies of Hollywood: Judy Garland (Belinda McClory) in her dressing room with her make-up artist (Anna Samson); a cast rehearsing a scene from a disaster movie, in which one of the stars (Luke Ryan) storms out.

Yet these scenes quickly lose their moorings: the make-up artist tells us a story about returning home to her murdered boyfriend (is it real or a story from television?); an older actor who has "paid his dues" (Greg Stone) enacts an uneasily hilarious monologue about love with a horrific subtext of paedophilia, which ends with him grotesquely kissing a television. Actors change costumes in front of us to become other characters, reality retreats into an infinitely receding hall of mirrors. Each moment is serially revealed as fantasy, leaving the audience nowhere to rest.  The only thread linking these scenes is a constant iteration of dread: What are you so afraid of?

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review: Wild Surmise, I am the Wind

Last week I saw two adventures in theatrical poetry. Malthouse Theatre literally brought poetry into the theatre with Jane Montgomery Griffiths's and Marion Potts' theatricalisation of Dorothy Porter's poem-novel, Wild Surmise. Meanwhile, in the Collingwood Underground Carpark, young independent director Sapidah Kian gave us the Australian premiere of I Am The Wind, a recent work by one of the most poetic theatre writers alive, Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse.

Jane Montgomery Griffith in Wild Surmise. Photo: Pia Johnson

As a result, I've been brooding about theatrical poetic for days. I've been wondering about writing and form and poetry and plays and everything. So first, a stumbling attempt to describe what I mean when I talk about poetic in the theatre.

Theatre is an inherently poetic medium. An actor on a stage is not only herself, she is also like herself: she is herself and not herself, a breathing physical presence who is also translated into a metaphor. This doubleness, a simultaneous alienation and immediacy that operates in both the audience and the performer, is the tension that drives theatrical poetic. Shakespeare exploits this double knowledge when he has Edgar lead the blind Gloucester to the edge of an imaginary cliff in Lear, knowing his audience will be as moved by the exposed pretence - there is no cliff, only a bare stage - as much as by Gloucester's inward transformation.

In this famous scene, Shakespeare exposes the mechanics of theatrical imagination as brutally as any writer of the post-modern stage: he foregrounds the consciousness of a reality created entirely by language, designed to be enacted; and at the same time, through exposing the tricks of the stage itself, he questions the very provenance of that language. Likewise, Beckett, surely among the most stringent poets of the stage, never lost sight of theatre's metaphorical engine, the stark image of humanity that is an actor on a stage in front of an audience. Every line of Beckett's works as simultaneous critique and exposure of these theatrical and ontological realities. These realities are represented, the process through which art alienates a thing from itself so it becomes like itself, and at the same time are enacted in the present moment as an immediate reality. (HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something? CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!)

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

So, that was a blast

Despite Melbourne's uncertain spring, Ms TN had a most excellent adventure at the 2012 Melbourne Festival, Brett Sheehy's last before he takes up the reins as AD of the Melbourne Theatre Company. Sheehy opted to go out with a bang: general agreement dubbed this his best festival so far. An important part of this success was the Festival Hub by Princes Bridge, which provided the social heart an event like this needs: a multicoloured purpose-built three-storey structure with a cheap bar, food and entertainment, it was packed out every time I went.

If you check out the archives for October, you'll see why I enjoyed myself. Part of the festival experience is missing the show that everyone else declares The Thing, and there was a bit of that. But even so, I saw work that, that like The Rabble's Orlando, inspired passionate response, or addressed profound contemporary anxiety, like Schaubühne Berlin's An Enemy of the People, or prompted intense debate, such as with Chunky Move's An Act of Now. The program was various and exciting, reaching into Melbourne's independent performance scene: Dancehouse's fascinating minimalist season, Dance Territories and Arena Theatre's gorgeous fantasy house for children jostled against international works like Williams Forsythe's far from minimalist I Don't Believe in Outer Space, to create a sense of depth as well as breadth.

I wasn't so enamoured of the contemporary opera, The Minotaur Trilogy and After Life; but, as always, not everyone agreed with me. It's been a while since I've had such interesting and demanding discussions about performance, which is a tribute to the program: it generated an energy and engagement that I associate with the most successful festivals. Thanks to all of those who came along for the ride on TN, or who buttonholed me offline for arguments over a bevvie or three. It's been a blast.

For me, October was a holiday, albeit a rather exhausting one: I let everything else drop and was just a Crrritic for three weeks. I'm still a bit beat, truth be told (but in a good way). Now I'm back at my desk, in novel mode: the current novel is perhaps half written, and I would dearly love to finish it by the end of the year. That means at least another 40,000 words. So it's back to my (so far spectacularly unsuccessful) balancing act. Even so, I'll be aiming to post a review a week here, if the mind/body/spirit complex co-operates. Onward!

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Dance Territories

Melbourne Festival Diary #10

After three weeks of full-on performance, Dance Teritories was a refreshing return to the basics: a stage, a performer, an audience. Dance Territories presented four works over two double bills, curated from both local and international artists. Program 1 was Perrine Valli's Ma Cabane au Canada & Série and Sandra Parker's Transit. For my last night out for the festival, I saw Program 2, which consisted of Swiss artist Cindy Van Acker's Fractie and Australian dancer Matthew Day's Thousands. Rigorous, austere, riveting, these are performances which mercilessly expose the human body.

Cindy Van Acker's Fractie: Dance Territories

Introducing this program, Dancehouse artistic director Angela Conquet invokes the precept "less is more", quoting the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For all its modernist roots, it's clear that this is work that has a contemporary urgency, turning its back on the spectacle and consumerist excess that circumscribes so much of contemporary experience. This has a pragmatic aspect that reaches into the political: Matthew Day speaks of minimalism as a sustainable practice, as a reminder of how little one needs to make a performance. "Simplicity is not only an aesthetic value," says Conquet. "It is a moral perception."

Minimalist aesthetic creates work that, while it can't escape representation, is nevertheless a direct challenge to its assumptions. What happens when everything is stripped back? Sometimes, as with the work of Jérôme Bel or Samuel Beckett, an inexplicable joyousness. Sometimes, as with Lucinda Childs' and Philip Glass's Dance, an irresistible, even violent, possession by the present moment.  In the performances of Van Acker and Day, we're invited into a direct, unmediated contemplation of the human body, here exposed to physical stresses that at times seem unbearable, but which, through their intensity and focus, become utterly compelling.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Before Your Very Eyes, The House of Dreaming

Melbourne Festival Diary #9

We're heading towards the end of the festival, which closes on Saturday, and Ms TN is feeling, truth be told, rather ragged. On the one hand, devoting myself to a single activity rather than the several which usually occupy me is something of a holiday (although the copyedit for the US edition of Black Spring is sitting on my desk, looking reproachful and reminding me of other duties). On the other, this has been a consuming festival which has generated a lot of intense conversation, both offline over post-show drinks and kitchen tables, and online, as you will see if you look at the comments beneath An Enemy of the People and An Act of Now. This passionate engagement is the quality I most associate with a successful festival, and the 2012 Melbourne Festival has had it in spades.

Before Your Very Eyes: Gob Squad/CAMPO

My Regrets of This Week are missing Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die and Merlyn Quaife performing Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, of which I hear good things: but let's face it, you can't be everywhere. Or anywhere, sometimes. This week I dipped my toe into another strong strand of this year's festival: the presence of children. With Gob Squad and CAMPO's Before Your Very Eyes, seven young people created theatre for adults. In Arena Theatre's The House of Dreaming (as well as Polyglot's How High The Sky, which I didn't see) theatre was made by adults for children. That taking theatre for children seriously is crucial to the artform ought to go without saying; but it's been a point often lost in our mainstream programming, which has lagged seriously behind Europe in its focus on young people. This, as Age critic Cameron Woodhead observes, is now changing.

Back in 2008, when CAMPO were called Victoria, they brought a beautiful show to Melbourne, That Night Follows Day. Directed by Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells, this was the second part of a trilogy in which Victoria/CAMPO collaborated with different artists to create shows in which children performed for adults. Before Your Very Eyes is the third part, a collaboration this time with the German/English collective Gob Squad. Developed over three years, Before Your Very Eyes takes advantage of how rapidly children change as they get older: there's a radical developmental difference, for example, between seven and 10, or 14 and 17. The long development permitted the company to enact encounters between older and younger selves, which betrays the meticulous level of planning that underlies this show.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Melbourne Festival: An Enemy of the People

Melbourne Festival Diary #8

I woke the morning after seeing the Schaubühne Berlin's production of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People seething with a burning, undirected anger. I don't know what I had been dreaming: but I think this play named something accurately enough to blow those embers - of disillusion, impotence, political alienation, whatever - into a white heat. Some flame in me leapt up: yes, I thought, that's how it is. It's just like that.

Stefan Stern as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, Schaubühne Berlin

Is An Enemy of the People a revolutionary production? No: but it's about a certain kind of revolution that has always emerged from the intellectual bourgeoisie. Does it draw any conclusions, offer any program for the redress of the ills that the play analyses? No. Will it make its audiences rush to the barricades? I doubt it: it's only a play, after all, not a manifesto. But it is political in a very interesting way that profoundly implicates and exhilarates its audience. If political theatre is, as Brecht believed, about illuminating a situation so that it is possible to reflect fruitfully upon our place in it, then this is certainly political theatre.

The only Thomas Ostermeier production I've seen is his 2005 version of Hedda Gabler, which was performed at last year's Melbourne Festival. I found it disappointing, for several reasons: perhaps the major disappointment was its deliberate affectlessness, which amounted almost to cynicism. As I said at the time, "Ibsen's play becomes a scathing miniature, a portrait of an emotionally numbed, intellectually trivial bourgeoisie... Hedda and the gang are symbols merely, flattened-out representations of the conscious heartlessness of the middle classes, absorbed in their trivial pursuits as they turn their faces from the blood on the walls." What bothered me was that there was nothing at stake.

Here again Ostermeier is concerned with the middle classes - as Jana Perkovic observes, in her must-read response to the Berlin production, he is quintessentially a director of and for the middle classes. But this production cuts much deeper than easy caricacture. It revitalises naturalism, pulling on its original power to implicate its audience in self-recognition. In Hedda Gabler, this for me came close to avant garde David Williamson: in An Enemy of the People, the implication of the audience in the reality on stage was a whole lot more complex and direct. Ostermeier has a cast of exceptional actors, whose detailed performances generate a complex texture of argument: no character, not even the smooth, swift-talking politician, is simply reducible to symbolic moral significance. There is much to say about the production, which is beautifully realised in many ways: but here I want to concentrate on the ideas that animate it.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Melbourne Festival: The Minotaur Trilogy

Festival Diary #7

Chamber Made Opera's innovative series of Living Room Operas - small-scale opera performances commissioned as site-specific works and performed in private houses - has produced some of the more interesting work I've seen over the past few years. Works such as Daniel Schlusser's Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Any More and Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey's beautifully judged Dwelling Structure opened out and questioned domestic space in fascinating and sometimes disturbing ways; Another Lament, a collaboration with Rawcus, successfully made the difficult transition from domestic space to theatre when it transferred to the Malthouse earlier this year.

The Minotaur Trilogy: Chamber Made Opera

But relocating a site-specific performance is a tricky and delicate business which materially changes the nature of the work. The Minotaur Trilogy, which premiered as a tripartite work as part of the Melbourne Festival, demonstrates how problematic this can be. I saw the first part of David Young and Margaret Cameron's trilogy, Island, back in 2011, in the living room of a St Kilda Road apartment. Parts two and three, The Labyrinth and The Boats, are extensions of the original idea, here shown together for the first time.

The Minotaur Trilogy is in three parts of 49 minutes each, punctuated by 20 minute intervals, to make a work that lasts for three hours altogether. This makes it, among other things, a durational work: the audience is asked to spend time with the six performers, and further, to be aware of that time. Durational theatre can be deeply rewarding, but in this case for me it simply became an exercise in impatience. Repetition that plays off variations on minimal themes can pay off in two ways: it can deepen and enrich - perhaps the classic example of this is Bach's Goldberg Variations - or it can deaden and impoverish. Here, sadly, I just felt deadened.

The Melbourne Recital Centre's Salon, an intimate, wood-panelled performance space with near-perfect acoustics, is a very different proposition to a living room. It's a much larger space, for a start, and it mercilessly exposes everything: music, performance, design, choreography. In a living room, with the performers less than three feet away, the domestic context gave Part 1, Island, a playful, improvised quality that infused the performances with a certain humility: the found nature of the props and costumes - hats made from pencil cases and handbags, worn bits of driftwood - was foregrounded, and the sense of discovering ritual and myth within the ordinary and everyday was palpable. Performed in the round, with a new distance not only between the performers but between the performers and the audience, these qualities melted away, leaving in their wake an uncomfortable sense of archness.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Melbourne Festival: An Act of Now, Weather, DESH

Melbourne Festival Diary #6

Even off the plan, the strongest aspect of the 2012 Melbourne Festival was always the dance. It's a feeling borne out in the performances I've seen: William Forsythe's I Don't Believe in Outer Space was the first knockout, and these three works  - Chunky Move's An Act of Now, Akram Khan's DESH and Lucy Guerin Inc's Weather - further demonstrate the vitality, reach and power of contemporary dance.

An Act of Now, Chunky Move. Photo: Jeff Busby

I've been dithering for several days about how to write about them. Dance, and especially dance of this calibre, often has that effect: you can't hide behind words, even if words are present in the performance, because what matters is movement, gesture, living bodies in space, the performance itself. Critical response becomes, even more than usual, an impossible act of translation, an attempt to interpret the wordless body into written language. Maybe part of this stuttering is overload: when you think of the complexities - the sheer volumes of sensual and intellectual information, the emotional intensities - that attend a really interesting performance, it's ridiculous to think you can even begin to understand it in a few hours. Sometimes covering a festival feels like trying to process War & Peace five times a week. Which is to say, one is always face to face with one's own failure.

I'm no closer to a solution, perhaps because there isn't one: but reviews are beginning to bank up, whingeing is not to the purpose and I'd had better square my jaw, akimbo my elbows and get on with it. Either that, or stop going to festivals and begin a Slow Art movement. I don't know how you young people do it.


An Act of Now is Anouk van Dijk's first work as the new artistic director of Chunky Move, and she has certainly arrived with a flourish. I've only seen one other work of van Dijk's: an extraordinary collaboration with the contemporary German playwright Falk Richter, Trust, at the 2011 Perth Festival. At the time, I was struck by the strangely oneiric effect of her choreography: her rhythms and movement often seem counter-intuitive, gracefulness turning back on itself to create complex, often violent, forms of collapse and reformation. As I was watching Trust, something in the movement of the dancers seemed to creep deep into my subconscious and inhabit it, in unsettling ways that felt akin, if not quite the same as, an experience of lucid dreaming. The same thing happened in An Act of Now, a completely different kind of work, which made me think that it wasn't simply an accident of my subjectivity.

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