The Conquest of the South PoleMIAF: The Beggar's Opera <i>and</i> The Return of UlyssesMIAF: Via DolorosaMIAF: Alladeen <i>and</i> Failing KansasFringe Festival ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Conquest of the South Pole

The Conquest of the South Pole by Manfred Karge, directed by Todd Macdonald, designed by Luke Pither. Performed by Paul Denny, Damien Donovan, Josh Hewitt, James Saunders, Anita Hegh, Julie Eckersley, Mark Hennessy. Instorage at The Store Room, until October 31.

Good theatre writing often has an air of indestructibility, as if it could survive almost anything. I recently saw a school production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children which traversed all the categories of naive acting, from sheer raw talent to squeaks of stage fright: Brecht survived the lot. It's even possible that in some ways the rough treatment made the language shine more brightly, like a stone in a polisher.

The Conquest of the South Pole is tough theatrical poetry at its best. From the moment it begins, the language picks you up by the scruff of the neck and drags you head-first into the play. This is because Manfred Karge is part of a Brechtian tradition of theatre which has not divorced itself, as has most English-language theatre, from the living traditions of poetry. Brecht is as great a poet as he is a playwright and, in Germany at least, his poetic legacy is as strong as his political influence.

Like his colleague Heiner Muller, Manfred Karge is a product of the Berliner Ensemble, the company Brecht and Helene Weigel began in 1949 and which has negotiated many changes, including the chaos of reunification. Karge began at the Berliner Ensemble as a young director in the 1970s, when Germany was still divided, and he still works there. He places himself squarely in the Brechtian tradition of political critique: it's a dialectic position perhaps best exemplified by Muller, who was at once Brecht's most loyal heir and fiercest critic.

The poetic in Karge's play is immediate, a lyrical attention to rhythm and sound and repetition which roots itself firmly in the vitality of vernacular language. This is much more than a decorative effect: as its first English translators, Tinch Minter and Anthony Vivis, said: "Much of the vocabulary in The Conquest of the South Pole would not appear in a standard German dictionary. ... Often, the characters' attempts to hold on to their individuality is expressed in wordplay, or through references beyond their immediate experience: myth, fairytale, historical event or quotation." Which is to say, the poetry itself is a means of resistance and recuperation against impersonal historical or economic forces.

The Conquest of the South Pole was written in 1986, three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and concerns itself with the soul-eroding problems of endemic unemployment. The play is about four young men in a small German town, who stave off the despair of joblessness by re-enacting Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole in an attic. It's a kind of kitchen sink epic; except by implication, there are no structural attacks on capitalism, and it is set wholly in a claustrophobic domestic sphere.

When Slupianek (Paul Denny) and his two mates Buscher (Damien Donovan) and Braukmann (James Saunders) come home to find their friend Seiffert (Josh Hewitt) about to hang himself, Slupianek proposes a "fairy tale" as an antidote to the rhythm of "pinball and schnapps" that is slowly killing them: Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole.

And thus begins a heroic journey, both Amundsen's (as read from a book) and that of the young men and their friends. The polar ice becomes a metaphor for their struggle against a pitiless system which leaves them, despite their desperate desire to work, both without a job, and carrying the blame for their own unemployment. Slupianek's appropriation of Amundsen's triumph over the South Pole is his means of recuperating his dignity.

This is not, however, merely a story of triumph and hope through imaginative resource, but a rather more complex fable of resistance and inevitable failure. Buscher, the realist to Slupianek's idealist, rebels against Slupianek's leadership, claiming that the real metaphor for their situation is Shackleton's disastrous expedition:

"It's not triumphs we need to act out, friends, not triumphs," he says. "We do failures better, they're our staple diet. Every trip to the job centre is a failure. Every phone call about a job ad is a failure. Opening so many doors you polish the knobs. Every refusal a failure...Human beings are just one big failure. And so the failure must go on and on for ever and ever, a hundred times, a thousand times, until we're all sick to death. It's only when you're up to your eyes in shit, desperately gasping for air, and the thinnest current of air is getting thinner and thinner, when you're really on your last legs, then the vomit might rise so high in your throat that you lash out mercilessly in all directions. Then, Slupianek, we wouldn't just be shooting a few dogs..."

As Buscher recognises, an imaginary triumph remains, after all, only imaginary. Once the South Pole is conquered, it's still the South Pole. These young men remain lost in the wastelands of the dole office or their dead-end jobs; whether employed or unemployed, they are still victims of their lowly status in the economic food chain in a blindly consumerist society. Braukmann's wife (Anita Hegh), speaking of her day at work in a fish and chip shop, observes: "People go on guzzling. They moan, but they keep on guzzling...They're chockful of misery, and choking as they guzzle...The smoke from the stall gets in my eyes, gets in my lungs, and even gets in my heart."

Under Todd Macdonald's clear and precise direction, the play rings loud and true. Luke Pither's design reverses the claustrophobic space of the Store Room, so the audience enters the theatre through a small room strewn with the detritus of depressive living - take away containers, a flickering television, empty bottles of beer - where the actors are lounging aimlessly. The stage itself is a stylised ice floe, which transforms into an attic or a kitchen as the play slides between different realities.

However, the emphasis of this production falls, rightly I think, on the writing and performances. Macdonald has cast well, and makes the most of it. Paul Denny plays the charismatic Slupianek with an increasing poignancy and despair, giving the performance of the night: but the text is well served by everyone in the production. Perhaps it's as true to say that the actors are well-served by the script; its linguistic demands give them, perversely, a chance to explore some emotional freedoms. It's a play rarely done here - to my knowledge, it was last done around 15 years ago at Belvoir Street - and it is well worth the revisiting. Karge's restless questions are as pertinent now, in our restructured days of casual, insecure employment, as they were in 1980s West Germany or Thatcher's Britain.

Picture: Paul Denny, Damien Donovan, Josh Hewitt and James Saunders in The Conquest of the South Pole

The Store Room

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Thursday, October 21, 2004

MIAF: The Beggar's Opera and The Return of Ulysses

Melbourne International Arts Festival: The Busker's Opera, directed by Robert Lepage. Music composed, arranged and performed by Frederike Bedard, Martin Belanger, Julie Fainer, Claire Gignac, Frederic Lebrasseur, Veronika Makdissi-Warren, Kevin McCoy, Steve Normandin, Marco Poulin and Jean Rene. Dramaturge Kevin McCoy. Ex Machina. The Return of Ulysses by Claudio Monteverdi, directed by William Kentridge, puppets by Adrian Kohler and Handspring Puppet Company, music performed by Ricercar Consort. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre.

There are times when the blindingly obvious clambers over the event horizon of my mind and gives a big friendly "hoy!" Such a moment occurred somewhere in the middle of The Busker's Opera, Robert Lepage's exuberant, sexy, vulgar take on John Gay's 18th century The Beggar's Opera. I thought, oh gosh (or expletives to that effect): opera's just a bunch of songs that tell a story.

The story, it must be confessed, doesn't make a lot of sense. But as John Gay himself wrote, "you must allow that in this kind of drama 'tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about". In The Busker's Opera, unlike the original, the over-wived Macheath is actually executed (by lethal injection), although he takes off his orange suit straight afterwards and comes and sings in the epilogue of how "the wretch of today may be happy tomorrow". And thus death shall have no dominion. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure why he was condemned to death in the first place, although it seemed to have something to do with his getting rather friendly with a soprano in a silver dress on top of a piano.

I hesitate to call The Busker's Opera an adaptation of Gay's piece. It is more a kind of merry pillage: Lepage appears to have simply filleted out the songs and then has given them to the cast and musicians, who set them in a bracingly various set of styles, ranging from rock to hiphop to 17th century baroque, and perform them with all the rough vitality of street performers. He uses almost no dialogue and none, that I could see, from The Beggar's Opera. But I do think it's entirely in the spirit of the original.

Gay's opera opens with a dialogue between a Beggar (who has written the opera) and a Player, who discuss the piece we are about to see. Similarly, Lepage opens with a conversation between a Busker, who for the purposes of the show has authored the piece, and an Agent. It then swings, like Gay, into a nonsensical story about various exotic lowlifes, including "a prison scene, which the ladies always reckon charmingly pathetic".

But there, more or less, the similarities end. Lepage himself claims the opera is a tilt against corporatisation, or in particular, the "Weill corporation", which cancelled his production of Brecht's Threepenny Opera (Brecht's own take on Gay). It's hard to see anything so grandiose as a critique of corporatisation in the sketchy narrative of sleaze in the music business which follows, but there are certainly a couple of fingers up to the Weill family.

Lepage seems to have decided to out-Brecht Brecht, but it is fair to say that he lacks Brecht's political perspicacity. Nevertheless, his direction possesses considerable wit and style, and attains the kind of simplicity which only comes with a great deal of thought and money. The stage is divided into two main areas: backstage, where are the musicians and instruments, and the forestage, where performers come forward to do their numbers and scenes. A huge flatscreen video is moved around the stage by some complicated mechanics. It provides all the lyrics and scene details, a la Brecht, occasional live footage and various complementary images.

What makes the two hours fly is the high-octane performances by a wonderful ensemble cast, which give the production both the roughness and skill it needs. It's like a rather beautiful rock concert, or a mutated, overblown cabaret. Lepage also has the absolute gift of Gay's tough lyrics, which somehow make the transition to contemporary rock or blues as if they absolutely belong there. Perhaps this makes perfect sense. Gay's opera, after all, contained no original music, for all the songs were set to popular airs of the period; and if they are sung here in another mode, it is still a mode all their own.

I had a fabulous time. So, judging by the cheers, did a lot of other people, although by the end I was surrounded by a sea of empty chairs. I was wearing my most delicious - in my fact, my only - perfume, so I really don't think I smelt that bad. It must have been the opera. There is a rather undergraduate statement on the program that warns hopefully: "this opera may offend everybody". Frankly, I was surprised that it offended anybody, but I assume that it must have.

I had a different kind of fabulous time at The Return of Ulysses. This is the kind of art which makes profound connections below the level of everyday consciousness. The effect is rather like being ambushed: it liberates feelings at some primeval strata of thought, and then, while you're innocently enjoying some exquisite music, they sneak up behind and pole-axe you with your own unsuspected emotion.

This is, to digress for a moment, an experience I always associate with beauty: a word which is abused to meaninglessness but which nevertheless means something to me. The idea of beauty often exercises poets, as it mercilessly exposes the inadequacy of words in attempting to communicate states of extreme subjectivity. Despite this difficulty, in my novella Navigatio I attempted to analyse what my experience of it is:

" is nothing, sang Rilke, but this terrifying beginning... The terror of beauty is that everything is beautiful. It is the chaotic self, the chaotic body, the chaotic world, fragmentary, diffuse, unassigned to meaning, against which form, an aesthetic armour, a self by which we understand our given selves, defends itself from the chaos within and without it. And yet art contains the terror of obliteration, which inhabits the centre of beauty. It admits the reality of death, of human finitude and failure, it admits that the world is not us and that we do not control it. This admission is love: the voluntary renunciation of self-tyranny, the ascension to the place of ordinary beauty, which redeems nothing."

The Return of Ulysses, which is directed by the extraordinary South African visual artist William Kentridge, seemed to me to be dealing very directly with this idea of beauty. It is a production which is multiple at every level; I would have liked to have seen it at least once more, in order to absorb more of its complexities. Yet one of its achievements is that what is really a very complicated event is given an air of illusory simplicity.

It is a co-production between the South African group Handspring Puppets, with whom Kentridge has had an on-going collaboration, and the Belgian ensemble Ricercar Consort. The story of Ulysses' return home to Ithaca and his reuniting with Penelope and Telemachus (after the slaughter of all his rivals) is told simply in Monteverdi's baroque opera, here cut to half its normal length by Philippe Pierlot and scored for a viola da gamba trio and plucked instruments such as the harp, theorbo and guitar. Pierlot's adaptation creates a work of great clarity and poignancy, performed to great emotional effect by an extremely accomplished cast of singers.

From the opera, the production builds up in two main layers: the puppets, which are manipulated by the singers as well as the animators, and Kentridge's own animated drawings, which are projected onto the back of the stage. Adrian Kohler's expressive puppets are almost life-size, and hand carved from wood. They are operated bunraku style, with the manipulators visible to the audience. I am always fascinated by how, in the hands of master puppeteers, this artifice isolates human gesture and endows it with feeling in ways that can't be achieved by actors. Anime masters like Miyazake can manage exactly the same thing: a schematically drawn cartoon of a child can be utterly convincing if its movement is meticulously accurate.

The puppets follow a simultaneous double narration: firstly a literal illustrating of the opera; and secondly a man, represented by a second, identical Ulysses, dying in his bed in hospital. These stories intertwine with the much more abstract narration which is unfolding on the screen backstage. It's hard to describe the impact of Kentridge's allusive, transformative animation, which is hand-drawn in charcoal using an austere palette of greys and browns. The images are incredibly various, and include sonar scans of the body, x-rays, video footage of water or heart operations, landscapes which transform from ancient Greece to bleak visions of contemporary South Africa, or lushly sensual flowers and vines. The images circle a constant refrain of death, decay and regeneration, metamorphising liquidly from one state to another with a dynamic which is disturbingly erotic.

The whole is brought together on a stage which is shaped like a lecture theatre, the musicians seated around in a half circle while the action flows before and behind them. It is lit by a rich play of Rembrandtian colours that highlight the nuances of the woods of the instruments and puppets. The opening scene, in which the gods discuss Ulysses' fate and mortal frailty, is in fact modelled on Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. The singers and manipulators gather around the prone body of the second Ulysses, and introduce the tenor of this production. It is in fact a memento mori, a theatrical version of those mediaeval images which urged people to remember that they, too, would die. In contemporary contexts, the capricious figures of the gods become the equally mysterious workings of the interior of the human body: an angiogram of a heart attack, for example, is the equivalent of Zeus' thunderbolts.

With such a subtle and multifarious work, it is hard to trace the motion of action and effect; it works cumulatively and patiently at levels which are often subconscious. At the end, the death of the hospitalised Ulysses, which occurred while the other puppet was enjoying a rapturous reunion with his long lost wife Penelope, was unexpectedly devastating. I found myself suddenly and embarassingly in tears. I suppose I was crying for myself. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote to a young girl grieving for the dead leaves of autumn, "It is the fate that man was born for. / It is Margaret you mourn for."

Melbourne International Arts Festival

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

MIAF: Via Dolorosa

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Via Dolorosa, written and performed by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry, Athenaeum Theatre.

I had a number of difficulties with David Hare's Via Dolorosa, but a principle problem was that I became bored. About half an hour before Sir David ended his whistle-stop tour of Israel and Palestine, I was obsessively longing for a coffee. With renewed alertness, I noted that he had reached his last interview; perhaps that was it. No, he had to get on the plane. And off the plane. And catch the train from Gatwick to Victoria. And then a Black Cab. A couple of flashback quotes... And then turn right, and right again... His dog, of course. The front door. A final, telling reflection...

Well, that coffee was pretty damn good by the time I got to it. I wondered if my coffee compulsion was a kind of Pavlovian response: I like caffeine with my Sunday newspaper. What I was listening to was the kind of thing that is published on weekends in quality English broadsheets (Via Dolorosa was, in fact, excerpted in The Guardian): erudite, intelligent, self aware, sceptical, leavened with an ironic if empathetic eye and a deprecating wit. Quintessentially English liberal bourgeois. Bourgeois that knows it's bourgeois, dammit; hence the deprecation.

Via Dolorosa recounts a visit to Israel that Hare made in 1997, when his play, Amy's View, was presented in Tel Aviv. His visit was also prompted by deeper reasons: as he says, "It is only now... that I realise, almost without noticing, that for some time my subject as a playwright has been faith. My subject is belief. And so it comes to seem appropriate - no, more than that, it comes to seem urgent - that the 50-year-old British playwright should finally visit the 50-year-old state."

What follows is a series of encounters with Palestinians and Israelis, mostly prominent people: religious Jewish settlers in Gaza; the respected head of the Palestinian Red Crescent, Haider Abdel Shafi; Menachem Begin's right wing son, Benni Begin; the Palestinian historian Albert Aghazerin; the theatre director George Ibrahim and poet Hussein Barghouti. These conversations are noted with painstaking even-handedness, and recounted with the deft lightness of a practised raconteur. And they are interesting in their own right, revealing some of the intractable, tangled contradictions that underly the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The sort of thing, as I said, which one might read with interest and attention in a broadsheet newspaper, and argue about afterwards.

A big problem with a play like this is that it dates quickly: I suspect it has lost a lot of punch by its inevitable assumption of the glaze of history. It was first performed in 1998, and the situation in the Middle East since then has grown immeasurably worse. What Hare describes seems, in comparison, almost a kind of idyll: this was when Ramallah had a "cheerful air", before it was bulldozed by the IDF.

Wisely, Hare does not attempt to act; he merely stands and speaks, assisted only by a couple of minimal lighting changes and one bizarrely kitsch moment when his visit to the Temple Mount summons a luminous gold model of the Mount to float in the dark space at the back of the stage. These things seem mere gestures towards theatre, a kind of dressing to assure us that this is, indeed, a play. I am not usually given to categorical assertions, but I was not convinced that it was a play at all.

I don't mean to limit what theatre can be to the spectacle, and personally I have a fatal attraction to the kind of show which features a spotlight, a performer and a harrowing script. Walking into the Athenaeum and seeing the naked stage bathed in a bluish light, a table with a glass of water set forestage, I thought I might be in for my sort of night. Instead, I came out with a feeling that I had just witnessed something that was tantamount to a kind of artistic death.

What David Hare presented was not anti-theatre: the Temple Mount moment exploded any sense of such a stern aesthetic. It was more a kind of un-theatre. I was more troubled by it than I expected, and not for any of the obvious reasons. It seems to me that Hare's insistence on "witness" and "reportage" is symptomatic of a wider contemporary crisis in art; ironically, given Hare's stated subject, of a loss of faith in art itself.

According to Hare, Via Dolorosa is primarily a vehicle for "enlightenment": "In fact, what I'm doing with Via Dolorosa is trying to pull theatre back to a fact-based theatre where the audience knows more when they leave than when they went in," he explains in an interview. This jostles uneasily with his disclaimer elsewhere that "theatre doesn’t work like journalism, and the suggestion that it is a form of journalism is untrue". It is hard to see that Via Dolorosa is anything but journalism, although that need not be a sneer - journalism, after all, includes writers like Martha Gellhorn and Ryszard Kapuschinski. But Hare's stated intention does beg the question: if I want some understanding of the Middle East, why am I not better off reading the reports of Robert Fisk or Juan Cole's analysis? Why would I want to go to a play?

Hare has not always been averse to making things up, although he comes out of the left wing British theatre of the 1970s and he was one of the pioneers of documentary theatre in his work with Joint Stock. His brand of politically committed work, rooted in actuality, has continued to be massively influential. Documentary theatre is currently the dominant vehicle for political dissent in British theatre; Hare's most recent play about the Iraq war, Stuff Happens, is now on in London.

Like his contemporaries Howard Brenton and Trevor Griffiths, Hare stands squarely in a broad tradition of British left wing activism which goes all the way back to before the Fabians. It's a tradition often fatally marked by the earnest belief that, with enough work, enough commitment, enough care, enough education, enough Reason, Progress will prevail. "But what is the way forward?" Hare kept asking his interviewees, with increasing plaintiveness. With the benefit of hindsight - this play was first performed in 1998 - it is clear that there has been no way forward, just an intractable locking in of conflict and bloodshed between two sides which are themselves riven by deep divisions. Hare's own Via Dolorosa is, of course, his discovery of the inadequacy of secular reason in the face of the apocalyptically irrational.

One of the ironies of Via Dolorosa is that, for all Hare's stated objectives of presenting "facts" and removing his mediating presence as author to permit his interviewees to speak for themselves, it is, in the end, a work about David Hare. But it is a Hare so conscious of his desire to be even-handed and of his status as an outsider that he speaks in chains, leaping in alarm when he dares to entertain a thought. I agree with Hare on the unimportance of opinion, but the aesthetic and morality of any artwork is much more than mere opinion. One wonders, tangentially, at what point fair-mindedness becomes moral vacillation.

Hare is scrupulously factual, working from his belief that his job is primarily to inform his audience of things they should know, in order to form a rounded moral view of the world. "Give us the facts, just the facts," he says, of a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Via Dolorosa, remarking that the art works there strike falsely in relation to the actual evidence of atrocity. It is a watered down version of Adorno's famous statement that, after Auschwitz, it is no longer possible to write lyric poetry. But unlike Adorno, who, with Hare, is speaking of the impossibility of representation in the face of atrocity, Hare's argument is full of sly libels against imagination itself.

In an interview on Via Dolorosa, Hare says: "Well, let's say it's the Jewish tradition that knowledge is as important as imagination. And so in some way I think its true that Jews traditionally distrust fiction. In other words, why make up stories when the world is already incredibly various and interesting?" Aside from the leap Hare makes from knowledge being as important as imagination to its being markedly less important, his sweeping statement about the Jewish distrust of fiction seems a little tough on writers like Franz Kafka, Saul Bellow, Andre Schwartz-Bart or Elias Canetti.

Of course, any artist can't but be aware of the essential inadequacy of art in the face of intractable experience. The political place and force of culture was one of the principle questions of the 20th century, and has perplexed much sharper minds than mine. But given art's inability to justify itself, I still wonder what point there is in making works that eschew imagination, why it is necessary to deny the complex truths that only art can communicate, as if this is the only way to restore to it an authenticity and authority to speak. It seems to me that any authenticity it gains is very often grounded in spurious perceptions, as hoaxes such as the recent Norma Khouri scandal have shown. And such supposed authenticity comes at a high cost. To deny human imagination seems a shackling of the one freedom that art can authentically offer, a capitulation in advance to the circumscribing forces of industrialised culture.

Which brings me back to my initial boredom. This is the kind of theatre people tend to like because it's recognisable and predictable: it's written in a form that is instantly familiar and challenges nothing about our processes of perception and understanding. But formal imagination is a huge part of the politics of representation, an issue Hare discusses to some extent in his work, and limiting theatre to the ethics and aesthetics of journalism is a profoundly political - and, I would say, ultimately conservative - decision. My reactions to Via Dolorosa made me think of another one-man show I saw a couple of weeks ago by a writer who was unashamedly a journalist - The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus. Although it is almost a century older than Hare's play, it has the political bite, immediate relevance and experiential profundity that only imagination can confer. As Ezra Pound said of poetry, art is news that stays news.

Via Dolorosa
National Theatre: Platform Papers
To Each His Via Dolorosa, Al-Ahram
PBS interview
Arnold Wesker's open letter to David Hare

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Monday, October 11, 2004

MIAF: Alladeen and Failing Kansas

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Alladeen, The Builders Association and motiroti. Directed by Marianne Weems, conceived by Keith Khan, Marianne Weems and Ali Zaidi; performed by Rizwan Mirza, Heaven Phillips, Tanya Selvaratnam, Jamine Simhalan, Jeff Webster. Failing Kansas, conceived, performed and directed by Mikel Rouse, film footage by Cliff Baldwin.

These days most of us move between real and virtual spaces without thinking about it much. We have become used to the intimate spectacle of atrocities which are beamed instantly into our living rooms, the multiple identities we assign ourselves in phonespeak and cyberspace, the hyper-saturation of media images and the seductions of celebrity culture. Consciously or not, we swim through a flux of unsatisfied desire that lives in the eye rather than the tangibility of smell and touch; a desire which, if it is not precisely disembodied, is fragmented and displaced, and so becomes both more potent and more dangerous.

Such ways of being can create a desolating dislocation, and Alladeen, a spectacular multimedia work which explores the decentralised world of call centres, leaves a disturbing aftertaste. While it forthrightly explores the technological mechanisms of contemporary colonialism, it is by no means a technophobic show; Alladeen is at once celebratory and admonitory of our brave new wired-up world. But one of its most telling images is a woman dancing alone in a karaoke nightclub, talking to her absent lover on her mobile phone.

A collaboration between the New York-based The Builder's Association and the London company motiroti, Alladeen is itself a phenomenon of globalisation. The theatre piece is only one part of a triptych which includes a website ( and a music video. On the stage, the action moves between London, New York and Bangalore, between projected animations, documentary footage, live film and actors. Like all successful multimedia, it reveals and exploits the gap between the real power of theatre - the fleshly presence of actors and audience - and the potent, decontextualised image.

The informing metaphor is the story of Alladin, the poor boy who, through no fault of moral goodness, finds a genie and is transformed into a prince. It becomes a means of expressing the unsatisfied desire which drives consumer culture, but it also has more profound implications. Alladin, one of the most popular oriental fairytales, first appears in early translations of A Thousand and One Nights, but was not one of the original stories: it was inserted by a creative 17th century Frenchman. Alladin is one of the many narratives by which the Orient was culturally imagined and colonised by the West, a process Edward Said traced in his remarkable and necessary classic Orientalism.

Like Said, Alladeen does not take a monumental "clash of civilisations" approach to the question of Western colonisation, but instead is alert to the nuances of human beings as social animals, how cultural influences do not simply travel a vector of brute force, but are multiple and cross-pollinating. The documentary footage of call centre workers in Bangalore, for example, does not reveal a downtrodden third world population, but something rather more complex: a number of ambitious and energetic young people who are aware of the comedy inherent in their work, where they must take on a false persona and learn how to speak American. (They are given lectures on such cultural icons as Friends, and probably know more facts about Illinois than most people who live there).

None of this makes the ruthless eradication of any trace of "mother tongue" from Indian call centre workers less disturbing; success equates to becoming a kind of cultural ghost. And this disembodiment of identity is not confined to call centre workers: it is an aspect of the world we all inhabit now. Alladeen exposes the essential isolation of the age of communication, where human intimacy fractures on the bright, illusory surfaces of projected desires.

Failing Kansas is at the other end of the multimedia experience: rather than a stage saturated with so many images that it is impossible to know where to direct your eye, Mikel Rouse gives us a man, a backing tape and a screen of black and white images.

Failing Kansas is drawn from Truman Capote's masterly non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, a book generally credited with being an early harbinger of the New Journalism. Capote spent six years researching the apparently reasonless murder of the Clutter family, a wealthy Kansas wheat farmer, his wife and their two children, each killed by a shotgun blast to the forehead by two drifters, Perry Smith and Dick Hicock. The murderers stole forty dollars, a radio and a pair of binoculars.

The Clutter family, law-abiding church goers, could have stepped straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. No one, as local residents told police, didn't like the Clutters. Their murderers couldn't have come from a more different America. Hicock's family was stable but poor, and he had a background of petty crime. Perry's was broken and violent, and two of his siblings had committed suicide. Perry, more sensitive and more guilt-ridden than Hickock, was the focus of Capote's interest - he recognised that, but for the grace of God, it could have been him. At the time, his empathetic portrayal of Perry caused a scandal.

Mikel Rouse is not concerned to retell a story which anyone can go and read for themselves. Instead, he uses the book as an occasion for an extraordinary effusion of lyrical riffs which spring from a variety of sources: phrases in the book; songs by Perry himself; contemporary hymns; and fragments of poetry by Robert Service and Thomas Gray. He uses a technique he calls "counterpoetry", "the use of multiple pitched voices in strict metric counterpoint", to create live and pre-recorded layers of words and music. Dressed in a grey suit, standing in front of the mic, he delivers the songs in an obsessive sprachgesung, with a strange and oddly compelling physicality which owes more to rock than drama.

The staging is starkly simple: at the end of each aria, if I can call it that, the stage blacks out, Rouse moves to another microphone on the stage, the lights come up on him, and he begins again. The lighting is subtle and evocative, a palette of soft yellows and whites. Behind him, a grainy black and white film shows images of rural US towns, objects, photographs, news headlines, neon lights, beauty shows, cars and roads, people talking silently to the camera: a moving collage as repetitive and hypnotic in its own way as the endlessly iterated words.

The more words and phrases are repeated, the more detached they become from ordinary usages; it's a work in which meaning is located in texture, rhythm, nuance and context, rather than in the semantics of words. It is in this way a profoundly poetic experience. Rouse creates a claustrophobic, paranoid mindspace in which thoughts echo and jostle and repeat, as if we were witness to a vocalising of the junk in someone's brain. Failing Kansas is at once a lament, a meditation on hope and redemption and a portrayal of a savagely forlorn America. And it's absolutely riveting.
Melbourne International Arts Festival

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Monday, October 04, 2004

Fringe Festival

Fringe Festival: Into The Fire: Wallpaper by Lucy Stewart & Interrogation by Ben Noble, St Martins Youth Theatre; Spatial Theory, created and performed by Bill Shannon, music by DJ Richie Tempo, lighting David Szlasa, North Melbourne Town Hall.

First, a mea culpa: a lethal combination of the school holidays and severe laryngitis meant that my fingers slid nervelessly off the pulse of Melbourne theatre, right in the middle of one of its busiest times. And so, belatedly coming to, I realise I've missed out on a few things I would have dearly liked to see: the Theatre of Decay's latest version of intimate theatre, viewed from the back seat of a car, for example, or a production of a play by France's most eminent playwright, Michel Vinaver. And you can't exactly rent out the dvd if you miss the show: the beauty and terror of theatre is, alas, its ruthless temporality.

However, I collected myself in time to catch a couple of interesting shows. At St Martins Youth Theatre I saw Into The Fire, a double bill of two young Melbourne playwrights, Lucy Stewart and Ben Noble. They are part of a new generation of Melbourne theatre artists which looks restlessly beyond parochial influences, and these two demonstrate that contemporary British writing is beginning to make itself felt in new writing here.

Although very different from each other, both these works eschew conventional ideas of character and narrative in favour of splintered, disconnected realities. Stewart's play Wallpaper is a theatrical exteriorisation of disturbed subjectivities, with sharp, unheralded shifts between differing levels of actual, imagined, remembered or deranged states of being. It's a technique Sarah Kane exploited spectacularly, but Stewart uses it here to different ends.

At the opening of the play the central character, Nigel (Chris Jefferson), is celebrating his twenty third birthday. He is undergoing a kind of early-life crisis, with his marriage falling apart and his work in an introduction agency echoing hollowly the lack of love in his personal life. As his sense of self disintegrates into a chorus of mocking voices, he begins a relationship with a girl (Miriam Glaser) who emerges from the grey walls of his house. The people around him - his wife Kiki (Naomi Francis), her sister Jeannie (Hope Hayward Rowling) and his employer Malcolm (Kristian Sartori) increasingly become less real to him than the strange young girl who sinisterly demands his love.

This kind of writing is much more challenging than conventional plot-driven drama, and Stewart doesn't always manage to achieve her ambition. The dramatic dynamic falls on emotional contrast and metaphoric connections rather than narrative suspense, and such complexities require a concomitant clarity in the writing. While it was never difficult to work out what was going on, I felt that Stewart often flinched from the more difficult implications of what she was writing about, relying on a fey lyricism or absurd humour to get her through. This feeling was reinforced by James Adler's rather fuzzy and fussy direction. The play's virtues are its freshness and ambition, and I look forward to Stewart's future work, especially if she finds a drivenness and focus her work presently lacks.

Ben Noble's Interrogation is a much darker play, directed with a sure and spare hand by Julie Waddington to make compelling theatre. Noble is clearly a startling and intelligent talent: he is the only actor on stage, and has given himself the material for a virtusoso performance. The play also features filmed scenes acted by Alison Boyce, Shaun Brown, Sylvie de Crespigny, Daniel Frederksen, Fiona MacLeod and Peter Roberts. The videos are naturalistic grabs of story or conversation, captured voyeuristically (we are always aware of the camera), which are interspersed with quotes from the Bible and an obscure text called The Encridion, which I can find nothing about and so suspect may be fictional. The monologues performed by Noble are all characters whom we also see on the screen, which creates a number of gaps between the differing representations. These gaps grow perversely more dislocating as the stories become clearer.

The links between the narratives are the murders of three young women. The masculinist equation of eroticism and death is well-trodden ground, but Noble makes an interesting fist of it here, only stepping falsely when he makes the dead woman speak of her longing to be watched or even stalked. Even if it is a projection of the imaginings of the men, this is a moment which comes uncomfortably close to the notion that women desire the violence to which they are subjected.

Interrogation is vaguely reminiscent of Martin Crimp's tour de force Attempts on Her Life, but instead of a named woman whose identity and story shifts and fractures from scene to scene, there are three nameless victims and three potential murderers. The final opening out of the play into the literal realities of the writer and the audience/reader did seem, perhaps, a little pat: given the power of Noble's performance and the intelligence of the writing, I think I wanted something that more disturbingly revealed that a fiction is also a reality.

I also saw Spatial Theory, New York street performer Bill Shannon's attempt on theatre made, he says with contagious insouciance, because you make more money in theatre than in the street (a fact that, frankly, I find hard to believe).

Bill Shannon is a beguiling entertainer, his improvisatory repartee honed in the harsh market of the street where a moment's boredom means your audience will wander off, and he is dynamically supported by the amazing sound work of deejay Richie Tempo, a mixture of jazz, hiphop and percussive funk. The show is a bastard cross between dance, a lecture (complete with videos) and stand-up comedy, with all the joins showing. While each section is slick, the movement from one to the other is often awkward, and a director might have excised a few repetitive longueurs. However, this show is conscious and ambiguous enough to make a fetish of its own awkwardness, and to make discussing the whole idea of success an uneasy prospect.

Shannon was diagnosed at the age of five with Legg-Calve-Perthe disease, a kind of arthritis which means that he is dependent on crutches. He hasn't let that stop him, and Spatial Theory demonstrates that he is not called "The Crutchmaster" for nothing. With his especially designed dance crutches and a skateboard, he creates moments of breathtaking lyricism and grace out of an uncompromising street aesthetic. The crutches are extensions of his body and become elements of his fluid expressiveness - a cross, a cage, wings - both the badge of his limitations, and the means of his freedom. Perhaps the most interesting moment was a dance in which he performed more and more difficult tricks until he fell over, flat on his back, the music stopping instantly. The gasp from the audience was instantly turned back on us, the audience's willing him on to "success" gently satirised by his own dislike of being patronised, of help that is more about the helper excercising their own notions of themselves as humane people than anything the other person might actually need.

Underneath the comedy and strange beauty, Spatial Theory is mining some uncomfortable areas, exploiting the ambiguity and uncertainty the abled feel towards the disabled, and what it means to be a disabled person in a public place. He fearlessly launches himself into the pathos and comedy of failure, in the process both creating an aesthetic of heroicism and redefining that word "ability". How can a person of such abilities actually be "disabled"? And what was I watching? An artist making a show, or a disabled person transcending their disabilities? As Shannon says, turning the question back on us, "Is it a dance, or is it a trick? Is it a trick, or is it a dance?" The answer is, I suspect, that it is both of these things, or neither of them. The truth is, I still don't know.

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