Small Companies and Community TheatreThe Sapphires7 Days 10 YearsPhaedra's LoveMysterium ~ theatre notes

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Small Companies and Community Theatre

But of course money isn't everything; great theatre can be made with very little, as it is in Australia, over and over again. It's simply a pity that it can't be made a little easier . . . but for that to happen, you’d have to have a government that actually cared about culture and not the gang of moral and cultural bankrupts that are in power at the moment, who seem determined to silence creative voices and reduce us all to frightened, well behaved children. You'd also have to have an audience that felt empowered, that felt the theatre was something important, and that it belonged to them and meant something to them.

Last night, playwright Daniel Keene delivered the keynote address for graduation students at Swinburne University of Technology's Small Companies and Community Theatre Course. His experiences working as a writer in French theatre give a different slant to the possibilities of theatre's place in the community. For the full speech, click on...

I've been invited here tonight to say something about my experience as a playwright, with specific reference to my work in France and my involvement with French theatre companies, particularly concerning those companies’ Community Theatre work.

I should first explain briefly what my involvement with French theatre is.

My work has been produced in France, in French, for the past five years. I have had six volumes of plays published by Editions Theatrales (that’s 22 plays in all). My plays have been performed at Scene Nationales (National Theatres) in Toulouse, Calais, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Nimes, Strasbourg, Nantes, Challon, Douai, Limoge and Marseille among others. It has also been produced at theatres such as the Theatre de la Ville in Paris (which annually attracts the largest audiences in the city, and has two theatres of 1,000 and 800 seats respectively), at the Theatre de la Commune and Theatre du Rond-Point, both also in Paris, at the Theatre de la Moliere in Bordeaux and at the Avignon Festival. I've had five plays produced by France Culture (French National Radio) and one broadcast on Arté (French national television). For the past six years I have travelled to France at least once or twice a year, staying for about two months each time.

I am at present working on a number of commissions for French theatre companies, including two opera librettos, a play for marionettes, an adaptation of a novel by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare and a play for Maurice Benichou, an actor/director who has worked with Peter Brook at the International Centre of Theatre Research in Paris for the past thirty years.

The theatres I work with are all state funded. I have not been involved in the Private Theatre (what we’d call Commercial Theatre) which is limited to musicals, light comedies and bedroom farces, the tackiness of which sometimes defies description: basically, private theatre provides slick, popular (if expensive) entertainment for the upper middle class. For me, it's what Peter Brook describes as 'deadly theatre' in his book The Open Space, which remains one of the best books ever written about theatre and what it can mean.

The funding and structure of French theatre is a complex business. But to be very brief, the two main tiers of state funded theatre are Scene Nationales (National Theatres) and CDNs (National Dramatic Centres). I probably needn’t tell you that the funding theatre receives in France makes the funding it receives here look like a mere pittance (which in fact it is).

I currently have three plays running in Paris: Paradise at Theatre de la Commune, (a co-production with Theatre de la Ville), Because You Are Mine at Theatre de l’Opprimé (the Theatre of the Oppressed, which was founded by the Brazilian director, playwright and theatre activist Augusto Boal in the 1970s during his political exile in Paris) and Black is the Colour at La Boutonniere (The Buttonhole: a small, newly established, studio theatre).

For me, one of the many reasons for working in France is the breadth of the theatrical possibilities it offers me. While in Australia I am considered a "fringe playwright", in France my work is produced in popular, mainstream theatres. Of the plays currently running in Paris, Paradise is the largest production. It opened in September and will run until March next year, playing in at least five cities. The budget for the production is 600,000 euros (that's just over one million dollars). There’s a lot you can do with that much money.

But of course money isn't everything; great theatre can be made with very little, as it is in Australia, over and over again. It's simply a pity that it can't be made a little easier . . . but for that to happen, you’d have to have a government that actually cared about culture and not the gang of moral and cultural bankrupts that are in power at the moment, who seem determined to silence creative voices and reduce us all to frightened, well behaved children. You'd also have to have an audience that felt empowered, that felt the theatre was something important, and that it belonged to them and meant something to them. But perhaps all of that's another matter, for another time.

To get back to France:

Theatre de la Commune, where Paradise is currently playing, is a CDN. The theatre is subsidised by the both the National and Regional governments (80 per cent of its budget comes from government sources, 20 per cent from Box Office: an interesting fact when you consider that government funding for the MTC is only 15 per cent of the MTC's budget). Funding for CDNs is triennial and requires an explicit commitment to the goal of extending theatre to new audiences. There is at least one CDN in each of the 22 Regions of France.

An important point to note is that these subsidies are granted only if the theatre fulfils a legal requirement that the theatre provide a public service. This public service can take many forms and is often called Social Action (it's what we in Australia would call Community Theatre). The same goes for National Theatres. There are many kinds of Social Action, ranging from actors and directors running workshops or performing plays in prisons and in hospitals, working with handicapped people, running classes and performing in schools and workplaces and running workshops for specific groups such as new immigrants, the unemployed, single parents, retired people, etc. All of this is offered to the people involved at no cost to them.

What all of this means, of course, is that theatre is obliged to participate in and contribute to the wider social, cultural and political life of the community in which it exists. This is not seen by the theatres as any kind of burden, but as an essential part of the theatre's work; in fact, it is considered one of the fundamental reasons why the theatre exists at all. In France, theatre is considered and has always been considered to be a central part of the social, cultural and political life of its community. What is most important is that the community understand that the theatre belongs to them: it exists for their benefit, to help express their concerns, to celebrate their lives and their culture and, ultimately, to defend and maintain their right to free and open public expression.

I could go on about how the role of the actor is perceived politically and culturally (and it is important in relation to the place of theatre in French culture) but that's outside the scope of what I want to talk about tonight. Suffice to say that actors never talk about working in an "industry". Culture is perceived as its own reward; its value isn't measured by how many jobs it creates or how many tourists it attracts or how much income it generates, as it generally is here. Actors have an important role within the culture, not merely a job promoting it; and this role is recognized and supported by the state, even when an actor isn’t actually employed. But all that’s another, complex, matter.

To get back to the point . . . this sense of "public ownership" of the theatre is at the heart of Social Action, which is, in effect, the establishment of a genuine, working relationship between the theatre and its audience.

I have been involved in a number of such "Actions". I’ll begin with the most simple example.

The National Theatre of Challon is in the heart of the Champagne region on the river Marne. It's quite a small town, maybe a little larger than, say, Castlemaine. It's about two hours by train from Paris. It has a large, modern theatre with two performance spaces (800 seats and 250 seats) and an exhibition space. Like all National Theatres, dance and music events are also presented by the theatre. I should also add that all National Theatres and all CDNs have a year long program of Theatre for Young People (from pre-schoolers to teenagers).

Anyway, in Challon every second Saturday (market day) the theatre puts on something that it calls "home from market". An open invitation is issued to the town's residents: lunch will be served at the theatre at one o'clock and all are invited. All you have to do is bring something to eat (some bread, some fruit, some cheese); this will be shared among all who attend. The theatre supplies its own food as well, and wine and, of course, champagne. The theatre's staff attend the lunch, including the administrator, the public relations officer and the artistic director. Actors and directors are also invited, as are writers. The event is very informal.

About two months ago, I was a guest at one of these lunches. There were about 50 "guests" from the town. Before lunch began, the artistic director made a short speech, briefly outlining what work the theatre would be presenting over the next few weeks, what theatre companies would be involved, etc. I was then introduced and made a short speech, explaining why I was in Challon and what else I was doing in France. Then it was time for questions, which lasted about half an hour. Lunch lasted for about three hours. As I've said, the event was very informal, and people talked (and ate and drank) non-stop. It ended with everyone being invited to a play reading later that afternoon. Admission was free. The actors reading had travelled from Paris, where they were preparing a production of the play. The play to be read (Low) was one of mine and I would be available afterwards to answer (more) questions. More than half the people at the lunch attended the reading, as well as a few dozen others. This time the questions lasted for over an hour and a half.

That evening, I went to a large house on the outskirts of the town. Three of my plays, all monologues, were to be performed in the house. One in the bedroom (Brief Darkness), one in the cellar (What Remains) and one in the living room (The Rain). There were about twenty audience members, invited by the woman who owned the house.

The actors were from the champagne region and often worked at the National Theatre. The performances were fantastic. Very simple lighting was used; almost no technology was involved. It was all about the actor and the text: the most simple and dramatic equation. The audience sat, or stood, where they could. It was an extraordinarily open and generous event. Then we had dinner. And more champagne. The three plays are still being performed in people's houses and apartments in Challon, and will be until the end of the year; all someone has to do is call the theatre and "invite" the plays into their home. They then invite their audience (the theatre may also invite some people, depending on the size of the house).

All of this, of course, costs money. The theatre considers the expense an investment in its community. It is holding the doors of the theatre open to anyone who wants to come in, as well as taking its work, literally, into people’s homes: in this way, the theatre can become a part of people’s every day lives. The theatre is, of course, creating and educating its audience by doing this; and it is creating in the minds of that audience the idea that the theatre is an active part of their community and its life: the theatre is something that belongs to them.

This sense of ownership has one particularly interesting outcome, among many others: it is the possibility of the audience questioning the decisions of the theatre, feeling that they have the right to criticise the theatre's programming choices and feeling that they have the right to ask for the kind of theatre that they want. In other words a dialogue is possible, between those who come to the theatre and those who create it. It’s a (wait for it . . . ) relationship.

I should pause a moment here to say that the situation of theatre in France is far from ideal, even if I might seem to be describing it as such But I am giving a brief, rather schematic description of the situation of French theatre; I am talking about what I perceive as its ideals and what I have seen, what I have been privileged to experience at first hand. The broader politics and some of the harsher day-to-day realities of creating theatre in France are outside what I am properly able to discuss. But I know that many of the freedoms and rights of French theatre are under threat, as are all freedoms and rights in countries that have essentially right wing governments.

The creation of theatre is always and always has been a struggle, no matter where or when it is created; theatre is ephemeral, it lasts only a moment. It can only happen when an agreement is made, between those who create it and those who witness it, to come together in a certain place at a certain time to share a particular event: to witness the presence of the actor, who speaks the words of the writer (well, most of the time), in a space created by the designer, under the guidance of the director, for the benefit, for the delight, in the service of the audience. It's all terribly human, terribly fragile and can be enormously powerful.

So it is always difficult, because that's its nature: any situation where human beings attempt to work together towards a common end can always be a tragedy waiting to happen or impossibly comic. But the creation of theatre is even more of a struggle now, when the right to dissent, to disagree with those who hold power, to demand the right to speak, to hold culture above profit, to thumb your nose at authority or accepted wisdom, to celebrate difference rather than to fear it, is deemed to be a threat to the security of the state. I might seem to be exaggerating. I hope that I am. But I only have one pair of eyes and I can only see what I see. I fear for the rights we take for granted. I think that we all should, because we may at some time be called upon to defend them. And it will not be easy.

But that's enough of that. I tend to wander. I'll be here all night if I'm not careful.

So, to return to good old France:

More complex than the relationship that I have described between the theatre and its community in Challon is the relationship between the theatre and its community in Marseille, where I have worked each year for the past three years.

In Marseille I work with Michel Andre, a theatre director about the same age as me. His mother was Corsican and his father Belgian. He grew up in Belgium, a decent, working class boy who had no idea where he belonged. He was kicked out of school (because he had no talent for "academic" subjects) and became a motor mechanic. Theatre was the final refuge he found in his twenties, by accident; and he discovered that he was good at it. But that’s another story.

Michel speaks three languages. Unfortunately English isn’t one of them . . . and my French is appalling. He often speaks to me in Italian, which is a language I don’t speak at all. But somehow we communicate. I don't know how. It’s a small miracle.

Not so long ago, or should I say "Once upon a time", Michel was a well respected actor. Well, anyway, our story begins when he was in a touring production of a play by Moliere, playing to full houses in large, very swank theatres. He was having a great time, and so were the audiences. The production was a success and so was he. But prior to curtain one night Michel happened to look out of his dressing room window. What he saw in the near distance was a block of what we'd call commission flats: bleak, featureless boxes stacked one on top of the other where "the poor people" lived.

Michel knew that none of the residents of that block of flats would be attending the performance he was about to take part in. Well, that was bloody obvious, wasn't it? Well, perhaps it was. But Michel suddenly wondered (despite the obvious) why, actually, wouldn't they be in the theatre to see this rude, funny, beautifully written, well acted play? Apart from the fact that going to the theatre was too expensive and too intimidating (and full of wankers and other middle class dickheads), it was because the theatre meant nothing to them; it had nothing to do with their lives; it was a distant luxury that could be done without; it was meaningless. Michel was suddenly appalled. He quit the production. Yes, it was a rather extreme thing to do. But why did he do it? Because he couldn’t tolerate being part of something that could be considered meaningless by people who would actually be delighted by it, if they only felt that they had been invited to enjoy it.

Michel decided to "invite" people into the theatre; the people in those bleak, featureless boxes stacked one on top of the other where "the poor people" lived.

After Paris, Marseille is the second biggest city in France. It is a hard, difficult place. A century ago it was a thriving, wealthy metropolis. But times have changed, and they've changed quickly. You only have to see the dozens of boarded up "Grand Hotels" and derelict, obviously once fashionable department stores in the centre of the city to know this. Today, Marseille has enormous unemployment problems. Racial violence is common. It's a city of immigrants, of refugees, of itinerants, of outsiders. It's a harsh, troubled place. It's where France comes face to face with its brutal colonial history. And it's not dealing with it very well.

But, you see, again and again, it's impossible to talk about French theatre without finding a way to speak about its social, cultural and political context. It's meaningless to describe Michel Andre's work without describing its context. His work is a product of and a response to the community (the city) in which he has chosen to live. There are no "abstracts" involved. The work is specific to the environment in which it is created, specific to the people involved, both on the stage and in front of it.

Which is where I come in: the total stranger who cannot speak any of the languages I have to confront in Marseille.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's step back a moment.

Michel creates theatre with people who are not actors. They are people who live in those bleak tower blocks he saw from the window of his dressing room, most of whom have never been to the theatre. They become a part of the theatre without really knowing what the possibilities of theatre are. Michel is the focus . . . of some event, an event that he is going to help them create, that will give them (at least) something to do, that he promises will be exciting and rewarding, that will give them strength, that will allow them to express themselves, that will be safe and dangerous at the same time, that will be demanding while at the same time be liberating, an event in which they can hide themselves while at the same time revealing what they feel, what they desire, what they fear, what they love. And there will be people who will witness this event, people from the same tower blocks, and others who are interested in such events, who want, who perhaps even need to participate in this kind of event.

What Michel is describing is an act of theatre.

Michel has been working with a group of about forty people for about five years. Most of them are unemployed or at best have part time, usually menial, jobs. He gathered them together by simply putting up posters. Basically, the posters said "Got nothing to do? Come and do something". People come and go as they wish. Some people have been with the group since the beginning. New people arrive from time to time. At present, they range in age from a ten year old girl to a man of seventy. Many of the people he works with are first or second generation immigrants; they come from places like Cameroon, Algeria, Sicily, Morocco and Guinea. Some of these people can barely speak French. It took him about a year, working three days a week, to get anyone to stand up alone in front of the others and speak. What did he ask them to speak about? About themselves. It was a long, slow process. Eventually everyone told their story. From these stories the group created their first performance, entitled What Is Happening To The World? The piece was performed at the National Theatre of Marseille (The Merlan) for three nights. It was also performed in the car park outside a large supermarket.

I met Michel at the Avignon Festival in 2000. He had read my plays and wanted to meet me, to tell me about his work and invite me to collaborate with him. I went to Marseille and stayed for a few weeks; I met the people he was working with, I listened to their stories, I watched them improvise. Michel wanted to create another play, but this time he wanted the people in his group to discover what it was like to speak words written by someone else, to find out what it was like to make someone else's words your own, to tell stories about "imaginary" characters and to find out how this could be a way of telling a different kind of truth; he wanted them to discover a new kind of freedom. He wanted them to be actors.

I came home with pages and pages of notes, suggestions, ideas, impressions. My job was to write a play that was actually a sequence of short plays; a collection of fragments that Michel and his actors could arrange as they saw fit: I would give them the raw material and they would invent the construction of the play. Not everyone in the group could be involved in the project; those who weren’t worked with Michel’s assistant, Marie Isabelle. They worked on a play of mine, Low, a two hander of 25 scenes. They played each scene with two different actors (that’s 25 couples) discovering some strange, comic, tragic combinations.

The play I wrote for the group was called The Possible Ways. Rehearsals lasted six months. Again it was performed in the National Theatre, which funded the project along with Michel's own company. It played for three nights to packed houses; most of the audience came from the commission flats where most of the actors also came from.

I wrote another play for Michel and his actors last year. It was called In These Uncertain Times. It was a more formally structured play. Again I drew on the lives of the people involved, but this time I moved little further away from their reality, making bolder imaginative leaps, taking the play further into a fictional world which nevertheless retained the echoes of the actors' day to day lives. What Michel and I were hoping to do was to discover a way for his actors to find a freedom of expression; to escape, if only briefly, the confines and the boredom of their poverty, the discrimination they encounter, the prison of the tower blocks they live in. At least that's what the actors told us the play did for them.

I'm now writing a new play for Michel. It's a two hander, for himself and a young boy in the group, Cedric, who's twelve. It's about a boy who leaves his parents and chooses another father, another life. This time, the other members of the group will be in the audience. They go to the theatre now.

Daniel Keene, November 24 2004.

Daniel Keene's Home Page

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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Sapphires

The Sapphires by Tony Briggs, directed by Wesley Enoch. With Wayne Blair, Rachel Maza, Ursula Yovich, Lisa Flanagan, Deborah Mailman, Stephen Lovatt, Aljin Abella and Chris Kirby. MTC at the Arts Centre Playhouse, until December 18.

My thoughts about The Sapphires were complicated by a huge argument I had afterwards with a friend. This friend, who shall remain nameless, had not actually seen the show. But he pointed at the photograph of the the four lead actors posing in sequinned frocks Supremes-style on the front of the program, and said: "Well, that's the only way you can get Aboriginal actors onto the main stages. Don't talk about anything difficult - just get them to dress up like Americans. Lots of singing and dancing. Very worthy. Pack 'em in."

There's enough of a cruel truth in this response to give pause. It's difficult to imagine the MTC producing a play that, for example, deals front-on with the problem of domestic abuse in remote Aboriginal communities. Or, on the other hand, matter-of-factly casting a hot young Aboriginal actor as Hamlet.

And The Sapphires is as close as anything I've seen to a sure-fire hit. Its energy, from the moment Wayne Blair steps onto the stage and revs up the audience, is irresistible, and its narrative - that of four young working class Aboriginal sisters in the 1960s, who form a girl group and tour Vietnam - is appealingly up-beat, toughened by some black (forgive the pun) humour. It's something to see the usually staid MTC audience whooping and yelling like teens at a rock concert.

The Sapphires is, in many ways, light-weight theatre. But it has a lot of redeeming features, not the least of them being its complete lack of po-faced "worthiness". Probably the most obvious comparison is with Minefields and Miniskirts, a music theatre piece about the Vietnam War produced by Playbox earlier this year. Where Minefields and Miniskirts was leaden with the weight of its own significance, The Sapphires brashly bounces in, grabs you by the lapels and forcibly reminds you that Aboriginality is about more than victimhood. The note of special pleading dies in its first big number.

After all, the notion that Aboriginal artists should be solely concerned with the social problems of their people is an imprisonment in itself, a circular dilemma which is familiar to most thoughtful feminists. The Sapphires joyously kicks over these chains, showing an aspect of Aboriginal culture which is less familiar than it ought to be. Popular music - rock and roll, motown, country, blues and soul - is deeply embedded in contemporary Aboriginal culture; in Central Australia, children learn to play guitar almost as soon as they can walk. For those kids, and for the women in The Sapphires, music is the doorway to dreams. And sometimes, it works.

The story is economically told, between gutsy performances of classics like (Love is like a) Heatwave, Think and Heard it Through the Grapevine. It concerns four Koori sisters, Gail (Rachel Maza), Kay (Lisa Flanagan), Cynthia (Deborah Mailman) and Julie (Ursula Yovich), most of whom work boring factory jobs in Melbourne. Their little sister Julie, clearly miserably pregnant, has run away from home to live with her sisters, who with typical sibling cruelty leave her at home while they sail out in their bright dresses to a talent quest in a nightclub. But of course, Julie follows them, and proves to have the best voice of the lot...And so they get their first big gig - touring Vietnam to entertain the troops.

Tony Briggs' rapid-delivery dialogue relies on sardonic humour; when Cynthia says that she wants to be a model, her sister bursts out laughing. "A model? Haven't you noticed? You're black! The only time we get photographed is when we're arrested." This writing does exactly what is required, without doing any more; and it reveals the tougher details of these women's lives - Kay's horrific abortion at 14, which has left her sterile or, in one particularly good scene, Julie's terror when she wanders into a trench full of US soldiers and the air is suddenly thick with the threat of rape - with a direct realism which forbids self pity.

There's a well-handled sub-plot about a young Vietnamese boy, Joe (Aljin Abella), searching for his family, three different comic romances, and a tragic ending which is swallowed up, inexplicably I think, by a sudden swing into a song. Perhaps this is a fear of ending on too depressing a note, but it left me feeling slightly cheated - The Sapphires had cut itself enough slack to play its tragedy as well as its celebration.

Wesley Enoch's production is characterised by very slick staging, helped by good use of a revolve and curtains: the stage is stripped to its bare essentials, focusing on the band, with stylised elements of each scene (a kitchen sink and door, an army jeep) sweeping in and out as required. But most of all I liked its robust theatricality. This is great popular theatre, which is confident enough to take no prisoners. And the singing is fabulous.

Melbourne Theatre Company

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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

7 Days 10 Years

7 Days 10 Years by Louis Milutinovic, directed by Chris Bendall, design ed by Peter Corrigan, music and sound Philip McLeod. With Anastasia Malinoff, Laura Lattuada, Sergio Tell, Ernie Gray, Steve Mouzakis, Odette Joannides, Larissa Gallagher, Simon Kingsley Hall. Theatre@risk at Theatreworks, until November 21.

Flaubert said, in relation to novels, that "God is in the details". And equally, one might say that in speaking about a society in disastrous flux, it's the details - the "opaque areas" rather than what are noted in conventional histories as significant events - that are most telling. They are certainly most telling in theatre, for human interaction is the life-blood of drama. And in 7 Days 10 Years, Louis Milutinovic reveals some of the realities of the Balkans wars in the 1990s by following the fortunes of a single family over the decade before the NATO bombing of Serbia.

The Balkan conflict was, for many people in the West, an obscure war of bloody ethnic hatred in a little-known place. By focusing on intimate detail, Louis Milutinovic's lucid narrative offers another view than the lens of opaque ethnic hatred through which such conflicts are usually reported. It makes what happened in Serbia at once more legible and more alarming: after all, blind self-interest, apathy, corruption and fear-driven nationalism are the currency of our times.

In its structure and approach, this play owes a debt to Bertolt Brecht's Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, in which Brecht adopted small-scale, naturalistic forms to demonstrate how fascism impacts on the most ordinary of interactions. Fear and Misery in the Third Reich is a frightening parable which shows how easily extraordinary circumstances became normal, the incremental but deadly adjustments that people make in order to negotiate daily life under a Fascist regime.

Similarly, Milutinovic largely ignores the ethnic arguments - for example, the Serbian narrative of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 - to concentrate on quotidian detail. The rise of Milosevic and Serbian nationalism and the wars with Bosnia and Kosovo are referred to obliquely: their effects are visible in the crippling of a young soldier, the heroin addiction of his sister, the impoverishment of the middle class, the marginalisation and final silencing of dissent, and the banal but terrifying thuggery of a violent kleptocracy.

The play moves swiftly through seven toughly-written scenes, each titled, in another nod to Brecht, by the date of the events. They chart the gradual disenfranchisement of the family; the activist mother Svetlana (Anastasia Malinoff) loses her job as a teacher and is forced to sell cigarettes on the black market; the son Ivan (Steve Mouzakis) is left crippled by the war, and his girlfriend Vesna (Odette Joannides) leaves for a job in Italy and becomes a prostitute. Even Svetlana's brother Branko (Sergio Tell), a small town official, loses everything he has gained through his petty corruption. The play ends with the arrival of the US war planes, which are greeted by the dissenters as a liberation after years of intimidation under Milosevic. But it is ironically clear in the final moments that this final liberation is only another betrayal.

What also becomes clear is that those who lose most are the small people, the petit-bourgeoisie who ignored the larger picture in favour of their narrow self-interest. The middle-class characters who dissent and protest the growing fascism in their community, though scarred in obvious ways, manage to retain their self-respect; those who aggressively grab power and cash, like the captain who is building himself a new house out of war-profiteering, or the amoral folk singer/celebrity Shana (Larissa Gallagher) who switches to whatever bandwagon happens to be winning, also survive. In the bleakly riven society Milutinovic describes, the powerless who assent to fascistic authority with an eye to their own survival emerge as the most lost.

Chris Bendall's production is a good, honest presentation of the play with a high component of sheer entertainment. It features terrific singing, with a soundtrack by Philip McLeod of some bizarre Eurotrash folk music, in itself a sardonic comment on nationalistic propaganda. The scenes move swiftly and with great energy, capably managing the complex emotional twists of the writing, from comedy to violent tragedy, with no sense of false steps.

The production features an excellent set by Peter Corrigan: three trestles painted red which can be rearranged flexibly and quickly into a series of playing spaces on different levels. The back half of the Theatreworks stage is cut off by a huge black curtain, from which stage hands wearing pig masks - sinister images of the growing anonymous bestiality of society - emerge to rearrange the space. The design and lighting permit a theatrical spareness which focuses on an ensemble of excellent performances: in particular Laura Lattuada as Mila, the flaky but irrepressible aunt; Sergio Tell as Branko, the corrupt town official who betrays his activist sister to the authorities; and Simon Kingsley Hall as Bane, the drug-dealing son who, despite escaping national service, ends up as an emotional cripple.

This is far from didactic theatre, but it is a powerful political work. Milutinovic exposes, without a trace of sentiment but with a great deal of compassion for all the characters he portrays, the predatory nature of a society in which relationships are compromised and destroyed by mutual mistrust and fear. It's a timely reminder of Primo Levi's warning that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Phaedra's Love

Phaedra's Love by Sarah Kane, directed by Julie Waddington, design Julie Waddington and Luke Hails, sound by Nicholas Albanis. With Ben Noble, Georgina Capper, Fabienne Parr, Peter Roberts, Nick Austin, Pablo Calero, Alison Boyce, Jacinta Perry and Keira Lyons. Abstract Chaos with Instorage at the Store Room, until November 21.

Sarah Kane is the most exciting British playwright to emerge in the past decade. Her work was long overshadowed by the tabloid frenzy sparked by the 1995 production of her first play, Blasted, notoriously greeted as the product of a "sick" mind by a succession of rabidly foaming reviewers. The Daily Mail's Jack Tinker memorably labelled it a "disgusting feast of filth".

In common with many English-language writers treated without honour in their own countries (Samuel Beckett, Edward Bond, Howard Barker), European theatre was quick to recognise Kane's significance and welcomed Blasted as one of the most important plays of the 1990s. Critical opinion in Britain began to turn in 1998 with the premiere of Crave, but her suicide the following year made her the poete maudite of her generation. After her suicide, Kane's plays - like Sylvia Plath's poetry, and to their equal detriment - were mostly read as autobiographical expressions which foreshadowed her untimely death. As much as the claim that she wrote to shock for shock's sake, this romanticised notion obscured her uncompromising theatrical innovation.

In Australia, despite her steadily growing international reputation, Kane's work is still the province of the "fringe". She has been staged by theatres like Brisbane's La Boite and Sydney's New Theatre or the Stables, or by small independent theatre companies in Melbourne. I mean no disrespect to independent companies when I say that it's a shameful reflection on Australian theatre that one of the most important contemporary playwrights in the English language is unable to get a gig on a major stage.

Kane was one of a post-Thatcher generation of playwrights which emerged in the 1990s and challenged the pedagogic "theatre of journalism" exemplified most notably by David Hare. Many of them looked to playwrights like Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp, or to Howard Barker's "theatre of catastrophe", as animating inspirations. As Kane's work evolved, her plays successively attacked the notion of theatrical naturalism in a distinctively visceral way. The revulsion and shock her plays invoke is never gratuitous, but is intended to provoke a re-evaluation of reality.

Although these playwrights were called the Nihilists or the New Brutalists, Kane's vision is far from nihilistic. It exposes a moral universe in which, as Hamlet says, "there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so", and searches uncompromisingly for an ethics which can survive the violence of our contemporary world. But even 4:48 Psychosis, her final, excoriatingly beautiful masterpiece, finishes with a fragmentary but stubborn hope that should not be dimmed by her subsequent suicide.

Abstract Chaos' production of Kane's second play, Phaedra's Love, is an uncertain rendering of Kane's work, but worth seeing nevertheless. The night begins promisingly, but by the end has fallen off the unforgiving tightrope that Kane sets up with such deceptively simple assurance. It exemplifies the kind of difficulties - lack of resources, lack of time - faced by independent theatre productions. I should add that some of its problems may resolve as the season progresses.

Phaedra's Love is Kane's take on Seneca's and Euripides' tragedies Hippolytus, which tell the legend of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus. She is cursed by Aphrodite and falls desperately in love with her stepson, the beautiful and chaste youth Hippolytus, with catastrophic results. It is most famously adapted by Racine in his play Phaedre, which is written in what are allegedly (I have to take George Steiner's word for it) sublimely beautiful alexandrines.

Kane's take couldn't be more iconoclastic, although it still has traces of the naturalism which she afterwards abandoned altogether. Phaedra's Love is the most darkly funny of her plays and is also the first which explores the nature of love, a theme that became the major obsession of the later work. Here she perverts Phaedra's tragedy to create what is at once a chilling vision of the nature of obsessive love, and a strange liberation from despair.

In Phaedra's Love, Hippolytus (Ben Noble) is very far from being the chaste and beautiful youth of the original story. He is physically and emotionally repugnant, seen in the opening scene watching tv while wanking into a sock. (He checks that he hasn't blown his nose in it first). Phaedra's (Georgina Capper) fatal passion for him is therefore inscrutable and terrifying; when she declares her love, in a scene of skin-crawling humiliation, she performs oral sex on him while he watches television and snacks indifferently from a bag of lollies.

Yet in his monstrous boredom, his disgust with the falsity of everything that surrounds him, Hippolytus is also a curiously attractive character. Behind his joylessness and refusal of any human contact lies a desire for absolute honesty, a ruthless integrity which will have no truck with a world that disgusts him. The only time he shows anything like wonder is after he hears of Phaedra's suicide: "She really did love me... Bless her." And it becomes clear that Phaedra's accusation of rape against him is not the act of revenge that it appears to be, but a gift: the orgy of violence which follows is, at last, a real moment, in which there is no trace of human deceit. Hence his final words: "If there could have been more moments like this."

Phaedra's suicide is the logical result of the fire which has so consumed her, her abnegation the utter loss of self which is, as Kane perceived, tragically attracted to its opposite, the self that will compromise nothing. The gravity exerted by these extremes detroys everything around them - Phaedra's daughter Strophe (Fabianne Parr) is raped and murdered by Theseus (Peter Roberts) in the final carnage. But Kane's humour here is wicked: the murders of the Royal family are represented as a barbecue, with Hippolytus' genitals becoming a gruesome sausage.

Kane's grand guignol violence contains a serious critique, of classical theatre as much as of the nature of human love and the dilemma of the self. It's in eight tautly written scenes, which move rapidly to its horrifying and obscenely funny conclusion. Unfortunately, Julie Waddington's direction seldom matches the icy clarity of the text, so nothing is ever quite in focus.

Stylised acting at the pitch this play demands requires a depth of polish that the standard four weeks' rehearsal simply cannot achieve with any certainty. Georgina Capper's performance as Phaedra is the most successful in negotiating the challenges of the play's stylistic formality, and has some genuinely thrilling moments. Ben Noble's Hippolytus achieves his character's grossness, but falters at the extremity of his despair and so cannot reveal his perverse nobility. I had the feeling that often the other performances were hesitant or even, at times, without conviction. This means that the final scene has all the faults of stage violence when it doesn't work: despite the liberal application of tomato sauce it merely looks fake, and the audience laughs for the wrong reasons.

I thought the set design a major problem in this production. Admittedly, Kane wrote with a fine disregard for the difficulties of designers: at one point Phaedra's body is meant to be set on fire, which defeated the ingenuity of this production team. At times, however, the set literally gets in the way of seeing the action, and the pace is hindered by cumbersome moveable blocks which are rearranged between scenes. The set changes impede the flow of the tragedy, stilting its emotional movement so it achieves neither apotheoses of horror nor comedy. Despite these reservations, it's a rare chance to see - if through a glass darkly - a fascinating work by a major contemporary dramatist.

The Store Room
Sarah Kane

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Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Mysterium by Sam Sejavka, directed by Lynne Ellis, designed by Marc Raszewski. With Lisa Tilley, Dije Arlen, Francis McMahon and Mark E. Lawrence. La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse until November 13.

Sam Sejavka has long inhabited one of the more interesting outcrops of Melbourne's theatrical landscape. He lives in a gravitationally-challenged castle way past the suburbs, behind dripping forests and gloomy cliffs and hand-painted signs saying "This Way to the Sinister Laboratory" and "Beware of the Were Wolf".

In short: if it's not quite compulsory to wear low-cut nighties or long opera cloaks to Sejavka's plays, it probably ought to be. He is our resident rock Goth, whose baroque imagination is unchastened by obeisance to anything so banal as credible reality. In Mysterium, he fills his cauldron with allusions from Moby-Dick, alchemical and mystic texts, Romantic poetry and long-forgotten theories on homunculi, and stirs up some unashamedly theatrical magic.

Mysterium explores the life force of erotic passion and how its repression in mystic religion, scientific rationalism or materialistic greed manifests ultimately as an urge to destroy life itself. Such is the energy and lyrical excess of the writing that I had no trouble putting ordinary rationality away and following this strange parable about the primal origins of life to its incredible (I use the word advisedly) conclusion. Two hours seemed to pass in the twinkling of a mad scientist's eye.

Sejavka has drawn on the allegorical structures of mediaeval mystery plays but, unlike those nameless authors, he is not concerned with clear moral instruction. Several strange characters, representing various aspects of human nature, are becalmed on a ship, suspended above an abyss in the ocean. They are the "natural philosopher" or scientist, Haeckel (Francis McMahon); Hepsiba, a high priestess of a cult which worships a primordial Goddess (Dije Arlen); Hepsiba's sidekick Praxi (Lynne Ellis); the captain of the ship Ratbone (Mark E. Lawrence); and a young, lubricious girl called Nectar (Lisa Tilley).

Mysterium is unconcerned with how these characters come to be where they are; this play signally depends on the audience entering a "willing suspension of disbelief" and accepting without question a Coleridgean universe where an inauspicously shot albatross means that the ship is crewed with shadows. It is pure imagination at play, art displaying its artifice. The play's dramatic drive might be anarchic and erotic, but its dress is that of a dandy: elegantly and decadently esoteric.

Such a play needs a beautiful set, and Marc Raszewski's design is most certainly that. It's the best I've seen in the Courthouse, which is notoriously difficult: theatre often looks makeshift there, as if it happens despite the space. But for Mysterium, Raszewski puts the Courthouse's cavernous height and awkward proportions to excellent use.

A line of wooden pews slashes obliquely across the playing space, signalling the deck's railings; on the far side is the sea, which generates a fair bit of smoke and blue light. To the left, racks of antique wooden specimen draws stack up to the ceiling, among a detritus of arcane objects (a bird cage with a skeleton in it, a display case for an egg, and so on). On the other side, a ladder leads up to a small alcove, which is often used as a playing space. Centre stage is a tall mast with a rope ladder. With Dori Dragon Bicchieri's sensuous lighting design, the theatre creates the sense at once of a sailing ship and a 19th century museum.

Lynne Ellis directs the play around and above the audience, as much as before it, taking full advantage of Raszewski's set. And she draws performances from her cast that match the extremities of the writing, which requires them to teeter on the edge of parody without ever losing emotional veracity. It's not an easy balance to strike, but all the actors manage to achieve the kind of intensities - erotic, manic, obsessive - that their characters demand, without falling into the merely ridiculous. This is a question of excess: linguistically, intellectually, emotionally, this play is excessive, and it demands excessive interpretations from its performers. And excess - intelligently judged excess, aware of itself as comic but still, in its frivolity, deeply serious - is what it gets.

The sensibility of Mysterium is pure Camp, even to its impeccable lineage (Gothic literature, mediaeval mystic arcana, 19th century trash novels). Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, Notes on Camp, defines Camp as the aesthetic sensibility which values artifice and a "proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naive". One thing Camp does, according to Sontag, is to propose a more complex relationship with "the serious": Camp "can be serious about the frivolous, and frivolous about the serious". Camp is esoteric, extravagant, and the antithesis of tragic. And Camp is, naturally, inescapably theatrical.

"One is drawn to Camp," says Sontag, "when one realises that 'sincerity' is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness". She's perfectly correct. Mysterium is, in fact, the perfect antidote to Howard's narrow Australia. Get out your opera cloaks, and get down there.

Picture: Francis McMahon in Mysterium

La Mama Theatre
Sam Sejavka

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