Cyrano de BergeracOut on a LimbAfter the RainSubclass26AVale Arthur MillerTrapped by the Past ~ theatre notes

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, translated by Marion Potts and Andrew Upton, directed by Simon Phillips, design by Gabriela Tylesova. With David Wenham, Bob Hornery, Asher Keddie, Alex Menglet, David Lyons, Gerry Connolly, Carita Farrer, Hayden Spencer, Stephen Ballantyne, Adam Zwar, Russell Fletcher and Jay Bowen. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Arts Centre Playhouse until April 2.

George Bernard Shaw once contemptuously dismissed Cyrano de Bergerac as mere "pasteboard". This is a little like attacking King Lear because it's a bit depressing. Cyrano de Bergerac is about the artifice of theatre at least as much as it's about the tragedy of having a huge honker.

It was a period piece when it was written, set in a fantasia of 17th century Paris. Rostand took theatrical conventions that in 1897 were already two centuries old and whipped them into a delectable new froth. It permits him to make rude jokes about practically everyone in classical French literature, from Molière to the now (it seems deservedly) obscure Balthazar Baro, and to parody theatre itself with a fond mercilessness peculiar to its practitioners.

Simon Phillips has a flair for this sort of play, which is light without being insubstantial; I fondly remember his 1989 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, with an Aubrey Beardsley-derived set and a performance of memorable loathing from Frank Thring. He directs Cyrano de Bergerac with style, employing a spectacular design by Gabriela Tylesova, and casting David Wenham, the thinking woman's crumpet, in the title role.

This production uses a new translation by Andrew Upton and Marion Potts, which has been adapted further by Upton. The play is streamlined, excising some extraneous characters and scenes and conflating others, and updates many (but not all) of Rostand's jokes. Most riskily, the translators preserve much of the rhymed verse of the original. The gamble pays off: they create tough, vital dramatic verse, adorned with flourishes of Byronic wit. The adaptation gives Rostand a contemporary colloquial edge without in the least compromising the complexities of the original. I am all admiration.

Aside from its satirical energy which, like Molière, attacks social hypocrisy and pretension at every turn, the major reason the play has lasted is the enduring attraction of Cyrano de Bergerac himself. Cyrano is a man incapable of compromise, a shamelessly proud and idealistic poet who would, literally, die for his "panache". The irony is that if it were not for his nose, he would not be the romantic paragon he is; it's his conviction of his physical repulsiveness that drives him to such impossible moral purity.

He is the most literary of fictional heroes, a man whose passionate nature is cursed by his outrageous schnozzle (to paraphrase Eliot, only those with large noses know what it means to want to escape from them). His real tragedy is that, like his hero Don Quixote, he is born into a time and place which has little time for his ideas of honour. The difference between Quixote and Cyrano is that Cyrano is aware of his own absurdity. His vaulting literary ambition, which sneers at superficial success, is as crippling as his nose: both ridiculous and ennobling.

This self-conscious ambiguity is why Cyrano de Bergerac is more than bathetic sentiment (another Shavian judgment). Its farcical narrative of human flaws unfolds into genuine pathos. Refusing to reconcile his ideals with the corrupt and decadent world in which he lives, Cyrano creates mayhem and stirs up enemies wherever he goes; in the first half hour he leaves about eight corpses strewn about the stage. Even his most ardent friends tell him that he is a pain in the arse, and his rigid adherence to his code of honour denies romantic happiness not only to himself but to his great love, Roxane. It's the triumph of Rostand's writing that we accept that Cyrano cannot be anything other than he is, and admire him for it.

Wenham's proboscis is as astoundingly long as some of his speeches (Cyrano de Bergerac is, in the fullest sense, a play on words). He gives Cyrano a swaggering physical presence, an arrogant machismo tempered by the private delicacy and passion of his feelings. It's difficult to believe in his ugliness, even under the umbrella of his nose; this Cyrano is a handsome man obscured, rather than a man whose moral comeliness trumps his surface blemishes. Like the text, his performance is adorned with irony and seductive wit, but what shines through by the end is Cyrano's stoic moral courage, of a plainer and more stylish mode than his showy machismo, and thus more poignant.

Asher Keddie as the beautiful but distressingly literate Roxane convincingly manages the transition from intellectual infatuation and vanity to real feeling, and makes a grand foil for Wenham's Cyrano. They are ably supported, most notably by Alex Menglet at his comic best as the poetic baker Ragueneau, David Lyons as the handsome but witless lover Christiane de Neuvilette, and Hayden Spencer as his rival de Guiche, the rich nephew of Cardinal Richelieu. The cast draws on a wide range of comic tropes, both contemporary and historical; there are nods to The Young Ones and Blackadder as well as to the satires of Molière.

As the play moves towards its tragic conclusion, Wenham tends to a repetitive cadence, a dying fall on each line, which enervates the language and marginally compromises its feeling. And for all their energy, some performances lack the highly polished clarity and precision this kind of European-style theatre demands, muffling its effect. The sword fights, for example, seem hesitant, as if the actors are afraid of being cut; and some performers were hard to hear, an essential in a play which is so much about language. It gives an overall effect of being ever-so-slightly out of focus. But this feeling may well dissipate as the play warms into its season.

Gabriela Tylesova's set, sumptuously lit by Nick Schlieper, creates a rich and flexible space which draws wittily on the theatricality of the play. The transformations - from decadent Parisian society, to a set which recalls the desolate battlefield in Abel Gance's film of Napoleon to, finally, a serene evocation of a convent in autumn - are magnificently expressive realisations of the play's differing moods. And her costumes are fantasies, from Roxane's extraordinarily beautiful mourning dress to the ludicrously exaggerated fripperies of the Parisian fops.

Ian Macdonald's original music, scored for electric violin, adds considerably to the production's expressiveness, especially as it's played live on stage by Michael Harris masquerading as a blind street musician. Phillips' direction exploits the set like a conjurer, with performers popping up from trapdoors or from among the audience, or being suddenly revealed inside curtained boxes that are theatres within the theatre, or surreal bakeries, or coaches made of cheese. It's magic like this that makes me think that the proscenium arch is such a fine idea. Pasteboard? Yes, absolutely; but pasteboard with panache.

Picture: David Wenham as Cyrano de Bergerac with Asher Keddie as Roxane

Melbourne Theatre Company

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Out on a Limb

Out on a Limb: unsynchronised body parts, conceived, devised and performed by by Sarah Mainwaring, in collaboration with Lloyd Jones. La Mama Theatre.

The entire emphasis of Out on a Limb, which took place over four evenings, was on the process of expression. For Sarah Mainwaring, this has a special urgency. When she was six years old, she was involved in a major car accident that left her with serious brain damage. This was followed by more than a decade of rehabilitation. Her body remains damaged by the accident: her limbs will not immediately obey her, and tasks the able-bodied manage without thinking are challenges that require all her will and ingenuity.

But, importantly, this is not a performance about conquering the limitations of the body, so much as about inhabiting and accepting it. Mainwaring's invitation to the audience to witness her struggle with her own body has an astonishing generosity and humility. That I might feel confronted by my own desire to watch such private struggles is, I think, my own business.

The performance takes place in an installation designed by Lloyd Jones and Mainwaring, which gives an impressionistic idea of the walls of a suburban house. There is a single, evocative sound, a constant harsh rustle, which I finally tracked to a plastic bag hung in front of a fan. It begins with Mainwaring peering through a window. She asks in a kind of sprachgesung, half singing, half speaking: "Who am I?" She then emerges, in a tight dress, shiny blazer and a startlingly red hat, and performs a series of tasks. The first is to pull out some wrapping paper from a basket, fold it, and tie it up with string. She makes about half a dozen little parcels, and the process takes a long time. When she has finished, the parcels are hung up on hooks on a trellis, to add to the evolving installation. She then plays with a drum, attempting to hit it and missing, puts it away, dances, poses herself in positions of entrapment and frustration.

All these simple actions take a long time, but induce a meditative patience which is particularly rewarding. Mainwaring's struggle to control her materials divests her - and therefore us - of any self-consciousness, and tying a knot in a piece of string, say, becomes absolutely mesmerising. I found myself reflecting on all sorts of things: what it means to make something, what it means to watch an action, my relationship with my own body. Mainwaring's performance includes a sense of self-parody, and that it's possible to laugh without discomfort says a lot for her evolving intimacy with the audience, an intimacy which is reinforced by Lloyd Jones' gentle coaching from the seats.

Finally, Mainwaring strips to her underpants behind the back wall, visible through a doorway, which reinforces the unsettling ambiguity of voyeurism which circles around this show. An assistant helps to take off her clothes, puts goggles over her eyes and covers her in talcum powder. Then she moves to the front stage and throws blue paint over her body. The transformation is startling, from the grotesquely powdered, goggled body to a strange, beautifully marked marine creature that writhes on paint-slicked plastic with unabashed eroticism. She stands up, with assistance as the floor is treacherously slippery, wipes the paint from her eyes, and moves to a ladder, where she sings again: "Who am I? What will I be? I hope it includes some really interesting sex."

Writing the bare outline of what happened is manifestly inadequate to the experience of being there. Out on a Limb is performance art, coming out of the late 20th century tradition in which artists have used their own bodies as art objects, framing ordinary human actions in ways which force us to see them anew; but it has its own particular challenge and abrasiveness. Perhaps I should employ some negative theology, and say what it was not. It was not "politically correct". It was not exploitative. It was not patronising. It was not artless.

"Yves Klein," said another audience member afterwards. And yes, indeed; Out on a Limb can't but echo Yves Klein's The Monotone Symphony, during which naked models daubed themselves with blue paint and, under the direction of the maestro, painted with their bodies. It also made me think of the album cover of Roxy Music's Siren, which featured Jerry Hall as an alien and beautiful mermaid. But unlike both of these things, which ward the erotic off into a distant objectivity, it put the audience in radical relationship to it, implicated in its intimacy.

Clearly it raises issues, about expectations of the body and sexuality, and about human expressiveness. And, with a peculiarly gentle insistence, it's liberating, both for the performer and those who witness her. "The artist," says the program, "is creating a form". That is all this piece is "about", and it is quite sufficient; such meanings as an audience might seek in that form are there for them to find, if they wish. For it is always possible to take nothing away. For me, Out on a Limb was a moving struggle towards freedom, a compelling expression of desire. Perhaps most signally, it had the unpornographic courage of artistic nakedness.

Picture: Sarah Mainwaring

La Mama Theatre

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Monday, February 21, 2005

After the Rain

After the Rain by Sergi Belbel, directed by Scott Gooding, designed by Kathryn Sproul, with Gloria Ajenstat, Penelope Bartlau, Simon Kearney, Colin MacPherson, Melissa Parente, Clare Springett, Elizabeth Thomson and Shaun Worrell. Translated by John London, David George and Xavier Rodriguez Rosell. Vicious Fish Theatre at Theatreworks until March 5.

I haven't often walked out of a theatre as baffled as I did from After the Rain. I felt clear on only one point: I hadn't enjoyed the experience. But mere reactive opinion is, after all, the least interesting of responses. Why I was so bored, puzzled and frustrated is much harder to work out.

I had gone to see this production with high expectations. After the Rain is the second part of an on-going project by Vicious Fish Theatre to present the plays of Catalan playwright Sergi Belbel to Melbourne audiences. The first, Caresses, was a drama rooted in a gritty urban vernacular, and revealed a complex, poetic playwright with an intriguing formal imagination. Moreover, After the Rain won the Molière award - the French equivalent of the Tony - for Best Comedy in 1999.

It is very difficult to see what the French found so funny, or to square the tough theatrical sophistication of the play I saw last time with the apparent pointlessness of After the Rain. This makes me suspect that the first culprit might be the translation itself. Unlike Caresses, this play has three translators, and perhaps there were simply too many cooks muddling the broth.

But even given the possible shortcomings of the English text, the evening need not have been so tedious. A great deal has to be shafted home to Scott Gooding's deadeningly literal direction, which is often bizarrely at odds with the script. I'm not sure that I've ever seen a play so thoroughly obscured by a production, and this makes analysing it more perilous than usual.

My spies tell me that the French translator of Belbel's play was one of the most respected in the country, which tends to confirm my notion that the English translation has problems. But it's possible also - given that theatre in France is, for good or ill, a director's theatre - that After the Rain is an inferior play to Caresses, but was dressed to advantage with a brilliant production.

I'm unable to read Catalan, and can only guess what the play might be like in its original language. Certainly I can form no opinion of Mr Belbel. Squinting through my memories of the script, I can make out echoes of a poetic based on repetition, perhaps a shadow of the kind of linguistic satire that Michel Vinaver attains in his own plays on corporatism: in any case, various hints of verbal complexity and depth that might have made something interesting of what otherwise seems to be a structurally predictable work.

After the Rain is set on the roof of an multistorey office building in a city which has been drought-stricken for more than two years. It consists of a series of short scenes between various office workers who escape for an illegal cigarette. In this corporate world, addiction to nicotine can cost a worker their job, and so (in the beginning, at least) the office workers' trysts are secretive and paranoid. However, as the play progresses, it turns into a kind of surreal comedy, with love affairs and corporate intrigues being played out between dream-scenes and increasingly irrational events. It culminates in comedic Shakespearean couplings, with various characters abandoning their restricted corporate lives to run away in happy pairs.

Presumably part of the metaphor at play here is between sterility (drought, emotional and literal, in an authoritarian corporatised world) and an opposing fertility (rain, sex and babies). There is a troubling subtext of misogyny which is, at least in this production, presented without irony: a long speech by one character about how much he hates powerful women; the brutal and reasonless murder and rape of the wife of another character; the resolution of one woman's madness by that old remedy, "a good fuck"; another woman's life, however successful otherwise, rendered meaningless by her infertility. Given my wholesale reservations, I am utterly unsure what to make of this aspect of the play: it could be commenting on misogyny, rather than being itself misogynistic. It is impossible to tell.

I can only surmise that some mistaken decisions were made early on about how to approach the text, which then trapped the entire process. This seems borne out by the design. Kathryn Sproul's set - a rooftop set forestage, surrounded by metal railings - forces the actors to clamber on and off stage via a ladder, which makes entrances and exits cumbersome, time-consuming and mind-numbingly predictable. A row of watercoolers set behind the raised roof do nothing more than suggest what we already know, that off-stage there are offices. Dominating the back of the theatre is a huge screen, which remains strangely unexploited for almost the entire evening (even some projected clouds would have been welcome). To emphasise the static staging, the lighting states remain monotonous for the whole show, shifting maybe twice to indicate that a particular scene is a dream rather than "reality".

The effect is to reduce to a stilted literalness a play which is clearly meant to move fluidly between surreal and actual realities. This mono-dimensional direction extends to the performances, which attack the script with an edge of hysterical parody that tramples any subtleties it might have had. Simon Kearney and Colin MacPherson are the only actors who manage to find some kind of complexity in the script, and certainly Simon Kearney seems to be in a different play.

These problems are compounded by a lack of attention to detail. For example: perhaps to emphasise the corporate tyranny, the performers are costumed in uniforms that are in no way supported by the script, which means that a long speech by the Blonde Secretary about how she never wears black shoes is somewhat undermined by the fact that she is, in fact, wearing black shoes. And so on.

It's hard to escape the conviction that this is a very naive production of a potentially interesting play. I only hope the next production in the series serves us - and Sergi Belbel - rather better.



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Thursday, February 17, 2005


Subclass26A, directed by Bagryana Popov, performed by Rodney Afif, Ru Atma, Natalie Cursio, Simon Ellis, Nadja Kostich, Majid Shokor; music by Elissa Goodrich; design by Anna Tregloan; dramaturgy by Maryanne Lynch.

The vexed question of politics and art is one of the fiercest debates of modern culture. Broadly the argument rages between two poles. In the blue corner (or the red, if one is American) are those who contend that art is above politics, an argument stemming from Matthew Arnold's imperial ideas about culture. In the opposing corner are the revolutionaries, who claim that art has a duty towards radical ideologies. Most artists, who are by nature sceptical of dogma of any kind, can be found slugging it out somewhere in the middle, arguing on the one hand that all art is inescapably political, and on the other that its highest duty is to its own imperatives.

It's wholly untrue to assert, as many conservative critics do, that art that engages with social and political critique compromises an essential artistic purity. Much of the significant art of the past three centuries - from Shelley's Masque of Anarchy and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro to the work of Brecht's Berliner Ensemble or Brazilian theatre activist Augusto Boal - has been in the tradition of political and social dissent. As well as, it must be confessed, much of the worst - we've seen agitprop, and we don't like it.

Art, after all, should do rather more than restate arguments that would be better expressed in a pamphlet. Subclass26A, a powerful group-devised movement piece which addresses the question of Australia's brutal treatment of asylum seekers, demonstrates beautifully how this can be done.

I will describe the theatre in a moment. But first, some background, necessary because this piece employs a fragmentary text drawn in part from a variety of real sources: documents from the Department of Immigration, letters from asylum seekers, and primary research conducted by the artists themselves.

Our treatment of asylum seekers is one issue that starkly exposes the darker side of Australia's self-image as "the lucky country". We are the only nation in the world which compulsorily imprisons asylum seekers, a policy which calls up unsettling echoes of gulags and concentration camps. Tellingly, as Richard Ackland commented in 2003, the Federal Government's "Pacific solution" demonstrated a baffling insensitivity to the grim connotations which still attend that word "solution".

As Malcolm Fraser and others have pointed out, our immigration policies are racist and inhuman. But those who protest the totalitarian aspects of these policies are attacked as "bleeding heart liberals" with an "agenda", their voices marginalised by a combination of misrepresentations or outright lies and populist xenophobia.

Asylum seekers are the only class of people who may be locked up indefinitely, beyond the redress of any court. They have fewer rights than convicted paedophiles or murderers, despite the fact that they have been charged with no crimes, and the even more appalling fact that many of them are children: between 1999 and 2003, 2,184 children had been held for varying lengths of time (averaging more than a year) in detention centres.

The suffering caused by the Howard Government's policies has been widely documented and has attracted widespread international and local condemnation, including rebukes from all six of the human rights agencies of the UN. Even the horrors of the SEIVX and the heart-rending personal testimonies of the children whose lives have been blighted by imprisonment have made no impact on the public apathy towards those the popular media dub, erroneously, "illegal immigrants". The sheerly brutal cynicism of our policies toward refugees and asylum seekers is an on-going scandal of Australian society.

Bagryana Popov and her performers address these issues with intelligence and passion, eschewing the temptations of simplistic agitprop. Neither do they go down the now conventional road of "documentary theatre": the added element of dance (three performers are dancers, three actors) gives the piece a stylised, alienating edge which, in a paradox peculiar to art, intensifies its emotional power.

While this group is deeply engaged with the issues, it is equally concerned to give these experiences the dignity of art. This work has the clarity of a high degree of moral and intellectual sophistication. The fragmentary text - a collage of individual experience spoken in English and Arabic, bureaucratic documents and dialogues - is poetically cadenced. Dramaturges Maryanne Lynch and Tom Wright create a simple narrative spine around three asylum seekers, telling a story of arrival, detention and Kafka-esque bureaucracy. Against the impersonal officialese of imprisonment, the human body speaks an anarchic tale of despair, love, anger and madness.

Popov's direction has an attentive eye to focus, creating eddies of movement and speech which rise chaotically and suddenly clear to brief vignettes, only to be caught up again in a flurry of movement. There is an emphasis on neurotic repetition, both the endless monotony of institutional life ("breakfast from 8.30 to 9am, lunch 12 to 12.30...") and the increasingly dissociated movements of mental illness. The emotional fluctuations are stringently orchestrated by Elissa Goodrich'sspare, percussive score.

This approach permits a moral and political complexity often missing from theatre which has previously addressed these issues. Brutality is not confined to officials: the prisoners themselves are capable of cruelty. One of the striking elements of this piece is its focus on how such policies brutalise those who implement them as much as their targets. The despairing social worker unable to help increasingly desperate people, the guards who lose their capacity for empathy, are as trapped as the asylum seekers in a nightmare of systemic, soul-eroding sadism.

Anna Tregloan's stylishly minimalist design uses the white box space of fortyfivedownstairs to magnify the sense of human alienation, the notion that asylum seekers and refugees are infections which must be quaratined from the social body. The huge window which usually dominates the theatre is covered by a white wall into which is let a tiny, opaque window, which provides the only glimpse of freedom. The stage is divided by lighting and subtle design elements into rectangular areas through which the performers move uneasily, dark human figures in an antiseptic, inhuman universe. The audience is seated at the near end of the theatre, and the production takes full advantage of the stage's depth, creating a surprisingly rich texture of physical gesture and spatial image with a rigorously limited vocabulary.

A great deal of this production's success stems from its disciplined restraint, its refusal to press the standard emotive buttons and so diminish the complexities of the human issues it addresses. Subclass26A powerfully communicates not only the despair of detained asylum seekers, but the reasons for that despair; we can work out the injustice for ourselves. One of the performers, Iraqi actor Majid Shokor, is quoted in the program as saying: "theatre is a place where justice and redemption can be found". I don't believe that anyone involved in this production believes that this work will stop the mistreatment of those who only ask for our help; but the urgent desire to express the complexities of human experience, to redress the silencing of the powerless, is nevertheless a potent political act. An act of hope.

Fitzroy Learning Network
The National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention
Human Rights Watch:Deterring Asylum Seekers by Violating Rights

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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Vale Arthur Miller

So another of the giants of 20th century drama has gone. It's a measure of Arthur Miller's enduring distinction that his death has generated headlines around the world. I won't add to the thousands of words heaped on his passing, except to note briefly that Aubrey Mellor, now director of NIDA, said only this week that Miller was still the dominant influence on Australian theatre, which ought to have "moved on" by now. Well, progress is an odd concept when applied to the arts, and The Crucible seems, sadly, to be coming back into its own. Perhaps, like most influential artists, Miller needs to be rescued from his imitators and his fame. Below, a few links:

Obituary - Independent
Obituary - The Guardian
Memoir - Independent
Obituary - New York Times

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Trapped by the Past

Trapped by the Past: Why our Theatre is Facing Paralysis, by Julian Meyrick. Platform Paper No. 3, January 2005, Currency House, ISBN 0 9581213 7 0

"Those who cannot remember the past," said George Santayana, "are condemned to repeat it". Applied to theatre, this is a vision of terrifying sterility: some outer circle of Hell, decked out like a cross between an English drawing room and the set of Neighbours. And as Julian Meyrick argues in his very interesting polemic, Australian theatre's ignorance of its own history dooms it to an endless cycle of "forgetting and despair".

Too right, say I: if memory is a form of consciousness, then Australian theatre, as a discrete if debatable entity, is a dead duck. We barely have a repertoire: how often do we see reinterpretations of classic texts by White, Hewett, Beynon, Kenna, Hibberd, or any other playwright who has made a mark in the past fifty years? And how many new plays have any life beyond a single four week season?

I'm grateful to Meyrick - that rare beast, a theatre historian - for his careful delineation of this problem in his paper Trapped by the Past. He spends some time discussing how institutional and governmental structures and assumptions have formed the present, and he chronicles a depressing history of botched or even hostile public policies and damaging intercinine rivalries. But Trapped by the Past is, most importantly, an impassioned plea for cultural memory.

"Donald Horne's complaint that the industry's idea of cultural debate is a one-line telegram signed by twenty artists points up the lack of articulated vision coming from theatre professionals on the ground today," says Meyrick. "At a recent public meeting on the future of Playbox, I was not the only one struck by the lack of specific knowledge about the company we had come to discuss. And when, at the end, someone stood up - as someone always does - and said 'Who needs the past anyway?' - as someone always does - a vision rose before my eyes of a wheel of fire on which Australian theatre was to be endlessly wracked, our historical forgetting a constituent part of our on-going suffering."

The Greeks said (they got a lot of things right) that Memory was the mother of the Muses, so cultural amnesia is probably about half of the thousand cuts that are currently bleeding Australian theatre dry. But Meyrick's thesis is not so much that Australian theatre has forgotten its past, as that it only remembers certain parts of it. He points out that theatre is an art form with a history that extends far beyond our sea-girt shores and into a past far deeper than the past thirty years, facts which too seldom seem to enter our theatrical conversations; but here his main concern is with local history.

His experience of finding teasing glimpses of alternative, unwritten histories echoes my own when, as a young critic, I was attempting to inform myself about Australian theatre. I remember being told about all sorts of interesting things - the international avant-garde edge in the APG, for example, or the feminist theatre of the '70s - to which I could, frustratingly, find little or no reference in the histories and overviews I consulted. Meyrick mentions how whole swathes of experience - that of older actors trained in the "Anglo" tradition of theatre, who remember the Tiv and music hall - have been forgotten, and how much poorer we are for this loss. The commonly accepted story is how this kind of theatre, colonial and hidebound, was swept aside in the larrikin "New Wave" of the late 60s and early '70s, when Australian theatre, as the myth goes, first found its "voice". These other, overshadowed histories made the prevailing myth - which is, of course, not entirely inaccurate - both more interesting and more complex.

As Meyrick says, "Australian theatre is an art form in wilful ignorance of its own past, and the upshot is an industry that appears less interesting than in fact it is... the truth is fabulous, intriguing, high coloured, a story of titanic struggles, colossal achievements, massive defeats, murderous betrayals..." Which, if it recalls one of those thrillers with raised gold lettering so prominent in airport bookshops, has the virtue of sounding more exciting than the usual unquestioning narratives of nationalism vs. colonialism.

Although he focuses on generational change and, in particular, on the disastrous dominance of Playbox Theatre in the recent development of new Australian work, the true value of Meyrick's paper resides elsewhere. Meyrick does claim that a generation of theatre artists who are now in prominent positions through Australian theatre are, deliberately or not, stifling innovation in the art. But he says this is the result of a fracture that occurred when the New Wave first appeared, polarising the culture - on the one side, the conservative, authoritarian model, on the other the brash, questioning, anti-authoritarian Vietnam protesters - and the twain ne'er met anywhere. And he claims that the lack of a perception of a common ground - a recognition that, whatever their differences, they were pursuing to their best abilities a mutual passion for an abstract but real thing called "Australian theatre" - led to an impoverishment of theatre culture that is now having disastrous consequences for younger artists.

"The real problem," says Meyrick, glancing over the tangle of spats and rivalries which characterise the discourse, "is that the 'debate' is founded on such a fierce determination not to understand other points of view that any intellectual gain from the sparring of competing minds is lost."

Bravo, Mr Meyrick: that's the underlying problem in a nutshell. What he is describing is a pervasive anti-intellectualism that has been the bane of Australian theatre on all sides, and a lack of disinterested commitment to theatre itself. As much as reducing discourse to pitched battles and skirmishes between rival interests, this often expresses itself in a puzzling incuriosity about theatre as an art form. Most bizarrely, given its often nationalistic dress, it manifests as a condition of cultural cringe which very often marginalises new or original Australian voices which (as they should) challenge prevailing mores. Meyrick, whose main concern is with what he calls "verbal drama" (aka plays), correctly questions where that leaves new playwrights and other emerging theatre artists.

There is, in fact, a surprising number of young and engaged theatre writers; but as things stand, their outlook is fairly bleak. As Meyrick says, the lack of a well-supported middle sector of theatre, between co-op fringe productions and the major state institutions, means that it is extremely difficult for new artists, and especially new playwrights, to evolve. He fields some depressing statistics, courtesy of Geoffrey Milne, about the shrinkage in contemporary theatre. Between 1986 and 2003, the number of new productions by state theatre companies declined from 49 to 29.8 - a drastic fall approaching almost 50 per cent. And, even worse, the production of new plays by local and overseas writers in alternative companies has declined by 30 per cent in twenty years.

This situation is in part a result of the withdrawal of funding for the middle tier companies - Anthill, The Church, Theatreworks, the Red Shed and others - which actively commissioned and produced new works. Australian theatre has never recovered from this policy-driven act of cultural vandalism. In Victoria, Playbox Theatre was supposed to pick up the slack, providing a greenhouse for the tender young shoots of new work; but Playbox's devastatingly poor audience figures reflect the failure of this policy. It is neither possible nor desirable to replace what was once the province of many alternative theatres with a single, corporatised entity: like all ecosystems, theatre needs diversity to survive. And it is a measure of theatre's ill-health that its diversity has been declining in both absolute and generic terms over the past two decades. Not only are fewer plays being produced, but fewer kinds of plays.

All the same, in the general atmosphere of gloom one shouldn't overlook the energies and vitalities that do exist. Out of the vacuum have sprung many small, independent companies which produce new plays, both Australian and international, with minimal or no funding. And one should not forget La Mama either, a unique treasure which actively supports the notion of an open and diverse theatre culture. Yet the fact remains that, however hard-working and imaginative they may be, these independent companies struggle with a paucity of resources that severely limits what they are able to achieve. The genius of Australian theatre has so often lain with "poor theatre": great things have happened there. But as a default policy, it is no way to grow a vibrant and stimulating culture. There is a point where companies, simply, need money to make the art they should.

There's no getting away from the fact that part of the many-faceted crisis facing Australian theatre is the increasingly tight availability of funds, a complex issue in itself bedevilled by the whole problem of arts advocacy. Meyrick often refers to the "theatre industry"; a common enough phrase, but a symptom of a deeper problem. As I said in an essay last year, picking up on Donald Horne's observations on the "economisation" of the arts:

I can remember when people started talking about the "arts industry", back in the early '90s. I thought at the time it was a harbinger of doom. The argument used to lobby for arts funding was almost exclusively economic: the arts created employment, generated tourism, and so on. (There was, I think, a little discussion about social capital.) This focus seems to have modelled almost all subsequent advocacy for the arts. And what we have created is a monster, to which all the arts must now pay tribute: the arts industry is here to stay, and arts companies are expected to function like other economic entities, and to justify their existences by making a profit for their "stakeholders"....

Given its devastating impact ... it is not surprising that the idea of the "arts industry" has been attacked recently by several eminent Australians, including Donald Horne. Horne says the "economisation of culture" is a fundamentalist creed. "It's not supported by public stonings or beheadings but its effect can be pretty ruthless," he said in a speech in 2002. "It's the kind of language that turns our society into 'the economy', our citizens into 'the consumers' and our public funds into 'taxpayers' money'." He described the phrase "the arts industry" and the adoption by arts advocates of the vogue-ish terminology of the markets as a Trojan horse. "How is it, "he asks, "that people concerned with speaking up for 'the arts' and other cultural activities have been reduced to that kind of twaddle?"

Yes, we need another phrase. But that aside, Meyrick's main claim is that theatre practitioners need to overcome their distaste of the nationalistic connotations of the term "Australian theatre", and to regain a concept of a "whole" Australian theatre, a sense of common endeavour and generosity which admits difference (and history). Which raises two questions for me, neither of them rhetorical: when was this golden age, before we lost this sense of "over-arching identity"? Might it not rather be an imaginary Eden that now must be, to mix my metaphors, forged fresh in the smithy of our souls? And, secondly, do we need the term "Australian" at all, or could this sense of identity be found simply in the term "theatre"? It sometimes seems to me that the term "Australian" is so vexed that often the idea of "theatre" gets elided altogether.

This is not to ignore, but rather to embrace, Meyrick's point about specific Australian traditions. To think of a common practice of theatre is to enfold these traditions into a wider and richer context which includes all theatre, in all times and all languages. Australian theatre is still overwhelmingly Anglophone, looking over its shoulder towards London and New York - even the name of this series, Platform Papers, is taken from a National Theatre initiative. And I would suggest that this linguistic parochialism is one of its problems, and one reason why such a narrow range of aesthetic is admitted into mainstream discussion.

With the Anglophone bias goes the traditional Anglo suspicion of "intellectuals". Meyrick digs up some classic artist-bashing, of the kind made familiar by such pundits as Andrew Bolt; but what is less easy to see and, I think, ultimately more damaging, is the anti-intellectualism within the artform itself. I remember speaking to a distinguished literary critic, then reviewing theatre, who told me airily that he never read new plays as they weren't "literary", something that astonished me. What is sadder is that playwrights themselves, mistaking "literary" for meaning "prosaic" or "untheatrical", often have a similar idea about their own work. At one stroke, this removes the art of writing plays from the entirety of experiment and argument that is imaginative and critical literature, and places it - where? In an isolated playpen with crayons and dolls?

A result of this is that much theatrical experiment in Australia has been confined to "non-verbal drama" of various kinds, out of a feeling that "verbal drama" is aesthetically limiting, and the writing of plays itself has desiccated into a hidebound naturalism. It is common to hear "text-based theatre" spoken of in a dismissive way, as the conservative wing of theatrical artistry. This is inaccurate in terms of wider history, where writing has been the engine for most innovations in modern theatre, but here it has a certain self-fulfilling truth. And this raises a crucial issue, which is the lack of a critical discourse which can discuss aesthetic qualities in any useful manner. In the absence of this, no amount of structural institutional analysis - useful and necessary though it is - can make any sense. The mere presence of new Australian work is no guarantee of cultural health; it has to be Australian work that matters. But how one determines what makes it matter is another, and even thornier, question.


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