TorqueCritics and "objectivity"Two BrothersThe Ham Funeral/Journal of a Plague YearBlog reportFelix Listens to the World ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 28, 2005


Torque: Liquid Paper 1: Making Light of Gravity by Hellen Sky and The Proscenium by Margaret Cameron. Three performance "showing" @ the Malthouse Theatre.

One of the definitions of torque is "the moment of a system of forces producing rotation". It's easy to see why Hellen Sky and Margaret Cameron chose Torque to title this double bill: Liquid Paper 1: Making Light of Gravity and The Proscenium stand in dynamic relation to each other, circling around common concerns and creating a deeply interesting theatrical conversation between two extremely accomplished and very different solo performers.

Hellen Sky's background is mainly in dance and new media; she is artistic director of Dancehouse, and the co-director of Company in Space, whose work focuses on the intersections between technology and art. Margaret Cameron is a performer/writer, whose profoundly poetic work has for years been stubbornly challenging conventional theatre practice in Melbourne. Seeing their two solo pieces in tandem was fascinating. Both are challenging works of considerable beauty, and both, in different but deeply related ways, interrogate notions of the self and the body.

Liquid Paper 1: Making Light of Gravity is an elegant and multidimensional work which synthesises a number of approaches to theatre. Hellen Sky uses performance, text and new media image-making to create a densely poetic work on the mediated, technological body.

For me, new media works in the theatre when it sets up a tension between the living, immediate performer and the mediated image. Liquid Paper not only sets up this tension: it's about it.

Three sides of the stage are hung with long rolls of paper, on which are projected animated images: elemental images of flames and water, words which break up into their constituent letters, disconcerting close-ups of a woman's body. Hellen Sky moves between and within the projections: sometimes she dances, sometimes she sits at a desk reading from a computer screen, pushing it around the space. A monitor forestage captures her live movements on a screen.

Her stage presence flickers from complete anonymity, silhouetted against the febrile projected images, to a particular, if nameless, individual. This performance interrogates an idea of the body which attacks the notion of the individual self. It shifts between differing angles and states of perception, oscillating between expressing the body as conscious subject and describing it as technological object. The tension in this work is partly between ideas of the body and this body; that is, an Aristotlean tension between the universal, which can be described, and the particular, which no term can wholly capture and which, therefore, becomes the province of the poetic.

In a text which is a collage of quotation, poetic epiphany, snatches of anecdote and ironic observation, Sky draws connections between the social /political body, computer technology, media networks and cellular processes like the neural networks of the brain. The boundary between one self and another is skin, but skin is by no means a certain border: it is permeable, fluid, a layer of "liquid paper".

The connection between different systems - social, biological, technological - is code: the codes of spoken language, DNA, computers, social encounters; all the subliminal systems that shape meaning, place and identity. With code, as with language, the question is whether we define it, or if it defines us. Sky's answer is by no means definitive: she opens with a sinister example, the Bush Government's colour-coded "Homeland security defence system", which controls power by manipulating social fear. "Green - 'low'; blue -'guarded'; yellow - 'high'; orange - 'elevated'; red - 'severe'...."Safe," Sky notes, "doesn't even merit a hue. Safe, it would seem, has fallen off the spectrum of perception."

That is, of course, if "safe" ever existed as anything more than a comforting illusion. Sky explores a reality in which nothing is safe or certain, in which the self threatens to disappear entirely in a haze of pixels, to "fall like Alice down that virtual hole". But rather than vanishing, the self adapts and transforms. "The body is a conduit … making meaning…making new bodies and senses of the languages of media, codes and scripts codes of inscription... The key to my code is in my skin, is in my blood, and is in my brain," says Sky. This recalls cruder ideas that remain, despite the vertigo of virtuality, as tangible and intransigent as her dancing body is in the space before us.

The text is pre-recorded, and shifts between clarity and distortion. The distorted sound makes the language work as if it were a score, with phrasal repetitions acting like musical motifs. The audience listens, half hears, misinterprets, then collides with a shock against a clear passage, an intimate anecdote or a repeated poetic line. The effect is grating, disconcerting, alienating and intriguing: like some contemporary poetries, it asks you to focus on the sonic qualities of words, their rhythms and sounds, as much as on their meanings.

Margaret Cameron, in startling contrast, is an actor standing barefoot on a stage, mediated by nothing except the masks of her words and performance, which reveal as much as they conceal. For Cameron, the mind itself is the theatre, and thinking is a kind of performance. The stage is a space of dream, a threshold where anything might be possible, "the scene of thought, the proscenium".

The Proscenium is subtitled "A childhood speaking against the drying wind", and the text constantly returns to some very specific childhood memories: the vivid image of her father being hosed through a window, making it "rain inside", which becomes for Cameron a primary metaphor of possibility in the theatre; and a memory of standing at a doorway, a threshold, on the other side of which stands her unhappy mother. The threshold is also a central image: the doorway where an artist hesitates, neither in one place nor the other.

"Our work," says Cameron, "enunciates thought / becoming shape". The Proscenium doesn't seek to express a finished thought, but rather to catch it on the wing, in the moments where thinking is still not quite articulate, when it is indistinguishable from physical embodiment or dream. It's an ambitious and fascinating undertaking, and suggests a profound idea of the theatre.

This performance dramatises a return to the very genesis of creation, its a priori. Where Sky uses code as a primary metaphor, Cameron speaks of the dream image "embedded within the ancient erotic curve / of the imaginary of the symbolic of that / which forms us". Which could equally be an image of DNA, as much as a description of dream.

Cameron's only prop is a large stone, which she stands on, plays with, or lays on her belly in a series of fluidly linked scenes that are differentiated by David Franske's evocative lighting states and soundscapes. The stone's obdurate materiality becomes the outward embodiment of primordial imaginative form, the expression of a freedom which is the return to "a bare child of imaginings / prancing barefoot / with a stone".

An avowed ambition of this piece is to embody ambiguity, a state when form is still shaping itself and has not solidified into singular meaning: and here Cameron resorts to the language of paradox. It is in this language that it's possible for a stone to symbolise a liminal state of becoming, to be at once a literal outline of form and an allusive and elusive symbol. She speaks of a "return" to an interior landscape of memory and desire, a movement which folds back against itself in a spiralling motion or which she describes elsewhere as a "vertical descent". "I must advance to return," says Cameron; but clearly also she must return to advance. This double movement is, as is Cameron's project to physicalise thinking, essentially erotic: a motion of fluid exchange between substance and the insubstantial, the literal and the metaphoric, act and thought.

Like all Cameron's solo pieces,The Proscenium is a strikingly personal work, an impression reinforced by the astounding mix of vulnerability and forceful presence that Cameron achieves in her performance. But it is a mistake to think of Cameron's work as merely personal and impertinent to assume it is autobiography; its authenticity stems from other qualities. Cameron's concern with aesthetic as a process pushes her work past the personal into something like the anonymity of poetry. Memory is not locked into a nostalgic past: it insists itself actively into the making of the present, the atemporal space Cameron creates so compellingly on the stage.

It's the latest and perhaps the most lyric of Cameron's ongoing explorations of the "solo female performer". Its contrasts with Liquid Paper are as interesting as its cross references, and seeing both together was an experience which resonated well beyond their performance. No doubt these works will return to Melbourne, though perhaps not as a double bill. They are each well worth the attention they demand.

Company in Space
Knowledge and Melancholy by Margaret Cameron

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Critics and "objectivity"

Fellow theatre blogger Spearbearer Down Left has a post on Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel (how's that for alliteration, folks?) which caught my eye, because it talks about crrrrritics.

Paula Vogel has, it seems, invited theatre critics along to a day-long "boot camp", during which they'll be asked to write plays "on the spot". This is an idea that has a history: I remember some years ago the Guardian's theatre critic Michael Billington writing about an exercise in which he was invited to direct a play, in order to understand better how difficult it is. And there are those panels (I've participated in at least two) which "criticise the critics". It's part of the endless quest by the theatre world to grapple critics to its heart, all the better to strangle them (only joking).

Spearbearer writes:

Vogel has an open, yet somewhat skeptical view of theatre criticism.  Readers of this blog will find it no surprise that it resonates with me.  She says, "I disagree with the stance of critics being objective journalists outside the theatre community.  Such an attitude is becoming destructive to our field, and I imagine it's hard for them to maintain their love of theatre as outsiders."

Linda Winer of Newsday, worries that critics writing plays poses "a slippery ethical—or appearance of ethical—problem.  If a critic's plays are circulating and productions being considered by various theatres, doesn't that critic have a conflict of interest at those theatres?"  To which my first reaction would be: with all due respect, let's talk about it once you have that problem.

Of course in theory, she does bring up a valid issue.  And full disclosure is the answer.  Such a problem doesn't seem to have prevented Robert Brustein from engaging in both criticism and theatre creation.  He simply discloses when he's discussing someone with which he may have a conflict of interest.  And readers can draw their own conclusions.  In other words, he doesn't pretend to be, in Vogel's words, "an objective journalist outside the theatre community."

Robert Brustein was an early inspiration to me, back when I was a tyro-critic doing what Clive James described once as an "iceberg on a raft" impression (the art of appearing to reveal only ten per cent of one's knowledge, when what is on show is everything that one knows). Another touchstone was David Mamet's plea to critics in his book of essays Writing in Restaurants (that was in the old days, before he became a Hollywood-bloated Guru).

That old stance of critics being objective reporters on the theatre has always seemed to me to be a load of hooey. And it is, as Vogel claims, profoundly destructive: it's the attitude at the root of the deadly criticism that has been the bane of Melbourne theatre for decades. It's an idea which hermetically seals a critic from the experience of theatre, being forced thereby to sit above it on a higher, purer plane, uncontaminated by anything that is actually going on.

Back in my Bulletin days I remember the former Age critic Leonard Radic telling me, when I innocently queried him about a play we had both just seen, that he couldn't possibly talk about it in case he was "influenced". I was amazed: what thoughts were so delicate that they could be immutably changed by a conversation? And what's so bad about being "influenced", anyway, if it means being more thoughtful?

The most profound experience of theatre - in fact, of all art - is intensely subjective; to deny that is to miss the point. This is not to say that a critic is not a privileged audience member: a critic sees more theatre than the average person, and gets to air his or her opinions about it in public. This suggests a certain responsibility: but that responsibility is not, I suggest, towards this faux objectivity, which is almost always a mask for an unacknowledged agenda. Rather than the death cap of some final "judgment", the criticism I like reading presents itself as an informed and responsive subjectivity that is part of a many-sided conversation.

Anyway, that's what I'm trying to do here. I figure that I'm part of the theatre community - as, in fact, is any person who buys a ticket and rocks up for the show. I'm an artist who thinks theatre is a brilliant art form, and I will argue with it until I turn blue, out of sheer fascination. I have my preferences and advocacies, which I hope are clear in what I write, and full disclosure of my particular interests are up there in the side bar. I hope I'm always fair, or at the least honest. And all you out there have permission to kick me if I ever pretend to be "objective".

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Two Brothers

Two Brothers by Hannie Rayson. Directed by Simon Phillips, designed by Stephen Curtis. With Rodney Afif, Caroline Brazier, Diane Craig, Nicholas Eadie, Laura Lattuada, Ben Lawson, Garry McDonald and Hamish Michael. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Arts Centre Playhouse.

Herald Sun instapundit Andrew Bolt seems to have taken his micro-appearance in Two Brothers as the columnist Andrew Blot rather personally. Frothing with self-righteousness and demonstrating his usual uncertain grasp of the difference between fact and fiction, he branded Hannie Rayson's play a "smug vomit of hate".

But he hasn't stopped there: in a quick follow-up, under the startling headline "Hannie's Evil Brew", he diligently researched Ms Rayson's CV in order to attack the "flood of government gold" that has funded her witchy career: the "tax-payer funded" universities, the "tax-payer funded" theatre companies and the "tax-payer funded" literary prizes.

Yea, verily, writ the Jeremiah of the tabloids: our Hannie is a "guzzling artist", profiting by a "great gush" of public money that is pouring all over those layabout chardonnay drinkers who vote Labor and thumb their noses at ordinary people. (If only it were true: studies have in fact revealed that artists are among the lowest paid and hardest working people in Australia. One wonders if Bolt gets as riled about the "taxpayer funded" post office workers or even the "taxpayer funded" Prime Minister and his extraordinary travel bill. But that's by the bye.)

Bolt is amusing as well as poisonous, much like Lord Haw-Haw. But I mention him because he nevertheless touches, if hamfistedly and inaccurately, a real difficulty with Two Brothers. It is morally, politically and aesthetically confused, and a large part of the problem stems from its thin fictionalising of actual people and events.

Two Brothers is openly based on the Costello brothers, Peter and Tim: one the Treasurer for the conservative Liberal government, the other a Baptist church leader who is a leading voice on social justice. In the play, they are transformed into "Eggs" Benedict (Garry McDonald), the wicked Liberal Minister for Home Security, and Tom Benedict (Nicholas Eadie), the bleeding heart liberal lawyer/activist defending the rights of asylum seekers.

The fictional characters bear very little resemblance to the Costellos themselves, but Rayson is clearly intending a polemic on current Australian politics and throws in constant topical references to underscore her point. Nevertheless, this is really a family drama with national politics thrown in to vamp up the psychic static. There's Eggs' neurotic socialite wife Fiona (Diane Craig), his naval son Lachlan (Ben Lawson) and the family tragedy of his dead son. On the other side, there's the outspoken Greek wife of Tom, Ange (Laura Lattuada) and their weak-willed son Harry (Hamish Michael).

The plot is fairly tortured, but it more or less follows the machinations after a boat full of refugees (suspiciously like the SEIVX) goes down in international waters on Christmas Day, drowning almost all aboard. The sole survivor, Hazem Al-Ayed (Rodney Afif) saw Australian naval vessels nearby which, instead of rescuing the drowning passengers, turned and abandoned them... and we have already heard, at the family Christmas dinner, the wicked Eggs (hiss) giving the order to "take no action". By an extraordinary coincidence, Eggs' son Lachlan happens to be on that very ship: he rings his father in distress and the wicked father slams down the phone on his upset son, and refuses to let him talk to his mother. And on Christmas Day, too! (Boo hiss).

By another extraordinary coincidence, the Iraqi survivor of the sinking is represented by... Tom! And Tom, naturally, finds out about the scandal of the Australian ships refusing to pick up the drowning asylum seekers. Eggs gets his even wickeder sidekick, the ball-tearing femocrat Jamie Savage (Caroline Brazier) to get the machinery working to silence his rather too vocal brother. Because Eggs has heard that the PM is retiring, and he is going for the Top Job, and nothing, repeat, nothing is going to stand in his way...

And... well, you can probably guess the rest. Although the second half really stretched my credulity in more than one way, at interval my friend and I took bets on what would happen at the end of the play and, sadly, we were both right.

Eggs is a bad egg all through. Not only is he a "callous bastard", a bully who all but beats his wife, refuses to go to marriage counselling and will use even the death of his son as a tool for manipulation; he's an adulterer, a liar and a power junkie driven by naked greed. There's even lightning when he first comes on stage. All he lacks is a waxed moustache and a black cloak.

Eggs loses credibility as both a character and a metaphor in the opening seconds of the play, when he stabs Hazem Al-Ayed after surprising him in his beach house. Rather than making government moral culpability clearer, this act muddies it altogether with a wholly inappropriate melodrama. Albert Speer or Adolf Eichmann were not convicted because they personally killed Jews; their responsibility was at arm's length. And this question of bureaucratic culpability is what Hannah Arendt went to great lengths to examine in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she coined the famous phrase "the banality of evil".

After the opening scene, there is no hope of any investigation of this sort in Two Brothers, despite the odd conversation about "good" and "evil". The subtle discriminations and moral exactitudes of Arendt don't exist in this universe. Similarly, Rayson melodramatically exaggerates the actual circumstances of SEIVX (thus opening the door for Bolt's rabid ravings), the real circumstances of which are much more complex, if very disturbing.

The effect is to blur the political dialogue that the play seeks to engender. The human cost of border protection is supposed to be represented by the character of Hazem, played heroically by Rodney Afif, who is a fine actor. But the structure of the play permits him to be little more than the token Iraqi, an occasion for liberal sympathy in a play which is really a drama about a middle class family.

As Simone de Beauvoir said, "Heaven save us from those with good intentions!" I am all sympathy for work which engages with the issues facing asylum seekers in this country; it's a scandal that requires open public discussion. Unfortunately, I think this is precisely the wrong way to go about it.

Probably the archetypal play of liberal protest is Arthur Miller's The Crucible, written in response to the McCarthy-era hysteria against Communists. It's notable that, rather than caricaturing McCarthy himself, Miller went back 300 years in American history to the Salem witch trials to make his point. Another current model of theatrical protest is the tribunal theatre, a specialty of London's Tricycle Theatre, who have just opened with a dramatisation of the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. In this theatre, there is no fictionalising at all: just a carefully honed presentation of fact. Another tack was taken in Melbourne recently, in a brilliant piece of movement theatre that addressed the treatment of asylum seekers, Subclass26A.

Whatever the merits of any of these approaches (I have real doubts about documentary theatre), there is no doubt that they are all effective ways of theatricalising political debate without cheating the issues. Rayson's fictionalising falls between several stools. Of course she has every right to make up what she likes: but it's hard to avoid a sense of exploitation in this work. Behind her exaggerated fictions are real tragedies and real questions and, moreover, real people. Fudging the differences between fact and imagination does service to neither; it confuses the debate (as Andrew Bolt's hysterical responses demonstrate) and raises the uncomfortable question of art exploiting human suffering.

Simon Phillips certainly gives the play a slick production. Stephen Curtis' elegant revolving set sweeps the short scenes across the stage, minimising any longueurs in the script with swift pacing, and he has a high quality cast. Garry McDonald manages his melodramatic role with a surprising flair; although there is absolutely no development in this character - or in any of the others - he generates a complex presence on stage of moral weakness and intransigent greed. Nicholas Eadie demonstrates that it's much more fun playing the bad guy; the only complexity he can find is an occasional kink in his halo.

I was troubled by the female characters. Fiona Benedict, Eggs' unfortunate wife, beggars belief as the browbeaten neurotic socialite. Diane Craig does her best, but in between talking about dresses and bursting into tears, there's really not much she can do to make her character credible. Jamie Savage (played with brutal efficiency by Caroline Brazier) is a porn fantasy of the working woman, and is the real source of evil in the play; one wonders, as an aside, why the strong public woman necessitates a scene of sexual humiliation. Even the supposedly liberated teacher, Ange (Laura Lattuada), demonstrates her feminine credentials by constantly talking about cooking: we can't have those feministas too out there, I guess.

But, as always with Hannie Rayson, this is impeccable middle class theatre about middle class characters directed to middle class audiences. It doesn't dig deep enough to disturb any assumptions or to be genuinely moving, but perhaps it provides the fodder for a few dinner party conversations. It resolves debate into easily digestible binaries - right vs left, good vs evil, victim vs oppressor. In this way it's a kind of negative reflection of the simplistic Manichean universe of our good friend, Mr Bolt. Therein, perhaps, lies its deepest problem.

Drowning in Propaganda, by Tom Hyland: The Age
The Fiction and Fact of Two Brothers, by Hannie Rayson: The Age
Melbourne Theatre Company

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Ham Funeral/Journal of a Plague Year

The Ham Funeral by Patrick White, Journal of a Plague Year by Tom Wright. Directed by Michael Kantor, designed by Anna Tregloan. Lighting by Paul Jackson, costumes by Fiona Crombie. With Marta Dusseldorp, Julie Forsyth, Robert Menzies, Lucy Taylor, Dan Spielman, Ross Williams and Matthew Whittet. Malthouse Theatre.

As Michael Kantor's first presentation as Malthouse artistic director, this double bill is a provocative signal of intention. It offers an alternative means of imagining Australian theatre, outside the narrowly nationalistic or topical concerns which have dominated the Playbox aesthetic since the early 1990s. And although I don't feel it's an unqualified artistic success, I left feeling more hopeful about Melbourne theatre than I have for many years.

For a long time, mainstream plays in Melbourne have been presented under various aegises: as bearers of social issues, education, political commentary or, perhaps least offensively, as mere entertainment. As for theatre itself, it has sometimes seemed to be the Art That Dares Not Tell Its Name, a shameful embarrassment that has had to be decently cloaked in more palatable imperatives.

So it's a relief to be offered works that place themselves unapologetically in the culture and history of theatre itself. The paradoxical effect of this is to make theatre immediately less parochial in its concerns, to engage its tentacular ability to grasp social, literary and philosophical concerns and to thrust them onto the vulgar carnality of the stage. It's an aesthetic that is far from apolitical, but this is a politics which doesn't earnestly explore "issues", in order to coax from them a masochistically satisfying (but temporary) inflammation of the liberal conscience. Rather, it's a politics which begins by attempting to address some of the complexities of existence.

These two productions, presented in repertory with an ensemble cast, look back to major movements in 20th century theatre: the existential theatre of Beckett, the absurdism of Arabal and Ionesco, the revolutionary theatre imagined by Artaud. It's a truism that Australian theatre has marginalised these influences in favour of naturalistic conventions, but it seems to me that the truth of that story is much more complex than a simplistic naturalistic/non-naturalistic division. Our theatre has also ignored naturalistic writers like Peter Kenna; and some of the significant playwrights of the '70s, Jack Hibberd and John Romeril, for example, were certainly influenced by White and his contemporaries.

I suspect that the work which has been most marginalised over the past few decades is any theatre which refuses easy sentiment and pierces, instead, to the marrow of complex emotion. Which is to say, a tragic theatre. There is something in the Australian psyche which flinches against such difficult surgeries, preferring instead the "relaxed and comfortable" vision of life that was so attractively peddled by John Howard. All the same, I perceive a great and increasing hunger for this kind of work, as the world has darkened over the past few years. This cathartic emotional affect is also difficult to achieve. The Ham Funeral shows triumphantly how it can be done; the Artaudian Journal of a Plague Year how easily the grandiose gesture can flail and miss its mark.

The Ham Funeral was written in 1947 but was not produced until more than a decade later; astoundingly, this is its first professional production in Melbourne. It emerges from the formally adventurous theatre which grew out of European modernism, exemplified by playwrights like Arabal, Beckett and Ionesco. Watching The Ham Funeral, it seems strange that it is not mentioned in the same breath as Waiting for Godot (which it predates by two years) or Rhinoceros. Part of the answer might be in its stubborn Australianness; from its poetic cadences to its irreverent eclecticism to its joyous vulgarity, it's a profoundly antipodean work. But in Australia, it was simply considered too odd, or too obscene. We do not have a good record with our best artists.

The Ham Funeral is a post-romantic work written by an artist deeply uncomfortable with his own romanticism. It's about a young poet (Dan Spielman), who lodges with Mr and Mrs Lusty (Ross Williams and Julie Forsyth) in a boarding house full of "everlasting furniture". Mr Lusty suddenly drops dead, and Mrs Lusty takes the opportunity to give a lavish feast, "an 'am funeral", in his honour. Mrs Lusty, a woman driven by incontinent appetites, attempts to seduce the young poet, with comically tragic consequences. There's a fair bit of Jungian symbolism - the house as the self, the anima behind the door, the carnal desires in the basement - but this is merely a single strand in a play which works on a multiplicity of levels. One of its major obsessions is the insufficiencies of words in the face of life, the question of how language might escape its own imprisonments.

White's theatrical language is superbly dynamic, and imbued with a fearless vitality. It's resonant with allusion, prefiguring not only the slapstick of Beckett and the absurdist freedoms of Ionesco or Arabal, but also echoing poets as bizarrely diverse as Arthur Rimbaud and Walter de la Mare. Ultimately, the sophistication of White's linguistic skills works to evoke feeling at its most subterranean and mysterious. For all its vulgar comedy - among many other delights, it features a terrific fart joke - this is a play which reveals above all the anguish of consciousness, the pain and release which underlies any honest moment of self-recognition, and the price of risking the barren self to engage with the beauty and violence of the world. It's the kind of work which moves you to tears, without being quite sure why.

Michael Kantor's production is a beautiful realisation of the play. It's notable for its clarity: in one sense, Kantor has merely presented the text as simply and elegantly as possible. But this is a deceptive simplicity, gained through some thoughtful problem solving. Anna Tregloan has designed a flexible but evocative playing space: the boarding house is represented by a stage with a row of curtained windows backstage which can be lit or concealed, and fronted by the bare floor. The stairs - the liminal place between rooms where various characters pause to utter their uncertain thoughts - are indicated by bars of light. A red curtain drawn back by the Young Man foregrounds the artifice of the play, just as the text does. There are moments of memorable visual richness: a lyrical glimpse of Dan Spielman and Robert Menzies in overcoats, running through the rain with their umbrellas; the landlord's relatives, boxed behind windows, grotesquely attired in pyjamas like characters out of Endgame.

But ultimately the success of the production stands or falls on the performances; in particular, on the roles of the Young Man and Mrs Lusty, since this play is almost a two-hander with some extra characters. Dan Spielman and Julie Forsyth are up to the task. Spielman, always a performer notable for his emotional fearlessness, portrays the solipsistic romanticism of the Young Man and its violent fracture with scarcely a missed beat. If sometimes he subtly falls into what look like actorly habits, we can forgive him for his unfudged clarity of feeling and intelligent irony.

Julie Forsyth is a comic delight, always just this side of grotesque caricature: on the one hand in incandescent rebellion against the bleakness of her life, and on the other imbued with a touchingly innocent longing. The violent climax of the play, an extraordinary scene of miserable sexual violence between Mrs Lusty and the Young Man, is played by both of them with a raw passion that makes it devastatingly tragic. They are well supported: in particular, Ross Williams, one of the more underestimated actors in Melbourne, portrays the silent landlord with a deft tragicomic touch, and Robert Menzies has some gloriously black comic moments. Max Lyandvert's sound, a mixture of pre-recorded soundscapes and live piano music, also deserves mention.

The same cast also plays Tom Wright's Journal of a Plague Year. For this production, Kantor capitalises on the cavernous spaces of the Merlyn Theatre to create a huge black canvas on which he projects a series of tableaux. The cast creates a series of dramatic or grotesque images, some of which are strikingly memorable: the black-cloaked narrator (Robert Menzies) emerging from darkness, illuminated only by the lamp he is carrying; a plague victim (Matthew Whittet) crucified on a moveable panel, tormented by disembodied hands; Nell Gwynne (Lucy Taylor) in busty Restoration garb, singing '70s pop songs.

The major problem with this work is that these images, however striking, never amount to anything substantial; they are grotesquerie without emotional force, and so can never approach actual horror or tragedy. The problem begins with Tom Wright's script, which merits some discussion.

The pretext for this work is supposedly Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the plague that struck London in 1665. Defoe's novel is a early example of fictional journalism; it purports to be the memoirs of a pious Protestant merchant, H.F. It's a somewhat disorderly narrative, but all the same told with a meticulous attention to detail - Defoe researched the public records, and items like the death figures or public health measures are set down with an almost bureaucratic zeal. For all his piety, H.F.'s manner is free of pompous moralising or overblown religiosity: he is a practical and materialistic man, recording a tragic human phenomenon with an insatiable and sceptical curiosity.

Aside from its 17th century setting, its quotes from Defoe and the theme of the plague, Tom Wright's version has in fact very little to do with the original. A Journal of the Plague Year is essentially about survival; Defoe is fascinated by the endless ingenuity of human resistances against both the plague and its catastrophic economic effects. The novel ends with a rhyme about the plague which "swept an hundred thousand souls / Away; yet I alive!" Wright's Journal, on the other hand, is about apocalyptic extremity and exploits a religious fervour that Defoe's text pragmatically eschews. Its actual genesis is the avatar of the Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud.

Some artists are perilous influences; they tend to be innovative geniuses whose work is so idiosyncratic that imitators without equal abilities can only seem mannered. I'm thinking of writers like Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins; among theatre artists, Artaud is probably the most dangerous. Howard Barker's Theatre of Catastrophe or the plays of Sarah Kane are successful examples of the contemporary application of some of Artaud's ideas; both are fiercely moral writers who launch full-frontal attacks on the humanistic tradition of reason.

One problem with Artaud is that he means it, and any artist who decides to pick up on his ideas had better mean it, too. Another problem is that the logical end of Artaud's idea of "absolute revolt" is Pol Pot and Year Zero (Pol Pot was, it must be remembered, educated in Paris). Like Rimbaud, Artaud insisted on the collapse of any boundary between art and life: thought and act were to be completely identified. He despised empty formalism. "If there is one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time," he wrote in The Theatre and The Plague, "it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames." He insisted on a carnal theatre, a theatre that reinstated the poetry that had been corrupted by modernity and reason, a theatre that "recovers the notion of symbols and archetypes which act like silent blows, rests, leaps of the heart, summons of the lymph, inflammatory images thrust into our abruptly wakened heads".

Wright, unlike Kane or Barker, is altogether too cerebral to answer this kind of visceral demand. The contrast with Patrick White's theatrical language is stark; where White is dynamic, tactile and supple, Wright is static and abstract. But the work suffers also in comparison to writers who shape the banalities of language, playwrights like Michel Vinaver or Thomas Bernhard: neither of them speak in generalities, where Wright seldom escapes them.

Oddly, for all its gestures towards unreason, Wright's text seems tame; it is much more orderly than Defoe, who is quite happy for most of his book to ignore the demands of chronology or even literary logic. The details of urban life that swarm in Defoe's text are filleted out in favour of apocalyptic religiosity, and events taken from the novel are simplified and exaggerated into grand guignol melodrama. One example is the scene about plague victims being nailed into their houses; the actuality, as reported by Defoe, was both more complicated and less absolute. The victims in fact had their keys taken and a watchman set outside their door: and they often tricked the watchmen and escaped out the back. I personally find myself more attracted by the subversion of the original tale. And the constant equation of women with infection and sexual delirium has more than a whiff of misogyny. I think what bothers me most is that Wright has what poets call a "cloth ear"; a problem closely aligned to the lack of tactility or carnality in his language. He might get away with a lot more if he had more intuitive sensitivity to the cadences of a line.

The text is organised in a kind of modular prison, with Brechtian signs traversing the stage signalling each month (it's only a matter of time before you start calculating that there are five months until December). Each month ushers in a different theme - contagion's genesis, evil visions, interpretration of dreams, the pit of death - which the actors duly illustrate. But perhaps where Wright most inverts his apparently anarchic intentions is at the end, when he encloses the narrative with a moral homily about the essential bestiality of human nature. This is, despite its crazed dress, humanistic theatre after all.

I can't say I was bored, even if sometimes I was impatient. There was enough visual interest and flashes of wit to keep me from wanting to lay violent hands on myself. I particularly liked the philosopher's chat show, where Hobbes, Artaud and others seated at microphones dispute the nature of reality. Robert Menzies as the narrator generates enough energy to keep it together, despite what sounds like an almost unperformable text, and the rest of the cast does its best, which is in moments more than enough. It's a shame that all this effort amounts to little more than a procession of images.

Despite my reservations, it is a breath of fresh air to see mainstream theatre with ambition and intellectual clout, and that takes itself seriously as an art. I have no doubt this shift in artistic direction will generate a lot of controversy; Helen Thomson's bitterly hostile reviews (here and here) in the Age this week are probably symptomatic. I also have no doubt that this new phase at Malthouse is the best thing that's happened there in the past decade; and as a theatre goer, I am hoping that this is only the beginning of a more generous imagining of the Australian stage.

Picture: Matthew Whittet in Journal of a Plague Year
Malthouse Theatre

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Blog report

No reviews this week - I'm taking it a bit easy, due to recent ill health. But a couple of big shows coming up for next week's blog - Malthouse artistic director Michael Kantor's ambitious double bill of Patrick White's The Ham Funeral and Tom Wright's adaptation of Daniel Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year, with an exciting ensemble cast (featuring Robert Menzies, Dan Spielman and Julie Forsyth). This is the first taste of what the revamped Malthouse Theatre might be like. And show No. 2 is Hannie Rayson's play, Two Brothers, opening this week at the Melbourne Theatre Company with Gary McDonald and Nicholas Eadie. Today it was pre-emptively branded a "vomit of smug hate" by that well known arts connoisseur Andrew Bolt - exciting times indeed. Full TN reports next week.

And also some news - I have been asked to be a member of the Malthouse Theatre's (formerly Playbox) Artistic Counsel for 2005 (no, no spelling mistake in "counsel" - the emphasis is on the verb). This is a 10-member advisory panel coordinated by the Malthouse dramaturge Maryanne Lynch that is drawn from Melbourne's artistic community - both practising artists and commentators. Members will attend Malthouse shows and then proffer their full and frank opinions at the end of each season. These responses will then be folded into the Malthouse's artistic report to the Australia Council as part of its self assessment.

This is right up my alley, and I see no conflict of interest with my work on the blog, which from the start has been about initiating and participating in a conversation with the theatre and theatre practitioners. After Michael Kantor directed my play Lenz for the 1996 Melbourne Arts Festival, when he and I had a very serious artistic disagreement, he can be in no doubt that I don't pull my punches in my responses; and I think the creation of the Artistic Counsel, and its brief, is an excellent sign of a desire for open and honest dialogue. This can only be good; though I reckon the jury will be out on the impact and success of the changes at the Malthouse for at least a year.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Felix Listens to the World

Felix Listens to the World, devised and performed by Joseph O'Farrell, Miles O'Neil and Glen Walton. Suitcase Royale @ Gertrudes, Fitzroy.

Gentle reader, sometimes to be a critic - even a self-appointed creature such as I - is a question of commitment. Commitment and resolve. Commitment, resolve and guts of even a Quixotian nature. So it was recently, when one evening I sallied forth, via the peripatetic Melbourne public transport system, to see Felix Listens to the World.

Picture, if you will, the said critic (me), miserable with the depradations of a particularly vicious virus, venturing forth from her cosy fireside into the snow and sleet - oh, all right, into the somewhat brisk breezes of Fitzroy. Glamorously garbed in hat, scarf, gloves, coat and thick woollen underwear, the red-nosed one shivers her way across town, pathetically clutching cough lollies and her copy of the London Review of Books, her major defence against unreliable timetables.

And for what? An inextinguishable curiosity? A heroic desire to bring the word back from the Olympian heights of art? Sheer idiocy? All of the above? For as theatre goers know, theatre is a perilous enterprise...all this effort could have left me sulking soggily for an hour in a dark room, wishing I was home filing my nails.

But this, reader, was not one of those occasions. (Yes, I'm getting to the theatre now). I was to be translated out of my quotidian existence, by an enchantment particular to theatre; and since that existence was at the time fairly pitiable, this seemed to me an unalloyedly good thing. The sign that greeted the audience on their way to the assortment of cushions and couches that was the auditorium said: "Please turn off all links to the real world". I, for one, was only too happy to oblige.

Felix Listens to the World is the first work made by Suitcase Royale, a new company of three young performers, Joseph O'Farrell, Miles O'Neil and Glen Walton. They describe what they do as "junkyard theatre". The discarded objects of the not-so-distant past litter their stage: manual typewriters (remember them?), gramophones, lamps, fishing rods, battered suitcases, film projectors.

These objects are refugees from the 20th century, drenched with a nostalgia as gentle as the yellow lamplight that illuminates them, and they form the materials for the performance. The fear of giving an erroneous impression makes me hesitate to say that this show is child-like: it has a naivety that properly lives in the heart of all theatre, the "let's pretend" factor, but it rigorously avoids any sense of the saccharine. And this work draws on some sophisticated influences: in particular, European puppetry and physical theatre.

The story is as simple as possible: they enact a fable about the lovelorn Felix searching for his wife Rose, who has for unknown reasons sailed away in a teacup. Felix is played interchangably by the three performers, who are each dressed identically.

A large part of the delight of this show is in its ingenuity: Suitcase Royale employs performer-operated lighting, puppetry techniques, sound and clever inventions to continually surprise you with a shift in perspective. These techniques, like the comedy, depend on sharp timing and placement for effect, and the performers unobtrusively get it right. I especially loved all the changes in scale: a suitcase might open and reveal a tiny city, or a lamp suddenly transform into the moon.

It is enchanting in the best sense. The performance is suffused by an amiable comedy that strikes me as peculiarly European: the same kind of pleasure in the absurd that infuses films like The Triplets of Belleville or puppetry shows I've seen in Paris. Behind its charm is a tremulous sense of the mystery, unpredictability and absurdity of love. But there's a roughness in it I liked too, that stems from the insistence on using found objects, on noticing the humble and discarded aspects of our world.

This show won, deservedly, the 2004 Malthouse 3D Festival, and Best Performance in the 2004 Fringe Festival. Now Suitcase Royale are taking it to tour Canada. If it gets another showing in Melbourne, mark it in your diary. And watch these boys: it's hardly rocket science to predict that we'll hear more of them.

Picture: Joseph O'Farrell, Miles O'Neil and Glen Walton in Felix Listens to the World

Suitcase Royale

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