Fringe: Drink Pepsi, Bitch <i>and</i> BremenEmpanelled...Fringe Festival: TelefunkenBloggersThe Crucible ~ theatre notes

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Fringe: Drink Pepsi, Bitch and Bremen

Drink Pepsi, Bitch performed and written by Eddie Perfect, co-written by Tom Wright. Directed by Tom Healey. Music performed by Ben Hendry, Dustin McLean, Vincenzo Ruberto. Beckett @ The Malthouse Theatre until October 2. Bremen, directed by Michael Cammilleri, North Melbourne Festival Hub, Lithuanian Club Main Theatre until October 1.

Apologies for my lateness this week. Balancing this blog with everything else I do sometimes proves a tightrope act I can't quite manage, especially when I am bitten by yet another novel. I warn all budding writers: novels are a serious drug. You might begin with harmless poems and little playlets, thinking that you can stop any time you like, but before you know it you're trapped in the tentacles of addiction, sacrificing your life to feed your corrosive habit...

Currently, I am writing four novels. Even I think that is excessive. But despite being manacled to the computer, I managed to get out to a couple of Melbourne Fringe shows this week. (Eddie Perfect's show is certainly listed as part of the Fringe, even though, as he said himself, the lighting is too good.)

Drink Pepsi, Bitch! is fun with razor blades. Here is our multi-mediated corporatised world in all its inglorious unreality, from alienated cybersex to call centres to commodified celebrity. It's the universe of Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Oprah Winfrey and celebrity disaster journalism, where our unfulfilled consumerist desires flash and crackle like sick hallucinations above a black abyss of fear.

Eddie Perfect's take on this is rude, crude and witty. After an Austin Powers-type voice-over intro, where some mega-corporate boss summarily liquidates his top celebrities (Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and some other person I forget), Eddie Perfect, faux-rebel, is introduced as the perfect weapon - commodity culture incarnate, set to destroy from within, a kind of lightning rod to safely earth any subversive desires.

It's a sardonic comment on how even rebellion has become a brand name (Che Guavera is, after all, mainly seen on t-shirts these days). And on Eddie bounces, in his suit and Australian Idol hair, to sing the glories of brand culture. His band is dressed (apparently to their displeasure) in cutsie waistcoats and caps, like McDonalds employees.

Drink Pepsi, Bitch! is a show which is basically a mix of cabaret singing and stand up comedy. Perfect likes "strong language" to put a bit of tabasco into his acerbic wit. So this, folks, is not the kind of show you'd take your grandmother to, unless she drinks Bundy and drives a motorbike.

Perfect is at his best when he is most pitiless, although there is one good moment where he reads a letter from the Oprah Winfrey website which is so appallingly sad that it silences the audience: it exposes, beneath the mockery, the human cost of our contemporary delusions.

I found the structure and direction of the show was sometimes clunky and contrived; it's hard not to compare it to Boulevard Delirium, a wholly successful importation of cabaret to the theatre. Where Barrie Kosky's direction slickly and unobtrusively focuses the stage on the talents of Paul Capsis, Tom Healey's here merely attempts to set up a semi-narrative frame. It also lacks a certain variety of texture, so Perfect's show doesn't quite escape a feeling, at times, of sameness, a kind of monotonality.

I also felt that the balance between savage satire and a more explanatory mode of social conscience was a little uneasy and unresolved. Though I liked very much the way Perfect lulls his audience with comedy, only to sock it to them with some biting observation about our own responsibilities for how the world is. No one is let off the hook.

What drives Drink Pepsi, Bitch! is, in the end, the courage and energy of the performer, and Perfect has these in abundance. The show culminates with a wonderful number, "Don't Be So Damn September 10", from his previous Malthouse show with Max Gillies, The Big Con. Here it is given a harsher and rockier edge which excoriates anyone who thinks that compassion is still an option in the New World Order after 9/11.

The following night, pepped up by Perfect, I went along to see Bremen, expecting magical puppets and rock and roll. I had forgotten something important about the Fringe: the right to fail. The fact is, I don't get out enough.

It was in the Lithuanian Club in Erroll Street, North Melbourne. This is an intriguing building, a centre for the Lithuanian community. Courtesy of the collaged photographs on the walls, I learned that "It Is Exciting To Be Lithuanian!" Like I said, I should get out more.

Bremen, loosely based around the Brothers Grimm fairytale, is, at 90 minutes, half an hour too long. It could easily get rid of that half hour by quickening its transitions from scene to scene, and making some of its performers speak their lines at normal conversational speed. To be fair, it may have been a disastrously slow night: aside from the delayed beginning, which came from the previous show running overtime, the lights went up and down a few times before anything actually happened on stage, suggesting a few technical unfamiliarities.

When anything did happen, it happened at a glacial pace. I had plenty of time to reflect on something a director told me a long time ago: that the art of direction is getting people on and off stage.

Despite this, some of the writing was lyrically lovely in a genuinely theatrical way, even through a rather earnest attempt to marry the fairytale with some commentary on asylum seekers.

And there were in fact wonderful moments - when, for example, the Sweet Sassafras Choir appeared, suddenly filling the stage with people, or the first glimpse of Death, who was genuinely, mediaevally impressive - and also some good singing. But the momentary pulse-quickening of these moments was almost immediately dissipated by the glumly slow rhythms of the show.

Melbourne Fringe Festival

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Friday, September 23, 2005


Yes, your favourite blogger is doing the dreaded critics' panel thing again, in which we crrrritics Socratically examine our chosen vocation in a public-spirited attempt to find a reason for living. This one looks potentially interesting. It's part of the Sunday Soapbox series at the Victorian Arts Centre, convened by the inimitable Peter Clarke. I believe the discussion will include questions from the audience.

Event details are:

TITLE: "A Question of Quality: Critics and Reviewers Take a Look at Themselves"

PANEL: Chris Boyd, Lee Christophis, Alison Croggon, Fiona Scott-Norman, John Slavin, Helen Thomson

DATE: Sunday 2 October 2005

TIME: 2.00 - 3.30 pm forum

LOCATION: Foyer, Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre

You can find out more about Peter Clarke and the Sunday Soapbox events here.

All welcome, especially friends of Theatre Notes... Hopefully none of my colleagues will bite me, especially if I promise to be nice. Which, as those who know and love me will confirm, I always am.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fringe Festival: Telefunken

Telefunken written and performed by Stuart Orr, directed by Barry Laing. Table 9 Productions @ the Tower Theatre, Malthouse, until September 25.

"Art, like suicide," says Ralph Manheim Mann blackly during the course of this fascinating show, "is very, very personal."

It's an illuminating analogy. Suicide is at once the ultimate assertion of self - the conscious decision to override even the deepest survival instinct, a blasphemous refusal of life - and the self's ultimate erasure. And if art, as Freud argued, is the sublimation of certain instincts towards death and sex, it is not a sublimation which yields gratification but is peculiarly circular. It is, in fact, a masochistic sublimation, erasing rather than aggrandising the self.

Stuart Orr's anti-Fascist aria Telefunken is art of this kind. Orr's electrifying physical presence is at the centre of the show, but all our attention is splintered and diverted from Orr himself by his very expressiveness. Personal this show may be, but it is the antithesis of confessional.

It's a bit of a challenge to describe its complexities. Telefunken works on several levels, and in reflecting on it, all of them seem to metastasise uncontrollably, creating dense clusters of allusion and metaphor which themselves collect more allusions, more metaphors...and it is no accident that one of the presiding gods in this piece is Loki, the trickster. I fear that one viewing is not nearly enough to absorb all of its implications.

It is, first of all, a riveting one-man show, a tour de force of performative and directorial skill, combining projected images and performance in continually inventive ways, so the eye and ear never know what to expect. It's deeply intelligent, in the anarchic fashion peculiar to art, which is disrespectful to everything except imagination, revealing truths through shiftings veils of deception and illusion.

As one reviewer said, less than euphoniously, Orr has a lot of accents. He does them all faultlessly, at least to my ear; I spent half the show convinced he really was German. He moves with the precision and speed of a dancer, and performs with a charismatic, even Mephistophelean, self-mockery. And often he is very, very funny, if in a rather apocalyptic fashion.

Telefunken is narrated by a character called Ralph Mannheim Mann, a propagandist for the Nazi regime, who is welcoming some American soldiers into the bunker as muffled explosions outside signal the fall of Berlin. Hitler's suicide is, he tells us, an hour away. In this time, he will reveal to us his unmade and clearly autobiographical masterpiece, a film called Cry of the Wolf, which follows the story of Erasmus, propagandist and werwolf, from bullied child to Fascist television producer, the major source of political influence in our contemporary world.

The thesis behind this show is somewhat unhistorical: Ralph Mann claims that television was a military invention used by the Nazis crucially to assist the rise of Fascism in Germany. While Telefunken advertised televisions for sale in 1936, it's a dubious proposition in itself; what is indisputable is that with films like Triumph of the Will, later called the most successful propaganda film ever made, the Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl was one of the seminal figures of modern propaganda.

Ralph Mann is her equivalent in the world of television; but again, he is trans-historical: he can, by putting on an instrument like the phylactery that pious Jews wear at prayer, channel all of Western television culture. And he foresees the monstrousness and power of television as a medium, how it projects its hypnotic images into the domestic space of every home. Orr's argument parallels the televisual culture of FOX and CNN with Nazi film propaganda, as is clear from the opening montage, which juxtaposes images of the Third Reich, George W. Bush speaking of weapons of mass destruction and Oprah Winfrey. However, as should already be clear, this is no simplistic parallel, but rather a darkly funny and dizzying exploration of the irrationalities inherent in Fascist power. Ralph Mann is the unacknowledged ghost in the machine, the personification of the incipient Fascism of the image.

The stage is like an extension of Ralph Mann's mind. The floor is littered with paper, the pages of his film script. In front is an old television set, topped by a gramophone and a set of wires, some connected to a ghastly looking machine which looks like something out of Frankenstein, the phylactery/headset which locks Mann in agonised torment to the demons of television. It's an idea which irresistibly recalls the Heathcote Williams of AC/DC, without the revolutionary optimism. Strapped to the side of the tv are sticks of dynamite, and on top is a plunger. Mann's suicidal trajectory is clear from the start.

On one side of the stage is an old fashioned pump organ, and at the back a scrim which can be lit from behind and which functions as a screen for projections of various kinds - drawings, extracts from films. This is topped by some old books. The images of books, of literary culture, recur obsessively through this show: books are what is destroyed in the translation to a culture of image, just as the tv propagandist Ralph Mannheim Mann and his werwolf creation Erasmus are the translation of that towering figure of German literary culture, Thomas Mann.

Some clues to Orr's complex system of metaphor and allusion can in fact be untangled from Mann's name. Ralph Mannheim is the name of Thomas Mann's most prominent English translator. The novelist Thomas Mann, writer of Death in Venice and - (here most pertinently) the masterpiece Dr Faustus - was the most famous patriarch of a famous artistic family, most of whom fled Germany in the 1930s as Hitler tightened his strangleghold on German society. (As Mann points out, before the Jews were persecuted, the Nazis came for the avant gardists and the socialists; what he doesn't say is that many of these people were Jewish, and that avant garde culture was denounced by the Nazis as Jewish decadence.)

Thomas Mann's son Klaus Mann wrote Mephisto, a novel about an actor called Hendrik Höfgen who colluded with the Nazi powers, betraying his left-wing friends and rising with the regime. This novel is based on Klaus' brother-in-law, Gustaf Gründgens, who became the director of Berlin State Theatre in 1934.

The character of Ralph Mannheim Mann (if he can indeed be called a character - he is not that in any conventional sense, but more a kind of occasion for performance) bears more than a little resemblance to Gustaf Gründgens. He speaks of staying in Nazi Germany while other artists fled, and clearly has reached a position of huge cultural influence, as chief propagandist for the Nazis, a lesser Leni Riefenstahl. He even travels to Paris to make tv shows with French actors, prompting some scathing cabaret parodies.

In both Mann's Dr Faustus and Mephisto, the legend of Faust - the consummate man of culture who is tempted by the devil and sells his soul - is an informing metaphor. In Telefunken, by contrast, Orr invokes the demons within the self, the transformative werwolf which emerges, like madness, with the full moon. The Mephisto figure might be television itself, which demonically possesses Ralph Mann every time he put on his phylactery/headset.

But it is of course perilous to take these allusions too literally. Orr works by bringing together constellations of association - and a wide ranging set they are, from South Park to Courbet's L'Origine du Monde, from the Norse myth of the trickster Loki to Michael Caine, from Bob Brown to Sesame Street - and imploding them in performance. It's blackly pessimistic - the Fascist propagandist's inevitable suicide releases on the world the demon of television, a new and monstrous culture of social manipulation, which Orr makes clear reaches its apotheosis in contemporary America.

The great achievement of Telefunken is that the centre holds, despite the incredible centrifugal force brought to bear upon it by Orr's imagination. This must be a tribute to Barry Laing's direction as much as to Orr's talent. It's a show of considerable class, rich with ideas and the immediate pleasures of performance, which means it repays both watching and later reflection. And that it is probably worth seeing twice.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005


I'm not the only person who thinks that serious arts commentary is moving wholesale to the internet. Blogging is go! It's even happening in theatreland (poets migrated to the web years ago, being a minority even among minorities). I've (finally) blogrolled some interesting theatre blogs that I've stumbled across in my cyberwanderings; all American so far, bar the English Encore Magazine. The links are in the sidebar: be sure to check them out.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Crucible

The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Directed by Anne Thompson and William Henderson. Designed by Bruce Gladwin, lighting design Niklas Pajanti. With Nicole Nabout, Shona Innes, David Trendinnick, Fiona Todd, Peter Houghton, Evelyn Krape and Christopher Brown. The Eleventh Hour, 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy, until October 1.

It was not only the rise of McCarthyism that moved me, but something which seemed much more weird and mysterious. It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance...the astonishment was produced by my knowledge, which I could not give up, that the terror in these people was being knowingly planned and consciously engineered, and yet that all they knew was terror. That so interior and subjective an emotion could have been so manifestly created from without was a marvel to me. It underlies every word in The Crucible.

Arthur Miller

Miller could be writing about contemporary America: a consciously engineered terror which attains a "holy" mystique, where dissent against the ruling powers attains the status of blasphemy. The Crucible premiered in the US in 1953, but its political insight strikes fresh sparks in the age of the Global War on Terror (or GSAVE - the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism - for those who missed the changing of the acronyms). If ever there were a play for our times, The Crucible is it.

It also happens to be a personal favourite of mine. With Death of a Salesman and A View from a Bridge, The Crucible shows Miller at the height of his dramatic powers, in fruitful agonistic struggle with theatrical aesthetic and form. He was not yet America's Great Playwright, and the urge to didacticism - always strong in Miller - had not yet gained the upper hand. Here is passion tempered by formal intelligence, ideological critique informed by intuitions of human contradiction and frailty. These plays exemplify the very best of the American liberal tradition.

The timeliness of The Eleventh Hour's decision to stage Miller's masterpiece (for it may be fairly called that, especially if, following Randall Jarrell, one thinks of a masterpiece as a work of art with "something wrong with it") is therefore praiseworthy. But it must be said that the company's treatment of the text is utterly baffling.

The focus of the production is deliberately shifted from complex political critique to Miller's private life ("the affair that led to the destruction of his first marriage"). To this apparent end, the directors - Anne Thompson and William Henderson - have eviscerated the text. The Crucible runs for something like half its original length, and many of its secondary characters have been cut out completely. Its formal structure looks something like Fallujah after the Americans finished with it, with the odd graceful wall poking out of the ruins to show what had been there.

The company's stated objective in the program is to "wrest this classic from its traditional performance framework" in order to "create a performance landscape that allows the force of Miller's extraordinary language and the passions fuelling it to live in a new way." To be honest, I am not at all sure what this means; but I do know that a work of art is inseparable from its form. There is no purer "content" which might be ripped out of a frame: in a radical sense, the frame is the content. In other words, you fiddle with a work as artfully made as The Crucible at your peril.

I should say at this juncture that I am no friend of the museum treatment of "classics". A good play should be able to withstand - in fact, requires - intense interrogation and disrespectful, even violent treatment, if it is to live in performance. True, texts can be cut and sometimes to their advantage, Hamlet being only the most obvious example. And one thinks of the power of the Wooster Group's treatment of The Hairy Ape, performed as extreme physical theatre, as if it were a boxing match, its vocal assault electronically amplified... but the Wooster Group performed O'Neill's play, however they attacked the text. The Eleventh Hour, on the other hand, put The Crucible through some process of "composition": that is, they rewrote it. The big question is, why?

Partly, perhaps, to focus an emotional experience on some perceived essential quality of language? The play is performed as stylised physical theatre: certainly the cast is choreographed with a beautiful precision, and lushly lit in the dark cavernous spaces of the theatre to create tableaux which sometimes possess an arresting and disturbing beauty. And, except in the later scenes (which are also the least grievously cut) where, perhaps, the passion of the writing begins to inhabit the performances, the language is declaimed with deliberate artifice, each word enunciated as if it exists on its own. I don't understand this decision, as it wrecks Miller's rhythms; in plays, as in poems, rhythm is the heart of linguistic vitality.

Clearly the directors wish to take The Crucible beyond its naturalistic conventions - which, in Miller's hands, have more than an edge of the poetic - to a more heightened experience. I suspect that in doing so, they mistake the artifice of Miller's naturalism.

Miller wrote a play in four acts, each in a different setting, through which the action evolves seamlessly and dynamically. The more you study the play, the more you admire its economy, how artfully he integrates emotional and political worlds, suggesting the complexity of a small community by a deft phrase here, a throw-away line there. Miller invokes the remorseless machinery of tragedy: The Crucible is, if you like, an instrument tuned finely in all its parts to create the final cathartic scene, where John Proctor grasps his "goodness" at last in the face of his own wilfully chosen death.

The Eleventh Hour's "composition" of Miller cuts these fluid, intricately worked acts into a series of truncated scenes separated by blackouts. This transforms the action into a series of tableaux, and the sense of stasis is reinforced by hymns sung by the cast at each blackout. These refinements have some fairly profound effects on the play's political texture. More devastatingly, I think, they fatally corrode the emotional force of the play: though the final meeting between Elizabeth (Fiona Todd) and John Proctor (Peter Houghton) still holds some of its original power, basically because most of it is still there, it is deprived of much of its poignancy because we have not seen the simple domestic scene that introduces Elizabeth, in which the bones of their marriage are laid bare through their painful, tentative conversation.

By assuming that Miller's political impulses evade the personal, the company also mistakes him. His politics were never simple - he refused the claim that he wrote "political plays" - and never eschewed the personal. "I can't write plays that don't sum up where I am," he wrote. "I'm in all of them. I don't know how else to go about writing." Miller's plays place themselves, optimistically, in the tradition of liberal individualism. John Proctor's choice not to betray his friends and to redeem himself is the archetypal gesture of the individual asserting his (in Miller's case, it was nearly always "his") identity in the face of social repression. For Miller, this was an anguished and continuous conflict between imperatives of inner and outer selves which could end only with death.

But he was more than an observer of the human conscience. The idea of property, of who owns what, is meticulously noted in The Crucible; Miller is extremely conscious of the economic relationships in the small Puritan community of Salem. Removing altogether characters like Giles Corey, the cantankerous landowner who will neither plead guilty or not guilty so his sons can inherit his property after he dies, removes a crucial subtext from the play: the Protestant equation of ownership with virtue. It's the poor and dispossessed who face the hangman first, and conflict over property fuels many of the accusations of witchcraft. Miller is too acute to portray the accusers simply as venal hypocrites; what he shows is how public hysteria can all too easily meld with private self interest.

One aspect this production highlighted for me, and which might have been a fruitful area of further exploration, was a brooding sense, as pervasive as the Puritanical sexual repression, of unacknowledged violence. Proctor's threat to whip his servant, Mary Warren (Evelyn Krape), is viscerally disconcerting. Tituba (also Evelyn Krape) is a slave, taken by force from Barbados, and before that, from Africa. Abigail's (Nicole Nabout) recollection of her parents' violent deaths at the hands of Indians reminds that the disputed properties of Salem have a prior claim, that of the native Americans who first lived there, and whose lands were taken by force. Behind the hysteria of the witch hunt lies also the guilty conscience of the coloniser, the sense of a primal crime.

There are lines in The Crucible which strike with renewed force, because they have, again, found their time. The polarised vision of Good and Evil that informs the present White House and, unfortunately, the discourse of our own government - "you're either with us or against us" - is unsettlingly echoed in Danforth's declaration that "a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it". The seduction of the absolute and the destructiveness of certainty have particular resonance now, and have implications for both the private life of conscience and that of public action. It wasn't that Miller thought anything as banal as "the personal is political", which I rather fear informed the interpretation here; but he was an acute observer of the relationships between these different spheres of being.

I liked the simple and effective design - trestle tables which were manipulated to create several performance levels. And despite my serious reservations about the production, I enjoyed individual performances, especially those of David Trendennick as Parris and Danforth, and Christopher Brown as the tormented Man of God, Reverend Hale. It makes you sigh for a missed opportunity: if, as the director's note says, one impulse behind this experiment was "to try to understand the relationship between private emotion and political action", it would have been far more illuminating to perform the play Miller actually wrote.

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