Off againTest PatternMIAF: Good Samaritans / Berggasse 19Harold PinterMIAF: Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)MIAF: Death and the Ploughman / La CliqueMIAF: The OdysseyMIAF: Songs of ExileMIAF Knob-Jockey AwardsMIAF: Green / Small Metal Objects / Weyreap's BattleFringe: Material MouthForumitis ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 31, 2005

Off again

Yes, your indefatigable blogger is off to the States for the next month, to do some poetry readings and a couple of appearances as a Fantasy Author in Los Angeles - those interested can find the details on my diary. I will be, believe it or not, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Southern California (yes, that's Doctor Croggon to you...) Wish me luck in the halls of academe - I promise not to turn into a flower child or a starlet harlot, and I'll be back in early December.

Before my departure, I am obliged to award the coveted Golden Knob Award for Services to Performing Arts Criticism during the Melbourne Festival. You can check into the Knob-Jockey Awards ceremony and presentation by clicking through to Critic Watch.

In the meantime, you can meditate on the trenchant criticism of critics in a recent Guardian article, in which Michael Coveney discusses the death of British theatre criticism: "Great critics are rare birds; rare birds need a welcoming aviary and the zookeepers are not on the lookout for such special and specialist breeds of plumage any more...The long, slow haul of a career as a critic, with its period of apprenticeship, dedication and accumulation of wisdom and experience ... is suddenly becoming a thing of the past."

The sad thing is, I'm not sure that it was ever a thing of the present in this culture. Theatre culture in the 1980s and 90s was hugely influenced by critics like Katherine Brisbane, whose credo was largely extra-curricular: "I began to see," says Brisbane, speaking about her early days as a critic, "that my role as a reporter was more important than what I thought of as my role as a critic.… I very quickly realised that to write reviews concentrating on the various nuances of the production wouldn't really interest the reader."

Wow. Can she really mean this? To Brisbane (and, she assumed, her readers), it wasn't theatre itself that was interesting, but what it represented as "an instrument of showing us where we are going and why we are as we are". (This is where instrumental attitudes to art begin to be, in essence, profoundly philistine - I suddenly want to quote Sontag's essay Against Interpretation and argue for an erotics of art, which has the virtue of not obscuring the art itself in favour of some interpreted "meaning").

This attitude accounts, perhaps, for Brisbane's comment about the new work presently stirring at those lengendary grass roots, the best of which has a rather broader view of theatre than its role as a tool of nationalistic expression: "I am not all that optimistic, really, about the theatre being as exciting as it was before." Because, as she laments elsewhere, it is no longer "an expression of our national character".

It depends, I suppose, on what one means by "exciting". And "national character". And "theatre". But I'll leave you all to mull over these interesting questions. I have to go pack.

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Test Pattern

Test Pattern by Angus Cerini, directed by Nadja Kostich. Lighting design by Richard Vabre, set & costume by Marg Horwell, sound design by Jethro Woodward, video design by Michael Carmody. With Omar Abdurrheem, David Baker, Myf Clark, Seb Elkner, Stef Franja, Tanya Jenkinson, Paul Matley and Ayumi Pakehara. Platform Youth Theatre, Northcote Uniting Church Hall, 251 High St, Northcote.

Theatre for Young People conjures visions of da-glo sets, dire scripts, performances from the Wiggles School of Acting and simple-minded sermonising on the Issues Facing Young Persons. (I still remember, with a shudder, a play about the internet I witnessed years ago in Adelaide, in which bright young things travelled through a cardboard version of cyberspace, meeting celebrities like Joan of Arc).

If I were a Young Person - and even I was young once - this kind of stuff would put me off theatre permanently. To its credit, Platform Youth Theatre - a northern suburbs theatre for people aged between 16 and 25 - refuses to patronise the young, and in Test Pattern the company applies the techniques of innovative theatre to the real-life experiences of "Generation Y".

Platform has gathered a distinguished design team for this production, so it's not surprising that Test Pattern looks and sounds completely gorgeous. Marg Horwell's set is stylishly simple: it consists of around half a dozen curtains, hung one behind the other the length of the hallway, made of lengths of white string suspended from the ceiling. With Richard Vabre's inventive lighting, these curtains create a flexible imaginative space: they can become opaque walls, permeable visual barriers, screens for projection, or delicate veils of shadow giving texture to the action.

Angus Cerini's script has clearly been devised in collaboration with the director and performers, from whose stories this text is derived, and switches impressionistically between various narratives - a boy with a disabled mother, a childcare worker who becomes pregnant and is refused a home loan, a girl killed in a train accident, the story of a Balkan refugee, or a traumatised Australian soldier sent to do humanitarian work in Africa.

Nadja Kostich directs these narratives with an eye to physical abstraction. The performers - both male and female - are clothed in white nighties, which gives the production an air of an old-fashioned asylum, or a strangely feminised dream. The physical language she creates is deliberately dislocated from the text, largely drawn from gestures of early childhood like foetal crouches and infantile embraces.

With young, inexperienced actors, it makes sense to go for a more abstract approach to language, rather than asking them to perform a role. And I like the courage of the performances, which shine with freshness and vivid energies. But in its general conception I think that the production doesn't quite work.

It feels as if an aesthetic has been laid arbitrarily over the original material, rather than evolving organically from it. It's interesting, for example, to compare this production with Subclass 26A, a physical theatre work performed earlier this year. Kostich was part of the cast (and Richard Vabre lit it), and it has clearly influenced her approach.

In Subclass 26A, a piece about the experiences of asylum seekers, the director Bagryana Popov developed a physical vocabulary drawn from the neurotic movements of mental illness, which switched fluidly between naturalistic dialogue and abstract movement. The physical and spoken languages reflected and extended each other, making a powerful whole. In contrast, Test Pattern gives little sense that the movement and the text have anything much to do with each other. It is as if there are two productions - a narrative play and a movement piece - ocurring simultaneously, each obscuring the other.

This sense is underlined when the performers step "out of" the roles and introduce themselves, speaking in part about the process of making the play, a disruption which seems to be more about meeting the demands of the performers than anything else. One performer says that he wanted to do the story of a local drug dealer, but that this was vetoed by the director. Rightly or wrongly, I get the sense that some of the more unpleasant edges have been edited out of the stories presented here. And even after a couple of days' reflection, I'm still a little mystified by the white nighties and paper dresses; they seem to be not so much about questioning aspects of gender, as about feminising all experience.

Imperfectly integrated though it is, Test Pattern creates some images of real power, and it's encouraging to see this kind of community-based theatre breaking out of the cliches of dead naturalism into more ambitious possibilities.

Picture: Ayumi Pakehara in Test Pattern

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Monday, October 24, 2005

MIAF: Good Samaritans / Berggasse 19

Alison's Festival Diary #6

Good Samaritans, written and directed by Richard Maxwell, with Rosemary Allen and Kevin Hurley. New York City Players at the Malthouse. Berggasse 19 - The Apartments of Sigmund Freud, written and designed by Brian Lipson, directed by Susie Dee, co-designed by Hugh Wayland, with Brian Lipson and Pamela Rabe, Grant Street Theatre.

Over the past three weeks, Melbourne's self-designation as Australia's "cultural capital" has felt like more than an advertising slogan. It's had the air of a mini-metropolis: interesting things have been going on, and people have been discussing them with passion and vim and, sometimes, vehement disagreement.

Hey, something was happening here. And Melburnians were interested: all the theatres were packed, the queues outside the Art Centre stretched past the gallery, and the Arts Centre forecourt spilled over with people eating and drinking. Even the drab environs of the Flinders St Station concourse was infested with culture vultures.

More than a few people I've spoken to have dubbed this festival the best yet. I'm with them on that. Bouquets to MIAF Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds for putting together a program of such depth and range. Now I'm wondering if the excitement the festival generated will have knock-on effects. There is already a sense that Melbourne's theatre scene is shifting, with a lively, outward-looking and increasingly confident independent theatre scene underlined by the massive changes at the Malthouse, which are attracting younger and bigger audiences. It could be that Dame Culture is emerging from her long and disenchanted sleep. Fingers crossed.

But to the report on my final week of MIAF, which gave me two experiences which were at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum: they couldn't have been more different in aesthetic, philosophy or performance. And yet both of them left me with that indefinable lightness of being that I associate with excellent theatre: a sense that I have been prickled alive.

Good Samaritans by the New York City Players was one of the oddest theatrical experiences I have had. This is a theatre focused on the ontology of the stage: there is to be no illusion, no trickery, no falsity of performance. Richard Maxwell's script is written how "real people" talk, and he often works with people who are not actors: the woman in this performance was previously a nurse. It is, apparently, all artlessness.

The set is basically a large box, inside which is an entirely realistic set: the dining room of a shelter for the homeless, with plastic tables and chairs, fluorescent lighting, grim concrete walls, a mop and bucket. Upstage is a small, grubby looking kitchen, with a door opening into the dining room, and a short corridor through which we see a back door.

It starts modestly: a woman, Rosemary (Rosemary Allen) walks into the kitchen, then enters the dining room and turns on the lights. She moves around, taking notes on a clipboard, and speaking to herself in a flat monotone. She sings a song to the window (accompanied by a piano off-stage) in a voice which strains to reach the notes, and remains irredeemably flat.

Then there is a disturbance at the back door and a man enters and falls down, drunk as a lord, and pisses himself. It is Kevin (Kevin Hurley), who has been sent to the centre by the court, to be reformed so he can re-enter society as a useful citizen. He too speaks in an insistent, flat monotone. Rosemary welcomes him with a tirade of abuse and puts him to bed.

What follows is an unlikely love story between the two, punctuated by more badly sung songs. The script is at times of execrable banality. The lighting states remain static. It ought to be teeth-grindingly awful; and yet, for reasons that are quite hard to trace, it isn't at all.

For one thing, it is very funny. I did wonder, as the audience hooted with laughter at Rosemary's explanation of the evangelical nature of her mission, how different a Melbourne audience might be from an American one, reading different ironies into the flat presentation, but there's no doubt that its comedy is not merely inadvertent. And it's also surprisingly moving, culminating in a duet between the two lovers which is the one song which attains a kind of harmony. Miraculously, it teeters on the edge of sheer bathos without ever falling over the edge, and it never becomes boring.

Clearly, there's a lot of art in Maxwell's artlessness. As I watched this extraordinary piece, I wondered if Maxwell has drawn from Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysterical Theatre, which I labour under the disadvantage of never having seen. Despite the surface differences, what I've heard and read makes me suspect this is so, if only in the wholly focused insistence on the bare reality of the stage, the present being of both performer and audience.

What I do know is that this piece took all my assumptions about "good" theatre and turned them completely upside down. It is a mysteriously joyous experience which never tries your patience, even as it destroys all your prejudices about theatrical aesthetic.

Brian Lipson's marvellous conceit, Berggasse 19 - The Apartments of Sigmund Freud, couldn't come from a more different place than Richard Maxwell. Here all is artifice and trickery, starting with the set, co-designed by Lipson and Hugh Wayland, which must be the most intricate I've seen outside puppetry.

The play is a riff on the psychoanalysis of Freud, drawing especially from The Interpretation of Dreams and (surely) Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Berggasse 19 is the Vienna apartment where Freud lived until the rise of Fascism made him flee to London with his family.

The set is a cross section of the hallway: we see a bourgeois Viennese apartment from the early 1900s, with photographs on the walls, a pot plant, a dog asleep in front of a heater. To the right is the front porch, to the left the toilet. Underneath the floor is the cellar, the repository of the unconscious, full of forgotten junk: dolls, rocking horses, skeletons.

The endlessly ingenious set is as much as performer as the two actors, Lipson and Pamela Rabe. It is a kind of memory machine, a dreamlike representation of Freud himself, whose only other concrete appearance is as a dummy sitting on the toilet and reading a newspaper in a cloud of cigar smoke. The play is set in no particular time but, like memory itself, flashes back and forth from one time to another, and the set changes accordingly - the plant shoots neurotically up and down, photographs appear and vanish. Only the dog (a large stuffed puppet which the actors manipulate) slumbers unchangingly through everything, forcing the actors to step over him on the narrow stage.

The play mainly concerns itself with the women in Freud's life - his wife Martha, his sister in law Minna Bernays, with whom he is said to have had an affair, his daughter Anna, his analysand Emma Eckstein, who later herself became a psychoanalyst, Sabina Spielrein, another patient who became an analyst and who introduced psychonalysis to Russia - though there are guest appearances by Jung and the Kosher butcher who lives next door. All the characters are played interchangably by the two actors with no attention to gender, with some very snappy costume changes; sometimes the same character can be played by the two actors in the space of half a minute. Sometimes it is like a surreal version of Hinge and Brackett.

The text itself plays constantly on linguistic slippage, and is consequently full of appalling puns, small collisions of linguistic and theatrical realities, which are assembled and disassembled at an increasingly frenetic rate. When the actors ring the door bell, they make the appropriate noise - "brrring bring!" - to which the other character says, "bring what?" The initial conceit, which we accept - that the actor makes the noise of the bell - is immediately shattered by the other actor. This mantling and dismantling becomes more extreme as the shows continues; in the end, even the costume changes occur before us on stage.

However, underneath the linguistic and theatrical glitter move darker shadows, which become more insistent as the show progresses; the unconscious is, after all, a gruesome place. There is an eerily beautiful monologue by Anna Freud (Pamela Rabe) speaking as an illuminated face from a mirror while her bisected body - her upper body simply cut off, so we can see the bones and flesh of her thighs - sits primly on half a chair beneath her. The monologue is pre-recorded, exaggerating the dislocation, while the live face in the mirror creates a kind of counterpoint of expression to the words. And the play finishes with a scene between the new Aryan occupants of the house, now its Semitic occupants have fled.

The complexity of the show, and of the ideas behind it, didn't stop my 17-year-old son - who asked nervously beforehand what psychoanalysis was - from hugely enjoying it. As much as anything, its charm lies in the ebullient theatricality of the two performers and the (one assumes, very necessary) sharpness of the direction. Like the New York City Players, I'm not sure that I've seen anything like it. I would love to see it again, if only to pick up on what I missed the first time.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Harold Pinter

Looking up briefly to belatedly acknowledge Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize. Onya, Harold! Theatre Notes has the deepest admiration for Pinter's work, and a special regard for later plays like Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes. He's a great poet of the theatre, even if we entertain profound reservations about Pinter's actual poetry.

You can hear Pinter's recent play Voices online, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 to mark his 75th birthday (thanks to George Hunka at Superfluities for the heads up - he also has some good Pinter commentary and links). Voices  is a collaboration between Pinter and composer James Clarke, and includes Roger Lloyd-Pack, Douglas Hodge, Andy de la Tour, Indira Varma and Harold Pinter himself in the cast. It's full of echoes of other plays like Ashes to Ashes; perhaps it's a peep inside Pinter's head. Link here.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

MIAF: Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)

Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées): Part One - Le Fleuve cruel (The Cruel River) and Part Two - Origines et Destins (Origins and Destinies), devised by the company, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, music by Jean-Jacques Lemêtre. Théâtre de Soleil, Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton Gardens.

17th October 2005

Dear Ariane

I hope you will forgive me for addressing you so familiarly, since I have never met you. Writing a letter seems, perhaps not so strangely, the only fit way to address Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées). I saw both parts in one long and dizzying Sunday and it makes me want to say many things that you must already know. Principally, I wish to say that I witnessed something beautiful, a work of theatre that left me moved and shaken.

But this is already inadequate. Beauty is so often taken to mean the anodyne, the conventional; to be moved suggests a surfeit of sentiment. The work of your company is so far from the anodyne and sentimental, the deadliness of the worthy, that in writing about it I fear misrepresenting the breathtaking honesty and directness of its aesthetic.

The Odyssées began with a letter from you to Nadereh, one of the asylum seekers whom you interviewed for the work. It was projected across the back of the stage, like much of the spoken text, in a cursive script. It was a powerful preface: not only because of the letter itself which, pregnant though it was with unspoken stories of loss, was like many other letters - how are you? how are our friends? have you heard? It was also because the lights dimmed so slowly across the empty stage, introducing the play with a gentle limpidity that was heightened by the vast and lonely poignancy of Jean-Jacques Lemêtre's introductory music.

When the second part finished, I found that for the previous three hours I had been sitting next to Nadereh herself. She had been watching, among other things, events that had happened in her own life. I would have loved to have asked her what she felt, but sadly, she speaks no English, and I do not speak her language. Her presence reinforced what your letter had already made clear: that your company was dealing with what we call so easily "real life".

Your letter to Nadereh signalled both an intention and a refusal. The intention was to expose the genesis of this work, the reality of the people whose stories were turned into this work of theatre by you and your company. The refusal was of the betrayal of art, which so easily exploits the suffering of others to make a beautiful object that is nothing more than a plaything of the privileged. There are many cheap criticisms that might be made of this - isn't it, for example, hypocritical to speak of the poor in this expensive artform? - but the achievement of Le Dernier Caravansérail is its own answer.

Yes, this artfulness, this beautiful illusion and play that is theatre, can serve without dishonour something as humble and profound as human longing. You do not have the hubris to think that your play will change the world. A little bit, perhaps; an illumination here, a heartening of courage there. Art's work is not the same as that of the politician's, and you understand very well the limits of its power. And you love those limitations, also, as its strengths and freedoms.

Your importation of the whole Théâtre du Soleil into the Royal Exhibition Building - not only the set, but the bleachers, the actor's changing room, the dining tables where people could sit down and eat the food prepared there, the intimate lighting - prepared me for the experience of the play. As I walked up the stairs to my seat, I could peer down at the actors as they prepared for their performance. In between the shows, I saw them eating together outside in the sunshine. I could stare at the instruments in the sound area next to the stage - the various drums, the huge string instrument made of a turtle shell, the gong, the sound decks, the lovely wooden violin shapes hanging from a rack at the back. Before the play even started, the barriers between the theatre and those who came to watch it were already unstable and permeable.

In a way, I don't know how to talk about the work. It is not enough to say it was beautiful, as I have said; I don't wish to speak of it as if it were merely some aesthetic object, although a superb aesthetic judgment informed its every aspect. As everyone knows, it is about the dispossessed, those driven out of their homelands by war or persecution or poverty to seek a decent life somewhere else, and how they are treated by the countries they ask for help.

It was the stories of these "voyagers" which you and your company collected and shaped into this work of art. They are the stories of human beings in exile - Kurds, Afghanis, Russians, Chechnyans, Bosnians, Africans... there are so many wars, after all, and so many famines of different kinds. And you know that as well as being full of grief and love and generosity, human beings can be murderous, cruel, weak, ignorant and stupid. That they might be cruel or stupid doesn't mean that they might not be also victims of forces beyond their control. We still hold an idea of victimhood as entitlement, which is linked to the "deserving poor", the dichotomies of good and evil. But a person might be wicked, and still suffer.

It seemed to me that you made a whole world, and invited me to be part of it. From the beginning, I was aware of the sky, of the weather, of the elements: earth, water, light. And the very first story you tell is of a river crossing. The river is invoked by huge lengths of blue-grey silk that actors by the side billow frantically, the way you make the sea on stage when you are at primary school. But I believed this terrifying river. I understood when the ferryman refused to take the people across, understood their desperation when they argued with him and tried to cross despite the danger; I gasped when the ferryman fell in the water and wished frantically for him to be rescued... It is the simplest magic, made with the greatest degree of sophistication imaginable.

All the performers, all the little sets, even the trees, were on platforms with wheels. They were pushed on and off the huge stage by the other performers, who watched the actors, as we did, as they crouched by the platforms. It meant, among other things, that the actors could be at once still and in motion. The stage was always live: between scenes, people ran from one side to another, or pushed the props in readiness for the next scene. And as story followed story, the constant movement created an increasing sense of ephemerality and transience; against the blankness of sky and earth, these stories left no trace, save their resonances in those who heard them.

Many scenes occurred in small interiors, illuminated boxes wheeled from behind the curtains at the back of the stage. We peered through the lighted windows like voyeurs. And what we overheard were fragments, said in many languages: a nurse upbraiding a man for not looking after his his leg, from which his foot had been amputated; an old woman remembering her grandchildren when they were little; the people smuggler speaking to his small son, who barely remembers him, on his mobile phone; an asylum seeker struggling violently and being brutally subdued as she is deported on a plane.

Some American critics - Robert Brustein, for example - claimed that this was theatre as martyrdom, intended to make you feel "not just emotionally responsible for man's universal inhumanity to man, but physically uncomfortable as well". And he castigated you for not working with a writer, as you have previously with Hélène Cixous, who would have shaped it into a proper "drama".

Mr Brustein is an intelligent man, but he seems to have grievously missed the point. You exposed the working of the theatre, to show that there were here no "tricks". And in the texts you used, you chose not to misrepresent the messiness and fragmentariness of the lives you portrayed by imposing upon them a false unity. The secret corners of life itself, its always unfinished stories, its fractures, its contradictions, its mundanities, its cruelties and beauties, opened up inside us their own truthfulness. I think that this is the reason for the work's overwhelming emotional impact.

Le Dernier Caravansérail makes you understand the profound importance of simplicities: things like shelter and food and love, the fragile stays that people make against the indifferences of the world they inhabit. As is very clear, it is not only the natural elements that are cruel. The voyagers have fled their homes - and who would leave their home voluntarily? - because they have lost hope of finding there the possibility of a decent life. Yet everywhere they go, they are non-citizens, people without a place, whose voices are not heard and not wanted. They are often, as here in Australia, herded into camps or prisons, deterritoralised places of exception, in which they exist outside the juridical space of legitimate citizenry. They are treated like criminals, and yet they have done nothing wrong except to ask for help.

With the new Terrorism Laws now all over the newspapers, it can't but occur to me that the space of the camp is growing all the time, that this state of exception is becoming the normal pulse of our times. Even in our democracies, for which we are sacrificing so much to protect, we could soon all potentially inhabit this space outside the law, where the State might do anything to us with impunity. If the natural justice of mercy can be withheld from any other human being, it can be withheld from us as well.

This is only to say the obvious, and to suggest that the work has a moralising effect that it does not, in fact, possess. Its politics exist outside the gross generalisations of power as understood, for example, in the public world of the mass media, reaching instead into the intimate and complex space of our own lives. It is here that we can understand longing and desire, love and hatred, hope and betrayal and despair. And it is from this place that we can begin to demand the freedoms that might make us whole, that allow us to live our lives to their potential fullness. For all of us must have this right.

You say that the theatre is part of the world, and that when it doesn't cut itself off from the world, it is "one of those places that can make the world better, like an orange grove makes the world better". You have no illusion about the importance of art: in the face of real loss, real grief, real atrocity, art can offer only its humility. It has no power against manifest injustice: it can express the intolerable, but it cannot solve it. This does not, however, make it a waste of time. As John Berger says, "The naming of the intolerable is itself the hope." But, perhaps most movingly, you do not only show what is intolerable: you also name the things that make life worth living. Companionship. Laughter. Wine. Beauty. Love.

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MIAF: Death and the Ploughman / La Clique

Alison's Festival Diary #4

Death and the Ploughman by Johannes von Saaz, translated by Michael West. Directed by Anne Bogart, with Will Bond, Stephen Webber and Ellen Lauren, SITI Company @ the CUB Malthouse. La Clique ... A Sideshow Burlesque, The Spiegeltent, Arts Centre Forecourt

Little Alison is getting very tired, but I'm sure nobody feels sorry for me. There are certainly worse ways of exhausting oneself. For me - and for many others I have spoken to - the Melbourne Festival is a rare feast, with at least a couple of events that will stay with me for a long time. You can't win 'em all, and I can't say that I've enjoyed everything I've seen, but as someone said to me, it's made Melbourne feel like an exciting place to be. Melburnians must agree - every show I've attended has been packed out.

One show I couldn't get to, but recommend, is the very charming Felix Listens to the World by the young Melbourne trio Suitcase Royale, which is on at the Fairfax Studio at the Art Centre in a double bill with Gilgamesh. Still a couple more events in my diary before I get my life back...

So, to some reports:

The text for Death and the Ploughman was written in 1400 by a minor German clerk, who had just lost his wife in childbirth. In the course of the poem, a Ploughman bereaved of his wife curses Death, demanding recourse from Heaven and revenge for Death's theft of his happiness.

What ensues is a remarkable dialogue in which the raging, grief-stricken Ploughman arraigns Death with the fundamental injustice of mortality. Death, the impersonal end of kings and peasants alike, asserts his justice and necessity: he has spared the Ploughman's wife the miseries of old age and decreptitude; he has taken her while she is still virtuous and pure, before she corrupts, as all womankind inevitably must; if he did not assert his sway, the world would be overpopulated.

Death, the ultimate realist and cynic, asserts that the Ploughman should just resign himself: the price of love is anguish, and if he wishes not to feel pain, he should not love. Human desire is all vanity and emptiness. The Ploughman, naturally enough, wonders why God had awarded him life, if the only way to survive it is to avoid all joy.

In the end God resolves the quarrel, awarding the argument to Death, but the honour to the Ploughman. The logic of what the translator Michael West calls "one of the most blasphemous models of piety in Western literature" is all with Death, but the emotional appeal is with the Ploughman.

The poem was transformed into a play by the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and after that picked up by the SITI Theatre Company and director Anne Bogart, who is a disciple of Tadashi Suzuki's theatrical methods and also of an acting process she calls "Viewpoints", derived from theories of post modern dance originated in the 1970s by choreographers like Tricia Brown.

These techniques are then applied to the adapted poem. At first the aesthetic looks promisingly stern: a black square outlined in white is delineated in the middle of the huge Merlyn stage, a bench at each diagonal corner. Behind the square is a huge photograph of some mediaeval cloisters. Death (Stephen Webber), a bureaucratic figure in a suit, bowler hat and umbrella, stands at the back. The Ploughman (Will Bond), in grey trousers and white shirt, stands at the front next to his wife (Ellen Lauren). In a few moments' mime, her departure to the arms of Death transforms her into the Woman, Death's other voice. The actors then work around a grid formed in the square by the sharp lighting design, and the bored spectator (me) can pass the time predicting where they would next place the bench, or which box of light the actor might next step into.

Most of the time, it is impossible to see what the abstract movements - some of them recognisable from Suzuki workshops - have to do with the text. These abstractions are unsuccessfully integrated with literal human gesture. Each movement is arrested, discretely separate from the next, which gives a strangled and conflicted feel to the stage dynamic but, for all its sharpness, the choreography seems curiously blurred. Aside from the comic sequences, it is like watching a slow, gestural equivalent of Tourette's syndrome. Stephen Webber (Death), clearly a considerable actor, is the only performer who seems to create an authority in space and make some sense of the movements.

What is surprising about this production, given its avant garde dress, is its sentimentality. It bears no stink of mortality (all those black and white squares are very clean) and it wholly lacks irony, a quality that is certainly corrosively present in the poem. This sentimentality is driven home by possibly the worst sound design I have ever heard: it is banally illustrative (mention of war brings gunshots and babies crying) and irritatingly obstrusive, like a bad film score. The lack of silence betrays a certain mistrust in the power of both spoken and physical theatrical language.

There was no point where I felt any emotional connection, however untraceable, with what was happening on stage; the ending, in which the Ploughman makes his peace with Death, is marred by a performance that is sheer mugging. It made me think of Milan Kundera's comment that sentimentality is, in fact, a absence of feeling.

It was a relief the following night, then, to flee the realms of high art for the 1920s surrounds of the Spiegeltent and see something wickedly and unabashedly entertaining. La Clique...A Sideshow Burlesque is a slickly orchestrated series of acts - comic, erotic, eye-poppingly grotesque or just plain beautiful - peppered with a goodly dose of wit.

It includes the funniest strip tease ever, a magic act where Ursula Martinez finds a red handkerchief in surprising places; Miss Behave, the clownish female sword swallower with a most flexible tongue; the acrobatic blonds from Poland, the Caesar Twins, for whom the phrase "shock-headed" seems to have been invented, and the gorgeous torso of David O'Mer, who has an extremely aerial bathtime which drenches the front row, despite the plastic thoughtfully placed over their laps.

Weaving through the show like a ghost of the Berliner Kabarett is the smoky voice of Camille O'Sullivan, who has her own solo show at the Spiegeltent. (Now, that would certainly be worth seeing.) La Clique is all extravagant sequins, impossible corsets, gorgeously naked skin and lots of water (the Caesar Twins have their own turn in a fishbowl). Hot, damp and sexy; you suddenly remember the word "risque". Definitely one not to miss.

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

MIAF: The Odyssey

Alison's Festival Diary #3

The Odyssey by Tom Wright, directed by Michael Kantor, designed by Anna Tregloan. With Paul Blackwell, Leon Ewing, Francis Greenslade, Jessica Ipkendanz, Rita Kalnejais, Benjamin Lewis, Belinda McClory, Suzannah McDonald, Kris McQuade, Margaret Mills and Stephen Phillips. Malthouse Theatre at the Workshop.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy...

So begins (in Robert Fagle's translation) one of the formative texts of Western civilisation, The Odyssey: the tale of Odysseus' long return home from war. At least 2700 years old, Homer's epic has inspired countless translations and retellings. The word "odyssey", which in its Greek root simply means "the story of Odysseus", is part of our language.

The Malthouse's production of this epic is an unashamedly ambitious undertaking. There should be much to like about it - the music, composed by Iain Grandage, is thrillingly theatrical, David Franzke's industrial sound design deeply textured, the mise en scene often arresting, the cast various and talented. But at its heart is a text of such unremitting banality that it compromises all these efforts. It is The Odyssey for Hi-5.

It certainly looks spectacular. Anna Tregloan's extraordinary set dominates the huge workshop space - a semi-circular rusty edifice like the wreck of some arcane and ancient piece of machinery. It is punctuated by doors on two levels, the top ones reached by iron ladders. In the central space is a revolve, turned by the actors, that can be flooded with water. A huge iron central door can be drawn up and closed with a metallic clang.

The highlight of the show is the appearance of the Sirens. Odysseus (Stephen Phillips) is suspended mid-air, lashed to an imaginary mast; the iron door opens to a song of unearthly beauty accompanied live on a violin, and the Sirens enter, dressed as veiled brides, while Odysseus writhes in frenzied desire. It's a wordless scene of dramatic and poetic beauty that makes you sigh for missed opportunity. Likewise, for Odysseus' visit to the Underworld, where he talks to the dead, a vast curtain of black netting covered with tickets - presumably the names of the dead - falls and divides the audience from the stage. A ragged grey screen bisects the revolve, and the dead appear lit by a naked flame in a bowl, pathetic in their nudity, to tell Odysseus their sad stories. A misjudgement of timing means this scene continues for too long, diminishing its power, but there's no denying its visual efficacy.

Ironically, one problem with this production is in fact the set - it dominates the space so much that all action is forced to be subordinate to its demands. But the real problem lies with the text. It is an unimaginative retelling of Odysseus' journey - compare it, say, with what the Coen Brothers did with the story in O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Kazantzakis' The Odyssey, where Odysseus returns home only to leave again. It gestures towards a crudely Jungian idea of the feminine that is startling for its misogyny, but otherwise all the imagination exists in the visual details of Michael Kantor's production, which sets the action after World War 2.

The language of the original epic, writes the classicist Bernard Knox, was at once heightened and popular, a difficult language that existed only in epic poetry but nevertheless lived on the tongues of ordinary Greeks. Homer's words "maintained their hold on the tongues and the imagination of the Greeks by their superb literary quality - the simplicity, speed and directness of the narrative technique, the brilliance and excitement of the action, the greatness and imposing humanity of the characters".

There is no sense that these qualities are carried over into Tom Wright's text. But more crucially, there is a puzzling absence in his language, evident in his earlier work but particularly highlighted here, perhaps because of the challenge of the original. Writers are people who respond to the materiality of language, its sensuous, sonic and dynamic qualities. This is especially true of poetry composed in an oral culture, and of writing for theatre, which is a place where language is physicalised and made gestic. This sensuous response to language is by no means a quality at odds with intelligence, but is embedded deeply within its turnings: even the most abstract thought has an erotic dynamic, the "wooing of a meaning" which is "inseparable from its absence" (Anne Carson).

When Wright reaches for the poetic, the language is almost completely emptied of this sensuous resonance. Repetition - a subtle and complex poetic art - becomes mind-numbing, and simplicity mere simple-mindedness. Epic grandeur is denoted by archaic grammatical reversals, like those in bad fantasy novels - "all corners of the earth have I seen". And so on.

The cliches and bathetic homilies roll out mercilessly. About half an hour in, disbelievingly, I started to write down some of the lines. "It's death," intones one unfortunate actor (I didn't note which one) "that makes life so important." "Your story is written on the breeze," says another. And another: "All around us History is marching!" Odysseus informs us nonsensically at one point that "I"m running out of time to fulfil my fate!" And the lesson we are to take away: "Life - life - that is it - that is all - ...Life! - fight for it!" So much for the rich simplicity of Homer.

It's a mystery to me how actors can say lines like these, or how they can deal with the dialogue, which sometimes reminded me of that curiously hypnotic anime cartoon Dragonball Z. They do their best, but the only possibility with language like this is declamation. And declaim they do.

On the structural level, Wright has removed the stories of Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus' wife and son, thus emptying the home that Odysseus longs for (as we are told many, many times) of its major emotional significance. He has also made bizarre decisions, such as taking out Homer's best joke: when the Cyclops asks who it is who has blinded him, Odysseus cunningly replies "No one!", so that when the Cyclops complains later that no one blinded him, the gods laugh at him. But in this version, Odysseus gives his name and address, for reasons which remain completely unclear.

He has also pointedly made Odysseus a hapless victim, not of the Gods, but of women. Even Homer (Kris McQuade), who with writerly sadism puts her character through the mill, is a woman. The feminine - cloyingly maternal or sadistically and manipulatively sexual - represents only forgetting or death. "I have come from something dark," says Odysseus, referring presumably to Troy but also to Other Things. "We will all return to something dark...a deep hole in the earth". Penelope, the enduring symbol of fidelity, is erased almost altogether. Athena (Suzannah McDonald), the virgin goddess of war who orchestrates the events, is bafflingly infantalised as a little girl in a sailor suit. The virgin/whore dichotomy is here in spades.

The play finishes at the point when Odysseus is about to return home and slaughter Penelope's suitors, who have been making riot on Ithaca, thus underscoring heavily and without irony a patriarchal moral (a kingless country must inevitably turn to anarchy) that is actually mitigated in the original by Penelope's womanly authority. There is a conservatism embedded in this script that is deeply at odds with its gestures towards innovation. It is mystifying to me why so much money, skill and resources were lavished on a text of such intellectual and theatrical poverty.

Picture: Belinda McClory as Circe and Stephen Phillips as Odysseus in The Odyssey

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

MIAF: Songs of Exile

Alison's Festival Diary #2

Songs of Exile, Diamanda Galas; Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre.

There's no question that Diamanda Galas is demanding. She demands your attention from the moment she walks on to the stage and paces, without pause or preamble, towards the piano. She demands that you listen and that you think. Most of all, she demands that you feel.

But the feeling she summons is no gentle waft on the airs of sentiment. For Galas, feeling is passion: the passion of unconsoled grief and longing; the passion for a precise and ethical beauty in the face of the unhealable divisions which scar human existence.

And she earns the attention she asks for. The aggression with which Galas performs contains the arrogance of a vast generosity. Galas will give us her all: and she expects no less from her audience. For those who expect or desire a lower-octane experience of art, something like what Barry Humphries calls a "nice night's entertainment", this demand is more than confronting. It is felt as an assault, and expresses itself in tedium. But for those prepared to take up her gift, the experience is exhilarating.

Galas' voice, which can range from a deep growl to pure, enchanting melody to unrestrained ululation in the space of a few seconds, is an extraordinary instrument. She uses it to its fullest extent, ripping up the octaves like a wild animal. And there is indeed something absolutely predatory in this performance: how Galas crouches over the piano like a panther, the flexing sinews visible in her bare shoulders as she attacks the keyboard, her mouth almost swallowing the microphone. At one point she even slams the piano with her hands.

Songs of Exile is a concert performance of an eclectic mixture of songs, from Johnny Cash's 25 Minutes To Go to musical adaptations of poems by Henri Michaux, Paul Celan and Cesar Vallejo. The poems are set by Galas herself, and in her settings she displays an intuitive understanding of the carnal nature of poetry, how poems foreground the material nature of language. The poems remain in their original language, as the poets wrote them (if not as they heard them). There is nothing cerebral in these musical settings, even if they show a great deal of intelligence - in how, for example, Galas echoes the indigenous folk rhythms Vallejo exploits in his poetry in the fracturing melodies of her accompaniment. She reminds us, magnificently, that poetry is crucially an oral art.

In her book Eros the Bittersweet, the poet Anne Carson says that the acquiring of written language is inevitably a process of alienation. "A written text," she writes, "separates words from one another, separates words from the environment, separates words from reader (or writer) and separates the reader (or writer) from the environment.... As separable, controllable units of meaning...written words project their user into isolation."

Poetry is an artform that seeks to unite the irreparably divided, to bring language back into direct relationship with experience, to overcome, impossibly, this primal isolation. Galas' performance takes this one step further, vocalising words back into raw physical reality. But of course this sense of regained unity cannot erase its original fracture and remain true to itself: hence the refusal, everywhere in this performance, of ease. The truth can only ever be an exposure of woundedness.

A real highlight for me was her performance of Paul Celan's poem Todesfuge ("Death Fugue"), about the Nazi death camps in which his parents perished:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it...

Galas' interpretation is nightmarish, a black parody of the mechanised rhythms of Nazi marches, or a broken and murderous nursery rhyme. Like the poem itself, the music shifts in an instant from one register to another, finishing on the lament: "Your golden hair Margarete / Your ashen hair Shulamith".

She sings several gospel and blues songs: what is amazing about these versions is how, despite her radical treatment, she plugs right into the anguished truth of the music. As the title of the concert suggests, the theme of the evening is exile: exile from a homeland, exile from whatever one loves, exile from oneself. The divisions that mark existence are opened rawly, without apology and without consolation. Galas' piercingly gorgeous voice is the finely tuned instrument of lamentation and of pain.

The miraculous effect is joy: a reconnection with the vital currents of living. The twin of the god Thanatos, who haunts this performance, is of course Eros: Galas' aggression is a pure expression of desire. I know that I went to bed very late that night: Galas' wild voice still echoed through my being, forbidding the anaesthetisation of sleep.

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MIAF Knob-Jockey Awards

Theatre Notes is proud to announce the MIAF Knob-Jockey Awards, for particularly stunning instances of critical philistinism during the Melbourne Festival. Check out the nominations by clicking here through to the Critic Watch blog.

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MIAF: Green / Small Metal Objects / Weyreap's Battle

Alison's Festival Diary #1

It's feeding frenzy time for Melbourne culture vultures: yes, Theatre Notes has been donning her gladrags and mixing it with the bold and beautiful this past week. I'm seeing as much as is consistent with sane living, which is not as much as I would like, given the depth and interest of Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds' program. But for your envious delectation, here are Little Alison's reports on what she's been doing.

Green, choreographed, designed and lit by Saburo Teshigawara, in collaboration with Kei Miyata; live music by Sand. KARAS, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre.

The festival's opening show was Saburo Teshigawara's spectacular dance work, Green, which features live farm animals on stage. This is more surprising than you might expect. I am country-raised, so cows are not foreign creatures to me; I've been trodden on by more than a few in my time. But seeing two spot-lit Friesian cows tethered to a pole in the State Theatre was comically surreal: they looked so, well, cowish. They chewed their cud and stared out into the auditorium with what Rilke described as the "beast's huge glance", utterly present in their lack of self-consciousness:

...for the beast its being is
unending, unprepared, and without insight
of its belonging, pure, like its outward glance...

Green is a meditation on the contrasts between human - or even post-human - technological existence - and this simple being of animals. It begins as a full-on rock concert by the Scottish punk/jazz/techno band Sand, and ends in a pastoral idyll, a remarkably beautiful solo dance to (I think) a Mozart quintet.

The final integration is all the more surprising, given the hard-edged aggression of its first half, which is driven by the band. Clearly many of the patrons at the State Theatre aren't used to rock music; there were audible gasps of relief when the band finished their first set, and a few empty seats when we returned after the interval. I'm not sure that the dozen or so white rabbits that populated the forestage area liked the music much either; they crouched against the edges of the fence that kept them in the forestage, their ears drooping rather abjectly.

The dance here was dominated by repetitious movements drawn from martial arts, which would build up with the throbbing electronic beat until it burst into a wild flailing of limbs. There were images of childhood murdered and childhood regained, a sense of human beings post-nature, alienated from a natural world. Although, of course, the natural world represented here is that of domesticated animals: in this sense, this work is almost entirely "post-nature". It certainly questions what is "natural": in a real sense, the dancers are just as natural - and unnatural - as the rabbits.

The curtain rises after interval to the cows, super-real against the artificial green that marks the whole stage, as well as three goats (and some happier rabbits, who began gossiping and running races from one end of the forestage to the other). And here Teshigawara exploits the contrast between human and animal as comedy: a guitarist plays a solo to one cow, while a male dancer attempts a pas de deux with another. A trombone player escorts a phalanx of indignantly quacking ducks across the stage, a sumo wrestler sings a German aria while the baby goat baas in the background, and a man falls off a bicycle in front of a cow in a Tati-esque comic routine. Teshigawara is very conscious of the theatre of dance; he both designs and lights as well as choreographs his shows, and the effect is wholly engrossing.

With the final dance, Green ends with an optimistic hope of integration. In one of those transformations that can sometimes happen in performance, the dancer becomes some kind of spirit of the music, an image of the muse herself. It was surprising and somehow heartening to see such a work of such unabashed beauty evolve from the alienated aggression of its opening.

Small Metal Objects devised by the cast, directed by Bruce Gladwin, with Sonia Teuben/Alan V Watt, Simon Laherty, Genevieve Picot and Jim Russell. Back to Back Theatre @ Flinders St Station Concourse.

The following night I saw Back to Back Theatre's Small Metal Objects. It couldn't have been a more complete contrast to Green; here the artifice of theatre is imposed on a public space. The stage is the entire concourse of Flinders Street Station, and the audience is seated at one end, fitted with headphones.

The effect of this brilliantly simple idea is startling. I'm an inveterate crowd watcher, but here the slight alienation of the headphones and the strange position of sitting on a rostrum in a railway station changed my perceptions radically. All sorts of reversals happened - the watchers were suddenly being watched, the performers were anyone who was present.

The pretext of the production is a play that has been devised by the cast members, a simple story of a drug deal that doesn't eventuate. I did consider how much more powerful the show would have been if it had employed a writer who could pull together a really strong text from the material offered by the Back to Back performers; but the script they have serves their purpose perfectly adequately.

The action is introduced by a pre-recorded monologue between two of the actors. We can hear what they're saying, but it is up to us to identify who are the actors and who are the unwitting extras in this show. The 7 o'clock Friday night crowds stream through the station, some casting curious glances at the audience, a few not noticing them at all. For some people, the audience themselves become the performance - without the aid of headphones, the actors are not especially noticeable among the crowds of others. At one point a man came up and stood with his arms folded, unselfconsciously staring at us: perhaps he was waiting for something to happen. We watched him, and he watched us. I was actually quite certain that he was part of the show, until he got bored and wandered away.

What counts in this production is the unique experience of theatre that is offered here, the sudden beauty of the mundane, the highlighting of what is usually edited out of social perception as unimportant - not only the disabled members of the Back to Back Theatre Company, but the ordinary activities of everyone in that concourse at that time. It is a curiously joyous experience that stays with you long afterwards.

Weyreap's Battle directed by Mao Keng, choreographed by Pok Saram and Pun Bun Chanrath. National Theatre of Cambodia, Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre.

Weyreap's Battle is traditional Cambodian dance, given a contemporary update with some modern (if sometimes rather disarmingly naive) stage effects and lighting. It made me realise why Antonin Artaud got so excited about Balinese theatre; the extreme stylisation of gesture and costume in traditional Asian theatre gives it a beautiful clarity of dramatic action.

Artaud was also attracted by the marriage of the sacred and profane in the Balinese performances. Likewise, the story of Weyreap's Battle narrates a story from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, which arrived in Cambodia in around the 6th century and is here reinterpreted as both a Hindu and Buddhist narrative. It has many aspects of religious ritual - the performance is in fact preceded by a Buddhist invocation of blessing - interspersed with profane comedy.

It is an example of Lakhaon Kaol, one of Cambodia's oldest classical dance forms: a masked dance which dates from the 10th century and is performed exclusively by men. It is accompanied by a pin peat ensemble, a traditional orchestra of drums, reed and string instruments, and the dance is mixed with chanted narrative and dialogue in Khmer. This dance, which was patronised by King Sihanouk, was almost completely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, who killed 90 per cent of the dancers; which is why, no doubt, the company members call themselves Cambodians and not Kampucheans.

I took my ten year old son, and he was transfixed and enchanted. Before the dance began, I read him the story of Weyreap (Penh Chumnit) and his conflict with the good king Preah Ream (Thong Kim Ly), and he became completely confused by its complexities. But he had absolutely no trouble following the action as its unfolded on stage.

The choreography was an intriguing mixture of stylised dance movements - especially the hand gestures, which are clearly very important and hold particular meaning and significance - and closely observed naturalistic movement (the gestures of the monkey army, scratching and all, might have come from a David Attenborough documentary - well, not quite, but they were striking in their accuracy).

It culminated in a spectacular pas de deux between Weyreap and Hunaman (Soeur Tharavak/Khiev Sovannarith), the general of the Monkey Army, in which good, naturally, triumphed. I was especially entranced by the arias or monologues of some of the characters, in particular, Preah Ream's lament for his absent wife Seda, which had a universal passion and piquancy.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Fringe: Material Mouth

Material Mouth, performed and devised by Carolyn Connors. Directed by Margaret Cameron, lighting by Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist. La Mama Theatre until October 9.

Material Mouth, says the press release, is a "theatrical concert for solo voice", which seems as good a description as any. Created and performed by the remarkable Carolyn Connors, it's as hard to classify as it is to adequately describe - a work of performance art that encompasses sound poetry, compositions for voice and wine glass, cabaret and satire.

In Material Mouth, music, poetry (in its least semantic form) and theatre collide in the female body. As much as anything, this work is a very conscious performance of femininities, a subtly devastating parody of how the politeness of the feminine is laid, like a constricting costume, over the impolitic female body. The gap between the proper and the improper emerges as a disturbance, in expressions of hysterical extremity clothed in a parade of apology, which assault the audience with a discomfort that is very close to embarrassment. The response, certainly on the night I saw it, is a lot of laughter.

This is not to say that Connors isn't funny; she is often very funny indeed. But there was an interestingly nervous edge to the laughter of the audience; Material Mouth was as clear a demonstration of the mechanism of laughter as a release for anxiety as any I have seen.

Carolyn Connors has been called one of the "most experimental mouths" in Australia. A composer, keyboardist and vocalist, she has collaborated with the sound poets Amanda Stewart and Chris Mann, and most recently she was the "Psychokinetic Pianist" in Gotharama with Moira Finacune, star of the "new burlesque". Here she is directed by Margaret Cameron, one of the most innovative and distinctive theatrical talents in Australia.

Material Mouth begins by gently satirising La Mama itself: as every regular habitue knows, most performances begin with the sound of footsteps creaking down the stairs. This is a sound we are supposed to politely edit out, as we edit out the bottles crashing into the recycler from the restaurant next door. In Connors' show, it suddenly becomes foregrounded: we hear her coming down the stairs and wait for the lights to come up and the show to start. But the lights don't come up: the footsteps go up the stairs again. And then down. Then they seem to be going around in nervous circles. Or maybe she's going upstairs again? We are not sure... There's a bit more fussing about and then, finally, the lights come up on a silent woman smiling at us anxiously. She spends more time than is comfortable standing still, looking at her leisure at each of us, her smile flickering with a kind of incandescent apology across her face, as if she has discovered herself here by accident.

In the liminal space before the performance, when everything is possible, this pause is an uncomfortable questioning of the presence, not only of the performer, but of the audience. What, she seems to be asking, a little quizzically, are we doing here? What will we do now? Only the most confident of performers can pull off enacting this kind of uncertainty; it can easily collapse into real embarrassment. Connors deliberately walks this tightrope throughout the performance, always on the edge of catastrophe, with never a false step.

Finally, as if she remembers something, she crosses to a tightly lit area of the wall and slowly, with a hieratically stylised movement, puts on an absurd velvet hat that obscures the entire upper part of her face. As in Beckett's play Not I, everything is focused on her mouth. She turns, so we see her in dramatic profile, looking like a cross between a priestess and a model on a Parisian catwalk. We wait, breathlessly, for Connors to speak...

With an almost melodramatic gesture, Connors sticks her finger in her mouth. Then she starts talking. It has all the expressivity and volubility of language, without a trace of semantic sense. Then she stops, takes her finger out of her mouth, pauses, turns her other profile, and puts her thumb in her mouth, and speaks again, this time in a lower voice. She performs a dialogue between the two profiles, which is at once comically infantile - it's exactly the sort of thing children do for fun, to make silly noises - and yet, in its vocal variations, disturbingly close to real speech.

This is pure sound poetry, removing all trace of semantic recognition from spoken language and exposing its subterranean physicality and sonic values. I found it interesting at this point how much I was longing for actual words to emerge from the vocalisations (a longing related to the difficulties I have, as a word-centred person, in describing adequately my experience of the show). But, as with all aspects of this work, Connors is not in the business of satisfying expectations; she forces the audience's attention to focus on the mouth and the noises it is making, on the embarrassing, recalcitrant presence of the performer herself.

This introduces a series of "acts" separated by blackouts, which are orchestrated to gradually expand Connors' musical and theatrical vocabulary. She mimes playing a piano, voicing the notes, pushing them to harshly discordant, assaultive extremes before bringing them back (apologetically, as if it had somehow got away from her) to something like melody. In a particularly beautiful moment, Connors sits like a medium before a draped table covered with wine glasses, places pieces of tin foil on top of them, and begins to sing. The tinfoil vibrates and splits her voice, so it seems as if there is more than one person singing; and then the foils slowly begin to rotate, like miniature ballet dancers, turned by the answering vibrations of the glasses.

In another act, three tiny music boxes are spotlit by the window; one by one, Connors flips them open. They are all playing Für Elise. To the accompaniment of this melodic tinkling, Connors wriggles into two huge tulle petticoats, flashing that brittle smile as she becomes entangled and clumsily sticks out her arms in a grotesque attempt free herself.

Because the eye and ear have adjusted to the minimalism of the performance so far, it is a shock when Connors puts on an accordion and belts out a number. It's almost like a pay-off, the performer finally relenting and delivering some entertainment; except that it has a sting in the tail, the delivery of such satisfaction itself a mockery of expectation. It's a parody, at once fragile, joyous and satirical, of the romantic feminine, and is followed almost immediately by a hilariously grotesque vision of a vagina dentata.

The lights come up to a disconcerting vision of a face, upside-down and seemingly between Connors' legs, lit from beneath by a tiny hand-held strobe light. This time the "other mouth" speaks (the only time words are spoken, rather than sung, in the entire show), a fragmentary dialogue with, one assumes, a lover. "Unlike you," it says, "I have twooo mouths." It finishes, impatiently, "Ok, I'll be the man." Predatory and sardonic, impropriety incarnate, this mouth does not apologise for itself; it takes what it wants.

There follow more songs, this time accompanied by a ukelele: a divertissement on the Australian women's swimming team ("What we want is LIFT!"), sung while she stands in a pan of water dressed in a bathing suit covered in obscenely drooping balloons, and another played in a costume that is really a brown paper bag. The paper, of course, crackles embarrassingly. The surprisingly lush design is full of intriguingly ambiguous promptings of the "proper": a music stand with music by Bach, empty earphones dangling from its side; yellowed sheet music pasted across a window.

Connors finishes by again meeting the eyes of her audience, smiling that smile, which remains as enigmatic as it was at the beginning. Is it apology, or mockery? Challenge or welcome? Benediction? All of these? The relationships in this intimate space between the proper and improper have imperceptibly, wickedly, been disrupted until it is impossible to tell which is which. And what are the implications of these disruptions? At once, I suspect, mundane and profound: again, I think of Beckett, of the pitiless compassion which exposes the fragility of human gesture, observing it without the comfort of consolatory moralising. And also of the perverse lightness of being which follows this observing.

Material Mouth is one of those deeply satisfying works which leave you ruminating for hours afterwards. A word for the lighting and design, which are beautifully precise and subtle, a hard ask in a space as small as La Mama. And also for Margaret Cameron's assured direction.

If you can manage it, I recommend catching Margaret Cameron's one-woman show Proscenium, also part of the Fringe, which I saw in July (review here); on some nights the timing allows you to see Material Mouth and run to the Malthouse for Cameron's piece afterwards. It would make a remarkably complementary evening of works by two of Australia's most interesting performance artists.

Picture: Carolyn Connors

La Mama Theatre
The Proscenium

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Sunday, October 02, 2005


On the train home from today's forum, I opened Giorgio Agamben's book of essays, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, to this serendipitous passage:

'Primo Levi has shown... that there is today a "shame of being human", a shame that in some way or another has tainted every human being. This was - and still is - the shame of the camps, the shame of the fact that what should not have happened did happen. And it is shame of this type, as has been rightly pointed out, that we feel today when faced with too great a vulgarity of thought, when watching certain tv shows, when confronted with the faces of their hosts and with the self-assured smiles of those "experts" who jovially lend their qualifications to the political game of the media. Those who have felt this silent shame of being human have also severed within themselves any link with the political power in which they live. Such a shame feeds their thoughts and constitutes the beginning of a revolution and of an exodus of which it is barely possible to see the end.'

It was almost startling, since it articulated something of the complexity of what I was feeling at the time. There I was, being an "expert", in a context in which my position behind the microphone and the attendance of an audience made a constituency of authority. And within that constituency, with the authority, however spurious or legitimate, conferred on us as panellists, we spoke about the act of theatre criticism.

I have no wish to impugn my fellow panellists, who are neither dishonest nor unintelligent, however I might disagree with them on occasion. Nor do I wish to exculpate myself. My sense of disturbance was much more subtle than any easy j'accuse, and difficult to track because it was also familiar, like one's own body odour. For whatever reason, a miasma of depression rose gradually inside me as the discussion progressed. There was nothing overtly wrong with the talk; it was unexceptionable, at worst boring. It was well-intended. It was agreeable; at times even jovial. I am not sure what the eighty or so good people who attended might have learned: that theatre critics like going to the theatre, that they have varying opinions on the point and value of what they are doing, that they have varying relationships to those they criticise and their employers, that they consider themselves informed commentators.

So what was this inarticulate scream, this "silent shame", which gradually oppressed me? For there was nothing to put my finger on, nothing overtly objectionable: nothing, you might think, to remind me of anything so extreme as a concentration camp. The connection, I suppose, is in the expression "the vulgarity of thought". The vulgarity does not lie necessarily with the individual critics speaking, but in the tacit contexts which constrain discussion, so that it may never reach any pitch of disturbance. The vulgarity twists around, I suspect, the very DNA of our culture. Is it partly that very Australian fear of intellectual seriousness, which makes its very expression a matter of defensive anxiety, as if to be too serious were a breach of propriety? Is it that our very passions are muted, as if they were swaddled in cotton wool? Or is it that any designation as "expert", as part of a group of "experts", taints one inevitably with complacency?

I am not quite sure what I am attempting to say. All I know is that if I am honest with myself, I felt a kind of shame, sitting there behind the microphone. I have sat on more than a few panels in my time, and it is always an experience fraught with dubiety; but the panels on theatre criticism have always had this particular flavour, which today I was able to identify. It seemed to me that, for all its display of culture, what we did today had nothing to do with art. It is perhaps not going too far to say that I felt, in some way that is not, in fact, easily identifiable, that it seemed to negate the very possibility of art itself.

This begs the question of what I think art might be. I can't answer that question; I can think of no general definition which is remotely adequate. It is not enough to deny that art is a commodity; of course it is a commodity. To claim that art is a created thing with a quality of excess that escapes commodification feels closer to what I mean. And yet we seem incapable of speaking of art except in terms of its value as a commodity - as a consumable item which may be "rated" (three stars or five?), in all its forms from a basic "entertainment" to the kind of product which confers less tangible benefits, such as social or intellectual status. Not only does this seem to miss the point; it obscures it almost beyond rescue. For there is a point, ungraspable as it may seem, which may hold value in its very ungraspability.

I realise I am very close to saying that art is the same as the sublime. Given I can't abstract art from its material nature - theatre simply wouldn't exist without the sweaty temporality of the human bodies which enact it - I clearly can't quite mean that. This materiality seems to me in fact art's redemptive vulgarity, a certain crudity which is very different from that vulgarity of thought Agamben refers to. Perhaps, within this sublime vulgarity, I find a kind of hope. The problem is that it's not hope for anything: just hope itself, ridiculous and naked. And it is, like all ridiculous and naked things, an embarrassment, a fracture of ease, which may admit then another possibility - joy? grief? play? life? Maybe it was the lack of this very fracture which made me feel so infinitely and yet so indefinitely hopeless. For lack of unease, I was ashamed; I felt I had participated in the imprisoning of something I think of, not as an expression of freedom, but as freedom itself.

I certainly couldn't have said anything like this at the event today. I could not have even thought it, and nor would it have been "appropriate". After all, we were only talking about theatre reviewing.

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