2005 - looking backBilly MaloneyNotes on LA, Mother Courage and politics ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

2005 - looking back

It's that time of year again, when it is conventional to drink too much, to rush around snarling at your fellow harrassed shoppers, and to say things like, where has this year gone? And of course, time for the annual Olympian view of the year's theatre, as seen from the critical eyrie.

Glancing through my reviews, what strikes me principally is how much good theatre, of many different kinds, that I've seen this year. And, perhaps perversely, I finish this year feeling more optimistic about the state of Melbourne theatre than I began it.

2005 was dominated by two very different events - the radical shift of artistic direction at the Malthouse Theatre, and this year's extremely successful Melbourne Festival. Under Michael Kantor's artistic direction, the Malthouse has done the unimaginable - turned around the stale post-70s aesthetic of the Playbox Theatre and made a space for a broader perception of theatrical possibility. Likewise, the Melbourne Festival's 2005 program, by general agreement the most exciting for years, was a sell-out success. Artistic director Kristy Edmunds foregrounded innovative work by local and international artists which galvanised everyone who attended, sparking engaged (and often vastly differing) responses. Theatre is looking sexy again: more importantly, the broadening of aesthetic possibility is beginning to attract a different demographic, younger people who have heretofore rather spent their dollars on film or books. We can only hope that this trend continues.

On the other hand, theatre, as always, teeters in a state of permanent crisis, and there are many reasons to be worried about the future of the arts here. If even Hannie Rayson's absurd melodrama Two Brothers can prompt Federal Ministers to talk about abolishing the Australia Council, what happens if there's some real critique? This year also saw the abolition of the Australia Council's New Media and Community Arts Boards - both of which supported innovative artforms - under a major restructure, to the wide disquiet of the arts community.

The recent bundle of legislation passed through Federal Parliament includes amendments to the archaic sedition laws that potentially affect artists as much as journalists or anyone interested in social critique, and the banning of compulsory union fees at universities with a consequent disastrous effect on cultural life in our tertiary institutions. These laws represent the latest and most damaging salvos in an ongoing war by the right wing against Australian culture: only this week, the attack dog of the Right, Andrew Bolt, savaged the alleged "group think" of arts funding bodies (conveniently ignoring the fact, for instance, that the Australia Council also funds the right wing magazine Quadrant) , and it's hard not to wonder how much this indicates more aggressive government interference in - and ultimately, repression of - art that doesn't toe the official line.

More particularly, to return to theatre itself, there has recently been a rash of doom-laden opinion pieces about the lack of new Australian theatre writing. Even Helen Thompson, who has certainly seen more Melbourne theatre than I have this year, comments that there has been "a dearth of new Australian writing for the stage".

I am frankly puzzled by this perception. This year I have seen a lot of new Australian writing, in conventional and innovative forms. I don't want to minimise the difficulties playwrights face here, which are complex, and at once familiar to anyone working in theatre anywhere and particular to this culture. The fact remains that I've seen a lot of new Australian theatre writing this year, ranging from full-on mainstream adaptation (Andrew Upton's marvellous version of Cyrano de Bergerac at the MTC) to the innovative - Subclass26A at 45 Downstairs, for example, or Stuart Orr's brilliant operatic riff on Nazism, Telefunken and Margaret Cameron's poetic meditation The Proscenium, at the Malthouse.

We had Wesley Enoch's breathtaking (and breathtakingly directed) Black Medea, a Belvoir St/Malthouse co-production; ambitious, if ultimately flawed adaptations by Tom Wright (The Odyssey and Journal of a Plague Year); Ben Ellis' Kafka's Metamorphosis and Patricia Cornelius' Love - both of which, sadly, I missed as I was overseas. And in the smaller independent companies there were productions of a new generation of young writers - Lally Katz, Tee O'Neill, Angus Cerini, Robert Reid and others. And that's without even looking at the work La Mama constantly does in creating a haven for new writing, both with regular readings of new playwrights and productions.

So where is this dearth of new Australian writing? It's underfunded, no question; it struggles to be seen and heard - even, it seems, by those who have seen and heard it. But it's most undoubtedly there. And the best of it has a promising energy and intelligence, a restlessness which challenges the artform and the society in which it's produced.

Perhaps this perception has, in part, been fed by the tendency of independent companies like Theatre@Risk and Red Stitch to put on international plays. But it seems chiefly to derive from the change of direction at the Malthouse, and its abandonment of the Playbox program of doing only new Australian plays. This has led to assertions that the Malthouse no longer supports new Australian work, an argument that a quick look at their 2005 program would quickly dismantle. The policy does signal a move away from a conservative aesthetic dominated by the idea of the "well-made play", towards a more integrated model of theatre writing - the idea that, like Shakespeare, the playwright is a theatre worker who collaborates with others to create his art.

In any case, Australian theatre seems more broadly imagined than it was a year ago, and for that I am profundly grateful.

So, to my stand-out productions (or, at least, those I haven't mentioned yet). It will be no surprise to anyone that Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Dernier Caravansérail gets my vote (as well as, it seems, everyone else's) for the most significant production of the year. I suspect that Théâtre de Soleil's tour will come to be seen, in retrospect, as influential as Pina Bausch's tour was on Australian dance in the 1970s - its achievment, beauty and power were nothing less than inspiring.

At the Malthouse, Michael Kantor's production of Patrick White's The Ham Funeral was sheerly beautiful, and placed White where he belongs - squarely in the Australian theatrical tradition, from which he has been carefully edited for the past three decades or so. And Barrie Kosky's 21st Century cabaret with the amazing Paul Capsis, Boulevard Delirium, deserved its standing ovations.

Among the independent companies, I remember Anita Hegh's extraordinary one-woman performance of The Yellow Wallpaper; Act-O-Matic's very classy production of The Laramie Project; Chamber Made Opera's return season of its wonderful and witty send up of film noir, Phobia; and the poignant fairytale Felix Listens to the World, made by the young company Suitcase Royale. And I also would like to mention Out on a Limb, Sarah Mainwaring's moving performance art piece at La Mama, which has stayed with me a long time.

Theatre Notes is taking a short break for Christmas, but will be back with bells on - and perhaps the remnants of tinsel - for what looks like a fascinating 2006. The big question for me is, what now for the Malthouse? Will they be able to keep the momentum going? Tune in here to find out...

And a very Merry Christmas, or other seasonal greetings, to all my loyal readers and to the companies who have supported this blog. You've made it all worthwhile. Thanks too to those who brought the comments section to life this year - the more debate, the better for theatre, and the better for all of us.

Have a good one.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Billy Maloney

Billy Maloney by Bill Garner and Sue Gore, directed by Denis Moore, designed by Shaun Gurton, lighting by Nick Merrylees. With Don Bridges, Jim Daly and Ruth Schoenheimer. At North Melbourne Town Hall until December 10.

Billy Maloney left me cogitating about the connection between art and politics. This is a much more difficult question than it might appear to be in this play, which overtly sets out to celebrate the life of a fascinating early Melbourne radical and to rouse the audience to emulate his exemplary idealism. But in assuming that art can be unproblematically political, in the way that, say, a political rally is, I fear that Bill Garner and Sue Gore may have missed the point.

The play itself is a biopic of Dr William Maloney, a part of Australia's history that John Howard's government would prefer remained forgotten. MLA for West Melbourne from 1889 -1903, he was a dyed-in-the-wool progressive: an indefatigable campaigner for free speech and social justice, who introduced one of the first bills for female suffrage in the British Empire and organised the first May Day march. He was a medical reformer who founded the Medical Institute, which gave free health care to Melbourne's poor, and championed issues to do with women's health.

As an obstetrician, he was able to see first hand the consequences of women being unable to control their reproductive lives, and was a vocal supporter of Bessie Smyth, founder of the Australian Women's Suffrage Association and an early campaigner for women's health and contraception. The illegitimate son of a wealthy and unconventional woman, Jane Maloney, he also changed the legal definition of children born out of wedlock from "illegitimate" to "ex-nuptial".

But Maloney was much more than an earnest social campaigner. He was a colourful figure, a 19th century Melbourne Bohemian, who dressed like a Baudelairian flaneur. When he was in Paris, he attended Victor Hugo's funeral, and he corresponded with the 19th century Christian philosopher, art critic, artist, social critic and teacher John Ruskin.

Garner and Gore deal with what is clearly a complex life of commitment with a conceit: two historians, Ian (Jim Daly) and Jocelyn (Ruth Schoenheimer) are about to present a commemoration for Billy Maloney when, all of sudden, a foppishly dressed elderly gentleman - Bill Maloney (Don Bridges) himself - appears and insists on re-enacting crucial episodes in his life. Ian and Jocelyn play along, playing different parts as Maloney demands, doing various business with the audience, exhorting the audience to sing along, and so on.

I can't say that it's not entertaining - the quality of the performances from the fine cast and Denis Moore's sharp direction ensure that everything bounces along brightly. But the effect is rather like a cross between a Methodist meeting and Playschool; on the one hand, some heavy-handed, rather moralising underlining of the parallels between Maloney's time and ours, in case we didn't get them first time, and on the other a lot of "business" between the actors to set up the artifice ("It's your turn to play the Speaker!") . After a while I wondered why the audience - largely grey-haired and perhaps themselves refugees from the Old Left - didn't object to being treated like children.

This kind of theatre stems from the nationalistic idealism of the '70s, including the rather sentimentalised idea of a knockabout larrikin Australian rebel, eccentric and quixotic and deeply warm hearted, a truly Bob Hawke-ian "man of the people". The form - schematic biographical sketches, overtly theatrical and quasi-Brechtian - echoes a play I saw in 1989 at The Church (which in fact starred Denis Moore in the title role), Essington Lewis: I am Work; and it has the same kinds of problems. While I am all for the invoking of cultural memory that this work embodies, and my political sympathies are all with the subject matter, I had a great deal of difficulty with its approach to theatrical form.

I am no expert on Billy Maloney, but allusions to Goethe, Hugo and Ruskin suggest an aesthetic component to his idealism that the script barely touches on. And it made me wonder how much Maloney's achievements and - perhaps - contradictions are diminished by an infantalising aesthetic which panders to a fear of an audience being bored by anything too "serious" or too depressing. There are, for example, asides about the kinds of poverty which Maloney encountered and which no doubt radicalised him, but they are no more than hints. There are gestures towards the kind of intellectual idealism Maloney seems to have embraced, but again, nothing too difficult.

The issue goes deeper than a question of emphasis. Maloney several times quotes "There is no wealth but life!", which comes from John Ruskin's series of essays on Political Economy: "There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration..." These essays are in part a discussion of value, which Ruskin anthropocentrically concludes "is the life-giving power of anything": which in effect means that true value is not monetary but aesthetic.

This places aesthetic squarely as a political and economic issue, and also suggests that politics is, in part, a question of aesthetic. The true utopian asks not only for bread and water, but demands nourishment for the soul. And while Billy Maloney fulfils one of Ruskin's demands of a work of art - that it "preserve and communicate the knowledge of facts" - its text barely scrapes the surface of the other, which is to excite "vital or noble emotion and intellectual action". There are moments - a quote from Victor Hugo about freedom, or a wonderful image of Maloney as Don Quixote - which teasingly suggest what might have been possible but, for the most part, we stick with the comedy. The profounder possibilities of art or, indeed, of politics, are assiduously avoided in favour of a cosy and nostalgic sense of togetherness.

I recall that rebarbative English playwright, Howard Barker, and his fulminations against this kind of liberal, humanistic theatre: "There is great safety and security to be enjoyed in the exchange of conscience-ridden observations, affirmations of shared values, humanistic platitudes," writes Barker. "But the stage remains essentially sterile." There is none of Brecht's alienation, which is the challenge to think, here. Brecht, the political playwright par examplar, was never afraid of stirring the emotions of his audience ("Get them by the balls and their hearts will follow"). And being unfairly gifted, he was also a great poet, and a great deal of the potency of his plays lies in their tough poetic.

Fresh from a marvellous performance of Brecht's Mother Courage in LA, it's hard not to compare the devastating effect of his essay on war in the context of contemporary politics with the exhortation to a singalong that is the main affect in Billy Maloney, and not to conclude that Brecht has the more radicalising effect. On the one hand, a heartwarming affirmation: on the other, heartbreaking and pitiless analysis of hard realities. One shouldn't abuse Gore and Garner for not being Brecht - nobody but Brecht is Brecht - but theatre should be more than a history lesson. I can't but wish for a deeper faith in the possibilities of theatre than was on show in this play.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Notes on LA, Mother Courage and politics

Your peripatetic crrrritic is back from LA, which was a gas. I read poems and talked about myself to people who were polite enough to be interested, and checked out a little of what is a very interesting music scene.

I got a bit of everything: I saw the NY New Music Ensemble at the LA arts museum, LACMA; the Canadian band Broken Social Scene at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood Boulevard; jazz at the Catalina Club, which is like stepping straight into a black and white 60s movie; the extraordinary trumpeter, composer and improviser Wadada Leo Smith at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall (the closest I got to Disneyland) as part of the Redcat program produced by Calarts Theatre; and finally, again at LACMA, a mind blowing performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations, by the Russian pianist Sergey Schepkin. Oh, and lots of art - a Kiki Smith exhibition and a wonderful William Kentridge piece at the MOMA in San Francisco (where I also went to the City Lights bookshop and hung out at a beat bar) and Pisarro and Cezanne at LACMA.

It's fair to say that I had a most interesting time.

And yes, Virginia, there is theatre in LA. I managed to get to one play - a production of David Hare's translation of Mother Courage put on in a gorgeous new theatre space, the Boston Court, in Pasadena. One gathers that government arts funding is thin on the ground in the US; in any case, the whole theatre - an award-winning, state-of-the-art 99-seat theatre and concert space, plus the productions - is privately funded by patrons and subscribers.

I saw the final performance of the season. It was a great production, despite starting with choreographed movement which was faintly redolent of student theatre. The set was simply a tree (a real tree) in the middle of a semi-circular, quite shallow stage; back stage was bordered by a veil of suspended ropes, which meant the actors could enter the performing space from anywhere. From the tree's branches were suspended dismembered arms and legs, which felt a bit overdressed, as did a little of the lighting; but this is a mere quibble.

It was performed by a multi-racial company of real depth, but the star was Camille Savola as Mother Courage, who gave one of those iconic performances which sear themselves into memory and that you feel privileged to have witnessed. It was superbly judged: tough, unsentimental and profoundly moving. And what a play for our times! There is a sharp contemporary bite to Brecht's pitiless analysis of the business of war. This was underlined by a speech Savola gave at the end of the performance, among other things a rousing cry for the defence of democracy in a land where, as she said, "our democracy is daily being taken away", and a reminder of the real place that art has in the continuing struggle for actual freedom, rather the blood-tainted advertising slogan that freedom seems to mean these days.

Interestingly, The Threepenny Opera was also on in LA, so Brecht must be striking many chords. I didn't see it, but my theatre partner for Mother Courage did, and tells me it was equally potent. Perhaps things are so grim in the US now that Brecht's plays - Mother Courage was written in 1939, as Germany lurched into the nightmare of Fascism under Hitler - have found, once again, their real meaning. A chilling thought, but no more chilling than the realities that are now shaping our lives.

Which reminds me to direct you to Melbourne playwright Jasmine Chan's excellent blog, Endpapers. Jasmine is currently in South America, and her observations on her encounters are fascinating and beautiful. If you read nothing else, read her passionate open letter to John Howard, On the Sedition Act, which addresses the implications of some alarming new legislation which even now is on its ways to becoming law. "Art," says Jasmine, "is what constitutes cultural memory. Cultural memory is a light by which we all have the right to look. Without a diverse, inclusive, holistic cultural memory, a society is condemned to darkness." Amen to that.

Back to normal broadcasting later this week.

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