Notes on LA, Mother Courage and politics ~ theatre notes

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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