Blog updateThe True Amazon Adventures of Roger CasementDumbshowBlogosphere alertsNew Year Celebration ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Blog update

I've added a few new blogs to my theatre blogroll - scroll down the sidebar and check them out!

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Monday, January 30, 2006

The True Amazon Adventures of Roger Casement

The True Amazon Adventures of Roger Casement by Andrew Shaw, directed by Robert Reid. With Mike McEvoy, Elliot Summers, Robert Lloyd, Michael F. Cahill, Tobias Manderson-Galvin, Johannes Scherpenhuizen, Liz McColl, Simon Morrison-Baldwin and Alicia Benn Lawler. La Mama until February 18.

The so-called Black Diaries of Roger Casement are a kind of Turin Shroud of modern history. Sir Roger Casement was a distinguished Victorian human rights advocate whose reports on colonial atrocities in the Belgian Congo and rubber plantations in Peru earned him a knighthood.

But Casement, an Anglo-Irishman, was also a believer in Irish Independence. In 1916 he arranged for a German ship to sail for Ireland with "several machine-guns, 20,000 rifles and a million rounds of ammunition" for the Irish Volunteers. But his plans were exposed, and Casement was arrested and imprisoned in London for three months awaiting trial. He was hanged by the British for treason on August 3, 1916, for his part in the Easter Rising.

While Casement was in prison, the diaries - supposedly seized in a raid on his house - were used to destroy his credibility and character. The diaries contained explicit details that revealed Casement to be a promiscuous homosexual with a taste for rough trade. Selected extracts were shown to public figures and known sympathisers, who consequently shrank back from appealing for clemency for a "degenerate". The Black Diaries effectively hanged him.

Predictably, perhaps, given the underhand way in which the British authorities used the diaries, and their subsequent keeping in conditions of extraordinary secrecy (the first independent examination of the documents only happened three years ago), their provenance has always been surrounded by controversy. Particularly in Ireland, there has been a widely held belief that the diaries were forgeries, partly out of a disbelief that a hero and martyr could possibly be gay: as de Valera said, he was "too noble to be a degenerate".

The unequivocal 2002 judgment of handwriting expert Dr Audrey Giles that the diaries "were genuine throughout and in each instance" has done nothing, however, to end the controversy. Many experts argue that her examination was incomplete, and failed to take into account inconsistencies in the text and other issues which, at the very least, throw doubt on their authenticity.

In our times, Casement is in danger of becoming a martyr for gay pride as much as for the Irish Nationalists. Poor ghost. Playwright Andrew Shaw has no doubt: "we can accept the diaries as real, why shouldn't they be?" he says, dismissing the arguments for their inauthenticity as "a claim designed to safeguard an Irish martyr against the perversion of homosexuality".

I'm not so sure; in this age, the counter-arguments may have nothing to do with homophobia, and everything to do with concern about the lengths to which the British authorities could go in order to hang a troublesome dissident. However, Andrew Shaw has created an intelligent and witty play out of the hallucinatory realities that circle around this case.

In the opening scenes a young civil servant Thomson (Mike McEvoy) is blackmailed by two Foreign Office officials (Robert Lloyd and Michael F Cahill); the police have certain information on his private life, and he will be prosecuted for homosexuality - unless, that is, he reads the private diaries of Roger Casement and uses them to create a forgery which fits in with the known details, but which proves Casement to be a degenerate.

Thomson likes to think he is a humanitarian - he admires Casement's work in the Congo and the Amazon - and is something of a naive romantic. But he takes the job to save his own skin, knowing that he will help to hang a man whom he admires. He hopes to salve his conscience by showing that, even though Casement is queer, he is also a human being capable of love; and the project also appeals to a certain literary vanity. The irony is that when the actual diaries turn up and Thomson's forgeries are no longer needed, Casement's adventures are not the romantic idylls of Thomson's imaginings, but something altogether more ambiguous and disturbing.

Shaw interleaves scenes between the civil servants and others between Thomson and his lover with dramatisations of events from Casement's diaries, which relate a somewhat brutal narrative of what we would now call sex tourism as well as the corruptions and brutalities of plantation life. He artfully illustrates not only the hypocrisies of Victorian society - at least one of Thomson's superiors is himself homosexual - but also its mechanics: the levers of class and money and exploitation that constitute a colonial empire. Sharp and subtly inflected performances from these three actors (I especially enjoyed the panicked vulnerability of Thomson, too intelligent to hide from himself the implications of what he is doing) intensify the ironies of these scenes.

In the middle of this machinery is the hapless character of Casement (Elliot Summers) himself, who is a cipher - on the one hand condemning the exploitation of "natives", while on the other exploiting them sexually. But instead of creating a truly complex contradiction, Casement comes across merely as a hypocritical prig, weakly shoring up his own authority at the expense of the man he claims to love but, in fact, exploits and betrays. It's a factor of Summers' rather blank performance, I think, as much as a question not quite resolved in the script. While Shaw's Casement is certainly flawed, it is difficult to see how such a moral quisling could be fired by the desire for justice that motivated his reports of human rights abuses or the support for an independent Ireland which finally ended his life.

Robert Reid's direction is arresting, if perhaps a little ambitious for the intimate stage of La Mama: the artifice of this production might work better with the distance of a proscenium. The actors are in white face, and half masks are used to indicate the masks of colonial rule, effectively theatricalising the roles and selves of colonial rule. The English servant and the plantation slave, both at the bottom of the class hierarchy, are represented by a bunraku puppet. Sometimes the staging is very effective indeed: a scene where Casement's assistant is whipped is startlingly violent and unbearable, especially from a distance of less than a metre - hard to do in a small theatre. It's a production that doesn't quite achieve its own ambition, but is well worth a look.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006


Dumb Show by Joe Penhall, directed by Peter Evans. With Aaron Blabey, Anita Hegh and Richard Piper. Designed by Christina Smith, lighting design Matt Scott, music by Darrin Verhagen. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax, Victorian Arts Centre, until February 18.

Joe Penhall is that very British phenomenon, the straight-talking celeb. Asked what he thought the problems of British theatre were, he responded: "Too much mediocrity in the West End. It's like watching BBC1. They're just milking the tits of a giant, wobbling, quivering fucking middle-brow cash cow if you ask me."

Ironically enough, without the profanity (I am a courteous and restrained individual) that was more or less my sentiment at the end of Penhall's Dumb Show, a play about the mutual parasitic relationship between celebrity and tabloid journalism. It's a classic issue-based play, setting up a confrontation with enough moral ambivalence to keep the audience teetering to and fro in their sympathies, without reaching so far into the heart of things that it confronts anything too visceral. Middle-brow indeed.

My first, not very interesting, thought about Dumb Show was to wonder why a story about the grubby hypocrisy of British tabloid newspaper journalists would be of interest to Melbourne theatre goers. Australian tabloids have got nothing on the excesses of Fleet Street, nor can we match the trashy glitz of British celebrity; and the issues as presented here have little to do with us. But then, I will follow with breathless interest stories about decaying 19th century Russian bourgeoisie or 12th century English kings, without the question of irrelevance entering my head. The real question is, I think, one of sentimentality.

In Dumb Show, Richard Piper plays Barry, a vain and insecure tv celebrity. He becomes the target for entrapment by a pair of unscrupulous tabloid journalists, Greg (Aaron Blabey) and Liz (Anita Hegh), who disguise themselves as bankers and dangle the bait of a huge fee for a dinner talk. Of course, behind the moral outrage of the journalists lies the grubby business of the scoop, the voyeuristic and predatory amorality that feeds on the pain and humiliation of its former favourites. But, as the play reveals, it is a symbiotic relationship: the celebrity needs the press as much as it needs him, to feed his fame and his egotism.

And that, really, is as far as it goes.

I have heard sentimentality described as "unearned feeling", and it's a description that fits this play to a tee. I have seldom seen a work so brazenly manipulative, shamelessly raising the emotional stakes to wring the hearts of the audience, without anywhere risking real feeling. And of course it's full of jokes, defusing moral or emotional discomfort with those crackling one-liners. Yes, I laughed at one or two of the jokes, but less and less as the show went on.

In this, I fear, I was a little solitary: the MTC audience lapped it up, practically booing the villains and cheering the main guy as if it was a Victorian melodrama. I sat, as Michael Billington once memorably said, in "mutinous isolation". I don't like having my feelings pushed around, as if my mind is nothing but a series of buttons to be pressed by this or that turn of the plot: if I want that, I can always watch Neighbours.

It's a shame to see such a talented cast and director spending their efforts on work so unrewarding. Anita Hegh, in particular, was unable to access her considerable powers in the character of Liz, who is, like her colleague Greg, thinly drawn; neither of the journalists are much more than empty representations of the moral and emotional bankruptcy of their profession. Richard Piper as Barry, predictably, makes a meal of his role, which gives him plenty of scope: his character is pathetic, greedy, morally dubious, vacuous: but also raffishly charming and funny. His performance, like all the others, has that painful sense of actors mugging their roles, going for crude surface in the absence of any other ideas. But, given the script, it's hard to see what else they could have done.

Peter Evans' direction is competent, ensuring the show runs smooth and fast. At the beginning, he has the two journalists enacting their roles-within-roles as heightened, almost grotesque caricature, dropping this style when they reveal their "real" selves. It's an interesting idea that doesn't come off, partly because then it's difficult to see how Barry could possibly have been taken in by them.

In short, another play that slips out the memory as soon as you slip out of the theatre: slight in every respect, vaguely insulting in its manipulativeness, curiously untouching. The kind of thing, the MTC would argue - with some justification - that it is forced to do in order to keep the box office ticking over: as one might say, "milking the tits of a middle-brow cash cow". But that's another argument.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Blogosphere alerts

It's all happening in the theatre blogosphere. First of all, my estimable colleague Chris Boyd has kicked off his own theatre review blog, The Morning After: Performing Arts in Australia, with a couple of reviews of Cheek by Jowl and Robert Lepage at the Sydney Festival, so do check it out.

And the question of the theatre audience is the topic du jour in the US, where the blogsters are all arguing hammer and tongs. It was indirectly sparked by my posting the Foreman quote, which led to George Hunka over at Superfluities posting a quote from my essay on Howard Barker. In response to Scott Walters at Theatre Ideas agreeing with Barker, but with a caveat, George posted this passionate response, where he says in part:

Some audience members see ... difficult work as an attack, as perhaps they should, since it tells them that their conception of the world isn't theirs but a reflection of something manufactured for them to keep them asleep. Nobody, especially those who are confident in their self-indulgent belief that they know how the world works, wants to hear that. Others, seeing the same show, won't see it as an attack at all, but will be open-minded enough to see it as an invitation to a new vision: their own. Neither Foreman nor Barker wants the audience to think like them, to feel like them, but wants them to think and feel for themselves, individually, to find liberation in confronting their own darkest depths. The dramatist is a metaphor in his or her own work, a metaphor for individual perception, as the lyric voice serves in his or her own poetry. It is an invitation to profound, wrenching, transformative, painful change. As somebody once said about omelets and eggs, you can't make an epiphany without shattering a world.

Scott Walters responds here with a long and interesting post, and Matt Freeman on his Theatre and Politics blog here. And some lively discussion continues in the comments... all in all, it makes for a fascinating conversation.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

New Year Celebration

A Richard Foreman quote to stir up the New Year, which comes courtesy of New York blogger/playwright George Hunka:


Let's dare proclaim that in the face of a society increasingly crying for a media-driven, market-oriented, popular art, reaching out to everyone at once – while 'deep thoughts' are officially allowed in such art, they must only come in a form that is easily communicable to all.

that to feed the individual human spirit, the true art of these times must be a kind of demanding gymnasium where sensibilities get rigorous exercise – so that those sensibilities then become more refined, able to pick up on and appreciate the patterned intricacies of a world which is usually, in art, simplified into recognizable social and psychological clich├ęs or knock-out effect. Such normal strategies lie about the world because they talk about what we already know (which is always wrong) in languages with which we are already familiar (and therefore put our more delicate mental mechanisms to sleep) – all this, instead of waking us up with the uncharted energies that throb behind the facade of the shared world of communicable convention.

Theatre Notes is limbering up - back next week.

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