Bread and circusesA musical interludeThe ideology of theatreEastNomadic postingThe Nero ConspiracyRound the blogsRobert FiskHousekeepingNotes from elsewhereEndpapersThe Royal Court bristlesRay's TempestReading for Peace, La MamaThe controversy spreads...MastheadMore on Rachel CorrieSilencing Rachel Corrie ~ theatre notes

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bread and circuses

Melbourne's Commonwealth Games party is over, but it seems that the $13 million cultural component - a huge program of free events which was enthusiastically embraced by Melburnians, including me - is being used as a big stick to bash the arts, or at least the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.

I was not alone in thinking last year's MIFA was the most exciting for years. But as so often in Australia, it seems that artistic achievement pales before the bottom line. Think of the controversial termination in 2003 of Simone Young's contract with the Australian Opera, or Meryl Tankard's acrimonious departure from the Australian Dance Theatre in 1999. Or of any number of festival directors who have created critically acclaimed arts festivals, only to be shoved out the door once it's discovered that European-class arts festivals actually cost money.

In a recent article in The Age, it was claimed that the success of the Games' cultural festival has given rise to an idea that it ought to be an annual fixture, with possible implications for MIFA. And, perhaps not inconsequentially, Robin Usher reports an attack on MIFA artistic director Kristy Edmunds by the Victorian Arts Centre administration:

The free Festival Melbourne 2006, costing $13 million out of the overall Games' budget, attracted about 1 million people from across the state, including 700,000 in Melbourne. The event's director, Andrew Bleby, says politicians including the Premier, Steve Bracks, all observed the throngs milling around the circus tent and other events along the Yarra and at Federation Square. This is why he believes there will be an addition to March's cultural calendar.

But the question now is whether any new event might impact on MIAF, which reported a box-office return of only $1.64 million after receiving a grant of $5.5 million from the Victorian Government - the largest of any festival except Adelaide's biennial event.

MIAF's programming by the first-time director, Kristy Edmunds, has come in for behind-the-scenes criticism, with several senior arts figures and administrators arguing that the 2005 event concentrated on an "unremitting narrow band" of performance.

Arts insiders also point to poor return for events at the Arts Centre, where the box office was only $650,000.

A furious Arts Centre administration is reported to have complained to the Government about the programming, which put poorly attended shows such as Green by the Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara and Rite of Spring by the New York-based Shen Wei dance company, in the vast State Theatre.

The Commonwealth Games festival was massively well funded, with a budget almost three times that of MIFA; all events were free and so posted no box office return at all. MIFA, on the other hand, has to sell tickets. Why compare the two events? Moreover, is the State Government really going to spend $13 million every year on another arts festival? I find that one hard to swallow.

I am curious to know the details of the MIFA box office figures, since they don't necessarily reflect poor attendance. Certainly, I did not see a single event at MIFA that wasn't packed out - demand for Theatre de Soleil, for example, was so great they had to schedule extra shows. I may have picked my shows with exquisite taste, of course, and seen only the festival successes.

But I am very wary of the agenda being pushed here.

Art Centre chief executive (not, I note, artistic director) Tim Jacobs claims that government investment in arts festivals "ultimately depends on popular involvement". And there is concern expressed by unnamed "others" that the festival is "open to the charge that it is catering too much to elite tastes".

The key word here is "elite". I have personally never understood why no one questions the huge amounts of money thrown at elite sports - the Commonwealth Games reportedly cost more than $1 billion, most of which will be picked up by the State Government - while the comparatively modest amounts spent on the arts rouse such ire. Survey after survey shows that, contrary to popular belief, Australians like their arts. All that the Games festival proved was that they like them even more if they're free.

Culture, like sport, costs money. If we want, as we claim, the kudos of a "world class" culture, why cavil at what what "world class" culture actually is? Last year we had some of the world's most exciting companies in Melbourne, including a rich component of local work. It was, artistically speaking, a huge success: and I saw crowds everywhere. I deeply hope this article isn't a straw in the wind, and that the vitality we glimpsed then isn't crushed by a bureaucratic demand for bread and circuses.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A musical interlude

Surely it's the first time a theatre stoush has inspired a song - in any case, British singer Billy Bragg has written a song protesting the NYTW cancellation of My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie is downloadable here at The Guardian.

Those who believe Bragg is passe, by the way, might reflect on the fact that he is currently the hip songster of choice among Melbourne's young music fans. The times they are a-changing...

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

The ideology of theatre

Playwright and critic Walter A. Davis has a brilliant and thought-provoking essay just up at MCW News which takes apart the tired old left/right binaries which infect discussions of political theatre. It's a must-read for anyone interested in (or depressed about) the possibilities of theatrical art. And it's absolutely applicable to ideologies at work in Australian theatre.

Jumping off the My Name Is Rachel Corrie controversy, which is virally spreading through the US media, Davis inspects the actual play, which he predicts will be clutched to the bosoms of all those wishing to tattoo "progressive" on their ideological foreheads, and isolates the conservative gene which resides fatally inside all documentary theatre - its refusal, finally, of aesthetic and political imagination. Davis' argument reflects Howard Barker's stentorian criticisms of what he calls "the theatre of journalism":

On those rare occasions when a play succeeds in preserving the conditions of genuine art, it offers its community a challenge that goes far deeper than controversial comments on a given political topic.  For such works cleanse the doors of perception, thereby transforming our relationship to ourselves and the world.  We feel and experience everything in new ways, ways fraught with anxiety but also with the pulse of transgressive discovery.  Ideology no longer retains its habitual and automatic control over our minds. It is in this sense that Hamlet and Marat/Sade and Three Sisters are political in a way far more radical than The Permanent Way to Victoria Britain or Guantanamo or, to strike closer to home, the confused Messianic (and non Benjaminian) aesthetic of Angels in America or the self-congratulatory sexual posturing of The Vagina Monologues.

In transforming the very terms of our experience radical works of art exposes their audience to the pervasive ways in which we are prisoners of ideologies that severely limit our possibilities of thinking and feeling.  Plays that perform such a function need never directly address a political topic in order to be political in the deepest sense by making it impossible for us to experience the world the way we previously did.   The popular concept and practice of political theatre, in contrast, severely truncates this possibility.  It offers us no more than a quick ideological fix on some current issue.  As a result we are more the slave of ideology—be it liberal or conservative, religious or secular, or whatever—than we were before.  All such dramas do is incite the faithful so that we’ll fall into line the next time we’re polled on some issue or asked to contribute cash to some politician campaign.

Thanks to Superfluities for the heads up.

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Friday, March 24, 2006


East: Elegy for the East End and its Energetic Waste by Steven Berkoff, directed by John Bolton, lighting by Toby Bolton. With Andre Jewson, Simon Morrison-Baldwin, Sarah-Jane St Clair, James Re and James Ballarin. La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse until April 1.

This marvellous production of East reminds you how powerful language can be in the theatre. In his first, and to my mind his best play, Steven Berkoff forged an outrageous poetry from the collision of Shakespearean rhythms and cockney slang, creating a heightened theatrical vernacular that is at once obscene, audacious, dark and beautiful.

East premiered just over 30 years ago, but Berkoff's brash originality shines as freshly as ever. Its language is reminiscent of Anthony Burgess' s A Clockwork Orange, in the film of which Berkoff acted shortly before he wrote East: there is the same extreme metaphoric pressure and kinetic energy, the same ecstatic violence. But unlike A Clockwork Orange, East is a celebration of the "energetic waste" of youth, an exuberant aria of damage and desire.

Set in London's East End in the late 1960s, the London of Berkoff's own adolescence, the play is, as he says, "a scream or a shout of pain. It is revolt. ...East could be the east side of any city where the unveneered blast off at each other in their own compounded argot as if the ordinary language of polite communication was as dead as the people who uttered it... The acting has to be loose and smacking of danger ... it must smart and whip out like a fairy's wicked lash..."

What's most striking about this language is its unabashed carnality: it is arousing, in every sense of that word, demanding the immediacy of physical response. Like his contemporaries Maria Irene Fornes and Richard Foreman, Berkoff is an auteur director, who wrote and directed his own plays with the London Theatre Group. He situates his theatre in a variety of performing traditions and techniques, including vaudeville, Brecht, Artaud and Le Coq, but the emphasis is always on the text and the actors.

The tension between writerly and performative excess and an ascetic simplicity of design makes a theatre that is at once elegant and rawly affective. Berkoff's production of Salome, which toured here many years ago, featured highly stylised and expressive performances of Oscar Wilde's heightened language. In a way, it's the obvious thing to do with such naked theatrical poetry: but the obvious is not necessarily easy. It's a question of holding one's nerve, of following the gesture through, blasting past the fear of creating mere parody or shallow pastiche towards an Artaudian possibility of revelation.

VCA head of acting John Bolton has directed a copybook production that fully exploits the talents of his young ensemble, and it's as enjoyable a production of East as you'll see. The Courthouse space is draped on three sides by black curtains, which fortuitously go a long way to solving many of the acoustic problems of this space and permit very precise, black theatre lighting. The set consists of five chairs, a piano and a table set for a meal. Toby Bolton's lighting is at once subtle and bold, creating maximum effect with a sparely chosen pallet that caresses the bodies of the actors as they emerge from or vanish into darkness.

What centrally matters in any production of Berkoff's work is the performances. In East, the play depends on a sense of explosive youthful anarchy married to a high level of actorly skill: it's essential that you can hear every word of Berkoff's thick, viscous language, that every gesture is precise and measured. The length and complexity of the monologues means that sustaining energy and focus is an almost athletic challenge. These performances are remarkably detailed, reflecting months of work (the luxury of a student production): every phrase is lovingly incarnated and articulated through the bodies of the actors, and performed with an infectious relish.

East is at once a celebration and critique of the performance of masculinity. Les (James Re) and Mike (James Ballarin), the two young thugs perpetually on the hunt for a fight or a fuck, play their parts with a swaggering machismo that is so excessive it turns into a hilarious parody of itself. Arrogant and amoral, they live for the spilling of bodily fluids, blood or sperm: the moment of ecstatic release that permits them to transcend the banality and poverty of their lives. But beneath this extremity is a corrosive isolation: "I was lonely...' says Les, "basically I think, like one is born that way, I always felt lonely as if it was something like a habit..."

Their racist, misognyist Dad (Andre Jewson) simmers in a constant brew of suppressed rage, laced with a poisonous nostalgia. The high point of Dad's life, and in Jewson's frenetic performance a high point of the night, is his memory of a march with the Fascists of Oswald Mosley, beating up the "Kikes". But it is a memory of failure - the marchers were beaten back, England was not saved for the English - and Dad's only recourse is to bully his children and his wife. Jewson is 30 years too young for the part, but makes up for that by bringing a quality of grotesque caricature to the role that emphasises the play's theatricality, its play of masks.

Against this aggressive masculinity the two women, Mum (Simon Morrison-Baldwin) and Sylv (Sarah-Jane St Clair) launch a bruised but vitally resistant femaleness. The relationship between the sexes is agonistic all the way. Sylv's potent sexuality is a weapon to goad and mock the men: "So thou, bitch," says Mike, "seeks to distress my Johnny tool with psychological war, humiliating it into surrender shrink". But for Sylv, and for Mum, it's a battle that cannot end in victory: Sylv is clear-sighted enough to understand the conventions that imprison her, even if she can't do more than rebel against them.

Mum has retreated into numbness; she no longer reacts to anything except the fantasies in her head, fed by the cliches of popular culture. Morrison-Baldwin plays her, in contrast to the heightened energies of the other performances, as a centre of unnatural calmness, stilled perhaps by Valium, no longer even reacting to her husband's unpredictable rages.

Berkoff isn't going to allow the audience the luxury of easy empathy with any of these characters: even Mum doesn't coalesce into a figure of pity, but reveals her own surprising resistances. Neither does he suggest any way out of the dilemmas the characters reveal. East is joyously amoral, leaving the audience to wrestle with its contradictory empathies and revulsions.

This production gets these emotional and aesthetic complexities just about spot on. It's an exuberant and sexy rendering of what is, in the end, a paean to life, venereal warts and all. It's rarely done here, so don't miss it.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nomadic posting

Poet and translator Pierre Joris today posts an illuminating comment on his Nomadics blog that illustrates some of the ugliness of debate around the Rachel Corrie issue. (In particular, some of the ugliness that occurred when I posted information on the controversy to the American poetry discussion list, Buffalo Poetics.)

He goes on to point to a well-researched London Review of Books article by John Mearscheimer, Professor of Political Science at Chicago, and Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard, which traces the deleterious influence of the "Israel lobby" on US foreign policy. A must read for anyone who wants to understand the larger pressures which touch on this issue.

Closer to home, playwright Ben Ellis points to Freedom of Expression, an excellent blog which updates news on the amendments to the Sedition Laws rushed through Parliament here in December. The Australian Law Reform Commission is currently conducting a review of these disgraceful, repressive and unnecessary laws.

The Sedition Laws are of grave concern to artists and media organisations: as they stand, under the vagueness of the criminal definition of "recklessness" and the wobbly defence of "good faith" (which reverses the onus of proof: the accused has to prove his or her innocence) you could be sent to prison for seven years if you invented a fictional character who advocated the overthrow of the government, or reported the statements of an organisation considered to be an enemy by the State. Government statements that "of course" the laws wouldn't be used in that way are, oddly, not very reassuring. Interestingly, of the 294 Senate submissions on the legislation, only two were in favour of the amendments - the Attorney General's Department and the Australian Federal Police. Go figure...

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Monday, March 20, 2006

The Nero Conspiracy

The Nero Conspiracy by Enzo Condello, directed by Beng Oh. Designed by Kat Chishkovsky, lighting by Nick Merrylees, sound by Robert Harewood. With Ian Rooney, Giovanni Bartuccio, Leon Durr, Tani Lentini, Simon Kearney, Steven Cabral, Christopher Broadstock, Josie Scott, Steven Dawson and Lauren Clare. Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall, Carlton, until April 2.

I'm not sure whether The Nero Conspiracy isn't one of the most naive plays I have ever seen. It's as if Enzo Condello simply decided that he wanted to write a Shakespearean tragedy and then went ahead and did it - blank verse, ornate language and all - blithely unaware of all the reasons why such a project might be impossible in the early 21st century.

I don't mean "naive" in any pejorative sense; indeed, a certain naivety, even stupidity, has always seemed to me an important ingredient of art, although it must be balanced by a concomitant sophistication. As Heiner Muller said: "Stupidity is a prerequisite for poets. I am a good example of this... Maybe I have too little fear."

And in fact, one thing that is striking about both this play and its production is its fearlessness. Director Beng Oh, whose work is new to me, meets the challenges of Condello's text head on, and in the process creates a powerful contemporary example of tragic theatre. It may be raw; it may even be, on reflection, something that oughtn't to work at all: but it seems to me that The Nero Conspiracy misses being a triumph by only the narrowest of margins.

The play retells Tacitus's history of a plot by members of Rome's aristocracy to assassinate the corrupt and tryannical Roman emperor Nero. Condello - drawing on Seneca's bloody tragedies, which influenced the Jacobeans as well as Shakespeare - creates a fast-moving and gripping drama. It has to be said that when Condello reaches for Shakespearean metaphorical complexities his language most often falters, falling into mere pastiche: he lacks the linguistic and dramatic finesse of his models. But for the most part, the play is written in muscular, plain blank verse, and it's surprisingly effective and economical.

What makes the play is, I think, Condello's solid sense of dramatic structure, which permits the inexorable unfolding of events to exert its own fatal fascination. Certainly, despite a feeling that the text was sometimes overwritten - especially at the end, where the powerful climax and denouement are muffled by the inclusion of three or four minutes of unnecessary dialogue - I was never bored.

Beng Oh's production is exemplary, attaining moments of authentic grandeur and horrible beauty. His sense of orchestration occasionally falters - it is a fine line he is treading here - but for the most part his direction is sure and compelling. He uses the simplest of resources to create a visual language drenched in the dark sensual splendour of Renaissance painting, highlighted by the operatic music which largely constitutes the sound. The wonderful opening scene, in which each character enters one by one and sits at a table draped with a white cloth, is for example clearly based on Da Vinci's The Last Supper.

But the major visual inspiration for the design is the dramatic painting of human form by Caravaggio, and here the lighting and design are crucial. The most important element is a plain red curtain that can be drawn across the middle of the stage, and many scenes are played against its vivid folds. The set is very simple: props are ordinary household objects, costumes neutrally contemporary, suggesting rather than illustrating the milieu of Ancient Rome. Nick Merrylees' expressive lighting enacts a lush chiaroscuro across the human forms on stage and makes the most of Kat Chishkovsky's design, which exploits the classic Victorian architecture of the Old Council Chamber space to its full.

But this would be mere framing if it were not for the high quality of the performances, which almost without exception meet the complex emotional and technical demands of this play. The scenes enacting human brutality are among the most effective I have seen in a theatre. This is, after all, a theatre of cruelty: Seneca's tragedies gave birth to Shakespeare's sadistic tragedy Titus Andronicus and the blood-drenched extremities of Jacobean drama, and Beng Oh picks up this tradition with an almost ascetic directness: it is the restraint which makes these scenes so potent.

The rape of the slave woman Epicharus (Tania Lentini) by Nero (Giovanni Bartuccio) early in the play is only surpassed by her torture, which is almost unwatchable. Violence of this extremity is very difficult to do well on stage: it is too easy for it to slip into the grotesquely comic. Here it is unambiguously horrifying, as if you were watching the real thing. This effect is not due to any particular gore on stage: it results from the ingenious manipulation of an audience's imaginative capacity, and some totally committed acting.

But tragedy is of course about pity as much as terror, and there is plenty of that as the characters in this tragedy struggle with events which they are powerless to resist or control as Rome's political climate darkens into slaughter. The final scenes between Seneca (Ian Rooney) and his wife Paulina (Josie Scott) manage to reach an extremity of pathos which is genuinely moving. And Seneca's suicide, the climax of the play, is at once sombre, grand and desolate.

Theatre of this imaginative ambition is rare anywhere, and it's worth seeing The Nero Conspiracy for that alone. I can't help feeling that this is at once one of the most peculiar and most arresting plays I will see this year. And I will watch Beng Oh's future development with enormous interest.

Bookings: Trades Hall, 9513 9363

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Friday, March 17, 2006

Round the blogs

In the beginning was the Word. Give something a name and lo! it exists...

The theatrical blogosphere is alive with discussion of something that's already called "the new lyricism" (thanks, Zay Amsbury). That means poetry in the theatre, folks, and that means I like it. George Hunka has a handy round up of the relevant reflections and discussions here. And it's fascinating.

And the NYTW furore has hit the bigtime - The Nation runs it as its lead story, with a useful backgrounding on all the issues surrounding the controversy and - for once - a proper acknowledgement of the part the blogosphere has played in this issue. For more on the press reactions, on new responses from people like Tony Kushner and others, and on continuing actions against the NYTW decision, check out The Playgoer, who has meticulously followed up every nuance of this affair, and Superfluities.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk - one of the few journalists whom I wholeheartedly respect - weighs in on the Rachel Corrie issue in The Independent, with an article called The Erosion of Free Speech:

You've got to fight. It's the only conclusion I can draw as I see the renewed erosion of our freedom to discuss the Middle East. The most recent example - and the most shameful - is the cowardly decision of the New York Theatre Workshop to cancel the Royal Court's splendid production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie.

It's the story - in her own words and emails - of the brave young American woman who travelled to Gaza to protect innocent Palestinians and who stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer in an attempt to prevent the driver from destroying a Palestinian home. The bulldozer drove over her and then reversed and crushed her a second time. "My back is broken," she said before she died.

An American heroine, Rachel earned no brownie points from the Bush administration which bangs on about courage and freedom from oppression every few minutes. Rachel's was the wrong sort of courage and she was defending the freedom of the wrong people. But when I read that James Nicola, the New York Theatre Workshop's "artistic director" - his title really should be in quotation marks - had decided to "postpone" the play "indefinitely" because (reader, hold your breath) "in our pre-production planning and our talking around and listening in our communities (sic) in New York, what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon's illness and the election of Hamas. ...we had a very edgy situation", I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Fisk contextualises the NYTW decision with some other examples of attempted censorship of debate about Israel and Palestine - including, shamefully, a local Australian campaign against Jewish academic and journalist Anthony Loewenstein's forthcoming book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, due out later this year from Melbourne University Press.

For his journalistic mission of "monitoring the centres of power", as he puts it in his recent book The Great War for Civilisation, Fisk has been often smeared and reviled himself. But he is an intellectual in that rather 19th century and honourable sense: "one who will say the truth, no matter what the price". I'm all for old-fashioned values like that.

Maybe for me he exemplifies qualities which you also see in the great journalism of George Orwell or Ryszard Kapuscinski: an excoriating honesty which does not spare himself; a commitment to compassion and justice; a tough and resilient sense of humour; a resolute fairness towards even those with whom he disagrees; an attention always to the mundane yet significant details that make up our lives; a continual sense of outrage at how casually and brutally these fragile human realities can be utterly smashed by those with power.

It adds up to what Orwell called "decency".


Latest: Via Playgoer, a letter from British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker defending the play is published in the New York Times plus a letter from the president of the NYTW Board defending the theatre from "shrill" criticism - Isaac Butler at Parabasis has the letter in full and a robust response.

Superfluities picks up Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter's comments that the NYTW's decision is a "a clear case of self-censorship". The full transcript of his Turin conversation with Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington is here, and worth reading for many reasons, but the pertinent quote is: "[My Name is Rachel Corrie] has now been withdrawn by the producing theatre in New York and that is, I think, typical of what is happening more and more in Britain and America: suppression of dissent and the truth."

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Saturday, March 11, 2006


The blog has been getting a little messy lately, and it's hard to find and access old reviews, so Theatre Notes got out the broom today and tidied up. Now I'm absolutely luminous with virtue. The most important new addition is that there is now a complete listing of links to every review and essay that has appeared on this site since June 2004. As I discovered, it all adds up...

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Notes from elsewhere

The peripatetic Chris Boyd is posting some lively reviews of the Adelaide festival over at The Morning After, with mucho lush pictures. Wish I was there...and check out his interview too with David Freeman, director of the Opera Factory, where he speaks about Dionysian desires in theatre. The energy of Freeman's work lies in a very Australian and wholly admirable theatrical vulgarity, but sometimes I fear it is merely vulgar. Or maybe I've just never been able to get Madonna.

News from France is of a culture fighting for its life. The right-wing Chirac government's recent devolution of cultural funding from national to regional bodies has resulted in widespread and ongoing funding cuts. There are stories everywhere of theatre companies unable to produce planned programs of work because of unexpected budget cuts, in some cases approaching 20 per cent. The full extent of these cuts is still unknown. Perhaps Chirac's plan is to emulate the Australian model...

And words continue to spill over the Rachel Corrie controversy in New York. John Heilpern, the fine critic for the New York Observer, has an excellent opinion piece which backgrounds what he calls this "craven" decision a little more. We look to [Jim Nicola's] theater—and all great theaters—to be our forum, pulpit, truth-teller and witness to a world that has lost its reason, writes Mr Heilpern. Plays written in blood are not meant to be “acceptable” or “reach consensus.” That is for weaselly politicians. Give us plays of consequence, for heaven’s sake—not caution, compliance and fear.

Hear, hear. Wish I could read that in The Age...

Meanwhile in London, the new Practicum Theatre is accepting play submissions that "reflect the thoughts behind the recent ban of My Name is Rachel Corrie from the New York Theatre Workshop ... The plays should be 10 minutes or less and 8 - 12 pieces will be chosen for a central London showcase in May. Possible themes include: censorship, America, protest, racism, freedom of speech, democracy, Rachel Corrie, Israel and Palestine, propaganda, media control, invasion of privacy or fear. They say New York said nothing. Let's say something in London."

More information at

Well, some people in New York are saying quite a lot. But judging by the uncomfortable silence that this issue elicited last night in NY from a distinguished panel gathered to opine on - yes - the importance of political theatre (an inarticulacy surely up there with the amnesiac politicians so beloved of Australian Government inquiries), some kinds of politics are still off-limits.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Jasmine Chan, playwright and travel blogger extraordinaire, has begun a review blog, Endpapers Performance Review, which is well worth checking out. Two fascinating and thoughtful London reviews so far: Sarah Kane's Psychosis 4:48 at the Old Red Lion Theatre and a response to an exhibition by Tino Sehgal at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

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The Royal Court bristles

And with good reason, if this press release posted in full by Playgoer is indeed their side of the increasingly intriguing New York Theatre Workshop scandal. Superfluities has asked the Royal Court for confirmation on its authenticity, so watch that space...aside from all other issues, Alan Rickman may be forgiven a little ire if he was arranging film commitments around the NYTW dates, since these shenanigans could have cost him real money, especially when Jim Nicola then used those same film commitments as an excuse to postpone the play.

Unconfirmed whispers are that behind-the-scenes negotiations involving prominent NYTW board members are working towards a NY season, and that, according to Jason Grote, the Royal Court is now refusing the NYTW the rights to the play.

UPDATE: Playgoer has confirmed that the press release is authentic. All the same, there is much more going on here, we ought to remember, than a spat between two theatre companies. We still don't know what pressures were brought to bear upon NYTW. Perhaps some clues might be found in the comments under this post, where composer Philip Munger tells of the extreme harrassment, resulting in his cancellation of the premiere performance, that was sparked by his cantata about - guess who? - Rachel Corrie.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ray's Tempest

Ray's Tempest by Steve Rodgers, based on an original script and idea by Justin Monjo and Richard Roxburgh. Directed by Bruce Myles, designed by Judith Cobb, lighting by Jon Buswell, music composed by Peter Farnan. With Caroline Brazier, Kim Gyngell, William McInnes, Alex Menglet, Hamish Michael, Genevieve Picot and Alexandra Schepisi. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, until April 15.

Ray's Tempest is a frustrating play. There are many things to admire about it, among them some fine passages of lyric writing and an admirable complexity and ambition, but ultimately it feels like a cop out.

This feeling may have much to do with Bruce Myles' overdressed and increasingly overwrought production, of which more later. But it is also about Steve Rodgers' inability in this, his first play, to emulate the spare feeling in Raymond Carver's poem Gravy, which is one of the core inspirations for Ray's Tempest. In Gravy, a dying Carver writes of being told, a decade earlier, that he had six months to live: "Gravy, these past ten years. / Alive, sober, working, loving and / being loved by a good woman. ... 'Don't weep for me,' he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man. / I've had ten years longer than I or anyone / expected..."

The theme in Ray's Tempest is, accordingly, redemption and acceptance. Ray Brink (William McInnes) works for Sinclair Holdings, a company rather like Kerry Packer's ACP. He sells advertising for a knitting magazine. On the same day that he finds out that an inoperable heart condition means that he will die in six months, he is threatened with redundancy: his sales figures are poor, and he's from an old breed of salesmen whose time is past.

If this inevitably conjures echoes of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, the influence is clearly far from coincidental. Rodgers splices memory and the present in the same dreamlike fashion patented by Miller, and often to good effect. The tale of Ray's attempt to make up to his estranged wife Ruthie (Genevieve Picot) and his justifiably bitter and hostile son Frog (Hamish Michael) is given a contemporary spin by his entering a grotesquely credible reality tv show, Last Wish, in which the various dying contestants vie for a million dollars to realise their heart's desire.

With the connivance of his boss, hardass career woman Cynthia Cornish (Caroline Brazier), who sees an unparalleled publicity opportunity, Ray enters Last Wish and becomes an all-singing, all-dancing star, the pride of Sinclair Holdings. But it becomes clear that his real motive is to re-establish ties with Frog and Ruthie, whom he still loves, before he dies. Ruthie has, since Ray's abandonment of them after a family tragedy, rebuilt her life; she is studying art and living with a man who treats her well, Boris (played with charisma by Alex Menglet on half throttle). Frog, now a disaffected, alienated young man, wants nothing at all to do with him.

Ray is not a bad person, but he is not very admirable. "It's not a crime to be a weak man," says his wife Ruthie, in an echo of Linda in Death of a Salesman. An alcoholic like her ex-husband, although now reformed, she knows that she, too, has been weak, and that their flaws do not mean that they are not worthy of love. Ray's real crime has been to deny the love that surrounded him despite his faults. Fleeing punishment, he has spent the rest of his life punishing himself.

I found the first half absorbing and interesting. Rodgers has digested his American influences enough to give them an Australian idiom that is neither forced nor shallow, and there are some powerful moments: one when Ruthie, as a mature age student, fluffs her oral thesis on Giacometti - a moving speech on loss - when she is overwhelmed by memories of Ray; another a brief glimpse of Frog, naked and vulnerable in the shower, in the grip of uncontrollable grief and self-hatred.

The supple interweaving of shorter and longer scenes, monologue and dialogue, creates a complex texture of ideas and feeling. The play is threaded with subtle repetitions, reaching at moments a true vernacular poetic, and reveals a writer of real promise thinking through his chosen traditions. But there is something nostalgically mid-20th century about this play; it doesn't transcend its origins and metamorphose into something new, although it almost threatens to.

Sadly, after interval it falls off the emotional tightrope it walks so deftly in the first, descending first into melodrama and then into outright bathos. Bruce Myles' direction certainly doesn't help this impression: it is from the beginning overdressed and heavy-handed. Judith Cobb's set, which makes ingenious use of water, one of the play's motifs, features just too many curlicues; the lighting design is just that bit too fussy.

It adds up to a sense of directorial orchestration that has strings swelling up to heighten the moment, as if it were a Hollywood movie. As the play reaches its various climaxes, this over-egging becomes unbearable: the acting winches up into Acting with a capital "A", all the performance of feeling with none of the substance. I may well be especially flinty-hearted, but while others around me sniffled and reached for their hankies, I just writhed with impatience, feeling somehow cheated.

Finally the play is a million miles from the unsentimental toughness of Carver, who is himself a derivation of James Joyce's miserly mastery in Dubliners. As I left the theatre, it occurred to me that what I had watched was decadent art, a form that has played itself out. Ray finds his redemption, of course, by, of course, facing his demons, and, of course, makes peace with himself before, of course, he dies. The therapeutic value of this process is plugged for all it's worth, and everyone goes home happy, relieved that, despite all our sins, we are all good blokes in the end.

Except for me, of course.

Genevieve Picot and William McInnes in Ray's Tempest. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Reading for Peace, La Mama

UPDATE: Eliot Weinberger very kindly corrects me: there is another reading being organised in Sydney, hosted by the Sydney Moving Image Coalition. A partial list of the world wide events is here.


And while we're on activism...La Mama Theatre is hosting the only Australian chapter of a worldwide reading to mark the third anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. The international readings are initiated by the Peter Weiss Foundation for Art and Politics and the Berlin International Literature Festival.

The reading is of Eliot Weinberger's award-winning text What I heard About Iraq, first published in the London Review of Books in February 2005. Those who haven't yet caught up with this amazing piece can read it here. It's sure to be worth hearing.

The event is coordinated by Cynthia Troup, Margaret Cameron, Mary Helen Pirola & Catherine Hill, and supported by La Mama, PEN Melbourne and Aphids. More information: La Mama 03 9347 6142 or

Event details: 7.30pm Monday 20 March 2006, La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, Carlton VIC 3053

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The controversy spreads...

The New York Times has at last broken its silence on the controversy over the New York Theatre Workshop's cancellation of the Royal Court production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, with an opinion piece by Edward Rothstein defending the decision, and suggesting that it is "heretical" because it defies "aesthetic orthodoxy". Hmmm. Good responses, as always, on both Superfluities and Playgoer. An electronic petition protesting the decision is gathering signatures here, and plans for protest readings and other actions gather apace here.

Those who wonder what all this fuss might have to do with theatre in Melbourne could do worse than to contemplate the excellent essay Theater, Ideology and the Censorship of "My Name is Rachel Corrie" by the playwright Walter A. Davis in Counterpunch. It's by far the most searching response yet, thoughtfully contextualising the issues at hand in our post 9/11 world; and in doing so, Davis speaks eloquently of the role of theatre:

The role of serious drama is to represent the disorders of its time, not in order to relieve or "cathart" our dilemmas but to make it impossible for us to any longer ignore them. Rilke's "You must change your life" is the "message" that any great drama delivers as a blow to the psyche of its audience. To appropriate a phrase from Albee, the purpose of serious drama is to "get the guests." And not I add primarily by getting them to change their ideas about some current political and social situation. Serious drama strikes much deeper. It is an attempt to assault and astonish the heart, to get at the deepest disorders and springs of our psychological being, in order to affect a change in the very way we feel about ourselves - and consequently about everything else. Going to the theatre can be a dangerous act. One risks discovering things one doesn't want to know about oneself in a way that makes it impossible to remain the person one was before a play eradicated one's defenses and shattered one's identity.

An axe, as Kafka said of writing, to break the ice within...

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Saturday, March 04, 2006


A brief announcement that Issue 10 of Masthead, my annual ezine, is now unleashed upon a breathless world. Poetry, prose, texts for theatre, visual art, essays, all lushly presented for your pleasure...


ARTWORK by Paul Cava

Mairéad Byrne  | Brian Coffey | Anamaría Crowe Serrano | Denis Devlin | Fergal Gaynor | Matthew Geden | Trevor Joyce | David Lloyd | Thomas MacGreevy | Medbh McGuckian | Niall Montgomery | Maggie O'Sullivan | Maurice Scully | Michael Smith  | Geoffrey Squires | Catherine Walsh | Augustus Young
Essay: Alex Davis
PROSE by Eliot Fintushel

Margaret Cameron | Jasmine Chan | Chris Goode | George Hunka | Daniel Keene

MTC Cronin | Fred Moten | Hugues C. Pernath | Kuba Mokrosinski | Kenji Siratori | Sophie Mayer | César Vallejo | George Szirtes | Dominic Fox | R. Radhakrishnan  | Stephen Vincent |Simon Perchik

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More on Rachel Corrie

The debate continues unabated in the blogosphere, accompanied by a strange silence elsewhere...

Garrett Eisler at the indispensible Playgoer and George Hunka at Superfluities are leading the debate: check out George Hunka's blood-and-thunder editorialising in this podcast in which he characterises the eerie silence as "careerist". And worth reprinting in full are a couple of responses to Playgoer from NY playwright Christopher Shinn:

I was so surprised by the silence after the Times article came out on Monday that I felt I must be missing something, that there must be a rational reason for the lack of response from my community. I remembered protesting with my colleagues outside of Manhattan Theatre Club when they pulled "Corpus Christi," and expected a similar if not identical response here -- as you point out, the circumstances are in some ways different. But the basic principle is the same.

I decided to speak out on Thursday when I played the following imagined scenario out in my head: I am a young playwright, just finishing up with school and getting ready to write plays I hope will get produced. I consider myself a political playwright with aspirations to speak to the mainstream. New York Theatre Workshop, having produced Kushner and Churchill and many others, is a theatre I dream about one day being produced at.

Monday morning I open up the New York Times. I read that "James C. Nicola, the artistic director of the workshop, said he had decided to postpone [My Name is Rachel Corrie] after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work."

In the same section of the paper, I read a review of another play about terrorism [Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore]. The play gets a rave review but also alerts me, "Don't expect deep psychological portraiture or specific political insights."

In the following days, I scour the internet, waiting to see how the theatre community responds to Nicola's decision to postpone "Rachel Corrie" because of its political content. But I find nothing. Instead I read that the play about terrorism sans "deep psychological portraiture or specific political insights" is moving to Broadway, and that "Rachel Corrie" will not be seen either on the Lower East Side or anywhere in New York.

I have not seen or read Martin McDonagh's play, but the point is this: if I were a young playwright, I would get the message loud and clear -- don't write political plays if you want to get them produced. And if you write a play that gets scheduled, and then pulled for political reasons, don't expect the theatre community to come out and support your freedom of expression. This is a ghastly message to send.

The kinds of plays our future playwrights produce will in part be a result of what values we are willing to support and defend in public forums. Plays do not happen in a vacuum; we have to speak out.

And earlier:

This is very sad. I was hoping this was all due to a miscommunication but clearly that is not the case. I've been produced by the Royal Court, and I'm a usual supect at NYTW, and I've been desperately hoping for some kind of reconciliation or clarification. It's clear now that it's not coming.

I respect Jim Nicola and his theatre but his statement is incoherent. It's paternalistic and preposterous. Make no mistake: a play has been censored in America because of its political content.

By attempting to avoid offending a few people, New York Theatre Workshop has offended everyone. Its decision sends a terrible message to playwrights in America and citizens worldwide. This decision must be denounced as powerfully and vocally as possible.

Finally, thank you, Playgoer, for being one of the few places in the country to recognize the gravity of this decision. Your blog has been indispensable over the last few days.

As a sidenote, the Electronic Intifada is calling for, among other things, a "staged theatrical reading" of the play in New York on the anniversary of Corrie's death to protest the NYTW decision. Details here.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Silencing Rachel Corrie

Update: James Nicola, stung by criticisms of censorship, has issued yet another statement. Playgoer and Superfluities are giving his third different explanation in as many days short shrift...Also worth noting is the apparent lack of reaction within the press and the NY theatre community. The bloggers are making the running on this one.


The theatrical blogosphere is abuzz with the New York Theatre Workshop's recent decision to cancel or postpone - it's unclear which - the Royal Court's production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a play based on the diaries and emails of the young American activist who was crushed to death by Israeli bulldozers as she attempted to stop Palestinian homes from being razed by the IDF.

The play, devised by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, was first produced in 2005 at London's Royal Court, and the Royal Court production was preparing to take it to the New York stage later this month when NYTW artistic director Jim Nicola pulled the plug. As Katherine Viner comments in an article in the LA Times:

Last week the New York Theatre Workshop canceled the production — or, in its words, "postponed it indefinitely." The political climate, we were told, had changed dramatically since the play was booked. As James Nicola, the theater's 's artistic director, said Monday, "Listening in our communities in New York, what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon's illness and the election of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections, we had a very edgy situation." Three years after being silenced for good, Rachel was to be censored for political reasons.

I'd heard from American friends that life for dissenters had been getting worse — wiretapping scandals, arrests for wearing antiwar T-shirts, Muslim professors denied visas. But it's hard to tell from afar how bad things really are. Here was personal proof that the political climate is continuing to shift disturbingly, narrowing the scope of free debate and artistic expression, in only a matter of weeks. By its own admission the theater's management had caved in to political pressure. Rickman, who also directed the show in London, called it "censorship born out of fear, and the New York Theatre Workshop, the Royal Court, New York audiences — all of us are the losers."

Check out George Hunka's Superfluities and Garrett Eisler at Playgoer for more.

Put this together with ongoing intimidatory campaigns in the US against Arabic or left wing academics, the fuss about Stephen Spielberg's Munich and now Israeli agitation to get the film Paradise Now disqualified from contention for the Oscars, and a pattern begins to emerge... some things, it seems, are not to be discussed. At all. Anywhere.

The implicit equation of bringing Rachel Corrie's story to the stage with support for fundamentalist terrorism is, frankly, absurd. And the kind of absolutism that such an equation expresses is absolutely hostile to the freedoms that art represents.

Now, as regular readers of this blog will know, documentary theatre isn't my cup of tea. But I will defend to the death its right to exist. The disturbing thing is that, were the Royal Court to bring their production here, it quite possibly could be prosecuted under our shiny new sedition laws. Freedom of expression certainly looks under threat in the States, but my suspicion is that it might be insidiously worse here.

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