Gadding aboutThe FallHandke and HeineCake and champagneEldorado / The SessionCircus OzLally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the VolcanoChronicles of a Sleepless Moon / Vaudeville XHousekeepingBeing GilledCharcot / The Lower DepthsOver at Sars...Handke again ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Gadding about

I'm about to take my leave of Melbourne for three weeks as I head for the northern hemisphere to declaim my poems to hushed crowds in Cork, Ireland. I'll be one of 22 poets reading at the Soundeye Poetry Festival, one of the liveliest festivals of innovative poetries around. After that I'll be spending a few days in London and, just for contrast, I am doing a book signing at Harrods, the famed Knightsbridge department store, on July 18. Just why is beyond me, since Harrods seems to sell everything except books. Gordon Ramsay is appearing there too this month, but he is launching a new range of Royal Doulton, not a cookbook.... I am at once mystified and gratified, but I have to admit the snob value is immense.

My trip is funded by Copyright Agency Ltd, for which I thank them. I'll be back late July, and I hope it's less cold by then. Au revoir!

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Fall

The Fall by Albert Camus, adapted by Michael Cronin from Justin O'Brien's translation. Directed by Emma Valente, with Drew Tingwell. The Stork Hotel, 504 Elizabeth St, Melbourne, until June 25.

Watching Drew Tingwell perform The Fall made me think of a Giorgio Agamben essay, Notes on Gesture, which I confess I only half understand. Agamben strikingly claims, at the beginning of a complex argument about the relationship between gesture, cinema and politics, that modern bourgeois man "has lost his gestures". Over the past century, he says, human gesture has degenerated to a series of tics and arrested movements similar to those Tourette noted when he first outlined his syndrome. Which is to say that in contemporary society, Tourette's Syndrome is the norm.

"An age which has lost its gestures," says Agamben, "is for this reason obsessed with them. For human beings who have lost every sense of naturalness, each single gesture becomes a destiny. And the more gestures lose their ease under the action of invisible powers, the more life becomes indecipherable."

These thoughts assailed me because Drew Tingwell's portrayal of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the abject lawyer of Albert Camus' story, is overwhelmingly about gesture. Tingwell employs a fairly limited repertoire: he most often points, jabbing the air with his finger; he puts his hands in his pockets as if imprisoning them; he spreads his arms; he picks up a glass and drinks; increasingly, he wipes his forehead or otherwise hides his face. This flurry of tics irritated me at first, and then, as Tingwell's performance drew me in, made me increasingly thoughtful.

The Fall is less than 120 pages long, but in that small compass Albert Camus makes a devastating critique of the moral decadence of bourgeois man. (Camus, one of my favourite sexists, is certainly not speaking of women). It is structured as a confession: his protagonist Clamence, whom we meet in a low dive in Amsterdam, was formerly a lawyer in Paris, the acme of good social conscience and personal and professional success. A humanitarian who often represented criminals for free, he was on the "right" side, arguing for human justice against inflexible judgement. He could, it seemed, get everything, including any woman, that he wanted. And what he wanted most of all was to be superior to every other human being. As long as he felt he surpassed all others, he was happy.

But then Clamence witnesses a young woman commiting suicide by throwing herself into the Seine and does nothing to help her, and his image of himself as a morally superior man begins to crumble. He is too intelligent (intelligence is part of Clamence's curse) not to understand what this reveals: that for all his protestations of love for humanity, he really doesn't love humanity at all. Everything he does is in the service of himself, his one true love, and to feed his desire for power over others; he has never really loved anything or anyone else.

As a "judge penitent", he seeks, by confessing his hypocrisies and failings in the Amsterdam bar, to gain the right to judge the world, thus lightening the burden of judgement on himself. But this too is only an expression of his desire for power and self-love: his vanity is so monstrous that even his self-destruction isn't too high a price to pay for it. And, aware even of this, he holds up this monstrous self as a mirror to others, so they too will discover within themselves the vanity of their own claims to moral goodness.

Yet even through his self-loathing, Clamence finds a means to justify his self-love. This is not a work about redemption; although Clamence can't help longing for it, he makes clear that even if he got a second chance, he probably wouldn't take it. "It'll always be too late," he says mordantly at the end. "Fortunately!"

Tingwell's performance of Clamence is, in every sense of the word, actorly: you never forget that you are watching an actor who is self-consciously performing a character who is, himself, self-consciously an actor. Tingwell's face is almost always neutral and watchful, his eyes cold and emotionless, creating an increasingly uncomfortable dissonance between his flailing hands, sketching out a febrile sociability, and his closed face. It is as if each of these channels of human communication negate each other, making Clamence, indeed, indecipherable.

For all Clamence's claims to being "natural", I think that Tingwell's performance draws its power in great measure from its lack of naturalness. His over-emphatic movement is the symptom, rather than the expression, of an inner emptiness: it is most tellingly through his gestures that Clamence reveals the deadly vanity of his bourgeois soul, the duplicity that hides between his words and his actions.

The novel is written as a long monologue, and Tingwell's text is a heavily edited version of the original work, in which the audience becomes Clamence's silent interlocutor. Inevitably in the transition to stage it loses some of the complexity of Camus' masterpiece, which is more ambiguous, less easy to pin down, than it seems here; but it generates its own compelling force. Emma Valente's production - framed appropriately by the attractive back room of the Stork Hotel - is absolutely simple. The staging consists of a table, a chair, a neutrally historical costume, the simplest of lighting. All your attention is focused on the actor and his text: and both reward it amply.

The Fall is the first in a season of Camus adaptations that will run at The Stork over the next couple of months. Future shows will include The Outsider and (mindbogglingly, in that tiny space) The Plague. Keep an eye out: if this production is anything to go by, they'll be worth seeing.

Picture: Drew Tingwell as Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall

The Stork Hotel

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Handke and Heine

A final note on Peter Handke, via Pierre Joris at Nomadics, to wrap up the controversy about the Heinrich Heine Prize. Earlier this month, Handke demonstrated considerable public grace by refusing the prize before it was humiliatingly voted away from him by the Dusseldorf City Council, telling the prize committee with what sounds like both exhaustion and frustration:

I am writing to you today with the express intention of saving you (and the world) the bother of a meeting of the Dusseldorf City Council (if that's what it's called) to declare the decision to give me the prize null and void. I'm also doing this to save myself the bother, or rather the ghost of myself which is currently haunting the public, and even more importantly to save my work, or should I say stuff, from being exposed again and again to this kind of ridicule from one party politician or another.

Signandsight publish a very useful summary of German press about this whole affair. My favourite quote is probably from Botho Strauß:
What remains today of Bertolt Brecht, a poet who valued the revolution over human life and whose only opposition to the bloody Stalin was a spot of dialectics? What remains is someone who changed the theatre more lastingly than any other European author... What remains, at the end of the day, of the alleged bard of the Greater Serbian Empire, Peter Handke? Not just the most gifted poetic craftsman of his day, but an episteme-creator (to use Foucault's term) as only the most outstanding minds can be, a milestone of seeing, feeling and understanding in German literature. Those who fail to see guilt and error as the stigmata (or even as stimulants in some cases) of great minds, shouldn't busy themselves with true poets and thinkers.

Though this is probably closely followed by Gunther Grass's testy retort, which condemns the hypocrisy of the decision to revoke the prize and then says, in effect, "no special amnesty for genius".

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Cake and champagne

Theatre Notes celebrates its second birthday this month: it was in June 2004 that my lightbulb moment happened and I started blogging theatre. Since then, the archive has built up reviews of almost 100 shows, which constitutes a record, if necessarily partial, of Melbourne theatre over the past two years. And I've also blogged various meditations on this and that. That's quite a lot of theatre, and quite a lot of writing.

The blog's certainly evolved since I began. And readership has been steadily growing, especially in the past six months. In the past year we've had 27,990 unique visitors, an average of 75 visitors a day, although since the beginning of this year that weekly average has doubled to between 145 to 220 visitors per day. TN readers are from all over the place: mainly Australia (around 60 per cent), and around a third from the US, with rest from a miscellany of different countries - the UK, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Lithuania - (hello, Bolivia!) Then there are all the people who tell me they print out the reviews and share them around. And that doesn't count the readers at State of the Arts, where my reviews are, as it were, reprinted: I don't know what the stats are for them, but their e-letter goes out to around 10,000 people every week. Yes sirree, somebody's reading us. Even better, people are using the comments, and there have been some lively and interesting discusssions, such as these recent comments on independent theatre.

I have a largish novel to write in the second half of this year, so will have to scale back a bit - more than two shows a week is impossible to handle here, though I hate turning people down. But TN is going to be around for a while yet. My thanks to everyone - readers and theatre artists and companies - who make it all possible. And thanks especially to those who have written me so many supportive emails; you make me feel it's all worthwhile. Prost!

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Eldorado / The Session

Eldorado by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade, directed by Benedict Andrews. Design Anna Tregloan, lighting design Paul Jackson, music and sound Max Lyandvert. With Gillian Jones, Robert Menzies, Hamish Michael, Bojana Novokovic, Greg Stone and Alison Whyte. Malthouse Theatre until July 2. The Session written and performed by The Ennio Morricone Experience: Patrick Cronin, Graeme Leak, Boris Conley and David Hewitt, with Steph O’Hara and Stephen Taberner. Directed by Barry Laing, designed by Emily Barrie. Sound design by Steph O’Hara with Graeme Leak, lighting design Gina Gascoigne, sound consultant Kelvin Gedye. Malthouse Theatre until June 25.

When you enter the Merlyn Theatre under the dim house lights, you see before you a huge window built into a black wall that stretches the width and height of the stage. It's disorientating: with no lights behind, it acts as a mirror in which you see yourself and everyone else darkly reflected.

A black mirror is a fit metaphor with which to begin this riveting play, a parable about human self-destruction. Marius von Mayenburg presents a vision of humanity as desolate as that of WG Sebald in his novel Vertigo, when he speaks of the slow, inevitable conflagration of the earth: we consume all life on our planet with the creeping flame of desertification or the swift fire of war, leaving behind us a wasteland of ash.

Eldorado begins with a monologue murmured by the property speculator Aschenbrenner (Robert Menzies), who leans half-lit against the window, his voice artifically miked so we hear every inflection of his speech. He reports, seductively, tenderly, on the progress of an urban war. It is unsettlingly familiar: the language could be taken from any contemporary news report on the invasion of Baghdad or the destruction of Falluja. Only, it seems, this war is occurring in the same unnamed western city in which our suave businessman is living, not in some distant theatre of conflict in the Middle East or the Third World; this is a play which collapses perspectives of distance and time. It finishes with Aschenbrenner again, but this time he speaks as one of the dead: and now he tells us of a new life on Mars, of atmospheres artificially created by water, where humanity can find a new home. Like Aschenbrenner (whose very name conjures flame and ash), planet Earth is dead.

Bracketed between these two monologues is an epic family drama of the kind that Stephen Sewell attempted in Hate. But von Mayenburg, one of the new lights of contemporary German theatre, brings to this 2004 critique of post-industrial corporatism an emotional complexity and moral ambiguity that recalls the Brecht who wrote Baal. His spare, almost clinical poetic intensity traces a lineage from Georg Büchner to Brecht, through Caryl Churchill to Sarah Kane, who is his contemporary and whom he has in fact translated.

Anton (Greg Stone) is a real estate agent employed by Aschenbrenner, who in the opening scenes is sacked for fraud. When his wife Thekla tells him she is pregnant, he is unable to confess that he has lost his job, and instead rips off his wealthy mother-in-law Greta (Gillian Jones) by selling her expensive speculative apartments in the "government sector" that is currently under attack by insurgents, using the money to finance his household.

Greta is a woman who no pity for anyone, least of all herself. She has a young lover, Oskar (Hamish Michael), whom she treats with contempt, and who openly admits that he is with her because of her wealth, and she lacerates her daughter when Thekla despairingly gives up her dream (clearly her mother's dream) of being a concert pianist. She is played with a sick relish by Jones, who invests her with a compellingly predatory sexuality that suggests that Oskar's attraction towards her is more complex than mere greed.

Meanwhile Anton is living the life of a vagrant to keep up the appearance that he is still working, hiding out in hotels or in the country so he won't be seen. Every time he attempts to tell his wife the truth, it becomes at once farcical and tragic: it's the one time she doesn't believe him. Thekla herself is dealing with a neurotic music student, Manuela (Bojana Novakovic), who at first rejects her as a teacher and then demands to return.

Then disaster strikes: the insurgents take over the "government sector". Aschenbrenner is ruined, and resolves the situation "honourably": he hangs himself. Anton has a breakdown, crouching half-naked on top of a wardrobe in a nightmarish scene in which Greta and Oskar pound on the front door demanding their money, and the ghost of Aschenbrenner, locked in the wardrobe, beckons Anton towards his own "honourable" solution.

The moral culpability of each character is exposed early on, and yet none of them is without innocence. Even Aschenbrenner, the very model of a ruthless businessman, considers himself an honourable man and values integrity, as is evident in the sadistic contempt with which he fires Anton. Secretly aware of their complicity with their own abnegation, each character is riven by self-contempt and loathing. They are all monstrous and yet, strangely, illuminated darkly by a desire to love: but it is as if this love is stillborn, a possibility that dies in the air even as it is spoken, leaving only the cinders of language, a vocabulary of cruelty and unexpressed pain.

This poignancy is most evident in the young couple, who are given particularly strong performances in a production notable for its acting. Alison Whyte is an intriguing blend of brittleness and misplaced strength as Thekla, and Greg Stone is as desolatingly good as I've seen him as Anton, a man inhabiting the hollow shell of himself. The only thing alive in him his love for his wife and unborn child; yet it is this love which forces him to keep up the lie about his job, and the lie finally destroys his life. And yet, as Thekla despairingly recognises, he has in fact betrayed and abandoned her: if not sexually, as she imagines, through his retreat into madness and suicide.

These behaviours are directly recognisable: Mayenburg might be showing us the extremities of bourgeois banality, but they are not exaggerations. Greta's ruthless greed will be familiar anyone who has watched The Apprentice; Thekla's paranoid jealousy and self-obsession are the grist of Dear Dorothy columns everywhere. And anyone who has seen mental illness close up will know that the madness presented here is almost clinically accurate. Part of Mayenburg's boldness is in being quite literal about the phenomena he is reporting: he creates, as Marianne Moore has it, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them". The links between interior wasteland and exterior desolation are metaphorically very clear: these people consume everything, beginning with their own hearts.

Benedict Andrews, who also directs in Berlin at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz theatre where Mayenburg is dramaturg, directs Eldorado with a brilliant austerity. The idea that human beings are fish in an aquarium, a recurring motif in the text, is literalised in both the performances and in Anna Tregloan's design. We witness the play through the massive window as if it were a giant peepshow, which gives the experience a peculiar intimacy spiced with the discomfort of voyeurism.

For all its moments of breathtaking visual flair, the production is inflected with an admirable subtlety and focuses attention wholly on the text and performances. I was chiefly impressed by Andrews' orchestration, which creates such various rhythms out of von Mayenburg's poetic text that two and a half hours seems like less than half the time. He discovers a surprising richness in the simple convention of the window: with the help of lighting and a lot of apocalyptic smoke he creates claustrophobic domestic spaces, into which we peer, or we find ourselves looking out onto imaginary streets. The actors delineate nightmarish spaces of psychic and phsyical desolation in which the only fixed perspective is the unremitting horizon of the window.

Most of the action occurs jammed up against the glass, although gradually unsettling depths open behind the playing space. As the play progresses the window's initially pristine surface is smeared with human fluids - sweat, saliva - literal traces of the physicality of the actors; just as when an actor eats a lobster, the amplified sounds of its flesh being sucked out of the shell is a repugnant reminder of our carnivorous natures.

Perhaps the most beautiful trick is when, around 20 minutes from the end, gold foil leaves begin to fall onto the stage, glittering in the theatre lights and making a brittle rustling sound. This continues for longer than seems bearable, graduating into a soft, insistent torture. (And here I also ought to mention Max Lyandvert's beautifully textured and atmospheric sound score, which is at once unobstrusive and evocative.)

The production doesn't escape the "porsche effect". Such class throws into relief any moments that don't match its own high standards: a gesture that is a little too stagily self-conscious, for example, or a theatrical illusion (Robert Menzies, say, unhooking himself from a suspension harness) that is neither achieved nor usefully exposed. But these are just quibbles. This is a beautiful realisation of a significant play, and shows that the Malthouse is by no means resting on its laurels. Its ambitious programming is about placing this company in the frontline of international contemporary theatre, and a production like this demonstrates that it belongs there.

With The Session, on in the Beckett as the second play in its winter season, the Malthouse ventures into the realms of New Music and genre film. The Ennio Morricone Experience consists of some of Melbourne's best musicians, and they have garnered a devoted following over the past five years with their po-faced performances of Morricone's classic spaghetti western film scores.

The conceit of The Session is that a group of musicians and sound technicians is locked in a sound studio, recording a series of sound effects and musical scores for a "master tape". It begins and ends with the slamming of a door, and in between we are treated to high-spirited pisstakes of various New Music tropes (if I were more musically literate, I would have got more of the jokes) and ingenious sound effects, executed with increasing freneticism from an enormous variety of sound sources, ranging from conventional instruments, whistling and voice, to teaspoons of Eno in a glass of water or cabbages being struck with knives.

All these are recorded and mixed live, and here the performing skills of the Ennio Morricone Experience come to the fore: under Barry Laing's direction, they create a disciplined and witty choreography as they set up and perform each take. They do everything with absurd seriousness: they prepare to play a cabbage as if they were handling a Stradivarius. The tempo of the evening is exactly that of a working session, with intense bursts of activity punctuated by inaudible gossiping and jokes that are as tightly choreographed as the other parts of the show.

The master tape is finally delivered back to us as a surreal film score. It is the kind of film one might imagine occuring in the head of a genre film buff having a bad night's sleep after a highly spiced curry. I tracked detective movies, science fiction, samurai films and some serious Eastern European piece with a male vocal choir singing (one assumes for no reason) about boating, but I'm sure there was more.

It is great fun, if at 80 minutes perhaps about a quarter of an hour too long. But it is absolutely impossible not to think of Phobia, Douglas Horton and Gerry Brophy's witty take on film noir, which had a very similar set-up - it even featured a door - and which also involved these musicians. But Phobia, one of Chamber Made Opera's best shows, has a theatrical flair and cohesion that The Session is yet to find.

Top: Greg Stone as Anton in Eldorado. Bottom: The Session (Back, left to right) Boris Conley, David Hewitt, Stephen Taberner, Patrick Cronin and Graeme Leak; (front) Steph O’Hara. Photos: Jeff Busby

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Circus Oz

Circus Oz: Laughing at Gravity tour. With Svetlana Bunic, Stuart Christie, Jim Dunlop, Mel Fyfe, Sharon Gruenert, Scott Hone, Christa Hughes, Michael Ling, John O'Hagan, Ruby Rowat, Matt Wilson and Sosina Wogayehu. At the Big Top at Birrarung Marr until July 9.

I have been very spoilt in the past couple of weeks. It is as if Melbourne theatre has decided to show me the best it has to offer, from its tiny alternative theatres to its main stages. And then, just to remind me that vital theatre isn't exactly a new thing here, I found myself in the Big Top at Birrarung Marr, just off Federation Square, watching Circus Oz's latest show.

Circuz Oz is the longest lived act to spring out of the energies that drove Melbourne theatre in the 1970s. It was formed in late 1977 out of two smaller circuses - the Soapbox Circus, out of the seminal Australian Performing Group, and the New Ensemble Circus from Adelaide - and it influentially redefined modern circus by mounting animal-free acts that combined rock and roll, popular theatre, cabaret and satire with traditional circus acts.

Circus Oz blazed the way for the alternative circuses of the 1980s, such as Cirque du Soleil, Ra Ra Zoo and Archaos. Over almost three decades as one of our most popular exports it has continually reinvented itself, but through its many incarnations and a few longueurs the company has stuck close to its central ideals. Overtly political, defiantly anti-hierachical (even the stagehands, dressed as over-the-top ninjas, get a gig in this show) and exuberantly, unashamedly Australian, it is the apogee of the larrikin physical theatre that defined our theatre in the 1970s.

As its Laughing at Gravity tour demonstrates, there's a lot of life in the old dog yet. And let's face it, it's fun going to see something at the Big Top. There's a band at the back of the stage manned by outlandishly dressed clowns, the players in their candy-coloured costumes are chatting up the audience, there's fairy floss and popcorn and chips, and the excitement is palpable. And then the show starts.

The hallmark of Circus Oz has always been the original spin they put on their acts. Here it's acrobatics to deafening hard rock, or trapeze artists dressed as kids from high school coming on to a soundtrack of AC/DC and the Ramones. Or there's Scott Hone, the best mullet in the business, scarifying young audience members by screaming towards them full-pelt on his BMX, only to twist away at the last moment, as he charges two matadors (one with an accordion). Or the anarchic performance of the 1812 Overture, where the conductor is swung up into the air and is pursued by a double bass.

Christa Hughes from Machine Gun Fellatio brings a sexy dash of cabaret with her shiny banana-yellow tails and banana microphone. And Matt Wilson, who is surely one of the most physically adept clowns around, is everywhere - as the Singing Stuntman, or jumping from a ladder into a grand piano as he causes mayhem in the orchestra, or wowing us all with his Pegs! Of! Pain! (he pins clothespegs all over his face, including on his tongue). Well, I guess you have to be there for that one. But it reminded me of the comedy duo Tick Where Applicable, Tim Scally and Steven Sculley, who would torment their faces with rubber bands to grotesque and comic effect.

An acrobatic satire of our august Parliament, reminders about the value of tolerance, and a collection at the end for asylum seekers give the comedy a bit of contemporary bite, but it's a political message that comes wrapped like a bonbon. The only problem is a murky sound system, which takes the edge off what sounded like some topical jokes.

The sets are designed by Anna Tregloan (who along with Adam Gardnir seems to be designing practically every show in Melbourne) and it looks like, well, a circus, but with a twist. The acts are spectacular, and the ending is a pyromaniac's dream. I enjoyed it as much as my eleven year old son, and he was incandescent.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano

Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano by Lally Katz, directed by Chris Kohn. Design by Adam Gardnir, lighting by Richard Vabre, sound by Jethro Woodward, video by Chris Kohn. With Christopher Brown, Margaret Cameron, Tony Johnson, Brian Lipson, Luke Mullins, Jenny Priest and Gavan O'Leary. Music performed by Chris Kohn and Jethro Woodward. Stuck Pigs Squealing @ Theatreworks, St Kilda, until June 18.

Lally Katz's universe points me irresistibly to Wittgenstein's remark in Tractatus: "What the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest. The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language...mean the limits of my world.... I am my world".

Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano might have been written to illustrate this statement. The most ambitious of her collaborations with Chris Kohn and Stuck Pigs Squealing, it generates a theatre of potent beauty, shot with the sinister clarity of nightmare.

The play makes the idiolect of an individual mind theatrically manifest in a way that I can only compare (hoping not to be misleading) with Sarah Kane. The theatrical poetics of Kane begin from literalising on stage the metaphoric workings of the psyche: as she says in 4:48 Psychosis, "the defining quality of metaphor is that it is real".

In the work of both these playwrights, this process unearths terror, despair, myriad cruelties and strange beauties, unanswerable longings and, ultimately, a sense of astringent, even desolate, liberation. Like Kane, Katz is haunted by the possibility of death, and questions what meaning life can hold if it can be reasonlessly snuffed out at any moment. And also like Kane, she is deeply concerned with, and perplexed by, the question of love.

There the resemblances end. Lally Katz is not quite like any playwright I know of. Her work emerges from a theatrical universe that includes artists like Arrabal, Ionesco, Cocteau and Jodorowsky, but unlike these artists, her world situates itself squarely in middle-class suburbia.

I'm beginning to wonder if this avant garde theatre of suburbia is a uniquely local phenomenon. Sweet Staccato Rising, A View of Concrete, Headlock, Lally Katz's Eisteddfod and even The Black Swan of Trespass all have this suburban consciousness in common, perhaps in the same way that street art - one of Melbourne's hidden or, at least, seldom acknowledged treasures - surges as a vital, anarchic energy from the "relaxed and comfortable" order of suburban sprawl.

Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano is a concatenation of oneiric realities that, like Eisteddfod, circles obsessively around the terrors and desires of childhood. Again the author, as unstable an invention as any of the characters in the play, intrudes into her invention: as Mr Lally Katz, world-famous detective (Luke Mullins), or as Miss Lally Katz, child of an oppressively loving family (Luke Mullins), and even as her alter ego, Wendy (Margaret Cameron), who surely bears some familial relationship to the Wendy of Peter Pan or even, perhaps, Peter Pan himself. (To make it more confusing, playwright Lally Katz (Lally Katz) is taking the tickets at the door.)

The plot, if it can be called that, concerns Mr Lally Katz's commission, with his sidekick Lion (Brian Lipson) to investigate the mystery of a volcano that is on the verge of eruption and thus to save an alternative-universe Canberra, now a tropical island, from its destruction. Mr Katz has made, in a murderously childish game of hide and seek, a "deal" with Wendy: he will save himself from the panther that wishes to eat him by sacrificing her. Wendy then disappears...

In another, later, time, Greg (Christopher Brown) is abject with priapic lust for Wendy: no matter what he tries to fuck - and he tries to fuck everything in sight, including theatre lights, poles, a dinosaur, a kangaroo, a prostitute "with burned out eyes" and a doll - he cannot orgasm. He has to find Wendy, and he and Lion, who hopes to save Detective Lally Katz from a terrible mistake he made earlier, head off on a gruelling trek to the volcano. Greg's orgasm, it seems, will "open the universe" and cause the volcano to erupt.

Meanwhile, the urbane detective and Lion catch the boat to Canberra, where they are initiated into a sinister Wendy fan club run by a mysterious South American, Sanchez (Christopher Brown). They are helped in their investigations by Miss Marple (Tony Johnson), who has her own obsession with quilts and manchester, and meet her crooning fiance (Gavan O'Leary) and Lally Katz falls shatteringly in love with Sanchez' sister (Jenny Priest)...

There are many more loops and whorls in this far from linear script, but that's probably enough of cack-handedly attempting to explain a narrative which moves by a system of metaphorical association and transformation, building up its own idiosyncratic theatrical language as the show progresses. But it gives some idea of the surrealist complexity of the world created here, and also hints at the sexual trauma that lies at the core of its dissociations and fractures.

Staging a text that constantly threatens to disintegrate under its own impulses presents challenges which ought to be self-evident. That Chris Kohn realises it with such sureness is a tribute to the intelligence of his direction as much as the imagination of his design crew and the commitment of his first-class cast.

Like Katz's text, Adam Gardnir's design both exploits and destroys the illusions of theatricality. At the beginning of the show, the audience waits before a huge red curtain that stretches the entire width of the theatre. The curtains pull back to reveal a stage space defined by floor-to-ceiling lengths of fabric, broken diagonally by white goal posts.

With the help of mini-sets unobstrusively swept on and off the stage and Richard Vabre's inventive lighting design, Kohn exploits seemingly every possibility of the space. There are constant shifts of perspective and focus, from intimate scenes surrounded by threatening darknesses to bleak, impossible distances, and text or graphics projected onto the back of the stage provide further dislocations. The effect is disconcertingly like being inside someone else's dream. The emotional intensities are heightened by Jethro Woodward's brooding soundscape, and by selectively miking the actor's voices.

A production as multilayered as this requires performers with a sure sense of theatricality, capable of creating extreme emotional realities without the safety harnesses of "character" or sequential narrative. Kohn has a remarkable cast which includes some of the most distinguished artists in the business, and there's no point where you don't believe them. No one is less than excellent, but the performances of Luke Mullins, Brian Lipson and Margaret Cameron stand out for their authoritative playfulness, their ability to generate naked feeling from even the most absurd of theatrical masks.

Something slumps in about the third quarter: it is as if the metaphorical underpinnings of the production, which up to then I hadn't questioned, loosen their moorings. I can't identify why; it might be only an effect of the performance I saw, though I suspect at that point the writing flies just a little too wide of itself; it is perceptible when the energy comes back. Theatre like this walks a perilously thin line: working with such displaced realities, it has to be utterly focused in every moment.

However, this by no means reduces the achievement of the show. Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano is remarkably accomplished theatre that plucks chords deep in the subconscious. It's a hauntingly sad, mysterious work, braced by the vulgarity that marks truly original theatre. In pushing their aesthetic to this pitch without losing their nerve, Stuck Pigs Squealing has truly come of age. It will be fascinating to see where they go next.

Picture: Clockwise from front-centre: Anthony Johnson, Jennifer Priest, Margaret Cameron, Brian Lipson, Luke Mullins. Photograph: Vivian Cooper Smith

Stuck Pigs Squealing
Ontological-Hysteric Theater
Mac Wellman

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon / Vaudeville X

Chronicles of the Sleepless Moon written, devised and performed by Joseph O'Farrell, Miles O'Neil and Glen Walton. The Suitcase Royale @ The Black Lung Theatre, Kent St Bar, 201 Smith St, Collingwood, until June 17. Vaudeville X by Michael Dalley, with Grant Cartwright, Michael Dalley and Daniel Fletcher, music by John Thorn. High Performance Company @ Dantes, Gertrude St, Fitzroy until June 18.

Are we in the throes of a theatre renaissance? I was saying so to a friend just last week, and bingo! there in yesterday's Australian is an analysis of Melbourne's theatre revival, which claims that after a bleak sojourn in the Slough of Despond all through the '90s, theatre in Melbourne now has new vim in its step and light in its eyes as it marches onwards to the Celestial City. So it must be true.

Corrie Perkin's article is on the money, citing the Malthouse Theatre and a vibrant Victorian College of the Arts as particular catalysts for nurturing a feisty new generation of independent theatre artists. The success of the Malthouse bears out my hopes early last year that the radical shift in philosophy there was "the best thing that's happened there in the past decade; and ... the beginning of a more generous imagining of the Australian stage". Without any doubt, by plugging into a richly diverse and vital independent scene, the Malthouse has legitimised and often realised approaches to theatre that were previously marginalised as "fringe".

Such nurturing depends, however, on having something to nurture. Maybe the most significant sign that something truly is sparking here is the theatrical liveliness off the main stages, in tiny venues above funky little bars and pubs in the inner city. If you have an idle evening or two next week, you could do a lot worse than to wander down to Fitzroy and see Chronicles of the Sleepless Moon, the second offering from the young auteurs of The Suitcase Royale, or drop into Dante's and spend an hour being wickedly entertained by the wits of Vaudeville X. In both cases, it might be advisable to book.

Chronicles of the Sleepless Moon extends the "junkyard theatre" The Suitcase Royale developed in their first show, Felix Listens to the World. Perhaps the major character of the show is the set itself. It's an artfully artless clutter of discarded objects (they include a typewriter, an old film projector, a toy piano, bits of bedsteads, ear phones, lamps, switches, cardboard boxes) which are ingeniously manipulated and transformed to illustrate the narrative.

It can't be said that the story - like Felix Listens to the World, a fairytale of sorts - makes a lot of sense (perhaps it makes an uncommon sense, since it is, in the proper sense of the term, absurd). It must be a real play, though, because it is in three Acts. Set in outback Australia, it concerns a maniacal Butcher who has just murdered his wife, a Doctor possessed with a vision to map the Underground with his engine fuelled by the blood of cows, and the Newsman who seeks to expose them both and scoop the world.

A collision of melodrama, surreal comedy, theatrical ingenuity and Tom Waits-style folk/blues, Chronicles is a high-spirited pisstake on any number of Australian cliches - the outback pub, the hard-bitten newsman, the homoerotic relationships of lonely men. It's like Wake In Fright on acid. We find out that Suitcase Royale are also pretty hot musicians - a highlight is the ballad about Sheila, the Butcher's wife, in which he laments that "if I hadn't killed you, you'd still be here". And it's also a love story of sorts; the Butcher holds a candle for the Doctor, who rejects his tremulous advances.

The humour is black and pitiless, but the show somehow retains a poignant sense of humanity. How can you dislike three madmen when they are po-facedly eating pickled onions in front of you? (I wish I could describe how funny this scene is). And there is a strange innocence in all these characters, a sense that their various lunatic idealisms are attempts to transcend a grinding emptiness within their existence. As in Buchner's Woyczek, the earth beneath them is hollow. One could probably excavate from this anarchic narrative a bleak subtext about Australia's vision of itself, and of the loneliness and yearning of masculinity; but it might hang a little heavily on a show which is really a riff of ingenious jokes.

The three performers use almost every device of animation - banraku puppetry, animated projections, shadow puppets - as well as highly stylised performance, a rich recorded soundscape and live music to tell their story. Part of the delight of this show is the intricate minature models, painstakingly crafted out of cardboard or other junk, of houses or pubs. The performers are enchanted by the world of objects, and their enchantment is infectious.

Worth mentioning too is the theatre in which they perform - the Black Lung Theatre, which opened in April this year above the Kent St Bar in Smith St. Co-directed by Thomas Wright and Thomas Henning, it specifically seeks to host experimental and devised theatre. It's a friendly, comfortable space, and you can smoke downstairs in the cosy bar. I liked it a lot.

A couple of days later I found myself in Fitzroy again, this time at Dante's in Gertrude St where Vaudeville X is packing them into the unlikely upstairs bar. This room is panelled in warm wood, with red velvet curtains and blue-lit wall niches in which are placed art nouveau figurines and rows of dusty wine-bottles, and its air of tatty elegance frames this show perfectly.

This the the third season for Vaudeville X; it's been an alternative hit since it premiered in 2004. And from the moment the three performers apparate from behind the bar in their impeccable tuxedos, it's easy to see why. Darling, it's just fabulous.

Michael Dalley's songs are an irresistibly funny series of satires on all things middle class - his net is wide and his barbs are deadly. There are digs at the snobberies of inner-suburbia ("Things Aren't Going Well When Girls Called Narelle Drink Caffe Latte"), a ditty called "Spirit Song" which is a painfully accurate take-off of ABC-FM choral music, a spit in the direction of braindead morning radio DJs and some severe criticism of the hypocrisies of touristic exploitation of the Third World by wannabe alternativistas.

And plenty of laughs, too, at the pretensions of aesthetes, although these songs are sophisticated parodies that clearly expose the satirists themselves as, well, aesthetes. "The Sewers of Berlin", a brilliant pastiche of Weill and Brecht, and "The Ghost of the Postmodern Dancer", which flays the pretensions of innovative movement, are highlights of the show.

It's performed with style and plenty of physical brio by Dalley, Grant Cartwright and Daniel Fletcher, all performers of no small abilities. The show is slicker than a Porsche full of Eddie Maguires, and infinitely more intelligent. Hie thee there by whatever means you can. And you can smoke downstairs at Dante's, too. Is a pattern beginning to emerge here?

Picture: The Suitcase Royale in Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon

The Suitcase Royale
The Black Lung

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Saturday, June 10, 2006


I just gave my home page a very overdue once-over - combing out dead links, a few updates and the like. Meanwhile, reviews of Suitcase Royale and Vaudeville X coming up soon...

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Being Gilled

Mr Raymond Gill, the esteemed arts editor of The Age, often gives the impression that he would rather be doing something else. Anything else.

His jaundiced views on the arts have exercised him on several occasions - this heavy-handed satire for example, rather reminiscent of Andrew Bolt, of those chardonnay-sipping elitist Europhiles who infest the arts with their poncy accents and pretentious attitudes, and who make him wish that he were shopping instead. But today it seems that his animus stems from the fact that these elites, or at least the performing branches of them, aren't, well, elite enough.

While the many good people inhabiting the worlds of theatre, dance and music do their best, there's only so much attention they can get when they rely on government funding and a meagre box office for their bread and butter.

These poor wretches are working away in woolly, moth-eaten jumpers in draughty rehearsal rooms and mice-infested mechanics institutes - and that's only those who are actually talented and/or lucky enough to have a gig.

And when their work is ready to be presented to the public they get to show it in draughty theatres and mice-infested mechanics' institutes to opening night audiences dressed in woolly, moth-eaten jumpers who gather at post-show celebrations to eat bulk-buy frozen spring rolls, washed down with plastic tumblers quarter-filled with Jacob's Creek.
One wonders whether The Age's arts editor is getting his invites to the Art Centre or to the Malthouse, which these days has a funky new bar and a good wine list. And perhaps he could begin attending the mice-infested garrets of visual artists not fortunate enough to get to the Biennale...

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Charcot / The Lower Depths

Charcot by William Glaser, directed and designed by Clare Watson. Lighting by Paul Lim, music and sound design Kelly Ryall. With Miriam Glaser, Chantelle Jamieson and Bruce Kerr (voiceover). Full Dress Productions at the Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall. The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky, directed by John Bolton. Designed by Katherine Chan, costume design Esther Hayes, sound design Gus Macmillan, lighting by Lisa Mibus. With Katherine Bradley, Jamison Caldwell, Gemma Cavoli, Jing-Xuan Chan, Sharon Davis, Soraya Dean, Patrick Flynn, Mick Lo Monaco, Tristan Meecham, Susan Miller, Christine Mowinckel, Eryn-Jean Norvill, Russ Pirie, Julie Wee, Thomas Wren and Ashley Zukerman. VCA Drama Company 2006, Victorian College of the Arts.

I'm getting tired of pleading dubious health. I seem to be playing host to a fascinating variety of gatecrashing micro-organisms, who trash the temple of my body and leave with nary a thankyou as the next team cheerily pulls up in their hotted-up station wagons.

All this is by way of excusing yet another double-barrelled and belated review; but it's true that a succession of colds have been cramping my style recently. My advice to those who would remain germ-free is (a) never have children and (b) if you do, and you can't give them back, lock them in a cupboard so they can't frequent public spaces, like schools or train stations.

But to get down to business... Charcot is the first production by Full Dress Productions, a new company founded by former MTC man David Frazer. And it is a very promising beginning.

Glaser's short (45 minute) play, his first venture into writing for theatre, briefly examines Professor Charcot's studies of feminine hysteria at the Salpêtriére asylum in 19th century Paris. Charcot was one of the foremost physicians of his time, and was famous for his demonstrations at the Salpêtriére amphitheatre. There his hypnotised patients performed their symptoms for an admiring public that attracted, as well as students such as Freud and Tourette, the cream of Paris' fashionable society.

Glaser is principally interested in the idea of madness as performance, how Charcot in fact elicited the symptoms of hysteria from his patients, who obligingly performed as he expected. The play is simply structured, cutting between conversations between two sisters, Margot (Miriam Glaser) and Henriette (Chantelle Jamieson), and their "performances" for Charcot.

Rich subject matter for a play, indeed; and I couldn't help wishing that it had been in more experienced hands. The script is very minimal, and adequate to its modest purposes: but it possesses little of the imaginative or lyrical excess that could really get under the skin of the themes it touches on, such as viciously co-dependent sibling rivalries or the extremities of sexual projection that the diagnosis of hysteria so often expressed in Victorian times.

What makes the show is the other theatrical elements, which are very impressive indeed. Clare Watson's striking design imaginatively exploits the amphitheatre of the Old Council Chambers. There are two playing areas: the first the bedroom of the sisters, a claustrophobic, lushly lit square set backstage, framed by black curtains. It is furnished by a pallet and a dressing table with a three-leaved mirror in which the audience is pallidly reflected, like watching ghosts.

When the sisters perform their hysteria they move frontstage to a larger playing space; their tiny room disappears and black and white images of a 19th century audience is projected on the black curtains while Bruce Kerr's mellifluous voiceover explicates their strange, repetitive movements.

The dramatic effect is heightened by a suggestive and sensual soundscape by Kelly Ryall, and an equally evocative lighting design. These frame the physically challenging performances by Miriam Glaser and Chantelle Jamieson to create a disturbingly fine piece of theatre. If only the words had matched the rest.

The Victorian College of the Arts graduate plays are worth seeing for several reasons: you get to preview the next generation of theatrical talent, the school has the resources to rehearse and mount large-cast plays and to do texts which are otherwise never done here, and they cost hardly anything.

Which is how I found myself at the rather nicely-appointed Dodds St Theatre watching Maxim Gorky's baggy monster of a play, The Lower Depths. Gorky's play is set in a doss house which houses the dregs of 19th century Russian society. The inhabitants are a range of degraded and struggling characters, either disenfranchised urban poor or those from bourgeois or even aristocratic backgrounds who have fallen on hard times. They seldom show each other any pity for their hardships, and mostly treat each other with cynicism and callous or even sadistic cruelty. This unremitting picture of human savagery is leavened by the entrance of Luka (Eryn-Jean Norvill), an eccentric old woman whose compassion brings a short-lived flicker of hope to those she befriends.

The brutal events of the play are interspersed with philosophical meditations on the virtues of truth and reality versus comforting illusions. Its unforgiving realism - especially the reasonless and unexpected unfolding of events - is initially striking, but Gorky can't escape the Russian disease of didacticism, and the play's dramatic urge seriously falters towards the end. Perhaps the most pertinent criticism of The Lower Depths comes from Chekhov, in a 1902 letter to Gorky:

You left out of the fourth act all the most interesting characters (except the actor), and you must mind, now, that there is no ill effect from it. The act may seem boring and unnecessary, especially if, with the exit of the strongest and most interesting actors, there are left only the mediocrities. The death of the actor is awful; it is as though you gave the spectator a sudden box on the ear apropos of nothing without preparing him in any way.

In the capable hands of John Bolton, Gorky's worst isn't so hard to bear: the company goes for it full-tilt in a somewhat Brookian fashion, dragging every last skerrick of theatricality out of what is mostly a rather recalcitrant text. The production looks lovely: Katherine Chan's simple and flexible playing space built on several levels economically suggests the lack of privacy and warren-like claustrophobia of the dosshouse, and focuses the eye to the performers, who are dressed in an eclectic range of colourful, over-the-top costumes by Esther Hayes, reinforced, in the more broadly drawn characters, with crude theatrical make-up.

The play has been cast with a free eye to gender: male characters are transformed into women, with no harm to the play, so far as I could see. It is performed with great brio, which means the first half flies by; and the cast even manages to make a decent fist of the rambling last act. A rather long night of theatre, but by no means unrewarding.

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Over at Sars... Sarsaparilla, the Australian group litblog to which I'm contributing, is winningly referred to already, I've posted a short meditation on the poetic. Plus posts from my estimable co-bloggers on Clive James on film criticism, SBS programming, Nabokov on writing and much more...

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Handke again

Peter Handke is in the headlines again, this time after he was stripped of the prestigious Heinrich Heiner Prize by the city of Dusseldorf. Handke was awarded the prize, which is worth 50,000 euros, but it was revoked after heated public criticism of the decision.

I am frankly horrified that Handke's literary achievements can be utterly erased by political opinions he is alleged to hold. I have my own reservations, as have others, about what can be discerned of Handke's political stance, but I hold no brief for misrepresentation and misquotation. There seems to be an industry of moral outrage that obscures any possibility of nuanced discrimination: for one thing, Handke himself is not a war criminal, but a writer.

So much for art. So much for freedom.

Those who claim that the revocation of a major literary prize in these circumstances is not a form of repression should ponder Wiglaf Droste's observation in Die Tageszeitung:

Of course it's possible that Peter Handke has got a screw loose. If you go on a search for the truth, you can also get lost along the way. But anyone that believes they automatically have truth on their side just because they belong to the overwhelming majority should not be listened to in the first place. A writer has every right to his own view of the world. Telling him to be more media-friendly is tantamount to seeking to abolish the writing profession.

Thanks to Pierre Joris at Nomadics for the headsup. Playgoer has some more details.

Footnote, via Sign and Sight:

Handke himself answers today in a short article entitled "What I did not say" in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "I have never denied or played down, not to speak of sanctioned, any of the massacres in Yugoslavia from 1991 – 1995." Handke continues that although he is often criticised for having one of the characters in his play "Die Fahrt im Einbaum" (the voyage in the dugout) defend the Serbs, "the truth is that in the play (page 65), one figure says: 'You know it was we who protected you from the Asian hordes for centuries. And without us you'd still be eating with your fingers. Who was it that introduced the knife and fork to the Western world?' But: is it necessary to point out that this is a parody? or that this minor character's name is 'Irrer' (Madman)?"

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