Artaud and seditionNotable MissesReview: Jet of BloodPink and pleasedStoreroom shenanigansAutobiography of RedThings on Sunday: An Ordinary ManThompson's BankHonour BoundEm 4 JayNotablesContemporary Australian DramaOf the blogsThe SkrikerNotable missesProfile: Lindy DaviesSpeculaFemale of the Species ~ theatre notes

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Artaud and sedition

My mini-essay on Antonin Artaud in my review of Jet of Blood, in particular my (yes, provocative) speculations on the connections between extremist politics and Artaud's writings, has provoked some interesting discussions in the blogosphere. George Hunka at Superfluities has a couple of thoughtful responses here and here. I also got a nice note from Pierre Joris of Nomadics, saying he thinks I'm a bit unjust to Artaud. He included a soon-to-be-published essay in which Pierre considers the Theatre of Cruelty as the basis for a contemporary poetics and extends a useful Deleuzian distinction:

This ... distinction between combat-against (which is war, is will to destruction, is judgment by god proclaiming destruction as something “just,” is mutilation, reduction, will to domination) and combat-between which is the on-going expression of a powerful vitality that is involved in change, in becoming (Deleuze uses the example of the baby). Turn the word “war” around and you get “raw” — the crudo, the cruel is the opposite of “war.” As I put it in the Nomad Manifestos: being is on the side of death, becoming is on the side of life, is always a violent action, “cruel” in the terms we are using right now. Becoming is also an, if not for me the, essential incarnation of the “nomad war machine.” The prevailing new-agy, peace-loving, peace-nicky, p.c.-y sit-down, sit-in approach to both external conflict and internal struggle refuses to make the distinction between combat-against and combat-between and is therefore unable to acknowledge the sheer violence — cruelty —that inhabits & is the growth-vector of all living forms, of life. And so the life that is creative, that is a becoming, will be “cruel” — it will be involved in what the Islamic mystics have called a “jihad” — here is another term that was kidnapped by judgmental Islamic (i.e. monotheistic) clerics in an effort to change its meaning from combat-between to combat-against.

It's a distinction I ignored in my comparing Artaud to Osama Bin Laden and Pol Pot. However, I'm not entirely convinced that it's a distinction Artaud is careful to make himself, although some of us might want to: it seems to me that Artaud, in arguing against the objections to his conception of the Theatre of Cruelty, made a different argument. "Cruelty," says Artaud, "is not synonymous with bloodshed, martyred flesh, crucified enemies. This identification of cruelty with tortured victims is a very minor aspect of the question. In the practice of cruelty there is a kind of higher determinism, to which the executioner-tormenter himself is determined and which he must be determined to endure when the time comes. Cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty without consciousness...It is consciousness that gives to the exercise of every act of life its blood-red colour, its cruel nuance, since it is understood that life is always someone's death." Artaud is not saying that torture, for example, is a distortion of the Theatre of Cruelty: he is saying that it is only a minor part of it. What mattered to Artaud was not brutality, which is too brutish to call up in him anything but distaste (although he does not reject it), but the consciousness which understands its own suffering in practising it.

Nick at Rat Sass went off the deep end:

Alison Croggon at theatre notes has obviously read more criticisms on Artaud than actual writings by Artaud. She parrots the negative critiques that have always been attached to this singularly important theatre theorist. So nothing new in her attempt to marginalize Artaudian theatre by classifying it to the experience of the lunatic asylum, war zone and concentration camp. However, Alison extends this old criticism to new a level by outrageously and unconscionably comparing Artaud to violent terrorist killers Osama bin Laden and Pol Pot. She goes so far as to suggest that Artaud would have celebrated the 9/11 attacks as “the greatest work of art there has ever been!”

Nick read my review again, calmed down, and in his comments we're having an interesting coversation. My (slightly polished) answer, in part, to his objections, might be of interest here:

What is a terrorist? It’s a word that is almost meaningless, given that the same acts (randomly killing people in order to manipulate a civilian population through fear) are labelled terrorist in some cases and legitimate warfare in others. An artist like Artaud illuminates the hypocrisies of these false divisions. I wouldn’t apply Bush’s false definitions to an argument about Artaud: Artaud is a better tool for applying to Bush.

Of course revolutionary artists are, in a crucial and profound sense, activists, and many actually are activists, although artists always fit uncomfortably in political worlds. Artaud was not interested in social revolution (though there are very few modernist artists who did not flirt with the huge ideologies of the time, whether communism, socialism or fascism), but he was still interested in changing the world. And his ideas, from the point of view of a State that wishes to exert absolute control, are as dangerous - maybe more dangerous - as any social activist. And he meant them to be, he wanted them to exert real effects in a real world.

What worries me about what you’re saying here about separating “poetic” from “political” activism is that they are not so easily divided (from the Romantics to the Modernists on) and you run the danger of doing what the State wants, ie, of claiming that art is “above” politics and has no relation to or purchase on the “real” world. This is a very complex argument, and I don’t have the space or time to make the proper distinctions here. Art is an enactment, of course, and creates its own alternative and virtual space, which is a different space to that in which those acts which we call terrorist (and those other acts which are not called terrorist) exist. It is a space of possibility. That is what is dangerous about it as far as the State is concerned; it does not want certain possibilities to be articulated. That is also, of course, why the State objects to terrorism. It does not object to people being murdered or tortured or having their homes or families destroyed, although this is what it claims is wrong about terrorism. If it did object to these things, it wouldn’t practice them itself. As far as the State is concerned, terrorism is wrong, as art is wrong, because it suggests other worlds than this one are possible.

The difference between terrorism and art is that terrorism, unlike art, is almost wholly nihilist and so, unlike art, kills people. I don’t think even Artaud is nihilist: no artist can be, because he or she practises art, which makes as well as destroys. The best description of terrorism I ever read is in Blaise Cendrars’ amazing short novel, Moravagine, where he describes the anarchists in Russia: it’s a terrifying description, because he shows the attraction of the pure act. But again, this is where I come back to Artaud, because the pure act is what he wanted to achieve, and I personally have problems with the whole idea of purity.

Some of your objections seem to me to come out of fear. Well, I guess there’s good reason for that. My country has passed new Sedition laws that mean that I could go to prison for seven years for things I have already written. Even, perhaps, this post. As far as the State is concerned, Artaud’s ideas and Osama bin Laden’s are equally threatening. Hence the bizarre and otherwise reasonless prosecution of the Critical Art Ensemble. But what if they are equally dangerous, even though one is art and the other is “real”? I think the State is pretty good at identifying threats to its pursuit of absolute power. And make no mistake, that kind of State is what we’re getting, in Britain, the US and here.

Which brings me to the question of Sedition. Via the excellent Freedom of Expression blog, and of course Ben over at Parachute of a Playwright, the latest on Attorney-General Phil Ruddock's summary rejection of any changes to the Sedition provisions in the Anti-Terror Bill, despite the recommendations of the Senate Committee last year and a review by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

As media organisations, lawyers, artists and anyone interested in human rights have all pointed out, repeatedly, the Sedition laws are a fundamental and serious threat to freedom of speech, since they do not distinguish between legitimate dissent and incitement to violence, and they are already having pernicious effects as the culture self-censors to avoid breaking the law. And here's the rub: in order to defend freedom of expression, must we claim that art has no political or social agency at all, that it exists, in effect, outside the world we live in?

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Notable Misses

First on the list is Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, now being performed by Eleventh Hour. This is a real miss - guys, I really tried to get there, but family problems last Wednesday and being buggerised around by public transport on Friday meant that my attempts were ill-starred. It features a very good cast, including Greg Stone and David Tredinnick, and I have heard wonderful reports. On at the Eleventh Hour Theatre at 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy, until October 7. Bookings 9419 5649.

And this Wednesday begins the mayhem of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. What can I say? I'll be getting along to a couple of events, but there's more, more, more...all I can suggest is that you scan your program and fill your diary. Even the most die-hard theatre goer will be pushing it to see everything here. Any suggestions on must-sees?

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Review: Jet of Blood

Jet of Blood, adapted from Antonin Artaud, directed by Olivia Allen. Designed by Adam Gardnir, lighting by Luke Hails, sound by Hayley Forward. With Simon Stone, Amelia Best, Lara Tumak, Austin Castiglione, Katherine Tonkin, Julian Crotti, Roderick Cairns and Grant Cartwright. Ignite @ Theatreworks, until October 15.

I suffer from a horrible sickness of the mind.
Letter to Jacques Riviere, June 5 1923. Antonin Artaud

This production of Antonin Artaud's rarely-performed Jet of Blood reminds me of the joke in Educating Rita. Q: How do you solve the staging problems of Peer Gynt? A: Do it on the radio. How does one realise Artaud on stage? By doing something else.

To be fair, not even Artaud could realise Artaud; his own productions in Paris in the 1920s were dismal failures. He is, however, the most influential failure in theatrical history: his mark on 20th century theatre is indelible and profound, and is only rivalled by Brecht. The ideas articulated in Artaud's writings inform the work of groundbreaking directors as diverse as Roger Blin, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, Joseph Chaikin, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski and, more locally, Barrie Kosky. Edward Bond, Howard Barker and Sarah Kane are unimaginable without him.

But Artaud straight is a phenomenon that is, ultimately, unassimilable. The first and last thing you notice about his writing is its anguish: all his life, Artaud delineated a landscape of pain, in which the agony of the body is indistinguishable from the agony of the mind. This, he says again and again in his acute self-analysis, is a result of his mental illness. From his adolescence, Artaud was periodically incarcerated with a condition that looks very like schizophrenia.

What makes Artaud different from most mentally ill people is that, in what is almost a contradiction in terms, he was coldly conscious of his madness, and was capable of describing it with an almost savagely clinical intelligence. He never romanticised his sickness: he experienced it as horror and obliteration, and his experiments in theatre and mysticism were in part driven by a desire for transformation, for a resolution of the polarities that tormented him. His entire desire was to transform dualities - art and life, spirit and flesh, rationality and irrationality - into a unified consciousness; and the means he proposed was violence. The "cruelty" he demanded from theatre had an austerely moral purpose.

The second thing you notice about Artaud's work that's it's revolutionary. However, Artaud was completely hostile to any idea of social revolution, breaking in disgust from the Surrealists when they briefly embraced Communism. His revolution was solely cultural: a stance that, as Susan Sontag points out in her marvellous essay Artaud, is inherently conservative. Like many modernists, Artaud was only interested in individual transformation: for him, social revolution was worse than meaningless.

Artaud envisioned a theatre was, at its core, religious: what he sought was an experience which, like the "chemical marriage" of the Alchemists, would resolve his warring dualities into a coherent whole. Sontag is correct when she points to the extremity of his "moral rigour", commenting that Oliver Cromwell and Girolamo Savanarola might well have approved the theatre he proposed.

Certainly, Artaud shares with figures like Osama bin Laden or Pol Pot a singular and apocalyptic moral vision that seeks purification through destruction and violence. It is not hard to imagine Artaud following Stockhausen, who in a widely reviled remark shortly after the 9/11 attacks, called the destruction of the Twin Towers "the greatest work of art there has ever been!" "I am not a madman," Artaud said, late in his life. "I am a fanatic." Like all Artaud's self-diagnoses, this statement has the cold coruscation of truth.

What, then, to make of competing claims for an "authentic" experience of Artaud? Outside a lunatic asylum, a war zone or a concentration camp, I am not sure whether there can be such a thing. It is possible to think of the theatrics of torture in Abu Ghraib - the posing for photographs, the obliterating of the human body, the totalising word, the sexual loathing - as the ultimate Artaudian theatre. Like many poets, Artaud was lamentably literal.

I can't think of anyone who has taken Artaud's ideas in toto and realised them in the theatre; and in my heart, I can't imagine why anyone would want to. He is a catalyst and a provocation, rather than a model. Grotowski's actor-centred quest for sacred truth or Brook's aesthetic sensuousness are far too humane to be genuinely Artaudian. Making Artaud is, in many ways, also an unmaking of Artaud.

Which leads me, finally, to Ignite's production of Jet of Blood. Ignite is a company of young theatre artists drawn mainly from WAAPA and the VCA, and their ambition in choosing to work on this inscrutable and unperformable text is admirable. Jet of Blood, written in 1925, contains some of the most blackly comic, extreme and misogynist stage directions ever written. They culminate in this nightmarish vision: "an enormous number of scorpions emerge from under the WET NURSE's skirts and begin to swarm in her vagina, which swells and splits, becomes vitreous, and flashes like the sun. The YOUNG MAN and the BAWD flee like victims of brain surgery."

It's fair to say that nothing like that happens on the Theatreworks stage. Ignite has made, I think, a brave and sometimes successful attempt at surrealist theatre; but what it lacks is Artaud. It must be said, however, that in freely adapting the text, using it as an occasion for their own imaginative explorations, director Olivia Allen and her cast have taken an Artaudian approach - as Artaud said himself, "Subservience to the author, dependence on the text, what a dismal tradition!"

Allen has framed the performance with Death (Grant Cartwright) in whiteface and top hat, who evilly welcomes the audience into the theatre, promising - or threatening - a life-changing experience, and throws us out afterwards, forbidding applause, as the performers light up post-coital cigarettes. He introduces the first scene of the play, a Young Man (Simon Stone) and Young Woman (Amelia Best), sitting up in twin beds, proclaiming their love for each other and their satisfaction with the state of the world.

The world is torn apart almost at once: the Knight (Austin Castiglione), dressed in a breastplate, nappy and cheese-grater, and the Nurse (Lara Tumak) erupt screaming from the couple's single beds like bad conscience. The Young Man, the only character costumed in ordinary clothes, is spilt into a world of bewildering confusions, populated by a Priest with a Swiss accent (Roderick Cairns), his canine Sexton (Julian Crotti) and a Whore (Katherine Tonkin).

Allen has taken her lead from the Surrealists: a series of oneiric scenes sweep through the theatre to the accompaniment of a bruising soundtrack by Hayley Forward. The tableaux she creates are often comic as well as dreamlike: the Knight tosses dead birds out of a paper bag, in a parody of feeding pigeons; the nurse attempts to breastfeed a baby, which spills to the ground as a bag of grain; the Priest eats baked beans while his Sexton snuffles at his feet like a dog.

Allen and designer Adam Gardnir use the perspectives and cavernous spaces of the Theatreworks stage to advantage here, creating blacklight theatre that is lushly and precisely lit by Luke Hails. The strange characters emerge from darkness and vanish in a vortex of dream images. The performers are impressive, meeting the challenges of this production with polished physical skills and commitment.

However, there is a certain clumsiness in the mise en scene, a repetition of thought perhaps, that even in a show as short as this (50 minutes) begins to be felt as a numbing of surprise: actors too often arrive on stage in the same way between "scenes", for example. But more problematically than that, the show demonstrates limitations of imagination, rather than its liberation. Turning the lights up on the audience, for example, felt like an obvious gesture, whereas the same action in Stuck Pigs Squealing's Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano, a show that scraped the raw nerves of the subconscious, was genuinely discomforting.

Perhaps the most telling symptom is the lack of disgust in this show. The other half of Artaud's exhortation against subservience to the author is: "The spirit of the text, not the letter!" Here there is none of the spiritual anguish or the passionate sexual loathing that winds through Jet of Blood. The parade of theatrical images, interesting or beautiful as they may be, are too often detonated by laughter, and they never add up to the exhilarated revulsion or shock that Death promises us at the beginning of the show.

One reason might be that the whole is enclosed in a narrative of dream. The Young Man is afflicted by these visions of a demented world while he is asleep; this leaves an exit for all of us, since all he has to do is to wake up. Artaud, on the other hand, claimed he was recording intolerable realities from which there was no escape. Ultimately this is a polite and untraumatising imagining of Artaud: no tormented naked flesh, no seminal fluids or shit, no spurts of blood from the wrist of God.

For all that, Jet of Blood is never boring and gives us glimpses of true theatrical flair. It certainly marks the debut of a promising new company, and I'll watch their evolution with interest.

Picture: (Right to left) Lara Tumak, Amelia Best, Roderick Cairns, Katherine Tonkin, Austin Castiglione and Grant Cartwright in Jet of Blood. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Pink and pleased

Theatre Notes is all flustered with excitement this morning, having scored a mention - along with some of her favourite theatre bloggers - in The Guardian's Culture Vulture, via the generous Maxie Szalwinska of Webloge. How cool is that? Even cooler is that the theatrical blogosphere is being pegged as a class act. Cooler still is the international theatre map it draws - New York, Melbourne, London...

And, in case you've missed it: an interesting discussion in the comments of Honour Bound, Nigel Jamieson's piece on David Hicks now on at the Malthouse, where Chris Boyd and David Williams vehemently disagree with my take on it...

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Storeroom shenanigans

Was it me who said I had to pull back on this blog? I'm good at foolish statements like that. No sooner do I say that poetry has burned itself out in my soul, than I start producing epic sequences; if I mutter that I'm giving up prose, suddenly I start writing novels. You'd think I'd understand my perverse nature better by now. I've just noticed that since announcing the newer, slimmer blog, I'm posting nearly every day.

All by way of irrelevantly introducing the new Store Room initiative, launched last night (I'm told) at the swish BMW Edge Theatre. It's called the Store Room Theatre Workshop, and it's pretty interesting.

Eleven invited Associate Artists will work on five selected projects during the year, and instead of subscribing to a season of plays, audience members can subscribe to a process: exclusive invites to work-in-progress showings (with, I notice, "opportunity to offer feedback", a perilous enterprise - hopefully these won't be the equivalent of movie industry pre-release screenings, with questionaires, nor the confused good intentions that mostly animate the workshop model...)

What catches my eye is the Associate Artists. They're a very interesting bunch, and include among others writer/director Rob Reid, actor/director Todd MacDonald, actor/writer Tyler Coppin, writer Ross Mueller, designer/creator Anna Tregloan and director Wesley Enoch. The five projects also look extremely promising. More details at

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Autobiography of Red

Autobiography of Red, based on the novel by Anne Carson, devised and performed by Luke Mullins. Sound design and composition by Jethro Woodward, co-designed by Anna Cordingley and Adam Gardnir, physical text Leisa Shelton, light by Richard Vabre, video design by Nicholas Verso. Voices by Rob Meldrum, Mary Sitarenos and Alan Knopfler. The Tower @ the Malthouse until September 24.

Anne Carson is the arch theorist of desire. Her writings - genre-defying works of criticism, poetry and novelistic essaying - are passionate inscriptions of intellect, adumbrating writing as an act of love and love as an act of passionate imagination.

Given that Carson's poetry and fiction are also works of critique and that her critical work is profoundly poetic, I suspect that I think her real masterpieces are her critical writing. Eros the Bittersweet, her astonishing examination of classical conceptions of romantic love, was written in the 1980s and is closely related to her verse novel Autobiography of Red, which was published in 1998. In both she examines the phenomenon of winged Eros with a precise, ironic wit that eroticises thought, knowing and writing as acts of desire. For Carson, Eros embodies a geometry of lack and desire which is "poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence in its poles, love and hate its motive energies".

One can't fault Luke Mullins, then, for his ambition. To theatricalise such deeply literary work - to bring this multidimensional and subtle thought into the essentially cruder arena of the stage - is no small challenge. Perhaps what is most admirable about his adaptation of Autobiography of Red is how he manages to physicalise the text without compromising its nuance and complexity. He does this primarily by accessing the eroticism of performance, the dynamic of desire that - as another poet, Muriel Rukeyser, points out - vibrates between audience and stage, effectively translating what Carson does with language into the four dimensions of theatre.

Describing the "delightful activity" of the reader's mind shifting between levels of understanding and absorption in a romantic novel by the classical writer Longus, Carson quotes Montaigne: "My page makes love, and understands it feelingly". For Carson, the "imaginative effort" of a novel, "like the verbal innovation we call metaphor, is an erotic action, reaching out from what is known and present to something else, something different, something desired". The meaning composed is "a dynamic meaning, not a still point, that comes alive as the novel shifts from plane to plane..."

This seems like a fair description of the energies moving in Autobiography of Red, in which Carson creates a contemporary love story from the ancient myth of Geryon, the red, winged monster who is slain by Herakles in his tenth labour, and the subject (or perhaps, more accurately, the object) of a poem by the classical poet Stesichoros. Carson's novel is in part an arch literary joke, framed by critical disquisitions on Stesichoros which in fact illuminate Carson's own procedures:

… the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and some scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box.
In the narrative, which is among other things an exploration of the notion of the subject, Geryon is transformed into a contemporary boy who is sexually abused by his brother, and who is sure he is a monster. He begins his autobiography at the age of five, in which he "set down all inside things / ...He coolly omitted all outside things". At 14 he meets and falls shatteringly in love with the young hood Herakles, in "one of those moments / that is the opposite of blindness". Instead of killing him, as in the myth, Herakles breaks Geryon's heart. After a life of numbness ("there are no words for a world without a self"), he meets Herakles by chance in Lima many years later. Herakles has a new lover, and the encounter explodes in degradation and violence, finally releasing Geryon from the abjection of the rejected lover into flight, his full selfhood.

Mullins, one of the talented group of artists which orbits around Stuck Pigs Squealing, narrates this story through a mixture of stylised physical performance and pre-recorded audio/visual material. The first images of the performance - half-lit images of one naked male body raping another - herald the ingenuity and sensory power of the physical vocabulary that Mullins invokes throughout this solo performance. Carson's literary framing is hinted in the chapter headings, words written on boxes and signs on the set that are illuminated as the story moves from one "chapter" to another, but for the most part Mullins has wisely concerned himself only with the story of Geryon, the abused monster who learns to embrace his monstrousness and so gains the power of flight.

He has created a kind of theatrical aria which accumulates power as it progresses, reinforced by an evocative score and soundscape by Jethro Woodward. It makes the beauty of Carson's complex synaesthetic language rivetingly and sensually present:
It was the year he began to wonder about the noise that colors make. Roses came roaring across the garden at him.
He lay on his bed at night listening to the silver light of stars crashing against the window screen. Most
of those he interviewed for the science project had to admit they did not hear
the cries of the roses
being burned alive in the noonday sun. Like horses, Geryon would say helpfully,
like horses in war…
Such precise language requires a concomitant precision in performance, but it also needs an answering passion and emotional nakedness. Mullins is more than equal to these demands. As he progresses from impassioned lover to desiring and nauseated ex-lover to, finally, bitter but liberated self-knowledge, Mullins is riveting. In turn seductive, ironic, witty, broken or desolate, he embodies for us Carson's bittersweet paradox of romantic love.

The set looks beautiful, set against the stripped-back brick walls of The Tower, and is moodily and inventively lit by Richard Vabre, with moments where Mullins is holding a torch or lighting effects at crucial moments that imitate the explosive shock of a flashbulb (photography is a major metaphor through this piece). But for me the design is a major problem.

Anna Cordingley and Adam Gardnir have run the set the length of the Tower Theatre, with the audience facing the narrow stage. Mullins moves from one extreme end of the theatre to the other, from left to right. I presume that this inevitable movement across the stage is to reflect the text's obsession with the motion of time with a concomitant movement through space (the focus on time is reinforced by illuminated clocks either side of the stage which record the real time of the performance, almost exactly one hour, which dissonantly knocks against the stage time of a life story).

I was sitting a little to the right of centre, not so far from the middle, and for the first 20 minutes felt the distance; the necessity to lean to see and hear the performance impeded my absorption. The closer Mullins came, the more powerful the performance; I wondered if those seated at the other end of the theatre experienced a mirror-effect, losing intimacy as Mullins moved away from them. For a show of such delicacy, that depends crucially on the erotic dynamic between audience and performer, this seems needlessly alienating.

Mullins is the recipient of this year's George Fairfax Memorial Award, which he will use to create a new work with Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red makes me impatient to see what ensues from what is already a fascinating collaboration.

Picture: Luke Mullins in Autobiography of Red. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Things on Sunday: An Ordinary Man

Your hostess with the mostest is up for the next in the Things on Sunday series at the Malthouse. It is the screening of the award-winning documentary The President versus David Hicks (2004), followed by a conversation with its writer-director, Curtis Levy, about his experiences in making the film and its relationship to his other works. Both promise to raise intriguing questions about the relationship between art, ethics, politics and everyday life. The President versus David Hicks won the 2004 AFI Best Documentary Award and the Most Outstanding Documentary Series at the 2005 LOGIE Awards. Curtis Levy’s other films include Hephzibah and The Queen Goes West.

Date: Sunday 24 September
Film screening: 1pm (81 mins)
Conversation with Curtis Levy: 2.30pm (60 mins)
Host: Alison Croggon
Cost: $10, free for subscribers
Subscribers will need to ring the Box Office 9685 5111 to book their free ticket. Bookings by phone or visit The CUB Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street Southbank

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Thompson's Bank

I am going to renovate my lacksadaisically-updated and chaotic blogroll, promise - some new things there but it's all looking unalphabetical or something. And there are lots of other good non-theatre blogs I feel wicked for not including. While I wait for inspiration, check out the blog of Chris Goode, poet-at-large and director of Signal to Noise. It's called Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, and not only makes me laugh out loud but has good oil on, well, all sorts of things, but in the latest, on the Edinburgh Festival. Also, via Ghostlight, a fascinating 1996 interview with Theatre of the Oppressed director Augusto Boal.

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Honour Bound

Honour Bound, conceived, directed and co-designed by Nigel Jamieson. Choreographed by Garry Stewart, composition and sound design by Paul Charlier, co-designer Nicholas Dare, lighting by Damien Cooper, video art by Scott Otto Anderson. Created in consultation with Terry and Bev Hicks. Performed and co-devised by DJ Garner, Alexandra Harrison, David Mueller, Marnie Palomares, Brendan Shelper and Paul White. Malthouse Theatre until October 1.

The correct question regarding the horrors committed in the camps... is not the question that asks hypocritically how it could have been possible to commit such atrocious horrors against other human beings; it would be more honest, and above all more useful, to investigate carefully how - that is, thanks to what juridical procedures and political devices - human beings could have been so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives to the point that committing any act toward them would no longer appear as a crime.

What is a Camp?, Giorgio Agamben

Honour Bound, Nigel Jamieson's beautiful and harrowing physical theatre work about the Australian Guantanamo detainee David Hicks, begins with a recording of a reading of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is almost an exercise in nostalgia to hear this statement of ideals read with such solemnity and dignity:

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world; Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people..."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is where legislative language, in its passion for clarity and unambiguous precision, attains an intensity of meaning akin to poetry. In 2006, it is hard to remember the force of the horrified revulsion which in 1948 deemed that such barbarities as Auschwitz must never happen again. Now such ideas are considered the province of left wing extremists and troublemakers. How we have moved on.

With his collaborators, Nigel Jamieson investigates the ways in which these UN ideals have been dismantled and destroyed through the story of David Hicks, who was captured fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Like many others, Hicks has been imprisoned since by the US Government in Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as an "enemy combatant", a category invented to sidestep the Geneva Convention's laws on the treatment of prisoners of war, and has endured treatment which most civilised people would call torture.

In four years of captivity, he has been held without charge and without a chance of having any allegations against him tested in a court of law, and he has been allowed only one visit from his family, during which he was shackled to the floor. One of the shameful scandals of the Howard Government is how, unlike Britain - which brought its nationals held in Camp Delta home out of concern that they would be denied the due process of law - it has abandoned Hicks to his fate. So much for the rule of law.

But equally, and equally importantly, Honour Bound is a revelation of human pain: on the one hand, a father's grief at being unable to help his troubled son, and on the other, the physical pain inflicted on bodies by the State. Honour Bound demonstrates, in its darkest manifestations, the power of language to change and remake reality. It is exemplary political theatre-making of a rare intelligence and power: neither didactic nor exploitative, appealing neither to sentiment nor special pleading, it reveals its argument with a devastating visceral impact which left the first night audience stunned into silence.

Honour Bound takes its title from the slogan above Camp Delta's gate: "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom". The staggering irony of this - as profound as "Arbeit Macht Frei" above the gates of Auschwitz - seems to have escaped those who put it there, but it resonates with increasing force throughout this show, which exposes at once the relentless logic of the bureaucracy in which Hicks is imprisoned, and its terrifying irrationality.

In some ways, Jamieson and his collaborators have simply done what is obvious. An admirable moral clarity informs every aesthetic decision, which gives this show a weight of honesty which can be difficult to find in the medium of theatre. This is clear from the beginning, when the dancers enter in their underwear and put on the familiar orange jumpsuits of detainees: this gesture, which reveals to us the artifice of theatre, permits its subsequent truthfulness.

What follows is a collage of dance and movement, audio and visual documentary footage, music and digital projections, which Jamieson weaves seamlessly together into a sensually searing theatrical experience. Paul Charlier's sound design, Damien Cooper's lighting and Scott Otto Anderson's video art are all potent elements in this equation.

Nicholas Dare's set is a giant metal cage, a space of harsh edges against which is flung the fragile human body. Invoking both guards and prisoners, the dancers embody the brutalisation of imprisonment and torture with Garry Stewart's thrilling choreography. The sides of the cage become multi-dimensional, with dramatic aerial sequences that continually shift the ground of physical gravity. Tormented, shackled, distorted with pain and, above all, fully present in their physical vulnerability, there are times when the dancers are nigh unbearable to watch; and yet you cannot tear your eyes away.

Against these stylised representations, the documentary footage - most of which will be familiar - exerts a new power. It is as if the real and the imagined refract each other into a potent sense of darkness visible, which then turns its black illumination onto the audience (for we are complicit here, for better or worse, as witnesses, as citizens). The documentary material include interviews with David Hicks' father Terry and stepmother Beverly, images of Camp Delta, speeches by George W. Bush, letters from David Hicks, deliberations on the "enemy combatant" status of detainees and the infamous "torture memos" in which Donald Rumsfeld outlines permissible interrogation techniques.

This last is the occasion for one of the most spectacular images in the show: the memos are projected on the back of the cage like a long road of text, along which a dancer is running. The text flips and the dancer falls into an abyss of darkness; and then he begins to run and climb again, and again falls, and again, and again. As an image of the impact of the language of the State on real human bodies, I have never seen anything so cogent and powerful. Unless it is a sequence later in the show that reduced the audience to total, shocked silence: not a cough, not a rustle, not a breath.

It is important to emphasise that the potency of this theatre does not come from the revelation of appalling facts or from its ideological viewpoint, that it does not depend on flattering an audience's sense of moral superiority. Its ambitions are much more courageous and honest than that. It takes images that have become all too familiar in the past five years and reveals afresh their meanings and human implications by invoking their realities within our sensory imaginations.

The only opinions ventured in the show are those of Beverly and Terry Hicks, very ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and we are free to make of these what we will. Among the most devastating moments are where Terry Hicks is struggling with his inability to articulate the horror of what is happening to his son. The closest he comes is to say "it is not a good situation", which in its banal understatement is wrenchingly moving.

This is passionately committed art, but it eschews emotional manipulation, thus avoiding the traps of so-called "documentary theatre" or the theatre of journalism roundly condemned by the playwright Howard Barker. "There is great safety and security to be enjoyed in the exchange of conscience-ridden observations, affirmations of shared values, humanistic platitudes," says Barker. "But the stage remains essentially sterile, and the insistence on the representation of what passes for the real world only enhances the decadent sense of social responsibility while devastating the landscape of dramatic invention".

Such charges can't be leveled here: Jamieson and his collaborators compromise neither the theatre nor the realities they are representing - in this show there is neither pretence nor exploitative aestheticisation of human suffering. It is rigorous, intelligent work that takes big risks; it walks very consciously along an ethical and aesthetic tightrope. But, like its aerial dancers, it never falters.

I don't think it is an accident that some of the most powerfully affecting political theatre I have seen in the past couple of years has been physical theatre - Bagryana Popov's movement piece on asylum seekers, Subclass26A, and, more recently at the Malthouse, Kage Physical Theatre's Headlock. Fascinatingly, and I don't know why this is so, all three are about imprisonment. All these shows are very different from each other, but maybe what they have in common is their ability to communicate with devastating effectiveness the vulnerability and fragility of the human body.

Perhaps most tellingly, after this show (once they emerged from the stupefaction that is the initial response) everyone was talking: not only about the theatrical experience, but about the issues it raises. Honour Bound is theatre that demands its audience not only feels, but thinks: it throws the moral responsibility back onto us. It ought to be compulsory viewing for every Australian citizen. Don't miss it.

Picture: Alexandra Harrison and Brendan Shelper in Honour Bound. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Em 4 Jay

A slight divagation in normal broadcasting to plug Em 4 Jay, Alkinos Tsilimidos' new film, which opens tonight at the George Cinema in St Kilda. There is a theatre connection - Em 4 Jay is Tsilimidos' film adaptation of Daniel Keene's 1980s play Low (full disclosure: I am married to this Keene fellow, so take the following comments how you please).

It premiered at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival, which is where I got to see why Alkinos has been looking so pleased with himself for the past year. This is a lot more than just another Australian junkie film: it's a haunting parable about sex, money and addiction, but most of all a tragic love story, in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet or Sid & Nancy.

For my money, this is Tsilimidos' best yet: the stripped aesthetic that was hinted at in films like Tom White and Silent Partner - his previous collaborations with Keene - is here fully realised. Performances of an almost unbelievable emotional authenticity from Nick Barkla and Laura Gordon, and film-making so unshowily classy that many people will miss it altogether. This is style that is all substance.

It's guaranteed to be on in the cinemas for about a week, so hurry to see it on the big screen before it disappears. It's worth it.
PS: For another view, aside from Jim Schembri's predictable dribblings, have a look at Nick Prescott's interesting discussion of the recent rash of junkie films in Australian Book Review, in which he comments: "Tsilimidos has drawn raw and edgy performances from young actors Laura Gordon and Nick Barkla, and has generated provocative and haunting results with this unflinchingly graphic film...this is stark, bleak drama, the stuff of the darkest imaginings of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. Tellingly, though, Tsilimidos opens his film with a shot of the characters’ intertwined hands; despite every devastating thing that occurs throughout the course of the film, the narrative’s emotional centre is made very clear. This is a jarring love story, and it doesn’t provide anything like an uplifting conclusion....while much of that material is deeply confronting, what Tsilimidos is really showing us, in a superbly affecting way, is the inevitability of the film’s bleak conclusion. The moment Jay resorts to violence, we realise that the descent has begun. Em 4 Jay’s concluding images will haunt viewers’ minds and viscera for some time after they have faded from the screen."

Well, that's the film I saw.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Lots happening this week and much of it worth a peek as Melbourne theatre heads into its busiest time of year...

It's the final week for Eagle's Nest Theatre's Buyback: Three Boongs in the Kitchen at La Mama. Written and directed by that fine novelist and theatre writer Kathleen Mary Fallon, it explores "an unvoiced loneliness in the heart of Australian culture, which is intimately connected with our history of colonialisation, terra nullius and the resulting treatment of the indigenous communities". At the Carlton Courthouse until September 17, bookings 9347 6142.

The arts in a dry climate program at the Arts House in North Melbourne is a powerhouse of innovative art. It includes URBANology, a suite of programming inspired by street culture, in which four stand-alone events collectively challenge how art is conceived, defined and categorized. Opening this week too is the innovative circus ensemble CIRCA and their new work Timepieces, which includes short pieces choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin and Natalie Cursio. The whole shebang opens September 14 at the North Melbourne Town Hall and the Meat Market and you can find more details here. Bookings 9639 0096.

And finally, the third leg of the VCA Directors Season opens this week, with Europe by Michael Gow, directed by Matt Scholten, and Far Away by Caryl Churchill, directed by Hallie Shellam. More details (and more shows) at Matt Scholten's blog. Grant St Theatre, Grant St, Southbank, bookings 9685 9233.

If any readers would care to post on any of these shows, I'd be very interested.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Contemporary Australian Drama

Reviewed for The Book Show, ABC Radio National - you can listen to me here or read on...

Contemporary Australian Drama by Leonard Radic. Brandl and Schlesinger 2006.

You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in the case of Leonard Radic's new book on Australian drama it's irresistible. The book is grey. Tombstone grey. It gives you fair warning of the quality of the prose inside.

The cover's greyness is marginally relieved by a black and white photograph of the first production of Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1955. Yes, that's 51 years ago. And this is a book entitled 'Contemporary Australian Drama'? Those of us who believe theatre is one of the most exciting artforms around and wonder at its fusty, old-fashioned image need look for explanation no further than this volume.

Leonard Radic was the theatre reviewer for the Age for two decades and, in the tradition of reviewers such as James Agate, Kenneth Tynan or Michael Billington, now seeks the more permanent legacy of a book to immortalise his critical insights. Or, as the case may be, insight. Radic seems to have had one idea in his entire critical life, and he hangs onto it with the tenacity of a slightly dim bull terrier.

Contemporary Australian Drama follows his equally dull 1991 survey of Australian theatre, The State of Play. The narrative in both books is basically the same: Australian theatre was a colonial franchise until, in the late 60s and early 70s, a bunch of young turks – including David Williamson, John Romeril, Jack Hibberd, Alex Buzo and Dorothy Hewett – began to articulate a new, uniquely Australian perspective.

This thesis is fine as far as it goes. In Radic's hands, that's not very far at all. There's no doubt that the founding of the Nimrod, Pram Factory and La Mama theatres, the formation of the Australian Performing Group, and the tremendous surge of political and artistic energy this released, was a crucial period in our theatre history. Radic's special genius is to make this colourful history more boring than cutting your own toenails.

As I plodded through this book, I saved myself from the insanity of tedium by rereading One Night Stands, Michael Billington's collected theatre reviews for the Guardian. Radic is, in some ways, the Australian equivalent of Billington. They are roughly contemporaneous, both young reviewers of the theatre that expressed the social and political upheavals of the 1970s. Billington, like Radic, was in particular an advocate for a theatre of social and political commitment – a theatre epitomised in Britain by writers like David Hare or Howard Brenton, or directors like Max Stafford-Clarke.

Billington has his limitations: his subscription to a notion of theatre as a branch of sociology meant, for instance, that he initally missed the significance of radical talents like Sarah Kane (although he was man enough to admit it later). But a read through his collected reviews will give you a fair idea of the ferment of ideas that ran through British theatre in the 70s and 80s – the variety of its aesthetic, its political concerns – filtered through a fascinated, mobile intellect. More importantly, it leaves you with the feeling that the theatre is an exciting, vital place to be. 'He loves the theatre,' Peter Hall said of Billington. 'So I always want to read him.'

This sense of excitement is palpably missing from Radic's book. In part, it's a function of his style: where Billington is witty, literate and engaged, Radic is earnest and pedestrian. He has the unstoppable, unvarying stolidity of a cyberman, and about as much intellectual suppleness. The book's single virtue is as an archive: it records the titles, plots and premiere productions of many significant Australian plays, and there is a useful chapter on the beginnings of a national theatre. Considered as a critical history, however, it has crippling shortcomings.

Radic is very clear that his book is about the writers of the theatre and not the directors, designers, actors and other artists who create it. This is, of course, a perfectly legitimate and worthy exercise. His aim, as he explains in the introduction, inspired by the only decent piece of prose in the book – a quote from David Hare – is to track the social history of Australia through the writings of our playwrights over the past 40 years.

This is Radic's Grand Idea, and he grimly sets about applying it to every playwright in sight. It fits neatly over David Williamson and his heirs like Hannie Rayson, those who devote themselves to a formally conventional theatre inspired by 'issues', but less easily categorised writers like Patrick White or Dorothy Hewett, let alone avant garde artists like Jenny Kemp, have to be violently jemmied into his thesis. To this end, the hapless reader is taken through the plot of each play, treated to a series of homilies on its success or failure, and then moved on to the next illustration of Australia's social history.

The champion of this story is David Williamson, who according to Radic 'remains unchallenged as Australia's leading playwright'. Why? Radic says, as if it trumps all argument, 'the box office figures are there on the board for all to see'. This equation between commercial viability and quality is, as Michael Billington observes in other circumstances, 'deeply Thatcherite', and points towards the basic philistinism underlying this book.

While any critic has the right to her individual viewpoint, Radic's Melbourne-centrism seriously compromises his claim to comprehensiveness. To take one example: a chapter is devoted to the oeuvre of Daniel Keene. Anybody familiar with Keene's work will notice that Radic only discusses the plays that have been produced in Melbourne. There is no mention at all, for instance, of Keene's long and fruitful collaboration with Tim Maddock, director of the Red Shed Company in Adelaide. Yet this company commissioned five of Keene's most important plays, all of which have subsequently had major productions in Europe.

Radic also studiously avoids any discussion of the arguments against his nationalistic narrative, such as Julian Meyrick's controversial essay Trapped by the Past, a swingeing attack on the so-called new wave theatre and its suppression of younger artists through the 1990s. And although he discusses plays produced as recently as 2005, Radic fails to engage with of any of the new theatre writers who have emerged since 2000. Despite an epilogue that attempts to sketch out the challenges facing Australian theatre now, this is a book which looks resolutely backwards.

Here is little sense of a critical mind distilling his wide experience into a useful intellectual map, or even researching very far past his personal experience. Compare it to something like David Bradby's excellent Mise en Scene: French Theatre Now, a crisp, intelligent overview of the the major movements in the development of modern French theatre, and its inadequacies become very clear.

The shame is that this is such a missed opportunity. Sure, theatre's failures can make you squirm like nothing else can. But when the art takes flight, when that indefinable magic occurs and the stage is transformed into an arena for our released imaginations, nothing is more exhilarating. It's something that happens now, here, in the same space where you are breathing, and it will never happen again. As Malcolm Muggeridge said of journalism, its glory is its transience. If any art is to inspire lively writing, it surely ought to be the theatre.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Of the blogs

Our New York friends Superfluities and Parabasis alert me to Time Out New York's theatre editor David Cote's swanky new blog Histriomastix. Hie thee there and subscribe at once. David of course charms all us bloggers by making no bones about where the action is these days:

A mainstream media (MSM) critic openly admiring a corner of the blogosphere...unthinkable! But not really. When critics at the city's leading media outlets either get the facts dead wrong, express outdated, middlebrow tastes, fawn over celebrities, remain ignorant of rising talent downtown, fail to support daring young playwrights and companies, or make it painfully clear that they have never actually worked in the field, then it's time to turn to blogs for informed opinion and passion.
Quite. Being curious whether Mr Cote had been reading too much Goscinny and Uderzo, I googled Histriomastix, and discovered it is an anathema on the theatre served by one fiery puritanical soul, William Prynne (1600-1669). To wit:
The players scourge, or, actors tragædie, divided into two parts. Wherein it is largely evidenced, by divers arguments, by the concurring authorities and resolutions of sundry texts of Scripture, That popular stage-playes are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions; condemned in all ages, as intolerable mischiefes to churches, to republickes, to the manners, mindes, and soules of men.

And that the profession of play-poets, of stage-players; together with the penning, acting, and frequenting of stage-playes, are unlawfull, infamous and misbeseeming Christians. All pretences to the contrary are here likewise fully answered; and the unlawfulnes of acting, of beholding academicall enterludes, briefly discussed; besides sundry other particulars concerning dancing, dicing, health-drinking, of which the table will informe you.
That's telling us.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Skriker

The Skriker by Caryl Churchill, directed and designed by Brian Lipson. Lighting by James Shuter, audio visual by Qiao Li, visual effects Nicklas Tibo Ersson, costumes by Caitlin Kerry. With: Susan Miller, Julie Wee, Katherine Bradley, Eryn-Jean Norvill, Mick Lo Monaco, Tristan Meecham, Russ Pirie, Jing-Xuan Chan, Christine Mowinckel, Sharon Davis, Gemma Cavoli, Patrick Flynn, Ashley Zukerman, Soraya Dean, Jamieson Caldwell, Thomas Wren. VCA School of Drama, Space 28, Dodds St, Southbank.

One of the vexing and beautiful things about writing about theatre – one of the primary reasons I keep doing it, I guess – is that the more profound the experience is, the more difficult it is to express in words. So often when theatre resonates deeply, it’s because it strikes chords that are crude and primitive and naïve. What is that quality which transforms what might otherwise be mere foolish pretence into an act that plucks at the roots of the psyche, waking out of the darkness the monsters that walk in all of us?

It is, for example, a truism to speak of theatre’s “magic”. The Skriker, surely one of the strangest and cruellest plays of Caryl Churchill’s extraordinary oeuvre, reminds us what magic actually is. You can be sure, there is nothing benign or twee about it: this is the world of the uncanny, the cruel, the unhuman, the heartless. Almost a dystopian version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Skriker draws on ancient English and Irish folk and fairy tales to look at some inadmissably dark truths about fertility, motherhood and damaged nature.

Brian Lipson and his company of actors take Churchill's bleak, disturbing play and realise an entire theatrical world that is like being in an enchanting and sinister dream, a damaged world of transformation and dis-ease. This is, in every sense, demanding work: it wolfs your entire attention for three hours with a constantly inventive mise en scene of resonant theatrical image. Oneiric, haunting and toxic, it's one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have seen this year.

In The Skriker, Churchill draws elements from folk and fairy tales about “good” and “bad” women and places them in contemporary urban settings. She creates a world of hallucinatory mirrors: the human overworld mirrors the faerie underworld, the bad mother mirrors the good, the animal mirrors the human, the changeling mirrors the real child. It's perhaps a particularly English tradition of Gothic: Churchill's desolate urban world reminds me strongly of the London fantasy writer China Mieville’s gritty realities - in particular, his dark tale of contemporary magic, Familiar, in his short story collection Looking for Jake.

Josie (Susan Miller) is the bad sister: we meet her in an asylum, where she has been confined after murdering her newborn baby and baking her in a pie. The good sister is her friend Lily (Julie Wee), who is pregnant. Both of them are haunted by the Skriker, a shape-shifting fairy who envies and desires their fertility - babies have high value in the sterile world of Faerie - and seduces them by granting their wishes. She turns up in various guises - as an American woman in a bar, a nasty little girl eaten up with sibling rivalry, a lover who behaves like an obsessed stalker - and tempts both of them down into the carnivalesque Underworld.

Around the three major figures erupts a world infected with malign enchantments, a population of lost and dead children, lunatics, hags, kelpies, bogles and monsters. Nothing here is “natural”: environmental apocalypse is as much part of the sickness this play expresses as mental illness. It’s interesting to think that it was written, to some hostile incomprehension, in 1994: as climate change becomes more urgently evident, as the World Health Organisation warns that mental illness will be the major growing health problem over the next two decades, it now seems spookily prescient. As the Skriker says: “It was always possible to think whatever your personal problem, there's always nature. Spring will return even if it's without me. Nobody loves me but at least it's a sunny day. This has been a comfort to people as long as they've existed. But it's not available any more. Sorry. Nobody loves me and the sun's going to kill me. Spring will return and nothing will grow.”

Theatre is a place where the archaic meaning of “glamour” – a spell, an enchantment – still hangs vapourously about its more conventional usage. In its original sense, glamourie was the word given to the ability of fairies - the Irish Sidhe, the Norse Alfar or the English Faerie - to transform and fool human senses. One of glamour’s most common uses was to change human beings into animals. So in the Odyssey, Circe changes Ulysses’ shipmates into pigs, or the fairy queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream transforms Bottom into an ass.

The production begins with this kind of transformation: in the theatre foyer, a boy, up to this point seemingly another member of the audience, is turned into a pig. Inside the theatre, we hear the sounds of animal howls and shrieks, and the beasts begin to hammer on the door…and thus we are led inside, into a claustrophobic tunnel like a cattle race, dimly and obscurely lit by a single reddish-yellow lightbulb. It is like the inside of a womb, or a limbo of the half-formed, where the audience members mill around with cast members that we can barely discern, surrounded by a cacophony of bestial noises. We emerge into a corral, surrounded by higher platforms on all sides; the lights widen, and human speech begins to emerge from the squeals and growls.

This introduces the first movement, as it were, of this production, which divides roughly into three main parts. The first is a promenade, opening with an evocation of Churchill’s long introductory speech, in which language itself becomes other. Much of the text – the words of the Skriker, the damaged fairy – is a collage of word association, in which meaning is on the verge of slipping into nonsense. “Slit slat slut. That bitch a botch an itch in my shoulder blood. Bitch botch itch. Slat itch slit botch. Itch slut bitch slit….Whatever you do don’t open to do don’t open the door...”

This is language as thickness, viscera, weight, saliva, sex, violence, the softness of palate and lip: language as spell and enchantment, where meaning constantly threatens to slip its noose and collapse back to animal howl and croon. Here Churchill is pushing theatre hard up against the poem, sense against nonsense, and one can only admire the force of the centrifugal will that keeps the text this side of comprehensible. Lipson divides the Skriker's speech between the actors of the company, who vocalise it as a sound poem or a spoken oratorio around the audience. Focus is constantly shifting: you might be listening to an actor standing at your shoulder and then to a figure suddenly lit in the distance, who as suddenly vanishes. It is a wholly immersive experience, at once shockingly intimate and alienating.

The first clear piece of narrative is a scene in a lunatic asylum, where Lily is visiting Josie. This is performed on four sides, the audience still standing in the centre, by four sets of actors; again the words are carefully orchestrated, so each scene is at once clear and splintered. No scene is identical, either: each set of actors moves and interprets the text differently. The effect is arrestingly disturbing, the beginning of a sense of a world without mooring or base reality from which reference can be made, and the realism of the performances – which touch precise emotional authenticities – is an edge against which the carnivalesque world of Faerie is whetted.

It’s a contrast which is fruitfully worked through the evening, and which gives this show much of its richness and complexity: if it were merely clever and cruelly comic (and it is both) this production wouldn't possess its dark and urgent potency. Behind this show is an attuned attention to the emotional and psychic disturbance that occasions it, and it's reflected in the emotional fearlessness and clarity of the performances that Lipson has elicited from each member of his young ensemble.

The design is a mixture of contemporary street aesthetic and the grotesque, with liberal use of mask and costume. One wall of the theatre is piled to the roof with cardboard boxes, and the stage space is shaped by trolleys, which are used in all sorts of ways: scenes are sometimes performed on top of them, or sometimes, as in Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Dernier Caravansérail, the performers are wheeled on platforms by the other actors, so they can be at once still and in motion.

After the animal intensities of the opening sequences, the production segues to a series of scenes which play on mirroring: a bar sequence, for example, performed in double vision, with actors each side mirroring the actions of the others. After the interval, when Lily's baby is born and Josie escapes the Underworld, the scenes are more singular, and the sense of a borderless, anarchic world narrows down to domestic gothic (although this is simpliflying considerably). Among many other elements - this is a show headily rich on texture - there is witty use of Qioa Li's audio-visual material, from four television screens suspended from the ceiling: distorted news reports, nightmarish music clips, and a mixture of live and recorded images. The sense of multiple space invoked in the theatre is reinforced also by James Shuter's ingenious lighting design.

Primarily, something which really only became clear at the finish, I was struck by this production's elegant and powerful coherence. Reflecting Churchill's language, Lipson places the theatre under such imagistic and emotional pressures that the experience constantly threatens to fly apart into its disparate elements. He keeps it together by dint of acute directorial exactingness: this is a very detailed and carefully focused production. There were only a few moments where I felt the intensity and energies began to slacken, and even then, on reflection, I am not sure.

What I am sure of is that watching this play was totally compelling, and I will be chewing over it for days hence. Maybe for years. It's rare to see work in which linguistic, emotional and visual complexities of this order are realised with such thought and art. Some pieces of theatre stick with you, altering the colour of your mind; and for me, this was one of them.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Notable misses

As I keep saying ad nauseam, I can't get to everything I'd like to see. So I'm going to do the obvious thing and institute a regular column in which I selectively list current productions that catch my eye and that, were I three people, I would be excitedly attending. Any readers who make these shows - or who have recommendations of their own - are welcome to add their own comments.

Definitely worth a look is Rageboy by emerging playwright and "verbose young punk" Declan Greene. Directed by Susie Dee (Tower of Light, Melbourne Workers Theatre, Berggasse 19) and with a fine production crew and cast, Greene's play was commissioned by the Union House Theatre, which has a tradition of supporting new work - writers they've supported include Lally Katz, Angus Cerini and Joanna Murray-Smith.

On at the Guild Theatre, Union House, University of Melbourne, until September 16. Bookings 8344 7447.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Profile: Lindy Davies

This week, Lindy Davies announces that she will leave her position as Head of the Victorian College of the Arts School of Drama at the end of the year. To mark the occasion, she talks exclusively to Theatre Notes about how her life as one of Australia’s most significant actors and directors has influenced her work as a teacher

“I suppose what seems most important,” says Lindy Davies, leaning back into her sofa in her office at the School of Drama, “is that there is a record of what’s happened here. The thing that is so disappointing about our culture is the perpetual amnesia, the lack of acknowledgement of things that have occurred. Our achievements aren’t cherished, aren’t built from.”

Davies encapsulates one of the major laments of Australian theatre artists: the sense that the innate ephemerality of the artform is reinforced by an almost wilful ability to forget, even to erase, its achievements. Which is why, in the middle of an especially demanding fortnight, Davies is speaking to me.

It’s a Saturday evening, and Davies is about to see Chris Bendall’s VCA production of Howard Barker’s Victory. She has probably been at the School of Drama every night this week: aside from Victory, the VCA School of Drama has three major productions going this week. They include Caryl Churchill’s 1994 play The Skriker, directed by Brian Lipson – “Brilliant!” says Lindy, “Just amazing! But nobody’s coming, nobody knows about it, it’s like Eldorado [at the Malthouse, which played to poor houses] - and it’s the sort of thing you mustn’t miss…”; James McCaughey’s production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Forest and Mary Sitarenos’s production of Churchill’s Fen. Not to mention the VCA Director’s Season, a selection of short plays by writers like Artaud and Lorca. Not to mention a week of student assessments.

Not to mention Davies’ impending departure as Head of the School of Drama, the announcement of which she keeps putting off. It’s time to go: the imminent restructure of the VCA as a faculty of the University of Melbourne reminds her that she has been at the school for at least six years longer than she intended. She is tired, and she can’t stop until she gets on a plane for Los Angeles next Wednesday. She is longing, she says, for time to reflect, a little leisure, but it will be a while before she can afford such a luxury.

But Davies is what they call a trouper. That dramatic, generous presence, tempered by a charming and well-concealed shyness, is the hallmark of a consummate actor. And she is an actor of a very particular kind, embodying in her career and philosophy a history of Australian theatre making. From her student days when, with people like John Romeril, Lindzee Smith, Graeme Blundell, Alan Finney and Kerry Dwyer, she helped form the La Mama Experimental Theatre Company, which later became the Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory Theatre, Davies has been part of some of the iconic moments of Australian theatre history.

Davies’ influence at the VCA School of Drama explains a lot about the theatre graduates who have been emerging from the school and energising the theatre community over the past few years. The VCA School of Drama is a direct inheritor of the radical tradition of Australian theatre that came to the fore in the 1970s. Davies, with other VCA staff such as Richard Murphet, have brought to the college a living notion of theatre as an innovative political, ethical and spiritual activity. It’s a notion that has evolved over the past three decades of their work as theatre artists.

At the School of Drama, this history is quite literally expressed in bricks and mortar. The School of Drama building was purpose-built for the school, designed by Melbourne architect and theatre designer Peter Corrigan, himself a designer associated with the Pram Factory. The three-storey building in Dodds St, Southbank, was designed in close collaboration with Davies. With its day-glo balconies, Corrigan’s perky building is hard to miss in the street: but inside what is most striking is how unlike an institution it feels. This is a building that is created for one purpose – to make theatre – and it has the relaxed, focused sense that goes with an efficient working theatre space.

“We wanted to make a place where we could interact with the public, where we could interact with ourselves – that is, a place to reflect – and where we could interact with collaborators,” says Davies. Perhaps what most struck me was the fact that the studios in which the students work are based on the designs of warehouses in which the various groups associated with the Pram Factory rehearsed through the 1970s and early 1980s. A theatre of memory, indeed.

Davies is concerned that the “playwright-centric” idea of theatre (espoused, for example, by commentators like the former Age critic Leonard Radic) creates a “revisionist” history that totally obscures some of the important influences that drove the “new wave” theatre of the late 1960s/early 1970s. “Anything we achieved in those days – it wasn’t director-driven, it wasn’t writer-driven,” says Davies. ”We were ideas-driven.”

The “larrikin” physical theatre that was developed by the Australian Performing Group - and which is still a vital tradition in the work of Circus Oz - is usually assumed to be a wholly Australian invention. But, as Davies points out, it has much older antecedents, with some very traceable genealogies. The day before our interview, Davies had been watching some workshops on Italian mask run by Valeria Campo, a teacher of Commedia Dell’arte. “And I suddenly remembered,” she says, “so clearly, where the Pram Factory style came from. We got the masks from the MTC production of Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters. Graeme Blundell was in the play…”

The production was directed by George Ogilvie, who was then newly returned from several years in Europe, where among other things he trained intensively with Jacques Lecoq in Paris for three years learning Italian mask and Commedia Dell’arte. As Ogilvie explains in his newly released biography Simple Gifts: A Life in the Theatre, he conducted Italian mask workshops for the actors in his 1967 production of Goldoni’s play.

“The thing about Commedia,” says Davies. “It had no pedigree… it was made by poor people. And we were in total reaction against the English repertory model, the hierarchy of the English rep. The commedia was perfect. So we had these masks which we took from the MTC production and we improvised… the first thing that came out of that was called Mr Big The Big Fat Pig by John Romeril… which was influenced by the Bread and Puppet Theatre [in New York]. That was where what was later called the larrikin style of the Pram Factory came from – it was from Commedia Dell’arte and those exciting companies we read about. Marvellous Melbourne [the first production at the Pram Factory theatre] was this vaudevillean, burlesque grotesquerie – it was all these huge cartoonish figures.”

For all its excitement, Davies felt a couple of important elements were missing from the APG model of theatre making. In 1972, she saw Rex Cramphorn’s production of The Tempest at the Guild Theatre at the University of Melbourne, and was blown away.

“At the Pram Factory, I never felt – aside from productions like [Jack Hibberd’s] Stretch of the Imagination – that language was particularly valued,” she says. “I have a passion for language. And I felt that the Pram Factory lacked this poetic and dramatic imaginative landscape. That’s why it was such a profound experience for me to see the Rex Cramphorn Performance Syndicate.”

Davies names Rex Cramphorn as the single most important influence on her work. “In this building, he is the presence I most often feel,” she says. “Rex was the person who introduced me to the idea that form is content. He showed me there was a world where an actor was valued in relation to language, where the actor was a maker.

“Rex could be infuriating: he was always in the process with the idea, always applying his intellect, which people often experienced as indecision. I remember in the Playbox production of Hamlet, in 1984, the audience was coming into the show and Rex was still rehearsing the show, sitting on the steps of the theatre with an Arden edition of Hamlet, listening to the ideas in action...”

The other problem with the Pram Factory, Davies says, was that it had a limited mechanism for coping with difference or disagreement. “What happened in the end was that effectively the company was being run by a triumvurate. I wanted a way of opening up dialogue so people could talk about their work, so they wouldn’t be afraid of disagreeing - a way of seeing conflict as an inciting moment, a place where you can begin to debate through your work.”

From those very early days, Davies found herself working towards an idea of theatre as a collaborative act, and much of her thinking, as director, actor and teacher, has been about how to create environments in which the ideal of collaboration might be made possible. Much later, in 1982, Davies helped form the Actors’ Experimental Stream of the Playbox Theatre with Melbourne actors like Mark Minchinton, Margaret Cameron, Rob Meldrum and others, and they began to formalise a philosophical and practical framework in which to realise these ideas.

“That’s 24 years ago!” she says. “Now it seems such a basic thing to do, to think about those things. We were driven by the belief that theatre had value as spiritual and social microcosm. And we wanted to create a new aesthetic through our differences, to celebrate our differences.

“The problem was always how to create an environment that permits an collaborative model. It’s about creating a dynamic, an ethic, in relation to” (here she sounds faintly mocking) “unconditional positive regard for the people in the room. You can’t work where there is judgement, jealousy, self-deprecation, ego problems of any kind – you can’t have them in the room. In teaching, for example, these dynamics involve a great deal of tough love.

“It has to be non-judgmental, or nothing can happen. If there’s no compassion, theatre can’t happen.”

All these influences have been drawn together into the School of Drama’s philosophy of the “autonomous actor”: the actor as maker, who is as much at ease in classical plays as in physical theatre traditions or innovative theatre making. Davies has collected around the core of the school a staff of theatre practitioners who, as well as teaching the students, often later collaborate with them in their work outside the college.

The imminent integration of the Victorian College of the Arts into the University of Melbourne is part of a massive restructure of the university system, which is now basing itself on the American model of universities like Princeton. The integration, which adopts the VCA as a faculty of the University of Melbourne, is due to take effect from January 1, 2007, but it will not for the moment mean that the School will essentially change.

As for Davies herself, leaving the college won’t usher in any slower time. Next year she will be directing in London, and working on other projects in Slovenia and at the Max Reinhardt School in Vienna. She is also planning a theatre project in Melbourne with Robyn Davidson. In the meantime, she is off to LA to woo legendary acting teacher Anne Bogart over to visit next year, and then to the Toronto Film Festival, where she will deliver a workshop for film directors. It seems that the time for reflection for which she currently yearns won’t come any time soon.

“Life isn’t like that,” she says. “You just do what you can… I suppose what I’m most proud of is that I’ve seen a lot of good theatre here. What we can do in a place like this is have the time to investigate, to really examine and make pieces of theatre, which may be text-based. And some extraordinary theatre has happened here – Robert Draffin’s The Idiot, for instance, or his Le Balcon; Brian Lipson’s The Crucible and The Skriker, John Bolton’s Grim or East, Richard Murphet and Leisa Shelton’s Dolores and the Department Store, Kirsten von Bibra’s Three Sisters, Mary Sitrarenos’ Sarita, Tania Gerstle’s Five Kinds of Silence… the VCA has actually made good theatre.

“I didn’t think we could make it all happen here. But we have, and that’s very comforting. I’m so glad I came here: it’s been the most immense privilege. I want to keep a strong relationship with this place. I love teaching, there is more for me to investigate in that area. I suppose an artist’s life is always about that oscillation between regret and fulfilment, going through that moment. There’s a kind of melancholic sweetness about that.

“In terms of the future of this place, I suppose I hope that it keeps a unique vision – that whatever happens here, whoever takes over, that they keep the question – what is theatre? – at the forefront of whatever they do.”

Richard Murphet, currently Postgraduate Coordinator and Head of Theatre Making at the school, will take up the position of Acting Head of Drama to provide leadership and continuity for students and staff as the VCA integrates with the University of Melbourne in 2007.

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Monday, September 04, 2006


For those who were asking - the radio play Specula, my collaboration with composer Sam Mallet, is now online at ABC Radio National.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Female of the Species

The Female of the Species by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Patrick Nolan. Designed by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Matt Scott, composer David Chesworth. With Michael Carman, Roz Hammond, Peter Houghton, Sue Ingleton, Bert Labonte and Bojana Novakovic. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Victorian Arts Centre Playhouse, until September 30

In the mutual loathing stakes, Joanna Murray-Smith and I, who are exact contemporaries, go back a long way. For around 15 years, she has considered me a bitch and I have thought her a dill. I hated her plays, she hated my criticism. She called herself post-feminist and berated feminism for her problems: I called myself a feminist and thought her a privileged whinger. Even our hair colour expresses our disagreements: she's blonde, I'm brunette.

Once, at the old Playbox Theatre, we sat directly opposite each other at lunch and snubbed each other as only women can. Face to face for more than an hour, we spoke not one word to each other. Not even a gritted greeting.

So I suppose all my friends will be rushing over to take my temperature. This week I went to see Murray-Smith's most recent play, The Female of the Species, and didn't come out breathing fire or wanting to kill. Did my brush with death last week make me a wiser, kinder person? Or have all these drugs numbed my aesthetic perceptions?

Sadly for the moralists, I don't think that suffering has made me more generous. Nor, despite a certain giddy feeling, do I think that the drugs have much to do with it. My theory is that Murray-Smith has put away self-pity for the cruel pleasures of revenge, and in the process has discovered that she's really a comedian.

The Female of the Species is, supposedly, Murray-Smith's take on the legacy of Germaine Greer. As an intellectual argument, don't even think about it. Murray-Smith's feisty, foul-mouthed, charmingly arrogant celebrity feminist Margot Mason may, thanks to a champagne performance by Sue Ingleton, look and sound uncannily like Greer, but there is in fact no resemblance between the intellectual fiction and the fact. The plot too, such as it is, borrows from a real event - the invasion of Greer's Essex home by a disturbed student - but departs from it almost at once.

Margot Mason is working on a deadline for her latest book when a young woman, Molly Rivers (Bojana Novakovic) turns up with a gun and handcuffs Mason to her desk. Molly wants to shoot Mason, because she blames her for warping her mother's mind and ruining her life with her hit book The Cerebral Vagina. First, following Mason's advice, Molly's mother gave her away as a baby so she wouldn't be enslaved by motherhood. Then she jumped under a train clutching The Cerebral Vagina to her breast. Finally, in order to preserve her creativity Molly has sterilised herself so she can't have children, only to be told by Mason that she has no talent at all.

Then Margot's daughter Tess (Roz Hammond), who has embraced the full-time mother and housewife gig and, according to her mother, thrown away everything that was interesting about herself, stumbles through the French windows in her muddied pyjamas. She has blown a fuse after spending all night building a model cinema in balsa wood for a school project. When she sees Molly Rivers waving a gun around, she is in full agreement; her mother ought to be shot.

What follows is an increasingly improbable collection of people having increasingly absurd arguments, with all the classic farcical shifts of power and various revelations, including a nod to the identity questions in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Finally there are six characters on stage - the three women, plus Tess' emasculated SNAG husband Bryan (played with dazed charm by Peter Houghton), the virile ethnic taxi driver Frank Pecorini (Bert Labonte) and Margot Mason's over-the-top gay publisher, Theo (Michael Carman).

The Female of the Species is Murray-Smith's first full-length comic play, and is written in that most unforgiving form, the farce. A farce is a kind of glittering theatrical machine with a murderous clockwork logic that must be wound up tightly in the first scene. The rest of the play simply plays out the theatrical kinetics. In the best farces - Michael Frayn's Noises Off, Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw or The Importance of Being Earnest - the machinery is unobstrusive, exerting its necessity with a kind of deus ex machina inevitability.

Murray-Smith is not quite this skilled, and you can see some of the joins. The energy of the play begins to run down perhaps about two thirds of the way through, and the monologues that turn up around then are not a substitute for action.
Every now and then Murray-Smith also falls into the temptation of making what sounds suspiciously like a serious statement ("Sexism these days is subverted by irony"; "men aren't our problem; old feminists are"). I wish she wouldn't. When she leaves her characters unencumbered by credibility or meaning, permitting them to be recognisably sharp caricatures, the satire can be deadly: but the slightest sense of earnestness or moralising dulls its edge.

This is a fine production, with an elegantly practical design by Dale Ferguson which effectively updates the classic farce design from the English Edwardian stage: exits to right and left and (of course) French windows. I particularly liked Matt Scott's subtle lighting, which luminously and unobstrusively shifted the stage time from morning to night. And, of course, a large part of the charm of the evening is the cast, who under Patrick Nolan's assured direction seem to be having a ball. All of them have good lines, and they play their absurdities with the requisite self-blindness, the essential innocence, that farce profoundly requires.

People have already said that the laughter in the theatre, which must be music to the MTC finance officer's ears, reminds them of the heyday of David Williamson. I think that Murray-Smith is much funnier than Williamson. Her writing is more fluently intelligent, and she handles dramatic form with a sharper imagination.

And yes, it doesn't do to look too closely at the ideas in this play: despite the putative subject matter, it is not actually about feminism, but about that old comic standby, motherhood. Like a lot of satire, The Female of the Species has a blackly conservative subtext; don't expect any Ortonesque subversion here. The laughter is about recognition and affirmation, and gets no more dangerous than that. Yet. One feels that Murray-Smith's pen could get a lot more wicked, if she let it. I can't help feeling a lively curiosity about what she might do next, if she continues to open this vein.

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