MIAF: The Wraps ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 30, 2006

MIAF: The Wraps

The Age has several wrap-ups today on MIAF, in general dubbing this year's festival a rather puzzling success. Arts Editor Raymond Gill even complains that there were no flops. After listing a long line of shows that had received good word-of-mouth, he says: "Although there were some shows that did not engage with audiences, there were no controversial failures. In a curious way, that was a disappointment - a festival should be the place where big ideas are launched and either take flight or fail spectacularly." Hmmm.

Under the contradictory headline "Too few risks in festival fare", dance reviewer Hilary Crampton talks about the riskiness of dance performance, and comments that the festival contained too little to laugh at. There's a generous note from opera reviewer John Slavin mentioning how nobody complains about the public expense of the Grand Prix or training Olympic sportspeople and Raymond Gill talks up the festival's programming for children.

In fact, it's all fair enough until you get to the part that concerns me most - the theatre. And here we have young Cameron Woodhead doing his best Peter Craven impersonation. "Edmunds has a predilection for exposing us to non-mainstream art," he claims, "and this year's festivalgoers certainly bore the brunt of that ambition."

So were the critics who attacked Edmunds right? Was what we ended up with little better than a "high-class fringe festival", as Robin Usher put it?

Well, yes actually. Among the riot of avant-garde acts and innovative hybrids, theatre-lovers in search of something resembling a play faced slim pickings. The closest we got was Tim Robbins' The Actors' Gang performing George Orwell's 1984 - and it was a disaster.

Well, we all hated 1984. Woodhead then goes on to make an extraordinary claim:
...by making the marginal so central to her enterprise, Edmunds seems out of touch with a city that is starting to suffer from fringe overload. Apart from strong showings at the Next Wave and Fringe festivals, the Malthouse Theatre has been recast in an avant-garde mould - if we have a paucity of any kind of theatre, it's well-presented mainstream fare.
It's hard to know where to begin here. What Edmunds presented was a diverse range of contemporary international theatre practice, and her programming in fact included much text-based work - Marie Brassard's Peepshow, for example, or Ngapartji Ngapartji, or Robert Wilson's spectacularly operatic I La Galigo, or Max Lyandvert's version of Richard Foreman's play Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty. Words were everywhere, even in the dance pieces. Woodhead's definition of "play" seems to be innocent of most of the theatrical developments of the past century.

And once again there is that meaningless distinction between "mainstream" and "fringe", with "marginal" and "alternative" being code words for "bad". Robert Wilson is allowed to be a "great" theatre artist (I La Galigo in fact won the Age critic's prize for best act of the festival) but everyone else - from Robert Lepage's collaborator Marie Brassard to Romeo Castelluci - who is a Chevalier dans l'ordre des Artes et des Lettres, the French version of an OBE - to Jérôme Bel, who works at that marginal fringe venue the Paris Opéra - is dismissed as "fringe". Is this merely parochial innocence on Woodhead's part? Or something worse?

Stranger still is Cameron's claim that Melbourne is suffering from a paucity of straight plays. Little Cameron Woodentop should take a good look at what's going on around him: Melbourne is well served here. The largest theatre company in the southern hemisphere, the MTC, fulfils to a tee its brief to put on "well presented mainstream fare". La Mama's program is overwhelmingly play-based, and independent companies like Red Stitch and Theatre At Risk consistently present programs of new plays from local and international artists. And this is without even looking at the straight-out commercial theatre.

Even that apparent bastion of the avant garde, the Malthouse, has presented many straight plays - from Patrick White's The Ham Funeral to Ross Mueller's Construction of the Human Heart to Stephen Sewell's It Just Stopped to Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado. Coming up soon is Brian Friels' Translations and Peter Evan's and Anita Hegh's wonderful version of The Yellow Wallpaper, imported from the Store Room. Or are these plays too "fringe"? What is the boy talking about?

PS Who needs Woodhead when we have Peter Craven himself wittering on about the "central culture of our times" like a cut-price Harold Bloom? It seems that I La Galigo is The Thing, but everything else is - gasp - "fringe". And not nearly as good as a retrospective of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Nothing against Antonioni, but...what? It sounds as if Craven didn't see much of the festival in any case, aside from the Wilson piece and possibly 1984 - "reports" of Castelluci's Tragedia Endogonidia suggested it was "a terrible thing to witness", "a long way" from Shakespeare (has he ever witnessed the unwatchable scene in King Lear where Gloucester's eyes are put out, I wonder?) But hey. Craven's argument makes even less sense than Woodhead's, and mainly makes me wonder why the Age published an opinion piece about MIAF that is really a rather confused plug for the Italian Film Festival.


Ben Ellis said...

Gawd. I'm still trying to work out what Mr Woodhead means by "Box office figures aside, Edmunds seems blind to the fact that the non-mainstream is just as likely to be excruciating as its opposite." Does this mean that Mr Woodhead finds all theatre excruciating, the poor love? Or that if he is to be excruciated, he would prefer the mainstream kind?

Really, Mssrs Craven, Usher and Woodhead attempt to conceal their desire for sentimentality - i.e. experiences easily assimilated into a pre-fabricated concept of good and bad - with a patchwork of pop, sneers and poshness. At least Andrew Bolt isn't capable of fooling himself, and I found in his denunciation of MIAF that his own ideas for a festival admitted an agenda even if they too were marked by sentimentality. Sides of the same coin.

Alison Croggon said...

I was a bit puzzled by that too, Ben, and read it the same way - that really, Cameron doesn't like theatre much at all. It's the sneers that really get me, I suppose. Bolt's and Craven's ideas of the festival are, in fact, curiously similar.

Anonymous said...

I believe Cameron is referring to (what he feels is,)Edmunds 'predilection for exposing us to non-mainstream art' when he concludes 'Edmunds seems blind to the fact that the non-mainstream is just as likely to be excruciating as its opposite.' Far from puzzling I find Woodheads meaning clear; that just because theatre is non-mainstream does not give it any intrinsical benefits over its mainstream counterpart- as he suggests Edmunds may feel.
Alison- I can understand how the sneers really get to you, but i think reading that Cameron 'doesn't really like theatre much at all' is a little unfair.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Claire - I expect you're right that I am being a little unfair. I suppose I should adhere to higher standards than the person I am critiquing...

On the other hand, if Cameron did like the theatre, wouldn't he inform himself about the artform, its tradition, history, contemporary practice? If he did so, he would understand that his mainstream/fringe distinction is complete nonsense.

Anonymous said...

As Cameron has only been reviewing theatre for a short time, (if I'm correct he has had this regular gig at The Age for approx. a year?) I expect his knowledge of its traditions, history etc is still being developed, and perhaps this causes those more informed on these subjects to react adversely to his work.

Woodheads critics often seem to enthusiastically bludgeon him for his youthful inexperience, and subsequent occasional blunder in his responses. These same critics, however, seem to ignore the refreshing, albeit at times unpopular, innovative upside of Woodheads wide-eyed critique.

I understand your frustration at the seeming lack of sophisication in this particular comment of his. However it is this kind of criticsm, I feel, is both Camerons weak and strong point; by some interpereted as an avant-garde, if specious remark, and by others, such as yourself, as ignorant nonsense. I certainly think both opinions have a certain amount of legitimacy.

Alison Croggon said...

Claire: a number of points. First of which is one I abide by, as a critic who as found herself under the gun more than once: if you're prepared to dish it out, you must be prepared to take it as well.

Secondly, what is a broadsheet like the Age doing if it employs someone as a critic who is (even if "refreshingly") so clearly inexperienced and naive about the artform he proposes to critique? What's fine over the dinner table is not necessarily fine for a newspaper which sets itself up to be the newspaper of record in this town.

Thirdly, there is nothing remotely avant garde in the aesthetic that can be discerned from Cameron's reviews. It is simply a familiar conservative viewpoint - taken largely from Peter Craven - dressed up with a few, often wildly inappropriate, adjectives.

Anonymous said...

Alison, I agree if you dish it out you must be prepared to take it as well, and I certainly can appreciate your opinion. I just disagree.

Alison Croggon said...

No worries Claire - good to see you here! Keep disagreeing!