Around the webCorrespondence: Chris BendallReview: For Samuel BeckettThe problem of praiseEssay: The Theatre of DifferenceMad as a CooteReview: Babes in the Wood / TomfooleryClarification: Artistic CounselReview: The Yellow WallpaperBits and BobsRex Cramphorn Memorial LectureReview: The Damask Drum ~ theatre notes

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Around the web

Prompted by recently seeing Endgame, I've been having a private Beckett-fest of my own lately, revisiting some of those inimitable writings and - via the wonder of the internet - watching some classic performances. George Hunka at Superfluities has tracked down at YouTube one of my favourites of the Beckett on Film series, shown a while back on SBS - the exquisite Charles Sturridge film of Ohio Impromptu, starring Jeremy Irons in both roles. More than worth the spare ten minutes you'll need to view it.

Over at Ubu, one of the great web resources, they've YouTubed many of their confusing video files, making them much more accessible. Their Beckett page has both the astounding Billie Whitelaw performance of Not I and Film, which stars Buster Keaton. (Among many riches, there's also the eye-popping performance of Joseph Beuys as politico-pop star - kind of Eurovision meets Billy Bragg. I'll never think of Beuys in quite the same way again...)

Ben Ellis has been putting me to shame lately by posting all the blogs that I keep resolving to add to my blogroll. Well, it's time for some housekeeping...I've now remedied some long-standing oversights. Of note are a number of new local blogs: performer Mink-Zhu Hii is blogging heroically over at Mink Tails with, among other posts, some fascinating notes on a workshop with Italian director Romeo Castelluci, recently here for the Melbourne Festival; Avi Lipski has started a theatre review blog, The Rest is Just Commentary and Matthew Clayfield is making an excellent fist of a general arts blog with Esoteric Rabbit. And check out, too, Jana's blog at Mono No Aware and the waspish gender bender Supernaut. For cinephiles, Paul Martin has started the review blog, Melbourne Film.

Meanwhile in Sydney, my old boss on the Bulletin, Diana Simmonds, is running the arts site Stage Noise, which is right swank and covers everything, including some excellent theatre coverage.

And that's just Australia! A couple of links to British blogs - the excellent My London Life, by theatre director Paul Miller, has revitalised itself, and there are blogs by theatre writers Fin Kennedy and David Eldridge (One Writer and his Dog). And I finally got around to adding Richard Foreman to the blogroll too.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Correspondence: Chris Bendall

Chris Bendall, artistic director of Theatre@Risk, is - quite understandably - rather pissed off at his production being the sacrificial lamb on the altar of debate. He wrote me the following email requesting that I take my comments about Requiem for the 20th Century down until I see all of the show.

I do not remove posts here, and suggested it would be much more interesting if I simply published his email. So, with Chris' permission, it follows in full:

Dear Alison and everyone else who has been blogging in response to your post yesterday.

A fascinating discussion about the duties of the critic. But what a curious launching off point for such a commentary when Alison, you yourself admit that you did not see half the show. what position are you in to make any commentary whatsoever? especially what point are you to make a comment on other journalists when you show so little understanding of a journalistic code of ethics? You said you thought long and hard before posting a comment - well next time you should think much longer and harder.

I should say at this point that my name is Chris Bendall, the director of the show that you so loathed and detested.

I think you have absolutely lowered and debased the quality of your site by posting such unsupported and ill-informed commentary.

I am utterly dismayed at your journalistic ethics that you would post any commentary whatsoever about a show on this site that you have not seen in its entirety. You admit yourself, if it were MTC you would have seen the whole show before commenting. What an absolutely disgraceful admission and what a slap in the face to the hard-working independent sector as a whole that you give us so litte credence.

So you decided to trash our show. Fine. As some of your fans have commented in response to your blog, I am happy in fact to take criticism as yes it can in be useful for the development of a new work. I am reasonably thick-skinned and fully expect some people not to enjoy our work. And yes, it is completely isolating when the most you can expect is one or two pieces of serious commentary on a work that you have devoted months of blood, sweat and tears to. BUT a critic must see the show to be able to comment. And yes, this does mean all the show not just the first half.

You must also not presume to speak for an audience of 100 people on opening night whose opinions you can not know. You claim that the majority of the audience held your opinion, but this is a totally unsubstantiated claim. Did you interview them all at interval before you left? Yes, I did note that a couple of people left at interval (yourself included). HOWEVER, we actually spoke to the majority of the 90% that stayed and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Cameron is not our only other reviewer of this show. We have received a positive review from Melbourne Stage Online which I suggest your fans check out to get a more balanced view of the show. We have also received countless emails from audience members who have adored our show - and who have come on various nights for the past week - more responses than any other show we have ever produced. I will not bore your readers by listing them all, as my point is not to say that our production is faultless but rather to say that it is a show that has produced polar extremes of opinions as all good theatre should.

As our name suggests, we take a risk by putting on an original new Australian work. This work is not perfect and we are not so naive to think that. But there is much in it that deserves to be seen. What we hope for when we produce a new work is that people engage in the work in critical discourse, come out of the theatre discussing the ideas both thematic and theatrical that are presented and hopefully have an entertaining and moving evening at the theatre.

I would like to add one final note - you claim that the reason for posting your review was for OUR benefit so we do not falsely assume this is some great work of genius. I think this is possibly the most patronising thing I have ever had said to me. Dismiss the show, love the show - I don't care. But don't pretend its for our benefit. We have our own artistic colleagues and peers whose opinions we respect - and based on those our work is constantly being revisited and revised - we don't ever believe a show is finished until closing night. And if the play ever sees the light of day again, it will be further reworked. If you honestly desire your commentary to be of benefit that say something more useful than 'bum-aching' to us please.

If you are going to review a work then you must talk about the entire work - the direction, the design, the performances and the script. There is so much work here that you carelessly dismiss without a thought.

Alison, I invite you to return to the theatre and see the show again - in its entirety. Then feel free to write whatever you like about the show and criticise it as much as you will - but informed intelligent criticism please as I would normally expect from you. 'Bum-aching' may be a useful adjective to describe the trades hall's somewhat uncomfortable chairs but it is not an intelligent way to describe theatre. Until you see the entirety of our show I would request that you remove your blog so that you do not deter the few intelligent theatregoers that Melbourne has from experiencing what many of our audience have told us is our best work in our six year history.

I would also request to all the other bloggers who have responded to Alison's post - please come see the work and make your own informed opinion.

Chris Bendall
Artistic Director
Theatre @ Risk

That's telling me!

For my part, I stand absolutely by my right to comment - and the rights of others to comment on my comments. (Within, of course, the boundaries of defamation law.) I do not agree that it was unethical to comment at all; it would have been unethical if I had misrepresented my comments by suggesting that I had seen the whole show. I did not pretend that I was writing a review.

What I do concede is the flakiness of appealing to an objective measure of aesthetic judgement in which, when I think about it, I do not believe. No one's judgement is final. Not even - hard as I find it to believe - mine. My response is merely consistent with my aesthetic and intellectual predelictions. And having conceded that, I suppose I have to admit that Cameron Woodhead's review must be equally consistent with his. Whatever they are.

And whatever the arguability of my ethics, the discussion that followed has been fascinating.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Review: For Samuel Beckett

For Samuel Beckett: Endgame, by Samuel Beckett, directed by William Henderson and Anne Thompson. Design by Julie Renton, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With David Tredinnick, Peter Houghton, Richard Bligh and Evelyn Krape, music performed by Miwako Abe. Eleventh Hour Theatre, 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy, until December 9.

I've never understood those who accuse Samuel Beckett of being a miserablist. If he were as nihilistic as his critics claim, he would have written nothing, and he wouldn't have been half as funny. And he is often very funny indeed.

Comedy is always cruel, and perhaps it is most pitiless when it springs from a compassion as profound as Beckett's. Beckett's compassion is not of the kind that can be easily construed in humanist terms; it is far beyond looking for transcendent meaning in the human condition. Rather, Beckett grants his strange characters a space in which the trivia of their existence in a godless, inhuman universe is given its proper dignity. Where nothing means anything, everything becomes significant.

In Beckett's work, this dignity is most often expressed through refusal. Winnie's sprightly self-deception in Happy Days has a kind of bleak heroism that is not so far from the Woman's "Fuck life" in Rockabye. Hamm and Clov's refusals in Endgame are comprehensive: they refuse even the possibilities of pity, redemption, life itself. What is left is the performance, the game, the play.

In Beckett's theatrical oeuvre, this game takes many forms: some of his plays are more like installations, and not all of them are comedies. But all of them, without exception, pierce to the quick of existence. If Beckett is one of the great writers of the 20th century - and I would argue that he is - it is because of the utterly uncompromising rigour of his vision. I know of no writer more truthful and less self-deceiving than Beckett. Nor can I think of a writer who is more concerned with formal beauty.

Because of this, it is a fine stroke to begin and end the performance of For Samuel Beckett with a performance of two of Bach's Partitas for Solo Violin. Like Bach, Beckett was a master of the art of repetition and variation, and the performance by Miwako Abe induces a mood of receptive meditation that is wholly appropriate for a Beckett performance. There were other aspects of the framing of Endgame that I was less taken by, but more of that later.

This is, simply, a brilliant performance of Beckett's greatest play. Endgame is as close to perfect as a play can get, as precise as a great piece of music in its modulations of tone and rhythm, and here it is served by a superb cast. It is, as the title implies, a performance of ending, a play in which everything is negated. "Something," as Clov says, "is taking its course". That something is, of course, death; but it is also life. The play is a process of discarding: the list of things that no longer exist drop through the text like a refrain. There are no more bicycles, nature, Turkish Delight, coffins or painkillers. Clov and Hamm want to be very sure that there are no more human beings to continue the farce of human existence; even a flea raises the possibility of a new evolution, and must be exterminated.

Without casting for cheap laughs, the actors fully exploit the vaudevillean quality of the dialogue. This conversation, for example, between Nagg (Richard Bligh) and Nell (Evelyn Krape) is straight Abbott and Costello:

Nagg: Can you hear me?
Nell: Yes. And you?
Nagg: Yes. (Pause) Our hearing hasn’t failed.
Nell: Our what?
Nagg: Our hearing.
Nell: No.
Because of the nature of this play, it is easy to think of it as a two-hander. But, as in Shakespeare, there are no small parts: Nagg and Nell are as crucial as Clov and Hamm. The legless parents of Hamm, they are shut in ashbins, just as the aged are shut in Old People's Homes. Krape infuses Nell with a kind of scatalogical pathos, investing her with a wistful lustfulness that is both comic and genuinely sad. Nagg hasn't Nell's romance with memory: as he says, "One must live with the times". Hamm's "accursed progenitor" is both Hamm's past and his future: the cruelty Hamm visits on him is only a reflection of the cruelty he visited on Hamm as a child; and he presents Hamm with a vision of what will greet him in old age. Richard Bligh gives him the pathos of the dethroned patriarch, at once vicious and impotent and pitiable.

But the evening inevitably belongs to Hamm (Peter Houghton) and Clov (David Tredinnick). These two are superlative: their timing is faultless, exploiting to the full the comic potential of the dialogue. In their hands, the play rattles along like Boadicea's chariot, cutting down swathes of illusion with savage flair. The light I have always seen in Beckett is switched on at 1000 watts.

I had no idea (my oversight) that Peter Houghton was such an actor; this is a consummate actor's role, a performance of a performance, and it permits him the full range of his abilities. Hamm is presented in his full motley: manipulative, tyrannical, ungenerous, sardonic, cruel, hammy, vain; but also wholly without self-pity or self-deception. Tredinnick is an apt foil: crouched into a question mark, he clumps noisily and clumsily around the stage, rebelliously obedient, dour, savage and resentful. Their performances are a joy.

Julie Renton's design puts the audiences on two sides of the stage, with the famous windows (portholes) at one end, and Clov's kitchen hidden behind white cloth on the other. It's surprisingly effective; it makes it rather like watching a tennis match, which suits the rapid-fire dialogue. Hamm's wheelchair is a kind of mobile chest of drawers and both actors are dressed in variants on clown costumes, which again put a subtle spin on the play without being intrusive. And the whole thing is sumptuously lit.

It would be a nigh perfect night in the theatre, were it not for some mystifying add-ons by the directors, William Henderson and Anne Thompson. The evening is called For Samuel Beckett, which signals it is not simply a performance of Endgame. It opens with a couple of brief contextualisations: a projection of Buster Keaton's One Week, and an extract from Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of James Joyce's Ulysses. Keaton's piece seems merely didactic in relation to the whole, there to show how Beckett was influenced by this sort of comedy. Less easy to understand is the Molly Bloom piece. It is said - beautifully, it must be admitted - by Evelyn Krape as a disembodied voice inside the ashbin, just before the beginning of Endgame. Those unfamiliar with the work could be forgiven for thinking it was part of the play.

It is an ill-judged move, all the more baffling for the quality of the production that follows. The Joyce/Beckett connection is at once cliched and often overstated: it is very hard to see any real connection between Molly and Nell and, if one wanted to do such a thing, it might have been more interesting and illuminating, say, to excerpt Celine. And it effectively destroys the beginning of the play which, in a work as formally crystalline as Endgame, is a high price to pay. The further the play progressed, the more I missed the symmetries that are set up in the opening minutes. Similarly, if less grievously, Nell's death is signalled by a short violin solo, and it takes a little time for the play to find its rhythm afterwards.

It's a tribute to the performance of Endgame that it transcends these decisions. Beckett is one of the few theatre writers - perhaps the only writer - of whom it can be said that departing from his instructions is almost always a mistake. As this production amply bears out, his strictness can offer unique freedoms.

Picture: David Tredinnick and Peter Houghton in Endgame. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

The problem of praise

UPDATE: Pertinent to the discussion nicely bouncing along in the comments here: a speech by the distinguished American critic Eric Bentley on theatre criticism. He would be quite happy if newspaper criticism didn't exist. Thanks to George Hunka for the pointer.

When critics go to the theatre, it is a given that they have differing responses. One man's meat, as the proverb runs, is another man's poison. And this is as it should be: theatre audiences are as various as the theatre itself. But sometimes there are extremes that ought to be noted.

On Monday night I went to see a show of such earnest, bum-aching, unparalleled awfulness that, after canvassing the general dismay, I decided that it was kinder not to review it; there seemed to me little profit in trashing a small, hard-working independent theatre company. The show was Theatre@Risk's Requiem for the 20th Century, written by Tee O'Neill in collaboration with the company and directed by Chris Bendall. It is Theatre@Risk's largest (I won't say most ambitious) production so far, and it seemed to me a mistake of disastrous proportions. I couldn't understand how a work of such intellectual and theatrical naivetie had made it to the stage.

However, I opened the Age yesterday and found out that tyro critic Cameron Woodhead has exceeded even my low expectations of him. He devoted a complete rave to Requiem for the 20th Century. It is, says Woodhead, "the sort of inspiring work, unapologetically ambitious, bursting with the humour and tragedy of life writ large, that might just rewire your sense of what local theatre can achieve".

This was, gentle reader, the worst show I have seen for a long time. I have been thinking about it all week. It was a kind of Theatre in Education whistlestop tour of 20th century history, only of such superficiality that no year 11 syllabus would stand for it. It induced the kind of despair only bad theatre can; I remember glancing at my watch after what felt like five hours and noticing we were only up to 1913. Like Dorothy Parker, I wanted to shoot myself.

I was by no means the only person who left at interval. Life, I thought, is too short to spend another ninety minutes pole-axed by this kind of anguished boredom. Also, I had heard Lorca turned up in the second act. Lorca is one of my favourite poets. After witnessing the bowdlerisation of Walter Benjamin in the first act, I couldn't have stood it. Such things actually, physically, hurt.

I hoped that Bendall - a director I respect - and the rest of the crew at Theatre@Risk would take stock, review how it happened that they had worked so hard and devoted so many hard-won resources on a work of such monumental silliness, and think again.

It may seem somewhat ungenerous to grudge the fact that a show I disliked got a good review. It may seem that I am unfairly picking on Mr Woodhead. It may also seem suss that I am talking about a show on which, after all, I walked out (although, to be honest, if a show is that disastrous by interval, nothing is going to save it). But after I recovered from my sheer astonishment, I found that this review worried me for several reasons.

Firstly, such a review - after all, the Age is what passes here for the "paper of record" - may inoculate the company against the stock-taking to which I referred earlier. Let me make clear that, in my negative reaction, I was by no means in "mutinous isolation" (as has sometimes happened). If I were merely a minority voice in a chorus of effusive approval, I should not comment. But in this case, the general response of the first night audience was as close to unanimous as theatregoers can get. The best that could be said was that it was a brave attempt.

I should note also that if Woodhead had merely written a positive review, I would not have felt moved to say something. It's the fact that he wrote a rave.

Secondly, what about those audience members who, encouraged by the review, head off to the show, only to find their souls shrivelling as they watch? Will they believe, because the review tells them so, that this is the best theatre that our local companies have to offer and just decide, as so many do, that, after all, they don't like theatre?

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this review betrays the quality of theatre that is being made in Melbourne. As I have said many times, we are witnessing a renaissance: this year I have seen more good to excellent shows than I can count on all my digits. To single out with inappropriate and lavish praise one of the real duds is not only, like the love of God, beyond all comprehension: it is a slap in the face to all the hard working theatre artists out there making brilliant theatre.

The point is that misplaced praise can be as damaging as misplaced spleen. I believe totally in George Devine's exhortation of the "right to fail". Yes, absolutely, a theatre must have that right. Tee O'Neill, Chris Bendall and Theatre@Risk are all capable of much more than this, and such a failure does not compromise this possibility. What worries me is what lessons will - or will not be - be drawn from it.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Essay: The Theatre of Difference

Last Sunday, Daniel Keene delivered the 2006 Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture to around 300 people at the Malthouse. It was a grand afternoon. Lindy Davies, who worked with Cramphorn, introduced the lecture with a remembrance of this influential theatre artist, and there was much animated conversation and drinking afterwards.

Those who missed out can download a pdf of the speech from the Malthouse website here (scroll down). Or you can simply read on:

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares
Hebrews (13 . 2)

We must not fall into the error . . . of judging a people by the politicians who happen to be in power.
Walter Murdoch

REX CRAMPHORN was someone that I never knew. I never saw any of his work. That meeting simply didn’t happen. I heard of him, of course, from actors who were inspired by working with him and from people who had seen his productions and couldn’t forget them. But no, I wasn’t there; and I’m certain that I’m the poorer for not having experienced his work. That’s the thing about theatre: you have to experience it, you have to be there when it happens.

Of course Rex Cramphorn’s ideas, his vision of the theatre, still exist. But you won’t necessarily find these things written down in books. You might be more likely to find them in the way that an actor moves on stage, in the way in which an ensemble chooses to work together or in the attitude of a director towards a text. Rex Cramphorn’s work as a director continues, transmitted through the work of those he influenced. He is still there when it happens.

This is not unusual in the theatre; the living always share the stage with the dead. Because the theatre is a place of both memory and presence.

In the Kabuki theatre of Japan, an actor can be given the name of a famous predecessor. This is considered a great honour and is celebrated by a special performance, a shumei. In this way, Kabuki actors’ names are handed down from generation to generation. The actor who takes on the name of an illustrious predecessor also takes on a responsibility; he is keeping alive the work of that predecessor, and his own work will be judged in the light of his predecessor’s achievements.

Throughout the performance of a Kabuki play that I attended last year in Tokyo, the audience voiced their approval of an actor’s work by shouting his name. This happened several times during the play, whenever the actor (playing the lead role in a traditional, well known play) did something that demonstrated his skill, his command of the stage, his courage, his energy. The name they were shouting – Kanzaburo – had been recently given to the actor; he was Kanzaburo XVIII. The name was generations old. Each time his name was shouted a palpable thrill went through the audience. This joy, this excitement was generated not only by what was happening on stage, but by what had happened before, perhaps generations ago, when a previous Kanzaburo had graced the stage, delighting the audience. It was an extraordinary experience.

Here in Australia, we are a little more reticent in our expressions of approval of an actor’s performance. But for me, every Sally Banner that appears on the stage with a clap of thunder carries with her the memories of all the Sallys that have stood in The Chapel Perilous before her. When Sonya promises Vanya that the two of them will one day find rest from their labours, she is speaking with and for the generations of Sonyas that have despaired and loved and hoped. She is a new Sonya, a different one, but she is the same.

I may seem to be confusing the actor with the role she plays. They are of course different things. Sally Banner was imagined and created by Dorothy Hewett: she is a character out of literature. But she is also a character of the theatre. Theatre has its own language, of which literature is an important part. But that language is not limited to literature. As Jean Cocteau once stated, he was dead against poetry in the theatre, but all for a poetry of the theatre.

Theatre is not merely the recitation of a given text. For Sonya’s words to move us she must be embodied by the actor playing her, she must live and breathe on the stage. When we remember a Sonya we have seen we remember two things: the character created by Chekhov and the actor who played her, who took on the burdens of her grief and the radiance of her hopes, whose voice trembled with love or despair, who touched the hand of Vanya to comfort him.

We have on the one hand, the permanence of Chekhov’s creation, the text, and on the other we have its ephemeral manifestation, the performance of the actor. One is fixed in time, the other is, as it were, sculpted out of time: each moment is created in front of us in time and space, never to be repeated in exactly the same way, never able to be captured except by what about it persists in the memory, which can never be the entirety of the performance, but only those moments, those gestures, that certain rise and fall of the voice that touch us deeply enough to be retained within our hearts. And Chekhov is there when that happens.

We can in fact perceive two views of history in this situation: one that is the guardian of the past and speaks of the changeless; the other that speaks of constant impermanence and never ceasing change.

The first kind of history is one that a state might like to write for itself (a clear narrative of its achievements) because it is almost invariably a history that confers power on those who write it, it confirms their permanent place in the world; it is a history of the supposedly inevitable. It is a history of the powerful for the powerful.

The second kind of history is a constant reminder of our ephemerality, it is a history that embraces our mortality. It cannot confer nor confirm power. It is a history in which all human beings are equally fragile. Or comic. Or guilty. Or lost.

I am chiefly interested in the kind of theatre that embraces change and is a reminder of our mortality; theatre that does not confirm power, but rather admits fragility, acknowledges failure, that recognizes tragedy and is disrespectful enough to create comedy. That’s the theatre that I keep imagining and that I write for. I write for it in order to create it. A playwright must do this; the play that he or she writes is always a new proposal for the theatre. It is an imaginative act that suggests something beyond the play itself and contains the possibility for new forms of theatre. It does this because the content of a play demands the clearest expression possible. This clarity is necessary because of the nature of the theatre event itself: it is ephemeral. It happens before our eyes and then it is gone. The performance of a play must present its comedy, its tragedy, its life, in the time during which it is created on stage in front of the audience. It can do nothing else. Each time it does this, it is particular, it is unique; in this it is theatre created anew, and within that fact lies the possibility of a new kind of theatre. At least this is what I imagine. I imagine the kind of theatre where it might be possible to capture what is immanent or nascent in a society and not only that which already exists in apparent permanence; it might confront unpleasant memories, it might stare catastrophe in the face and not be afraid, it might take arms against a sea of troubles, it might find secret joys buried in the solid walls of a joyless conformity, it might scratch words in a diary that must not be kept, or be the place where a man transformed into a beetle might lament his fate. It might be wilful and perhaps mutinous. It might be the kind of theatre that asks difficult questions or makes remarkable promises; the kind of theatre that does not forget the past, yet refuses to accept the lie of permanence created by those who demand the ownership of power.

It seems to me that at present the powerful have very little to teach us, except how to cope with their failures and crimes, and absolutely nothing to teach the future.

I am of course assuming that I’m speaking to the powerless. Or should I say rather, that I am speaking to equals. I assume this because I am standing in a theatre. To step into a theatre is to accept a certain kind of equality. The actors on stage and the audience in the stalls are each the master of one another, each the servant. For a short time, the audience places their fate, metaphorically at least, into the hands of the actors, who in turn do the same; their fate also depends on the audience. Both the audience and the actors are about to go on a small journey together. When the play sets sail, everyone on board hopes for a good outcome, that when the curtain falls they will have landed on a distant shore richer for their journey together. When the actors bow in thanks at the end of a play, the applause that they receive is the applause of equals, which is the most meaningful kind of all.

A theatre, for me, is a kind of common, an open space, a town square, circle of stones. Here is where we gather, to hatch our plots, to lament, to celebrate, to be idle, to display ourselves, to remember, to dream and to demand; an empty space that offers a freedom available to all.

If we are to defend our right to this empty space, and I think that, unfortunately, we need to, then we must be clear about what we are defending, what we are demanding.

When a place like La Mama Theatre is under threat of losing its federal funding, you know that something is drastically wrong. La Mama is the very embodiment of that democratic public space that theatre can be; its central focus is on the making of theatre, on creating those ephemeral constructions of desire that theatre artists are determined to make. La Mama isn’t restricted to any one type of event. It thrives on difference, as all democracies do; that’s how they both sustain and renew themselves.

It is not nostalgia for what La Mama has achieved in the past that fuels the anger over its current uncertain position; it is the outrage felt by people who consider the act of making, of all kinds, the crucial thing.

To make is to manifest a possibility; to propose a different arrangement of reality, to introduce the never before into what has always been, to stretch the imagination. It’s a disturbance. There was theatre before Hibberd’s Monk O’Neill. Since he crawled on stage on all fours, Australian theatre hasn’t been the same. There was theatre before Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, that unnerving black diamond that cuts to the spiritual quick; that play changed the theatrical landscape. To make these things, to make anything for the theatre, requires labour and skill; these things are born out of anger, or joy, or love or despair. And it’s their making that matters. Especially now, in a time when we seem to be surrounded by destruction, the urge to make, to add to the world’s store of beauty rather than to reduce it, whether that beauty makes us weep or laugh, seems to me of terrible urgency and importance.

What do we want to make? Why do we want to make it? Since human beings tumbled into consciousness from the silence of hunger and sleep we have told stories, sung songs, lamented our losses and celebrated our loves. We have done these useless things whose only purpose is to make us more aware of who we are, to console us beneath the void of eternity, to bring us joys difficult to name, but without which we would be adrift on the sea of existence without understanding its depth, its dangers or its beauty.

We crave to know who we are and what it is possible for us to be. But we must be prepared for the possibility that the answers to these questions may be further questions, ambiguities and inscrutable puzzles. We may have to welcome unanswerable questions, and love the beauty that refuses to flatter us.

I have never believed that theatre is merely a mirror held up to society, as if its sole purpose was to satisfy some monstrous vanity in the audience, as if its only justification was that it show us what we already know or are prepared to accept about ourselves. If this was its only purpose it could never really question, never actually oppose, never openly suggest an alternative to what already exists; it could never offer anything new; it would be safe. It would be culture’s Fast Food. It would be deadly. It would almost invariably be a narrow and nationalistic reflection, trapped within its borders both real and fearfully imagined, unable to admit difference and forever wary of strangers.

On the other hand, the theatre might be considered a lens through which certain propositions can be observed, propositions about reality; a place where a negotiation takes place, between everyday perceptions and imagination, between what is obvious and what is hidden; between what has been forgotten and what persists in the memory, between fear and recognition. It would be a place without borders, that welcomed strangers without fear, a place where a truth could be told that was not the accepted truth. It could offer alternatives.

It could be a place of wilful, mutinous separation, which is the meaning of the Latin word seditio, which is the root of the word sedition.

This possible theatre that I am suggesting does not depend only on the courage and skill of writers. Writers, when they enter the theatre, and they must enter it, must learn how it works, and how it may fail, must enter it humbly. Their texts, those marks made on the blank field of paper that they face each day, are only where theatre begins. Their texts are not where theatre ends.

To create theatre is to practice an art that is always pragmatic, always collaborative. It requires people, time, money. It has to be made from what is available. And the people making it must eat, they will probably argue, they need to take a piss, they have forgotten their lines, they arrive late, they have personal problems, they have lost their wallet, they don’t understand the designer’s drawings, they think the writer has made a mistake, they smoke in the stairwell, they refuse to change a line of the text, they are worried that people won’t come to the performance, they are tired, they are terrified when they realise that the play opens next Thursday. More often than not, they get there in the end. The audience take their seats, thinking everything is under control. The lights go down. The stage is lit. The audience place a couple of hours of their lives in the hands of the artists who have made something that they want the audience to see.

I think that’s a completely wonderful thing, a very particular and very human meeting of risk and certainty, of labour and hope. It’s all a little bit uncertain, but it can often be a beautiful occasion. You have to be there when it happens.

But no, the theatre is not a museum that merely preserves the labour of writers. Theatre can be created without writers. Anyone who writes for the theatre should understand that, and it should be both a warning and an invitation. What they write should be something impossible to achieve without them. Because the theatre is a place of extremes. Something has to happen in the theatre that cannot happen anywhere else and at no other time. That’s why the audience comes to the theatre in the first place.

To write for the theatre is a task that is imprisoned by the theatre’s technical limitations and illuminated by its metaphorical possibilities. Language might be able to sing in the theatre, but it cannot explain; explanations are too slow. Theatre has no footnotes. In the theatre, language must happen, it must be an event. To quote Jean Cocteau again: it must be like the rigging of a great ship, visible from a distance.

To write for the theatre requires a shipbuilder’s skill and a poet’s imagination.

Theatre is not an artefact, not a dead thing on display. It is not a pork chop or a pop-up toaster, It is not, and can never be honestly considered to be the product of any that you might call an industry. It is too chaotic, and too insistent on its chaos, too individual and all too human. It depends on chaos. Industry depends on the opposite. As Baudelaire once famously said: a poem must be a debacle of the intellect. An act of theatre is a poem. The initial impact of a poem is never on the intellect. It isn’t something that needs to be wrestled into submission before you can admit to understanding it. It’s something that you have to experience before you can possibly comprehend it. Perhaps it’s like love, but who would dare say that?

Theatre can do very similar things to poetry; it can disturb our vision of the world, it can happily disappoint the literalists, and it can confound the critics (as it often does) who understand theatre as nothing more than the evidence of social engineering, as merely a reaction rather than a creation. Theatre can drag us into the funny or the tragic worlds of imaginary people; people who may be so unlike us that it is impossible to say that they are not the same as us. Theatre can be disturbing in that way. It can brighten the path through the darkness of conformity and fear that has been so carefully laid out for us, that reduces us to predictable numbers. Neither comfortable nor relaxed, theatre can be quite frantic; alert and also very alarmed. It can be quite dangerous, seditious in fact; wilfully mutinous, suggesting a separation from the accepted norm. It can offer another way of looking at things. Perhaps.

In Australia, a few centuries ago, artists of all kinds swallowed the then current notion of the arts being an ‘industry’ they were employed in, rather than something that they freely practiced. It was a very bad mistake. It allowed the powers that be to treat the arts as a product of society’s labour rather than an expression of society’s desires. Desires make no profit. They cannot be entered in the ledger; they are neither debit nor credit. And they may be wilful, they may disagree with the truth chosen by the powerful as the only truth.

Of course it costs money to make theatre. The money spent to create it is always in the form of a wager, a risk. Basically, will people turn up? Will tickets be sold? I think it’s always a risk worth taking. But of course I would think that. A percentage of the money a play earns puts food on my table.

It’s also possible to think of the money spent on the creation of theatre as an investment, not in material things, and without the expectation of a material return. There are certain things within a society whose solvency, whose sustainability, are questions of spirit and not of finance. Their profit might be a deeper understanding of compassion, a small hope generated, a truth better understood or a grief or a love more lightly borne. These kinds of things have no material value, they won’t make headlines, they can’t be accounted for. But to quote William Carlos Williams:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
In Australia, government funding for the arts remains at the minimum required to sustain an at least credible amount of artistic activity; it remains at a level just high enough sustain the idea that we are a ‘cultured’ society. At present it seems that corporate fundamentalism guides arts policy in this country. That democratic public space that the theatre represents must always return a profit. It is a profit not defined in human terms. Humans are too chaotic. Humans are too unreliable; they insist on remembering, they insist on telling stories and singing songs, on doing useless things, they insist on counting their dead.

I’m being theatrical, yes. I’m exaggerating, yes. Yes, I’m being mutinous. I’m poking fun. And I’m quite serious about all of it. I’m making the riggings of a ship, one that I think should set sail as soon as possible. I’m being na├»ve. I’m wishing for things to be as they were, when Australia was a different place, before we were needlessly involved in wars of aggression, when we had a union movement that could defend the rights of workers, when student unions were empowered to defend and express the rights and desires of students, when we didn’t turn away the refugees that came to us, when we didn’t allow shiploads of desperate people to drown off our coastline, when past wrongs were admitted and we were graced with forgiveness, when we defended the rights of our citizens imprisoned by foreign governments, when we lived in a country whose reality wasn’t created solely by current political reality but by the unchanging reality of its citizens’ desires.

When was that? you might ask. It was never, really. It was in an imaginary time, when we were lost in the myth of ourselves, guided by aspirations, not driven by fears. With respect to indigenous peoples, it was a time of dreaming, when we were making our world, not dismantling it to fit the moment’s political contingencies or the market’s greed. It was a dream.

This notion of dreaming is crucial to the theatre. The theatre is where we come to dream in public. None of us can decide what we dream. But here in this room is where what is unconscious, collectively and individually, can be made visible, can be heard, can frighten or delight us, can remind us of our hidden griefs or awaken our secret joys. Here the mysterious is made welcome, here the stranger in us all can be embraced.

Against this possibility is the growing pressure to conform; to all dream the same dream. From school children being required to salute the flag (flying from a government approved ‘working’ flagpole) to citizenship tests that propose to measure the patriotism of those seeking to make their lives here, this pressure to conform is driven, as it is always driven, by fear, fear of the stranger, the outsider, the other.

That common ground I mentioned is being classified ‘Australians Only’ while the definition of what it means to be an Australian grows narrower and narrower.

Those appalling bumper stickers of the Australian flag with the words ‘love it or leave it’ printed beside it might as well say ‘Big Brother is watching you’. I’m talking about Orwell’s Big Brother, not a television show. Both ‘love it or leave it’ and ‘Big Brother is watching’ carry the same threat: you must conform. To criticize is to do so at your peril.

You cannot tell human beings what to love; but you can teach them what to hate.

That town square that I mentioned can also be a place where people are ridiculed, where difference might lead to violence, where the worst instincts of human beings can be unleashed.

But on that town square, I believe that our differences can unite us. We are, most of us, a nation of immigrants, of boat people. We walk on land that has been held sacred by peoples who have been wiser and perhaps gentler than we late comers in their care of it. Now they too are often treated as strangers, refugees on their own soil.

It is difference that unites us; not differences of nationality, which are ultimately superficial, but our individual differences, which are obvious and infinite. In the theatre, perhaps more than in any other place, it is possible to celebrate difference, to honour it with our labour and our attention.

I wrote some parts of this lecture sitting under a tree on the banks of the Yarra. While doing this I understood, not for the first time, but with a new clarity, how much I love this city where I was born. This feeling was all the stronger because I also began to understand how much I demand from it, how much I want it to give me. Freedom, certainly, and peace; a safe home for my family. And I want it to be brave. I want its artists to be courageous in their endeavours, fearing no failure but failure of heart, I want audiences to be open and curious; not uncritical, but willing to take risks. I want these things because I think they are possible here. They are difficult as well, of course, and sometimes bloody impossible. But even failure can be useful. Success, after all, teaches us nothing. I want this city I live in to not be afraid of difference, to welcome strangers so that it might perhaps be blessed by angels. Because there are as many kinds of theatre as there are people determined to make it. That’s what’s astonishing about it. And the only thing that keeps theatre alive is curiosity, curiosity and hunger, a hunger to see, to know what lies just outside our everyday experience, what lingers just beyond our reach. The immense sadness of existence or perhaps its exhilarating possibilities.

This public space I keep talking about, is an open invitation to participate in the life of a society, and it is crucial for a particular reason; it creates in the mind and the heart of the person who uses it the ideas of freedom and belonging. This freedom is what Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 risked everything to have. It was this space inside that Winston was desperate for; a place where he could know that 2 + 2 = 4, that war was not peace, where he could be free to be, if he had to be, a minority of one.

I have to confess, yes, this late in the piece, that I’m never happy theorising, talking in abstracts. It’s out of my depth. My correct depth is just under the skin of the characters I invent. I don’t mean that I hide beneath their skin (although of course I do) but rather that I abide there for a while. I inhabit their world and they inhabit mine. It is a peculiar symbiosis that I cannot exactly explain. But while I am writing a play, the characters in it become my companions for a time, sometimes for only a few weeks, sometimes for months. Once the play is finished, we part. I will never experience their presence again, not in the same way as I did during their creation. Once a play is finished, the characters in it no longer belong to me. They exist, there on the page, waiting for the breath and the body of an actor to bring them to life. I meet them again when they are on the stage. They are old friends of mine; they have changed, they are no longer as I imagined them, and they can never be. They exist for an audience in a form which is never the form in which they existed for me. In this there is a loss, a certain grief, but there is also much more than this. There is the knowledge that they are free of me, that they have escaped my perceptions of them; now they belong to the actors who play them and to the audience which witnesses them. They will remain in the actor’s memory of his or her performance. They will remain in the memories of certain members of the audience perhaps. By others they will be forgotten. That’s as it should be. No one is obliged to like, to understand, to feel compassion for or to be amused by the characters that I invent. They are offered to the audience in the hope that they will be embraced by the kindness of strangers, that they will add something to the sum of an audience member’s experience, that they will seem to be real. It is all seeming to be in the theatre, it is all pretending, all illusion. These things are, for me, necessary things. They are the beautiful and unique collusion of the real and the imagined, and sometimes of the wished for and the lost.

The stage is always shared by the living and the dead. We are everything the dead are not. We are what is for them impossible. They are, for us, what is inevitable. The impossible. The inevitable. Yes, that’s what I mean about theatre. Theatre is what connects these two things; theatre is where our lives are stretched tight across this gap, a gap as narrow as a fingernail, as broad as an ocean. And when our lives are struck, by the footfall of an actor, or by the applause of an audience, it makes a sound ‘like the distant sound of a string breaking, as if in the sky, a dying melancholy sound’ as happens at the end of a comedy both sad and funny.

Yes, Chekhov again. I don’t know why I return to him so often, but I find myself constantly doing so. He called The Cherry Orchard a comedy; perhaps because, like Oscar Wilde, he thought life too important to take seriously.

As a theatre artist I know the importance of collaboration. I know what it demands, which is always too much; and why it fails; because it demands the wrong things. I have been mostly fortunate in my collaborations. Those that have not worked have been painful, as failure always is. The guiding principal behind collaborations that succeed must be that each person involved works alone, but in the company of others. This is a delicate balance to strike. It depends on the acknowledgement and the active encouragement of difference, a constant insistence on retaining the integrity of the individual. It’s hard work; it demands certain kinds of courage, it rejects vanity, it respects nothing but the endeavour to make something happen and to make it happen truly; it asks for love, and it insists on joy.

It is this integrity of the individual that must be defended, this right for the individual to speak his or her mind, to make what she will make, to respond as he will to the beauty or the tragedy of our lives.

I think that in Melbourne theatre at the moment a generational change is taking place, a shifting of the cultural plates. This is as it should be. New theatre artists are emerging who are articulate, dedicated and skilled; their references are broad, their practice ambitious. Many of them have been nurtured by artists who have been marginalised, who have had to wait for this new generation to confirm the boldness of their original work. These new artists are driven by curiosity and a hunger for new forms. They are not caged in the trap of parochialism. They are immediate and local, their work happens here, now. But their work is also larger than that. They are not simply reflecting the current state of this particular society, as if theatre’s only justification was that it be a record of social conditions and attitudes in the society in which it was created. If it were only that it would be nothing more than a kind of journalistic panto, whose only value would be as a reminder, a reference to something more important. Theatre itself is important, it is more than the sum of its parts, it expresses more than the current state of affairs (which of course it may do, which may be what it does necessarily, no matter what form it takes). To think of the theatre only as a kind of litmus paper dipped into the soup of society is too crude and too narrow a view. There are of course plays that do nothing more than repeat what can be read in a newspaper, or record what dinner guests spoke about over their crab claws and dry white. These are the deadly plays that have been boring audiences stupid for a long time, or stroking the vanity of those it apes, eliciting the hollow laughter of identification without the shock of recognition.

But Melbourne’s theatre culture grows far richer than that. The pity seems to be that the companies and individuals who make it rich grow poorer. As theatre practitioners become more skilled, more ambitious and daring, their capacity to realize their work diminishes. In real terms, there has been a fall of 24 per cent in Federal funding for small to middle size theatre companies since 1998. And it continues to diminish. But it’s the place where most of this new work is happening, where new energies are being born. As one thing grows, the other shrinks, as if there is a limit to how much creative energy there is allowed to be.

The cultural mask we wear, I suppose, must not alter too much. It must not be allowed to become too different from the one we have decided that we are supposed to wear.

But if you train artists to be articulate, then you create the possibility of articulate dissent. I keep coming back to this idea of dissent. I keep coming back to it because I cannot avoid it.

I approached the writing of this lecture as I approach all of my work: with a blank sheet of paper. I decided nothing before I sat down to write. I wanted to see what emerged, and I would follow that. I had to trust myself. I have been working in the theatre and thinking about the theatre for almost thirty years. But I seldom speak about it; I don’t make statements. This lecture was a chance to make a statement, but I wanted that statement to emerge from what had accumulated in my thought, what rose to the surface, what seemed necessary to say.

I suppose that I hoped to talk about what is brilliant and brave and essential about theatre, but I kept worrying about attitudes that seem determined to stifle these things; that is, that are determined to stamp out difference. I kept coming up against the fear of dissent, as if this society was so fragile that it cannot be questioned, as if our culture was so weak it cannot be challenged, as if the artistic forms that now exists cannot admit the creation of new forms. All of this is about fear.

The sedition laws are laws created by fear. Any law that is created by fear is a dangerous law, and it will create more fear. But perhaps that’s the point: if people are kept afraid then they are kept quiet, they are kept in their place, they will offer no threat to the powers that have created that fear. There will be no need to censor them; they will censor themselves.

That is the real danger of the sedition laws. If it is unlikely that artists will be prosecuted under those laws, it is almost certain that they will be too afraid to test them.

The sedition laws fall over the arts as a whole like a terrible shadow. Their purpose is too vague to allow us any comfort. No one is safe from them, especially people who support and create difference.

There are those who insist that there is such a thing as a ‘central culture of our time’. The films of Antonioni for example, or the music of Brahms. These things exist, yes, and they are vibrant, they speak clearly and strongly, they have meaning. They are also secured safely in the past; because they have been chained there by those who insist that culture is fixed and unchanging, challenges nothing, and that it is part of a clear narrative of achievement. But when these things were first made, this film, this music, they were quite different to what had gone before. They created unease. They were perhaps considered mutinous, they were not well received in some circles. Their life in the present can be either as cultural monuments, objects of a fetish blind to their context, or they can be rediscovered in the light of what they have made possible, in the radiance of those things created by their rude inheritors. The suggestion that anything that exists outside of these permanent manifestations of a ‘central culture’ is to be considered marginal, is to deny the arts their life and to set culture in concrete. I don’t particularly want to live in a museum, or in a prison, no matter how interesting the bars might be. I don’t want to be that safe. I don’t want cultural policemen guarding the cell of my experience. I don’t think that new artists and the forms that they create, with all of their disruptions and frankly disturbing ideas, should be locked in a box labelled marginal. Or seditious.

What an artist is always trying to do is to make something that has never been made before; and as Alberto Giacometti once said ‘that it succeeds, that it fails, after all, is secondary’.

Those who make can’t be ignored, safely or otherwise. Because they are very stubborn people.

It is the making that matters. The making of new stories, the retelling and reinterpreting of old ones, the bringing into the light, out of the shadows of the old forms, new ways of seeing the world, other perspectives, new blessings and gifts. We must try to be open to these things, we must be ready to embrace them if they move us, to question them if they ensnare us in the traps of false security or the lies of power. We must ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’. Both makers of theatre and those who choose to witness it. Now is the time to be brave, to make what we will, to respond as out hearts tell us to, freely and without fear. It is the time to insist on our right to that common space, that town square, that circle of stones where each of us may arrive as we are, not as we must be, where we can show our faces to each other without fear or shame masking them; it is time for a theatre of difference.

To quote Les Murray, from his poem, The Breach:
now I’ve said my ideals
And to close, again with something from Mister Chekhov, who still sits in my heart, not as a reminder of the past, but as an urge to continue breaking the rules that he created by breaking the rules that he encountered.

It’s Nina speaking, approaching the end of The Seagull. She says:

In what we do – whether we act on the stage or write – the most important thing isn’t fame or glory or anything I used to dream about – but the ability to endure. To know how to bear your cross and have faith. I have faith, and my pain is less, and when I think about my vocation I’m not afraid of life.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Mad as a Coote

The Liberals have announced their arts policy and, by gum, I'm off to tell those demonstraters outside Bracksie's office (just down the road here) just who to picket.

Andrea Coote, the Liberals' shadow arts minister, gave a taste of what a State Liberal government would do to the arts. She's obviously been reading Andrew Bolt's column assiduously: the State Government, she says, has been funding "elitist Melbourne-centric festivals that attract a limited audience". She also wants to get rid of the tax-guzzling Australian Centre for the Moving Image, slashing its money and maybe even moving it away from Federation Square. It's all those elitist children's films, I guess. And Arts Victoria would get an overhaul and be made "more accountable".

One of the things that irritates me most about the ideologues claiming that artists are growing fat on the public teat is that they have no idea how accountable the process is. I am not sure that any other public money is subjected to as intense scrutiny as arts funding, and I have often thought that it might be a good idea if it was.

It is not easy to get a grant: they are not, as the impression seems to be, handed out like lollies at Christmas time. The competition is intense. If you are fortunate enough to get one, every grant must be totally accounted for, by the artists and then by the bureaucracies that administer them. Arts Victoria is, as it happens, particularly demanding on this front.

Where would the Liberals' money go? An extra $5.2 million to Eisteddfods, to keep the proles happy (anyone else got visions of those novel machines in the Ministry of Truth?) And the opera, of course, will be ok. Politicians like going to the opera.

UPDATE: Of course Bracksie, having occupied all the possible middle ground, swept back into power. Now the Liberals are faithfully observing the obligatory post-election chicken slaughter. Personally, I'm sure it's the arts policy that lost them the election...

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Babes in the Wood / Tomfoolery

Babes in the Wood by Tom Wright, directed by Michael Kantor. Music by Iain Grandage, design by Anna Tregloan, lighting by Paul Jackson, choreography by Kate Denborough, sound design David Franzke, dramaturgy by Maryanne Lynch. With Caroline Craig, Diana Emry, Julie Forsythe, Max Gillies, Francis Greenslade, Eddie Perfect and Lucy Taylor. Malthouse Theatre until December 3.

Tomfoolery: The Words and Music of Tom Lehrer, adapted by Cameron MacKintosh and Robin Ray, directed by Ross Coleman and Simon Phillips. Lighting design by Matt Scott, design by Gabriela Tylesova. With Rhonda Burchmore, Mitchell Butel, Gerry Connolly, Bert Labonte and Melissa Madden-Gray. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until December 16.

'Tis the season to be decked out in tinsel, or so the supermarket tells me. TN's Scroogish instincts means that she thinks the Christmas season begins in a blinding panic about two days before Christmas Eve: but, luckily, there is always the Christmas panto to jerk me into the compulsory state of jolliness and goodwill &c towards my fellow man. This year the Malthouse is larking about with Babes in the Wood.

I haven't had a good history with Michael Kantor's collaborations with Tom Wright, but then, I missed the 2003 premiere of Babes in the Wood, Wright's wonderful pantomime set (kind of) during the Boer War. Before I discuss it, it's probably worth revisiting some of the conventions of the English pantomime, which are here exploited with such joie de vivre.

The traditional Christmas panto is a children's entertainment that stems back to the 1700s, and many of its established tropes were introduced by the famous British clown Joseph Grimaldi in the early 1800s. They evolved from a number of elements: Commedia dell'arte, ballets-pantomimes - which themselves have histories stretching back to Roman traditions of masked clowning performed by a dancer called Pantomimus - and the English Harlequinade. These traditions later collided with variety, introducing song and dance routines and vulgar jokes to amuse the adults who are accompanying their young charges.

It is always based, sometimes very loosely, on a fairy tale - Cinderella, Dick Whittington and Babes in the Wood are all favourite themes. Essential characters include the Dame (who is always a cross-dressing man), the Principle Boy (always a pretty girl in tights), and actors in unconvincing animal costumes. The plot always features a villain and a misused innocent, and a romance involving the Principle Girl (who is actually a girl) and the Principle Boy.

A basic feature is also audience participation, actively elicited by the cast, which often revolves around the stock jokes. There is always a scene where someone hides behind someone else, so the audience will shout out "He's behind you!"; and there is always an argument, where one side says (with the audience) "Oh, yes he is!" and the other, "Oh, no, he isn't!"

Tom Wright's version of Babes in the Wood sedulously observes all the proper conventions, and he adds on a kind of meta-theatrical context: the conceit of the production is that we are also watching a comic plot about the ragtag colonial theatre company that is presenting the panto. The Dame (Max Gillies, in fine fig), is tempestuously and not always faithfully married to the wicked kangaroo (Julie Forsythe).

Like a rather hilariously intoxicated porcupine, Babes in the Wood bristles with cheerful malice, leaving barbs in pretty much everyone. (Notoriously in this production, there is an Eddie Perfect song about Steve Irwin and Germaine Greer called "Let that stingray of love pierce your heart", with a chorus of dancing stingrays that obligingly help Irwin and Greer die doing the thing they love; though I laughed almost as much at Amanda Vanstone's performance of Nutbush City Limits).

The plot of Babes in the Wood - the panto within the play - could have been written by a right wing blogger. It features dire warnings about suspicious, seductive, drug-soaked Oriental types; much bruiting of Empire - a highlight is a song, drawn from a George W. Bush quote, called "They Hate Us Because We're Good"; wicked suicide bombers in burkhas and a final exhortation to breed lots of the right kind of white Australians. In between are the kind of incongruous non-sequitur asides that featured so brilliantly in shows like The Young Ones - a lecture on the natural history of Australia, a bunch of cheesy songs from the '80s, sly quotations from Donald Rumsfeld, and so on.

Michael Kantor's production gleefully exploits every theatrical cliche in the panto book. It features a ramshackle set by Anna Tregloan, with roughly painted backdrops and patchwork curtains that go up and down like, well, a whore's underpants. And he has an energetic cast that hams everything up to the required of degree of coarseness, while keeping the action as slick as a politician's dick. (I'm sorry; all that vulgarity is contagious. I promise I will calm down now).

Kantor certainly has the cast to work with. Max Gillies, in his double role as the impresario and Aunt Avaricia, the wicked Dame, is like a fully-rigged ship in full command of the stage, and he is strongly supported by the rest of the cast, all doing camp at around 120 decibels (but also, when called upon to do so, singing beautifully). Iain Grandage's songs, with Kate Denborough's peppy dance routines, are highlights. The whole thing is in the worst possible taste, and guaranteed to appeal to the horrible child that lurks in each of us. In short: it's a gas.

THIS YEAR, the MTC's version of a Christmas panto is Tomfoolery, Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray's collage of Tom Lehrer songs. It was already a nostalgia piece when it was first produced more than 25 years ago, and while there's no doubting Lehrer still has the capacity to please, his dour Cold War pessimism is a little outdated now. Satire, particularly political satire, depends so crucially on the issues du jour, that it's inevitable that what was extreme or shocking in 1955 is often going to miss its targets.

We have now a postmodern version of the Cold War, with an abstract noun replacing the Soviet Union's Evil Empire. And our apocalyptic fears these days focus on the hurricanes and rising water levels of climate change, rather than the nuclear immolation Lehrer celebrates with his appallingly catchy We'll All Go Together When We Go. When Lehrer levels his guns at the hippy protest song, it requires a little contextual explanation - the protest song has vanished into the op shop of history, to be replaced with the punk/folk of Billy Bragg, the Pogues or even Paul Kelly.

Still, it would be churlish to deny the charms of Lehrer's wittily Byronic rhymes, and classics like the Masochism Tango or Poisoning Pigeons in the Park still retain their perverse comic shine. I was shocked by how many songs I knew - like many people around 40, I guess, Tom Lehrer featured in my parents' record collections - and it was a pleasure to revisit them.

Simon Phillips gives Tomfoolery a full-blown production, with a design that's a kind of exaggerated fantasia of night-club sleaze (minus the filth, noise, cigarette smoke and gangsters) and some spectacular costumes (Rhonda Burchmore's green and red silk ballgown gets a particular mention - I watched it all night in fascination).

It's a bad sign when you're taking more notice of the cossies than the cast, and it has to be said that Phillip's directorial hand is all too busy everywhere. The overdressed set is matched by a actorly freneticism that doesn't quite substitute for genuine vitality. Gerry Connelly is fun, and always a showman, but here he is not at his sharp-witted best; and Bert Labonte's performance seems to consist almost entirely of mugging.

Even the legs herself, Rhonda Burchmore, appears to lack her usual lustre: perhaps it's all that stage business, which includes at one point pouring out two cups of tea, for reasons which remain wholly mysterious or are, at least, theatrically gratuitous. Only Mitchell Butel and Melissa Madden-Gray keep the home flag flying, with some sharp footwork and performances the right side of caricature.

Picture: (Left to right) Francis Greenslade, Max Gillies and Julie Forsythe in Babes in the Wood. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Clarification: Artistic Counsel

On the weekend, a few people asked me about my job at the Malthouse Theatre. This is because in an otherwise quite decent interview with Daniel Keene in the Age last week, Robin Usher - rather gratuitously, it seemed to me - mentioned that Keene's wife (me) was a member of the Malthouse's Artistic Counsel. So it seems necessary to explain precisely what that means.

As a member of the Artistic Counsel, which is part of the Malthouse Theatre's process of self-assessment, my job is simply to offer feedback and criticism at the end of each season. The Artistic Counsel is a voluntary group from a wide cross-section of Melbourne interests. Like everyone else on the Counsel, I am asked - nay, expected - to be critical: hence I see no conflict at all with my stated aims here, which have been from the beginning about honest and searching dialogue about theatre. And members of the Counsel, as is clear on the Malthouse website, have absolutely no influence on programming decisions.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Review: The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, adapted by Peter Evans and Anita Hegh, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Adam Gardnir, lighting by Luke Hails, sound by Roger Alsop. With Anita Hegh. The Tower @ the Malthouse until November 26.

I saw The Yellow Wallpaper at the Store Room in March last year, where it was already a remarkable show. On its reincarnation at the Tower, it is an even better remarkable show. It seems silly to rewrite my earlier observations, so below, to save you the trouble of clicking through, I will reprint my March review.

Of course, it isn't exactly the same show. Without losing a certain necessary roughness, the venue permits subtle refinements of staging and lighting, of which Peter Evans and Luke Hails take full advantage. But what has most impressively richened, in both nuance and depth, is Anita Hegh's performance. She has found an accuracy and clarity of gesture and voice that gives this text a harder and more tragic edge although, paradoxically, the real revelation of this production is its comedy, the black lustre of Gilman's ironic wit.

What was already more than good has become great: this is a stunning performance of a fascinating text. But don't take my word for it: go and see for yourself. You'll be sorry if you miss it. Meanwhile, here is what I wrote last time:

AS SOON as Anita Hegh props herself primly on a wooden schoolroom chair and glances neurotically at her right hand, as if it were some wild animal that might escape any moment, you realise that you're in for a special performance. Nothing that follows disabuses this expectation.

It's an enactment of a short story by the early feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which an unnamed woman who is being treated for a nervous condition is confined by her doctor husband in a room decorated with particularly ugly wallpaper. The story traces her mental breakdown through a series of snatched diary entries. The Yellow Wallpaper rivals Georg Buchner's story Lenz as a compelling depiction of the subjectivity of madness, notable for both its imaginative expressiveness and the almost clinical precision of its observations.

In a 1913 article, Gilman was very clear about why she wrote this semi-autobiographical work. "For many years," she wrote, "I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown ... During about the third year of this trouble I went ... to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to 'live as domestic a life as far as possible,' to 'have but two hours' intellectual life a day,' and 'never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again' as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

"I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over. Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again - work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite - ultimately recovering some measure of power.

"Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it. ...Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper. It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked."

Gilman's passionate account here implies much of the history of female neurosis and its relationship to the medical profession; and more precisely, the difficulties faced by creative women in restrictive patriarchal societies that find such women to be, at best, oddities, and at worst, monstrous. In these contexts normal human desires, such as the wish for meaningful work or satisfying sex, are considered the province of men; when they appear in women, they are thought to be pathological or wicked.

The historical repression of intelligent and passionate women, from witch burnings to hysterectomies to institutionalisation, is not within my purview here; but it's a gruesome and sad and ongoing story. It is easy to say, in Melbourne in 2005, that those times are now long past; but the persistence of conditions like anorexia nervosa or the obsession with celebrity culture suggest that, even here, contemporary ideals of femininity might be little less imprisoning now than they were a century ago.

Hegh's performance is a compelling physicalisation of the fractures and deformations that the imposition of the "feminine" can do to a woman's self. In the beginning, Hegh sits or stands in poses that are exaggeratedly prim, her neck and chin extended like a mannerist painting, and the strange calmness of her voice has an anxious, nail-biting edge. But there are more violent disturbances in this ladylike facade; her body does not appear to wholly belong to her. She jumps with sudden, neurotic intakes of breath; she strikes strange poses, grotesque parodies of the feminine grace of a ballerina; her eyes flicker, as if her face were a prison through which her soul fleetingly and pleadingly emerges, only to vanish into the repetitious tics of conventional womanhood.

Her right hand, her working hand, is a focus of anguish and desire. Forbidden by her husband to write, she makes her diary entries furtively, obsessively recording her observations of the "optic horror" of the yellow wallpaper in the room where she is genteely imprisoned as a kind of sick child. In keeping with her infantalisation, this room is a former nursery, and the windows are barred. Eventually she becomes convinced that the ghastly patterns conceal a creeping woman who is attempting to get out; but that woman, of course, is herself.

The wallpaper itself becomes a potent symbol of the inscrutable and devious social codes by which the woman is disempowered. "On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you..."

The increasing sense of dislocation and imbalance is intensified by the cunning use of props and lighting; Hegh might put on a single high-heeled shoe, forcing her to limp, or don sunglasses that mask her face with a terrifying maenad-like anomymity. A wedding dress becomes at once the symbol of her imprisonment and the badge of her illness. When at last the woman breaks free into madness - the only freedom left open to her - Hegh growls the text through a microphone, declaiming like a rock star poet.

Peter Evans directs The Yellow Wallpaper with nuance and precision; it's inventively lit and the sound design, using music and pre-recorded text, is spare and effective. Without any fuss, the staging frames and focuses Hegh's performance admirably. On all levels, The Yellow Wallpaper is a very classy piece of work: riveting, disturbing and beautiful.

Picture: Anita Hegh in The Yellow Wallpaper. Photo: Peter Evans

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Bits and Bobs

A group of talented young theatre artists is bringing some of Australia's theatre history to life at the Northcote Town Hall this week (and next). Here Theatre is presenting Louis Esson's 1912 classic The Time is not yet Ripe. A strong cast is directed by Jane Woollard as they explore the tensions between ideals and practical politics. It sounds fascinating - I'd be there if I could. It's on for eight performances only, 15-25 November, bookings 9481 9500.

The Stupid Play is a hilarious new play written by Matthew Lambert (Short & Sweet Finalist 2005 for Hamlet) and directed by Lynne Ellis (Mysterium, The Day My Bum Went Psycho) and starring Wes Snelling (Trash). Set to thrill, this absurdist farce is located in a country manor house and begins in the style of a pre-war radio play which quickly falls apart as the actors drink, flirt and fight. At the Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond St. Carlton, Thursday 16th 7pm, Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 November at 4pm, Sat 2nd sun 3rd at 4pm.

And, worthy folk, you can listen to me making my New York debut as a speakerphone on a panel at CUNY Graduate Centre about theatre blogging and criticism, chaired by the inimitable George Hunka with fellow bloggers Matt Johnston and Andy Horowitz. It was cool (though I was sorry that their budget didn't stretch to flying me in). Many things were discussed, including theatre...and they could have been discussed for much longer. Bloggers being bloggers.

Also, more in the Age about Kristy Edmunds and the Melbourne Festival, and more figures being trotted out to prove the festival wasn't a "success". Oh boy. Well, you all know my thoughts about this. What gets me is this: it was ok to spend $1 billion of "taxpayer's money" on the Commonwealth Games - none of that is coming back, folks. I'll say that again - $1 billion. I didn't see any editorials thundering about the cost of that event - Robin Usher in fact was lauding it to the skies - nor any complaining that the $13 million arts component made no box office - let's count it, $0.00 box office profit - because it was free! Let's be a little even handed...

Oh, and while we're at it, courtesy of Petal (thanks Petal), Boltwatch has a post (plus several libellous - to me, I mean - comments) on Andrew Bolt's dishonest misquotation of me in his marvellous Ghettos of Hate frothpiece. (Let's be kind, maybe he is not being dishonest; maybe he failed English comprehension at school). Celebrity of a kind, I guess. Me, I'm still awaiting my specially ordered ARTS EXTREMIST badge.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture

This Sunday, get along to the Malthouse to hear Daniel Keene deliver the Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture, an annual lecture to honour the memory of one of the key theatre practitioners in Australian theatre in the 1960s and 1970s. It will be presented free as part of the Malthouse Theatre’s Things on Sunday program.

Keene's lecture will be on "The Theatre of Difference". In a preview, he writes:

The theatre is not merely a mirror held up to society. If this was its only purpose it could never question, never oppose, never suggest an alternative to the status quo; it would always be safe, it would always pacify, it could never offer anything new. It would be culture’s Fast Food. And it would almost invariably be nationalistic, trapped within its borders, unable to admit difference and fearful of strangers.

Instead, the theatre might be considered a lens through which certain propositions can be seen. A place where a negotiation takes place, between everyday perceptions and imagination, between what is obvious and what is hidden; it would be a place without borders, a place where a truth could be told that was not the accepted truth. It could offer alternatives.

Theatre could be a place of seditious creation.
Daniel Keene is an award-winning playwright and longstanding theatre maker who has written for the theatre since 1979. He has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama twice, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Drama twice and the South Australian Literary Award for Drama. He has also been awarded, with Ariette Taylor the Kenneth Myer Medallion for the Performing Arts for his work with the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project. His work has been presented at the Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide festivals as well as produced all over Australia and, overseas, in France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United States, Canada, China and Japan.

Since the inaugural lecture in 1995, previous speakers include Jim Sharman, John Romeril, Rhoda Roberts, Lindy Davies, Neil Armfield & Geoffrey Rush, Wesley Enoch, Nick Enright, Barrie Kosky and Lyndon Terracini.

‘A THEATRE OF DIFFERENCE’ The Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture
As part of Malthouse Theatre’s Things on Sunday program
Public lecture delivered by Daniel Keene
2.30pm, Sunday, 19 November 2006
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, CUB Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank, 3006
Bookings: 9685 5111

Sharp-eyed persons out for scandal, trashtalk and snide allegations of conflict of interest will note, of course, that Daniel Keene is my husband. This privileged relationship permits me to observe that he normally won't write things of this nature unless an AK-47 is pointed at his head: I take full credit for The Empty Church, since I was holding the weaponry. However, he has been showing visible signs of enthusiasm for this lecture, and I am quite disappointed that there has been no call for my role as intellectual stand-over merchant.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Review: The Damask Drum

Mishima in the City: Duets of Desire. 2: The Damask Drum, adapted from the plays by Yukio Mishima and Zeami, directed by Robert Draffin. Film by Ivanka Sokol, set design Ina Indira Shanahan, lighting design by Luke Hails, sound design and music performance by Jethro Woodward. Performed by Alan Knoepfler and Mary Sitarenos. Film acting, voices and stage business by Paul Robertson, Raffaele Rufo, Claire-Larisse Nicholls. Liminal Theatre, 70 Nicholson St, Abbotsford (between Gipps & Langridge St; opposite Sophia Mundi School) until November 26. Bookings: 9539 3669

With the international richness of the Melbourne Festival still fresh in my mind, The Damask Drum is a salutary reminder that we have our own visionary directors close to home. Robert Draffin has been working quietly in Melbourne, evolving his unique practice, for around three decades. And his production of Yukio Mishima's play, now on in an anonymous warehouse in Abbotsford, deserves to stand with the best of the work I saw at the festival.

In the countless productions he has overseen, Draffin has never been afraid of ambition. In 1991, for example, working with the young troupe Whistling in the Theatre, he created a magnificent six-hour adaptation of The Thousand and One Nights at Anthill (one of the small-to-medium theatres that disappeared in the Australia Council's last orgy of cultural vandalism). Or there was his epic 1992 Theatreworks production of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot. More recent work includes a celebrated production of Genet's Le Balcon at the VCA, where he has been teaching some of the young theatre artists who are putting so much zap into the Melbourne scene at present.

I confess, gentle reader, that it's been a long time since I've seen Draffin's work. More fool me. Like Peter Brook or Ariane Mnouchkine, he works with a committed ensemble of artists, creating the long-term relationships that are the core of great theatre: this particular production is the result not only of short-term rehearsal but of year-long workshops. Funded, perhaps it ought to be noted, by no one except the artists themselves.

Again like Mnouchkine and Brook, his work is deeply concerned with cross-cultural exchange: in Draffin's case, a long history of exchange with Asian theatre artists and practice. And as with Mnouchkine, entering his theatre is to be welcomed into a democratic social space where, until the performance begins, no distinction is made between artists and audience. When you arrive at The Damask Drum, you are ushered to a carpeted space at the back of the warehouse, behind the stage, with cushions, low tables and flowers. Where Mnouchkine provides dinner, Draffin makes you green tea.

And there, perhaps, the resemblances end. Unlike these two theatrical superstars, Draffin's company, Liminal Theatre, is not extravagantly funded; and Draffin's practice is all his own.

The Damask Drum is, in fact, the second instalment of a larger work, Mishima in the City: Duets of Desire, which aims to perform all eight of the plays Mishima adapted from the classical Noh canon.

Mishima's play updated Zeami's Aya No Tuzumi, which tells the story of an old gardener who glimpses a princess and falls obsessively in love with her. Mockingly, she gives him a drum made of damask, and says that if he can make it sound in the palace, she will visit him. Of course, the old man can't make any sound at all from the drum, and drowns himself in despair. After this, the "angry ghost" of the old man "possessed the lady's wits, haunted her heart with woe".

In Mishima's version, the woman, Hanako, lives in an apartment block opposite the old man, Iwakichi, and he has to make the drum sound above the city traffic: but the obsession, the mockery, the vengefulness of the old man's ghost and the woman's regret remain. Draffin has fused Mishima's and Zeani's texts to create a kind of collage, in which sound and song play as significantly as semantic sense.

When the plays were first performed in Japan in the 1950s, they were produced in a naturalistic style: a totally revolutionary decision in the context of the Japanese theatre of the time. Instead, in this production Draffin draws from a range of classical Asian theatre techniques, skilfully combining them with images projected from a hand-held cyclorama and an amplified sound score. Black-clad stage hands operate the projections, fabrics, mirrors, smoke and other stage business. This is certainly not Noh, but it's impossible to overlook its Noh ancestry.

The design exploits the length of the warehouse, seating the audience at one end. The set consists basically of a small stage made of black polished wood that is set immediately before the audience, from which stretches a narrow walkway to a door in the back wall. It's a free adaptation of the hashigakari, or bridge, by which actors sumptuously enter the stage in traditional Noh.

Jethro Woodward's soundscape is astoundingly good. It combines sometimes thunderous electronic sound with a collage of amplified voices that fill the space - mostly inhabited by one actor - with unseen people. The Asian orchestra and chorus are embodied in Woodward himself, who stands in the performance space, to the left of the wooden stage. He plays live electric guitar, singing some parts of the story.

The opening scene demonstrates the potency of the elements Draffin is exploiting here. The play begins in blackness, with Woodward bowing haunting melodies from his guitar. Very gradually, a dim light rises on the far end of the stage: a white figure is partially revealed in the distance. It seems to float in a globe of light through the darkness, like a ghost or a goddess, and moves towards us with hieratic slowness.

It is impossible to tell whether the figure is male or female until he is quite close: then you see it is a half-naked man (Alan Knoepfler), who is wearing a long, white, very full skirt that is held up on either side, like royal robes, by the stage attendants. He collapses before us face forward on the small stage, the skirt like a foaming wave that has washed him up from the darkness.

Knoepfler's performance of the old gardener devastated by obsessive erotic love is utterly compelling. He is on stage, mostly solo, for the whole play, and maintains without wavering the physical, vocal and emotional extremity of his performance. His body is the expressive site of his ecstatic torment and self disgust: he is in turn grotesque, abject, ennobled, despairing, tender. He is well met by Mary Sitarenos as the woman, whose entrance late in the show is almost as beautiful as Knoepfler's.

There are more than a few moments of breath-taking mise en scene in the course of this show. If it has flaws, they are of the kind that are hard to pinpoint: slight hesitancies, perhaps, that may manifest in an overdressed moment here or there. Its strength, as in the writing it is manifesting, is in its simplicity, the courage of both restraint and passion that underlies formal artistic beauty.

The Damask Drum is not only theatre that has poetry in it - which is one thing - but something rather more rare: a poetic theatre, working transformations rich and strange.

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