2006: The Wrap ~ theatre notes

Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006: The Wrap

As I lay champagne on ice and chill the flutes, preparing for my Olympian end-of-year reflections, I realise that I've had a good year here on TN. I've seen some great theatre and had a most interesting time: what more could a theatre geek want?

Well, given that "divine" and "discontent" are my middle names, I guess there's quite a lot more to be desired. Imagine, for example, a Melbourne in which artistic achievement was greeted with discernment and enthusiastic curiosity, rather than hostile indifference. Where the arts were funded to achieve what they promised, and where no one was afraid of poetry. Brahms, Xenakis and DJ Spooky would battle it out in the iPods on the street. The Age's senior critics would be John Berger, Eric Bentley, Susan Sontag and Theodor Adorno, with whom everybody else would take issue on a regular basis in the huge opinion section of the arts pages.

Yeah, right. Dissolving back to the world I actually live in, it has been, nevertheless, a vintage year. It was really worth going to the theatre in 2006; I saw very little that was plain bad, and I got so used to not being disappointed that I was surprised when it happened. In all, I saw 62 productions - a respectable amount but by no means everything that was on. As I said when I first started this blog, I can't aim to be comprehensive; so regard this as a personal cross-section of the hundreds of events programmed in Melbourne this year.

A surprisingly high proportion of those 62 productions- 17, in fact, or 27 per cent - struck me as excellent: beautiful, thoughtful, exciting, intelligent theatre. Of those 17, 10 were programmed by either the Malthouse Theatre (six) or the Melbourne Festival (four). It confirmed my feeling at the end of last year that the most significant theatrical forces in Melbourne are these two institutions. But this year, the road for both of them has been far from smooth: they began to hit in earnest the conservative resistances that have always capped (and often destroyed) artistic ambition in this town.

The Malthouse has had a year of consolidation rather than triumph, continuing with a respectable mixture of success and failure to broaden the theatrical vocabulary of mainstream theatre in Melbourne. Its most ambitious show, a production of Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado directed by Benedict Andrews, was an unambiguous artistic success, and is one of my plays of the year. But it notoriously played to very poor audiences, rapidly turning this production into one of those legends which nobody saw. More seriously, the subsequent financial losses means that the Malthouse has had to pull in its horns. No big productions of Sarah Kane next year, folks.

My other picks from the Malthouse's 2006 offerings are Nigel Jamieson's Honour Bound, Ross Mueller's Construction of the Human Heart, Luke Mullins' adaptation of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, Kage Physical Theatre's Headlock and Anita Hegh and Peter Evans' adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper. And an honourable mention to Michael Kantor's production of Michael Watts' play Not Like Beckett, which featured Russell Dykstra's disturbingly hilarious performance of Walter Walloon Beckett. These productions demonstrate the depth of independent theatre in Melbourne (two, for example, originated at the Store Room). They are striking for the diversity of theatrical language they employed. And, most of all, for their unapologetic theatrical ambition.

The Melbourne Festival was a more qualified success than last year - Kristy Edmunds' debut as festival director in 2005 was the most exciting festival for years. It's fair to say that MIAF 2006 didn't quite reach that pitch, but I still found much to enjoy in a rich, various and brave program. The shows that have remained with me are Pichet Klunchun and Myself (possibly my favourite show of the festival), Romeo Castelluci's Tragedia Endogonidia, Robert Wilson's I La Galigo and Marie Brassard's Peepshow.

Meanwhile, smaller companies put on some very impressive work. VCA students were responsible for two of my favourites this year: John Bolton's production of Steve Berkoff's East, produced by La Mama, and Brian Lipson's production of Caryl Churchill's The Skriker: both stunning realisations of stunning plays. The Black Lung, a new independent space, hosted the rude, crude and wonderful Rubeville and Suitcase Royale's charmingly dishevelled Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon.

Stuck Pigs Squealing has seemed ubiquitous this year: if it's not Chris Kohn, it's some other artistic associate of the company infecting the body theatric. Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano was this company's most ambitious work so far, an anarchic work that plumbed oneiric depths. My other highlights were Eleventh Hour's production of Endgame, with Peter Houghton as an unforgettable Hamm, and Robert Draffin's beautifully poetic adaptation of Mishima's Noh play The Damask Drum.

Notably missing from this list is the MTC. I was overseas and so missed the one show that might have made it, Doug Wright's Broadway hit I Am My Own Wife. When I think over the MTC's programming this year, nothing stands out: there were inoffensively entertaining shows among the West End and Broadway imports, but nothing that seared itself into my memory, nothing that deeply excited me.

Yet Simon Phillips tried some (relatively) adventurous programming this year, including new Australian plays like Jane Bodie's A Single Act and Ray's Tempest. And he programmed at least one decent play - David Eldridge's adaptation of Festen was among the best writing on show this year, if fatally flawed by a performance of surpassing blankness from Jason Donovan. Probably the MTC's most successful productions this year were Sarah Ruhl's A Clean House and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The MTC does middle-of-the-road probably as well as anyone in the world, but vision and ambition aren't words that spring to mind when you consider its programming. Compare the MTC's program to subsidised flagship companies elsewhere - Britain's National Theatre, say, or Paris' Theatre de Ville or, closer to home, the STC, which this year hosted my most regretted miss, Barrie Kosky's epic The Lost Echo - and you'll see it lacks a certain flair.

2006 has been notable for drama off stage as much as on it. There was the scandal of La Mama being put "on notice" by the Australia Council, which exposes just how bad things have become for small-to-medium theatre companies in the funding world. There was the constant sniping against the Melbourne Festival, in which the Malthouse came in for a bit of collateral damage, and which came to a head late this year when Kristy Edmunds was appointed for another year.

These are all symptoms of a complex struggle that is happening on several fronts in Australian culture. As David Marr puts it in an incisive overview of arts funding under Howard, the present Federal Government supports institutions, not artists. John Howard doesn't, after all, hate the arts; he just wants artists to be well-behaved citizens of a relaxed and comfortable Australia. Artists, restless creatures that they are, don't do relaxed and comfortable very well. It's notable that the institutions that have come under the gun this year, from La Mama to the Melbourne Festival, are those which seek to support artists first.

In Melbourne, the battle lines were drawn after a lot of sniping across the bows. Conservative voices from Peter Craven to Andrew Bolt have lined up as one (maybe they are one) to express their disgust about, among other things, "fringe" theatre being done in "mainstream" venues. It's all been rather interesting.

What we've been witnessing in theatre this year is much more complex than a generational conflict. Mark Davis identified the syndrome a few years ago in his 1997 book Gangland, speaking principally about Australian literature (Peter Craven figures in that book, too). Says Davis:

The left liberals who I speak about in the book practice a cultural politics that is remarkably similar to the old white colonial liberalism that they profess to oppose. They practice what they call "tolerance" but in fact operate within and perpetuate what is largely a white, middle class cultural space.

This "white, middle class cultural space" - in theatre, perhaps exemplified best by the old Playbox - is under pressure, not only from younger artists, but from older artists who challenge its assumptions. (You can tell who they are, because they have all been marginalised in Melbourne for years.) Of course, those who were comfortable in the old snoozy hegemony are upset, especially as their barrage of sneers hasn't driven these impertinently interesting works off our stages. Nobody's backing down, and I predict an interesting 2007.

Finally: it might sound self-regarding, but 2006 was the year of the blog. I was a lonely little soldier when I first started TN in 2004, but a quick scroll down the sidebar will show how much the theatrical blogosphere has grown in the past year. TN's readership is steadily increasing with it: unique visits more than doubled, from 23,855 in 2005 to 58,777 this year. TN regulars hail from all over the globe, and grew from 2849 last year to 11,617 in 2006. It's a humble figure in the generality of the internet but, frankly, I'm proud of it.

As for the theatrical blogosphere: as a cybertraveller of some years' standing, I can attest that it's quite a classy little corner of the internet. It's fiercely local and proudly international, it's argumentative and fascinating, it's hungry for intelligent discussion. It's a place where the deadening dominance of places like the Age can be truly challenged.

It's worth remembering that Rupert Murdoch said earlier this year that mainstream outlets ignore bloggers at their peril. There's a lot of crap talked about the new media, but in the centre is simply this fact: blogs are public, accessible spaces that can't be controlled by traditional means. And in that fact is grounds for hope. I don't know what will happen this coming year, but I do know that bloggers will be part of it.


Pictures from top: Tragedia Endogonidia, directed by Romeo Castelluci, Societas Raffaello Sanzio, MIAF 2006; Alexandra Harrison and Brendan Shelper in Honour Bound. Photo: Jeff Busby; David Tredinnick and Peter Houghton in Endgame. Photo: Ponch Hawkes


Paul Martin said...

Interesting quote from Murdoch, Alison. In your blog heading you quote Wada. I also think there's a monstrous thirst for intelligent discussion that mainstream media doesn't feel it can or wants to engage in.

As more and more people discover that blogs are where it's happening in such a dynamic fashion, hopefully we'll see similar growth over the coming year.

Alison Croggon said...

I figure when Murdoch - surely one of the canniest readers of power around - says something like that, it's worth taking notice. Given, as I said, that there's a lot of bullshit talked about blogs.

Anonymous said...

"...Mayenburg's Eldorado directed by Benedict Andrews, was an unambiguous artistic success, and is one of my plays of the year. But it notoriously played to very poor audiences..."

While I don't share your enthusiasm for El Dorado, I'm curious as to whether you have any thoughts as to why it did so badly, particularly as you suggest that its box office failure has forced The Malthouse to modify its programming.

Alison Croggon said...

A number of reasons have been suggested. It was a bad time of year (June, school holidays, etc). It was a two-week season, not long enough for word of mouth to percolate through to those who might have enjoyed it, after the slaughtering reviews in the Age and the Australian. It was a young German playwright - unknown here, though a hot name in Europe - which galvanised a number of prejudices about European theatre. It followed bang on the heels of La Doleur, a production that I saw in preview the night before I flew to England (so didn't review - I didn't like it at all) so too much sturm und drang. Probably a mixture of all these things. Plus the fact that the Malthouse's attempt to create audiences for contemporary theatre, after three decades of the "well-made play" being the staple of "mainstream" culture here, is something that takes time. (Most people say five years.)

I'm not suggesting, btw, that the Malthouse is going to stop putting on challenging/interesting theatre, and I hope that's not read into what I wrote. The next season looks very interesting indeed - an installation by Anna Tregloan, a Rush/Armfield production of Ionesco, Uncle Semolina and Friends, a new play by Melissa Reeves, Peter Houghton's La Mama hit The Pitch and a piece choreographed/directed by Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin and Michael Kantor. So it's hardly stepping back. No big productions, though.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not suggesting, btw, that the Malthouse is going to stop putting on challenging/interesting theatre...No big productions, though."

I was particularly curious about this point so thanks for the clarification.

Just one small point in regard to your reference to the "slaughtering" review which appeared in The Age. I would've described Cameron Wooodhead's review as a (heavily) qualified thumbs up. In spite of reservations about some performances and the direction, he concluded by saying:

"Whether you like it or not—and the play doesn't allow you to sit on the fence—if you're serious about contemporary theatre, Eldorado is not a show that you can afford to miss."

That this had little positive effect on box office perhaps raises the question as to whether readers of The Age are serious about contemporary theatre.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Abe - frankly, that comment was the arse-covering sop at the end of a review that snidely tore the show to pieces. But what could readers of the Age know about contemporary theatre, in any case? If that was your only source of knowledge, you'd have a pretty poor education in it.

Avi said...

Great wrap-up, Alison. Here's to a brilliant 2007.