Review: The Spook, Homebody/KabulGreen Room AwardsReview: The Nature of ThingsOn DanteRound the webReview: Detest / Chocolate Monkey / Rage BoyContemporary Australian Drama 2TN blanks outAdvertisement for myself ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 26, 2007

Review: The Spook, Homebody/Kabul

The Spook by Melissa Reeves, directed by Tom Healey. Design by Anna Borghesi, lighting by Richard Dinnen, composition and sound by David Franzke. With Alison Bell, Kevin Harrington, Margaret Mills, Denis Moore, Tony Nikolopoulos, Luke Ryan and Maria Theodorakis. Malthouse Theatre @ The Beckett until March 10.

Homebody/Kabul by Tony Kushner, directed by Chris Bendall. Designed by Peter Corrigan, lighting by Nick Merrylees, sound by Jethro Woodward. With Tyler Coppin, Ernie Gray, Shelly Lauman, Wahibe Moussa, Osamah Sami, Shahin Shafaei and Majid Shokor. Theatre@Risk at Trades Hall, until March 11.

Theatre is a many-splendoured thing, and much of it operates way outside the four walls of a building. After all, the biggest theatre at present, and certainly the deadliest, is the return season of Evil Brown Dictators with WMD, presently playing to packed houses in Washington. Astoundingly, it has the same plot as season one, although there are a couple of cast changes: one of the stars of last season, for example, retired to spend more time with his money, and of course the guys in black hats are, if not quite ambiguous, dizzyingly interchangeable.

Meanwhile, over in the Kodak Theatre in LA, Al Gore stepped forward to accept the Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, and the boundary between showbiz and politics again dissolved into a terminal blur. Though, thinking over the traditional pageantry of power, it has to be said that such a division is often a mere courtesy, permitting politics the "seriousness" that theatre, being imagined, does not possess. PT Barnum himself stood for Congress, after all; former Oil Peter Garrett is a respectable Parliamentarian and Maxine McKew has announced her intention of standing against Howard in the next election. And so on.

The increasing public synonymity of celebrity and political power is a piquant symptom of the The Society of the Spectacle, which Guy Debord described in his influential 1967 work. He elaborates a capitalist world in which being is mediated and finally negated by representation, in which people are fatally alienated from their own experience. "The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered," says Debord. "Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving."

The spectacle, crucially, "is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images." (My italics). What Debord means in part is that the Western project of understanding the world has been cast primarily in the mode of one sense: sight. And that what we perceive - always, necessarily, at a distance - with our eyes has begun, not only to replace, but to obliterate the possibility of more fully sensual and connected ways of being in the world. As the Homebody says in Tony Kushner's extraordinary play, "All must be touched. All touch corrupts. All must be corrupted."

Homebody/Kabul and The Spook are both political works which seek to interrupt, in very different ways, the on-going theatre that constitutes the larger political world. Debord himself would no doubt consider all bourgeois theatre - of which both of these plays are examples - as fatally corrupted by its embeddedness in the very economic and social forms they seek to critique. But, given that, as Debord says, "consciousness of desire and desire for consciousness are the same project" and that the polar opposite of consciousness is the spectacle, one can argue that it is possible for the sensual realities of theatre, even bourgeois theatre, to lift the work out of the aura of undead commodity, and to shock us out of the alienated deathliness against which Debord argues so passionately.

I am tired of the political framing that places art simply at the service of one rhetoric or another, "left wing" or "right wing", as if that were all that is at stake: and here, however clumsily, I am attempting to signal how art might be most crucially political. When Debord claims that "the history of different ideologies is over", and that ideology - which crucially seeks to enslave and negate "real life" - now so saturates every social relationship that it is, effectively, without difference within itself, something in me leaps in recognition. And I look to art to spring this trap and, however contingently, to escape it. Both these plays, while overtly political in the sense in which the word is generally understood, strike me as political in this more profound way. They seek to escape, or at least to expose and question, the deadly spectacle that dominates our social discourse.

Homebody/Kabul was written by Tony Kushner before September 11 redrew global geopolitics. It famously opened in New York in December 2001, mere weeks after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. As a play which explores the West's ambivalent fascination with Afghanistan, mordantly predicting the violence that would ensue, it established Kushner's reputation as the prophetic child of American theatre. With this in mind, it is probably worth reflecting that one definition of "prophet" is he who sees the present clearly.

It is, indisputably, a demanding work: running for more than three and a half hours, it is a baggy monster of a play, switching between exhilarating flights of theatrical imagination and surprisingly heavy-handed scene making. Fortunately, the exhilaration by far outweighs the downside. It opens with an hour-long monologue by the Homebody (Jane Nolan), a London housewife whose reality is almost completely constituted by language. She reads from a historical guide book to Kabul, relating the city's history as, from its very beginning, a crossroad of imperial ambitions, of successive waves of migration, slaughter and war. It is, she says, the very burial place of Cain, "the inventor of murder". In between reading from the book, she speaks with seeming inconsequentiality about her life: her cold fish husband, her estranged daughter, her anti-depression tablets, her imagined erotic encounter with an Afghani trader in a London shop.

This monologue is breathtaking, and beautifully performed by Nolan: what seems at first to be a performance of overtheatrical brittleness becomes increasingly compelling, as the mask becomes a revelation of the Homebody's truths. She is, she says, an irritating person: excessive, prone to embarrassing gestures and linguistic flights, someone whose desires constantly overspill their narrow social constrictions. The Homebody is poised neurotically above herself, observing her own longing, hyper-articulate and yet helplessly at sea within her own words. The monologue ends with a recitation of a beautiful poem about Kabul by a Persian poet, a thrilling declaration of love. For as the Homebody says: "I love, love, love the world." And we believe she does. She simply doesn't know how to enact that love, or how that love might express itself in her closest relationships. It's as good a portrayal of emotional and social alienation as I have seen.

After this tour de force, the rest of the play can't but be a little anti-climactic. The next scene opens with the Homebody's family in Kabul. Her daughter Priscilla (Shelly Lauman) is hidden behind a curtain, her husband Milton (Ernie Gray) sits morosely on a bed, a Taliban official (Osamah Sami) sits sinisterly opposite, and a doctor (Shahin Shafaei) apologetically reports a litany of horrific injuries in almost completely opaque medical language. The Homebody, we realise, has flown to Kabul, and has been literally torn to pieces by an angry crowd for not wearing a burkha.

This introduces a lot of complex plotting, in which Milton stays in his hotel room, visited by what passes for the local British official, Quango Twistleton (Tyler Coppin). Twistleton, who owes his name to PG Wodehouse, is a junkie, trapped in Kabul as he is in his addiction, both loving and loathing it. He introduces Milton to opium and promptly falls in love with Priscilla. Priscilla, meanwhile, ventures out into the city, where she meets Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh (Majid Shokor), a Tajik poet, who tells her that her mother is not dead, but has married a Muslim and no longer wishes to see her family. As Priscilla finds herself bewilderingly drawn into local political machinations, her father retreats further and further into his own bitterness, and the family's desperate history plays itself out.

The realities explored here are all contingent and hallucinatory: no one is sure what is true and what is not, and the texture of the writing forbids our sinking into a comfortable naturalism. Most of the time Kushner manages admirably not to burden his text with explanatory longeuers, but in the final few scenes the text begins to bog down a little, as if the playwright is giving in to the temptation to spell out its meaning. Kushner has the kind of clumsiness that is a characteristic of many brilliant writers - DH Lawrence, with his ability to switch within one paragraph from breathtaking genius to sheer awkward cloddishness springs to mind - a sense of utter writerly freedom, that refuses to pander to safe aesthetic rules, and which sometimes stumbles over its own boldness.

As should be clear already, this is a play that, above everything else, is about language itself: its capacities for deception and illusion, how it prevents communication as much as permitting it. Many dialogues are in Arabic or French, leaving English-speaking audiences, like the English-speaking characters on stage, guessing at its meanings; every character in it pushes against the limitations of language, or uses language to imprison others. Perhaps the most poignant joke is the poet who writes in Esperanto (a language that enchants him with its clumsiness); Esperanto being that utopic dream of a universal language which became the reality of a language that no one speaks. Yet for all this critique, Kushner weaves out of the dreams and fantasies of his characters a complex and communicable truth which is, perhaps, merely the truth of human pain.

Chris Bendall gives this play a most creditable production. Peter Corrigan's set shrinks the cavernous spaces of the Trades Hall ballroom to a curtained intimacy, with the audience two sides of a small stage. The cast and stage crew bring the props - beds, tables - on stage between scenes, so the play moves efficiently, if a tad predictably, between scenes. Performances are patchy: while no one is poor, some of the cast fails to attain the complexities the language demands, which is a tricky balance between heightened artifice and genuine feeling. Aside from Jane Nolan, that excellent actor Majid Shokor gives a rich and nuanced performance as the poet-guide Khwaja, and Tyler Coppin practically exudes the sour smell of loneliness as the ravaged Twistleton. And the whole is beautifully heightened by an evocative score by Jethro Woodward.

Melissa Reeves' play The Spook is a much lighter, and in some ways more deft, weaving together of international and domestic politics. Where Kushner is poetic, ambitious, unwieldy and astonishing, Reeves gives us the close-up realism of small-town politics. It's a solid piece of dramatic writing, with a surface sparkle opening to reveal undercurrents of tragedy. Like Kushner, Reeves is concerned with the real pain caused by political delusions and hallucinations: in this case, those of the Cold War, at the height of anti-Soviet paranoia.

Australia has quite a rich history of Russian paranoia, which in retrospect gains its true ludicrousness: the 19th century cannons pointing south into Bass Strait at Queenscliff were actually aimed at the Russians, while in the 1930s a secret army was raised to counter a tensely anticipated Bolshevik revolution. By the mid-60s, the Russian threat was Soviet and, although the Communist Party was not illegal here, ASIO planted spies - known colloquially as "sparrows" - into the Australian Communist Party.

Then, as now, Australian spying has an edge of the Keystone Cops. Just as ASIO sent spies a few years ago to a Teddy Bear's Picnic in Melbourne, in the 1960s they were busy reporting on subversive activities such as Mother's Clubs. Picking up on this edge, Reeves has based The Spook, already winner of the Louis Esson Prize for Drama and two AWGIES, on the true story of an ASIO agent who spied for 20 years on the South Bendigo branch of the Communist Party.

Martin Porter (Luke Ryan) is the archetypal true-blue Australian, recruited at 19 to serve his country by Alex (Denis Moore) during a football match. He's a decent boy: not overly bright, profoundly conventional and eager to serve his country. But, as is clear when the play opens and he is discovered reporting into a tape recorder as undercover agent "Iago", he is also fired by the romance of having a double life.

Under Alex's guidance he takes evening classes in Dialectical Materialism and attends weekly branch meetings which, far from being staffed by sinister types with bombs under their armpits, are tedious affairs dominated by discussions of factionalism and the continuing drop in sales of the Tribune. Anyone who has had anything to do with Left factional politics in Australia will recognise the set-up instantly: Reeves has a gift for nuance, and her portrayals are wickedly accurate.

In spying, Martin finds an outlet for his conflicting desires: on the one hand, he is ostracised in Bendigo for his radical views, long sideburns and leather jacket, while on the other he satisfies his craving for paternal approval, with Alex and the fatherland standing in for his dead father. The Communist Greek couple he befriends, Eli and George Tassekis (Maria Theodorakis and Tony Nikolopoulos) introduces him to a richer idea of life than the white-bread-and-butter conventions of regional Victoria, but even as he draws closer into their confidence, he faithfully reports their most damaging secrets to the authorities. And finally, the results are tragic, destroying the lives of his associates.

It's interesting to compare this play to Don's Party, David Williamson's rueful take on late-60s leftists. Although its focus is country Victoria, The Spook strikes me as a much less parochial work with far greater emotional reach. Reeves deftly weaves international politics into the domestic drama, with the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring and the realities of Greece under the Colonels more than mere colourful background to her story. And it has considerable contemporary pertinence - a program note quotes an Age article which reports that ASIO has 20 per cent more staff now than at the height of the Cold War, and that since 2001 its budget has jumped from $69 million to $341 million this year. (Hello there, ASIO sparrow monitoring this blog!) Although this play looks like a comedy, its lightness of touch shouldn't fool you into thinking that's all it is.

Tom Healey has given it a huge production, in every sense, and it's hugely enjoyable. Anna Borghesi's ingeniously gorgeous set sprawls across the Merlyn, creating an interlocking flow of different domestic spaces in which walls lift to reveal sinisterly lit cloudscapes. Reeves is well served by an excellent cast: the performances are all good, catching the edge of caricature without becoming imprisoned by it. I especially admired Denis Moore in what could have been an unrewarding role as Alex, but which he infuses with a bitter pathos. However, in focusing - correctly, I think - on the comedy, Healey has missed some of the emotional depths that are also at work in the drama. This impacts especially in the second half, where some crucial moments are fudged. It struck me on the night I saw it as a matter of rhythm: perhaps, as it settles into its season, the production will heat up.

Both these plays, like all good theatre, make you reflect on the world's wider stages. In the flash and dazzle of the bigger spectacle, that may be a small thing; but in their affirmation of more humble and profound realities, it matters more than I can say.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Green Room Awards

In my new guise as Green Room Awards theatre panellist for 2007, I took more notice than usual of the nominations for the 2006 Green Room Awards, announced yesterday at the Princess Theatre. Quite a few of my personal favourites in the three theatre divisions (and very good to see the sadly underrated Eldorado getting a few deserved nominations) but it beats me how anyone could think Jason Donovan's catatonic face-pulling in Festen is noteworthy acting, or that It Just Stopped shouldn't have been quietly filed away in a bottom drawer and forgotten. I guess if everyone agreed, life would be a sight more dull...

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Review: The Nature of Things

The Nature Of Things, Season 1: Relics and Time, directed by Renato Cuocolo. Concept by Renato Cuocolo and Roberta Bosetti, media by Warwick Page, visual art by Andree Gersberck. With Roberta Bosetti. Undisclosed location (revealed at booking) until February 25. Bookings 9416 9447 or 0416 42 75 86.

The uncertain border between art and life permits art its special extremity, and life its proper respect. If it were true that, as George Steiner speculates, it is as morally culpable to murder a fictional character as it is to kill someone who exists in the "real" world, what novelist would dare to write the first page of a story?

But who polices this border, and where is it to be found? If the artist lives in the world, the world too lives in him; she, like everyone else, moves through quotidian existence. The artist is a human being like everybody else, neither above nor beneath the world, but simply in it. And if this is true, how can what an artist makes not be part of the world as well, how can an artist's work be separate from the materiality which is, in fact, the condition of its existence? How can there be, in fact, any border?

You see the lamentable effects of having a literal mind: it brings one bang up against contradiction. Art is literal, perhaps most literal in its ironies (as Hamlet says, "Madam, I know not seems") and The Nature of Things seems to me to be literal-minded to the point of the poetic. In this work, the duo who make up IRAA, Renato Cuocolo and Roberta Bosetti, draw as close as they can to the border between art and life; and the closer they come, the clearer it seems that a border does, in fact, exist: a shadowy border, to be sure, and open to constant dispute, but all the more perplexingly visible for its closeness.

Suppose that art is a formal frame that a number of people mutually agree to observe. Within this frame, everything becomes aestheticised. The more artless art seems, the more it becomes like art: and the more lifelike life is, the more it seems like art. The artful creation is the frame itself. The frame might be made of the 14 lines of a sonnet, or it might be the space of an installation. Or it could be, simply, a house in which two people have decided to put on a performance.

Is this tenable? Does this frame constitute the border between art and life? Because as I think along this line, I begin to think that the frame is in fact the artwork itself, which means the border between it and life (supposing life to be something different from art) exists beyond the frame. Perhaps art makes itself by defining itself against what is not art (which, as soon as it escapes the frame, becomes the rest of existence). But if there is a border - and at this moment I am agreeing with myself that there is - then, if the frame constitutes the artwork itself, that border cannot be the frame, and what the frame encloses - if it does enclose - cannot be art, either.

So what is this border, this discernible definition, that enables us to feel that something is a work of art? Is is simply the mutual agreement that something is a work of art? Or is it something else, an energy or vibrancy created by the formal relationships in the work, or an aura that the work emanates but that we, as witnesses, are complicit in creating? If one person agrees to perceive the framing but another doesn't, does it mean that the work is not art, after all, but life (or is it something else)? Or is the postulation of the frame enough?

This is intriguing, although, even as I write this, I am not sure that what I am writing is not very banal, trite observations of the merely obvious, or even arrant nonsense. But let me not stop here, with this doubt... Another proposition: it seems to me that art is, in even its most intricate or abstracted manifestations, a formal arrangement of reality. Its crucial aspect is that it is made, that certain things have been decided upon. The dimensions of the frame are purely arbitrary decisions of the artist: they may be almost nothing, barely visible, a mere breath; or they may occupy all perceptible space.

In all cases, without exception, this frame is a permeable thing, which life enters even when it appears to be banished entirely. This is because the life of the artwork exists in both those who make and those who witness it, and their lives are intrusive and messy. Art is not autobiography, and many artists, myself included, may vehemently reject autobiographical readings as misleading; but the artist can never, all the same, ignore the imprint of her specific time and place, his life.

And what of the audience? They may not pay attention: they may throw the book away, or forget the beginning of the sentence; they might walk past the painting without looking at it or fall asleep in the middle of the performance. One can never tell. This is why people are always disagreeing about art. And if it were not so, art would be the fascism it sometimes threatens to be, pure aesthetic air in which it would be impossible to breathe. I am at least quite certain that art is not possible without life. I am almost sure that life is not possible without art, although that is quite a different question.

So: we arrive at the designated suburban house, as if we were arriving for dinner at the home of a distant acquaintance. We are late, after a series of small misadventures, and anxious: in such an intimate piece, it is a solecism to be late. It is a hot night, already dark, and the house is no different from its neighbours, an unassuming weatherboard with a picket fence. The front door is opened by Renato Cuocolo, who welcomes us, assigns us tickets with numbers on them and ushers us into a front room, where he offers us wine or water to drink. Ah, we are guests, not members of an audience.

Nevertheless, this is a waiting room: ten chairs are arranged around the walls, and a television squats beneath a mantelpiece. Eight people are inside, with the uncomfortable expressions everyone wears in waiting rooms; it is too intimate for private conversation, and yet here we all are, close together, expectant, perhaps already impatient. People murmur, or attempt to strike up conversations with each other that are doomed to stutter into silence. Some are watching the television with close attention, although you feel that is more to avoid the slight discomfort than out of interest in what it is showing.

The television is playing a video of a house. A plaque next to it tells us the film was taken last year, in Vercelli, Italy, and that it is a childhood home. The camera wanders through the different rooms to the accompaniement of some kitsch music. We sip our drinks. Time passes.

Eventually, the door opens and Roberta Bosetti enters. She is a slim woman, with dark gold hair, smartly and casually dressed. Her voice is compelling, low and musical. After speaking about waiting ("life is waiting") she tells us to take note of the numbers on our tickets and leaves. More time passes. Eventually Cuocolo enters and calls some numbers, and those people leave the room. Then some more. One person is left behind. Is he being punished?

We are shown the rest of the house, which has been turned into an art exhibit, even the housemate sitting in her bedroom attempting to work on her computer. In the loungeroom is a lamp of a kind that used to be popular in children's bedrooms. It revolves, throwing patterns of shadow onto the walls. A brass plaque embedded in the table tells us what it is. In the dining room is a place setting, with a placemat, a knife and fork, which is also notated by a plaque. We move into the kitchen, and Roberta (she has introduced herself to all of us, and asked our names) asks us what we remember about our childhood homes.

I have too many childhood homes, so I remain silent. In any case, I have already made art out of my childhood, and this kind of contemplation is familiar to me; for me, a childhood home is not a place of continuity, but of fracture, a place that was always contingent and now no longer exists. Roberta is speaking of continuities: a home that she still visits, that still remains in the present.

A few people volunteer their own memories. The atmosphere has warmed: the impulse is suddenly to exchange, possibly to talk all night. Something, at last, seems to be happening, something rewards our curiosity. Is it enough? Some people appear to be doubtful...

But this is a performance after all, and the focus remains on Roberta, who moves easily and gracefully about the kitchen, a hostess attending to her guests. She is not quite casual, although she appears to be casual; she is speaking a remembered text, however it is improvised in the present. She makes coffee for those who want it and begins to speak about a single image that has imprinted itself as the primary memory of her own childhood home. It is puzzlingly trivial: it is about the texture of a tablecloth, the texture of a placemat, a plate with something in it. Why is it significant? She begins to tease it out, as it prompts the memories that surround it. "What we forget," she says, " is as important as what we remember".

When the coffee is made, we move outside, into the backyard. It is a beautiful night; a birch tree is spotlit in the background. We seat ourselves at a round table, and Roberta lights a candle that she cups in her hand, so that it illuminates her face. She has a beautiful face, classically Italian, like the face of a Madonna in a Renaissance painting, and now we can watch her closely, as one never watches someone across a table. Her remembered image multiplies, links to other memories, becomes a narrative, and bit by bit, in an irresistible spiral, we enter deeper and deeper into the drama of her childhood.

We glimpse her parents, we glimpse the lonely, precocious child who invents an imaginary friend. We are silent now: our task is to listen. And we do. It is no punishment to listen to this bewitching voice, to this poetic text which patiently unravels from the simplest materials something of the shadows that inhabit every life, that draws from the memories that mask our sadnesses some of their inner truth.

Then it is finished, and we stir, as if awakening, and are politely shown down the sideway and take our leave at the front gate. I talk about my childhood for the next half hour. The Nature of Things is, after all, as much about the fertilities it gently loosens in our own minds as it is about the experience of being there. It generously invites such meditations. Step by step, it imperceptibly draws us into the particular intimacy of theatre, disrupting our expectations so that we might listen, might pay attention in a way that becomes fruitful for our own memories, our own imaginings.

It seems almost nothing, almost artless. Perhaps it is no more than an invitation and a question: invitations may be refused, questions may be ignored. Yet the further away you are from the experience, the more formal you understand it is. It takes the conventions of social encounter and makes theatre from them; and as with all theatre, each audience member will have his or her private relationship with this event that is, after all, a public act. It is, in the most subtle and undramatic way, profoundly stirring. And, finally, profoundly beautiful.

IRAA Theatre

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Friday, February 16, 2007

On Dante

My review of Barbara Reynolds' Dante: The Poet, The Political Thinker, The Man was broadcast on ABC Radio National's The Book Show today. My rather unsuccessful Simon Schama imitation is presently audible at The Book Show's site, with a handy transcript for those who can't stand it any more.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Round the web

Over in London, our favourite anonyme Theatre Worker has been doing some serious renovating. The indispensible Encore Theatre Magazine now has a hip new style and its very own domain name. It kicks off with an excellent overview of the Royal Court under Dominic Cooke's direction. Check it out, and then check out David Eldridge's report on the Court's production of The Seagull. TW might have reservations about this kind of hit programming, but some of us down here by the Antarctic, enviously reading rave after rave about this production, are feeling the tyranny of distance.

Closer to home, welcome to Nicholas Pickard, a Sydney arts journalist who has recently picked up the blogging baton and is whipping up (presumably with said baton) a tasty froth of news, reviews and commentary that already looks promisingly useful for southern types who don't get to the Harbor City as often as they would like. And welcome too to Chloe Veltman, the chief theatre critic of SF Weekly, (that's San Francisco, bozos, not Isaac Asimov), who is demonstrating with her class blog that she's a class act.

And lastly - well, it's got nothing to do with theatre, but what the hell. It made me laugh. A spoof on mediaeval hi-tech.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Review: Detest / Chocolate Monkey / Rage Boy

Detest (This Thousand Years I Shall Not Weep) created by Angus Cerini, with music by Kelly Ryall, Courthouse @ La Mama until February 17.

Chocolate Monkey, written and performed by John-Paul Hussey, directed by Lucien Savron. Original music and sound design by Kelly Ryall, photography and visual design by Natalie Lowery, lighting design by Remo Vallance, Mark Benson and Luke Hails. The Amazing Business, presented by the Store Room Theatre Workshop at Full Tilt, the Victorian Arts Centre, until February 18.

Rage Boy by Declan Greene, directed by Susie Dee. Set and costume design by Emily Barrie, lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, video design by Nicholas Verso. Midsumma Festival at the Beckett, Malthouse Theatre, until February 10.

It's been a dislocating week. Not for any traceable reason, but still, discombobulating enough to scatter my neurones over a wide field. Permit me some bloggish indulgence as I attempt to gather these oddments into some semblance of coherency, in the hope that a random skitter through last week might get those neurones firing, or at least talking to their Team Leader. This will be long, so arm yourself with your liquid drug of choice, and then listen and attend, O my beloved, as I relate to you the banal marvels of ordinary life.

So: last week I managed to deliver my youngest boy to his first week at high school, complete with uniform, lace-up shoes, bus ticket and mobile phone. I agreed, after deep contemplation of the word "no", which does exist in my vocabulary somewhere, to be on a panel of the Green Room Awards. I read Robert Musil's Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One and George Bataille's Story of the Eye. I finished a review for the Book Show of Dorothy Reynolds' gigantic book on Dante and sat in a studio trying to imitate Simon Schama as I read it into a microphone ("It is common to compare Dante Aligheri’s epic poem the Divine Comedy to a cathedral: VAST, SOARING, sublime...") I considered the many reasons why I have never had the slightest impulse to be an actor. I worried about the reviews I wasn't writing.

I didn't go (although I put it in my diary) to David Williamson's John Sumner Lecture, which I idly thought to attend last Thursday. I just wanted to stay home with my new best friend, a box of Anti-Viral Facial Tissues that apparently "kills 99% of Cold & Flu Viruses, in the tissue". (Virucidal tissues seem to me a piquant symptom of the paranoia of contemporary middle class life.) I bored several people to catatonia talking about my Novel. (Formal apologies to all thus buttonholed, You Know Who You Are).

In the midst of all this, I saw three pieces of theatre, all by men and all, in various ways, exploring the dilemmas of masculinity. Two of them were monologues - Chocolate Monkey and Detest - and one, Rage Boy, had 10 cast members. Somehow all these works added to my general subjective scatteredness. It is as if I've been trying to listen to a conversation that is running at the back of my mind, a kind of shadowscape of thought which flickers past and refuses to coalesce into anything as concrete as mere words. So, as reviews often are, this will be an attempt to recuperate some fugitive impressions, to pin the butterfly to the wheel and see if it sings. Only more so than usual.

The above excess of confessional detail is, I suppose, prompted by the monologues. The performers so embed themselves - or perhaps more accurately, fictions of themselves - in their work that they call up similar self-reflection in response. So, if you're still reading, blame Angus Cerini and John-Paul Hussey (and, no doubt, their mutual musical collaborator, Kelly Ryall). Detest and Chocolate Monkey are, in very different ways, intensely personal works: they directly tangle with the vexed question of the self in art, foregrounding the performer's body to confront the audience with the discomforting, confronting fact of an actor's ontological existence.

In both of these shows, the audience is unable to be merely a spectator of an object called an actor, who plays for us roles hermetically sealed off from his or her life outside the theatre. Rather, we are drawn into direct relationship with a self that presents itself as autobiographical, with a performer who brazenly announces that he exists outside the four walls of the theatre, and who rudely intrudes his life on us, and himself, and art. This is dangerous territory but, using vastly differing strategies, both performers escape the trap of narcissism.

The two shows have even more in common. Both are parts of larger works - Cerini's is a further development of earlier works Puppy Love and This Thousand Years I Shall not Weep, while Hussey's is the first instalment of a trilogy. And both of these pieces arrive well-polished by performance, as they have been touring (Chocolate Monkey is a return season, and was a hit on its first showing). Even more intriguingly, they both have circular structures, finishing at their beginning. Perhaps it is the archetypal voyage of Odysseus: it is, after all, the journey that matters in both these works, and they both begin from a place of abjection, one of mockery, one of despair. As Cavafy says in the poem Ithaca, at the end of the journey, the beginning is still a place of poverty, with "nothing more to give". But "Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage".

Detest (this thousand years I shall not weep) made me think of Robert Musil's mischievous reflections on art and kitsch, which I was reading (see above) on the way to the play. "Is not art," asks Musil, "a tool we employ to peel the kitsch off life?...Can it be that the farther it is removed from life, the clearer art becomes?" In a series of absurd logical steps, Musil comes up with two syllogisms: that art peels kitsch off life, and that kitsch peels life off language. This leads to some even more absurd algebra ("life equals three times kistch") which in the end only proves that these syllogisms do not resolve.

Inside Musil's games are some serious questions: what is life? What is art? What is kitsch? He defines kitsch as a "firm, clearcut and immutable relationship between feeling and words". It seems to me that Cerini plays between these categories, art, life and kitsch, in very interesting ways.

If Detest is not quite kitsch, it plays with kitsch's cousin, sentiment, calling on understood codes of language to elicit specific responses. Cerini's language, generated from conversations in a juvenile prison, switches between vernacular obscenity and flights of lyrical yearning. Its narrative is simple: it tells the story of a 15 year old boy sent to prison for shaking his baby brother to death, and his visceral loathing of a boy found guilty of raping and murdering an old woman.

The writing itself ranges from very fine to very crude, but this strikes me as unimportant. What is important is how his text reveals the close relationship between the coded kitsch of sentiment and the aesthetic of fascism. Both are impoverishments of linguistic possibility, and thus of the possibilities of conscious experience. Cerini does not give us an articulate tongue, but rather a mouth that screams against its inabilities; life is horrifyingly in excess of language, and yet is constantly truncated by its limitations.

Words are poor things to hold up against the extreme realities of sexual desire or violence, or the banality of suffering. The gaps between simplistic language and complex reality cause the mind, unable to understand its own experience, to collapse inward under its emotional pressures. In Detest this pressure becomes intolerable, finally expressing itself in dreams of righteous retribution against the granny rapist. With chilling verisimilitude these dreams enact the obscene language of concentration camps, in a violent outspilling of self-loathing that becomes a fantasy of total annihilation.

It is impossible to separate Cerini's text from his body's expressiveness or from Kelly Ryall's soundscape and composition: all three elements are intimately woven to create an aria of grotesque anguish. In the cavernous spaces of the Courthouse, Cerini's body is a lonely thing, a poor bare forked animal, both exposed and concealed by the carefully minimal lighting design.

Make no mistake, Cerini's performance is exhilarating. Although it is very polished, this is peformance at its most raw, in that state Duchamp describes as "finally unfinished". After a prologue, partly in German, which self-consciously, even precociously, lays out for us the works we are about to witness, Cerini performs what is perhaps best described as a dance. His movement ranges from joyous to parodic, grotesque to bathetic: what is always foregrounded is his electric physical presence. He finally arrives at a stasis, endlessly jumping on the same spot, neither at rest nor in motion, as arresting an image of desolate entrapment as I have seen.

The commitment and intensity of his performance, its particular style of fearlessness, reminds me of Tom Waits, and like Waits it forces you to recategorise your judgements. Don't miss this one.

If Detest uses elements of a rock concert to make theatre, Chocolate Monkey employs the tropes of stand up comedy. John-Paul Hussey bills this show as "extreme storytelling", and its surreal verbal riffs remind me of nothing so much as Dylan Moran. (Perhaps it's the Irish accent, too, and the violent reaction against the easy kitsch of Oirishness).

It's easy to see why it was such a hit. Hussey is very funny indeed, with an ability to sketch vivid satirical portraits, at once mocking and fond, a raconteur's talent for accents and an appealing self-mockery; and under Lucien Savron's direction the show is slickly lit and designed. It's presented at the Arts Centre's Black Box under the aegis of the Store Room Theatre Workshop.

It's hard to say what Chocolate Monkey is about; its narratives splinter and dissolve, although in the mediaeval imagery projected on the stage and in the text itself there are many hints of a complex subtext. As Genet says of metaphor in the theatre, it ought to be like the rigging on a ship - visible from a distance. Here Hussey contents himself with subtleties that more properly belong to prose, and pushes the show through with the sheer vim of performance.

Among its several narratives, Chocolate Monkey traces the end of a relationship (described, in a striking image of mutual narcissism, as conjoined twins in a constrictingly narrow house) and Hussey's job as a auditor of the Melbourne rail system, which involved him trundling a measuring device over every inch of it, a physical purgatory that becomes a metaphor for redemption. But its central tale is of the disastrous production of an earlier show, Burnt Monkey, which through a series of comic misadventures never saw the light of day.

Hussey's fanatical eye for the eccentricities of inner thought and the extreme details of everyday experience - and his ability to communicate them - gives this piece its peculiar illumination. In a sense that is not dishonourable, it seems curiously pointless: he takes the risk of permitting the piece to be, like life itself, unclear, complex, full of loose ends and, in the end, resistant to interpretation. I am still unsure whether the risk is entirely successful, but I can say, unequivocally, that I enjoyed the ride. And I'm very curious to see what happens next.

The disappointment of the week was Declan Greene's play Rage Boy, which had a short return season as part of the Midsumma Festival after a production last year at Melbourne University's Student Union Theatre. It is narrated by Toby Milk (Aaron Orzech), a young man disabled by polio. His family is violently and colourfully dysfunctional: his father Daddy Rice (Marc Testart) is a wannabe revolutionary folksinger with a swastika tattooed on his forehead, his grandfather Grampy Milk (Adam Wieczorek) a demented and bitter old man still in love with his Nazi twin brother, the household hobby watching porn on television, and so on. Toby has a couple of similarly dysfunctional friends.

Perhaps it's unsurprising that Toby, the archetypal innocent-at-large, falls in love with the rich lunacy of the Talent family, who are Jehovah's Witnesses who believe that the world will end in a fortnight. He decides to get baptised and to wait for the end of the world, which might be more interesting than the world as it is.

About ten minutes in, following the week's tradition of being reminded of other artforms, I began to think of Napoleon Dynamite. The problem was that then I couldn't stop thinking about it. It's not just that this play exploits the same po-faced quirkiness (with, it must be said, rather less success at humanising its eccentric cast of misfits). It's also that its conventions are more those of film than theatre; indeed, large parts of it are filmed, projected on the back of the stage to the accompaniment of a voiceover from Toby.

Here Musil's discussion of kitsch and art might come in handy again. As Musil comments, "the more abstract kitsch becomes, the more it becomes kitsch". Greene's script demonstrates that his reputation as a promising young playwright is not unearned, but that he is as yet unable to transcend the constrictions of his own conventions. In its grotesque alienations, his satire is in fact more kitsch than its models, and its supposed taboo-breaking is, in fact, very tame. Perhaps what surprised me most of all, given its title, was that there is very little anger in this show at all. If anything, it leans towards the sentimental.

It's given an elegant production by Susie Dee which, using the device of seating actors around the edge of the stage when they are not in a scene, moves with admirable despatch. There was certainly no point where I was actually bored. But, despite an appealing central performance from Aaron Orzech, I can't say it captured my imagination. Rage Boy is curiously affectless; certainly, compared to the other two shows, it is - paradoxically enough - the one that strikes me as self-indulgent. In art, I guess, the putative subject matter is usually what matters least.

And that, O my beloved, has been my week. If you have read this far, I thank you for your attention. And now I must attend to my washing.

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Contemporary Australian Drama 2

Quick note - Julian Meyrick, associate director at the MTC, has a review of Leonard Radic's Contemporary Australian Drama in today's Age. Very different take to mine, and I hasten to say that I respect Meyrick's opinion. Just one quibble, for which I beg your indulgence, because it's close to home; but I do think it matters beyond the personal. Meyrick notes that "[Radic's] overview of Daniel Keene is particularly valuable, giving a sense of the range and stylistic variation this brilliant stage writer has achieved."

Perhaps this is so. But it's kind of distressing that this chapter will probably be a first port of call for those interested in Keene's work, because it is shockingly incomplete. Although it considers many shorter works, it doesn't mention several major plays, including what many (admittedly French) critics consider his most significant play, Terminus. Terminus premiered in Adelaide, as part of the decade-long collaboration between Keene and Tim Maddock of the Red Shed Company (also not mentioned at all, although the equally significant, if shorter, collaboration with Ariette Taylor is discussed at length).

It wouldn't matter if the book didn't claim to be comprehensive; but it does. I just note this rather sadly as a corrective: once something is framed between the covers of a book, it tends to gain the holy aura of fact. And this is how people get unjustly written out of history.

PS I just remembered a response I wrote to Terminus after its premiere in 1996. Nobody would publish it because it is not done to respond to work involving one's spouse; but hey, back then nobody else would do it. The play itself is available from Salt Publishing in the collection Terminus and Other Plays.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

TN blanks out

This by way of apology. Yes, Ms TN has had a horrendous fortnight. My excuses are extreme financial panic, the beginning of the school year and something that is either hayfever or a distant cousin of bird flu. (Wren flu? It makes me sneeze two dozen times in a row every night at precisely 9pm. Very embarrassing in a theatre. Also, large parts of my brain have gone missing. Have I thrown them away with my used tissues?) All this excitement has left me interestingly wan and unable to do much more than wiggle my fingers over the keyboard as I call feebly for the butler to bring me a snifter of brandy.

Chris Goode, poet at large and theatre wizard of notable musical taste, writes this kind of nonsense much better than I do; so while you're waiting for the two reviews delayed by my cerebral shortcomings (on the way, I promise), hare off to Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, where he speaks of many interesting things. Lately, Robert Wilson and Chris's recent visit to Sydney, where his show Kiss of Life was part of the Sydney Festival. He now has a President for his fanclub. Chris, meet Avi; Avi, Chris.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Advertisement for myself

Yes, I have a new chapbook out, I must be a real poet. It's almost a slim volume, running to 40 pages, and is beautifully made by Cusp Books in LA. The design, which features details from Durer's Melancholia, is by Susan Guntner. I'm well pleased. Advertisement follows:

birds are returning line by line
near the river their shadows gather

black and still where water sifts
silver on ash ash on silver

lovely the creatures of light springing down
from cloud to home

neither suspended nor in motion
brick and wood are things of flame

fire remembered and foretold
making and ending

(from: Translations from Nowhere)

Ash, poems by Alison Croggon, is now available from Cusp Books. US $10.00 (UKP 5.00, EU 8.00, AU $13.00), including postage. Contact David Lloyd at

Also available from Cusp Books: Sill, by David Lloyd ($8.00, incl. p&p). Forthcoming this (northern) Spring: I ran from it and was still in it, by Fred Moten; and Act Zero, by Alfred Arteaga. ($8.00 each, $30.00 for the set of 4).

And while I'm at it, I might as well plug Angel Exhaust 19, which is just out. It's the latest issue of the legendary (at times even mythical) British poetry magazine. Edited by Charles Bainbridge and Andrew Duncan, it includes some of my work among a tasty menu of contemporary poetry, mainly from the UK but also, obviously, from further afield. 140 pages available now for £7 from Andrew Duncan at, 12 Eliot Hill, Lewisham, London, SE13 7EB.

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