Review: Detest / Chocolate Monkey / Rage Boy ~ theatre notes

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.


richardwatts said...

Alison - we saw the exact same productions last week, and like you, I found Rageboy the least enjoyable of the three. Have you read Woodhead's undeservedly glowing review of it in The Age?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Richard - no, I've not had the pleasure, but somehow I would expect we'd disagree on that one. Perhaps it will be online soon... I am wondering if Woodhead's reviewing Cerini's piece: in its last incarnation (which I didn't see) he kindly suggested that young Angus should take lessons in "pushing the envelope" from Sir David Hare! Whether or not you like Cerini's work (or indeed Sir David's), that's bizarre. On so many levels I can't even begin to say...

Anonymous said...

Cameron Woodhead's 'review' of Rageboy was anything but. He described the content of play, listed the actors, said writer Declan Greene was someone to watch- but as for actually reviewing the production- nothing. He may as well have written a book report.
It is so frustrating as a reader to look for a review of a production and not be given a considered verdict. there are so few theatre reviews in the mainstream press, why waste paper on lazy journalism like this?

richardwatts said...

To be fair to Cameron, it appears his Age review of Rageboy was butchered in the editing process, according to a comment he just posted on my blog. Not only was his review gutted in the process, he says, but his actual take on the production was completely skewed ...

Alison Croggon said...

These things happen. Whenever I curse over typos and spelling mistakes here, I remember the sub who, in a industrial affairs story I filed, changed a crucial "was not" to "was", thus making me appear to be a prime idiot.

Good to see Cameron haunting the blogosphere. I hope he replies to my question.

richardwatts said...

'Haunting the blogosphere,' Alison? Heavens, you make him sound like the Canterville Ghost. :-)

Alison Croggon said...

We all haunt the blogosphere, no, Richard? Poor pale ghosts that we are, freshening up the ancestral bloodstains with a little purple paint...all the same, I wasn't meaning to suggest that there was anything posthumous about Cameron.