Newsy bitsReview: Exit the KingGhost writerReview: The Season at SarsaparillaInterludeNew plays?Review: Black, The Ghost Writer, Ashes to AshesReview: GraceMe on blogsThe Writer, The Theatre, The PlayReview: All My SonsThe Playwright as KingPunchus sublimatusVale: Lindzee Smith ~ theatre notes

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Newsy bits

TN has got a little behind lately on various Bits, but I'm not going to make any more mimsy excuses. You all know why, and if you don't, well, it's not because I haven't been complaining. Below the fold, as they say, is a quick catch-up for all you breathless thespian newshounds snuffling at the door of the nouvelle...

  • La Mama Theatre has been getting a fair bit of coverage lately, reminding us all why it ill deserves its current "on notice" status at the Australia Council (news broken, sort of, by TN last year). The latest mark of its value as theatrical gem is La Mama dominating the Best New Australian Play category in the 2006 Green Room awards, with three of the five plays nominated being La Mama productions: Debt by Gabrielle Macdonald, Haul Away by Glynis Angell and The Pitch by Peter Houghton (which coincidentally opens in a new season at the Malthouse next week, where I will catch up with it). The other nominations are Stephen Sewell's It Just Stopped (Malthouse) and Joanna Murray-Smith's The Female of the Species (MTC). Hmmm. Guess I'm barracking for La Mama. In all, La Mama received 12 nominations across all categories.
  • Over in New York, George Hunka has joined the rest of us hoi polloi, and has moved the premises of the excellent Superfluities to Blogger. So note the address change. And while you're noting, note also his thoughts on theatre blogging, prompted by a blogging panel (we're a bit behind here, we don't have blogging panels. Yet.) Mr Hunka makes a clarion call for the blogosphere to leave its adolescence and grow up by providing a serious space for serious discussion about theatre, as no longer practised in what we new media types call the Mainstream Media (MSM to the cognoscenti). "If the arts blogosphere is to provide that space for the criticism and reviews that have fallen into disfavor in the print media, it has to begin providing the quality of criticism and thinking about theatre that critics like Gilman, Eric Bentley and Robert Brustein demonstrated," says The Man. Too right, say I. SF Weekly theatre critic Chloe Veltman has her own view: "Arts coverage is disappearing from 'old' media and moving increasingly online," she says on her blog. "The most interesting cultural journalism is happening online these days, on blogs and in the pages of web 'zines." Not least in sunny Melbourne, where it's all happening. Which brings me to...
  • Spark Online, a blog established by the Victorian College of the Arts student arm, includes reviews, poetry, scripts and news of upcoming VCA events (put that rare performance of Hélène Cixous's The Perjured City in your diary). The theatre reviews are very impressive: probing, serious and well written. Another source of local reviews that are a cut above the usual is Matthew Clayfield's Esoteric Rabbit; Matthew is presently infiltrating Melbourne Stage Online with his dangerously thoughtful responses. Go Melbourne, city of glittering conversation!
  • It seems that some nudity in Sir Ian McKellan's performance of Lear is causing a little consternation in Stratford-Upon-Avon, with theatregoers reporting "dismay" at the fact that they were not warned that they would get to witness Sir Ian's jiggly bits. Will Melburnians blink when the RSC production comes here in July? Expect to see the Arts Centre plastered with warning signs for delicate arts consumers - there's eye gouging, adultery and excess poetry as well as nudity, you know...
  • And a PS: a whack on my forehead for being parochial - I shouldn't forget Sydney, where the blogscene is beginning to spark... After a bad time at The Nightwatchman at the Griffin, Nicholas Pickard has a passionate post in which he thinks through how his responses to theatre stem from his own preoccupations as a director. Here he discusses his belief that a "plague of realism" is infecting Australian directing. Meanwhile, David Williams, director of Sydney performance group Version 1.0, has begun his own blog, Compromise is Our Business, which is well worth a squiz or two: it includes discussions of shows (a review of Chunky Move's Glow) and some illuminating and even amusing reflections on politics and theatre. (Will update my blogroll soon, promise...)

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Review: Exit the King

Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco, directed by Neil Armfield. Designed by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Damien Cooper, composer John Rodgers, sound design Russell Goldsmith. With Billie Brown, Julie Forsythe, Gillian Jones, Rebecca Massey, Geoffrey Rush, David Woods, music by Scott Tinkler. Merlyn @ the Malthouse until April 21.

Like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco is aging well. As the years roll on, he just looks more and more hip. While contemporaries like John Osborne or Arthur Miller have gained a tinge of sepia, the mark of the "classic" that is an expression of its time and must be seen through a lens of metaphor in order to reflect ours, Ionesco sparkles with contemporary bite: he took a short cut and made a metaphor in the first place. He was never concerned with the social applicability of his work, and directed his intelligence towards very simple things - death and loneliness, mainly - writing about them with a directness and clarity that, paradoxically, gave him a reputation as a fiercely difficult playwright.

In a 1958 review of a revival of The Chairs, Kenneth Tynan accused Ionesco of turning his back on reality. "M. Ionesco certainly offers an 'escape from realism': but an escape into what?" he asked. "A blind alley, perhaps... [his] theatre is pungent and exciting, but it remains a diversion. It is not on the main road." Ionesco's reply, in which he claimed that man as a social animal was inevitably alienated, prompted a storm of voices talking at cross-purposes, that in 2007 looks at once faintly puzzling and depressingly familiar. Ionesco's refusal to hoist himself to a progressive ideology, his horrified rejection of any political or social agenda, could only be regarded by his peers as the most reprehensible nihilism. Yet Ionesco's final reply seems to me to be an immensely moving statement of faith in the possibility of what remains, in the face of all of the confusions and impossibilities of language, communicable between human beings:

When my lieutenant and my boss are back in their homes, alone in their rooms, they could, for example, just like me, being outside the social order, be afraid of death as I am, have the same dreams and nightmares, and having stripped off their social personality, suddenly find themselves naked, like a body stretched out on the sand, amazed to be there and amazed at their own amazement, amazed at their own awareness as they are confronted with the immense ocean of the infinite, alone in the brilliant, inconceivable and indisputable sunlight of existence. And it is then that my general or my boss can be identified with me. It is in our solitude that we can all be reunited.

As the brutal history of the 20th century collapsed the categories of right and left ideologies into a maze of contradictory mirrors, it began to look rather as if Ionesco's dark but surprisingly joyous vision might have been more prescient than it was allowed in his time. His sceptical humanity is bracing when the possibility of belief seems to be decaying into a kind of mediaevalism, and when the pressures of modernity have made the self uniquely atomised and lonely. Certainly, Exit the King - which charts the gradual death of a monarch who has reigned past his allotted time - has lines that bite deeply into the political present. But the play is ultimately a lament for human mortality, all the more poignant for its pitiless and anarchic comedy.

Berenger, the King (Geoffrey Rush) is a parodic portrayal of the ultimate patriarch. He has seen better days: his demesne once extended over 9000 million people, but now he rules over less than a thousand prematurely-aged subjects, and what is left of his kingdom keeps falling into an abyss. His court is reduced to a shabby retinue: there's the domestic help Juliette (Julie Forsythe), who also fulfils the functions of nurse, cook and general dogsbody, the Guard (David Woods) and the Doctor (Billie Brown), who is also the astrologist and executioner, and his two rival queens, Marie (Rebecca Massey) and Margeurite (Gillian Jones).

As we are informed, the King must die by the end of the play. The play itself is simply a matter of getting there, as Berenger howls against his fate, moving from denial to terror to pathos to a final, moving acceptance. Ionesco has literalised the tyranny of the ego, which at the point of death refuses to contemplate its own annihilation, and will give anything - even the destruction of the entire world - if only it can go on living. But even the King, who once, we are given to believe, could command the sun itself, has to bow before death.

It's fair to say that I went to this production with high expectations. Not only is it a wonderful play with passages of breathtakingly beautiful writing, but Armfield's production features a cast of such depth and talent that it sizzles on the page. It could have become a star vehicle for Rush - and he is, after all, a genuine star - but Armfield has wisely ensured that his production is more than a frame for Rush's performance. Still, I was looking forward to seeing Rush on stage again.

I've seen him in some remarkable roles. Neil Armfield's 1989 production of Gogol's Diary of a Madman, with Geoffrey Rush as Poprishchin, the obsequious clerk whose banal life slides into pitiable madness, was one of the great moments in Australian theatre. Rush's wonky entrance on stage, teetering beneath improbably high carrot-red hair, is one of my cherished theatrical memories. Equally memorable was his performance as Khlestakov in The Government Inspector at the Sydney Opera House, again under Armfield's direction, in a carnivalesque production that seemed to include half of the stand-up comics in Sydney. He also made a wickedly good John Worthing in Simon Phillips' justly celebrated production of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. That was, of course, before he became hugely famous, when he was simply the best comic stage actor in Australia.

In Exit the King, he makes a triumphant return to his natural element. Rush is the brilliant centre of a sparkling ensemble: after a slightly sticky twenty minutes or so at the beginning of the play, his performance is as remarkable as any I've seen. Rush is a great clown, and this role gives him plenty of scope for physical humour, especially in a scene in which (as the Guard announces) "The King is Marching!" But his skill is evident in his restraint; he never allows grotesquerie to degenerate into mere cartooning. Like Ionesco's writing, he keeps his options open: anything is possible at any time. He plays the full range of the text, from broad comedy to brutality to sheer pathos, until he becomes the everyking we all are, alone and afraid in our shabby kingdoms, facing the dark.

Neil Armfield's production fully exploits the shadowy spaces of the Merlyn, with Dale Ferguson's set sprawling the width of the theatre, its various exits leading off into darkness. The throne room is draped with huge tapestries, the throne itself rather tacky. The colours are rich and warm, glowing in the darkness, creating a sense of delapidated grandeur. The musician/herald Scott Tinkler is spotlit in the balcony, opening the stage up again to wider perspectives. Underneath Russell Goldsmith's subtly textured sound design is an ominous, subliminal rumbling, something like the sound of heavy trucks going by, as if the whole building is about to collapse. The actors are miked, giving their performances a certain extra formality and alienation which is not inappropriate, but it was the only aspect of the production I wasn't sure of; the sound was a little wobbly the night I saw it, and it slightly flattened the actors' voices. (On balance, though, I think this decision paid off in the end.)

Rush is surrounded by some excellent performances, and each actor has his or her moment of virtuosic display. David Woods, whom I last saw in the Ridiculusmus production of The Importance of Being Earnest, is another accomplished clown, clanking around the set in his armour and announcing every petty detail of the action. Billie Brown as the Doctor, the avatar of death or fate, is a model of obsequious tyranny, and Julie Forsythe, who has possibly the most ridiculous hairstyle I've seen, is at her comedic best as the harrassed and resigned maid Juliette. Rebecca Massey as Queen Marie, the symbol of sensuous pleasure, trembles with a kind of luminous courage in the midst of her melodramatic excesses. Gillian Jones' performance as Marguerite, the first wife who reminds him of his unpleasant duty to die, is quite fascinating. At first I was a little puzzled, as she seemed strangely monotonal (if satisfactorily regal), but by the end of the play I was completely bewitched.

In the final scene of Exit the King, Ionesco reverses the perception of death, which we generally see as a departure from the world. The King is, after all, the subject of this play, in every sense of that word, and it is not the King who departs, but everything else. The vanishing of Berenger's world and his entrance into death is accompanied by a hypnotic monologue from Marguerite in which she conducts him through the process of relinquishment, towards the landscape of death. The writing recalls Rilke's Tenth Duino Elegy or perhaps aspects of Dante's Comedy, but it is, in its final refusal of illusion, all Ionesco's own. The last ten minutes or so of this production is, quite simply, astounding theatre, the kind that makes you hold your breath and reminds you why you persist with this beautiful, frustrating artform, so apt to failure and disappointment. Theatre can summon a joy that's like anguish, an exhilaration at once ephemeral and unforgettable, that you can find nowhere else.

Picture: Geoffrey Rush and Julie Forsythe in Exit the King. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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Ghost writer

If you haven't caught up with it, allow me to point you to a fantastic post (really, an essay) among the responses to my review of Ross Mueller's The Ghost Writer, recently on at the MTC. Anon, heretofore known as Ghost, raises a thorny tangle of questions which your faithful blogger didn't, er, have the guts to raise herself, although I was also disturbed by the same questions. In particular, Ms/Mr Ghost addresses the elephant in the bedroom: Why is Brihanna (Margaret Harvey - who also gives the best performance in the play) Aboriginal? The length of Ms/Mr Ghost's post, which is I think a most acute discussion of the implications of this casting, suggests why I felt unable to ask this question myself - I just didn't know how to approach it without either crudely reducing the problem and sounding - um - racist, or on the other hand writing a thesis. (Yes, yes, I know, pathetic). As our own Ghost says:

Even if it was a simple as Margaret being the best actor for the role - I think we still have to consider the implications of casting, particularly in this story, which is so loaded and fraught with social complexities and challenges that I’d argue a “colour-blind” casting would be impossible. Can I be provocative, and dare to make the suggestion, that perhaps, it was easier for this MTC production to give an illiterate -Woodstocks - at- 10am-Horizon-smoking-woman-unable-to care-for-or-save-her-child, an Aboriginal identity? Could this have been thought somehow more audience-acceptable, rather than challenging the white, educated, urban, wealthy professional (WEUWP) audiences about the same traits in white culture? Why deliberately perpetuate such unhelpful negative stereotypes of Aboriginal culture, when these of Brihanna’s defining character traits, are actually, especially when seen in the Leskie case, products of class? Instead of offering a more benign symbol of black/white relations (which is what I suspect Mueller intended), The Ghost Writer feels to me to be quite sinister.

It's interesting, thoughtful and fair commentary which also addresses troubling gender questions - go read it in full here. Any further comments, especially from those who saw or were part of the production, are very welcome.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Review: The Season at Sarsaparilla

The Season at Sarsaparilla by Patrick White, directed by Benedict Andrews. Design by Robert Cousins, costumes by Alice Babidge, lighting by Nick Schlieper, composition by Alan John, sound design by David Gilfillan. With Martin Blum, Brandon Burke, Peter Carroll, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Alan John, Hayley McElhinney, Amber McMahon, Colin Moody, Pamela Rabe, Emily Russell, Dan Spielman and Helen Thomson. Sydney Theatre Company @ the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until March 31.

I have never sat among such a noisy audience as that which packed the Drama Theatre for The Season at Sarsaparilla last Friday night. It was like being in a high school assembly or among a flock of especially loquacious parrots. There was no hint of reverence, no sense that we were entering the Temple of Art for a dose of cultural self-improvement: rather, a diverse bunch of people of various ages were decked out in their gladrags for a night at the Opera House, in full and garrulous expectation of having an enjoyable evening. They were there, gentle reader, for pleasure.

I had to keep reminding myself that it was Patrick White who was causing such excited anticipation: the monstrously highbrow, improper Patrick White, whose works allegedly defeat all common understanding. (Why, he might as well be German). Moreover, he was to be directed by that ferocious enfant terrible Benedict Andrews, who debuted in Melbourne last year with a stunning production of Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado. While TN loved this show, others seemed to be affronted that such examples of "fringe" theatre should mistakenly stray onto a main stage. Critic Peter Craven, leading the charge of the slight brigade, claimed that Eldorado was so "resolutely anti-mainstream" that it was "excruciating".

So there I was, staring at a classic Howard Arkley brick veneer with a tiled roof and a screen door. In its dark windows the chatty audience members were reflected in ghostly rows, just as they were reflected in the huge window that made up the bulk of Eldorado's set. On either side of the house were ominous signs of fringey-type multimedia: two large screens, now blank. In the far left corner was a Hammond organ. But what a difference an Opera House makes! Everything seemed very mainstream to me.

But enough sniping. This is a magnificent production of The Season at Sarsaparilla, illuminating the complex textures of White's dramaturgy with some ingenious and bold decisions, and the cast moves with astounding suppleness between the play's vivid emotional contrasts. It's funny, heart-breaking and wise, and also, at every level, extremely intelligent. Like most of the Drama Theatre audience, I loved it; it rewards you richly while reminding you that theatre is, as Brett Whitely once said of art, a "difficult pleasure".

A scathing attack on the Great Australian Emptiness, The Season at Sarsaparilla is equally a shatteringly poignant paean to the life that beats within it. At its simplest it's a portrait of sleepy suburbia, woken to its repressed desires by the howls of a bitch on heat who is pursued by a pack of dogs (the "season" of the title). The action follows the mundane lives of three households over a few days: a young girl becomes pregnant and kills herself; another falls in love; a marriage cracks under infidelity; a man loses a friend; a woman has a baby. The sensual heat of desire, acknowledged, abused or repressed, shapes the entire action of the play.

White's ambivalence runs through the core of every character in the play. He makes merciless fun of the rigid respectability of Girlie Pogson (Peter Carroll) and her campaign against nasty "words" and other assaults by reality on feminine respectability; but equally, as with all his characters, he also reveals her essential innocence, the yearning that tremulously glows beneath her starched frock. Likewise, the blazing innocence of Ron Suddards (Dan Spielman) - "a decent fellow", as White describes him - is easily mocked, but it's Suddards who wins the girl from the would be writer Roy Child (Eden Falk).

You get the feeling that White isn't being ironic when he makes Judy Pogson (Hayley McElhinney) passionately defend the value of human decency against the sneers of "clever people" like Roy. Like Kafka, White understood the profound value of kindness; Roy Child is, as his name suggests, too young and too impatient to have learnt what it means, and his cruelty is a defence against its seduction into mediocrity. Even Roy senses that he will not become a true writer until he has acknowledged the tenderness that lives in Sarsaparilla, which is ultimately his own, and which he can neither accept nor wholly reject. As he says at the end of the play, "You can't shed your own skin, no matter how it itches." (That remark is, like everything else in this play, ambiguous: Roy's "skin" might refer to the discontented consciousness that drives him out of Sarsaparilla as much as it does to Sarsaparilla itself.)

White balances the tensions between the men and women very finely. The play is set in the women's domains, the houses full of consumer goods that the men march off to work every morning to pay for, and it's the women who haunt you. White saw, with an acuity which eluded many of his contemporaries, exactly how women were trapped by the mores of their time. He created some memorable portraits: Pippy Pogson (Amber McMahon), the tomboy being anxiously reined into the limits of her femininity; Girlie Pogson herself, and most of all Nola Boyle (Pamela Rabe), the slatternly wife of the night soil man Ernie (Brandon Burke).

Nola, given here a revelatory performance by Rabe, is the apogee of ambiguity; the personification of earthy sensuality, she is nevertheless infertile. For all her barreness, she is the pulse of life in the suburb, its generous, despised heart. Like Roy, she perceives the endless cycle of reproduction with a horrified clarity; unlike Roy, whose response is cruelty, Nola is stung into compassion. Yet the price of her knowledge is pain, and her fall and redemption expose an appalling loneliness: a close-up of Rabe's anguished face at a critical moment shows us precisely what it costs.

Nola's infidelity - portrayed here as a kind of rape - with her husband's "best mate", Digger Masson (Colin Moody), is the axis on which the play turns: it's the moment when young Pippy understands for the first time the darkness of adult sexuality, and the true significance of the howls behind the safe, identical houses as maddened dogs pursue the "hot bitch". To mitigate this horror, she can only retreat into the complacency of domestic animals, the cow-like Mrs Pogson or the passive contentment of the young mother Mavis Knott (Emily Russell). It's a bleak picture, but White gives his characters a stubborn, vital dignity that infuses the play with a strangely joyous illumination.

The Actors Company brings the play to rich life. Rabe's performance of Nola is a stand-out, one of the truly great stage portrayals, and her scenes with both Colin Moody and Brandon Burke are electrifying; but she shines among many achievements. You want to go on and on: every actor (including a couple of cameos from composer Alan John; I didn't know he could act as well as write music) is performing at a pitch and complexity that means you are teetering on the edge of the "perpetual slight surprise" that Coleridge demanded of poetry; you never know what to expect, but when it arrives, it has its own truth and inevitability. Still, I won't forget the Pogson family: Peter Carroll's Girlie, a wonderful mixture of true pathos and comedy, is a piece of inspired casting, and John Gaden as Clive Pogson is a great foil.

In his direction, Benedict Andrews invokes conventions that are instantly recognisable from Eldorado, if subtly inflected for this production. He plays intriguingly with alienating effects like miked voices and windows, using them to both displace and heighten the emotional textures of the text, and he invokes a sense of autumnal desolation with coloured leaves fluttering from the flies onto Robert Cousins' stylish set. His most inspired decision, however, is to locate the action within a single house. Where White specified that the action was to take place in three back yards, Andrews has the different families criss-crossing one kitchen, as we watch them through three huge windows. As in Eldorado - or indeed, Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Dernier Caravanserail - the audience members are enticed into a voyeuristic complicity, peering through the windows like nosey neighbours.

This sense of voyeurism is heightened by cameras dotted, Big Brother-style, inside the house. It permits us to witness moments of almost unbearable privacy: we see characters in grotesque close-up - eating dinner, showering, contemplating their reflections in the mirror - even as we watch them in the flesh on stage. If it were handled with less tact, this could become merely an irritating trick, but Andrews modulates the cameras with superb sensitivity, drawing us into horrified compassion with one shot, invoking disgust with another, heightening the comedy with a third. You will seldom see multimedia used to such precise and powerful effect as here.

This production makes very clear how the investment in the Actors Company has paid off for the STC. There is a certain subliminal sense of ease that can only be achieved by an ensemble, and it is palpable in the general quality of what happens between the performers on stage. As the company lined up for the applause that was their due, a large part of me sighed heavily. I just can't imagine such a production emerging from the rehearsal rooms of the Melbourne Theatre Company. Frankly, I'm envious of Sydney.

Picture: Peter Carroll and Pamela Rabe in The Season at Sarsaparilla. Photo: Tania Kelley.

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Yes, patient readers, your hyper-worded blogger ran away from Melbourne and immersed herself in the fleshpots of Sydney, far far away from the keyboard, which remained untouched for three whole days.

My excuse was loyal spousehood: the Keene has a play running at the Griffin Theatre, and the refreshing prospect of seeing his work in a language I understand was as seductive as the siren call of that gorgeous slattern of the north. As it turned out, we didn't see The Nightwatchman, because the illness of a castmember sadly forced the cancellation of the performance the night we were due to come. Despite that huge disappointment, we had a wonderful time, as we always do in Sydney, and even relaxed. I feel almost human now, although we all know that won't last.

Knowing that I couldn't, for obvious reasons, divert you with my responses to a play by Keene, and would have in any case merely referred you to John McCallum's glowing review in the Australian, I popped in to see another Sydney production, of which more later. Now I'm back safely manacled to my keyboard, and rather drowned in reviewing requests. I feel very torn about this: there are more than a few shows I really should write about, and I simply can't get to them. I am also touched, even a little flattered, by the requests, including the one that asked if a member of my "team" could spend a week in Tasmania. Perhaps the answer really is to clone myself?

For the record, I am on a strict diet of two shows a week until this novel I keep talking about gets finished. The plain fact is that the novel is due by June, and that means 10,000 words a week, and that means I have to marshal my resources with some degree of sense, or I might end up in hospital again (the blog is not my only extra-novel activity). And such is the richness of Melbourne theatre, my diary fills very quickly. So many, many apologies to those I am forced to miss - you can perhaps take comfort in the thought that among the invites I've passed on is Miss Saigon - and thank you to those people who demonstrate such faith in me. It keeps me going, even as I quail before it.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

New plays?

A quick pointer before I dash to Sydney towards the SMH, where entertainment blogger Chris Dobney uses Stephen Sewell's latest play at Belvoir to ring the usual decline and fall changes on Australian theatre (where are the golden plays of yesteryear, &c). Sewell turns up in the comments to defend himself...

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Review: Black, The Ghost Writer, Ashes to Ashes

Black, created by Anna Tregloan. Sets and costume design Anna Tregloan, composition and sound design David Franzke, lighting design by Paul Jackson. Dramaturge Maryanne Lynch. With Martyn Coutts, Moira Finucane, Caroline Lee and James Wardlaw. Tower Theatre @ The Malthouse, until April 1.

The Ghost Writer by Ross Mueller, directed by Julian Meyrick. Design by Stephen Curtis, composer Darren Verhagen, lighting by Paul Jackson. With Margaret Harvey, Belinda McClory, Raj Sidhu and John Wood, Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre until April 21.

Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter, directed by Sam Strong. Design by Melissa Page, lighting by Danny Pettingill, sound by Rob Stewart. 45 Downstairs, Flinders Lane, until March 24.

I am beginning to think that one day soon I'll disintegrate into a cloud of written words: where once were real muscles and sinews and bone, a glistening collection of viscera and nerve and skin and fluids, you will find a kind of alphabetic mist. Words, words, words, as Hamlet said with such memorable impatience. How long can I keep on morphing between hack journalist, sort-of reviewer, genre novelist and even, now and again, real writing (I can tell the real writing because that's the stuff that really wipes me out) before I reach some kind of critical mass and implode?

Perhaps, like the decline and fall of the West, the worst has already happened and I am already my own linguistic hallucination, a kind of pixilated fallout, and just haven't realised it yet. Thank God for the theatre, say I, because at least it gets me out of the house and distracts me from morbid speculation. The irony being, of course, that my theatre-going generates the necessity for yet more words. Not, please note, that I am complaining; I mean, I really do believe that it's hard to have too much of a good thing, and I am on the hotline to God to arrange more hours in the day.

This week I saw three shows, each very different from the other but all of them, in different ways, about atrocity. Given my delicate state of imminent dissolution, I hesitate to say that I am going to "review" them. Take my responses as the ravings of a post-virtual neurotic, and cheer on the Singularity, when neuroplasty will give us all such miraculous brains that the idea of human limitations will be as quaint as cooperage or The Flat Earth Society.

Which is, I guess, a long-winded way of saying that I'm a bit tired, and I will do my best.

Of all the shows I saw last week, Anna Tregloan's Black is the only one that offered the unmistakeable satisfaction of an achieved work. But before I say anything about it, I'd like to consider briefly what it is. A big elephant stamp to the Malthouse for inviting into a main theatre, as part of a "mainstream" season and not as a "special" festival event, some of the preoccupations and vocabularies of contemporary visual art. Installations have been bog-standard visual arts practice for decades, but in the theatre world such ideas and explorations have been regarded as obscure experimenta that belong in dark studios inhabited by impossibly cool Andy Warhol clones.

Anna Tregloan has sometimes seemed to have a monopoly on design credits in Melbourne theatre, but she also has a rich history of performance installations, of which Black is the most recent. For what these divisions are worth - which is not very much - Black seems to me to be very much the work of a theatre artist. Tregloan has created a dynamic theatrical environment in which the movement of bodies in space - both of the performers and audience - is crucial. Here visual design, performance, sound, and written and spoken text are carefully woven into a coherent, if mysterious, whole.

The actual performance of Black is around 45 minutes long, and repeated in a loop for three hours, so the audience member can wander in and out and around it at will, and begin wherever and whenever he or she happens to be (I never worked out where the actual "beginning" was, I just noticed when it began to repeat). It is a work that revolves obsessively around the notoriously gruesome Black Dahlia murder in 1947, when the wannabe actress Elizabeth Short was discovered, cut in two and horribly mutilated, in a vacant lot in Los Angeles.

is not concerned so much with the murder, although the crime sits in the centre of its darkness, as with the fantasies that it inspired: the myths that grew up around Elizabeth Short (that she was a prostitute, that she had "infantile genitalia" that meant she could not have sex) and the many theories about her murderer, including the bizarre fact that within a month, more than 50 people had confessed to the crime.

Black begins with the disorientation of walking into darkness: at first, before my eyes adjusted, I could barely see my feet. I walked up the stairs into the Tower and almost felt my way along a black-draped tunnel, hearing the performance somewhere to my left, until I emerged at a kind of gallery above the performers. Some people stay here for a time watching, to be observed in turn by the audience below. Others make their way down the stairs again to a room below, a small gallery, where several objects repose on three suspended tables: three books frozen inside blocks of ice, piles of photographs of objects encrusted with crystallised salt, a collection of souvenir spoons. I couldn't help touching the iced books, which are slowly defrosting (you can hear the water dripping). The spoons, rather unsettlingly, jump every now and then. If you try to sort through the photographs, you find that underneath the top image is just a pile of blank photographic paper.

From here you turn into the main site of the performance. The initial impression is confusing: there are performers moving, speaking, they are saying things you only half hear, they are reflected in mirrors or windows so you can't tell at first if what you see is a real body or a reflection, whether it is here or on the other side of the window, and above, something is moving like a black wing. People are around the space, standing, sitting on chairs, on the floor, watching. Some are reading the texts on the wall, some are constantly moving, some are arriving, some are leaving.

I read the texts on the wall, which recount some of the hypotheses about who killed Elizabeth Short. (I noted particularly that one theory held Marcel Duchamp responsible). And, like a radio tuning in, I began to be able to understand what was being said. There are rhythmic percussive sounds, objects being struck or stroked, ocasionally something that sounds like a drill. The light is dim, the sound for the most part low; it makes you lean forward, immediately you are in the pose of attention, wondering what is being said, what you are looking at, and before long - it took me about five minutes - you find yourself paying total attention, wound further and further into the spectral realities that flow around and before you, a world of rumours, ghosts, reflections, bodies that disappear and bisect and double in the glassed windows, bodies in hysterical poses, fragmentary texts that recount the horrific mutilations of Short's body, or the history of bodies preserved in salt, or police dialogues or newspaper headlines, or that break startlingly into songs or screams.

It's a fascinating experience, beautifully realised with a meticulous attention to detail. For all the violence at its thematic heart, Black is a work that induces a state of meditative focus that is, somehow, gently compelling; it invites, rather than forces; you are at liberty, after all, to walk out at any time. The attention it provokes is involuntary, dreamlike and hypnotic, its multiple layers endlessly intriguing, a little, perhaps, like looking into the flames of a dark fire, but your reverie, however free, is more directed, more focused. And productive of much more thought and response than I can describe here. Go see it for yourself.

As its name suggests, Ross Mueller's The Ghost Writer also attempts spectral realities, but the aesthetic explored here is that of the well-made play. Ross Mueller is a playwright of considerable subtlety and power, as was shown in Construction of the Human Heart, which played a season at the Malthouse last year. In this new play, commissioned and developed by the MTC, I get the sense of an uncomfortable fit between private writerly ambition and the perceived demands of conventional theatre.

The ghost writer of the title is Claudia (Belinda McClory), who accepts a commission from her unreliable publisher father (John Woods) to ghost the life story of Brihanna (Margaret Harvey), an illiterate woman from a small country town whose four year old daughter Megan was murdered in circumstances that irresistibly recall the Jayden Leskie case. Claudia has an unexplained but serious illness, and is obsessed with the idea of death. She has a lover, West (Raj Sidhu) with whom she has a strange, disconnected relationship - they do not even know each other's names. But, as Claudia discovers when she begins to research Megan's murder, West is in fact the public prosecutor who unsuccessfully put Brihanna's boyfriend, Brian, on trial for the murder of the child.

Mueller uses this narrative frame to dangle a bewildering plethora of themes. He canvasses the morality of public justice; satirises the predatory nature of commercial publishing; asks us to ponder the nature of truth; examines love between mother and daughter, father and daughter, and lovers; looks at class issues in contemporary Australia, especially the urban/rural divide; raises the question of domestic violence; explores the conflict between baby boomers and Generation X and, of course, ponders the question of death. (I think I've listed everything, although there's a major preoccupation with writing and representation as well). It's a lot of freight for a conventional dramatic script, weighing it down more when these themes are heavily signalled, as when West agonises over the morality of his cases or when Claudia earnestly claims she's pursuing the "truth".

There's no doubting the craft of Mueller's text, especially notable in some striking monologues, but craft is never the whole of writing. While it has nothing like the theatrical deftness or formal curiosity of Construction of the Human Heart, it's actually quite difficult to pin down where the script goes wrong (although you can point to somewhere in the second act, when all the horses start galloping in different directions).

The Ghost Writer
seems to me like an "issue" play - drawing transparently on well known contemporary events, and signalling its contemporary social relevance - into which is jammed unhappily another kind of theatre altogether, one that is more concerned with the fluidity of interior states. Yes, one can point to Arthur Miller, but this play never quite attains that level of coherent integration. It's presumptuous to say so, but you can almost hear the workshoppy voice that said "hmmm... we need to bring out the social relevance more here..." or "I don't understand the motivation of this character".

And perhaps I have problems too with its genre edge. Mueller appropriates conventions from thrillers, detective fictions and ghost stories and it seems to me that, like many "literary" explorations in that direction, The Ghost Writer is too self-conscious to be class pulp. In good genre writing, serious subtextual concerns run along, as it were, with the enthusiasm of the classic conventions that are invoked or undermined in the work. In "literary" appropriations of pulp (I'm thinking, say, of Graham Swift's take on the detective novel in The Light of Day) the serious subtext is all on top. A pulp novelist writes a story about a murder mystery that reveals the human search for order and meaning in a godless universe; a literary novelist will write a novel about the human search for order and meaning in a godless universe, using the shape of the detective novel as a device. As a result, very few escape the odour of slumming it.

The Ghost Writer is, however, a better play than it appears to be in this production. Julian Meyrick's direction fatally slows down what ought to be fluid and swift transitions between scenes and, despite an abstract design, somehow over-literalises the text, so that it can seem clumsy even when it isn't. And the performances are puzzlingly not as compelling as they ought to be, although the ingredients are there: there are flashes of possibility in individual moments, in monologues from Belinda McClory and Margaret Harvey especially. In the end, despite all the talent that is abundantly present, you sigh and notch it up as just another MTC play. Which might be the root of the problem.

You might think, for example, that Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter would be a shoo-in as an MTC fixture, being arguably the most significant English-language playwright of the past few decades. But it is not so. I've had to wait a long time to see Pinter's 1996 play Ashes to Ashes in three dimensions, although it is one of his greatest plays (possibly, in Alison's eccentric universe, his greatest). And, although this is by no means an ideal production, it was a real pleasure to see it.

Ashes to Ashes is a menacing, traumatically dislocated dialogue between a man called Devlin (Simon Stone) and a woman called Rebecca (Sara Gleeson). It shows Pinter at his most icily precise, anatomising the subtext of mundane interactions until he summons the Holocaust into a middle class loungeroom. What has always amazed me about this transition is how Pinter manages it without the least sense of gratuitousness: by the time we understand the atrocity that haunts the centre of this play, it is absolutely embedded within the middle class reality we are also accepting as real. The connecting tissue between the two realities is violence, in particular a complex take on male violence against women.

Ashes to Ashes is also a play about the hauntings and displacements of memory, and requires actors who carry the marks of the past in their faces and bodies and psyches. Gleeson and Stone are too young for their parts, and it really does matter. Sam Strong's production is a little puzzling, in that the movement of actors around the space sometimes seems to bear no relation to anything. To be honest, I'm not quite sure that Strong has understood the play very well.

However, the biggest problem with this production is Simon Stone's performance, which carries no sense of menace at all; he is interrogative, puzzled, and generally rather blank (with a brief moment of rage). Sara Gleeson, on the other hand, finds an accuracy and focus in her performance that permits her to switch between differing states of impotence and power, forgetting and remembering, with a verisimilitude that makes up for her youth.

Despite its problems, I enjoyed the experience. The production is nicely set in the new downstairs space at 45 Downstairs, with a dramatic row of windows behind the simple elements of the set. And even imperfectly realised, it's still an astounding play.

Picture: Caroline Lee, Moira Finucane, Martyn Coutts, (Caroline Lee repeat) and James Wardlaw in Black. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Review: Grace

Grace, written and directed by James Brennan. Designed by Adam Gardnir, lighting by Nik Pajanti, sound design by Peter Brennan. With Gary Abrahams, Brian Lipson, Katrina Miilosevic, Luke Mullins, Ivan Thorley and Carla Yamine. GoD BE IN MY MouTH @ Theatreworks until March 25.

Grace is an illustration of how theatre is always more than the sum of its parts. It has a stellar cast, arresting design, ambitious themes, inventive staging... what's not to like? But the fact is that these elements remain merely elements, never fusing into that indefinable whole that makes absorbing theatre.

It's a rather interesting failure, all the same. It seems to me that most of its limitations originate from the text. Grace appears to be a conventional play that wants to be a spectacle - Ionesco with his brain fried on acid perhaps, or Arabal on sedatives - and somehow falls between two stools, neither satisfying the desire for anarchy or strange beauty on the one hand, nor for rational critique on the other.

The play only makes sense if you read it as an allegory (psychologically speaking, it makes no sense at all): it is a metaphysical, rather than domestic, drama. But its symbology is too simplistic to satisfactorily explore contemporary spiritual desolation, which I think is its intention.

Grace is about the meeting between estranged 14-year-old twins Wade (Luke Mullins) and Serbia (Katrina Milosevic), who have been in foster homes for ten years, after the recent death of their father. They meet on the roof of a city building, the home of their rather sinister Uncle (Brian Lipson) and various giant pigeons (Gary Abrahams, Ivan Thorley and Carla Yamine). Wade, a polite public schoolboy with sadistic homicidal fantasies, represents the human yearning for meaning and spiritual significance; Serbia is materialistic desire, the brutalised human soul who has learned, through bitter experience, only to trust what she has in her hand.

The twins' Uncle is an unshaven, solitary bum who is more interested his angelic pigeons than in his nephew and niece. He's presumably the God we're left with after the death of God the Father, a dethroned patriarch withdrawn into his declasse heaven. And the twins are there to demand their inheritance, left to them by their father, although they have differing desires: Wade wants a reunited family, or perhaps simply to murder them; Serbia just wants lots of money, in lieu of a happiness she yearns for but no longer believes possible. Instead, the Uncle bolts their legs together, leaving the two warring divisions of the human soul to bleed to death. In the face of this meaningless injustice, all that remains to them is to face their deaths with grace.

The twins are presumably a kind of syzygy, the Gnostic male/female twinning who together represent the totality of the Divine; but the first thing I thought of (especially when the sinister Uncle appeared) was the Baudelaire twins in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. This may be deliberate - the show is, after all, billed as a comedy - or just an unfortunate quirk of my brain; in any case, it strikes me that Snicket's adventures are a more successful satire on faith than Brennan's, if only because of their cynically circumscribed vision. Invoking the sacred in theatre is a much more difficult business. And here, except in brief, tantalising moments, Brennan achieves oddness rather than the frisson of authentic strangeness.

There is not much of a clue of what Brennan actually means by grace, although everything around the play - the name of the company, the title of the play, the holy music that drifts over the stage, even the eye-catching poster, an avian take on Michelangelo's Pieta - announces that we are in the vicinity of Christian iconography.

So I consulted the Divine Doctor, Thomas Aquinas himself, who has a thing or two to say about Grace (and who may have some connection with Brennan's Uncle, his having been a doctor in his former life). In the gravely seductive clarity of Aquinas' argument, Grace is a most complex thing. It is the presence of God in human beings through the Holy Spirit, the "External Principal of Human Actions" that helps human beings "to act rightly". Without Grace, we can know nothing: not love, nor truth, nor goodness. And most certainly, we can't know God.

Brennan's question seems less to do with whether grace is possible in a Godless world, and more with whether a degraded God can offer grace. Which presupposes the existence of God in the first place, whether a first-order patriarch or a second-order street bum with some kind of hidden bank account. Whatever the question is, it seems deeply problematic if the theatre itself can't attain its own definition of the sacred.

On the surface, a concept dear to mediaeval Christian philosophy seems an unlikely preoccupation for an innovative theatre maker, but avant garde theatre from Artaud to Brook has a rich history of obsession with the sacred, chiefly with mystical traditions. In thinking about Grace, I find myself at a loss: Brennan's production - with its striking images of pigeon-headed dancers and its caged God - seems to be gesturing towards this avant garde tradition, but at the same time invokes an intellectual tradition that is notable for its lucent rationality (whatever one thinks about a system of thought that depends for its existence on a myth, the fact remains that Aquinas' logical arguments are, well, logical). And somehow neither of these opposing impulses are worked out enough or extreme enough to create an interesting dialectic: it makes neither enough sense nor enough nonsense.

This basic conceptual fuzziness may explain why the show leaves little aftertaste, although in its staging it sometimes approaches moments of imaginative irrationality that create a feeling of theatrical event: pigeons dancing to the Bangles' Eternal Flame, or a great speech in which Brian Lipson - always a compelling presence on stage - lists all his losses (his job, his money, his parking space for his car). Luke Mullins and Katrina Milosevic seem rather at a loss in their performances, making mannered gestures towards psychological ideas of character that are pulled up short by the allegorical nature of their roles.

It's hard to escape the feeling that Brennan, whose previous work has been site-specific, has to face different kinds of challenges by staging his work in a conventional theatre: among them, what he wants his spectacle to be. It's a very mixed bag from GoD BE IN MY MouTH but, as I said, it makes a most intriguing failure.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Me on blogs

It probably won't tell a lot of you anything you don't know: but all the same, Alison's Arts Blog Primer has been given front page primacy on this week's Arts Hub. Which is kinda nice.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

The Writer, The Theatre, The Play

The conversation on playwrights v. writers for theatre sparked by Edward Albee and continued in various blogospherical spaces is getting progessively more fascinating. I'm enough of a writer to be well versed in the arts of procrastination, and so temporarily abandoned my own very untheatrical writing to catch up on George Hunka's argument with Chris Goode's post on Albee, and Chris's response to that. Not to mention some comments here by playwright Jodi Gallagher and others. Here I'm going to try to summarise the argument without traducing it too much (though you should really read the posts, which is worth the time): this will be long, I expect, so get a cup of tea. Or, if you're not interested, wander off elsewhere.

At issue is the vexed question of what a writer is in the theatre. Part of Chris's first post addressed why he thought conventional playwrights felt at siege in contemporary theatrical culture:

Conventional playwrights (by which I mean, those who produce scripted plays which are to all intents 'complete' before rehearsals begin, though of course they may then be modified by the influence of the staging process) currently feel under attack. I can see why they would feel that, even though nobody ever really seems to attack them as such, which means that the ferocity of (what they consider to be) their counterattack can be surprising -- though not, I think, inexplicable...

Their position glosses, roughly, like this. We who are playwrights, or support and approve of the work of playwrights, are the first to acknowledge that many elements go into the staging of plays -- acting, direction, design, music, perhaps choreography, etc. -- along with the script; and we furthermore acknowledge, with cheerful magnanimity, that theatre is nowadays made in multifarious ways, quite a bit of it privileging these other elements above the specialist craft of the writer. We accept that, and we accept that it sometimes works, and we try hard to say so....But (they would continue) the reciprocity between the "text-based" wing and the "devised" / "physical" / "visual" wing seems lopsided. Why won't they say that what we do as playwrights, with our primary originating acts of script-writing, is also legitimate and valuable in the ecosystem of the big tent? ...

I've come to see that it is this imbalance of cordiality, as it were, that so infuriates the playwrights: so a slow-burn of resentment builds up, as in any off-kilter relationship, until one quiet evening you only have to ask what's for dinner and you get a fork in the eye.

He traces some of the changes in theatre practice which might be responsible for this sense (and that Jodi also alludes to). Chris then makes the obvious, if perhaps tendentious, point that a play text is not theatre. "Not yet, not ever. It can become part of a piece of theatre, but it will never itself be theatrical unless it behaves as do the other elements in a theatrical production (including the other elements in its own production), and disappears."

In order for this to happen, Chris argues, the text has to be "broken": "A play is a little cell of fiction, secluded and complete (for all that it might treat of topical themes). As such it is a game, an ironic procedure, unable to sustain consequences outside of itself... For the play to be made into theatre, that closure has somehow to be breached." Chris posits this as a formal problem, a question of breaking the formal closure that inheres in a completed and autonomous text to permit the necessary "liveness" of theatre.

The formal problem... can be solved only when the play is configured so that its form is compatible with the terms and conditions of theatre: when those distinctive qualities that we associate with theatre are allowed, if not to occupy, then at least to touch, at one point or along one surface, the secluded area of the play. The best -- the least traumatising -- solution is to write for theatre in the first place, to write from the get-go in a way that allows for, and ideally fosters and enjoys, liveness and contingency and unpredictability and ephemerality and, above all, the turbulence of the travel between stage and audience. You can still write articulately, beautifully, rigorously, with all the craft and attention to detail that your literary talent encompasses.

This is where George comes in, with a post pugnaciously objecting to the idea of a play text being "broken":

It's not as if theatricality itself is inherently good or bad, and that a text must necessarily be sacrificed to whatever the hell this vague "theatre" is that they're talking about, any more than performers and conductors "break" a musical score in the service of some ideal of musicality. (I know there will be quibbles that theatre is not music, but both are performing arts, and there is more in common between them than not, as both a theoretical and a practical matter: both revolve around a collaboration between a composer/playwright and the disciplined live performer, and precision is basic to both.)
I am personally a bit chary of comparisons between music and writing, tempting though they are: words are very different phenomena to sound or musical notes. There's the pesky question of "meaning" for a start, which, however you define it, exists in words in a way it just doesn't in music. Chris answers here, pointing out that he and George might have more in common than their differences seem to imply, citing Beckett as, in his view, an exemplary theatre writer.

I think that Chris is quite correct to identify a necessary act of violence in the transition from page to stage. I should make clear that I do not believe that Chris is speaking of the necessity to rip a text to pieces or to ignore its imperatives entirely or even to change the words: I think that he is suggesting something rather more subtle.

The way I see it, in the transition to theatre, something that heretofore exists only as a text is translated into another medium altogether, a medium with very different demands and imperatives: it moves from the past tense of writing into the present tense of theatre. (Before anyone quibbles, I think - from my own experience of writing - that writing is always past tense). This is the case, no matter what theatricalities a writer may embed into his or her text.

There is nothing that makes an event more untheatrical than reverence for the text. (Oh, ok, reverences of other kinds can be equally deadening, but for the meantime, let's talk about writing). In my few forays into theatrical writing, I have sometimes been waylaid by this kind of reverence (also by its complete and distressing opposite, but that's a different story): it can be very difficult to get people to treat a text they consider "poetic" and "beautiful" with disrespect. Directors talk about wanting to preserve the beauty of the language, and actors begin to speak very clearly and in low voices, to fully enunciate the full, sensuous gorgeousness of the words... This, my friends, is death for a text. Suddenly, rather than being an invisible but palpable part of the theatrical experience, it hovers above it: intact, inviolate, and excruciatingly dead.

Or, to speak less personally, think of a reverent production of Shakespeare you might have seen, in which everyone is crouched beneath the text, pointing upwards to the inimitable greatness of the Bard's language, and then think how bored you were.

Where I think Chris is being consciously provocative (and, to be fair, he undermines his own hard line at the end of his post) is where he claims that "productions that emphasize this complex of signs and conditions that we refer to as 'liveness' will inevitably commend themselves more immediately to audiences and secondary commentators alike. A play which hits the bookshelves at the same time as it hits the stage has already forfeited its claim to those attentions."

As the phrase "well-made play" implies, form for playwrights is secondary to content, in other words it's there to serve the content and set it up to its best advantage; this is precisely how it comes about that it's possible to tip the content of The History Boys into different containers and, though some modification is of course required, the essence of the piece remains the same, its qualities, its 'message' (if it will own up to having one, or many). In the work that the university theatre departments now favour, the medium is once again the message, and the question of what the theatre experience is, or can or could be, takes precedence over the surface detail of who says what to whom on what topic.

Of course, I recognise instantly the kind of plays Chris is referring to - or at least I think I do: those plays in which a form is taken as given, most usually a variation on naturalistic norms, and content or "issues" are then poured into the glass. David Williamson is the archetypal local example of that kind of writing. But at the same time, it seems to me that many people who would think of themselves as basically "conventional" playwrights also approach writing a play as, above all, a formal proposition.

I know it's too easy to refer to Daniel Keene, but he's to hand and at the moment too far away to object, and he's a real Playwright; also a Playwright whose work often appears in book form, sometimes before it appears on stage. And I can say confidently, based on years of conversations, that he always approaches writing a play as a formal problem, to the point where the writing of the play is impossible until the problem becomes clear. He is most certainly a playwright who often (but not always) writes plays in the traditional way, grumbling in his study as he attempts to produce a "finished" text which exists luminously in its own right. With such a play - although, again, not in all his collaborations - he expects the actors to speak the words he has written, unless he agrees to change them.

Yet he hasn't a lot of time for the Albee position, which he equates with the "academic" playwrights in France whom French directors are always complaining about; and although he enjoys going to rehearsals, he doesn't believe he has a place there as a writer, except maybe during an inital reading. (He is not a bad director, and sometimes offers suggestions from that capacity). And nothing makes him more frustrated than overly respectful practitioners, or people who think he knows, from his privileged position as the writer, what the play is supposed to be about. How the hell, he demands, is he supposed to know? That's what other people are supposed to find out. For Daniel, meaning is something that is discovered in performance before an audience. Yet he would cheerfully (and honestly) consider himself a conventional playwright.

More interestingly, perhaps, he regards the text as an autonomous object which, when subjected to the pressures and travails of other players in the process, becomes something else. Perhaps this might be illustrated clearly by his recent insistence that the English publication of The Nightwatchman (by Currency Press for the upcoming Sydney production) preserved the original French character names (it was a French commission), although in the Australian production, the names have been Anglicised. The play as written is one thing; the play as performed is entirely another.

At this point, we might seem to be splitting hairs, and simply redefining "playwrights" as "theatre writers". But I'm not so sure: it does seem to me that the idea of the "dramatist" who "sits with the gods" (as I think Mrs O'Neill said of her husband) still has a bit of life in it.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Review: All My Sons

All My Sons by Arthur Miller, directed by Kate Cherry. Designed by Richard Roberts, lighting by Jon Buswell, composer Peter Farnan. With Janet Andrewartha, Melinda Butel, Matt Dyktynski, Luke Elliot, Paul English, Yesse Spence, John Stanton, Rebekah Stone, Teague Rook and Louis Corbett/Liam Duxbury or Gianluca Toscano. Melbourne Theatre Company, Playhouse @ Victorian Arts Centre until March 31.

Arthur Miller is the uber-craftsman of 20th century American theatre. He illustrates to an exemplary degree why the word "wright", which allies itself with the skilled trades - wheelwright, shipwright - should have attached itself to "playwright". Miller's best plays are beautiful machines, moving with the slick, remorseless efficiency of oiled steel; when he speaks of his craft, it is with the lyricism of a mechanic. That his play were machines designed to invoke feeling makes this no less true.

Written in 1947, All My Sons was his first major play. And it's here that Miller maps out the artistic territory that he was to explore afterwards in plays like Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and View From a Bridge. In All My Sons, Miller embraced, as he put it, a desire to "write rationally", to enact the motion of "cause and effect, hard action, facts, the geometry of relationships". He wished, he explains rather disingenuously, to make a play "as untheatrical as far as was possible nothing was to interfere with its artlessness".

Let me tell you, there is nothing artless in this play. Nor, as it happens, untheatrical. Miller welds the emotional force of Aeschylus to the naturalism of Ibsen (with a dash of Chekhovian melodrama) and forges them anew in the vernacular of mid-20th century America. All My Sons remains, like all Miller's work, very much a play of its time and place, a play that at once manifests the optimistic post-War belief in American progress, and fiercely critiques its darker side. If it weren't so well-written, it would now, for all the resonance of its themes of corporate war profiteering, seem rather quaint; but the fact remains that it is as well-written as it is, and the damn thing goes like a train.

Miller observes all the classic verities of tragic form: All My Sons begins as close to the end of the story as possible, and sedulously observes unity of time, place and action. The whole play takes place over the space of a day in a backyard that epitomises the dream of American affluence - a wide green lawn surrounded by poplars, the porch of a large house, comfortable outdoor furniture.

It's the home of a successful businessman and family man, Joe Keller (John Stanton), and at first offers us a scene of mundane peace: it is early Sunday morning, and Joe is reading the want ads, chatting idly with his neighbour Dr Jim Bayliss (Paul English). Only one thing breaks the illusion of suburban perfection: a young apple tree, broken near its base, lies across the grass. It's the first of many subtle Biblical resonances that underlie the play: the broken Tree of Knowledge, the Abrahamic sacrifice of sons, the expulsion from Eden.

We find out, through conversation that seems only casual and incidental, that the tree was planted for Joe's son, Larry, a fighter pilot reported missing in action three years before. His mother Kate (Janet Andrewartha) has never accepted that Larry is dead. And now Larry's former girlfriend, Ann Deever (Yesse Spence) is coming to stay, invited by Chris (Matt Dyktynski), Larry's brother. He has asked her specifically so he can propose to her, a move that his mother will inevitably take as a betrayal - she's "still Larry's girl".

To make things more complicated, Ann is the daughter of Joe's former business partner, Steve, with whom Joe made armaments during the war. Steve is now in prison, convicted of deliberately covering flaws in cylinder heads that later were responsible for the deaths of 21 pilots. Joe was exonerated of wrong-doing, but there are abiding suspicions that Steve was the patsy for a decision that was actually Joe's own. George (Teague Rook), Ann's brother, phones in agitation, having visited his father for the first time since his conviction: and now the stage is set for a showdown...

All this complex plotting is cunningly introduced, so the story emerges with a subtlety that fleshes out its melodramatic bones, and the whole is leavened by Miller's dry wit. The play's overt point is about corporate industry that, like Saturn, devours its own sons. But there is another point about the self-deception and, finally, self-alienation, that underlies corporate society.

Miller's description of the alienating mechanisms of capitalism is in fact straight out of Marx. As the playwright himself, always a reliable witness to his own work, comments: "[Joe Keller] is not a partner in society but an incorporated member, so to speak, and you cannot sue personally the officers of a corporation. I hasten to make clear here that I am not merely speaking of a literal corporation, but the concept of a man's becoming a function of production or distribution to the point where his personality becomes divorced from the actions it propels".

But what gives the drama its abiding force is the ancient and bloody theme of conflict between fathers and sons. Chris, inheritor of the blood money his father has sold his soul to make for him, has blindly participated in the family myth of his father's innocence. When all is revealed, his idealistic love for his father, and his own self-image, is shattered: "I know you're no worse than most men," he says to Joe. "But I thought you were better. I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father."

Chris's final cry, "You can be better!" reflects the hope of progressives the world over. The play's naked idealism makes me wonder if such a work could be written now: for all his critique of the American dream, Miller believed in it with as much passion as any nationalist: he just thought it could better. Somehow, Miller's kind of ideological faith no longer seems possible without a good dose of doublethink; dissent now faces the challenge of stepping outside the paradigm, as, for example, in the biopolitics of Giorgio Agamben.

It strikes me that Miller's dramaturgical decisions - the machismo of those "hard" facts, those geometrical relationships, the carefully measured, brutally effective dramatic manipulations - are not so much in argument with the evils he critiqued, as an expression of those same ideologies. Yet there's no doubt that in the hands of a master these writerly mechanics still exercise an irresistible glamour; and it also seems to me that, in his best work, Miller mercifully escapes his own best intentions. Perhaps his major achievement is to use his steely craft to express genuine passion: the plays may be machines, but the ghost screams inside.

In plays of this kind, a major task of the cast and director is not to get in the way of the writing. Kate Cherry has chosen her cast wisely and given All My Sons a by-the-book production, which is, I suspect, the most effective way to approach Miller: on his own terms. Richard Roberts' set follows Miller's directions almost to the letter, only reorienting it to open haunting, luminous skies behind the poplars (there is something about evocations of sky on stage that always gets me - perhaps it's a race memory of Shakespeare's world stage). The cast meets the challenge, led by beautifully rounded performances from John Stanton and Janet Andrewartha. Matt Dyktynski is impressive as the idealistic Chris, and there's a nice cameo from Paul English as the disillusioned doctor.

Perhaps the most telling sign of its power is that the play runs for three hours, but it seems like half the time. It passed so quickly that at the end I checked my watch in disbelief. All My Sons is a classic production of a classic play that is seldom done here, and well worth seeing.

Picture: John Stanton and Janet Andrewartha in All My Sons. Photo: Jeff Busby

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The Playwright as King

Chris Goode, of the admirable Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, once made a distinction between those who are playwrights and those who write for the theatre. It struck me as an interesting distinction between different kinds of practice, the question revolving around the question of theatrical collaboration: a playwright offering his deathless prose for theatrical minions to interpret and "serve", the theatre writer as a glowing member of the ensemble. Most playwrights are somewhere in between these extremes, but Edward Albee is most unambiguously a playwright (no, a Playwright) and has lit much blogospherical heat by describing those who impede the writer's vision as "the forces of darkness". Catch up with the debate at Superfluities, Parabasis, and the Guardian.

UPDATE: Mr Goode himself steps into the fray with a long and fascinating rumination in which he expands on his distinction between playwright and theatre writer, and suggests why "old-guard playwrights" might be feeling defensive. Pin your ears back and drink it in; I think he hits a lot of nails bang in the middle, especially when he talks about a necessary violence to the text that is part of making theatre. As here: "The director's fidelity is to the demands of theatre, not to the demands of the playwright; indeed, once the director has the text in her hands, there is no playwright. There is only theatre. The playwright in the rehearsal room is utterly and irretrievably fallacious." I know playwrights who completely agree with this. Oh, wait, they're probably theatre writers. Things I'd argue with too, but I should be writing, and not about theatre.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Punchus sublimatus

Wanting to punch theatre reviewers is one of the many pleasures of a life in the theatre. This impulse, in TN's very bourgeois view, is best sublimated in civilised discourse, when it can entertain and perhaps even illuminate the rest of us. In any case, playwright David Blackman is upset with our favourite mainstream reviewer, the Age's Cameron Woodhead, for a negative review he gave to Blackman's play, The Revisionist, which is currently running at the Clifton Creative Arts Centre in Church St, Richmond.

The Revisionist is one of the many plays which I noted as being of interest but which my insane workload regrettably prevents me from seeing, and so I have no opinion myself. It is loosely based on the Demidenko affair, one of our celebrated literary hoaxes. As we know, white-bread Anglo Helen Darville posed as a child of Ukrainian peasants with a war criminal past, and released an allegedly autobiographical work which was awarded some of our most glittering literary prizes. Opinions differ on whether Darville's worst sin was her style or her anti-Semitism; in any case, the revelation of her unexotic identity caused one of the major literary scandals of our time, exposing some disturbing fault lines in Australia's literary culture.

Woodhead has some stern views on how the Demidenko material ought to be treated, claiming that The Revisionist misses the point: "The biggest mistake the play makes is the one Helen made: thinking that it's all about her. It should be concerned with what the hoax says about us." He criticises the play for not dealing with the judges, the publishers and the media debate, and for not even mentioning the issue of plagiarism.

Interestingly, The Revisionist is not the first play inspired by Helen Darville: last year Theatre@Risk presented Noelle Janaczewska's Mrs Petrov's Shoe. Of that show, I had rather opposite concerns to those Woodhead has with The Revisionist: as I said at the time, "It's impossible to talk about Mrs Petrov's Shoe without talking about Darville/Demidenko, and I think this is part of its problem. It remains too close to the Demidenko affair to really take off as a fiction of its own, and yet it is not, either, a theatrical retelling of Darville's fantasising. ...This is, as I fear this review rather reflects, a play that is ultimately about issues, illustrative rather than inherently theatrical."

It's clear here that I have my own views on the possible treatment of the material. Which raises the question: quite aside from judgements of the aesthetic success or failure of a work, can artists actually be mistaken in their approach to source material, and is it fair to tick them off for exploring the wrong aspects? At what point does aesthetic discrimination become something else? Blackman was not, after all, writing an essay on the cultural implications of the Demindenko hoax, but an imaginative work, and it could be argued that his only real responsibility is to the imperatives of his artistic imagination: there are, after all, no "shoulds" in art.

David Blackman's response to Woodhead's review has crossed my desk after lingering forlornly in the in-box of the Age arts editor, so in the interest of discourse, I'll let him speak for himself.

Dear Mr. Woodhead:

Given the nature and substance of your review (26/2/07), I exercise the right of reply.

While obviously it is your job and prerogative to judge a play as you see fit, your observations re The Revisionist, appear agenda based.

In your review you state that what's important about this incident is what it says about us.

This may be true in your estimation; for others however, Helen's motivation and an examination of her psychological status are paramount. Other Australians were troubled by what this incident says about this country's tolerance of free speech. And there are those, (I consider myself as part of this collective), who are concerned as to how the overt Anti Semitism of this book was lost on so many people, especially the judges. There are a number of possibilities, each as valid as the other.

As the interested playwright, I reserve the right to pursue whichever theme is most appealing, or of most concern to me, and to convey this to interested audiences. And in doing so, this does not, in my estimation, preclude making any point about what the incident says about us.

My take on the story, and what I have tried to do in the play, is to explore the nature of Helen's anti-Semitism as expressed in her award winning book, and hold it up to each audience member for them to decide to what extent they find themselves swayed by her argument, agreeing or disagreeing with what she has to say. I wanted to explore what the incident says about us, by allowing each audience member to question their beliefs or have them challenged and insulted by Helen's so-called experience of growing up in a Ukrainian family. No matter what thematic approach is taken, it is important that the fraud is exposed, but more importantly, given my choice, that the outrage she committed is exposed as to how she misrepresented history through a blatantly Revisionist text, and was allowed to get away with it by elements of the literary establishment.

The sub plot dealing with the crimes of real life war criminal Karlis Ozols, links Australia's record of harbouring ex-Nazis from Eastern Europe with our capacity to celebrate a book which justifies war crimes against Jews. In the play and in real life, these war criminals who escaped justice were an inspiration for Helen. No one seemed to make too much of a fuss about that either. To my mind, there is a binary relationship here, a very troubling one, which also has serious implications for all Australians. My experience over several years of readings, workshops and now, this production, was that this is not lost on audiences. The play says something very troubling about a country which honours a book defending war criminals and has such a tawdry history of protecting them. Throughout my research, I encountered this evasion by sections of the media, of what she actually wrote, and an unwillingness, from so many quarters to condemn the piece for what it really was (Robert Manne excepted).This was the impetus for my story and clearly not what you wanted to see.

As far as dramaturgy, The Revisionist was nominated for the Wal Cherry in 2003 and won the Ross Trust Award as part of the Premier's Literary Prize in the same year. It has had strong dramaturgical input from the likes of Peter Matheson and other notable figures in the industry. The script has been developed, gone through numerous re-writes and says what I want it to say. It has been admirably served by the director and actors. (As stated in the program notes, it is loosely based on the Demidenko Affair). Your review is, I believe, limited by your preconceived ideas of what the play "should" be about. Perhaps, more importantly, it has done a great disservice to all those involved in this production.


David Blackman

A robust defence, sir. So, what are the boundaries of critical speculation? Did Cameron step outside his remit, or is his opinion fair enough? TN is curious to hear what others think. And Cameron, while you're circling this blog, feel free to defend yourself.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Vale: Lindzee Smith

Sad news of the death last weekend of director/actor Lindzee Smith, a major force in Australian theatre over four decades of work. As a member of the Pram Factory and, later, as the founder of Nightshift and other companies both here and overseas, Smith was a collaborator with and inspiration for many of the major names in Australian theatre, premiering many classic works of the Australian stage. John Romeril's tribute, which is up on Lindzee's blog, maps the scope of his achievements:

If the company you keep is a measure of your worth, Smith as an actor-director had the knack of befriending notables. Based in 1990s New York he wined dined and spawned projects with James Purdy, the aging Tennessee Williams, Gregory Corso. The likes of Sam Shephard had been, and Jimmy Jarmush was, a fan.

In 60s and 70s Melbourne the Australian writers Smith championed included Alex Buzo (NORM AND AHMED); Jack Hibberd (WHO and WHITE WITH WIRE WHEELS); John Romeril (CHICAGO CHICAGO, THE GOLDEN HOLDEN, THE FLOATING WORLD); Daniel Keene (THE FIGHTER, ISLE OF SWANS, THE HOUR BEFORE MY BROTHER DIES).

With Lindzee in the director's chair and Phil Motherwell on words (THE FITZROY YANK, DREAMERS OF THE ABSOLUTE), Nightshift emerged as an ensemble within, then going on to outlive the Pram Factory. It also made its mark in Sydney, Perth and New York, only bowing out (SMACK HAPPY) in 2004.

A dedicated internationalist, wherever he lived, Smith revisited his past productions, continuing to net royalties for such scribes as Orton, Brenton, Hare, Mueller, Fassbinder, Handke, Kroetz, Arrabal, Maria Irene Fornes. Nor did the classic repertoire escape his attentions. Brecht, Ibsen, Eugene O'Neill, Sophocles, the CV is testament to a savvy director constantly at work.

His funeral will be held tomorrow (Friday) at 1pm, at St Paul's Anglican Church, LaTrobe Terrace, Geelong.

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