Masthead persons doing goodReview: The Perjured CityCixous in MelbourneBits and BobsReview: The PillowmanPricklings of conscienceReview: The Birthday Party, FourplayAttention SydneysidersComing up...Things on SundayMake It NewFight! Fight! Fight!Helloooo, Helsinki!Review: OT: Chronicles of the Old TestamentStreet theatreSlightly bigger carrotsSmall carrotsSarkoReview: GhostsBrief fantasia ~ theatre notes

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Masthead persons doing good

Here we take a tender interest in those writerly souls gathered into the nest of Masthead. Or at least, we need an excuse to tie together a pointer to a couple of eye-catching posts that concern theatre writers we've published. Up in Sydney, Nicholas Pickard liked Jasmine Chan's Corvus. A lot. And Chris Goode, our favourite logorrheic blogger (and apparently "British theatre's greatest maverick talent") reports on the Plymouth season of his play Speed Death of the Radiant Child (Guardian review here). Both shows closing this weekend, and both good excuses, as far as I'm concerned, for the invention of the transmat beam, or at minimum the faculty of bilocation.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Review: The Perjured City

The Perjured City, Or The Awakening of the Furies, by Hélène Cixous, directed by Kirsten von Bibra. Design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Jessica Daley, lighting by Whitney McNamara, puppet design Lachlan Plain. With 2007 VCA Drama Graduates. VCA School of Drama, 28 Dodds St, Southbank until June 9.

Hélène Cixous is one of France's most significant intellectuals, in that honourable European sense which comprehends the artist as a critical intellect, deeply engaged with the issues of her time and place. She is a writer who exceeds all possible categories: as a philosopher, rhetoritician, literary critic, scholar, novelist, poet and playwright, she has been influential far beyond the borders of France.

Like her contemporary Jacques Derrida, Cixous was born in Algeria, and her complex experience of colonisation and otherness there fed into the radical project of rethinking the Western cultural tradition that has been subsumed (and widely misunderstood) under the rubric of post-modernism. With thinkers like Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Catherine Clément and Monique Wittig, Cixous is one of the formative intellects behind contemporary feminism, focusing on the practice of l'écriture féminine (writing the feminine) as a means of challenging the patriarchal logic that construes women as Other. And her long collaboration with Ariane Mnouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil is one of the most celebrated in Europe.

Despite her undoubted stature, Cixous's work is seldom performed here (even in book form, it can be difficult to find, and prohibitively expensive if it is available). The VCA offers a rare opportunity to see her work with a performance of her 1994 play The Perjured City, and offers a passionate realisation of a passionate work. The Perjured City is an unruly, unpredictable, fiendishly complex play, which takes full advantage of a poet's imaginative right to do, well, practically anything she damn well likes. Cixous is nothing if not excessive, and nothing if not liberating. If you're interested in the possibilities of theatrical language, textual and otherwise, this is not to be missed.

There's no doubt that this play presents unique challenges, to both artists and audiences. It's vast, with a cast of 23 playing 32 characters (plus a chorus), and it runs for more than four hours. It's a forceful reminder that French theatre has a very different political history to the English-speaking tradition; Cixous's theatre assumes itself to be a dynamic and vocal part of the polis, a site of literal as well as metaphorical revolution. In this play, the appeal to the audience is direct and visceral: we, who are citizens of this city, speak to you, also citizens of this city. We tell you of this wrong, and we ask you to act.

Sometimes, it must be said, we are told of this wrong at length, and the theatre turns into a mere debating hall; but Cixous is too much of a poet to languish in the halls of prose for very long. And she has a complex tale to relate. The play is based on the contaminated blood scandal in the mid-80s, when the French National Centre for Blood Tranfusions distributed blood supplies that it knew were contaminated with the HIV virus, infecting more than 4000 patients, including hundreds of children, with AIDS. When the scandal was brought to light in 1988, through a civil action brought by one of the victims, the resulting public disillusion was a major factor in the subsequent electoral defeat of the Socialist Mitterand Government.

The play weaves together two levels of reality, both enclosed in a self-consciously meta-theatrical play. This allows Cixous to illustrate, on the one hand, the cynicism of the realpolitick that permitted the tainted blood to be distributed in the first place (the justifications were largely economic) and the subsequent cover-up, and to draw a darkly pessimistic picture of the possibility of justice in a system that is inherently corrupt. On the other, she creates an imaginative universe in which justice is transcendently possible: the mother will be reunited with her dead children, suffering will cease, justice will be served. This double reality makes a drama that is simultaneously a cold political argument and a viscerally powerful emotional protest, without compromising the force of either. And it's also an aesthetic argument, literally building on the grave of Shakespeare to bring tragedy into the modern world. And, naturally, a feminist argument as well.

The play is set in a cemetary, the city of the dead, to which the grieving Mother (Joanna Curteis) retreats when she curses the city that will give her no justice for the meaningless deaths of her two sons. There she meets the gravedigger, who turns out to be Aeschylus (Benedict Hardie), who with Night (Ben Pfeiffer) are the two masters of ceremony, both observing and orchestrating the action. The Mother's grief and anger rouse the Furies, the monstrous divinities who avenge the killing of kin, from the slumber in which they have lain for 5000 years, since Athena subdued them at the end of the Orestian Trilogy. What follows is a playing out of the conflicts between the desires for justice and revenge.

The Furies not only represent maternal anger, but also the repressed feminine, roused from its Apollonian torpor. As Cixous says elsewhere:

When the "repressed" of their culture and their society returns, it's an explosive, utterly destructive, staggering return, with a force never yet unleashed and equal to the most forbidding of suppressions. For when the Phallic period comes to an end, women will have been either annihilated or borne up to the highest and most violent incandescence.

The Furies demand merciless revenge and destruction: blood for blood. The Mother, on the other hand, does not desire revenge, but seeks a more complex idea of justice: she wants acknowledgement and understanding from those who wronged her. But this is not a crime for which anyone feels personally responsible: in an echo of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil", she finds that the corporate mentality which allowed the crime to be committed is hermetically sealed from any such humane stirrings of responsibility or conscience. At the same time, she is horrified when the Furies complacently demand their right to revenge themselves on the children of the wicked doctors.

So the Furies do not get their blood, nor the Mother her justice. The only winner is the proto-Fascist leader Forzza (Tim Potter), who waits out the scandal and its political fall-out, wins the election, and then uses his power to eliminate the very protest that he exploited to gain his position.

But Cixous here exploits the radical imagination to suggest another possibility. It's a possibility that exists in the future tense, and that lies in the kinetic energy that might be harnessed in the audience, and to which this play makes its direct appeal. It's an appeal that Cixous, too intelligent not to be aware of the manifest limitations of art in the face of reality, both articulates and argues against. And for all the cynicism that such an appeal might so easily prompt, it reminds you precisely why art is considered politically subsersive, and why repressive regimes are so keen to suppress and control it. Simply to utter the possibility of justice permits it to enter the realm of the real.

Kirsten von Bibra gives this complex, ambitious play a more than decent production, energised by a constant theatrical inventiveness and a passionate commitment from her cast. It doesn't always hit the mark - and here I'd say that often the problems are with the text as much as with the production - but when it does, it resonates deeply. It's highly stylised theatre that takes a few leaves from the dynamic, actor-centred theatre of Peter Brook, pulling in circus techniques like trapezes and stilts to extend the constant physical energy of the bodies on stage. Jeminah Reidy's set design is elegant and flexible - an abstracted circus ring, with red ropes and trapezes around its rim that recall the bloody theme of the play - and is complemented by Jessica Daly's costumes, which, like the set, are both simple and expressive, drawing on a range of influences from classical Greek clothing to vampire movies.

The performances are impressive: Cixous's language is Shakespearean in its richness and complexity, and no one fails its challenge. Heightened by Elizabeth Drake's score, the dialogue sometimes reaches a pitch that is almost operatic (in some scenes, literally so). At times the energy dips but, even so, I had no trouble sitting in the theatre - and concentrating hard, for this is language that demands all your attention - for that length of time. This is a true ensemble production, but mention must be given to Joanna Curteis, for her throbbingly contained, moving protrayal of the Mother, and to Benedict Hardie for his motley Aeschylus, who are on stage for almost the entire performance.

Some scenes are sheerly beautiful. The Mother's two dead sons, Daniel and Benjamin Ezekial (Ben Hjorth and Stuart Bowden) are bunraku-style puppets manipulated by the performers, and all the dialogue is sung in plainsong to the accompaniement of Phillip Glass-style piano music. The effect of the artifice is heartbreaking. I have often pondered the potency of puppets, how their use can release pure feeling in a way impossible for a human performer, but I am no closer to finding out why. The Furies, performed with an appropriate mixture of precision and excess by Meredith Penman, Anne-Louise Sarks and Joanne Trentini, are a cross between burlesque cabaret and Greek tragedy, at once grotesque, frightening, sexy and comic. And there is a visionary scene at the end which I hesitate to describe, as I hate to spoil the surprise, but which is breathtaking.

Picture: Ben Pfeiffer as Night in The Perjured City. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Cixous in Melbourne

It's worth keeping an eye on the VCA Drama program: you'll see work produced here that no one else has the time, money, people or inclination to put on. There's a doozy opening tonight: the Australian premiere of La Ville Parjure, ou le réveil des Erinyes (The Perjured City) by Hélène Cixous, directed by Kirsten von Bibra, with music by Elizabeth Drake. As the blurb says: "This production features VCA’s full graduating company of 23 actors in the largest production ever mounted by the Drama School. Featuring the magnificent poetry of one of France’s great modern writers, a score by AFI Award-winning composer Elizabeth Drake and a lavish production this promises to be an astonishing event not to be missed."

Excited yet? I'm there for sure. It's opening tonight at the VCA School of Drama, 28 Dodds St, South Melbourne, and runs to June 9. More info here.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bits and Bobs

1. The VCA blog Spark Online makes my heart beat faster this morning with the brilliant news that Oscar Redding's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, produced by A Poor Theatre, will premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival. I saw the play, and I've seen enough of this movie to ensure that I will be thrusting the lame and the halt brutally aside to get into the cinema. Trust me, you don't want to miss this one.

2. Kudos to the Malthouse (and to co-producers the Sydney Opera House): after a successful opening in Vienna last week, Honour Bound, Nigel Jamieson's stunning physical/visual theatre piece about David Hicks, has scored a season at the Barbican in London. Revisiting my review of its Malthouse season last year makes me wonder how the Brits will respond: it's rather different fare from the David Hare-style political theatre they're used to. Which brings me to...

3. ...the continuing saga about Dead White Males presently enlivening the London theatre scene. The Guardian's Michael Billington recounts a showdown in a car park between himself and the NT's Nicholas Hytner, who sparked this particular brawl with an exasperated comment to the Times. Billington's latest punch has sparked a deal of scornful commentary, on the Guardian's blogsite and elsewhere.

As Encore Theatre Magazine reported, this battle began in earnest in March, with Katie Mitchell's controversial NT production of Attempts on Her Life. The London debate interests me because it's very similar to conflicts here - in both cases, the outrage has been sparked as the theatrical vocabulary of what some people like to call "the fringe" is given legitimacy and cash and main stages. Readers of this blog will remember the bitter attacks last year, for example, on Kristy Edmunds' direction of the Melbourne Festival. (As an aside, Mark Davis's recent essay on turf wars in the Age - itself a follow-up to his book Ganglands - gives these arguments a broader context.)

To return to London: in response to Billington's defence of the importance of a critic's individual voice, Andrew Fields scathingly points out on his blog The Arcades Project that the actual problem is that the major voices are all too uniform:

In fact, [Billington is] sounding remarkably similar to those of all the other daily critics for, though they may have different tastes and prose styles, they all share a fundamentally limited notion of what theatre can or should be - a notion that sees Billington dismiss Katie Mitchell's the waves as a 'sterile piece of theatre about theatre' that is nothing but a 'celebration of technical ingenuity' in much the same way as Nicholas De Jongh calls her work 'a dreadful form of directorial embellishment' and Spender states that all devised theatre is becoming 'more like an acrobatic display than a piece of real drama'.

Playwright David Eldridge also has some interesting comments and links to yet more responses - you could read the tos and fros all day. All the same, it seems to me that on the whole Billington is rather unfairly getting the worst of it, and it makes me want to defend him (and not only because he proves himself a good chap by linking to Theatre Notes). As I said in a review in which I tangentially discussed Billington's collected reviews, One Night Stands:

Billington has his limitations: his subscription to a notion of theatre as a branch of sociology meant, for instance, that he initally missed the significance of radical talents like Sarah Kane (although he was man enough to admit it later). But a read through his collected reviews will give you a fair idea of the ferment of ideas that ran through British theatre in the 70s and 80s – the variety of its aesthetic, its political concerns – filtered through a fascinated, mobile intellect. More importantly, it leaves you with the feeling that the theatre is an exciting, vital place to be.

It occurs to me that Billington has drawn some fire which might more justly be directed towards some of his colleagues: whatever one's disagreements with him, he puts himself out there, and is still up for debate. You never know, he might even revise his assumptions: something that, judging by Charles Spencer's impregnably superior response in the Telegraph, seems unlikely in his peers.

And to get parochial for a moment, I can't see this kind of discussion happening under the august banner of the Age's arts pages. Melbourne's print critics are rather shy little petals.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Review: The Pillowman

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, directed by Simon Phillips. Design by Gabrila Tylesova, lighting by Matt Scott, composer Ian McDonald, animator Dom Evans. With Richard Bligh, Joel Edgerton, Kim Gyngell, Rima Hadchiti, Natasha Herbert and Dan Wyllie. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the CUB Malthouse until June 22.

I think I dreamed about The Pillowman last night. Not because it is dark and nasty (I guess it is, although not because it touches the actual nerve of nightmare); not because it is disturbing (it is, but not in the ways the writer so clearly intends); not because it is obscene (which it is, but only in how basely it tickles its audience). No, let me fling off the faux objectivity of the crrrritic and speak frankly as the writer who woke early this morning with this smugly self-congratulatory play ringing in my ears like tinnitus.

The more I thought about this play, the more I hated it. But before I tell you why, let me be fair. This is a decent production that features an excellent cast, who make the most of McDonagh's undoubted talent for vaudevillean dialogue. There are at least a couple of outstanding performances which warrant the storm of applause at the end. I'm sure that The Pillowman will be greeted with as much enthusiasm here as it was in London and New York and, well, good luck to McDonagh. As Prospero says at the end of The Tempest, the project of the players is "to please", and it seems that McDonagh certainly knows how to do that.

For my part, I walked away feeling somehow soiled. Outside the oeuvre of Donald Trump, The Pillowman is possibly the vainest piece of self-propaganda that I have seen penned by a writer. It's archly deceptive, purporting to shock and confront its audience while in fact it deftly massages their expectations. Its complex plot and "dark" themes (spoilers below) serve to disguise a determined superficiality, and it presents a justification of literature that's breathtakingly callous and self-serving. That final point is, I think, what disturbed my sleep. I mean, writing is my trade, my obsession and one of my great loves: is this all there is to it?

The Pillowman opens with a classic interrogation scene. In an unnamed totalitarian dictatorship, two policemen, Tupolski (Kim Gyngell) and Ariel (Greg Stone) are cross-examining Katurian (Joel Edgerton). Katurian - whose full name is Katurian Katurian Katurian (KKK - geddit?) - is a writer of short stories, twisted fairy tales which almost always concern themselves with the torture, dismemberment and murder of children. He is bewildered but co-operative, ignorant of why he has been arrested, and disclaims any political or subversive intent in his stories.

No, says Katurian, running through the standard disclaimers: his first, and perhaps only, duty as a writer is to his story. What others make of what he writes is not his concern. He repeats Wilde's dictum that stories can only be judged on whether they are "well written or badly written" (itself echoed in Peter Handke's statement that a writer's morality is in his style). Given the overwriting of many scenes, this strikes me as an unwary move on McDonagh's part; but at the same time, it's hard not to feel some empathy with his plea for the right to exist outside some narrowly-defined ideology, to be judged on his work alone.

We forget pretty much straight away about the totalitarian state, which is the first of several red herrings that appear briefly and then vanish without trace. It becomes clear that Katurian's arrest is due to the recent murders of two children, who have been killed in gruesome ways that mimic the mutilations in his stories. A third child is missing, believed dead. And Katurian's brother Michal (Dan Wyllie), who has "learning difficulties", has also been arrested and may in fact be being tortured in an adjacent room by the psychotic Ariel, who has had a "difficult childhood" that manifests in a penchant for sadistic violence.

Meanwhile, back at the police station, we find out that Michal really did kill those children. A "twist", I suppose, which seems to be the major quality Katurian looks for in his fables, just as, judging by the several twists in The Pillowman, McDonagh does in his plays. Tormented by the thought that he is now, albeit unwittingly, in some way culpable for the murders, Katurian smothers his brother with a pillow, and decides to do a deal with the police. He will confess to everything, in return for the assurance that his masterpieces will be preserved for posterity in a police file, presumably to be discovered by an aghast and adoring public 50 years later when the files are declassified.

And so the plots thicken, assisted by the enactment of Katurian's stories with theatrically heightened vignettes performed by Natasha Herbert, Richard Bligh and Rima Hadchiti. And the themes multiply in tandem with the stories. At one point the central question is one of moral responsibility, not political intent, at another there seems to be a thesis that writers are psychologically damaged. McDonagh serially undermines each proposition, forestalling critical analysis by satirising its expectations. Well, I have some sympathy with such a project: but where does he end up?

You could make an argument that McDonagh sees writing as an act of displacement, a liberation from the endless cycle of trauma, in which a child victim of abuse becomes the adult perpetrator. After all, Michal and Katurian have had a most unfortunate childhood. On discovering that young Katurian had a yen for writing, his parents peformed an experiment designed to develop his precocious talent. They showered him with love and attention, while chaining his brother to a bed in an adjoining room and subjecting him to nightly torture with dentist drills, sharpening Katurian's gift by exposing him to a nightly chorus of human suffering.

Actually, Saddam Hussein had a remarkably similar idea, only he wanted to create dictators, not writers. As children, his sons Uday and Qusay were often taken to Saddam's prison cells to witness the torture of prisoners, and we all know what great literature they produced. But this is a fable, not a news story: and it seems to me that McDonagh is splitting the writerly self, that perhaps the crippled brother represents the tormented, murderous child within the writer, whose unconsoled howls spark the anguish that rings the truth in his immortal works. Or something like that.

Whatever the case, the parental experiment works, and their son becomes a twisted - but, of course, brilliant - writer. When, after seven years of listening to the torture of his brother, Katurian breaks down the door and discovers what has been happening (perhaps he too is somewhat simple-minded), he is horrified. He smothers his parents with a pillow, and rescues his now brain-damaged brother from his life of torment. They then live happily in a garrett, while Katurian finds a job at an abbatoir. And in his spare time, he writes 400 short stories. The most significant of these, besides his autobiography, is about the Pillowman, a creature made of pillows who visits suicides and takes them back to their last happy memory as children. Then he tells the children of their terrible lives to come, and offers them the choice of killing themselves at that point, and avoiding the certain pain of the future.

A colleague suggested at interval that he was on the side of the policemen: he thought Katurian ought to be shot for crimes against literature. And the stories, whose telling takes up a great deal of this play, are certainly part of my problem with the text, because it's crucial that we believe in their narrative enchantment. They are slight, one-dimensional shadows of the master fabulists that McDonagh is aping: Kafka, Borges, Marquez, Schultz. If they have the heartlessness of traditional fairytale, they do not possess its profoundly unsettling strangeness (a quality Caryl Churchill brilliantly exploits, for example, in Skriker). Certainly, they don't in any way mitigate the silliness of the plot.

And, like the stories themselves, all this gruesome cruelty is curiously affectless. At no point, despite the best efforts of the performers, is there even the edge of threat in the violence on stage. It is there to create a frisson, the illusion that by witnessing this cartoon mayhem we are somehow peering into the darkness of the human soul (from a comfy chair, to be sure, which is well-padded with laughs). And if the violence on stage is like the hammer that regularly flattens Wile E. Coyote, well, who cares? He'll just accordion back to his proper size and start running around again: we know that he's not really dead, and that he never feels any real pain. There's no risk for any of us: we know it's all pretending. But that's not how this play is framed by the writer, who wants us to believe that we're watching something edgy and extreme, something that, in his words, allows us "to see things more clearly" by pushing the boundaries. But what are we seeing "more clearly"?

It seemingly becomes clear in the end, when the writer as anti-hero becomes writer-as-hero; although, even here, McDonagh hedges his bets. In the ten seconds while he is waiting to be shot in the head by Tupolski, Katurian narrates his final story (the hedge is that the story is unfinished, so we never get to hear its proper ending). His brother is given a choice by the Pillowman, on the last day before his parents begin to torture him in order to turn his brother into a writer. He can die now, and avoid seven years of dentist drills and his eventual murder by his own brother: or he could live through the certainty of future suffering. And Michal chooses to live, knowing the anguish that awaits him, because he loves his brother's stories.

(I know I have a lamentably literal mind. But I'm willing to bet that, in the unlikely event of some thug giving a victim the choice between having his elbows drilled or being able to read lovely stories in some far future, the victim would go for whole elbows every time. No matter who was writing them: even if it was Kafka himself. And I say that victim would be right.)

This post-mortem moment is underscored by the simultaneous decision of the psychotic cop Ariel, moved by Katurian's recognition of his own suffering, to preserve the stories rather than to burn them, as ordered by his superior. Even so, it's hard to escape the feeling that McDonagh is winking knowingly at the audience. Yes, the writer is vain and a bit nasty, isn't he? But his stories live on, all the same...and that, after all, is what matters.

Gentle reader, this is where I rebel.

Putting aside false modesty with my usual unseemly alacrity, I can say that I have devoted a large part of my life and considerable material sacrifice to the idea that writing is important. I believe, with Kafka, that it can be the axe that breaks the frozen sea inside us. I take Rilke at his word when he claims that it means "you must change your life". Rightly or wrongly, stupidly or otherwise, I believe in the necessity of the liberating possibilities that are offered by human imagination. It seems to me that if society as a whole were more literate in the byways of our desires, if we were better able to contemplate our own inadmissable longings, our cruelties and pain and terrors, or - perhaps most confrontingly of all - our capacities for love or joy, then we might be able to better deal with our realities. And I think that art is the major technology that we have invented for investigating and expressing these complex, amoral desires.

In The Pillowman, it seems to me that McDonagh is doing something rather different from this. If the story is its own justification, a thesis I am perfectly willing to accept, this story's justification is no more serious than a cheap thrill, slumming it in the bad suburbs of the intellect. McDonagh in fact is inoculating us against consciousness, craftily removing all psychic peril from the exercise of art. The play's inescapable assertion - that the universal, timeless (inject favourite superlative) magic of art redeems the actual pain of a human being - misrepresents the amoral claim that imagination makes upon consciousness. Its callousness is a cynical inversion of the part that pain often - but not always - plays in the creation of art. And it artfully places the writer at the centre of his own redemptive universe, hermetically sealed from critical inquiry by his own genius.

I guess such manoeuvering has its own kind of genius, and there's no doubt that McDonagh's measure of an audience's general tolerance for reality - or art - is more finely judged than my own. Sifting through reviews of different productions of this play, I read again and again how harrowing and stomach-churning it is. I concede that the play is telling us all the time how harrowing and stomach-churning it all is. Put it next to the real thing - Sarah Kane, Franz Xavier Kroetz, Fernando Arabal - and its pretensions become readily apparent.

The MTC production is effectively directed by Simon Phillips, although close up I felt rather too aware of the workings of Gabriela Tylesova's elaborate set. And it features bravura performances: in particular, Greg Stone as Ariel, Kim Gyngell as Tupolski and a virtuoso turn from Dan Wyllie as Michal are sheerly pleasurable to watch, and make the three hours much less burdensome than they otherwise might be. The Pillowman has some killer one-liners and draws freely from the kind of to-and-fro banter exemplified by Abbot and Costello. And therein, I think, lies the authentic charm of the play, which this production exploits with elan: it's a comedy with grand guignol dressing. The rest is just tosh.

Update: The debate continues in New York on Parabasis.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Pricklings of conscience

Readers, and not only of this blog, will no doubt be thrilled to know that The Novel (hereafter known as The Novel) is heading like an express train towards its breathtaking climax, which is now mere weeks away. Little Alison can't wait to have her brain back, and I'm sure TN readers will be unutterably relieved when I stop talking about it.

All the same, I have an uncomfortably active superego, who is currently telling me off in no uncertain terms for missing Theatre@Risks latest show, Vanessa Bates' Checklist for an Armed Robber, closing at the end of the week. To misquote Chaucer, the lyf so short, the craft so very long (all too true in my case)... In penance and mitigation, let me direct you to some excellent reviews by blogger colleagues - Matthew Clayfield's piece at Esoteric Rabbit, and Elisa Ghisalberti's response at Spark Online, as well as Richard Watts' passionate recommendation.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Review: The Birthday Party, Fourplay

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, directed by Adrian Mulraney. With Chris Brown, Jo Buckley, Bruce Kerr, Adrian Mulraney, Nicki Paul and Stephen Whittaker. St Kilda Army & Navy Club Memorial Hall, 88 Acland Street, St Kilda, until May 27. Bookings 0431 739 211

Fourplay by Jane Bodie, directed by David Ryding. Design by Emma Caporn, audio design and music by Craig Tracy, lighting design by Aaron Beach. With Brett Whittingham, Olivia Hogan, Kate Gregory and Dan Walls. Actomatic @ Cromwell Rd Theatre, 27A Cromwell Rd, South Yarra, until May 26. Bookings 9429 8118.

The Birthday Party's notorious debut has no doubt warmed the cockles of many a disconsolate playwright's heart. One of the earliest plays by the then little known playwright Harold Pinter, it opened in the West End in 1958 to total disaster. The critics slaughtered it and its total takings, when it closed after a week, were a dismal £260 11s 8d.

But enter the hero (for once, a critic). Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times showed his mettle by disagreeing vocally with his colleagues. "I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays," wrote this good gentleman, "by saying... that Mr Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London".

This is not a fairytale, so the play didn't return at once to rapturous audiences; but posterity has shown that Hobson's instinct was remarkably acute. The Birthday Party is among the most famous post-war British plays, and Hobson's review marked the first major recognition of Pinter's talent, which has now lifted him to the status of cultural monument. This is not necessarily, it must be said, an unambiguous good, and Pinter has never sat cosily in the armchair of the Great British Playwright, as the controversy around his Nobel Prize amply demonstrated. But that's another story.

Seeing The Birthday Party almost 50 years later, it's easy to understand why Hobson was so convinced of Pinter's unique, unsettling gift. For all that has changed since the '50s, the play remains as radical and mysterious as it must have been on its first outing. The comfortable truisms about "human nature" that Pinter so ruthlessly attacked in that play are, I suspect, as present now as they were then: they may have changed costumes, but their certainties and judgements lie as heavy as ever.

One of the perils of being a cultural monument is the settling of dust. Pinter is often paid obesience here, if rather uneasily - I remember, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, that the Age asked a number of local playwrights what his influence was on their work. They mostly jumped like startled hares, made bad jokes about pauses, and strenuously denied any influence at all - which an unkind person might have observed was abundantly evident in their plays. His recent plays, among the most exciting of his career, are assiduously avoided by our major companies, and the only chance I've had recently to see his plays on stage is in co-op productions. Which can be a mixed blessing indeed.

So kudos to this company of actors for putting on a compelling production of The Birthday Party. Directed by Adrian Mulraney, this production demonstrates the truth of the old saw that theatre is two planks and a passion. There's not a lot of money here: the design consists mainly of sheets pegged to the wall, and it's done three-quarters in the round (this may change with the exigencies of the new space: I saw the last night of its first season). Such "poor theatre" exposes two things, the text and the actor, and shows how little - and how much - it takes to make engrossing theatre.

The Birthday Party is set in a seedy boarding house - or at least, its hostess calls it a boarding house - supposedly run by Meg (Nicki Paul) and Petey (Bruce Kerr). There is only one boarder, Stanley, who seems to have an incestuously filial relationship to Meg, and claims to have been a pianist. Three figures arrive in this claustrophobic environment: Lulu (Jo Buckley), a young woman with unsuccessful designs on Stanley, and two sinister gentlemen, Goldberg (Stephen Whittaker) and McCann (Adrian Mulraney). It soon becomes clear that the two men are hunting Stanley, although it is never clear why. Meanwhile, Meg is planning to celebrate Stanley's birthday with a party, although he denies several times that it is in fact his birthday.

It's a play in which a great deal of the building anxiety depends on the inscrutability of the action: but despite the mysteries of the characters - we never know who Goldberg and McCann are, for instance, or why they are pursuing Stanley with such malevolent intent - it moves with a deeply unsettling verisimilitude. Mulraney and his fellow actors wisely eschew any imposition of "meaning" or interpretation upon a text which even the author refuses to eludicate. However, they do not conclude from this that Pinter is therefore merely "confusing", and that a confusing production will do to communicate the "confusions" of the text. Instead, these actors explore what director Carey Perloff has called the "frighteningly specific realism" that marks this work.

Pinter understands, as well as any writer ever has, how silence exists as much in speaking as in not speaking, and how language can be both a mask and a weapon. "Pinter's world," says Perloff, "is a predator's world...a world in which confession is fatal, in which the revelation of emotional truth leads to annihilation." In The Birthday Party, an unnerving sense of anxiety builds through the play, at different points exploding into obscurely motivated acts of violence: an attempted strangling, the beating of a drum.

At no point does Pinter release the tension by bringing a revelatory clarity to the action. What is given clarity, with the precision of a poet or a jeweller, are the specific details of human action and language. This production, notable for its excellent ensemble performances, is particularly effective because the actors pay this precision proper respect, giving the play a sinisterly heightened realism; the emphasis falls not on the "meaning" of the play, but its sharp, subtle, frightening dynamics. Instead, the play's meaning, in all its unsettling complexity, resonates deep inside the audience, in the unlit hollows of nightmare.

Another bunch of motivated actors is bringing Jane Bodie's Fourplay to the stage in South Yarra. Act-O-Matic is one of the impressive independent companies working in Melbourne: their production of Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project was plain classy, justly winning them a Green Room Award, and they also do a line in plays by young expatriate Australian writers, producing Van Badham in 2004 and now Jane Bodie.

Fourplay concerns Alice (Olivia Hogan) and Tom (Brett Whittington), a couple in a long term relationship. Alice is a former actor, now turned social worker; Tom is rehearsing a play with the dangerously attractive Natasha (Kate Gregory). Meanwhile, at work Alice begins to make friends with her socially inept and perhaps slightly suspect co-worker Jack (Dan Walls).

This is the kind of scenario that generally has me gasping and clawing for breath by interval. But Bodie's writing shows why naturalism isn't always a recipe for television: she imbues her work with a subtly worked, intelligent theatricality, and her deliberately banal stories are leavened by a quick, sardonic wit. Perhaps most crucially, she has a gift for delineating the fractures that open between human beings; like a somewhat gentler Pinter, she understands how speech conceals as much as it reveals. Without a skerrick of sentimentality (except a rather too neat touch in the finale), she exposes the essential loneliness that lives, like a shameful, unacknowledged wound, inside human beings.

The set, featuring backlit abstract windows, is scattered with dead leaves, echoing the autumnal tone of the play. The actors perform the play well and honestly, realising the difficulty and pain that lies beneath the nervous skin of the script. They are hampered a little by David Ryding's direction, which lacks the fluidity of the writing: exits and entrances between the scenes simply take too long, and give the play a repetitive rhythm that doesn't serve it well. But overall it's a rewarding production of a fine play, and well worth the price of a ticket.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Attention Sydneysiders

Sydneyites interested in bold new writing should get to the premiere season of Jasmine Chan's extraordinary monologue Corvus. Jasmine, a young Melbourne writer, is one of TN's tips as a talent to watch. If you want a taste of what she's about, this particular text is published in what is still - belatedly, but that's another story - the current edition of my literary ezine Masthead. (Mind you, it's a damn fine issue so I don't feel that guilty).

Dana Miltins plays the title role. This production is directed and designed by the indefatigable Kate Davis, another talented young Melburnian, and intriguingly the costumes are by Icelandic fashion designer Sruli Recht. It's on at Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh, for five nights only from May 29. Bookings at or 02 9209 4614.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Coming up...

A stopgap note to alert you all to a couple of independent (and unfunded) plays, both of which opened last night, both of which are well worth a squiz, and both of which I won't get a chance to review until at least the weekend. (Yes, that novel again...words, words, words, to quote the world's most famous existential crisis.)

Firstly, Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party has a return season at the St Kilda Army & Navy Club Memorial Hall, 88 Acland Street, St Kilda (enter via Albert Street). This is a poor theatre production featuring a good cast, including Adrian Mulraney and Bruce Kerr. I saw its last incarnation a month or so ago and was mighty impressed. It closes on May 27 and you can book on 0431 739 211. Secondly, that bunch of troopers Act-O-Matic are putting on Jane Bodie's Fourplay at the Cromwell Road Theatre in South Yarra. Bodie is a young Australian playwright now working in the UK who rewardingly works the domestic/naturalistic vein. She was last seen here at the MTC, and I think this rendition does her subtleties somewhat more justice. It finishes May 26 - bookings online here or phone 94298118. Go thither, warm with the glow of supporting some hard-working artists.

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Things on Sunday

Feeling idle on Sunday? Pop on down to the Malthouse, where your intrepid blogger will hosting this month's Things on Sunday session. It promises to be a special one. Details below.

The word made flesh

In 1959 the American evangelist Billy Graham visited Melbourne and pulled a crowd of 130,000 to hear him at the MCG. The power of his preaching is still recalled, and it is this power that we explore in an afternoon of biblical proportions. From a cantor singing the prayers of Jewish faith, to readings from the Old Testament, to Billy himself as recorded on his Australian ‘crusade’, this is a journey where holy texts are given voice, in all their awe-inspiring might.

Rabbi Fred Morgan Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne.
Matthew O'Meara Assistant Chaplain, St Michael's Grammar School.
Majid Shokor Iraqi-Australian actor (last seen in Theatre at Risk's Homebody/Kabul).

Time: 2.30pm Sunday, May 20
Venue: The CUB Malthouse
Cost: $10, free for Malthouse Theatre subscribers
Bookings highly recommended: Box Office (03) 9685 5111

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Make It New

David Williams over at Compromise Is Our Business passes on the news that the Australia Council is inviting responses to its latest planning proposal on the future of theatre funding, Make It New. As David says: "Just so everyone is clear on the stakes of this, the first installment of 'Make it New' was preceded with the placing 'on notice' of all of the organisations triennially funded by the Theatre Board, including Melbourne's La Mama". The discussion papers are available online here and an online forum for public discussion is here.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fight! Fight! Fight!

UPDATE: Encore Theatre Magazine follows up with editorial and more reaction from London's critical elite, who have lined up as one man to scoff at Hytner's criticism. Yes, says Theatre Worker, they have been in their jobs too long. "It wouldn’t matter if any of these three men [Charles Spencer, Michael Billington and Nick de Jongh] gave you the slightest impression that they had an alertness to what is new, that they were capable of giving themselves to a piece of theatre, that they yearned to be changed by it, to risk their profoundest thoughts and feelings. They don’t."

And Bad Boy Cote responds to the righteous indignation hurled his way.


Fans of schadenfreude should investigate the stoush enlivening the British theatre scene at the moment. Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, swung into the enemy's territory when he told the Times that London theatre critics are a bunch of "dead white males" who demonstrate misogynistic responses to the work of women - especially gay women. Guardian critic Michael Billington almost proved Hytner's thesis about DWM by proclaiming in irresistibly Dickensian language that Hytner's attack was "balderdash and piffle", and points out (justly, of course) in a robust defence that reports of his death are premature and that the picture is more complex than simple ideas of gender.

Not, when you actually look at these things, that gender is ever a simple issue. The reliably thoughtful Lyn Garner, also of the Guardian, says that Hytner has a point, but she thinks the women simply get out more because they do the "fringey" stuff and so understand that theatre is about more than West End openings. Unspoken, of course, is the understanding that this happens because the women are often the junior partners in the critical exercise.

I think Gardner is on the money here:

...I do think that Hytner is doing a terrific job in trying to drag the National into the 21st century and reflect the experiments in form and ways of working that are taking place in British theatre. Not all of these shows will be successful, but the National should be taking risks and so should we critics, because otherwise we are acting as gate-keepers keeping innovation out - rather than doing our job and helping theatre culture grow and change.

George Hunka at Superfluities agrees that the real problem is the question of aesthetic blinkers, rather than whether the critic is old or possesses a penis. He also brings up the rather puzzling NY blogtroversy about "anti-Christian" critics, currently raging around the ears of TONY theatre editor David Cote. Rat Sass, bless him, is maintaining the rage over Cote's more recent comment, in a review, that: "Of course, if artists (or scientists) could find out why some people can’t do without supernatural bigotry, the world would be a better place... religion is bad theater for stupid people". It's baffling that a supposedly impassioned defender of that primal anti-religionist Artaud should get so exercised about defending institutional Christianity, but there we are.

In fact, they're all enjoying themselves hugely. Except possibly David Cote.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Helloooo, Helsinki!

Tonight was Eurovision night here, and addicts of Europop kitsch (which seems to include 90 per cent of Australian theatre bloggers) refused all invitations and manacled themselves to the sofa, popcorn and chocolate at the elbow, sugary drinks in hand. And yes, the Finns - who take it all with deadly seriousness - did themselves proud. Even if they didn't win.

In this house, we had no problems with the winner, a classic power ballad called Moltiva (Prayer), sung with full-throated passion by the fully-besuited and unleggy Serb Marija Serifovic. And we thought it was brilliant that a woman could win without being noticeably pretty or taking off most of her clothes.

However, the result is not without controversy. Stung by Britain's second-last place, the BBC is asking "serious questions" about the biased voting of the Eastern bloc, which they blame for the poor showings by Britain and Ireland. Personally, I thought it an injustice that Britain got any points at all - Malta, what were you thinking?

Darling Brits, if you keep putting in zombie-pop entrants like Scooch, what do you expect? These staggeringly over-produced mannequins were squirmingly embarrrassing even by Eurovision standards, in a ghastly nudge-nudge-wink-wink sort of way. In their antiseptic prurience, they were even more offensive than Poland's pop porn (which fortunately didn't make it through the semi-finals). And although the Irish were not in that league, it has to be said that they were out of tune.

Our votes went to Bulgaria, Slovenia, Finland, Latvia and Sweden, with special points to the French for lifting out of last year's slump with those amazing pink Jean-Paul Gaultier outfits. And we hated Germany, Belarus, Russia, Spain and Turkey. But in the end, who can resist the Ukraine?

Verka Serdyuchka rocks! Or bounces. Or something.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Review: OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament

OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament, devised and directed by Christian Leavesley and Phil Rolfe. Lighting by Paul Jackson, additional recorded compositions by Phillip McInnes and Brendan Noonan. With Amelia Best, Philip McInnes, Luke Ryan, Peter Snow and Katherine Tonkin. Uncle Semolina (& Friends), Beckett Theatre @ the Malthouse until May 27.

However you look at it, OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament is a mess. Some of it is a glorious, exhilarating, anarchic mess, and some of it feels rather like being locked inside a four-year-old maniac's bedroom. It seems to me like a show that is still gestating: but the beast is most certainly slouching towards Bethelehem to be born.

You can't fault Uncle Semolina (& Friends) on their ambition. The Old Testament gathers together the foundational sacred texts of our civilisation, and that it's a timely idea to examine them hardly needs saying. The "religions of the Book", Christianity, Judaeism and Islam, all draw from these ancient writings, and all three religions bleed along the faultlines of contemporary geopolitics.

The question at the heart of OT is how much this contemporary violence is encoded in the ur-violence of the Old Testament, which, with its bloody parade of betrayal, revenge, murder, incest, rape, divine punishment, jealousy, dire moralistic warnings and straight-out misogyny, sometimes seems like ancient Palestine's version of the Sun newspaper. As devisers Christian Leavesley and Phil Rolfe say in the program: if God really made man in His own image, what does that say about God?

This question is explored by enacting some of the key stories of the Old Testament. Don't look for any Cecil B. De Mille SFX here: this is the Bible for a post-capitalist, urban generation. Leavesley and Rolfe excavate the bric-a-brac of contemporary middle class childhood - Teletubbies, soft toys, dinosaurs, plastic buckets - and pile it around a ramshackle cardboard set that's a kind of nightmare kindergarten. Yahweh himself is a senile patriarch in a cardigan, snoring in the corner. It's notable that there are no design credits - although it's beautifully lit by Paul Jackson, this is a kind of anti-design, there merely to be the occasion for its own destruction.

My major feeling for around the first 20 minutes was creeping disappointment. The cast fills the stage with energy, but it seldom gets beyond a feeling that we're watching a series of drama exercises in story telling. (How do you perform all the "begats" in Genesis? Phone calls and clowning!) A feeling of theatrical stasis is reinforced by the dramaturgy, which reels out the stories as sequential, if fragmentary, episodes: once the comic novelty of watching Biblical scenes enacted with stuffed toys wore off, I began to feel that this was a one-joke show, and to think rather wistfully of the savagely beautiful grandeur of the King James Bible. Paradoxically enough, these early scenes seem too polite.

Fortunately, OT soon gets a lot ruder, and the second half of the show is an entirely different experience. The cast begins to access an Artaudian sense of the sacred, the delirium that infects the subconscious with the self-annihilating freedom of dream. The show starts to generate its own dark poetic as the objects are infused with a strange and sinister life, and all the performances become at once more focused and less predictable. In retrospect, it's hard to pin down where the show turns, because it is partly a cumulative effect, but it certainly coincides with two things: a rougher and more anarchic dramaturgy that runs the stories together, so that they fragment, overlap, bifurcate; and the theatrical excavation of the brutality of the stories.

The show is structured around five main stories - the Creation, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Cain's murder of Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel - and given a semblance of clarity with the help of text projected on the walls. Leavesley and Rolfe eschew a chronological or even orderly narrative, but OT generally works backwards, literally counting down to the beginning.

These narratives are interwoven with some lesser known passages - the filial jealousy of the twin brothers Esau and Jacob, for example, or the horrific dismemberment of the Levite's concubine, who after being gang-raped and murdered, is cut into twelve pieces and her body distributed among the twelve tribes of Israel as an exhortation for revenge. God (Peter Snow) eventually wakes up from his slumber and is both puppet and sinister puppeteer, exacting jealous revenge and capricious punishment, but his main characteristic is divine indifference to his worshippers; in Job's case, he uses human beings as wagers to get one over Satan. And then He disappears altogether, abandoning His flawed creation to its own violent confusion.

The use of toys generates a cumulative metaphorical point about God the Father's infantalisation of human beings, but it also suggests that God manifests as a human creation. As in the imaginative play of children, God is generated by our own desires; as Blake says, "all Gods reside in the human breast". "Play" in all its senses is key to this show. The cast - Amelia Best, Phillip McInnes, Luke Ryan, Peter Snow and Katherine Tonkin - performs with a physical and - perhaps more importantly - emotional fearlessness that makes the extremities they're exploring tangible on stage. And their performances are heightened by a very brilliant sound design.

As the show gets darker, it also gets funnier: among its highlights is a pitch-perfect vernacular rendition by Luke Ryan of Samson's first wedding, during which he slaughtered the entire wedding party, and a song that is (I guess) punk/Teletubbies fusion. But OT does much more than simply jam these ancient, bloodthirsty stories into a vernacular urban aesthetic; it creates theatrical moments that implode with a visceral, physical beauty, transfiguring its aggressively simple elements into potent catalysts of the imagination. In its best moments, it is - to use the appropriate vocabulary in all its senses - awesome.

OT explores - if, at present, a little vaguely - real and disturbing questions about the DNA of our culture which now seem especially pertinent. There are those, for example, who claim that Islam is "inherently" violent, while Christianity is not: a brief survey of the Old Testament's jealous and punitive God laying waste to whole populations even unto the seventh generation will surely put that furphy to rest (remembering, of course, that Armageddon and the Apocalypse are inventions of the New Testament). It would be nice to think that we're past all that now but, sadly, the optimistic notion of historical progress seems currently to be as big a myth as Yahweh.

Seeing OT was strangely synchronous with a blogger hoohah I've been following with stratospherically raised eyebrows: Time Out New York theatre editor David Cote, "sworn enemy of ignorant, paranoid, wasteful, culturally desolate, ahistorically pious middleamerican boobies", made some waspish comments about those of faithful persuasion, and straightway proved that hell hath no fury like riled atheists and believers scorned. I've been trying to imagine such a conversation in Melbourne theatre circles: perhaps I'm wrong, but I can't. I'm certain OT will polarise audiences, but I can't see it being picketed by outraged Christians. Sometimes I think there's alot to be said for good old-fashioned Australian scepticism.

Picture: Luke Ryan in OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Street theatre

Scene: Coles New World, Douglas Parade, Williamstown, around 10.30am this morning. Shoppers, dogs, people gossiping, etc.

Two YOUNG MEN suddenly slam open the supermarket's emergency exit, setting off all the alarms, and bolt into Douglas Parade. They are carrying a blue freezer bag. About fifty open-mouthed shoppers stare as they skid around the corner and bundle into a bright yellow car, in which they make a screaming getaway. Some shoppers are manifestly amused, others are noting down the car's model and number plate, and still others are calling the police.

I guess they got caught in Melbourne Road around five minutes later. What I want to know is, what did they steal from Coles?

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Slightly bigger carrots

More on the Federal Budget in today's Age. The arts did unusually well this year, but there's some justice in Opposition spokesman Peter Garrett's claim that it's "nothing more than repair and rescue" after years of neglect. Though, frankly, whether Labor would do any better is up for grabs. And, to keep some perspective, it's very small bikkies when you think of the $3.5 billion that's been strategically handed out as sweeteners to various interest groups, or the $5 billion extra that is heading towards universities (albeit with steel strings attached), which represents some serious pork-barrelling.

As well as the $19.5 million towards the small-to-medium performing arts sector, $24 million extra is to go to the major performing companies, which in Melbourne theatre means the major beneficiaries are the MTC and the Malthouse. Again, this sum addresses the fiscal slippage which means that budgets have not met the rising costs of making theatre. Late last year, several companies - including the STC, Company B, Belvoir and Circus Oz as well as the MTC - made an unprecedented plea for a 25 per cent increase in funding, after announcing they faced collective losses of $1.5m, and a survey by the Australian Major Performing Arts Group found that funding in real terms had declined drastically, with major effects on programming.

There's been some intense lobbying behind this decision, which reportedly was very last-minute. A jubilant insider told me last night that, to their astonishment, they got everything they asked for - an unusual feeling for arts persons. For audiences, the most important implication is that the MTC might throw off its straitjacket and climb out of the theatrical doldrums. As Artistic Director Simon Phillips says in the Age today, "It means the belt that we have been tightening for the past few years now can be eased back a couple of notches so we can do those big-picture plays and classics that enrich the theatrical diet." That sounds very cool to me: and I'm putting in my bid for Ibsen and Strindberg now.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Small carrots

Anyone would think there was an election coming up. But hey, if Costello is distributing big carrots in his 2007 Budget, us arts rabbits are grateful for any crumbs that come our way.

Nicholas Pickard has the lowdown on the Arts Budget at his blog. Of immediate interest to us is the increase of $19.5 million over four years ($4.8m per annum) heading to the troubled small-to-medium theatre sector. This adds up to $5.5m more than the $14m Oz Council chair James Strong requested in December last year. It could even represent a small actual increase (as opposed to bringing non-indexed arts funding up to par after its severe inflatory erosion over the past few years - almost 25 per cent in the small-to-medium sector since 2000 - which that $14m was needed to off-set). But I wouldn't get the champagne out yet - if it is an actual increase, it might bring us back to where we were ten years ago.

It would be very surprising if La Mama got the chop after this - especially as distinguished arts figures (most recently Sue Nattrass) have been lining up to publicly express their dudgeon at the thought of its undeserved "on notice" status. And that's unambiguously good news.

PS: A commenter (thanks anon) points out that this funding is going to the entire small-to-medium performing arts sector, not just to theatre, as was incorrectly reported in the Age. So although any increase is good news, it's not as good as it first appeared. Actual Arts Ministry guff here.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007


As widely expected, Nicolas Sarkozy won the French presidency on the weekend. It's an election that has been somewhat anxiously observed in this house, as it will probably affect us more than the upcoming Australian election.

It may seem trivial in the face of intransigent social problems such as these, but there's a deep connection between Sarko's proto-Fascist policies and his hostility to contemporary culture (he believes in "high art", but the massive decentralisation of theatre to the suburbs and regions of the '70s looks as if it's had its day). A major fear is that the Ministry of Culture could disappear altogether, as part of the public service cutbacks Sarkozy will implement in the next year. No matter what, French artists are bracing for a Thatcherite-style kicking over the next few years. Most people seemed to agree it was between bad and worse as far as the arts are concerned: Ségolène Royal by all reports viewed art principally as a platform for social propaganda. Well, being French, they're already manning the barriers...

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Review: Ghosts

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Louis Nowra and May-Brit Akerholt, directed by Melanie Beddie. Design by Emily Barrie, lighting design by Richard Vabre, AV design Nicholas Verso, sound by Melanie Beddie. With Jay Bowen, Ming-Zhu Hii, Bruce Myles, Andrea Swifte and James Wardlaw. Branch Theatre Company @ Theatreworks until May 20.

Encountering Henrik Ibsen's plays is a little like reading James Joyce's Dubliners: you realise, with a blinding flash of revelation, where all that modern writing comes from. Here is the engaged social anger that led to Arthur Miller's masterpieces of political theatre (and to all the pilot fish that swim in his wake - on the Left, of course); here is the psychological accuracy, the insistence that we, as an audience, are watching something actually unfold before our eyes, that became the all-too-familiar "naturalism" that lies at the heart of so much 20th century theatre. And here, according to popular superstition, is the father of the "well-made play".

Oddly enough, to give Ibsen credit for his huge influence on contemporary drama is strangely to lessen him: his work is both stranger and more subversive than this picture allows. The image of the socially-engaged dramatic craftsman is largely due to Shaw's enthusiastic embrace of Ibsen, which has fatally coloured subsequent perception of his work. It is true, of course, but partial. Joyce, for example, was equally a passionate admirer, and his least successful work - his single play Exiles - bears the stamp of Ibsen writ large. Ibsen's psychological realism emerged more fruitfully in Joyce's exquisite suite of stories, Dubliners, and in the plays of Chekhov (which have a profound connection to Beckett); and the poetic of Peer Gynt and When We Dead Waken was one of the sources of both surrealism and expressionism. In fact, almost everywhere you look in 20th century writing it's possible to detect the faint marks of Ibsen's fingerprints.

Ibsen's agonistic relationship to poetry in theatre is well known - having begun with the verse plays Brand and Peer Gynt, he vocally rejected verse as the "enemy of theatre", and pioneered naturalistic prose dialogue in plays like A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler or The Master Builder. But it's a mistake to equate that decision with a rejection of poetic, and to think that it means that naturalism and poetry are mutually exclusive. Ibsen's poetic imagination is the engine that throbs beneath his prose, the deep source of its potency; and significantly, in his 70s he returned to verse bigtime with the symbolist drama When We Dead Waken, which features staging challenges worthy of Goethe's Faust.

In his day, Ibsen was hugely controversial. The London premiere of his 1881 play Ghosts, with its devastating attack on bourgeois hypocrisy and its themes of sexual degeneracy and disease, received reviews as scandalised as those which greeted Sarah Kane's Blasted. (Both were labelled "filth".) It's this radical, passionate Ibsen who is most often obscured by his reputation as a dull, stiff but worthy Norwegian whose "well-made plays" have provided justification for some of the dreariest theatrical writings of the past 50 years.

Such damping of the fire is, inevitably, part of the price of creating a heritage, of becoming a cog in the cultural machine: as Auden said of Yeats, "the words of the dead / Are modified in the guts of the living". One of the tasks of remounting the classics is to reignite the flame, to bring to contemporary life the radical soul of works that have been ossified into cultural monuments. Such a task is the stated aim of Branch Theatre Company's production of Ghosts: but sadly, it is a most frustrating experience. I left the theatre with my stomach in a knot, perhaps having caught something of the anxiety that seems to underlie almost every aspect of this production. Director Melanie Beddie ought to have had more faith in her man.

There is a strangely naive quality in this production, as if the notion that classic works can have purchase in present day society is a wholly new idea. The anxiety seems to lie in underscoring Ibsen's "relevance" by injecting the drama with a vaguely realised concept of contemporary theatricality. It seems unnecessary; the version of Ghosts used here, an adaptation by Louis Nowra and May-Brit Akerholt that remains respectful of the extant translations, gives the language a vernacular spin that does it no harm at all, and the play's themes remain as relevant now as they were in 19th century Europe.

Ghosts is the classic story of a shameful secret whose repression destroys everything that the secrecy was supposed to protect. The central obsessions of the play - its "ghosts" (or, more properly, its revenants, the dead walkers who return to the world of the living) - revolve around the clash between repressive middle class morality and Ibsen's idea of a truly moral life, in which people are freed of the personal lies and ideological blindnesses that trap and ultimately destroy them. Ibsen uses the central story of a son who inherits the venereal disease of his father to explore the corruption and hypocrisy that he perceived in the stifling mores of bourgeois ideology, and to icily examine the sexual repression that lies at the heart of patriarchal authority.

That Ibsen's plays are difficult to stage seems to me without question - aside from a great production of Peer Gynt featuring Robert Menzies that Anthill Theatre staged many years ago, I am yet to see him successfully performed. Ibsen's naturalistic prose presents steep challenges, demanding a depth of interpretation that is not present here. Like all great dramatists, his work is at once subtle and crude: the plot of Ghosts is melodramatic, the character lineation precisely and profoundly observed. This production seems to get lost between the large and the small, so that its chief quality comes across as uncertainty.

It's not unpromising: the company excavates enough of Ibsen's muscular, poetic intellect to permit you see within this show, like gems sparkling in the ore, a couple of potentially extraordinary performances. And Emily Barrie's striking design - an abstract stage-on-a-stage, with furniture wrapped in clear plastic to suggest an idea of prurient bourgeois hygiene - certainly offers a contemporary Ibsen. The frustration is that this promise is obscured by gestures towards an idea of theatricality that is nowhere explored in any depth.

The stage bustles with activity, but mostly to no good purpose, just as the eye-catching simplicity of the set is compromised by fussy details. And the production also features one of the most ill-thought soundscapes I've ever heard (at one point, I thought someone's mobile phone had gone off, before realising it was actually part of the play). Rather than stripping the play down to its bare emotional truths - the point, surely, of taking it out of 19th century museum-style naturalism - Beddie dresses it up with an extraordinary amount of stage business which seems to get in the way of, well, pretty much everything.

For example, there's a lot of action at the beginning of the play. While Ibsen gets down to business at once, with the maid Regina (Ming-Zhi Hii) barring her disreputable father Engstrand (Bruce Myles) at the door of the house, this production opens with a long prologue in which Regina enters with boxes and unloads them, takes off her boots, mops the floor, polishes a couple of glasses, and so on. Like much of the staging, these actions are sketchy, broadly illustrative rather than specifically meaningful. I found myself wishing that Regina would wash the floor, instead of impressionistically gliding a mop from one end of the stage to the other - I remembered a scene in Romeo Castellucci's Tragedia Endogonidia that consisted wholly of a woman mopping, an action executed with such concentration that this mundane task became absolutely riveting, a metaphor for all human labour.

More mystifyingly, as the prodigal son Osvald Alving, Jay Bowen spends a lot of time rootling about in a wardrobe that ingeniously opens out from a suitcase placed on the edge of the stage. At no point did I actually understand what he was doing, and I'm not sure the actor did either. He was merely filling the stage with movement, which seems the desired effect of much of the action. These examples may sound like carping, but they illustrate a problem that underlies much of the production: at issue is the question of what a gesture on a stage in fact might be. And my response is perhaps prompted by the absolutely spare psychological accuracy of Ibsen's dialogue, which creates a stark contrast to the fuss on stage.

Given this, it seems astounding that any of the actors manage to achieve anything at all. As Mrs Alving, the wife who has lived a loveless, hypocritical marriage for the sake of her son only to find that she has been an agent of his destruction, Andrea Swifte gives a felt and assured performance that at moments blossoms into the remarkable. And despite his burrowing in wardrobes, Jay Bowen's portrayal of Osvald becomes more and more compelling, culminating in a beautiful pas de deux with Swifte in the climactic moments of the play.

Others seem to be struggling. James Wardlaw seems to me miscast as Pastor Manders; he finds an accuracy that brings out the comedy of the priest's hypocrisy and small-mindedness, but at the same time misses the complexity and darkness of his crippled sexuality. Ming-Zhu Hii and Bruce Myles as the servants Regina and Angstrand appear to be playing them as if they're comic relief, the mechanicals of the show rather than integral parts of the central drama, which has the effect of displacing a crucial thread of the drama, and unwittingly reinforces the social divisions that Ibsen himself was questioning.

In short, Ghosts is, as I said, frustrating: a production that feels only half thought-through, teasingly threaded with glimpses of what might have been. One sighs for the missed opportunity. Branch Theatre Company is absolutely correct on one point: Ibsen is not done enough.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Brief fantasia

Those who think it's been a bit quiet here might recall that I temporarily blew up last week, driving a deep hole in my novel schedule. Those fanboys and girls waiting (with appropriate squeeing noises) for The Singing will be glad to hear that I'm making up for it this week, only surfacing from the heart-stopping adventures in Annar for meals. Or perhaps to say "hello" to my family. Yes, I'm afraid I'm well and truly away with the faeries.

But never fear, brave thespianauts: the blogoverse has been humming with industry. Check out my blogroll (which is already sadly out of date) or the new must-have theatre blog aggregator Theatreforte, which is pretty comprehensive on US blogs, even if the Rest of the World is kinda down the bottom there (and thanks guys for the link...) Then you can catch up on the Mike Daisey fracas that has been entertaining our American friends; or if you feel like some meaty conversation, have a look at Superfluities where George Hunka has a great vid of John Cage on a game show (!!) and is discussing Mac Davies' deeply interesting new book, Art and Politics. More on that when I reach the end of the book, which is now in my hot little hands. Closer to home, Nicholas Pickard waxes indignant about the state of arts discourse, and David Williams has a couple of valuable posts about arts funding.

And don't miss this wonderful post on the Steppenwolf blog from actor Tracy Letts, which hilariously dissects a certain percentage of the audience - mobile phoners, coughers, psychos - which all of us will recognise. (We are - for once - in the majority - we know we're the lovable 99 per cent.)

Meanwhile back in fantasyland - indulge me, guys - I got a letter today enclosing the rather gorgeous bookmarks that will come free with the US paperback edition of The Riddle, due out around now, I guess; and I saw with a certain thrill that Candlewick Press is advertising the domain name Nothing there yet - it just reverts to Candlewick - but could it be that there will be a website for the Pellinor books designed - well - not by me, but by a real web designer? Something like this gorgeous thing done for Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy would be cool, no? (Ok, maybe I'll have to wait for the movie for that kind of production. Still...)

I'm thinking about Pullman, in fact, because rather foolishly I said I'd write an essay on His Dark Materials and its relationship to Milton and Blake for an upcoming anthology that Borders is putting out in the States to celebrate the release of the movie. So I got my Daemon (Myron?! But look what a lovely, softly spoken osprey he is) from said cool website. Admire below and, if the fancy takes you, get your own.

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