Review: King Lear/The SeagullSleeping Beauty fistfightReview: Love MeReview: Thom Pain/The EisteddfodOn politicsAustralia as a paradigm of the mentally impairedWorld Croggon ReduxSondheim not happyMeasuring out my life...Review: The Quivering...and now the pressWarming thoughtsRound the SphereBlogmeetReview: Sleeping BeautyA Critical Life in the Thee-ay-terReview: The China Incident/Newtown HoneyA sporting diversionGrrrBlogrollin'Little Alison's Sudden AscensionReview: The Burlesque Hour More/A Slight AcheThe not-so-new media ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review: King Lear/The Seagull

King Lear by William Shakespeare and The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, directed byTrevor Nunn. Designed by Christopher Oram, lighting design by Neil Austin, music composed by Stephen Edis, sound design by Fergus O’Hare. With Ian McKellan, Frances Barber, Monica Dolan, William Gaunt, Romolo Garai, Richard Goulding and other members of the RSC. Royal Shakespeare Company @ the State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until August 5. Bookings: 1300 136 166.

It’s fair to say that your expectations can sometimes obscure what you are actually watching on stage. When I excitedly donned my gladrags to see Trevor Nunn’s production of King Lear, I was expecting a polished, if no doubt conservative, example of English classical theatre.

The last thing I expected of one of Shakespeare’s most unrelentingly grim tragedies was a kind of comic opera, complete with Gilbert and Sullivan costumes, overblown set and arch winks at the audience. From the moment the Vincent Price organ music swelled up in the auditorium, signalling a starched procession of regal costumes across the stage, my heart sank into my pointy little shoes.

Sir Ian McKellen’s Lear should be the culmination of a distinguished Shakespearean career which includes Nunn’s stunning 1970s RSC production of Macbeth and his famous performance in Richard Eyre’s Richard III (both, fortunately for us antipodeans, available on DVD). And you can see gleams of a great performance here, a moving portrayal of a powerful man brought to impotence and madness through age and his own folly.

But it is obscured by a mystifyingly mannered production. It is as if Nunn is terrified of ambiguity: every single line in the play seems to have been scoured and then expanded on stage into vignettes of gratuitous detail that distract from the drama, the poetry – and, ultimately, the truth – of the play.

If a letter is referred to, it must be unfolded and perused, whether the text demands this or not. When Edmund (Philip Winchester) is wounded after his faked swordfight with Edgar (Ben Meyjes), not one but two serving maids must emerge from the wings to bandage his arm as he speaks. If someone mentions the gods (which happens a lot in this play) eyes must be cast upwards to the flies. Goneril’s (Frances Barber) poisoning of her sister Regan (Monica Dolan) is signalled by her stealing a vial from a doctor’s case, and rolling her eyes in mock innocence as she showily spikes the wine. Notoriously, if we are speaking of man as a “poor bare forked animal”, Lear has to get his gear off (and Poor Tom, on his back, has to imitate a fork).

And if a Fool is to be hanged, then he must be hanged on stage just before interval, thus destroying what is for me the beautifully tender ambiguity of Lear’s later lament “And my poor fool is hanged!” Which you could argue refers more to Cordelia than to the Fool (and most fruitfully, that it resonates with both meanings, since it’s suspected that originally both parts were played by the same actor).

It’s not at all clear why Nunn decided to set Lear in a Russian court - it adds nothing to the meaning of the play – but it does mean rowdy cossacks having rowdy cossack revels. And also those gold-braided cossies. Nunn’s penchant for leaden illustration is matched by a stunningly literal soundscape that does all but bark when they mention the dogs of war, and which wavers schizophrenically between sound effects like drums and horses neighing, light opera music and the obligatory thundercracks.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that many of the performances seem constrained. They’re even at times difficult to hear. McKellen’s Lear is by no means bad, although sometimes McKellen inclines to ham, but its moments of pure power and pathos – such as the scene where, on the verge of madness, he curses Goneril and stutters into impotence – make the production only the more frustrating.

At its worst, Shakespeare’s great meditation on mortality and the carnal ruthlessness of power is reduced to a comedy about a mad old man. The performances all have their moments – this is no mean cast, after all – but for the most part, only the smaller roles – John Heffernan’s Oswald or Ben Meyjes’s Edgar – give us glimpses of more profound possibilities.

It seems like Shakespeare-lite, a chocolate box production for the tourists. I sat through one of the most traumatising plays in the canon with barely a flicker of feeling, wondering if I was witnessing the decadence of the contemporary British stage.

The following night, I approached The Seagull with some trepidation. Although it’s generally considered an early masterpiece overshadowed by Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, it stands with Lear as one of my favourite plays. Perhaps it’s purely personal: I think that, in The Seagull, Chekhov gets it right about the pursuit of art. He mercilessly exposes the futility, vanity and pettiness of its pretensions, while at the same time revealing the unforgiving demands of artistic vocation, which require the courage to resist cynicism, even when all illusions have been burned away and when faith rests on nothing at all.

Luckily, Nunn redeems himself with a superb production. Where King Lear is silted up with fussy detail, The Seagull ripples with light and clarity, bringing Chekhov’s lyrical masterpiece to passionate life. Perhaps Nunn is more comfortable with Chekhov’s tough but humane vision than with the brutal bleakness of Lear: certainly, he directs this play with a fluent hand, acutely judging its balance of light and shade, tragedy and comedy.

Christopher Oram’s set, overbearing and inflexible in Lear, becomes an airy thing of light, wood, water and stone, both a cosy domestic space and rural idyll. And Fergus O’Hare's soundscape is a delicate counterpoint to the action, rather than a disconnected series of sound effects. Strangely, since this is a naturalistic production of a naturalistic play, there is much less fussing about with props. Or perhaps it’s simply that Nunn’s obsessive detailing here unobstrusively plumps out the action, rather than being pasted on top of it.

There’s one lapse; no doubt wanting to rhyme his staging of the hanging of Lear’s Fool, Nunn decides to ignore Chekhov’s tactful dramaturgy, in which Konstantin’s suicide attempt occurs off-stage. Nunn enacts it for us just before the interval, cuing a bunch of stage rhubarb as shocked peasants crowd on to the set. But given the deft handling of the whole, and in particular its reading of the complex feeling of the text, I’ll forgive him.

In The Seagull I saw the McKellen I was hoping to see – the virtuosic actor at the full stretch of his abilities, glowing in the midst of a distinguished ensemble. McKellen’s ruefully aging Sorin is irresistible, performed with delicacy, feeling and superb comic timing, and, if he were not matched by his colleagues, McKellen would be in danger of stealing the show.

There are no small parts in Chekhov, and the cast is uniformly strong; but Monica Dolan, as the hard-bitten and heartbroken Masha (“I am in mourning for my life”) stands out for the nuanced irony and restrained pain of her performance. And the night probably belongs to Frances Barber, who gives us an Arkadina of profound complexity. She’s a monstrously narcissistic aging actress whose vanity breaks into shards of vicious wit or sheer panic: manipulative, ruthless, charming and vulnerable. And very funny.

As the young artists whose ideals collide brutally with experience, Konstantin (Richard Goulding) and Nina (Romolo Garai) carry the tragic passions of the play. Goulding’s Konstantin is a young man trapped in childhood, still at the mercy of his mother’s capricious approval, and is at once petulant, absurd and tragic. And Romolo Garai is a thrillingly fearless Nina, whose innocence blazes even as her sanity shatters against a cruel and indifferent world.

In her throbbing musicality, Garai reminds me of Melita Jurisic’s unforgettable performance of Sonya in an MTC production of Uncle Vanya in the early 1990s. The difficult final scene, where Nina is almost mad with the extremity of her anguish, is performed with a beautiful modulation, revealing at once Nina’s joy at her discovery of the true meaning of her vocation and its bitter, almost fatal, price. She’s a tough Nina who, for all the damage she suffers, refuses to be a haplessly broken victim. And, although it’s an impertinence, I’ll take the liberty of claiming that Chekhov would have approved.

Picture: Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear. Photo: Manuel Harlan

A shorter version of this review appeared in today's Australian

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sleeping Beauty fistfight

To my frank surprise (I would have picked the show as uncontroversially enjoyable), my review of Sleeping Beauty has prompted more comments and argument than almost anything else I've reviewed. Too much fun to be art? A pretentious rock eisteddfod? Emotionally dishonest? I don't think so, but others do...

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Review: Love Me

Love Me by Lucy Guerin. Motion graphics by Michaela French, lighting design by Keith Tucker, visual art by David Rosetzky, music and sound design Francois Tetaz, Paul Healy and Darrin Verhagen. With Stephanie Lake, Kyle Kremerskothen, Kirstie McCracken and Byron Perry. Arts House, Meat Market, 5 Blackwood Street, North Melbourne, until July 28. Touring: Sydney: Aug 15-19, Performance Space @ CarriageWorks; Brisbane: Aug 22-25, Brisbane Powerhouse; Perth: Aug 29 - Sep 8, PICA.

I feel a little tentative approaching dance. Unlike theatre, for me dance is an undiscovered country. I can't read the signposts: I know very little about its histories and traditions and contemporary manifestations. Like Kafka watching a typist, I can only marvel at the mysterious skill that makes it all possible.

However, despite my lamentable choreographic illiteracy, I love going to see dance. I suspect that part of it is the same release from words that I feel when I look at visual art; another is the sheer delight of watching dancers moving in space with focus and precision, marvellously aware of their articulate bodies. In any case, it's fair to say that I may not know much, but I know what I like.

And certainly I like Lucy Guerin. Having ingeniously missed every show she's had on in Melbourne in the past three years, I finally caught up with Love Me, which premiered at the Malthouse a couple of years ago. I'm glad I was able to: it's a beautiful work, an absorbing play of bodies and projected light. Love Me is three short works that explore the nature of relationship and the dualities of inner and outer experience. The three works - meditations on the tos and fros of love, its imprisonments and its exhilarations - create a narrative that works towards a joyous sense of freedom.

It opens with a pair of solos, Reservoir of Giving I & II, in which dancers Kyle Kremerskothen and Kirstie McCracken, two halves of a floundering relationship, perform before a screen. Projected on to the screen is videoed footage of the other, walking or standing or sitting with a desolate vacancy in a sterile bedroom that is, like a hotel room, naked of any distinctive features.

Everything - the spoken text that accompanies the dance, the bland bedroom, Paul Healy's deliberately cheesy music - expresses a kind of heightened banality, before which the dancers express both their imprisonment and their desire - evident in McCracken's shaping and manipulation of her body, as if it were a machine, or Kremerskothen's witty and sinister duet with a chair.

On, the piece that follows, is a series of short duets and solos performed by Kirstie McCracken and Byron Perry. Here at times the dancers become screens for projected images, sometimes seeming to be more creatures of light than flesh. They flicker between being disturbing, sinister and playful, as they articulate various states of relationship and conflict, playing in precisely orchestrated areas of lit space across the wide darkness of the Arts House.

The show finishes with the gloriously lyrical Melt, again featuring McCracken, this time with Stephanie Lake. Where darkness was the abiding feeling of the previous piece, this is all light, a piece that sweeps into harmonies of gesture that depend, in their precise synchronicity, on the details of difference between the bodies of the dancers and the articulations of their movements.

Guerin makes you see the human body in new ways: people become like trees or machines or furniture, or hands transform into pulsating flowers. In one dance, the entire focus is on the dancers' legs, the rest of their bodies hidden in darkness; in another, the huge stage is merely a frame for a tiny square of light that shows us a hand and a foot. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a modernist painting - Paul Klee, perhaps - come to life; sometimes the dancers seemed like video projections, inventions of a computer; sometimes they were simply human bodies, with the kind of startling clarity that is a revelation of complexity (as the poet Neruda says, "Naked, you are simple as a hand").

I wish I were less tired and less hurried: in short, that I could describe this enthralling and beautiful work a little better. But it closes tomorrow night, and I wanted to tell you about it now.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Review: Thom Pain/The Eisteddfod

Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) by Will Eno, directed by Julian Meyrick. Lighting by Kerry Saxby, design consultant Meredith Rogers. With Neil Pigot. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until August 11. Bookings: 1300 136 166.

The Eisteddfod, by Lally Katz, directed by Chris Kohn. Design by Adam Gardnir, lighting design by Richard Vabre, sound by Jethro Woodward. With Luke Mullins and Katherine Tonkin. Stuck Pigs Squealing @ the Tower Theatre, CUB, produced by Malthouse Theatre, until July 29. Bookings: 9685 5111

It’s a common idea that if a work is “intellectual” or “cutting edge”, it must be cold and emotionless, a thing of steel and ice that is above the messy, smelly business of the human heart. Conversely, it’s assumed that anything with feeling can’t also be “intellectual”. Feeling and intelligence, so this logic runs, are opposites, and an excess of one means an inevitable lack of the other.

This weird binary has long puzzled me. For one thing, it’s so manifestly untrue: writers like Edward Said, Robert Musil or Hélène Cixous show that the intellect is in fact an instrument of passion. Far from being incompatible opposites, I think that feeling and intelligence are both required to articulate the process of consciousness. Particularly, it seems to me, in works of art.

Anyway, that is a long and complex argument, and I should drag myself to the matter to hand. These ruminations occurred after seeing Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) and The Eisteddfod, both now on at the CUB Malthouse. I suppose they both might be placed under the deathly rubric of “cutting edge” art, which is to say that they don’t obey conventional ideas of narrative or dramatic structure. Both, in this sense, are experimental (another useless term, since art is, strictly speaking, always experimental, unless it is dead).

But what strikes me primarily about both plays is that they are, fundamentally and crucially, about love. And loneliness. And all those other human, messy things.

Thom Pain is an MTC show, and it’s frankly brilliant to see them programming writing of this quality from the more innovative edge of contemporary Amercian writing. It’s had an interesting history, considering Will Eno is a New Yorker - this play premiered at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won a swag of awards, and transferred to a successful season in London before finally opening in New York. It was ultimately shortlisted for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.

It makes me wonder what American theatre is thinking, if a work as funny, smart and moving as this has to prove itself in the British provinces before it gets a look at an American stage. It’s really a poem: a highly theatrical poem which owes much to the plays of Edward Albee and Thornton Wilder. But the writer who kept insisting himself as I watched it was the 1950s New York poet, Frank O’Hara. It’s not so much style – though both O’Hara and Eno have plenty of that, and Eno shares O’Hara’s wit and lyrical gift – as sensibility. Like O’Hara, Eno is a writer who perceives human fragility and imperfection with a sceptical but wholly unironic compassion.

There is much here of sheer writerly intelligence, that witty play of allusion and metaphor that (sometimes rightly) is often taken as an evasion of feeling. But, as its name suggests, this show is actually about human pain. The comedy is often cruel (as comedy almost always is), but it functions as a kind of tact which permits us to see this fictional character’s vulnerability and, through his, our own. In its honest examination of the emotional cauterisation of trauma, it is very moving; but it is not – save for a misstep at the end, a direct plea to the audience that somehow lets us off the hook – in the least sentimental.

In the figure of Thom Pain, Eno has created a fragmented Everyman, a damaged soul ill at ease in his mortal body. Thom Pain – performed with a mixture of superbly nuanced restraint and sheer front by Neil Pigot – recounts for us, in an ad hoc, disorderly manner, the injuries that have marked his life. His wounds are at once absurd and tragic – from the electrocution of his beloved childhood dog to his broken love affair (as he sums it up, in a particularly beautiful line, "I disappeared in her and she, wondering where I went, left.")

He is, in fact, an unexpectedly gentle reflection of our own unacknowledged pain, the shaping hurts that damage us for the rest of our lives. “When did your childhood end?” he asks. “How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this little, when you were this wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words?” And, responding almost involuntarily to this direct question, we find out with a pang of memory that yes, the loss of innocence happens to all of us.

Julian Meyrick directs with a light hand: it is given a stripped, bare production, forgoing any sense of theatrical illusion in order to focus attention on the script and the performer. The set is a bare stage, marked out in squares, with a life-size cardboard image of Pigot in one back corner, and a chair in another. Neil Pigot realises his fractured character with subtlety, comic chutzpah and heartbreaking candour. He stands before us, slightly dishevelled, in a plain suit and glasses, and delivers a painfully funny stand-up routine (complete with a raffle that never actually occurs) that works off our own sense of discomfort.

As he makes clear at one point, Thom Pain (a wry spin, I presume, on the famous American revolutionary Tom Paine) is a contemporary version of Tom O’Bedlam, a truly urban “unaccommodated man” who, for all his suit and tie, is no more than “a poor bare, forked animal”. If this play has a message - not that a message is the point - it is simply that those wounds never actually heal, and we cannot live hiding from our own anguish. “Isn't it wonderful,” says Pain, with deceptive blandness, “how we never recover?"

The unhealable wounds of childhood is also an abiding theme of The Eisteddfod, Lally Katz’s disturbingly funny fantasy of suburban childhood. I saw its first full production at the Store Room three years ago, my first experience of Stuck Pigs Squealing, and was impressed. The Malthouse is now giving it a welcome remount in the Tower.

Since its first outing, The Eisteddfod has had seasons at the PS122 and Ontological-Hysterical Theatre in New York and Belvoir St in Sydney, and a cast change (Katherine Tonkin takes the role of Gerture, originally played by Jessamy Dyer). But it remains as fresh as ever, a darkly comic meditation on the perversities of longing, loneliness, pain and erotic love.

Gerture and Abalone (Luke Mullins) are brother and sister, living together, after the bizarre death of their parents, in a claustrophobically destructive relationship of mutual need and resentment. Their longings are played out through various fantasies – Gerture’s masochistic relationship with a sadistic lover, Ian, or their parents’ dysfunctional marriage – as Abalone rehearses the part of Macbeth for an upcoming eisteddfod, in which he plans to unleash his true genius on a dazzled world.

Lally Katz is a true original, and so confounds all attempts at categorisation. She is not quite like any writer I have encountered, although her work calls up shades of Pirandello, Cocteau, Chekhov and a bunch of other people. There is an anarchy in its core which means that anything might happen, a perilous sense that the whole might disintegrate into total nonsense: but it never does, because also at work is an unobtrusively steely discipline and a very sharp wit.

She’s well served by her performers, who match Katz’s precision and wit as they scramble over Adam Gardnir’s ingeniously claustrophobic set. Mullins’ performance is a sheer joy, and often simply hilarious, as he metamorphoses between Gerture’s brutish lover, his own father, a Sean Connery-inspired Macbeth and the vulnerable, jealous persona of Abalone himself. Tonkin is a perfect foil as the alienated Gerture, the victim of every male she encounters, who finally reaches out and discovers her own freedom.

Calling on my frustratingly imperfect memory (I’ll read my earlier review later) it seems to me that Chris Kohn’s production is, unsurprisingly, a highly polished version of what I saw three years ago. Certain details – a puppet, a balaclava – have vanished, and the play itself somehow seems cleaner and more focused, perfectly complemented by Jethro Woodward’s unobtrusive but beautifully textured soundscape. And while its humour always emerged from a dark place, and the violence in the centre of Gerture’s and Abalone’s childish games was always close to the surface, this time I was struck most forcibly by its sadness.

I think this production has grown in depth: it was always a play of brilliant surfaces, but now those surfaces open to unsettling abysses, and the final dialogue, a meditation on a pathetic suicide, resonates with an acute and haunting melancholy. It’s a wonderful piece by some of our most unfairly talented young artists. Miss it at your peril.

Picture: Luke Mullins and Katherine Tonkin, The Eisteddfod

A version of my review of Thom Pain appeared in Monday's Australian. Weblink if and when one appears on the site.

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On politics

In the comments below, Paul Martin asked about the politics of this blog. Here's something I prepared earlier for a 2003 Writers Symposium at the Melbourne Concert Hall, which basically covers what I think about art and politics, and which I post here because it might interest some of you.

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Australia as a paradigm of the mentally impaired

A quick flash: a disturbing piece on censorship by David Marr in the SMH this morning. In its ceaseless quest to backpedal to the 1950s (and possibly Stalinist Russia), the Federal Government is seeking to tighten the laws to "ban material for the impact it might have on the mentally impaired". Which is to say: any work that could possibly inspire any mentally ill person to commit a violent act would be banned. As Marr points out, this could cover anything from Beethoven to South Park.

This is part of a wider campaign to ban work that "advocates" terrorism. Whatever that means. (Part of the problem is that nobody really knows: newspapers claim, for example, that publishing an article about Nelson Mandela would be illegal under these laws). Similar laws proposed in the UK caused such a fuss that they didn't go through.

Read this article. This legislation would impact seriously on artists. Taken in tandem with the Sedition Laws - which are already in place - it would add up to some of the most repressive laws against freedom of expression in the Western world. I think it's frightening: and frankly, when I look at this picture of Mohamed Haneef, I don't recognise this country.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

World Croggon Redux

World Croggon is a little ott at the moment (for those not hip to the cyber-acronyms, it means over the top). While some of my beetle-browed brethren are glued to Harry Potter, and others are just crashed with the flu, Little Alison feels a little like Cadel Evans in last night's stage of Le Tour, going backwards despite his most dogged efforts as Alberto Contador and Michael Rasmussen fly past him on wings of steel. (Ok, I admit, my sleeping patterns are a little disrupted by an unseemly obsession with a bike race: but the metaphor still holds. I really felt for Evans last night).

Anyway, this is a hotchpotch post on some of the things that are taking up my time, and which might interest some of you.

First, Currency House has announced two free public discussion sessions on Lee Lewis's controversial paper on racial casting, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, where Lee will be in conversation with me at the Malthouse on Wednesday August 15. Details are on Nicholas Pickard's blog. It promises to be a stimulating discussion, so grab the book, read it, form opinions and questions, and come and join in.

Second, I'm making a couple of rare poetical appearances in Melbourne in upcoming months. On Sunday July 26, I'm a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival, for a session called Poets Against the War. I'll be reading a favourite poem (possibly Neruda's passionate protest against what happened to Lorca in the Spanish Civil War) as well as some of mine, and discussing poetry and war with Barry Hill and JS Harry.

Third, I'm also, to my delight, one of the 200 local artists who will be part of John Cage's Musicircus at the Melbourne Festival on Friday October 26. Look out for me: I'll be there somewhere, sometime, in the BMW Edge, possibly declaiming poems about mediaeval mystics.

Fourth, TN gets a brief mention in Sophie Cunningham's huge overview of blogging in Saturday's Age, which takes a whistle-stop tour through the world of writers' blogs, and which rehearses the debate around the value of blogging through writerly glasses. Worth a look.

Meanwhile, I've finally managed to finish a review for The Book Show of Iain Sinclair's gigantic book, London: City of Disappearances. A very late review. The staff at the ABC have been saintly in their patience. This book inspired lust in me when I saw it, and I don't regret volunteering to review it for one minute; but next time I plan to find one of those slim, lyrical, lucid masterpieces, like Alessandro Baricco's Silk, which you can read on the train because they're about 100 pages long...

Next on my to-do list is proofing an essay I've written for the anthology Navigating the Golden Compass, about Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which is due to be published in the US next month. I daren't look further down. I think next week looks less squished, but it might just be an optical illusion.

Reviews on Thom Pain and The Eisteddfod up tomorrow. Promise.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sondheim not happy

There's a jaw-dropping story in today's Sydney Morning Herald concerning a Sydney production of Stephen Sondheim's Company. The musical, directed by Gale Edwards, is produced by Kookaburra - according to its website, "Australia's First and Only National Musical Theatre Company". It seems that Sondheim threatened to withdraw the rights to the show after an executive decision to cut Company by 20 minutes. According to the SMH:

Legendary composer and producer Stephen Sondheim ... threatened to pull the plug on the Sydney show after key songs, scenes and dialogue were removed in a last-minute hatchet job to his script in Wednesday night's performance of Company at the Theatre Royal....

The man who sparked the initial controversy, Kookaburra's founder and chief executive, Peter Cousens, reversed an earlier denial and admitted he ordered the cuts to the Wednesday night performance after the cast member Christie Whelan, who plays the role of April, called in sick. "I was trying to put a very positive spin on the fact that all was well [and] that nothing had gone on at the theatre that was a problem for the public to be made aware of," Cousens said yesterday. "This is always my attitude as audiences are not interested in problems."

Quite apart from the fact that it's, er, dodgy to violate an artist's moral rights, Cousens obviously forgot that audiences are interested in the actual show. It seems the SMH heard about it from disgruntled Sondheim fans upset by the disembowelled version. And that the cast and director weren't happy, either. Bizarre.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Measuring out my life...

To my distress and dudgeon, I did Matt's Which Book Are You? quiz and found out that I am J. Alfred Prufrock. I guess it could be worse, but I'm not sure how. Anyway, perhaps there is a truth there - I am short, I drink a lot of coffee, I'll never play Prince Hamlet and maybe I am measuring out my life in blogs. And it's only getting worse. In one of my lives I have actual fans, whose mail keeps piling up uncontrollably, and in a (probably futile) attempt to wrestle my selves into some kind of order, I've started a Books of Pellinor blog. Pretty, ain't it? Like, I needed something else to do...

Meanwhile, as promised, Ming has posted at length on Lee Lewis's Currency House paper on Cross Racial Casting. And over at Nicholas Pickard's place, the debate still rages. Lewis seems to have touched some very sensitive nerves. (Yes, I will - when I have a moment - buy the paper and read it for myself). Watch this space for details of an up-coming public forum with Lee Lewis in Melbourne-town.

Skipping over to George Hunka - the man is, according to the current issue of The Dramatist, one of 50 playwrights to watch in the US, but us blog denizens knew that already, eh? Anyway, check out his excellent meditation on Howard Barker's latest book, A Style and its Origins (written, it seems, by Barker's alter-ego, Eduardo Houth). More blowing of the budget, I fear.

And finally, just to prove that theatre types have their sweaty fingers pressed firmly on the popular pulse, see several bloggers on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - Andrew Haydon at Postcards from the Gods liked its new grunge aesthetic and thought it the best yet (as did I); Richard Watts thought it was good, but not as good as the last one and Isaac over at Parabasis has got all the fanboys excited with a suggestion that someone write about the books as literature...

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Review: The Quivering

The Quivering: A Matter of Life and Death, devised by the cast and director. Directed by Nikki Heywood, dramaturgy by Virginia Baxter, set design by John Levery, video by Suzon Fuks, lighting design Andrew Meadows, sound design by Brett Collery. With Dawn Albinger, Scotia Monkivitch and Julie Robson. SacredCOW @ La Mama Courthouse until July 22.

Robert Frost famously denounced the writing of free verse as being like "playing tennis with the net down". But, as any fule no, it's actually very difficult to write free verse. To keep the poetic line from slackening into what harrumphers denounce as "chopped-up prose" requires considerable metrical and intellectual inventiveness: you need an acute ear for rhythmic variation as well as a solid sense of linguistic drama. This is why Ezra Pound is a genius, despite his shonky political views, and Patrick McCauley isn't.

The same factors apply to theatre that eschews narrative. Without the formal convention of a plot-line to carry them over longueurs, devisors have to work very hard to keep an audience interested. (And sometimes, no matter how hard they work, individual audients are not prepared to go there - but that's another issue). What this kind of theatre permits - as in, for example, the extraordinary theatre of Romeo Castellucci - is an unmediated intensity, untamed by the closures that narrative often (but not always) provides. It demands accuracy, intellectual suppleness, intense commitment and, most of all, the quality that Peter Brook claims is the root of all theatre, contrast.

One of the risks of dropping conventions in order to invent one's own is - strangely enough - cliche. If the subtext that is thereby lifted to the surface (rather than basking beneath the ripples of story) is too simplistic, the result can seem all too obvious. And The Quivering - a meditation on the moment of death devised and performed by Brisbane company SacredCOW - falls right into this trap. It has a few extraordinary moments: the heart quickens, the eye is delighted, the skin is goosebumped. But sadly, these moments emerge like plums in a bowl of cold porridge.

The Quivering rewrites the myth of the Sirens, the beautiful women who lured sailors to their deaths in the Odyssey. Here they become guides through the moment of dying, the transition between life and death, and absorb the traditional women's tasks of laying out and lamenting the dead. The Sirens - who, being three, also evoke the Fates and the Muses - are imagined as three waitresses in an outback roadhouse, Maureen (Julie Robson), Sharelle (Dawn Albinger) and Singrid (Scotia Monkivitch), who play cards, take orders and, well, wait, in between enacting the process of death.

The show is structured in 16 parts, which allows me to work out that I liked exactly a quarter of it. I thought four parts - the circular beginning and ending,"Monster and Illusions" and "The Fall: Part 2" - were simply astonishing: here the performances sparked alive and the theatre reached into the truly mythic, integrating its various elements to create spectacular stage imagery. A large part of their beauty comes from Suzon Fuks' video projections, abstracted ripples of light and water or billowing flames, which play over the performers, making them seem like elemental spirits rather than human bodies.

Most of all, these moments were unexpected, creating the "perpetual slight surprise" that is as important in theatre as it is in poetry. This was not the case in so much of this show, where I knew too often not only what movements were going to come next, but what words. (If I can do this, gentle reader, something is wrong - I'm bad at second-guessing plots in generic Hollwyood movies).

One problem is the performances, which, apart from Monkivitch, err on the side of caricature. Monkivitch maintains a physical and emotional accuracy throughout the show that at moments makes her riveting to watch, but the other performances often seemed blurred to me; they came across as well-meaning generalisations that, given the gestation of this show (it was first conceived in 2000) should have been polished to gleaming specifics.

But the main problems exist in the orchestration; that is, in Virginia Baxter's dramaturgy and Nikki Heywood's direction. There was far too much second-guessing the audience ("I know this isn't what you expect"), which is patronising, rather than challenging; and the direct address to the audience most often seemed ill-conceived, or even naff. But really, the deepest problem was in its use of repetition. Repetition either deadens or intensifies: the pleasure of repetitive intensification, as Bach knew well, is in its unexpected and subtle variants. But the repetition in The Quivering serves only to circle around an initial idea, neither expanding nor contradicting it.

The effect is to make the show's message - that if we are to be properly alive, we must first understand our own mortality - platitudinous, rather than profound. It's a shame, because its peak moments demonstrate what The Quivering could have been. As Nietszche said in his roundhouse condemnation of poets: "they have not thought deeply enough: therefore their feeling - has not plumbed the depths".

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...and now the press

Checking out Robin Usher's positive MIAF preview piece in the Age this morning, it's good to see not one mention of the "f" word ("fringe", in case you're wondering). Still, a rat by any other name smells just as rank: we have "cutting edge" instead. Usher shows his hand when he mentions Laurie Anderson as the "bridge between big-name acts and cutting-edge performers". For one thing, he seems under the impression that "big name" and "cutting edge" are mutually exclusive terms. Is Robert Wilson - still at the forefront of contemporary theatrical practice - really that blunt?

I can't see myself that the present program is any less "cutting edge" (that's where the blood is) than previous years. What excites me is its unprecedented depth and also its sophisticated political focus - a feature of both Edmunds' and Archer's programming in recent years, but here honed to a subtle edge. Does it cut? We will see...

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Warming thoughts

Brrrr. It's colder than a nun's nasty, so it is. The weather - and its attendent ills - mean Ms TN has been down for the count this week. She's two reviews behind, and is peevishly demanding tissues and cold and flu pills from the depths of her mink stole. But hark! Is that magic tinkle the sound of the embargo lifting on the Melbourne Festival program? Why, yes it is!

Read it and drool. We already know some of the glamour highlights - the Merce Cunningham Residency, for instance, which includes a major retrospective of works from the 1950s to now, including a look at many of his collaborations with artists like Jasper Johns or John Cage, and a consideration of his influence into the present. That program alone will keep you pretty busy. And yes, there's also Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Barrie Kosky, Laurie Anderson. Jon Rose...

But plenty catches my eye beyond the familiar names. Anyone lucky enough to see Jerome Bel last year will no doubt, like me, be circling the dates of his piece The Show Must Go On (which he referenced in last year's show). My other must-sees include the Teatre Lliure from Barcelona, bringing its European House (a prologue, it seems, to Hamlet); the Dutch company Dood Pard with its versions of Titus Andronicus and Medea, and Sankai Juku (pictured), a Japanese company that combines western and Butoh traditions of dance, with Kagemi: Beyond the Halls of Mirrors (apparently partly based on the Japanese art of flower arranging, Ikebana). And I haven't even mentioned the music and visual arts. Check it out for yourself; me, I'm reaching for the echinacea and getting into training now.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Round the Sphere

Some very interesting conversations are enlivening the blogosphere at the moment. Over at Nicholas Pickard's blog, the race issue is still causing all sorts of sparks, after Sydney director Lee Lewis's Platform Paper on racial casting in Australian theatre (which is turning into a must-read). Ming at Minktails has already posted passionately on this issue, and having got her hot little hands on Lewis's paper - as personally witnessed by me - promises more. So we will hold her to it.

Meanwhile, George Hunka has been posting heroically on Pinter's The Homecoming (several short essays, so check here, here, here and here) at Superfluities, leading to a fascinating debate on the virtues or otherwise of Peter Hall's film version. (Reader, I loathed it).

And Guardian critic Lyn Gardner, bless her cotton socks, has this great post arguing that if mainstream theatre is to survive, it has to embrace experiment. The sell-out success at the STC of Barrie Kosky's eight-hour epic The Lost Echo, or the popularity of Kristy Edmunds' Melbourne Festival programs, suggest that Gardner's onto something...

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Saturday, July 14, 2007


I'm off shortly to wine and dine at the inaugural Melbourne blogmeet - despite the online Melways informing me, rather alarmingly, that Gertrude St doesn't exist. (Perhaps Melbourne is more of a hallucination than I thought?) Looking forward to see which of you punters turn up, and a good gossip....

Update: Gertrude St was still there, the sun was a-sparkle and we had a convivial quorum. Matt reviews the Blogmeet (five stars) and makes us all sound classier than we are. Except Matt himself, of course, who is a dab hand at choosing wine...

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Review: Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty: This Is Not A Lullaby, directed by Michael Kantor. Devised Paul Jackson, Maryanne Lynch and Anna Tregloan. Scenario by Maryanne Lynch and Michael Kantor, design by Anna Tregloan, lighting by Paul Jackson, choreography by Tony Bartuccio. With Alison Bell, Renée Geyer, Grant Smith and Ian Stenlake, music performed by Simon Burke, Peter Farnan, John Favaro and Andrew Sylvio. Malthouse Theatre @ Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until July 28.

Ever since Vera Lynn captured the hopes and uncertainties of an entire war-torn generation, the idea that our lives have a soundtrack has become a truism. Popular songs are the emotional subtext of contemporary life: they express the heights of our passions, the wastelands of our desolations, our disillusions and hopes, our joys and desires.

This is never more true than in the blazing confusions of adolescence. The songs that matter then stay with us for the rest of our lives. Like Proust’s madeleine, a mere phrase of music can evoke whole narratives that are utterly personal to each of us. This is the idea that underlies Sleeping Beauty, in which the classic fairytale is reworked as a modern fable of sexual awakening told exclusively through well-known songs.

The devisors – director Michael Kantor, designer Anna Tregloan, lighting designer Paul Jackson and dramaturg Maryanne Lynch – have done something so completely obvious that, on reflection, it seems astounding that it hasn’t been done before. But I have never seen anything quite like Sleeping Beauty. For antecedents I had to reach back to the 17th century writer John Gay, who set the songs in The Beggar’s Opera to popular ballads, opera arias and folk tunes of his time. But in the 21st century we get the lyrics unchanged, to make a kind of theatrical collage of popular classics, opera, rap and gospel.

Sleeping Beauty extends Michael Kantor’s explorations of vulgar theatre – recently, vaudeville in Not Like Beckett, or pantomime in Babes in the Wood – and brings the form to an apotheosis, inventing a theatrical language that has the virtue of being available to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with popular culture. I found the show progressively more fascinating, as the songs and production layered meanings in ever more intricate ways. It was these unfolding complexities, as much as the power of the performances, which made this show transcend its initial aura of MTV video. As in any collage, the meaning emerges from juxtaposition and angle as much as its components, and the devisors work these aspects with deft hands.

It’s heartening to see theatre that draws so intelligently on the lingua franca of popular culture. The show includes a short interlude of projected anime, a moment of overpowering sensual overload that evokes both the vulnerability and violence of adolescent eroticism. And while this production shamelessly exploits the emotional immediacy of the songs, it equally exposes the innate drama in the lyrics of masters like Elvis Costello and Paul Weller. To this end, all the lyrics are clearly comprehensible (in a couple of cases, I shamefacedly confess, I understood a song for the first time).

Lynch and Kantor are drawing on Angela Carter’s feminist reworkings of fairytales, in which the stories are interpreted as metaphors of sexuality. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is in Carter’s telling a fable of sexual maturation: her hood (which makes an appearance in this production) symbolises menstruation and the wolf is the consuming experience of adult sexual passion. Here, the story of Sleeping Beauty charts adolescent sexual rebellion and transition into chastened adulthood. Sleeping Beauty (Alison Bell, revealing that she has a startling singing voice as well as acting chaps) is the suffocatingly adored and infantilised younger daughter of a conventional nuclear family: Mum (Renée Geyer), Dad (Grant Smith) and her older brother (Ian Stenlake).

The scene is set by Madness’s Our House and Paul Weller’s sardonic portrait of suburban life, That’s Entertainment, with the adolescent Sleeping Beauty imprisoned in her pink and white virginal bed. The shift into the nightmarish drama of the subconscious is signalled by an extraordinary version of Elvis Costello’s haunting ballad I Want You. This song was, strangely, a feature of The Burlesque Hour that I saw a couple of weeks ago, but here it is transformed into a savage ballad that reveals the darker side of possessive love, excavating the unacknowledged incestuous desires that lie beneath parenthood.

Mum metamorphoses into a bowler-hatted witch, who – in a highlight scene that demonstrates the frankly terrifying power of Geyer’s voice – curses Sleeping Beauty with Eminem’s rap Go To Sleep (“Now go to sleep bitch! / Die, motherfucker, die!”). Sleeping Beauty’s long swoon has overtones of suicide, invoking the ancient connection between sleep and death, and it’s clear that the deathly impulses – both self-destructive and murderous – are against her adult, sexual self. Mum and Dad adore their little girl so much that they don’t want her to grow up.

The story follows Sleeping Beauty’s dreams, as she wanders through a series of grotesque and comic oneiric encounters, and here Kantor’s gift for unsettlingly beautiful theatrical image comes to the fore. The story doesn’t, as in the orthodox version, finish with the happy-ever-after of Prince Charming’s kiss. Rather, we realise that legitimised desire – the repetition of the dulled marriage of her parents – is as much a prison as Sleeping Beauty’s infantilised girlhood.

The loss of innocence, as her mother tells her in yet another show-stopping Geyer moment, is the “bitter earth” that nurtures the fruit of experience. Or something: the dramaturgy here follows an emotional, rather than a rational, logic. Despite its upbeat flavour, the last song – promising that “death is not the end” – is Nick Cave at his most savagely ironic, and it leads to a lyrical closing stage image that is a surprisingly moving evocation of the unsullied night.

It is worth the price of the ticket just to see Geyer – that miraculous voice is spine-tingling, as capable as ever of reducing an entire audience to awe-struck silence, and her theatrical debut has to be counted a triumph. But it’s not as if she throws her fellow performers into the shade: the night ultimately belongs to all of them. There were one or two rough edges on opening night, but it won’t be long before this is the hottest show in town.

The performances are first class, running the gamut from pathos to broad comedy to out-and-out foot-stomping passion. Backed by an impeccably tight band, each performer creates moments of utterly riveting theatre: there’s Grant Smith’s passionate renditions of Costello’s So Like Candy or a lament by Brahms, Alison Bell’s bad-girl Britney impersonation or her surprising acoustic version of the Divinyls Boys in Town, and Ian Stenlake’s over-the-top performance (dressed in a bloodied coat of feathers, like a camp Sid Vicious) of Bowie’s Rock’n’Roll Suicide.

Tregloan’s set is, for all its extravagant effect, very simple: it is effectively a series of curtained boxes, which open to reveal – with the help of Jackson’s lighting – an inventively various series of stage moods. The band is visible above the stage, in a box of its own that is also a playing area, and Tony Bartuccio's showbiz choreography adds an irresistible kitschy glamour. It adds up to a sheerly enjoyable and sometimes breath-taking production, a bastard hybrid of rock concert, cabaret and rough theatre, filtered through the spectacular visual imaginations of Kantor and Tregloan.

The whole is as close to Richard Wagner’s idea of “total theatre” (Gesamtkunstwerk) – the idea that all the different elements of theatre are fused into a single, overwhelming experience – as anything I’ve seen. And yes, it’s theatre, not an over-dressed concert: at once a superbly realised entertainment, and a work that plunges into the anarchic depths of the psyche, turbulent and savage and beautiful.

Picture: Ian Stenlake (top) and Alison Bell in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

A shorter version of this review is published in today’s Australian.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Critical Life in the Thee-ay-ter

Amid much on-going blogospherical discussion about theatre criticism: veteran print critic/blogger Terry Teachout reports in the Wall Street Journal on the ailing state of msm arts criticism in the US. And defends arts bloggers against the usual canards - this time from Time film critic Richard Schickel, who compared blogging to "fingerpainting". (H/t Playgoer). Says Teachout:

So many other papers have cut back on the space they devote to books that the National Book Critics Circle has launched a "Campaign to Save the Book Review." Several major newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times and Minneapolis Star-Tribune, no longer have full-time classical music critics. And regional movie critics, like stand-alone newspaper book sections, are fast becoming an endangered species.

What's going on? The answer is painfully simple. Newspaper circulation is declining, driven downward by the rise of the new Web-based media, and many papers are trimming their staffs to make ends meet. Whenever times get tough at an American newspaper, fine-arts coverage gets thrown off the back of the sled first -- and that's what's happening now.

That's a familiar scenario, although I think that - as always - here in Oz we're ahead of the trends. I can't remember a time when a reviewer could actually make a living from his or her expertise on the arts by simply being, a la Kenneth Tynan, one of the pish posh broadsheet crrritics. I remember when I was a tyro critic for The Bulletin, I met one of my colleagues, who sat down cosily and asked me, "So tell me, what's your real job?" Since criticism was my paying gig (I spent the rest of my time being a fabulously well-paid poet) I was flummoxed. And so was my colleague. Aside from my Esteemed Colleague Chris Boyd (of whom more in a moment), I was the only person I knew who was foolish enough to consider writing reviews a real job.

I left The Bulletin, in fact, because I was refused a retainer that I had been promised for two years. After some quick arithmetic, I found that I made more money on a sole parents pension, with the bonus of having fewer abusive letters and more time to write poems. The rest, as they say, is history. But if I had been able to make a living from that job - as, say, a top political columnist would - the story might have been different. (I'm glad I didn't stay - the soul was being leached out of me and I was too young to know what to do about it - but that's another story).

Anyone who thinks this fact doesn't play into the parlous standards of theatre reviewing is kidding herself. There is little material incentive for a critic to be better than mediocre. Those critics who maintain decent standards in the mainstream press by writing thoughtful, informed reviews - and yes, there are some - work, like artists, on their own time, effectively subsidising the arts. In this way, they are no different from any other arts worker. And unless something markedly changes in the structures of the mainstream media - such as when pigs become airborne - this is unlikely to change.

Which brings me to Mr Boyd - whose ancient car alone reveals the myriad rewards to be gained from a life spent in arts journalism - who today reveals the truth about my private life (I have no friends, and am forced to frogmarch my children to the theatre if I want company). It seems that he and I, sitting shoulder to shoulder, had vastly differing responses to Newtown Honey, now on at La Mama; which is, I believe, an excellent thing. I am not Mr Boyd, and he is not me, and life is thereby made richer and more mysterious.

What I might have thought about Adam Broinowski's rather controversial Know No Cure, which received a beating from most critics - aside from the VCA's Spark Online - remains in the realm of speculation, since I didn't get there. Sir Boyd certainly hated it, and if you scan the comments beneath the Spark review, He Was Not Alone. There's no guarantee I would have liked it myself; if the actors indeed seemed lost, there's a good chance I would have had serious reservations. A major reason I enjoyed Newtown Honey was in fact the strange clarity and intense commitment of the performances. But it's worth mentioning for Adam Broinowski's defence of his show (here and here), which I personally find rather cheering. And which also points out a major virtue of the blogosphere - the bitten can bite back.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Review: The China Incident/Newtown Honey

The China Incident, written, directed and designed by Peter Houghton. Lighting design by Michael Jewell, sound design by David Franzke. With Anne Browning. Newtown Honey by Marty Dennis, directed by Beng Oh. Lighting design by Matthew Barber. With Lauren Clair and Curtis Fernandez. La Mama Theatre until July 15.

These two shows demonstrate one reason why La Mama is so important. If diversity is crucial to a species' survival, then us addicts of the thespian art owe La Mama a big bunch of flowers for making sure that the Melbourne meme pool is full of creatures wondrous, various and strange. Its current season is a case in point: it's hard to imagine a greater contrast than between these two pieces. Intriguingly, they both feature theatrical couples; but there the resemblances end.

The China Incident is a comic monologue, a companion piece to Peter Houghton's one-man hit The Pitch, this time with Houghton in the directorial seat and his wife Anne Browning, who directed The Pitch, as the performer. Newtown Honey features the married actors Lauren Clair and Curtis Fernandez and is a two-hander, a powerful piece of poetic theatre that is like a cross - if you can imagine such a beast - between Franz Xaver Kroetz and Dylan Thomas.

On one level, The China Incident is, like The Importance of Being Earnest, a convoluted excuse for a bad pun. In its relentless satire of the media-driven hyperreality that shapes so much of contemporary life, it is quite clearly related to The Pitch, and it shows off Houghton's gift for writing lines that biteth like the serpent who's had a bad run-in with Steve Irwin.

Anne Browning plays Bea Pontifec, a high-powered diplomatic consultant, who is a kind of Ann Coulter with power (one would like to call it a fiction, if it weren't for Condi Rice). It begins with a fine moment of theatrical instability: Browning enters the space seemingly talking to herself, until you realise that she is on the hands-free mobile. As she takes off her overcoat, revealing the obligatory pinstripes, she turns toward a desk covered with five different coloured phones - the red one is the direct line to the President of the United States - the aforementioned mobile and a laptop. And behind her is an intercom.

And it's a hundred miles an hour from there. The phones ring constantly, and Bea juggles calls from an African dictator who wants his massacres massaged for the world community, the President (who wants to know about her underwear), her lover at the UN and her PA. She has reached a peak point in her career - she is to be the circuit breaker in the deadlocked five nation talks involving North Korea and China. Unfortunately, as her career rockets into hyperdrive, so does her family life. Her daughter is getting married, her son has just been busted for drugs, she's fighting with her daughter, the gay male bridesmaid, her future in-laws and her ex-husband, and those phones just keep ringing...

Of course you see the punchline coming, but it's no less funny for that. The play gives Houghton an excuse to let fly at a range of contemporary targets, from neo-con media spin to PC family relations. Bea is a monster, but she's monstrously familiar. And you can't but admire the split-second ferocity of Browning's frenetic performance and David Franzke's sound design. It's not as straight-out hilarious as The Pitch, which permitted Houghton the freedom of slipping in and out of a dizzying variety of roles, but it's a marvellous conceit which makes an intelligently diverting hour in the theatre.

Marty Denniss' Newtown Honey is a complete change of pace. Denniss's first play, it premiered in Sydney a decade ago with the same lead actress, which perhaps explains something about the commitment and depth of the performances. It's a passionate, surprising work, given a sparely imaginative production by Beng Oh, which demands (and rewards) close attention.

Maddy (Lauren Clair) and Loos (Curtis Fernandez) are lovers, caught in a relationship of almost claustrophobic intimacy in which they have insulated themselves against a world they do not understand, and which does not understand them. From the moment Loos appears, frightened and panting, on stage, we know that something is wrong; and the play follows their attempts to remember their pasts in order to remake the present, as they weave together their mutual stories in an attempt to find a truth that you sense is already lost to them.

Despite obvious differences, this play reminds me irresistibly of Kroetz's bleakly beautiful two-hander Michi's Blood, about another outsider couple withdrawn from the world, their future symbolised by a pregnancy. Both plays contemplate the nature of love in ways that would not be recognised by Hallmark; and, as has been said of Kroetz's work, Denniss's play gives you the sense that you are witnessing "a crack-up at the edge of truth".

Where Denniss differs markedly from Kroetz is in the richness of his language; where Kroetz's doomed lovers speak a blasted, impoverished vernacular that leaves his characters lost in the gaps between their experience and what is expressible, Maddy and Loos have invented a private language that articulates their despair and love with a tough, ragged beauty. At moment it segues into moments of pure poetry (and sometimes even verse - Denniss is not afraid of rhyming); but this is a poetry of the theatre, meant to be enacted through bodies, and it is never mere lyrical decoration.

Beng Oh - whose direction I've encountered once before, in the bizarre but effective Shakespearean play The Nero Conspiracy - gives this play an intelligently simple production that permits its theatricality full flower. All the action takes place on a thin strip of carpet at the far end of the tiny La Mama stage, creating a necessary alienating space between the performers and the actors. The action is abstracted - when Loos lights candles, for example, Fernandez simply draws them on the wall - which focuses the attention where it ought to be, on the script and the performers.

At times the density of the language left me uncertain what was happening, and I think it would take a second viewing to be clear about the details. But for me, that didn't matter; I was riveted by the intensity and truthfulness of this production, and the complexities that were woven and unwoven before my eyes. Clair and Fernandez give extraordinarily generous and sure performances, creating the discomfort that comes of witnessing the unspeakably intimate moments between human beings. Newtown Honey seems to me to be theatre of an unusual integrity: not perfect, perhaps, but most certainly exactly what it is, which is not nearly as common as it sounds.

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A sporting diversion

Some of you might be surprised to hear that Little Alison is a bit of a dilletante sports fan (which is, as it happens, another kind of performance). And last night two gilt-edged events had me punching the remote like a hyperactive three-year old, swinging between the Wimbledon Men's Final and the first stage of Le Tour de France, beamed live from Kent, which put on its most glorious colours for the event (there's le Chateau de Sissinghurst! le Chateau de Leeds! it all looks so different in French! Oh, to be in England, now that summer's there!)

The Tour coverage, courtesy of SBS, was impeccable, and Robbie McEwan's miraculous win - stealing the race from the back of the peleton, after a crash left him 150 riders behind at the 5km mark - was completely thrilling. And the commentators, Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen, let you know it, filling in the drama for inexpert watchers like me so you knew what it all meant when Our Boy exploded from literally nowhere in the final hundred metres and lunged to the finish line like an eagle plummeting to finish off an unwary rabbit. It was a thing of beauty.

But I didn't finish watching the Men's Final, a thrilling five-setter between arch rivals Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal - both players I adore watching - because I couldn't stand the commentary any more. After two hours of listening to John Newcombe wittering on about who he met at the milkbar that morning, and Fred Stolle telling us that Federer (on serve at one set all) was "in deep trouble" and Mark Woodforde chiding Federer for not having a "game plan", I was becoming homicidal.

At one point I switched from the utterly involving coverage of Le Tour to a long shot of the Wimbledon arena, with two white dots in the distance - and silence. Five seconds of silence, which is a long time on television. Three of them, and they had nothing to say about anything.

And when they did bother to open their mouths, it was worse. Their idea of commentary is to tell you what any fool (like me, for instance) can see with their own eyes: but I want to hear things that I don't know. I want to listen to people who are engaged in the event they are witnessing. For all the drama going on on court, the Channel Nine commentary team made it sound like a rather dull game in the junior inter-school league of regional Victoria.

I've often been in the UK for Wimbledon, and so have seen the BBC coverage, which is, I assure you, quite different from what we get here. They've got John McEnroe for a start, who not only has some wit and knows a thing or two about tennis, but can communicate something of the excitement and beauty of the event. I don't think shots of pure adrenalin would save Stolle, Newk and Woody. They're the zombies of the sportsworld.

They killed the game dead. And it reminded me, my dears (yes, there is a connection) of bad theatre reviewing, and how it can make theatre seem like the dreariest place to be in the whole world. And maybe that's the worst thing about it.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007


My statcounter - for those not up with webspeak, the gizmo that tells me how many people come here - appears to have blown up and is resisting my spanner work. I have no idea why. (I think it's Blogger, but it could be Statcounter.) Hints on who to shoot gratefully received... (PS: I worked it out. I target Blogger with my supermissile dark blaster. The woeful weekend stats are hopefully nothing to do with reality).

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Thursday, July 05, 2007


Ms Procrastination has FINALLY updated the ol' blogroll. I can't claim it's comprehensive, but it's slightly more reflective of the stuff out there than it was. My first question is, what happened to Bardassa? There he/she was, promisingly rolling out reviews of Melbourne theatre, and then, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, he/she vanishes. That's cyberspace, I guess, but I hate to see people blinking off the Melbourne radar so, well, silently, especially when we've hardly begun.

I realise the links list is huge, but do check out the UK blogs The Arcades Project, The Notional Theatre and Pessimism of the Intellect. Theatre Forte is an indispensible US blog that aggregates theatre news (including, cheeringly, the Antipodes). More locally, Prima La Musica is a gorgeous blog about opera, and Certifiably Creative looks fun, and even has an R rating. (I have a feeling I did that rating test too, and demure little TN was also judged obscene...) Former Sydney-sider and now Melburnite Geoffrey Williams's blog The Art of Distraction is a gem and Sydney blogger Two Blue Fish is uploading reviews and commentary about all sorts of things. There are lots more blogs worth mentioning, but really you should click on over and surf your little hearts out.

UPDATE: So much for my googling skills/link detective work. Bardassa informs me that he's hard at work at On Stage Melbourne. And looking good, too. And Update 2: Danbye in the comments below recommends Persons Unknown. Which after a quick sniff reveals itself to be a cognac blog. Update 3: Oh, and Andrew Haydon's Postcards for the Gods too...

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Little Alison's Sudden Ascension

No one is more surprised than I am. As of now, Ms TN is moonlighting as the Australian's Melbourne theatre reviewer, standing in for the present incumbent Thuy On, who is on a year's leave. So I am back in the turbulent waters of the mainstream media. Yikes.

The Australian and I have worked out a mutually agreeable arrangement, as I would not have accepted the job if it meant compromising the autonomy or scope of Theatre Notes. The only difference it will make to the blog is that I won't be uploading reviews of the shows I also review for the Oz until they first appear in print. (I imagine that they will be, in effect, quite different reviews, as the word limit in the Australian is 400 words - a major reason I have no desire to abandon this blog). Life is unexpected, no?

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Review: The Burlesque Hour More/A Slight Ache

The Burlesque Hour More More More! with Moira Finucane, Azaria Universe, Yumi Umiumare and Angus Cerini. Fortyfivedownstairs, City, until July 7.

A Slight Ache by Harold Pinter, directed by Matt Scholten. Designed by Shayne Greenman, costume design by Kylie Wake, sound and lighting by Simon Prentice. With Lou Endicott, Troy Larkin and Lawrence Price. If Theatre @ Chapel off Chapel (closed Sunday).

True to TN's turbo-charged ability to keep up with the new, she's finally seen The Burlesque Hour, oh, two years after it was, with local favourite La Clique, the toast of the Edinburgh Festival. It's not hard to see what the fuss is about. This show is to theatre what Époisses de Bourgogne is to cheese: vividly pungent, seductively soft, as complex as decay itself - most certainly, a taste shaped for adult palates.

In the mid-90s, a bunch of artists remade the tropes of music hall and vaudeville for the 21st century: they took the satin and velvet curtains of burlesque, added touches of cabaret, theatre and circus to the traditional strip-tease, and voila! a new movement was born. The Burlesque Hour is this neo-burlesque tradition in collision with performance art. If it weren't so much fun, it would be deadly serious. Or maybe, like sex itself, it is deadly serious and fun.

For this is a show that is mainly about sex. Not the fantasy sex so beloved of Hollywood, nor the asensual, alienated misogyny that characterises most pornography; this is sex that is funny, disturbing and outrageous, sex that involves real bodies (and most kinds of bodily fluids). The bodies that are flirting with us and enchanting us are at once powerful, mysterious, perverse and vulnerable. Most of all, they are shapeshifters who remind us that desire is polymorphous, a force that shatters and remakes identity. (Much of this show is surprising, so if you haven't seen it and intend to, be warned: there are major spoilers beneath the fold. Perhaps all you need to know is that I watched most of this show with my mouth open.)

Thanks to a garbage truck that collided with a train in Yarraville, thus disastrously disrupting my travel plans, I arrived out of breath in the middle of the first act. As I hastily found my seat amidst the tables, I kept one amazed eye on the catwalk that stretched out from the small, voluptuously curtained stage. A tall man in a plaid shirt was performing a striptease. The sight itself was eye-popping: he was the reverse of the buff male stripper, skinny and gawky, gyrating widely with parodic gestures. He stripped down to underpants and shirt, and I found myself staring at the unlikely bulge in his Y-fronts. It looked as if he had a sausage stuffed in there. I thought of Gene Simmonds, who reportedly used to enhance his manhood with an avocado.

And then this man flung off his shirt, revealing two quite real breasts. It was completely unexpected: until that moment, I had not even the remotest idea that he was anything but male. My next thought was that I was looking at a genuine androgyne. But then he pulled a feather boa out of his underpants, and I realised that he was a she, and these people - or at least, Moira Finucane - were fucking with my brain. That deeply disconcerting moment of perceptual disruption, which releases itself in delighted laughter, signals the underlying tone of the show.

Here gender is not a rule, but a game. The next act is Azaria Universe, a sexy strongwoman with a beard, doing a hoop act while oscillating between extremes of masculine showmanship (look at these biceps!) and uber-feminine eyelash batting. To be followed by the Butoh-inflected anarchy of Yumi Umiumare as a heavy-metal Coppelia and a Hello Kitty who shows that Japanese kitsch is weirder than you ever thought. There are also a couple of comedic strip tease acts from a guest artist - tonight, Melbourne performance artist/writer Angus Cerini, comically exploring the anxieties and inhibitions of masculinity.

All these acts derive their power from the uninhibited intensity of the performers, as is illustrated in an act that is perhaps the most surprising and transgressive of all of them. In the middle of all this flesh and anarchy, Moira Finucane comes back on stage, to the soundtrack of Elvis Costello's beautiful ballad I Want You. Dressed in a heavy black Victorian bustle, her hair drawn back tightly from her face, she mimes the ache of longing. The only naked skin on view in this act is Finucane's face, which stares yearningly out of the stern prison of her dress and posture, and her white, neurotic hands, helplessly seeking release in a minimalist performance of anguished, inexpressible desire.

Victoriana's counterpoint is Azaria Universe, who achieves the extraordinary feat of eroticising the act of eating fairy floss and who, naked except for long strings of fake pearls, reveals the real pain inside the incomparable kitsch of Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart. But the act that I won't forget is Finucane as a classic Greek priestess dressed in white robes, stepping slowly on stage holding aloft a white bowl full of a red soup.

The act moves from comic (as she solemnly produces a spoon and begins, with exaggerated, even orgasmic, pleasure to eat the soup) to grotesque (as she begins to spill it over her pristine white costume and whisk it over the audience) to authentic Bacchanalian excess. Finally she lifts the bowl to her mouth and drinks, spilling a red stream over her chin and her breasts: and she is suddenly a creature of Dionysian mysteries, the terrifying image of a Maenad, drenched in the blood of her homicidal orgies. It must be one of the most perverse and exhilaratingly beautiful things I have ever seen.

FOR its debut production, If Theatre has chosen an early and - comparatively speaking - slight play by Harold Pinter, A Slight Ache. Originally commissioned for radio (and perhaps having the distinction of including what might be the only silent character ever written for radio), it was written by Pinter just after the The Birthday Party's disastrous debut on the West End.

It's interesting chiefly for what it presages in the later work: there are shadows of concerns that later evolve into the masterly Ashes to Ashes, for example. And it certainly includes some writing of astounding lyrical beauty. The play has a certain crudity of structure and idea that, to my mind, stops it from being in the first rank of Pinter's work. However, it's a good and interesting choice for a debut production of a young company, neither too ambitious nor too modestly self-effacing, and it's certainly worth the effort of producing.

Matt Scholten gives it a stylish production. The minimalist set has different playing areas designated by furniture, which abstractly outline the space of a comfortable house and garden, and the whole is lushly illuminated, creating little spaces of light in the darkness of the stage. It suggests the unreality of Pinter's story, which, in how it invokes the hidden desires and fears that live beneath the comfortable surface of middle class existence, is more like a Victorian ghost story than anything else.

A Slight Ache is a simple but unsettling drama about a well-off, quintessentially English couple, Edward (Lawrence Price) and Flora (Lou Endicott), who are haunted by a mysterious and ambiguously menacing stranger, an old and filthy matchseller (Troy Larkin) who stands by the back gate. When Edward, for reasons that are not at all clear, invites him into the house, the matchseller's silence and unresponsiveness draws out of the couple their deepest secrets.

Lawrence Price's performance is riveting, suggesting the subdued bully driven by a raging impotence. His performance is very slightly exaggerated, expressing the heightened naturalism of the dialogue. It's a fine judgement that is not quite matched by Lou Endicott, whose performance is dominated by an excruciating imitation of received English. It so grated my ear that I couldn't really perceive the rest of her performance, but to me it seemed mannered rather than heightened, a parody of the role rather than an expression of it. And Troy Larkin looked rigid and menacing and silent. I'm not sure that he didn't have the hardest role of all.

It's a respectable enough debut to ensure that I will be at If Theatre's next production, which is interesting in itself: a remount of three Jack Hibberd plays at La Mama, as part of La Mama's 40th birthday celebrations. I'm sure they'll be a welcome addition to Melbourne's theatrical diet.

Pictures: Top (left to right) Moira Finucane, Yumi Umiamare and Azaria Universe of The Burlesque Hour; Bottom: Lawrence Price in If Theatre's A Slight Ache.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

The not-so-new media

My blogroll is shockingly out of date, causing me a minor cris de conscience. (If that's not good French, well, it's because I can't speak French). Now that time stretches before me shimmering with promise, sort of, I'll try to bring it up to speed sometime this week. The fact is, what with the blogosphere mutating like bird flu, it's quite hard to keep up.

Up in Sydney, Nicholas Pickard has an interesting meditation on the implications of the burgeoning arts blogosphere on the future of arts journalism and criticism. Unlike Nicholas, I'm not so certain that the mainstream media are whirling around the toilet bowl preparing for a final flush: one look at the Guardian website suggests that rumours of its death are premature.

All the same, here in Australia, where we have the most concentrated media ownership in the Western world, there's no doubt that anyone looking for serious discussion of the arts faces particular challenges. Only I think that's been the case for longer than anyone cares to admit: it was a problem that began in the 50s, when our best populist critics - Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Clive James - all moved off-shore. It's not a matter of restoring a conversation that's become dull and moribund: it's a matter of beginning it in the first place.

I'm not an internet utopian: I've never believed that the web is the answer to all ills. Like any tool, its virtue is in its usage. While it opens an alternative space for discussion shouldered out of the mainstream media, there's no denying that it's been a godsend to Belarussian pornographers, neo-Fascists, Flat Earthers and the loopier conspiracy theorists. Worse, it can create splintered communities of interest whose nutty world-views are hermetically sealed off from any contagion with fact. Internet literacy has always been as much about being able to sort out what is useful as it is about being able to navigate around a keyboard.

And as far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on what it means for the arts: we're still too much in the middle of flux to discern anything clearly. The only thing that's certain is that things are changing, and they're changing fast.

For a start, traditional wisdoms don't apply to the internet: it's a world, for example, where people become commercially successful by giving stuff away. That became clear when the makers of Netscape (remember Netscape?), in what was then a revolutionary and deeply counter-intuitive move, offered its browser to users for free. As a result, Netscape was - until Bill Gates came along with Internet Explorer - the leading browser of choice. The Guardian followed a similar logic by offering all its content - including the whole of its archives - online for free, unlike the Age or the New York Times, and devoting a considerable investment in its online pages. Its decision to see its web presence as more than merely an offshoot of its print edition made it the most visited online newspaper in the world.

As far as the arts are concerned, poetry is the canary in the mine. About a decade ago, the increasing corporatism of the publishing industry began to bite hard on the cottage industry that is poetry. Mainstream publishers such as Oxford University Press and Penguin dropped their poetry lists; the decline of the independent bookshop meant that franchise shops like Borders stopped stocking small press books; mainstream literary publications like the Times Literary Supplement squeezed its coverage of all but the most mainstream of poets.

As a result, contemporary poets and publishers moved wholesale to the internet for publication and network marketing. Now internet publication is as legitimate as print, and no publisher, mainstream or alternative, is without its online arm. What that means is that poetry as an artform is thriving. The downside is that nobody outside these specialised networks knows it.

Something similar is happening in theatre, which makes it an exciting time to be a blogger. The obvious caveat is that theatre is, by its nature, a local art. You can't put the act of theatre online, only its secondary spin-offs (critique, meditations, gossip). I think this is healthy: the artform itself is grounded in the "real world", and it's more difficult for the discourse to disappear up its own virtual fundament. Which doesn't mean, of course, that such a vanishing act is impossible.

But now the theatrosphere has been around for a few years, some people are - quite rightly - asking what kind of difference it can really make. Is it just a flash in the pan that will settle down into the same corporatised triviality once the dust settles? Will it turn into a pale shadow of more powerful media, reflecting the same values and the same concerns, or is there another, more interesting, possibility?

I think it's all up for grabs. But, for once, it's entirely up to us. And that, like everything else about the internet, can work for both good and ill.

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