Review: Criminology ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 13, 2007

Review: Criminology

Criminology, devised by Rosemary Myers and written by Lally Katz and Tom Wright. Design by Anna Tregloan, video design direction Peter Brundle, video design Chris More, lighting design Paul Jackson, composition Jethro Woodward. With Gemma Cavoli, Jing-Xuan Chan, Simon Maiden, Bojana Novakovic, Luke Ryan and Samantha Tolj. Arena Theatre and Malthouse Theatre @ the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse until August 19. Bookings: 9685-5111.

When you walk out of the doors of the Malthouse Theatre, the first thing that catches your eye is a huge yellow billboard across the freeway. It squats beneath the urban skyline asking, in brash red letters: “WANT LONGER LASTING SEX?” This garishly desolate image has a disconcerting continuity with the world explored in Criminology, a fascinating archeological exploration of the pathologies beneath the surface of middle-class suburban Australia.

It’s co-written by Tom Wright, who last week won a Helpmann for his work on The Lost Echo, and Lally Katz, best known for her work with Stuck Pigs Squealing. But Criminology is a theatrical collaboration in which the work of the director and its several designers is as important in creating meaning, through projected video and mise en scène, as the writing itself.

Devisor and director Rosemary Myers draws from Helen Garner’s controversial book The Consolation of Joe Cinque, which explored the bizarre 1997 killing of a young man by his girlfriend Anu Singh, both students at ANU in Canberra. Singh was convicted of manslaughter for deliberately overdosing Cinque with heroin, and served a prison sentence. Among the more disturbing aspects of the crime was that their circle of friends knew of Singh’s intention to kill Cinque, but did nothing to prevent it.

Criminology is almost an inverse picture of Garner’s book. Garner was concerned with the victim, filling out the anonymity of the headlines with the visceral reality of his grieving family. Notoriously, Anu Singh refused to speak to her, and the figure of the young woman remains mysterious, inscrutable and deadly. Myers has chosen to see the story from another angle, as if in a mirror darkly.

She and her collaborators create a nightmarish indictment of the pathological narcissism of contemporary society. Criminology reveals a world of unrelieved banality, in which the language of feeling is expressed through the cliches of blockbuster movies, values are taken from the gossip pages and sexuality is merely pornographic.

In this telling, everything is backwards: Anu is fictionalised as Una (Bojana Novakovic) and Joe Cinque becomes The Boyfriend (Hazem Shammas), a passive cipher who is a blank screen for the projection of Una’s warped desires. Even some of the performances are backwards: 1990s celebrities like Princess Di and Michael Hutchence appear on stage performed by actors with masks on the backs of their heads and their clothes on the wrong way round. It makes them move like zombies, jerkily and unnaturally, and they grotesquely focus Una’s fascination with the link between sex, death and fame.

This is theatre of a profound semantic richness – performance, image, design and Jethro Woodward’s brilliant soundscape combine to create a complex and confronting language. Anna Tregloan’s design capitalises on the banality of the world explored in the show – the walls are even beige, and the wide set is littered with comfortable furniture. The bedroom – the site of both sex and death – is a glass box. Above the stage hang a constellation of screens, on which are projected fragmented images – close-ups of bodies, plants, trees – that work in counterpoint to the action on stage.

Una exists in a haze of psychic distortions caused by her drug-taking and bulimia. She and her friends live in a world marked, more than anything, by sexual and spiritual impoverishment, and her psychosis is shaped by the desires projected upon her and the fantasies of an unreal world populated by visions of magazine-cover celebrities.

Aspects reminded me of George Bataille’s The Story of the Eye, which brutally explores the the excesses of adolescent sexuality: but unlike the children in Bataille’s story, who take a perverse and imaginative pleasure in their sadistic games, Una’s erotic provocations and manipulations seem strangely pleasureless. For Una, sex is not an end in itself, but a means to power: and her need for power is directly related to her own sense of feminine powerlessness.

What makes this show particularly riveting is the physically potent performances from all the cast. The body is at once celebrated for its perfection and tormented, distorted in sexual ecstasy or vomiting or death. Bojana Novakovic portrays Una with total commitment: she oscillates from a manipulative sexual succubus to desperate bulimic, unflnchingly performing Una’s self-loathing and extremity. Luke Ryan as the corrupt young drug dealer Alastair gives a nuanced, sinister performance, and Hazem Shammas as the Boyfriend is a cryptic, wordless shadow until he convulses in his death, which is perhaps the only time he is real to Una.

There are occasional longueurs in the dramaturgy, a feeling sometimes that the ideas aren't going anywhere – the grotesque image of Princess Di, for instance, dulls in repetition. And I felt ambivalent about the portrayal of Una, a sense that it exploits the archetypal power of the deadly, sexualised woman as much as critiquing its creation. I’m not sure that it’s an entirely successful piece, but it's undoubtedly powerful and confronting theatre.

Picture: Hazem Shammas (projection image), Jing-Xuan Chan and Bojana Novakovic in Criminology. Photo: Ross Bird

More blog responses at Post-Teen Trauma and Esoteric Rabbit.

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


Anonymous said...

Discussing this with a friend of mine yesterday, she said that she generally agreed with Woodhead's review in The Age, except that she didn't find it offensive, just tacky. I didn't think that was too far off the mark. I thought the script was weak, with cheesy attempts to generate interest ("let's have the hot babes strip for the guys, let's have some schlocky Princess Di stuff for the chicks"). I didn't find it confronting at all, it was mostly cliches about lots of sex and drugs and vague social forces leading young people to do
shocking things. The performances of Novakovic and Chan were strong but I thought talents like that were wasted in a production like this.

Anonymous said...

There was a certain flatness to Friday night's (10 Aug) performance - both from the text and, I suspect, an apprehensive audience . . .

Alison Croggon said...

Fair dos. It had quite a powerful visceral effect on me - I think it reminded me of a particular kind of desolation I felt when I was young, that's not to do with under-privilege or material lack. (I was raised in Ballarat, at the time speed and heroin capital of Victoria). I agree there were problems with the text - deliberately banal of course, and it's tricky balance to be artfully banal as opposed to merely banal.

On Stage And Walls said...

I saw the Friday night performance and a preview the Friday before. Some key scenes were very good and strongly played, namely ones involving Una's 'real time' and 'real life' (the dream sequences were piling up like a jam!) interactions with her friends. Scenes like when she swapped tops with her neighbour made clear points about Una's mental state and made what was happening more disturbing. Lally and Tom make some interesting conclusions about the friends who did nothing to stop the crime. I like the scene at the end when Una was dragging the boyfriend into the bedroom and was imagining his responces to her. Those kind of auido effecets were very goo and added a lot to the production.

Alison Croggon said...

Bardassa, that's the second time you've mentioned seeing something more than once. I am all admiration! It's something I occasionally manage and would like to do much more often - it would give a much more nuanced view of a production - but simply can't find the time.

Anonymous said...

I agree with John. I found it a very weak script which was attempting to be revived by flashy "shocking" images. I wasn't offended by the masturbating ghost of michael hutchinson just bored by it. The sexualisation of Anu/Una was also dissapointing... the fact that she was an extremely intelligent woman seemed to be substituted by her being a nympho. She hardly said anything intelligent in the entire play, instead sleeping with people in order to control them. It all felt lazy and far less interesting then if they treated her like the intelligent woman she obviously was. And by the time the interesting scenes about her mental state (the swapping of the top with neighbour etc) came along it all felt like it was too little too late for me. It's a pity cos I like both of these writers previous work... this play just did nothing for me whatsoever.

Alison Croggon said...

I've had various problems with Tom Wright's work over the years - sometimes I think he has a tin ear - but that didn't bother me here. What I did feel was a certain fuzziness in the script, as if neither voice was able to be absolutely clear. And the problems I had were more with the dramaturgy than with the actual writing or even the ideas. I didn't find it offensive, and what I found confronting was not the sexual images but the impoverished sexuality they revealed.

It also seems to me that you had to "read" the whole show, not just the text, since all these aspects were working in tandem. And quite clearly it wasn't an attempt to portray Anu Singh herself, but rather to create a work that plugged into the swirl of perceptions around her crime (hence the "backwards" trope).

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I was pretty much in complete agreement with Cameron Woodhead's review.

The thing that puzzled me was why they based it on the Joe Cinque case at all. It seemed to take so many liberties with the characters and avoided most of what was truly interesting about that case that I thought they would have actually stood a better chance, at least with me, by making it a completely fictional piece. I kept getting frustrated with how they were presenting the characters - I thought Anu/Una was made quite loathsome and unintelligent (which was at complete odds with how I originally viewed her), The Boyfriend had no character whatsoever (I know that's the point but let's not forget Joe Cinque was a real person once upon a time) and the depiction of Madhavi Rao bordered on racist.

Too many times it seemed like they were trying to shock us but the effect was the exact opposite.

I thought the sound design was great with some really inspired music choices particularly in the closing scenes. The music, costumes and chorus really helped achieve that feel of 1997. I quite liked the appearance of Princess Di, Michael Hutchence and Tommy Lee Jones but they didn't really have much to do.

I guess if the show was a cynical musing on the apathy and boredom of youth then it was successful, but why twist the lives of real people so radically to make this point? Hell - why make the point at all. Generation Y can be cold and unfeeling? Whoa!! Slow down there tiger! Next you'll be telling me the sky is blue.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with most of the criticisms of the writing and directing (particularly Cam Woodhead's). IIt was excellent.

It's particularly difficult to capture the manic and frantic dialogue of somebody suffering from multiple eating AND personality disorders, and the fractured narcissism of the text has obviously been lost on critics reluctant to do their due diligence.

The authenticity of the production did suffer, however, if Una was meant to be bulemic (and not merely anorexic). There was no binge sequence, and binge eating is sine qua non of bulemia...


Born Dancin' said...

Well, at least it's obvious that the latest Malthouse outings are generating the most debate!

I really felt that the collaboration generated problems too - there were points where I was *sure* I knew who had written particular lines. I've also been strangely underwhelmed by Wright in the past, too, whereas Katz is going from strength to strength. I've only seen a handful of Wright's works, though, so I'm certainly not firm on my judgement.

As for the script, I agree that it consciously worked with banality - these kids were living in a world fundamentally defined by a disconnection with The Real. Pre-millennium, pre-9/11, and, hell, Canberra. Part of getting inside their minds should surely involve recreating that unreal world and the psychic fragmentation that results.

But then I don't think the play tries to recreate the particular worlds of Singh and Cinque - and Criminology is nothing to do with Garner's book, really.

There's a lot to defend about this play but I found it to be one of those rare instances where I think that most criticisms put forward are in fact valid, it's just that in this case one person's point of lament is another's reason for praise. I like visually messy, disjointed and distracting theatre, but I wouldn't imagine that speaks for most audience.

Alison Croggon said...

That's a good point, Born Dancin'. I suppose if you go along expecting some kind of three act drama in which the text is the dominant language on stage (not that I think successful plays in fact function that way in performance, but that's another discussion) then you're going to be disappointed. I suspect though that this other contemporary aesthetic - full-on sensory stimulus, with video, performance and sound driving the show as much as the words - might be something that's maybe not so hard to read for people who don't have those kinds of expectations, but who are literate in the contemporary world. Ie, that it might attract the kind of intelligentsia who wouldn't normally attend the theatre, but who might go to see films or bands.

Anonymous said...

hi - i too had a visceral reaction to criminology - blogged about here:

and am still thinking about the play weeks later - was not surprised at cameron woodhead's fud-dud review -(although it gave me a moment of insecurity - am i crazy/stupid/weird?) - which makes me wonder how much I (as audience member) brought to the performance. I wondered,would you call it a period piece?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Simmone - thanks for that. Of course you bring yourself to any work (I've logged this with numerous re-reading of Crime and Punishment since I was 16 - each time, it's a different novel). And perhaps part of its power comes from how vividly you remember 1997. I'm not sure - it also seems awfully contemporary to me.