Traditional grousing ~ theatre notes

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Traditional grousing

I don't think Robin Usher can help it. Bubbling with enthusiasm at the present domination of Melbourne stages with what he calls "traditional" fare - Phantom of the Opera and the RSC in particular - Usher bares his teeth at the Melbourne Festival, gnawing at his favourite bone, MIAF director Kristy Edmunds. As Usher says:

No approach to festival programming is set in stone and although the festival's director, Kristy Edmunds, concentrated on more cutting-edge works in her first two programs, she has included more mainstream artists this year. Yet she seems to have little interest in either traditional theatre or classical music. Her argument is that she does not want to duplicate what's on offer during the rest of the year.

But the riches available in the past week demonstrate the benefits of grouping together acts with a common base in the Western tradition. The key is the visit by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which will continue presenting Chekhov's The Seagull and Sir Ian McKellen's definitive performance in King Lear until Sunday.

Well, we all know my feelings on the RSC, which are very mixed. Myself, I love "straight" theatre staged with skill and passion, which is what the RSC - and, yes, the MTC - does at its best. I even have a rather big soft spot for the Western tradition, seeing as it is mine own, and if Usher and I went head to head in a quiz on Western theatre, I'm willing to bet I'd win comfortably.

Usher's plea for more of the "Western tradition" in the festival is a little disingenuous, to say the least, considering this year's MIAF program includes the greatest Shakespearean interpreter of the past century, Peter Brook, as well as productions of Titus Andronicus, Medea and a theatre work that apparently draws from Hamlet. Not to mention one of the canon-defining figures of western dance, Merce Cunningham.

No, it's not the canon that Usher wants. It's the canon in a straight-jacket, dusted off and placed behind glass in a museum of artefacts, where it may be purchased as decoration and status-symbol: not the living, real thing. It's the artistic equivalent of John Howard harking back to the Menzies era.

After all, those great canonical artists were canon-breakers in their time, before the cultural machine did its work: this is what Edmunds remembers and fosters, and what Usher seems to forget. On present form, he would have been booing at the premiere of Madame Butterfly, damning Hedda Gabler as raw sewage and signing petitions to ban Ulysses.

And he wants this relaxed and comfortable plushness all year round. Usher's entitled to his preferences but, as he also points out, these things can be seen on Melbourne stages throughout the year. How about those of us - also a considerable audience - who want to see something different?


Anonymous said...

Even someone with no views on the matter would find Usher's article peculiar in its own terms. He says that Edmunds' "argument is that she does not want to duplicate what's on offer during the rest of the year". He then immediately says: "But the riches available in the past week demonstrate the benefits of grouping together acts with a common base in the Western tradition." Well, how does that answer Edmunds' argument that it would be duplication to do it again in the Festival? In fact it seems to support Edmunds' claim that it would be duplicating the sort of thing that is done during the rest of the year, e.g., this week.

Alison Croggon said...

It doesn't make a lot of sense, I grant you. I think he's just making a claim for what is "proper" art and what isn't, and dislikes money and kudos being given to the improper stuff, which ought not to be seen on our main stages. I like a various ecology, myself!

Anonymous said...

“But Richard Mills had to look to Perth for the commission to write Nightingale from festival director Lindy Hume. The decision has already been justified, with Nightingale expected to clean up in its category in the Helpmann awards next week.”
Robin Usher

Of course Richard Mills looked to Perth to commission his new work: the Festival Director, Lindy Hume, also directed his new opera Nightingale, and had previously directed his earlier work, Batavia. The importance of this collaborative artistic relationship of director and composer needs support to create a continuing work process and language.A Festival Director is in a unique position to commission works in their particular area of artistic expertise.

As did Johnathon Mills, Robin Archer and as does Kristy Edmunds. Here is to the variety of the cultural fabric as envisaged by Festival Artistic Directors I say.


richardwatts said...

The first thing I thought of when I saw Usher's article today? It was going to be an attack on Edmund's festival programming - which was exactly what it turned out to be. Surprise, surprise...

Anonymous said...

and never mind whenever he interviews subjects/artists, he doesn't use a dictaphone, so something said in person in honesty comes out via Ushers particular brand of; the opposite of what has been said in the face to face interview...

Oh my, Melbourne has The Age or the Herald Sun. Great!

Oh...GetUp and Theatrenotes...bless!

Alison Croggon said...

As I've mentioned elsewhere (where are you, John McCallum?) I had to be dragged out of Batavia by my embarrassed husband, because I was booing. (The only other thing that has ever made me as cross as that piece was a poetry reading by Charles Bernstein, so you can't accuse me of a pomo bias.)

And frankly, God forbid we ever get Lindy Hume.

Anonymous said...

Love that image of you being dragged booing out of Batavia...

Anonymous said...

definitive Lear?!?!