Review: Hotel Obsino, The Jerilderie LetterThe blank blogs of BurmaMeme schmemeIain Sinclair on LondonReview: Boston MarriageReview: Dickens' WomenTarkovsky's Stalker: A Poet in a Destitute TimeHot conversationsReviewsSunday sermonSpace, time and the Melbourne Fringe FestivalWeb fame - yesss!Sydney conversationsThe old and the newSydney/New York actionReview: Mercury FurMore critical amusings ~ theatre notes

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Review: Hotel Obsino, The Jerilderie Letter

Fringe Festival: Hotel Obsino, written and directed by Adam Broinowski. Sound by Andrew Williamson, lighting by Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist. With Tom Davies, Eric Mitzak, Tahir Cambis, Le Roy Parsons, Melanie Douglas, Brendan Bacon and Dylan Lloyd, Erick Mitsak, Craig Hedger and Polash Larsen. La Mama until September 30. The Jerilderie Letter by Ned Kelly, directed by Lloyd Jones. With Peter Finlay and Malcom Hill (guitar). La Mama until September 30. Bookings: 9347 6142

"Complaining!" said Rainer Maria Rilke. "The ancient vice of poets!" Had there been blogs around in Rilke's day, he might have observed that bloggers give poets a run for their money on the whingeing front. One has to admit that there's a certain pleasure in it but, as those scabby old men who lived on top of poles in the desert were fond of saying, all earthly pleasures turn to dust. And the truth is, I've become a little tired of the sound of my complaining.

But since - I know - my state of being is of electric interest, and you are all on tenterhooks for the latest instalment, I'll reveal that Ms A is still banned from race courses as a likely carrier of Equine Influenza. If you happen to be in a theatre foyer and you see a shortish woman wearing a surgical mask and spraying nearby patrons with disinfectant, that's me.

Has my affliction stopped me from venturing heroically forth to breathe on other people? Hell no! I've been to four shows! But for the past few days, I have had certain problems actually thinking anything. And now I find that the two shows I saw at La Mama last weekend are about to close, and I am afflicted by guilt as well. Is there no end to my suffering?

The short story is that, unlike the microbes that have gatecrashed my body, Hotel Obsino and The Jerilderie Letter are both, for different reasons, worth catching. For the longer version, click on...

Adam Broinowski caused a minor stir in June when he objected to the rough treatment meted out to his play Know No Cure, which he directed at Theatreworks. That production was one of the many that I didn't get to, but the almost unanimous critical demolition made me curious, and I hunted down and read a copy of the text. As so often, I found myself disagreeing with the stern verdicts of my esteemed colleagues, at least as far as the text is concerned; but then, I've always found the flash and dazzle of ambition more exciting than the safe, steady glow of the expected, even if the dazzle ends up fizzling in the mud.

In any case, Know No Cure alerted me to an interesting theatrical voice, so I made sure I trotted along to Hotel Obsino, which is also directed and written by Broinowski. This is a very different kind of play; here Broinowski strings a series of loosely connected scenes along a simple narrative to explore the now-vanished netherworld of the residential hotel. These hotels, now mostly converted to town-house apartments or backpacker hostels, used to be common in Melbourne. They acted like a kind of social filter, catching all the detritus that couldn't find a place elsewhere: the homeless, the mentally ill, the criminal, the dispossessed.

Hotel Obsino demonstrates that Broinowski is a various writer: where Know No Cure exploits linguistic slippage in a science fiction scenario, here he shows a flair for realism and hard-edged comedy. Broinowski can write with a superb dramatic muscularity, edged with a kind of pitiless compassion that makes this more than an exercise in social observation. He sketches his cast of oddballs and misfits with a Dostoevskian eye for the absurdly tragic: these characters might be grotesque, but they retain their dignity. Their grotesqueries are not beneath humanity, but part of it, and thus implicit in us all.

It's this quality that makes the difference between work that, as it were, pokes sticks through the bars of the cage (the contemporary equivalent of visiting Bedlam) and work that moves towards a metaphorical contemplation of what, for want of invention, I am forced to call the "human condition". But for all the unexpected empathy his characters provoke - helped by some wonderful performances from a remarkably fearless cast - Broinowski doesn't wholly escape the ethical dilemmas of such work.

The catalyst for the action is the appearance of a writer figure, Noah (Tom Davies), who checks into the hotel. Noah provides an observational core around which constellate the various paranoid delusions and sad realities of his characters. He enters as a naif and leaves frightened and disturbed by what he has encountered.

The problem is that Noah seldom seems more than a dramatic device; he is an odd blank in the middle of the play who acts as a kind of mediation, a safety valve of "normality" that effectively protects the audience from a direct confrontation with the reality he is encountering. I found myself wishing that Noah would either disappear altogether or materialise in his full fleshly frailty, as grotesque, absurd, tender and desiring as the others; but he did neither. And since Noah acts as a kind of hinge between the audience and the play, the other characters are in danger of becoming "them" instead of "us", symptoms of a social disease we observe from the outside, rather than reflections of a dis-ease within ourselves.

Broinowski gives his text a fast-paced, high energy production which exploits the shabby intimacy of La Mama to evoke the dingy environs of this house of transients. It features some hugely enjoyable performances: Dylan Lloyd, Brendan Bacon and Le Roy Parsons are stand outs in a very strong cast that enacts the peculiarities or straight-out madness of its characters without descending into caricature or parody.

The Jerilderie Letter, Ned Kelly's defiant blast against the Imperial authorities before he went down with guns blazing, is an exercise in contrast. Here performance is about as minimal as it gets: director Lloyd Jones has enclosed a clean-shaven Peter Finlay in a box up to his neck. And for most of the show, his eyes are closed. He is a death's head on a plinth.

This Beckettian conceit illustrates the fact that Kelly's head was removed from his body after his execution so it could be examined for signs of genetic criminality and displayed to a duly horrified public. It's a tribute to Finlay's powers that such rigid constrictions make for a mesmerising performance.

He begins with a low, rhythmic murmer that caresses the rhythms of speech preserved in Kelly's extraordinary document, playing the music of the words over their meaning, as if he were saying a poem. As Finlay's performance evolves, so does his range of expression, until he summons all Kelly's anger, outrage, violence and grief. On the few occasions he opens his eyes, glaring at the audience with a high wattage of rage, it is as if a spotlight has been turned on. Finlay is always worth watching, and this is a remarkable performance.

Kelly's letter is a vivid mixture of gossip, braggadocio, violence, self-justification and the sly wit that has always been a defence of the powerless against the powerful. Behind it is the passionate desire to bear witness against injustice that seems to be an innate quality of being human. When Kelly speaks of the police raids on his home, it reminds you that the standard abuses of thuggish power are just as universal:

how they used to rush into the house upset all the milk dishes break tins of eggs empty the flour out of the bags on to the ground and even the meat out of the cask and destroy all the provisions and shove the girls in front of them into the rooms like dogs so as if any one was there they would shoot the girls first but they knew well I was not there or I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain I would manure the Eleven mile with their bloated carcases and yet remember there is not one drop of murderous blood in my veins

These techniques of domestic terror have been honoured in Chechnya and Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, Ireland and Kurdistan; wherever a population is considered criminal and inferior by colonising forces. But the document also makes clear that Kelly had learned from the violence of his superiors. Had he nourished the revolution he dreamed of, he would likely have become a tyrant in his turn.

by the light that shines pegged on an ant-bed with their bellies opened their fat taken out rendered and poured down their throat boiling hot will be fool to what pleasure I will give some of them and any person aiding or harbouring or assisting the Police in any way whatever or employing any person whom they know to be a detective or cad or those who would be so deprived as to take blood money will be outlawed and declared unfit to be allowed human buriel (sic) their property either consumed or confiscated and them theirs and all belonging to them exterminated off the face of the earth, the enemy I cannot catch myself I shall give a payable reward for

Which is, as Camus pointed out, why revolution is a synonym for going around in circles.

This otherwise remarkable show is marred by its accompaniment by poet/singer Malcolm Hill. He punctuates Finlay's performance with chords from his guitar, which works well; unfortunately, he also regales us with a couple of his compositions. He sings somewhat flat, but even that might be forgiven if the lyrics weren't so unashamedly awful. They focus on green sashes and shamrocks and the great Irish hero Ned Kelly (and so on and so forth).

This is the kind of stuff that gives my Irish friends a bad pain in their midriff, and no wonder. By framing Kelly's statement in such sentimental tosh, it also threatens to obscure the raw power of the document. But luckily, most of the time you are watching Finlay.

Read More.....

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The blank blogs of Burma

Anyone who feels sanguine about the possible freedoms of new media should contemplate the blank blogs of Burma. As the military cracks down on the popular protests against the Burmese regime, many of the student blogs that have opened a window on this repressive junta have gone mysteriously blank.

I once worked with a South African journalist who worked for a newspaper at the height of Apartheid censorship. He told me that when stories were suppressed by the authorities, the editors began to leave the front page blank. This, he told me, became a form of resistance in itself, a sign of censorship. In the end, the regime banned blank front pages. So while they're still there in their nakedness, you should take a look at Justice and Injustice (which when I checked it, still carried photographs and text, albeit untranslated Burmese), Moezack and Kohtike. And check out Burma Gateway, the Australian site that carries news of protests against the Burmese government.

Read More.....

Meme schmeme

Isaac from Parabasis bravely tagged me for a blogging meme. I've been very beetle-browed this week, so the fancy takes me. But what is a blog meme, I hear you cry? It's a kind of Richard Dawkins-inspired virus, a pyramidal scheme that entails blogging details about oneself and then spreading the word assiduously, just as a rampant buck rabbit perpetuates his genes. If you peep beneath the fold, all will be revealed... Otherwise, well, just move on...

List 5 things that certain people (who are not deserving of being your friend anyway) may consider to be "totally lame," but you are, despite the possible stigma, totally proud of. Own it. Tag 5 others.

1. I played Baldur's Gate 1 on GameCube until my character had reached Level 40 and had amassed 40 million gold coins. Then I did the same with the other two characters.

2. I own (and wear) a dalmatian dressing gown with black spots and red piping.

3. When Dr Who is on, I try not to go out on Saturday nights. Those who drag me to the theatre on Saturday nights Know Who They Are. (Fortunately for all of us, season 3 has finished).

4. The only novelist I can read on long haul flights is Terry Pratchett.

5. When I buy a Tattslotto ticket I am always completely sure that this is the winner.

Who to tag? Nicholas Pickard, Matt Clayfield, Ben Ellis, Chris Boyd and Avi Lipski.

Read More.....

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Iain Sinclair on London

Six months after this beautiful book found its way into my lustful hands (my fault entirely, I fear; it took me a long time to read it), my review of Iain Sinclair's London: City of Disappearances has been broadcast on ABC Radio National's The Book Show. No direct link, but you can hear me trying to negotiate my own English for the next few days on the podcast for September 25 (I'm about half way through). Or you can read on:

You can no more summarise London: City of Disappearances than you can summarise London itself. It’s not a book that you can read sensibly, from the front page to the back, and close with a satisfying bang, certain in your grasp of what you have just experienced. It is, rather, a book that you inhabit. You trip over things, forget things, find yourself fascinated, bored, fascinated again.

It’s the kind of book that you pick up and open at random, to find yourself wandering through spectral industrial landscapes, or forgotten streets lined with strip clubs and ghostly book shops. You enter compulsive fictions that solidify into bricks and mortar, or realities that dissolve into vapour as you approach them. Time warps and hiccups. You get lost.

London: City of Disappearances is, as the editor Iain Sinclair says in his introduction, “a gazetteer of erasures, each disappearance represented by a random object or image: a cabinet of curiosities”. Or, elsewhere, “entries for an ever-expanding encyclopaedia of loss”.

The losses include possibilities unrealised, things that were never were. It’s a book that is as full of unanswered longing as memory itself. It doesn’t attempt to describe London, so much as to mimic the city: the metropolis here is a living hive, a dense web of memories and transient relationships, an organic architecture that breathes and decays like a living body.

As the contributor Bill Drummond recounts, this anthology spins out of a very simple idea. “The remit for this piece,” he says “was vague but simple: did I want to write about things in London disappearing?” Drummond then goes onto tell us, “The trouble is, I don’t really give a shit about London. Never lived there. Wouldn’t mind if the whole lot disappeared before my eyes…”

Which shows clearly that Sinclair’s editorial eye, as might be expected for one of Britain’s most widely respected innovative writers, is neither limited nor petty. Each contributor brings his or her London – the London they hate, the London they lost, the London they barely survived, the London they love. Like any great city, London is infinitely multiple.

Sinclair has organised the book into sections, with an acutely sensitive eye for detail and nuance. Some parts are geographic – the West End, the East End – and some are thematic, like a section called “Bibliomania” (which might, in fact, be a sub-heading for the entire book). And the narratives evolve with the unpredictable beauty of Mandelbrot fractals: one account answers or contradicts another; an allusion in one piece might turn up as the subject of the next. At more than six hundred pages, with almost sixty contributors, it makes a hefty and fascinatingly complex tome.

Unsurprisingly, this is above all a city made of words: it excavates a literary London inhabited by famous names (Daniel Defoe, John Lennon, Alan Sillitoe, William Blake, John Bunyan) but also haunted by transient eccentrics, forgotten poets and vanished bookshops. It attracted my eye in part because, as well as writers like Marina Warner, Michael Moorcock, Will Self, JG Ballard or Thomas de Quincy, the contributors include many important figures from the counter-culture of contemporary British poetry, a scene from which Iain Sinclair himself emerges. It’s a chance to read some fascinating writers like Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth or Bill Griffiths.

Through these fragmented texts rises a narrative rich with baroque and shabby detail, shining like an oil slick with a hypnotic, and sometimes toxic, fascination. Stewart Home, for instance, launches a scathing attack on what he calls the “zombiefication of the British counter culture”: the heroin chic of the 1960s that, among other people, destroyed his mother. Recalling a famous poetry event attended by William Burroughs and RD Laing, Home writes:

“The State of Revolt” marks the onset of counter-cultural rigor mortis and this living death occurred not with a band but a smacked out whimper. It is also a death that we won’t fully comprehend until the chatter of neo-critical production about the 1960s ceases to mask the violent silence that lies at the core of that decade, and which will yet prove to be its most enduring legacy.

And then there’s Ann Baer’s haunting memories of Mervyn Peake, or John Welch’s poignant account of a couple of unknown writers who lived on the margins of the ‘literary life’ with, as he describes it, “its interminable fantasies of inclusion and exclusion”.

Among the most moving sections of the book are its evocations of the long-vanished Jewish Whitechapel in the East End, which never recovered from the bombs of the Second World War. There is a beautiful remembrance of the great Yiddish poet Avrum Nacum Stencl, who died poverty-stricken and forgotten, and of Kafka’s final lover Dora Diamant, who fled to London as a refugee from Nazism and lived there for the rest of her life.

And through these overtly literary remembrances and fictions weave many other ghosts: Anthony Rudolph’s startlingly beautiful oral recordings of his grandfather Josef Rudolph (dealer in second-hand clothes and army surplus), or Aileen Philby, the destroyed wife of the celebrated spy Kim, or the millionaire king of the vanished strip clubs of Soho, Paul Raymond. And threaded between these accounts, like a rollcall of the dead, is a list of vanished buildings: short, bald descriptions of the histories of specific addresses.

As you read on, distinctions between fiction and history begin to corrode. An extract from a nineteenth century Times article looks as authentic – or inauthentic – as a fiction. The cumulative effect is a little like reading a book by WG Sebald, if you can imagine Sebald refracted through a multi-faceted prism into sixty very individual voices. The details of Sinclair’s curios emerge in a kind of melancholy clarity that is heightened by an acute sense of mortality.

It’s a darkly enchanting book that I’ll return to again and again, if only because, like London itself, it needs long acquaintance to begin to discover all its mysteries. Above all, this book is a giant act of imaginative recuperation. It becomes clear that, in writing about disappearance, all these writers are in fact creating another kind of magic: they conjure up the unseen and the hidden, and they bring it into the light.

London: City of Disappearances, edited by Iain Sinclair, Hamish Hamilton

Read More.....

Monday, September 24, 2007

Review: Boston Marriage

Boston Marriage by David Mamet, directed by Wayne Pearn. Designed by Paul King, lighting by Stelios Karagiannis, sound design by Chris Milne. With Corinne Davies, Helen Hopkins and Eleanor Wilson. Hoy Polloy @ the Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Brunswick, until October 6. Bookings: 9016 3873.

David Mamet allegedly wrote Boston Marriage to prove that he was capable of creating good roles for women. There are a number of lessons to draw from this; primarily, that a playwright with something to prove ought to be locked in a cupboard until he gets over it. Still, I suppose, in an anthropological kind of way, it's an interesting exercise to see this most macho of writers dressing up in drag.

Boston Marriage, written in 1999, is a bizarre stylistic collision between David Mamet, Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet. Despite a decent production by Hoy Polloy, it's every bit as awful as it sounds, at once arch and crude. I guess it's a kind of reworked American Buffalo, translated into Wildese and flipped over into the feminine.

It's basically a farce, revolving around a complicated intrigue between two upper-class women in Victorian-era Boston, Anna (Helen Hopkins) and Claire (Corinne Davies). They have a "Boston Marriage", which is to say, a long-term lesbian relationship that - as long as it was pursued with discretion - was a means for women to obtain "sensual pleasure" without threatening their respectability. Their dialogues are regularly interrupted by their maid, Catherine (Eleanor Wilson), newly arrived from the Orkneys, who provides the occasion for some low comedy and a crass critique on class.

As the play opens, Anna reveals that she has a rich male "protector", who provides her with money and expensive gifts; meanwhile, Claire has fallen in love with a schoolgirl. The protector is no threat to their relationship - men, after all, "only exist to be deceived" - but the schoolgirl is. When it turns out that Claire's young love-object is actually the daughter of Anna's protector, their source of income is threatened. There follows a bungling plot cooked up between the two women to cover a crime - the alleged theft of a necklace - that never happens.

Aside from the play, there's little to complain of in the production. Wayne Pearn directs with a deft hand, using a detailed design and clever lighting that subtly highlight the play's artifice. Hopkins and Davies negotiate Mamet's jaw-cracking dialogue with aplomb; if there is little sense of "sensual pleasure" between them, I think it is not their fault. All those words get in the way. Mamet doing Wilde demonstrates that style is not something that can merely be put on, like a hat. He dresses his dialogue up with a strained literary verbosity: as Mozart says of Salieri in Amadeus, there are "too many notes".

Wilson, as the not-too-bright maid, has the opposite problem. She really exists to be a spur to her employer's upper-class heartlessness (Anna can't tell the difference between the Irish and the Scots, and constantly berates her for the potato famine) and to deliver a couple of faux-naif double entendres.

It made for quite a long 90 minutes. As we left, my son commented that the play might have been funnier if it had been played by men in drag. He may be correct: after all, Genet's The Maids, which this play inevitably recalls, is written to be played by men. Genet had a better handle on the game of gender than Mamet does. But even in the best of circumstances, it's hard to imagine this play being anything more than a slight curiosity.

Whatever it is, it's teeth-achingly mannered. I'm all for artifice in the theatre, and Mamet has always been a master of artifice: but this is like drinking tea with too much sugar in it. Here art becomes the lie that reveals - nothing. I think it's called decadence.

Picture: Publicity shot for Boston Marriage: from left, Corinne Davies, Helen Hopkins and Eleanor Wilson.

Read More.....

Review: Dickens' Women

Dickens’ Women by Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser, directed by Sonia Fraser. With Miriam Margolyes, live music performed by John Martin. Lighting design by Mark Hammer, design consultant Nick Dare. Playhouse @ the Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. September 20. Until September 23. Touring Brisbane, Frankston, Hobart, Sydney, Newcastle, Parramatta, Adelaide, Perth and Canberra until November 25. Details here.

According to the novelist Milan Kundera, Charles Dickens is the model of a sentimental writer. And he adds that sentimentality doesn’t stem, as is commonly supposed, from an excess of feeling, but from the lack of it.

This strikes me as a particularly acute observation, one that Miriam Margolyes’ one-woman tribute to Dickens’ writing tends to confirm rather than contest. Neither is there any escaping the misogyny that ran through Dickens’ writing and private life.

Unmarried women of a certain age brought out his cruel gift for caricature. His treatment of his wife Catherine, whom he bundled out of his house in 1858 after 22 years of marriage, publicly humiliating her with open letters in newspapers about her unfitness as a wife and mother, caused his daughter Kate to comment: “My father was a wicked man… We like to think of our geniuses as great characters - but we can't.”

Kundera’s insight is the truth beneath Oscar Wilde’s celebrated bon mot that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”. Margolyes quotes Wilde with relish as she gently satirises Dickens’ literary obsession with angelic 17-year-old girls – a result of the early death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who lived with him and Catherine.

He never got over Mary's death - as Margolyes comments dryly, “Dickens never got over anything that happened to him” - and wanted to be buried with her. His married life featured a series of obsessions with younger women. One feels ever more sorry for Catherine.

In Dickens’ Women, Margolyes delivers a theatrical essay that explores some of Dickens’ characters and their real-life inspirations. She ranges over the breadth of his writing, from David Copperfield and Dombey & Sons to lesser known works such as The Uncommercial Traveller and his Collected Letters, making the kind of autobiographical literary readings that I normally detest. However, in Dickens’ case, these readings seem to be justified – he drew shamelessly and transparently from his personal life.

For all her critique – Dickens’ Women is anything but hagiography – Margolyes communicates her great love for his writing, and excavates some passages, mainly from minor characters, that demonstrate real feeling. It’s a fond reading that explains why Dickens' work remains so popular, and why he has influenced writers as various as Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Orwell or Peter Carey.

The show is a stylish example of the kind of theatre that Barry Humphries’ great invention, Sandy Stone, might have called “a very nice night’s entertainment”. The dramaturgy and design allude to Dickens’ popular public readings of his work – the set even includes a reproduction of the lectern he personally designed for his tours. And it’s ingeniously lit, making the most of the minimal touring set.

If Margolyes is never less than virtuosic, she is seldom more. Her serial transformations into a dizzying range of characters are a show-stopping demonstration of the actor’s craft but, like all such demonstrations, have rather the air of a party turn. I sometimes found myself admiring her breath control rather than the show itself.

But there was a little something even for me. The show finishes with a real surprise: a monologue by Miss Flyte, the impoverished eccentric from Bleak House who is awaiting the results of an interminable Chancery suit. She attends court every day, waiting in vain for a judgement in her favour, and keeps a number of birds that she plans to release when the good news arrives. Several generations of birds have already died in their cages.

As she lists their absurd names, a touch of surreality enters the theatre, and suddenly the shades of Kafka and Beckett attend the stage. Miss Flyte, trapped in the meaningless coils of jurisprudence and deceptive hope, is a comically poignant precursor to figures like Josef K in The Trial, or to Winnie in Happy Days.

If it had all been like that, Dickens’ Women might have been breath-taking theatre; but then perhaps the Arts Centre crowd, who clapped enthusiastically after every turn, might have enjoyed it rather less.

Still, I confess that the passion Dickens inspires remains a bit of a mystery to me, as is the attraction of this kind of star-vehicle theatre, no matter how accomplished it is. About half way through, I begin to wonder what the point is. Reader, I was a teensy bit bored. But there’s no denying that most people were enthralled.

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

Read More.....

Friday, September 21, 2007

Tarkovsky's Stalker: A Poet in a Destitute Time

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker is more like a poem than any film I know. I watch it every few years, and on each viewing it is more profoundly uneasy, more beautiful, more luminous with sorrow. There may be greater films than Stalker - although surely not many - but I know of none that touches me more personally; it lives beneath my skin and quickens my sense of what it means to be conscious and alive.

Tarkovsky's films often have a nimbus of prophecy, and Stalker is no exception. It is commonly pointed out that the landscape of the Zone, shot near an Estonian chemical plant in the late '70s, uncannily prefigures the abandoned homes and rusting tanks of post-catastrophe Chernobyl, but there is more to the film's haunting power than its glimpses of a post-human world littered with the detritus of civilisation.

The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is a man whose dangerous vocation is to guide people to the Zone, an abandoned village under heavy military guard. Something strange happened some years before (the story is that a meteorite crashed, although the incident is never fully explained) which caused drastic changes in its substance. It is now a place of deserted ruins and luxuriant natural growth that is full of strange but fatal traps for the unwary. In its centre is a place called the Room. If you make it there, the Room will grant you your deepest desire.

The Stalker guides two men, known only by their own professions, Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko), who between them represent two major means - science and art - through which human beings seek knowledge and truth. The Writer is disillusioned and cynical; for him the world no longer holds any mystery, and his worldly success is meaningless. He claims, with a bitter flippancy, that he is seeking inspiration. The Professor is more inscrutable, but we find that he would rather destroy what he doesn't understand.

Next to these two, the Stalker is a naif. In the face of their open mockery, he prays for their belief; to answer their different despairs, he offers an ambiguous and possibly fatal hope. He can guide them to the door that will open on their deepest desires, but he cannot enter the room himself: that understanding is forbidden him.

It is tempting, although I think misleading, to think of the Stalker as a Christ figure: in a long single shot where the camera tenderly floats over a stream in which are submerged the discarded apparatus of civilisation - scrolls, icons, guns, syringes - he quotes the passage from the Gospels where Christ, returned from the dead, walks with two of his disciples, unrecognised by both of them. This recalls the passage in TS Eliot's great poem of modern spiritual desolation, The Wasteland:

Who is the third who walks beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.

In fact, the film is full of Christian iconography - the underwater scrolls and fish, the crown of thorns on an unforgiving Christ, prayers and Biblical quotations, allusions to Renaissance paintings of love and death. But it seems to me that these do not reconstruct religion so much as they mourn its ruins. Tarkovsky is rather expressing the faith that people attempt to explain by inventing God, the numinous desires that darkly inhabit us, and which we can neither explain nor wholly ignore. The film is so moving because Tarkovsky does no more than articulate this faith: its meaning and purpose are beyond the purview of the film, indeed, beyond the purview of our own vision.

The Stalker is a man haunted and obsessed by the possibility of belief, although he never explains what it is he believes in. He is an anachronism, a holy fool in an unbelieving world. He has nothing to offer but hope, and he doesn't even know what the hope is for, except that only the most wretched can reach for it. He is a guide through a landscape of corpses and ruins. It's a world that offers glimpses of an unsettling beauty that flourishes beyond human desires and yet can provide a home for the unsayable, unattainable longing that reaches beyond the confines of the self.

Stalker's beauty is woven out of its limitations, its finitudes. When I watch a Tarkovsky film, I am always aware of the literalness of his medium; he is never doing anything more than making a film. Out of his refusal to aggrandise his medium he forges a profound poetic. The effect is something like the Anselm Kiefer work in the NSW Art Gallery, Der Ordnung der Engel, (The Angelic Order) in which an enormous lead propellor sticks out of the canvas. On its three blades are written: faith, hope and love. This preposterous propellor will never fly, it is too heavy, and for a moment I want to laugh at its sardonic commentary on human virtues; yet somehow the words burn into me the fact of their existence, their persistence in the face of their manifest impossibility.

The very crudity of Kiefer's work moves me, because its elements - the lead, the thick paint, the scrawled words - are poised with such delicacy. And unexpectedly I am filled with a very different impulse, a feeling that doesn't erase the initial mockery, but rather incorporates it into an acutely painful double awareness of human possibility and finitude. It's a recognition akin to, but not the same as, the joy you feel in first touching the child who embodies at once your vitality and your mortality.

I suppose it's no accident that the artists who most profoundly affect me are inspired by poetry: Kiefer, for example, has made many works inspired by the poetry of Paul Celan. Tarkovsky's films are full of poems, mostly written by his father, Arseny Tarkosvky: Stalker contains two, by Arseny Tarkovsky and Fyodor Tyutchev. Poetry influences the hypnotic rhythms of Tarkovsky's editing and the composition of his image-making, which draws from the imagism of Japanese poems. But these aesthetic decisions are merely symptoms of his real concern, which is to dare to risk the raw matter of poetry itself.

"After one has abandoned a belief in God," runs a famous aphorism of Wallace Stevens, "poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." Stevens expresses one of the tenets of secular modernity, that art might be a means of redemption, a place where, after the death of God, our desire for the sacred might be met.

Tarkovsky is not so sanguine; his vision is closer to the tragic existentialism of Anton Chekhov. In the polluted and degraded world the Stalker inhabits, faith promises neither redemption nor consolation. It offers something more precious and more elusive: the transitory experience of life itself. Faith is the means by which meaning might be wrought out of an existence which gives human beings no prior purpose. The Stalker - the "louse" who is mocked by the intellectuals for his awkward naivety - finds at the end of his quest only the bitter humility of failure. He cannot persuade those he guides to take the gift that he offers them: they are incapable of the final courage of acceptance.

The Stalker is not Christ, but an artist; perhaps specifically a poet. Although the crumbling, decayed splendour of his home is lined with books, he is not like the Writer, who writhes against his wordly disgust and self-loathing, his willed self-blindness. The Stalker's desires are at once more humble and ambitious than the public life of the Writer and the vanities of his concern with fame and posterity. Unlike the Professor, who seeks to control or destroy what he doesn't understand, he embraces otherness and uncertainty. He is a mystic, but this mysticism is located as much in the ordinary details of his domestic life - its material poverties and emotional richnesses - as it is in his quests to the Zone.

The German lyric poet Holderlin once asked: "What are poets for in a destitute time?" It is the same anguished question the Stalker asks at the end of the film. "The time is destitute," says the philosopher Martin Heidegger, "because it lacks the unconcealedness of the nature of pain, death and love." Heidegger says that the poet is a person who refuses self-will - which turns objects and people into "merchandise", objects for commercial exchange - and instead ventures his being in the most human of qualities, language. There, paradoxically, he discovers his "destiny" by embracing his mortality: "what is presumed to be eternal merely conceals a suspended transiency, suspended in the void of a durationless now".

Artists are more straightforward than this; they know that ideas cannot be abstracted out of the things and bodies that express them ("No ideas but in things!" admonished William Carlos Williams). This is why artists make bad philosophers. In his diaries, Time Within Time, Tarkovsky says brusquely: "Of course life has no point. If it had, man would not be free." And elsewhere: "To attain greatness within our own limits is to illustrate that we are merely human ... What an inspired idea is the notion of infinity in juxtaposition with the brief span of human life!" Our most ambitious strivings only reveal what we already are. Tarkovsky's point is that without these struggles, we can never discover even this.

The Stalker is doomed by his belief and his vocation: he brings his death home with him, in the shape of a gentle black dog he finds in the Zone. "Nobody believes," he says despairingly at the end of the film. "What's most awful is that no one needs it. No one needs that room. And all my efforts are just in vain."

In the face of the Stalker's despair, his wife names her love for him. It is this love - not only hers for the Stalker, but their love for each other, the “dull flame of desire” of the poem that their daughter Monkey reads in the final scene - that is the luminous core of this film. "It's better to have a bitter happiness than a dull, grey life," she says. "We had a lot of sorrow, a lot of fear, a lot of shame. But I never regretted it, and I never envied anyone. It's just our fate, our life. And if we hadn't had our misfortunes, we wouldn't have been better off. It would have been worse. Because in that case, there wouldn't have been any happiness. And there wouldn't have been any hope."

In his diary, Tarkovsky recalls a university debate about another of his films, Andrey Rublyov. "God, what a level [of debate]!" he says. "Abysmal, pathetic!" He quotes a mathematician called Manin, who answered some of the criticisms:

Almost every speaker asks why they have to be made to suffer all through the three hours of this film. ...It is because the twentieth century has seen the rise of a kind of emotional inflation. When we read in the papers that two million people have been butchered in Indonesia, it makes as much impression on us as an account of a hockey team winning a match... The channels of our perceptions have been smoothed out to the point where we are no longer aware. However, I don't want to preach about this. It may be that without it, life would be impossible. Only the point is that there are some artists who do make us feel the true measure of things. It is a burden which they carry throughout their lives, and we must be thankful to them.

A sense of the "true measure of things"... that is what Tarkovsky gives me, with a grave simplicity that illuminates the mysteries of being alive. He is indeed a poet for a destitute time, and I am thankful for his restless struggle.

I suppose revisiting certain works is a way of registering the passing of time. It is the same work, but you are not the same person. Each time you are a little closer to death: perhaps a little more knowledgeable; certainly, a little more sad. As the prophet says darkly in Ecclesiastes: "For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow".

Stalker reveals that sadness is the inevitable texture of our joys. And yet Tarkovsky discovers a rich beauty in this apparent impoverishment, a strength in this fragility, a fleeting grandeur in our limited and human mortality. Yes, the possibility of immortality exists for as long as we keep breathing, as long as we do not believe in our own death; but all the time the black dog is trotting towards us, across the glittering waters where we dream.

Read More.....

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hot conversations

Update: Lyn Gardner at the Guardian weighs in on the critic/blogger question with a typically thoughtful post which claims that blogs have given criticism a new lease of life. Notably, both she and Billington are running these debate on blogs...

THE blogosphere is humming like a bottle full of bees, so a quick whip-around of various buzzes seems in order. Our favourite topic - the whys and wherefores of theatre criticism - has been given a twirl by the Guardian's Michael Billington, who briskly draws the line between blogging and professional theatre criticism. (Me, I am that line...) It's prompted a fair bit of chat from both bloggers and print critics and Andrew Haydon, another line-dancer, has his own thoughts on the question. Closer to home, over at Minktails, Ming-Zhu Hii asks what keeps critics inspired, prompting some self-reflection from tyro-critic Avi Lipski over at The Rest Is Just Commentary.

Meanwhile, the Sydney/Melbourne convo is in full cry in the comments after my sermon (I've now taken off my clerical collar), and Nicholas Pickard at Arts Journalist suggests that we should have the Actors Company down here. I'm not sure that I follow the logic (and there may be one or two logistical problems) but yes please...

Read More.....

Monday, September 17, 2007


As Little Alison drops the ball, others pick it up. Phew for the hardworking blogosphere. For reports on Shadow Passion and Dogs Barking at Chapel on Chapel and ChamberMade's Crossing Live, check out Matt Clayfield's Esoteric Rabbit. Meanwhile, Avi Lipski at The Rest is Just Commentary is doing the Australian Stage Online reviewing gig, with another review of Shadow Passion, and yet a third view is at the new blog Jotter Notes, courtesy of David Maney (welcome to the sphere, David!)

Read More.....

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday sermon

For the past few days TN has been a dull bunny indeed. I lay prostrate on my chaise lounge feeling sorry for myself and canceled all my theatre tickets. So no reviews: I hit the wall this week and was barely able to stir out of the house. On the other hand, having plenty of time on my feeble hands, I've been thinking. The big picture. That kind of thing.

These meditations were further prompted by a couple of things. My one outing this week was to participate in a forum hosted by Theatre@Risk as part of their New Writing Season, which included a stimulating conversation about the possible futures and various presents of theatre in Australia. And this morning, Diana Simmonds alerted me to some editorialising of her own on Stage Noise, where she has written a stinging summation of the first two years of the STC's Actors Company.

Simmonds's feature might be read as a companion piece to my reflection earlier this week on the Actors Company. In retrospect, that post may have sounded a little like a phone conversation with half the dialogue missing. Simmonds provides the other side of the conversation, and pretty much summarises the criticisms I've heard from Sydney.

Asking "what's the point?", she compares the Actors Company with the repertory companies that have long died out in England. She articulates the - I would say, rather Australian - resentment that comes with the formation of any elite group (unless it happens to be a group of sports people). The logic runs that the full-time employment of 12 actors in a high profile company shrinks the pool for other, equally able, actors.

Rather than the English rep (or, as it was once charmingly named by a cadet journalist in the Herald, the "old rope" system), a more accurate comparison might be with the Comédie-Française. The only state company in France and one of its few full-time ensembles, the Comédie-Française was formed by Louis XIV in 1680, and so has had rather longer to establish itself. Of course, it is also a by-word for theatrical conservatism in France. Quite rightly, we expect more of the Actors Company. But can we really expect it to be reaching its full flowering after only two years' work?

It's a little difficult to follow the argument that the Actors Company is swallowing up jobs for other actors. It is, after all, only one of the STC's activities, which includes this year seven other main stage productions and the studio activities of Wharf 2 Loud. It is more than likely that, should the Actors Company ultimately disappear, so would the opportunities that go with it; which is to say, its disappearance wouldn't free up any jobs, but would rather make the whole pool smaller.

More damagingly, to my mind, it would shrink the nimbus of possibility created by the existence of such an ensemble. There is a larger self-interest at stake here than the narrow question of professional jealousy or competitiveness: some people might find this hard to believe, but in the arts, the success of others makes one's own success more possible, whereas failure - especially of ambitious institutional enterprises - is a loss for everyone.

Australia's theatre history is littered with the wrecks of possibility, with enterprises of great pith and moment whose currents turn awry, smashing against the rocks of indifference or conservatism or simple envy. More than anything, we are suspicious of ambition.

In his 2002 Rex Cramphorn Memoral Speech, Nick Enright noted Robyn Nevin's then fruitless attempts to raise the funding for a full-time ensemble. It's worth remembering what he said then:

Actors are marginalised in our culture, and the development of new work suffers for the lack of the resources of a permanent ensemble. And so our national repertoire is increasingly solipsistic - we are the land of the one-person show, the small cast play, the domestic issue.

Twenty years ago, Jim Sharman at Lighthouse in Adelaide created an ensemble which, in the way of these things, seems more remarkable now than it did then... Would a program and vision like Jim's be possible now? Not likely. Would the 1980 Shakespeare experiment be possible in 2003? Even less likely...

Sharman's transformation of South Australia's state theatre company into the Lighthouse lasted a mere two years before it collapsed, leaving a teasing glimmer of what might have been. That gleaming possibility was, of course, one of the influences behind the formation of the Actors Company. And it occurs to me that if we're not careful, we'll end up in 20 years' time making much the same noises about the Actors Company as are now made about the Lighthouse.

Too often in this country, criticism is either a knife or a cushion; our commentary either puffs work up beyond reasonable expectations, providing the "supportive" criticism demanded, for example, during the Playbox years (still an overriding desire in some quarters); or, like bored children destroying sandcastles, it kicks the whole edifice over. In neither case does it seem very concerned with the examination of a work - or, most crucially of all, a process, for art and culture are living things - which is, after all, the real work of criticism. Rather, the point seems to be to measure against a reductive and arbitrary binary of total success or total failure.

To make things stranger, we have a weird glitch in our cultural memory: things that were attacked fiercely in their time become hallowed emblems as they fade into the past. A classic example is how Age feature writer Robin Usher used the "heritage" of former MIAF artistic director John Truscott as a stick to beat the present incumbent, Kristy Edmunds. I remember very clearly how Truscott was attacked in his own time, for exactly the same reasons that Edmunds is attacked now.

Let me be clear: I think there are legitimate questions to be asked about the ensemble, and no one is or should be above criticism. I am no friend of empty praise, which I think is as damaging (and perhaps ultimately more damaging) as sensationally destructive criticism. But is it true or fair to say that, as Simmonds claims, the Actors Company "has been sold a pup"?

A company that in its first two years produces an epic experiment like Barrie Kosky's The Lost Echo and a reconsideration of a classic as brilliant as Benedict Andrews' The Season at Sarsaparilla isn't, in my view, doing too badly. Two years is a very short time for any serious artistic enterprise. In employing directors like Barrie Kosky and Benedict Andrews amongst an admittedly ill-mixed bunch, Robyn Nevin has obviously imagined radical possibilities for the Actors Company. And while the question of the company's vision and purpose is now urgent, next year's challenging program may well go some way to addressing this.

"What has been totally lacking in the Actors Company," says Simmonds, "is an over-arching, questing creative imagination. What this idea needed to make it truly worthwhile were theatrical minds and ambitions such as are to be found (or were found) in the likes of Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, Ariane Mnouchkine, Nikolai Akimov, Darko Tresnjak, Craig Walker, Deborah Warner and Peter Sellars. This is a partial and personal list of creative minds and the sharp-eyed will have spotted no Australians names on it; no youthful names either. If you can add directors/creators whose names it is possible to link with a description of 'visionary, experimental, questing' - please do."

I heard similar plaints at the forum on Saturday, probing other contexts. But let's get real for a moment. If Ariane Mnouchkine were running the Actors Company, they mightn't even have premiered their first work yet, because she makes a new show every two or three years. Imagine the screams if the STC countenanced such a timetable! The outrage about the waste of public money, the self-indulgence of artists!

Here in Australia, we are impatient. We have little time for the idea of process. We look at companies like Théâtre de Soleil and wonder why we don't have an equivalent here, forgetting that it is the product of literally decades of work that has taken place in a culture that supports its theatres with generous funding and is proud of what its artists achieve. In France, the death of a great philosopher or composer is literally front page news, not a paragraph on the arts pages. In Germany, the education system turns out young people who are musically and theatrically literate, and who therefore enthusiastically patronise their culture. We expect results straight away, with neither the funding levels nor the educational support, and if they're not forthcoming we send out the long white envelopes. And then we all enjoy a spicy glass of schadenfreude.

Art doesn't work that way. Cultures don't evolve overnight. If we want artistic vision - and sometimes I really doubt that we do - we have to be prepared to nurture it, to give it both time and money; and we must take the time to be properly critical, which includes seeing virtues as well as flaws.

A culture that is dazzled by novelty rather than by achievement, that throws away a toy when it is bored and then complains that it has nothing to play with, betrays its parochiality. If we do lack artistic vision in this country, then it's our fault for not wanting it enough. It's our fault for not understanding that - for example - learning to write well takes more than a couple of months of masterclasses and a nice author photo. (Along with other things, such as ability and suicidally stupid determination, it usually takes about 30 years of hard and mostly ill-paid work).

My question is: what in Australian culture supports the nurturing of ambitious visions? For years I've watched as talented people battle on stubbornly in obscurity. Robert Draffin is one name that springs to mind; others are Tim Maddock, former artistic director of The Red Shed in Adelaide, whose last big show was the 2000 world premiere of Howard Barker's gigantic epic The Ecstatic Bible, or Margaret Cameron. There are many more. Yes, we have people of vision here. I'm not sure that they've been especially encouraged.

In all but the toughest cases, artists finally bow obediently to the pressures of the "arts industry". They face "reality" and dutifully turn out what they are told is required. Some give up, realising the cost is too great; some end up broken and cynical; some find other ways of working in the culture. A lucky few get out of the country.

Is this the kind of culture we want? When I look at young artists like Ming Zhu Hii, now in the middle of exhilarating self-discoveries, it's hard not to wonder what the future will open up to them. I wonder what they will be offered besides discouragement. I wonder if their refusals to compromise, their ambitious desires, will find any purchase or recognition. And it seems to me that there is a direct link between what happens on our main stages and what becomes possible in the loungeroom of a young artist, or in the tiny venues on the edge of town. A culture that hasn't any space for the larger enterprises will scarcely countenance the smaller.

Of course it's tough to be an artist. There are ways in which it should be tough: art is a demanding and rigorous discipline, and it's not for everyone. But being an artist in Australia - "in the cold," as the poet Michael Dransfield said so memorably, "of something as pitiless as apathy" - has particular challenges of its own; here it seems too often that artistic ambition, as opposed to the smaller ambitions linked to a "career", is considered a disability, an embarrassment. In other places, this isn't necessarily so: the unconventional, the stubborn, the difficult, the questioning, can attract attention and even admiration.

Is it any wonder that a director like Barrie Kosky chooses to base himself in Europe, where he can find the resources and intelligent critical recognition that are so thin on the ground here? If Daniel Keene can get gigs on the biggest stages in France, where he is hailed as one of the most significant contemporary playwrights in Europe, why should he be bothered that mainstream Australia has ignored his work? It's not, after all, his problem. But it is our problem, and ultimately our loss.

At the moment there are some seriously interesting developments on our mainstream stages. The Actors Company is one of them; others are the Malthouse Theatre, and the Melbourne Festival as it has evolved under the artistic directorships of Robyn Archer and Kristy Edmunds. Interestingly, all three of these are roughly contemporaneous. All these institutions have the potential to enlarge the possibilities of our theatre culture, and offer us a vision of a cosmopolitan, sophisticated and diverse Australia, an Australia that can be a unique part of the continuum of international theatre practice. For Australians do have something unique to offer the world.

But sometimes I wonder if these developments will fade and pass, leaving only the ghosts of unrealised potential behind them. And whether, in two decades' time, we will be having the same conversations we had in the 1990s. It seems to me that if we don't recognise and embrace what is possible now, if we don't perceive those possibilities and extend them, that could be very likely. And it will be all our fault.

And here endeth the lesson.

Read More.....

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Space, time and the Melbourne Fringe Festival

TN is getting a little obsessive about time. In the brave new 21st century, there seems to be less of it around; a month passes in the flicker of an eyelid, a year seems merely a frantic pause between one breath and another. And what am I to do - really, what am I to do - about the Melbourne Fringe Festival? I've been reading, in the vain hope that some research might bring me some solutions. This briefly caught my eye:

"Psychologists are interested in whether we can speed up our minds relative to physical time. If so, we might become mentally more productive, get more high quality decision making done per fixed amount of physical time, learn more per minute." It sounds exactly the sort of thing I need, but as I read on, I became discouraged:

Several avenues have been explored: using drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines, undergoing extreme experiences such as jumping backwards off a tall tower with bungee cords attached to the legs, and trying different forms of meditation. So far, none of these avenues have led to success productivity-wise.

This led to an exciting moment when I imagined a bunch of corporate executives having bungee-jumping workshops with a coked-up facilitator, but was otherwise useless.

The philosophers are no help at all. Nobody seems to agree on what time is in the first place, and some claim that it doesn't exist at all. (I'm beginning to agree with the latter party). And then you get people like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist David Gross saying that "spacetime is doomed". He's clearly been studying my diary.

It is, I admit freely, a critic's problem, and no one else's. The fact is, TN is a wuss. I've read two real critics recently (Chloe Veltman from the SF Weekly and Lyn Gardner from the Guardian) mention in passing that when they attend their local fringes, they see six shows a day. They must be women of steel. This, to TN's tiny mind, makes bungee jumping backwards off the Eureka Tower seem like a snip. Six shows a week sends me into a decline. I don't know how anybody sees that much theatre without dissolving into the floorboards like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Then there's the Melbourne Festival proper, which opens on October 11, when the Melbourne Fringe is still in full hue and cry. Since MIAF consists of a legible number of events, I've already sorted out my diary for that one. It's pinned on the fridge, looking frighteningly dense and very exciting. If I were a proper critic, I'd have already combed the Fringe program and picked out possible highlights. But every time I look at it, something happens in my moind. Little cogs fall out. Important mechanisms cease to function. I think I am not a proper critic at all. (I suspect this might be very close to the truth).

There are further complications. In a gigantic diary malfunction, I'm flying to both Adelaide and Brisbane in the first week of October. I'm seeing shows, but they are not MFF shows.

Then there's the saga of The Novel. (This is turning into a record whinge; I'm sure that all those not crying crocodile tears at the hard lives that we poor critical flowers lead are probably slumbering peacefully on their keyboards. But hey, this is what blogs are for). As regular readers know, earlier this year, I finished The Novel. And ever since it has been with my excellent and very lovely editor while she considers the myriad ways of making it better.

And late yesterday, I received a phone call from England from said excellent and very lovely editor, who wishes to send me my rather thick manuscript, annotated neatly in red ink, so I can do all the rewriting by, well, say the first week in November, so we can have it all well in hand for publication in July...

Since I am not completely crazy, I told her that was impossible. We have negotiated a deadline that touches the horizon of probability. But, you know, it's another one of those things. I have this uneasy feeling at present that all my lives are out of control.

In the light of which, once again, I turn to my diary, wondering what I can do about the Melbourne Fringe Festival. There's so much of it, and it's so everywhere. Maybe next week I'll feel stronger (TN returned from Sydney with a doozy of a cold) but that still won't solve my temporal, physical and psychic limitations. And we already know that bungee-jumping doesn't work.

I guess this is a kind of extended apology: as I keep saying to people, feeling pathetic as I say it, I can't get to everything. At Fringe time I feel like I can't get to anything. How do others cope?

Read More.....

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Web fame - yesss!

This has nothing to do with theatre, but I can't resist telling you about the new site for my fantasy series The Books of Pellinor, which went live today (marking the US launch of the third and penultimate in the series, The Crow), courtesy of my lovely American publishers, Candlewick. The 15-year-old in me is thrilled to bits.

Read More.....

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sydney conversations

On Friday, TN flew out of a Melbourne where the skies were blue as a robin's egg, clear as lark's eye, etc etc etc, and journeyed along the coast to the twinkling harbour citadel, only to find that Melbourne's spring squalls were holidaying up north themselves. Reader, it was cold and grey and raining. This is not what this black-clad Melburnian expects of Sydney, that hedonist capital where even old ladies wear flowery bikini tops and lotos eaters loll around under pink umbrellas discussing the price of harbour views.

Sydneysiders themselves were mainly invisible. Perhaps they were participating in a crime wave in the outer suburbs: there can't have been any police officers left, since every security officer in town was issued with riot gear and posted to Walsh Bay to guard the shiny new water cannon against bands of marauding anarchists. And it was wise for the humble citizen to be wary: APEC turned out to be a parallel universe in which crossing the road for yum cha with your 11-year-old son was a sure sign that you were planning to assassinate the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.

But as theatericals know, the show must go on; and even APEC, the biggest - or at least, the most expensive - show in town couldn't stop the theatre. As soon as I arrived, flocks of emails advised me that I had to see Version 1.0's Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue. This was backed up by several individuals pressing my hand and urging the same thing. Alas, I was already booked for two shows and couldn't stay any longer, so I'm just hoping that this show will travel down to Melbourne.

I was officially up to see Belvoir St's much-praised production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Benedict Andrews, of which more in a month or so. And while I was there, being presently on a Shakespeare jag, I booked in to see the last night of the STC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed by the Actors Company at the swisho Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay.

There was a more personal reason for seeing the Dream. Ever since I saw Dan Spielman in Daniel Keene's Half and Half at the Playbox in 2001, I have been waiting to see him play Puck, a role so obviously tuned to his talent that it seemed to me to amount to typecasting. And here was my chance. Before I discuss the play and sundry issues around it, let me say that it was worth the wait. I am not generally given to gushy statements, but lately something seems to have gone twang in my head: last week I rashly claimed that Luke Mullins was looking fair to be the best actor of his generation. Well, Dan Spielman is the other best actor of his generation.

More generally, I enjoyed this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by young UK director Edward Dick. Set in a neo-classical ruin floored by "dank earth", it eschews an easy prettiness, foregrounding the amoral wickedness of faerie. Here the mischief of the fairies has a cruel and uncanny edge: their heartlessness is by no means harmless.

The doubling of roles make much of the symmetries between the waking, rational Athenian world, ruled by Theseus (Brandon Burke) and Hippolyta, his captured Queen (Pamela Rabe), and the night-world of Oberon and Titania, the quarrelsome King and Queen of the Fairies played by the same actors. The mechanicals (also doubling as fairies) are the underworld of the aristocracy of Athens, the crudely comic mirrors of their desires.

Mainly the production tracked a process of disintegration and reformation; as the star-crossed lovers suffered under the irrationalities of primitive lusts, they became progressively more smirched by the earth of the stage floor, their costumes more ragged, until at last, in a highlight scene that signified the sane coming of dawn, they were cleansed by a shining shower of rain.

What gave this production its particular quality of enchantment was its choreography, by associate director Jane Gibson (also associate director at Cheek By Jowl), and the sound design, played live by composer Max Lyandvert. There was a lot of introductory ballet before a word was spoken, which made me feel a little impatient for the first 20 minutes or so; but after that, the energies began to focus: the stage became a site of restive, unpredictable movement, in which the transitory order of humans was disrupted by the fairies. The effect was as if eddies of wind were swirling chaotically across the set, transforming the world into a place of darker amoral passions and cruelties.

There are certainly criticisms to be made of the production - it struck me as a slightly woolly version of a Declan Donnellan show, lacking a wholly achieved sharpness of focus and metaphorical depth. But it's by no means a failure. On this point, I found myself in the interesting position of being at odds with many of the artists who made it.

This rather undermines the common idea that theatre artists are narcissistic monsters who are only interested in flattery. Frankly, my experience is generally the reverse of that; of course artists like to please, but any good artist is also highly self-critical. I was prepared for this, since I'd heard a number of negative reports from various sources about this show. It's no secret that this was a problematic rehearsal process after a difficult and demanding year - seven shows without a break - and Sydney is boiling with gossip about possible changes in the company's line-up next season.

So I was variously told that the design and concept of the production were unsuccessfully integrated; that the production did not sufficiently explore the psychological or intellectual depths of Shakespeare's play; that the performances were inadequate to the poetry of the text; that the strengths of the Actors Company concealed the problems with the production. There are varying degrees of justice in these criticisms, and none of them are baseless; but I began to feel that the general success I had perceived in the production had been lost in these particularities.

In fact, I came away from Sydney feeling slightly troubled. Perhaps it was simply, as another director said to me, that the company "had fallen out of love" with the show. But the negativity I encountered chimed with what seems to me, as an outsider, a surprisingly unenthusiastic view of the Actors Company in Sydney itself; more often than not, when speaking to Sydney people about the company, the response is critical. There's no doubt that the Actors Company has been facing a number of crises, including the real and abiding question of its purpose and vision. But I'm beginning to wonder if Sydney knows what a jewel it has in this extraordinary ensemble.

Part of this is no doubt the criticism that goes with an underfunded and often struggling arts sector looking enviously over its shoulder at those they perceive as fat cats, the false sense of competition fostered by an economy of lack. Some of it might simply be that it's now part of the theatrical furniture, and familiarity breeds contempt. But I am of the view that - to use terms I would rather avoid - a strong theatre culture depends, in great part, on having a strong mainstream. If the mainstream is vacuous, cynical, bereft of ideas and vision, then those who react against it will remain unchallenged by its achievements - to their detriment. It's no accident that many of our most interesting artists hone their skills in Europe, where mainstream theatre practice is diverse and high quality.

With a change of artistic leadership with the Blanchett-Upton team next year, it's fair to say that the STC is at an interesting point of its development. From TN's perspective, the Actors Company - the only full-time ensemble in this country - is one of the most exciting developments in mainstream theatre in recent years, a welcome exploration of artistic seriousness on stages which have too often been wholly concerned with fiscal survival. And while its existence is in no immediate danger - its funding has been confirmed until 2009 - it seems to me that there is a danger of passing over its achievements by wholly focusing on what is wrong, and thereby losing sight of its possibilities altogether.

By this I don't mean that criticisms are mistaken or wrong. After two years of near-constant performing, there is clearly a leadership crisis in the Actors Company, and the question of its artistic focus now seems urgent. But let's not, in the sound and fury, lose sight of what a fine thing it is to have it in the first place. As Berkeley says, to be is to be perceived; conversely, in Australia we have a sorry history of erasing what we have, simply by refusing to see it.

Picture: Dan Spielman as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, STC

Read More.....

Monday, September 10, 2007

The old and the new

A couple of events worth noting: one looking back at the "New Wave" theatre of the early 1970s, and the other showcasing some new waves of the present.

Theatre@Risk is presently hosting a Festival of New Writing, including a series of forums and play readings by writers both local and international. It began last Friday, but there is still a lot to see: plays from Europe, including one by UK writer David Eldridge (whose adaptation of the Dogme film Festen was seen here at the MTC) as well as some local names, including Ross Mueller. I'll be panelising with some others on Saturday about "New Forms". Check out the full program here.

Meanwhile, coming up on September 26 at the Open Stage at Melbourne University, there's a weekend-long Symposium called Enter the New Wave, which will examine the Australian theatre renaissance of the late 60s. Keynote speakers include Graeme Blundell, Bill Garner, Max Gillies, Jack Hibberd, Sue Ingleton, Liz Jones, David Kendall and John Romeril, and a highlight will be a performance of Jack Hibberd's White with Wire Wheels. The whole shebang is offered for what strikes me as the unbelievably cheap price of $60. Details on their website.

Read More.....

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sydney/New York action

Ms TN is swanning off to Sydney for a theatrical weekend, catching shows at Belvoir St and the STC. It's a hard life, I admit. Still, I could have chosen a better weekend: Sydney looks as if it's been hit by a neutron bomb. And they've even arrested the sideshow. Mind you, the Chasers have definitely been the highlight of APEC so far, otherwise a stilted series of badly scripted photo-ops that could definitely use a director with flair.

American-Australian relations are rather better served by our friend in New York, Mark Armstrong, who may be known to some of you as Mr Excitement. As artistic director of The Production Company, he's showcasing plays from 11 Australian playwrights as the Australia Project II, beginning from September 13. In Part I, American playwrights wrote about Australia; in Part II, we return the compliment.

He's got together pretty much a Who's Who of Australian contemporary playwriting - the list includes luminaries like Ross Mueller, Wesley Enoch, Lally Katz, Ben Ellis, Tom Wright, Van Badham... and many more! TN thinks she should be flown over to New York to critique the shows, but alas, the Australian's arts budget doesn't seem to stretch that far. So she eagerly awaits reports. In the meantime, she holds up her glass of champers, feeling she ought to say "way to go, cobber!" Even though such a phrase never actually escapes her lips.

Read More.....

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Review: Mercury Fur

Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley, directed by Ben Packer. Designed by Adam Gardnir, sound design by Kelly Ryall, lighting design by Danny Pettingill. With Paul Ashcroft, Gareth Ellis, Fiona Macys, Luke Mullins, Aaron Orzech, Russ Pirie and Xavier Samuel. Little Death Productions @ Theatreworks, Melbourne until September 16. Bookings: 9534 3388. Griffin Theatre, Sydney. September 27-October 13. Bookings: 1300 306 776.

If you want to see the best show in town, head down to Theatreworks and buy a ticket to Mercury Fur. It is, quite simply, brilliant theatre. But don’t expect to walk out with a song in your heart and a smile on your lips.

British playwright Philip Ridley’s dystopian work offers darker pleasures. It’s set in a parallel London in which mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Britain is in the grip of an unspecified war, savage gangs rule the streets and most people escape reality by eating hallucinogenic butterflies.

In such total societal collapse, anything goes. Brothers Elliot (Luke Mullins) and his brother Darren (Xavier Samuel) are part of a small family business: they are party planners. The parties have only one guest, and their aim is to realise the violent sexual fantasies of those with sufficient cash to pay for it.

For all its fantastic dress, Mercury Fur is, as Anthony Burgess said of Clockwork Orange, a play about now. It’s a savage indictment of a world in which conscience is a luxury that people can ill afford. At the same time, it’s a deeply touching meditation on how, even in the worst of circumstances, human beings cling to those they love with a desperate and hopeless loyalty.

Mercury Fur was considered so shocking on its UK premiere that Ridley’s publisher, Faber, refused to publish it. While some critics loved it, Ridley was also accused of peddling filth and of getting off on his own sick fantasies. Such criticisms miss the mark widely. For one thing, the realities Ridley deals with are no more shocking than those digested nightly with the evening news bulletin.

It is, after all, only a play. I have never quite understood the logic that gets outraged by the representation of unpleasant realities, as if it were somehow worse than the realities themselves. Certainly, those who accuse Ridley of indulging a sick imagination are ignoring the fact that some of the worst stories revealed in the play were taken verbatim from accounts of the massacres in Rwanda. And it’s hard, for example, not to see a direct connection between Ridley’s play and this. Anyone who thinks that theatre should stick to “nice” topics and leave the world alone is arguing for its irrelevancy. One of the most exciting aspects of this play is how urgently it speaks out of the present.

Ridley’s text evokes a horror that is all more potent for its matter-of-fact delivery. Thankfully – and sensibly – the real violence takes place off-stage, although we overhear it, but the language itself is violent, jammed with every linguistic obscenity that Ridley can think of. This brutalised language plays against a jagged and surprising lyrical beauty, the love between the broken family at the centre of the play, for example, or in the yearning memories of a time “before”, when things were different.

Mercury Fur might be said, in fact, to be more than anything else a play about memory. Here memory – the means by which we know ourselves – is dislocated, distorted and erased by drugs and trauma. The notion of history, or cultural memory, barely exists. Elliot is the repository of story, the one who, despite his apparent brutality, attempts to hold on to his humanity through his recollections of a kinder past; but it becomes clear that his memory is equally the locus of his anguish. It is much easier not to be conscious, to escape into the drug-fuelled virtual reality offered by the butterflies.

Mercury Fur derives in part from the work of writers such as Heathcote Williams or Howard Barker. But it has more in common with young “blood and sperm” German playwrights like Marius von Mayenburg. Like Mayenburg’s Eldorado, seen here at the Malthouse last year, Mercury Fur describes a literal, rather than a fantastic, reality. In both plays, the act of imagination collapses geography, bringing home to the west the atrocities that are usually a comfortable distance from us in places like Rwanda or Baghdad.

This insistent sense of reality is reinforced by the style: it is actually written in a distorted naturalism, occurring in one scene over real time. Again intriguingly like Eldorado, the central relationships are familial. Both plays are, curiously enough, forms of domestic drama, troubled examinations of what a family might be under the pressure of social anarchy. Although Ridley seems to imagine a family in which the female - blinded and maddened by atrocity - is all but extinct, it's a vision which is paradoxically shot through with a teasing shimmer of optimism. He is quite correct to claim that it is a play about love.

Ben Packer’s production powerfully realises the extremities of the play. Adam Gardnir’s design recreates the Griffin Theatre’s small triangular stage in the cavernous space of Theatreworks, making the action uncomfortably intimate. The rest of the space is curtained off, so we are aware of the emptiness of the rest of the building, as if we really were in a towerblock.

With Danny Pettingill’s subtle lighting design, mostly consisting of a bank of yellow lightbulbs filling the “window” at the back of the stage, and Kelly Ryall’s almost subliminal score, the set unobtrusively and effectively creates an environment for the play that permits no escape for the audience. But the real value of this production is in its performances, which are remarkably unafraid.

In the role of Elliot, Luke Mullins strengthens his claim to be the best actor of his generation. He is breathtakingly good, leavening a disillusioned, dead-eyed menace with a profound tenderness that makes the anguish of Elliot searingly legible. As his brain-damaged brother Darren. Xavier Samuel manages a mixture of brutalised innocence and poignancy that goes nowhere near the sentimental, and is a great foil for Aaron Orzech as the hapless but disarmingly honest intruder Naz.

Young actor Russ Pirie, showing that he’s another talent to watch, gives a standout performance as the transvestite Lola, and Fiona Macys, playing the blind Duchess, is a revelation. In comparison, Gareth Ellis’s perfectly able performance as Papa Spinx, the patriarch of this unlikely clan, lacks a little verisimilitude: there are marvellous moments, as when he gently outlines the Duchess’s lipstick, but it’s difficult to see why people are so afraid of him. And as the psychopathic "guest", Paul Ashcroft is the most chilling character in the whole play; he behaves like a young city executive who's going abseiling.

So what are you waiting for? Hie thee hence and book your tickets; this is theatre of the first order, and you’ll be sorry if you miss it. Just take a deep breath before you go in.

Picture: Luke Mullins in Mercury Fur. Photo: Dan Stainsby

A shorter version of this review was published in yesterday's Australian.

Read More.....

More critical amusings

Every now and then my brain seems to dissolve in my skull and turn into something resembling fish paste. At such times language deserts me, which I'm sure you'll agree is a problem for a blogger and sometime crrritic. I console myself with the sage advice of St John of the Cross: "Stody thou not for no wordes, for so schuldest thou never come to thi purpose ne to this werk, for it is never getyn by stody, bot al only by grace."

While I float in my cloud of unknowing waiting for grace to fall about me, let me direct you to some interesting discussions occurring elsewhere in the blogosphere. There's the on-going debate about George Hunka's alleged indiscretions in writing a flaming review of a new play at Playwright's Horizons (I've had my say here). But there's meatier stuff in the UK blogosphere, where Chris Goode, fresh back from the Edinburgh Festival, has deposited another long and unmissable post at Thompson's Bank, although you might be advised to follow a fellow Goode fan and print it out to read on the bus. Meanwhile, Andrew Haydon at Postcards from the Gods is conducting a fascinating self-interrogation on the practice of theatre criticism.

He questions the convention of "critical distance" in a thoughtful post that asks whether fraternising with artists will lead inevitably to compromised criticism (I don't believe so, myself - in fact, if the critic cares at all about the art itself, I think the opposite - but then, before I picked up the critical baton again, I was on the "other side" for 15 years). In a follow-up post, Andrew points to Lyn Gardner's views on this question (which leads to Michael Billington's very different take, part of a fascinating debate between the Guardian's arts critics). My personal view is very close to visual arts critic Adrian Searle's.

"Strange though it may appear," writes Searle, "some artists even invite truthful criticism. Antony Gormley once asked me round to his studio "to give me a hard time", as he put it, not long after I had dissed a group of his sculptures in a review. As soon as I got home from grilling him he called me back - "You weren't hard enough. Come back tomorrow", he said. Candour is good." And he goes on to say: "I prefer the company of artists to that of most critics. Artists can more cruel about each other than any critic I have ever met, and just as hungry and insightful when it comes to looking at art. They know more about how art gets made, are sharper when comes to detecting when someone is faking it, and more generous about genuine failure."

That certainly dovetails with my own experience. My friends can attest that friendship has never stopped me from negatively criticising their work (it is, in fact, an excellent test of the strength of a friendship, although perhaps not to be recommended). As Michael Billington wisely comments: "If a critic can't write honestly about friends or acquaintances, he or she should change jobs: I'd even suggest that the imperative of writing to a deadline forces one to shed old loyalties. It's not 'what do you do about friends?' that's the big issue. It's 'what do you do about enemies?'."

Billington is dead right. The only time I have felt seriously compromised in doing my job was when I recently had to review Hannie Rayson's The Glass Soldier, which featured a particularly nasty character called Alan Croggon (who was mercifully shot in the head halfway through the first act).

In my critical response to that I felt fettered: the play sorely tried my patience, but I felt that whatever I wrote would inevitably be construed as being motivated purely by personal spite. My only recourse was a retreat into a pose of chilly objectivity. My review for the Australian prompted a 40 year MTC subscriber to write me an email in which he said: "As a consequence of reading your beautifully written review, the term 'damning with faint praise' has been elevated to a new level of eloquence."

A sweet response, but the experience still leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth: if the aim was to get me to shut up, it was half successful. The fact that I keep mentioning the incident indicates my unease, I suppose.

Well, this has ended up a lot longer than I intended. In other news, my review of the brilliant production of Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur now on at Theatreworks was published in yesterday's Australian, and perhaps grace has emerged from the mists and will allow me to think about it a little further... and also, I'm pleased to see that Jane Bodie's elegant play A Single Act, which was produced at the MTC last year, last night won the Premier's Prize for Drama. A worthy winner.

Read More.....