Review: Hotel Obsino, The Jerilderie Letter ~ 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.


Anonymous said...

"As so often, I found myself disagreeing with the stern verdicts of my esteemed colleagues; 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."

With respect, Alison, the stern verdicts of your esteemed colleagues were at least informed by the production. Like yourself, I am someone who gets turned on by ambition and formal inventiveness; nevertheless, however risky or refreshingly different was the text, Broinowski's production itself was awful -- garish, self-indulgent and (something no production should ever be, as you yourself once suggested in one of your more widely-read reviews) boring.

I know, of course, that you're not claiming the right or authority to comment on a production you didn't see. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that you have chosen to comment on our reactions to it, however briefly, in light of your own encounter with the text; it's almost as if the text, and not the specific production of it, is the object to be judged. (To be fair, I realise it was the text that a lot of people were complaining about back in June, and that may be what you're alluding to here.)

Maybe it's my background in film, where the screenplay is traditionally considered a blueprint for the finished work, or my interest in work that has been unscripted or is in some other way not dependent on text, but I am still trying to get used to this tendency we have when talking about theatre to separate text and production; and, what's more, our tendency as critics to review them in isolation to one another as we see fit. There is a level of interpretation in the theatre that doesn't exist in cinema, of course (though a film like Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho is explicitly designed to question this), and separating text and production is a strategy for judging this element and comparing one interpretation to another. Nevertheless, I would stress the importance of then recombining the two in one's final paragraphs with a necessarily holtistic critical assault.

I would stress as well that I'm really just thinking out loud here. I've been thinking a lot about this over the last week, in the wake of all the reviews of Boston Marriage which chose to focus on either the script or the production depending on which of the two the reviewer wanted to talk about. You can sleep easy knowing that you were the straw that broke this camel's back.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Matt - Hoping your back mends soon. I was clearly speaking only of the text of Know No Cure, which is obviously the only thing I've encountered. I mention the criticism only because it sparked my insatiable curiosity. And I do think those who sheeted the fault home to the text were unfair. Viz Cameron's review in the Age:

But the kind of aesthetic revelation that justifies engagement with a difficult artist - whether it's having your mind expanded by James Joyce or defiled by the genius of Barrie Kosky - is entirely absent here.

Why? First and foremost, it's the writing. Know No Cure is experimentalism that blows up the lab and leaves you coughing amid smoke and sparks. Self-indulgent and occlusive, at its worst it bears an uncanny resemblance to amateur performance poetry. Indeed, it fails its author's vision so comprehensively that you have to resort to the program to work out what that vision was intended to be.

Which is pretty unambiguous. While I'm not uncritical of the text (I think it has problems) I found things in there that were genuinely exciting. (Also, I'm quite sure that Cameron hasn't suffered through performance poetry; it is in fact absolutely dominated by the kind of "accessibility" he wanted in Know No Cure).

Yes, a text and a production of a text are two different animals, and there can be virtue in a text that is not reflected in a production (eg many productions of Shakespeare) and vice versa. How do you propose to speak about theatre if you do not make distinctions as well as connections between one element and another? It seems to me important to be able to tell the difference - it's disturbing to me that people will write off texts when a production is the problem, or the other way around. I have been criticised quite often for being a text-based critic. That's half true - but to be fair, I am deeply interested in a phenomenon called theatre, which is made of many things, and occurs in each moment it is made. But I do always hear a text.

That aside, all I'm saying is that I think Broinwoski's an interesting writer. And playwrights can be interesting writers even if their plays only exist at the bottom of a drawer.

Anonymous said...

"How do you propose to speak about theatre if you do not make distinctions as well as connections between one element and another?"

I don't -- just so long as both distinctions and connections are there, the analysis constantly collapsing a piece into its constituent elements and then recombining them, again and again. Seeing the whole and the sum of its parts, the forest and the trees.

I know you were merely saying that Broinwoski is an interesting writer. And I wasn't at all attacking your comments. It's just that they triggered something I'd been thinking about for a few days and I decided your comment section was as good a place as any to say so!

Alison Croggon said...

You're very welcome, Matt - what you're saying is very interesting. We all need bifocals - Myself, I am a bit obsessed by the various relationships between text and theatre (and indeed, they are many). Which I admit is a personal obsession...

Anonymous said...

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.

I found this aside a little bit cheeky, Ms A. (Not an atypical characteristic of your dear self!) When called, you back up by quoting the one colleague you don't actually esteem!

Just sayin'...

I thought Broinowski's text had the makings of an okay verse novel. (I also thought that it aimed for metaphysical conceit, but just managed conceit... but then I am a clever dick.)

My main complaint about Know No Cure was that he did his text a disservice by directing it.

Alison Croggon said...

Hey Chris, you know I love y'all. (And Cameron too.) Go on, you know it. Kisses.

Anonymous said...


... you really do need to do something about that (love) fever of yours. =)

[Sings: "I feel love, I feel love, I feel love, I feel lo-ove..."]

Anonymous said...

Disclaimer: I'm a friend of Hill's, but only one of the songs was an original. The rest were (such as) The Streets of Forbes' - a song written by Ben Hall's brother just hours after the famous bushrangers demise, 'Where are you Tonight, I Wonder' (Andy M. Stewart) and l'Carrickfergus' (Trad). So, unfortunately, the green sashes and shamrocks etc were genuine.

Hill's performances are strong and rough-edged stuff (as was Kelly), but you did say "...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"!

Philippine allstars said...

"As so often, I found myself disagreeing with the stern verdicts of my esteemed colleagues; 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."

- agreed. :)