Review: Hunger ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Review: Hunger

Melbourne Festival #8

Hunger, devised and created by rawcus and musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, directed by Kate Sulan. Designed by Emily Barrie, lighting design Richard Vabre, dramatury/choreography by Ingrid Voorendt, original music by Jethro Woodward. rawcus @ Arts House Meat Market until October 24.

I wanted to like Hunger. It's a collaboration between rawcus, which creates theatre by and about disabled people, and musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, that explores the nature of longing and desire. And it's got music by the ubiquitous Jethro Woodward and completely gorgeous lighting by Richard Vabre. What's not to like?

Nothing, as it turns out, that you can really put your finger on. And maybe that's the problem. Hunger has many of the right ingredients, and achieves moments of truly memorable theatrical image-making: but a certain elusive, cohesive spark is missing. It reaches, and just misses.

As Andrea del Sarto says in Browning's poem, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?" There are failures that ought to be admired, and such failures are usually in proportion to a work's ambition. And there's no doubting the ambition of this work, a physical theatre piece that draws on the tropes of romantic love (and romantic music) to excavate the desires of the disabled, a section of the community usually denied such expression.

Director Kate Sulan takes full advantage of the perspectives of the the Meat Market theatre, which is surely, as Spark Online commented recently, one of Melbourne's most beautiful venues. As the audience files in, they are confronted with rows of paper shopping bags, propped upright to cover the entire stage. Against a wall at the back stand some musicians, bowing some gentle lyrical flights. Then the lights go down, the sound rises in an electronic roar, and a man in a beautiful brocaded dress enters and dances a balletic solo, knocking the bags over with the sweep of his gestures.

As a comment on how the anarchies of desire disrupt the manipulative order of consumerism, it's simple, effective and beautiful. The show is threaded with such moments: a woman emerging from a fantastic dress whose skirt is almost as big as the stage, its fabric surging around her like the ocean, and at last winding her in a blue whirlpool, or a man playing a clarinet, dragging a woman across the stage as she clutches his ankles.

Interestingly, the most effective moments were often those with text. At one point, for example, a woman standing at a lectern read the dialogue from Gone With The Wind where Rhett leaves Scarlett O'Hara, while others around her parroted the lines. It was at once touching, funny, and a pointed comment on the ways our desires are shaped for us by popular culture.

But too often I felt the stage metaphors lacked clarity; by which I mean, not that they ought to be instantly interpretable, but that their conception was somehow muffled. At one point, and no doubt unfairly, I wondered what Romeo Castellucci, master of the breath-takingly resonant stage image, might have done with this material; something much crueller, I imagine, and perhaps more moving.

While the show deals with dreams and fantasies, it all felt too lush. The set and costumes, which draw from the kitsch of fairytales and romantic love, were gorgeous, but there seemed to be too much of them. The danger in dealing with Hallmark imagery is, of course, becoming a little Hallmarkish oneself.

More troublingly, there were times when I felt a real - and I think unintentional - discomfort about watching, as if I were merely invited to something that amounted to an act of voyeurism. I'm not suggesting, by any means, that Hunger is done in bad faith, or is at all exploitative: it's manifestly not. But every now and then I was haunted by a feeling that I was merely witnessing the ablement of the disabled, that my response couldn't reach deeper than an inevitably patronising applause. I think this might be a function of the conception of the piece itself as spectacle, with images that don't quite reach across the space of difference into the sudden epiphany of mutual understanding.

I strongly suspect the real problem lies in the dramaturgy, the larger rhythms of the piece itself. Perhaps if they had been cleaner, if the show had had a more definable shape, the sense of clutter would have been abated. Comparisons with Back to Back's Small Metal Objects, its brilliant 2005 festival offering, are inevitable. Where Back to Back, which also works with a mixture of professional theatre artists and disabled performers, managed to open your perception to the fascination of the apparently mundane, Hunger seemed much of the time to be making a kind of costume party.

The music, which included Dvorak, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky as well as Woodward, was good to listen to, but it too tended to prettiness. In the end, although there were images of yearning and loss, and moments of wit that undercut the kitsch, Hunger felt too, well, nice.

Picture: the cast of Hunger. Photo: Paul Dunn


Alex Reilly said...

I read Alison’s review before seeing Hunger. After seeing the show, I felt so strongly that it missed the mark, that I re-read it and wrote this reply. The beauty of all art is that no two viewers read a performance the same way, or have the same emotional reaction. So where for Alison the stage metaphors in the Hunger ‘lacked clarity’ and were ‘muffled in their conception’, for me, they presented a series of textured meditations on the many dimensions of love, were deeply moving and stayed with me through the night, representing themselves in new orders and opening new interpretations. But there is some deeper difference I hold with Alison, that is not only about the artistry of Hunger, but about Hunger as a piece of art. I want to suggest that this difference goes to Alison’s understanding of the type of theatre that rawcus creates and performs, and has shaped her response to it.
Near the end of the review, Alison reveals that she felt she had been ‘invited to something that amounted to an act of voyeurism’ and that she was haunted by the feeling that she was ‘merely witnessing the ablement of the disabled’. I have a number of reactions to this. First, it does not do justice to the performances of the disabled actors in Hunger. They are, as in any theatrical piece, performing. Therefore, the discomfort they invoke is part of the performance, and cannot be voyeurism. Any sense of being a voyeur (enjoying the pain or distress of others) is part of the performance. It would seem then that Hunger transformed Alison from a mere spectator to someone who was emotionally and psychologically affected by the performance. So much so that her initial desire to ‘like’ Hunger (a surprisingly patronising opening to the review) was transformed into a deep discomfort.
I wonder, then, whether Alison has misinterpreted the play (and its reaction on her own feelings) when she concludes that the play is too ‘nice’. ‘Nice’ plays don’t make us feel like voyeurs, or like we are witnessing the exploitation of the disabled.

To escape from these uncomfortable feelings, Alison seems to want to transform the play into something it is not – something ‘crueller’, that Romeo Castellucci might have created. This may well have relieved Alison of the discomfort she felt at Hunger, at the expressions of desire and of unrequited love. Perhaps a dose of cruelty would have been a relief from this. Furthermore, it is important to remember that the expressions of ‘love’ in the play evolved through the rehearsal process. They were developed by the actors themselves, and had a particular rawness and authenticity. Nonetheless, in Hunger, these expressions of love are performed for us.

Perhaps, then, don’t try to like Hunger. But work through the conflicting feelings it has left you with. A conflict that, for me, is the hallmark of fine art.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Alexander -

Thanks for your response. Just a clarification: I wanted to "like" Hunger not because of the inclusion of disabled people, but because there was so much of it I did like, as in those moments I describe.

The question of voyeurism is an interesting one. I'll think further about it: my first feeling is, however, that this sense of voyeurism isn't exactly worked with to the point of total discomfort (which would, absolutely, have been interesting) but is overlaid with an assumption of complicity, an assumed sympathy from the audience, that I found was a problem.