The culture wars continue ~ theatre notes

Monday, May 05, 2008

The culture wars continue

So yesterday the Malthouse launches what is, on first sight, its best balanced season yet, demonstrating diversity, depth and - addressing a weak spot - a lot of work by women. It includes classical tragedy (Kosky's production of Euripides' The Women of Troy, with Robyn Nevin and Melita Jurisic) and a new Indigneous play (Dallas Winmar's Yibiyung, directed by Wesley Enoch). It includes dance (Shaun Parker's Blue Love), music theatre by Meow Meow (Vamp) and a remount of Ranter's exquisite Holiday. They've invited the bad boys from Black Lung in for a residency at the Tower. And - to my mind one of the biggest attractions - they've programmed Jenny Kemp's long-awaited new show, Kitten.

And what do we hear from the Age? That its "aesthetic vision is too limited" and lacks "diversity"! How much diversity do you want? But hey. Look at the byline. It's no surprise that this beat up is by Robin Usher, who has never permitted the facts to get in the way of a good snark.

Now, I could imagine criticising the Malthouse for having too much diversity: perhaps you could argue that by producing such a variety of work by such a variety of artists, they fail to create an autonomous identity as a company. But the Age critics complain, rather, that they have a house style that stamps everything they do into identikit theatre. Apparently Marius von Mayenburg is paying homage to Barrie Kosky (which is probably news to Mayenburg and to Kosky, but there we are). Ionesco's Exit the King was "too vaudeville". Too many pop songs. Etc.

Instead of being "too fringe" and "elitist", their crime a couple of years ago, these days they're producing too much "entertainment". ("Is this what we want from a subsidised theatre company?" asks Martin Ball). But people seem to have forgotten last year's experiments like Anna Tregloan's theatrical installation Black, or Uncle Semolina & Friends' OT, or Brian Lipson's A Large Attendance in the Antechamber or the achieved theatrical mastery of The Tell-Tale Heart - all, surely, examples of precisely what a subsidised theatre ought to be doing.

It goes on: Geoffrey Milne has dragged out that old canard, that they have "shot the writer". Now Geoffrey, I did some counting a while back (scroll down) and added up how many new Australian plays - actual plays - were produced in various years under the Kantor/Armstrong diumvuriate compared to the Playbox, and the figures show - unambiguously - that it's not true that the Malthouse has "abandoned" writers. Even this year they're producing five new plays - six, if you count Andrew Upton's libretto of Through the Looking Glass - which compares fine to the six new plays produced in Playbox's final year of operation.

And even a success story can be turned into failure - although ticket sales have increased by 20 per cent in the past year and they're running at 70 per cent capacity, more than twice the average capacity of Playbox days, Usher snitches that their audiences are "tiny" compared to the MTC. Although he strangely fails to mention that the MTC has theatres with twice (or even eight times) as many seats.

This kind of stuff makes me throw up my hands in bafflement and despair. Of course the Malthouse is not beyond criticism - all our companies ought to be scrutinised and held to account. But let's base criticisms on the work to hand, not on a bunch of lazy and unexamined assumptions.

There's rather more balanced coverage by Corrie Perkin in my home paper The Australian, here.


Anonymous said...

I think Malthouse's unforgivable sin in the eyes of The Age is doing a play with Robyn Nevin. As we know, the spousal allegiance to Joanna Murray Smith has driven that paper to issue a fatwa on Nevin.

Alison Croggon said...

That hadn't occurred to me - and I can't help but flinch (surely not? though given the personal nature of some of the missiles that come my way, who knows...) I'm reading it more as outrage that the Malthouse is actually being successful and gaining audiences, which wasn't in the game plan, since they don't do "proper" theatre. Whatever that is.

Alison Croggon said...

...and to think that only yesterday I was saying (hoping) that we were past the braindead binaries in talking about theatre ("yeah, we have both types of music - country and western!")

Anonymous said...

"Since they seem to have shot the writer, it would be more accurate if the name was changed to Malthouse Performance Company, rather than theatre company."

Oh dear. I bet Geoffrey read this and winced this morning over his muesli. It's just silly...what is this moronic distinction between 'theatre' and 'performance'?

But more pertinently, what's happened to The Age? Used to be at least a worthy arts paper. Now it's a laughing stock. Come on, we need better than this!

Chris Leech

(former student of above-quoted expert)

Alison Croggon said...

Quite bizarre, Chris (can you have "theatre" without "performance"? Hard to imagine). And yes, it's perhaps a bit unfair to hold the quoted critics up to dry until we know if they were quoted accurately; Usher's quoting skills are sometimes a bit, uh, loose.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for providing a blog that continually raises questions about independent and more 'mainstream' theatre... I always find your entries thought-provoking and insightful.

Robin Usher's article I found actually quite confusing to read- while on one hand, Usher reported a lack of diversity while also listing off the varied season that has just been released! Very strange...

On particular part that got me was...

"It is another drama about the stolen generations but unlike the award-winning Stolen, which Enoch also directed, it includes singing and dancing."

Perhaps merely just a poorly worded sentence, and maybe I am reading too much into it, but it seems that Usher is arguing that a redeeming fact that "another drama" has been made about the stolen generations is that it has singing and dancing in it. Well, thank goodness for that! Dear me....

The performance/theatre comments also baffle me... I do hope that there was a misquoting with that. What a strange and irrelevant distinction that people sometimes try to make!

Ben Ellis said...

Wow, thanks for this again, Alison. Usher's article isn't arts journalism, it's cultural border control. We shouldn't be surprised that Usher reveals a lack of understanding; guards seldom understand what it is they are guarding.

A lack of diversity?!? We're not hearing much about the importance of homegrown playwrights at MTC, nor hearing about companies like Stuck Pigs or Black Lung being invited in for residencies there, are we?

Alison Croggon said...

Too right, Ben. We don't want any of them damn Krauts here, thank you very much...

The comment about Yibiyung is weird, Thomas, and there's definitely a snipe in it. Actually, given the other comments in the story, I think the subtext is supposed to read: they're doing the Stolen thing, but only in the superficial "house style" of pop songs. Not sure though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Alison, it was a weird experience reading Corrie Perkin's and then Robin Usher's articles yesterday (though the phrase 'swingeing rant' leaps to mind for the latter).

What springs to mind when I think of 'theatre' without 'performance' is Kurt Schwitters' Merz-Theatre of the 1920s: 'this was to involve "solid, liquid and gaseous bodies, such as white wall, man, barbed wire entanglement, blue distance..."'.

Perhaps not quite what Robin Usher is driving at to 'fix' the Malthouse.

Anonymous said...

What interests me here is the condemnation, across the board, of what is seen as a 'house style'. Is this not something that would otherwise be known as a trend? Are trends in theatre/performance (do we really need to distinguish between the two here?) really such a bad thing especially in a company that is literally taking a new form of programming to a public desperately in need of a fresh perspective?
I think the terrible parochialism of the Melbourne arts media has blinded itself to the concept of audience, especially one that exists outside of a rather limited educated and articulate regular theatre going public. If the Malthouse can present a diverse range of performance to an ever growing audience from an ever diversified public, then perhaps the ‘house style’ ought to be applauded rather than maligned for it’s ability to speak to new and old audiences alike.

Alison Croggon said...

It's hard to deconstruct because it's so vague. By "house style" they seem to be talking about Kantor's productions (folk art, popular music). Well, he's a director and he has a style, it would be weird if he didn't, and it would also be weird if he were an artistic director of a company and didn't direct any of the work. But they seem to think that what Kantor does is the same as what Kosky does. Which it isn't, although you can see a connection, they've worked together after all, but Kantor's intellectual preoccupations and theatrical style are very different from Kosky's. And then the argument runs that what Kosky does is the same as what Benedict Andrews does. But Andrews comes from a totally different idea of theatre, more text-based for a start. And then they're saying that these kinds of theatre are the same as, oh, Wesley Enoch, or Jenny Kemp, or Stephen Page or whoever. You can maintain that as long as you don't actually look at the theatre.

Basically, I think the criticism means that they're not doing a certain kind of play, which is quite true - Hannie Rayson, David Williamson, Michael Gurr or JMS, who were staples of the Playbox, haven't appeared there for some time. Instead, they've done Melissa Reeves, Ben Ellis, Tom Wright, Lally Katz, Patricia Cornelius and Michael Watts. (And Ionesco and White and Friels and Mayenburg...). And a bunch of work which incorporates dance or design or music, all ancient expressions of theatre - theatre started with dance and music in 300BC or whatever, so it's scarcely a new idea.

And it seems that the argument - like I said, hard to take issue with because it's so vague - is that because they're not doing this particular subset of theatre (although they have done naturalism or realism, Reeves and Cornelius and Friels, for instance) they lack diversity. Because everything that isn't Williamson or Rayson is the same ("non-naturalistic"). I really don't understand this kind of thinking, because in point of fact it doesn't make any sense. But I've wittered on about this before.

Hi Nick - nice to hear from you! Dear Schwitters. I'm sure that's not what is intended...!