Alison's Authorial AugustExperiment and thornsReview: BlackbirdReview: HamletReview: The Inhabited Man, HolidayMonday roundupWords, words, words...Joss Whedon goes blogMIAF 2008Germaine lets flyMeditations on SoundEyeSpeaking with grace...and alsoThree Men in a BottleJetlaggish meditations ~ theatre notes

Monday, July 28, 2008

Alison's Authorial August

As I have always suspected, being an Author is not the same as being a Writer. It might even be something like the opposite. I'm beginning to see how one can be so busy being an Author that one has no time to be a Writer. In some weird convergence ("Worlds are colliding, Gerry!), this August I am all over the place being an Author.

On the performance side, on August 21 and 22, the excellent folk at North Melbourne Arts House are hosting the Melbourne debut of The Villainelles, which features poems by Jordie Albiston, Kathleen Mary Fallon and myself set to music by Andree Greenwell. It's "cabaret-folk electronica layered with shades of opera". And I'm pleased, because I'll finally get to see it after missing its premiere in Sydney a couple of months ago.

I'm also doing some Melbourne Writers Festival appearances on August 28 and 29. Of interest to TNers will be a panel I'm chairing with theatre historians Julian Meyrick and Gabrielle Wolf which will discuss the ongoing influence of the theatre of the 1970s. Another couple of sessions are around poetry, including the delightful chance to discuss Anna Akhmatova with Russian historian Orlando Figes.

Simultaneously, the first book of my fantasy series, The Gift, has been chosen as part of the 50 Books You can't Put Down promotion being launched at the Australian public under the giant Books Alive program. This is of course very cool, even if Australian commentator Beth Driscoll thinks that books being promoted as a "thumping great read" undermines the intellectual seriousness with which one ought to approach Literature. (Well, as you all know, I am ever happy to be a crass populist...) So I have a fairly heavy schedule of appearances for this - closet Pellinor fans can find the dates here.

I really don't know why this is all happening at once, but que sera sera. Perversely, perhaps, after months and months of writing nothing at all, I have started a new novel. I guess all this stuff is pretty meaningless if I'm not actually writing. I'll of course be reviewing and blogging as I go, but this might be rather sternly minimal at times. In the interests of health and sanity, you understand...

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Experiment and thorns

The blogs are running hot with a debate on the issue of experiment. It begins with US music critic Joe Queenan, who launched a broadside in the Guardian that guns down all contemporary art music as pretentious and boring. He's answered by Tom Service, who rightly claims that new music is far too diverse to be put all under one hat, and that - contrary to Queenan's claims - it actually does attract enthusiastic audiences. Meanwhile, avant rocker David Byrne swings by claiming that new music is an elitist wank that around the mid-20th century deliberately set out to alienate and baffle audiences. Kyle Gann at Arts Journal takes on both thesis and antithesis, with pianist Marilyn Nonken on one corner and David Byrne in the other. Fence sitter that I am, I think Kyle, a composer himself, elucidates the debate very well. Not all "difficult" art is a waste of time. Nor does "difficulty" automatically make art interesting.

This reminds me of nothing so much as the on-going arguments about modernism and post-modernism in poetry (which basically runs: poetry was read by the unwashed masses in millions until Pound and Eliot came along and made it all obscure and elitist and academic, and then it got even worse in the 1970s) * ; but George Hunka makes the link to experimental theatre. Experiment almost always - and I would suggest, mostly unintentionally - attracts a very predictable kind of hostility. This is neither a badge of virtue nor of its lack; it merely demonstrates the old truism that, on the whole, people prefer the familiar to the strange. Witness the debate on Manna over at Sydney Arts Journalist, or this review on Australian Stage Online, in which the reviewer claims that the artists deliberately and self-indulgently set out to repel audiences. It's all eerily familiar. ** Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Just belatedly noticed Jay Parini's piece in last week's Australian, which adumbrates that argument perfectly...

** Having linked to a critical mauling of this show, it's only fair to also link to an unambiguous rave. ***

*** I rather like putting footnotes in blog posts.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review: Blackbird

Blackbird by David Harrower, directed by Peter Evans. Set and costumes by Christina Smith, lighting by Matt Scott, sound design by Ben Grant. With Greg Stone, Alison Bell and Georgia Flood. Melbourne Theatre Company @ CUB Malthouse, until August 16.

I might as well get the rave out of the way first.

I always suspected that this production of David Harrower’s Blackbird was going to be the highlight of the 2008 MTC season. And as I hoped, this is easily the best MTC production this year. In fact, it’s probably the best theatre I’ve seen under the MTC aegis since I started going to the theatre again four years ago. I’ll wobble further on my superlatives, and claim that Peter Evans has delivered one of the best-judged productions of a text that I’ve seen anywhere.

In short, theatrenauts, this is an awesome production of an awesome play. Blackbird is a contemporary tragedy that does all the things a tragedy is supposed to do: it hammers your heart open, tears apart your moral certainties and leaves you with the pulsating mess of human damage leaking blood all over your hands. Harrower stands aside from judgment and instead places our moral capacity in conflict with our human empathy, opening out the complexities of relationship and self in a way that refuses the consolation of false annealment.

And, as director Peter Evans does in this production, Harrower manages all this with an absolute minimum of fuss. This is not just naturalism, it is über-naturalism: and it demonstrates that this much-maligned theatrical form is far from dead. Blackbird is basically a dialogue between Ray (Greg Stone) and Una (Alison Bell) which takes place in real time, a fact reinforced by the clock on the wall ticking murderously through the silences. There is only one (very effective) theatrical trick in this play: for the rest, it relies on raw nerve. Its artfulness is invisible: text, direction, performance and production are presented in one seamless whole, so that in watching it the separate elements disappear, subsumed in one irresistible act of theatre.

The action takes place in a spectacularly filthy factory canteen. Christina Smith’s set is in traverse, reinforcing the play’s intimacy: a thin strip of floor, mercilessly lit by fluorescents, lies between the audience. On one side is a grubby white wall with a clock, on the other a door with a broken window patched by cardboard. Upended plastic chairs, a broken, overfilled plastic rubbish bin and a litter of half-eaten hamburgers, crushed coke cans and other detritus complete the squalor.

As is well known, in Blackbird Harrower investigates the explosive issue of paedophilia. Ray is man who, 15 years earlier, had a three month relationship with Una which culminated in a sexual encounter in a boarding house, after which he panicked and abandoned her. At the time, Una was a bright, rebellious and precocious 12 year old. He was prosecuted and jailed, and has rebuilt his life under a new identity. But now Una has turned up at his workplace seeking - what? Revenge? Some kind of acknowledgement, some kind of closure?

What is gradually exposed through the play is how the past lives in the present for both of them. Ray has coped by totally erasing the past: he hotly denies several times that he is one of “them”, one of those men fatally attracted to children. No, this was a single moment of madness, a terrible mistake that almost wholly destroyed his life, which he has painstakingly built again from scratch: he will never transgress again. Una’s sudden unheralded appearance fills him with panic: he shoves her into the canteen, terrified that she will be spotted by his workmates, that the shame that he has until now kept so secret will spill over his life like the trash over the room.

Una, on the other hand, has never forgotten. She thinks about what happened every day, and the events – their relationship, the prosecution and trial, her notoriety, her mother’s condemnation – have warped her life. She is lonely, promiscuous, prone to relationships with abusive men. But what has most wounded her becomes less clear as they talk. Was it the exploitation of her own nascent sexuality by an older man who should never have violated her trust? Was it her social isolation, as a victim of abuse? The way the language of police prosecution erased her own experience, so that she can no longer make sense of what happened? The moral condemnation of her own family?

Harrower corkscrews their conversation deeper and deeper into tabu areas, without ever tipping over into easy condemnation or exculpation. Both Una and Ray are unreliable narrators, neither able to withdraw from and contemplate this defining wound of their lives. We don’t know whether to believe Ray when he says he is no longer sexually attracted to children. Una’s desire for revenge is undermined by her greater desire for Ray. The ambiguities are held in suspension all the way through the performance.

The success of this sternly undecorated production relies almost wholly on the actors, and in Greg Stone and Alison Bell (leavened by a brief appearance by Georgia Flood) Evans has a dream cast. These are two great, emotionally precise performances, elegantly mediating between the said and the unsaid. What both have mastered is Harrower’s truncated, spare language, the stuttering articulation that stumbles against what cannot be said, which flowers into painful monologues or equally painful silences before exploding into a cathartic moment of passion, violence and even perverse joy. The play is riveting in part because the balance of power continually shifts, and these emotional movements are faultlessly modulated. I'm not sure that I've seen either of these actors in better form.

Maybe the word for this production is unflinching. Evans’ version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf excavated, with a profound compassion, the pain embedded in Albee’s play; this production has the same kind of emotional courage, but goes much deeper. The devastating ending strips away all our skins of moral protection, leaving us with the unpalatable fact of unhealed damage. We are given no maps with which to navigate it, no place in which to hide from its implications. It reminds us of the unnegotiable complexity of human pain and desire. It’s brilliant, necessary theatre.

Picture: Greg Stone and Alison Bell in the MTC production of Blackbird.

This review did not, regrettably, appear in any form in the Australian.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Hamlet

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Designed by Fiona Crombie, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composer Sarah Blasko. With Brendan Cowell, Colin Moody, Russell Kiefel, Heather Mitchell, Barry Otto, Chris Ryan, Laura Brent, Joe Manning, Tim Richards, Matthew Whittet, Darren Weller, Paul Reichstein and Sarah Blasko. Bell Shakespeare @ the Victorian Arts Centre until August 2.

Hamlet is the most amorphous of Shakespeare’s plays. As the Shakespearean critic Jan Kott pointed out, there is a Hamlet for each age, reinvented afresh. Hamlet has been called the first modern expression of self-consciousness, a man of inaction writhing in indecision against the feudal certainties of his father. Coleridge said that Hamlet was a case study in “mental philosophy”, which examined “the effect of overbalance of the imaginative power”. The play has been a vehicle for examining the brutal circle of state power, in which the bloodletting goes full circle back to rational authority (represented by Fortinbras) or, more recently, a lens to examine the nuclear family, bringing its incestuous passions and tormented relationships to the surface.

And its subtext of madness has prompted so much speculation that Oscar Wilde felt moved to contemplate an essay: “Are The Commentators On Hamlet Really Mad, Or Only Pretending To Be?” Fair question, really. Hamlet is a text so richly turned, with minefields of ambiguity in almost every line, that it will no doubt continue to seduce critical speculators for years to come.

For all that, it’s still a play, “a project” as Shakespeare says elsewhere, “which was to please”. And there is much to please in Marion Potts’ fine production for Bell Shakespeare, from the moment the lights dim on Fiona Crombie’s cavernous industrial set and Sarah Blasko’s bewitching voice floats out over the auditorium.

This is a contemporary Hamlet which, without the patronising edge that has characterised so much of Bell Shakespeare’s ventures into making the Bard “relevant” to young people, draws on contemporary youth culture to create its aesthetic (even, very effectively, calling on horror movies for the unnerving zombie ghost).

Elsinore is an architecture of urban decay, a space made of concrete and rusted metal. It features a shallow tiled pool of water to one side running beneath a metal crypt that climbs up all of one wall. (Water features constantly in this production: it runs down the rusting slabs of the crypt, a symbol at once of the sacred and of the desire to cleanse blood guilt.) On the other side of the stage is a spectacular three-storey spiral staircase. The castle is hinted by fake arches at the back and an arched door to one side.

The space is furnished with some chairs and a table, and, at the back, as if it has been abandoned by former tenants, an upright piano. The whole creates a stage that is at once flexible - up and across and back - and expressive. This fluidity is helped along by one of the real pleasures of this production, Nick Schlieper’s extraordinarily inventive and subtle lighting, which inhabits and shapes the empty stage as much as any of the performers.

Hamlet is seldom performed in its entirety, and this version is no exception. Potts keeps the initial political frame, with Norway on its way to invade Denmark under Fortinbras, but this is forgotten through the middle acts, and Fortinbras’s appearance at the end amid the corpses might well puzzle those unfamiliar with the play. She also boldly (and effectively) cuts all of the play-within-a-play: our knowledge of it is confined to Hamlet’s commentary and a form of cockney mummery involving a tapdancer and Blasko.

Within this, we get a Hamlet who is a petulant adolescent in open rebellion against authority. Brendan Cowell plays Hamlet as a rock god, with echoes of Michael Hutchence as he sways on stage, a shrug-shouldered parodist of himself and everyone else. (His first gesture is to throw his shoes at his mother and uncle.) This is a wholly legitimate interpretation, harking back to the nuclear family take I mentioned earlier. But the fact is that his performance nearly drove me crazy (thus answering Wilde's question) through the first three acts; I thought Cowell was grievously miscast.

What I missed, more than anything else, was Hamlet’s animating, cruel intelligence. For all its energy, Cowell’s performance seldom gave me any sense of the mercurial, impassioned consciousness that makes Hamlet such a fascinating character. I might have forgiven him anything, had that quality been there. Perhaps what is most frustrating is that it’s present in flashes: there were moments after interval when Cowell’s performance became less mannered, and his performance began to grate less, even began to work for me. But these were all too seldom.

However, he is supported by a very strong cast, and the whole production transcends its limitations. Colin Moody’s Claudius reaches the Shakespearean extremes that in Cowell’s performance are only gestures, and his confession of guilt as he prays is one of the strongest moments of the play. I enjoyed Barry Otto’s movingly camp portrayal of Polonius, and Chris Ryan was a strong and deeply credible Laertes, a character who could easily be all blandness. Tim Richards and Matthew Whittet as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make an enjoyably gormless double act, and I very much liked Laura Brent’s naive and fragile Ophelia, whose madness touches a terrible pathos. In short, for all its flaws, this Hamlet is well worth a look.

Photo: Brendan Cowell as Hamlet in the Bell Shakespeare production.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: The Inhabited Man, Holiday

The Inhabited Man by Richard Murphet, directed by Richard Murphet and Leisa Shelton. Design by Ryan Russell, sound design by Jethro Woodward. With Merfyn Owen, Adam Pierzchalski and Leisa Shelton. Full Tilt and Rear Windows Ensemble @ Space 28, Victorian College of the Arts until July 26. Bookings: 1300 136 166

Holiday, conceived and directed by Adriano Cortese, text by Raimondo Cortese. Set design by Anna Tregloan, Sound design by David Franzke, lighting by Niklas Pajanti. With Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt. Ranters Theatre and Malthouse Theatre @ the Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until August 2.

The Inhabited Man is one of the more lush productions you will see this year. In fact, it was so lush that this 90-minute show was one of the worst struggles I’ve ever had to stay awake during a performance, only rivalled by Bruce Beresford’s spectacularly hamfisted production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra at a long-ago Melbourne Festival, when I pinched my thigh so badly I left bruises.

I was, I admit, seriously jetlagged. But my non-jetlagged companion actually did fall asleep, and was quite grumpy when I stopped him from slowly pitching forward into oblivion. (I was unrepentant: if I was going to stay awake - and I swear I did - so was he.)

And yet, for all that, it’s not easy to sift through what makes The Inhabited Man such a somnabalistic experience. For one thing, many aspects of this production, written and co-directed by the Victorian College of the Arts Head of Drama Richard Murphet, are deeply thought, theatrically beautiful and stylishly executed.

The show itself is an excavation of the interior world of a Vietnam veteran, Leo, now a security guard at the Springs Motel. Performed with a dogged earnestness by Merfyn Owen, he limps across the stage observing an Eastern European (Chechnyan?) couple in Unit 7 (Adam Pierzchalski and Leisa Shelton) who are acting strangely, and who transform into echoes of his own violent past. During the course of a night, we enter his oneiric, paranoid reality, where memories of the past meld into a rather confused present.

The visual aspects of this production are stunning. The stage is plunged into a thick darkness, with forms picked out by amber or flesh-coloured lights or wildly swinging torches. The wide stage is bare aside from some Francis Bacon-esque boxes that enclose the characters, and on which are projected black and white visuals – ripples of water, dogs barking, text. The larger structure, which represents the motel, can be turned at will. The mise en scene is always interesting and Jethro Woodward's soundscape is broodingly atmospheric. And the production features some excellent physical performances from Pierzchalski and Shelton.

In fact, everything is set up for a fascinating, nay, poetic theatrical experience. I shoot my problems with this production straight at the text, which simply fails to match the execution and accuracy of the other aspects of The Inhabited Man. For one thing, there is a lot of it, and while everything else points to a poetic, the text itself signally lacks the economy and impacted meaning of poetry. This becomes very clear in the moments when Owen sings: the music imports a poetic that is missing in the language, and suddenly the production begins to make theatrical sense.

The text is a strange mixture of the baffling and the literal. Much of it, oddly, sounds like a bad naturalistic play. On the one hand, we have a familiar story of a war veteran haunted by atrocities he has both committed and suffered, complicated by a childhood trauma involving his mother. It is uncomplicatedly earnest: there is none of the black humour that soldiers (or others in extreme professions – police officers, emergency workers, triage doctors) use to cope with their situation. Nor is it credible, though this is no doubt a function of its language too – I simply didn’t believe, for example, that Leo would effectively sell his baby son (nor that his wife would agree to it) because of the trauma of his war experiences.

Jammed against the past that haunts Leo is the present of the couple in Unit 7. Here I confess to complete bafflement, although I thought they might be Chechnyan terrorists (although why they would be checking into a country motel to further their nefarious deeds was unclear to me). Or they were projections of Leo’s fears of otherness or sexuality. Or they were some sort of movie.

Now, I don’t usually mind struggling with deferred meanings, but deferral is a delicate business which must hold within it the promise of deepening speculations. If you read a poem by Paul Celan, for example, its meanings might be immediately mysterious, but it communicates a complex set of feelings and intellectual allusions that can be elucidated and explored in subsequent readings. I didn’t catch any such sense of possibility in the language of The Inhabited Man, which remained resolutely monodimensional. And I suspect the slumber that kept sweeping over me like an irresistible wave was my brain’s way of coping with a lot of words that added up to a lot less than the rest of the production promised.

LAST year, Holiday was one of the indisputable gems of Melbourne’s independent theatre. It has the Green Room awards – five of them, in fact – to prove it. And its inclusion in the Malthouse Theatre’s 2008 season is a welcome chance for those who missed its initial season to catch up with a remarkable work. Ranters Theatre’s comic meditation on the mundane is exquisite theatre, a demonstration in three dimensions of the adage “less is more”. The premise is simple. Two men (Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt), strangers to each other, are lounging by a pool. They are clearly on holiday. They have nothing to do and, more or less, nothing to say.

Unlike Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (in which, as Kenneth Tynan said famously, “nothing happens twice”) something does happen during Holiday. We watch the two men become friends, in the strange confessional intimacy generated by being outside their usual defining social contexts.

Raimondo Cortese’s play consists of a series of inconsequential comic dialogues that slyly excavate anxieties about identity and desire, long-buried guilts and unacknowledged loneliness. The conversation is punctuated by long silences, in which Lum and Moffat stretch and stroll idly about the stage, or paddle in the pool, or stare vacantly out over the audience. And the longings beneath the dialogue rise to the surface in a series of baroque songs about love and despair, sung a Capella by the actors.

Holiday’s irresistible charm is generated by the moment-to-moment detail of Lum and Moffat’s performances. The show is beautifully modulated by Adriano Cortese’s impeccable direction: the silences, rich with subtext, are as compelling and complex as the dialogue. This stylised naturalism is heightened by a restrained and beautifully various soundscape by David Franzke, a subtle blending of baroque music, ambient noise and bird cries. The set features one of Anna Tregloan’s more stylish designs, a white box in which the accoutrements of vacation – a paddling pool, two huge, brightly coloured beach balls, a chaise lounge and a couple of chairs decked with towels – sit with a surreal clarity.

In its first season, Holiday was mounted in the cavernous space of the North Melbourne Town Hall, which permitted Tregloan to enclose the set in black curtains. This generated a further intimacy which I missed in the smaller space of the Tower. But it richly rewards a second viewing. Lucid, gentle, funny and unexpectedly moving, it remains one of the shows of the year.

The review of Holiday is published in today's Australian.

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Monday roundup

A number of bits and pieces catch my eye this morning:

1. Arts Minister Peter Garrett has asked the Australia Council and Screen Australia to draft protocols to deal with the depiction of children in art. This forestalls what could possibly be more hardline measures direct from the PM's office, and would entail wide-ranging consultation with the arts community. Responses so far have been cautiously upbeat.

2. The Age reports that the long-mooted Melbourne "arts precinct" development is apparently being given the State Government nod, at a price reported to be $700 million and which may involve the creation of a new Music School by Melbourne University. A Good Thing, surely, unless the heavy investment in bricks and mortar means a concomitant governmental shyness about investment in art itself.

3. In the must-read of the day, our favourite rabbit Matthew Clayfield - now snaffled up by News Ltd as a journalism cadet - has found time to post a thoughtful overview of the work of Simon Stone and the Hayloft Project. (And in the process explains some hitherto puzzling comments on the Sydney season of Spring Awakening).

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Words, words, words...

Ms TN has not been idle this week. Oh no. She's been dragging her jetlag out to no less than four openings (not ideal for the first week back, but no matter). All of which will be reported on in due course. The "due course" is because I've also been sitting underneath a pile of plays, reading until my eyeballs fry into little blasted hollows in my skull, for the RE Ross Trust Play Awards, which I am co-judging with Tom Healey and Patricia Cornelius. Back to normal reportage next week. I hope.

But there's no shortage of reading to be had for you lot. For example, megablogger Chris Goode at once reminds me that I didn't write about a couple of knock-out exhibitions I saw in London (the Cy Twombly retrospective at Tate Modern and a modestly exquisite exhibition of small press poetry, Certain Trees, at the V&A) and removes the necessity for doing so. As the man says: "Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons at Tate Modern is, simply, the best exhibition of modern painting I've ever seen. There are some quite incredible things here, and unlike many survey shows spanning such a long trajectory in an artist's work (from the very early 50s right up to 2005), there is absolutely no period where you feel anything other than excitement at Twombly's intrepid and affectionate sensibility."

Some fascinatingly ambivalent responses too to Black Watch, which finally hit London, and which I'm ever more sorry I missed when it was here in Sydney. And other stuff. Lots of other stuff. If you find your eyes watering, you can just do what others do, and print out his posts to read on the bus.

Elsewhere, Ming has got her hands on Chris Mead's Platform Paper on ethnic playwriting, and is wondering why Australia is so behind the eightball, compared with the UK, in at least addressing the issues of representation. And George Hunka over at Superfluities Redux has, among other things, been thoughtfully reviewing recent New York productions of Sarah Kane and Howard Barker. Much of the rest of the US blogosphere is navel gazing about centralism, regionalism and sustainability. All good solid stuff circling around the problems of making art in an era of crass corporatism and economic depression, especially in a nation without solid governmental funding, but somehow it seldom lets the rest of the world in to the conversation.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Joss Whedon goes blog

Teaser from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on Vimeo

Behold the future of the internet... TV execs are no doubt waking up at 4.48 am screaming at what Joss Whedon (he of Buffy fame) is doing this week. Currently uploading is Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, an internet musical miniseries in three acts. Act 1 is up there now, with Acts II and III to follow in the next few days. Why? Mr Whedon himself explains:

Once upon a time, all the writers in the forest got very mad with the Forest Kings and declared a work-stoppage. The forest creatures were all sad; the mushrooms did not dance, the elderberries gave no juice for the festival wines, and the Teamsters were kinda pissed. (They were very polite about it, though.) During this work-stoppage, many writers tried to form partnerships for outside funding to create new work that circumvented the Forest King system.

Frustrated with the lack of movement on that front, I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few.

The idea was to make it on the fly, on the cheap – but to make it. To turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet. To show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way. To give the public (and in particular you guys) something for all your support and patience. And to make a lot of silly jokes. Actually, that sentence probably should have come first.

It streams free, but you can download for a small fee. Theoretically. And guess what? Australian iTunes doesn't sell it (get your act together, guys) so even those Australians who don't want to "go all piratey" can't get their greebly little hands on it. And thanks to the Federal Government's cack-handed attitude to broadband, it's a bit glitchy to stream. But worth the patience, all the same, for us deprived antipodeans.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

MIAF 2008

ASK Kristy Edmunds what is most exciting about the 2008 Melbourne Festival program - her fourth and, sadly for many of us, her last - and she pauses. “What some people don’t realise is that over the past few years, despite the economic whinging of certain newspaper columnists, the festival budget has grown,” she says. “And that leads to certain choices. Do we make the festival bigger? Or do we make the choice to invest more deeply in artists? And we decided to go for the second option, to invest in artists, and to invest particularly in Australian artists.

“And that,” she adds, with a touch of irony, “is not an easy sell. Yes, we have the headline acts, and that’s exciting, don’t get me wrong. But two years ago, we were able to instigate some commissioning which is now coming to fruition. And under the gaze of my international colleagues, who have been looking hard at what we’ve been doing here, we’ll be able to give a number of Australian artists a different calibre of world visibility.”

A quick leaf through the program bears out Edmunds’ words. MIAF 2008, launched with a lot of fanfare and champagne at the Meat Market Arts House last night, is the most Australian – maybe the most Melburnian – festival that I can remember. It has the expected menu of fascinating international fare, and the usual quota of events that make me punch my fist in the air (Patti Smith! Yeah!) But what's very clear is that MIAF 2008 is the culmination of long-term nurturing of relationships with local and international artists. The number of commissions and world premieres alone shows how seriously Edmunds has taken her role as a cultural catalyst.

As we have come to expect from Edmunds, it’s a program with a lot of depth: just as with Merce Cunningham last year, Patti Smith isn’t merely jetting in to do a concert appearance or two. Her residency permits a good look at this multifacted artist, and includes an exhibition of her photography, an installation, the screening of a documentary and a not-to-be-missed tribute to Allen Ginsberg in tandem with fellow festival attraction Philip Glass.

There's a huge range of work. International acts include the Batsheva Dance Company from Israel, with two recent programs of work; the Interpreti Vezensiani Baroque Ensemble, Philip Glass's and Leonard Cohen’s The Book of Longing (for those who, like me, missed it at the Adelaide Festival); the acclaimed OKT/Vilnius City Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet and turbo-folk master Goran Bregovic from the Balkans, whom some of us might have seen sending out the Eurovision Song Contest in style earlier this year. There’s DJ Spooky, with a festival commission on Antarctica, the Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes from Mexico, and an intriguing collaboration between Tim Etchells (Forced Entertainment) and Belgian company Victoria.

But these rub elbows with an extremely strong program of local work. MIAF 2008 features premieres from some of our most significant artists, some of whom have considerable reputations overseas but are relatively unknown in their homeland. They include an opera, The Navigator, by Liza Lim, directed by Barrie Kosky; Two-Faced Bastard from Chunky Move and Jenny Kemp's new show Kitten, co-commissioned by the Malthouse. Back to Back Theatre are back with Food Court, which follows up their international hit small metal objects, which itself premiered at MIAF 2005, and there's a new dance work from Lucy Guerin, Corridor.

There's an intriguing new work from David Pledger, The Meaning of Moorabbin Is Open For Inspection. And the Black Arm Band (another festival premiere who were all over London when I was there) are making a big return concert with the MSO. Even the Schönberg Ensemble, one of the headline international acts winging our way, is bringing the locals back home. Among the major composers featured across two programs – heavyweights such as Mauricio Kagel, Louis Andriessen, John Adams and Schönberg himself – is Sydney composer (and long-time collaborator of Ms TN’s) Michael Smetanin.

But more, this festival is a celebration of Melbourne itself. New York artist Chris Doyle has been working on a large-scale outdoor work, Ecstatic City, which is inspired by the street life of our fair city. Echolocation, a collaboration between Melbourne musicians Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphries and US sound artist Alex Stahl, will be an electro-acoustic installation drawing on urban sounds. Melbourne photographer Matthew Sleeth’s work will be all over the city on billboards and posters. And a collaboration between those wild young men Suitcase Royale and the UK artists Lone Twin will bring back the newsboys of only a few decades past.

All this, and I’ve scarcely mentioned the half of it. I’ll leave you to discover the other tasty morsels yourself. There are plenty of them. Suffice to say that Little Alison has been doing some complicated mathematics, wondering how to get to everything she wants to see while at the same time fitting in eating and sleeping. We’re in for a helluva ride come October. Edmunds hasn’t chosen to go out with fireworks, she’s gone for real substance, and the more you look into this program, the more there is to see.

Edmunds says she is feeling a sense of bitter-sweetness in farewelling her role as artistic director. “It’s kind of weird doing my last festival,” she says. “I would be completely disingenuous if I didn’t say that on some levels it’s kind of a relief, a release. This kind of position is a robust responsibility.

“At the same time, I am an artist. I made a deliberate choice when I took on this position that I wouldn’t be doing any of my own work, and a number of projects – curatorial projects, commissions and so on – have been on hold. It will good to go and reclaim that part of my identity. But at the same time, it’s been brilliant to be in a position where I could see projects that needed support, and to be a kind of lightning rod for their work.”

For Edmunds, MIAF has never been simply about getting artistic product on stage. Rather, it’s been about nourishing systems of relationship, digging out a rich seedbed where work can cross fertilise and grow. The cheap tickets for artists and the Artists’ Lounge, where people can kick back after shows and just talk, have been an important – and vital – part of her vision. And while she was careful not to set these things in stone, feeling it would be unfair to any of her successors, she is fearful that these aspects of the festival, which have been so intrinsic to the excited conversations of the past four years, might disappear.

Certainly, when he takes over the reins later this year, incoming AD Brett Sheehy has a formidable act to follow. Edmunds hasn’t merely nurtured a phalanx of Australian artists: she has created an enthusiastic audience, which now expects the unexpected, and who love seeing their city transformed into a mini-metropolis through October. If Sheehy offers anything less exciting, the howls might well be as loud as those of the conservatives who have lambasted every Edmunds festival with the predictability of the rain bucketing down on the opening night celebrations. But we can count ourselves lucky that, to the astonishment of her international peers, Edmunds has decided to remain in Melbourne, as Head, Performing Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts. We’re not losing her yet.

Melbourne International Arts Festival 2008 program

Pictures: from top: MIAF artistic director Kristy Edmunds; Patti Smith; Liza Lim's Navigator; Back to Back Theatre's Food Court; Lucy Geurin's Corridor.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Germaine lets fly

It was bound to happen. Our Germaine has delivered a couple of fast left hooks at Joanna Murray-Smith, whose play based (or not based) on La Greer, The Female of the Species, opens in the West End this week. She says Murray-Smith is an "insane reactionary" and claims that, far from being a comedy, "what actually happened was a tragedy. What are they doing putting this play on in the West End of all places? Auckland in New Zealand, maybe..." Snort. Germaine, don't be a hemispheric snob, the world ain't so centrist any more. Murray-Smith claims in response that she is a feminist, although, according to Greer, she boasts of never having read a single feminist text. Well, it all makes about as much sense as the play...

Footnote: The Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony proposes another play not based on any person living or dead. Sort of.

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Meditations on SoundEye

Or, How Little Alison Learned to Love the Bomb Again

Onstage, I am a real person, not a "persona." The people for whom I play are just that: individuals, not a faceless or generic "audience." We bring to our experience together preferences, histories, and expectations, and this is a volatile combination. This kind of immediate, intimate encounter is as far as one gets from an abstract cultural construct. And personal encounters, as everyone knows, are the riskiest kind.

Pianist Marilyn Nonken, from an interview in Superfluities

Language, so the wisdom runs, is what separates us from beasts. Unlike the average amoeba or domestic cat, we possess a glittering consciousness that is a microcosm of the galaxy itself, and of which the most noble excresence is the ability to communicate in abstractions. This raises us above other living things, and – like our expulsion from Eden, which was an expulsion into consciousness and the primordial moment of our alienation from other living things - justifies our exploitation of the planet, which is given to us, God’s chosen higher beings, to do with as we will.

This has been the basic contract of human authority since around the Renaissance, though it started long before. Our humanity is measured against the non-humanity of animals, and if we wish to deprive others of their humanity, we merely need to categorise them as less than human, as animals themselves. George W Bush is only the most crass example of what happens when such linguistic manifest destiny is put into practice.

At the other end of language are writers who are concerned with at once smashing and exploiting the hidden legislations of language, worrying the loosening tendons of syntax and grammar into the animalities of sound and redelivering language to the body, bewildered and unknown to itself. They make a various and implosive language, corrupted and broken and enlivened by post capitalist consumerism, conscious and angry, shamanistic, ecstatic, beautiful, polluted, impure: but most of all, it’s language that articulates consciously, through soft tissue palate and breath and skin and bone, the impossible abstractions of thought. It’s language that traces the oscillations between the tangible and the intangible, here and there, the said and the thought, the mediations of technology and self. Poetry.

If language is so deeply embedded in our idea of our humanity, then tinkering with its DNA, as poetry does, is a deeply political and significant activity. At the same time, it’s an activity which has to negotiate its own lack of significance, its continuing marginalisation, which it does with varying degrees of defensiveness or belligerence or grace. At its best and most bracing, it’s an art about which, even more than most, it’s impossible to generalise: it is stubbornly particular in the multiplicities of its insistences on now, here, this. Poets have to be spoken about one by one. And a week ago in Cork at the SoundEye Festival of the Arts of the Word, about 30 poets proceeded to prove that truism.

This was my third visit to SoundEye, a 12-year-old poetry festival run by Irish poet Trevor Joyce with cohorts Fergal Gaynor, Matthew Geden and Jimmy Cummins. It is one of the more nourishing poetry events I know of. It’s hard to describe the mixture of chaos and organisation that seems peculiar to SoundEye: at one moment it seems impossible that anything might occur, and then, without any sense of real transition, you are suddenly watching something extraordinary. And it’s even harder, even impossible, to describe the electric clash of poetries that in Soundeye 2008 made it such an energised and vital event. But I’ll give it a go.

The programming was marked most deeply by diversity: from the anti-aesthetic noise poetics of Justin Katko and the multiple unselvings of Jow Lindsay, to the shamanistic disarticulations of language and exquisite visual poems of Maggie O’Sullivan; from the “uncreative” media collages of Ubu Web founder Kenny Goldsmith, to the bone-tough lyrical constructions of Trevor Joyce, or the splintered urban demolitions of London poet Sean Bonney, or the baroquely observed minutae of poet Peter Manson (whose forthcoming translations of Mallarmé will be a significant event). There was even an epic romance, of sorts, from Cathy Wagner.

However, all the poets present – hailing from Ireland, England, Scotland, the US and Australia – were, in one way or another, heirs of modernism, in all its diversity of definitions. A hint of this provenance – and of its historic depth – was given during the cabaret night, which opened with a violin de gamba trio under Marja Tuhkanen playing Renaissance and baroque music, which was punctuated by readings from Sir Philip Sidney by Keston Sutherland and Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt by Fergal Gaynor, and from there plunged into successive anarchies.

SoundEye reflects the fact that contemporary innovative poetry is a bewildering variety of poetics, an uncountable collection of micro-communities scattered throughout the world, tracking their own aesthetic traditions and rebellions and deeply involved in each other’s work. These splintered communities are often deeply at odds with each other, or at least peer sniffily over each other’s fences to throw snails. What’s called, with varying degrees of impatience, the “poetry scene” can be a disheartening place, one I often find myself contemplating with depression or irritation. I suppose the general tendency of the world in general to despise poets internalises itself in a propensity for poets to despise each other, and the divisions that can ensue, as the so-called Australian “poetry wars” during the 70s and 80s demonstrated, can generate a lot of heat and shadow.

Which is to say that for some time the idea of poetry, outside an idiosyncratic network of relationships and my own private practice, has not much interested me. For me, poetry has always been driven by an inarticulate internal necessity; it is a mysterious if dominant force in my life which seems to imperiously demand certain questions, certain explorations, certain attentions. And it has not always been clear to me – it isn’t clear to me even now – how what I do fits into any particular poetic community. I am, for better or worse, a lyric poet, and “lyric poet” is in certain vocabularies a synonym for “twat”. But the truth is that most poets, whatever their provenance and chosen traditions, feel unhomed and isolated.

Poets assume, quite rightly for the most part, that their primary audience will be their peers. Within a multitude of tiny economies flourishes an infinity of small presses publishing beautifully made chapbooks and collections and online journals and blogs, holding readings and conferences, attracting those with the specialised literacies such work demands. Thus it ever was - Milton and Wordsworth published in much the same way - but there are times when one tires of the resultant inwardness. It's seldom that you will hear poets thinking with such depth or complexity about a relationship to a general audience as you will see in UK poet Chris Goode's latest (especially mammoth) post on Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire. (That's because Chris also works in the theatre). There are good things about this as well as less good things: but sometimes, in the hurlyburly, it's hard to remember them.

Well, I seem to have wandered off the point. Or maybe the point is that I didn’t think any of these thoughts at SoundEye, even though I was elbow to elbow with so many and so different poets. For five days I was intrigued, fascinated, excited and stimulated. Sometimes I was bored, but the longueurs were relatively rare. And instead of a bunch of defensive egos, I was for the most part among that rare collective noun, a generosity of poets. I remembered how poetry works at the edges, inventing new languages out of what lies prosaically around us in the contemporary world or imagining vivid alternative realities. It is all life – hatred, snails, love, curiosity, passion, sex, jokes, cities, arcane intellectual obsessions, insects, war, television, home. It is paying attention.

And what I carry away mostly is how the many readings I saw confirmed poetry in the body and in the present. Keston Sutherland’s reading of a poem in which his body was at war with itself, a fleshy dismembered microcosm of wider political violence, was among the more startling of these assertions, but no less memorable than Maurice Scully’s quiet, seated reading of his wickedly turned articulations. There was poetry made for that day only and poems that will be read in books for decades to come, and it was all alive and dynamic and grabbed your ears and showed you how many ways there are to listen. Listening is a choice not often given in our cultures of endless consumerist distraction: the open ear is a necessary balance to the incipient fascism of the eye. The parties were great too. I am glad I was there.

Note: The poems and readings linked to here were not performed at SoundEye 2008. However, the event was recorded on video and readings will (eventually) be uploaded to Meshworks and, it is threatened, YouTube.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Speaking with grace

It was good to see Bill Henson speaking publicly for the first time after the recent fracas and negotiating the inevitable media glare with dignity and grace. On Friday he opened the Picture Paradise exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Canberra and, to the disappointment of the press, merely made "a pointed intellectual defence of the role of his art and that of others in Australia", during which he made no direct references to the recent media hysteria surrounding his work.

Art, said Henson, "redeems us from a world of moralism and opinionation and claptrap. It stops us in our tracks as we are formulating the truths we think we believe in. It stops us and makes us wonder."

Indeed. Meanwhile, Art Monthly has exhumed the scandal with its cover image of what is, let's be honest, an inoffensive but unremarkable photograph of a naked girl, taken by her mother in circumstances which the child herself says vocally were not abusive. This unleashed an almost identical media replay of the Henson controversy, but this time with press conferences from the girl model and her family, including her father, art critic Robert Nelson, proving the truism that history enacts first as tragedy, then as farce.

This seems merely opportunistic, but check out Larvatus Prodeo before, like everyone else, rushing to judgment. And consider further Arts Minister Peter Garrett's comment that the issue was "needlessly provocative". Is our very own minister claiming that the arts must put their heads down now and work hard not to provoke anybody? And is the "arts community" agreeing with this?

Consider too this deeply ominous comment from PM Rudd: "Mr Rudd said he had ordered the Australia Council, which funds the magazine, to develop new protocols about using images of children, and any recipient that did not abide by them would have its funding axed." Even Howard didn't go (quite) that far. And are young people going to be banished from any kind of representation, out of the panicked fear that society is completely constituted of paedophiles? Why are we criminalising our children?

Welcome to the brave new world of soft censorship, peoples, which looks just like the old fashioned kind. I fear we are entering a deeply creepy time. At least under Howard the oppositional faultlines were clear...this time the social conservatives are marching under the banner of protecting the exploited. Oh, right, it's not that unfamiliar...

PS: I'm waiting for the outcry over Sigur Rós's video of their new single Gobbledigook, made in collaboration with New York photographer Ryan McGinley, which includes many disturbing portrayals of child porn. Or, alternatively, Edenic representations of youthful desire and freedom, which are probably, on reflection, even more disturbing to those who would prefer that such things did not exist.

PPS: ...and check out Corrie Perkin's excellent piece, The Rise of the Art Police, in today's Australian.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

...and also

My publisher tells me that my new collection of poems, Theatre, is at last in book form (it took a little longer than expected, and I just missed getting my hot little hands on it in England - apologies too to those who tried to buy it and found it wasn't printed yet). Those who missed the full TN advertisement, complete with flattering endorsements, can contemplate it here, and then, flushed with enthusiasm, order it directly from Salt Publishing. Or you can just wander down to Readings in a few weeks and buy it there, as copies are winging south as we speak.

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Three Men in a Bottle

This might displease Diana Simmonds, who thinks that it's outrageous that I speak about my husband's work (hey Diana, last I looked, journalists with conflicts of interests are not prevented from writing in those areas: they are required to declare them, so as not to mislead people about their provenance. And even my harshest critics have to admit that I couldn't have declared my interests more, well, openly). And here I am, being Keene's most "passionately biased", one-eyed and presumably lonely supporter - all those mainstage European productions and critical raves count for nothing, apparently - mentioning his work again! Hsssss!

Anyway, a reading of one of this Keene lad's comic plays, Three Men in a Bottle, is on this Sunday at the CUB Malthouse, as part of the Things on Sunday series. It's a cast to die for - Robert Menzies, Kym Gyngell, Julie Forsyth, Monica Maughan, Chloe Armstrong and Mark Constable, under the direction of Kate Davis, rising young directorial star of The Rabble. Should be a hoot. 2.30 pm this Sunday, July 13, bookings (03) 9685 5111. Tickets $10.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jetlaggish meditations

Your faithful blogger is back is town, with a baroque case of laryngitis incubated on the long-haul flight and an even more spectacular dose of jetlag. Yet for all such minor discomforts, I feel refreshed and revitalised. I had a fantastic time, which reminded me of some important stuff that is all too easily eroded in the hurlyburly chaos loosely known as my life.

I spent the final few days of my visit at the SoundEye Festival of the Arts of the Word in Cork, a completely brilliant and unique event which showcases, if showcase is the word, some of the most exciting things happening under the radar in contemporary poetry in Ireland, the UK and the US. There simply isn't an event in Australia like it (I'm not sure there's an event anywhere like it). It's one of the most intense, exciting and fun engagements with the possibilities of language that I've experienced. I plan to blog Soundeye a little more fully, to see if I can give you any sense of what it was, so watch this space theatrenauts, especially if you're interested in performance and language together. (And no, I'm not talking about performance poetry, but poetry as performance, which, I earnestly assure you, is quite different).

Some thoughts sparked by the festival are gleaming through the fog of jetlag, colliding with further thoughts emerging from the conversation under my review of Chris Goode's ...Sisters, which seems to have melded with attacks on Dan Spielman and Max Lyandvert's Manna, (on this week at the STC). And these thoughts then wandered on further and bumped into other thoughts which have been circling for some months now about the literary and intellectual culture in this country, and how unfruitfully it meshes with our theatre.

I have long suspected that our writing is the weakest part of our theatre, and it strikes me that the reasons for this go much deeper than a simple analysis of institutional structures and practice can reveal. Although I'd claim proudly that many elements of our theatre - performance, visual and sound design, technical skills and so on - stand with world's best practice, writing is too often like a poor, rather dim cousin on the fringes. And this has deep and worrying implications for everything else.

I'm not alone in my concerns about Australian theatre writing, although my thoughts are of a different timbre to most. On my desk when I came home was this month's Platform Paper by Chris Mead, artistic director of PlayWriting Australia, from Currency House: What Is An Australian Play: Have we failed our ethnic writers? I've glanced through it, and will give it a proper read in the next week - I hope - (on my floor is a huge boxful of scripts that I have to read this week as part of a panel for the RE Ross Trust Playwrights' Awards). But superficially, Mead is addressing the Anglocentric focus of Australian theatre culture, and how it marginalises minority writing. It looks interesting, and certainly deserves close attention.

But I suspect my own concerns go deeper than Mead's. It seems to me that any writing that steps outside a lamentably narrow paradigm is marginalised here, at a cost which is felt most deeply in our mainstream, but which reverberates all the way through the ecology of literature and theatre. The marginalisation of ethnic writers is only one of the symptoms. This is because the writing that kicks a culture alive is always the work that is rigorously doing something different, that questions basic assumptions, that won't fit - whether or not it exploits recognisable formal attributes - with what has gone before it.

We (excuse the rhetorical "we" - blame the jetlag, but I'm going to get stentorian now and shout in generalities) think in cliches, and this is where we betray most seriously our colonial mindset and stamp out most enthusiastically all signs of cultural diversity. Because literary thought (and I mean literary thought) in its broadest senses is marginalised in our culture, we lack an intellectual context in which new writing of any kind might be recognised. We are frightened (or simply ignorant) of the possibilities of language. And without a rigorous intellectual context, we will be stuck with half-baked experimentation or half-baked realisations of conventions, because any writing, conventional or not, that passionately addresses the possibilities of theatre will be greeted with hostility or, which is worse, total indifference. And this applies to Henrik Ibsen as much as to Sarah Kane, who is yet to have a mainstream production of her work in this country.

Can we find that context in Australian literary culture? I greatly fear that we can't. Theatre's where much of the most exciting Australian art is happening, and the more interesting reaches of our own contemporary writing are basically invisible, drowned in the sludge that here passes for literary culture. We're hamstrung in so many ways by what the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger tapes as the inevitable link between "mediocrities and delusions". That why we can't distinguish genuine experimentation from sheer wankery, or even recognise a good play, and turn to tired Anglocentric modes of writerly practice with timid squeaks of relief. If we want our theatre to matter, we have to be smarter. That means a lot of things. But maybe the first thing is to address our own incuriosities and illiteracies.

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