Review: NinetyArchival adventuresDivertissementFestivally notesStuffWith friends like these...This Author businessReview: Cat on a Hot Tin RoofEpic? That's not half of it...Review: Lands EndReview: Axeman LullabyHeaven on a stickFull Dress PressOn EcstasyBlackout ~ theatre notes

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review: Ninety

Ninety by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Simon Phillips. Designed by Andrew Bellchambers, lighting design by Nick Schlieper. With Melinda Butel and Kim Gyngell. Melbourne Thetare Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 4.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s latest play, Ninety, is a short portrait of a failed marriage. Isabel, an art restorer, has begged ninety minutes from her former husband (and now hugely successful film star) William, before he flies off to Paris to marry another woman.

Isabel (Melinda Butel) wants William (Kim Gyngell) back, and in particular wants to remind him about a past he is wholly denying. And in the hour and a half he grants her, they relive the highs and bitter lows of their relationship.

There are two ways of reading this play, which in fact seems rather like two different plays jammed unsatisfactorily together. One is to take it at face value, as an affirmation of the unbreakable bonds forged through the shared joys and griefs of marriage. The two narrate their history (employing the obligatory device of flashbacks), stripping away the defensive aggression with which they greet each other to reach a mutual understanding of what they have shared.

The other interpretation is more interesting, perhaps reaching towards the forensic incision of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (which Murray-Smith recently adapted). But without Bergman’s excoriating compassion and emotional precision, this subtext sits uneasily inside the first, and never integrates into a fertile ambiguity.

In this second reading, Ninety is an unrelievedly bleak portrayal of contemporary marriage. Neither character seems to have an inner life: their personalities are expressed, like the murderer in American Psycho, solely in terms of material possessions and social status.

A surface wit elides what is at times a breath-taking cynicism in the characters, in their relationships to each other, to themselves and to art. They talk about love all the time, but what they call love is merely narcissistic self-reflection: Isabel even claims at one point that women only fall in love in response to a man’s desire.

The single breach in their mutual self-absorption is their daughter, Bea. The play shifts gear in the final half hour, when we discover that she is dead. And in the end, the only thing these two people have in common is their grief and loss.

Murray-Smith’s grasp of writerly form is never certain enough to sustain the acuteness required to make this interpretation wholly work: the script’s toughnesses are undermined by the play’s constant reassurances to the audience that nothing too uncomfortable is going to happen. The promise of the emotional pornography of self-revelation is, in the end, what drives the drama.

The switch in the play is engineered clunkily by the plot device of the dead child, and its dramatic climax feels unearned. There are a couple of wonderful monologues where the script lifts into dramatic expressiveness, but for the most part the language settles for reportage rather than gestic action, which undermines its ironies. Too often one feels the cynical jokes are to be taken at face value.

Simon Phillips gives Ninety an elegant production in the round which features strong performances from both actors. Gyngell in particular is compelling. The minimal set consists of a revolve which imperceptibly moves one and a half turns – like a clock hand going through an hour and a half - during the course of the show. It revealed when it reached my side that the painting Isobel is restoring is a bad copy of Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage.

Which maybe favours the first reading. I’m still not sure; perhaps both are intended, but are not sufficiently integrated to generate the energy of true contradiction. In the end, I didn’t enjoy thinking about this play, for many reasons. But mostly because it left me feeling empty and rather depressed; it looks into the abyss of human self-deception without any of the spiritual sharpening that makes doing so worthwhile.

A shorter version of this review appeared in yesterday’s Australian.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Archival adventures

A couple of bloggers have been digging into their archives and returning with some rich reflections. George Hunka at Superfluities Redux reposts a fascinating essay which considers Schopenhauer in history, with a little tour around Hegel, Marx and Freud as seen through the lenses of Shakespeare, Goethe, Brecht and Beckett. Had I but world enough and time, I'd probably trace a similar line from German Enlightenment philosophy through Coleridge (whose thinking influenced Emerson and, through Emerson, Nietzsche). I temperamentally prefer Coleridge's unruly brilliance to Schopenhauer's Teutonic pessimism; but then, I would, wouldn't I?

Meanwhile, David Williams, multi-hatted artistic director of version 1.0, has posted a piece he wrote in 2000 at Compromise Is Our Business. Here he analyses step by step the process of theatrical collaboration. "This section is a prelude to a description of the workshop stage of version 1.0's The second Last Supper (2000-2001)," he explains, "and as such is an interesting record of the early stages of us working out what the hell it was that we were doing, and our possible place(s) in the world of performance."

Which yet again demonstrates that if you want some sustained public thinking about art, blogs are the place to go. The news this morning suggests that any possibility of Fairfax sharpening its arts coverage is vanishing like an ox in a pool of piranhas: the board yesterday announced that the SMH and the Age will be shedding 550 jobs, including 60 journalists from the SMH and 50 at the Age. CEO David Kirk claims that this will not affect quality, a claim that is hotly disputed by the journalists themselves and also by the ghost of common sense.

Although Fairfax shares bounced up at the news, it doesn't take rocket science to predict that, in the absence of anything to read except lifestyle supplements, circulation will continue to spiral downwards. Former editor Eric Beecher rang the death knell on Fairfax back in May: "Fairfax is no longer a quality journalism company," he said gloomily. "It is a local newspaper/printing/online dating/internet trading ads company". Something Lynden Barber has no trouble in corroborating: as he points out, these days the SMH is all class.

Most people point the finger at the internet, although some of us think that's only part of the story, and that the decline has been fairly steady since the 80s. But it's bad news for culture, no matter how you cut it. As Nicholas Pickard at Sydney Arts Journo keeps pointing out, the first place to feel the knife is always the arts.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Andrée Greenwell emailed me yesterday, asking if I was planning to write anything about her show The Villainelles, which was on for two nights last week at North Melbourne Arts House. "Am more than down in the dumps," she said, "re a second season of what I am sure will have no reviews." And, gentle reader, my conscience smote me; this blog is, in part, supposed to be a place where things that vanish under the radar can get a bit of attention, although I confess that, even in a small city like Melbourne, that's a task that's beyond my physical capacities.

The Villainelles is a show of startling conceptual simplicity. Andrée collected poems about notable women, legendary and historical - a various bunch from the Virgin Mary to Princess Diana to Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Amelia Earhart - and set them to music. She sings them herself, with backing from a eight piece band and vocals from Donna Hewitt. The first name of each woman is projected on the back wall of the stage for each song, and there is some restrained but dramatic lighting. It's a presentation that rather recalls the musical theatricality of Laurie Anderson: not quite cabaret, not quite concert, not quite theatre, but with elements of all of them.

The reason why I haven't written about it is that two of the poems she set are mine, which represents a certain conflict of interest. ("Alison Croggon yet again demonstrates her remarkable lyric genius, thus proving her unrivalled place in the pantheon of greats"... Ha! Who wouldn't want to write their own reviews?) The bulk of the poems are by Melbourne poet Jordie Albiston, whose poetry collections Andrée has adapted into music theatre (The Hanging of Jean Lee, recently shortlisted for the Best Music Theatre Script prize in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, and Botany Bay Document). Another is freely adapted from a piece by Kathleen Mary Fallon.

The title, The Villainelles, is a pun taken from a fiendishly difficult poetic form, the villanelle, (invented, like tennis, by those sadists the French). The villanelle is a 19-line poem which uses only two rhymes and in which lines are repeated as refrains: the most famous English example is probably Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night". It's an appropriate title for a series of songs in which passion and attention to form are driving preoccupations.

The show demonstrates Greenwell's versatility and theatrical flair. The music draws on an eclectic range of influences from contemporary rock to cabaret to folk, and each song musically responds to each individual poem. It makes what could be potentially an earnestly feminist piece into a rich work, musically and emotionally complex, excavating the darkness, scandal and various passions of individual women.

As for me, I loved what Andrée did with my work. She chose poems that are distant from me now, which seem to me to have been written by someone else, albeit with a certain glaze of familiarity. To my surprise (my poems have been set to music before, and I'm kind of used to composers transforming them) the poems are sung as written. And in their new settings, they seemed completely fresh and surprising. I can't think of a bigger compliment.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Festivally notes

As you all know by now, it got through: this week it was announced that Melbourne is now, after Edinburgh, the second UNESCO City of Literature. Let's hope we can live up to it, although there's no way we can claim the kind of literary heritage Edinburgh has. And there have been unkind comments in the Australian about the Melbourne Writers Festival. Well, whatever you think of the festival, you can't claim that the 2008 program isn't big.

If you're going cross-eyed trying to work out what to see, never fear: Ms TN has filleted out those sessions of interest to the thespian-minded among us, which is why both of my pupils are now riveted to my nose. Observations about there being a lot of nose to look at will hereby be treated with the hurt disdain they deserve.

This Sunday, there are a couple of sessions for which it should be well worth making the trek to Federation Square. Barrie Kosky, fresh from wowing the Scottish with The Tell-Tale Heart at the Edinburgh Festival, will be in conversation with theatre historian/director Julian Meyrick about his Melbourne University Press book (I'd call it a booklet, if it were not not quite right) On Ecstasy at 10am at ACMI 1.

Barrie will be talking later the same day with the distinguished director Jim Sharman - whose memoir Blood and Tinsel (a weighty tome, rather than a booklet) is also just out from MUP - about changes in theatre over the past couple of decades. I'm sure that will be worth hearing - I'd be surprised if there weren't provocation in bucketloads. That's at 5.30 at the BMW Edge, and will be mediated by broadcaster Julie Copeland.

I'm chairing a session next Friday, August 29, in which theatre historians Julian Meyrick and Gabrielle Wolf - who have respectively written histories of the Nimrod Theatre and the APG, the leading theatres of the 1970s New Wave - will be discussing their history and impact on present day theatre. That's at 2.30pm at ACMI 1.

It's not all directors and historians. Joanna Murray-Smith will be holding up the playwright end in a session on Monday, August 25,that explores "issues of identity and belonging" with Waleed Aly and Diana Sandars. 6.30pm at ACMI 2.

Going beyond talk sessions, comedian/librarian Josh Earl will be doing his stand up act at the Festival Club from tomorrow night. Meanwhile, if you have a spare $130 a head, you can eat a meal and be entertained by "dramatic readings" by some of our best actors, including David Tredinnick, Jane Clifton and Paul English, at the Bottego Restaurant for Beyond Cuisine.

As for me: my other dates are all poetry. Tomorrow at 12 noon at the Festival Club I'll be reading at the launch of Over There, an anthology of Singaporean and Australian poetry published by Ethos Books, along with Edwin Thumboo, Alvin Pang , Madeline Lee, Aaron Lee, Angeline Yap and Isa Kamari. This one is unticketed, so come along for free wine and free poems.

At 5.30pm on Thursday, August 28, at ACMI 2, I'll be talking about contemporary Australian poetry with Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Justin Clemens and Robert Gray. We're supposed to predict the next big thing, but who knows? I certainly don't, so I'll talk about something else.

And finally, a session I'm really looking forward to - on Friday August 29, I get to discuss Anna Akhmatova, one of the great lyric poets of the 20th century, with the eminent Russian historian Orlando Figes in a session chaired by Ellen Koshland. It's a chance to read some of Akhmatova's work out loud, which will be a pleasure. 4pm at the BMW Edge.

And then it's September, when I can hang up my Author hat and go back to being an obscure and private writer. I hope.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008


At this time of year, every man and his dog (except this little puppy and, oh, about a billion others who are sitting at home watching the Olympics) is at the Edinburgh Festival. It has a definite antipodean tinge, as the current AD is our very own Jonathan Mills. Local lads Barrie Kosky and Gideon Obarzanek are there flying the flag for Melbourne in the main program, and so far as I can see doing us proud - The Tell-Tale Heart (under the aegis of Malthouse Melbourne, their overseas moniker) has won rave reviews and Chunky Move's spectacular dance piece Mortal Engine is certainly making it big in the pictures department. I think every second independent theatre in Melbourne is over there too, battling it out in the Fringe. Let us know how you're going, guys.

Meanwhile, closer to home, La Mama Theatre is continuing its gargantuan effort to buy its theatre. They're still $500,000 off the mark, having raised an astonishing $1.2 million since May. On September 15, Greg Carroll and Mike Bishop are organising a gala fundraising night at the Athenaeum Theatre, with a glittering line-up of local stars - the list so far includes Gerry Connelly, Judith Lucy, Michael Kieran Harvey, Brian Nankervis, Jane Clifton, Simon Palomares, Vulgargrad (a Russian criminal folk band fronted by one Jacek Koman) and many others. Tickets are $55 and you can book at 9650 1500 or Ticketmaster 1300 136 166.

If you can't make it, you can still donate. Drop in cash /post cheques or gold bars to La Mama, 205 Faraday St, Carlton, P.O.Box 1009. Receipts will be posted and all donations are tax deductible.

In other news, Tom Holloway has won the AWGIE best play award for Beyond the Neck, a play which explores the Port Arthur Massacre. You can get your hands on the script at Playlab, and then, primed for more Holloway, you can get along to Red Stitch from August 29 to see the premiere of Red Sky Morning, Holloway's most recent work, which was developed by the theatre. Bookings 9533 8083 or online.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

With friends like these...

Via Skepticlawyer, Ms TN this morning read some astoundingly crass comments by the Age's art crrritic, Robert Nelson, which were published in the print edition. Mr Nelson was, not so long ago, in the news defending photographer Bill Henson (and Nelson's own wife) against charges that they were child pornographers. And some of his comments sadly justified the average arts-hater's view that artists are chardonnay-addicted ponces who consider themselves superior to ordinary mortals.

At the time I thought Nelson's defences of Henson's art were odd, since comments he made in a 2005 review of Henson's work in fact sounded very similar to the criticisms made by those who wanted to ban it. He accused Henson of displaying "a vulgar relish in depicting naked, pouting youngsters" and said his "good landscape work is discredited when used as a backdrop for rehearsing the lubricious display of nubile or pre-pubescent children". Henson's work, he said, "is an aesthetic of spying, granting you an illicit glimpse, as in all pornographic genres, a teasing sexual spectacle with ocular impunity".

I don't agree with Nelson's analysis here, but that's beside the point. He's perfectly within his rights to think what he likes. But it made me wonder if his very public defence of Henson was a matter of protesting too much... Who knows? Who cares? There he was, out defending art's essential superiority to every other aspect of life, rather than its profound and vital investment in life itself, and making the rest of us look like noodles.

And last week he was at it again, this time attacking sport as "the antithesis" of art. One quote will do - as Skepticlawyer says, this man is impossible to parody:

The social role of sport is to provide an outlet for intelligent people to behave like brainless people. Everyone knows there’s no intrinsic point in shifting a leather ball from one post to another, no matter how energetic or invested the contest. Nothing is achieved outside the game; no one is wiser or can add a benefit to the world beyond the fury of the struggle.

Contrast this with the markedly brainy Roland Barthes' beautiful meditation, What Is Sport? Speaking of watching a soccer match, Barthes says:

To watch, here, is not only to live, to suffer, to hope, to understand but also, and especially, to say so - by voice, by gesture, by facial expression... in a word, it is to communicate. Ultimately man knows certain forces, certain conficts, joys and agonies: sport expresses them, liberates them, consumes them, without ever letting anything be destroyed.

All art, Nelson says with enviable certainty, has a "purpose behind the work". Untangling this one is a complex business beyond the range of this snark, but Ms TN suggests that Robert Nelson should, for a start, have a careful read of Susan Sontag's classic 1963 essay, Against Interpretation.

It certainly seems to me that Mr Nelson understands very little about either sport or art. The poets of ancient Greece, who thought both were essential celebrations of human possibility, would have found his attitude mystifying. Next on Nelson's reading list could be the Odes of Pindar. Pindar, who died in 442BC, is credited with inventing the Ode, a form of lyric poetry. And most of his Odes were in praise of athletes. The oldest was written to celebrate the victory of the runner Hippocleas in the double stadium race in 498BC. The final, written when Pindar was supposedly 72, was in praise of a wrestler, Aristomenes.

PS: Just to add a theatre spin... it's worth mentioning that Samuel Beckett is in Wisden. As a spin bowler.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

This Author business

It's Sunday, enough excuse to be bloggishly personal... Ms TN's week as an Author has left me feeling a little (as Bilbo said to Gandalf) like butter spread over too much bread, although I've been fortunate enough to have been doing a double act with the charming Toni Jordan. I've been wearing my populist hat: I've been touring for the Books Alive reading campaign, for which The Gift is one of "50 Books You Can't Put Down", and I've been developing serious muscles lugging various editions of my BFFB (Big Fat Fantasy Books) around the state. I have a quieter week this week, although I'm looking forward to The Villainelles, which includes musical settings of some of my poems, at North Melbourne Arts House and a garden party at Government House. Then, after a swift trip to Sydney to talk BFF at the Mosman Library, I enter Slim Volume territory and become an Arts Elitist: I'm talking about poetry and theatre and even reading some poems of my own at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I'll remind you of these dates and some other interesting MWF theatre titbits closer to the time.

And I've been doing media. Oh yes. Toni and I were big in Saturday's Warrnambool Standard. And yesterday, in a bizarre synchronicity, I appeared in the Age twice. I was a Writer in the My Space column (not online, alas, otherwise you could read fascinating details about the objects I keep on my desk) and then, twirling my moustache, I had a bit part as the Mean Crrritic in a profile of Joanna Murray-Smith. I'm beginning to wonder how many hats I can put on before they cause an avalanche of millinery. I'll be back to what passes for normal in September, and polishing my eyeballs in preparation for the 2008 Melbourne Festival. Can't wait.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, directed by Gale Edwards. Set and costumes by Stephen Curtis, lighting design by Matt Scott, music composed by Paul Grabowsky. With Essie Davis, Martin Henderson, Rebekah Stone, Deidre Rubenstein, Chris Haywood, Gary Files, Grant Piro and Terry Norris. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre until September 13. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

“Personal lyricism,” said Tennessee Williams, “is the outcry of prisoner to prisoner from the cell in solitary where each is confined for the duration of his life.”

It’s a statement that encapsulates the urgency that underlies this playwright’s work, the consuming loneliness which drives its passions. His plays pierce the tragic nature of human consciousness, the awareness which at once makes us understand that we will die and confines us in the solitude of our skulls.

“Ignorance of mortality is a comfort,” says Big Daddy (Chris Haywood) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “A man doesn’t have that comfort, he’s the only living thing that conceives of death… a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it…”

This dance between death and silence on the one hand, and desperate outcry, the animal “squeal”, on the other, is the engine of Williams’s great tragedy. Each character in this desperately dysfunctional family is wounded, and it makes each of them cruel.

And each of them talks all the time, a constant babble of words which only reveals a profound inability to communicate. “Communication,” says character after character, “is awful hard between people…”

Language here is a miasma of deception, a weaving of plots and counter-plots as different family members compete for a place in Big Daddy’s will. But, as Williams makes clear, this ruthless greed stems from emotional lack: money is what they seek instead of love.

Director Gale Edwards has chosen to stage Williams’s original play, rather than the slightly less bleak version he wrote for Elia Kazan’s Broadway premiere. It’s a decision that pays off: this is a compelling and powerful production which never shies from Williams’s histrionic excesses or unrelenting cruelties.

Stephen Curtis’s gorgeous set is dominated by a huge bed with a mosquito net which reaches up into the flies, an ironically lush symbol of the play’s variously barren marriages.

Like the set, the performances are heightened, bringing this domestic drama into the arena of classical tragedy. Essie Davis is a magnificent Maggie, at once brittle and tough and vulnerable, and is ably met by Martin Henderson as Brick. And Deidre Rubenstein’s performance of Big Mama is extraordinary: in the final act, her face becomes a tragic mask.

There are quibbles, like Chris Haywood’s wavering accent or a relatively unimaginative sound design. But they remain quibbles. This production picks up Williams’s theatrical poetry and writes it large, in all its painful and mercilessly vital beauty.

Picture: Essie Davis in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photo: Justin McManus

This review appears in today's Australian. There is much more to say about both Williams and the production, but I have to go to Warrnambool this morning on the Author Track and I don't have the time to rewrite the review.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Epic? That's not half of it...

In the run-up to the Melbourne Festival, Spark Online is publishing a mega-interview with artistic director Kristy Edmunds. Like a proper epic, it's in parts. Part 1 here, Part 2 up today and Part 3 promised soon...

Meanwhile, my Esteemed Colleague Mr Boyd roundly ticks off Philippe Genty, finishing with the observation that "Stage craft without ideas is like... is like religion without god". He's right, Genty is soaked in that peculiarly French misogyny (which I note with my signature über-subtlety via a reference to Jacques Lacan, arch-analyst of the feminine absence, who once told feminist theorist Luce Iriguay that women were not capable of understanding their own sexual pleasure). Myself, though, I don't think it's ideas that are missing...

As for me, I'm surviving my first week as an Author. It's hard to escape the feeling that one is a performing dog, especially when - as I was on Tuesday - I'm faced with a rank of sullen schoolgirls who would rather be anywhere else. (Thank you Ann, indefagitable Pellinor fan, for providing a friendly face in the audience). I'm glad that the books are thought to be worth promoting, but I do feel a little like that character in Barton Fink speaking about the film producer: "He's taking an interest, Barton. He's taking an interest. It's a disaster!" (Update: to be fair, it's been pretty fun most of the time. And hellooo, Warrnambool! That was cool!)

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Review: Lands End

Lands End by Philippe Genty. Compagnie Philippe Genty. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until August 16. Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, August 20-23. Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay, August 27-September 6. Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, September 10-13. Bookings: 1300136166

There is a special mystery to the art of animation. A gifted puppeteer can invest inanimate things with an emotional resonance that defies explanation: the least human object can seem to express the most profound human feelings.

I’ve wondered if this is because animation – seen in the work of anime masters such as Isao Takahata or Hayao Miyazake as much as in stage puppetry – is able to abstract human gesture with a heart-breaking lucidity. This opens the world of feeling to the accuracy and freshness of poetic insight, with its ambiguous tensions between the material world and the intangible realities of imagination.

Philippe Genty is one of the acknowledged masters of European puppetry, although his work is more properly a fusion of dance and animation. His stagecraft is impeccable, and the illusions he creates range from the grotesque and comic to moments of breath-taking beauty. Lands End is no exception.

It’s a series of surreal vignettes that explore the contingencies of desire. On a stage framed by moveable black flats that change its dimensions and also hide and reveal the eight performers, Genty creates virtuosic transformations.

The show opens with some classic French clowning: a hand appears from behind a flat. A man in a suit and hat, a signature Genty figure, vanishes and returns, carrying a cardboard cutout of a man which he seats at a desk at the side of the stage. He then produces a gun, which he shoots into the flies. A huge fish falls to the stage floor. And when we look again at the desk, the cardboard cutout has transformed into a real person.

This man has a box on his desk on which is written “email”. He hurriedly writes on a piece of paper, and posts it into the box, and the letter flies out and dances off. To whom is he writing?

What follows is a dream-like narrative that explores the comedy and pathos of human miscommunication. Letters fly through space, are torn or lost, or devour their readers. A man and a woman, whose identities constantly transform, seek each other through a beautiful and grotesque landscape of desire.

Genty’s notion of the impossibility of human love, its constant mistaking of its object in the fantasies of the self, is almost Lacanian. And like Lacan, for all his virtuosity there is an indefinable quality missing in Lands End, a promise that is never quite disclosed. It impresses and delights, but it never reaches into the deeper realms of feeling.

This review appears in today's Australian.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Review: Axeman Lullaby

Axeman Lullaby, choreographed and directed by Phillip Adams, score by David Chisholm. Lighting design by Paul Jackson and Niklas Pajanti, costume design by Doyle Barrow. Musicians: Aaron Barnden and Peter Dumsday. Dancers: Joanne White, Clair Peters, Carlee Mellow, Stuaty Shugg and Jacon Brown. Axeman: Laurence O’Toole. BalletLab @ Chunky Move Studios until August 17. Bookings: (03) 9685 5111

When you enter the studio, it is filled with an edgeless darkness: a spotlight shines aggressively on the audience, forcing you to blink, and the air is soft with smoke, so you can’t see where the walls are. And then the lights go out and you are sitting in impenetrable darkness. For a moment, nothing happens: and then, unbelievably, you hear the rhythmic fall of an axe, and the woodchips from the blow skittering to the ground.

That can’t be right, you think. Nobody could be chopping wood in this darkness, they’d chop their own feet off. But the steady strokes continue, and the lights slowly rise, deep red, like a murky dawn or a dream of blood, and there is indeed an axeman, steadily braced before a log thicker than a man, bringing the axe down on the wood again and again. And you can see that the edge of the axe is fine and dangerous, he lands his axe and the chips fly out and land on the floor with a sound as light as rain, the blade goes deep into the wood and is lifted and falls again and again.

This is no mimesis of work, but the work itself. The axeman is world champion woodcutter Laurence O’Toole (which is why he can chop a log in the dark without dismembering himself) and his constant physical presence at the back of the deep stage is a present reality that pins Phillip Adams’ dancework Axeman Lullaby to the heavy work of manual labour. And it reminds us that the settlement of Australia was as much a war against trees as against the indigenous inhabitants. The forests of early European Australia rang with the music of axe on wood.

And, as in the story of Jimmy Governor, a half-caste Aboriginal who went on a murderous rampage in 1900, sometimes the axe, the weapon of conquest, was turned against the conquerors. Jimmy Governor’s life was the basis of Thomas Keneally’s novel The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, which was made into a film by Fred Schepsi in 1978, and also inspired Les Murray’s poem The Ballad of Jimmy Governor.

As a symbol of settler anxiety and buried white guilt, it’s hard to go past the resonances of this story. It has crucial elements of Australian bush gothic: the murder of women and children, left vulnerable in the bush; the sexual stain of miscenegation and its bloody revenge; the brooding hostility of the landscape itself. Phillip Adams has loosely – and sometimes not so loosely – drawn on this story for Axeman’s Lullaby, which in its various movements works up to a climax of violence, with a brief denouement of lament.

Most of the sound is made by the dancers and the axeman. At the beginning, the floor is covered with a square made of different lengths of wood, which the dancers with their (blunted) axes work in stylised representations of labour, and which are then thrown into a disordered heap – a movement that sounds, as my partner remarked, like a glockenspiel exploding. The whole studio becomes an instrument, played by the bodies of the dancers. This percussive inventiveness is counterpoised against a minimal score by David Chisholm for piano and violin.

The dance is a precise, anxious phsyical language that moves between tropes from classical ballet and contemporary dance, with a thrilling explosion of indigenous dance from Jacob Brown, who also advised on the indigenous themes for the show. Adams is a profound exploiter of melodrama, walking a narrow edge between naive passion and stylised sophistication; his shows have a rough and direct emotional quality belied by the precision of the choreography and its fine expression by the dancers. It’s a quality, for what it’s worth, that strikes me as very Australian: you sense something similar in the ballads of Nick Cave.

It makes Axeman’s Lullaby a wholly absorbing experience: it’s a short but densely packed work that annihilates any sense of the passing of time. It's constantly surprising: the only moment I returned to earth was when some scenes from Schepsi’s film were projected onto the back wall, which introduced a more literal language that seemed tautological here. A brilliant, uneasy work.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Heaven on a stick

I mean, Dr Who meets Shakespeare! The RSC's latest Hamlet, starring David Tennant, has been the most hotly anticipated show in Britain for months. And controversial - it's provoked sharp comments about celebrity culture from, among others, Jonathan Miller. But had I 500 pounds and an air ticket, I would be so there. The reviews have just come out, and they're laudatory.

Michael Billington at the Guardian says this is the funniest Hamlet he has ever seen, although he misses the "philosophical" aspect of Hamlet in Tennant's "active, athletic, immensely engaging" performance. Paul Taylor of the Independent says of Tennant: "This actor has most of what it takes: the braininess, the breadth of spirit, the reckless irony, the bamboozling banter, the sense of layered depth. He can produce moments of sudden stillness when he seems to be dazed by the vortex of meditation...So what's missing? ... At the moment, that strange double-feeling of exposure and spiritual connection is not as strong here as one could wish." But, for all their reservations, both critics are deeply impressed, and make me wish I had a Tardis.

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Full Dress Press

Very interesting news in my mailbox this morning. Full Dress Productions, which under David Frazer has been producing some very respectable indie theatre about town, has announced a new Melbourne-based performing arts press, Full Dress Publishing.

They've certainly spotted a gap. "Despite being the independent theatre capital of Australia, it's surprising that Melbourne doesn't have a publishing house with a specific focus on the performing arts, particularly given the calibre of the work produced," says David. "I am very excited to fill the void."

And they've started in style, with two playwrights who mark, as David says, a "generational leap" in Melbourne theatre writing. The company’s first two titles, Ross Mueller’s Construction of the Human Heart and Three Plays by Lally Katz – The Eisteddfod, The Black Swan of Trespass and Smashed, are on sale now from the company's website. They'll be launched, no doubt in the obligatory shower of cheap wine and cheese cubes, at a Melbourne Writers Festival event hosted by the incomparable Julie Zemiro. The details are:

Date: Friday, August 22, 2008
Time: 2.00 – 3.00pm
Venue: Festival Club, ACMI Function Space – Federation Square, Melbourne
Cost: Free public event, no booking necessary

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Monday, August 04, 2008

On Ecstasy

Those who have followed Barrie Kosky's theatre over the past two decades should already know that the man is a rampant sensualist. This quality is often obscured - or perhaps evaded - by popular perceptions that he is (a) an arch intellectual or (b) a show off, both of which are assumed to be somehow above sensual delight, or even opposed to it. On the contrary, flamboyance and intellectual passion are the dress of sensual vitality. Underneath the eye-catching raiment, the divine and profane meet in the naked body. And there the self is overwhelmed, even annihilated, by the stimuli of touch and taste, smell and hearing and sight, in a present moment which is so fully inhabited that it becomes all we will ever know of eternity. Ecstasy.

Those who refuse to hide from the intensities hidden within ordinary human experience tend to become mystics or poets. Or, perhaps, a certain kind of theatre director, theatre being an artform where the pragmatic material world and the finite human body collide with the ineradicable human impulse towards the divine, or whatever it is that wrenches us out of our quotidian selves into a wider possibility of being. (We all have our own names for it; I call it beauty). And perhaps it's no wonder that people prefer to think of Kosky as a clever dick. It's easier than admitting the painful, exhilarating worlds that exist at the edges of one's own skin. As the poet said, human beings cannot bear very much reality.

For Kosky, ecstasy begins with his grandmother's chicken soup. "My Polish grandmother," he says, remembering himself as a seven year old boy, "made a chicken soup like no other chicken soup....[It] was the Caravaggio of soups. The Rainer Maria Rilke of soups. The Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli of soups..." It happens when he is watching HR Pufnstuf or losing himself among the mink coats in his father's fur warehouse in Richmond or in the symphonic smells of the boys' changing rooms at school. And, three decades later, he experiences the same rapture in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Such ecstasy, as the mystics knew, is not expressible in language, which seeks to imprison the fluid moment in a fixed, linear past:

In the end, this music can only be experienced. Interpretation fails. Words are useless. Recordings do it no justice. You have to see the melody emerge from deep within the singer's body. To hear the melody being born out of the singer's mouth. To touch the melody as it travels through space. To smell the melody as it floats around you. To taste the melody as it submerges into your own body. Echoing. Vibrating. Ecstatic.

For all the impossibilities of language, Kosky's essay On Ecstasy, released this month by Melbourne University Press, is a seductive, exhilarating and illuminating read. It will tell you a lot about Wagner and Mahler and the ecstatic possibilities of theatre but, like ecstasy itself, it's not really biddable to interpretation. Kosky writes like he talks, with the same excessive gestures, the same self-mockery, the same passion, the same sense, dare I say it, of show business. I totally enjoyed it. The best thing to do is to read it for yourself. Second best, you can get to the Melbourne Writers Festival at the uncivilised hour of 10am on August 24, and hear the man himself in conversation with Julian Meyrick. Better still, do both.

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Friday, August 01, 2008


In a neat illustration of tech age pathetic fallacy, TN has been cut off from the world (gasp) since Wednesday, the internet problems coinciding with a flu-like virus which has scythed down most of the family. After several long sessions with tech help, I'm now downloading about 30,000 emails. OK, maybe not quite that many. Bear with me while I catch up...

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