Brain updateBits and piecesReview: Just MacbethTime outDogs in the westReview: The Zombie StateIt's my birthday...La Mama gets thereJamieson makes it "relevant"Review: Red Sky MorningPersonalThe Minister You Have When You Don't Have A MinisterReview: VampThe perils of children's theatreReview: The Lonesome West, The Time Is Not Yet RipeAwards awardsReview: Life is a DreamNewsy bits ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 29, 2008

Brain update

A state-wide police alert has resulted in several unconfirmed sightings of Ms TN's brain, which disappeared without trace while on holiday last week. A police spokesman told media tonight that investigations were well in hand, and released the accompanying identikit photo. Anyone seeing a brain of this description is asked to contact the Missing Brains Bureau at once.

Ms TN pleaded tearfully for her brain to at least make contact. "I just need to know you're ok," she said. "Just a phone call will do."

The disappearance of Ms TN's brain follows a series of recent high profile brain abscondments among prominent government and financial high flyers. It's a problem which police are beginning to describe as "an epidemic". "In some cases, the brains have been missing for decades, but definitely things have got worse in the past few years," said the spokesman. "It's deeply concerning."

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bits and pieces

Yes, it's me, back from an all-too-short wallow in the ponds of idleness. I bought 6kg of books, read some of them, looked at lots of visual art, ate a wide variety of interesting food and didn't go near a theatre. Which can't be said about my time since my return, which has been rather theatre-rich. Yes, I've been going to the FRINGE. Of which more in ensuing days. My brain is still lounging by the virtual swimming pool, but I'm sending urgent telegrams and am hoping for some contact soon.

Some stop-gap notices while I await anxiously the return of consciousness, because there's no shortage of excellent online reading. First, I have uploaded a new issue of my literary ezine, Masthead, which is a special issue featuring an anthology of poems by poets from Poetryetc, a listserv founded by John Kinsella in 1997, and which I ran for many years. If I say so myself, it's pretty damn fine.

And over the past month or so, the blogs have been waking up - there's some excellent and thought-provoking reading around the traps, and what follows is a very partial list of what's been interesting me in the blogosphere lately, and which I suggest to you as great places to land your cursor. Those perennial faves of mine, George Hunka at Superfluities Redux and Chris Goode at Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, have been pounding the keyboards with all manner of interesting posts. Andrew Haydon at Postcards from the Gods has been uploading reviews like a maniac, as well as noting Andy Field's new blog, meaning Andy, one of the interesting British bloggers and up-and-coming young theatre artists, hasn't deserted us yet.

Closer to home, there's a promising new blog called Long Sentence No Suggestions, which features this startling and brave post from Martin confronting some of the demons we all have to face in this game. Which brings me, by demonic association, to the Fringe, well-summarised by Richard Watts, where the bloggers have it covered. Michael Magnusson is blogging heroically at On Stage and Walls in Melbourne, with extensive coverage of opera and music as well as theatre, and is currently heading, flags bravely flying, into the turbulent Fringey whirlpool. Watch too for the reviews on Jana's blog mono no aware. Some - ie me - are heading less bravely than others, but even so my schedule next week is as packed as I can manage. But I am a frail flower, especially when I look around and see what others are doing. No one, however, is showing such devotion to the Cause as Born Dancin'. As the man himself puts it:

So I made a calendar of 83 shows I thought I could get to at this year’s Melbourne Fringe (launched yesterday). I mentioned this to a friend and he said “Hey, it’s like Around the Fringe in 80 Shows”. Oh, I think you dropped something. WAIT, IS THAT A GAUNTLET? I accept the challenge. I’ll try to write up 80 capsule reviews here in the next three weeks.

THRILL! at the SIZZLING NEW ART I encounter!!!
MARVEL! at the pointless AMBITION of my task!!!
GASP! as my writing becomes increasingly erratic and HYSTERICAL!!!!
SKIM! the reviews for the BEST BITS!!!

83 shows? What manner of madness is this? I suggest volunteers ought to be at the ready in three weeks' time to pick up the bits. And I dips me lid.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Review: Just Macbeth

Just Macbeth by Andy Griffiths and William Shakespeare, directed by Wayne Harrison. Design by Pip Runciman, lighting design by Martin Kinnane, sound design by Tony David Cray. With Patrick Brammall, Pippa Grandison, Mark Owen-Taylor, Tim Richards, Rhiannon Owen and John Leary. Bell Shakespeare. Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 5. Seymour Centre, Sydney, October 8-26.

As anyone with the slightest acquaintance with a 10-year-old boy will know, the children’s author Andy Griffiths is a superstar. He has captured this notoriously book-shy demographic with titles like Bumageddon: The Final Pongflict or The Day My Bum Went Psycho, which feature shamelessly awful puns, bizarre imaginings and disgusting bodily fluids.

Among his most wildly popular books are his Just series (Just Stupid, Just Disgusting, and so on), which star the year 7 schoolboy Andy and his friends. I don’t know which genius commissioned Andy Griffiths to adapt Macbeth in the manner of these books, but they can have a whizz fizz on me.

One of the serious gaps in our theatre has been the lack of main stage theatre for children. Most often it’s hived off into educational programs or other worthy-sounding events, which of course have their value. But it’s crucial to develop audiences from a young age. And that means taking these young people seriously and including them, as European and English theatres do, in main stage programs.

Bell Shakespeare leads the way with this irrepressibly irreverent version of Macbeth, which appeals to the 10-year-old in all of us. Here the characters of the Just series, Andy (Patrick Brammall), Danny (Tim Richards) and Lisa (Pippa Grandison), find themselves studying Macbeth at school.

Andy’s response is, of course, to go to sleep. But under the spell of Lisa’s tyrannical charisma, he finds himself making the witch’s brew (eye of newt and toe of frog) for a school presentation, a scene which evoked all the appropriate ewww. Of course, the friends drink the potion. And then find themselves in mediaeval Scotland, magically transformed into the major characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The serious subtext is that this is a brilliant way to introduce young audiences to Shakespeare. In between the fart jokes, expectorations of marshmallows and pantomime business, Griffiths demystifies the language, explains in simple and hilarious terms the function of soliloquies and outlines the action and motivations of the play.

He unobstrusively brings in Shakespeare’s speeches, so the transparency of Shakespeare’s language when it is spoken gradually becomes apparent. As does its robustness: the major speeches still retain a moving power, despite - or perhaps in part because - of this most disrespectful of treatments.

Any kids who later encounter Macbeth proper will be well primed. Most importantly, as my shining 10-year-old nephew attested afterwards, they’ll know that theatre can be brilliant fun.

It’s directed by Wayne Harrison with ingenuity and theatrical wit, and performed by a sharp and enthusiastic cast without a hint of patronising. For children of all ages.

This review appeared in yesterday's Australian.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Time out

Ms TN is taking a few days off. Usually "time out" is code for something work-related, but this time she's doing as normal people do and having a real (albeit brief) holiday. If it's in tomorrow's paper, I'll post my Australian review of Bell Shakespeare's Just Macbeth; if not, be on notice that every 10-year-old in town ought to be dragged along by the scruff of the neck for this irresistible introduction to Shakespeare, courtesy of Andy Griffiths (of Bumageddon: The Final Pongflict fame). I enjoyed it hugely, as did my nephew, a paid-up Griffiths fan; but maybe not as much as the small boy behind me who kept on screaming "Kill the king! Kill the king!" as Macbeth contemplated his ghostly dagger. Ah, theatre...

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dogs in the west

I'm all for theatres in the west, which is my side of town. When Simon Stone opened the Hayloft Project in Seddon, I was briefly excited (especially when I went to see Platonov), but sadly that space ran into trouble through no fault of the Hayloft's. But it seems that the west's time has come.

The Dog Theatre, a nifty and well-set-up little space in Footscray's Dancing Dog Cafe, was launched yesterday with champagne and lots of enthusiasm. The theatre is about the size of La Mama, and with a similar - if new and raw - feeling about it.

It's opening on September 24 with a project directed for the Melbourne Fringe by our blogger friend Matt Scholten. It's a westy affair - Matt lives six doors down from the cafe, and he's putting on Daniel Keene's Half & Half. (Keene is a man of many identities, but is chiefly known as an eager patron of Coles supermarket in Williamstown.) Half & Half is a two-hander which - for once - deserves the Beckettian adjective that often attaches itself to Keene's work. It premiered as a Playbox/Keene/Taylor co-production in 2001, with Rob Menzies and Dan Spielman, and won the NSW Premier's Prize the following year. In this revisiting, it features Anthony Winnick and Matthew Molony. It promises well. (And in case you're asking - as with other indie productions of Keene's work in the past few years, I'm not reviewing it).

Upcoming Dog productions include a piece on Bulldog footballing hero Ted Whitten, again directed by Scholten, and some comedy. The connections with La Mama are more than superficial - watch for some exchange between a revitalised La Mama and the west. It promises to be a fertile new space in an area which is ripe for its own independent theatre.

The Dog Theatre, Dancing Dog Cafe/Bar, 42A Albert Street, Footscray.

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Review: The Zombie State

The Zombie State by Ben Ellis, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and costumes designed by Kate Davis, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti and Danny Pettingill, sound design by Darrin Verhagen. Melbourne Workers Theatre and Union House Theatre @ the Union Theatre, Melbourne University, until September 27.

For all my enthusiasm for popular culture, I am not hugely au fait with the genre of horror films. I can cope with the arty, Henry Jamesian end of things, but hard-core schlock horror has far too powerful an effect for me to watch it with any kind of pleasure. One of my more embarrassing moments, back in the days when I was a wage-slave journalist, was being sent to write my one and only film review for the now defunct tabloid shocker, The Sunday Press.

In those pre-DVD days, the half-dozen or so Melbourne crrritics were assembled in a mini-theatre at Hoyts for the preview. The film happened to be a remake of the old classic The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum. I'm surprised I remember anything about it: I spent a lot of time with my hands over my eyes, moaning "you mean, people pay to watch this stuff?", while the hardened hacks regarded me with deep perplexity. In a mini-cinema, everyone can hear you scream.

That was, quite rightly, the end of my film reviewing career. Since then, the only time I've dared to watch horror films is on the back of plane seats, where the screen is six inches wide and I can switch to a deeply unfunny Gwyneth Paltrow comedy when the music begins the shrill violin thing which means that the wide-eyed woman who is creeping down a dark hallway in her nightdress is about to die horribly with the maximum amount of splat.

And so it is that I've never watched a zombie film (well, not all the way through, anyway), which means that there are aspects of The Zombie State that are lost on me. For all that, it's not difficult to see the subversive possibilities of zomboid metaphors in critiquing contemporary society. The dehumanising power of corporatism seen through automonic workers was first explored in Karel Čapek's 1921 SF play Rossum's Universal Robots, and has been a hardy theme through radical 20th century writing. And it's a cue Ben Ellis and Daniel Schlusser have picked up with enthusiasm.

The Zombie State, which has been developed under the aegis of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, is maybe the first play to have a go at the clean, mean team of Kevin '07: the impeccably coiffured, business-friendly "third way" socialism you have when the Left as a governmental force as shrivelled and died, leaving in its place what is effectively a one-party state. It is also one of the first Australian plays which attempts to deal with a political landscape in which designations like "Right" and "Left" are increasingly meaningless, and in which traditional theatrical politics are drastically alienated from the social forces that they allegedy embody.

Ellis developed some of the dialogue from transcripts of workers' testimonials in the Howard Government's Commission for a Living Wage, and originally envisaged a piece of verbatim theatre, before deciding that a zombie play would be more fun and just as pertinent. The result is one of this year's more fascinating failures: a text that falls between straight satire and a more poetic impulse that never quite comes into focus.

The play opens in a waiting room - perhaps a Medicare office, perhaps Social Services, perhaps a hospital - in which a row of people sit in plastic chairs. On the left are those whose blank, dead eyes are deeply shadowed with zombified exhaustion; on the right are a group of people in smart suits, wearing phone headsets. For some time nothing happens, and we watch a smartly choreographed comedy of institutional boredom.

Then a woman demands robotically of a young man: "I'm sorry to ask this, but do you have private health insurance?" The lack of private health insurance means the young man can't afford to save an infected tooth. Instead, he has it extracted in an exquisitely carnal operation, and turns into a zombie: despite his pain, he insists on working his shift as a waiter in a nightclub, covered in blood and drugged to the eyeballs. And so zombiedom spreads it undeadness...

The neatly suited man is Kevin, the Prime Minister (Syd Brisbane). Kevin is visiting Melbourne with his team of four identical diary secretaries, for the 2021 Summit: he needs the best and brightest brains to power his new economy. What he intends to do with those brains becomes, of course, bloodily clear during the course of the play.

Spouting the groupspeak of think tanks and focus groups, the Canberra visitors move through the undead of Melbourne, marvelling at the effect of the brave new economy. They are staying at the casino, which is notable for its huge gas flames that used to roar up and roast unlucky seagulls before they introduced subliminal sound to keep the charred corpses at bay. The hellish gouts of flame are recurring images, flaring up and hypnotising the zombies, just as governments and people are hypnotised by the lure of fast cash.

Of course, the zombies (and seagulls) wreak their revenge, and it turns out that the head zombie is the PM himself, sacrificing his human vitality for the good of the country or, at least, for its corporate sector. And a fair bit of mayhem goes on in between, with dark plots involving bus drivers and bargain basement shopping centres and seers in wheelchairs.

Some of the more powerful moments are monologues from zombies, surreally fragmented descriptions of mundane suffering (tooth ache, mortgage panic) that perhaps are the shadows of the verbatim genesis of this project. This sits uneasily with the more didactic political satire, which amounts to a straightforward condemnation of the alienated and self-serving government-speak spouted by the politicos. The political fable overshadows the human experience that drives it, making the whole, finally, less than the sum of its parts.

There is a feeling that the production and text are straining against each other, and at times cancelling each other out. Certainly, the production dominates the play. Director Daniel Schlusser has assembled a hugely impressive team and uses it to good effect. Kate Davis's design features a screen that lifts to reveal a foreshortened hotel lobby/hospital space, with glassed boxes on both sides that be used as performance spaces or, with blinds drawn, for projections, which include scenes filmed in black and white.

The set is lit with the requisite bloody flair by Niklas Pajanti and Danny Pettingall, and features a brilliant soundscape by Darrin Verhagen. Schlusser has 23 performers, whom he directs in a constantly changing and always interesting mise en scene. It amounts to a hugely ambitious project that somehow loses sight of the trees in the thick of the forest, but which is still well worth a look.

Picture: The Zombie State, by Ben Ellis. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

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Friday, September 19, 2008

It's my birthday...

...and I'll blog if I want to. Was there a better way to usher in the anniversary of my nativity than by sitting up until 3am, drinking red wine and reading poems? Possibly - Parisien boutique hotels near the Place des Vosges spring to mind - but it will do. Or maybe it proves that, agèd and increasingly decrepit though I am, with all those years crinkling into crow's feet around my eyes and an ever-broadening white streak in my hair, there is still part of me that remains stubbornly adolescent.

For all that, the fact is that my youth was not so much fun and I don't have any nostalgia for it. I like the age I am. It feels fine. The zeitgeist might be feeling the chilly winds of history, world financial markets might be reaping their sub-prime karma, the global powers might be sticking depleted uranium pins into each other's colonies, the coral reefs are bleaching and the Siberian permafrost is melting into mush, but hey, here I am, and life is now, and life is good.

I have a couple of blog posts to catch up on - a review and a long-intended list of links to an increasingly lively theatrical blogosphere. And the US proofs of The Singing are sitting fatly on my desk, with a deadline rapidly approaching. I'll get around to all that, once my hangover abates anyway, and then I'm taking a few days off and fleeing this fair city for warmer (or at least less meteorologically bipolar) climes. It's a deep breath before I stick my toes into the turbulent waters of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, which lurches into chaotic life this Friday. I've had my usual MFF panic attacks, but have calmed down. I'll see some things, and miss most others, and I'm counting on others to make up the slack.  In the meantime - prost!

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

La Mama gets there

News just in:

Only two weeks out from its deadline, La Mama has raised the $1.8 million to secure the purchase of its Faraday Street home in Carlton, La Mama has achieved its goal.

Long-standing Artistic Director of La Mama, Liz Jones, yesterday received a letter from Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, The Hon Peter Garrett AM, MP, announcing the Federal Government’s contribution of $175,000.

‘This special one-off grant is in recognition of the rich cultural history of La Mama and its role in the development of our emerging young artists,' said Mr Garrett.

‘The Federal Government’s contribution, combined with the $40,000 that was raised at last night’s hugely successful Save La Mama Big Benefit Bash, held at the Athenaeum Theatre, just got us over the line’, said Liz Jones.

Last night’s sold out Save La Mama Big Benefit Bash that went through until the early hours of this morning included an overwhelming number of performers who revealed how integral La Mama is to Melbourne’s and Australia’s cultural life.

‘It's been incredibly affirming how generous our community, philanthropic organisations and local Council, State and Federal Government have been’, says Jones, who has been with La Mama since 1973.

Since they put out the call, Liz Jones has been overwhelmed by the responses which have helped the Trust to reach the target. As well as the $175,000 from the Federal Government, La Mama received generous donations of $350,000 from Jeanne Pratt of The Pratt Foundation, $250,000 from the Sidney Myer Fund, $170,000 from The City of Melbourne, $150,000 from the Victorian State Government, $150,000 from the Ian Potter Foundation, and $50,000 from each of the following: The Grollo Ruzzene Foundation, The Besen Family Foundation, Robert Salzer Foundation and The Harold Mitchell Foundation (to be used for operational purposes only), $25,000 from the Malcolm Robertson Foundation and $20,000 from Readings, along with support from other theatre companies, industry members, local traders, residents and friends of La Mama.

End press release. What a feat! Congratulations to La Mama and all involved. And now I'm orf to the theatre...

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jamieson makes it "relevant"

If theatre is to be "relevant", what does that mean? Nigel Jamieson will take the bull by the horns next week when he delivers this year's Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture, in which he plans to speak about the pressing need to make theatre that speaks directly to the conscience of its times.

Over the past couple of decades, Jamieson has created some of the most iconic large-scale outdoor events in Australia. These include Red Square at the 2006 Adelaide Festival and Tin Symphony in the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, which provided the iconic motifs of the Games, including the memorable ‘Victa Ballet’.

Most recently he directed Gallipoli for Sydney Theatre Company, in which he challenged audiences to confront the realities of war behind the mythology of the Anzac legend. Before that, his production Honour Bound, for Sydney Opera House and Malthouse Theatre, explored the incarceration of David Hicks in Guantanamo Bay and the undermining of the Geneva Convention by the Australian Government. The show toured to Vienna, Amsterdam, The Barbican in London and the NZ Arts Festival in Wellington.

The Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture, inaugurated in 1995, aims to encourage provocative thinking about theatre. Former speakers have included John Romeril, Rhoda Roberts, Lindy Davies, Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, Wesley Enoch, Nick Enright, Daniel Keene, Barrie Kosky and Lyndon Terracini. The event oscillates between Melbourne and Sydney, and this year it's Melbourne's turn.

It's a free event but it's advisable to book (9685 5111). 6.30pm, Monday September 22, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse. Be there.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Review: Red Sky Morning

Red Sky Morning by Tom Holloway, directed by Sam Strong. Designed by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Danny Pettingill. With Erin Dewar, Sarah Sutherland and Erin Dewar. Red Stitch Theatre until September 27.

I have often theorised, over various beverages (coffee, whiskey, absinthe) that, while Melbourne is an exciting place to be if you like going to the theatre, with some brilliant theatrical minds and bodies, our theatre suffers from one debilitating weakness: its writing. Waxing lyrical, I'd suggest that this might have something to do with an inward-looking, parochial literary culture. Or alternatively, perhaps it's linked to a conviction I've encountered now and then among theatre artists and, sometimes, critics that literature and theatre are activities that are not only mutually exclusive, but naturally opposed.

Writers can react in defence by turning into enormous intellectual snobs or, alternatively, dump the idea of literature altogether as an unnecessary affectation. There's often been a broad streak of anti-intellectualism in Australian theatre, that can sideline literary art as a secondary, perhaps optional, part of the theatre. Actors might train for years to discipline their voices and bodies but, hey, any fool with a keyboard can write. The other response is for playwrights to become the sterile kings of an untouchable domain, a la the Edward Albee school of theatre. (There's that joke: how many playwrights does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: none. No changes!)

By the time I've reached this point, I usually have to be scraped off the floor and gently pushed home before I start dribbling. Or worse, before I begin to expound my ideas about what writing can be in the theatre, which is good for another three hours. But all this is a long-winded way of signalling that I think there is, in fact, a rich loam of theatre writing in Australia, which, despite the production of exciting playwrights like Lally Katz or Ross Mueller, remains mostly unploughed. Judging the RE Ross Trust Play Awards this year, I read a number of adventurous and intelligent texts that, above all, were clearly written for the theatre, as opposed to being transposed novels or bad attempts at poetry.

This is at once encouraging and challenging. Because if there are all these writers making interesting plays, how can our theatre culture support them? The talent out there far exceeds what our mainstream theatres, even with the best of intentions, can produce. I began to wonder if Melbourne needs a theatre specifically for writers, a theatre which exploits our sophisticated theatrical practice to realise the possibilities of this new work.

Or perhaps there's Red Stitch. (I realise this is a cue for other independent theatres to clamour that they, too, put on new writing: yes, yes, yes. And I'm not ignoring La Mama or Hoy Polloy or any others. But certainly, there's Red Stitch). Tom Holloway's Red Sky Morning is the first product of Red Stitch Writers, a system of in-house play development started last year. This is a new step in Red Stitch's history, which since 2001 has concentrated on picking up and producing the overseas work that escapes the notice of the MTC, and it demonstrates that there's a world of difference between putting on a play, however well, and making theatre.

In choosing to produce Holloway's play, Red Stitch made a courageous bet. And it's paid off. Red Sky Morning is exciting work, which, as good theatre writing should, attempts to rethink the possibilities of theatre. And, crucially, the commitment of the director, performers and designers to realising this play shines through this production.

Tom Holloway has written what might be called a spoken oratorio, a poem for three voices that, like a piece of music, weaves through counterpoint and harmony and tonal collisions. Holloway exploits the patterns of ordinary speech, its repetitions and elisions and fractures, with consummate skill. There is, despite the year-long development, a suspicion now and then of over-writing, a mere whisper of a few words too many, but it's a solid and artfully worked script with a powerful emotional engine.

It consists of three internal monologues that follow the course of 24 hours in the life of a rural family, a Man (David Whiteley), a Woman (Sarah Sutherland) and a Girl (Erin Dewar). Each monologue is autonomous, touching the others not through dialogue, but through a complex pattern of echoes and repetitions. It's a device which reinforces not only the mutual isolation of each character but, poignantly, their unmet yearning to connect.

They are at first glance an "ordinary" family living an unremarkable life somewhere in country Australia. It's a familiar landscape to anyone who has lived in a country town. The Man is a shopkeeper, his wife does housewifely duties, and their daughter is a schoolgirl whose major preoccupation is her crush on her schoolteacher. But, as Holloway begins to excavate their inner lives, it becomes clear that tragedy - as Chekhov understood profoundly - is not only the provenance of the large gesture. It exists in the smallest details of ordinary life: in the caress misunderstood, the moment missed, the dream unshared, despair unsaid and unheard.

In fact, Red Sky Morning is a play in which, quite literally, nothing happens, which is perhaps one of the hardest things to achieve successfully on stage. It begins with a missed moment of passion between the couple, when the Woman farts luxuriously in the bedroom, and their mutual embarrassment creates an impassable wall beyond which neither are able to reach, despite their longing for each other.

The Man goes to work, the Girl goes to school, the Woman waits for them to leave the house so she can begin drinking. Each moment of violent rebellion against the loneliness and tedium of their lives splutters out into impotent fantasy; the only character who can still express her rage is the Girl, and we suspect that she, too, will learn to push down her anger and despair, hiding it underneath the deadening normality of domestic routine.

The beast which haunts this family is represented by the recurring figure of a hallucinatory dog (like Les Murray's black dog, which he used, after Churchill, to describe his own black depressions). The Man is deeply, suicidally depressed, a weight which perhaps has sparked his wife's alcoholism. This profound dysfunction makes their daughter long for a "proper" family, a family whose weaknesses don't expose her to shame and insecurity and finally, terrible fear.

Director Sam Strong gives this complex, delicate play a production which is remarkable for its precision - very necessary, given the demands of the text - and its troubling, erotically charged darkness. Peter Mumford's design, moodily lit by Danny Pettingill, is a stylised Australian house floored with red earth, its walls defined by venetian blinds that can be snapped open and shut. Like the text, the design blurs the distinction between inside and outside, the hidden and the revealed.

The performances all rise to the challenges of the writing. Whiteley is almost the cliche of the decent, inarticulate country bloke, to the point where he is occasionally outshone by the other two actors (this might account for the odd moment of over-direction in his performance). Sutherland and Dewar give committed, focused performances, wringing out of the text its painfulness, violence and comedy.

If ever you need evidence that a production's process is reflected in what happens on stage, this is it. It certainly justifies Red Stitch's investment in Holloway, who is clearly a talent to watch. And it makes an intense, deeply absorbing hour in the theatre, a production that patiently accumulates power towards its devastating end.

Picture: (From left) Erin Dewar, David Whiteley, Sarah Sutherland in Red Sky Morning. Photo: Gemma Higgins-Sears

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Time, maybe, to return to some basics. Recently on this blog there's been some discussion, if it can be called that, about the persona of Ms TN, including not a little libel (that's what it is, folks) and I've found it a bit depressing. A couple of critical (and extremely judicious) reviews - on Joanna Murray-Smith's Ninety and productions of The Lonesome West and The Time Is Not Yet Ripe - have prompted a hail of catcalls from the peanut gallery.

Well, being a critic is not a popularity contest. I've developed a thick hide over the years, and it's not being called names that bothers me. What's depressing is the entrenched belief among so many of the commenters that I must have some reason for the arguments made in my reviews other than those articulated, with care, in the review itself. That there are personal reasons that dictate my responses to a show - I hate women, I want to bed young men, I am consumed with envy, I want to promote my husband's career, personal vendettas - that override any other aesthetic or intellectual or emotional response to a work of art.

On the up-side, these accusations prompted an interesting discussion about the nature of criticism. But I found this swarm of accusations depressing beyond words: it opens up a stunning spiritual vacuum, a deadening triviality. Do these people really think that art itself means so little? I feel rather like the Stalker at the end of Tarkovsky's film: "Nobody believes," he says despairingly. "What's most awful is that no one needs it. No one needs that room. And all my efforts are just in vain."

That's not true, of course. The people who believe keep me going. And of course my reviews are personal, if not in the senses of which I am accused. How else are they to be honest? I have articulated more than once the modus operandi and motivations behind this blog. The problem is that those who accuse me of being less than open about what I do are also unlikely to read those explanations.

Of course I accept that a certain amount of ill-feeling goes with the territory, and regular readers know that I am always up for an argument. And that I'm also happy to question my assumptions, if persuasively persuaded. But I am going to routinely delete comments that personally defame me from now on.

They're not only boring; they deflect Theatre Notes from what it is intended to be. I'd like this blog to be an place where art can be taken seriously, where it can be assumed that theatre matters. I'd like it to be a place where people feel welcome, where difference can exist, where argument is productive and stimulating, where we can all learn, where we can play. Much of the time it is, and I thank from my heart those who have helped to make it so. Those who want to libel me can make their own blogs.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Minister You Have When You Don't Have A Minister

While our elusive Arts Minister, Mr Peter Garrett, spends his time propping up the pulp mill industry, it's nice to know that at least one member of the Federal Ministry is thinking about the value of the arts.

The Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, made an impassioned defence of the humanities in a speech to the Canberra Press Club last week. Announcing a raft of plans to support education and scientific research and development, he pointed to the close links between Research and Development and the humanities in creating innovation.

"They are both part of the same innovation system," he said. "It is obvious that scholars in the humanities, arts and social sciences benefit from advances in technology. Perhaps less obvious is the debt industry owes those scholars, who generate demand for new technologies by building a creative culture – a culture that is smart, curious and unafraid of risk."

Moreover, he claimed the changing nature of contemporary scientific research was making the humanities crucial to their development. And he finished with a ringing endorsement of the value of the arts in themselves.

"I believe the creative arts – and the humanities and the social sciences – make a terrible mistake when they claim support on the basis of their commercial value. Whatever they may be worth in the marketplace, it is their intrinsic value we should treasure them for.We should support these disciplines because they give us pleasure, knowledge, meaning, and inspiration. No other pay-off is required."

How long since you heard a politician say that? He is dead right, too. Science and art make each other smarter. You can read Senator Carr's speech, which makes for interesting perusal, here. And maybe Mr Carr is the one to invite to your next show. According to Nick Pickard, there is probably more chance of his turning up.

In other news today, Performance Space at CarriageWorks in Sydney has announced the appointment of its new director, Daniel Brine. Brine is returning to Australia to take up the position after a decade in the UK where, for the past seven years, he has been with the Live Art Development Agency (LADA). He is presently LADA's Associate Director, and has developed an impressive track record in performance and live art.

Brine takes over from Fiona Winning, Performance Space’s current Director since 1999. After nine years as Director, Winning — having strategically developed and relocated the organization to its new home at CarriageWorks — is returning to freelance writing and producing.

In fact, things are looking up in Sydney, where the Arts are now a Premier's Department portfolio. And the blogging community is steadily growing. The latest member is yet another colleague who has finally made the jump to cyberspace. Sydney crrritic James Waites, formerly of the National Times and the Sydney Morning Herald, has - at last - started his own blog. He promises to discuss many things, so expect shoes and ships and sealing wax as well as theatre reviews. If you haven't met before, you can make your acquaintance with James here.

Meanwhile, an odd note in Martin Ball's Age review of Vamp caught my eye. He claims that "for the first half of the show, the opening night audience sat in bemused silence, unsure where the show was going or what they should be thinking." And adds:

Meow Meow didn't take this indifference lying down. When one dramatic entrance failed to elicit any response, she pointedly remarked "I'm going to try that again", asserting control over the passive crowd. It's what we needed, really, to know our place.

Funny, I thought that was a carefully choreographed joke. And surely part of being in a Meow Meow audience is knowing your place (in the back row, for preference). Were we there on the same night? It was opening night, right? I recall enthusiastic applause and cheers after every song, right from the first number. Was I hallucinating? Was it that wibbly-wobbly time-wimey stuff? I'm curious to hear from anyone else there on that night who experienced this eerie silence...

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Review: Vamp

Vamp by Meow Meow and Iain Grandage, directed by Michael Kantor, musical direction by Iain Grandage. Designed by Anna Tregloan, lighting design by Paul Jackson, dramaturgy Maryanne Lynch, choreography Shaun Parker. Performed by Meow Meow with the Orchestra of Wild Dogs: Sam Anning, Iain Grandage, Martin Kay, Igor Oskolov and Ben Vanderwal. Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Opera House @ the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse until September 20. Sydney Opera House, September 24-October 5. Bookings: (03) 9685 5111, (02) 9250 7777

Meow Meow is a phenomenon. She takes all the clichés about the femme fatale and rolls them up into a glittering, hypnotic ball, which she tosses up into the air, drops, and then hurls viciously at the audience.

Metaphorically speaking, of course. But there’s something about Meow Meow that invites impossible metaphors. She works a dangerous art, creating performances which constantly tease us with the possibility of collapse.

A Meow Meow show has something of the fascination of watching Formula One racing: when is the car crash going to happen? Can that whiplash voice keep the forbidden desires she stirs under control? When is she going to snap and stop us from taking her to pieces with our eyes? Will her costume fall off again?

As a cabaret star, nay, legend, she’s been hailed from New York to Shanghai, and has worked with companies as diverse as Elision New Music Ensemble, Pina Bausch and the Opera Factory. She is an apocalyptic cabaret virtuoso, a trash goddess, a tragic diva, a predatory princess of the post-modern stage.

In Vamp, which is directed with what feels like a new and essential focus by Malthouse artistic director Michael Kantor, Meow Meow is unleashed into theatre. Here her celebration of the sexually charged woman – the “sexdeath” fascination of stars like Theda Bara, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks – takes on Biblical proportions. Meow Meow is bad, as bad as Lilith and Eve, as bad as the Judaean princess Salome, who used her beauty to wreak a horrible revenge on John the Baptist, the man who refused to respond to her desire.

The evening opens with a macabre rendition of Mon Homme, sung as Meow Meow caresses a bloody dismembered head. And strung through the rest of the show like a series of pearls are extracts from Oscar Wilde’s decadent play Salome: the sonorous Biblical cadences of Salome’s yearning for John the Baptist – “Thy body is white like the lilies of the field that the mower hath never mowed” – and the beautiful speeches to the moon, sigil of madness and death and feminine mystery.

Wilde is only one of literally dozens of cultural allusions, though you have to be mighty quick to pick up all of them. The vamp’s doomed lovers are represented on stage as mutilated shop dummies, a vengeful tribute to the disturbingly ambiguous doll sculptures of Hans Bellmer, and her perorations to John the Baptist are prefaced by breathy pleas to “Johnny”, a reminder that Meow Meow does a superb version of Brecht and Weill’s Surabaya Johnny.

Footage projected during the show includes scenes from Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent film of Salome and GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, in which Louise Brooks created the iconic figure of Lulu, Franz Wedekind’s tragic whore. And the songs reference a dizzying number of fascinating women, from Sarah Bernhardt to Montes, Mata Hari to Maria Callas.

The vamp here is a cultural construction, the vengeful, deadly product of the predatory male gaze. The destruction of her lovers is the mirror-image of how her lovers’ desire dislocates her being, their lust to possess making her an object even to herself. The vamp becomes at once the icon of female potency and is disempowered by her imprisonment in her sensual and inevitably aging flesh. It is perhaps not surprising that, like Salome, the only man she loves is the man who does not desire her. As Brecht’s whore Jenny laments (in that song Meow Meow doesn’t sing, but which echoes beneath this show): “You got no heart, Johnny, but oh, I love you so much.”

All this referential weight falls as lightly and rapidly as rain in a show that runs at top speed from the moment the star appears on (or, more correctly, off) stage. The figure of the vamp is filtered through Meow Meow’s tyrannical vulnerability, and is at once celebrated and satirised in the same way the act of theatre itself is constantly dismantled before our eyes. Shaun Parker's choreography shifts without warning, like the vamp herself, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and includes some spectacular aerial acrobatics.

But the occasion for the show, as it were, is the performance of “Seven Deadly Songs for the End of Time”, co-written by Meow Meow and Iain Grandage, which – as the star petulantly complains – contractual obligations require her to sing all the way through. Grandage’s music is the perfect counterpoint to Meow Meow, and itself a construction of allusions – Mahler, Jimmy Page, Weill – jammed together into a vital, breathing whole. And here wound tight by a very sharp band, the Orchestra of Wild Dogs.

It all adds up to a conceptual elegance and simplicity that is, given this show's complexity, perhaps surprising. Kantor’s direction is sparse and focused, with the excess on stage limited to Meow Meow’s performance. Anna Tregloan’s design reflects the lunar theme of the show as well as its cabaret roots with a round, intimate stage backed by a huge moon, on which the graphics and film extracts are projected. It is reached by a series of rickety steps perilously negotiated in high heels and is punctured by a door that leads “backstage” for Meow Meow’s costume changes. And mention must be made of Paul Jackson's superb lighting.

That magic voice teases, enthralls and seduces. And, finally, as all vamps must, moves us with her tragedy. It takes an excessive talent like Meow Meow to communicate the fin de siecle extremes of Wilde’s poetry. What Vamp demonstrates is Meow Meow’s profound dramatic instinct, which generates out of a dense melange of cultural allusion and play a sense of genuine tragedy. Oh, and she’s very, very funny.

Picture: Meow Meow as the Vamp.

A shorter version of this review appears in today's Australian.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

The perils of children's theatre

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Review: The Lonesome West, The Time Is Not Yet Ripe

The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh, directed by Görkem Acaroglu. Design by Emma Kingsbury, lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, sound design by Ben Grant, music arranged and performed by Caitlin French. With Luke Elliot, Ben Grant, Mark Treginning and Gemma Falk. Tiny Dynamite Theatre @ Theatreworks until September 21.

The Time Is Not Yet Ripe by Louis Esson, directed by Jane Woollard. Design and set painting by Amanda Johnson, lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle. With Kurt Geyer, Ming Zhu-Hii. David Adamson, Don Bridges, Melanie Beddie, Tom Wren, Grant Cartwright, Georgina Capper, Sharon Davis and Mike McEvoy. Here Theatre and La Mama @ the Carlton Courthouse until September 14.

There is an interesting, if elliptical, continuity between these two vastly different plays. One, Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West, was written in the late 1990s in Ireland; the other, Louis Esson's The Time Is Not Yet Ripe, a hundred years earlier in Australia. Both are black comedies which in different ways satirise the social and historical emptiness of a colonised culture.

There are parallels, as well as illuminating differences, between Ireland and Australia, even if they are rather more interesting than those outlined by The Lonesome West director Görkem Acaroglu in the program. (Acaroglu wins the prize for fatuous program notes for pointing out that "Ireland, like Australia, is an island surrounded by water. The Irish and the Australian's (sic) love travelling. Yet Australians, unlike the Irish, also suffer from the tyranny of their distance. The distance creates loneliness...a feeling of imprisonment, and often yearning and despair.")

Perhaps it's unfair to begin by criticising a program note; or it would be if the cliches expressed here weren't reflected in the production. Despite a couple of bravura performances from Luke Elliot and Ben Grant, McDonagh's play deserves a little more directorial sharpness: the production gives a sense that emotional complexities are here simplified, going for an easier, more clownish humour than the tragic comedy the writing aspires towards.

It's hard not to feel that Acaroglu might have been better off following up the common historical themes of colonisation and its legacies of concealed violence - the corpse in the attic about which everyone knows and nobody talks - and the cultural and personal amnesia that follows. As well as that sense of no-place - the conviction that life goes on elsewhere more richly and fully and meaningfully - that sucks the vitality out of any engagement with the present. This sense of displacement is, with its twin emotion, parochialism, the defining nostalgia of the colonised mind.

Certainly, McDonagh's black comedy, the final instalment of the Leenane trilogy he wrote in the 1990s, examines a kind of hell in which people are so brutalised they no longer recognise the realities of their own feelings. The Irish town Leenane becomes bleak portrait of contemporary Ireland, a consciously brutal counter-argument to the sentimentalised view of the land of poetically melancholic peasants larking about with shamrocks in quaint pubs.

A four character play like The Beauty Queen of Leenane (and Sam Shepard's True West, with which this play bears some affinities), The Lonesome West concerns two brothers, Valene (Luke Elliot) and Coleman (Ben Grant), whose sibling relationship is defined by vicious rivalry. Valene is a miser of Gogolian proportions, who conceals his hoarded poteen in a biscuit tin sealed by (re-used) tape and marks all his possessions, including his cherished collection of plastic Virgin Marys, with his initial. His violent brother Coleman has just murdered their father with a shotgun, and in order to prevent Valene going to the police has signed over the house to his brother.

The two characters who dream of something better are the young alcoholic priest Father Welsh (Mark Tregonning) and the foul-mouthed but innocent schoolgirl Girleen (Gemma Falk). Welsh is so ineffectual in his attempts to reform the village ("the murder capital of Europe") that no one gets his name right. Predictably enough, these two fail to survive the village - one drowns himself and the other goes mad. But it's a moot point whether the brothers have survived either: the worst, one senses, has already happened to both of them, and the long trail of mutual crimes between them is itself the result of unhealable damage.

How this play might situate itself in an Irish history marked by centuries of political violence and British occupation is beyond the scope of this review, but my bet is on a strong connection. It's probably worth pointing here to an essay I read recently about the early 20th century Irish revolutionary Ernie O'Malley, who has been heavily criticised as callous and unfeeling for his indifference to his brother's death. The Irish post-colonialist David Lloyd comments:

[O'Malley] writes with considerable cultural as well as personal insight in a long—and invaluable—auto-biographical letter from prison... about his middle-class Irish family and its inability to foster loving relations: “There was very little love in the family. I can honestly say that I never loved my parents, but I respected them.” Home life, he explains, “was none too congenial as its ties were never strong enough.” The sense of lack of affect is hardly unique to the O’Malley (or Malley) family in the Ireland of the time or for many generations since, and it would be valuable to have further study of the ways in which the intersection of Victorian values and colonial culture may have impacted the “structures of feeling” in Ireland at the time of the revolution.

This production aims for a sense of Irish authenticity, emphasised by the fiddler who plays Irish folk airs between or, at certain moments of emotional heightening, beneath the scenes. Given McDonagh's dialogue is written in Irish brogue, it would be difficult to perform without accents, but the violin blurs the anti-romanticising of the play (a broken fiddle might have been more appropriate). And it's certainly performed with energy and brio, bringing out the slapstick comedy between the warring brothers, if without a tragic sting. What emerges is a creditable but strangely underwhelming production.

The Time Is Not Yet Ripe is, on the other hand, a colonial oddity, like the paintings of misshapen kangaroos and oak-like gum trees that dot our galleries. Like the national argument about becoming a Republic - which, as Robert Hughes sardonically points out, has been hotly debated since the 1850s without our ever leaving the Monarchy - it demonstrates how Australian cultural amnesia results in a constant cycle of repetition. Perhaps the real (if somewhat depressing) virtue of this play is its demonstration of how little has changed in our mainstream cultural discourse. Even as things shift under the skin, the same repressive responses rise to counter them.

Esson's political satire was first performed in 1912 - five years before the October Revolution in Russia, two years before the outbreak of World War 1. Edwardian England was rife with new political ideas - a mood of public anti-Imperialism driven by the Second Boer War had seen the Liberals elected in a landslide, with Labour holding the balance of power.

Reading the literature of the time, it's fascinating to see how many preoccupations Edwardians had in common with us - feminism, republicanism, the endless question of national identity recur again and again. But with a few signal differences - the 20th century revolutions of Fascism and Socialism brought modern totalitarianism into being and left millions of corpses in their wake. Utopian belief is much harder to sustain in the 21st century than it was in 1900. And the political struggles of Indigenous people in Africa, Asia, America and here scarcely registered on the European map in Esson's time. Politics was a white man's burden.

Esson reflected the general European conviction that Australia was a "prose dull land" bereft of poetry (our first poet, the superbly named Barron Field, lamented Australia was "where Nature is prosaic, / Unpicturesque, unmusical, and where / Nature-reflecting Art is not yet born.") Esson the social satirist portrays a colonial society in which the present of elsewhere repeats itself here as farce, and in which a leaden inanition mitigates against change.

The occasion for the play is an election, where the Prime Minister Sir Joseph Quivington (Kurt Geyer) is defending his conservative government. The action revolves around two characters in rivalry for the same seat - Quivington's daughter Doris (Ming Zhu Hii), who represents a Woman's temperance party, and her fiance Sydney Barrett (Grant Cartwright), who is standing for the Socialists. Both represent repressive extremes at odds with The People, but in the end Woman wins with her mission to make politics, and everything else, more polite.

Jane Wollard's production takes on all the melodramatic cues, with varying degrees of success. There are a couple of wonderful theatrical conceits - Barrett's absurd speech, for example, in which he makes a call for more Egyptologists and poets, results in a stirring rendition of the Red Flag. Much of the time the artifice degenerates into shameless mugging, but there are very decent performances from Georgina Capper as the uptight Temperance activist Miss Perkins, Tom Wren as Tom K. Hill, an American investor, and Grant Cartwright.

Esson's insistence on an authentically Australian drama has made him an attractive figure in later periods of Australian theatre, but unlike, say, Oscar Wilde (whose wit this piece aspires towards) his work remains enclosed in its time. It bounces along painlessly enough, but all the same I felt sorry for the VCE students forced to believe that this play is anything more than a historical curiosity.

Picture: Luke Elliot (left) and Ben Grant in The Lonesome West. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Awards awards

I almost forgot to report the winners of the RE Ross Trust Play Award, which were announced at a glittering dinner before the assembled literati of Melbourne on Monday night. The occasion was the announcement of the winners of the Premier's Literary Awards, but we snuck in on their sequinned coat-tails. Such occasions do make me think of Dorothy Parker's report on Literary Rotarians, in which she claimed to have attended a literary gathering after drinking a cup of tea that "tasted very strange".

"When I came to my senses," reports Mrs Parker, "I was in the brilliantly lighted banquet hall of one of the large hotels....By pleading a return of that old black cholera of mine, I got away before the speeches, the songs, and the probable donning of paper hats and marching around the room in lockstep. I looked with deep interest the next morning [different times: Ed] for the bookmen's and bookwomen's accounts of the event. One and all, they declared there had never been so glamorous and brilliant a function. They wrote of it as they write of every other literary gathering - as if it were one of those parties that used to occur just before Rome fell. From that day to this, I have never touched another cup of tea."

But I digress. Unlike Mrs Parker, I was obliged to stay for the speeches, which were judiciously placed between courses and were also nicely short. I enjoyed Richard Flanagan putting a spanner in the works by damning corrupt state government in front of a very uncomfortable looking Premier Brumby, and enthusiastically clapped all the winners. In short, I was a good little Rotarian. And I clapped very hard for the RE Ross Trust Award winners, whom you can read, with judges report, here. After all, as one of the judges, I agreed heartily with the decisions.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Review: Life is a Dream

Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón, translations by Beatrix Christian, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and costumes by Marg Howell, lighting by Kimberley Kwa. With George Banders, Brendan Barnett, Johnny Carr, Andrew Dunn, Julia Grace, Sophie Mathisen, Vanessa Moltzen, Sarah Ogden and Josh Price. VCA Drama Company 2008 @ 28 Dodds St, closed last weekend.

Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

The Circus Animals' Desertion, WB Yeats

The stage is a vision of outrageous squalor. In the corner, a stained sheet curtains a small space (which when it is drawn back, reveals a toilet stuffed full of rubbish). Torn scraps of paper are strewn on the floor, and peeling wallpaper covered with graffiti hangs limply from some of the wall. The only thing missing is the smell, which, if this were a real room, must surely be a mixture of old cabbage, old socks, shit and stale blood.

Some kind of squat, perhaps. A scrawled column of crossed-off days on the wall suggests a prison. A scribbled sign announces that this is “Poland”. An imaginary space, since this is a theatre; a stage surrounded on two sides by audience members and inhabited by nine actors. For the duration of the performance there is nowhere off-stage, unless you count the curtained-off toilet where an actor might temporarily escape the audience’s gaze.

Some actors are sitting around a table, making tea. They are talking in low voices, and their conversation eddies into laughter at inaudible jokes. Another sits in a corner near a pile of dog-eared books and picks out some texts and reads them: fragmentary histories of the Cossacks, of Samarkand and the Silk Road. The actors are doing nothing, they are passing time. Every now and then, one of them has what appears to be an epileptic fit and there is a sudden urgency: her mouth must be wiped, she must be stilled. Then they return to their banal conversations and inscrutable rituals.

Although the actors are clearly performing, they use their real names. It is a little like a version of Big Brother, set maybe in some foetid Eastern European rooming house, and holds a similar voyeuristic fascination. The action swirls about the stage in a kind of brownian motion, and slowly begins to reveal patterns of power, desire and conflict: likes and dislikes, who listens, who obeys, who decides, who is ostracised.

Gradually these relationships begin to coalesce and formalise into story-telling. Sophie Mathisen tells her fellow inmates to enact Sleeping Beauty, as children do (“you be the prince, you’re the princess, you stand there…”) They do so more or less willingly; some of them subvert the story, some of them don’t want to be part of it. But this is merely a crude prefiguring of the larger story which the actors will enact during the course of a dense 80 minutes.

The banal and degraded reality depicted here is the raw material – the “rag and bone shop of the heart” – from which emerges a fragmented performance of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s most famous play, Life is a Dream. Calderón was a 17th century Spanish playwright of astoundingly prolific output – he is on record as having written more than 200 plays. Life is a Dream is, as its title suggests, among other things a philosophical questioning of the nature of reality, couched as an epic fairytale about the royalty of Poland.

Briefly, the plot concerns Basilio (Andrew Dunn), King of Poland, who has a son, Sigismundo (Johnny Carr). His birth kills his mother, and among other evil portents leads Basilio to believe that Sigismundo will grow up to be an evil and tyrannical king. So he is taken away and shackled in a prison cell. As Sigismundo reaches adulthood, Basilio begins to wonder about his succession, and orders that he be brought to the palace and awakened by the courtiers, to see whether he can transcend his predicted fate. If he behaves like a beast, he will be taken back to his prison and told he has had a dream.

Sigismundo wakes up, tries to kill the king and rape a woman, and is duly returned to prison, where his guards convince him that it has all been a strange and vivid dream. But now a bunch of Polish revolutionaries know of his existence; they release him and overthrow the king. Sigismundo, who is naturally confused about reality, decides against revenge and forgives the king, deeming that even in our dreams, kindness matters. Various pairings are married off. The End.

With its various complex divagations, the play is enacted with admirable economy by the performers, the passionate beauty of Beatrix Christian’s translated fragments emerging organically from the apparent chaos of the performance. The toilet doubles as Sigismundo’s prison; he is taken out in a state of physical abjection, his elbows and knees painfully chafed and scabbed, his wrists red with the rubbing of shackles. And this is where the concentrated realism of this production begins to pay off.

We are told several times by performers that “this is not a game”, and the boundaries between a mere “game”, a play, and an easily defined “reality" become more confused, more disturbed. The scabs seem as real as the boiling water in the kettle, the games between the performers take on darker and more confronting resonances. And it becomes clear, through the medium of performance as much as through the language, how human beings make stories as a way of surviving a meaningless world, and how these stories create their own realities.

Certainly Life is a Dream generates a sense of extreme unease which is difficult to trace, a cumulative effect reinforced by a various soundscape of ambient noise and music. The potency of this show is driven both by the disciplined focus of the performers, who remain intensely present in their various selves, and by Daniel Schlusser’s direction, which underpins the performance with an acute attention to emotional and linguistic rhythms.

The balance between contrasts is very finely judged, and seldom falters: the performance oscillates between clarity and confusion, high poetic and aggressive banality, movement and stillness, comedy, the threat of actual violence and – suddenly and surprisingly, with that directness that stabs the heart – elegiac lament. This is hard to achieve because the performers must continually generate and sustain its realities; it is work that flirts with its own nothingness, and which must walk that narrow line where failure beckons at every moment.

I thought it remarkable and beautiful theatre. Life is a Dream is one of the most successful explorations I’ve seen of the poetic connections between imagined realities both on stage and off. Although I’m not sure whether “success” or “failure” are appropriate words here: this is one of those works which makes such terms feel wholly redundant. I’m glad I was there.

Picture: Johnny Carr as Sigismundo in Life is a Dream. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Newsy bits

This year's winner of the VCA's George Fairfax Memorial Award is Simon Stone, actor-about-town and founder of The Hayloft Project, one of the most interesting young companies in Melbourne. Aside from something impressive to put on his CV, Stone wins $20,000 to assist his artistic development.

He plans to develop his first original text, which will be devised, workshopped and performed by The Hayloft Project. He's the latest name on a pretty interesting list. Previous Fairfax winners include Chris Kohn (Stuck Pigs Squealing and now artistic director of Arena), actor Luke Mullins (presently a member of the STC Actors Company) and Chris Bendall (artistic director of Deckchair in Perth).

Meanwhile, David Williams has some good news for NSW artists - the State Government has at last released its guidelines for funding submissions in 2009, after a year of uncertainty, during which artists have been frankly advised by arts bureaucrats to try their luck interstate. David also gives a useful summary of main points of the NSW arts policy review. Let's hope this ushers in some better times for Sydney independent theatre.

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