MIAF: Appetite ~ theatre notes

Saturday, October 25, 2008

MIAF: Appetite

Festival diary #11: Thursday

Appetite by Ross Mueller, directed by Kate Denborough. Set design by Kennedy Nolan Architects, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti, costumes by Paula Levis, composer New Buffalo (Sally Seltmann). Kage @ Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until today.

As we barrelled down St Kilda Road in search of post-show consolation, my outraged son told me that Appetite had bruised his soul. I guess he takes his theatre very personally. But then, how else is one to take it?

And I was right with him. Appetite was one of those dismaying experiences which make you flee the theatre in search of strong alcohol, so disheartened that targeted destruction of the relevant memory cells seems like a top priority.

I'm sure I sat through most of it with my mouth open in disbelief. Kage is, after all, the same company which made Headlock, and Headlock was, in stark contrast to this show, a visually thrilling piece of physical theatre that was an intensely moving and honest exploration of masculinity. (It also, signally, didn't have any words in it). Appetite, on the other hand, was a very bad play punctuated by some ordinary songs and uninspired dance.

I wanted to stand up like John McEnroe and shout, You can't be serious! Being a well-behaved little crrritic, I didn't. Alcohol was the only option. (This is why theatre can be so bad for you.) But onto the post mortem.

The text of Appetite seems, in fact, like a bad imitation of Moira Buffini's West End hit Dinner, which was produced by the MTC back in 2004. Dinner is the story of a woman who throws a celebratory dinner party for a representative bunch of friends, during which their hypocrisies and moral emptiness become manifest and the emptiness of their lives is exposed. I am almost going to sleep describing it, although to be fair it wasn't a bad couple of hours in the theatre. For all its superficiality, it was sharp and funny.

Take out Buffini's mordant, literate wit and throw in a good dose of moral sentiment, and you have the premise of Appetite. Catherine McClements plays a woman who is turning 39 and, in celebration, throws a dinner party with 39 courses - one for each year - for some badly chosen friends. As they consume various courses and drink excessively, they degenerate into an orgy of drug-taking and sex.

At about course 124, over the suckling pig, McClements begins to see the emptiness of her careless, middle class life and rediscovers her love for her husband. It ends with a cosy uxorial chat over the wrecked dinner table in which the happy couple croon truisms to each other about living each day as if you are falling in love, instead of doing the proper thing and shooting each other.

In between the excruciating dialogue, there were sequences of dance or almost dance that failed almost completely to exploit the accomplished dancers in the cast. The only interest I managed to get out of the evening were moments in which something in the movement began to come to life, but these were shortlived. Certainly, New Buffalo's trite songs (originally intended to be played live, but delivered as a recorded score due to the artist's illness) did little to enliven proceedings.

It was nicely lit and quite pretty. But seldom has decadence been so dull.

It's only fair to say that this show cued a lot of enthusiastic applause from the capacity audience. (My inner McEnroe stood up and shouted again). OK, I'm cantankerous, but my feeling of utter discouragement was quite real. There was not one point where the self-involvement of the characters on stage cracked open, not one point of imaginative contact where the script - and I blame Ross Mueller's text for this debacle - opened up into actual complexity. As an audient, I was expected to run along the rails of this moral fable to its banal revelation, when the playwright offered up the Meaning of Life as a reward for obediently making my way through the rat maze of Art. The only other possibility was total revolt.

So, gentle reader, I went out and was revolting. And then I wrote this purgative review.

Picture: Catherine McClements and Michelle Heaven in Appetite. Photo: Jeff Busby.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your review in evey sense.
I texted my friend after the show that i needed to go and get drunk after that work. What a shame about the cast trying to make a go of such crap. I blame the festival director for programing Kage. Never before have I wanted my money back. Shame on Edumds,
Cringe and throw up

Alison Croggon said...

Taking the long view - difficult to maintain, I admit, in the haze of distress after seeing this - it's not the decision to program Kage that's the problem. It was the programming of this particular show, and this is perhaps only evident in hindsight. New work always carries an amount of blind faith which is generated by a track record, and there's no guarantee of success. Myself, I loved the last Kage show I saw, and was immensely looking forward to this one.

Alison Croggon said...

...also, it got a rave review in yesterday's Age (admittedly, the critic did seem to be rewriting the program). Which I can't link to because of their online policy of ignoring the arts. Obviously some people liked it as much as I didn't. Which leads me to wonder if people liked it because it told them what to think, with none of that messy uncertainty. Which is in fact a thought more depressing than the show.

Anonymous said...

I was looking forward to this because I enjoyed KAGE's "Headlock" a great deal and and thought Ross Mueller's "Constructions of the Human Heart" was great. What a disappointment. When I have high hopes I'm often a bit let down but there was more to it than that in this case. I thought the physicality was OK. But the soundtrack was an irritating banal intrusion. And the script was awful, capped by an ending that was hard to believe--the woman's solution to her alienation and boredom and the hollowness of her life is to decide(??) to be attracted to her husband again, with life otherwise going on much as before? I guess that will make her life meaningful as she listens to her hubby's real estate discussions at their social gatherings. And later I was struck by reading the program notes, where it seemed that the original idea for this was prompted by reflections on the apathy and indifference we find ourselves with in modern times in the face of global tragedies and injustice, etc., and on our inability to act or engage in response to continual bad news about the world. But at the end of the play there wasn't the slightest whiff of the woman becoming engaged with the larger world, it didn't seem that her life would become any less insular than it had been.

Anonymous said...

I am sick of going to see theatre made by artists in their late 30's to mid 40's about how dissatisfied they are with your affluent,middle class lives...why oh why must we sit through the torturous, banality the live every day!

And I am offended that Ross Muller felt no need to answer when an audience member asked at the Q&A after how he felt the the piece dealt with the starting points and themes talked about in the program, because obviously it didn't in any way shape or form do any of the things stated! Justify your tax funded work sir!!!

Anonymous said...

Take heart Alison, only ten more sleeps until Malthouse brings down Kosky and Wright's brilliant "Women of Troy." Everyone whose opinion I respect says its the best thing they have seen in years. Cannot wait.

Anonymous said...

i went to see this work because of the review in the age. Boy am I pissed of. I sat next to a women that huffed and whole time and when the cake got shoved down the actors mouths she said. " Thank god I was wanting to do that for the past hour"
Dreadful work

Chris Boyd said...

I guess he takes his theatre very personally...

Speaking of which, I don't suppose you ran into Ross this evening? I thought he was gonna take a swing at me... And, comparatively speaking, I was rather kind!

But then, I think I'd prefer RM's heated shirt-frontation to glazed-eyed invisibility. Been getting a bit of that this week. (More than usual.)

Heh, the spam check word is r-hooked!! (As in right hook!)

Anonymous said...

Didn't go and see this KAGE show because quite frankly have given up on them.

Okay, now No (Under) standing anytime in Next Wave way back when was a beautiful thing, real highlight of that festival.

But from here the words "all style no substance" keep coming to me when I see their work.

The excreble (is that how you spell it) show they did for kids at the North Melbourne Town Hall was simply awful. Have never sat amongst so many children bored and shuffling in my life.

Their Nowehere Man was pretty good, but again, not enough brains to match the style. That was the show with the muscle man.

Then you get something like Collapsible Man, but this is more likely to be Gerard van Dyck rather than Kage - so I kinda don't put that in the same group as the other stuff. A beauty of a show, a beauty.

Then you get the dross that is Headlock. You say you liked this Alison? Really? I mean, you swap between a scene of a bloke in his prison cell, then to a memory of when it was all good, then back and forth with absolutely no journey to speak of, and some kinda interesting dance stuff, but what's with the clock counting down? Is that so I can be continually reminded of the fact I still have to sit through this thing?

Sorry, so much more interesting stuff going on than to sit through stuff like this. Like Sunstruck for instance. Now that is what I'm talking about.

regards, the Baron

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be anonymous for this one, I really just want to raise a question, rather than assert an opinion. For what it's worth, I agree that the show doesn't work (though I certainly enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than the awful non-theatrical LIST that was 'That Night Follows Day'). But, the thing I wanted to ask: is it really fair to blame Ross Mueller? From my understanding Kage were definitely the ones pulling the strings on this. In the forum after the show it was said that they discarded around half of the script that Mueller wrote -- and who knows what light for the shade went with it? And in the forum, too, all of the dancers were very quick to say 'I can't act, I don't understand words', so really, why should Kage assume the authority to discard even a single word of a play that Mueller (who we KNOW can write) has carefully crafted? Would he come in and mess with the choreography? Okay, so this has become an opinion, but my feeling when I watched the show was that there was once, maybe, an interesting play in there, but one that had had the heart ripped out of it... and I think they tried to replace that heart with dance. Maybe as he watched that process unfold, Mueller had the heart ripped out of him, too, and was left powerless to do anything about it? (no I'm not Ross Mueller in disguise) I'm not sure that any of that is the way it actually happened, but watching the show I couldn't escape from the feeling that instead of weaving a dance into a play, Kage had chopped up a play, discarded what they didn't understand, and wedged bits of not-very-magical dance in between.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon-I-quite-understand-which-is-why-I-haven't-blocked-anonymous-posting-despite-some-temptations:

You've got a point. And are no doubt correct in suggesting so nicely that I might have been unfair, since how can one judge without knowing what happened in the process? Yes, we all know that Ross Mueller can write up a storm. I guess I felt the text was so dominant in this production, to such negative effect, that I was inclined to point the finger there, since from where I was watching the words seemed to be stifling everything else. That's watching effect, not process, and I could well be wrong. The fact is that all the creative team have to bear responsibility. I do wonder what the dramaturg was doing...

Anonymous said...

I saw this show on Friday night and have been to a few kage shows in the past. I agree with Alison;s comments about the shared process. The artistic creativity as I read in a preview under went 18 months of development. One would presume that during these periods spread out over some time I would imagine that the entire collaborative cast would have gained some insight as the direction of the work.
Non the less in light of this the production did misfire dreadfully and at the expense of a Festival work for the company. Lets hope that they can recover with a new work, that I hope will not indulge in dancers pretending to act and 3rd rate choreographic physical narration that served no purpose but cliche in between filler.

It stresses me to think that the arts centre will replace this sort of work post MTC. We have had enough bad Joanna Marry Smith bourgeois plays to dampen our appitite over the last decade. The physical theatre of KAGE is not at the level of contemporary performance compared to the European sensibility,and would need far greater exploitation of experimental examination to great affect to get me back into the fairfax.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Belinda - funny, I had a similar twinge - a sudden vision of Physical Theatre Goes David Williamson. And Baron - forgot to answer - yes, your honour, I did like Headlock! You can click through to my review if you want to know why and make appropriate gagging noises...

Anonymous said...

I will sign off here, with my final comment.
what I find interesting is the way this work has caused such a vitriolic retort amongst arts communities. Not sure if there is a divide in like or dislike but can only judge my opinion on the audience's surly silent but some how unanimous " what the hell is this" ripple effect by the 15 mim mark. The politeness of Melbourne's applause and utter dismissal of this work has got me thinking.
In any case well done KAGE for causing some good controversy among the ranks. better luck next time

Alison Croggon said...

If nothing else, it demonstrates how potent theatre can be. Film doesn't cause anything like this kind of visceral effect, for better or worse. But I think there are other factors playing here. I can't help but notice this is the most commented review of all the MIAF ones I've done. No doubt a bit of expiation - I felt the need too - but somehow I feel a bit sad that there's not the same desire to comment about what's been enjoyed, too. Maybe there hasn't been the same level of pleasure for others that there has for me. But more on this and other thoughts later.