MIAF: The Big Game, Three, Kitten ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 13, 2008

MIAF: The Big Game, Three, Kitten

Festival Diary #2: Saturday

The Big Game, directed by Sue Giles. Designed by Geoff Kennedy, lighting by Richard Vabre, music composed by Ania Reynolds, costumes designed by Ella Misso and Rebecca Clark. Polyglot Puppet Theatre, North Melbourne Meat Market.

Three, choreographed by Ohad Neharin. Costume design by Rakefet Levy, lighting design by Avi Yona Bueno, sound design by Ohad Fishof. Batsheva Dance Company @ the State Theatre.

Kitten, written and directed by Jenny Kemp. Set and costumes by Anna Tregloan, composition and sound design by Darrin Verhagen, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti, choreography by Helen Herbertson. With Christopher Connelly, Natasha Herbert, Kate Kendall and Margaret Mills. Malthouse Theatre until October 25.

It is, I suppose, part of The Festival Experience to find oneself waving a blue plastic plate on a stick at 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning. This, mind you, after an ill-advisedly late night. But there we were, me and the Esoteric Rabbit himself, amid a noisy bunch of small, enthusiastic children and assorted adults, barracking for Our Team in The Big Game.

This was Polyglot's free show for children, and it is no small tribute to note that it got jaded aesthetes like me and Matt into the groove, even though we're supposedly well outside the recommended age group (5-12). It was a heap of fun. When we arrived, we were given the said paper plates, which assigned you to a particular audience area and your "world". There you were greeted by a personal cheerleader, who explained the deal and led the waving and chanting.

The show itself is a kind of animated board game that fills the gigantic atrium space at the North Melbourne Meat Market. The plot involves a nefarious inflatable volcano king and the kidnapping of his daughter by three Game Masters, who thus blackmail him into permitting the game to be played. Volunteers are then chosen from each "world", massive dice are thrown, and children move around the board and perform various tasks - star jumps, drawing a picture, hooking a fish from a wooden boat - according to where they land. They are accompanied by Game Masters in huge purple top hats, Ania Reynold's bouncy music, played live, and the enthusastic backing of their worlds. Whoever gets home first wins.

It's a fun premise, and involved the best sort of audience participation. Certainly the children present responded vociferously. Our team (Ocean World) won, and our representative, Courtney, had to fight the volcano king. This involved a mass distribution of paper planes to the audience, which were then thrown on the count of three at the king. That huge space suddenly alive with a flock of paper planes was a joyous sight.

Those who wished could stay after the show and play the game themselves, or explore the colourful and intriguing installation that doubles as the set. Matt and I went off to find some coffee, feeling remarkably light-hearted.

My next appointment was a marked contrast: Batsheva Dance Company's Three, in the plush velvet and brass of the State Theatre. This is a triptych choreographed by Ohad Naharin, Batsheva Dance Company's artistic director for the past two decades, to three constrasting works of recorded music - one of Bach's Goldberg Variations performed by Glenn Gould, Brian Eno's minimalist electronica piece, Neroli, and a mashup of contemporary music.

This joyous and humane work is performed by dancers in an assortment of casual contemporary clothes with an clarity that is thrilling to watch. The design is very plain, the stage in shades of grey and black, with minimal lighting changes. The only objects are big grey speakers hanging from the flies, which remind us that this is recorded music, music to which any one of us might casually listen on cd players and ipods.

The three pieces are quite distinct, although the design and costumes remain unchanged for each. In the brief interludes between the first and second dances, a man (I presume Ohad Naharin himself) walks on stage carrying a small television, behind which drags a long lead, stirring ripples of laughter among the audience. He stands mutely while on the television screen he does a deadpan introduction to the next piece, and just as mutely walks off.

What's striking about Three is its lucidity and elegant, seemingly effortless, accuracy. It's a style of dance that carries the pure movement of classical ballet into contemporary gesture. In the first piece this clarity was so strong it made me think of those Assyrian reliefs at the British Museum, an association reinforced by movements from the dancers that recollected Egyptian heiroglyphs. The second involved all the women of the company, carrying a disturbing subtext of militarism and throttling conformity that played against a gentle satirical lightness. The last, with the whole company back on stage, sees the individuality of each dancer breaking out from the tyranny and harmony (both qualities were present, winding tightly against each other) of the group.

When the lights went up, I found myself moved and stirred without quite knowing why. Naharin's choreography holds a number of things in exquisitely erotic tension - the group and the individual, perfection and imperfection, the real and the ideal human body. And ultimately, for all its purity of gesture, it's a celebration of common humanity, all the more powerful for its understatement.

After a short break, I finished off the day at Jenny Kemp's new work, Kitten. This, Malthouse Theatre's contribution to MIAF, was a keenly anticipated show. Jenny Kemp is a respected auteur, a theatrical visionary whose dreamscapes in her 1989 show The Call of the Wild still vibrate hauntingly in my memory.

This is Kemp's first work for five years, and she is backed by a top-flight production team - Anna Tregloan, Niklas Pajanti, Darrin Verhagen - who are people behind a string of mainstream and indie hits. On paper, it looked like a surefire winner. So what went wrong? Kitten is a woeful disappointment, a show of embarrassing banality.

The play traces the mental breakdown and ultimate healing of a woman whose husband Jonah has disappeared at sea, leaving no trace. Kitten is played by three actors - Natasha Herbert, Kate Kendall and Margaret Mills - who articulate her warring selves as she disintegrates into madness. A fourth actor, Christopher Connelly, plays Jonah's best friend and Kitten's future lover Manfred, a role which is practically redundant: he exists so wholly as an extension of Kitten herself that one wonders why he's there in the first place.

The whole is informed by an excruciating sincerity which, in that Wildean paradox, makes the show almost unbearably dishonest. It is impossible to buy Kitten's return to mental health, which occurs after a breakdown and hospitalisation and a visit into an interior world which I can't quite bring myself to describe.

I sat through Kitten waiting for some sign of irony, some sign of real complexity, with a dawning sense of doom that what was on show was all there was. I felt nothing at all, save an increasing amazement that anyone, let alone Jenny Kemp, could present something so simple minded after Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis.

There is little sign in the production of the talent at Kemp's disposal: Tregloan's set, for example, looks like a bad copy of Tregloan. I went home very depressed, wondering if, after all, the Australian component of the festival was going to be a terrible letdown.

Luckily Sunday restored my spirits. But more of that tomorrow.


David Williams said...

Hi Alison, I couldn't agree more about Kitten. i too was there on Saturday evening and found it excruciating. I was kicking myself that I chose to see this over Back to Back! oh well, Two faced Bastard, an Oak Tree and Desert Island Dances were well worth the (brief) trip!

Alison Croggon said...

Missing Back to Back is a big price to pay (if understandable from other end of the telescope) - that show was staggering. It went totally beyond my expectations, which were pretty high after small metal objects. My review for the Oz tomorrow has been kicked off the page for an ad, and I can't upload my own until it's published there (the price of dealing with the Beast). But will get there...

David Williams said...

Well, obviously, I wanted to see both, but the Sunday 4pm show was sold out back in July when I bought my tickets. Much to my annoyance, I subsequently found out that there were indeed the odd ticket here and there - you just had to ring in at the right time. Case in point, we were queued up for returns on the Sunday after ringing in the morning to be told there were no tickets, dropping into the festival booth to be told there were no tickets, only to find our colleague Alison Richards had rung the Malthouse at 3pm and purchased a ticket that had just been returned... ah, the joys of it all. I was especially frustrated to hear that Sydney Festival has dropped Food Court from its 2009 program as well, but remain confident that it will return somewhere in 2010. Adelaide maybe... I look forward to reading your review

Alison Croggon said...

I can't imagine that show won't be on again. It's my festival highlight so far. Why did Sydney drop it, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

"Food Court" has a return season at GPAC, in January I believe. And yes apparently Sydney Festival dropped "Food Court" and a couple of other shows in favour of some big works that they have brought in - purely a financial decision I believe.
Cheers, Simon Abrahams.
PS Thanks Alison for coming to "The Big Game" glad you had fun...

Anonymous said...

I saw Kitten on Saturday afternoon and I am pleased to say I disagree - I loved it. I loved the triptych of Kittens – they each played a unique and important role in depicting Kitten's anguish and decline. I felt deeply uncomfortable watching Manfred's awkwardness (which I imagine was exactly what was intended) - the way he sat there humming and waiting/watching/inept and with muddled intentions. Somehow he didn’t seem as malevolent as he could have, perhaps it was the brown jumper and his clumsy, totally inappropriate approach?

At the point when I was wondering how they would take the play forward her decline was played out in song – brilliant given the importance of song to her life (though I could have had one song less at the end). The lyrics and melodies were trite but I trusted that was intended and I surrendered to my discomfort. I thought it as clever that the songs crossed styles and genres.

And I loved the script – the metaphors and images were clever and beautiful, and Kittens rantings and plannings were surprisingly engaging, funny and believable. 'Surprising' because they could have been ghastly. The script so eloquently captured her desperation and distress.

I thought the set was OK - though I didn't quite understand the cement bricks...perhaps the bottom of a swimming pool? But the bed was inspired, as was the blue gauze at the beginning. And the polar bear and dolphins were ace: it was a relief to laugh but they were somehow not so silly that they undid all the tension.

Alison Croggon said...

I would never question another's enjoyment of a show, however much my own experience might differ! I'm glad you got something out of it.

But Kitten said nothing about mental distress to me. Rather, it seemed to trivialise mental illness, and for me its premise was deeply untrue. That's aside from my other, more artistically centred, problems...

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison
I shouldn't have posted above under 'anonymous', I just chickened out at the last minute! We did have very different experiences of this work, as unlike you I keenly felt Kitten's distress and confusion. I agree that the 'return to health' was ordinary, but even then I didn't get the sense that she was whole again. What was it that you thought was untrue about the premise?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Kate - nice to see you here! I'll attempt to draw out what I mean.

My first problem was that I didn't feel anything at all, at any point. Kitten's distress and confusion were certainly signalled, but there was no actualisation of it that communicated anything like feeling to me: perhaps response was undermined for me in the beginning by the Manfred character, who didn't provide any outside point of reference - if he was meant to - nor any sense that he was a real person. Worse, the idea that a "lover" was necessary to Kitten's mental health began to really bug me. The breakdown and mania were couched in conventional pop-psychiatric terms, and never entered the true, extreme painfulness and chaos of these conditions. I should say, I guess, that at various points in my life I've had a lot to do with mental illness, through close relatives and friends; and at no point did this play chime truly with any of my experience in dealing with it or witnessing its distress.

I was there trying hard until (was it the fifth?) song, when I guess I kind of lost it. The premise to which I objected most was that if one could only access inner creativity and expressiveness, wholeness will emerge and - yes, despite scars - everything will be ok. There's a truth in that, but it's by no means the whole truth - the other side is that creativity and inner knowledge are much more complicated and ambiguous - Strindberg managed all those, and they didn't save him. Art is diminished as therapy, because its leading to human wholeness is only half the truth of it. The other truth is that art is amoral and has its own imperatives, and it can make things worse, because it demands that one see things as they are, and you have to be able to cope - intellectually and emotionally - with what you perceive. Nor (painfully) is love a heal-all.

This over simplification of what is to me a very difficult and complex theme was a result of the writing as much as anything, which never reached beyond the functional conveying of information (and when it did reach towards the lyrical - at the end for instance - it was awful - metaphors of eyeballs crawling up hills!!) Eg, every time the characters swore, I winced: it felt so fake because people don't swear like that, to convey to the other how really cross they are, but rather as part of the texture and syntax of their speech, which is an entirely different mode of expressiveness.