Review: Hitlerhoff/Villanus ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Review: Hitlerhoff/Villanus

Fringe Festival: Hitlerhoff, written by Tom Doig, directed by Erin Kelly. Video by Anto Skene and Puck Murphy, sound by Keith McDouglass. With Tobias Manderson-Galvin, Simone Page Jones and Ezra Bix. North Melbourne Town Hall until October 11.

Villanus by Vlad Mijic and Rhys Auteri. Set design by Philippa Barr and Caroline Comino, lighting by Natalie Vincent, music by Raphael Hammond. Performed by Vlad Mijic. Welcome Stranger @ J-Studios, North Fitzroy (closed).

Well, what with her various attacks of the vapours, and mindful that from Thursday on her life is no longer her own, Ms TN hasn't got out to much of the Fringe. But there's been no shortage of coverage elsewhere in the blogosphere - Born Dancin' has been stunning observers all over Melbourne with his Quixotic quest, posting his seventh multiple post of capsule reviews; Richard Watts and Michael Magnusson have been out there, as has tyro blogger Long Sentence No Suggestions; Jana Perkovic has posted a must-read review of Rawcus; and Ming-Zhu Hii used the Fringe to begin her tracking of racial casting in Melbourne theatre. My Esteemed Colleague Mr Boyd has been coming at things obliquely, as always, with a post on Dancehouse. And no doubt there have been others which have escaped my notice.

Take a bow, bloggers. It's so great to see the oxygen of response livening up the performance scene here. Not one, not two, but lots, all cheerfully disagreeing. Now, that's what I call civilisation.

But on to my notes on what I did see. I made my way to the North Melbourne Town Hall on Friday to see Hitlerhoff, intrigued and curious. And came out with a similar feeling to Born Dancin's succint response (possibly the review of the Fringe). A deep desire to go hmmmmm...

This is YouTube theatre. It's like those remixes of Downfall where Hitler is getting upset about Barak Obama (or X-Box or Real Madrid). Tobias Manderson-Galvin plays a genetic collision of Adolf Hitler and David Hasselehoff, star of Baywatch and some awful music videos (and Spongebob Squarepants, although that doesn't get a look-in), a man in speedos who's got a fake moustache and is not afraid to use it.

The premise behind this show, according to the website anyway, is that there is an ethical imperative in disrespectful satire that lampoons sacred cows. Marrying the images of Hitler and Hasslehoff is a way of signalling parallels between the nude-Aryan-youth-and-muscles Nazi aesthetic and the blonde, busty babes (male and female) of Baywatch. And, of course, the Nazis were big on showbusiness. The opening video, a mash-up of Leni Reifenstahl and Californian beaches, does in fact make this parallel quite well.

And the spoof which follows is undeniably fun. It's not as if the Holocaust is beyond satire - look at the work of absurdist Polish playwright Tadeusz Rosewicz, which is as black as it gets. Baywatch and the theatrics of the Third Reich are a deliberately provocative conjunction, but what's perplexing is that it's hard to see in the show what insights this provocation actually generates beyond its initial frisson. To discuss it with any seriousness feels like making some heavy weather about an essentially harmless and diverting pisstake.

It's witty and fast-moving, and performed with the necessary brio by its very energetic cast. But somehow it elides the discomfort of its subject matter and its humour, crucially, depends on that elision. It doesn't feel heartless to laugh at it. And perhaps that's the point, that the hyperreality of mega-celebrity reduces everything to the affectless image, shorn of context and meaning. Again like Born Dancin', I'm curious to know what others thought.

The one time where I felt some prickle of reality was towards the end of the play, when Hitlerhoff himself was passionately declaiming about the necessity to act now, which gave an echo of the state of permanent emergency that drives the emotive politics of Fascist regimes (and our current political situation). Otherwise, it made me feel a little nostalgic for Mel Brook's 1968 masterpiece, The Producers, which cornered the market on Nazi bad taste.

The following evening I trekked out to J-Studios in North Fitzroy to see Villanus, a show which is as deeply concerned with the idea of image and identity as Hitlerhoff, but to rather more profound effect. This is deeply interesting theatre. I saw this show on its premiere at Trades Hall last year, and don't have much to add to what I said then. To quote me:

The apparent artlessness belies the intelligence of the theatre that follows, a series of discrete verbal arias in which notions of self and identity are put under intense interrogation.

The show opens with a stumbling disclaimer from Mijic, in which he explains that although this performance is partly autobiographical, it is also a tissue of lies and half truths. Playing a version of himself called Vlad, Mijic launches into a paranoid exploration of what it means to be called a “villain”. Wearing a piece of paper taped to his back which says "Vlad is dead", he begins with the obsessively repetitive recording of a video diary. “If you are watching this now,” he says intently into a camera, “I have been murdered”.

Mijic and his co-creator Rhys Auteri are most concerned with the notion of mediation, with how much our self-image - individually and collectively - is formed by expectations projected onto it. Much of the text, which is both spoken and written in Texta on butcher's paper or projected onto a screen, consists of lists (a major trope of much contemporary poetry): lists of personal characteristics, of fragments of text rescued from unlikely places, of scraps of received reality that enter a world-view and then form it.

At the centre is the question of Vlad's Serbian ancestry: Serbs being, before the sudden stardom of Saddam Hussein, the arch-villains on the international global stage. He was born in Yugoslavia, he tells us, but now Yugoslavia no longer exists: like his primary school, which was shut down by Jeff Kennett, it is now a place that only lives in memory. What is the fiction called Vlad to make of this? Is his inescapable ethnicity a reflection of an inherent monstrousness, or is his villainousness simply a desire "not to disappoint" expectations (a desire immediately ironised by this show's anti-aesthetic presentation)? This question splinters and fragments through fantastic or even surreal obsessions, several posthumous death scenes and a comedically dislocated self-reflection on the process of making Villanus itself.

Rhys Auteri and Mijic have refined the show considerably, cutting out some of its circular excesses and introducing some new elements (a brief take on Eurovision, for example). It is a now an excellent, tightly poetic text. And it has a set design this time, rather than a jumble of objects on a stage.

Although this made for a slicker and more focused show, and it certainly benefited from cutting the long ending, I missed some of its initial roughness, which gave it a nimbus of imminent collapse, an air of uncertainty that fed fruitfully into the experience of the performance. But I still walked away with the feeling that this is a piece of theatre made with real courage and theatrical curiosity, and which, in a world driven by mediated images, radiates a genuine and fertile unease.

1 comment:

talya chalef said...

I'm glad to hear that you found Hitlerhoff problematic.

I found the whole experience deeply unsettling. I went to the piece because I wanted to know first hand if joining the two figures was as distasteful as I'd imagined it to be. So in some senses, I went in with a pre judgement, I'll admit.

But I wanted to be proved wrong. I wasn't. It's been some time since the show and I can't remember exact details. But I felt frightened that there was a young hip audience who was enjoying the piece so much.

To delve into Nazi history and the Holocaust is to work with subject matter, which is quite delicate (especially in Melbourne with the highest number of survivors outside of Israel...) where the memories aren't just ancient history but sit as living memories.

This stuff is raw and its not that long ago. To explore it is important but it is necessary (in my opinion) to look at it through multiple perspectives.

I didn't see how the "satire" spoke to anything deeper than just 'having fun'. And I don't think it's okay to just have fun with such weighty material. Where does that lead? When do we begin not to see it as tragedy and de sensitise ourselves to the horror of what it actually was?

Admittedly my family history is connected to the Holocaust and I have just been on a visit through to Poland and Germany. This would make me more sensitive to these themes.

But it is about humanity and not just about any one culture or family history.

The end scene where we got "gassed" by the smoke machine goes down as one of the most distasteful endings to a show I've ever been in. Wow.