Review: The Masque of the Red Death, Yibiyung ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Review: The Masque of the Red Death, Yibiyung

(Or: yes, there is life after MIAF...)

The Masque of the Red Death, adapted from a story by Edgar Allan Poe, directed by John Bolton. Music by Jo Laing, set design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Jane Noonan, lighting design by Kimberly Kwa, sound design by Timothy Bright. Victoria College of the Arts Company 2008 Graduating Performance, Space 28, Dodds St, Southbank, until November 7.

Yibiyung by Dallas Winmar, directed by Wesley Enoch, dramaturgy by Lourise Gough. Set design by Jacob Nash, costumes design by Bruce McKinven, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti, composer and sound design by Steve Francis. With Jada Alberts, Jimi Bani, Sibylla Budd, Annie Byron, Russell Dykstra, Roxanne McDonald, David Page, Melodie Reynolds and Miranda Tapsell. Malthouse Theatre and Company B @ CUB Malthouse until November 16.

After too many years listening to respectable poets talk about their "craft", I have conceived a violent - if admittedly perhaps eccentric - prejudice against the word when it is yoked to "art". Craft is important if one is, for example, demanding shoes that don't let in rainwater or tables with the correct number of legs. Craft is essential and wholly admirable in the creation of any functional object. I spent many childhood hours watching a master blacksmith at his forge making lovely and useful things in ways that are now largely forgotten, and can personally attest to the deep magic of artisanship.

In the less directly functional realm of art, "craft" is a quality that makes me think of boxes that are cunningly joined together to admit no air. I'm not sure that I think that craft has anything much to do with art at all, perhaps primarily because I suspect that art isn't about function. I much prefer the terms "skill" or "technique" and can get as highminded as you like about the necessity of these: although even there I align with the poet Paul Celan, who said that technique is like hygiene: simply the least that one should expect.

And perhaps, for all its evident skilfulness, John Bolton's VCA production of The Masque of the Red Death would fail every measure on the dramaturgical craft meter. It doesn't make a lot of narrative sense or develop recognisable psychological portraits of its characters or follow any obvious laws of dramatic development, aside from having a definable beginning and end. A middle, I suppose, hangs between these things, but more as duration than development.

And although the performers quote most of Poe's original story, the show doesn't, for most of its length, have a lot to do with it (except that it is certainly a "gay and magnificent revel"). The story provides a structure, rather than a plot. Poe's gothic description of aristocrats holding a magnificent entertainment while plague rages in the outside world is rather the occasion for a string of theatrical sketches.

It is an evening of extreme cabaret, delivered with a black Artaudian edge, inventively directed and designed and performed with enthusiasm and (yes) skill. The comedy often has more to do with The Mighty Boosh or Derek and Clive or (in one obscene satire of Madame Butterfly) Austen Powers than with Poe, but there are moments of purely theatrical image-making that are beautiful and grotesquely unsettling. It has a hectic edge of doom-laden hysteria that seems especially apt for our media-hyped times.

Almost incidentally, it also explores various ways to relate to audiences, so you are always in a state of perceptual disruption. After watching the opening from conventional seats, the audience is invited into a tent that is constructed around them by the cast, seated in a circle and treated to some gyspy fortune telling. After that we were divided into smaller groups who were each taken into tiny rooms and entertained with a story (in our case, about Nelly, the "well-intentioned flea" who spreads the plague).

There are recitations of Poe's poems, sometimes in rude parody. There's a macabre tap dance, some ridiculously transparent magic tricks, a lot of gorgeous singing, many cruel jokes, lots and lots of mise en scene and more double entendres than you could poke a phallus at. It's all in highly questionable taste and no doubt most of the scatalogical humour is juvenile. But two hours went by on winged feet.

Yibiyung is, on the other hand, a well-crafted play. It's the story of Dallas Winmar's grandmother, who was taken from her family at the age of eight because she was a "half caste" and sent to a mission. From there she was hired out as a domestic servant to various white employers, until she ran away and rejoined her own people.

It's a story that, since the report on the Stolen Generations revealed a shameful litany of destroyed lives to a wider public, is now very familiar. And as director Wesley Enoch points out in the program, "in a post-apology world, the need to tell these stories has not evaporated". Given the continuing paternalism of Federal Indigenous policies, that's hard to argue with.

And in a way it's difficult to argue with this work, in that it is all honestly done and impeccably fulfils its own stated ambitions. It's beautifully directed, performed with energy and passion, well designed and lit. This coming of age story reveals the bureaucratic totalitarianism that ruled the lives of Indigenous people in Australia for most of the 20th century, and enslaved them in all but name.

In other words, this is Worthiness with a capital "W". Unlike Enoch's irresistible production of The Sapphires, it seldom escapes its didactic impulses. This worthiness is leavened by some inventive direction and appealing performances - notably from Miranda Tapsell as Yibiyung, with compelling support from David Page and Jimi Bani - but it's always there.

It's not like it's bad or that time hangs especially heavy. Yibiyung is an unusually well-realised example of a certain very recognisable kind of Australian theatre: it has an emphasis on researched authenticity, with a central character surrounded by multiply-cast cameos, which are mostly played with an exaggerated theatricality I'm beginning to think of as a Sydney style. It employs a lot of stage tricks to generate effective and clear story-telling, it has a moral (usually triumphalist) at the end, and it features much careful dramaturgy.

You can in fact see dramaturgical fingerprints all over it, even without noting that Louise Gough gets top billing on the program, underneath the playwright. Yibiyung tells its story clearly, it bounces along with vigour, it gets its meaning across without any fear of ambiguity, it even gets in some necessary complexity in its portrayal of White power over Black lives. You can almost hear the conversations that informed the play.

And that, really, is the problem. This is theatre that asks for an affirmative nod at the end, and which leaves you with the warm compensation of touching your own compassion. Its function - to record the untold stories of Indigenous Australia - is paramount, and its craft painstakingly fulfils its aim. It's hard to condemn, and equally hard to get excited about. I much preferred the tragic extremes of Enoch's Black Medea, which to my mind communicated with far more devastating force and complexity the dilemmas of Black Australia. But that one was a realisation of art rather than craft.

Pictures: (top) Josh Price in The Masque of the Red Death; (bottom) Miranda Tapsell and Jimi Bani in Yibiyung. Photo: Heidrun Lohr


Anonymous said...

i had a riproaring time. and i suspect there's more method to the madness than the scatological humour might suggest. in fact perhaps most of all where excrement (sacrament) is concerned.

during the plague, "The dregs of the population, apparently immunized by their frenzied greed, enter the open houses and pillage riches they know will serve no purpose or profit. And at that moment the theatre is born. The theatre, i.e., an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit."

or, to wit, function.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Ben. Yes, Artaud was absolutely and intelligently behind this performance, and maybe more successfully than any show I've recently seen. Now that you mention it, I should have said so more explicitly.

As a side thought: It's a common preoccupation among European intellectuals (Kristeva, Batailles, etc) but in Conjunctions and Disjunctions Octavio Paz traces the connections between the sacred and the profane in all religious texts in a refhreshingly non-Eurocentric way (like a lot of South American poets, he was a diplomat and spent many years in India). In particular, how profanity or the obscene or transgressively sexual is a crucial element of the sacred. And is also at the root of the poetic. Well worth a read...