Review: Poor BoyThe natives are getting restless, Carruthers...Guest Essay: Olive BranchesReview: Grace ~ theatre notes

Friday, January 30, 2009

Review: Poor Boy

It was the end of the first punishing day of this century-busting Melbourne heatwave, and Ms TN dragged out the gladrags and made her way into the city, leaving a little puddle of sweat behind her on the train. Boy, is it hard to maintain opening night elegance in this weather (and I won't even mention the Lindt chocolate that was lurking, forgotten but not gone, in my handbag...I just didn't know chocolate could get that liquid).

The destiny that lay before me, as inevitable as Luke Skywalker's brush with Dad, was the Melbourne Theatre Company's glamorous Sumner Theatre. We've been watching the MTC's new home grow for years now, and many have been the lively arguments about its eye-catching exterior (which I rather like, but others rather don't). And Wednesday night was its premiere outing.

I confess that the most attractive part, at least to begin with, was the blissfully cool air-conditioning, and the efficient and pleasant bar. Then there was the adventure of the toilets, which should be religiously visited by all patrons. Downstairs the men's toilets are blue and the women's are pink. So pink, so girly, so marbly and swirly that Ms TN nearly became delirious. I've never been much good at girly, and this was beyond the fairyfloss of giddy Barbara Cartland nightmares. The upstairs toilets, on the other hand, are a kind of gondola fantasia, with Venetian designs based on JC Williamson sets and mirrors that you have to be careful not to walk into.

After all this excitement, they finally let us into the theatre to see the main event. And let me be upfront: I looove this space. The scraps of quotes from famous plays that wrap the auditorium might be a bit kitsch, sure, but what a place to watch theatre! The seats are huge, big enough to sit cross-legged on if the fancy takes you, and covered with non-stick suede-ish upholstery (a fine idea on sweaty evenings). But what's most beautiful is the shape of the auditorium: the seats sweep upward steeply in one architectural gesture from the foot of the stage, giving the audience a singular unity, the democratic intimacy that is the first secret of good theatre.

And the stage. The stage has everything that opens and shuts. With Poor Boy, a "play with songs" by Matt Cameron and Tim Finn, director Simon Phillips was always going to use every inch of it. And this production certainly opens with some seductive theatrical conceits.

As the audience enters the auditorium, we encounter a poetically imagined Australian backyard – tufted grass, cumulus sky, a string of washing, a not-quite-solid house that is structured rather like the bridge of a ship. More than anything else, Iain Aitken's set summons nostalgia. As with Arthur Miller’s imagined stages, we know before a word is spoken that boundaries between the present and the past are troubled and unstable.

Front stage a child’s swing hangs down from the flies. Next to it is a red tricycle. The auditorium lights go down, the sound comes up – the amplified soughing of waves – and the tricycle begins to peddle around by itself in a circle, as if it is ridden by a ghost. Danny (Guy Pearce) pushes the washing line aside, as if it is a curtain, and launches into the play’s title song. He becomes an animating spirit, sweeping dust sheets aside that reveal different cast members and summoning the musicians, who rise out the floor with the music. By the song’s end, the play has been magicked into existence. This sequence shows director Simon Phillips at his best: he has a gift for graceful mise-en-scène, here tempered to Matt Cameron’s gently absurdist imagination.

Poor Boy itself, which features songs taken from various Tim Finn albums since the early 1980s, is a peculiar beast, and despite the odd moment of lyrical splendour or passionate performance, it doesn’t escape some fundamental conceptual problems.

The story, a kind of supernatural melodrama, concerns Jeremy Glass (played on different nights by three young actors), a seven-year-old boy who, after he is nearly hit by a car on a zebra crossing, suddenly claims that he belongs to another family. His parents Viv (Linda Cropper) and Sol (Greg Stone) are deeply worried, but then he walks across town and plants himself in the heart of another family, claiming to be their dead adult son Danny. He demonstrates such intimate knowledge of their secrets that the two families are forced to accept that the unbelievable is true.

This opens up a lot of deeply-buried conflict in both families, much of it driven by bitter sibling rivalries. Jem is the resented younger brother of the disaffected teen Sadie (Sara Gleeson), and Danny the older brother whom Miles (Matt Dyktynski) can never match. Ruth (Sarah Pierse), Danny's mother, is the stifling matriarch who infantalises her sons and cannot let them go, even in death; Viv, Jem's mother, is aging unhappily in her unhappy marriage, smouldering with resentment against her feckless husband.

Oddly, given the Chagall-like charm of the best of Matt Cameron's writing, the playwright irresistibly summoned throughout this text is Arthur Miller. The suburban family as a site of tragedy, the play's lyric realism, in particular the poetic ambitions of some of the monologues, all have the flavour of Miller. And there are specific allusions, such as the insubstantial walls of the family homes, which recalls the ghostly house in Death of a Salesman, or the tree that Ruth plants when her son dies, which echoes the memorial tree planted (and uprooted) in All My Sons.

But while he can certainly write a line, Cameron cannot match Miller's superb dramatic craft. The narrative of Poor Boy founders in its own complications, declining from the boldly impossible (which sparks the imagination) to the merely improbable (which becomes either tedious, embarrassing or laughable). Cameron's major problem has always been a tendency to tip from absurdity into whimsy, and here is no exception; only in Poor Boy the whimsy has become a little earnest. It gives a forced air to the emotional intensities that are so clearly aimed for, but which, as in Browning's Andrea Del Sarto, remain just beyond reach.

And then there is the problem of the songs, which are shoe-horned into the text even though they sometimes bear only the most tangential connection to the events on stage. They are mostly sung well and imaginatively arranged, although the band, riding its hydraulic stage up and down the haunted house, lacks a certain brio. It's hard to know why, dramatically speaking, the songs are there, except to provide a pleasant noise and emotional flavour. They all seemed terribly nice ditties, but in fact compositions like I Hope I Never or In A Minor Key are better than nice. There is a nagging air of ABC-TV variety special about it all.

Using extant popular songs to punctuate a show is, of course, as old as The Beggar’s Opera. Poor Boy demonstrates that a pop song, however finely crafted, is not necessarily theatrical. As the familiar songs rolled out, the sometimes desperately illustrative staging began to remind me irresistibly of a music video, in the same way that the play itself was reminiscent of a tv soap. Neither of these things is, in itself, a bad thing; without the bracing invigoration of such cultural slang, theatre dies a slow and sticky death. And the show could have done, certainly, with some of a soap opera’s economy and dramatic drive. But all the rough bits of these popular influences had been smoothed out or sawn off, making the whole rather anodyne.

It's well served by its cast, which, as has been usual recently at the MTC, is top notch: but again they seldom manage to find glints of hard emotional reality in between the plot. The notable exception is Stone, who excavates some fine moments of comic relief. The double staging of Danny/Jem, with lines shifting between Guy Pearce and the young actor, is beautifully effective, and Pearce has a fine voice and a touching (if sometimes rather earnest) presence. And Sara Gleeson, who was marvellous as the daughter in the recent Moliere and here reprises the cliched bratty teen with a refreshing candour, is clearly a talent to keep on eye on.

In all, I would have liked to have liked it more, since there are so many likeable elements; but Poor Boy never gels into a whole breathing creature. It's a slight story that can’t sustain its two and a half hours, and it doesn’t avoid moments of cheese or sheer silliness. As a play, it doesn't make a lot of sense; as a work of music theatre, it is conceptually muddy. But as a piece of design, it's a triumph; and perhaps, given the nature of the evening, it isn't surprising that the real star of the show was the stage itself.

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

Picture: The cast of Poor Boy. Photo: Jeff Busby

Poor Boy by Matt Cameron and Tim Finn, directed by Simon Phillips, musical direction Ian McDonald. Set design by Iain Aitken, costumes by Adrienne Chisholm, lighting design by Nick Schlieper. With Linda Cropper, Matt Dyktynski, Sara Gleeson, Guy Pearce, Sarah Pierse, Greg Stone, Abi Tucker and Gulliver McGrath/Jack McKinnis-Pegg/Hunter Stanford. Band: Ian McDonald, Michael Barker, Stephen Hadley, Stephen Ely and Gerry Hale. Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, MTC, until March 8. Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, July 9 to August 1. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The natives are getting restless, Carruthers...

"Come on, Croggers," irascible commentator Fog said yesterday. "Where are ya? ... Really hoping you're not dead..."

No, I'm not dead. Far from it. And as this crazy old climate - if it can be dignified with that noun, rather than other, cruder words that rise pettishly to my lips - slugs our fair city with record-breaking heat, it seems strangely opportune to launch Ms TN, 2009 edition.

Admittedly, after two days of mid-40 temperatures my hair looks like straw and, with the rest of the Melburnian population, my eyes have a disturbing maniacal glint; but on the other hand, my brow is luminous with honest sweat and my cheeks cheerfully flushed. For all the lack of aircon in my humble abode, I am feeling upright and full of well-being. Zing, even.

Why? Because I have a new desk and no longer live in terror of annihilation under an avalanche of books. Here it is:

What's more, I really did use that time off to rethink my life. It needed it. By the end of last year I was a wraith, my soul withering on the ends of my shredded nerves. I’ve had more traumatic years, but I’ve never flirted so recklessly with total burnout as I did through 2008. I’m not doing that again. It takes all the fun out of things. And, as I was forcibly reminded by Dorothy Porter's unexpected death just before Christmas, life is too short anyway.

Hence the New Me, to go with the New Desk. You mightn’t be able to tell the difference between TN 2008 and this one, but the important thing is that I can. I don't expect huge changes here, if any; but I do have two, and possibly four, major projects on the boil this year, which means that I will consciously abandon the vain pretence that TN can offer comprehensive coverage of Melbourne theatre. There will be (and in fact this January already have been) regrettable misses. Depth rather than breadth has always been my strong suit, and I'll be playing to my strengths. So I apologise in advance to those companies whose shows I miss and exhort you, as ever, to keep in touch. I do get there in the end.

Furthermore, I have updated my blogroll and links page (those with further suggestions are welcome to email me) and brought my review listings up to the present. Which made me realise that this blog is now in its fifth year of operation. Bloody hell. It doesn't seem like five years.

So now we're back online, and raring to go. Tomorrow, in pleasing concordance with the general theme of renewal, TN kicks off with a review of Poor Boy, the first show in the MTC's swish new Sumner Theatre. So watch this space.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Guest Essay: Olive Branches

Pondering whether to attend a theatre conference or the weekend protests in London against the violence in Gaza, Chris Goode decides he will probably attend the conference. "I want, I need, and above all I believe in, an artistic practice that does not feel discontinuous with the actions of those who will demonstrate tomorrow," he writes. "And there's ... a kind of sorrow produced by this tension, a realization that, for all my commitment to a theatre that's passionately and intrinsically politically motivated, I fear that the conversation that the relatively little community ... will be having with itself tomorrow may feel trivial and self-indulgent at a time like this.

"But, I guess, that's the point: the current situation in the Middle East is hardly anomalous, for all its grievous pitch in the last few days; it's always a time like this, and the worst thing about contemporary theatre is exactly how insulated and disconnected it feels in relation to these times. I guess it's obvious that the best use of my voice is making that case where it needs to be heard. Even so, it's impossible to be sure that this isn't purest self-delusion. I suppose it all comes back to how I always feel when people deride the idea that theatre can (meaningfully) change the world. Not all the theatre has been made yet, and not all the results are in."

I've written at length in the past about what I think art might be and do in the situation of continual crisis in which we find ourselves, most coherently perhaps in an essay called (portentously, I admit, but it wasn't my title) The Imaginative Life and the Social Responsibility of Writers. For a number of reasons, I usually stay away from direct politics on this blog, although a politics is always at least implicit; but writing about culture is always and inescapably political. Artists are always among the first to be targeted under any repressive regime, not because they necessarily work against the government, but because even the slightest lyric poem can suggest another possible world in the face of what is always presented as an inevitable reality.

Today, however, I'm not pursuing my own reflections. I'm hosting an essay from David Lloyd, Professor of English at the University of Southern California and a member of the US collective Teachers Against Occupation, which is about the olive trees of Palestine and the destruction of culture.

Olive Branches

In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon, a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree.

Mahmoud Darwish, “I Belong There”.

The Zionist, it seems, does not much like olive trees.

As the Israeli military thunders into Gaza and as its planes and ships continue their merciless bombardment of an imprisoned population, as the bombing of schools and mosques, refugee camps and universities continues, our grief and anger focus as they should on the hundreds of human deaths and thousands of human wounded. And yet, as this slaughter of the innocents continues, and as the toll of casualties and of material destructions mounts to a point where it can scarcely be absorbed any more, it is hard not to hear behind it all the creaking sound of falling olive trees, the smashing of gnarled, grey branches, the crackling of burning groves.

For in Gaza the casualties of invasion are not only human. They include, as they did in Lebanon in 2006, the groves of olive trees that Palestinian farmers have cultivated for centuries, some of them up to a thousand years old and still bearing fruit. They are a material sign of the longevity and endurance of the Palestinian people in the semi-desert lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, symbols of a culture long adapted to its environment and of the inseparability of a culture from the things it has grown and made. The destruction of a tree is to be grieved over almost as one grieves over a human being.

Like so many other aspects of the present assault on Gaza that will not make the news, tanks and shells uprooting groves of olives are part of a long and continuous pattern of destruction of the Palestinians and their culture. For decades, the Israeli army has been bulldozing olive trees in order to make way for settlements and roads and security fences. For decades, the Israeli army has been cutting down trees on the pretext of clearing away camouflage for Palestinian rocket launchers or stone throwers; the security barrier, stretching miles through Palestinian land, cuts farmers from their groves; the army have been routinely preventing those farmers from harvesting their trees, claiming they cannot protect them from assaults by Zionist settlers. Meanwhile, those settlers, whose homes are built on already uprooted olive groves, regularly set fire to the surviving groves, harass farmers at harvest-time or as they water their crops, or shoot at them as they work.

A strange hatred for the olive tree, among a Biblical people by whom the olive was revered. Its oil anointed kings and priests. Its wood was consecrated in the building of the doors of Solomon’s Temple. In Deuteronomy, the olive is among the prized crops of the Promised Land: “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil, and honey.” What brings about this frenzy of destruction, this new Samson burning the vineyards and olives of the Philistines?

The destruction of the olive trees is a material attack on what remains of the Palestinian economy and of Palestinian culture. Every living olive tree is at once a material and a symbolic value. It is also a standing reproach, and maybe herein lies the rage that always seems to exceed the pragmatic rationale for destruction, to the long-cherished myth that it was Zionist settlement that made a desert bloom. We grew up with that settler colonial fable and with the one about “a land without people for a people without land.” To both, the ancient olive groves of Palestine give the lie. For centuries, Palestinians—Moslems, Christians, Jews and others—have cultivated these lands and tended the olives. The olive tree has been the anchor of a culture adapted to the land and to the climate of the region, cleaving to the terraced hills and conserving its scarce and precious water. Like every colonialism in the world, Zionism has imported its material and ideological culture with scant regard for a culture and a people that have evolved a workable ecology over centuries. Progress and development unroll their concrete over confiscated lands, building Orange County in the Promised Land like strips of astro-turf unrolled beneath a Mediterranean sky. Over-population and over-consumption are exhausting the groundwater, 40% of which comes from the occupied territories, and stimulate the lust to annex more land and the water tables of Palestine and Lebanon, so that Israeli lawns can glow green and Palestinians thirst.

The olive tree speaks of another possible world. Long before the people of Israel existed, their Bible relates, it was the sign the dove bore to Noah in his ark. The olive branch remains the sign of peace. We forget too easily that the same dove was the precursor of a covenant, a covenant in which God forswears another genocide: “neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.” Both literally and figuratively the destruction of the olive trees is a crime against humanity, a form of slow and deliberate ethnocide, as surely as is the strangulation of Gaza by siege or the imprisoning of the Palestinians by security walls and blockades on their roads, seaports and airports. It is a sign of the murderous fiction of a terra nullius that has corrupted whatever utopian possibility lingered in the Zionist dream. The catastrophic sound of falling, ancient trees, the spectral rustle of burning leaves, echoes out to the world. The call is clear: “It is time for this to stop.”

David Lloyd
Los Angeles, 1/11/09

Please note:

The Campaign for Labor Rights is accepting donations to support the PFU's efforts to aid farmers in Gaza. You may follow this link to make a credit card donation. Be sure and check the space marked "Other" and to write "Gaza/PFU" where it says "Enter Name". Contributions are tax deductible.

You can also make out a cheque to the Campaign for Labor Rights, put "Gaza/PFU" in the memo line, and send it to:

Campaign for Labor Rights--Gaza Farmers Fund
1247 E Street SE
Washington, DC
United States of America

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Review: Grace

Happy New Year, y'all. Ms TN is still motoring along in holiday mode, letting her other writerly selves out of the barouche for a run, but already I can hear the engines of 2009 warming up in the distance. I'll be back on the train at the end of the month, attempting to live better, work better and in general attain the holy grail of balance in this strange and disorderly life of mine. Wish me luck. I'll need it.

One thing I've decided is that I want to make more of a distinction between my Australian reviews and the various responses I write on this blog. They are really quite different things, even if they emerge from the same sensibility. So from now on I'll merely link to the reviews I write for the Australian unless, as I usually do on TN, I rewrite them to include the thoughts I had to leave out.

Herewith today's review of the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Grace by Mick Gordon and AC Grayling, a "theatrical essay" which opened at the Fairfax on Wednesday night. In summary, a well-made production of an artfully written play that drove me up the wall:

[Grace] is so consciously shaped to its intellectual purpose that I was possessed by a screaming tedium. I wanted to grasp Gordon and Grayling by their ties and ask them: why? Why didn't you just write an essay, instead of constructing this creaky illustrative plot? What, I want to know, is the point?

They might quite rightly retort that theatre can be anything you like, even this kind of un-theatre that reduces the possibilities of the stage to an animated lecture hall. Certainly, if you want a civilised debate about religion, this is the play for you. But if you want actual drama, you're better off reading Dostoevsky.

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