Interview: Franz Xaver KroetzReview: 3xSisters, Spring AwakeningReview: Beckett's ShortsDylan MoranNotes on the back of a seatMiscellanyPatrick White shortlistParallel importation: a disaster for Australian writersReview: Realism, TravestiesO Melbourne!Four Days on the IslandBack in harnessQuick note ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Interview: Franz Xaver Kroetz

On Saturday evening, Hoy Polloy Theatre is presenting what is, unbelievably, the Australian premiere of Franz Xaver Kroetz's 1978 play, Tom Fool (Mensch Meier). Not that Ms TN needs any excuse to leap at the chance of an interview with Kroetz, whose extraordinary hyper-realist plays exerted a profound influence on post-war theatre. He created, as the critic Richard Gilman said, "a theatre of the inarticulate", a profoundly political drama that perhaps has new purchase now, as the excesses of capitalism fall about our ears.

First, a brief introduction. Kroetz was born in Munich in 1946. He first attracted public attention in 1970, when two one-act plays premiered at the Munich Kammerspiele. Their subject matter - masturbation, abortion, child murder - aroused such a violent public response from extremist Catholic groups and others that the theatre had to be put under police protection. This didn't stop the theatre journal Theater Heute claiming that Homeworker was the "most important new play of 1971". Subsequently Kroetz wrote a number of one-act, super-naturalist plays, of which the best known is probably Farmyard, the story of a love affair between a retarded teenage girl and a farm worker four times her age.

Kroetz joined the German Communist Party in 1972 and remained a member until he quit in 1980. Tom Fool (Mensch Meier) is a family drama written shortly before he broke with the Party. It was his first popular and financial success when it premiered in 1978, and marked a return to the techniques of his earlier plays, with brutally frank depictions of sex, nudity and violence. In 1988 Kroetz, who has also worked as an actor all his life, was cast as the sleazy gossip columnist Baby Schimmerlos in the popular television mini-series, Kir Royale (which was shown on SBS), and became a media celebrity.

In Melbourne, La Mama has been a champion of Kroetz's work: Farmyard was produced by La Mama in a memorable production directed by Ariette Taylor in the late 90s, and Kroetz's Request Concert was also given a beautiful production by Wendy Joseph. But until now, we haven't had a chance to see Mensch Meier, which is arguably his most significant play.

And now followeth the interview:

The conversation took place in Franz Xaver Kroetz' parental home in the rather petty bourgeois, quiet suburb of Obermenzing in Munich. He calls it "the innermost of the Kroetz dramatics".

TN: It's a long time since you wrote Mensch Meier. What do you think of that play now?

FXK: I think the whole trilogy, consisting of Upper Austria, The Nest and Mensch Meier, could have a chance at survival, despite the usual passing of contemporary art; I can tell from teaching materials and the replies from schools. The trilogy paints a reliable image of this anxious German post-war period into which I was born in 1946, of its fears, its worries and its hopes which might not be as clear in other literary forms. It is a petty bourgeois proletarian description by someone who knew it very well. I have also acted in Mensch Meier myself and produced it for Hessian Radio. I believe it is one my most beautiful and best plays, with this utopia of gliding, all those desires and this broken marriage. It describes a series of frail, poetic beginnings. It was in this house, my parents' house, that the words were spoken: "You cannot become a bricklayer! The neighbour has attended university, he's becoming a judge!" That was because I had a job in construction when I was 15. I have experienced, suffered, desired everything that is in these characters. It is at the centre of my writing.

Relatively few of your plays are translated into English, but I read that you've written about 50. This must give English speakers a skewed view of your work. What are we missing?

I don't think that there are few English translations. As far as I know, a little over half of my 60 works have been translated; only recently another volume containing about 10 plays was published. Since the 70s, the Rosica Colin Ltd agency in London has taken care of this very well, I feel I am in very good hands there. Of course I am happy if my plays are produced in foreign countries. And considering my small circumstances and that I am a German author it is actually quite a lot. The interest in my later work is generally rather low, it therefore receives little advertising and thus reaches foreign countries less often. On the other hand, my early work is probably more significant.

Plays like Mensch Meier or Michi’s Blood are powerful demonstrations of the power of silence, and seem driven by the desire to give voice to those people silenced or erased by articulate culture. What is the place of silence in writing? Did that desire to give voice to the voiceless stem from a personal sense of inarticulacy or disempowerment, or was it primarily fuelled by social anger?

In my petty bourgeois parental home there was a lot of talking, because my mother was an eloquent Tyrolean. I would almost say: Silence is the death of poetry. Apart from that, I went to drama school when I was 15. It is therefore not my own inarticulacy. But apparently I am the inventor of inarticulacy on stage; this stems from a kind of proletarian precision, because until I was 25, I worked in all sorts of jobs, as a gardener etc... Naturally, a divide opened up between the eloquence required for a highly intelligent Brecht text and the inarticulacy of real life. This stirred up a social anger inside me and I joined the Communist Party. Well, I was an active young man who wanted to change the world. And that is why I wanted to grab this bourgeois theatre by the head and dunk it into this wordless sauce, to make anti theatre. Even if Request Concert is a play without words, Michi's Blood is actually my most silent play. In it, inarticulacy is the social outcry of those to whom even language is denied. By the way, I have noticed self-critically that I have become more and more chatty over the years... But I am proud of my radical beginnings.

Language is obviously a deeply political phenomenon, but your plays have been more closely concerned with what happens beneath language in human consciousness. Is silence a political question for you? Or does it exist beneath/beyond politics?

Much has changed because of the new media, and all these possibilities like mobile phones probably achieve the opposite. In Bavaria, there is a beautiful saying: The most eloquent language of friendship is silence. This attitude no longer exists today, I believe it has volatilised. We have a conversational lower class culture today which I also notice in my children: Before they can find an attitude towards themselves, they are already being manipulated. In this regard, we shouldn't underestimate those casting shows. I like to travel on the S-Bahn and I observe a mashing up of public and private role model functions. These days, people are being language-cloned before they have found an original language.

That is pure politics: The individual is expected to be reachable at any time, to be disturbed in their own thoughts, to be a 100 per cent manipulable, controllable mass. Capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive anyway. Capitalism is a dogmatic and totalitarian ideology. This system is broken, that's how I see it. You see pathetic little humans wandering through department stores - I feel sorry for all of them, it cuts me to the quick. They have long since been cut off, from freedom for example - freedom begins with resistance. This destruction is deliberate and conscious. How to improve private television? Simple: Forbid any advertising on TV. If inarticulacy has become pointless garrulity today, this is the same or actually a worse form of paternalism. Recently, I saw a real-people format in which a female messie was asked to finally face up to the truth. And she asked: "Is what is true also important?" That could be a Kroetz sentence. Then again, I'm not that good.

What role does compassion play in your work?

Compassion is essentially unproductive, you cannot write with it. However, you can with empathy. And looking back, I had that to an almost pathological degree. This empathy, this putting yourself in someone else's shoes was the cornerstone of this writing. The empathic is something productive, is more than compassion. After all, I also acted in my own plays. I have killed, loved, impregnated in them. So Kroetz the actor was always used by Kroetz the playwright.

People have often said that your plays are too extreme to really reflect reality. Is this true? Or is life really that extreme?

It is the other way around: Reality is so perverted in its unbelievable mercilessness that I as a poet become silent. You cannot top reality anymore. You cannot exaggerate your point to such an extent that you won't lag behind reality. Shakespeare's most cruel plays are lame ducks when you listen to people who were traumatised during the Vietnam War or in Chechnya. I am a fan of the extreme. The more I have succeeded in pointed exaggerations, the larger the probability that there is some truth in them. It is the other way around: Reality is filthy, not us. And it is increasingly difficult for me to counter this or to add something to reality. I am glad that I have not stopped writing with implants and false teeth, but with a TV massacre, with lonely men masturbating in front of their TVs. No art without the extreme. It is the salt in the soup, especially for a playwright.

How has your politics changed over the years? What is your view now of your time as a member of the Communist Party in the 1970s, and how do you view the plays you wrote then? What about those notorious rewrites? How did/do you negotiate your political and literary selves? Are they different or contradictory beings?

(Note from the interviewer: Mr Kroetz wasn't sure what "famous adaptations" meant... Neither was I. – Translator's note: I suspect "notorious rewrites", which I translated literally, must have been changed afterwards (not sure by whom) into "famous adaptations" which of course was in no way part of the original question. TN's note: After he joined the Communist Party, Kroetz controversially rewrote an earlier play, Men's Business, to conform to his ideology and, as Richard Gilman claimed, his writing "changed radically". This was perhaps a rather sensitive question, and maybe it's not surprising it was lost in translation.)

I would need to answer this in an essay, the topic is too complex. As a matter of principle, I no longer comment on political events. In 1968, I was simply on the side of art, loved Mauricio Kagel, John Cage, György Ligeti. Back then, I was prepared for any change and any consequence of it. Even today, I prefer Ulrike Meinhof's backside to Angela Merkel's face. I thought the RAF was a grandiose, insane business, resistance was the order of the day, not just idle talk. I am still just as leftist as I was back then, perhaps even more radical, I have only grown older and more tired.

Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth about the Algerian War is my favourite book, with its famous preface by Sartre. After all, it was he who said that it is resistance which makes one a fully-fledged human being in the first place. These days, that is closer to my heart than anything else, because I am quite without illusions and worn out from growing old and used up. I have a lot of sympathy for everyone who moves. The way the world is today, it is – as far as progress is concerned - in the worst state imaginable, it is developing into the wrongest direction. People must be stirred up to disobedience. Unfortunately, I have never managed to do that. I was basically in the totally wrong party back then, because the Communist Party was already dead when I joined it.

Can you tell us a little about your writing for television and film? How does it differ from theatre? Do you prefer working for either, or is it a question of the interest of a particular project?

I do not write screenplays as a matter of principle, because I don't think they are literature. For the film version of "Brandner Kaspar", I changed some of the text for my role, or back when I made "Mensch Meier" into a movie, I edited the play. Maybe I wrote one or two screenplays right at the beginning. I regard it as an activity that does not befit my status. (Laughs heartily).

Could you briefly describe the literary and political context that prompted your early plays? How important were writers like Fassbinder and Ödön von Horvath to the development of your work? What was it like to work with Fassbinder?

I was not influenced by Fassbinder, he was working on other construction sites, was already making films back then which was something I was never interested in. Once, Fassbinder was allowed to do a production at a free theatre at which I was an actor because he and his troupe had been kicked out of another theatre. He didn't have enough actors and that's how I ended up playing a role in a play by Marieluise Fleißer. The critics treated me pretty well and Fassbinder berated me for that. I hadn't played the role the way he wanted me to. There was no further collaboration with him. Marieluise Fleißer, Horváth, the early Brecht, of course they were formative, but I cannot describe the literary context here. It would take too long.

Do you see your work as part of a wider German tradition, or as a reaction against German culture? Or perhaps both things?

Starting with drama school, I was innately interested in the whole Southern German popular theatre. From Ludwig Anzengruber to Felix Mitterer, that is my literary home. Among these I also count Brecht's early plays.

Is it possible to translate the implications of using Bavarian dialect into English? What is the cultural significance of using that speech in a play?

We were in Belgium recently for a theatre festival where I staged my very first play, Negress, in French. We spent the first four days revising the publisher's translation. Even though I hardly speak any French, my presence was very important, because there were a lot of Bavarian expressions that nobody understands and that keep being translated completely wrongly. It's not so much the translators' fault, it's more a matter of cultural policy. Coming back to the question: I believe it is difficult, almost impossible. There are things which already won't be understood in Berlin. I find an incredible delight in language, and for me that has always been dialect, patois, never anything else. I have therefore gladly relinquished general intelligibility in favour of my own pleasure. Oh, that is something glorious!

How important is it to your writing that you are also an actor?

Writing is completely under the influence of acting. I act out everything for myself, try it out. I have always needed the actor, it wouldn't have possible otherwise, I don't think. When staging a play, I also read or acted out some scenes at home with assigned roles, tried it out in my mind. After all, the mind is the most beautiful place for theatre.

Translated from German by Elisabeth Meister

To bring this interview to TN readers has been a major international operation, and here I wish to thank several people for their invaluable help: Ben Starick, who co-ordinated the exercise; Wolf Heidecker (Australian end); Christine Diller (Germany); Elizabeth Meister and the Goethe Institute.

Pictures: Top: Franz Xaver Kroetz. Bottom: Publicity shot for the Hoy Polloy production of Tom Fool, with Chris Bunworth, Liz McColl and Glenn van Oosterom.

Tom Fool premieres at the Brunswick Mechanic's Institute, Brunswick, this Saturday, translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, and directed by Beng Oh until May 23.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: 3xSisters, Spring Awakening

In his stories and plays, Anton Chekhov is a pitilessly intelligent observer of human beings. A writer of enormous moral scrupulousness, he lets fall a cruel light on the excesses of his characters without ever losing sight of their frailties and contradictions. He’s most often seen as a poster boy for naturalism, but this is inevitably reductive. A play like Three Sisters, for instance, can be seen as a moral tale about the decadence of the pre-Revolutionary bourgeoisie, or a nostalgic evocation of a society on the brink of collapse. But like any simple interpretation, this is far from the whole truth.

Its real fascination is in its details, how it is constructed as a kind of collage of social performance: each character’s self-insight is questionable, conditioned and repressed by his or her consciousness of the presence of others, and each is ultimately trapped in a state of existential solitude. It is this aspect of Chekhov which makes him so attractive to successive generations of artists, among whom must be counted Samuel Beckett. In last year’s drop-dead beautiful production of his early play Platonov, the Hayloft Project, one of Melbourne’s most vital new companies, began an excavation of his work.

Under the restless direction of Simon Stone, they’ve continued their exploration with 3xSisters, now on at the Meat Market in repertory with a remount of the Belvoir St version of their first show, Spring Awakening - a performance so radically changed (different script, different design, different concept, different cast) from its original Melbourne outing that it is effectively an entirely new production. Hayloft's take on Chekhov is an attractively ambitious conceit: three directors - Benedict Hardie, Simon Stone and Mark Winter – oversee different acts, effectively giving us three radically different interpretations of the play. But it's telling that the names of the writers who feature in this mini-Hayloft retrospective - Franz Wedekind and Anton Chekhov - figure nowhere on the program credits.

3xSisters is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. The production shifts neurotically through three different sets, costumes and interpretations. Stone, who begins and ends the play, sets it in a place like a waiting room in an airport, under a row of clocks showing the time in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg or Moscow, with the characters in formal dress, as if waiting for some festive event. The actors speak straight out to the audience, their more intimate thoughts sometimes whispered through a microphone, their movements constrained by the narrowness of the stage. It suggests a promisingly stern aesthetic - Stone even inserts the famous quote ("Fail again. Fail better.") from Samuel Beckett's Worstword Ho - but, in the major problem that runs through this entire production, neglects to follow this promise through. The hint of Beckett remains merely decoration, and peters out in the end, disappointingly, into the borrowed emotion of Cat Power.

Hardie directs a deftly choreographed rehearsal of the play, complete with actorly interpolations. It's a reminder of the performance heritage that has so conditioned western interpretations of Chekhov: Chekhov's first and most famous interpreter was Stanislavski, one of whose most famous acolytes was Lee Strasberg, father of the Method. In Hardie's first scene, the black slacks and casual shirts evoke the 1950s cool of the Actors Studio; in the second, the actors have evolved into brainless noughties dweebs, dressed in "I heart Chekhov" t-shirts. This permits a metatheatrical shifting, a consciousness of artifice overlaying the moments when the actors step into character. It's not that new as an idea - David Mamet's film Vanya on 42nd St features actors workshopping the play, similarly shifting between their "real" and performative characters - but it's still effective, and perhaps in its minimalist approach the most satisfyingly thought-through of the evening.

The middle acts, courtesy of Winter, are a psychotic explosion seen through the mind of Solyony, an asocial soldier with Romantic delusions who ends up killing his only friend. Here Chekhov collides with Taxi Driver, with Travis Bickle’s slaughter presaging the Revolution’s murders of the Romanov family. This middle act is at once the most interesting and the most problematic of the lot: there are moments of genuine power, moments when the wholesale destruction of Chekhov suggests wider implications - the repressed violence and sexuality squirming beneath bourgeois social conventions, the classist cruelty that led to the Russian Revolution, even a reflection of how a production can be a forensic dissection of a cultural corpse.

But these possibilities are undermined by cheap gestures: its excessive bath of sexual transgression and violence ends up being brutalising and boring (and sometimes - what was with the Indian head-dress? - simply baffling). As with the rest of the production it's full of quotations, most obviously from Martin Scorcese, but also from a menu of pop cultural and theatrical references. Again, a directorial quote from Romeo Castellucci will mean nothing without the aesthetic rigor that underlies Castellucci's practice: and a swipe at Benedict Andrews is simply a gratuitous in-joke which illuminates nothing except the director's insecurities. At its worst, it justifies the outraged criticisms of those who claim this kind of theatre is simply self-indulgent bullshit only interested in generating offence, in the absence of doing something more challenging (such as engaging with Chekhov); which is a pity, because at its best it has the potential to be something far more substantial.

In short, the line between intellectual provocation and gratuitous shock-value is crossed too often, and the whole production oscillates between genuine insight and shallow gesture. It's interesting to compare these explorations, for instance, with Daniel Schlusser's recent production of Peer Gynt, or more directly, Chris Goode's transcendently beautiful ...Sisters, both of which radically dismantle a classic text. The difference is intellectual rigor, and an illuminating respect for the source text. All the same, I found 3xSisters riveting. The performers are astoundingly good (and very well cast - you can't help reflecting that a straight production with this cast would be really something), and Chekhov, tellingly, survives the rough treatment. It’s well worth seeing, if only for the arguments you’ll have afterwards.

Simon Stone's production of Spring Awakening is a far less problematic prospect. I was expecting a polished version of the show I saw at fortyfive downstairs three years ago, and found very quickly that I was mistaken: the Belvoir St version is a complete rethink, with Adam Gardnir's chicken-coop set literalising the social barriers that confine and destroy Wedekind's young characters. Stone solves some of the problems of the original text - most notably, the Man who appears at the end - by simply editing them out, transforming the play into a series of impressionistic dialogues and monologues.

The most compelling aspect of the initial production was the tension it established between sexual desire and childish innocence, a collision that was ultimately tragic. Literalising the subtleties of physical interaction between the actors, and perhaps even neatening up the original messiness of Wedekind's play, has a concomitant cost: it's undoubtedly more elegant, and perhaps more impressive, but it has lost something important. Innocence, perhaps.

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

Pictures: top: rehearsal shot of 3xSisters. Photo Pia Johnson. Bottom: Production shot of Spring Awakening.

3xSisters from Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, directed by Simon Stone, Benedict Hardie and Mark Winter, additional text from the directors and cast. Set design by Claude Marcos, lighting design by Danny Pettingill. With Gareth Davies, Angus Grant, Thomas Henning, Joshua Hewitt, Shelly Lauman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Anne-Louise Sarks, Katherine Tonkin and Tom Wren.

Spring Awakening by Franz Wedekind, adaptation and direction by Simon Stone. Set design by Adam Gardnir, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With Andrew Dunn, Amanda Falson, Angus Grant, Shelly Lauman, Aaron Orzech, Russ Pirie and Edwina Wren.

In repertory at the North Melbourne Meat Market, 5 Blackwood St, North Melbourne, until May 10. Bookings: 9639 0096

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Beckett's Shorts

Beckett Shorts: Breath, Not I, That Time, Rockaby, A Piece of Monologue, by Samuel Beckett, directed by André Bastian, designed by Peter Mumford, lighting by Stelios Karagiannis, with Uschi Felix and Dion Mills. La Mama @ the Courthouse, until April 25.

folly -
folly for to -
for to -
what is the word -
folly from this -
all this -
folly from all this -
given -
folly given all this -
seeing -
folly seeing all this -
this -
what is the word -
this this -
this this here -

What is the Word, Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett is such a monument that some people don't even bother looking. The name itself is a mantra, and will do to represent an idea of art - and particularly theatre - that is, well, terribly important and everything but really (as Joanna Murray-Smith claimed in her play Ninety last year) only the province of pretentious undergraduates. That craggy, beautiful face, so beloved of photographers, peers out through the moss of reverence, ascetic, stern, sceptical, strangely neutral, neither judging nor apologetic, a forbidding icon of modernism swept under the bright, ephemeral trash of our neurotic, apocalyptic culture.

My feeling is that is if you're uninterested in Beckett, you're uninterested in art. And yet of all artists, he is surely the least compulsory: no one took more responsibility for his writing - poems, prose, criticism, plays - while making the least claims for it. "I produce an object," he said of his plays. "What people make of it is not my concern." He might have agreed with the poet Paul Celan, who said that his work was "a message in a bottle, sent out in the - not always greatly hopeful - belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps". Beckett's uncompromising, strangely tender bleakness has the kind of truthfulness which makes him, of all playwrights, the least biddable to the commercial vulgarities of theatre.

Two decades after his death, he remains a radical challenge. His longer plays - Endgame, Waiting for Godot, Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days - are regularly produced, but the core of his thinking about theatre occurs in his shorter plays, which are very seldom performed. To which end, anyone interested in doing more than squinting at Ubuweb videos of Billie Whitelaw or who is feeling restless with the patchily brilliant DVD of Beckett on Film should book themselves into La Mama's Courthouse Theatre this instant, where André Bastian's production of five of his short plays elegantly realises his stern genius.

It's a demanding evening in many ways: 90 minutes of Beckett is like four hours of anyone else. None of these plays, aside from the 30-second Breath, is designed to be part of a long evening and were mostly first performed on their own: Not I at the Royal Court in 1973, That Time (with Footfalls) again at the Royal Court in 1976, Rockaby at the Centre for Theatre Research in Buffalo, New York in 1981 and A Piece of Monologue at La Mama New York in 1979. But it's well worth the spiritual exhaustion to witness these soul sculptures, these fragments of being that dwell in the outer limits of mundane human pain, the anguish of the present. They are, in the most complex and unforgiving sense, beautiful works of theatre.

In 2006, I saw the exhibition Samuel Beckett: A Passion for Painting at the National Gallery in Dublin. It was revelatory. I already knew, from reading his essays on Jack B Yeats and others, that Beckett is an inimitable and deeply literate critic of visual art; what I hadn't realised was how profoundly it infused his practice in theatre. The exhibition displayed the paintings Beckett saw as a young man, when, as he said, he "haunted" the gallery, along with works he owned and fragments of letters and other writings which demonstrated his deep knowledge and love of visual art. Billie Whitelaw's striking pose in Footfalls, for instance, with her splayed hands crossed over her chest, is taken directly from a mediaeval painting, The Assumption of St Mary Magdalene, by Don Silvestro dei Ghererducci.

It seems obvious once realised. The short plays exist somewhere between installation and poetry, their strict aesthetic bringing the meditative rhythms of visual art into performance. Not I focuses a light on the mouth of the speaker, with another figure standing to the side, mysteriously cowled and dimly lit, generating a disturbing sculpting of dislocated human form, the "she" of the monologue traumatically displaced from her own body. Rockaby and That Time are both recorded voices, the performers motionless listeners, the minimalist power of their gestures amplified by their stillness. In A Piece of Monologue, the white-haired figure stands front stage, illuminated by a single light that throws his face into cadaverous relief, like an ancient statue or a figure from a Noh play. These serial alienations focus us insistently, even painfully, on the present: the present of performance as much as the fictional present of Beckett's characters (or, perhaps more accurately, souls).

Beckett's figures emerge from darkness, melancholy, afraid, resigned, alone. Always alone. In these plays the dead speak from their long silence, the beauty or torment or desperate mundanity of their lives unutterably absent, vanished into an unreclaimable and fragmented past, attenuated by the fragility of human memory. What remains is an unendurable now, a neurotic, unable circling of trauma, as in Not I, or unbearable memory, as in That Time, recognitions of existential solitude in which the self is all there is, unredeemed and unconsolable. And yet in this recognition is an implacable tenderness: I've always thought Beckett the most compassionate of playwrights. There is a true compassion in recognising the worst; it is a relief, in a world where the worst is all around us but is never admitted.

Bastian has framed these plays with admirable intelligence. The evening opens with Breath, written for Kenneth Tynan's revue O Calcutta!, a 30-second, actorless theatrical sculpture, which acts as a kind of entree. And there is a little sally at the notorious restrictions of the Beckett Estate: the instructions that come with the permissions are projected onto the stage. Peter Mumford's set is brilliant in its simplicity: it consists of several lengths of black cloth (on which further text - footnotes, titles - is projected) that are suspended from the ceiling. They act as scrims, becoming invisible where needed, providing a subtle, barely discernible barrier between performer and audience. Each play is introduced by the two actors, Uschi Felix and Dion Mills, who read out the production details and stage directions, and the show is punctuated also by deftly chosen readings of Beckett's poem What is the Word. As the actors read Beckett's detailed directions, they gather the necessary costumes and wigs and props, so the plays are literally constructed before our eyes. And then the lighting (a completely beautiful design by Stelios Karagiannis) shifts and the play begins. And suddenly we see why these instructions are so precise. Genius is, as Gertrude Stein said, an infinite capacity for taking pains.

But the key to this production is the performances. To be perfectly honest, I don't know how these two actors achieve what they do: Beckett's pieces might be short, but that doesn't mean that they are small. Performing just one would be a mighty challenge: each actor performs two each. The works balance, in that each has one recorded monologue and one spoken. They perform with disciplined restraint, so that the smallest movement, the slightest gesture, becomes weighted with significance. Uschi Felix's performance of Not I, her mouth becoming a strange, alien animal floating in the blackness of the stage, is simply extraordinary. And I'll not forget Dion Mills performing A Piece of Monologue, straining under the dim light, clutching his white nightgown, his white hair streaming down from the light, the words emerging from his body as from a threshold of darkness, a cry from the edge of existence.

You have to see these pieces in the theatre to understand that they are nothing but theatre: theatre cut back to its most essential elements, the body in space, the breath, the word, light and darkness, inescapable transience. I was glad I was there.

Pictures: Top: Uschi Felix in Rockaby; Dion Mills in A Piece of Monologue. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

La Mama is also presenting Waiting for Godot at La Mama, directed by Laurence Strangio, which is on until May 3.

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Dylan Moran

My review of Dylan Moran is published in today's Australian.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Notes on the back of a seat

Last night, the theatre glitterati of Melbourne clustered at the Playhouse for the Green Room Awards (winners here). Benedict Andrews' production of The Season at Sarsaparilla for the STC Actors Company, seen here at the MTC, won practically everything going in the Companies category (aside from Best Ensemble, won by another Andrews production, Malthouse's Moving Target, and Best Music, won by the inimitable Andrée Greenwell for Bell Shakespeare's Venus & Adonis). Sarsaparilla's domination is, I guess, some compensation for its notable snubbing earlier this year in the Sydney Critics Awards, and it's a wholly deserving winner; but despite my own involvement in all this (as alleged panellist), I can't help feeling some reservations about the whole premise of prize culture. But I'll just rhubarb in the corner about that, and leave you to sort through the rest of the winners yourself.

As for me, I was down the road at Hamer Hall, reviewing Dylan Moran for the Australian. Where I and my partner in crime went to some trouble to photograph the plaque on the back of the seat in front of us with my crappy phone camera. Ah, Austrlian poetry lovers. Bless them.

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Friday, April 17, 2009


My review of Stomp 09, now at the Princess Theatre on its Australian tour, is in today's Australian.

And permit me to point you to a couple of interesting discussions that have caught my eye recently. George Hunka on Superfluities takes issue with Michael Billington's rather odd Guardian blog post about the dangers of theatrical auteurs. (Billington makes a startling parallel between Hollywood and European avant garde theatre - mais oui!) It raises an interesting question about critical responses, especially in Britain, where theatre, for better or worse, still looks narrowly across the channel at those dubious Continentals. Or so Guilia Merlo claims in Spark Online, in a stimulating discussion about Romeo Castellucci's Purgatorio, which garnered a rare one star review from Lyn Gardner.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Patrick White shortlist

Sydney Theatre Company today released the judges’ shortlist of six plays in the running for the prestigious 2008 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award. The Award is an annual initiative of Sydney Theatre Company and The Sydney Morning Herald, and was established in 2000 in honour of Patrick White’s contribution to Australian theatre and to foster the development of Australian playwrights.

The $20,000 award, which is judged anonymously, is Australia’s richest prize for an unproduced play. The winning playwright is given the opportunity to work with STC directors and actors during a workshop that culminates in a rehearsed reading of their play during the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Previous winners include Angus Cerini for Wretch, Timothy Daly for The Man in the Attic, Patricia Cornelius for Do Not Go Gentle…, Wesley Enoch for The Story of the Miracle at Cookie’s Table and Stephen Carleton for Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset.

The 2008 Award received 143 entries from around Australia. The shortlist of six plays is:

Muff – Van Badham
Bloodwood – Nicki Bloom
Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River – Reg Cribb
And No More Shall We Part – Tom Holloway
Hardcore – Ross Mueller
The Lion’s Mouth – Alexandra Woods

The shortlisted playwrights include: Reg Cribb, winner of the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award in 2001 and author of The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell, which was staged at Perth Theatre Company earlier this year; Nicki Bloom, whose play Tender won the Inscription Chairman’s Award for Best Play in 2007 and has been staged by B-Sharp, Griffin Theatre Company and HotHouse Theatre; Tasmanian playwright Tom Holloway, who studied at NIDA’s Playwriting Studio before going on to win the 2008 AWGIE award for Best Stage Play with Beyond The Neck, was shortlisted in 2009 for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award, and whose play Red Sky Morning was a hit last year at Red Stitch; and Ross Mueller, winner of the 2007 Wal Cherry Award and author of Concussion, which recently premiered by Sydney Theatre Company and Griffin Theatre Company, and Construction of the Human Heart (The Store Room and Malthouse Theatre).

The judges are Hilary Bell (playwright), Alison Croggon (writer and poet), Clare Morgan (Arts Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald), and Andrew Upton (Co Artistic Director, Sydney Theatre Company).

The winner will be announced at Wharf 2 on Saturday, 23 May at 2.15pm by STC Co Artistic Director Andrew Upton, followed by a rehearsed reading of the play by STC artists. Limited tickets for the event are available from the STC box office: Tickets $5. (02) 9250 1777 or

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Parallel importation: a disaster for Australian writers

Update: The Australian Publishers Association, the Printing Industry Association of Australia, the Australian Literary Agents’ Association and the Australian Society of Authors have banded together to form Australians for Australian Books. Those concerned at the proposed changes can sign their petition online, which is a counter to Dymock's aggressive campaign that misleadingly claims to be about cheaper books for consumers. I urge everyone interested in Australian literature to do so urgently, before this Friday, the deadline for responses to the Draft Proposal.

Below is a slightly extended version of my submission to the Productivity Commission, which is presently conducting a study on the copyright restrictions on the parallel importation of books. Parallel importation is the practice of importing overseas editions of books which are already available here through Australian publishers. The recommendation in the present draft report is that copyright restrictions are dropped after 12 months. The commission claims, on its own admission on slender or non-existent evidence, that this will make books cheaper for consumers.

By effectively removing ownership of the copyright of a book in an Australian writer's home country, this would have a devastating effect on Australian publishers. And also on Australian writers. Publishers, agents, authors, unions, many readers and most booksellers are overwhelmingly against changing the present situation (their submissions can be read online here and here).

I would like to register my opposition to the proposal to lift restrictions on the parallel importation of books. Such a move would have a significant impact on my ability to earn an income as a writer.

I make my living from the sales of my popular fantasy books, and am now - for the first time in two decades of writing - earning an independent income. This means I no longer apply for grants from the Australia Council to support the production of my poetry and prose. The income from my fantasy books subsidises my poetry (I am a prize-winning and internationally published poet) and the theatre criticism I write on my blog Theatre Notes, both time-consuming activities I pursue for reasons other than financial reward.

My fantasy books are published first in Australia, by Penguin Books Australia, and overseas publication follows in the UK, the US and Europe. This means that there are at least two English language editions of my books sold overseas, as well as the Penguin editions.

There is a small but significant fact that is being glossed by booksellers’ blithe claims that authors “still earn their royalties”. I earn a significantly higher percentage of royalties from books sold in Australia than from those sold overseas. Books that are published and sold here earn me the full 10 per cent royalty of the cover price. Books that are sold in overseas markets often have a smaller royalty – ranging from 6 to 8 per cent – and after that, under the agreements from my original publisher, I lose from 25 to 50 per cent of the gross royalty to the original publisher. This is a standard agreement which publishers all over the world use to ensure that their initial investment in an author is financially recognised.

This means that for every book sold in Australia that is NOT published by Penguin, I could lose up to half – or more – of the income I would earn if it were published by the local publisher. Worse, if a foreign publisher decided to dump remaindered copies on the Australian market, I would earn precisely nothing.

The Australian market is a significant proportion of the income that I generate as an author. And this is why territorial copyright is important to my financial independence.

Territorial copyright is a right for all authors in the United Kingdom and America. Neither of those countries, for good reason, is considering abolishing this protection for their own authors. Under the Productivity Commission’s suggested changes to the copyright law, Australian writers will no longer be able to compete on the same terms with writers in these countries.

My books are selling much more strongly now, seven years after they were first released, than when they were first published. The 12 month rule would only punish their further success, and would provide no protection for years of hard labour to writers like myself, who depend on a book’s steady longevity rather than a burst of sales.

The argument as presented by those who seek to lift restrictions is that it would make books cheaper for the consumer, and that those who oppose it are greedy corporate publishers. This is a populist argument with little regard for facts: the relative expensiveness of Australian books is far from proven, and it is less than certain that removing restrictions of parallel importation would make books any cheaper. And it certainly ignores the potential impact on authors.

The best way to make books cheaper for consumers would be to make them exempt from the GST. It was always a scandal that books were included in the first place.

This proposal would have a devastating impact on the local publishing industry – it certainly had negative effects when it was introduced in New Zealand, where the publishing industry now struggles to survive – which, on top of cutting my income, would have indirect effects as well on my ability to continue to write and publish in this country.

If the proposals go through, I will be forced in future to publish initially with English or American publishers, where I will enjoy Territorial Copyright. This will remove the income these books generate from the Australian economy altogether, and ensure that only English or US editions – which, as any writer will tell you, are edited for their domestic markets and so differ from Australian editions – are available in Australian bookshops.

I fail to see how this benefits consumers, publishers, booksellers or myself.

The only benefits that seem likely are increased profits for some retailers, from being able to import cheap or remaindered copies of books. This limited benefit would come at a heavy price to our presently healthy and competitive publishing culture, and would significantly affect the diversity of the books available to consumers.

My situation is far from singular. Artists are routinely urged to become self-sufficient, but parallel importation would make this goal even more difficult than it already is. If the Rudd Government claims to be backing a Creative Australia, why is it entertaining a proposal which would make it much harder for authors to earn a living, in a profession in which earning a decent living is already a rarity?

April 9, 2009

Alison Croggon is a poet, novelist and theatre critic based in Melbourne. As a poet, she won the Anne Elder and Dame Mary Gilmore Prizes, and has been shortlisted for several Premier’s Poetry Awards. Her critically acclaimed fantasy quartet The Books of Pellinor is a popular success in Europe, England and the US and was shortlisted in three categories in the Aurealis Awards, as well as being a Children’s Book Council recommended book. She is Melbourne theatre critic for the Australian newspaper and runs the theatre blog, Theatre Notes.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review: Realism, Travesties

Life, as you may have noticed, sometimes has a way of behaving as if there is a grand (or at least modestly intentional) design, as if behind the scenes there is a puppeteer pulling the strings, cackling wildly and shouting, "There SHALL be purpose!" The fact that this seeming order spirals out of human narcissism is by the bye. As Hamlet said, Madam, I know not seems. Appearance is all.

And thus it was that the god of theatre reviewing - a little known deity called Apogoitefsi - arranged for me to see Tom Stoppard's Travesties at the Sydney Theatre Company and Paul Galloway's Realism at the Melbourne Theatre Company on successive nights last week. (Don't even think about my carbon footprint over the past fortnight: I am doing penance, and planting trees as we speak...) Both are comedies about the revolutionary artistic movements of early 20th century Modernism. Both are fascinated by the Russian Revolution, although one features Lenin and the other (sort of) Stalin. And both, in their different ways, make very enjoyable theatre.

Travesties premiered in 1974, but it still seems the fresher play. It is Tom Stoppard at his brilliant best, a champagne confection of intellectual jokes underlaid by a serious questioning of the relationship between revolution and art. Realism, winner of last year's Wal Cherry award, is a premiere of a new Australian play and is a backstage comedy of a much more conventional stripe. It's hard to think that either play could have been given better treatment in its staging: in the case of Realism, the production glosses the flaws in the text, showing its virtues to their best advantage.

Aside from The Year of Magical Thinking, which is in any case an STC production, Realism is the first show this year that bears out the promise of the MTC's new incarnation. It reveals a playwright with a considerable gift for comic dialogue and an intimate knowledge of the stage; but it is first of all an act of theatre. The text is the occasion for the other artists - director, designers, actors - to shine in performance, and everyone grabs the spotlight and runs.

The play is set in Stalinist Russia in 1939, as a nervous bunch of actors rehearse a play written to celebrate Stalin’s birthday, horribly aware that a wrong step could mean deportation or death. Worse, a famous footballer with no experience of acting has been cast in the title role, and the director has gone missing. It's really a backstage comedy packed with theatrical jokes, in the tradition of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval.

Joseph Stalin, General-Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party from 1922 until his death in 1953, oversaw what must be the most massive project of social engineering in history. The numbers are dizzying. It’s estimated that Stalin caused the deaths of at least 20 million people (some argue the figure is closer to 40 million). This includes perhaps a million executed by secret police in purges, 12 million in labour camps, and 7 million peasants starved in famines caused by forced collectivisation.

Artists notoriously suffered under Stalin’s regime. What had been a thriving avant garde culture in the early years of the Revolution was ruthlessly decimated as the Soviet State cracked down on formalism and ambiguity, counter-revolutionary sins that were eradicated in favour of the bleak utilitarianism of social realism. Among the prominent casualties were the great novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (who wrote some of the most bitterly funny satires of Stalinist society), the poet Osip Mandelstam and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose revolutionary theatre was written out of history after he was arrested and executed by the secret police.

As Orlando Figes records in The Whisperers, a history of family life under Stalin that was recently banned in Russia, the effects filtered through to the most mundane levels of social intercourse, breaking the bonds of social trust: anyone, from one's own child child to a casual work acquaintance, could be an informer. Driven by shame and fear, Soviet citizens internalised the regime's imperatives, even when they were victims of them. "No other totalitarian system," says Figes, "had such a profound impact on the private lives of its subjects."

Although we are told this is the case, Realism doesn't really explore this aspect of Stalinism. Galloway's characters are all remarkably unguarded; even when the playwright Babelev (John Leary) discovers that the footballer Glemov (Stephen Phillips) is a friend of KGB head Beria, it doesn't shut him up, and the garrulous actors are shocked when they discover a potential informer in their midst, although by 1939 such a discovery must have been routine. For the sake of the comedy, the interior lives of the characters on stage are much the same as the average contemporary westerner.

All the same, you accept the conceit, if only because of the energy of the performances and the ambition of the production, directed with a near-faultless eye by Peter Evans. The play itself is structurally solid, if marred by an over-anxious desire to explain. This creates dud moments where nothing much is going on, and a sense of clunkiness in the flow of the action. But I liked the reflexiveness in the writing, its willingness to make jokes about itself (an actor complaining to another that she has upstaged him is, for example, upstaged as he complains). And Galloway has the gift of a first-class cast, led by Miriam Margoyles as the senior actress Nadia, who fully exploit its comedic potential.

More interestingly, Realism is an exploration of Meyerhold's theatrical practice. (Spoilers follow: anyone interested in seeing this play should stop reading now.) It begins in a naturalistic style, which is neverthless soaked with a subtle formalism: actorly stances or groupings signal a heightened state of theatrical reality, and Stephen Curtis's apparently naturalistic set, with its flywheels and faux mechanics, is in fact a tribute to Lubov Popova's constructivist design for Meyerhold's 1922 production of The Magnanimous Cuckold.

The first overt shift occurs when the actor Dinsky (Grant Piro) gives another actor a demonstration of Meyerhold's physical training system, Biomechanics, which, with its strange mixture of heiroglyphic Egyptian gesture and Tai Chi, is much stranger and more beautiful than you might expect. Suddenly we are watching pure performance, the actor's rhythmic body moving in space, and its power reduces the audience to silence. But the real coup de théâtre occurs when the stage transforms without warning into a Meyerholdian production, a stylised play-within-a-play that enacts the story of Meyerhold's life. This is much more than a gesture; although it occurs perilously late in proceedings, the production holds its nerve and carries the action through. It's bold, spectacular theatre.

Realism lacks the intellectual confidence to play robustly with its ideas: it is still about them, rather than of them. But nobody could accuse Tom Stoppard of a lack of intellectual confidence. Travesties, one of Stoppard's best plays, is all dazzling conceit.

Stoppard's imagination was sparked by an unlikely historical confluence during World War 1, when Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Vladimir Lenin simultaneously took refuge in Zurich. The play is filtered through the unreliable memory of Henry Carr, a minor consular official who starred as Algernon in an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest, put on by a company that was managed by James Joyce. In the wake of the play, Joyce sued Carr over money owed on some tickets he was supposed to sell; then Carr counter-sued Joyce, claiming that he had spent a lot of money on his trousers. And then Joyce sued Carr for defamation, although that action was thrown out of court.

It's not hard to see why this improbably comic story fascinated Stoppard. And nobody else could have exploited it with such verve: the script romps joyously through a pastiche of Wilde's play, with Tristan Tzara (a bravura performance by Toby Schmitz) playing Ernest to Carr's Algernon. Dialogue breaks out in limericks or music hall song like some surreal version of Tourette's Syndrome. It is, as is always said about Stoppard, enormously clever: clever enough to demonstrate that "clever" and "glib" are not synonyms. At his best, Stoppard is all Wildean surface, polished to a brilliant profundity: and here he is at his best.

Underneath the froth is a serious question about the uneasy relationship between art and revolution. Although Tzara and Joyce were both, in different ways, revolutionary artists, they were products of bourgeois culture; Joyce was famously indifferent to politics, and even claimed, in a paranoid moment, that the world war was a plot against his novels. "You're an amiable bourgeois with a chit from matron," Carr says to Tzara. "And if the revolution came, you wouldn't know what hit you." ("That's what we have against this society," responds Tzara, "that it has a place for us in it...")

There are ominous hints of the Russian Revolution's later persecution of Modernist artists in the dogma that all art must be social critique. But in this little bubble of time, before these famous names became cultural and political monuments, everything is up for grabs: the utter nihilism of war rages in the background, and art is - can't but be - a nonsense. Even if it is, as a coach once said of football, a very serious nonsense.

Richard Cottrell, who directed an unexpectedly disarming play about the Goons a couple of years ago, directs a superb production for the STC. Jonathan Biggins in the central role of Henry Carr leads a brilliant comic cast, all walking the uneasily hilarious line between cartoon and parody (none of these characters, except possibly Carr, are at all real: they are products of Carr's unreliable memory, phantasms of his romantic imagination - at one stage he recalls Lenin as a blond Scandinavian). They are, basically, functions of text - both Stoppard's and the source writings behind it. The stage - a revolve designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell, with an exaggerated art nouveau apartment on one side and a library adorned with random text on the other - is a heightened simulacra of Carr's mind, with his stuttering memory punctuated by changing lighting states and absurd cuckoo clocks.

What this production realises gloriously is the brilliant theatricality of Stoppard's writing. For all its frenetic shifts, Cottrell's direction uncovers a beautiful clarity; the density of Stoppard's linguistic play requires concentration, but is delivered with its proper lightness. I was laughing too much to realise how hard I was working to follow the dialogue. Which is probably the highest compliment I can pay.

A shorter version of the review of Realism was published in yesterday's Australian.

Realism by Paul Galloway, directed by Peter Evans. Set design by Stephen Curtis, costume design by Christina Smith, lighting design by Matt Scott. With Stephen Phillips, Julie Eckersley, Paul Denny, Miriam Margoyles, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Grant Piro, John Leary and Ming-Zhu Hii. MTC @ the John Sumner Theatre until May 17.

Travesties by Tom Stoppard, directed by Richard Cottrell. Set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell, costume design by Julie Lynch, lighting design by Bernie Tan. With Robert Alexander, Blazey Best, Jonathan Biggins, Peter Houghton, Rebecca Massey, Toby Schmitz, Wendy Strehlow and William Zappa. STC @ the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until April 25.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

O Melbourne!

I land home after buzzing about interstate like a maniacal (but disease-free) blowfly... and what happens? I catch a cold! Is it something in the air here? Reviews of the STC's production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties and the MTC's of Paul Galloway's Realism on the way, truly, but slightly impeded by piles of tissues.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Four Days on the Island

Last week was, I'm ashamed to admit, Ms TN's first visit to Tasmania. It won't be my last: I've returned enamoured, feeling my four days there were all too brief. Hobart has a physical setting to rival Sydney, with Mt Wellington rising over the city like a benign god. It has managed to retain much of its splendid Georgian architecture, and its suburbs clamber out from the harbour over the forested hills that hug the Derwent River, so it still looks a little like those 19th century paintings of early colonial settlements.

This is a city which punches well above its cultural weight. I've long suspected that much of the most exciting Australian literature comes from Tasmania (Richard Flanagan is only the most famous) and it boasts a thriving visual arts culture. Although its population is tiny - 200,000 - the city has a surprising concentration of galleries, theatres, cafes and bookshops. In short, a peripatetic Melburnian can feel quite at home here.

In his Vandemonian Essays, Tasmanian poet Pete Hay quotes James Boyce speaking of an "enduring Vandemonian spirit". (Here I should add that last week James Boyce won the Tasmanian Book Prize last week for his massive history, Van Diemen's Land). "This [spirit] connotes," says Hay, "the persistence of a vernacular social and economic resilience; a combative communal and individual independence." It's a quality that is palpable, even on a brief visit. And it is, I suspect, a quality at least partly generated by island culture.

I came in towards the end of the impressively programmed Ten Days on the Island, a biennial international arts festival curated by Elizabeth Walsh. The first thing you notice about the program is how many events also come from islands - Sicily, Taiwan, Iceland, Corsica, New Caledonia, Anglesey. The second thing you notice is that this festival is, uniquely, programmed around Tasmania, with events travelling all over the state, rather than centering itself in the capital city.

This year the National Play Festival, a talkfest run by PlayWriting Australia that incorporates a generous program of public play readings, was also nestled into the program. Yep, Hobart was jumping.

I didn't see much of the Play Festival, turning up bug-eyed for a reading of Lally Katz's Return to Earth after a sleepless night making the epic journey from the Flinders Ranges to Hobart. I retired soon afterwards so I wouldn't be seen snoring gently through later readings (a very bad look for an alleged critic). Although I admire Katz's text - it was a unanimous winner in the RE Ross Trust Play Award which I and two colleagues judged last year - I found myself squirming. I don't usually enjoy moved readings, which always seem to me a half measure: the performers have not had the time for the exploration of a full production, and yet the blocking means that they're distracted from the pure business of dealing spontaneously with spoken language, which is often the chief genius of a play reading.

Even this brief visit showed that the Play Festival was a veritable hive: if a bomb had been dropped on the building, it would have taken out a good percentage of Australia's theatre community. I wish I'd had time to spend a few more hours there: as a ferociously private writer, I'm intrigued by and ambivalent about this whole notion of exposing writerly process, and it would have been fascinating to have a closer look to see if and how it works. Next time.

But on to the Ten Days festival itself. Over the next two days, I caught four shows. Perhaps the performance which will stay with me longest was an installation and performance called Ruined. Composer and musician Ross Bolleter has specialised in playing ruined pianos for some years, a practice that seems a natural evolution from his earlier interest in prepared pianos, a la John Cage. For this event, he toured Tasmania, collecting pianos in various states of dishevelment.

In the dim light of the warehouse space of the Bond Store - dark enough to force your eyes to adjust when you enter - Bolleter has gathered almost 20 pianos in various states of decay and degradation. (He has a precise taxonomy of ruin - the states vary from neglected, abandoned and weathered to ruined, devastated, decomposed and annihilated). During the installation, Bolleter also gave several free performances, which were so well patronised that on the day I went, around 100 people were turned away by the harassed ushers.

Bolleter simply stood before his audience, explaining the history of each piano, and then improvised. One piano - rescued from a tip where it was being dismembered by a man with an axe - was merely a frame of strings on the floor; on others keys were missing, or the hammers appeared to have been eaten by small marsupials (certainly, Bolleter explained that some of the pianos have housed an array of fauna). What emerged was a cross between a concert and social history, in which the pianos embodied the collision of European culture with the Australian environment, and the extreme efforts people employed to have a piano in their home in even the most remote of regions.

Bolleter drew extraordinarily beautiful improvisations from these degraded instruments. Sometimes all you could hear was the percussive sound of his fingers on the keys, or an unexpectedly pure note might resonate in the air. There were recognisable melodies - a ragged version of Schumann, for instance - which were as eccentrically decayed as the instruments. This music was particular to each piano, notes stroked and coaxed from its individual capacity. The quality of Bolleter's attention, the love with which he touched the keys or knelt and plucked the strings, made his performance riveting. And in its evocation of the process of mortality, its haunting ephemerality ("each thing once, only once", as Rilke said in the Duino Elegies), Ruined was profoundly moving.

Florence was a multimedia dance work by Newfoundland performer Louise Moyes. It was divided, somewhat uncertainly, into two parts: a short dance which supposedly told the story of the physical labour performed by Newfoundland women in the days before electricity (and which I thought was about birds), and a longer narrative piece, part dance, part video, part story telling, which focused on the life of Florence Leprieur, a native of the Port-au-port Peninsula in Newfoundland. This show had undeniably lovely moments, but these were dissipated by its formal uncertainty: at times it seemed like two different shows nailed clumsily together. The differing elements often worked in unfruitful contradiction, the literalness of the video and storytelling undermining the poetic flights of the dance.

Hoipolloi's Floating, on the other hand, was one of the most successful feel-good theatre pieces I've seen. A tall tale about the Welsh isle of Anglesey taking off from its moorings and travelling around the Atlantic to the Arctic and back again, it's a comic delight that underneath its picaresque dress explores notions of islander identity, belonging and alienation. Hugh Hughes and Sioned Rowlands generate their world before our eyes, using an eccentric array of lo-fi equipment and various props (wrestling magazines, rocks, photographs) that are handed around the audience. In its low-tech aesthetic, it's not so far from the theatre of groups like Suitcase Royale or Black Lung, and like them it depends, for all its surface disorder, on a deep theatrical discipline.

It's also a glorious pisstake on theatre itself. Hugh Hughes po-facedly explains the structure of the evening during a shambolic introduction: theoretically, at least, Floating will follow the map of the well-made play, with a beginning, middle, end and morally sound conclusion, and with various characters embodying various themes. Naturally, none of these intentions are ever realised.

Where this show is extraordinary is in how it invites the audience into the performance. It's almost the opposite of audience participation, where embarrassed audience members are at the mercy of the performers' authority: somehow these two performers are so friendly, so accepting, that the audience feels that it can take over the show. I'm not sure I've ever seen an audience so willing to interrupt proceedings. This controlled chaos generates, almost by the bye, a sense of ownership in those who watch it, destabilising expectations from moment to moment, so the show seems continuously on the verge of total collapse, without ever quite disintegrating into complete anarchy. It's ingenious and brave theatre, and its charm is impossible to resist.

I reeled out of Wu Hsing-kuo's version of King Lear with no such feelings of satisfaction. Ms TN, as you all know, is enormously tolerant of the ambitions of artists, happy to wander whither they lead: I'll seldom question a work's intentions, feeling they are none of my business. But I sat through this performance with a cloud of questions buzzing about my head like particularly irritating blowflies. Of which the biggest and fattest was, why?

Wu, the artistic director of Taiwan's Contemporary Legend Theatre, is a former star of Chinese Opera. And he is, unarguably, a remarkably accomplished, even astounding performer of his art. His ambition to do a one-man version of King Lear is so bonkers, in conception as much as in performance, that you have to value its sheer madness. More seriously, the fusion of western and eastern theatrical practice has a rich and fruitful tradition which has often illuminated and enriched both. One only has to think of Artaud, enraptured by Balinese puppet theatre, or Brecht's revelations after seeing the Chinese Opera (which deeply influenced his conception of Epic Theatre); or, from the other end, Suzuki's theatrical attacks on Greek tragedies or Kurosawa's plundering of Shakespeare's plays in films like Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth) or Ran (also based on Lear).

Wu's interpretation of King Lear so profoundly misunderstands Shakespeare's play that it made me wonder why he picked this story to work on, rather than, say, any number of other fables about a monstrously egotistical king. On the plus side, it features a very interesting score by Lee Yi-chin, a fusion of traditional Chinese instrumentation, modern electronics and ambient noise, performed live on stage by a nine-piece band, and lots of spectacular lighting and smoke effects. And it's a chance to see some virtuosic performance out of the tradition of Chinese Opera.

But the larger meaning eluded me. In this production, Lear begins as a madman and ends as a narcissist. The crucial aspects of the tragedy - Lear's self-realisation and journey to humility through the recognition of his mortal limitations - are simply ignored. Wu transforms King Lear into a dialogue between the actor and his roles, a conceit that works in the short sequence where he becomes Lear's Fool but which otherwise is dramaturgically baffling. Shakespeare's tragedy becomes a Confucian fable about the evils of filial impiety, with a final scene in which Lear excoriates his three (!) disloyal daughters and laments the darkness of life - even as he holds the corpse of Cordelia (or at least, I assumed it was Cordelia). It's hard to think of another interpretation that so badly misses the point. So, to return to my original question, why do the play at all?

I probably should mention the people who stood and cheered at the end, as Wu emerged, as theatrically modest as Albert Finney taking his bows in Ronald Harwood's marvellous film The Dresser. In which, not unincidentally, Finney also played an actor playing King Lear. For an exploration of both the play and the relationship between an actor and his role, you'd be better off hiring the DVD of that film.

It has to be said that the surtitles, which were translated from Mandarin via Babelfish, didn't help one whit. Much of the adaptation is written by Wu and bears no relationship to the original play at all. Which is fine: I am no purist when it comes to the classics. But every now and then a shred of original Shakespeare, distorted almost out of recognition, would flash up to remind me of what was missing: Shakespeare's complex humanity. In any case, I'll certainly treasure this Lear as one of my more bizarre theatrical experiences.

Pictures: top: a ruined piano rotting gently into the landscape; bottom: Wu-Hsing-kuo in King Lear.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Back in harness

Yep, your indefatigable blogger - never was an adjective more worthily earned - is back on duty. I got back last night from Hobart, where I spent a full and fascinating four days investigating the Ten Days on the Island festival (report to follow) and leading some workshops for Critical Acclaim, a program in which seven aspiring critics are thrown into the deep end and told to swim. (You can see some of their efforts at the swank new Spark Online site, as well as a plethora of other outlets like Australian Stage Online, Mercury Online and others.).

So it's been some week. From three days in the remote Flinders Ranges writing a poem with a camera stuck up my nose (which was much more fun than you or I might expect) to lounging about the chocolate box Hobart theatres and Salamanca's cafe society felt like an epic journey. But like Odysseus, I'm a bit of a homebody, and I'm glad to be back. And to make me feel even more upbeat, the Australian this weekend listed Theatre Notes as one of Australia's best blogs. I'm still not past being chuffed. I'm chuffed!

Addendum: check out Matt Trueman's piece on the situation facing young critics and the thoughtful discussion following it on the Guardian theatre blog. Very interesting, given what I've just been doing in Hobart. I'd say the difference here is that we have little tradition of theatre criticism - Katherine Brisbane and Harry Kippax (both Sydney critics) are about the whole shebang. Very often, those of us passionate about critical discourse in the theatre feel as if we're building from the ground up. As with many things about Australian culture, this lack of tradition - often decried in the past, and often rightly, as cultural aridity - means we look forward instead of backward, with no tradition letting fall its long shadow over us. Meaning that it can be a liberating plus as much as a problem.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Quick note

Blogging from my iPhone here, at an Adelaide motel next to the airport at 2.30 am. O brave new world! I've been out of mobile phone and Internet range for the past three days, filming an ABC TV series. Tomorrow - meaning, a couple of hours later today - I fly to Hobart. Long story... I'll be back at my desk (more or less) next week and will hunker down to my email and messages then. Meanwhile, my little chickens, be good, and if you can't be good, be civil.

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