Ross Trust play readingsThe Birthday Party revisitedReview: Savage RiverMerce Cunningham diesThe guilty pleasures of schadenfreudePoetry hatReview: Happy Days, Care InstructionsReview: Miracle, Disagreeable ObjectReview: AviaryParochial notesInterview: Ariel DorfmanGlomming ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ross Trust play readings

Before I miss the boat, let me alert you to Flashpoint, a series of readings of new writing for theatre. The scripts being performed are all winners of the RE Ross Trust Playwright's Script Development Awards, an excellent prize run by the State Library which fosters new writing, and which I have been very happy to help judge, with Tom Healey and Patricia Cornelius, over the past two years.

The readings kick off tonight, July 29, at the Village Roadshow Theatrette at the State Library, with excerpts from three works by Lally Katz, Carly Beth Nugent and Angela Betzien (this one's a libretto with music by Jethro Woodward). They continue next month at fortyfive downstairs from August 26-28 with work from Aidan Fennessy, Kit Lazaroo and Barry Dickins. Entry is free, which is good value indeed. Bookings for tonight at 03 8664 7099; for the fortyfive downstairs readings, 03 9662 9966. More details can be found here.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Birthday Party revisited

Director Julian Meyrick has answered reviews of his production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party with an essay which is posted today on the MTC site (pdf file). My response follows here. Before I say anything else, I want to make clear that I welcome Julian’s comments. Nothing I say about theatre is or should be beyond questioning and, like every artist I write about, he has every right to take issue with what I say.

Julian makes several criticisms of Age critic Cameron Woodhead’s and my responses (both the Australian notice and the later meditation on TN). Most seriously, he claims that our reactions are part of “our culture’s bizarre, unreadable and depressing attitude to Aboriginality”. In his view, “the evidence points … to a critical absence where a critical response should be: to a marked unwillingness to connect with the victim of the play.” Basically, both Cameron and I missed the point of the production because we are unable to empathise with the plight of Indigenous people in Australian society; which is to say, our responses were racist. I’ll return to this point, which has led to a fair bit of soul-searching on my part, later. Firstly, I’d like to respond to the criticisms Julian has made of my practice as a critic, some of which seem a little personal. I don’t presume to speak for Cameron.

Julian suggests that Cameron and I are part of a sterile and rigid matrix of ideas that will, sooner or later, spell the death of Australian theatre. He is more disappointed with me, because he has higher expectations. After saying (nicely) that I am one of the most intelligent people writing about theatre today, he says of my reviews: “partisanship is the essence of her craft. It is possible to say ahead of time what Alison will think of any show because her view of theatre is schematic, adversarial and assured. The result is opinions which label themselves as such, yet lack range in feeling and taste. This has always been a problem for Australian critics of quality, who are bottled-up in a theatre scene not big enough even to be called a pond.”

I don’t in fact know what Julian means by saying that my view of theatre is “schematic” and “adversarial”. (Assured, maybe, although anyone who reads me carefully will know that doubt is one of the poles of that dialectic.) Perhaps Julian really can tell ahead of time what shows I will enjoy, in which case he knows something that I don’t: but it is hardly true, as he seems to be claiming, that I only enjoy a particular kind of theatre. It’s a little hard to second-guess what he means here, but I’ll take my cue from his comments about his revulsion against a theatre of “bling and high technique” that eschews “simplicity and sachlichkeit (literally ‘sobriety’)”, and assume he means that I am a partisan critic who supports a theatre of spectacle at the expense of less showy but more truthful aesthetics.

Well, it's certainly true that I have enjoyed shows that exploit the spectacular possibilities of theatre, from Jersey Boys to Honour Bound, from Food Court to The Women of Troy to The War of the Roses (although that production seemed, if anything, to embrace qualities of simplicity and sobriety). But surely if I were simply a narrow partisan for that kind of theatre, I should have also enjoyed Bell Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Titus, Fall of Rome or Barrie Kosky’s production of The Navigator or the Malthouse production of The Odyssey? And I certainly would not have been so enthusiastic about the MTC production of Blackbird, which was as simple and sober as anything I’ve seen, or the recent production of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Tom Fool, or even Ranter’s defiantly anti-spectacular work in Holiday. I have pretty catholic, if not always populist, tastes. I admit, as a quirk of sensibility, that I prefer highbrow and lowbrow over middlebrow, but probably my most identifiable prejudice is towards good writing.

Further, Julian says that "a certain kind of diminishing power comes with being a critic - a petty power directors also court, so I recognise it - that is corrosive of disinterested thinking and the wider view." Perhaps. I always hope that my writing is at once interested (in the work it attends to) and disinterested. I can say in clear conscience, however, that I have never been remotely interested in “power”, unless it’s the power to spark a conversation. If power were what motivated me, I wouldn’t have started this blog, or I would have dropped it the moment the Australian job came along. I don’t find power – or at least, the power that Julian seems to be talking about – very interesting at all. I guess I’m rather Senecan on that question: it means very little, and it certainly won’t last, and I’d rather spend my energy in more rewarding pursuits.

It’s possibly not irrelevant here to note that I also inhabit at least two other worlds (not counting those private worlds which come with raising a family), both of which give me a status, even a minor international fame, which is much less ambivalent than the notoriety which comes from commenting rudely on other people’s work. In other words, I don’t need to do this work to gratify my ego. Priggish though it might sound, aside from my passion for the art of theatre I am motivated by the hope that a culture of conversation will take hold on the fragile soil here. I am glad the blog is regarded as influential – that is of course gratifying – but it’s a shame if it also means that the work is read less carefully, if its perceived status obscures the worth or otherwise of what one is actually doing. If anything, the blog’s success has sparked a nightmare scenario of my ossifying into a one-woman institution; and if anything makes me stop blogging, it will be that prospect.

For these reasons, I should be sorry if this argument is read as being simply about power, or even as adversarial. It’s not. It’s about disagreement. Even if it is not the case, I prefer to imagine that I live in a civilised culture, a culture where difference can be respected and is considered an enriching means of extending and questioning the self.

Which brings me to Julian’s central point: that my critique of The Birthday Party was primarily marked by a lack of attention to the Indigeneity of the cast that amounts to racism. This is a difficult charge to counter; and I should hate to think that was really the case. In my reviews of Indigenous productions – Black Medea, for instance, or Yibiyung, or The Man from Mukinupin - I’ve always tried to be sensitive to racial issues, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always successful. As any woman knows in attempting to explain the subtler ramifications of sexism, it can be difficult to register the nuances of prejudice if you haven’t encountered it yourself.

And it seems that here I failed; moreover, I failed in a way that is emblematic of wider problems in Australian culture. As Julian claims:

In shaping their responses, everything about The Birthday Party that is different, new, challenging and important has been swept aside. The result is an evasiveness which, if you didn’t know the show, might not be perceptible. Even if you did know the show you might be tempted to gloss over it as allowable, though strange. But if you cared about it, had felt Pinter’s cold, undeniable fingers close round your heart then this weird slipperiness is something that needs explaining.

I cannot unpack my thoughts on the show without discussing Australian theatre more broadly. Although it is a generalisation, it is one that captures something about the art form at the moment to say there is a hole where its heart should be. This is exemplified by Cameron’s and Alison’s reviews. They are incomplete, in an emotional and spiritual sense, and this speaks to a larger disconnection in the culture.

I am not at all sure how one can be a “complete” reviewer anywhere, let alone in the constraints of print media. Written responses to anything, from the overnight notice to the seriously considered book, are all, to one degree or another, partial. All the same, it’s fair to say that my emotional connection to this production of The Birthday Party was incomplete: my primary criticism of the production, in a mirror of Julian’s criticism of my comments, was that something was missing in the middle.

Contrary to Julian’s claims, I called the cross-racial casting “a rare and welcome example of main stage cross-racial casting” and later, in response to a commenter, expanded my thoughts: “I really don't think the cross-racial casting is an issue here, in any negative way I mean. It's the most interesting aspect of the production, it's thoughtfully done so it doesn't cheapen the play or the issues it brings to bear on the text, and it works, not least because it brings a brilliant new energy into the MTC purview. I'm hoping it brings local casting more in line with what goes on routinely, for example, on the BBC, which is light years ahead of us on this question. The idea had - and I guess this is what frustrated me - the possibility of bringing a tough and fresh angle onto Pinter's work. For me it just didn't get there - but it's not because of anything to do with the casting.”

The major sticking point is the comments on Isaac Drandic’s performance, which attracted criticism from both Cameron and myself; although I took it as probably a directorial decision, Cameron went with his guns ablaze for the actor himself. To quote Julian again: “I have … come to feel these critical judgements of his performance are harsh, unreasonable and perverse. Worse, they operate in such a way as to block traffic, fuddling the intended meaning of the show. His performance is used as an excuse not to look at the unsettling racial associations the action throws up. As a young, black, working-class man – and this description would apply both to Isaac and Stanley – empathy is withheld from him in an unnatural way.”

It’s only natural to want to defend an actor who has been so pilloried. But all the same, I find it hard to swallow the suggestion that these responses have nothing to do with the production, and everything to do with unacknowledged racial prejudice; that it comes from an "unnatural" coldheartedness that can only be explained by racism. As for a perverse lack of empathy for the real victims feeding into my critique of the acting: I think the actual victim in this play is the naif landlady, Meg, and I was knocked out by Pauline Whyman’s beautiful performance.

I think the argument comes down to different readings of the play. Certainly, in his defence of his production, Julian seems to be warping the play I’ve read, giving it a sentimental gloss that is so at odds with my understanding of Pinter’s work that it’s no wonder I missed the point.

Is Stanley, even performed by a “young, black, working class man”, really such a sympathetic character in the play? Is he really the “real victim”? I’d say that Stanley is an ambiguous character from the beginning, as this exchange in Act 1 demonstrates:

Meg: Stan?
Stanley: What?
Meg: Am I really succulent?
Stanley: Oh yes. I’d rather have you than a cold in the nose any day.
Meg: You’re just saying that.
Stanley: (violently) Look, why don’t you get this place cleared up! It’s a pigsty! And another thing, what about my room? It needs sweeping. It needs papering. I need a new room!
Meg: (sensual, stroking his arm) Oh Stan, that’s a lovely room. I’ve had some lovely afternoons in that room.
He recoils from her hand in disgust, stands up and exits quickly.

Or this, a little later on:

Stanley: (quietly) Who do you think you’re talking to?
Meg: (uncertainly) What?
Stanley: Come here.
Meg: What do you mean?
Stanley: Come over here.
Meg: No.
Stanley: I want to ask you something. (MEG fidgets nervously. She does not go to him.) Come on. (Pause.) All right. I can ask it from here just as well. (Deliberately.) Tell me, Mrs Boles, when you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself who exactly you are talking to? Eh?

This is classic Pinter dialogue, ripe with ambiguity and implied menace. The dialogue is laced with mingled sexual attraction and repulsion and an implied violence pulses beneath the text. Meg’s sudden fear speaks volumes: she really doesn’t know who she is speaking to. And as McCann and Goldberg make clear later, Stanley is somehow compromised by a secret mutual history that involves these two figures, although we never know what it is. He is not merely a simple working class guy. (If he is, indeed, working class, which I think is arguable).

My issue with Julian's production was always with the emotional tenor and interpretation of the direction. The production I saw smoothed out these disturbances: the relationship between Stanley and Meg was comfortably maternal, with any hint of incestuous perversion softened to a harmless joke, and Stanley never, at any point in the first act, generated any sort of threat. That simply seems to be at odds with the text. As I said, I could see the potential power of an Indigenous take on this play, but in this instance it never caught flame:

But - and for me it is a large but - there was something missing in the middle of the play… a sense of soft-focus permeates the tone of the whole production: the squalor of the boarding house… is here rendered with a respectable cleanliness. There are moments of sudden brutality, moments of discomfort, but instead of winding slowly up to a kind of stomach-twisting panic, they dissipate in comic relief. It's too easy in this production to read The Birthday Party as a kind of surreal comedy about "those" kinds of people - lower middle class, Not Like Us - because its real power, its merciless exposure of the dark animal impulses in human behaviour, is muffled. The sense of interior nightmare never takes hold where it counts, in the primitive caverns of the subconscious.

My first critical concern was with this play, not the director’s political intentions. To my mind, if the production had succeeded on this deeper level, its political intentions would have, blazingly, followed. But I don't believe this happened in this production, or at least in the performance I saw.

My racial blindness, says Julian, lies in two main areas. Firstly, I am remiss in not fully welcoming the implications of an Indigenous cast performing The Birthday Party. “You might get the impression from the reviews that cross-racial casting of canonical English plays went on all the time, instead of the reality, that it almost never happens. One contributor to the Theatre Notes blog suggested it might be a marketing strategy. But the implications are professionally and culturally profound. There are few more difficult playwrights than Pinter. If you can act Pinter, you can act anything. An indigenous cast nailing The Birthday Party is an indication that a new era in cross-cultural casting has arrived. It’s a shift from why (why cast Aboriginal actors) to why not (why not cast Aboriginal actors). If they can do the part, they can be in the play, regardless of colour or creed.”

On reflection, perhaps I could have said more about the fact of the cross-racial casting; but aside from welcoming it, the fact is that I didn’t out of a fear of seeming patronising. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Indigenous actors can do this play; of course they can, just as Iraqi or Russian or Australian actors can (or can’t). To suggest anything else seems, well, racist.

The other level of blindness is in the meaning of the play. This is trickier: in his essay, Julian is suggesting a rewriting of the class and racial structures in the original text along lines that rather shock me in their reductiveness. In Julian’s words: “In this production, everyone is Aboriginal except for Goldberg. So the action goes: a white man hunts down a black man, charms his landlady, seduces his girlfriend, then terrorizes, tortures and takes him away to a malign fate. When Stanley appears at the end of the play, ready to go, he’s physically OK but can no longer talk. It seems hilarious now but when I was rehearsing, I thought the meaning of all this would be too obvious. I hadn’t factored in Australia’s completely aphasic attitude to race.”

I’d suggest that it’s not so much an aphasic attitude to race as a familiarity with the play, which sets up its own expectations, and which is not exactly amenable to any simple top-down reading. As Pinter himself said, “In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an act of subjugation.” In the original play, the lines of power are not nearly so clear-cut, with the "superior" race at the apex of power: race and class cut against each other.

Goldberg might be the top dog, the wealthier man of a higher class, and, indeed, the locus of violence; but, crucially, he is Jewish. As Pinter well knew, he would be a man who was, no matter what his social or economic status, a target of the casual and vicious anti-Semitism in English culture (Orwell’s self-excoriating essay on covert anti-Semitism in Britain is a must-read on this one). McCann, an Irishman, is from another culture marginalised and discriminated against in English culture. It might have made more sense in Julian’s production for Goldberg to be Aboriginal. The play itself works against Julian’s professed intentions, and that’s why I didn’t read it in the way he desired.

I'll finish with a quote from Pinter’s Nobel speech, which perhaps best expresses the indeterminacy of his drama, its essential inhospitability to imposed interpretation:

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.
Julian Meyrick's full response is available as a pdf download on the MTC site.

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Review: Savage River

Last Friday, the Melbourne premiere of Steve Rodgers' Savage River also saw the opening of a significant new theatre: the Melbourne Theatre Company's Lawler Studio. This gorgeous 150-seat venue is the studio the MTC had to have: a basic, flexible black box space that is beautifully fitted out and which, crucially, features excellent acoustics. This will give the MTC a lot more artistic room to move.

I can't overstate how important this possibility is to the wider ecology of Melbourne theatre, as much as to the culture of the MTC itself: it opens the door to new talent and new audiences, allowing the company to nurture some exciting energies that simply can't be accommodated in larger venues. It looks to me that it will be a worthy complement to the work that goes on elsewhere, in the Malthouse's Tower seasons and the Arts Centre's Full Tilt programs. I have thought for some time that the lack of a mainstage theatre that devotes itself, Royal Court-style, specifically to new writing is a significant gap in Melbourne culture; and it seems to me that the Lawler Studio might be it. Certainly the emphasis of this year's program, under associate director Aidan Fennessy, is squarely on new plays.

The inaugural season kicks off with a modest but intriguingly various program of three works that reflects the diversity of Australian contemporary theatre writing, as well as a season of playreadings later this year. After Savage River, Lally Katz's Apocalypse Bear Trilogy is one of the MTC's Melbourne Festival shows, and Peter Houghton premieres the third in his trilogy of comic monologues, The Colours, next month. The opening play, Savage River, premiering here after a season at Sydney's Griffin Theatre, is unambiguously a play. And even if it is more melodrama than drama, betraying the faults of a promising but new playwright, it is encouraging to see a new work with these ambitions.

Earlier this year, after reading my way through more than 50 scripts as a judge for a couple of awards, I started to wonder where all the dramatists were. I saw plenty of writing for theatre, some of it very exciting indeed, but very little work that really grappled with the craft of drama. As was said in the judges' report for the RE Ross Trust award, "the strongest entries tended to come from the poetic or 'alternative' end of the spectrum. All but one of the winning contenders conform to this pattern."

I've speculated privately on why this might be. I suspect part of it is simply that writing drama is very difficult indeed. I have wondered now and again whether the much-vaunted "post-dramatic stage" is simply about an art being forgotten, rather than its being no longer relevant. It also occurs to me that the strength in "alternative" writing might equally stem from the fact that the culture around collaborative work is presently so vital: we have brilliant directors, designers, theatre composers, technicians and actors who are able to realise different kinds of theatricality with sophistication and flair.

The culture around writing plays is only just beginning to catch up, dropping, I hope, the anti-intellectual "a-play-is-not-literature" polemic that led to such incuriosity about the formal qualities of plays, and perhaps laying down at last the deadening issue-led ideologies that dominated the 1980s and 90s. Deadening, I would argue, because they focus on aspects extrinsic to a text, politicising work in ways that are ultimately deeply conservative - both politically and aesthetically - because they draw attention away from the primary experience of theatre itself. That primary experience is, after all, the truly radicalising force of any kind of artistic work.

Savage River is a play that doesn't fall into this vanguard; it rightly leaves any "issues" for the audience to think about. Set in an isolated shack on the edge of Savage River, a mining town in the north-west of Tasmania, it explores the obsessive relationship between Kingsley (Ian Bliss) and his son Tiger (Travis Cardona), which is disturbed when the arrival of a stranger, Jude (Peta Sergeant), catalyses dramatic change. Kingsley and Jude are both hiding: Jude is an alcoholic trainwreck with a shady past, on the run with some stolen money. Kingsley, who works at the mine, has kept his son "safe" from the corrupting and dangerous world, and also, we discover, from the family of his Indigenous mother, who disappeared when he was a small boy.

These three characters become a broken mirror of the conventional family unit, a strange reflection of the settler-invaders who drove the local people from their land and into the shadows. In the figure of Tiger's absent mother and her family, there's a glance towards the recent scholarship on Aboriginal history, which argues that Indigenous genocide was as much a practice of hidden genealogies and secret family history as it was of slaughter. And beneath it all is the uneasy question of belonging, of relationship to place as well the bonds between people.

In the play's best moments, there's an edge of Sam Shepard in these isolated characters, a rough-hewn lyricism that could be burnished to an iconic, and particularly Australian, grandeur and tragedy. It doesn't get there: Rodgers as yet lacks the subtlety of emotional register to lift the story beyond melodrama. The first act moves slowly, obliquely filling in the textures of these three lives without quite avoiding the perils of stasis, and when in the second act events unfold, as you know they inevitably will, they crash down with a kind of grinding legibility. You can see the potential in some of Rodgers' dialogues, an ability to write dynamic language that surely comes out of his acting experience, but his crafting of dramatic movement - perhaps the most demanding of all writing, bar poetry - is still crude and uncertain.

As a result, there is an air of overstatement in the performances, as if the actors are pushing the emotional meat of the play, rather than permitting it to emerge. The actors all have their moments - I especially liked Cardona's portrayal of Tiger's confused innocence - but at the same time I thought that feeling was being demonstrated rather than communicated. All the same, there's no doubt that the production is elegantly designed, with a simple but evocative set by Stephen Curtis floored by black sand, a lush lighting design by Daniel Zika and some nice music from Jed Kurzel. Kelly Ryall's sound design does tend to swell up to signal important moments, but generally Peter Evans's direction is tactful, lucidly framing the play. It's not going to set the world on fire, but it's a decent start to what I hope will be an exciting new phase for the MTC.

Picture: Travis Cardona and Peta Sergeant in Savage River.

Savage River by Steve Rodgers, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Stephen Curtis, lighting design by Daniel Zika, sound design by Kelly Ryall, music composed by Jed Kurzel. With Ian Bliss, Travis Cardona and Peta Sergeant. MTC @ the Lawler Studio, until August 8.

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Merce Cunningham dies

This morning I read, via George Hunka at Superfluities Redux, that Merce Cunningham died on Sunday night, aged 90. Cunningham was one of the giant figures of modern dance over a career that lasted for nearly seven decades: he revolutionised the art, and his lifelong partnership with John Cage was one of the key artistic engines of the 20th century. As Alastair Macaulay writes in the New York Times, "Cunningham ranks with Isadora Duncan, Serge Diaghilev, Martha Graham and George Balanchine in making people rethink the essence of dance and choreography, posing a series of 'But' and 'What if?' questions over a career of nearly seven decades... In his final years he became almost routinely hailed as the world’s greatest choreographer. For many, he had simply been the greatest living artist since Samuel Beckett."

We were lucky enough to see him here in Melbourne two years ago, when he was the centre of a residency at the Melbourne Festival that celebrated the far-reaching influence of his work: on the final night of the festival, Cunningham came on stage to a full-hearted standing ovation from the capacity State Theatre crowd. Vale, Mr Cunningham; and thank you.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

The guilty pleasures of schadenfreude

I've long thought that plays about writers ought to be banned. With rare exceptions (none of which, admittedly, I can think of at this particular moment) they tend to trade on the romantic aura of writerly genius, blithely forgetting that being a writer is one of the dullest jobs there is, at least to an outside eye. Let's face it, a writer on stage pounding away at his typewriter/laptop is hardly the most compelling of dramatic images.

And a musical that has just opened in London seems to take the genre into newly awful territory, on the way providing some of the best schadenfreude now available on the internets. A musical about Ernest Hemingway blowing his brains out? Pull the other one... But no, somebody did it, and called it Too Close to the Sun. The previews caused a cyberstorm, with bloggers claiming that it was a classic: "Go and see this horrific gem of a show," says Theatrical Leanings. "You'll want to say you did in years to come, trust me. But make sure you load up on booze before you even start, or you won't make it as far as the interval." The print critics agree, with the show garnering one star each in the Independent, the Times and the Guardian. Well, I guess it adds up to three. As the Telegraph reported, this musical had everything for the theatrical masochist, including collapsing furniture.

Naturally, the West End Whingers had a field day. As they report: "the lines which provoked the greatest responses from the audience were Rex’s revelation that he’d been spending his time “looking for a decent script” and the sudden Act 2 exclamation: “Enough of this bullshit” at which point Phil (until now on his best behaviour with his fist crammed in his mouth) let out an involuntary shriek of laughter which proved as infectious as swine flu as it swept around the auditorium." Sort of, almost, wish I had been there...

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Poetry hat

I've been uncertain whether to post this properly, since official announcement dates seem to have shifted backwards; it was supposed to be announced earlier this month. But what the hell, the news is out anyway. I am one of two Australian poets picked for the inaugural International Tour Circuit, a scheme that was advertised by the Australian Poetry Centre earlier this year. Supported by the Australia Council, the APC sought applications for two leading Australian poets to tour the UK and Ireland, to act as ambassadors for Australian poetry. Unsurprisingly, it attracted applications from almost every poet in the country, and I figured my chances were slim indeed. Just goes to show that it's always worth buying that ticket....

It's a good scheme - for all its myriad strengths, Australian poetry is still regarded as a minor strand in the English-speaking world, and it's a chance to spread the word. I'll be touring with the distinguished poet Robert Gray who, besides being one of the finest lyric voices around, is a lovely guy, and will be good company. The cloud to this silver is that I will miss most of the Melbourne Festival. But not all of it - the tour dates have been moved forward one week, so I'll still get to catch that first week. In particular, Sasha Waltz. Phew!

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: Happy Days, Care Instructions

Over the past few days. Ms TN and the man to whom she's a spectacularly Bad Wife (although, of course, a deeply empathic partner and awesome literary colleague) have been discussing whether to revisit Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, which both of us saw on opening night at the Malthouse. It ended up being a peculiarly Kierkegaardian dialogue.

"I think," said my beloved, "that I'd prefer to stay home. It was such a brilliant experience, it gave me so much, that I would only be trying to repeat it. And I'd prefer to treasure the experience I already have, rather than to overlay it with another memory." "On the other hand," said I, "I'm dying to see how Julie Forsyth's performance has evolved since opening night. It won't be the same experience, sure. But it would certainly deepen the memory." "Yes..." said the Man, a true Forsyth fan and so sorely tempted. "Lemme think about it."

The upshot of this kitchen table philosophising is that I'm going again, shepherding my eager offspring who are, encouragingly, all Beckett fans. And the man of the house, observing the dictum that you can't enter the same river twice, is staying home in the unusual quiet, perhaps trying to write his own play, or washing up the dinner dishes, or waiting impatiently for the next stage of Le Tour de France. And so peace reigns among the Croggon/Keenes.

Domestic voyeurism aside (which is not, after all, entirely inappropriate for this play) the point is that this is an unusual conversation. My crowded diary means I very seldom think about seeing a show more than once, no matter how much I enjoyed it. Michael Kantor's production of Happy Days is, however, a work of theatre that rewards on every level: emotionally, intellectually, sensually, spiritually. It's up there with The War of the Roses as one of my peak theatrical experiences this year, leaving me with that boundless elation that is the true rush of the theatre addict. As I said in my review for The Australian, employing my best reviewerese, it's "a great performance of a great play by two of our great actors".

It's difficult to do justice to elation, which might be why I've been shilly-shallying so much in writing about it for the blog. Another reason is that I wrote about Beckett a couple of months ago, when I saw André Bastian's season of short plays at La Mama, and I hate repeating myself. Much of what I wrote about the short plays applies to Happy Days: Beckett's uncompromising truthfulness, his stern theatricality, his strong relationship to visual art, his profound tenderness and compassion. But maybe what leaps most vividly out of this production of Happy Days, even more than his vaudevillean comic gift, is Beckett's attention to beauty.

Beauty is not a word often associated with our Sam. He's considered to be, well, hard work: worthy but glum, the province of humourless intellectuals who enjoy having the meaninglessness of life jammed down their throats. Yet, as even the briefest survey of his work attests, he paid a great deal of attention to the beauty of form. His work has never been especially biddable to those ideals which claim beauty as a conventionalising template of perception, a kind of anodyne fodder for the cultural consumer that anaesthetises the contradictory pains of living; but it's beautiful all the same.

Perhaps it's worth divagating for a moment to consider what beauty might be. As Ezra Pound said poignantly in the Pisan Cantos, "Beauty is difficult". The German composer Helmut Lachenmann has written compellingly on this question, in an essay called The 'beautiful' in music today (published in an early print edition of Masthead). Noting that the idea of beauty was "downright suspect" among the avant garde of the mid-20th century, he goes on to suggest that beauty has a profound moral dimension which artists ignore at their peril. As he says:

Today the call for beauty is more suspect than ever - whether the concept is a pluralism embracing all conceivable types of hedonism, or else a reactionary hangover after false hopes and promises, or just academicism of whatever sort. Its proponents betray themselves over and over again as they cry out for 'nature', for tonality, for something positive, 'constructive', for 'comprehensibility at last'... It is high time for the concept of beauty to be rescued from the speculations of corrupt spirits, and the cheap pretensions of avant-garde hedonists, sonority-chefs, exotic-meditationists and nostalgia-merchants. The mission of art lies neither in fleeing from, nor in flirting with, the contraditions which mould the consciousness of our society, but in coming to grips with them and dialectically mastering them...

Yet we still try to cultivate the hope that the human genus is capable of acting rightly, which presupposes that it is capable of recognising its own structure, and that of reality. We still believe in a human potential. Beauty is what we call that feeling of happiness which in art, as a human message, is released by the communication of some sort of belief. And yet such belief, even in its most illusion-free variants – such as in Beckett's art – is not contained in a philosophical or intellectually encoded message, but in the experience, communicated by sensory perception, of people who succeed in expressing themselves … knowing full well that the artist has not something to say, but something to create.

It's a good description of the kind of beauty Beckett creates. In Kantor's production of Happy Days sensory pleasure is foregrounded, paradoxically focusing Beckett's uncompromising attention to an illusion-free reality. Kantor's gift for theatrical excess is squeezed to a diamond focus by Beckett's unforgiving strictness, making the best of both of them. All the production elements - Anna Cordingley's spectacularly curtained set, Russell Goldsmith's bold sound design and Paul Jackson's lighting design - frame and amplify the performances, driving the experience home to the heart, where it most truly belongs.

The core is, of course, performance and text. Winnie is one of Beckett's most poignant characters: trapped in a mound of earth under a pitiless sun, her days shaped by the tyranny of an alarm bell, Winnie (Julie Forsyth) passes the time by chattering to her mostly invisible and mostly silent husband, Willie (Peter Carroll). With bright, unquenchable, but doomed courage, she finds consolation for the unbearable - encroaching death, soul-corroding loneliness - in the most trivial aspects of daily routine. And each discovery is greeted with rapture. "That is what I find so wonderful," she tells Willie. "Not a day goes by without some blessing."

Winnie's courage is in her lack of self-deception: she knows there is no hope, and that her life has no meaning beyond its immediate actions. But she persists anyway. So familiar is Beckett's language, so intimately real in all its theatrical absurdity, that Winnie gets under your skin. She is all of us, a soul trapped in the material decay of the body, longing to be loved, yearning towards the "holy light". Yet Happy Days is not only a shatteringly moving picture of loneliness endured. It's startlingly contemporary in its picture of humankind trapped in exhausted nature, a world in which the sun beats down so harshly that Winnie's umbrella catches fire. Like any great writer, Beckett made faceted metaphors which attract new meanings in every era, and climate change gives Happy Days a grimly apt relevance.

Forsyth - ironic, funny, despairing, heart-rendingly brave - finds every nuance in the fragile rhythms of Beckett's prose, creating a performance of limpid clarity. I still remember Forsyth in the Anthill production of Happy Days 20 years ago, and there are resonances of that performance here, refined and focused and deepened. I'm convinced that this is one of the great performances of the role.

Importantly, Kantor paid serious attention to casting Willie, which is, superficially at least, an unrewarding role: he's barely seen on stage, and when he is visible is mainly seen with his back to the audience. And yet, for all that, Willie is crucial to the play, as Winnie's (mostly) absent interlocutor. Peter Carroll is an inspired choice: he crawls around the set like a broken clown, and even when not visible he is palpably present. He almost steals the show with just seven lines.

And yes, I'm looking forward intensely to seeing it again tonight.

In some graceful programming, the Malthouse is simultaneously presenting Care Instructions in the Tower Theatre. An Aphids show directed by Margaret Cameron, it demonstrates how Beckett's tradition is still a living theatrical force. This show enchanted me at its premiere at La Mama's Courthouse Theatre last year, and it's no less enjoyable to revisit.

This production is sharper, its theatrical gestures heightened and thrown into relief. Care Instructions is basically a fairytale about washing. Its central theme - if one can speak about themes in a work like this - is the bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty who curses the young princess, and the show itself is a process of exorcism, a lifting of the curse. Cynthia Troup's allusive, fluid language makes this not so much a play as a spell.

Margaret Cameron's direction unites the Joycean fluidity of Troup's script with a Beckettian aesthetic: the three women appear in white mob caps and linen laundry bags against a black background. But the design also recalls the unsettlingly erotic sculptures of Louise Bourgeois. It's a reminder that an important strand of modernism, the great artistic movement of the early 20th century, was a liberating assault on the stereotypes of gender. James Joyce's famous Molly Bloom monologue at the end of Ulysses has, for example, been cited as an exemplary feminine text.

Just as important was the influence of brilliant women artists, not only giants such as Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein, but equally interesting if less well-known talents such as Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes or H.D. Troup's text, drawing on these traditions, is scored as accurately as music, and demands a similar kind of listening. Using myth, song, nursery rhyme, poetry and the washing instructions on labels of clothes, Care Instructions explores the archetypal figure of the godmother.

Personified by the laundresses Jane Bayly, Liz Jones and Caroline Lee, she is an ambiguous figure: slyly wicked, anarchic and disobedient, she's also a guardian and an agent of liberation. At the core of the performance is a delight in the small pleasures of sensual life: the smell of clean washing, the feel of wind and sunlight. The opening monologue by Jones, projected on to the front of a clothes dryer, is perhaps a few beats too long, slightly imbalancing the performance. But this show evades mere whimsy, generating an irresistibly playful charm.

Earlier versions of these reviews were published in The Australian.

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett, directed by Michael Kantor. Set And costume design by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound by Russell Goldsmith. With Peter Carroll and Julie Forsyth. Malthouse @ the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse until July 25.

Care Instructions by Cynthia Troup, directed by Margaret Cameron. Music by David Young, lighting by Danny Pettingill. With Jane Bayly, Liz Jones and Caroline Lee. Aphids and Malthouse Theatre @ the Tower Theatre until July 26.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: Miracle, Disagreeable Object

It's difficult to think of two works more contrasting than BalletLab's Miracle and Chunky Move's Disagreeable Object. One is expansive, raw, harshly lit; the other takes place in a darkened theatre as intimate as a cubby house, as if it's a dream printing itself on your retina. One pushes to Maenadic extremes, the other is worked to a deep, luminous lustre. One is out there, the other is in here. But they're both beautiful works.

Phillip Adams, the force behind BalletLab, is presently celebrating the tenth year of his company. My first encounter with Phillip Adams's choreography was two years ago, with Brindabella. At the time, I wrote: "It occasionally happens that a performance can produce a strange sense of dissonance. You realise that you have no idea whether it’s good or bad; all you know is that you can’t stop watching it... Moments in Brindabella made me reflect that, although I had no idea if it was any good, I was quite sure that it was brilliant."

I still have no idea whether Adams produces "good" dance. I suspect these kinds of judgments have been pushed off the table in the creation of Miracle: Adams is looking for another kind of experience, beyond the tickling of aesthetic niceties. There is a muscle in his choreography that reminds me of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who famously used the phrase "first thought, best thought" to describe his process of spontaneous and fearless writing. For Ginsberg, it's a way of "telling the truth", of exploding the chains of formal convention to reveal the raw soul beneath.

There's an attractive liberation in that, as well as myriad dangers for those without the courage of mind to push towards that Ginsbergian truthfulness. Ginsberg's greatest poems reach their brilliant transcendence through a human world of hair and sweat and bodily humiliation, a wrenching and painful emotional honesty. Adams's work is more abstract, less intensely personal, but in this work, which explores religious experience, he is in similar territory, exploring the paradoxical unification of mysticism with extreme and naked physical experience. It's rare to see this actually achieved in performance (or anywhere): one wobble of uncertainty, one flicker of doubt, and the whole thing sinks into a puddle of embarrassing kitsch. But not here: this is genuinely Dionysian in its extremity, with all the discomfort and exhilaration that this implies.

It's a peculiar paradox of mystic writing of any stripe - Christian, Hindu, Islamic - that the further spiritual experience escapes the possibility of linguistic expression, the closer that expression comes to embodied language and even to frank eroticism. From St John of the Cross's erotic poems about the Divine to the startling sexual imagery of women mystics of the Middle Ages, from Tantric texts to Sufi poetry, the body asserts itself in the moment the soul takes flight, placing its imagery transgressively in the centre of ecstasy.

And it's this paradox that Miracle explores. Well, not so much explores as expresses. Miracle is nothing if not a total sensory experience, which at times registers as an assault - the score (an extraordinary work in itself, by David Chisholm and Myles Mumford) is sometimes so loud that you are offered earplugs before you enter the theatre. As well as scored music, the sound design includes, like Axeman's Lullaby, amplified sound from the performers: percussive beats from their feet, breath tormentedly drawn through harmonicas, and their voices, screaming, shouting, whispering.

The dance begins and ends in darkness and stillness. When we enter the dimly lit theatre it is filled with smoke; as the performance begins, two huge industrial lights snap on, one each side of the stage, sending harsh white beams towards the ceiling that illuminate the metallic stage lights which cluster in the centre like a strange, alien chandelier. There's an extended heiratic stillness: four dancers in long, coloured robes, two men and two women, stand like a frieze from a mediaeval church for one long, caught moment, before they run diagonally across the stage, screaming.

What follows is a dance in three parts, with a short and startling coda that returns us again to silence. The dance works as Octavio Paz says poetry works: it moves from silence to silence, but by the end the silence has changed. The first is a expression of ecstatic experience, extreme and violent and charged. It has the air of a pagan mystery, recalling the ecstatic rites by which worshippers of Dionysius danced themselves into states of violent rapture in which they became one with the godhead. Or perhaps the pilgrims of the Middle Ages, who scourged and starved themselves into extreme states of ecstatic abjection.

The middle section moves abruptly to the present day: dancers in contemporary clothes shout through megaphones, at once grotesque and comic. And here there begins to be a theme of persecution and exclusion, with a scapegoat dancer who becomes the violated focus of everything the believers wish to reject in themselves. The final piece returns us again to the past, with costumes this time recalling the draped materials on ancient Greek vases, and the theme here is pneuma, the ancient Greek term for both breath and soul. Harmonicas are jammed in the dancers' mouths, vocalising their breath, at once choking and liberating them.

It closes with a coda - as ecstatic trumpets herald an annunciation, the lights reveal two Bhuddist monks levitating in the midst of contemplation, having at last achieved nirvana. And they really were floating. It was an astounding image, and I don't know how BalletLab achieved the illusion. I'm not sure I want to know, either.

No doubt it was just as well it was a few days before I saw Disagreeable Object at Chunky Move. One needs a palate cleansing after an experience like Miracle: and Michelle Heaven's work, remounted and reworked after a premiere season at Arts House, is almost at the polar opposite of the possibilities of dance.

This 30-minute work takes place in a purpose-built theatre inside the Chunky Move Studio, an enclosed space smelling of freshly-sawn wood in which the audience sits intimately together on a rake of stairs below a low ceiling. I knew it reminded me of something when I sat down, something to do with childhood, but it took a while to trace the resonance: it was like sitting inside the cubby houses I used to make out of scrap bits of wood, with the same sense of delighted secrecy.

And there's that childhood resonance in the dance itself, with a good dash of subterranean Freudian macabre, where the nonsensical is a prompt for the darker realities of the psyche. Childhood is not, after all, the sunny place of innocence that some people claim: it's cruel, primitive, full of shadows and inchoate fears. This dance takes place, as Heaven says, "downstairs", in the mysterious reaches of the subconscious, where childhood still lives in all of us.

It's like a strange fairytale, the Brothers Grimm filtered through Edward Gorey, perhaps, with a dash of German Expressionism and the Addams Family: comic, dreamlike, fantastic and unsettlingly sinister. And, like a proper children's story, it's deeply concerned with eating: in this case, peas. The program note, which describes it as a "tall short tale", will probably suffice as a plot: "she eats..... blackout. peas. he craves..... peas."

The "tall, short" tale extends to the dancers: the choreography exploits the enormous height difference between Heaven and her co-dancer, Brian Lucas, to its full comic effect. The production plays with the perspectives of the enclosed stage areas (there are three, each framed behind the other in a receding hallway of space) in ways that make Lucas, who is already tall, seem to be a giant, or the diminutive Heaven gain a good two feet. Lucas, with shaved head and full dress tails, is the sinister silhouette on the stairs at the back of the mind, or the childish man being spoon-fed - or in this case, fork-fed - by an impatient and murderous maid (Heaven), who has poisoned the peas in a Mad Scientist scene which does wonderful things with dry ice.

The dance emerges and retreats from total blackness with some astounding and gorgeously subtle lighting effects by Ben Cobham of Bluebottle, which intensifies its dreamlike qualities. Bill McDonald's sound design, with its scratchy recordings of silent film music or the jarring repetition of a needle bumping a vinyl on a record player, builds its strange claustrophobia, as if we are underground and half-hearing remnants from a past we don't quite understand.

As in a dream, you are not quite sure what is happening; as in a dream, it is limned with significance, possibly a dreadful one. The neurotic precision of Heaven's stylised choreography - as when she turns on a tap with hands that wrap around it like neurasthenic spiders, her bum stuck up in a beautiful curve that shows off her absurd bustle, or her rabbit-like chewing of pea-pods - focuses on the tiniest details in a way that distorts everything around them. It's a kind of force-field of sinister absurdity. A wholly enchanting, exquisite work, perhaps especially for people who like cubby houses and Edward Gorey.

Pictures: Top: Miracle by Phillip Adams, picture by Jeff Busby; bottom, Michelle Heaven in Disagreeable Object.

Miracle, choreographed and directed by Phillip Adams, composed by David Chisholm and Myles Mumford. Lighting by Bluebottle and Jenny Hector, costumes by Tony Maticevski. Danced by Brooke Stamp, Clair Peters, Luke George and Kyle Kremerskothen. Meat Market, North Melbourne Arts House, closed.

Disagreeable Object, choreographed by Michelle Heaven. Designed by Ben Conham, composition and sound design by Bill McDonald, costumes by Louise McCarthy. Danced by Michelle Heaven and Brian Lucas. Chunky Move @ Chunky Move Studio until July 25.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: Aviary

Aviary at La Mama is an elegant showcase for three young writers: Anna Barnes, Dan Giovannoni and Ming-Zhu Hii. It stems from an intriguing premise, which in its way is exemplary: director Melanie Beddie commissioned these short works using Darryl Cordell's striking design as the creative stimulus. This immediately throws the focus onto the space, demanding that the writers think in three dimensions.

And the design does open a lot of possibility. La Mama has been transformed - the famous staircase is hidden by a wall, and the kitchen area is covered by another staircase, which leads up to a flat upper level surmounted by a television. The set is dominated by a Beckett-esque tree, with space beneath the stairs that can be used in different ways, as concealment or as extra rooms.

Unsurprisingly, it's prompted very different responses - although they loosely revolve around common themes about intimate moments and relationships (and, as the title suggests, images of birds), these works demonstrate a variety of approaches to writing and theatrical aesthetics. Performed by three actors, Chloe Gordon, HaiHa Le and Carl-Nilsson Polias (I'm beginning to see a pattern here), the whole evening has a nicely disciplined sense of formal shape. However, the writing itself is a bit of a mixed bag.

It opens promisingly with Anna Barnes' Revelation or Bust, which is the most interesting writing of the evening. This is a poetic piece voiced by three characters which pulls on contemporary apocalyptic terrors, both religious millennial fantasies and more concrete anxieties about climate change. Barnes brings the vocabulary of the MySpace generation to bear on ancient fears about the end of the world, crafting a work which shifts elliptically, like neurotic subterranean thoughts, around personal and universal death.

The central obsessions are two events which took place last summer: the deadly Victorian bushfires, and the terrible incident where a man threw his four-year-old daughter to her death off the West Gate Bridge. I have to register my discomfort with the second: although the metaphor is gracefully used and not in the least offensive, I found myself worrying yet again about the ethics of so directly exploiting real human suffering for the purposes of art.

Despite this reservation, the writing marries a very contemporary diction, the notion of evolution and Blakean images of flight and freedom to pull off what is a rather beautiful work. This play is light without being slight, and demonstrates Barnes's sure control of her chosen form. As her ideas deepen and extend, as I am sure they will, she be a writer to watch.

Edmund and Grace by Don Giovannoni and Ming-Zhu Hii's Small Movements for Three Actors are not so successful, although they are equally ambitious. Giovannoni's play is about two brothers (played without attention to gender by Carl Nilsson-Polias and Chloe Gordon). They narrate a dark fairytale while playing Pinteresque games of power, one scrambling over the other for dominance and each stealing the other's identity, as a shadowy older man lurks sinisterly in the background. The gender-play here is potentially interesting: the weaker brother is always the one with the feminine name. But not much is really made of this idea.

The primary problem with this script, aside from a great deal of repetition that adds little to its complexity but a lot to its running time, is that it doesn't make much emotional sense. For a surreal narration like this to catch attention, the movements of feeling beneath the words must be mercilessly clear: here the action seems to emerge randomly, with the sense that the characters are illustrating some kind of thesis rather than emerging from any real emotional place. Despite the heroic efforts of the actors, Edmund and Grace end up being confusingly obscure rather than, say, mysteriously compelling.

Small Movements for Three Actors is basically baffling. A series of fragmentary dialogues between a couple, there is a Beckettian touch in the third performer who sits on top of the staircase echoing parts of the dialogue and at various times swapping roles with the other performers. The performance has touches that end up feeling superfluous - actors running from one end of the set to the other and slamming into walls, the television images of vegetation - simply because you can't work out why they are there. A monologue by Nilsson-Polias about caring for a parent with dementia begins to generate some dramatic interest, but this then dissolves back into the flux, leaving the impression that another play has wandered in by mistake.

I'm assuming this text is meant to make us attend to each moment, with little eddies of emotional clarity emerging from the Heraclitan chaos of living; but if that is the intention, it calls for a paradoxically steely discipline in the writing that is lacking here. The play feels like a collection of half-thought ideas randomly jumbled together, and never seems to quite decide what it wants to be. Perhaps it's simply that writing like this is in fact very difficult to pull off, and - as with free verse as opposed to rhyme - its successful execution requires a command of the traditional techniques.

For all that, I was impressed with the production and the performances. Melanie Beddie's direction is inventive and clean, and gives these texts a lively attention, employing an attractive lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle and a various, evocative soundscape by Natasha Anderson. It's certainly gorgeous to look at.

Aviary: New Writing for the Near Future, directed by Melanie Beddie. By Anna Barnes, Dan Giovannoni and Ming-Zhu Hii. Design by Darryl Cordell, lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle and music by Natasha Anderson. With Chloe Gordon, HaiHa Le and Carl Nilsson-Polias. La Mama Theatre until August 2.

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Parochial notes

Today, dearly beloved, let me speak of the parish. I'm beginning to think that, here on the east coast of Australia, we have the liveliest and hardest working theatrical blogosphere around. As some commenters remark on Nick Pickard's Sydney Arts Journo blog (making a welcome return to life this week after one of those inevitable hiatuses with some reviews and an interesting post about criticism), blogs are where the conversations happen.

I was delighted, for example, to see the Captain at his B'log make an impassioned defence of the much maligned production of The Man from Mukinupin, which closed this week at the MTC. "We spend so much time scratching around in the chookyard of Australian theatre looking for the great play or film," says the Captain. "Perhaps we ought to stop digging up worms and embrace our unruly, uncompromising writers of yesteryear. Patrick White has been at last accepted onto the stage. It seems we are not yet ready for Dorothy Hewett." Too right, I fear.

Meanwhile, Mark over at The Perf puzzles over the phenomenon of hype in considering the Belvoir St production of Simon Stone's The Promise. There are two reviews of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, now on at Belvoir St Downstairs, one from hardworking Melbourne blogger Jana at Guerilla Semiotics and the other at Epistemysics (who considers at length the program notes and scores them too). James Waites is climbing back on board after a dark time, and has posted reviews of two STC showings - Benedict Andrews' production of The City and the MTC show Poor Boy.

Back in Melbourne, Neandellus soberly contemplates the Malthouse production of Happy Days (did I urge you to see this? - it closes this week) and Jana is first cab off the rank with a weighty contemplation of BalletLab's Miracle. (Hoping to get to both of those here any minute now...) And let's not forget Michael Magnusson at On Stage and Walls Melbourne or Richard Watts's doughty blogging at Man About Town (with extra titbits for genre fanboys and grrrls...I owe Richard a drink for pointing me to my current TV fave, Being Human). There's more, but that's probably enough to be going on with.

Meanwhile, permit me a moment's indulgence. Over a particularly demanding weekend, I attended five of the eight Daniel Keene chamber plays now in repertory at the Dog Theatre in Footscray. I'm not reviewing this season, collectively called The Cove, but I believe it deserves attention. To be honest, I told Matt Scholten he was bonkers for trying to direct so many: these plays might look simple, but they are far from straightforward - in many ways, they are as unforgiving as Beckett - and they're very easy to get wrong. He and his team pull off a mighty feat, and give this work an elegant framing of enormous delicacy that shows off some remarkably powerful performances - especially Jan Friedl and Bruce Myles, who are as good as I've ever seen them, and Majid Shokor, who is simply astounding. It's a rare chance to see why those Europeans are so enthusiastic about Keene.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Interview: Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman is by any standard a distinguished writer. The Chilean-American author of many novels, plays, poems, essays and films in both Spanish and English, he's been called a “literary grandmaster” (Time) and “one of the greatest living Latin American novelists” (Newsweek). His books have been translated into over 40 languages and received many international prizes. His best known play – performed in more than one hundred countries - is Death and the Maiden, which has won dozens of best play awards around the world, including England's Olivier award.

An expatriate from Chile since the 1973 military coup against the government of Salvator Allende led by General Pinochet, Dorfman has been active in the defense of human rights for many decades, and has addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations and the main forum of UNESCO in Paris. He teaches half the year at Duke University, where he holds the Walter Hines Page Chair of Literature and Latin American Studies. He has received numerous honorary degrees and is a member of The Académie Universelle des Cultures in France and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Following their Australian premiere of Franz Xaver Kroetz's Tom Fool, independent company Hoy Polloy are premiering Dorfman's Purgatorio, written in 2000. It opens at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute on August 8. Click below the fold to read a fascinating interview with this complex and humane writer, in which he shares some insights into his work.

As a writer, you've worked in a bewildering number of ways, as a human rights activist, novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, critic. Is there a unifying obsession in your work?

It’s been bewildering to me as well. Part of the explanation may be in a sort of boundless energy and insatiable desire to explore anything new (I was an attention deficit disorder child, though I’d suggest, as would my loving parents, that my Attention was simply Ordered in a different way and that this was not a deficiency but a Proficiency). Another possibility is that this incessant transmogrification of genres and activities originates in my wandering life, the fluid existence created by my relentless exiles, so that I flit from one literary quest to the next one, as if I were shifting countries (or languages).

As to a unifying obsession there seem to be many, repeated across whatever I write and also in my search for justice. I guess we could call it, a term used in the title of a book about to published on my work, my Aesthetics of Hope, the certainty that one must find small corners of hope in the midst of times of terror and sorrow, a hope that has to be wrestled into an existence through an unremitting need for the truth, not to lie. Even in a play like Purgatorio, where the protagonists seem beyond redemption, where they have done to each other what many would consider unforgivable acts, and trapped as they are in a cycle and vertigo of possible eternal recurrences, even there, but especially there, what ultimately sustains me is my compassion, my expectation that if the characters are brave enough to appear naked, to unmask their fears, they may be able to see each other, truly, deeply see each other, and risk some hint of resurrection. So: hope, but only if we accept the ambiguity and uncertainty of the struggle, that there’s no guarantee we will find a way out of the labyrinth. Not to lie. I think that’s probably my literary credo.

Since you work across different literary forms - essays, plays, poems, fiction - you must have thought about the differences between them. What prompts you to form one idea as an essay, another as a play, another as a poem? Which came first? Or have they emerged together, each sparking the other?

I never know, before I start writing, what genre will choose me (I’m not arrogant enough to presume that I’m the one making that choice: I really do feel like a vehicle for some madness floating, some glorious voice floating nearby). I tend to have, buzzing and fevering in my mind, a jumble of several hundred ideas, characters, atmospheres; and then, something happens, a couple of words stringed together, a sort of flash inside, like a seed that falls finally into fertile ground, and as soon as the words are out there, I know, I simply know, what genre those words contain, are channeling.

There are times when that genre is fixed and immutable. Purgatorio, because of its almost primeval, inherent drama, for instance, was always going to be a play. But Death and the Maiden started as a novel and only became a play when circumstances forced me to write it in a Chile just out of dictatorship that was trying to deny what I imagined happening in that room, and it became clear that this needed to be staged, and staged as soon as possible.

In other cases, what starts as a poem about an old woman berating a captain about how she can identify a body that appears in a river, becomes a novel called Widows and then a play of the same name (that I was blessed to be able to write with Tony Kushner as my co-author). Or take My House is On Fire. It’s a short fictional film about two children playing house without knowing if their games about the enemy coming to get them will end up being true. I co-directed this short with my son Rodrigo and we set it in Durham North Carolina (where I live), and made the kids the son and daughter of illegal immigrants. But it had been originally a poem where I conjured up that situation but under a dictatorship: children who must grow up, much too fast, in the midst of fear in a place like Chile. But I had also written it as a short story, where I basically explored how that sort of relationship could reveal how the boy has been trained to be a macho, how his very identity is under siege by not knowing how to react to friend, to foe, how to distinguish between the two.

As a bilingual writer, you write in both Spanish and English. What prompts the decision to write in one language or the other?

For many years – and it’s a long story I’ve told in my memoir, Heading South, Looking North – I was adamantly monolingual, fending off the other language, demanding an almost fanatical devotion to only one tongue (and behind that, of course, the anhelo, the longing, for only one identity, one nation, one allegiance). History – and the gentler winds of literature – taught me that this was not who I was, how I should write, and I eventually became this adulterer of languages I am now, in love with them both. Today they share me, my English and my Spanish, and it really depends on what words will first spring into my mind, who the immediate audience will be, that determines which of the two rides (writes) shot-gun.

The main condition of such courtesy on the part of one or the other of my lover languages is that the one left behind should subsequently (and promptly) receive affection and attention from me, so that as soon as I finished writing Purgatorio (in English), my Spanish demanded her opportunity, his interlude with me, and then I used that Spanish version to correct and ameliorate (I hope) the English. It’s exhausting but enriching: it means that I have something like a translator inside all the time, shaping what either language says with the contours of its rival and collaborator. Su rival y colaborador.

I find it fascinating that your first book was a study the theatre of Harold Pinter. You've spoken about how, after seeing The Dumb Waiter, "something in my work and life changed forever". What was it in Pinter's work that spoke so directly to you? What have you learned from him as a playwright?

I hope you don’t mind if I quote myself, in the Washington Post, two days after my friend died (though I know so many people supposedly alive today who are for more lifeless than Pinter!):

“He showed me how dramatic art can be lyrical without versifying, can be poetic merely by delving into the buried rhythms of everyday speech. He whispered to me that we often speak in order to hide, and perhaps avoid, what we are really feeling and thinking. He was not afraid of silence or letting his characters lapse into stuttering or inscrutability. He understood that if you push reality hard enough, it will end up exposing under its surface another dimension -- fantastic, absurd, delirious. He suggested that the worst hallucinations of fear are not immune to the pendulum of humor.

“But all of these lessons in dramatic craftsmanship pale next to what he taught me about human existence and about -- dare I say the word? -- politics.

“From that very first play, I felt that Harold Pinter was unfolding a world that was deeply political. Not in the overt sense (as would happen later, beginning in the early '80s, in several of his dramas) that his creatures were affected by who governed them, whether this or that man controlled the army or gave orders to the police. No, these figments of Pinter's psyche, at least back in the '60s, did not care to dispute the public arena, were uninterested in changing the world for better or for worse. They were, on the contrary, sad citizens of intimacy, obsessed only with their own survival.

“And yet, by trapping us inside the lives of those men and women, Pinter was revealing the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness I had not noticed before in other authors who were supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing contingent politics. All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that it is in language where the other parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.”

It would have been impossible to write Purgatorio without that unique inspiration. In fact, if I had not already dedicated Death and the Maiden to him, I most certainly would have added his name next to Angelica’s (my wife) at the front of Purgatorio. He loved this play and wanted to direct it. His sickness blocked that aspiration of his and mine. When we next open in London, my dream is that his dear wife, Antonia Fraser, will be sitting by our side.

How do you see your involvement in theatre as a writer?

If you mean, how does it help (or hinder) to be a novelist, poet, essayist, etc., I think it allows me great freedom. I’m not scared of narrative or the lyrical or even the analytical, as long as it prods along the tension, keeps people on the edge of their seats and, more crucially, on the edge of their minds (I almost wrote: on the edge of their sanity). If you mean, how much do I intervene in the production: after the first premiere, once the play is set, not at all. I’ll answer questions from directors or actors (once in a while, because you can’t live your whole life looking back – though recently, for instance, I had a very interesting exchange with the director who was opening Death and the Maiden in Pakistan; and a long collaboration with a Colombian director of my Speak Truth to Power play in Rome, at the Eliseo Theatre, an important production because we’re taking the play into hundreds of schools in Italy as a way of bolstering interest among the young about human rights).

How important has your critical work been to the evolution of your creative work? Or is it a separate activity altogether?

In one sense, you put your critical faculties in a parenthesis or stuffed away in some faraway pocket when you’re writing; you don’t want a voice inside saying, ah, but that does not agree with what good old Wittgenstein (just an example: I’ve never read a word of his) would think about this matter. On the other hand, obviously, I am informed by my previous intellectual adventures. The one rule: don’t interfere with your characters or where they are going, even if they are breaking the parameters or paradigm (or para anything, parapluies) you hold sacred.

How crucial was the 1973 coup against Allende as a spur to your work? Was it a watershed?

I hate to think that all that suffering made me a better writer, though I may have emerged as a less pure human being, but maybe that also made me a better writer. What’s certain, is that the coup changed everything for me, sent me into an exile that I have been unable to escape, and plunged me into the deepest despair and discover the wells of resistance everywhere, forcing me to ask myself about my responsibility to the word and the spirit and the struggle to not forget.

Chilean human rights archivist Eugenio Ahumada says your work is at the "centre of the struggle for memory". Is that how you think of it?

I blush.

What does it mean for art to be political? Are the demands of political commitment ever at odds with those of art?

They are like traveling companions who are chained to each other (at least, for me, perhaps I’m the chain) and who should never pretend there is not an inevitable tension between them. What I’m wary of is of art as “serving” a cause; not because I don’t believe that we have the right, and often the obligation, to feed our ideas and activities with our artistic talents, but because the best art generally comes out of uncertainty, not knowing where you are going, an acceptance of the extraordinary complexity of the human condition. An example: I’ve spent years fighting for the rights of migrants and refugees, but when I wrote a play, The Other Side (where a barbed wire wall cuts through the house of a man and a woman, and even their bed), I did not let my ideas of what was right or wrong interfere with what the characters said or did, I avoided in that dark comedy any speechifying, any attempt to tell the audience what should or should not be, leaving them to draw their own conclusions.

In the Spanish-speaking world, the place of a writer in the wider culture and particularly in the political world seems, from the outside at least, to be very different from that of an English-speaking writer. Poets from Quevedo on were often directly involved in politics and of course, you were cultural attache to Allende's government. What causes that difference? And what effect does it have on how writers perceive their world and their place in it?

I just suggested that we shouldn’t simplify – and yet, and yet, here goes. It’s possible that when you belong to a nation that is malformed or deformed or not quite functional, the void created by this lack, by this twist and turn of history, forces you to think and feel the moment and the future and the role of art as a language that puzzles out reality, well, to think and feel all this in a different way. However, I would like to point out that there are moments in English-speaking history when a crisis looms or explodes, and then you have novelists like Steinbeck or essayists like Thoreau or poems like the sort pouring from the serene desolation of Auden. I could add some Australian examples, if it weren’t impolitic and unfair to all my friends whose work originates in your country/continent.

You now live and work in the US and have said you no longer consider yourself an exile, but an expatriate. Do you ever contemplate returning to Chile?

I return there, physically, from time to time; and mentally and emotionally, all the time. I even write whole books about those trips (for instance, my Desert Memories, which National Geographic commissioned, on the driest desert in the world, in the North of Chile). But I feel comfortable with distance. It allows me to write with joy, keeps me away from the false loyalties to fatherland or territory and closer to a deeper faithfulness to humanity. That distance (not to be confused with remoteness or indifference) nourishes my ability to break down barriers. For instance, in my most recent play, Picasso’s Closet, I explore how the famous painter dealt with life under the Nazi occupation of Paris, but I am, undoubtedly, also commenting obliquely on Chile’s period of repression and my own dilemmas, do you stand aside when terror invades your community, stand aside in order to save your art; or do you plunge in because human lives and human dignity are at stake, even if you are risking death or prison?

Can you tell us a little about Purgatorio?

I can’t exaggerate how important this play is to me. I have been working on it for quite a number of years now, whittling it down from its original two and a half hours, trying to figure out, I suppose, what I meant when I conceived it. It goes to the very core of my work and my life, asking questions that have no easy answers.

I had been wondering for a long time about the terrible things we humans do to one another and how – indeed if – there can be some sort of reparation, and I wanted to take this out of the directly political arena (an agent of the state executing or torturing or censuring victims or hiding bodies) and into the one on one relationship where lasting damage is done (because it always comes down to one human being facing another one, always starts there, at times ends there). And then, one morning, I had a vision of a man and a woman in an austere room and she wanted to escape and he held the key and wished to help her but there was also something in him that was enraged, that he was concealing, and something in her that gave her immense power over him (like so many of my woman characters). And I didn’t know who they were and was determined to find out – and the only way to do this was to have them start talking.

It was only after they beat around the bush of each other for a while that it began to dawn upon me what their identity might be and where they were located. And it turned out that I had been meaning to write something for many years about that mythical woman and also that for longer than I can remember I have been fixated on the afterlife (my last four poems are written by the dead, Columbus, Picasso, William Blake, Hammurabi, possessing my tongue to warn us about our contemporary blindness, cruelty and folly). And it all began to come together once I realized that this would also be an exploration of time, that I could play tricks on the audience just as the characters are trying to play tricks on each other and on me.

I particularly loved the challenge of writing a piece that transpires in the landscape of the mutual mind, meaning that what we are seeing is the place where two souls meet and fight and discover they will always be lonely and, simultaneously, that they will always have the other close by, waiting, twinned for eternity. I love challenges! I hope that audiences, now in Australia and very soon in other countries, also believe that to be challenged is the most thrilling aesthetic experience.

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I've been sitting at my keyboard for hours now, trying to get a thought to evolve in my head. It's just not happening. Gah. Is it swine flu or just plain stupidity? I don't know. And the pressure is rising: as James Waites reports, there's competition waiting in the wings... or was that with the wings? Yes, some evil genius is training pigeons to tell the difference between good and bad art, thus threatening the already uncertain existence of us poor crrritics. "But let’s see how you all like it when 'that critic shat all over me' is no longer just plaintive hyperbole," says our boy nastily. Heh.

Anyway, having bashed my head against a brick wall, I've realised that hollow sound means that it's quite empty. A woman's got to know her limitations, and today mine are legion: I've overdone it this week, and something blew up. All hail next week. Meanwhile, let me yet again exhort keen theatrenauts to get to the Meat Market to see BalletLab's miraculous Miracle before it closes on Sunday, and not to miss Happy Days and Care Instructions at the Malthouse, which both close next week. And if you're bored, just enter the argument about the Melbourne Festival program, here or at Born Dancin's place, which has been lively.

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