Review: The Lower Depths, The Colours, En Trance ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Review: The Lower Depths, The Colours, En Trance

Yes, Ms TN has been whinging heroically this past fortnight, but that hasn't stopped her getting out to the theatre. Writing about it has been a different matter. But this morning she awoke from her slumber, brutally thrust aside the heap of used tissues that had accumulated overnight, and cried out: "Now or never!" Or something of the sort. (Witnesses differ: another report claims she actually said "Oh no! Not again!" Which reminds me of the Belgian theatre director who wakes up every morning, walks to his window, flings open the shutters, and shouts "Help!")

Existential angst is all part of life's rich whatsit, and it must be admitted that Ms TN does it exceptionally well. She does it, in fact, so it feels like hell. But it doesn't get the reviews done. So after a salutory kick in the arse from her alter ego, Ms TN will finally report on last week's theatre going. These reviews will be a little briefer than usual, for which Ms TN's better self apologises: but it's been a full week of mundane dread here, and that all takes up space.

First up was a production of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths at Theatre Works, which was on for a mere four days. I wanted to see this because of the personnel involved: it's a collaboration between John Bolton, Brian Lipson, Bagryana Popov and Joseph Sherman, with lighting by Shane Grant, and the cast included people from the St Kilda Uniting Care Drop in Centre. I expected something special, and I wasn't disappointed. Gorky's unsentimental expose of the Russian underclass had a production last year at 45 downstairs directed by Ariette Taylor (and there's more about the play itself in that review). Unlike Taylor's production, however, this company brought Gorky's preoccupations unflinchingly into the present day.

Bolton and his collaborators presented a savagely cut-down version of the play which lasted a little over an hour. It was promenade theatre, with the audience milling around with the actors in the large space at Theatre Works. The set filled the theatre with found objects that were probably rescued from rubbish dumps or skips, and bits of cardboard boxes, torn newspaper and rags covered the floor in a convincing simulacrum of squalor. In the centre was an area cordoned off by a walkway, in the centre of which was a bed where the consumptive Anna (Bagryana Popov) lay dying. Around the edges of the theatre were a series of booths or miniature stages. Phrases from the play and other kinds of graffiti were chalked onto the black walls.

It was one of those events which interlocked the fictions of the play with present-day realities, a decision reinforced by the qualities the non-professional actors from the drop in centre brought to the production. Working with non-professionals is a honourable tradition in realist art: neo-realist film directors such as Ermanno Olmi, for instance, worked with non-actors in films like Il Posto or The Tree of Wooden Clogs, bringing an unactorly authenticity to the performances which reinforced the political anger behind his films.

The effect of using non-professional actors in theatre is slightly different. On the one hand, it brings a direct immediacy of experience to the production; and in fact several of Gorky's monologues are replaced by the performers' own stories. But unlike film, theatre can't forget its own artifice. The performative effect is almost the opposite of authenticity: it's an unconscious artifice, a certain naivety, that paradoxically reinforces the emotional reality of the play.

Here these qualities - professional and non-professional - are skilfully woven together in a sharply contemporary work that seems very true to Gorky's bleakly humane vision, however radically it departs from the text. The Lower Depths has an organic vitality: the actors and audience occupy the same space, the actors watching as attentively when they're not performing, and emerging into focus when required. It seemed to me an exemplary work of community theatre, bringing together social and artistic ethics in a rare integrity.

It reminded me more than anything of the work of the British film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson. I never got to see Anderson's theatre (wrong age, wrong continent) but films such as If, O Lucky Man or This Sporting Life are brilliant examples of radical art. Like this production, Anderson's films examine human experience with a kind of tender democracy of vision that's underlaid by a clear-eyed social anger.

"Fighting means commitment, means believing what you say, and saying what you believe," said Anderson memorably. "It will also mean being called sentimental, irresponsible, self-righteous, extremist and out-of-date by those who equate maturity with scepticism, art with amusement, and responsibility with romantic excess. And it must mean a new kind of intellectual and artist, who is not frightened or scornful of his fellows." The Lower Depths reflects this kind of intelligent artistic commitment. I'd like to see more of it.

The following night I went to the opening of Peter Houghton's The Colours at the MTC's Lawler Studio. The Colours is the conclusion to a trilogy of monologues, made in collaboration with Anne Browning, that began with Houghton's hit satire The Pitch and continued through The China Incident (performed by Browning). The earlier two are concerned, in different ways, with the global US empire: The Pitch hilariously satirised the film industry, while The China Syndrome was about the PR spin of global realpolitics.

In this unexpected conclusion to the trilogy, Houghton summons the ghosts of the British Empire. He plays the reality-challenged Colour Sergeant Tommy Atkins, who is the final solitary remnant of Empire in a forsaken African outpost. Ventriloquising a dozen characters gives Houghton the chance to display his virtuosic comedic skills, and he’s a delight to watch. But the play’s more serious intent - an attempt to pay homage to the footsoldiers of colonial power – is undermined by sentiment: an edge of savagery is missing here, tipping its premise into naivety.

It's a fine line between paying homage to the bravery and belief of those who laid down their lives - usually unwillingly - for the British Empire, and sinking into a nostalgia that insidiously ignores some of the lessons of post-colonialism. Despite his parodic intent, Houghton falls off the tightrope here, although his evocation of Atkins, haunted by his dead comrades, is at times undeniably moving. And you can't but admire his control of the stage, shifting from pathos to comedy with razor timing. This is a brave play, if only for its defiant unfashionableness, but it left me feeling uncomfortably ambivalent.

Partly it's a feeling that I've seen this before, and done better: the 60s saw a lot of work which excavated the myths and price of the empire. Plays like John Arden's Sergeant Musgrave's Dance or films such as Joseph Losey's searing King and Country, which follows the court martial of a shell-shocked infantryman in the trenches of World War 1, tore apart the ideologies of empire building with intelligent anger. It's an anger that's missing in The Colours, for all its satire. And maybe the British Empire is still too close to home for me to forgive it so easily.

Finally, I saw Yumi Umiumare's En Trance at the CUB Malthouse. As its title suggests, En Trance is a work about liminal states, the thresholds of transformation between one mode of being and another. And it’s also a work that reaches for an ecstatic dissolution of the self, the loss of self-consciousness that occurs in a state of trance. Umiumare achieves these ambitions in a fascinating and complex one-woman piece that defies classification. Part dance, part theatre, part multimedia immersion, part dream, En Trance inexorably reels you into Umiumare’s subjective world.

Umiumare was a member of the influential Japanese Butoh company DaiRakudakan and moved to Australia in 1993. Here she extends the anarchic tradition of Butoh – a form of modern Japanese dance that emerged after the chaos of World War 2 – by introducing text and filmed images into what is ultimately a deeply personal narrative about shifting between different cultures.

En Trance begins with an almost classical simplicity. Dressed in a white shift, Yumi Umiumare enters a bare stage adorned with slim white columns, and tells us a surreal domestic story about her cat. Suddenly, in a moment that is like Alice’s fall into the rabbit hole, we are plunged into another reality. The stage is drowned in the harsh sounds and images of a city street, as Umiumare writhes and twists in a kind of panic, her body almost invisible behind the images that are projected onto her. This sequence is like an assault: the noise is alienating, the images confusing to the eye.

Just as suddenly, the performance transforms again. Umiumare changes on stage into a black, flowing costume, and becomes a whirling cat-like creature. This dance is where the performance began to come to life for me: Umiumare is riveting. Her body seems to defy its physical limitations, as if she is possessed by a spirit of transformation.

En Trance moves through several more sequences, each of them wholly unexpected yet each deepening the meaning of the others. In one, she explains the many Japanese words for tears. In another, she pounds out a hilariously kitsch Japanese pop song. In yet another, she combines Aboriginal and Butoh dance, reprising her earlier cat-dance, this time as a feral creature in a new landscape.

Bambang Nurcahyadi’s projected images and Ian Kitney’s sound design seamlessly combine with Umiumare’s performance into a singular unity of expression. It makes En Trance an impassioned and beautiful piece, constantly rich and surprising in its emotional range, and finally very moving.

Picture: Yumi Umiumare in En Trance. Photo: Jeff Busby

The review of En Trance was in Monday's Australian.

The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky, directed by John Bolton. Designed by Brian Lipson, lighting by Shane Grant, music direction by Bagryana Popov. With Brian Pigot, Brett A. Walsh, Stewart Weir, Tom Moleta, Joseph Sherman, Maree Wesol, Brian Lipson, Pat Nyberg, Abdul Hay, Rodney Dean Mcleish, Ant Bridgeman, Bagryana Popv, Sharon Kirschner and John Bolton. Theatre Works and participants from St Kilda Uniting Care Drop in Centre @ Theatre Works. (Closed).

The Colours, written and performed by Peter Houghton, directed by Anne Browning. Design by Shaun Gurton, lighting design by Richard Vabre, composer David Chesworth. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Lawler Studio, MTC Theatre, until September 12.

En Trance
by Yumi Umiumare. Dramaturge and collaborator Moira Finacune, media art by Bambang Nurcahyadi, installtion artist Naomi Ota, costumes design by David Anderson, lighting design by Kerry Ireland. With Yumi Umiumare. Malthouse Theatre @ Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse until September 13.


Anonymous said...

Spot on about EnTrance. The Alice in Wonderland metaphor is really clever.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Anon. Jana and I have been having an enjoyable disagreement about En Trance over at Guerilla Semiotics, if you want to read some more discussion.