So I gave in...Ms TN prevaricates. Again.Bits, bobsReview: Life is a Dream, When The Rain Stops FallingReview: AfricaWomen in theatre: the Philip Parons Memorial LectureThe Native Returns ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 30, 2009

So I gave in...

...and am now twittering. Anon Commentator was right: in some circumstances it would be useful. You can find my tweet (singular) on Bear with me while I get the hang of electronic haiku.

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Ms TN prevaricates. Again.

In the two weeks since I returned from the UK, I have been out at the theatre for seven nights. Given that I swore a solemn oath to keep my theatre-going under control, this argues a certain weakness of will on my part. However, the small print of my oath (sub clause 2[a] para iii) is "unless it looks interesting", which in the past fortnight has made my vow as wobbly as Rudd's ETS scheme.

This flurry of activity is, like this month's bizarre tropical weather, unprecedented. It used to be, back in the dark ages of, oh, 2006, that the only things that happened in November were a couple of Malthouse shows, the MTC's Christmas panto and the Short & Sweet festival, a open mic for theatricals that is, as My Esteemed Colleague Mr Boyd once memorably remarked, theatre for people with the attention span of goldfish. But this year, as if to ram home to this prodigal daughter the diversity and depth of Melbourne's performance culture, there's been a veritable festival featuring some of our leading indie artists. However they turn out in practice, these are shows with "don't miss" written on the package.

Ms TN has, in short, been having a fine time. All fine times have their price, and my price is writing reviews. This is proving harder than I expected, and not only because the four shows I saw last week deserve some serious thought: a persistent lurking yukness keeps hijacking the free progress of my thinking, which is making consciousness less pleasant than it ought to be. But dammit, we must all screw our courage to the sticking point, and I've more shows to see this week. So here's my assurance that behind the scenes, in the intricate clockwork of TN's inscrutable inner workings, reviews are being written. Slowly, to be sure. But they're being written all the same.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Bits, bobs

Briefly: a kerfuffle has emerged in Sydney over Belvoir St's decision to hand the Philip Parson's Memorial Lecture over to a panel who will discuss the contentious absence of women in key creative roles in our mainstream companies. As has always been the case, the lecture is delivered at the same event as the Philip Parson's Young Playwright's Award; and, as Joanna Erskine reports on her blog, one of the shortlisted playwrights, Caleb Lewis, has withdrawn his entry in protest against the "politicisation" of the award. More from Augusta Supple here.

Meanwhile, your faithful blogger hasn't been idle, despite the lack of activity here; I've been going to the theatre. November is usually quiet as the program winds down for summer, but I've returned from the UK to find there's de facto mini-festival of some of the best indie theatre and dance companies in town, all happening at once, and all in short seasons ... bugger the jet lag, it's theatre lag now. Reports will, I promise, follow.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Review: Life is a Dream, When The Rain Stops Falling

The most contemporary thing about contemporary art is its crisis...

The Accident of Art, Paul Virilio

It's always interesting to revisit a show, and doubly interesting when it's as fascinating as Daniel Schlusser's production Life is a Dream, an enactment of the 17th century Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca's famous philosophical play about the nature of reality. Theatre in its purest forms is flux made visible and plastic, a constant interrogation of the present through the conditionings of the past. (I mean this quite literally. Weeks or months of rehearsal, countless orchestrations of bodies, objects, sound, spatial arrangements, make every action a deliberate and conscious choice that, if it is to possess any life, must manifest in the now as if it were newly discovered: a paradox theatre can never resolve so much as embody).

Heraclitus, whose ambiguities and musical language make him a poet among philosophers, argued that: "On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow" (for the Greek scholars among you, "Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei"). Not so much that one can't step into the same river twice, which is Plato's interpretation, but that in returning to the same river, one will encounter other waters: the river remains what it is only through the constancy of its change.

Likewise with revisiting a work of theatre: the work's structure and identity remain constant, but the experience will be, in countless subtle ways, a different meeting, buffeted by variable currents. This change is, crucially, the condition of its vitality. In the case of Life is a Dream, focus inevitably shifts on a second viewing, and becomes more layered: what I said about its first season last year, with Company 08 at what was then the Victorian College of the Arts, remains true. (And since I hate repeating myself, that review contains a discussion of the original play and its relation to the performance which I'll not explore here).

Yet, wholly unsurprisingly, this incarnation is more conscious, more practised, and more immediately legible. As much as any evolution in the work itself, this is also because I was sitting close enough to the performers to hear their private dialogue, which was mostly inaudible the first time. Although in both cases the emerging power relationships between the performers was very clear, there was a quality to this inaudibility that I missed, a heightened sense of voyeurism that underlaid some of the work's strange unease.

Schlusser uses very little of the original play; it exists as shining moments of pure dramatic poetry that bubble out of the riveting banality of the performance on stage. He weaves fragments of Beatrix Christian's translation through what he calls "poorer" speech: a casual domestic conversation that establishes its own routine - boiling a kettle, tea making, instructions to comfort or to attack another performer. The conceit is that the performers are, like Segismundo himself, damaged adults abandoned by parental authority; they are caught in a traumatic repetition that attempts to restore order, clear lines of authority and power, where none existed in the first place.

This initial reality is established patiently and without any concession to dramatic artifice: there is no attempt to persuade an audience to empathy, no overt manipulation. The action on stage flirts constantly with the edges of boredom, but its apparent artlessness is belied by its careful orchestration. The stage dynamic escalates insensibly from a mundane if degraded domesticity to excesses of cruelty and desire with an action like breathing: it eddies in and out of crisis, gradually generating a concentration of energy until the poetry of Calderón's play becomes possible.

The power of this production depends crucially on the nine performers who, with the exception of Johnny Carr who plays the imprisoned Segismondo, are unable to escape our gaze. They inhabit the reality of the stage with unwavering concentration, hooking and keeping an involuntary attention with the depth and detail of their performances. When they shift seamlessly from casual spoken language to the startlingly beautiful poetry of Christian's text, it has both the shock of contrast and an underlying continuity.

The show's sense of unity stems from the central metaphor that is filleted out of the play and extended in performance - the figure of the abandoned and mistreated child. Here the fairytale mother is dead in childbirth, the father an absent tyrant; the child is betrayed by those who should have most cared for him. When Segismundo is brought out of his prison in chains, his legs and elbows agonisingly chafed and blistered, he is the embodiment of abjection. His suffering, according to the king, is the condition of the kingdom's security: he is the scapegoat for the king's fears and, as a result of his mistreatment, also embodies them.

Life is a Dream plays out the aftermath of damage: it's clear in the neurotic repetitions, the infantilisms of mutual dependency and the relentless scapegoating, as much as in the complex denials that are encapsulated by mundane routine. In particular, it illuminates how traumatic shifts of power are domesticated and normalised, just as after revolution the king - Napoleon, Stalin - restores the lines of authority that have been blown violently apart. Freedom glimpsed through the lens of revolution is, after all, terrifying, and perhaps there is something in the human psyche that craves the security of tyranny.

This production is in some ways deeply pessimistic: trapped in the damage of childhood, it suggests, we can never embrace either freedom or responsibility. Against this is posited a fragile hope in a possible ethics, Segismundo's statement that the good we do matters, whether it occurs in a dream or in reality. It offers no resolution: the production is simply a playing out of crisis. It's a crisis of art as much as it is of conscience, poising us, just as the performances do, on the razor-edge of contingency, between the ghosts of the past and the trash of the present.


THIS week I also caught Andrew Bovell's When The Rain Stops Falling, which finishes its MTC season today after a national tour. This production has been bouncing from festival to festival, with plaudits showering down like the torrents mentioned ad nauseam in the play itself. And I'm frankly baffled by the fuss.

The structure is an uncomfortable conceit that stretches Arthur Miller-style realism towards surreal ends. The writing is like a lot of the Australian brand of so-called magical realism, which employs an enervating faux lyricism to dress up what are essentially banal conclusions with some pretty imagery (in this case, fish and rain). The anxiously detailed plot (paedophilia, suicide, child murder, child abandonment, love affairs, fatal car accidents, all swimming in the thematic broth of climate change) is strung together by a bunch of increasingly unlikely coincidences, ranging across four generations of two families to trace the genealogy and resolution of psychic damage.

Yet for all this frenetic ambition, it nowhere strikes a true emotional note: all through the play, statement ("I'm going mad!") substitutes for the emergence of feeling. It's amazing how agonisingly boring this becomes: the falsity mounts to an almost hysteric over-compensation, which is perhaps most noticeable in the copious tears shed by various actors. And it's not helped by the leaden pace of the production, which delivers its holy truths with an earnestness worthy of George Lucas retelling the Christian myth in the Star Wars prequel. Repetitions are archly (and frequently) deployed to demonstrate the fatal connections across generations, but they function chiefly as a plot contrivance, rather than as a deepening of metaphor.

The design is stylishly imagined by Hossein Valamanesh, but in the end amounts to a parade of pretty tableaux unveiled to a neo-Glass soundtrack, which is at least played live. The performances, perhaps worn down after several seasons, varied wildly the night I saw them; Neil Pigot's bizarre decision to play both his roles as if he were an old man whose boots were full of water was intensely distracting, as were some very poorly rendered British accents. For the record, Yalin Ozucelik got his accent pitch-perfect, and Paul Blackwell's understated performance was a pleasure to watch, which provided some compensation for all the mugging.

Even more than its intellectual fuzziness - the issue of climate change, for example, is basically a kind of aesthetic wallpaper - its main lack is emotional precision, which would seem crucial in a work that is essentially about the life of feeling. Ironically, given its obsession with rain, it made me think of some lines of Ezra Pound's: "dry casques of departed locusts / speaking a shell of speech... / Words like locust-shells, moved by no inner being..." It gives the whole a strange air of being an imitation of something else.

Life is a Dream, adapted from Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Beatrix Christian, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Marg Horwell, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, special make-up effects by Dominique Noelle Mathisen, composed by Darrin Verhagen, stage management by Pippa Wright, produced by Sarah Ernst. With George Banders, Brendan Barnett, Johnny Carr, Andrew Dunn, Julia Grace, Sophie Mathisen, Vanessa Moltzen, Sarah Ogden and Josh Price. The Store Room until November 29.

When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell, directed by Chris Drummond. Desined by Hossein Valamanesh, composer Quentin Grant, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With Paul Blackwell, Michaela Cantwell, Carmel Johnson, Kris McQuade, Yalin Olucelik, Anna Lise Phillips and Neil Pigot. Brink Productions, presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company and Melbourne International Arts Festival, Sumner Theatre untl November 22.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Review: Africa

I’ve often pondered the astounding ability of puppets to generate intense emotional responses. How is it possible that we can identify so fiercely with an overtly unrealistic object made of sticks and paper?

The power of animation plumbs our imaginative humanity. It's a simple and crude device that every child exploits in play, but it enacts a totemic magic, an ancient ability to invest an object with human or supernatural qualities. In the theatre or on the screen in, say, the exquisite art of Hayao Miyazaki, it removes the possibility of realistic representation and with it our tendency to moral judgment. What is delineated with a poignant clarity is pure action, pure gesture. Consequently it creeps beneath your emotional guard. You’re not aware until it’s too late that you’ve opened what otherwise are fiercely protected regions of the psyche.

Puppets are key to the impact of Africa, the latest work of Sydney company My Darling Patricia, presently making their Malthouse debut as the resident company in the Tower Theatre. Like last year’s Black Lung residency, Africa demonstrates the value of giving talented young companies the resources and time to fully realise their visions. It’s a stunning piece of theatre that weaves together the mundane and the marvellous to create a rawly affecting work about childhood.

The germs of Africa were news stories: one of two small German children who ran away from home intending to elope, and were caught on their way to Africa, and several accounts of child abuse. However, My Darling Patricia has leapt away from these sources to forge its own story. It’s a simple narrative about the imaginative world of three small children, who are represented by bunraku-style puppets which are manipulated in full sight of the audience.

The children live in a chaotic house, strewn with washing and toys. The two girl are the daughters of a woman who is a traditional “bad mother”, a single woman in the throes of an abusive relationship. She clearly loves her children and is the source of their security, but she is also neglectful and chaotic, and we witness her downward spiral as she struggles with her circumstances. The little boy is the girls' best friend, an abused child who takes refuge in their home.

The three puppets become real very quickly, a function of the accuracy of the gestures their manipulators achieve, and of the collective's unsentimental observations of childish behaviour. The show opens, for example, with the little boy putting a doll's head in a microwave, an absurd and macabre image that sharply expresses the cheerful amorality of young children, and which also foreshadows the cruelty that he suffers.

The two adults, the mother and her lover, are played by actors (Jodie le Vesconte and Matt Prest) who mostly perform on the top tier of a multi-level stage, seen from the waist down from a child’s-eye perspective. Their torsos are visible as silhouettes through a frosted glass window. The adults' sexuality and violence occur literally above the heads of the children, who play obliviously beneath them, as if, like the sky, the adults in their lives are natural elements.

Africa plays across the two realities, adult and child, with an impressive ingenuity and playfulness. The children might be deprived in many ways, but they don’t consider themselves deprived: like all small children, they accept their circumstances as the totality of their universe. When they watch a nature documentary on Africa, which is comically rendered through the lens of their childish desires, another possibility opens up: Africa becomes the focus of their inarticulate yearnings, the place where they can be the marvellous beings they feel nascently within themselves.

Yet this imaginative freedom doesn’t protect them from harsh realities. The double world of Africa - its simultaneous evocation of the domestic and the epic - permits My Darling Patricia to tell a story of startling bleakness that paradoxically seduces us with its light playfulness. Even in the face of its brutal truths, the show expresses a curious optimism. One of the chief achievements of Africa is its emotional honesty: how it at once expresses human resilience – the ability to generate beauty from the “rag and bone shop of the heart” – and the incorrigibility of damage and loss.

Realised with an admirable skilfulness and attention to detail, it’s funny, beautiful and heartbreaking. It's selling out fast, but beg, borrow or steal a ticket - you don't want to miss it.

Picture: My Darling Patricia's Africa. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

Africa, conceived, designed and created by My Darling Patricia. Concept by Sam Routledge, written and directed by Halcyon Macleod. Designed by Clare Britton and Bridget Dolan, performed by Jodie Le Vesconte and Matt Prest, puppeteers Calre Britton, Alice Osborne and Sam Routledge, composition and sound design by Declan Kelly, lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw. Malthouse Theatre @ The Tower until November 29.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Women in theatre: the Philip Parons Memorial Lecture

Keen theatrenauts will have no problem calling to mind the on-going debate over the place of women in Australian theatre. Sparked by a season launch at Company B Belvoir St that overshadowed Neil Armfield's farewell season by fielding one woman among a brace of male directors, the debate has widened to a discussion about gender equity in the key creative roles in all Australia's main stage theatres.

The furore has prompted some patronising from the UK, which, as an irresistible aside, feels a bit rich when you consider the National Theatre's current seasons. The October-January season running presently has, out of a total of 30 writers and directors, only five women; January-March has a total of 27, and again only five women. Looks like exactly the same problem to me.

The latest move here is a request from Melbourne University that the MTC appoint an Equal Opportunity Officer who will address the lack of opportunities for women directors. As John Bailey comments, it's a little odd for the UoM to demand the creation of positions while it is so merrily decimating its own departments, but that's another question.

Meanwhile, Belvoir St in Sydney is taking the bull by the horns and opening the question to public debate. The Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture for 2009 will be given over to a panel to debate this very question as it pertains to directors: Where Are The Women? The debate will be introduced and backgrounded by Rachel Healy, director performing arts at the Sydney Opera House, who will then join the discussion. Fielded by journalist Monica Attard, the panel will also include myself; emerging director Shannon Murphy; Marion Potts, associate artistic director at Bell Shakespeare; and Gil Appleton, who will provide a historical overview. Then the floor will be opened for debate. I expect a lively, fascinating and - I hope - illuminating discussion.

The debate, which will be followed by the presentation of the Philip Parsons Young Playwright's Award, is on Sunday December 6 at 2pm, and tickets are $10. Bookings 02 9699 3444.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

The Native Returns

Yes, faithful readers: your truant blogger has returned from the fleshpots of the northern hemisphere, having bounced around England and Ireland and Scotland like a crazed blowfly in a bottle. I had a marvellous time, I met a lot of charming people and I read poetry at many of them. And I saw a lot of rain, with water falling promiscuously off mountains and chuckling in brooks and rivers and lying about in fields as if it had nothing better to do. It's nice to know it still exists somewhere.

And despite some good intentions (we all know what they lead to), I didn't blog at all. That was a very pleasant thing not to do for a month, and I'm all the better for it. I even managed, mostly, to stay away from the theatre, although I confess that I did pop into the Donmar Warehouse to see a version of Calderon's Life is a Dream (starring Dominic West, who might be known to some of you as McNulty from The Wire, as Sigismundo). It featured an impressively elegant adaptation by Helen Edmundson and some of that brilliantly precise and skilled British acting, but was much less comfortable with its physical theatre aspects; and the Ruritania cossies (the actors seemed constantly in danger of tripping over their swords) and its undeveloped sound design did make me long rather for Australian design culture.

Now I'm back at my desk, feeling that my body is still somewhere in Central Asia and punishing me for leaving it behind, and studying a large pile of mail with deep suspicion, in case it bites me. And I'm straight back into it: theatre dates are already filling my diary, and I'm catching up on what I missed.

For those interested, I guess I reached some sort of decision while I was away. I'm unlikely to stop blogging altogether, and always intended to see out this year. However, I will wind TN back next year in order to focus on my work, rather than everybody else's. I wrote out a list of unfinished and upcoming projects - novels, theatre works, epic poems - and it added up to nine works in progress. Yes, that's crazy, but I want to finish at least some of them; and that means that I will keep the blog for fewer and longer meditations, and stop attempting to blog everything I see. And we'll see what happens.

Thanks for the good wishes expressed, public and private. In answer to one correspondent here: no, I won't open this blog to others, except in the small dialogic instances already established. This blog has always been just me, and that's why it's worked; it's one of the conditions of bloggishness. My waters (see above) tell me that the internet is changing again; I've never wanted to tweet, which for my purposes only strikes me as useful for haiku, but perhaps the halcyon days of extensive blogs are drawing to an end. Who knows? I will be watching with as much interest as anyone else. Meantime, it's great to be back in Melbourne. I hope you all know what a brilliant city this is.

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