2009 - some year, eh?Off to the coastReview: GodzoneNavel gazingNPF updateReview: BC, Progress and MelancholyNational Play Festival FAILGender and all that: where are the magic bullets?Another week, another few thousand words...Review: GlasoonReview: The Harry Harlow ProjectReview: Structure and Sadness ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2009 - some year, eh?

Yep, it's been a big twelve months for Ms Geraldine Pascall Crrritic of the Year. And it behoves me, before I hang up the sash and hand over the crown, to tug my forelock at Yuletide crrritical tradition: viz. write my magisterial overview of the year. But first, a confession.

Because 2010 is round the corner, the media is bristling with Best of Decade lists: best music, best books, best video games, best movies, best literary feuds, best comics ... well, you get the picture. And really, who gives a rat's arse? (It must be admitted nevertheless that some of the "worst of" teardowns can be quite a lot of fun.)

Although I'm always prepared to spit in the face of futility, Ms TN can't do a best of decade list, and not only because - as all pedants know - it isn't the end of the decade until December 31, 2010. The fact is that TN has only been around for five years, and while in web-time that's approaching Methuselah status, it's still only half of ten. So I'll stick to the 2009 highlights reel, with the caveat that there was also a lot that I didn't see, and let everyone else argue.

While Hugh Grant and others have been complaining about how only five per cent of plays are worth the eye-time, Ms TN - always the half-glass-full type - has been doing her own mathematics. This year, I saw 66 shows, and deep meditation with a pencil has revealed that of those, around seven made me want to shoot myself. Which works out to 10.60606 per cent.

Of those 66, 20 (30.30303 per cent - how I love the symmetry of numbers) sent me out of the theatre humming with happiness; or, if not precisely with happiness, with faith rewarded, the spirit nourished, the intellect bracingly buffed and the heart called to its truthful home. The remaining 54.54545 per cent were the shows where, to varying degrees, the interesting and the less interesting marbled into deeply discussable experiences. Of these, surprisingly few were merely mediocre.

Which means that 84.3934 per cent of the time, I've had a much better time in the theatre than Hugh Grant. Is it me? Of course it is. But it is also Australian theatre. I love you, Australian theatre. You're beautiful, smart, curious, truthful, brash, skilful, intelligent, funny, passionate and unafraid. And you have a very charming seriousness.

For the listmaniacs among you, here, in strictly alphabetical order, are my Top Five Shows of 2009, complete with handy links to the original reviews:

Glasoon, Black Lung: Thomas Henning and the Black Lung gang reached a reductio ad absurdum in this show which, from their earlier work, ought to have been impossible.

Happy Days, Malthouse Theatre: Michael Kantor's best work to date, featuring a definitive performance of Winnie from Julie Forsyth.

Peer Gynt, VCA School of Drama: Daniel Schlusser showed how blowing up the classics can bring them to life. Exemplary, stunning work.

Poppea, Sydney Opera House: Barrie Kosky's sublime mating of Cole Porter and Monteverdi. A great director at his best.

The War of the Roses, STC Actor's Company: Benedict Andrews' astounding reworking of Shakespeare's History Plays: theatre of a rare and desolating beauty.

That's the best of the best. I'll put my extended best list at the bottom, for those who get that far.

As for the shows that made me lose faith and gave me colds (they do, bad art really does make you ill): the MTC features more than it should. The razzamatazz of the gorgeous new theatres hasn't been matched by many of the productions. The whole was still an improvement on previous years, with the Lawler Studio giving the company a little wiggle-room in what is really subscriber-bullied programming. Low points for me were the MTC's productions of Grace (theatre reduced to a school lesson), Andrew Bovell's teeth-achingly saccharine When the Rain Stops Falling and Guy Rundle and Max Gillies' flat satire Godzone.

The Malthouse gets a guernsey with an ill-considered production of David Harrower's sublime play Knives in Hens, which was an expense of talent in a waste of shame. The visiting avant garde didn't do too well either: Forced Entertainment's Spectacular brought theatre to stunning new levels of patronising tedium. On the other hand, it was several hours shorter than the much-lauded and hugely pretentious Gatz, which came from the New York company Elevator Repair Service to the Sydney Opera House with a thin idea and even thinner performances.

Aside from those in the productions already listed, there were some notable performances. Simon Phillips' excellent MTC production of August: Osage County featured two of them. The play itself failed to fire me with enthusiasm, but Robyn Nevin and Jane Menelaus showed how good acting can be. Pauline Whyman shone in an indifferent (and controversial) production of Pinter's The Birthday Party. And it's hard to hold a candle to the entire cast of Hayloft's equally controversial production 3xSisters which, for all its lively division of audience response, had everyone united in their admiration of the actors.

Uschi Felix and Dion Mills both gave exemplary, disciplined performances in André Bastian's fine production of five short Beckett plays at La Mama. And I'm prepared to be strung up for it: but it would be wrong of me not to mention Jan Friedl and Bruce Myles' gut-wrenching performances in The Cove, a season of Daniel Keene's plays that were directed at the Dog Theatre by Matt Scholten.

And I haven't even mentioned dance. It's been a rich part of my year: perhaps my favourite in a very distinguished bunch was Splintergroup's Lawn, which was at the Malthouse as part of Dance Massive early this year. I also loved Meryl Tankard's The Oracle (I fear I ran out of gas and didn't write about this, despite the magnificence of Paul White's solo performance), BalletLab's Miracle, Michelle Heaven's Disagreeable Object, and Lucy Guerin's remarkable piece on the West Gate Bridge disaster, Structure and Sadness.

What else? I missed the Melbourne Festival and so have no magisterial opinion to opinionate, because to my surprise (and, it seems, to everyone else's) I won the Australian Poetry Centre's poetry tour prize, and was touring the British Isles with my lovely colleague, Robert Gray. I doubt this will happen next year, so I'll get to see AD Brett Sheehy settling into his stride at MIAF. Reports reached me nevertheless: and it has to be said there was a palpable sense that the excitement that has sparked the past few years under Kristy Edmunds' aegis was somewhat dimmer. Aside from the program, which seemed to strike more as a series of events than an integrated festival, people missed the Spiegeltent and, even more crucially, the delightfully democratic (anyone could go) and cheaply-priced artists bar.

Melburnians, after all, love to talk.

As for me, I got my share of brickbats. In the midst of what has undoubtably been the Issue of the Year - the lack of women in key creative positions - I got outed as a hairy-legged feminist. (I admit it, it's true, especially when my razor is blunt and the boys have hidden theirs.) Earlier this year, Julian Meyrick got cross with me for being an aphasic racist, which was fun rather than otherwise; and then Neil Pigot attacked me with a blunt knife. This last depressed me so much - what's the point of writing all these words if your critics don't bother to read them? - that I thought of giving up the blog. But then, after a month of being rained on in England, I unthought it. The blog is too much fun, and I would miss the theatre terribly.

All the same, I am going to be a writer first and blogger second next year. Firstly because writing is how I make my living, and I need to live; and secondly, because that part of me that likes making things up has lain fallow long enough, and is getting bored with itself. That means that I'll probably see less theatre, and won't write about everything I see. Or at least, that's the resolution. Such is my track record with resolutions that this remains to be seen: but I'll definitely be putting my primary energy into novels next year.

As a postscript, you can don your quizzing glasses at the end of January to witness me in my guise as hapless reality tv poet. Some of you might remember I shot an episode of the series Bush Slam in March, going head-to-head with my dear friend John Kinsella. And yes, it's finally making it to prime-time ABC-TV (in the silly season, of course). I doubt I'll be watching, but I'll make a brave face on any mockery. None could be crueller than that of my children.

All that remains is to thank you, my readers, for coming here. I owe thanks too to the theatres who have provided tickets, to the artists who bear with my opining, and to the countless people (You Know Who You Are) who have encouraged and supported me this year. I wish you all a happy Christmas and, despite the worst efforts of the world's politicians, a healthy and enjoyable 2010.

The shows I loved in 2009

3xSisters, The Hayloft Project
Africa, My Darling Patricia, Malthouse Theatre
Beckett's Shorts, La Mama
Care Instructions, Aphids/Malthouse Theatre
Disagreeable Object, Chunky Move Studio
Glasoon, Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm
Happy Days, Malthouse Theatre
Lawn, Splintergroup/Malthouse Theatre
Life is a Dream, Store Room
Miracle, BalletLab
Peer Gynt, VCA Drama School
Poppea, Sydney Opera House
The Apocalypse Bear Trilogy, Arena/MTC
The Man from Mukinupin, MTC/Belvoir St
Structure and Sadness, Lucy Guerin Inc/Malthouse
The Cove, Dog Theatre (no review)
The Oracle, Sydney Opera House/Malthouse Theatre (no review)
The War of the Roses, Sydney Theatre Company
Tom Fool, Hoy Polloy
Wretch, La Mama
Yuri Wells, The Hayloft Project

Picture: a touching domestic scene from the Croggon-Keene household, posted instead of production photos already published on the blog. The duck says Happy New Year.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Off to the coast

Ms TN is slipping away incognito for a week's actual holiday. She'll be lounging in a secret location on the Bellarine Peninsula, reading and checking out the local botany and squabbling comfortably with her family. Bliss. Please continue debating if you wish, but play nice.

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Review: Godzone

At what point does politics move beyond parody? Maybe when you have a Prime Minister who looks as if he belongs in a Lego set, and who ought to be reported to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to English.

Kevin Rudd can shift mid-sentence from warning of "incremental bifurcation" in the Asia-Pacific region (while, of course, needing to "work within the extant political vocabulary with China's national discourse") to his notorious manglings of outdated Australian slang ("fair shake of the sauce bottle").

Weld these together with cliches ("working families", "decisive action", "at the end of the day"), acronyms and buzz words ("synergies", "outcomes", "reverse engineering") and mixed metaphors ("preglacial position"), and you have a Teflon-coated PR machine that evades satire by overtaking it.

Its effectiveness can be seen in Godzone, Guy Rundle and Max Gillies's political satire now playing at the Melbourne Theatre Company. "Let's go for gold!" says Gillies's Rudd. "Let's optimise programmativity!" And it sounds just as boring and incomprehensible as Rudd himself.

It's a measure of the hyperreality of contemporary politics that satire in the noughties moved to featuring the politicians themselves. American comedians Steve Colbert and Jon Stewart invite politicians to be interviewed on their shows. The Chasers were regulars at Canberra press conferences.

The show that most successfully captures the white noise of the political machine - the brilliant ABC series The Hollow Men - doesn't feature politicians at all.

It's a dilemma for a satirist who, like Gillies, has made his name by impersonating politicians. The humour of his mimicry of Bob Hawke, Andrew Peacock and John Howard depended on both the startle of recognition and a recognisable gap between the reality and the portrayal.

The absurd exaggerations reflected back on their originals, prompting us to see them in a different light. But when impersonation can't prompt this frisson, it loses its bite.

It's why The 7.30 Report satirists John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, who don't rely at all on mimicry, still hit their targets: there's a cognitive dissonance at play that spikes their wit with the necessary unreality.

Godzone, on the other hand, seems like an 1980s television skit expanded to the stage. It is as if theatre is where television goes to die.

The set-up is a feel-good public conference, rather like Rudd's 2020 Summit but with added religiosity, where the PM introduces a brace of contemporary political figures to address the audience.

In between perorations from the lectern from Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and various commentators such as Andrew Bolt and Christopher Hitchens, Gillies rushes offstage to apply a new false nose and funny wig. We are then treated to a series of video sketches, "live" interviews with Malcolm Turnbull or Noel Pearson, or ads from the "sponsors".

The best of these was a vision of hell, or Liberal Party HQ, complete with shadowy Ku Klux Klan figures and swinging light bulbs. There was a YouTube aesthetic here - perhaps stemming from budgetry limitations - that rather undermined the effectiveness of others. Corporate PR gloss doesn't come cheap.

The blandness of the New Left - impregnably smug, impeccably coiffed and upholstered in incomprehensible jargon - creates a smooth, all-reflecting surface that simply doesn't give the purchase for this kind of satire. It's telling that the most successful sketches - Barnaby Joyce as a used car salesman, Gerard Henderson arguing with his local video store - are of the rough-hewn conservatives.

Gillies's impersonations don't always hit the mark either. Rudd is reduced to a pout, Abbott to a pair of Billy McMahon ears, and Julia Gillard - the least successful of all - is a spinsterish school teacher with "man hands" brazening out her secondary role as Rudd's henchwoman.

The portrayal of Bolt made me reflect that parody always includes a modicum of homage. Rundle's script made Bolt seem the most intelligent of the lot: its scathing caricature of left-wing inner-city suburbanites possessed a wit Bolt's columns signally lack.

The most mystifying - nay, bizarre - was Hitchens, who tells a meandering Boys Own story of meeting Osama Bin Laden in the Hindu Kush (didn't I read something like that in Robert Fisk's book The Great War for Civilisation?) and finishes with an account of being raped by Arabs. Which is why, he declaims, it was right to invade Iraq.

Hitchens as Lawrence of Arabia? Well, maybe - at a stretch - there's something in that, but here it's just a cheap punchline. And those allusions - if that's what they are - have no force at all in the format of sketch satire.

None of this is helped by Aidan Fennessy's static direction. Rundle and Gillies's last collaboration, The Big Con, featured Eddie Perfect crooning a series of cabaret numbers ("Don't be so damn September 10!") and was a lot more dynamic. Here the switching from lectern to screen gets monotonous and most of the set is simply flashy decor.

For those who have enjoyed the Gillies-Rundle combo before, this is a disappointing outing. It's a bad sign when the program is funnier than the show.

This review is in today's Australian.

Godzone, by Guy Rundle, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Set and costumes Shaun Gurton, lighting design by Matt Scott, sound design by Darrin Verhagen. With Max Gillies, Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, until January 17.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Navel gazing

In the past week or so, the Age has been running a series of opinion pieces on criticism that amount to a mini-forum. Check out The changing role of the critic by Norman Lebrecht (recycling the usual guff about blogs being the end of cultured debate but making a couple of interesting points nonetheless); Peter Houghton on reviewing (can critics be friends? Only if you're a masochist); Stephanie Bunbury on spoilers; and Karl Quinn on star ratings (it's just snobby to say opera and ballet can't be reduced to three stars).

To the last, I don't like stars because it's reductive. But then, I don't want to write consumer guides. There's nothing wrong with consumer guides - well, maybe there is, but that means swinging in Adorno and his fulminations against the cultural machine and I've got things to do - but they're hardly the whole game. Or if they are, we're in trouble. (OK, we're in trouble).

Meanwhile, I often reflect on Robyn Archer's statement earlier this year at the Theatre Forum that she never takes any notice of her reviews. It struck me because I don't take any notice of my reviews either. Go figure.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

NPF update

Richard Watts reports on the National Play Festival web page debacle on Arts Hub. PlayWriting Australia AD Chris Mead declined comment, saying that the fuss diverts attention from the NPF program. Yes, it does: and isn't that the point? A series of someones decided that this was the image to sell our theatre writing culture. As if it doesn't have enough problems already.

Even a gracious acknowledgement that a mistake was made and nodding towards the concerns would be nice: but as David Williams of Version 1.0 commented darkly on Twitter, "people are rarely interested in disussions of dominance, esp their own. That's what dominance means, the opacity of power".

While I'm at it, check out David's searchingly illuminating post on the The Pleasures of Patriarchy.

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Review: BC, Progress and Melancholy

In one of those interesting synchronicities, there is a rash of contemporary theatre examining the foundational Christian myths. As Hayloft's BC - a rewriting of the Annunciation - plays in Melbourne, the STC is hosting Genesis, a contemporary look at the first chapters of the Bible performed by the Residents, their new ensemble. Black Lung last week put Christianity on the rack of its traumatic anarchy in Glasoon. Looking further back, two years ago Uncle Semolina & Friends reworked the Old Testament in OT.

It suggests that religion, especially Christianity, is an acute locus of both anxiety and curiosity among those companies exploring the outer edges of theatre. I guess it's unsurprising, given that God has risen from Nietzsche's grave to stalk modernity like a brain-eating zombie in a splatter movie: the rise of mediaevalist fundamentalism is the dark story of our time. As the sublime Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski said in the 1980s as he witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, the three great challenges to world peace in the following decades were religion, nationalism and racism. In the past few years, we've seen that prophecy playing out in our global politics.

But this focus on religion is also a curiosity about the foundations of western culture. Christianity shaped the West: it has been a defining force in its art and thought for hundreds of years. It's influenced our metaphysics, philosophy, law and social conventions. And for those raised in the shadow of that tradition, it is a primary expression of transcendence and the divine.

It's this last aspect that debut playwright Rita Kalnejais explores in BC, which takes the story of the Immaculate Conception and sets it in an outer suburb of a nameless Australian city. After attacking the modern classics - Chekhov, Stravinsky, Wedekind - it's good to see Hayloft taking on the risks of new writing, with Benedict Hardie's Yuri Wells earlier this year and now BC.

Here Mary is the teenage daughter of Joachim (Tyler Coppin), a depressed real estate agent, and Anne (Margaret Mills), who is in recovery from cancer and is perilously on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Her learning-challenged brother, Gabriel (Dylan Young) is obssessed, not entirely healthily, with birds, the angelic possibility of flight. Elizabeth (Yesse Spence), in the original story Mary's confidante and the first to recognise that Mary's pregnancy is the fruit of God ("Blessed are you among women!") becomes a pleasant, well-meaning neighbour. There are disturbing threads running through it: foremost the suggestion of incest between Mary and her father and, more directly, her brother.

It's an interesting idea that, despite some moments of coup de theatre and an outstanding cast, doesn't quite come off. Kalnejais can certainly write: she has the gift - perhaps because she is also an actor - of understanding direct dramatic action, and of creating characters who immediately assert their reality. And there's no faulting her ambition. However, the play falters in its formal balance between the naturalistic and the surreal: the naturalistic scenes are not nearly as focused as the others and often are simply too long, creating longueurs. And there's a more basic problem with the larger structure, which leads to a couple of false endings.

The play aims to illuminate moments of ordinary grace, investigating the divine immanent in quotidian existence, but a conceptual muddiness gets in the way. For instance, it's not the angel who impregnates Mary, but God: Gabriel merely announces the fact. I simply didn't understand the point of the brotherly incest or why God was absent from the shenanigans. And the Christian idea of grace is actually deeply interesting: the simple idea presented here of unmediated grace fudges its sternness and beauty, and begs the question of why Christianity is introduced in the first place. This kind of fuzziness means that the writing doesn't escape the problem of conjuring sentiment rather than real feeling.

All the same, director Simon Stone and his team create moments of genuine comedy and theatrical power. The immaculate conception itself - in which the angel and Mary unite as reflections separated by glass - is a beautifully thought and realised image of transcendence. And although some of the characters - Ashley Zuckerman's Joseph, for example - veer dangerously close to caricature, they are strange and individual enough to escape the worst perils.

Claude Marcos's set, an evocation of a suburban house bisected by a diagonal window that can turn into a mirror, vividly recalls Benedict Andrews' obsession with windows and mirrors, but works well on its own terms. Stone elicits some excellent performances, with a stand-out role by Dylan Young as Gabriel. I'm not sure Kalnejais could have asked for a better production of her first play. What she needs is some sharp dramaturgy.

Bagryana Popov's Progress and Melancholy is also a nice idea laid low by uncertain dramaturgy. It's one of a number of recent shows that reworks a classic, in this case, Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The idea is to excavate its subtext, radically resituating the play in the present - not only the contemporary present, but in the immediate present of the performers and the audience. Maybe the test of this kind of exercise is whether you're sitting in the audience wondering why the company doesn't just do the play: and in this case, I would have preferred to see Chekhov Uncut.

Popov has the chops here: her 2005 physical movement piece Subclass26A, which explored the realities of asylum seekers in detention, was riveting, sharply thought political theatre. So how come this one went so wrong? The play's subtext - focusing on personal, social and economic change - is shallowly explored, the connections made between the present of the actors and the imagined past of Chekhov are generalised and even sentimental, and when the physical movement aspires to the condition of dance, it is sometimes embarrassing. As a work, it seems frustratingly half-formed, and the informing ideas - the economic rise of China, the oncoming disaster of climate change, the feudal/capitalist exploitation of workers - all seem to operate at the level of naivety.

And yet there's the core of a great idea inside it. For all my reservations, the show features a couple of excellent performances. Natasha Herbert's Ranevskaya is (when it is allowed to occur) a moving and accurate performance of a middle aged bourgeois woman in denial of her disintegrating present. But the highlight - the performance that made this show worth watching - was Todd Macdonald's electrifying Lopahkin, the former-serf-turned-businessman who buys and destroys the cherry orchard, revenging the humiliations of his humble birth. In Macdonald's performance the intersecting realities - the big-talking developer, the ambitious nouveau riche serf - united and made sense, and the actor himself took a back seat. Given this, I wondered why the show didn't focus on Lopahkin, filleting that ambiguous character out of the play and attending to the realities that he both embodies and represents. But hey, it wasn't my show.

At one point they stopped the show and handed cake around the audience. It was good cake. It was well-meaning. And this was a well-meaning show. But I do think Chekhov would have threatened to shoot himself.

Picture: Dylan Young and Nicole Da Silva in BC. Photo: Jeff Busby.

BC by Rita Kalnejais, directed by Simon Stone. Set and costumes by Claude Marcos, lighting design by Kimberly Kaw, sound design by Stefan Gregory. With Tyler Coppin, Nicole Da Silva, Margaret Mills, Yesse Spence, Dylan Young and Ashley Zuckerman. The Hayloft Project @ Full Tilt, Black Box, Victorian Arts Centre, until December 19.

Progress and Melancholy, directed by Bagryana Popov. Design by Adrienne Chisolm, lighting design by Richard Vabre, composition and sound design by Elissa Goodrich. With Natasha Herbert, Todd Macdonald, Majid Shokor, Sara Black, Paea Leach, Christophe Le Tellier, music performed by Ernie Gruner. Fortyfive downstairs. Closed.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

National Play Festival FAIL

As several appalled women have pointed out: with the marginalisation of women playing the theatre headlines, could there be a worse time for the 2010 National Play Festival to feature a suspender-clad nude-buttocked gal on the front page of its website? Click on her bum and you find out about PERFORMANCES. Way to go, guys.

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Gender and all that: where are the magic bullets?

Ms TN is back in Melbourne listening to the gentle patter of the rain, after a packed couple of days in sun-drenched Sydney. The major event was, of course, the hotly anticipated forum on women in theatre at Belvoir St, where I was part of a panel of "powerful women" (thank you, SMH, my family is now making Dragonball Z noises again) ably conducted by journalist Monica Attard. The panel - see holiday snap below - consisted of me, Gil Appleton, a Belvoir St pioneer and integral to many feminist arts initiatives of the 1970s and 80s, emerging director Shannon Murphy, Bell Shakespeare's associate director Marion Potts and the Sydney Opera House director of performing arts, Rachel Healy.

As everybody knows, the issue is to do with main stage seasons. It's not endemic through the theatre culture - independent theatre, the crucible of Australian theatre culture, has nothing like the same issue. As in every profession, the problem exists in the high-end, well-paid, high-profile jobs.

Everyone on that panel was nervous about the event. Partly it was a desire to do justice to some of the complexity of the question; partly it was because of the heat that has been around much of the discussion. This was naturally exacerbated by Caleb Lewis's withdrawal from the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award in protest against the "radical politicisation" of the prize, which is announced simultaneously with the Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture and which that afternoon was announced first, due to the controversy. I am still struggling with Caleb's stand. Does he mean that theatre ought not to be politicised? Is he suggesting that the male-dominated status quo is apolitical? Does the mere discussion of the marginalisation of women really "taint" everything around it? (I get sudden flashes of menstruating women banned from churches).

Ironically enough, Caleb was a co-winner with Tahli Corin, prompting some cynicism around the traps, and not unincidentally, putting Tahli in an uncomfortable spotlight. Which, I may say, she negotiated with considerable grace. But this very response illustrates some horns of this hydra-headed dilemma. The mass reaction to the Belvoir St debate has been a restless and impatient demand for concrete "solutions": among others, Crikey's Steve Dow was scathing that the "ethereal seemed ascendant over the practical". (Although, unlike Dow, I do recall an insistence on mentoring.)

I guess it's possible that the Parsons prize committee was in part influenced by the on-going debate - by a consciousness that women ought to be encouraged as much as men, and that this ought to be pro-active - although this was hotly denied by Neil Armfield, who said the plays were chosen entirely on their merits (and went so far to explain what those merits were). Yet is it such a bad thing if the committee was forced to think about the issue of gender and act on those thoughts? Isn't such action precisely what the unsatisfied are calling for, when they demand "practical" solutions, even quotas? But as soon as it's even perceived to have happened, all hell breaks loose: the prize is "compromised", notions of artistic integrity are in shreds, and women are back in their familiar roles of second-rate wannabes, merely riding the coat-tails of male genius.

Which is to say, there are different issues in the arts to other professions. Theatre is not only an "industry": it is a culture. Artistic merit is a central and thorny question. It's often used by artistic directors and others to evade the knotty questions - all candidates, we are routinely told by main stage companies, are chosen on merit, which given the figures can leave us to reflect on the general mediocrity of womankind. On the other hand, artistic merit is, in the arts, a real issue. That's why it can be so successfully used as a smokescreen: if artistic merit isn't the first aim of our striving, what are we there for?

But how do we measure merit? It is unarguable that merit is read through gender. And that is heinously complex: women can be as rigorous defenders of the privileges of the status quo as men. Their mere presence won't necessarily guarantee equity: as has been pointed out many times, even though women are meagrely represented in main stage creative roles, they mostly run our theatres in managerial roles. More, as the Brontes well knew, the same writing will generate different responses if it is perceived to be by a man than if it is thought to be by a woman. And I'm afraid that, however we like to congratulate ourselves on being more advanced than the 19th century, that is still the case.

The "ethereal" ("ethereal"?) discussion that Dow was so critical about was precisely what I thought valuable about the debate. As the distinguished feminist Eva Cox said to me afterwards, it was "one of the more vigorous discussions about dominant cultures and the difficulty of even identifying them let alone shifting them". (And added acerbically, "John Huxley missed that bit in today's SMH! Why am I not surprised?")

The discussion around gender (as it is around any sort of endemic bigotry) is conditioned by the fact that we've all been here before. Quotas have been tried: they simply created a lot of resentment, even from those supposed to be the beneficiaries, who justly felt their achievements were demeaned; and they also generated a lot of bad, "ticking the boxes" art. This kind of solution is in fact one of the major complaints about the funding processes of the Arts Council in Britain: the focus moves away from making great art to social engineering. I think the major failure of quotas or any other simplistic "solution" is that they permit people not to think: they provide a simple answer that evades the real work.

The real work is changing the complex of ideologies that situates the white, abled, middle class male subject as the normative consciousness, and which constitutes anyone else as Other. The real problem for women is that we are considered to have a gender, while men can be neutral. Men can speak for all of "mankind", while women (or people with the wrong-coloured skin, sexuality, body) speak only to their own kind. The "human condition" has, for centuries, been considered to be a male state.

And the real issue for theatre is that protecting the privilege of a minority means that its culture stagnates.

Marginalising 53 per cent of the population means limiting access to a huge pool of ideas and energy. As any ecologist knows, a population without diversity loses genetic vigor and eventually dies out. Why, to take one example, is the MTC so worried about its aging subscriber base? Is it because of a blindness towards the realities of a large part of their potential audiences? And it's not as if these energies aren't already present. You just have to get out and about in Melbourne's thriving independent theatre scene. I'd be fascinated to see gender figures for non-mainstage theatre: my bet is that gender inequity there is small to non-existent.

In other words, if theatres don't recognise and deal with this broader issue they won't survive. What is required, as in so many things, is clear-sighted leadership, a recognition of the problem that goes beyond token gestures that don't actually challenge entrenched positions.

No way could a single panel discussion come up with quick-fix solutions. There aren't any, and we're fooling ourselves if we think there are. How, in an hour-long discussion, does one justly address a hugely complex problem that permeates not only the entirety of Australian society (where men still occupy the majority of the top jobs and top pay), but which reaches far beyond our sea-girt shores? Remember that Original Sin happened when Eve tasted of the Fruit of Knowledge. We all know we only scratched the surface.

But that doesn't mean that action can't be taken, or that nothing can be done. Identifying a problem is always the first step to doing something about it. But let's get that right first, or else we'll still be stuck in the same circle of hell decades hence.

Picture: From left: your faithful blogger, Gil Appleton, Shannon Murphy, Marion Potts and Rachel Healy at Belvoir St Theatre yesterday. Photo: Dean Sewell

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Another week, another few thousand words...

Ms TN pushed her delicate nose right onto the grindstone this week (hey, it's hard doing all that heavy-duty ratiocination), but for all the nasal flattening I'm still behind the eightball. I've yet to write about Progress and Melancholy, which I caught on one of its final nights, or Hayloft's BC, which opened at Full Tilt last Wednesday (as I dutifully twitted, a curate's egg but well worth seeing). And on Thursday I saw Meryl Tankard's Oracle at the Malthouse (closing Sunday), which features a performance by Paul White that rewrites the laws of gravity.

I will write about all these events, but I fear this week time is against me. This weekend I am flying up to Sydney for the Belvoir St panel on women in theatre, which is attracting lots of media attention; especially after playwright Caleb Lewis withdrew from the Philip Parson's Young Playwrights Award to protest against its "politicisation" by the discussion. (The debate is this year's Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, which is routinely presented at the same event as the award).

I'm hoping for an enlightening and open debate that excavates some of the reasons why gender politics in theatre has become such a problem. The figures - in our main stage culture, at least - are brutally clear, but that doesn't mean that identifying the causes and ways of dealing with it are simple. Looking forward to seeing some of you there.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Review: Glasoon

Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm's eight-day season of Glasoon is the hot ticket in town. It sold out in five days after its announcement on Facebook, so if you're not already booked, you'll have to resort to blackmail, robbery or espionage to get a ticket. To give it even more an air of samizdat, the location is "undisclosed": you have to phone to make a booking, whereupon you're told to head for a certain bar in East Brunswick at a certain time, buy a drink, and wait, like someone out of Smiley's People, for the Sign.

Which is all cool enough. The actual site is a warehouse music venue scrawled with graffiti art from floor to ceiling, with rugs on the floor and battered laminex kitchen chairs and ancient sofas as seating. And then there's the performance, which won't disappoint any Black Lung aficionados. It begins with a Christ figure stumbling through a door, covered in blood, and being revived by an operatically-attired and voiced mother figure who offers him her ample breast to suckle. It continues with a vicious parody of fatherly advice to a young man and then descends into a kind of sexual hell, a dizzying, blackly funny and relentless parade of bodily incontinence, perversity and violence, where people fuck and vomit in each other's mouths and dance even though they're dead, where a zombie doll in a dress is playing an electric guitar, where God is a man with a beard in a Britney Spears wig and lace panties who lounges carelessly to expose his testicles.

In fact, there is plenty of opportunity in this show to contemplate the fact that the Black Lung fellas really have balls, some of them startlingly waxed.

You could just go ZOFMG!!!! and leave it at that, but it seems inadequate (Oh, those bad Black Lung boys!) The alternative is to flail in several different directions at once, since the show is sort of indescribable. It makes a guerilla foray on the conventional wisdoms of rocknroll death art, attacking the glamour of those impeccably masculine acolytes of Thanatos, Jim Morrison to Nick Cave, fake Rimbauds the lot of them. Rebellion here is is stripped back to its egocentric adolescent defiance, exposing the incontinent holes in its skin, its deadly cunt envy. What rock critic Anwyn Crawford describes as the "bodiless despair" of the male rock god is given back its body. And it's not pretty at all.

If Glasoon were pretty, it would become seductive; for all the nudity and sex, it's not sexy. It's an assault, mostly on the male body. Though it certainly has a kind of beauty: that of the abject body unsexed and pinned to its mortality, like the dead Christ in 17th century Spanish art where the god is so embodied, so corpse-like in his meticulously rendered wounds and green-mottled skin, that it seems shockingly blasphemous and perverse.

Glasoon isn't merely sensational épater le bourgeois. If it were, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting as it is. It's certainly obscene, but it makes you realise that the obscene is of a different order than the pornographic. The obscene, even if it violently rejects the idea of God, is on the same spectrum as the divine, while the pornographic is monodimensionally of the order of capitalism: cummodity for the masses, rather than ecstatic nightmare. Think of the 17th century saint, Margaret Mary Alacoque, who wrote of licking up the vomit of her patients, a "pleasure" she wished she could repeat every day, or of St John of the Cross, cleaning out the sores of lepers with his tongue.

Mere sensation wouldn't sidle into your subconscious like a slow-release toxin. It wouldn't create this riveting theatre, sharp and loose, galvanically in the present. Glasoon plugs into an inner urgency, a neurotic anxiety that spirals into a excoriation of the murky solipsism of the self, an unforgiving massacre of internalised social authority. It employs the vocabulary of now, but its circling gods seem to be Nietzsche and Freud: Civilisation and Its Discontents, Beyond Good and Evil, thrown on the pyre of its malicious laughter.


I googled "Glasoon", and found no definitions, aside from it being a surname about as rare as Croggon. Warming to my search, I looked it up in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (no entry), the Oxford English Reference Dictionary (nothing between Glasgow and Glasnost) and a series of online maritime dictionaries (nada). Nor is it mentioned anywhere in the play itself, which is, despite all appearances to the contrary, a tightly scripted work from Thomas Henning.

Glasoon is, it seems, a word that means nothing, and refers nowhere. It's a nonsense coinage, empty of semantic meaning. It is a perfect Dada word. As Tristan Tzara said in his 1918 Manifesto: "Dada means nothing". Dada expresses, he said, "the knowledge of a supreme egoism, in which laws wither away". It's worth pursuing Tzara a little further here, from his 1922 Lecture on Dada:

The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust. Disgust with the magnificence of philosophers who for 3ooo years have been explaining everything to us (what for?), disgust with the pretensions of these artists-God's-representatives-on-earth, disgust with passion and with real pathological wickedness where it was not worth the bother; disgust with a false form of domination and restriction en masse, that accentuates rather than appeases man's instinct of domination, disgust with all the catalogued categories, with the false prophets who are nothing but a front for the interests of money, pride, disease, disgust with the lieutenants of a mercantile art made to order according to a few infantile laws, disgust with the divorce of good and evil, the beautiful and the ugly (for why is it more estimable to be red rather than green, to the left rather than the right, to be large or small?) Disgust finally with the Jesuitical dialectic which can explain everything and fill people's minds with oblique and obtuse ideas without any physiological basis or ethnic roots, all this by means of blinding artifice and ignoble charlatans promises.

As Dada marches it continuously destroys, not in extension but in itself. From all these disgusts, may I add, it draws no conclusion, no pride, no benefit. It has even stopped combating anything, in the realization that it's no use, that all this doesn't matter. What interests a Dadaist is his own mode of life. But here we approach the great secret.

Dada is a state of mind. That is why it transforms itself according to races and events. Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing, it is the point where the yes and the no and all the opposites meet, not solemnly in the castles of human philosophies, but very simply at street corners, like dogs and grasshoppers.

Like everything in life, Dada is useless.

If anything is palpable in Glasoon, it is the solipsism of disgust. The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm's reliably uninformative press release for Glasoon quotes writer Thomas Henning, self-described as "a reasonably mediocre personality":

The great dramas of my life are enacted majorly within my mind. My experience of hardship, of politics, of social change is thin on the ground. My ideas are lofty but my world is small. I retreat habitually to my mind, where the world is an exciting place... The way I convince myself to sleep, is with violence. Dreams of violence and guns. I think it’s a focus for me. Death. Is this something key to a sense of mediocrity, or weakness, or failure? That I convince myself to go to sleep with war fantasies and dreams of slaughtering dozens of people? Is this a common male thing?

The focus of disgust here, as in so much of Black Lung's work, is maleness itself, projected out in a phantasmagoria of loathing. Glasoon is an adolescent nightmare, a solipsistic excursion through the dark edges of male desire, a murderous excorcism. It's pure, like acetylene is pure.

Does it mean anything? Does it matter?


Among others, Hennings' text also calls to mind the British writer Heathcote Williams, whose 1972 play The Immortalist was described at the time - and from this end of things, quite justly - as "the first play of the 21st century". Williams' anarchic radicality seems, like his American poetic contemporary Ed Dorn, a darkly prescient foreshadowing of the mediated, consumerist, corporatised war machine of the 21st century. Like Williams, who spiralled out of the Vietnam and Cold Wars, or Tzara, who was writing in Switzerland while Europe was razed in WW1, Hennings' Glasoon springs from a reality predicated on war, the matrix of the petro-chemical-military-industrial-Disney-Murdoch complex.

It's a woman-hating paradigm in which the leaky, penetrable feminine body is the site of deathly denial and loathing. In Glasoon the female love object is, in an obscene joke, dead. (It's perhaps worth commenting here that exploring the pathology of misogyny isn't the same as being misogynistic. If this work were misogynistic, the female body would be naked and abject, not the male.)

In this reality, utopia is as extinct as the thylacine and the broad-faced potoroo. The nowhere of utopia depends on there being a place to go to: if the planet is burning up and drowning in its own waste like a plague victim, then the only refuge is inside your own head. There is no utopia even hinted here. Glasoon is an assault on given wisdom, on history, religion and social authority, which are minced into nonsense and funnelled into the central character's head, like a goose being force-fed to make fois gras.

Translated into performance, it's like being in someone else's nasty dream. Its insistence on now is a hatred of mediation. Its characters, or phantoms, all speak a debased language of pre-formed mass media cliches. Like a dream, Glasoon generates its own inescapable logic. Its power depends on the extraordinary cast, who without exception take the text and run through the pain barrier: they are not characters so much as embodiments of extremity, caricatures who joylessly fuck, bleed and die like creatures in a mediaeval depiction of hell. Only I, played with what you can only say is startling courage and honesty by Vaczadenjo Warton-Thomas, contingently approaches the status of character: he is the subject to whom all this humiliation is happening, the passive eye in the storm.

There's a kind of hope, if it can be called hope: when his abjection is compete, when the ritual is over, I kills everybody and goes away, like the teenager in the story. Where does he go in his new suit? Into the sober disillusion of adulthood? A new, sane life? Who knows?

Like the poet said: True, the new era is nothing if not harsh...

Picture: top: Simoncee Page Jones, Vaczadenjo Warton-Thomas and masked guitarist in Glasoon. Photo: Max Milne. Below: Dead Christ by Gregorio Fernández

Glasoon, by Thomas Henning. Performed by Sacha Bryning, Rima Hadchiti, Simoncee Page Jones, Lily Paskas, Vaczadenjo Warton-Thomas and Thomas Wright, with Liam Barton, Angus Kenny, Joseph O’Farrell and Keith Oakden-Rayner. Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, location undisclosed, season booked out.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Review: The Harry Harlow Project

Love is a wondrous state, deep, tender, and rewarding. Because of its intimate and personal nature it is regarded by some as an improper topic for experimental research. But, whatever our personal feelings may be, our assigned mission as psychologists is to analyze all facets of human and animal behavior into their component variables. So far as love or affection is concerned, psychologists have failed in this mission.

The little we know about love does not transcend simple observation, and the little we write about it has been written better by poets and novelists. But of greater concern is the fact that psychologists tend to give progressively less attention to a motive which pervades our entire lives. Psychologists, at least psychologists who write textbooks, not only show no interest in the origin and development of love or affection, but they seem to be unaware of its very existence.

So begins Harry Harlow's classic paper The Nature of Love, delivered to the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington DC in 1958. And so begins too The Harry Harlow Project, James Saunders' fascinating theatrical examination of Harlow's controversial experiments on baby rhesus monkeys.

The irony - more, the perversity - of Harlow's experiments is that, while they were driven by Harlow's almost lyrically expressed desire to understand something as unscientific as love, they were exemplary in their cruelty. He radically demonstrated the importance of maternal love - the security of physical affection - to the physical and psychological development of an infant by showing what happened to monkeys that received no affection and no socialisation. The result, unsurprisingly, was psychotic monkeys.

Then he went further, producing babies by forcing female monkeys raised in isolation - and who were so asocial they couldn't mate - into what he unblinkingly called his "rape pack", a wire restraining device which he used to force-mate females. Finally, he created his most notorious experiment,the "pit of despair", a cage of total isolation in which monkeys were sometimes confined for two years, with which he deliberately engineered clinical depression.

Aside from their ingenious cruelty, it's not difficult to discern a disturbing subtext of misogyny beneath some of these experiments: Harlow's "hostile mother", a machine of teeth and spikes that shot cold air on the unfortunate babies, seems like a caricature of a pathology. Yet these experiments revolutionised contemporary attitudes towards child rearing, changing practice in orphanages and rewriting the book on infant psychology. And he initiates a theory of fatherhood - "It is cheering ... to realize that the American male is physically endowed with all the really essential equipment to compete with the American female on equal terms in one essential activity: the rearing of infants," he noted at the end of his paper - which still has reverberations today.

In Harlow's day, childrearing authorities recommended that one should never kiss a child good night, but shake his or her hand. A generation of mothers listened in anguish to their crying babies, sure that should they obey their instincts and comfort them, they should be bad mothers. Harlow changed all that, legitimising human affection as more than mere "indulgence". For all that, it's hard to contemplate these experiments with any sense of ease. And it's hard to escape the thought that, by scientifically proving that maternal love was necessary to develop a healthy child, Harlow convinced the men in white coats of wisdoms that women in so-called "primitive" societies have known since, well, the beginning of time.

It's an ambiguous heritage, and James Saunders accesses much of its bleak emotional resonance in The Harry Harlow Project, which manages to be at once harrowing and funny without either cancelling the other out. The stage becomes a slapstick simulacra of Harlow's psyche, with some deft video work by Martyn Coutts and a subliminally disturbing score by Kelly Ryall framing a bravura performance by Saunders. The conceit - a just one, since in later life Harlow had ECG treatment for depression - is that in his increasingly sadistic experiments Harlow is enacting his own mental distress.

As a theatrical evocation of the hell of alienation, parts of this show are hard to beat. The stage - a white box scattered with minimal props - is fronted by sound and lighting boards, with the artists, their backs to the audience, orchestrating the show like lab technicians. A sequence where the actor interacts with his life-size projection - reaching out, like Michelangelo's God, to his fleshly human image, but finally unable to touch - is masterly. It's set up by an earlier sequence where Saunders is interviewed by a television, a device that works seamlessly through split-second timing but which here is comedic. Saunders' performance invokes the damaged monkeys through physical movement, which itself also presages Harlow's death through Parkinson's disease.

The narrative is told through fragmentary episodes that examine the experiments in tandem with glimpses of Harlow's personal life. At one point Saunders puts on a wig and becomes his own biographer; at another, he becomes Harlow's son. Curiously, in both these enactments he doesn't cease to be Harry Harlow: these other characters seem like mere projections. Perhaps what I found most interesting is how Lipson's direction coins a kind of dramaturgy of anxiety: from the beginning the comedy is uneasy, and despite the explosive release of laughter the tension subliminally winches up, not permitting any release, until the show is over. It left me with all that anxiety still in my body, bleeding out a slow release over the following days.

Perhaps because its black and white aesthetic so successfully evokes the sixties, it got me in personal places that I wouldn't have predicted from its set-up or subject. It made me think of how my father was sent to boarding school when he was four years old, and of my mother's unhappiness, raising babies alone in a mining village at the same time as Harlow was torturing monkeys. It made me think of the post-war scientist-god, certain that all human knowledge can be dissected and measured, sure in his march towards the ultimate good of Progress. It made me ponder again how such smart animals as human beings can get things so wrong.

Picture: James Saunders as Harry Harlow. The Harry Harlow Project, written and performed by James Saunders, directed and designed by Brian Lipson. Composition and sound design by Kelly Ryall, video art by Martyn Coutts, dramaturgy by Kate Sulan. Full Tilt, Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre until December 5.

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Review: Structure and Sadness

The melancholy of modernity

There’s a poignancy in looking down over a city from a plane that in certain moods can be overwhelming. The structures that dominate and shape our lives are suddenly rendered minature by perspective and – especially at night, when the lights give it a shimmering unity – a city seems a live creature, a single organism that pulses and consumes and excretes. A parasitic organism perhaps, cankering the landscape like a feral moss or a luminous fungus, but still with its own fragile beauty.

Flying into Melbourne on a clear evening you can see human habitats with the same eye that perceives the web of an orb weaver or the scarring aridity of rabbit warrens, as functions of us. We are animals who build. The structures we make are at once intimate ("a house is a skin") and alienating, our private selves intersecting with the implacable machine of capitalism, our social beings and collective imagination exteriorised and made concrete.

We trust those structures: we will not admit our fragility, our contingency, our smallness, since if we did, if we really knew it in our bones, how would we get out of bed every morning?

The tower will stand tall. The bridge will not fall down.

Fulcrum: passion and intellect

Lucy Guerin's Structure and Sadness is about Melbourne, and its performance here has a particular poignancy of recognition. The collapse of the West Gate Bridge is part of our story: we all, however tangentially, know that history. From my house I can walk to the memorial for the thirty five men who died when it fell into the Maribyrnong River. Many people still remember what they were doing when they heard the news. That famous tale of how the editor of the Age took a call in his Spencer St office from a reporter who told him the bridge was down. "Don't be stupid," he said, and hung up. Then he turned around and looked out of his window.

The perspectives in Structure and Sadness are close up and far away. Like so much of Guerin's work, it is a weaving of duets, of relationship: these six bodies meet under stress, desire and repulse each other, moving in rhythmic harmonies of yearning that dissolve into solitude. In the first half, Gerald Mair's score is an abstract electronic score woven with the sounds of materials - wood, concrete, steel - creaking under stress. It opens with a solo dance with a flexible board, the dancer at once in total control, fluidly manipulating the board, and vulnerable, his body hanging like a corpse over a deadly edge. The dances embody vectors of force and balance; they are geometric and precise, leaning into each other, straining against each other. Objects - an elastic, a stick - are at once tools of expressiveness, extending their bodies, and harbingers of danger, capable of piercing the skin, hard against a visceral softness.

Behind these duets the other dancers gradually, patiently, build a house of cards, triangular structures made of rectangles of wood that slowly cover the stage, slowly rise into a tower. It looks unsettlingly like Bruegel's The Tower of Babel. We know it will fall down, that is part of the narrative before the show begins, but when it does, it is wholly unexpected: one little piece is knocked over and the whole thing folds like a row of dominoes, amplifying disaster until the whole stage is covered in litter, the potential energy of the fragile triangulations of wood dissipated in collapse.

In the centre is a bold glimpse of realism, the ethical core of the show. To speak of any event which cost thirty five lives as if it is merely an occasion for aesthetic tinkering is beyond heartless. On the other hand, to be constrained in a documentary verity is imprisoning, a courting of artistic coarseness. Guerin finds the fulcrum in the centre of the dance, where she invokes the reality of grief head-on with a moment of literal domestic banality. A woman is doing the washing up, singing along to the radio, when the broadcast is interrupted by a news report about the West Gate Bridge.

The dance tips now into an elegy, an evocation of mourning that has the emotional simplicity and restraint of Greek tragedy. The three women dance with their dead men, reaching out to ghosts who vanish from their embrace: the men are summoned by their burning longing, but will never come back. It is a dance with the bitter beauty of Philip Larkin's poem The Explosion, an account of an accident in a mine when men went to work in the morning and didn't return. A common enough story, a common enough grief:

On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept.

Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke
Shouldering off the freshened silence.

One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark's eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.

So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.

At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.

The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God's house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face -

Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed -
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,

One showing the eggs unbroken.


In the final sequence the dances of the first half are reprised, this time as a chorus work, the molten significance of grief informing the dancers' gestures. An abstract pattern of neon lights on the back wall is selectively turned off to reveal the West Gate Bridge, complete and undamaged: it is ambiguous, we don't know whether it has been rebuilt or if, in the impossible dream of return, it has never been broken.

Dance is always impure in Guerin's work, its precision intersected with the unruliness of chance and the literalness of narrative bodies; yet through a thickness of encroaching meaning it reaches moments of lyrical purity, sheerly beautiful movement that escapes itself and lifts its resonance out of its specific time and place. Celebration and elegy are two sides of the same coin, just as death is the subtext of civilisation.

The final image is breathtaking in its simplicity: the dancers lie in a diagonal line on the ground and a plank is placed on top of them. The last dancer walks over the plank, into the darkness at the edge of the stage.

Once human sacrifice was a sacred ritual, a consecration of a building. Sacrificed bodies have been found in the foundations of Roman buildings; some ancient keystones are said to be red because they are mortared with human blood, and legends of immurement are rife in Serbian history. Our modern cities still demand their sacrifices.

It is said they never found all the bodies, that some are still embedded in the West Gate Bridge. And every day we drive over them.

Picture: Structure and Sadness. Photo: Jeff Busby

Structure and Sadness, choreography and direction by Lucy Guerin. Composition by Gerald Mair, set and lighting design by Bluebottle: Ben Cobham and Andrew Livingston, motion graphics by Michaela French, costumes by Paula Levis. With Fiona Cameron, Kyle Kremerskothen, Lina Limosani, Byron Perry, Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle.

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