Review: PropagandAReview: My Stories, Your EmailsReviews elsewhereBecause I should be writing my novel...Review: Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin)Why crrritics must have no tasteReview: Triple Bill of Wild Delight, Little MercyThe Green Rooms (& some Airplay)Review: Self Torture and Strenuous ExerciseAdelaide Fringe: Heroin(e) for BreakfastAdelaide Fringe: True West, BullyAdelaide Festival: Le Grand Macabre, Vs MacbethAdelaide Fringe: En Route, The Rap Guide to Evolution, My Name is Rachel Corrie ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: PropagandA

But who are they, tell me, these vagrants, a little
more fugitive even than us, in their springtime
so urgently wrung by one who - who pleases
a never contented will? So it wrings them,
bends them, twists them, swings them,
flings them and catches them behind: out of the oil-smooth
air they come down
onto the flimsy carpet worn
by their eternal leaping, this forlorn
carpet lost in the universe.

Fifth Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke

Circus might appear to be the most ideology-free of the arts, but it has a long tradition of association with revolutionaries and avant garde artists. In the early 20th century, poems by writers as diverse as Osip Mandelstam and Rainer Maria Rilke demonstrated their fascination with the circus. Kafka wrote stories set in the sideshow and the ring of the big top; Picasso painted the acrobats. And Vladimir Mayakovsky, the exemplary poet of the Russian Revolution, wrote plays for it, and collaborated from his early years with the Bolshevik clown Vitaly Lazarenko. Circus was, in fact, a key arm of the Soviet Union's propaganda machine, inside and outside Russia; for many years, the Moscow Circus was Russia's most friendly international face.

More recently, our very own Circus Oz, which with troupes such as San Francisco's The Pickle Family Circus and New York's The Big Apple Circus in New York reinvented circus in the 1970s, evolved out of the avant garde practice and revolutionary ideals of the Pram Factory. This tradition of subversive populism remains alive and well in Australian theatre, as is brilliantly demonstrated by the family troupe Acrobat.

Acrobat is one of the treasures of regional Australia. A husband and wife team (Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster, with appearances from their children Grover and Fidel) hailing from Albury, they've generated an enthusiastic international following with their low-tech, highly skilled theatrical circus. And no wonder: these are exceptional performers, whose mix of unpredictable comedy and astounding physical feats creates irresistible entertainment.

PropagandA - as its poster demonstrates - draws consciously on the tradition of Soviet social realist propaganda. Lancaster and Yates stand proudly in front of a green star, striding forth as the idealised man and woman of the future. Naturally, the show itself collides, sometimes violently, with this professed idealism: the first performance is a duet of acrobatics - backgrounded by one of their children playing chopsticks on an amplified keyboard - in which the two of them struggle into impossible structures which then, always, collapse.

Finally Lancaster gives up and lies stretched out on the ground. Yates drags her by her ankle off to the side, strips off most of her clothes, dresses her passive body in a kangaroo costume topped by a fluffy rabbit, and gives her a bass electric guitar. She stands bare-breasted in a spotlight wearing this absurd, slightly disturbing costume and plays a grunting riff, tonelessly singing lyrics about banal domesticity. This was the first time I got goosebumps.

The rest of the show consists of the usual circus acts - aerial and trapeze performances, the slack wire, the bicycle act, the pole, the leap from a springboard - all executed with an astounding skill that allows them to play with the idea of failure. Each act becomes a metaphor, usually of domesticity, and is given a comic spin. The absence of decoration means that the emphasis falls fiercely on the performers, and I'm not sure that I've seen any of these acts done better. They are miraculous.

The aesthetic here is anti-glamour - the costumes are all brown, and the performers often appear with white Y-front drawn up over their brown shirts. The rigger is, slightly mysteriously, dressed as an early 20th century Eastern European Jew, complete with false beard. Sound and lighting are operated in full sight at the side of the stage, and props are arranged around the edge of the circle, to be thrown away when they're no longer needed. Children wander across the stage, performing obscure tasks. Or maybe just wandering. It's a little like being in someone's kitchen, assuming of course that a kitchen can be a circus.

The propaganda of the title is double-edged. On the one hand, this show lightly explores the insidious conditionings of consumerist, capitalist society, the sub-lunar commands that define the roles of man and woman, family and worker, imprisoning their possibilities. On the other, it has its own message: at one point a child is dressed in ragged hessian wings and lifted on a trapeze, where he shows us handwritten cards on which are written, in wonky capitals, things like BE KIND or GARDEN NUDE or USE ONLY WHAT YOU NEED. If only all propaganda were so benign.

You are most aware that this is a family performing. In the final act, Lancaster and Yates circle on a bike performing acrobatics, pursued by a remote control megaphone shouting BUY A CAR or GET OFF THE ROAD. At one point, I found myself moved to tears. It was, I think, a very small gesture of reassurance, as Yates touched Lancaster's leg as she climbed onto his shoulders. It seemed expressive of the purest trust. Perhaps it revealed what is rendered invisible by the puissant skill of these performers: the risk and danger of what they do. And I should add that for all the seriousness of this review, this is a joyous show, leaving you with the lightness of heart that is the gift of performance.

PropagandA, conceived and performed by Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster, featuring Grover and Fidel Lancaster-Cole. Production manager/rigger, Scott Grayland/Ryan Taplin. Music director, Tim Barrass. acrobat, commissioned by HotHouse @North Melbourne Arts House Meat Market until April 3. On tour internationally from May.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: My Stories, Your Emails

You might have noticed that Ms TN is pretending that the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is not happening. If the Melbourne Fringe sends me into a tailspin, contemplating the MICF causes flat-out panic. This is not a syndrome that afflicts punters; it is an anxiety peculiar to crrritics, who all (the real ones, that is) start looking haggard about this time of year, as if they have been indulging in absinthe in grotty night clubs while pondering Jean-Paul Sartre's observations on the nausea of existence. Ms TN, however, is innocent and blithe and, above all, ignorant of all this. I am wearing my novelist's hat and, as everyone knows, that means being grimly chained to a desk and having no fun at all.

This hat is not quite nailed on, however, which means that every now and then it slips off. So it happened that, in the course of my normal theatre-going last week, I saw by accident a couple of very funny shows. One - Ursula Martinez's My Stories, Your Emails at the Malthouse - is, in fact, part of the Comedy Festival. The second, acrobat's PropagandA (of which more later), on this week at the North Melbourne Meatmarket, isn't. Both are slyly subversive and wholly entertaining works of theatre, and are highly recommended.

Ursula Martinez is best known for her magic act Hanky Panky. A highlight of the popular burlesque show La Clique, it is a witty, wickedly sexy takedown of striptease. Martinez enters in a prim business suit, her hair drawn back tightly in a bun. The one intimation of lust is a red handkerchief, which she makes disappear, and then discovers in items of clothing which she removes. At last, there is no more clothing to hide it: but she still makes it disappear. In the intimate environs of the Spiegeltent, which is where I originally saw it, I thought I had never seen such a subversively erotic act: it was notable for Martinez’s sexual self-possession, how, even when she was completely naked, she was never reduced to a mere object of the audience’s gaze.

However, in 2006 the act was filmed and uploaded, without her consent, to the internet. Martinez plays the video during the course of My Stories, Your Emails, and it’s striking how filming the striptease changes the nature of the act. It remains subversive and comic, but something crucial has shifted: it removes Martinez’s direct relationship with an audience. In a video, the watching eye is dominant in a way that doesn’t happen in live performance, wholly overturning the feminist subtext of the original act. And into the vacuum caused by her physical absence rush the lively fantasies of the voyeur.

After the video appeared, Martinez was bombarded by thousands of fannish emails. My Stories, Your Emails is a consistently hilarious and often uncomfortable exploration of the gap between her idea of herself, and those projected onto her image by her sometimes deluded fans.

The show, as she explains in a straight-up introduction, is divided into two parts. The first – fragmentary, almost poetic narratives about herself and her family – consists of her stories. They build up a complex and contradictory picture of a bi-cultural upbringing in London, exploring the intricacies and brutalities of class and race, sibling rivalries and cruelties, a vexed relationship with her father, brushes with celebrity (performing at Salman Rushdie's stag night) and brief observations: a football crowd in a pub, an encounter in a lift.

The second half consist of emails and photographs she received after her act was uploaded to a porn site. These vary from the obscene ("Eric", who sent her photographs of his penis before and after watching her video, helpfully telling her its dimensions) to Niko, a young Australian whose open and naive confession of his sexual loneliness is as painful as it is funny. There are the enthusiastic naturists who wish her good luck in all her nude activities, the Latino gentlemen seeking a discreet affair, and the Californians who practice Tantric sex and whose physical exertions should never be tried at home by anyone who isn't a Yogi.

The contrast between the two ideas of Martinez is what drives the energy of the show. Martinez lightly invokes a darker subtext – racism, familial abuse, grief and, especially in the second half, loneliness and delusion – that ensures My Stories, Your Emails is never merely glib, or merely cruel. Martinez doesn’t moralise – she leaves that to her audience – but the show feels like a reclamation of sorts. Also, it’s very, very funny.

As an aside, this show caused a bit of a ruckus when it premiered at the Barbican in the UK. As Matt Trueman reported in the Guardian, amid some glowing four-star reviews were others which expressed discomfort or even outrage at the show's ethics. Financial Times critic Ian Shuttleworth wondered about the provenance of her use of the images and words of others. "Her own intimacies are hers to peddle," he said. "Other people's, even if sent to her unsolicited, are not." Others wondered whether she had permission to identify her correspondents (where they are identified, she does have permission, as is clear in the course of the show), and claimed she was "punishing" men for expressing desire. In short, there was quite a lot of moral frothing.

There's no doubt that this show is sometimes uncomfortable viewing, and that the expressions of loneliness in those emails can be movingly sad. But it's noticeable that somehow in this argument Martinez was again erased. Nobody mentioned the dynamic that drives the show: the transformation of an empowering expression of female sexuality into the passive objectification of porn. Martinez here simply exposes the mechanics of that transformation.

In its original context, Hanky Panky caused exactly the effect it intended: reduced and flattened onto a screen in a private room, it became something entirely different. Without any editorialising, My Stories, Your Emails explores one of the major dilemmas of the age of instant celebrity and internet reproducibility: context is what you make it, and the virtual trumps the real. When Martinez strips at the end of the show to deliver the promised "minge", she simply takes off her clothes, as casually as if she were about to have a shower, and stands naked before her audience. She is no sex bomb, simply a naked woman with the chutzpah to make fun of her own body. And most of all, you know it is her body.

A shorter version of this review was published in Friday's Australian.

Picture: Ursula Martinez in
My Stories, Your Emails.

My Stories, Your Emails, created and performed by Ursula Martinez, directed by Mark Whitelaw. Originally commissioned by Barbicanbite10 and Queer Up North International Festival, England. Malthouse Theatre @ the Melbourne International Comedy Festival . Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until April 3.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Reviews elsewhere

Let me remind you about John Bailey's mandatory Capital Idea blog - not least because the Hon. John, reviewer for the Sunday Age, gets to many shows I miss. In particular, check out his recommendations on Sisters Grimm's Little Mercy (which I did see, but which he explicates to a greater depth) and Nichola Gunn's At the Sans Hotel, now in its final days at Theatreworks, which I didn't.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Because I should be writing my novel...

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review: Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this review contains the name of a deceased person.

Many people will have first encountered the Chooky Dancers on YouTube. Their hilariously unlikely Yolngu version of Zorba the Greek became a viral hit, scoring 1.5 million viewers.

They come from Elcho Island (Galiwin’ku), which is north east of Arnhemland. They live in a poverty which ought to make all Australians ashamed: 25 people share a house where the wiring is falling out of the walls, and where there is often not enough food to ensure that people do not go hungry. People die every week from the many complications of poverty: as if to illustrate this, Frank Garawirrtja, the mentor behind the Chooky Dancers and the Wrong Skin project, died during the process of making the show. Wrong Skin in fact features footage from his funeral.

In 2007, the Howard Government launched the aggressive military intervention policy, which was imposed without consultation with the communities involved. This paternalism - continued under Labor - was supposedly to combat Indigenous deprivation, but its effect has only been to further disenfranchise an already scandalously deprived community. As many community leaders have protested, their rights have been taken away, and many claim it's part of a larger policy to extinguish land rights and Indigenous culture.

Nigel Jamieson canvasses all these issues in Wrong Skin. It's a show that emerges from a community little understood in wider Australia, and like Honour Bound - Jamieson's physical theatre piece about the Guantanamo Bay prisoner David Hicks - it is driven by a profound political anger. But what you come away with is a vital joyousness, the rebellious humour and resilience of the Yolngu people, that shows the other side of the doom-laden headlines. Indigneous people have often responded to their situations with subversive humour, and the Chooky Dancers are no exception.

This is a difficult show to write about, not least because it requires complicated explanation that the show itself manages to eschew, reaching into the immediacy and vitality of performance to make its various points. Jamieson has put together a multimedia spectacular that enacts the cultural contradictions of contemporary globalism, where Yolgnu in one of the most remote regions of Australia download Bollywood and hiphop to their mobile phones and cheerfully appropriate Singin' in the Rain into traditional dance. The whole is strung together by a simple Romeo and Juliet story of forbidden love between Yolgnu of the same Yirridja moiety (a relationship which is strictly forbidden), illustrating the tensions between western ideas of individual freedom and traditional law.

Very little of the narration is in English (English hasn't been taught in remote schools since the 1970s, and many Yolgnu don't speak it)*. But the action, assisted by some miraculous use of multi-media, is crystal clear. The dancers each introduce themselves, identifying their clans and moieties, and then introduce the story. The rest is a kind of patchwork of song and dance and film, woven together to enact a mimesis of life on Elcho Island: its sorrows and imprisonments - which are starkly demonstrated - and its delights - dance, fishing, play.

To the European mind, the complexities of kinship in Indigenous society is mind-boggling. Skin names or moieties and clan affiliations govern your language, your totem, your clan and every aspect of social interaction with other people and with the land. Your skin name determines who you can marry, and who you are forbidden to even speak to. To complicate things further, the cyclical kinship patterns mean that your great-grandmother can be your child, and your great-grandchild your mother.

Take, for example, the term "Yolngu". Yolngu means "person", and can mean someone specifically from East Arnhemland, or simply an Aboriginal person. The term Yolngu Matha covers the more than 100 languages spoken by the clans of East Arnhemland. According to anthropologist Emma Kowel, Yolngu inherit their language from their father, but adults generally speak at least five languages, and often understand 15 or more. In short, to understand what any 10-year-old Yolngu knows is a life-time study for an outsider. I can't quite get my head around this stuff: this is a culture that challenges basic western notions of possession and relationship, and which blurs together into a holistic and collective world view concepts that in western traditions are clearly distinguished from each other.

Jamieson employs all the resources of the stage to communicate some of this complexity, and along the way creates spectacular theatre. There are extraordinarily beautiful scenes which seamlessly meld film and live performance, such as those set in the actual home of the Chooky Dancers. The camera climbs up the rotting steps, enters the dark hallways, lingers over the holes in the walls, and wakes up the boys, who rise from the stage floor, turn on the tv to see a Bollywood film - which they turn into their own dance routine (something really to be seen). The result is a powerful mixture of documentary realism and the joyous celebration of live performance.

Perhaps the real triumph of Wrong Skin is how it opens a small window on this world, while managing to avoid the falsities of worthiness or patronisation. Being there is a delight: the sheer exuberance of the young dancers carries the day. Its tragedy is enacted lucidly, although it occurs outside the cultural referents I understand; and the whole show powerfully reveals the beauty of this ancient culture, its adaptiveness and curiosity, while unsparingly showing the conditions in which it survives. I liked too how the process of making this work - clearly a complex and difficult one - is folded into the work itself. Not to be missed.

Top: The Chooky Dancers on YouTube. Bottom: The Chooky Dancers in Wrong Skin. Photo: Matt Nettheim

Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), written, directed and designed by Nigel Jamieson in association with the company. Associate director/movement, Gavin Robins; associate director/community and cultural liaison Joshua Bond; costumes by Mathew McCall; film and video design by Scott Anderson, video production by Mic Gruchy, lighting designer Trudy Dalgleish, composition and sound design David Page and Basil Hogios, film footage by Gavin Robins, Scott Anderson, Alan Dowler and Nigel Jamieson. Malthouse Theatre until March 28.

Performers: Djakapurra Munyarrun, Djali Donald Ganambarr, Frances Djulibing, Rarriwuy Hick, Anthony Djamangi, Lionel Dhulmanawuy and Anthony Djamangi.

Chooky Dancers: Aaron Djimilkinya, Daren Matan, Nathan Guymangura, Gerald Dhamarrandji and Wakara Gondarra.

*See Mark Lawrence's comment below for a correction.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Why crrritics must have no taste

For your Monday morning rumination: a thought provoking post on criticism from Maladjusted. It syncs very well with my long-held view that opinion (what Robert Brustein calls "Himalaya criticism") is the least of criticism. An excerpt (emphasis mine):

Good criticism (of art, of music or whatever) has something in common with good philosophical and theological debate, both of which have nothing to do with the ‘I’ll name your beliefs and you name yours’ game which makes people rightly think that argument about things on which people have different proclivities is a kind of social disorder. After all, both philosophy and theology have their raison d’etre in uncertainty (which is why religious fundamentalists tend to hate theology as either dangerous sophistry or feeble equivocating). However, this doesn’t necessarily lead either philosophers or theologians to quietistic silence, mysticism or hand-waving. On the contrary, the fact that truth may be ultimately elusive, has never stopped anyone but the most bloodlessly indifferent people from thinking that it shouldn’t be sought, or reaching Socrates’ conclusion that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living.

…at the heart of criticism, there is always something apart from our desire to express to others who we are. Instead, there is a fascination with the object, with the thing that made us start writing, with music or art or literature (as a region in which certain beings, certain strange and shining creatures can appear to us in certain ways). It involves an implicit belief (and most beliefs are implicit) that there is something revealed to us in music, intimated in art, given to us in the things that we most appreciate, but obscured in the things that we do not. In this sense, a good critic is someone who lacks the glibness of the way we normally rack up tastes: she’s someone who wants to try and give voice to the strange language of the things that she’s witnessed, to act in fidelity to the truths that she has endured.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: Triple Bill of Wild Delight, Little Mercy

The oft-asserted wisdom behind the categories "Fringe" and "Mainstream" runs something like this: the mainstream is mainstream because it is more fun, while the fringe is the fringe because it's so unremittingly serious its arty eyebrows disappear up its own fundament.

As those who read Ms TN with attention will know, she is a mortal enemy to these categories. Because one needs some kind of general handle, I prefer the slightly less unsatisfactory "main stage" and "independent" for distinguishing between companies with large institutional structures and those running on rags and hope, and I certainly never use them as aesthetic predictors or descriptors. Otherwise you fall into absurdities, such as Peter Craven's and Robin Usher's claims a few years ago that artists such as Jérôme Bel or Romeo Castellucci - who have played some of the largest venues in Europe - are "anti-mainstream". Whatever that means.

Anyway, the point is that fun occurs, or doesn't occur, across the entire spectrum of theatre. (Actually, "fun" is a depressing word, which for me evokes the spectre of cocktails with suggestive names in bleakly desperate nightclubs, or The Footy Show, or a certain scoutmaster I once encountered who had an extraordinary talent for killing any kind of social enjoyment by shouting: "Now everybody listen! We're all supposed to be having fun here! Will the mums stop chatting and line up so we can wrap them in toilet paper, ok? We're all having fun! Ok?")

There's "pleasure". Or "delight". Spontaneous joy. Whatever. It's a lightness of being that rises involuntarily and lifts us momentarily out of time on a gust of laughter. Like happiness, it can't be commanded - which is why that scoutmaster got it so wrong, and why it's so sheerly embarrassing to watch a bad comedian. In such moments of delight, we forget the weight of ourselves. We become bigger than we are, and more innocent; we might gasp at comic savagery, but our souls are never shrivelled by its calling to our meaner selves. So while the Sam Newmans of this world might claim they're "just having a bit of fun" by saying black people are just like monkeys, they never inspire delight. Sam's just saying he's the biggest boot on the block, and his obsequious followers snigger in the bully's shadow.

True delight is liberation rather than such enslavement. For instance, on Friday I spent five hours at La Mama, at Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith's Triple Bill of Wild Delight! (It comes with an exclamation mark). On a balmy autumn evening, the moon swinging high over our heads, it was hard to think of anywhere better to be. We arrived to find La Mama's courtyard decked out as a cantina, with coloured lights and candle-lit tables, serving pre-show sangria and barbecued corn cobs and chorizos, before being ushered into Finucane's one-woman storytelling fantasia, The Feast of Argentina Gina Catalina. Argentina Gina Catalina is - well, what is she? Her footsteps melt the pavement where she walks; her deadly gaze can freeze the hearts of two thousand pirates; she's the daughter of wolves and whales and a priestess who can make a cascade of oranges fall out of the sun. She is the embodiment of excess and desire, and she carries the tropes of magical realism beyond parody, into sheer hilarious poetry.

Finucane's performance is as over-the-top as her gorgeous costumes; she ignites a spectacle of desire that somehow, for all its excess, unwaveringly maintains its own reality. Duende, maybe? The sensuality of the language takes cliche and sets it on fire; even as our credulity is mischievously mocked by more and more outrageously absurd stories, we believe in Argentina Gina Catalina. In between each narrative, we're fed and watered with various delicious titbits: olives, bread, Spanish cured meats, mussels steamed in boullibaise, chocolate cake, ice cream and tequila (the food is provided by KT Prescott).

After a half hour's break in the Pleasure Garden, there's contemporary circus with Azaria Universe, Jesse Love and Derek Ives in Tooth & Nail: a show with trapeze and aerial acts (astounding in La Mama - who would have thought it?) in which the traditional circus tropes - especially the sexy showgirl - are undermined, mocked and also brilliantly realised. We still, after all, want to see deeds of derring do, even if the co-stars are bickering and putting razor-blades in each other's toffee apples. The final act, in which the naked performers stand before us wearing huge cartoon animal heads, is so blazingly strange that it knocks the performance into some other dimension. Perverse, disturbing and oddly beautiful.

And after that comes Salon de Dance DELUGE, hosted by Maude Davey, which features an all-star cast of performers mainly drawn from Melbourne's rich dance scene. It features 19 acts, performed inside and outside La Mama; they range from the absurd (two identical Frauleins with blond pigtails performing a bawdy version of the lederhosen slapping dance, or Moira Finucane, dressed as a prim waitress, orgasmically eating a meat pie to AC/DC's TNT) to the beautiful (Brian Lucas, performing a dance of yearning as he rises operatically from a sea of red fabric) to the macabre (Yumi Umiumare's weeping, faceless woman dancing in a dark forest, or Finacune's later adventures with a sauce bottle, as excruciating a performance of sexual loneliness as anything I've seen). Or there's Christopher Green's recital of Molly Bloom, as you've never heard it before, which gives us, as he points out, some "proper acting". As, indeed, it does.

Everything is directed with unobtrusive slickness: food is served, theatres re-dressed, costumes changed, tomato sauce mopped, with never a glitch in the action. Stage manager Cath Carmody must be working harder than anyone else in Melbourne. She and her staff of enablers, plus the first-class performers, add up to a show that reminds us why life is worth living. It's wit, poetry, hilarity, nonsense, pleasure, beauty, all rolled into a gloriously subversive, wickedly sexy evening that nourishes both soul and body. You can book each show separately, but I recommend seeing the lot if you possibly can. Long live Finucane and Smith, I say.

The night before, your fearless correspondent was pursuing pleasure at the Collingwood Underground Carpark. Plunging like a dark mouth beneath the tower blocks of Collingwood, it seems at first glance an unlikely venue for seekers of delight: but enter past the forbidding portal, and you are in another world, possibly Berlin circa 1984, where gorgeous denizens of the underworld gather around an incongruously cosy bar, as music blares at a decibel level beyond the range of the human ear.

The occasion here was Sisters Grimm's production of Little Mercy. At the proper time - or, to be more accurate, a little after the proper time - audience members were led along a path in the darkness marked out, like an airport landing strip, by rows of candles, to a surprisingly intimate theatre scratched together somewhere in the bowels of the carpark.

Little Mercy is an absurdity devised by Declan Greene and Ash Flanders, a fond pisstake of that staple of Hollywood horror movies, the demon child. Roger Summers (Sean-James Murphy) and his wife Virginia (Ash Flanders) are the successful power couple: he is a celebrated musical director, his wife a successful glamour alcoholic. There is only one grief in their life: they have no child. As the play opens, they are rushing off to the premiere of Annie when Virginia (searching for her earrings) discovers a letter from an orphanage mysteriously left beneath a couch. Just as she reads the contents, lightning flashes, thunder rolls and the child itself, Mercy (Susie Dee, in frilly dress and pigtails) appears at their front door.

A carnivorous cuckoo, Mercy settles into the house and begins her murderous career by killing the adored but ancient cat (a stuffed toy which scuttles in and out of the stage on a skateboard) and blinding her tutor (Cara Mitchell) by substituting sulphuric acid for her eye drops. The one difference from the Hollywood version is that, instead of being sent back to the Abyss from whence she came, Mercy wins the day.

It's acted with the appropriate po-faced melodramatic passion by its cast, with some ingenious stage tricks and multi-media. In some ways, it recalls The Thirty Nine Steps, which the MTC produced in 2008: it has the same light hearted delight in meta-theatrical camp, the same low-tech pleasures. And the production and performances are high quality, with Ash Flanders as the soft-hearted innocent Virginia stealing the night, so by the end I wholly believed his performance. Nonsense, yes, but irresistibly funny nonsense, delivered with brio and flair.

Finucane & Smith's Triple Bill of Wild Delight: The Feast of Argentina Gina Catalina, Salon de Dance DELUGE and Tooth & Nail. Devised by Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, with numerous collaborators. La Mama Theatre, until March 28. Check the La Mama website for details of performance times.

Little Mercy, by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene, directed by Declan Greene. Costume design by Alice Swing, lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, print media design by Andrew Downer. With Ash Flanders, Cara Mitchell, Sean-James Murphy and Susie Dee. Sisters Grimm @ Collingwood Underground Carpark, 48 Harmsworth St, Collingwood, until March 27. Bookings: Sisters Grimm.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Green Rooms (& some Airplay)

Ms TN is not a morning person. I was supposed to be at Footscray Hospital bright and early this a.m. so I could be injected with radioactive isotopes and put on a treadmill (don't ask) but yesterday I entirely forgot about this appointment and drank a vat of coffee, thus invalidating the whole exercise. So I had to heave my carcass out of bed early so I could phone the Department of Nuclear Medicine, confess my idiocy and cancel the medical experiment.

So perhaps I was in a slightly misanthropic mood when I studied the Green Room Awards press release listing 2009's winners, announced last night, which slid into my inbox first thing this morning. But I suspect that even had I bounced out of bed with a happy cry and greeted the dawn with rapture, my sunniness might have been a little eclipsed. It is a duty to disagree with awards, but it's been a while since I've felt so at odds with their results.

Awards in the arts are always contentious. They depend, for a start, on committees of people agreeing on something, and in areas like the arts, perceptions of quality are inevitably - and in my view, necessarily - subjective. Even so, the conservatism of this year's theatre awards is notable. Not that conservatism is, in itself, a bad thing - I don't have many quibbles with Robyn Nevin's gong for Best Female Performer, for her extraordinary performance in August: Osage County, nor for Simon Phillips' direction, his best for years. But When The Rain Stops Falling as best mainstage production? And that script the best new writing of last year?

Michael Kantor's Malthouse production of Happy Days - one of the shows of last year, and Kantor's best direction yet - didn't even make the shortlist for production or direction. (And yet the Malthouse's indifferent production of Knives in Hens was up for both direction and best production.) Equally baffling is Daniel Schlusser's superb and thoughtful Life is a Dream losing out in the indie best direction to Bagryana Popov's disappointingly banal take on Chekhov, Progress and Melancholy.

There are, of course, worthy winners among them. You can't miss the target all the time. But I might drink another vat of coffee today, as I reflect on the world's folly and resistance to quality.


On a cheerier note, I hear that ABC Radio National's Airplay is broadcasting Corvus, a beautiful script by ex-Melburnian and now Berliner Jasmine Chan. Featuring Bojana Novakovic and Ming-Zhu Hii, it will be worth twiddling the dial to hear this one. It goes to air on Saturday, March 28. While I'm at it, look out for Paul English reading Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet on ABC Radio's First Person, airing from May 24-28. Now, that's writing.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Review: Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise

If you haven't heard of Harry Kondoleon, as I hadn't before seeing this play, let me fill you in on my googling. Kondoleon blazed briefly over Manhattan in the 1980s, before he died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 39. As a playwright, he is often compared to Christopher Durang, John Guare and Joe Orton, though he has a formalist edge that have led critics to call in Pirandello. In the decade before his death, he published a volume of poetry and wrote a few novels, produced several plays and mounted an exhibition of paintings, along the way winning a swag of awards.

Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise was the first of his plays to be produced in New York City. It's a bizarre comedy of manners, kind of like Seinfeld on acid. Although what it mostly reminded me of was the melancholy menace excavated by the anonymous genius behind the webite Unhappy Hipsters, with the neurotic subtext of these utopian visions of urban life brought to its full insane efflorescence.

The plot, such as it is, involves a writer, Carl (Mick Lo Monaco), who declares his love for Bethany (Kristina Brew) to her husband, Alvin (Josh Price), at a dinner party. After Carl - literally - carries Bethany off, Carl's wife Adele (Marissa Bennett), who has recently attempted suicide over her husband's infidelity, arrives at Alvin's apartment. She intends to kill Carl or, at the very least, to write a roman de clef exposing him for the tool he is.

It's one of those plays that attacks the mode of naturalism it lightly adopts, puncturing its surface with hysteric extremity and poetic segues in which the various characters pursue the non sequiturs of their inner lives. I think it's mightily over-written, but it has an attractive charge and power which explains why Ben Pfeiffer and his colleagues at Artisan Collective chose to perform it. This is a very classy production of a difficult play: Pfeiffer meets the play's attack on form with a stylised energy that opens a new take on the possibility of language in the theatre.

It's performed in traverse, with the minimal design suggesting an urban, contemporary domestic interior (vase of dead twigs, metallic underlit tables). The performances literalise the manic emotional twists of the script with an over-the-top physicalisation that twists this production towards movement theatre. The actors take each gesture to an extreme, so behaviour becomes an exaggerated language of Tourettian tics that emphasises the lack of communication between each character.

They are all essentially solitary: their lives are sterile, self-referential and self-consuming, and the deepest drive in each of them is a fear of being alone. Carl is (as he intones several times) a Writer, and thus doomed to a life of witnessing rather than participating. He is the cliche of the literary predator who exploits the women in his life for his work, as subject matter and office dogsbodies. Alvin lives in a fog of goodness that means he has no connection with reality at all: in his city garden and his domesticity he attempts to find the fertility and plenty that is missing from his life. The two women are creatively barren, a lack which finds its outlet in their neuroticism. Adele munches Valium as she tries to escape the house that is trying to kill her, and Beth, who blames Alvin for losing her inner poetic self, thinks the earth beneath her feet is moving. Which, as Alvin points out, it is.

This goes beyond satire to some other kind of enactment: its world is so hermetic it is in danger of bearing no relation to us, either. But it makes fascinating and engrossing theatre. Like the writing, I thought the production ever-so-slightly overdressed, but it's performed and directed so well, with such accuracy, skill and commitment, that it's well worth a look. It's a brilliant exercise in style, if mostly notable for the possibilities it opens. Keep an eye out for this company.

Picture: Kristina Brew and Marissa Bennet in Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise.

Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise, by Harry Kondoleon, directed and designed by Ben Pfeiffer. With Marissa Bennett, Kristina Brew, Mick Lo Monaco and Josh Price. Artisan Collective, Guildford Lane Arts Gallery, Guildford Lane CBD, until March 13. Bookings: 0420 513 588.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

Adelaide Fringe: Heroin(e) for Breakfast

If Britain is as fucked as playwright Philip Stokes claims it is - and there's little reason to disbelieve him - it's trailing some bright trash in its wake. Heroin(e) for Breakfast - winner of the Holden Street Theatre's Edinburgh Award (first prize, presumably, a season at Adelaide's Holden St Theatre) - is a theatrical firework thrown up from the pit of Britain's self delusion. It treads carelessly where angels, quite rightly, fear to go, traversing comedy, meta-theatrical comment, trash culture and tragedy; it dares a cliche here, a flood of bathos there, and never quite trips itself up. In other words, it's rough, it's alive, and it's not to be missed.

For the first five minutes or so it seems to be a frenetic sex comedy set in a squalid flat, where the three inhabitants tup each other like dogs - and with, it seems, about as much feeling. Tommy (Craig McArdle) is smart, arrogant, and inclined to believe he is God's gift to women (or possibly God himself). More, he boasts that he is the embodiment of self-control and libertine freedom: he acts as he chooses without reference to anything but his own desire. McArdle's performance is grotesquely clownish, with an angular physicality that is hilarious, repellent and strangely charismatic.

And he talks. Boy, does he talk. It is a kind of aphasia, as if he can't stop in case he hears what he is saying. At the other end of his endless flow of articulate, intelligently excoriating vanities are the two women in his life - the schoolgirl he's shamelessly fucking, Edie (Kate Daley), who is the younger sister of his ex-girlfriend and flatmate Chloe (Kirsty Green). Chloe remains miserably in love with him, and his bedding Edie has destroyed the relationship between the sisters. But more dominant than either of these women is heroin, here portrayed as a beautiful and sinister Marilyn Monroe (Hayley Shillito), who has long seduced Tommy and into whose deadly arms he lures the two women.

Tommy is the latest and perhaps the most vicious of a long series of British anti-heroes, beginning with John Osborne's Jimmy Porter or Lindsay Anderson's Michael Travis. And like them, he represents what is sick about Britain itself - its delusion, its emotional poverty, its inability to face its own losses, its destructiveness. The play signals its intentions early - a poster of a British bulldog looking suitably Churchillian is hanging on the wall and Tommy spends the early scenes in Union Jack underpants. He is, like all these anti-heroes, a rebel who splutters out like a spent cigarette on the pavement: but not without spitting in the eye of everyone else first. He is too intelligent not to know what he is doing. Worse, he likes it.

Underpinning this play is a savage, bitter anger, and it's this unifying force that brings its several styles and ambitions together into a singular work of theatre. The story of the three junkies follows a predictable course, but in an unpredictable way. For all its savagery, this is not cynical theatre. It's not, either, simply a story about the delusions of junkies: it's equally an attack on the delusions of power, which have their own deadly addiction. It's no accident that Heroine, when she arrives, is American, nor that she keeps spouting Obama slogans of empowerment ("yes, we can!") For Britain now can only taste the lost thrill of Empire through the agency of the United States: and the lure of that power is as disabling and destructive as any drug.

Stokes, who both wrote and directed the play, uses every theatrical trick in the book to manipulate the audience, including lots of smoke - the actors step out of the scene, talk through the fourth wall, abuse or plead with the audience. The performances are all completely fearless and wholly passionate: it would be hard to perform this play with anything less than total commitment, because the whole thing might fall apart.

One of the highlights is the ecstatic embrace of Heroin(e) during an X-Factor style dance number; and after this high, the fable turns dark. But Stokes resists the temptation of moralising; even if Tommy is inclined to moralise at the audience, it's always ambiguous and spiked with deadly irony. The play ends with a tour de force of theatre that runs right at the edge of sentimentality, and somehow (just) gets away with it. Definitely a highlight of the Fringe, and highly recommended. But definitely not for those who are easily offended.

Picture: Craig McArdle and Hayley Shillito in Heroin(e) for Breakfast.

Heroin(e) for Breakfast, written and directed by Philip Stokes. Set by Craig Lomas, costumes by Carley Marsh, lighting by Marie Dalton. With Kate Daley, Kirst Green, Craig McArdle and Hayley Shillito. Horizon Arts, Holden St Theatre, Adelaide Fringe, until March 14.

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Adelaide Fringe: True West, Bully

Last night's dip into the Adelaide Fringe was a testosterone-soaked adventure, packed with rivalrous brothers, bad fathers, bewildered or dead mothers, homoeroticism and the spice of criminal behaviour. And it's fair to say the two shows I saw covered the entire spectrum of artistic quality, from heart-lifting excellence to the kind of direness that briefly delivers you into the full-blown existential anguish of miserable boredom. But I o'erleap myself. First to the excellence.

Flying Penguin's production of Sam Shepard's 1980 masterwork, True West, well rewards the two hours relentless concentration it demands. It's a great play, but like a lot of great plays, rarely done - this is the first time I've seen it on stage. I sometimes wonder why Australian companies seem to behave as if there are about a dozen plays in the canon - excluding Shakespeare, of course, whose ubiquity is such that he doesn't count. Shepard is a writer it would be good to see more of, and True West shows us why: his plays are lawless, literate, intelligent and superbly theatrical. Their dramaturgical roots are in writers like Beckett, Pinter and Pirandello, but these influences are habituated to a uniquely American psychology and dialect, the slang of rock'n'roll and trash culture. A serious study of Shepard's oeuvre would teach budding playwrights far more than any number of workshops.

Like much of his early work - A Lie of the Mind, Buried Child - True West explores the American mythos through a drama of the violently dysfunctional family, but here the action is lean and spare. The title is taken ironically from a pulp magazine specialising in Westerns, and part of its driving obsession is the ambiguity of "truth" - what, after all, is a "true story"? It's basically a two-hander, the bulk of the play consisting of dialogues between estranged brothers Austin (Renato Musolino) and Lee (Nick Garsden), who reunite in their mother's suburban LA home. Austin is a screen writer about to sign a deal with producer Saul (Geoff Revell), and is house-minding while his Mom (Chrissie Page) visits Alaska; Lee is a drifter and part-time burglar.

At first their characters are an exercise in contrast, but as the play progresses their roles reverse to show how each brother is a complex mirror of the other's frustrated desires. Austin, the materially well-off Ivy League graduate, loses his film deal when Lee's crazy evocation of a contemporary trucker western (which sounds something like Stephen Speilberg's Duel, with added horses) attracts Saul's attention. A yearning for an authentic connection with the land - Lee's walkabouts in the Mojava Desert - is contrasted with the meretricious desire expressed in movies, but in Shepard's mirror these extremes collapse into each other as differing expressions of the same yearning, the spiritual emptiness inside the soul of post-war America.

David Mealor's production reflects the play's lean aesthetic: Kathryn Sproul's contained kitchen-sink set, simply and effectively lit by Mark Pennington, is enclosed in the larger space of the theatre, emphasising its theatricality and artifice. The action is backed by Cameron and Tristan Goodall's Paris Texas-style electric guitar and folksy electric banjo, which generate long haunting growls against the crickets and barking dogs of Chris Petridis's sound design.

Part of Shepard's skill is how he unlocks anarchic extremes in a text that appears to be a naturalistic, real-time play, making his kitchen-sink play (yes, there is a sink) behave in ways more akin to absurdist drama. It permits a histrionic extremity in the performances which all four actors exploit, generating powerful and highly theatrical performances. At various points I wondered about the almost mannered acting, but like the dialogue of Tennessee Williams, this reflects a similar artifice in the writing, and it's well modulated. As the brothers, Garsden and Musolino go for it, get it and bring it home. The performances are delivered with total and compelling commitment, revealing both Shepard's grotesque comedy and his ability to open the aching voids in his characters.

After that, retrospective wisdom tells me that I should have gone home. But duty drove me on to see Bully, an hour-long monologue in rhyming verse by British import Richard Fry. This show inexplicably generated four-star raves at the Edinburgh Fringe: maybe you had to be there, maybe fear of being thought homophobic or classist strangles all criticism. I don't know. Fry details a cycle of domestic violence intensified by the narrator's experience of homophobia. Every hard luck detail is there: the violent father, the homophobic brother, the dead mother, the bullying at school, the abusive relationship that ends in tragedy. The endless cycle of violence, he warns us, will affect us all!

The monologue reminded me of nothing so much as those prolix Victorian poems that end with Little Johnny remorsefully facing the hangman after his Rake's Progress through life's ordeals: it's certainly as trite in its moralising, although the Victorian versions were better scanned. As a performer, Fry has two speeds: teary-eyed silence (real tears!), and a manic grin as he recalls happy moments in his tragic life. After half an hour Bully becomes unbearable; the unconscious misogyny is almost worse than the relentless sentimentality or the head-thunking rhymes. It's certainly delivered with sincerity, but there's barely an ounce of insight that might make the hour well-spent. Very high on the arrrgh-metre for this little crrritic.

True West by Sam Shepard, directed by David Mealor. Design by Kathryn Sproul, lighting by Mark Pennington, sound design by Chris Petridis, composition by Cameron Goodall and Tristan Goodall. With Renato Musolino, Nick Garsden, Geoff Revell and Chrissie Page. Flying Penguin Productions @ Adelaide Centre for the Arts until March 14.

Bully, written and performed by Richard Fry. The Centre for International Theatre @ Higher Ground Art Base until March 14.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Adelaide Festival: Le Grand Macabre, Vs Macbeth

Note: there are spoilers in these reviews

Ms TN is bereft of complaint (which is, as Rilke said, the abiding vice of poets). It's glorious to be in Adelaide: the days are fine and hot, the evenings mild and clear, and there is no shortage of interesting things to see and to think about. At night the buildings along North Terrace transform into absurd and beautiful fantasias in a light display that exactly paints each facade of these superb buildings - the museum, the art gallery, the university - in saturated colour. The display, called Northern Lights, changes every two minutes, so the same building is at one moment a fantasy neo-classical Renaissance palace, at the next a fairytale hardware store (with gnomes). As the hundreds of people out oohing and taking photos attest, it's enchanting public art.

It is a gorgeous walk from the Torrens River, which is a riot of Spiegeltentian lights, and then along North Terrace. This was my route home from the Festival Theatre, where last night I saw the much anticipated production of Le Grand Macabre. György Ligeti's only opera, and the work widely judged to be his masterpiece, it's presented as a massive co-production between four major European companies - Brussells' Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, the English National Opera, Barcelona's Gran Teatro de Liceu and Italy's Teatro dell'Opera di Roma.

The vast scale of this production has been judged to be the reason for the relative thinness of the theatre component of this year's festival, at least for a visitor from Melbourne. Artistic director Paul Grabowsky has included a number of first-class Australian shows (Eleventh Hour's King John, Back to Back's extraordinary Food Court, Lucy Guerin's Untrained, Wesley Enoch's The Sapphires, and so on). Not, as Seinfeld said, that there's anything wrong with that: it's not as if these shows have been seen in Adelaide, and they deserve this further exposure. But as far as spectacular international theatre goes, Le Grand Macabre is about it. There is Elevator Repair Service's The Sound and the Fury, but after suffering through Gatz I've passed on seeing what they do to Faulkner, even if this one is five hours shorter. The one festival show that I'm sorry to miss (or which I haven't already seen or won't, like Wrong Skin, see later in Melbourne) is the Irish Druid Theatre's The Walworth Farce, of which I hear glowing reports.

Its status as the big show of the festival throws a weight of expectation onto Le Grand Macabre: you want it to be extraordinary. I confess here, gentle reader, to a tiny twinge of disappointment. There's no doubting the beauty and wit of Ligeti's music, nor the opera's status as a modern masterpiece, nor indeed the spectacularity of Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco's production. I wish I had the musical literacy to describe Ligeti's composition: the attraction of his score is its depth and lushness, which emerges perversely out of stern modernity. There are references everywhere, from Monteverdi to Beethoven, clashing gloriously with a riot of percussion and unexpected juxtapositions. It's rich, layered, complex and witty, and it is a profound pleasure to hear it.

The libretto is from a play by Flemish dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, La Balade du Grand Macabre. The opera has a complex history of production: it premiered in Stockholm in 1978 but reached its present form in 1997, when most of the spoken text was cut or scored, and the preferred language changed to English. The play itself is set in an imaginary world called Breughelland, and its abiding hauntings are Breughel - in particular his painting The Triumph of Death - and Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. Both these paintings are inscrutable nightmares, emerging from the chaotic late mediaeval period in Northern Europe, which was devastated by plague and war. They are informed by fantastic depictions of proverbs and other folk motifs, now mainly lost to interpretation, and behind each painting broods the Christian visions of Apocalypse and Hell, of the fiery damnation and waste of eternity.

Ligeti's art emerges from a time in which the horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction of the cities of Europe were still a recent memory: Ligeti's immediate family were sent to Auschwitz, from which only his mother survived. The irony and savage satire that inform Le Grand Macabre - in which Death himself (Nekortzar, sung by Roderick Earle) is mocked as a drunken sot and fraud - is the same black vision of absurdity that haunts post-war dramatists such as Tadeusz Różewicz, Thomas Bernhardt, or Heiner Müller. Here, the Europe that rose from the ashes of World War 2 - as fearful, corrupt and self-serving as it was before the war that seemed, at the time, like the end of the world - is mercilessly satirised in scathing Dadaist takedowns.

The paranoid security state is, for example, mocked in the absurd police chief Gepopo (Susanna Andersson); the corruption of democracy in the White and Black Ministers (Adam Goodburn and Christopher Tonkin); pusillaninous authority in the figure of Prince Go-Go (Brian Asawa). Even science gets a serve in the figure of the masochistically married astronomer, Astrodamors (Frode Olsen), ever at the mercy of his sexually voracious wife Mescalina (Ning Liang). Through this world walks a confused Everyman, Piet the Pot (Chris Merritt), who unwittingly finds himself the slave of Death, and a rather poor substitute for his Pale Horse.

The only ambiguous hope is in the figures of the lovers, Amanda (Ilse Eerens) and Amando (Annie Vavrille), who alone refuse to succumb to fear, and who insist on the earthly pleasures of their love and the brief, vivid intensity of the present moment as the only truth. They are like the lovers in Breughel's The Triumph of Death. There, the entire canvas is dominated by a terrifying vision of the armies of death marching through human life, laying everything waste. The only patch of green is a tiny lawn in the bottom corner of the painting, on which is seated two lovers playing music to each other, their backs turned to the desolation. They are at once an image of the solipsism and blindness of sexual love, heedless of everything but itself, and a poignant reminder of human resistance and beauty. In this opera they are portrayed as skinless, like those images in an anatomical diagram of muscles and tendons, their nerves utterly exposed and unprotected.

Directors Ollé and Carrasco situate the action in a giant, grotesque woman's body, bookending the opera with a short filmed narrative about a woman called Claudia who, after gorging herself on pizza and Macdonalds hamburgers, and smoking ashtrays full of cigarettes, has a brief moment of physical collapse during which she believes she is dying. Her naked body becomes the huge puppet that dominates the stage: performers emerge from various orifices (except, interestingly, the ears, the nose and the anus), clamber about her collapsed legs, screw off her nipples and hide inside her, or (literally) worm through her entrails. Some extraordinary video is projected onto the woman: at various times her body is a charnel house of bones, a site of apocalyptic flame, or becomes a three-dimensional image of her skeleton as the body rotates. It ought to be spectacular, and it is, generating beautiful stage images: but for the first half it is also static, more like watching visual art from a distance than the dynamic invitation of performance.

After interval the staging becomes more dynamic, and consequently more engrossing: it is in this half too that a scrim descends for one of the more beautiful scenes, when Piet and Astradamors float together in shifting clouds, believing that they have died and gone to heaven. There is much that is spectacular, obscene, lyrical and comic in this production, and I wouldn't have missed Gepopo's big Dadaist solo for anything: but what is ultimately missing is a real sense of the tragic, however removed at an ironic distance. I suspect this is because of its framing in the small domestic moment of Claudia's indigestion. This has its pertinence and intelligence as a metaphor for Ligeti's abortive and drunken apocalypse; yet it makes the opera not so much a defiant mockery of death and its mechanisms, as a removal of death altogether. It is only, after all, a phantom of western over-indulgence. Still mulling over this one. But I feel that I ought to have felt more.

I felt a similar nagging disappointment in Vs Macbeth. This is a collaboration between the STC's actors ensemble The Residents and Adelaide's The Border Project, and it demonstrates a laudable desire to return to a dirtier, rougher theatre after the extravagant spectacles of the Actors Company. There is much to like in this production, but as a project it still seems to me to be at the level of potential rather than actualisation. I felt I was watching a production that rehearsed gestures I've seen elsewhere in the work of Benedict Andrews or Melbourne's Black Lung (the concept was, in fact, something like a cross between the practice of these two); but without the disciplining intellect of one or the outrageous anarchy of the other, it ends up falling between two stools.

Where it succeeds is in its exploitation of the central metaphor of Macbeth: darkness. The entire play takes place at night, when the clear borders of day are erased and moral certainties waver in the vaporous air, when evil deeds are hatched and nightmare crawls into insanity.At night the uncanny and the demonic emerge from the shadowy reaches of the psyche: from its shadows emerge the witches, with their riddling prophecies that, like all oracles, perilously hold the seed of their undoing. Sleep - a recurring motif - is the softer face of death, the means by which we are unconscious to ourselves; it is sleep that deserts Macbeth and his wife and exposes them to the full horror of their inner darkness.

Backed by the growls of an electric guitar, director Sam Haren lets loose the action on a black stage that is curiously both cavernous and claustrophobic, with two monitors on either side that mostly track the live action. The performers are exposed in unforgiving, harsh light, or vanish into the shadows. Ambiguity is the order of the day: in a canny piece of casting, Macbeth (Cameron Goodall) also plays the traitor Cawdor, whose title Macbeth takes. The witches (Ursula Mills, Zindzi Okenyo and Alirio Zavarce) are ambiguously gendered underworld denizens, mocking Macbeth's doubtful certainties with voices amped and sonically treated to an unhuman weirdness. The most brilliant scene in the production - Macbeth's final visit to the witches - is in fact played out in total darkness, with Macbeth's face filmed in infra-red camera on the monitors.

The chief conceit is Macbeth's history as a cursed play, notorious for the unluckiness of its productions: we are reminded of this tradition by a game of Chinese whispers that runs along the audience (although the night I went, the audience rebelled and sent it backwards down the line). Consequently, there are a few moments where things go wrong: a prop catches fire, and must be extinguished; Macbeth's crown is too big and falls around his neck; a lighting rig falls down from the flies. The actors stop and deal with the "mistake", or have sotte voce conversations with technicians or each other, before getting on with the show. There's no point at which these small accidents derail the play or, conversely, illuminate it - they act chiefly as reminders that we are watching a live play - and ultimately it seems like a timid interpolation of carefully engineered anarchy that, inevitably, is thus not anarchic at all. But perhaps faintly annoying.

The other conceit is the use of paintball guns as the weapon of choice. For the execution of Cawdor, executions being a formal business, this is very effective: a safety curtain is drawn across the front of the stage, actors run on with a rack of guns, masks and armour are donned, and at last the Thane of Cawdor is spattered with green paint and theatrically dies. Later in the play, these formal safety procedures neutralise any sense of violence - only once, when an anonymous paintballer bends over and casually shoots Lady Macduff's baby (who is thankfully spared the "egg" speech) does it have any charge of crime.

All the lead performances are excellent, although the cast is a little uneven in the minor roles. Cameron Goodall is a nervy, wired Macbeth, driving, like a junkie, towards his own destruction. Amber McMahon as Lady Macbeth at first seems too delicate for the role, until she channels some termagent and sets ice in your blood with those murderous speeches. They're supported by powerful performances from Tahki Saul (Macduff), Brett Stiller (Banquo) and Malcolm (Richard Pyros).

Yet, for all its virtues, the production as a whole never quite generates the unnerving instability it seeks. Maybe, like the random dates that were flashed up on the video monitors, it's a bit over-clever. (I dutifully wrote them down but, despite some heavy googling, couldn't work out the significance of "London 1928" or "Amsterdam 1674" - was it because Madame Tussaud's opened? Or New Amsterdam becoming New York? Or just there to stimulate some pointless research? Or what?) Or maybe, like the - yes, legally necessary - signs outside the theatre itself, it was all a bit too careful to assure us that, after all, we were quite safe.

Picture: Northern Lights, North Terrace, Adelaide Festival.

Le Grand Macabre, libretto by Michael Meschke and György Ligeti after Michel de Ghelderode. Theatre Royale de la Monnaie, English National Opera, Gran Teatro de Liceu and Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival, until March 4.

Vs Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, directed by Sam Haren. Design, Sam Haren and Melissa Page, sound design and composition David Heinrich, lighting design by Govin Ruben. With Alice Ansara, Cameron Goodall, David Heinrich, Amber McMahon, Ursula Mills, Zindzi Okenyo, Julia Ohannessian, Richard Pyros, Sophie Ross, Tahki Saul, Brett Stiller and Alirio Zavarce. Sydney Theatre Company and The Border Project, Odeon Theatre, Adelaide Festival, until March 6. Opening Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney, on March 20.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Adelaide Fringe: En Route, The Rap Guide to Evolution, My Name is Rachel Corrie

For reasons which now are mysterious to me, but which probably reside in a diabolical subconscious masochism, I decided to see three Adelaide Fringe shows yesterday, which also happened to be the day I arrived. I found myself scrambling from show to show, with barely time to draw breath between each one. It's not an ideal way to see theatre, at least not for me: I like to think about what I've seen before being flooded with yet more stimuli. But as a crash course in the theatrical variety on offer at the Adelaide Fringe, it was probably exemplary.

The first was a rather charming piece of audio-instructed theatre, En Route, by Melbourne group Bettybooke. This won the Best Live Art Award in last year's Melbourne Fringe, and is, as they say, a "pedestrian-based event", in which mobile phones, iPods, hidden letters, chalked signs and company members lead you on a kind of Easter Egg hunt through the Adelaide CBD, with the city itself as the prize. It's part of an international trend of headphone-centric theatre that seeks to put the audience in the middle of the performance: through its insistence that participants look out, as it were, through their skull, it generates a crowded solitude that is at the centre of urban experience. The stage is the city, the theatre is your imagination, and the presiding god is Ranier Maria Rilke, whose insistence on the gaze is one of its final meditations.

There are 17 tracks, each accompanying a different route, and each offering a different audio experience that features music by local Adelaide musicians. Some are simple instructions ("walk slowly, take your time, look..."); some are narratives, such as a saunter through a bizarrely empty shopping arcade to a detective story; some are meditations on the act of perception by people like Maurice Merleau Ponty; others generate a mood for a walk down a particular lane, or create a background to a short exhibition of artworks about Dante's Purgatorio, shown in a carpark stairwell. It's a complex show, because the perspectives are constantly changing, but it's fun because it's constantly surprising, and it generates a nice balance between the participant's freedom and its own structuring necessities. I thought it a little long - maybe the ideal length for a show of this sort is an hour - but it kept me constantly interested while, of course, giving me some healthful exercise.

In an illustration of the perils of making theatre in an uncontrolled environment, my En Route began with a couple of security guards taking violent exception to Bettybooke "conducting its business" on the verandah of the Adelaide GPO, backed by a chorus of outraged staff members. I can't imagine what they thought we were doing, as they warned me against the sinister man ("don't trust him!") who was fitting me up with an iPod; perhaps they thought we were dealing drugs. Who knows? Their hostility was in marked contrast to this show's essential innocence, which was maybe what I liked most about it.

After that, I had time for a G&T in the diverting environs of the Garden of Unearthly Delights before heading to The Hive - a tent with chairs - for Baba Brinkman's The Rap Guide to Evolution. Brinkman is a Vancouver rapper whose last work was, apparently, a rap version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. After a performance of that show, he was approached by a scientist who asked him if he could do the same for Darwin as he did for Chaucer, and thus was produced what Brinkman calls "the very first peer-reviewed hiphop show".

Anyone who thinks rap is just about gangstas and hos should take a look at this (as it is as instructive about the social origins of rap as it is about Darwin, it might equally have been named The Evolutionary Guide to Rap). After a fair bit of forceful campaigning from my kids, I've had to lower my prejudices: rap is the popular poetic form, it's as various as any art, and there's some classy stuff in there. This is probably one of its stranger manifestations, but Brinkman's Byronic wit and performative energy combine to make it an irresistible hour. Plus you get to learn a lot about mitochondria and the social behaviour of slime moulds. Wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Darwin (and the slogan "Very Gradual Change You Can Believe In"), Brinkman takes us through 10 chapters, in which he explores various aspects of Darwin's theory (and attacks the whole premise of Intelligent Design), ultimately to reveal the humanity and "grandeur" of Darwin's vision. Science is seldom this much fun.

My final destination was a performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie, at X Space at AC Arts. Edited from the writings of young activist Rachel Corrie by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner, it premiered at the Royal Court in London before running into controversy when the New York Theatre Workshop "indefinitely postponed" its performance in New York in 2006. Although I followed the various controversies with interest - this is a play that situates itself right on top of the Israel/Palestine political faultline, and generates as much seismic activity as one might expect - I haven't before now had a chance to see it.

As is well known, Rachel Corrie was killed in Gaza in 2003, when she was crushed by a bulldozer while defending a Palestinian home from being demolished. At the time, she was part of a band of non-violent international activists who sought to protect the homes, properties and lives of the Palestinians by interpolating their bodies between them and the IDF, on the assumption that killing a foreign national would cause more trouble than a Palestinian. The play is taken from her emails and diary entries, and follows the trajectory of a bright, idealistic young woman with enormous personal courage. It is also - and this is where the controversy stepped in - a bald statement about the daily persecution of ordinary Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

In this rather beautiful production directed by Daniel Clarke, Hannah Norris gives a passionate and accurately observed performance of Corrie. As the play opens, she stands amid a pile of cardboard boxes in the mess of her chaotic bedroom. The first half consists of recollections from Corrie's school and college years, and her early activism. This, the most engaging part of the play, is staged with effective simplicity, with Norris bit by bit packing away her belongings as she speaks. She's funny, innocent, smart, ironically aware of the pitfalls of being a "progressive", and remarkably intelligent. In the second half, when Corrie journeys to Palestine, the boxes become the walls and houses of Palestine: some open up to reveal miniatures of houses, or spill out a rubble of children's shoes and stones. This section's staging was much fussier, with actions that seemed merely decorative - the arranging of the children's shoes in the shape of a heart, for instance.

The production's conscious theatricality heightened the problem with using this kind of verbatim script: criticising it is a little like attacking a memorial service for using bad grammar. Here the play is presented as theatre, but it carries with it a weight of authenticity that closes down responses. It's like being in church: its polemic is unforgiving and earnest, with the constant reminder that behind this theatrical illusion is a dead woman. One is supposed to be moved, or one is heartlessly dismissing this awful death.

I wasn't moved, but it wasn't because Norris's remarkable performance lacked any skill or feeling: it was the set-up of the whole play, which left me no room to respond, either emotionally or politically. What if you already know about the IDF demolitions of houses, gardens and olive groves, or the daily harassment of civilians in the Occupied Territories? Is your task in this theatre, then, simply to nod in agreement (or, alternatively, to rage in disagreement?) And does either response really lead to thought?

I prefer, for example, Brecht's approach, which understood the power of Verfremdungseffekt, the "making-strange" which permits - rather, which insists on - active thinking as a response, in order to get beyond the singular focus of empathy (which Brecht thought fatally bourgeois). There's a Zizekian argument to be unpacked here, which I have neither the time nor the energy to follow through: but Howard Barker says it all quite well from the aesthetic side of the equation. Uncomplicated empathy is what drives this show; it's a well-realised production done in complete good faith, but it demonstrates that empathy is not enough for either political or artistic radicalism. Which is not at all the same as saying that it ought not to be there.

En Route, concept by Julian Rickert, created by Bettybooke - Suzanne Kersten, Claire Korobacz, Paul Moir and Julian Rickert. Adelaide Fringe, until March 14.

The Rap Guide to Evolution, Baba Brinkman and SPL Productions. The Hive, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, Adelaide Fringe, until March 13.

My Name is Rachel Corrie, from writings by Rachel Corrie, edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, directed by Daniel Clarke. Design by Cassandra Backler, lighting and sound design by Ben Flett, video by Annemarie Kohn. Performed by Hannah Norris. X Space at AC Arts, Adelaide Fringe, until March 14.

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