Review: Moth, The Ugly One, Hole in the Wall ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: Moth, The Ugly One, Hole in the Wall

As readers will know, last week Ms TN suffered a knock-out blow in her long-running war with the Dreaded Lurgy, putting her on the benches. There she has been grinding her teeth and annoying her neighbours, like the nameless anti-hero of Notes From Underground. In the interests of social amity, it's probably time I got my personae under control and started work again. So here, on tottering feet, we go.

If another person writes another op-ed complaining that Australian theatre is dying, beset by aesthetic crises and apathetic audiences, I will simply point them to Melbourne, May 2010, and have done with it. I can't remember a time when our theatre culture conspired so successfully to demonstrate that it's well and truly alive: and it's been happening at every level. At the MTC, Richard III is packing them out and The Ugly One has scheduled late performances; you can't get a ticket to Moth at the Malthouse for love nor money and The Threepenny Opera, in previews later this week, is officially sold out. Beyond the main stages, indie companies are posting "full" signs all over town.

What's going on? A lot of very interesting theatre, for one thing, boosted by the Next Wave Festival, which continues until the end of the month. And also a lot of word of mouth. Many shows are selling out without the benefit of a single review. So much for the much-vaunted power of crrrritics! What counts for much more is the excited report of a friend or acquaintance: that is, the impact of the work itself. This also demonstrates very clearly the idiocy of the idea that the success of one aspect of the theatre culture comes at the expense of others. It suggests something altogether more interesting: that vitality breeds vitality, and that theatre companies ignore their interdependence with the rest of the culture at their own peril.

Out of all this richness, reports of which have reached even my subterranean ears, I've been able to see very little. What I did see gives some indication of the quality of work that is not only expected but is delivered in this city. Following are some notes on what I've seen:


At a distressingly young age, Declan Greene has carved out a reputation in Melbourne’s independent scene with a series of plays demonstrating a black wit, iron nerve and a considerable lyrical gift. What's notable is the restlessness of his work: he's a playwright whose work is distinctive but never predictable. And he's learning fast. Moth represents yet another startling evolution: it was not at all what his previous work led me to expect, and yet is an absolutely logical progression.

It’s a powerful examination of mental illness, especially in relation to young people. Greene's two 15-year-old protagonists are Claryssa (Sarah Ogden), a wiccan emo, and Sebastian (Dylan Young), all-round oddball, who are both rejects in the merciless pecking order of high school. They are compelling portrayals of adolescents - self-centred, mocking, vulnerable and funny - who are traumatically alienated from the social lives around them. A horrific, if horribly familiar, instance of bullying unlatches Sebastian's already uncertain sense of reality, and his sense of self splinters into delusion. He has an apocalyptic vision of St Sebastian, embodied as a moth he keeps in a jar, and sets off on a mission to find the saved. Meanwhile Claryssa, as traumatised by Sebastian by the bullying episode, sinks into paralysing depression and is unable to help her friend.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of this script is how unsentimentally and accurately it represents not only the speech and attitudes of teen subculture (I had a 15-year-old with me who affirmed its authenticity) but the subjective experience of mental breakdown. The story is told through enactments by Ogden and Young, shifting between times and different subjective states in ways which recall the narrative of the cult film Donnie Darko, and Greene exploits to the full his capacity to soar from vernacular speech into pure poetry.

Chris Kohn directs Moth on a stage bare of everything except what looks like three lengths of underfelt, cascading from backstage to the floor, that define three different theatrical areas. Kohn's direction is absolutely simple and absolutely lucid, directing so good it's almost invisible. Jonathan Oxlade's design, Rachel Burke's lighting and Jethro Woodward's music conspire to focus the action on stage to diamond precision. Ogden and Young are remarkable, giving passionate, minutely disciplined performances that wind up to a shattering climax. What begins as a comic picture of two teen misfits ends up as a piece of theatre with the catastrophic power of tragedy. The long, devastated silence that preceded the applause was its proper tribute.

The Ugly One

Marius von Mayenburg, long-term dramaturg with Thomas Ostermeier at Berlin’s Schaub├╝hne am Lehniner Platz, debuted in Melbourne at the Malthouse in 2006 with the brilliant Benedict Andrews production of Eldorado, a scorching parable on the human capacity for self-destruction, and returned in 2008 with a production of a fascinating collaboration, again with Andrews, called Moving Target. The Ugly One, written between these two productions, is a play on a smaller scale, but demonstrating to the full Mayenburg's imaginative control of theatrical form.

As an exercise in theatrical elegance, it's an exemplary text. The Ugly One is a painfully hilarious and disturbing satire on the contemporary obsession with appearance, in which Mayenburg cunningly exploits a simple theatrical idea – identically named characters played by the same actors – to explore the place of individuality in an increasingly homogenised society, and how our uniqueness plays into our idea of self.

Lette (Patrick Brammall) is the inventor of a new kind of plug, but finds that when it’s time to present it to the world, his boss Scheffler (Kim Gyngell) thinks he is too ugly to sell it, and instead intends to send his assistant, Karlmann (Luke Ryan). When he asks his wife Fanny (Alison Bell), she confirms, to his astonishment, that he is as ugly as everyone says. In despair, he undergoes plastic surgery. Lette emerges looking exactly the same, but finds that his world has changed. Women lust after him, and he becomes a corporate success. But now everybody wants to look like him.

Using this simple premise, Mayenburg pulls to the surface all sorts of contemporary anxieties. The face is both more and less than a marker of individuality: it is, in the corporate world, the equivalent of a brand, through which perceptions of success and failure are filtered independently of the reality of achievement or quality. Lette's "transformation" - he is the only actor, incidentally, who doesn't play multiple roles - gives him the competitive edge in both the sexual and corporate worlds. But all too soon technology catches up and reproduces him, creating a hall of mirrors, a nightmare vision of Lettes that flood the market like generic drugs. In such a world, no human being can be anything but a product, a commodity valued by his or her exchange value. In the process, Lette's personal identity - whatever uniqueness he originally possessed - is completely lost.

Peter Evans gives this play the elegant production it deserves, directing it in the round with minimal props. The razor-sharp shifts in the text are handled with finesse and spareness, and some ingenious staging: among other effective touches, the amplified crunching of an apple excruciatingly evokes the sounds of surgery. All four performers rise to the challenge, giving nuanced and witty performances that bring out the play's comedy, and permit the darker themes simply to rise to the surface as a profound rippling of disturbance. This is definitely a highlight of the MTC's 2010 season, and not to be missed.

Hole in the Wall

Hole in the Wall is the only show I've been able to catch from the Next Wave Festival. This 45-minute show knocked my socks off, and made me even more sorry about what I've been missing. It's a fascinating multi-disciplinary theatre work that explores the experience of domestic, surburban space as lived by a twenty-something couple. Sounds mundane? As Hole in the Wall manages to demonstrate, the mundane is only dull if you're not looking.

The text, written by My Darling Patricia member Halcyon Mcleod, has a simple premise: it articulates the thoughts, fears and desires of a young couple (Matt Prest and Clare Britton) during the course of a single night. They would like a better house; they wonder what they are doing with their lives; they take out their frustrations on each other in bitter and violent arguments; they are afraid of dying; they are lonely. All these recognisable vignettes play out with a dream logic that ignores chronology, giving us snatches of their domestic lives.

It creates the premise for an extraordinary piece of experiential theatre. The audience is divided into four, and then put in four separate boxes that are simulacra of the average weatherboard rental house, with wallpaper up to the picture railing, a paned window (which is closed), and a painted white door with a brass handle.

Once you are enclosed with your fellow audients, the box begins to move, forcing you to walk along with it. It is difficult to describe how disorienting this is: it quite literally made me dizzy. Part of the dizziness was the necessity to reorient my sense of place. While in fact the floor is quite still, and it's the box that's moving, from the point of view of those enclosed, it's the walls that are stationary. There was a similarly disconcerting exhibit of a swaying room in the Guggenheim exhibition at the NGV recently (I'm afraid I can't remember the artist) - this was much more displacing, because it was more claustrophobic.

Once the box stopped moving, the lights went out, leaving us in complete darkness, and the first monologue - about the way a bed is like a grave - boomed out over us, accompanied by a rising growl of sound. And then one wall was thrown open, revealing the the rest of the audience in the three other boxes, all ingeniously linked together to make one room, in the centre of which was a bed.

The performances played out in these intimate spaces, which were continually reconfigured in constantly surprising ways by unseen manipulators. Sometimes the boxes became a long hallway, through which the performers entered and left, in which we became guests at a party, or ghostly witnesses of private grief. Sometimes we looked out through a window at Preston walking outside in his pyjamas. Once all the walls opened and we watched a projected animation of puppets who played out the story of a happy suburban couple.

The effects were haunting, poignant, moving; sometimes (as in the terrible quarrel between the couple) confronting. Aside from the compelling performances, perhaps the most powerful aspect of Hole in a Wall was how the initial disorientation made us all complicit in the show. Social barriers immediately dropped in our initial surprise and puzzlement, and when we were watching the performances, we were all aware not only that we were watching together, but that we were in the same intimate space as the performers, and that we were, in our witnessing, part of the show. An absolutely fascinating and beautiful experience.

Pictures: top: Sarah Ogden and Dylan Young in Moth. Photo: Jeff Busby Bottom: Patrick Brammall, Alison Bell and Luke Ryan in The Ugly One. Photo: Jeff Busby

Moth, by Declan Greene, directed by Chris Kohn. Set and costume design by Jonathan Oxlade, lighting design by Rachel Burke, composer Jethro Woodward. With Sarah Ogden and Dylan Young. Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre Company, Tower Theatre, Malthouse, until May 30.

The Ugly One, by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade, directed by Peter Evans. Lighting design by Matt Scott. With Alison Bell, Patrick Brammall, Kim Gyngell and Luke Ryan. Lawler Studio, MTC Theatre, until June 12.

Hole in the Wall, text by Halcyon Mcleod, directed by Hallie Shellam. Concept by Clare Britton, Matt Prest, Hallie Shellam and Danny Egger. Set design by Clare Britton, Matt Prest and Danny Egger. Lighting design by Mirabelle Wouters. Original music, sound design and animation by James Brown. Performed by Matt Prest and Clare Britton. Next Wave Festival @ The Meat Market. Closed. Carriageworks, Sydney, May 26-29.


kade said...

It's so pleasing to see the 'death of Australian theatre' myth debunked with such strong, unequivocal evidence of incredible productions.

Anonymous said...

Same thing happening in Brisbane, Alison. State newspaper publishes an article saying no one goes to theatre in Brisbane. Meanwhile every single theatre show in town is sold out.

Granted we don't have as much theatre as you guys (and we miss out on Godot because our only stage big enough for it is showing "Calendar Girls" - effing shudder) but there seems to a huge gap between the real theatre experience and the social perception of it.

Alison Croggon said...

How fascinating! One would think, if anything, it would be the other way around - ie, theatre talked up over empty houses. But it happens a lot - remember how nobody was going to the Melbourne Festival, despite all the queues and persistent sell-outs?