Review: Maybe ForeverMoving houseReview: The Threepenny OperaMore linketiesOz review: BrechtWritings, of various kindsReview: Next Wave: Bromance, The Folding WifeLinkety linksReview: King LearUrgencies ~ theatre notes

Friday, June 25, 2010

Review: Maybe Forever

It’s astounding how little it takes to communicate human feeling. Watching Meg Stuart and Phillipp Gehmacher’s 2007 dance piece, Maybe Forever, I couldn’t help reflecting how few Australian artists have the courage to do almost nothing.

Meg Stuart is an American-born choreographer and dancer who moved to Brussels in 1994. There she formed her company Damaged Goods, and became a leading figure in European avant garde dance.

This collaboration with Austrian Philipp Gehmacher emerges from the same thread of anti-spectacular dance that informs the work of French choreographer Jérôme Bel, itself derived from Guy Debord’s seminal 1960s critique, The Society of the Spectacle.

This work actively rethinks the very notion of representative dance, in the light of Debord’s idea that authentic human relationship has been replaced by a passive identification with media images and representations.

What emerges in Bel’s work, such as Pichet Klunchun and Myself and The Show Must Go On, is a radically stripped aesthetic that almost miraculously transmits an astounding buoyancy and liberation.

In Maybe Forever, which charts the painful emotional truncations of a failed relationship, Stuart and Gehmacher explore a choreography so minimal that it barely exists, skirting the edges of bathos and sentimentality.

It’s easy to see why Stuart’s work has been often compared to the theatre of Samuel Beckett. The three performers, Gehmacher, Stuart and Belgian singer/songwriter Niko Hafkenscheid, are isolated figures on a bare stage, their relationships troubled and doubtful.

The dance begins in liminal light in which the bodies of the dancers, lying on the stage, are barely visible, moving like figures drowned in sleep to a score of abstract electronic sounds punctuated by the cries of seagulls. Jan Maerten’s miraculous lighting lifts with an imperceptible graduation, as the dancers equally gradually expand their movement, rising into an uncertain dance of attraction and repulsion until they both vanish into darkness.

This prologue sets the emotional tenor of the dance, invoking a state of deep meditation. What follows is the casual entrance of Hafkenscheid and his electric guitar on a now exposed stage, where he begins to pick out the chords of an acoustic ballad.

The dynamics of an imagined relationship are enacted through a variety of means – spoken recitations, movement which shifts from mundane gesture to a disturbed, broken abstraction, and a series of songs which don’t illustrate the emotions so much as obliquely frame them.

It’s difficult to describe the effect. For some people, I’m sure it will manifest as boredom: this is not a dance that satisfies any desire for spectacular movement. But for those like myself who find themselves wound into its minimalist drama, it’s an extraordinarily moving expression of the complexities of pain.

It takes a lot of nerve and an unfalteringly exquisite sense of rhythm and spatial relationship to work successfully so closely to the edge of banality. Strangely, given the almost casual gesture that informs so much of the dance, what moved me most was its accuracy, a sense of a finely judged calibration of feeling.

There’s something pure about this dance, a transparency that perversely reveals the opacities of human relationship, that makes it deeply rewarding. And, far from being depressing, it releases an ambivalent joy.

Picture: Meg Stuart, Philipp Gehmacher and Niko Hafkenschied in Maybe Forever. Photo: Chris Van Der Burght.

This review appears in today's Australian.

Maybe Forever, choreographed and performed by Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher. Musician Niko Hafkenscheid. Lighting designer Jan Maertensm design by Janina Audick, sound design by Vincent Malfstaf. Damaged Goods and Mumbling Fish, presented by Malthouse Theatre and the Goethe Institute. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne. June 23. Until June 26.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Moving house

Rather unexpectedly, the Croggon-Keene clan is upping stakes and moving. Always, of course, the risk of renting, but over the past 11 years in Casa Williamstown we'd kind of forgotten. We are feeling upbeat about it - it's always good to reinvent yourself - but a decade in the same house means, for this hoardish family, a daunting pile of books, toys, DVDs, CDs, endless files of paper, and several hundred miscellaneous objects that now has to be sorted into some sort of sanity. (I only just realised we have a dozen bikes in the shed. I can't even ride a bike.) Ms TN will be covered in dust for at least the next fortnight, so expect things to be quiet here.

At least I managed to finish the last of a series of commissioned essays - this one on nationalism and Australian theatre for Overland - before the hurricane hit. And I'm thanking the gods for small mercies.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Review: The Threepenny Opera

Fame, so the proverb goes, is a calamity. To be sure, it's the kind of calamity that looks like a privilege, a disaster that masquerades as respect. But consider what happens when perhaps the greatest calamity of all befalls a writer and he turns into an adjective. A lifetime of work - diverse, idiosyncratic, speculative, contradictory, above all contingent - freezes into a single epithet. The words Chekhovian, Kafkaesque, Dantesque, Pinteresque, Beckettian, Shakespearean, become a deadly row of bullets the critic shoots into the blank wall of cultural regard.

It's part of the endless conflict between the cultural machine and art. Both need each other - without the cultural machine the artist might as well hide in a box, and without the artist, the cultural machine would have no reason to exist. Yet both are mutually hostile, waging a covert war that neither can really win. The machine likes its cultural product categorisable, recognisable, marketable: above all, it needs art to be tame. Artists - which is to say, artists who make any art worth the candle - resist cultural pigeonholes with every fibre of their being.

Naturally, the cultural machine likes its artists best when they are dead. "The words of a dead man," said Auden in his panegyric to Yeats, "Are modified in the guts of the living." Hence the faux reverence for Shakespeare, which viciously attacks any attempt to release the living artist from the half-life of monumental fame. Within this is a kind of love, but if it were transposed to actual relationships, it would be the possessive obsession in which the loved object is jealously locked in a dark room. Yet this transformation of living art to cultural monument is an inevitable and necessary process: despite its catastrophic side-effects, without cultural memory the artist and her work would be forgotten. And, as much as the erasure of radicality, this digestion can mean a renewal of vitality. I am the kind of audience member who always prays for the latter.

So, to turn to Brecht, who perhaps more than most others remains locked inside his adjective. "Brechtian" has become shorthand for many things: most immediately, it calls up the theory of Verfremdungseffekt, often misunderstood as an abjuration of feeling in favour of didactic intellection, which itself summons a kind of dour Marxist theatre about tractor drivers. Brecht is, quite rightly, regarded as the exemplary political playwright, and perhaps the most influential of the 20th century: but what is most often forgotten about Brecht - especially in the English language - is that he is a poet.

The Threepenny Opera is an early work of Brecht's. At the time of its writing, Brecht was 29; he had just had his first success with Man Equals Man and was working with the politically brilliant but financially unstable director Piscator, who first conceived of the idea of Epic Theatre. Brecht was then in the early stages of his encounter with Marx: he was yet to meet Walter Benjamin, was on the threshold of writing the first of his learning plays and was midway through his opera Mahagonny. The year before, he had released his first book of poems, The Manual of Piety (Die Hauspostille).

The Threepenny Opera, chaotically scrambled together with Kurt Weill's score and sets by Caspar Neher from Elisabeth Hauptmann's translation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, was the work of a young man in extreme creative flux. The premiere famously teetered on the brink of disaster: the dress rehearsal reportedly went down like a lead balloon, and the first night audience sat unmoved through the first act, until suddenly something caught fire and they broke out into wild applause. And thus was born the biggest theatrical hit of the Weimar Republic.

Ever since, The Threepenny Opera has been something of an embarrassment to hardcore Marxist interpreters of Brecht. Its greatest fans were the bourgeoisie whom it supposedly attacked: they liked nothing better than having their greed, hypocrisy and amorality so entertainingly exposed, and no one could demonstrate that they were any the better for it. Yet Brecht never disowned it; rather, he remained somewhat obsessed with it, continually fiddling with the text and even writing a film version.

This alone shows that Brecht the poet always dominated Brecht the political didact. As Eric Bentley points out, with considerable perceptiveness, Brecht's Epic Theatre is really the theatre of a poet. "The epic theory can be represented by unfriendly critics as Brecht's attempt to make a virtue of the special limitation of his dramaturgy, the dramaturgy of a writer of ballads. To which one might retort that the epic form vindicated this dramaturgy and showed that one can derive drama from poetic balladry." Indeed.

Perhaps the most illuminating prepartory read for The Threepenny Opera might be his Manual of Piety, a collection of savagely beautiful ballads satirising religion, some of which later were included in The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny. Here Brecht pays homage to a formative influence, the thief-poet Francois Villon, and writes blackly robust ballads about dead soldiers or people like the servant girl Marie Ferrar, "Born in the month of April / Rickets, no birthmarks, orphan, not of age", who after unsuccessful attempts to procure an abortion, is found guilty of infanticide. "Her prayers, it seems, had no effect".

It's this godless Hobbesian world, in which the weak wait in vain for the gates of Heaven to open while the strong trample them into the mud, that gives The Threepenny Opera its dark illumination. What's seductive about it is what drives Brecht's prowess as a poet: its amoral, irresistibly vital joyousness. Brecht the poet is the same as Brecht the entertainer: and all the supposed contradictions (as opposed to vitalising creative tensions) of his theory in relation to his writing emerge from glossing this vital aspect of Brecht's work. Even as his plays bent more consciously towards Marxist radicalism, he eschewed neither poetry or entertainment. "Grab them by the balls," he said once, "and their hearts will follow."

The great strength of Michael Kantor's production for the Malthouse is that it reanimates this Brecht, poet, entertainer and wicked trickster. Its first virtue is Raimondo Cortese's adaptation, featuring lyrics by Jeremy Sams, which transposes the action from Victorian London to a 1930s gangster Melbourne. It works for a couple of reasons: like Brecht's vision of Chicago in In The Jungle of the Cities, his Soho is pure theatrical fantasy, and Cortese has simply replaced this with a dystopian fantasy of Melbourne, slimming down Brecht's text by introducing Jenny (Paul Capsis) as a narrator. Crucially, it permits Cortese to exploit Australian obscenity, creating an unsentimentally vernacular diction that's as clean as a knife, and has an immediate contemporary tang.

The production itself takes place in a huge boxing ring which stretches the entire width of the Merlyn Theatre, its shadowy expanses exaggerated by Paul Jackson's lighting, which seems more an art of darkness visible than mere illumination. Into this space are wheeled Peter Corrigan's modernist monstrosities, huge mobile sets that jar the eye and act as simulacra of urban dissonance, an organically disturbing mess of architecture. Across this various stage-scape plays Brecht's nonsensical parable of human greed, vice and lust.

Its cheerful cynicism turns conventional morality on its head: here the bad guys win, simply because they are meaner than everyone else. The apparent deus ex machina, in which Mack the Knife is saved at the last minute from the hangman's noose, is a sardonic reversal that, rather than providing an escapist happy ending, reveals an uncomfortable truth: the biggest criminals get off scot-free.

Mack the Knife (played with charismatic swagger by Eddie Perfect) is far from a rough diamond. He’s a killer, a “sadist and a rapist”, a thief and a liar with, aside from a hypnotic sex appeal, no redeeming features whatsoever. Brecht’s undeceived vision saw that Mack’s charisma was not despite his wickedness, but because of it. Like today’s celebrity gangsters, Mack is rewarded for daring to enact society’s repressed desires: his dangerous attraction stems from our secret complicity with his crimes.

Kurt Weill's music, under the musical direction of Richard Gill, is presented in its original shape. It remains as fresh as the day it was written, and is a reminder of how brilliantly Weill wrote for the theatre, and how profoundly he has influenced popular music, from Tom Waits to Danny Elfmann. The music is the glue that holds this show together, and the counterpoint to its poetic dramaturgy.

Kantor and his cast simply go for it, generating an irresistible burlesque energy. For all its joyous spectacle, Kantor keeps the focus on simplicity: one of the few missteps is the decision to play Mack's underlings as hooting monkeys. Capsis and Perfect's riveting cabaret presences provide the vernacular base of the criminal underclass, crude and colloquially direct. The accomplished operatic clarity of Judi Connelli (Mrs Peachum), Grant Smith (Mr Peachum) and Anna O'Byrne (Polly Peachum) enact the gloss of the parasitic middle classes who suck their wealth from the suffering of the poor, who themselves are represented by the bruised and endlessly exploitable beggar Filch (Jolyon James).

Whether it makes an effective political statement remains a question of debate: like all satirists, Brecht was half in love with everything he hated, and that ambiguous sense of fun remains as blasphemous as ever. But as this Malthouse production shows, it's brilliant theatre. Most of all, it's brutally alive and wicked fun: which is to say, it's utterly Brechtian.

Pictures: Top: (L-R) Eddie Perfect and Paul Capsis; bottom, Judi Connelli, Grant Smith and Anna O'Byrne. Photos: Jeff Busby

The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, adapted by Raimondo Cortese, lyrics by Jeremy Sams. Directed by Michael Kantor, conducted by Richard Gill. Set design by Peter Corrigan, costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson, sound design by Peter Ripon, choreography by Kate Denborough. With Casey Bennetto, Paul Capsis, Judy Connelli, Jolyon James, Melissa Langton, Amy Lehpamer, Anna O'Byrne, Eddie Perfect, Dimity Shepherd, Grant Smith and John Xintavelonis. Music performed by Stuart Brownley, Daniel Carter, Bob Collins, Martin Corcoran, Doug de Vries, David McSkiming, Evan Pritchard, Bruno Siketa and Nic Synot. Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera @ the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until June 19.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

More linketies

It occurs to me that in the past couple of months I've been doing more criticky stuff in the off-blog world than here, which perhaps accounts for this paradoxical feeling that I'm getting nowhere, while running as fast as I can. I'm not sure what I think about this: of course I have that old-fashioned pleasure at being in print, but it's also one of those odd reversals. While most people think of blogs as the lightweight aside to the main game, I've always thought of my work here as the real deal. Is this a presage of the post-internet, where the glittering pixels get folded back into ink and paper? Who knows?

Anyway, on to business. My Australian review of the MTC's production of Boston Marriage is online today. Readers might also be interested in my earlier review of Hoy Polloy's 2007 production of the same play. At least you can't say that I'm not consistent, even across very different productions. (No, there's no conscious plagiarising of myself there).

Meanwhile, on the plays-as-literature issue, George Hunka is also opining in print in the current issue of the Yale School of Drama's Theatre journal. It is clearly a trending topic in the zeitgeist. He posts an extract at Superfluities Redux.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Oz review: Brecht

Despite my best intentions - which lead, so the proverbs tell us, straight to hell - I am yet to tackle Brecht at the Malthouse. I will, gentle readers, I will, just as soon as I am able to stop my hair looking like Ludwig van Beethoven's (yes, there he is, and you can tell he's a genius, if only because he was ahead of his time in his choice of hairdresser). I found out last night, to my embarrassment, that my agent has been checking my state of health by reading TN, which tells me that I've backslid on my resolutions and have been complaining again. This is me not complaining. Instead, for those who have missed it, I'll point you to last week's Australian review of The Threepenny Opera, which gives you the rough outline of my responses. More to come, once I discover where I put my hair product.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Writings, of various kinds

I'm slightly surprised, given the heat the issue has generated, that there's been no response within our sea-girt shores to my ALR piece on the NSW Premier's Literary Award and its subsequent hooha. Or, to be more accurate, not any that I've seen. (If any lynx-eyed commenters care to set me straight on this, fire away). Instead, commentary has been left to our Anglo cousins in London and New York. The Guardian's Stage Blog has run a couple of blogs on the question, most recently Chris Wilkinson's wrap up of the debate, and George Hunka, modernist warrior, goes into bat in the Guardian comments and on his smart new blogsite at Superfluities Redux.

Meanwhile, the current issue of that excellent international theatre journal Theatre Forum arrived in the post yesterday with my essay Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky: Two Innovative Theatre Directors. And, I was pleased to see, a photo of Kosky's Poppea on the cover. The web page is not updated yet, but it's a great issue: other essays include discussions of Britain's Punchdrunk, new French writing at the Avignon Festival, New Paradise Laboratorie's Fatebook, Ivo Van Hove's Roman Tragedies, and Young Jean Lee's production of Lear. Plus theatre texts by Deborah Stein and Chiori Miyagawa.

One ambition of my essay, which looks at five recent Australian productions, was to discuss Andrews and Kosky as two quite distinct and different directors. They are often conflated as a kind of two-headed beast - some critics, like Peter Craven, lazily characterise them as a single monster which symbolises What's Wrong With Contemporary Theatre. Sadly, unless you all rush out and buy the issue - which I wholly recommend - it won't get much circulation here. So I thought I would quote the beginning of it, just to give you a taste:

ONE of the great attractions of writing about the performing arts is its impossibility. The greater the impact of a work, the more difficult it is to convey accurately what that experience was. The experience is translated from the immediate present where it lives and exists, into a past tense, which makes it what it never was: a complete and finite object, now preserved in the distorting aspic of memory. Theatre is not a recordable experience: its repetition is, even in its crudest forms, not a reproduction so much as an imitation of its earlier performances. Even filming a performance is unsatisfactory: however artfully done, the most essential aspect of the performance, its elusive present-ness, its quality of being created in the moment before an audience, is irretrievably lost.

Every artform expresses this tension between the present moment and past memory, between now and then, the unfixed and the fixed, the open and the closed. I suspect that one of the reasons why theatre remains fascinating is because it’s an artform that by its very nature baldly articulates these contradictions. Its various disciplines unite into something which is at once a product and more than a product: it’s a commodity that eludes possession, that can’t be confined, that escapes our best efforts at definition. In writing about theatre, every attempt only reveals, as Eliot said of poetry, a different kind of failure.

As a temporal artform, theatre enacts a condition central to the experience of living itself. Raw experience is continuously mediated and shaped in ways of which, most of the time, we are hardly aware – by language, by memory, by consciousness itself. In its more interesting forms, theatre brings this mediation to the foreground; and ideally, by doing so, it makes its audience more aware of the things that shape them and their lives.

The pursuit of this kind of awareness is an abiding obsession of innovative theatre, from Brecht’s theory of Verfremdungseffekt to the disorienting stage images of Romeo Castellucci. Much exploratory theatre plays with ideas of aesthetic alienation, a foregrounding of artifice, that at once refuses an easy articulation of feeling and, paradoxically, intensifies its experience. This has been the case with much of the innovative theatre made in Australia over the past decade, and is particularly clear in the work of two of the most influential auteur directors, Barrie Kosky and Benedict Andrews.

Both bring to Australian theatre a distinctly European awareness, which hybridises with local practice to generate oeuvres of particular interest. They work regularly in Germany as well as in Australia: Andrews is an associate with Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, where he developed a relationship with Marius von Mayenburg that resulted in notable Australian productions, and Kosky was the director of the Schauspielhaus in Vienna and, from 2012, will be chief director of the Komische Oper in Berlin. Their cross-cultural careers are not unusual in Australia, where the smallness and undeniable provincialism of much of the culture has paradoxically sparked a wave of artists who situate themselves aggressively as local artists participating in a global culture. The poet John Kinsella, who works as an academic and poet between England, the US and Australia, coined the phrase “international regionalism” to describe this kind of locally-centred art that, while celebrating its particular locale and tradition, refuses to confine itself in nationalist borders.

Kosky and Andrews are both very different directors, but their work is irrevocably linked. It is seen to epitomise – for better or worse – Australian auteur theatre. They have many collaborators in common – both were often produced at the Sydney Theatre Company under the artistic directorship of Robyn Nevin, who ran the company before it was taken over in 2010 by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton. Both have also had significant collaborations with the writer Tom Wright, who scripted both Kosky’s spectacular adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Lost Echo, and The Women of Troy, and for Andrews dramaturged the adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays that became The War of the Roses. Wright has also collaborated extensively with Michael Kantor, the artistic director of the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne which has commissioned and presented work from Andrews and Kosky, and which has been a critical institutional supporter of this work.


The major difference between these directors is perhaps their orientation: while Kosky’s first and informing theatrical love is music, which leads him to an almost mystic exploration of the possibilities of ecstasy in the theatre, Andrews is a text-centred director who works are notable for their intelligent formality. They have identifiable and individual styles, but the work of each encompasses a wide variety of approaches and modes.

...And so on, onto discussions of particular productions. I've only dipped into the rest of the mag, but it's up to Theatre Forum's usual standard, and the whole is a brilliant way of keeping up with international theatre. So subscribe, peeps. You know you want to.

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Review: Next Wave: Bromance, The Folding Wife

For various reasons, I ended up seeing only three shows in Next Wave - the marvellous Hole in the Wall and the two I briefly discuss below. I missed what several people have told me was the highlight of the festival, And Then Something Fell On My Head, which John Bailey describes in a wrap-up on Capital Idea. Meanwhile on Crikey, Jana Perkovic from Guerilla Semiotics has created something of a storm by questioning the curating claims of the Next Wave Festival as risk-taking art, saying the majority of work she saw consisted of half-baked and under-developed ideas.

Risk means risk, I guess. Most people who saw more than one or two shows freely admit that not all of the work was of the first water. The questions raised are whether Next Wave is about new artists or new forms (or both); whether the good works justify a festival which largely consists of emerging artists, and whether early public exposure is counter-productive. If some, or even most, art fails of its promise, is that a problem, or part of the festival's remit? Should young artists just be kept in boxes until they know how to make a grown up work of art?

I saw none of the shows that have caused such doubts. Instead, I am wondering about the "right to fail", that phrase famously coined by the Royal Court's George Devine. The right to fail doesn't include the right not to try, which is perhaps the definition of cynicism in the arts. To seriously attempt and to fail demands respect, whatever the outcome. For my part, I think that works that trim their sails and chart courses into shallow waters to pander to the lower expectations of a perceived audience are those which fail most spectacularly, whatever superficial success they might achieve.

I've often wondered whether one of the reasons we have such a problematic culture is our unforgiving attitude towards failure. There seems an inability to perceive individual works as more than cultural products designed merely to be consumed. Artworks are, as well as individual pieces, part of a continuum, an on-going process of individual and collective development, that might in its entirety be called a culture. Understanding this is not about glossing failure, however it's defined and perceived: I don't believe in the kind of "supportive" criticism that consists of dishonest praise, in the mistaken belief that this is good for artists. But it is about seeing failure as a necessary part of growth. Not a moral flaw, perhaps, so much as a moral necessity. Fail again. Fail better.

Whatever the verdict on the wider festival, the works I saw in Next Wave were their own justification. Alisdair Macindoe's Bromance, a dance piece on brotherly relationships between young men, was commissioned and mentored by Lucy Guerin, and shows her influence in how it explores and extends the vocabulary of quotidian gesture into the pure abstractions of dance. I was very taken by this work: perhaps what most appealed to me was its legibility, which never became merely simplistic.

The dance, which took full advantage of the wide space of the Meat Market, is divided into several parts, each separated by a moment of darkness. It begins with two dancers mirroring each other's gestures, a symmetric stylising of masculine physicalisations which are all wholly recognisable, and often comic. A short blackout, and suddenly there are four dancers, thickening the physical language, developing it into more abstract patterns. The lighting was the cue for a dialogue between interior and exterior representations: through half a dozen sequences, the dance moved between highly codified social gestures performed in exposing light, and a subterranean darkness, which explored the violence, love, desire, pain, nostalgia and delicacies which underlie these social surfaces.

What's most moving is how lucidly Bromance dramatises the inarticulate love of young men for each other, which is truncated and diverted into cramped expression by the social restrictions of homophobia. It explored how young heterosexual men fear expressing their love, in case it is misunderstood: affection can only be deeply coded, with the performance of masculinity always the overt message; passion can only be expressed through mutual violence, barracking at the football, brawling while drinking, or, as in one delightfully funny sequence, the secret mate's handshake.

It made an interesting diptych with The Folding Wife, which I saw on the same evening. In comparison to the disciplined movement of Bromance, this could seem a naive work: here we had the actor performing, literally dressing up to play her roles. The Folding Wife examines the cultural displacement of immigration through three generations of Filipino women, all played by Valerie Berry, who performs on a bare stage crowded with baskets of props. Its theatre is literally created before us.

Berry is presented to us in the beginning as a passive brown body, a tabula rasa on which is written all sorts of narratives: she is the obedient wife, the exotic beauty, the whore, the terrorist, in a dizzying array of Orientalist projections that are at once comic and horrible. The multimedia artists Datu Arellano and Teta Tulay dress and pose Berry in her various roles, and she obediently takes the shapes she is given: she grips the flower between her teeth, grabs the gun, or thrust her pelvis seductively forward.

Then Berry moves out of silence and tells her various stories. The poetic text, by Paschal Daantos Berry, is divided into several chapters which move between the middle class matriarch Clara, bitterly resenting the revolutions and occupations of 20th century Phillipines that have cost her family social status and wealth, to Dolores, a single mother looking to improve her life by marrying a rich Australian, to Grace, the migrant child who exists between two worlds, not quite at home in each of them. The text and performance are complemented and enriched by ingenious multimedia that uses sand drawings, fluid projections and shadow play with ordinary objects like glassware or lace.

The Folding Wife is a playful celebration of complexity: its charm is in its many textures, how speech, visual imagery and performance weave together to create a portrait of several lives. I liked especially how it refrains from judgment, and how it never seeks easy empathy: the women are simply presented, in all their contradictions. In other words, for all the humility of its materials and presentation, this was a sophisticated piece of work.

Picture: Bromance. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Bromance, directed Alisdair Macindoe, choregraphed by Alisdair Macindoe and Adam Synnott. Performed by Alisdair Macindoe, Lee Serle, Jay Robinson and Adam Synnott. Next Wave Festival @ Arts House Meat Market (closed); Performance Space, Carriageworks, Sydney, until June 5.

The Folding Wife, by Paschal Daantos Berry, directed by Deborah Pollard. Multimedia by Datu Arellano and Teta Tulat (Anino Shadowplay Collective); lighting design by Neil Simpson. Performed by Valeri Berry. Arts House North Melbourne Town Hall. Closed.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Linkety links

The Australian Literary Review (published in today's Australian) today runs my piece on the controversy about whether plays are literature. Basically it's an overview of the recent debate that was sparked by the missing play at the NSW Premier's Literary Awards. Speaking of which, the debate has reached the UK, where my charming colleague (and he is - he bought me dinner so I know) David Jays ponders the same question on the Guardian's Stage blog.

While you're at it, check out Andrew Haydon's post on Postcards from the Gods where he talks about the implications of casting - racially, class-wise, aesthetically. It's a huge topic that sparks a concomitantly long reflection, and is well worth the read.

And don't miss either 2010 Pascall Prize winner Mark Mordue's meditation on contemporary criticism on his blog The Basement Tapes (which I thoroughly recommend). "Great criticism is about love more than hate, construction more than destruction... in many ways what a good critic does is nearer to the task of a translator who has found a way of channeling one form of language into another... I’d be so bold as to claim a great critic can, and should be a responsive poet, balancing judgment and empathy in an art of evocation." Well, I'm bound to say amen to that...

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Review: King Lear

If one is an actor, a bare stage must be the most perilous place in the world: it leaves nowhere to hide. In last year's STC production of The War of the Roses, Benedict Andrews showed how this most naked of spaces can act as a burning glass, amplifying language and performance to a charring intensity. But exposure can equally reveal poverty: and sadly, this is mostly what happens in Bell Shakespeare's King Lear.

It's never comfortable reviewing a company when you suspect it is not at its best. After 75 performances around the country, Bell's Lear limped into town last week minus one of its key actors, Leah Purcell, who was forced to pull out two days before the Melbourne premiere. Instead, the part of Regan was played by Rachel Gordon, flown in the day before. Reading from the script, Gordon gave a most creditable performance, but the disruption must have had an impact. I got the feeling I was watching a tired production.

It's easy to see the ambition of Marion Potts' concept. This Lear is almost depopulated: isolated figures play across Dale Ferguson's starkly minimal stage, which features a small revolve in its centre, with a silver backdrop that looks like a screen of mist. Courtly pomp is represented by a suspended marquee above the revolve, a stylised crown that lifts out of sight as Lear divests himself of his kingly power. The simplicity is highlighted by the presence of Bree van Reyk playing her percussive score live on stage.

It's a cold stage, emphasised by Nick Schlieper's pitilessly revealing lighting and the furs which drape each character. At times it functions almost like a screen: there are hints here of painting and film, with visual references from Brueghel and Bergman. The frame is all there: what's missing is not so much the play itself - we hear every word - as the passions which inhabit its freezing void. Shakespeare's Lear is a terrifying portrait of human beings at the mercy of bestial forces in an indifferent and godless universe, and here we're missing at least half of the equation.

The furs and chill can't but recall Peter Brook's film of Lear, which stars Paul Scofield in a bleak, snowy landscape that evokes the existential desolation of Beckett. And the comparison unkindly shows what this production lacks: where Scofield's masterly performance maps the clashing forces - the pride and brokenness, the fierce will and the anarchic madness - of a king who is only, after all, a man, Bell gives us a journeyman's sketch of the soul.

Physically Bell looks the part, and there's nothing wrong with his bodily presence on stage: the problem is all in the language. Shakespeare's text is merely delivered, with a repetitive cadence that encloses the verse rather than opening it into the universe of human feeling. It seems astounding, but not one of Lear's harrowing speeches evoked a single responsive emotion: not the storm scene, nor the heart-rending reunion with his daughter, nor any of his tormented abjurations against madness; most notably not his anguished recognition of his own blindness, in which at last he sees humanity in its naked state.

With no Lear at the centre, the production inevitably splinters. It's left to Peter Carroll as the Fool to show what might have been. The Fool is Lear's other self, his conscience and his confidant; it's no accident that he disappears after the storm scene, when Lear is finally reunited, through his suffering, with himself. Carroll's performance is the most lucid I have seen of this opaque and tragic character: he is at once frail and fearless, comic and heart-breakingly poignant. Most of all, he brings multiple levels of light and shade to his performance, creating a rippling depth that fills the stage's cold emptiness. The show's worth seeing for Carroll alone.

The rest of the cast sits mainly between these extremes, with solid performances from Yalin Ozucelik as Oswald, Bruce Myles as Gloucester, Paul English as the Duke of Albany, Jane Montogomery Griffiths as Goneril and John McConville as Edgar. But for all their efforts, the production is ultimately no more than a competent reading of the play: not a harrowing of the soul, so much as a polite introduction to the idea that a soul might be harrowed.

Picture: Peter Carroll (left) and John Bell in King Lear.

King Lear by William Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Designed by Dale Ferguson, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, sound design by Stefan Gregory, composition by Bree van Reyk. With John Bell, Jane Montgomery-Griffiths, Rachel Gordon, Susan Prior, Peter Kowitz, Peter Carroll, Josh McConville, Tim Walter, Paul English, Anthony Phelan, Yalin Ozucelik, Keith Agius and Justin Stewart Cotta. Bell Shakespeare @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until June 12. Her Majesty's Theatre, Perth, June 18-26.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010


My, it's June already. Like around 30 per cent of the Melburnian population, I've had a cold for more than three weeks. And Ms TN is again three reviews in the red: this time for two Arts House shows, The Folding Wife and Bromance, and Bell Shakespeare's King Lear, which opened on Friday night.

Meanwhile, the outpouring of oil into the Gulf of Mexico continues unabated. The Israeli government is busy spinning its latest assault on international law by casting itself as victims of an innocent commando night raid during which the unarmed protesters defended themselves. And this weekend Louise Bourgeois and Randolph Stow - surely one of the most brilliant writers Australia has produced - both died.

And what has this to do with theatre reviews? Everything and nothing. Like everyone else on this planet, I live on this planet, and "no man is an island, entire of itself". This weekend, I kept thinking of a conversation overheard many years ago on the train: "Do you think the human race is worth saving?" (Pause.) "Naah..." Or Hamlet: "Man delights not me".

Yes, people - even great artists - die all the time. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is small beer besides the three-decade environmental catastrophe in Nigeria, where equivalent oil-spills occur every year. Not to mention the depradations that are the price of our global wealth: the illegal forest clearing in South-East Asia, the disastrous overfishing of our oceans, the suicidal consumerism that drives so much global injustice, the mass species extinction that is every bit as catastrophic as climate change. The Israeli state is no more dishonest than any state which decides that habeas corpus is an unnecessary legal detail.

Shall we continue fiddling as Rome burns? Or are we doing something else?

I write this blog because I think one of the few saving graces of the human race is that we make art. I also write it because it keeps me truthful, and it exercises my faculties when I'm not writing other things (and, quite often, when I am). But at the moment a shark is swimming about in my subconscious, gobbling all the thought that would normally be directed to writing criticism. The shark has always been there, and it's never dormant, but for some time it's been down in the trenches, lurking below the visible light. Over the past six months or so, it's been surfacing. It's a question, a demand, a fury. Some time soon, I'm going to have to do something about it. It's not as if there's a choice.

I'm not stupid or vain enough to think art can save the world. But those who denigrate art are even more stupid than those who proclaim its vanities: it is imagination that has created our entire human reality. If PR and the media are thought to be so powerful, it's bizarre to say art is impotent. The problem is that art's power exists only in its truthfulness, and truthfulness is not the lingua franca of power. Art's potency exists in the abdication of power that is also human love. Imagination is the necessary condition of art, yes, but also, more crucially, of love. And without love, each of us is nothing.

I don't mean, being loved. I mean our inner capacity to love, to see our realities in all their grievous beauty. "Love never stopped a bullet / Or stayed the raping hand / Of a damaged world. / But it is the only way / To remain undefeated."

The shark is asking: how serious are you?

So, to quote Les Murray, now I've said my beliefs. I'll do the reviews, probably later this week. And I'll go prepare myself to deal with the shark. That's a long-term project. But if there's some thrashing about on the surface of the waves, you'll know why.

Update: Or, in other words... Maladjusted on philosophy (and art, and love): "Time to fight. ... Time to refuse any reality principle that can only locate reality in the relentless, nihilistic pursuit of profit."

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