Writings, of various kinds ~ theatre notes

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 Schaub├╝hne 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.


Anonymous said...

well, you're right, there hasn't been any response that I've seen to your ALR piece. Although I have read it, I haven't had much of a chance to consider a response yet that doesn't just iterate the obvious. It's simmering away... I have been privileged to get some insights into this issue though; but privileged information is just that... I am loath to reveal too much that certain sources have given in a reasonable degree of confidence, as a conversation between friends, not as someone being interviewed for a theatre commentary. For me to add/publicise/remark beyond the limits of acceptable journalism would be tres uncool.

But I would be very surprised if this issue just went away...

Alison Croggon said...

I doubt it's an issue that will ever be "solved", either, simply because of the nature of plays themselves. But would love to hear more discussion.

Commenting on my Facebook page today, Larry Buttrose says the judge's judgments are a fair result, and are a result of the loss of playwriting development, things like the Playwright's Conference, eg. I clearly don't agree; and frankly I think that workshopping mentality exemplified by the Conference is a huge part of the problem. Which is not to say that resources shouldn't be directed into developing theatre and/or playwrights. Watching a young playwright like Declan Greene develop through his relationships with directors like Susie Dee and Chris Kohn provides an interesting model, for example...