Fringe: The Arrival, Home?, The Endarkenment, Testimony ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fringe: The Arrival, Home?, The Endarkenment, Testimony

You can tell it's spring, because the ants are co-ordinating a spirited insurgency in the bathroom, and bare branches everywhere are bursting into blossom. Most tellingly, the Town Hall in North Melbourne is overrun with young people in black eyeliner, who are spilling down the steps and colonising the pavement cafes.

Ms TN has been slapping on her eyeliner with the rest of them and thronging the halls, albeit in a sober fashion suitable to her advancing years. I read a couple of years ago that Guardian critic Lyn Gardner sees six shows a day during the Edinburgh Fringe. I couldn't do anything remotely like that without the inside of my skull turning into something like mashed banana. So there's inevitably a chance element to the few shows I see out of the several hundred on offer, and they can hardly be thought of as representative: for those contemplating Fringe visits, the wisest strategy is to grab a program or browse the website.

Also, the performing arts continue outside the Fringe. I saw Bangarra Dance Theatre's Of Earth and Sky on the weekend: if you can beg, borrow or steal a ticket (or possibly buy one at the box office) before it closes next Saturday, do so. It's extraordinarily beautiful. I'm hoping to write more on Of Earth and Sky later this week, if I can think of the words: but today, let me briefly bring you up to speed on Ms TN's Adventures at the Fringe So Far. And I mean briefly. Ms TN is unseasonally under the weather today.

The Arrival

Shaun Tan’s moving graphic novel about the experience of immigration, The Arrival, is adapted for the stage by new company Mutation Theatre, under the eyes of emerging directors Sam Mackie and Patrick McCarthy. Getting to the venue was an adventure in itself: as the skies darkened over the surreal landscape of Docklands, half industrial chic and half just industrial, we encountered lonely bowler-hatted figures waving signs in the dark, to guide us to Shed 4. It almost - but not quite - felt like being on a strange film set, half Coppola, half Tati.

The show takes place in a gigantic metal warehouse, in which is erected a tent-like structure. Around 18 bowler-hatted young actors enact - now with carnivalesque excess, now with lyrical poignancy – Tan’s simple story of a man arriving in a strange country, having left his family behind. Tan's drawings are projected onto the ceiling of tent, as a counterpoint to the performances on stage. The result is an ambitious work of physical theatre that is often completely enchanting. Its strengths make you forgive its unncessary length and lack of focus as youthful excess. If this is the new generation of theatre makers, the future is looking good. Sadly, closed.


Written and directed by Jono Burns, Home? must be one of the slyest shows of the Fringe. An unapologetically autobiographical account of Burns's time at New York's Actor's Studio, it is a hilarious take-down of the pretensions and absurdities of the acting life and, in particular, method acting. Burns gives a tour de force performance, embodying around a dozen unlikely characters, from Phillip ("Do you know how many red-haired Jewish gays there are in Minnesota? Eight!") to an abrasive busker in Central Park. It gradually becomes clear, however, that Home? is more than a fond satire of an interesting and sometimes confronting time: it's also a moving account of coming to terms with loss.

Ably supported by musicians Sunny Leunig and Cathryn Kohn, Burns gices a virtuosic performance: turning on a dime from hilarity to real poignancy, he compels your unwavering attention for the hour-long show without missing a beat. Given the similarities to some of Peter Houghton's one-man shows, it's not surprising that Houghton's collaborator Anne Browning should have directed it with such a deft hand. Small, but perfectly formed. Fringe Hub, until October 1.

The Endarkenment

The Endarkenment, a post-apocalyptic musical by young writer/actor Fregmonto Stokes with score by Angus Leslie and Julius Millar, is the sort of rude, disorderly show that embodies the spirit of the Fringe. It makes almost no sense at all, has some of the most absurd costumes I've seen, and is powered by a rough, irreverent energy (and three cyclists, who every now and then cycle up the watts for a couple of torches). A spirited piss-take of online worlds such as Second Life, here called Corporate Life, it takes the form of a liturgy in which the high priest, Bugsy (Peter J. Reid) conducts a ceremony designed to appease the angry post-capitalist gods Imacdonald, Harvey Norman and Old King Coal. His three acolytes Swatch (Amy Turton), Flappy (Rueben Brown) and Zak Pidd (Goose) enact their fall of from grace and the subsequent Minor Economic Correction that saw the world fall into darkness.

Accompanied by a band of what appear to be pixies playing some very wonky pop, the performers belt out some fun numbers with ferocious gusto. Its satire of 21st century excess is limited to a basic attack on the alienation of virtual life, and some (admittedly enjoyable) wordplay on internet acronyms, but there are a couple of moments that pierce through the nonsense into something genuinely uncomfortable. Fringe Hub, until October 1.


Testimony opens with a riveting image: we walk into the theatre to see a grotesque figure, dressed in what appear to be filthy white rags, standing on a podium, his back to the audience. When the lights go down, he turns to face us, and we see that he is abject indeed: his testicles, the size of grapefuits, dangle between his legs, forcing him to stand bowlegged, and his face is marred with what appears to be some terrible skin disease. This creature is, we learn, Octavio Asterius, the degraded modern remnant of the minotaur, the monster in the labyrinth of the contemporary imagination. Here, using an old convention of the theatre, he is on trial, with the audience as his jury and judge.

Graham Henderson's monologue was originally written as prose, and despite the best efforts of performer Matt Crosby and director Suzanne Chaundy, its transposition to theatre isn't entirely successful. The staging is simple: Crosby is framed by projections manipulated live on stage from a light projector, which are ingeniously various. Crosby's performance is detailed, brave and physically impressive; but his undoubted commitment is let down by some indifferent dramaturgy.

Testimony shows little grasp of dramatic structure, which means its energy really begins to sag in the final 20 minutes. Worse, the prose segues without warning from epiphanies of soaring poetic to moments of bathetic banality that recall nothing so much as a yoga meditation. If the text could be excised of its increasingly turgid repetitions, and could solve its problematically simplistic relationship to the audience, it might make a brilliant, albeit rather shorter, show. As it is, it founders under its own weight. Fringe Hub, until October 9.


Patrick McCarthy said...

Hi Alison,

Thanks for the review. Glad you enjoyed it.

Just one correction- there were 18 bowler-hatted actors, not 16. Easy to lose track amongst the chaos though.

And yes, sadly the troupe has moved on after our short season. However, our other show in Fringe- These are the Isolate- is on at the Fringe Hub until the 9th of October if people would like to see our work.



Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the correction, Patrick. All fixed!

Matt Scholten said...

These are the isolate is an incredible piece of work: I saw a final rehearsal as an outside eye (which is my disclaimer) and found it a smart, beautifully pitched and achingly truthful experience bravely written and performed. Mutation Theatre is a fantastic young company that I have had the pleasure of working with briefly and I encourage all to go and see this show!

pickledcherries said...

I totally disagreed with Alison's review of Testimony. I really do appreciate the simplicity of the piece. In the last 20 minutes, I found myself seeing what Crosby was saying in his monologue. The piece is challenging. It's stripped down to bare bones. What's wrong with meditation with this piece or any theatre piece? Collectively as human, we should meditate more anyway.

In Testimony, Octavio Asterius is on trial. Towards the end, as in the text, "the tide is turned". He, in turn, judges "us" the audience. The performer/audience relationship in Testimony is glaring to me: It's not only the audience watching the performer, the performer watching the audience as well. Like the crowd looks at the freaks in the sideshows, the freaks look back at the crowd.

Testimony has many layers for both performers and the audience members to delve in. It tells us a lot about ourselves. It takes time to absorb perhaps longer than the reviewing cycles that Alison is in. Testimony is not to entertain but to evoke. And it's simplicity gives us space to ponder. Are you ready to see something about yourself?

crosbeee said...

Another quick clarification - Testimony runs until October 9th.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the comments, Matt and pickled cherries: and PC, I'm delighted that you should find such rewards in Testimony. I have to say that there are other texts of Graham Henderson's that I greatly prefer to this one. Slightly puzzled by the clarification on the closing date, crosbee, since it is already there, under the review.

pickledcherries said...

Hi Alison, thank you for your reply.

I'm very frustrated about the reviews that say this show should be shorter or this bit is too long, etc. Time and time again, it would prove irrelevant and archaic for all concerned. The performers won't find it helpful for their performance because their performance come from within themselves, not an editing process (which would've been done before the show opens). The audience member will find it's ungainly as many of them come to the performance with an open mind, ready to receive and participate, a two-way communication.

For Testimony, this is not a fair review, a misleading for the potential audience. Would you mind very much if the performer takes his time to connect with his audience intuitively, or the writer puts a few words to get his point across? Do you not have time for them? If not, why spending time in an hour-long theatre show at the first place?

I believe the members of the public who chose to see Testimony were equally generous with their time. They don't come in with a frame of mind to measure the success of the show. Anyone who see any theatre show with that mindset will gain nothing anyway. I'm glad the performance practice that the Testimony team is involved in, and many audience members, have moved on from where you were. They'd better do for the greater good of the performing arts in Australia!

Perhaps, if the fact that you find Testimony problematic is your personal taste?

crosbeee said...

ah... the title of the review reads "Until October 1" I think.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Picked Cherries: Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure that my job is to be a dramaturge for the performers of a show (although I could tell you exactly where I think it ought to end). And I'm not especially keen to enter into a debate about this work. I have said as clearly as I could what my responses are: you are perfectly free to disagree. My responses are, of course, a matter of "personal taste": as, I might add, are yours.

Are you really saying that clearly (if briefly) articulating my responses to Testimony is "misleading" and "unfair"? I went to some trouble, after all, to also explain what I thought was strong about this show. I am familiar with Henderson's work, and have in fact published some of it. I think this piece, which ultimately strikes me as simplistic, reveals his weaknesses as a writer more than his strengths: although, as I also say, there are brilliant moments. I'm happy to hear others get more out of it than I did, and am only sorry they feel they have to traduce me in order to defend Henderson.

Hi Crosbee - if you read from the top down, as opposed to scrolling straight to that review, you'll see the closing dates are at the bottom of the reviews. But I can see how the layout might be a little ambiguous, and will change it.

crosbeee said...

cheers thanks Alison...

EAS said...

TESTIMONY - The greatest play, and the greatest performance I have seen for many years! Certainly the greatest performance of Graham Henderson’s extraordinary work, which I have been following for the last two decades or so. It has been described as a MASTERPIECE by a number of my friends who saw the performance, and I completely agree with them. Almost everyone who saw TESTIMONY came out with the same extraordinary experience from this extraordinary peace of theatre, where the director, the actor, the writer and the whole team created a unique voice in Australian theatre. Congratulation to all of them! The shallowness of Alison’s review speaks for itself, so I wouldn’t add any more to it, apart from expressing my profound sadness that in my view Alison’s lack of professionalism may discourage and prevent many from seeing this beautiful work, and cause unjust damage to the future prospects of this unique and profoundly beautiful piece of theatre. In any case, Testimony will remain a mirror to the mediocre and superior judgments in our society, and there will always be individuals who will find it easier to break that mirror than to face it. Certainly, editing someone else’s creation is the lowest level of commitment that any writer or creator can accept or suggest, and reminds us of doing make up in front of the mirror that some cannot face.

Alison Croggon said...

In my experience, people in an audience make up their own minds, and they are by no means slavish followers of reviews. If others indeed find Testimony as brilliant as you say - and it's not as if I panned it - it will generate its own energy: word of mouth counts for way more than anything else. I am only one member of the audience, after all.

I will say though that the "J'accuse" element of the play, which gives the work its built-in defence (if you don't like it, it's because you can't face its "truths") is one of the simplistic elements that gives me pause in my critique. I always have problems with theatre that assumes in advance that it knows its audience, since people are much more various than marketers or politicians assume.

Goosecap said...

Just a couple of questions for EAS:

How was Alison ‘unprofessional’? Would she have been more professional if she had agreed with your estimation of the play?

You say that TESTIMONY is ‘the greatest play and the greatest performance’ in years. Compared to what? I have to assume that you are comparing the production to other work that has been produced in Melbourne over the past few years, otherwise your statement is meaningless. How is TESTIMONY greater (whatever that means) than:
Declan Green’s MOTH
Peter Evans’ production of BLACKBIRD
Julie Forsythe’s performance in HAPPY DAYS
Kosky’s production of THE TROJAN WOMEN
Richard Pyros as HAMLET
Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ SAPPHO IN NINE FRAGMENTS
Ewen Leslie as Richard in RICHARD III
Margaret Cameron’s production of CARE INSTRUCTIONS
Von Mayenburg’s THE UGLY ONE
Marion Potts’ production of VENUS AND ADONIS
The Hayloft / Black Lung production of THYESTES
Gary Abrahams’ ACTS OF DECEIT
Matt Lutton’s production of Kafka’s THE TRIAL
. . . . etc etc etc?
Have you actually seen any of these productions? If not, what does your pronouncement mean? If you have seen these productions, can you explain how TESTIMONY is ‘greater’, if only to show some kind of minimal respect to these obviously inferior works.

According to the author’s program notes, his poetic writing is ‘unique’ in Australian literature. Do you know how Mr Henderson came to this conclusion about his own work? The breadth of his knowledge of contemporary Australian literature must be immense.

Would you consider Pound’s editorial work on Eliot’s THE WASTE LAND to be ‘the lowest level of commitment that any writer or creator can accept or suggest’?

One last thing, not a question, just a comment: the nauseating whiff of misogyny that runs through your post (how can a mere woman question the genius of Henderson) is particularly unwelcome.