Review: The City/Bare Witness ~ theatre notes

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: The City/Bare Witness

I'm loath to say this, for several reasons, but nevertheless: sometimes you have to point out the obvious. (In Ms TN's case, pointing out the obvious is my raison d'etre). The City at Red Stitch and La Mama's Bare Witness at Fortyfivedownstairs are productions which demonstrate that our indie women directors can be as ambitious, imaginative, intelligent, out-there theatrical and aesthetically tough as any man.

As soon as you write it down, it looks ridiculous and patronising. And, given that last week I saw Lee Lewis' Twelfth Night at the Arts Centre, and next year am looking forward to a Malthouse season curated by Marion Potts, it even sounds redundant. The problem is that if you don't write it down, this fact gets too easily erased. Anyone mumbling that women have a specifically feminine aesthetic that forbids them from the main stages, or that there aren't many woman directors around, or that only exceptional women have what it takes to fill a stage, or any of the other weasel reasons which add up to women, in defiance of demographics, being a "minority" in the decision-making arts, should get out and see these shows.

In the directorial hands of Nadja Kostich, Mari Lourey's play Bare Witness becomes an outstanding piece of physical theatre: a punishing, sensually immersive investigation of trauma that never forgets to be intelligent. The story tracks the career of a photojournalist, Dany Hall, from her induction as a naive rooky during the Balkans war of the early 1990s to the desert wars of the present day. There's an irresistible romance, even among journalists, around war reporting, and the subject matter is an ethical and aesthetic minefield. Bare Witness, to its considerable credit, avoids almost all the traps, from the first deadly sin of theatre - earnestness - to the Hollywood-style romanticising of journalists to the thoughtless exploitation of atrocity.

It's a seamless marriage of its various parts, which add up to an overwhelming work of theatre. Kostich has a first-class technical set-up: Marg Howell's bare but sensual stage design, seemingly made of crumpled paper; a broodingly punishing electronic and percussive score played live by Jethro Woodward; Emma Valente's ad hoc lighting, created on stage by the actors and Valente herself, with fluorescent strips, flash-lights and swinging lamps lifting a claustrophobic darkness; and Michael Carmody's fluidly abstract video, which combines footage of wolves (a ruling image of the press pack, who are both hunters and hunted), projected numbers or place names, or dissolving animations that recall the decaying charcoals of William Kentridge.

Against this richly suggestive theatrical field, the bodies of the five performers - Isaac Drandic, Daniela Farinacci, Adam McConvell, Todd MacDonald and Maria Theodorakis - play and transform. This is among the most exciting physical theatre I've seen - inventive and exhilarating, demonstrating how the precision of actors' bodies is quite different from the miraculous accuracy of dance: more vernacular, perhaps, in its comparative coarseness, but when as passionately and skilfully performed as here, every bit as compelling.

As Bare Witness argues, war reporting is very like an addiction, and perhaps stems from the same kinds of emotional poverties and alienations as drug addiction does. And it can be just as fatal. Meanwhile, are journalists self-interested predators, or idealistic seekers of the truth, or adrenaline junkies? What difference does getting the news out actually make, in feeding the ravenous maw of a media machine hungry for the next image of atrocity and human suffering? In an image-saturated, media-manipulated world, how truthful can a photograph actually be? And what is the personal cost of a restless fascination with violence?

These questions are, for the most part, lightly raised, and the show evades moralising and sentimentalising its subject matter. In questioning the media, it also keeps in play the equally knotty question of artistic exploitation, which is no less distasteful. I found that its emotional impact registered just as the lights went down at the end, not during the course of the show. Its pace gives no time for reflection or thought, which, given its subject matter, seems wholly appropriate. Kostich's production is perhaps most exciting in its unapologetic seriousness: it's a relief to see a work that so directly, without naivety or cynicism or face-saving irony, addresses the complexities of real world calamity.

I thought the show around 20 minutes too long - there was a narrative detour around East Timor that edged the text into an earnestness and expositional looseness that it otherwise avoids. And work of this unrelenting intensity is difficult to sustain for more than around 90 minutes, without its effects becoming simply numbing. Even so, this is ambitious, smart, beautifully realised theatre. And quite unlike anything else that is on in Melbourne.


The City might be the best production I've seen at Red Stitch, even though, as ever with Martin Crimp, I came away feeling deeply ambivalent about the play. Adena Jacobs offers an uneasily stylised production which emphasises the brittleness and fractures of Crimp's dramaturgy, transforming the small space of Red Stitch into a haunting shadow box of middle-class nightmare.

I found The City intriguing, but perhaps not in the ways Crimp intended. (Although, who knows?) Ostensibly a play about an emotionally sterile marriage, it extends into a self-reflexive discussion of art. Clair (Fiona Macleod) is a literary translator, married to Christopher (Dion Mills), an office worker in the city who loses his job and ends up at the butcher's counter in Sainsburys. A third character, Jenny (Meredith Penman), is a neighbour - a nurse married to a doctor who is away at an unspecified and apparently secret war. There is a brief and unsettling appearance by a spooky daughter (Fantine Banulski/Georgie Hawkins), who has the alienated air of a demon child out of a horror movie.

By the end, I was all but convinced that this play is a confession by the playwright of his own psychic damage and aesthetic limitations. I would normally resist any such interpretation of a work as fatally impertinent: but here it's irresistible. The play progresses as a kind of self-interrogation, a dismantling of its own inabilities, until by the end its characters are questioning each other's reality. It finishes with a description of a war-devastated city, bombed flat like Fallujah or Grozny, that is the simulacrum of Clair's writerly imagination; and its final scene is of a child mangling a piece of piano music, presumably an illustration of what writers do to reality.

Clair's confession of her creative sterility, of her inability to create living realities, is too close to my major problem with Crimp's own plays not to give pause. Whether this is a fatally self-indulgent premise for a play is moot: in the hands of this director and cast, it creates some startlingly strange and unsettling moments of theatre. Yet even in this production, which brings everything possible out of the text, it never strikes deeply. The work is as it says it is - emotionally and intellectually cauterised.

What's troubling about this is that Crimp's confession of writing as an act of emotional nihilism is generalised to embrace all literature. Clair, for instance, is (as Crimp himself has often been) a translator rather than maker of texts. At the beginning of the play, she describes a chance encounter with a writer whom she later translates, Mohamed. Mohamed possesses all the authenticity that Clair, in her white middle-class comfort, feels she lacks: he is ethnically exotic, and has been imprisoned, tortured and exiled.

Yet this authenticity, as Clair recognises to her dismay, is as emotionally dead as Clair's. He can't work with his young daughter around, and so palms her off on his sister-in-law (a nurse, who regards him with contempt), and when he hears news of his daughter's accidental death, he feels not grief but exhilaration. Not only is he liberated from his responsibility, but he now has even more authenticity to throw into his creative mill. It's a bleak view of writing that is, in fact, a toxic romantic cliche: the problem is that you think that Crimp believes it.

The City opens with a domestic scene between a husband and wife that introduces one of my major problems with Crimp - that he so often seems like a cut-price version of Harold Pinter. Using a number of Pinteresque techniques - fragmented conversation, non sequiturs, declarations of emotion that in fact convey their opposite, narrative leaps and disjunctions - Crimp generates a sense of unease and anxiety. But I can't help asking, to what end?

Pinter miraculously (as in, say, Ashes to Ashes) uses these techniques to pierce through the protective carapace of denial to a place of real feeling, a moment of disturbing, sometimes shattering insight when perception suddenly and irrevocably shifts. Crimp clearly aims to do the same thing: but he mistakes nihilism for realism. If he's a lesser playwright than those he mimics - Harold Pinter and Howard Barker, in particular - it's because his plays lack the imaginative largeness to embrace human possibility: joy as well as pain.

For all their bleakness, neither Barker nor Pinter forget that love or justice are human realities, and that these realities are the only things that invest our crimes - intimate or global - with their proper outrage. (Echoes of Beckett: "But I do give a fuck!") After all, who cares what happens to numb puppets? Crimp, on the other hand, cannot seem to believe that love and justice, being human inventions, exist at all, which is quite different from writing about their lack or their failure: and in this, he shows himself to be a cynic. A carefully polished pessimism is, after all, seldom going to be proved wrong. On the other hand, it seldom has the foolishness that permits belief in fictions: and without that belief, a writer will never create a living imagined reality. Poets, as Heiner Mueller says, must always be a little bit stupid.

Clearly, this play intrigued me; in so frankly embodying its own imaginative and emotional failures, isn't it, by sleight of hand, retrieving a kind of success? It's certainly difficult to imagine a more intelligent production. Dayna Morrissey's design and Danny Pettingill's lighting tricks the eye, so that the tiny stage at Red Stitch suddenly has several extra dimensions, functioning as both a poetic and naturalistic setting. Jacobs shows a bold theatrical imagination, unafraid of stillness or of extending performative gestures, so there are moments of pure, abstract, theatre - Penman being eaten by a piano in the background of a bleak marital dialogue; the spooky child reciting obscene limericks.

And in this Jacobs is helped by her fearless cast, who handle the warped naturalism of the production with unfaltering assurance. The dialogue - which largely consists of fractured monologues spoken past the other characters - is addressed directly to the audience, its delivery switching between mannered excess and bitten precision. The result is often comic, in tandem with an increasing upwinding of tension that opens a sense of menacing estrangement. That this doesn't actually amount to much beyond a generalised expression of middle-class anxiety is the fault of the play, not the production. I noticed in the program that Jacobs is planning a production of Anne Carson's Elektra at the Dog Theatre later this year: it will be fascinating to see what she will achieve with a text that actually does something.

Pictures: Top, middle: images of Nadja Kostich's Bare Witness. Photo: Marg Howell. Bottom: Meredith Penman, Fiona Macleod and Dion Mills in The City. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Bare Witness by Mari Lourey, directed by Nadja Kostich. Composer/musician Jethro Woodward, set and costumes Marg Howell, video Michael Carmody, lighting Emma Valente. With Isaac Drandic, Daniela Farinacci, Adam McConvell, Todd MacDonald and Maria Theodorakis. La Mama Theatre @ Fortyfive Downstairs, until September 26.

The City by Martin Crimp, directed by Adena Jacobs. Set design Dayna Morrissey, lighting Danny Pettingill, sound design Jared Lewis. With Fiona Macleod, Dion Mills, Meredith Penman and Fantine Banulski/Georgie Hawkins. Red Stitch until September 25.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I have to confess that I was more than a little taken aback with just how scathing you were about dear Mr. Crimp, Alison!

In the man's defence, I wonder whether there's a paradox in your suggestion that the work is intellectually cauterised, and yet you find ample theatrical reference points and metatheatrical material to consider it, and compare it against? 'Intellectual' perhaps, in this context, needs a bit of a definition because I'd argue that Crimp is one of, if not the, most 'intellectual' Western playwright currently alive. This is, in my mind, demonstrated by his utterly unique, sparse and thoughtful deployment of form, character, dialogue and narrative; the combination of which I’d argue sits in a very different place to Pinter and Barker, and is closer to the postdramatic German dramatists of the last decade (many of whom he inspired). If you mean ‘intellectual’ in terms of providing ample ‘thematic meat’ for discussion, rather than in relation the theatre canon, I’d argue the play ticks that criteria too by resisting any definitive or simplistic interpretation / categorisation, and throwing open many interpretative possibilities about middle class life and its relationship to international politics / conflict, interpersonal relationships, layers of ‘truth’ and communication in human nature and so forth.

Similarly, I take issue with the idea that the work is emotionally clinical or cold. I think Crimp in all of his work - 'The City', especially, as a return to his character plays - asks us, in a post-Brechtian manner, to consider how it is that we as spectators create, and construct, emotion from artistic product in the theatre. The complex layers of representation and metatheatricality of 'The City' actually draw our attention to this subjective process, rather than simply ‘telling’ or ‘showing’ us how to feel, pushing us in certain directions or ramming cues down our throats. The potential is, yes, on the one hand, we may be distanced or potentially ‘isolated’ from what is normally considered dramatic and emotional in the theatre. But I for one find this a relief, and indeed – dare I say it – a joy, because I am left to ponder and relate at will to the emotional substance in such a non-prescribed way. I relish the liberation of this kind of distance and I find that, personally, it gives me more of an entry point into the aforementioned ‘themes’ of the play than eighty percent of stage drama does. Some of the most affective and emotionally intense nights in the theatre I have had at Crimp plays for this reason; the man, and his work, is such a breath of fresh air.

Anonymous said...

Finally, I do wonder to what extent the play is as nihilistic as you suggest, Alison. As an introduction to the published version of the text, Crimp quotes Fernando Passoa as saying “Everything we do, in life and art, is the imperfect copy of what we intend.” This line quite perfectly sums up ‘The City’ in many regards, and as you rightfully point out, the play is thus required to fail as a piece of drama to prove its point (but ironically, its failure actually proves it point, which therefore makes it a success – perhaps because it has left ‘drama’ behind). But rather than being a statement of nihilism, I actually think this is a strangely beautiful and optimistic summation; we can never truly reconcile our intentions with our actions, but in both life and art, as the characters do in the play (and Crimp does as the writer), we try. And we keep trying – to find connection, to create meaning – in life and art, as characters / writer / audience, wherever possible, no matter what. Rather than the little girl mangling the music at the piano, I see that final image as a relentless attempt at reconciling intention with actuality. She keeps trying to play the notes; she keeps trying to get them right. And she will continue to do so for the rest of her life. This, to me, is what ‘The City’ is about – the process of trying, rather than the outcome of failure.

Hope this has given you some food for thought!

Chris Summers –

Anonymous said...

I would add it's also quite funny, in its way.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Chris - many thanks for some great comments. (Do you think I was "scathing"? I'd prefer to think interrogative...)

I wish I could agree with you about the hopefulness of this play. I just don't...if only because this requirement-for-failure is altogether too pat for comfort. For the most part, I find Crimp's writing a collection of gestures or stylistic quotations stirred together with a certain seductive facility (although I still hold a healthy respect for Attempts on her Life). That's what I mean by emotional nihilism: his intellectuality doesn't dare an actual generative originality, which requires more investment than artful mimicry. Now, that does sound scathing, which is not my intention: but as Crimp knows as well as I do, intention is the least of it.

All the same, as I concede, this play is a fascinating conundrum, and certainly made fascinating theatre: here I'm speaking of a profound ambivalence, more than anything else. Just to be clear: the kind of emotional breadth I'm seeking is emphatically not to do with some cheap desire for "empathic" emotional identification. I'm not sure that I've managed to put what I mean very clearly: it's hard to describe. But the kinds of arguments with which you defend Crimp seem to me to apply much more forcefully and interestingly to dramatists like Muller, or Barker, or indeed Pinter, all of whom I think are far more profound and original theatrical intellects than Crimp, and who were certainly drawing our attention to processes of subjectivity through their metatheatricality well before he did.

Alison Croggon said...

PS I don't know whether this makes my argument any clearer, but I agree with Peter Handke's notion that a writer's ethics is in his style...

Anonymous said...

I saw The City in Sydney and your review (of the play) has articulated the awful taste it left in my mouth.

Where is the love, Martin? Where is the love?

If I saw Martin Crimp in a bar, I would leave the bar.

Observer said...

An Englishman, an Irishman and an Australian walk into a bar. The Australian walks out. The Irishman turns to the Englishman and says, "Obviously he didn't see the humour in the situation."

Anonymous said...

Or. The Englishman was Martin Crimp.

Alison Croggon said...

Now guys. No ad hominems, please. Mr Crimp may indeed be the most charming company in the world. What we're speaking of is his plays, not the man.

Don't know why people keep pointing out that it's all a joke when I say in the review that the production is comic. But if it's only supposed to be a joke, then it's pretty cheap hauling in the bombed city, no?

Alison Croggon said...

(And if the point, as with Damien Hirst, is the cheap score, then forget it. That's way old.)

cameron woodhead said...

Hmm. Crimp as a "cynic" who "cannot seem to believe that love and justice ... exist at all"? I disagree. The City seems to me to be about, well, nothing but love and justice. It's asking what they mean, isn't it? Interrogating them. Showing how often what seems familiar is in fact mediated and delusive - though not, as the Crogmeister seems to suggest, unreal. Quite the opposite.

The City’s hostility to the audience, and its poetic intellectualisation of affect, fascinated me. How much Crimp disdains "wanting to be liked" as an affectation, a source of mauvaise fois (and yes, at its worst, Crogmeister's criticism "wants to be liked" in this way).

Part of her response proceeds, imho, from being too familiar, too confident, that she knows what love and justice (and art for that matter) actually are, where their limits lie.

The play left me anxious and curious about these questions.

Certainly, more "joy" could have snuck into this production. It's there in the play, (admittedly, most of it lurks in the bushes like a flasher in a Zorro mask - a sort of nasty, masturbatory, pathological joy).

And perhaps it "wants to be hated" a bit too much, I don't know. But this is the only self-indulgence in what strikes me as a lyrical and brutally honest play. In any event, the cut-price Pinter jabs are cheap and wrong.

PS. Agree with theatargh, though I’d add that Crimp’s style in The City also bears an uncanny resemblance to the kind of lacerating histrionic monologues found in po-mo fiction from Thomas Bernhard to DFW.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron - ad hominems aside, good to see you here. Somehow I'm not surprised you'd defend Crimp.

I'd go line for line in that first scene, showing exactly what I mean by my Pinter references. It's not "cheap and wrong", it's an observation of how Crimp uses exactly the techniques that Pinter uses (I even helpfully list them in the review), but not as well. The direct comparison is to Ashes to Ashes, where a couple in a middle class drawing room open up in their dialogue the realities of the Holocaust, in what I think is a miraculously poetic piece of theatrical writing. There's no sin in not being as good as Pinter, but it's fair to say that Crimp hasn't transcended that influence in any way, that it still looks borrowed (rather than stolen), because the effect ends up being meretricious. Crimp's solution is then to make art out of this meretriciousness: interesting, in this case fascinating, but for my money something crucial isn't there. Perhaps I'm simply wondering why people think Crimp is so wonderful, when what they say he does is done so much better by Pinter or Barker or Muller.

You mistake me, if you think I'm criticising the production for lacking "joy". I'll see if I can find a way of expressing what I mean. There is something that happens after a Beckett play (or at least, when it's done well), an inexplicable and exhilarating lightness, that belies what some people call its bleakness. I've sometimes thought it is a simple relief at Beckett's truthfulness. It's certainly a side-effect of what I call beauty. One of the best descriptions of beauty that I've read is by Helmut Lachenmann, the composer, which I'll quote here:

"It is high time for the concept of beauty to be rescued from the speculations of corrupt spirits, and the cheap pretensions of avant-garde hedonists, sonority-chefs, exotic-meditationists and nostalgia-merchants. The mission of art lies neither in fleeing from, nor in flirting with, the contraditions which mould the consciousness of our society, but in coming to grips with them and dialectically mastering them...

"...we still try to cultivate the hope that the human genus is capable of acting rightly, which presupposes that it is capable of recognising its own structure, and that of reality. We still believe in a human potential. Beauty is what we call that feeling of happiness which in art, as a human message, is released by the communication of some sort of belief. And yet such belief, even in its most illusion-free variants – such as in Beckett's art – is not contained in a philosophical or intellectually encoded message, but in the experience, communicated by sensory perception, of people who succeed in expressing themselves … knowing full well that the artist has not something to say, but something to create."

It's this sense that - for me - is signally lacking in so much of Crimp's work. His writing is too vain, too anxious about its own affect, to fully reach out into that more difficult moral zone, of "recognising the structure of reality". It is why I found this play fascinating, as a confession. But I don't think it's brutally honest: it strikes me more like a fantasy of brutal honesty. Try putting Crimp's brutal honesty next to, say, Roberto Bolano's, and see what it looks like: it just won't wash.

Alison Croggon said...

...Also, no one has addressed the actual site of cynicism in this play: the off-stage character of Mohamed. (See review: I don't feel like restating what I've already written). It is certainly the aspect that makes me most question what Crimp is doing.

Geoffrey said...

I described it as fatalism, not cynicism. For me, the first scene signposted everything that was going to go wrong ... which, in due course, it did.

Alison Croggon said...

[This, from Cameron, arrived in my inbox, but is invisible on the blog, perhaps because of its length]

There were no ad hominem attacks, Ms TN. Your criticism at its best is erudite, eloquent and perceptive; that you know this is sort of part of the problem.

Interesting how this discussion links in to some of the points Steve Sewell raised – about the internal critic in the artist – at the Wheeler Centre panel last week. I found this interview he gave to Valerie Lawson at the SMH in 2006. Read what he said and try not to think of Mohamed:

“I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is go to my desk and start. And it’s only through behaviour like this that I’ve got to where I am now … [One day] you’re there, looking at a little girl in nappies, and you turn away and the little girl in nappies is 22. Other people have memories of children, happy memories, and I don’t. I have memories of work. I have memories ... [long pause] … of blanking people out, and keeping people away because I had to.”

How freakin’ awful is that? Sewell is putting on a show here, I think, but the performance isn’t less authentic for it.

Far from being a “toxic romantic cliché” or presenting writing as merely “an act of emotional nihilism”, I’d suggest that Crimp’s “fantasy of brutal honesty”, as you put it, really is “part of the structure of reality” – and anyone who’s ever tried to create theatre or write criticism; anyone, in fact, who’s halfway smart with any degree of sensibility – has experienced it. I know I have.

But hey, art should acknowledge the things we most want to deny. For Crimp, you’d imagine that would be – erm – the nagging feeling that he actually is a cut-price Pinter. Appearing so is an essential part of how the play is working.

And if you think what I just wrote is bullshit, it’s no more so than claiming The City is a basically a confession of Crimp’s own artistic failure. They’re both attempts to ‘read the text in order to find the author in it’, which is all so pre-Barthes and generally unhip. (On the contrary – in the theatre, the spectator is God, right?)

Some kind of hideous meta-theatrical vertigo is setting in. This isn’t coming out the way I want at all. Apparently, according to DFW, “there’s good self-consciousness and there’s this toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-Bedouins self-consciousness.”

You can probably tell from that what I’m going to say about Mohamed. You see the absent author as a source of pervasive, deal-breaking cynicism. Mohamed was a sticking point for you. The idea of an artist describing feeling relieved and elated and inspired at his own daughter’s tragic death disgusted you, I imagine. (Weird fact: euphoria is a common symptom of shock; and it can provoke considerable self-disgust, later.)


Alison Croggon said...

...part 2 of Cameron's comment

To me, your interpretation seems too easy. My own feeling is that whether M. is either (a) a real, tormented, self-lacerating Steve Sewell-like person or (b) a veiled alter-ego of Crimp or (c) meta-imaginary; a botched and mildly projective character in Clare’s frustrated attempts at creative writing (and I’m inclined, given his whiffy and deliberately melodramatic story, to think he’s the latter) – my feeling is that the absent M. is less a ‘character’ than a parable about intelligence and creativity and how, maybe, if we make idols of those qualities in ourselves or others – as Clare does, as Crimp or Sewell or you or Woodhead might – that they will inevitably turn into false gods, or monsters lurking under the desk, ready to strangle or suck away the very things we claim to cherish.

DFW again: “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

It’s a peril for critics and artists alike; and the fact that Crimp manages to create theatre that wavers between the Scylla of the critical impulse and the Charybdis of the creative one, conscious he will, in all likelihood, be trashed for it, left me curious plus anxious plus with a sense of admiration and maybe even a tentative kind of hope.

PS. Yes, I’m well aware.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron - again, you misunderstand me. I hesitate to suspect it's because you've not read Howard Barker, or Heiner Muller, or Roberto Bolano, or perhaps even Pinter's Ashes to Ashes? As critics do (perhaps it's part of my fatal persuasiveness) I am making comparisons, not absolute statements: from the beginning, my argument has not been absolute. My argument about the "confessional" aspect of the play might well be bullshit - as I said in the review, it's an idea I would normally resist. But I do think it's pretty compelling in this case, and say why. Your bringing in actual writerly confessions suggests that you don't disagree, at least, that this is a writer contemplating writing in an apparently personal way.

You seem to be assuming that I'm "disgusted" by the truths that Crimp is conveying, and that is why I am critical of the play: that I am seeking some humanistic redemption that Crimp is too tough, too "brutally honest" to provide. I am in fact not asking for that at all: that's why I am pointing to these other writers, who for my money acknowledge the "brutal" truths that Crimp flirts with. But they acknowledge the whole of them. These truths mean nothing when abstracted from the totality of human possibility: great writers bring the whole of possibility with them, even if it's a question of of a kind of negative theology, even at their most dystopic. This question of resonance and breadth of feeling is why, for example, Yeats is a far greater writer than Larkin. Their truths, if you like, are truer, because they have this dimension - the dimension that Lachenmann describes - that I find lacking in Crimp. If I were merely "disgusted", and flinched like an Edwardian lady in the face of worldly unpleasantness, I would not admire any of these writers, who do acknowledge horrific realities, "things we most want to deny", even things we most want to deny in ourselves. I don't think anyone has outlined the realities of misogyny more relentlessly and brutally than Bolano; I don't think anyone talks about the brutality of the act of writing itself more precisely than Muller. Etc. The presenting of these truths is not what I'm objecting to. I'm objecting to the lack of resonance - which manifests as lack of feeling - in Crimp's writing. He may present these as brutal truths, but they don't register as brutal, so much as tough guy showmanship.


Alison Croggon said...

[Part 2...]

No doubt Crimp's fantasy of "brutal honesty" is part of the structure of reality; I wouldn't presume to claim it wasn't, since all works are. But it's only a very limited part of it. Mohamed, as projected or actual figure (it doesn't actually make any difference whether, in the terms of the play, he is "real"), is altogether too easy: the unhappy family Crimp shows us is also altogether too easy, its violence too predictable. All truths are partial, but some are more partial than others: I'd say that Crimp's, next to those of the writers I mention above, is particularly partial. Pessimism and bleakness of the kind Crimp shows us is just - obvious. Which may not be so for you, but for me is a hallmark of a certain mediocrity. What about this play is unexpected, what about it pierces through to that deep place of recognition, where those truths that we don't like lodge and flower? All the other writers I mention do that. They are in actuality much more distressing to read than Crimp, who strikes me as a domesticated version of these wilder and more unsettling talents.

But you describe the play's resonant effects on you, which clearly didn't engage for me beyond a certain interested fascination. Here we're entering the question of different subjectivities. Again, not absolute: the best I can do is describe why it didn't work forme, to the best of my ability. What I've said above is why I don't have the same responses as you do: they are certainly responses that the play tells me I ought to have, but which for me didn't kick in. As I also say in the review, it clearly galvanised some thought. It's not like Crimp can't write: I'm not saying that at all. I still end up feeling suspicious, though, in the same way I end up feeling suspicious of Hirst. I wonder, so what?

And now I really had better do some work...

Geoffrey said...

Great Sunday morning reading. Thank you.

Jana said...

I hope I'm not the only one delighted to see Chris and Cameron here, two faces (and heads) that always have a great deal to say.

I am going to refrain from commenting at present moment, because I'm not sure who to agree with first. I was equally maldisposed towards Alison's diagnosis of a 'cut-price Pinter', but then went back to my own analysis of Benedict Andrews's production of The City for STC last year, and found myself making very similar statements!

Perhaps I will just suggest that the closest point of comparison for The City ought to be Michael Haneke's work (in particular Cache'), before Beckett or Pinter. And that both have more in common with David Foster Wallace than may be readily apparent. Pinter and Beckett have lended the form, perhaps; but DFW, Haneke and Crimp share the sensibility.

Alison Croggon said...

Why would you think of a film-maker (however formally brilliant and self conscious) before a writer in terms of such a consciously literary play? Whatever the merits of The City, its realities are created first by language, not through the naturalistic imagery of films... It situates itself in literary terms, first, and that's where it earns its unease. And it's as writing the play fails, knowing it fails. Don't you find the political questions in it, given that, distasteful? Haneke manages not to make the "other" (woman, brown person, third world) simply a projection of western bourgeois neuroticism: Crimp is much less supple on this.

Alison Croggon said...

Btw - Geoffrey, why didn't I know about Melbourne Arts Reviews? Sometimes I need forcible pointing...

Geoffrey said...

Because it's just my little corner of the blogosphere ... and I happily sit there, twiddling my thumbs and thoroughly enjoying it. It actually started because my film reviews for the the Geraldton Guardian and the Midwest Times are not available online – and I wanted some kind of proof that they existed (other than the printed copies of the 'paper I am sent every week).

cameron woodhead said...

Alison, imputing ignorance to someone when you don’t know if it’s true is the worst kind of intellectual vanity. Beware the critic who thinks she’s the smartest person in the room – she’s usually too busy playing with the baubles of her own knowledge to fully experience the art.

For what it’s worth, yes, I have read and seen (and reviewed) Pinter's Ashes to Ashes – of course I have. Likewise a fair whack of Muller, though not Bolano. I’ll redress that last (picked up The Savage Detectives this arvo and it looks right up my alley), and am not inclined to show off here about the first two.

What’s your story? How much David Foster Wallace have you read? For me, it plugs into the discussion in a pretty crucial way.

Alison Croggon said...

I wasn't imputing ignorance: just wondering why you so studiously ignored the allusions I repeatedly made to those writers, thus thoroughly misunderstanding my argument. Which you still haven't addressed, btw.

No, I haven't read DFW. This isn't a competition, Cameron, whatever you think: neither of us can be "wrong". I am debating in good faith. I'm not sure, however, that you are.

cameron woodhead said...

Of course I'm debating in good faith. But what am I supposed to say to a comment like: "again, you misunderstand me. I hesitate to suspect it's because you've not read Howard Barker, or Heiner Muller, or Roberto Bolano, or perhaps even Pinter's Ashes to Ashes?" (How insulting!)

I can see where you're coming from. But I don't really think it's fair to compare it to Ashes to Ashes. There are some similar techniques as you point out, but A to A isn't doing the same thing as The City, and Pinter's writing doesn't put his own neck to the block the way Crimp's does.

You accepted the invitation to guillotine him, as is your right. I guess I was, I don't know, moved by the invitation, and thought accepting it would be ... cowardly and obvious. To me, it's an endlessly manipulative play, in the way that DFW is endlessly manipulative ... i.e. no less human or beautiful for that. Both of our responses to Crimp are valid. I'm just curious as to why our emphases are different.

Alison Croggon said...

It would be easier to believe you were debating in good faith if you were more interested in talking about the work than in taking swipes at "the critic", Cameron. Equally, what am I to say when I've spent hundreds of words - in a review, and in later comments - explicitly refusing a sentimental reading, only to find it instantly imputed to my motives in your own response? It does make me wonder why I bother to construct an argument at all: a feeling with which you must surely be familiar.

I think Pinter puts his own neck much more squarely on the guillotine, in terms of creative risk, than Crimp does. Crimp has the escape hatch of pomo irony at his back, which is where I find his work similarly empty to Hirst's. That's where the emphasis falls with me. I'll refer you back to my earlier reference to Handke, about a writer's ethics being in his style. With the emphasis there being on the idea, rather than the point that I have read Handke. I really don't think Crimp is as good a writer as his writing claims. If I say why again, I'll just be repeating myself.

Bed time for me.

Alison Croggon said...

An aside, a day later: is it uniquely Australian to consider literacy in a critic as a problem???

Jana said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jana said...

Erm, is there a way to reverse the order of this and my previous comment? I thought I posted the first part first, but clearly I haven't.

What I wrote was:

I am wondering, first, why Crimp needs to excel Beckett, Pinter and Mueller in order to gain his licence into a dramatic style which the former two may have brought about (and it's their great contribution to 20th-century writing, literary and dramatic)? Alison, you rarely ask of any contemporary playwright to exceed the accomplishments of the three most highly esteemed dramatists of the late twentieth century. It seems you ask Crimp to do this on the basis of writing style. To me, this is akin to asking every conceptual artist to be as great as Duchamp. Many other lesser playwrights have benefited from the innovations of Samuel Beckett, many other have written like Harold Pinter. The effect of the conversation is to suggest that certain dramatic innovations belong to a select few - but I consider iceberg anxiety to be one of the most commonly found characteristic of the British contemporary drama. Certainly it has already settled into convention by now?

Second, I find it strange that the plays of the Bare Witness kind are not brought into discussion more; plays such as The Modern International Dead, or even Do Not Go Gentle..., reviewed favourably by both Alison and Cameron to my horror. These are all, as The City and Cache', works dealing with the biggest ethical question of the early 21st century, which is the question of sitting over First-World breakfast while something terrible is happening somewhere else. A question of temporal and spatial shelteredness, which is so often expressed as spatio-temporal re-mapping (Srebrenica was 'only 2 hours from London' and East Timor how far from Darwin?).

Jana said...


The difference between Pinter and Crimp (and DFW and Haneke), a crucial difference in my mind, is that Pinter wrote about violence which was situatable in relation to the dramatic situation, while for Crimp that link is completely missing. The text and the subtext in their works are aligned at different angles. Not because Pinter was a more moral writer, or because Crimp is a cynic, but because they write at different times, to different times.

Or, let me put it this way: comfortable room and talking couple aside, Ashes to Ashes is a play about the Holocaust. Third-World people and war aside, The City is a play about a couple talking in a comfortable room. You clearly consider this a problem. As you write:

"For all their bleakness, neither Barker nor Pinter forget that love or justice are human realities, and that these realities are the only things that invest our crimes - intimate or global - with their proper outrage. ... Crimp, on the other hand, cannot seem to believe that love and justice, being human inventions, exist at all, which is quite different from writing about their lack or their failure: and in this, he shows himself to be a cynic."

But the moral gravity of the play has shifted from the location of the atrocity to the comfortable room. There are times when Alison's argument gets very close to moralistic (when she argues that Crimp fails to “recognise the structure of reality”. What you may perceive (I'm not saying that you do) as formalist splicing or hyper-detailed meanderings, sometimes excessive and sometimes simplistic, of DFW or Haneke or Crimp, I read and recognise as attempts to situate phenomena in relation to one another, phenomena that won't relate very easily. (Middle-age mother's sense of safety, global poverty, and brunch being a possible combination.)

Jana said...

(and finally)

What a host of contemporary plays does is try to bridge this lack of situatedness by pretending it's not there: by sending characters to war zones, as if being there equals seeing, as if seeing equals understanding, and as if understanding equals knowing. They create fantasies of imagined understanding, imagined relatability, that I'm probably not the only one to find offensive (and I won't go to see Bare Witness because I'm not convinced, from your review, that it avoids this trap in any meaningful way). When you discuss ethics or cynicism, why is Bare Witness left out? What excuses it?

Crimp's The City, on the other hand, I don't find offensive, even though it is a play about a middle-class couple discussing war somewhere else, because Crimp is genuinely alert to the cognitive inability to relate the global to the local, even when there is clearly some kind of connection, that is the moral centre of the problem he writes about. If he is refusing to “recognise the structure of reality”, this is because the lack of this recognition, what Raymond Williams would term a failure of cognitive mapping, is precisely the problem, and one that deserves more than a facile answer.

This is why, I think, Cameron speaks of Crimp putting his own head on the block: where Pinter draws connections, Crimp is open to admitting that we may not be able to draw these connections. In attempting to, he creates a series of short circuits, throughout his work, that place him close to DFW and to Michael Haneke, although DFW draws connections by discarding nothing, and Haneke in a more disciplined way, but never closing the loop.

And the cynicism of the pomo generation is an enabler of a sensibility, not merely a handicap – it allows to discuss the fragility of perception, of memory, of cognition, of sense-making, of morality. If one critic does and another doesn't see any merit in that pursuit, artistic or moral, how do we continue?

(Alison, if you could kindly delete the one comment too many... sorry...)

Alison Croggon said...

Jana - briefly (I am on a train) - I think Crimp is far more guilty of the kinds of first world blindnesses of which you accuse (without having seen it) Bare Witness. This blindness is what I was also suggesting in the comparison with Haneke in Cache/Hidden (higher up.) I think Haneke far more careful in such ethics than Crimp.

Much to respond to here but can't right now. I'd just say that the master of the kind of experiential slippage you describe here is Bolano, and again there is no comparison - Bolano aggressively refuses the kinds of escape hatches that Crimp has at his back. If Crimp is compared with these people, btw, I would say it is a compliment rather than nit: genus compared with them because that is where he is placed, and where he places himself. Another playwright worth thinking about here is Michel Vinaver, a superb stylist of contemporary corporatie language.

cameron woodhead said...

Thanks Jana. Your insights are daunting and liberating. My mind's muscle unclenched, reading them - although I didn't actually review (or even see) Do Not Go Gentle or The Modern International Dead.

Geoffrey said...

I agree Cameron. Wonderful Jana!

Two things by way of response.

I don't recall Crimp's married couple discussing the War. I certainly remember (the next door neighbour) Jenny's association with it by way of her husband being a doctor/specialist on the front line ...but at the same time, I was never convinced of the literal truth behind her war-time associations, lived vicariously through him. I was much more interested in the way she described the essence of her own work – at times, in what was a powerful performance from Ms Penman, it almost seemed as though she was arguing that what happens on an hourly basis in her own domestic ward entirely compares with what we are told is happening in his. The horror of both was equal for me. But I was engrossed in the performance, so I may have missed the nuance.

Secondly, you should see Bare Witness because it gets most of the way there I think. It certainly flirts with journalistic opportunism and instinct, even though it subverts the real horror of what these particular photographers are capturing into some kind of romantically-inclined subplot which completely lost me. I was reminded of a fantastic line in Michael Gurr's "Desirelines": "Grief makes me incredibly horny". Bare Witness suffers from an imagined sensuality that the fear for one's life may uncover and provoke in close proximity to a war zone, but it doesn't get close enough to the need, the hunger or the circumstance. So yes, I guess your concerns about "relatability" are valid ones. But it is worth seeing and I would love to read your thoughts about it.

And I read some of your blog last night. Wonderful! Thank you.

Alison Croggon said...

Ack! Apologies for the typos from my iPhone.

Jana, you say:

Ashes to Ashes is a play about the Holocaust. Third-World people and war aside, The City is a play about a couple talking in a comfortable room. You clearly consider this a problem.

That's a startling statement! Since the stage directions in Ashes to Ashes specify a comfortable, middle class living room, and that is where the action takes place. Since Martin Crimp specifically describes a city that quite clearly is like - even if it is not the same as - Fallujah, an imagining which also takes place in a demonstrably comfortable middle class house. What you describes as the "moral gravtity" of both plays is utterly ambiguous, and makes these plays directly comparable.

I'm totally puzzled by your comments about "violence which was situatable in relation to the dramatic situation". It makes absolutely no sense in relation to any Pinter play I can think of, from The Birthday Party to Mountain Language. The chill in Pinter is always in the dislocation between language/drama and what is happening on stage: the unsituatedness of the violence is at the core of Pinter's drama, and why when he was first performed people found it (and still find it) so difficult to deal with. So how is what Crimp does any different? I'm asking this quite seriously: I can't see what is so revelatory about Crimp, and especially - to be specific - about this play, aside from what I can only see as a retreating from the challenges that Pinter (or Barker, or Muller) put more harshly, and more complexly, onto the stage. Where it retreats is into the splintered bourgeois individual, as imagined at a literary distance. Maybe you find that interesting; I just don't. And when you speak of the disconnections that you find so interesting, I again think of the narrative vertigo in Bolano's 2666, caused again by the slippages of the psyche, and its devastating affect, and wonder why you are satisfied with this pale imitation.

...mtc (hate this blogger limitation!)

Alison Croggon said...

I would suggest that my argument is moral - or more precisely, calling on Bataille, "hypermoral". But not in the least, as you say it is, "moralistic", which is the position where one knows one's morals in advance (pace Andrew Bolt). Do you really think art does not have a moral structure? I can't think of a writer I deeply admire - from Blake to Rilke to Bolano to Serge to Rukeyser to Stein to Olson to HD to Genet (etc etc etc) who does not explore, in their aesthetic, a rigorous moral structure. I realise that aesthetic and morality/ethics are a difficult fit. This is where both you and Cameron persistently misunderstand me, and mistake this sense of moral structure for moralising. As Batailles points out, the morality of someone like Sade or Genet is called immoral or amoral precisely because it questions the received morality of society. My problem with Crimp is how easily he fits into that received morality: unlike these other artists I mention, who resist it, who work against the grain, Crimp works seductively into what we already know about ourselves. Yes, it's so easy not to admit a deeper difficulty, not to admit a deeper possibility. It's so easy to believe the writer is a cynic, because it lets us all off the hook. We don't need to feel, we can be above it all, "enabling" our post modern sensibilities. The risk of feeling need not happen. Wouldn't you say, in the face of "the fragility of perception, of memory, of cognition, of sense-making, of morality", the greatest risk of all is in fact feeling? I would. Perhaps this is the point where we part ways, where I will pick Bolano or Pinter or anyone who takes that risk over the aesthetic and moral timidities of a play like The City.

As for Bare Witness: it isn't excused. I think for the most part this is successful theare because it remains on the edge of the dilemma, presenting it with a transparency that keeps its ethical difficulty right in front of our noses. It addresses the realities of journalism - not romantically, btw - and the questions flower out of those realities, rather than being imposed on top of them. Interesting, in fact, to see this almost documentary directness. There is no "fantasy of imagined understanding" here, so much as a drama of spiraling alienation, which is what the play is essentially about. It's worth a look. I know exactly what kind of play you're referring to, and I think this is not that kind of theatre. And I'm kind of shocked you would judge it without seeing it yourself. Surely the first rule of criticism is to pay attention? (For the record, I'm not familiar with The Modern International Dead.)

Geoffrey said...

Alison, I am really interested as to why you say Bare Witness did not engage "romantically" with its subject. Most of the time, I felt like I was on safari (in a Born Free kind of a way) as opposed to actually being close enough to experience the fear. I remember being at London's Victoria Station when a bomb went off. Bare Witness had nothing on that ... even though that was chiefly its pretence.

And what about all that jumping into one another's arms?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Geoffrey - I think you're a little unkind here. Could any theatre work compete with the actual experience of being bombed?? As I said, Bare Witness to me was about a spiraling into alienation, so I don't think that "experiencing the fear" was what it was about; the opposite, rather. Hence I think, for me anyway, its delayed effect: it's a play about mediation, part of the mediation being the journalists themselves. That seems to me to be a true insight. It presented its journalists as professional junkies, hooked on the buzz, separated by technology and by professional necessities from any actual relation to the things they were reporting. That seemed to me to be pretty much spot on: journalists can be idealists, and in this kind of reporting often are, but the realities on the ground cause psychic survival techniques to kick in, as happens too in the emergency professions. Usually plays about journalists make me cringe, but this one didn't.

Born Dancin' said...

I agree with Alison re: Bare Witness - "I know exactly what kind of play you're referring to, and I think this is not that kind of theatre." My thoughts to a tee. To me the play is less about presenting its audience with the realities faced by photojournalists than about presenting the the realities of those journalists themselves. We see people witnessing horror, not the horror itself (much), and are invited to contemplate how this witnessing changes the witness.

To attempt to serve up the thing itself would be to me less romance than a kind of pornography of truth, which makes for terrible theatre.

Heinz said...

Does Geoffrey want to be blown up in the theatre?

You should head to Moscow, Geoffrey. You might have a real good night out.

Alison Croggon said...


Geoffrey said...

No Heinz. But I do like something to happen when I make the effort to go the Theatre.

The Last Word said...

I'm struggling to find 'moral structure' in The Caretaker, The Room or The Birthday Party. Perhaps Ashes to Ashes reflects a social consciousness emerging in his later work - but this is arguably not the reason Pinter is held in such high esteem.

This debate seems to have spiraled into an issue of whether the playwright challenges us politically ie marks a departure in critical thought or a profound ethical statement. Crimp indeed does bear some comparison to Pinter in the pantheon of modern drama. Whether he transcends the latter in the longer view of things is hardly for us to say right now. Whether you think his interrogation of dramatic construction has a moral compass or represents a departure from the other authors mentioned is an deeply subtle question. Many do feel his dramatic writing pushes boundaries and conventions in ways never seen before. In any case the comparison doesn’t diminish his enormous talent and influence.

I loved The City more than most, and I'm not sure I could even tell you why. I love its imagery, its winding, chaotic logic, its comic failures, its disconcerting half light. The play, as you say, inhabits that shady world between the thought and finished literary/dramatic construction. Exploring this act of construction, his characters are half formed, corrupted, bizarre creations like Tim Burton's lost souls or the 'sick bird in a box' referred to late in the play. His eye is on the frame and the framing logic - subverting and tweaking it at will. In so far as a moral compass must even be referred to, the mere act of mentioning a distant war is not a moral statement but a literary conceit like any other. That cannot be taken to mean that Crimp (or anyone who appreciates his work for that matter) is cynical, affected and vain, or that this somehow makes him a lesser playwright. Anyone who considers organised murder, innocent victims, unlawful invasion, unwinnable wars knows that these are terrible things - but terrible things happen within and on the perimeters of ordinary lives, and Crimp is writing (about writing) about people in ordinary lives in The City. It's quite wrong to suggest that his characters embody pomo cynicism that his aesthetic is smug and lacking moral rigour - that's an extremely long and unwieldy bow.

Alison Croggon said...

"This debate seems to have spiraled into an issue of whether the playwright challenges us politically ie marks a departure in critical thought or a profound ethical statement. "

Is it? I thought I was talking about style.

No, really.

Alison Croggon said...

I realise that sounds simply snarky. Thanks, whoever you are, for your contribution, which is, yes, interesting and smart.

But it's true: I have been, all the way along, talking about writerly style. I have a Nietzschian feeling that surface here is all, and I guess I've been scratching away, asking why I find so much of Crimp's writing so unsatisfactory. I don't think anywhere I have suggested that those who enjoy Crimp's work are cynical - it was actually Jana who said that.

I don't think I have found the vocabulary to adequately communicate what I mean - it is, as you say, a deeply subtle question. I've given it a good go here, and still the argument devolves onto questions of what might as well be called "content". Subject matter is part of it, of course, which is where I may be misleading, as much as others simply not understanding what I mean. Form and content are, of course, each reflections of each other, and deeply difficult to separate: but what seems to be happening in this instance is that people instantly forget about the formal aspect, and start debating ethics solely in terms of subject matter: and so it all ends up being a banal argument around politics. Which is not precisely what I mean.

I'm proposing form/style as an ethical question. Fully acknowledging, of course, its difficulty. That's what I take Lachenmann to mean: and maybe it does take a composer to think of the question.

Jana said...

What a fantastic discussion! Wow!

I will have to take a break before continuing, though, because I saw the Red Stitch production of The City last night and, firstly, it was completely different from my memory of it and, secondly, I found the direction (particularly of actors) puzzling. It largely emphasised those aspects of the play I had never noticed, and obscured those I remember as important. The City, I've discovered, is so amorphous that meaning seems largely a matter of emphasis; in any case, I'm no longer sure whether we're discussing two different works, or whether I had made up one in my mind.

But, I came away with the impression that the Red Stitch production made more Pinteresque what could have been less so... perhaps? By making an anxious domestic farce where I had preciously seen a highly intellectual play... perhaps? It was certainly more realistic (not naturalistic) and more comical than I had ever thought!

Anonymous said...

Bugger. I seem to have come to this discussion a bit late.

Obviously I've seen the play, albeit in Katie Mitchell's premiere at the Royal Court two years ago.

To echo Jana's point above (albeit in a slightly modified form), I can't help wishing I'd also seen this production, as what I'm finding really interesting is how much of what is variously being read into/onto the text has been informed by the choices of the director.

Much though I like the play a great deal, I can imagine how it could easily end up coming off like a morally vague Pinter rip-off (I paraphrase enormously). I remember thinking the same thing about Mitchell's production of The Country (sort of the companion piece, in a way) in 2000 - also at the Royal Court.

This time round (i.e. watching The City in 2008), perhaps solely due to Crimp/Mitchell Stockholm Syndrome, I had a great deal more faith in the entire enterprise. Although I'm not convinced that my review ( really unpacked exactly what I'd got out of it (although, see how my squeamishness about "not giving away the ending" got in the way of saying what the play does).

Still, fascinating stuff.

Andrew Haydon

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jana - sorry for the late reply. I am like the White Rabbit at the moment.

I wish I had seen that Andrews production. How much of that would have been Benedict's intellectuality, though? And isn't that amorphousness, that ability for text to be transformed through performance, part of what goes on with any play? (And why some people regard theatre texts with deep suspicion?)

Hi Andrew - brilliant to see you here. Crimp/Mitchell Stockholm Syndrome? That's an exotic disease indeed...I wish I had seen that one, just as I wish I'd seen Benedict Andrews's. I wonder if it would have made any difference to what I ultimately feel about the play? Most of my reservations about Crimp's writing come from actually reading the texts. Though I should say that the argument here has made me sound more negative than I actually am, in the polarising way that arguments can. What I felt from the beginning was a profound ambivalence: and this, as I say in the review, is tempered by the undeniable fact that I thought what I was watching was a fine production. Which I actually think is an unlikely result in the absence of a good text. I don't think that there's any doubt that Crimp can write well. But maybe I'm trying, however clumsily, to move beyond this "good" and "bad" thing, to some other kind of questions.