MIAF Diary #2: Intimacy, The Blue Dragon ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

MIAF Diary #2: Intimacy, The Blue Dragon

In 2007, Raimondo and Adriano Cortese's company Ranters had an independent hit with their production Holiday, which saw a return season at the Malthouse the following year. Featuring Ranters regulars Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt, Holiday was an apparently artless construction of inconsequential conversations between strangers at a resort, punctuated by some beautiful baroque singing. Absurd and gently comic, it opened up the vulnerabilities and innocence of its characters, leaving you with a mysterious buoyancy and joy.

Since then, Ranters have further explored the idea of the inconsequential through different scenarios. Importing Beth Buchanan into their ensemble, they produced Affection at the Arts Centre's Black Box, which followed the conversations of friends in a lounge room. I thought this show exposed the perils of this kind of theatre, which walks a fiendishly narrow line between an artful transparency and the merely banal. Is it enough to frame the apparently "ordinary" to make it art?

Their much-anticipated show Intimacy, Malthouse Theatre's festival offering, explores the same conceit again, but does little to deepen the inquiry. Here the narrator (Lum) approaches strangers in St Kilda (Buchanan and Moffatt) and asks if they would like to talk. "A surprising number," he reports, "said yes." What follows is a kind of documentary relation of these conversations, presented as theatre.

Anna Tregloan's set is a consciously theatrical, abstract space: the stage is naked except for several large rocks, like those you might find on a foreshore, its walls surrounded by plain blue curtains. St Kilda itself is evoked by an introductory video and a burst of ambient sound. Then there's a close-up of Moffatt's face, labelled "Russell, 62", and the first conversation, with a man who is a roller-coaster geek, gets under way. The conversations are punctuated by longish silences, and the odd spot at a karaoke bar, where one or other of the performers shows how badly they can sing. (Though anyone who has seen Holiday won't believe it). And there are a couple of deliberately amateurish dance routines.

There's no doubt Intimacy makes affable and often funny theatre, but it seldom reaches beyond what has become a comfortable convention. It's coyly self-conscious: the silences are mannered pauses, rather than spaces in which unspoken desires and longings anxiously reveal themselves, and the conversations are too often consciously shaped to reflect back on the work itself. This isn't, in itself, a problem: but I did have a quote from Endgame echoing in my ears through the play: "We're not beginning to... to... mean something?"

I was too aware of a hand at work directing its meanings, which mitigates the airiness that made Holiday such a beautiful piece. David Franzke's maddening sound design, which seems to be at once everywhere and nowhere, flooding all available space while somehow flattening out its texture, contributes to this sense of dilution. But it might also be the premise of the show, which depends on an interlocutory framework. What do people actually reveal about themselves in interviews with strangers? The "intimacy" of its title describes the consequenceless trust between people who will probably not meet again, and the play itself seems to be about people who are unable, for whatever reason, to form close relationships. Which is to say, it's not about intimacy at all, but its avoidance.

There is a point to exploring what people might be, if released from the prisons of the selves that others project onto them: but I seldom felt that I was watching more than the construction of another self, the artful construction of performance. What's lacking is difficult to articulate. This piece evades the nagging loneliness that seems to exist in its centre, and at the same time fails to achieve the delicate tact of Holiday. I suspect that on both counts, this is because it gives its audience little space in which their understanding might bloom: paradoxically, it's too controlled, too theatrical, to maintain its own anti-theatrical conceit. A comparison might be with an artist of the ordinary like Jérôme Bel, who balances with superb restraint the contradictions of apparently spontaneous performance.

Perhaps this emotional avoidance is the point. As I said, it's affable theatre, generating a lot of laughs: but I don't think that's enough. The tightrope of risk seems to me to be carefully chalked on the ground here, rather than airily stretching over our heads. Painless, but disappointing: and who wants theatre to be painless?


Robert Lepage’s The Blue Dragon, a continuation of his mid-1980s work The Dragon Trilogy, is also naggingly disappointing. As a piece of visual theatre, there's no doubt that it’s an achievement: with the help of a huge crew (who came out for some deserved applause at the end), Lepage and his set designer Michel Gauthier create a kind of theatrical film, complete with credits.

The design works in a two-dimensional plane: there is no perspective of depth, a sense that is highlighted by the clever interactive projections. Like the cartoon frames in a graphic novel, the set is divided horizontally and vertically into eight frames, which can unite into a single image or be isolated into different cells, as in a series of images towards the end. This generates some completely gorgeous moments: snow falling on a black screen; tiny Miyazake-style trains crawling along the stage before a dark industrial cityscape; an airport departure lounge; a train station: most frequently, the hero's double-storey apartment in the old quarters of Shanghai.

For all its graphic influences, this show generates a naturalism that is more usually associated with film. The play itself, co-written by Lepage and Marie Michaud, seems like a romcom movie: take away the technical wizardry, and what's left is pure soap opera. The story revisits Pierre LaMontagne (Henri Chasse), the protagonist of The Dragon Trilogy. Now 50 years old, he has abandoned his own art in favour of running a gallery in Shanghai. He is sleeping with one of his protegees, Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo), a young artist he discovered in Hong Kong when she gave him the blue dragon tattoo of the title, and who specialises in self-portraits taken on her mobile phone, a supposedly revolutionary aesthetic of individualism.

The story begins when his ex-wife Claire Forêt (Marie Michaud) turns up. A late-40s alcoholic advertising executive, she is visiting China to adopt a baby. Pierre attempts, unsuccessfully at first, to rekindle their relationship: he is at a loss, belonging neither in Quebec nor in China, and hopes that Claire will solve his problems for him. Claire returns from the adoption agency without the child, and develops a relationship with Xiao Ling, not knowing that she is Pierre's lover. And then Xiao Ling falls pregnant... so will Claire adopt this baby instead?

And so it goes on, narrating a story that is bafflingly trite. Xiao Ling - the desirable, sexual young woman - begins to represent China itself, even though the two western characters do not, in anything like the same schematic fashion, represent the West. This is partly because her character is so secondary to the others, but it is also a sense reinforced by Lepage himself. In his director's note in the program, he suggests that The Blue Dragon is about "our contradictory feelings about China today", our fears that it is a "gigantic whale about to swallow us whole", a "golem that will crush us all". It's hard to relate these statements to the work itself, which is really about a love triangle with exotic furnishings and with a baby thrown in to make things interesting: but it does highlight a surprising Orientalism.

The Blue Dragon in fact tells us very little about China, which figures mostly as exotic backdrop to the relationship between the two aging and lonely French Canadians, who are attempting to deal with their lost idealism and interior emptiness. The few moments of real feeling are between these two. Despite a vivid performance by Tai Wei Foo, Xiao Ling is little more than a catalyst for their relationship, a sense that becomes increasingly clear when you begin to wonder about the gaping holes in the narrative around Xaio Ling - why does she keep the baby, when she clearly doesn't want it, and abortion is so easy to arrange? If she does want it, why does she so easily give it away? And so on.

In short, The Blue Dragon seems like a nicer, updated version of Madame Butterfly, which ends with everyone smiling: this time, the West gets to keep the baby. Unambiguously gorgeous to look at, but in the end, troublingly empty.

A version of this review was published in yesterday's Australian.

Pictures: Top: Beth Buchanan and Paul Lum in Intimacy, Malthouse. Photo: Jeff Busby. Bottom: Tai Wei Foo in The Blue Dragon. Photo: Louise Leblanc.

Intimacy, devised and directed by Adriano Cortese, text by Raimondo Cortese. Set and costumes by Anna Tregloan, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, sound design by David Franzke. With Beth Buchanan, Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt. Malthouse Theatre, @ the Beckett, until October 23.

The Blue Dragon, by Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud, translated by Michael Mackenzie, directed by Robert Lepage. Set design Michel Gauthier, sound design by Jean-Sebastien Cote, choreographer Tai Wei Foo. With Henri Chasse, Marie Michaud and Tai Wei Foo. Ex Machina. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 12.

1 comment:

Miss Ethel Malley said...

o Alison these reviews struck me as scrupulously fair, and just reinforced my view that even quaint and ingeniously-wrought stage pictures just aren't enough in the absence of any dramatic impulse.

I won't bang on again about the Strindberg one act play I saw Somewhere Else a couple of years ago - single set, simple lighting, period costume, cast of three - one of my great 80 minutes in the theatre. Searingly modern and gripping gender role investigation. Written in 1900.

This other stuff sounds like watching fireworks. Initially highly diverting, but after a while you notice your neck hurts.