Review: The Animals & Children Took to the Streets, Electronic City, Songs for Nobodies ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: The Animals & Children Took to the Streets, Electronic City, Songs for Nobodies

Some days, writing is about as much fun as flogging yourself with a wooden spoon. Different parts of the brain refuse to speak to each other, which causes problems with the brain-hand-keyboard co-ordination traditionally associated with the art of writing. Thoughts float past in clogged, alienated lumps, not one connecting to the next. Every sentence you screw out has the vim and grace of a three-legged gazelle on valium. Gentle reader, it's bloody miserable.

And yes, Ms TN spent all yesterday - hours of fruitless, frustrating struggle - in such a state, attempting to write of three shows she saw last week, until at last she gave up and retired in dudgeon and dolour. I'm going to try again today, in the hope that the Muse of Criticks - Errata, wasn't it? - might be more merciful, because this week I'm seeing another four shows. (Plus I'm at the Wheeler Centre tonight talking about Privacy in the Age of Social Media, which I hope might give some nuance to these musings...) I suspect that my real problem is that most of me packed up and stopped at the end of October, whether I wanted me to or not. It's been a long and full year - novels written, essays churned, blogs blogged, stuff stuffed - and, basically, Me has had it.

This by way of an apologia for responses that are brief and partial and perhaps a little disconnected at the joints, which maybe bothers no one but myself.

1927's The Animals & Children Took to the Streets made me think about genre. The company itself is named for, among other things, the year that Fritz Lang's classic SF movie Metropolis was made. Back then genre art, although it certainly existed, lacked the dizzying sub-categories of modern marketing, and the lines between "literary" and "genre", or "popular" and "art", were less blackly drawn.

There were the fantasy worlds of Lord Dunsany or George MacDonald or William Morris, and the science fiction of pioneers such as HG Wells or Jules Verne, themselves with plenty of literary precedents. And there was plenty of pulp: the proto-steampunk stories of late 19th century scientific romances, say, in which sociopathic robots terrorised Native American savages. But SFF, from Morris on, always had a thread of social idealism in between its imperialist narratives, and modernist artists frequently appropriated its tropes for imaginative visions of the contemporary world.

1927 takes us back to genre art's modernist heritage, especially its social critique. The Animals and Children is a parable of a modern city, written with a wicked wit by Suzanne Andrade. It's performed with a mixture of animation and white-face melodramatic acting, as if it were a graphic novel brought to life. Backed by live piano, the story is set in the cockroach-infested slums of the Bayou, which skulk in the east beyond the shiny skyscrapers. It tells how the anarchic slum children invade the respectable parks and gardens of the well-to-do, demanding a decent living, a decent education and an X-Box.

The government's response is a plot to kidnap the revolutionary children and feed them addictive lollies that not only sedate them, but paralyse them with fear: a suggestive reference not only to drugs like Ritalin, but to that great opiate of the masses, the mass media. After a week of treatment in an abandoned asylum, they are returned to their families, who declare their subjugated young a great improvement.

There are a couple of sub-plots: the well-meaning and naive do-gooder Agnes Eaves moves into the slums to reform the bad children with pots of clag and creative programs, and her daughter Evie is kidnapped as well. The lugubrious Caretaker of the Bayou Mansions, who looks rather like the mad scientist in Metropolis, has a hopeless crush on her, and sacrifices his one chance to leave the Bayou in order to rescue Evie. There is - apparently - a choice between two endings, the "realist" and the "idealist" - but despite the audience calling for the idealistic one, we got the realist ending: Agnes returns, a sadder and wiser woman, to her little village, the slum children remain in the slums, sedated and frightened, the Caretaker begins to save up again for his ticket out of the Bayou, and everyone gets on with their lives.

For all its gestures towards the fantastic and its sharp comic wit, The Animals and Children delivers a bleak picture of contemporary life. In tandem with the headlines about the biggest government cuts in Britain since the 1920s, increasing economic divisions between the rich and poor and a worldwide drift to the right, its brutalised world begins to seem more literal truth than fantasy.

Its framing in fact permits a far more direct critique than might otherwise be palatable. The abiding spirits behind this tale of urban squalor, middle class powerlessness and authoritarian repression are a couple of Soviet Russia's most talented artists: the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose lively, disrespectful writing championed the urban poor, and the brilliant Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko. Paul Barritt's animation ranges across references from Betty Boo to Inspector Gadget, but is mostly like a cross between a graphic novel by Shaun Tan and Rodchenko's collages: its soft gloomy browns recall Tan's melancholy urban landscapes, while Rodchenko's graphic invention is directly referenced with angular blocks of animated text and lots of Cyrillic font.

All this is bound up in a story that, aside from its grim message, looks and sounds like a children's fairytale. Its razor-sharp folding of animation and performance makes extremely seductive theatre. I'm not sure whether it's one of the most subversive shows I've seen.

Across town, Hoy Polloy - who for the past decade have stubbornly continued to premiere some of the most interesting international plays around - offer another dystopian view of contemporary life. Electronic City, by German playwright Falk Richter, looks at the marriage of technology and capitalism, and how the new corporate nomadism comes at a horrific human cost.

Richter is a stablemate of Marius von Mayenburg at Berlin's Schaub├╝hne am Lehniner Platz, where he is an associate director, and is regarded as one of Germany's leading exponents of the post-dramatic theatre. Written in 2004, Electronic City is a fascinating text: it's mostly a series of chorus-like third person statements that might be divided between any number of performers (Richter suggests a cast of "between five and 15"). Buffeted by this continual commentary and mediation are two characters, both employees of the global city that corporatism has made of the world: Tom (Dan Walls), a businessman, and his wife Joy (Sarah Ogden), a kind of international check-out chick for an airport supermarket chain.

These two are examined at a crucial moment of breakdown. Tom has arrived at another city to broker another deal (another takeover of another company) and has completely lost his bearings: he finds himself in a hotel corridor, unable to remember the code to his room: "he can't remember any more, he absolutely can't remember, he can't even name one place he has been to recently or what he actually did there". Joy is a "stand-by" flown to whichever part of the world needs a person to plug a hole: today she is scanning goods in a take-away food counter when the infra-red scanner stops working, leaving her in front of an increasing queue of angry businessmen.

The play tracks their different crises as they attempt desperately to make some authentic human contact. The chorus is a continual confusing mediation, mimicking the information overload that characterises modern cyberlife: Tom and Joy might be stars in a reality tv documentary, or actors in a horror film, playing themselves but always less certain who this self they're playing is supposed to be. The effect is a dissociated panic, a creeping horror at the disconnect between the cauterised, disembodied language of contemporary life (the hotel chain called "Welcome Home" that has, for instance, nothing to do with any human sense of home; the debased lingua franca of business-speak, "downsize, download, outsource, out-task", that destroys meaning with euphemism).

Wayne Pearn's sternly minimal production employs a chorus of six, presenting Electronic City as a cross between physical theatre and oratorio. It's constantly inventive and energised, and often, despite the dystopian message, very funny. Designers Kat Chan and Ben Morris create a deceptively simple stage that unobtrusively throws the entire emphasis onto the bodies of the actors. The cast is dressed in black, the single splash of colour provided by Joy's red-checked apron, and the space is entirely defined by light and shadow. The production ruthlessly exposes the text, and it's all the more powerful for the absence of the technology that the play invokes, for insisting on the human body as the medium of its message.

In the centre of this production are two first-class performances by Ogden and Walls: they provide the emotional authenticity that is splintered and destroyed by placelessness, demonstrating Richter's thesis that global corporatism inevitably ends in madness. They represent a desire so thwarted it barely knows how to name itself, so deeply trapped in their anxiety that they can't see past a passive resignation. Powerful, riveting theatre.

Songs For Nobodies is a simple conceit – the great singers of the 20th century are summoned, with a kind of theatrical voodoo, through the recollections of the anonymous people who loved their songs. And with the miraculous voice of Bernadette Robinson as her medium, Joanne Murray-Smith is on a winner.

This play is an evolution of Murray-Smith’s hit one-woman show Bombshells, a series of monologues by different women on the brink of emotional disintegration, which was written to exploit the pyrotechnic talents of Caroline O’Connor. This time Murray-Smith has Robinson’s uncanny vocal abilities at her disposal, which permits the introduction of some of the greatest songs ever written. Each monologue recounts a story of how the lives of the singers evoked in the show – Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas – briefly brushed against the “nobodies” of the title.

What’s impressive in the writing is its wit and exactness: each character is vividly realised. Like their songs, the singers represent a dazzling freedom, a possibility beyond the mundane, even a strange blessing, that is briefly granted in otherwise unremarkable lives. If it sometimes comes across as a paean to resignation, to a powerlessness that rubs uneasily with the thesis of Richter's play, this strikes against the potency of Robinson's performance.

The show opens with a disquisition on happiness – defined as the absence of fear that something bad will happen – by Bea Appleton, toilet room attendant. Disappointed in both life and love, Bea has learned to cut her cloth according to the measures given her. Her shining memory is of Judy Garland coming into the ladies to find Bea crying. The story segues into Garland’s rendition of Come Rain or Come Shine – “We’ll be happy together, unhappy together / Now won’t that be fine.”

Murray-Smith plays the variations on this theme with a diverse cast of characters – an usher, an English librarian, an Irish nanny and a New York Times journalist desperate to get off the women’s pages. The variety of accents and characters permits Robinson to demonstrate her virtuosic acting skills. But the real draw of this show is her voice, which shifts from the smoky blues of Billie Holiday to the vibrant contralto of Patsy Cline with startling ease.

Her performances of Edith Piaf and Maria Callas, however, strike another chord altogether: they rise beyond the virtuosity of mimicry to the sublime. In these moments, she is doing much more than imitation. The baroque composer Lully is supposed to have said that music was a way of speaking to the dead; and Robinson makes you believe it.

Pictures: top: Esme Appleton as Agnes Eaves in The Animals & Children; centre: Dan Walls and chorus in Electronic City. Photo: Fred Kroh. Bottom: Bernadette Robinson in Songs for Nobodies. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Versions of the reviews of Electronic City and Songs for Nobodies were published in the Australian.

The Animals & Children Took to the Streets. Performer, writer and director, Suzanne Andrade; animation and design, Paul Barritt; performer and co-costume designer Esme Appleton, performer and composer Lillian Henley. Costume design Sarah Munroe, voice Jamie Adams, lighting by Jamie Adams. 1927 @ the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse. Until November 28.

Electronic City by Falk Richter, directed by Wayne Pearn. Sets & costumes by Kat Chan, lighting by Ben Morris, sound design by Tim Bright. With Dan Walls, Sarah Ogden, Nick Darling, Liza Dennis, Ngaire Dan Fair, Elizabeth McColl, Luke Mulquiney and Daniel Rice. Hoy Polloy, Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Brunswick. Until November 27.

Songs For Nobodies, by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Simon Phillips. With Bernadette Robinson. Melbourne Theatre Company @ Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. Until December 23.

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