Perth Festival: Trust, AftermathPerth Festival: My Bicycle Loves You, Waltzing the WilarraPerth Festival: Out Of Context - For Pina, Martha WainwrightPerth Festival: Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, The Red ShoesDavid Williamson and the Never Ending StoryPerth FestivalReview: 'Tis Pity She's A WhoreReview: A Behanding in Spokane, No-ShowReview: Ruben Guthrie, Skin Tight ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 28, 2011

Perth Festival: Trust, Aftermath

Ms TN is now back at her desk, dazed and bizarrely jetlagged after a mega-packed week in Perth. With some cunning scheduling, I managed to see most of the theatre and dance on offer at the Perth Festival. To make things easier, I had already reviewed a couple of events on their premieres in Melbourne - 1927's The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, and Lucy Guerin's Human Interest Story (click for reviews). The only shows I didn't get to were Western Australian Ballet's Dance at the Quarry, Black Swan's Boundary Street and the family show Apollo 13: Mission Control.

Thinking back over the whole experience, what strikes me most is its emotional impact. For her final year as artistic director, Shelagh Magadza put together a diverse program of performance that plucked at a common human chord: from Alain Platel's exhilarating contemporary dance Out of Context to Yirra Yaakin's Waltzing the Wilarra, these were performances about making felt connections. A thread through all of them was humour, but this never elicited empty laughter. They were also, again in very different ways, responses to living in a complex and alienated modern world in which this human contact is marginalised and heavily mediated. It made the past week very rich and, in the best possible sense, heartening. If art doesn't give us courage, what is it for?

The encouragement art can offer isn't, however, about distracting or deluding us: an important part of its power is its unflinching questioning of the world in which we live. The final two shows I saw - Trust, a collaboration between German playwright and director Falk Richter and choreographer Anouk van Dijk from the Schaubühne Berlin, and New York Theatre Workshop's Aftermath, an exemplary documentary theatre work about the Iraq War - are both overtly political works, although they couldn't be more different in their theatrical approach.

Falk Richter is one of the most prominent of the current generation of German playwrights, a leading exponent of postdramatic theatre who creates texts that generate their energies from poetic rather than conventionally dramatic mechanisms. Last year Hoy Polloy premiered his play Electronic City, a work which, typically for Richter, explores the intimate effects of global corporatism on ordinary people. Richter is fascinated by collapse: in particular the intricate connections between economic and social collapse and its pathologies as traced through the details of individual lives.

It's not at all surprising that such a writer should be attracted to dance theatre, and it's fascinating to see what happens when a writer with such a profound understanding of theatrical poetic works with a choreographer. It's clearly a fertile connection: Trust is Falk Richter's second of three collaborations with Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk. Together they create a profoundly poetic work of physical theatre, in which the performers trace through text and dance the collapse of trust in a complex contemporary world.

Katrin Hoffman's stage design presents us with cavernous, exposed scaffolding in which items from domestic life - sofas, chairs - are littered on various levels. Musician Malte Beckenbach plays the score live on stage, ranging through acoustic songs to textured electronic noise. The nine virtuosic performers perform the text through microphones, narrating the story of a disintegrating relationship. Although it always seems to be the same relationship, the narrative flows from one performer to another, contradicting itself, becoming more complex and less certain with each repetition.

The opening speech, which like much of the text is repeated by different performers, is a declaration of complete individual paralysis in which choice is a phantom: no matter what choice this individual makes, whether he or she loves or doesn't love, whether he or she leaves or doesn't leave, it will make no difference. This segues into a stand-up monologue which is, more than anything, a comic riff that leaps off the story of the break-up into an ever widening vortex of meditations on the collapse of systems, financial systems, political systems, pressing upon the psyche with a sense of increasing anxiety. In its po-faced alienation and almost myopic attention to detail, it reminds me of some of the early prose of Peter Handke, and it has an intellectual suppleness that itself becomes a symptom of this skittering panic, a sense that certainties are shifting, that the ground beneath our feet can no longer be taken for granted.

This sets the scene for a kaleidoscope of movement and fragmentary narrative that circles around the erosion of private and public ideas of trust. One thing I greatly admired in this show was its unfaltering sense of rhythm, how its constant shifts seemed to spiral into greater intensity through its duration: it's a beautifully judged work, balancing acutely between humour and desolation, movement and stillness, that creates an almost hypnotic harmony. At times it almost becomes something like lucid dreaming.

The dancers fall over, rise, fall over again, their movements somehow counter-intuitive, at times seemingly working against the expectations of the body and gravity. It's often satirical - there's a wonderful dialogue in which an unfaithful lover becomes a kind of avatar of the bankruptcy of politicians like Silvio Berlusconi - but nagging in the centre, coming into focus as the work progresses, is a notion of the suicidal nature of contemporary corporatism, the seed of collapse that the market itself makes inevitable, and the alienated delusion that makes this possible. The finance markets, Richter seems to be suggesting, are the actual terrorists, hypnotised by the beautiful possibility of destruction.

Against this, Richter and van Dijk posit a mute vision of individual connection. It finishes with a fragile and moving vision of the possibility of co-operation. One dancer begins a beautiful succession of sweeping movement which promises collapse but which instead flows into an undulating dance, which is picked up by one performer, then by another, until the whole company is dancing in unison. It suggests another kind of relationship, another kind of trust. Trust was made in 2009, a direct response to the global financial crash; watching it now, as the seismic implications of that collapse still ripple across the world in protests across the Middle East and in America, it seems, if anything, to have gathered more meaning.

The New York Theare Workshop's Aftermath is also a direct response to global politics: in this case, the Iraq War. It poses a fascinating contrast to Trust. The theatre couldn't be more simple: the nine performers enter a bare stage, and speak directly to the audience. When they are not performing, they sit back stage, their backs to the audience, slightly illuminated so we are aware of their liminal presences.

I've seldom seen documentary theatre better done. The text is compiled by director Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from interviews with Iraqi refugees that they conducted in 2008 in Jordan. As they say in the program, they spoke to as wide a variety of people as possible - Sunni, Shi'ite, Christian, atheist, working class, middle class (although they point out that as Iraq was largely middle class before the war, most of their interviewees are middle class). Their aim was to make a work of theatre that looked at what happened to civilians who, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, found themselves in the middle of an increasingly vicious war zone.

This work impressed me with its integrity. Although it is quite clearly directed towards an American audience, it scrupulously edits out the Western arguments about the war, pro and anti, in favour of presenting a bald narrative of the human impact of conflict. They've taken a lot of care to give as broad a view as possible of the violence in Iraq: the play includes accounts of atrocities by US military, Iraqi police and sectarian militia. But perhaps its most important message is that these things happened to people who are not faceless victims, abstract casualty figures or disposable Muslims. They are people who wish to live their lives, work, raise their children and make their homes, like everybody else.

Aftermath uses the character of Shahid (Fajer Al-Kaisi), a translator, as a point of connection between the different narratives and between the performers and the audience. Shahid is a young man who learned his English through playing video games, and became a translator and fixer in the early days of the war. He introduces us to the characters, who are carefully chosen to represent a diversity of Iraqis: they include Yassar (Ryan Shams), a disarmingly vain and wealthy dermatologist who boasts about the swimming pool and fast cars he had before the war; an imam (Ted Sod) and Rafiq (Ramsay Faragallah), a pharmacist who lived in Fallujah.

We meet them as the interviewers would have first met them, being welcomed into their houses, offered coffee, drinks, food, being asked if we mind if they keep the television on because of the World Cup match between Iraq and Australia. They begin by speaking of their lives in Iraq, the good and the bad: they tell us some good Iraqi jokes, classic instances of the black humour that flourishes under dictators like Saddam. All of them speak as exiles do of their longed-for and now vanished homes. All of them have photographs which they show the audience, the only traces they possess of homes now vanished, people now dead.

The stories of violence come later in the piece, once we have some understanding of who these people are. And when they do, they are devastating: Rafiq tells of how his nephew was randomly and brutally shot in a house raid by US soldiers; Basima (Leila Buck) how she lost almost her whole family, including her two month old baby, when their car was blown up as they took the baby to have its vaccination shots, suffering horrific burns herself. "Translate that," she says fiercely to Shahid. The imam Abdul-Alyy (Ted Sod) is arrested on false grounds and ends up in Abu Ghraib. When the translator says that many Americans are sorry for what happened there, he explodes in rage: "There are mistakes," he says, "for which apologies are not enough."

All these accounts are delivered with a profound theatrical tact, which saves the play from being a sensationalist exploitation of the suffering of others. The directness of theatre gives these stories an unmediated power impossible in other media, reducing the sense of voyeurism with its direct invitation: and it also, crucially, gives its characters an inviolable autonomy, which prevents them from being merely "victims". Hovering beneath the surface is an acute awareness of the untranslatability of experience: the gap of understanding is permitted to grate rawly. As with life itself, there are no neat endings.

It's impeccably performed by a hugely impressive cast, and the simplicity of its staging and conceptual framework reinforces the complexity of the experience it offers. I thought the dramaturgy wavered a little towards the end, rising to a premature emotional climax that left its denouement to flap in the wind, making it feel a little long. Even so, it's gripping from its opening moments, and makes necessary, unmissable theatre, infused with a knowledge that seems as urgent now as it did when it was made. I wish all documentary theatre were this good.

Picture: Trust by Richter Falk and Anouk van Dijk.

* Alison Croggon travelled to Perth as a guest of the Perth International Arts Festival

Trust, a project by Falk Richter and Anouk van Dijk. Stage design by Katrin Hoffman, costume design by Daniela Selig, music by Malte Beckenbach, dramaturgy by Jens Hillje, lighting by Carsten Sander. With Peter Cseri, Anouk van Dijk, Lea Draeger, Jack Gallagher, Vincent Redetzki, Judith Rosmair, Kay Bartholomäus Schulze, Stefan Stern, Nina Wollny and Malte Breckenbach. Schaubühne Berlin. Until March 2.

Aftermath, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, directed by Jessica Blank. Lighting by Caleb Wertenbaker, costume design by Gabriel Berry, stage design by Richard Hoover, music and sound by David Robbins. With Omar Koury, Fajer Al-Kaisi, Leila Black, Maha Chehlaoui, Ramsey Fargallah, Rufio Lerma, Ryan Shams, Ted Sod and Rasha Zamamiri. New York Theatre Workshop. Until March 1.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Perth Festival: My Bicycle Loves You, Waltzing the Wilarra

Ms TN is not normally in the business of doling out writing tips, of which there is a sufficient plenitude online: but here's one. If ever you want to get some work done, book yourself into a hotel in a strange city for a week. The lack of procrastinatory devices such as washing dishes, polishing the bathroom taps, answering the telephone or castigating children has a startling effect. Everyone says that the internet is the problem, but I find that the internet runs out fast when there is nothing else to leaven it with.

Aside from seeing theatre, since I arrived in Perth last weekend I've done almost nothing but write, as I have a couple of pressing deadlines which I brought across the continent with me. This meant that yesterday - which was scheduled for writing reviews - I hit that mysterious but frustrating wall which forbids the construction of a single thought, let alone a paragraph. On such days it is best to bow to the gods, and hope for better things. Meanwhile, the shows are piling up. So before I discuss my midweek adventures, let me highly recommend Trust, a collaboration between playwright/director Falk Richter and choreographer Anouk van Dijk from the Schaubühne Berlin that opened last night. It's a must-see for anyone interested in the possibilities of dance theatre.

On Tuesday night I saw David Milroy's music theatre work Waltzing the Wilarra, which is given a luscious production by Wesley Enoch for Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company. Drawing on Australian traditions of cabaret and vaudeville, it's a swift-moving evening of knockabout melodrama with a political message. Its easy slippages from highly poetic language to vulgar comedy and its heightened theatricality recalls no one so much as the Wheatbelt poet and playwright Dorothy Hewett (whose play The Man from Mukinupin Enoch directed in a superb 2009 revival for Belvoir St and the MTC).

The play opens and closes with a scene of stunning theatrical lyricism - Old Charlie (Trevor Jamieson), softly lit in the darkness, recalls a transcendent moment of initiation during his boyhood. He walks into a pool until he is up to his chest in water on a night that "was so still, the stars floated on the water...I couldn't tell where the night sky ended and the pool began". This moment of union and innocence sets the keynote for a possibility that is lost and betrayed in the action of the play.

The chief theme here is reconciliation: whether it's possible and, more searchingly, what it might be. The action is set in a post-war dance club in Perth run by black MC Mr Mack (Kelton Pell) where white and black can socialise, despite repressive laws that ban Aborigines from entering Perth and threaten immediate arrest if they are found drinking alcohol. What's important in this play is that there are intricate (if troubled) familial relationships between all the characters, white and black.

The local star is the singer Elsa (Ursula Yovich). She is married to a white ex-soldier, Jack (Tim Solly), who is suffering a severe form of what is now called PTSD. It has transformed him into a sick and violent man, who in his clearer moments knows that he will eventually kill his wife. Elsa is a stolen child, brought up in a mission; her mother, Mrs Cray (Irma Woods) is "nanny" to the white girl Fay (Alexandra Jones), whom Elsa resentfully feels has taken her place in her mother's heart, while Mrs Cray is the Australian equivalent of a household slave. Jack's adopted brother is Charlie (Trevor Jamieson), who is also in love with Elsa, while Fay has a consuming, hopeless and predatory crush on Charlie. The ensuing melodrama of jealous passion is played out in song and scenes of naturalistic drama, all of which is framed with vaudevillean patter from Old Toss (Ernie Dingo) and his offsider Young Harry (Jessica Clarke).

In the second act, the action is brought forward to a degraded present, with the former dance hall now condemned. Here the well-meaning activist Athena (Jessica Clarke) organises a reunion of the estranged group, prompting unquiet ghosts to rise out of the past. This is much weaker than the first act: with the removal of Jack, we are left with white characters who are little more than wooden stereotypes, parodies of white attitudes towards blacks. One might argue some payback in this for centuries of offensive black caricatures, but the fact remains that, just as with black stereotypes, it doesn't help the drama: what is there to reconcile when the white characters are so one-dimensionally stupid?

This highlights a major problem with the text, which otherwise is rich with both wit and feeling (especially in the fantastically punning speeches that Dingo as Old Toss delivers with such superb showmanship). When the script drifts into didacticism its energy flags, and this happens frequently in the second act: there are moments when you quite literally see actors step out of character and become declarative mouth-pieces. It's a shame, because this is otherwise powerful theatre, and Milroy's songs, which range from classic blues to growling contemporary Nick-Cave-esque ballads, are showstopping examples of the art.

Enoch gives the play a seamlessly slick production, capitalising on its vaudevillean energy and Jacob Nash's cosily intimate design, and it's performed with energy and commitment by a first class cast. It seems unfair to pick out particular performances, because each cast member has his or her moment, but Yovich's Elsa is a winner, both as singer and performer, her power and allure riven by vulnerability and bitterness, and Tim Solly as Jack has a couple of devastating solo moments in a difficult part that often threatens to dwindle into cliche. Dingo is in his element as jester, and has many of the best lines: and it's in these moments that Milroy's satirical message finds its real teeth.

My Bicycle Loves You is another Australian production, this time from physical theatre company Legs On The Wall, which was recently revamped under the direction of Patrick Nolan. To my shame, this is the first Legs On The Wall production I've seen; but it is a good introduction. My Bicycle Loves You is a knockabout theatrical ride through some of the crazier excesses of The Corrick Collection, 135 films produced by the Corrick family in the early 20th century that are now preserved in the National Film and Sound Archive.

The conceit is that the action follows "a day in the life of seven characters, all of whom live in the same apartment block". We see them first as if we were voyeurs from the street, peering in through the windows: then, gradually, they emerge, as if stepping out of a screen, and begin to play. Nolan exploits the remarkable and often bizarre Corrick archive as counterpoint and inspiration to the action on stage. A series of antics exploiting various stunts - hat tricks, balancing acts, slapstick fights, aerial acts - come into theatrical play with the projected images.

The stage (in a flexible and deceptively simple concept by Anna Tregloan) is a space of constantly changing planes and perspectives: the eye is drawn from the present to the past, from filmed image to live performer, until each becomes inextricably tangled with the other. There are moments of fabulous comic ingenuity: at one point Laasko the hat designer is looking for his wife, whom we see standing in the distance: he takes a drawer out of his desk and looks at it lovingly, turning it to the audience, and her projected image appears in the drawer, then on his chest, then serially on the desk as he turns it over looking for her, until at last the performer herself is revealed on top of the desk.

My Bicycle Loves You is a confection of image and sound (from an excellent band playing live in front of the stage) that at its best is enchanting. The program claims that it's an exercise in story-telling, which seems to me a bit of a misnomer. The only stories that were really clear on stage were those on film: an astonishing reel from the Corricks, for example, in which a magician in what seems to be mediaeval Venice is burgled by two thieves who steal his invisibility potion, with slapstick results. For the most part, it's a series of episodic acts, loosely linked by image and character rather than any pretence at narrative, which doesn't sustain the length of the show. Perhaps part of the problem here is that an expectation of story-telling is set up, without being delivered.

Sometimes the acts lack the virtuosity that makes impossible feats seem effortless, generating an anxiety for the performer, although this roughness can in fact be a virtue, part of a shambolic and peculiarly Australian charm. However, little on stage rivals the sheer craziness of some of those films. There is a recurring comedy in which a man grows enormous horns and runs about the town attempting to gore innocent bystanders: when this is translated to physical theatre, it somehow loses its surreality. I have always sworn that theatre is more poetic medium than film, but maybe I have to rethink that prejudice. All in all, well worth a look.

Pictures: Top: Waltzing the Wilarra; bottom, a still from the Corrick archive that inspired My Bicycle Loves You.

* Alison Croggon travelled to Perth as a guest of the Perth International Arts Festival.

Waltzing the Wilarra, by David Milroy, directed by Wesley Enoch. Music director Wayne Freer, set design by Jacob Nash, costumes by Isaac Lummis, lighting design by Trent Suidgeest, sound design by Kingsley Reeve, choreography by Claudia Alessi. With Ernie Dingo, Jessica Clarke, Kelton Pell, Irma Woods, Ursula Yovich, Trevor Jamieson, Tim Solly and Alexandra Jones. Musicians: Ric Eastman, Wayne Freer, David Milroy, Lucky Oceans and Bob Patient. Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, Subiaco Arts Centre, until March 6.

My Bicycle Loves You, devised by Beatrix Christian, Patrick Nolan, Anna Tregloan and company. Directed by Patrick Nolan, composer Ben Walsh, designer Anna Tregloan, video artist Mic Gruchy, lighting Damien Cooper. With Alicia Battestini, Tom Flanagan, Alexandra Harrison, Aimee Horne, Kate Sherman, Matt Wilson and Emil Wolk. Musicians: Eden Ottingen, Matt Ottingen, Daniel Pilner and Mich Stuart. Legs on the Wall, Regal Theatre, until February 26.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Perth Festival: Out Of Context - For Pina, Martha Wainwright

On Sunday afternoon, I saw les ballets C de la B's performance of Out Of Context - For Pina at the stunning new Heath Ledger Theatre, a venue that combines the virtues of modern theatre architecture with the embracing intimacy of an old-fashioned theatre. I had planned to stay for the artist talk that was scheduled afterwards, but when the show finished, I realised that the last thing I wanted was the immediate imprisonment of what I had just seen and felt in a lot of words. I walked out into the warm Perth evening and let the dance's penumbra work its chemistry, like the slow developing of a black and white photograph.

This was a work that had a considerable emotional impact on me, at levels of wordlessness that are difficult to translate. One of the great challenges - and, it must be said, pleasures - of writing about contemporary performance is how absolutely the attempt demonstrates the limits of words. Many choreographers press against spoken or written language, hovering on the threshold of speech: at its most successful, as in some works of Lucy Guerin's, this preoccupation reveals language to be as opaque and textured as the body itself.

This reflects a deep concern in a lot of contemporary dance: the problem of communication. So much of it reaches towards an almost utopian idea of unmediated contact: clearly an impossible ideal which can, all the same, attain a fragile reality in the fluid space of performance. Maybe this explains the uninhibited audiences dance can generate, as it did during les ballets C de la B's performance. When they weren't being as quiet as mice during the silences (no outbreaks of anxious coughing, which means they were paying close attention) the audience at the State Theatre Centre was laughing and whooping, even applauding individual performers during the dance. The last time I saw an audience respond so spontaneously to contemporary dance was at a performance of Jérôme Bel's The Show Must Go On at the Victorian Arts Centre.

There is certainly a connection between Out of Context and The Show Must Go On, although Platel's multiple layerings of sound and complex choreographies differ wildly from Bel's almost indescribably bare aesthetic. Bel and Platel both comprehend the whole auditorium in their idea of the stage, offering an invitation to a mutual adventure which the audience feels surprisingly free to accept. In both cases, this turns on what it might mean to be a human being, a social animal imprisoned in an opaque body: their dancers are individuals, rather than generic bodies exploring abstract form. And both use popular culture as artists once used religious iconography, as a touch point of emotional recognition.

Out Of Context begins with a simple conceit. The lights lift to reveal a bare stage. At the back is a pile of orange blankets, the same colour as the saffron robes of monks or, more disturbingly, the uniforms of prisoners. Otherwise there are only two microphones. We stare for a while, and then a man (Emile Josse) walks up on stage from the auditorium and begins to undress to his underpants, unhurriedly folding his clothes. He picks up one of the blankets and drapes it about his shoulders. About half way through his undressing, I saw a woman stand up in front of me and work her way through the row: until she began to walk towards the stage, I thought, with surprise, that she must be a disaffected audience member, leaving already. She too begins to undress. And gradually, all nine dancers gather on stage, emerging out of the audience. This is the first trick, and it is very effective: any barrier between stage and audience is immediately removed.

The recorded sound track here is mostly silent, aside from the occasional moo of a cow and percussive sounds from knocking the microphone against the floor or the dancers' bodies. Dancers mill about like herd animals or a flock of birds; they encounter each other in pairs and, in choreography reminiscent of illustrations from a Konrad Lorenz textbook, make ritualistic movements of greeting and curiosity. Through the first forty five minutes, the choreography expands and intensifies from animal-based behaviour to Platel's signature interest in spasmodic, involuntary movement: these are constrasted with classical representations of the body, especially from ancient Greek statuary - one image almost casually formed back stage briefly showed us three muses, one classically posed Venus, half naked and armless, the other two headless torsoes. There are others drawn from classical representations of wrestling or battle.

An insistent techno beat starts up, and the next section is a parody of contemporary mating rituals, with the dancers sardonically speaking various pop lyrics into the mic: here the choreography is drawn from dance clubs and pornography. A male dancer even steps out into the audience, stepping from seat to seat to writhe above a patron who was very determinedly staring straight ahead. Here are all the codes of mating, all the triggers of contemporary representations of sexuality, but the cliches are riven by the interventions of the body, its insistent presence, its involuntary, unaestheticised life.

We then return to a reprise of the first section, but here the body is more nakedly exposed, and, for all its expressed desire, more nakedly alone. This is where Out Of Context began to bite for me: I'm not sure that I've seen the erotic body, in all its absurdity and longing, expressed so frankly and delicately on a stage.

Its final gesture is almost histrionic: dancer Romeo Runa, who has been a kind of master of ceremonies, asks everyone in the theatre to raise their right hand. They do. "Who wants to dance with me?" he asks, and the forest of hands magically vanishes. The barrier between stage and auditorium hasn't been erased to that extent... until a man shyly appears out of the audience and they dance, to Jimmy Scott's version of Prince's Nothing Compares To You. Shamelessly manipulative, yes; but something else as well, more humble, more difficult. This seems to me to be a work that's sophisticated enough to be naive. And then the dancers simply put their clothes back on and return to their seats among the audience.

None of this emotional power would be possible without the virtuosity of these dancers: the movements are sometimes impossibly demanding and their control is astounding. The trust between them is palpable. You can't see everything that's happening on stage: it is always active all the time, with all nine dancers constantly making and remaking images, but Platel's rhythmic control is such that this seems a thickening of texture, rather than a means of frustration. What's important is that we are watching nine individuals, whose identities become more clear through the dance until the audience feels they know them, which is I think the real point of Platel's contact to Pina Bausch, to whom this work is dedicated. A beautiful work, which touches that fragile transparency which makes live performance truly memorable.

The following night I went to see Martha Wainwright perform at Beck's Music Box on The Esplanade. It was stiflingly hot, with a brilliant gibbous moon hanging in the luminous sky, and the city lights had that phosphorescent halo they seem to attain on hot evenings. I was glad to find that this is an outdoor venue, most civilisedly set up so no matter where you sit, you are never far from the stage.

Wainwright's performance was another exercise in destroying barriers between audience and stage, but in an entirely different way: while the conventions that separate performer and audience were carefully observed, Wainwright offered herself on a slab for two hours of powerful performance in which stunning virtuosity is cut with raw feeling. It's clear that for Wainwright, who of course hails from a famous musical dynasty, there is no division between her music and her life.

The show opened and closed with spine-tingling performances of a selection of songs made famous by Edith Piaf, another chanteuse who sang on pure nerve. Wainwright gave us a good selection of Piaf's stirringly theatrical ballads, songs such as Marie Trottoir, Le Brun et le Blond or Les Grognards (from which she took the title for her Piaf album, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris) which, in the greatest tribute that one artist can make to another, she took and made her own.

In between Wainwright sang her own songs, including a couple of scorching new works and, in a moving tribute, several by her mother, legendary singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died early last year. "Last year was tough," Wainwright tells us. "I lost my mother, my son was born five weeks early... it was hard." And then she sings her anguish, striking her guitar as if it is a percussive instrument, and that voice goes right through you. Of course it is a performance, but the feelings are real. And as with all great singers, the grief and anger and longing and ordinary ecstasy touches us and and becomes our own.

Pictures: Out of Context - For Pina. Photos: Chris Van der Burght

* Alison Croggon flew to Perth as a guest of the Perth International Arts Festival

Out Of Context - For Pina, directed and choreographed by Alain Platel. Danced and created by Ellie Tass, Emile Josse, Hyo Seung Ye, Kaori Ito, Mathieu Desseigne Ravel, Melanie Lomoff, Romeu Runa, Rosalba Torres Guerrero and Ross McCormack. les ballets C de la b, Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre, Perth. Closes tonight.

Martha Wainwright, Beck's Music Box, Perth. Closes tonight.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Perth Festival: Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, The Red Shoes

Sometimes there's an unexpected serendipity to picking festival shows. So it was on Saturday, when your humble correspondent landed in Perth. My first day here included some of the final performances of two shows from the earlier weeks of the festival - Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, by Swiss company Teatro Sunil, and The Red Shoes, an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's remarkably cruel story by Cornish company Kneehigh Theatre. The rhymes between the shows ranged from clowns to rose petals: but in the end, it was the differences that intrigued me.

Donka: A Letter to Chekhov is precisely what it claims to be: a theatrical letter to Anton Chekhov. (Reflecting Chekhov's passion for fishing, "donka" is the Russian word for a small bell attached to a fishing rod, which rings when there is a bite.) Writer/director Daniele Finzi Pasca glances off almost all of Chekhov's writing, including his sojourn to the penal colony of Sakhalin, where he took the first census of the convict population and campaigned for education for the many children born there, but the key here is lightness.

The Chekhov summoned here is more the letter writer than the tragedian. Donka leaps from the playfulness and surreality that shines in some of his earlier, lesser known short stories, or the love of absurdity and wicked sense of humour of his letters, which must be among the most enjoyable authorial correspondence ever published, and which reveal a man who is a far cry from the melancholic Russian depressive his name commonly summons. Chekhov the sensualist was, for a long time, edited out of the biographies: but a sensualist he was.

He was a man of the theatre, with passionate relationships with actors and directors (among many others, the avant garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold and Chekhov were regular correspondents). And he also shared the love of his peers for circus, which in early 20th century Russia entered the theatre as an art form. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky remains, at least to my knowledge, the only person to have written literary works for circus. It's this tradition of circus which is summoned in this show.

Rolando Tarquini, in a white summer suit based on a famous photograph of Chekhov, represents the writer, although he doesn't, as it were, play Chekhov: Donka is an exercise in metatheatrics as much as anything else. Rather, he and his fellow clowns present a show in which various images are introduced - skating, fishing, hospital beds - that become symbolic of different aspects of Chekhov's life. These in turn become occasions for some sublimely lyrical circus acts. Using standard circus tropes - aerial acts, juggling, the wheel, shadow play - the company creates visual fantasias that quicken into an imaginative life that is purely their own.

The performers are as skilled as any I've seen, but what is most breath-taking is how the choreography and design lifts circus into poetic performance. There are moments of joyous wit, as when two acrobats lying on the ground are projected onto a curtain front-stage, so we see their vertical images as they move on the horizontal plane. The vertical image shows an apparent chair act, in which the performers appear to be - quite literally - defying gravity. At the same time, the performers on the ground are perfectly visible. We are in on the joke, and enjoy its ingenuity: at the same, we catch that childlike astonishment - look, she is walking on his fingertips! - that is something like wonder. Then there are others, as in a set piece where an ice chandelier descends on the stage and is smashed to pieces by the cast, which aside from their compellingly strange beauty, foreground the sense of transience that is the emotional timbre of the show.

Maybe the key phrase is a quote from The Seagull: "Life should be represented, not as it is, not as it should be, but as it appears in a dream": this is a performer's dream of Chekhov. Underlying its lightness is a preoccupation with death, a search for what vanishes (where is the soul?) and what remains behind. A recurring image is Chekhov's death bed, and close to the end is an absurd representation of a duel, where the duellists spray endless bottles of sparkling stage blood all over the stage. As the show unfolded, I began to find it almost unbearably moving: as each act succeeded the other, its images created and dismantled before my eyes, Donka's transparency, ingenuity and beauty began cumulatively to reveal something about the fragility of the act of making theatre.

Donka strikes me very much as a recognition of and tribute to Chekhov's delight in the serious play and illusion of theatre. To represent death on stage is an absurdity: Donka allows us recognise this, and then, by exposing its artifice, reminds how it is theatre itself that is mortal, a gesture drawn on the air that shines for a moment and then vanishes forever, to exist only in the memories of those who saw it. Chekhov understood this as well as Beckett did. Yes, it's a show about pleasure, and is a crowd-pleasing, sensuous riot notable for the beauty of its design and lighting. But it reminded me how profound pleasure can be.

The Red Shoes, which was first performed in 2000, also relies heavily on clowning, this time by a cast who seem to be channelling every popular comedian in Britain. Hans Christian Anderson's story concerns an orphaned girl whose vanity leads her to buy a pair of red shoes, deceiving her blind guardian. She is horribly punished when she finds she can't take the shoes off, and is forced to keep dancing past the point of utter exhaustion. At last her feet are chopped off and she repents her vanity, walking around on stumps until she is accepted into heaven. The sadism of the story is compelling, and perhaps accounts for its multiple adaptations, particularly in film.

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice in 2000, the story is retold in rhyming couplets, building its theatre from the ground up. The design has a junkshop aesthetic, with the improvisatory air of having been thrown together from available materials. The whole is overseen by a witchy pantomime dame, Lady Lydia (Giles King), who acts as a master of revels, appointing roles to the performers and narrating the story, and the music is performed live by Stu Barker and Ian Ross. The five performers who enact the story are stripped to their essential clown: their heads are shaved and they are dressed in ill-fitting white underpants and vests, so they become, like Anderson's anti-heroine, objects of humiliation and ridicule. As they are appointed to different roles, they put on the appropriate costume, so we literally see the theatre made in front of our eyes.

There's much to like in these ingredients: the Kneehigh company give performances of infectious energy, and their clowning was received rapturously by the audience. But I found myself falling into longueurs: there was a paucity of invention in the conventions it set up (at once point, I thought that if I saw another suitcase, I would scream) and I felt patronised by the text, which is uncomfortably pitched between child and adult sensibilities, without quite being able to decide where to exist. It's often forgotten that Anderson was regarded in his own time as a writer for adults, counting among his many admirers Henrik Ibsen, which might explain the difficulty here.

For me, the troubling misogyny of Anderson's story, in which a young girl is mutilated for her nascent sexuality (for what else do those red shoes represent, really?) is somehow reinforced rather than questioned: the taint of public shame that infects Anderson's fable is consciously woven into the experience of its theatre, but is rendered oddly innocuous by its comedy. In this version, the Girl (Patrycja Kujawska) refuses Anderson's redemption, in which her "heart breaks" and she enters heaven, where no one asks her about her red shoes; instead she runs away from the forgiving Christ into the audience, presumably defiant even in death. I don't know whether, if the story had been followed to its puritan finale, the effect might have been more troubling, and thus more conducive to thought. As it was, it left me feeling strangely empty.

* Alison Croggon flew to Perth as a guest of the Perth International Arts Festival.

Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, written, directed, choregraphed and lighting design by Daniele Finzi Pasca. Music composed and orchestrated by Maria Bonzanigo, set by Hugo Garguilo. Performed by Moira Albertalli, Karen Bernal, Helena Bittencourt, Sara Calvanelli, Veronica Melis, David Menes, Beatriz Sayad and Rolando Tarquini. Teatro Sunil, His Majesty's Theatre, Perth Festival. Closed.

The Red Shoes, based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson, adapted and directed by Emma Rice. Design by Bill Mitchell, music by Stu Barker, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, sound by Mike Shepherd. Performed by Giles King, Patrycja Kujawska, Dave Mynne, Robert Luckay, Mike Shepherd, Stu Barker and Ian Ross. Kneehigh Theatre, Octagon Theatre, Perth Festival. Closed.

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David Williamson and the Never Ending Story

Yes, I know; but sometimes a gel has to do what a gel has to do. Today Ms TN has a piece on the ABC's website The Drum about David Williamson. It's a response to a last week's piece by political writer Annabel Crabb, which claimed, among other things, that "implacable hatred of [David Williamson] seems of late to have become an article of faith for the serious theatre-goer". My penny's worth is online here.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Perth Festival

Ms TN is up at this ungodly hour on a Saturday morning because she is imminently flying to the other end of the continent. I'll be there for a week as a guest of the Perth Festival, absorbing as much of the rich program as is humanly possible. I'll be blogging everything, and if you're super keen on the butterfly peregrinations of this too too sullied flesh, you can follow me on Twitter as well at

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: 'Tis Pity She's A Whore

It's unsurprising that the 20th century saw a renewal of interest in the Jacobean tragedies. Aside from their unapologetic theatricality, which generates its realism from extreme emotional truths, their dark machineries reflected a godless world in which human passion flamed out and extinguished itself in a materialistic, cynical and bloodily hierarchical society. Morality in this universe walks uneasily. It's easy to see why the playwright Howard Barker, whose fierce polemics created the Theatre of Catastrophe, wrote a contemporary version of Middleton's Women Beware Women.

Women - their role, their power, their destruction in the crushing sexual morals of their time - are at the centre of these tragedies, and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is no exception. When the Jacobean tragedies were written, political and public life was dominated by men. There were, however, notable exceptions, just as there are now: women such as Elizabeth I and Lucrezia Borgia subverted the expectations and limitations of the social roles expected of their sex, and the conflicts raised by their presences are reflected in the plays.

'Tis Pity She's A Whore goes further, baldly introducing incestuous love between a brother and sister - a brooding subtext in plays like The Duchess of Malfi. In a moral twist which for centuries made the play especially scandalous, Ford transforms his doomed siblings into tragic embodiments of romantic love. This sexual transgression occurs in a society in which honour killings are the norm: it exposes a nakedly misogynistic society in which women flail against social restrictions that are ultimately murderous. Interestingly, this aspect is seldom remarked upon, perhaps because honour killings are most commonly thought of as an oriental disease; but in the Malthouse's hugely ambitious production the question of male honour is opened out into contemporary sexual violence.

As this is Marion Potts's first production for the Malthouse as new artistic director, it's been hotly anticipated; and with such a weight of expectation, perhaps it's not surprising that one of the responses is a nagging disappointment. Potts delivers on many levels: this is a a richly sensuous show, visually and sonically layered to generate an operatic pitch of feeling. In its best moments, it promises a great deal; but it never quite delivers. At the heart of its problems is the dramaturgy, which is, in a singular feat, at once crude and obscure.

'Tis Pity follows the story of Annabella (Elizabeth Nabben) and Giovanni (Benedict Samuel), the children of the wealthy Florio (Richard Piper), who fall in love and, with the connivance of Annabella's nurse Putana (Laura Lattuada), consummate their passion. There are various subplots, of which the most important concerns Hippolita (Alison Whyte), the betrayed and vengeful lover of one of Annabella's suitors, Soranzo (John Adam). When Annabella falls pregnant, she is urged to marry Soranzo to cover her disgrace; when he discovers her pregnancy, Soranzo's servant Vasque (Anthony Brandon Wong) seeks out the name of the lover whom she will not reveal to her husband, and helps Soranzo to plot revenge. Cue a lot of knives and a welter of blood.

Anna Cordingley's design dramatically fills the Merlyn stage with three playing levels constructed out of huge shipping containers. At ground level are two containers, their exteriors scrawled with grafitti, which create room-like tunnels. They support the central playing area, a long trucking container lined with tarpaulins that is painted with Tiepolo-style murals and littered with strangely cartoonish versions of Renaissance furniture. In Paul Jackson's heavily shadowed lighting design, this space is flooded with golden light, so that it plays like a fantasy inside the industrial decor of the set. Finally, on top of this container is an eyrie with a harpsichord, where there is a gorgeously costumed singer (Julia County).

The sound design - a mixture of Elizabethan arias composed by Andrée Greenwell and a densely textured electronic score performed live by Jethro Woodward - takes on a lot of the work of the heavily cut text, in particular heightening the emotional pitch. Some dialogue is sung, and otherwise the wordless voice weaves through the speeches. At the best moments, this creates a thrilling uplift. Significantly, it echoes a long tradition of wordless expression among women in misogynistic societies, in which cries and tears, such as the extravagant public sobbings of the 15th century mystic Margery of Kempe or the keening of widows in early 20th century Cretan funerals, become potent expressions of subversion. (There is a strand of criticism which ascribes the same impetus to Lady Gaga). For me, this is a powerful trope within the production.

However, I think the production relies too much on the music to generate its emotional power. The original play is cut to the bone - the original 16 characters are cut to nine (Woodward is given a character name, but never does anything more than the music), excising many marginal characters such as Hippolita's husband or Annabella's various suitors. Perhaps what it most crucially loses in this cutting is any sense of transgression: for example, removing Friar Bonaventura, who in the original is Giovanni's confessor, means there is no sense of a societal morality against which to measure the sins of the children. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, when the incest is first revealed we just get the nurse saying more or less that Giovanni is hot, and that she can't blame Annabella for wanting to get into bed with him.

We are left with the twin poles of male violence and sexual betrayal, with little sense of the social constraints in which they vibrate and intensify. An important thread is the introduction of B (Chris Ryan), presumably a version of the comic relief Bergetto, who opens the play with a superb performance of a contemporary would-be stud. Aside from its irresistible echoes of Hayloft's Thyestes, Ryan's character is unclearly linked to the action on the stage above him: at first he is a contemporary counterpoint, but later, somewhat confusingly, he enters the action itself as a narrator and a masked figure of death.

This lack of clarity extends to the structure of the adaptation, where important actions are often shorn of motivation and leap up out of nowhere. It's not at all clear, for example, why Giovanni kills Annabella. Richard Piper's character Florio is reduced to a few lines, a kind of patriarchal scarecrow, which means that his death, however well performed (it was about all Piper had to do onstage) has very little dramatic payoff. Vasques is similarly a Iago-like cipher of evil. And sometimes I just was lost.

Some of this confusion could have been also because some of the cast members couldn't get around Ford's language, and there were times when I couldn't hear important dialogue. The shining exception is Alison Whyte, whose performance is riveting, and undoubtedly will be one of the performances of this year: she unwaveringly enters the extremities of Hippolita and carries us with her in a physically and vocally astounding performance.

For all my reservations, it's well worth a look: I'd far rather see this kind of flawed ambition than any number of smug successes, and there are moments of real power. More generally, it signals a Malthouse that intends to continue to challenge and explore. And that is an encouraging thought.

Picture: top, Chris Ryan; bottom, cast of 'Tis Pity She a Whore. Photos: Jeff Busby

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, by John Ford, directed by Marion Potts. Original music by Andrée Greenwell, set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound design by Jethro Woodward, dramaturgy by Maryanne Lynch. With John Adam, Julia County, Laura Lattuada, Elizabeth Nabben, Richard Piper, Chris Ryan, Benedict Samuel, Alison Whyte, Anthony Brandon Wong and Jethro Woodward. Malthouse Theatre @ the Merlyn, until March 5.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: A Behanding in Spokane, No-Show

First, an apology of sorts: Ms TN is wearing another couple of hats at present, and has only so much forehead where they can fit. Worse, one of the hats is generating a bunch of psychic static that gets in the way of everything else. The reason I have no time for the argument that claims that criticism is just the same as making art is that, in my experience anyway, art demands everything that criticism does, and then eats your soul as well. Which means that these responses will be brief.

Secondly, a pointer to the 2010 Green Room Awards nominations, which were announced yesterday, prompting a flurry of tweets. Reading through the nominations reminded me how rich 2010 was for Melbourne theatre: so many shows were outstanding. Go thither and form your own thoughts: the winners will be announced on March 21.

Now to the two shows I saw last week. A Behanding in Spokane is Martin McDonagh's first new play for 15 years: as is well known, the six plays that made his name were drafted in a frenzied nine month period in 1994. Here McDonagh has moved his particular brand of Grand Guignol from a fantasy Ireland to a fantasy mid-West: the action is set in a seedy hotel somewhere in America, and revolves around the pathological state of a one-handed man, Carmichael (Colin Moody). His hand was severed by hillbillies 27 year earlier, and ever since, after exacting revenge on his tormentors, he has been searching for his missing appendage. Two young opportunists, Toby (Bert LaBonté) and Marilyn (Nicole da Silva) hear of his quest and attempt to sell him a hand to make a quick buck - but it is, of course, the wrong hand.

The play is basically about Toby and Marilyn's subsequent attempts to escape from the hotel room after the deal goes pear-shaped, with occasional interruptions from the bellhop Mervyn (Tyler Coppin), a man who has turned disappointment and indifference into an art form. It's swift, funny and black-humoured: a neatly structured four-hander which turns its theatrical tricks with style. It's a shiny version of Sam Shepard's early plays, with the sharper edges of Shepard's dark excavations of the American Dream rounded off: less memorable and strange, and concomitantly less interesting. But there's no doubt it's fun.

What's of note here is Peter Evans's production. From Christina Smith's angled stage-within-a-stage, lavishly draped with red curtains that reveal a hotel room of staggering squalor, to the pitch-perfect performances to Ben Grant's ominous sound design, it's a winner. It takes the absurd premise of the play and turns it into high comedy, stylishly meta-theatrical, holding the balance of belief in a sure hand. On the one hand, we know these characters are fantasies: on the other, in the magic box of the theatre, they generate their own compelling realism.

The performances are, without exception, first class. Colin Moody as Carmichael gives a bravura performance of psychotic obsession, baffled threat in his every footstep, nicely leavened with an undercutting petulance and credulity (some of the funniest dialogue is a phone conversation with his mother). Tyler Coppin equally explores the grotesque with his melancholy "reception guy", who is, like Carmichael, arrested in a permanent state of distorted adolescent fantasy. Both characters are much more childish than the two young people, whose comparative rationality and ordinariness plays against the grotesquerie of Mervyn and Carmichael: LaBonté and da Silva play their characters more or less straight, with just enough exaggerated edge.

The play was accused of racism in its US outing, and it's easy to see why: Carmichael is a white supremacist and the word "nigger" flies around freely. Mostly it was criticised for its stereotypical portrayal of black maleness. In this reading at least, the play seems more a piss-take on racism: LaBonté's characterisation certainly lifts Toby past crude caricature. If anything, it could be accused of sexism, since the least interesting role is the woman's: Marilyn exists mostly as a foil to the other characters, although Da Silva makes the most of the little she has. Each character is in fact a graphically sketched cartoon, but this production finds the life in them.

Richard Pettifer's No-Show (sadly, closed after a short season at La Mama) is at the other end of the theatrical spectrum. As Pettifer explains in his program, it came about because he "had a show fall over a few weeks ago" and made this show to replace it. The no show was a play called Smudged by Megan Twycross, which made a brief appearance at the Brisbane Festival before foundering on the rocks of theatrical difference.

Out of this catastrophe, Pettifer makes a poignant work of anti-theatre. As with all anti-theatre, the focus is on the immediate presence of the performer and the audience as the bedrock of theatrical experience. He is, as it were, surrounded by the rags of the absent show: the set is four chairs labelled with the names of the absent performers, and during the course of the 50 minutes he dons one costume after another, explaining what each character was meant to do. It's irresistibly reminiscent of Forced Entertainment's Spectacular, which I saw in 2009, but with this difference: where Spectacular left me with an empty sense that I'd been had, this show takes off the aesthetic protection and exposes something real and human about the risk that is theatre.

I'm going to cheat now and refer you to The Blogger Formerly Known As Neandellus, Andrew Furhman, who discusses this show with more thoughtfulness and intelligence than I can presently summon. Essential reading about theatre, failure and the avoidance of failure in two posts, here and here, at Primitive Surveys.

Picture: Colin Moody in A Behanding at Spokane. Photo: Jeff Busby

A Behanding at Spokane by Martin McDonagh, directed by Peter Evans. designed by Christina Smith, lighting by Matt Scott, sound design by Ben Grant. With Tyler Coppin, Nicole da Silva, Bert LaBonté and Colin Moody. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until March 19.

No-Show, by Richard Pettifer, with excerpts by Megan Twycross. Lighting non-design by Tilly Lunken, sound non-design by Alister Mew. La Mama Theatre. Closed.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Review: Ruben Guthrie, Skin Tight

Yes, there is life after David Williamson. It must be said that lately the man has been hard to ignore: even John Bailey found himself adding, with an air of bewilderment, to the pile of words surrounding his latest play. "I can't think of another local play, great or rubbish," says Bailey, that has "provoked so many words from commentators, or [has been] given so much space in the public sphere". No, neither can I. And resisting that mind-numbing vortex proved impossible, even for stern-minded aesthetes such as myself.

If anything proves the marginalisation of theatre in Australia, it's that Williamson - presumably the only recognisable name outside the theatre culture - still so dominates the general discourse. Why is it so, when there's so much more interesting stuff to see or talk about? Take Ruben Guthrie, for instance, presently enjoying a season directed by the playwright, Brendan Cowell, at Red Stitch.

This play has everything Williamson's lacks - wit, energy, emotion, complexity. And it's a play, goddamit. It doesn't even faintly resemble the "non naturalistic" theatre that Williamson, despite all the evidence to the contrary, claims is driving his work off Australian stages. It has characters and plot. It has a beginning, middle and end. If it were on a main stage, not even the most conservative theatre nerd could argue that it wasn't mainstream.

The most immediate difference between Ruben Guthrie and Don Parties On is that Cowell's play is a lot more fun. The second is that its exploration of its chosen theme, the nature of addiction, is a lot more thoughtful. It seems to come from a living mind: from the opening moment, when alcoholic advertising whizz and relationship disaster Ruben Guthrie (Daniel Frederiksen) arrogantly addresses his first AA meeting, the energy is pitched high, and it never slackens for the two hour duration of the show.

The story follows Ruben Guthrie's attempt to sober up. His professional success has been all about excess: it has rewarded him with a top creative job with a mega salary, supermodel girlfriend Zoya (Anna Samson) and harbour views. We meet him at a moment of crisis: his girlfriend, sick of his narcissistic self-destructiveness, leaves him, and he has broken his arm jumping off a roof in a moment of alcohol-fuelled abandon. He goes cold turkey, and immediately discovers that his entire life - work and play - is predicated on alcohol. His boss Ray (David Whitely) isn't interested in the new sober Ruben; his best friend Damian (Simon Maiden) can't bear his not drinking, and even his irritably separated parents (Dennis Coard and Andrea Swifte) think he's a wowser for going teetotal.

Desperately seeking to replace the world he is rejecting, Guthrie meets Virginia (Erin Dewar), former speed addict, and enters the 12-step plan with a vengeance. It's soon clear that he is replacing one addiction with another. Both are evasions of the real issues that drive his catastrophic instincts: the emotional poverties of his life as a high-flying creative are neatly complemented by the empty jargonistic platitudes of his new sobriety. It's not much of a choice: each of the options open to him is a kind of death. What hovers teasingly beyond this stark binary is the never-realised possibility of a engaged life, but only Zoya - beating her own demons - is able to pick this up. She is, in a sardonic note, the character who leaves Australia.

Since it premiered in 2008 this play has had two hit seasons at Belvoir St, and the polish of previous incarnations is amply evident in this production. The script is sharp and supple, achieving a nice balance between comedy, satire and genuine pathos. Cowell's slick production picks it up and goes for it. Peter Mumford's elegant set - designer shelves stacked with designer liquor - permits the action to move swiftly and legibly from one scene to another.

The evening is inevitably dominated by Frederiksen's turbo-charged portrayal of Guthrie, but this is in fact an ensemble production: there's not a weak performance in it. And there are memorable theatrical moments: my favourite is the image of Ruben Guthrie and his father Peter in hospital robes with saline drips, smuggling a flask of liquor under their robes. For a moment, the stage is almost Beckett.

Definitely a don't miss. Life would be a lot more exciting if more of the mainstream looked like this.

Over at Fortyfive Downstairs, there's an interesting production of Skin Tight, by New Zealand playwright Gary Henderson. There's no doubting the energy of this one, which begins with an erotic all-in wrestle between performers Holly Shanahan and Michael Whalley, and continues with a highly stylised physical production that traces the history of a marriage, from its early pre-war years to the ill-health and death of the aging couple.

The striking design places the action in traverse. Lush red curtains open to a narrow angled stage strewn with clothes. The play's time and place - country New Zealand from early to middle last century - is suggested by phonograph music and minimal props. An iron wash tub is filled with water and apples: the water acts as a metaphor for sensuality, the apples for appetite. And there's a pathos in the idea of an old man bathing his ill wife but seeing his young lover, a la Pierre Bonnard, that, even if it doesn't quite emerge, is beautiful.

My major problem is the soft-focus lyricism of the play itself, which never escapes a pervasive sentimentality. I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen this play several times before, (although I can't think where); it's full of familiar tropes, and you know from almost the very beginning exactly what is going to happen in the end. This needn't be a problem, but here it is.

The production set up an increasingly bizarre disconnect between the language and performance: although the performance seems to be about articulating the play's subtextual passion, I never felt the passion in the text. Rather than excavating a truthfulness from its play, I felt that most of the time the production was flailing around looking for it. Awkward touches, such as the introduction of an older actor (Karl Peschek) in the play's final moments, add to its lack of focus.

All the same, in the moments where performances strikes truthfully - mainly moments of physical play - the show achieves a genuine power. Both Shanahan and Whalley are actors to watch, and their full-on sensual intensity means this show is worth a look.

Picture: From left: Erin Dewar, Daniel Frederiksen and Anna Samson, from Ruben Guthrie.

Ruben Guthrie, written and directed by Brendan Cowell. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting by Stelios Karagiannis, sound by Marlene Samosn and Jonathan Shaw. With Daniel Frederiksen, Anna Samson, David Whiteley, Dennis Coard, Erin Dewar, Andrea Swifte and Simon Maiden. Red Stitch until March 5.

Skin Tight,
by Gary Henderson, directed by Justin Martin. Lighting design by Marco Resondeck, sound design by Jared Lewis, choreography by Tom Hodgson. With Holly Shanahan, Michael Whalley and Karl Peschek.
SaySIX Theatre and The Groundswell Division, @ Fortyfive Downstairs until February 11.

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