Review: A Behanding in Spokane, No-Show ~ theatre notes

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.


Richard Pettifer said...

Hi Alison, yes B.I.S is a great production - maybe a bit of an existential question loitering over it, i.e why is it at MTC - it feels like a play for Americans?? and I don't really feel the points of transcendance despite the accuracy of the performances (which I reckon feel like they are on stopwatch with gun-to-head, they are so meticulously timed).

It feels like it's a view of America that divides into film genres, it draws on these but doesn't sit firmly in any one.

It is a cool show though. Don't know where the racism comments come from although that stuff feels like McD tacked them on anyway to offend people, so maybe the conservatives are responding to the casualness of its treatment rather than inherent racism... feels very cartoonish and lampoony or perhaps discussional i.e not embedded.

Alison Croggon said...

RE: the racism, have a peep at the New Yorker review I linked in the review. Full on. Eg: “A Behanding isn’t the least bit palatable; it’s vile, particularly in its repeated use of the word 'nigger'.”

Unknown said...

Is MsTN planning to share her Green room thoughts? Some expected and totally right noms(no surprises with Thyestes), but some weird non-inclusions too? Great year for theatre as you say - wonder if the panel saw the same performances I did!

the scorpion said...

what do you mean non inclusions?

There is no way of knowing exactly what shows were even seen.

The entire thing is predicated on a mysterious group of beneficient judges seing a selection of shows. Once they have done so, they talk to each other and they make a decision about who gets the prize.

Now one important thing to note is this. If only one judge sees the show, and no other judges do, is that show going to win? Not when the rest of the judges haven't seen it. There is no chance of them voting. That show may well be the best thing ever created, but it won't even get a nod.

Okay, so I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the judges take their task very seriously. I know for a fact they do and their commitment to the cause is admirable. Just like our commitment to sitting through the entire self congratulary palaver each year like dutiful stuffed toys, hanging out for our tick of approval. Yeah whatever.

The fact that the shows that are even in the running is never known, means these awards are about as meaningful as a slice of warm excreta on a piece of stale phlegm coughed from the lungs of some great critic hailing from the heavens, bearing down with the full force of their opinions wailing out behind them. The thirty thousand horsemen of the apocalypse standing by, waiting by the stage door to smash each others brains in.

But I digress.

Am I saying the awards should be inclusive to the point of at least 2 judges seing every single show? No. But am I saying that a list should be published of all the works seen and able to be voted on? Yes I am.

the idea of knowing whether a work is even up for consideration (ie; whether any judges even saw it, or enough judges saw it for quorum) is a matter that I think should be addressed.

If these awards are to have any degree of credibility they need to be open in terms of their methods and they need to be open in terms of their parameters - especially in the naming of shows seen and eligible for nomination.

Oh and judges being eligible for an award - any award under banner of the Green Room Awards? What a joke that is. "oh no but I've got nothing to do with that panel.'

Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.

I am calling you and your awards Bullshit.

And I am calling a percentage of these nominations bullshit. I mean I haven't even seen hardly any of them, but I saw a whole lot of others, and that my friends is why each every green room judge should be lined up against a wall, shot between the eyes, their carcass draped over the arms of a chair, upon we can sit and ponder the meaning of being so ridiculously irrelevant that nobody gives 2 shits - well not when being complete dogs towards people whose families have been smashed on the rocks is concerned.

Pretty sure I've said my piece now.

Casey Bennetto said...

Dammit, I remember reading your last comments and thinking "Phew! I've worked as an artist (sort of)! I'm worth more than a mindless automaton! I'm safe!" - and then I wake up this morning and I'm TO BE SHOT!

Yep, I'm a Green Room judge, in the Cabaret section. There's not much "mysterious group" to it - all the panel members are listed on the Green Room website. Everyone sees as much as they can, and the judges of each panel do talk amongst themselves and alert each other to great or promising work they've seen. It does happen that great shows miss out because of not being seen by enough people, but not often, because if a judge sees a great show they tend to let other judges know "I think this one might be a bit of a contender, it seems very good to me" (or, y'know, more elegant words to that effect) "you better get your arse down here." And generally they do get down there and see it - sometimes they agree with the initial judge's enthusiasm, sometimes they don't - because there's a genuine passion amongst the panel to find and reward the best stuff they can. "The best show ever created" is likely to get a big fat nod, because the judge who first saw it will be sending intemperate emails to get others out to see it, saying it's the best show ever created, and of course the other judges'll love it, because it's the best show ever created.

Personally I wouldn't mind if all Green Room judges were automatically excluded from award consideration, but the panel independence stuff of which you say "Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit." - umm, I'm sorry, but it ain't bullshit. I think the only time the panels cross paths generally is at the annual ratification meeting, and that's a couple of reps from each panel announcing their preliminary nomination list and being grilled by the reps from other panels as to their justifications (sometimes shows fall into more than one category, sometimes the categories themselves come under fire etc). It's a civil meeting, but it's hardly a mixer - although it's largely focused on technical points of nomination, it can become quite heated as separate panels defend their nominations and occasionally fight over territory. Alright, to tell the truth, it's often a lot of fun because it's people arguing furiously about art and that's exciting. But it doesn't necessarily make for a cosy, backslapping environment - it's probably as easy to make enemies as friends in the process.

Casey Bennetto said...

Now, have I met some of the judges on other panels in other contexts? Of course I have. If you work in the creative arts in Melbourne, I'd wager you have too. Melbourne's artistic community is big, but it isn't *that* big. It'd be impossible to factor that out and have judges who knew anything about their field at all. All we can do is observe the basic principles - you (obviously) can't vote for a show you haven't seen, you can't vote for a show you're involved with - and hope for the best.

If you were worried about bias, it's not cross-panel but intra-panel where the most potential for conflict occurs, because of course just about everyone has an association with their field and have worked on other shows beforehand with potential nominees, or have friends nominated or so on. I can tell you that when it comes to our panel meetings, I certainly haven't seen too much evidence of sentimental sympathy. The quality's there, or it's not, tends to be the way it runs.

Now, how meaningful are the awards in the end? Well, like all awards, they're as meaningful as the participants want them to be. I've won awards I thought I should have lost, and lost awards I thought I was a decent chance to win, and it's all much of a muchness to me in the long run. Getting a bunch of Melbourne's artistic community together and celebrating the work of that community is pretty much the point - affirm, acknowledge, celebrate. That said, and as you mention, the process of nomination and voting is taken *enormously* seriously by every panel member in my experience - they're keen to be putting that affirmation and acknowledgement into the right quarters.

Whether we do is for folks to argue over as they see fit. No set of results is ever perfect in the eyes of any individual panel member either. But that's the way she goes when other people rudely insist upon having opinions different from mine.

I also wouldn't mind the list of shows under consideration being published, but that's me personally. I'm sure the GRA have their reasons for not doing that.

"And I am calling a percentage of these nominations bullshit. I mean I haven't even seen hardly any of them, but I saw a whole lot of others[...]"

In the case of the Cabaret field, I saw a lot of them. And a whole lot of others. And I'm by no means the most avid attendee on the panel. Perhaps you had an unlucky year; you certainly missed out on some rippers in our field.

Casey Bennetto said...

As for there being more important and relevant things to worry about, like the merits of being complete dogs towards people whose families have been smashed on the rocks, I agree wholeheartedly.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Casey. All good points.

the scorpion said...

You Casey Bennetto are not only a rip roaring artist, but an astonishing man. I am not licking your nether regions when I say that.

Yes, I agree with much of what you have to say, I thank you for your responses and I also concur immensely with the comments about how judging panels (the judges) passionately commit themselves to the mission.

My point though about a show not being nominated, because not enough judges saw it to nominate it, is a truism and backed by actual examples. Where communication is not speedy enough between judges for instance, or the show has a very limited run, or the show has a very small marketing budget and the show passes and never gets a nom, despite it being equally deserving of a nomination as other shows.

So yes. Publish the shows that are up for nomination. This would add a level of probity to the process.

Once that is done, all we need to do is bring back benson and hedges sponsorship of the ballet and we'll have this thing wrapped up.

the scorpion

Chris Summers said...

Interesting, Alison. Although I'd suggest: if you were a black man living in America seeing an American production of 'Behanding in Spokane', perhaps you might see some of the potential political problems with the script in a different way to how you did as a white Australian woman seeing the play at the MTC? I think that is partly demonstrated by the fact you picked up on the problems with the text's representation of its sole, subservient female character. And that character is a whole other problem for another mini-essay!

Without going into a dissection of identity politics and where particular words sit within those discourses (that itself is a minefield - the 'n' word being just one of them), I would argue that the American response to the play was perfectly justified. To draw a crude analogy, how might Australians - particularly indigenous Australians – respond to an American author writing, and commercially staging on Australian soil, a play which relentlessly used the slur 'Abo' (or worse) for nothing but comic effect? I daresay the reaction would be pretty similar to how the Americans responded to 'Behanding in Spokane'. The play would, rightfully, be labelled racist and the playwright insensitive for failing to acknowledge the cultural / political / historical significance of the word and the ramifications of its usage.

Martin McDonagh made a career out of using politically incorrect, offensive and violent content to make important statements about the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. But he was of that context, he understood that context, and he gave it the respect and nuance that it commanded.

I can't help but feel that he is sorely out of his depth with ‘Behanding in Spokane’. Suddenly McDonagh, no doubt spurred by wider commercial success, sees himself fit to transpose the same kind of devices to an American setting for a Broadway audience, but without an acknowledgement of the vastly different political ground that he is playing with. Except a very, very loose 'meta-theatrical' angle. But to that: since when did having the characters acknowledge their racism / sexism / homophobia make it ok for the play to squeeze them for every last ounce of humour? Since when did a smug self-awareness substitute for a playwright actually interrogating the politics of what it is that they are presenting? It's a cheap way out - laugh now, forget later. But it doesn't, and didn't, happen like that.

'Behanding in Spokane' is such a profound disappointment for me because it panders to that awkward place - parody of 'political correctness' for no rhyme or reason, done without any intelligence, subtlety or wit. Incessant racial slurs, cheap gay and lesbian gags, and plenty more petty ‘sooooo edgy politically incorrect’ point-scoring punch lines all thrown into this melting pot of a play which says absolutely nothing except: ‘look, look at me, look what I can make you laugh at!’.

If that's the best a play can offer, then how badly has it failed when you're not laughing? And how much damage does it do to the people who aren't - who are genuinely offended and are just supposed to 'take a joke'?

Lampooning 'political correctness' with only cheap laughter as the objective means some are going to laugh and some aren't. And in the case of 'Behanding in Spokane', I think it's pretty clear who is laughing at who.

(I should add a disclaimer that all these thoughts are based on my response to McDonagh's script and not the MTC production of the play.)

Alison Croggon said...

All good points, Christopher; although I'd say in mild mitigation that the real monster is the racist, and I actually didn't take it as a lampoon on PCness. That said, the virtue with this one is definitely the production.