Review: Porn.CakeBriefs: Howie the Rookie, Hypatia II, In The Next RoomAdvertisements for myselfReview: BaalReview: Delectable Shelter, MinotaurNewsy bitsReview: Amplification, Faker ~ theatre notes

Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Porn.Cake

Consumerism depends on the frustration of desire. Unhappiness might be the most profitable emotion in first world society: it creates an ever-tightening spiral, the pursuit of happiness inevitably frustrated by its displacement into commodification. This dissatisfaction sparks more consumption that in its turn remains unsatisfying, requiring more consumption. Consumption, excess, waste, consumption: it's the neurotic mechanism that is presently destroying our planet.

Karl Marx described in some detail this investment of material objects with an aura of mystery, calling it a fetish. He saw it as a process which replaces social relationships with a material object that symbolises them, to the point that the object becomes the definition of relationship. The example Marx used was the money market, in which the value of money subsumed all other values: the things that money represents, such as labour or the inherent values of objects themselves, disappear in the aura of money itself.

"Like the growing of trees," he said, "so the breeding of money appears as an innate quality of capital": interest-bearing capital magically grows interest, creating more capital. Money is the thing, no longer representing anything but itself. "Money", says Marx in a striking phrase, "is then pregnant". It's a suggestive metaphor, hinting towards a mechanism of self-perpetuating frustration underlaid by displaced mechanisms of desire.

For Freud, the other major theoriser of fetish, fetish was an obsession that replaced "the normal sexual aim". A fetish is a substitute, an object that replaces and obliterates original desire. There's certainly, as Marx's images demonstrate, a close imaginative relationship between money and sex.

For Vanessa Bates, the fetish - economic, social and sexual - is cake. Porn.Cake, now playing at the Malthouse, is a savage comedy about the desolation of two middle-class childless couples, who at around the mid-40 mark find themselves inexplicably unhappy. They're comfortably off, without being wealthy; they're bored without knowing why; they are old enough to reflect back on their adulthood, wondering why childhood was so much more full of promise. Without having done anything, they naggingly feel that it's all over.

The solution is cake. The women - Bella (Heather Bolton) and Annie (Christen O'Leary) scour their Jamie and Nigella cookbooks and make astounding cakes, which they offer to their husbands Ant (Travis McMahon) and Bill (Luke Elliott). The men eat them with indifference, remaining robotically glued to their iPhones. The women ask anxiously if they are still attractive; the men laugh automatically at texts they don't share with their wives.

Social and sexual interactions through this play are emptied of meaning by the constant anxiety that none of them are good enough, that they must all measure up to some obscure but nevertheless imperative ideal. The cake, the fantasies of pornography, the fake immediacy of technology, end up replacing the risks of actual relationship and real communication. These characters have all, despite themselves, made themselves into things.

Bates's play is simply structured - it consists of four monologues, which are punctuated by some meta-theatrical games in which domestic relationship is serially stripped of its meaning, each thing being replaced by something else in a continually intensifying spiral of impoverishment. The illusion of theatre is also stripped away, as the stage manager enters and cleans up the destroyed cakes, and an actor apologies for another performer who is heard noisily being sick back stage ("gluten allergy"). It's smart, intelligent and inventive writing.

And it's blessed with equally smart design, with Darrin Verhagen's sound subliminally marking the rhythms of the show. Christina Smith's set, exposingly lit by Rachel Burke, turns the Beckett's auditorium is side-on, so the entire length of the stage is a shop window display. The shelves are topped with funky neon script spelling out a nonsensical word that looks like some mega brand name. During the play, isolated letters light up to become scene headings. Inside the display are shelves and shelves of cakes, like a kind of nightmare Brunettis. In the middle of the stage is a long wooden table and some chairs. It's somehow immediately enclosing, as if you really had entered a shop, rather than a theatre.

For the first ten to 15 minutes, however, I was in some doubt. I'm not sure that this is a problem with the text, so much with the introductory conventions that director Pamela Rabe creates: it's not until later on in the performance that you know how to read it. Bella (Heather Bolton) wanders on stage in a desultory fashion, leans against the table, and begins her monologue. Reinforced by what appeared to be some very clunky dialogue as the first cake was taken off the shelves and eaten by the first couple, it set up expectations which I had to dismantle to enjoy the play.

Was this really, I thought with dread, going to be a kind of theatrical chicklit, illuminated with strawberry-flavoured whimsy and simplistic, reassuring irony? Was this just going to be bad naturalism? Was, in short, Bates offering us an Australian version of a Sarah Ruhl play? There was just enough spikiness in there not to be sure: and, as it turned out, my premonitions were all wrong. I'm not sure what the solution might be, but I needed to be let in on the joke a little earlier. Fortunately, the production transcends its uncertain opening.

Porn.Cake certainly outlines a bleak view of contemporary relationships. The cake ritual is neurotically repeated, bit by bit breaking down into nonsense and aggression, and it rapidly becomes clear that, for these couples, substitution is a way of being. Bates is a skilled exploiter of repetition, patiently weaving the same images and phrases through different contexts to create a theatrical world. The theme of substitution is worked until it becomes nonsense: "Cake is the new porn." "Google is the new cake."

Set against these abstracted performances of middle-class neuroticism are the monologues, which open up the self-deceptions and, most of all, the loneliness of the four characters. They reveal their longings, their nostalgia, their dissatisfactions: and you realise that none of these characters, except possibly Bella, have much self-insight. They stand forlornly in the midst of their comfortable unhappiness, unable to imagine their way out of it. The comedy, like most comedy, erupts out of the gaps between their self-perception and how we perceive them; their pathos is in their fumbling realisations of the inner emptiness of their lives.

It's clearly a difficult play to realise, and aside from my initial reservations, Rabe's production brings it to vivid and complex life. I wasn't sure about the abstract movement that punctuated some of the scenes, where the actors briefly become automata making truncated gestures: that seemed to hammer the point a little too obviously. But Rabe has an excellent cast who play the differing levels of the production and text with accuracy and wit, bringing out the feeling in their characters without losing any of the sting.

It's definitely a must-see, which by focusing on the minutae of contemporary relationships throws a stark light over the larger social mechanisms that condition them: here the personal is, indeed, political. And, drawing us explicitly into its circle of neurotic consumption, there's cake for the audience, too.

Pictures: top: (l-r) Luke Elliot, Christen O’Leary, Heather Bolton and Travis McMahon in Porn.Cake; bottom, Kristen O'Leary and Travis McMahon. Photos: Jeff Busby

Porn.Cake by Vanessa Bates, directed by Pamela Rabe. Sets and costumes by Christina Smith, lighting by Rachel Burke, sound design by Darrin Verhagen. With Heather Bolton, Luke Elliott, Travis McMahon and Christen O'Leary. Beckett Theatre @ Malthouse Theatre until May 8.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Briefs: Howie the Rookie, Hypatia II, In The Next Room

Your faithful correspondent has been somewhat scattered of late, like a barrel of popcorn given a hefty thump. I have excuses, with which I won't bore you; suffice to say that recently my other lives have been demanding. In TN's bright new 2011 reincarnation, which frankly looks pretty much like last year's model, I am pursuing my aim of seasoning the madness of doing this blog with some kind of sweet reason. Some might say that, as with previous attempts, I'm failing miserably, but as the saying goes, it's a long, hard, bitter, uneven struggle.

I don't seem to have been very successful in cutting down my theatre attendance. However, I am exploiting the luxury of not attending every show on opening night, and instead going later in the season. Another resolution is that I won't necessarily be writing 1200 word reviews about everything I see. Even given these innovations, I'm still a little tardy in my notations. Howie the Rookie, for example, closed over a week ago, and even though I saw it in its final week, this response is late. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, etc, but a gal is only human, and sometimes barely that.

On to Howie the Rookie, staged at Red Stitch as part of its 10th anniversary season by Greg Carroll after a successful first season in 2002. Mark O'Rowe's Terminus was part of the Melbourne Festival a couple of years ago, and I heard Good Things (although sadly I was overseas and missed it) so I was curious to catch up with this writer. Howie the Rookie is an early O'Rowe play, written his twenties, and its evocation of working class Dublin sizzles with linguistic invention, brashness and wit. Its two halves consist of interlinked monologues, performed by Howie Lee (Paul Ashcroft) and Rookie Lee (Tim Ross).

It's given a bravura, if somewhat overdressed, production by Carroll. Ben Shaw's modular set design creates a surprising illusion of space on the small Red Stitch stage, but is full of fussy details - a painted image of a boy in a hoodie, or what appear to be cattle bones - that end up being merely decorative and therefore distracting. No one can say that the monologues are not delivered with energy, but I felt that the performances rather trampled the text into the ground. Red Stitch is a small space, and and there was a lot of shouting. I left with ringing ears.

This is a problem of direction rather than performance: both actors clearly had the gamut of emotional response at their fingertips, and when they didn't shout, the intelligence of the text had a chance to shine. The production seems driven by the idea that male aggression and sexual energy is, well, loud. Of course it can be, if not all the time: but O'Rowe's satire on masculinity, and its ultimate pathos, gets lost in the noise. Carroll has gone for stylised theatre, so the text is accompanied by high energy physicalisations, but again this lacks the subtlety of the text, as the movement is almost exclusively literal and illustrative. Still, an impressive early play from O'Rowe.

Last week, I got to the Alexander Theatre in Monash to see a showing of Hypatia II, a work in progress by Jane Montgomery-Griffiths, directed by Adena Jacobs. Last year Griffiths was responsible for the exquisite Sappho... in 9 fragments at the Malthouse, and Jacobs directed Anne Carson's Elektra at The Dog Theatre, and their combined firepower is reason enough even for a domestic rabbit like me to strike out into the wilds of the eastern suburbs.

Like Sappho, Hypatia II is a monologue that weaves together two narratives from past and present. In this case, it's the tale of Hypatia, a brilliant 4th century Alexandrian mathematician, scientist and astronomer who was horribly murdered under a fundamentalist Christian regime, and that of a contemporary maths lecturer who is publicly humiliated by a young lover. It was originally commissioned by Stork Theatre, and has undergone further development with Jacobs. As Griffiths says in her program note, it is now a different show.

Griffiths's performance is a riveting anatomy of misogynies, then and now: the sexual hatred that refuses women the humanity that permits their full potential to flower and grow. Hypatia's death was part of a larger torching of knowledge under the Coptic Bishop of Alexandria, when fanatics burned what was left of the great Library of Alexandria; but in her subsequent excision from history, she suffered a particularly feminine fate. Her modern equivalent is a woman who can't hope to match Hypatia's achievements: self-doubting, crouched in the shadow of her brilliant father, her enabling ego is snipped and pruned at every turn. Yet she identifies with Hypatia to the point of madness.

Without claiming a cheap equivalence, Griffiths's show takes the image of Hypatia's being flayed alive and gives it a contemporary spin. As Sarah Kane showed brutally in plays like Blasted, there is a direct link between psychic and physical violence: this text makes a similar link, and with an equally powerful linguistic viscerality. It works very effectively on a large stage, with Jared Lewis's monochromatic lighting design further isolating the performer, in wide angles of intense light or sudden darknesses. I hope to see this one again.

Lastly... I went to see Sarah Ruhl's In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play, which is currently enjoying a season at the MTC's Sumner Theatre. It's given a luscious production by Pamela Rabe. Tracy Grant Lord's two-level set is at once ingenious and lovely to look at, and her costumes are a Victorian fantasia. Hartley TA Kemp's lighting design is a nostalgic paean to the days of softly-lit drawings rooms and Iain Grandage's sound design is at once lush and nicely judged. The performances are impeccable. In short, there is nothing to criticise in the production.

The first act washed over me without much complaint: there was plenty to look at, and I even laughed a few times. Set in the days when middle class women were supposedly beset by the symptoms of hysteria - often a syndrome associated with feminine ambition or sexual desire - and were diagnosed the administration of medical orgasm as a treatment, it is pretty much a one-joke act about women who don't understand their own bodies. I couldn't help reflecting, as I watched the shenanigans, that another common treatment for hysteria was hysterectomy, a procedure that up until 1880 had a mortality rate of 80-90 per cent. Or that the poet Anna Wickham's husband incarcerated her in an asylum when she refused his prohibition on writing and published her first book in 1911. Which is to say, Victorian patriarchy was never quite this benign.

On the evidence of the first act, this play is more accomplished than last year's Dead Man's Cell Phone, and, as I said, it's very beautifully produced. Still, there's something about Sarah Ruhl that brings out the Dorothy Parker in me. I'll never know what happened in the second act. At interval I found myself outside the theatre. And somehow, gentle reader, I never found my way back in.

Pictures: top: Paul Ashcroft in Red Stitch's Howie the Rookie; middle, Jane Montgomery-Griffiths in Hypatia II. Photo: Pia Johnson; bottom, Helen Thomson and Jacqueline MCkenzie in In The Next Room. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Howie the Rookie, by Mark O'Rowe, directed by Greg Carroll. Set design by Ben Shaw, lighting by Claire Springett and sound design by Brett Ludeman. With Timothy Ross and Paul Ashcroft. Red Stitch (closed).

Hypatia II, written and performed by Jane Montgomery-Griffiths, directed by Adena Jacobs. Sound and lighting design by Jared Lewis, set and costume by Dayna Morrissey. Lunchtime performance, Alexandra Theatre, Monash University.

In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Pamela Rabe. Set and costumes by Tracy Grant Lord, lighting by Hartley TA Kemp, composition and sound design Iain Grandage. With Jacqueline McKenzie, David Roberts, Helen Thomson, Marshall Napier, Mandy McElhinney, Sara Zwangobani and Josh McConville. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until May 21.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Advertisements for myself

Things might have been quiet on TN (aside from the shenanigans on the Baal comment thread) but that doesn't mean that Ms TN has been idle. No, indeed: life in all its glorious variety has been getting in the way of all my plans. All the same, I have seen quite a bit of theatre, which I hope to write about when I manage the requisite time-wrangling. Watch this space...

Meanwhile, a couple of notes about AC-related activity:

* Some of you might be interested in a piece that appeared yesterday on the ABC website The Drum, which springs off the all-male Miles Franklin shortlist to wonder why literary writing is still so dominated by men. Many of the comments illustrate precisely why this might be the case, but ho hum.

* Meanwhile, on October 16, I'm running a two-hour workshop on poetic form for Australian Poetry at the Wheeler Centre. Basically the idea is to get down and dirty in the poetic workshop, looking under the hood of the machine to see what makes it work. Details and booking here.

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Friday, April 08, 2011

Review: Baal

Baal, pagan Lord of Heaven, god of rain and fertility. Baal, the first king of the Christian Hell, best known to us as Beelzebub. Milton's Baalim, one of those evilly ambiguous demons who, "when they please / can either sex assume". In the hands of the young Bertolt Brecht, he's the archetypal rebel poet and criminal anti-hero, a voracious appetite on legs, epic hater of womankind. The original title of the play was "Baal eats! Baal dances! Baal is transfigured!" What, asked Brecht, is Baal up to?

Baal was up to no good, that's for sure. The titular hero of Brecht's first play, written when he was only 20, he's a savagely ironic portrait of the ultimate Romantic outsider, stripped of his romantic dress. He's modelled on a range of sources. Perhaps the first is the Chinese poet and famous carouser Li Po, whose work Brecht devoured in his teens. Another is the 15th century French poet, thief and vagabond François Villon, whose contemporary equivalent might be Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Another strong influence is Arthur Rimbaud, the teen genius who horrified and intrigued literary Paris with his defiant lack of hygiene, and whose scandalous affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine, which has echoes in this play, sparked the masterpiece A Season in Hell.

Perhaps most intriguingly, in 1926 Brecht himself named a real poet - Josef K, a car mechanic (perhaps a precursor of Ern Malley?) and the bastard son of a washerwoman - as the biographical model for Baal. Who knows if this had anything to do with the publication of Kafka's novel The Trial in 1925? All the same, the echo is suggestive: Kafka's Josef K is, like Baal, a passive character around whom events happen, but otherwise almost precisely his negative: where Josef K is sick with sexual guilt, Baal is sick with the lack of it.

What's unarguable is that Baal derives from an ancient genealogy of exclusively male poets: he is the archetypal troubador, the dark glint of male violence and amorality that inhabits the allure of every bad boy rock star. In Brecht's play, here given a starkly intelligent production at the Malthouse by Simon Stone, he remains as deeply problematic as he ever was, with his ugliness upfront. Whereas in the 1920s his deepest crimes would have been the outrage of bourgeois social mores, a century later it's his misogyny.

For my part, I don't believe the portrayal of misogyny is the same as its endorsement, and I'd argue strongly that this production is critique rather than advocacy. For art to ignore the existence of misogyny would be risible, given, say, the recent behaviour of football clubs or the Australian Defence Force: nothing Baal does is without its contemporary precedent. All the same, there's no getting past the sexism of the play, even given the reflexive nature of its argument, and because of the amoral (or perhaps, to pick up on Bataille, the hypermoral) light in which Baal is cast, its misogyny remains its most confronting aspect. The character of Baal reflects back in magnified form the society in which he lives, erasing its softening hypocrisies, and his use and abuse of women is brutal. Worse, although he is always culpable, he remains innocent.

Another thing worth keeping in mind in approaching this production of Baal is Brecht's own estimation of it: the play is not meant to provoke empathy or identification. As Brecht said in 1922, in an early version of the artistic intuition that later become Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect): "I hope in Baal... I've avoided one common artistic bloomer, that of trying to carry people away. Instinctively I've kept my distance… The spectator's 'splendid isolation' is left intact; he is not fobbed off with an invitation to feel sympathetically, to fuse with the hero and seem significant and indestructible as he watches himself in two different versions. A higher type of understanding can be got from making comparisons, from whatever is different, amazing, impossible to overlook."

Stone's production, co-translated with Tom Wright (not to be confused with Thomas M. Wright, who is playing Baal), is a serious and often brilliant attempt at Brecht's play. Although the script is hugely cut, it sticks closely to the original text, transposing its obscenities and undeniable beauties into contemporary colloquial English. Likewise, Brecht's songs are set to electric guitar by Stefan Gregory, but remain ballads rather than rock'n'roll. Baal is no Thyestes or The Wild Duck, in which a new text is spun out of the bones of the original, so here the estrangements of poetry are added to the alienations produced by its lead character.

The word that resounds through Brecht's text like a knell is "nothingness". Baal is the eye of the storm, the passive genius who absorbs the vacuum around him, and - in parallel with his hideous description of childbirth as the agonised expulsion of something that was received with pleasure - ejects it as a monstrous nullity. The poetry he creates, lyrical celebrations of disgust, is almost a by-product of this process; it neither redeems nor excuses him, and in fact he asks neither of it. This is where his innocence exists, and is why even towards the end, despite his vile behaviour, his friend Eckhardt calls him a child: his one virtue, if he can be said to have any, is that his actions, however selfish, lack the pettiness of self-interest.

All these complexities are given savage life in this production. There are aspects that remained (at least on opening night) unresolved; there were moments when the action was unclear, and when its physicalisation - notably the violence - was awkward, although these are minor points. Perhaps the biggest problem lies in how the production addresses the knotty gender question.

Stone has replaced all the secondary characters with a chorus of women taking multiple roles, who end up representing the broader society brutalised and challenged by Baal. Out of a cast of nine actors, three are (ambiguously) male. I suspect that this might have been conceived as a way of giving voice and weight to the women who are otherwise largely present as objects to be consumed and destroyed by Baal, but the immediate and (I hope) unintended effect is that women become the custodians of social mores, their traditional role in patriarchal societies.

Despite this, the show generates a compelling, chilly brilliance that I think is absolutely correct for Brecht. It's performed by a cast unafraid of its challenges, and delivers scenes of astounding poetic theatre. Wright as Baal carries the weight of performance, at once charismatic and abject, knowing and blind. As the composer Eckhardt, his friend, lover and victim, Oscar Redding is an assured (and relaxedly nude) presence: he is the troubled satellite drawn into and destroyed by Baal's presence, who attempts nevertheless to wake him to a consciousness of his crimes. And Geraldine Hakewill gives a luminous performance as Johanna, the young innocent who is Baal's first real victim.

This is followed through with an extraordinary design, a Manichean world of white and black designed (lighting and set) by Nick Schlieper. Human beings, often naked, move through these unrelenting abstractions, their bodies ever more exposed, more abused, more abject. It opens with a white rectangle, the antiseptic world of Baal's bourgeois admirers, the only object a black amplifier and guitar; as Baal continues his Rake's Progress to oblivion, the walls collapse and expose a black, featureless earth on which falls a punishing, endless rain, the manifestation of the godhead. Some of the visuals create arresting contemporary echoes of Renaissance images of crucifixion; still others recall Robert Mapplethorpe or Lucien Freud.

In short, Baal is a discomforting production of a deeply discomforting play. I've no doubt it will divide audiences; it certainly refuses a lot of easy options. As a work it wears its antecedents on its sleeve, and yet there were goose-bumping moments during the show when I realised that I had not seen anything like it. That's a rare feeling. One thing is for sure: those who go expecting titillation will be disappointed, because they'll get poetry instead. And what breath-taking poetry it is.

Pictures: Top: Thomas M Wright as Baal; middle, Shelly Lauman and Thomas M Wright; bottom, Wright and Oscar Redding. Photos: Jeff Busby

Baal, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright, directed by Simon Stone. Set and lighting Nick Schlieper, costumes by Mel Page, composition and sound design Stefan Gregory. With Bridig Gallacher, Geraldine Hakewill, Luisa Hastings Edge, Shelly Laumann, Oscar Redding, Chris Ryan, Lotte St Clair, Katherine Tonkin and Thomas M Wright. Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until April 23; Sydney Theatre Company, May 7-June 11.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Review: Delectable Shelter, Minotaur

Watching the development of theatre companies is a fascinating business. They are organisms subject to all the travails of being alive: growth, change, decay, death and renewal. They are networks of individual energies which seed in unexpected places, producing unexpected syntheses and collaborations. The Hayloft Project and Chamber Made Opera are cases in point. Both have had a major impact on performance in this town, and both are under new artistic leadership.

Hayloft was begun by Simon Stone in 2007, pulling together a bunch of recently graduated talent for a notable production of Franz Wedekind's Spring Awakening (review here). Since then, Melbourne, and later Sydney, has seen a series of productions that re-examined classics and mounted new works, sometimes controversially, and Stone has catapulted to the main stage at the STC and is now resident director at Belvoir St. Hayloft, which has never been short on talent, is now under the artistic leadership of Anne-Louise Sarks, who as well as being assistant director on Stone's recent Belvoir production of The Wild Duck, directed the Fringe hit Yuri Wells and last year's exquisite version of Gorky's The Nest.

Chamber Made, on the other hand, has been around since 1988, until last year under the artistic directorship of Douglas Horton. From its first production, the oft-returned Helen Noonan solo work Recital, it defined itself as the place for modern opera in Melbourne. Its production of Phillip Glass's The Fall of the House of Usher, which featured an outstanding design by Trina Parker, remains one of my peak theatrical experiences. And this company too has a new artistic director - David Young, formerly AD of Aphids and a composer in his own right.

The continuities are much more obvious in Hayloft, which is not so much reinventing itself as continuing its previous explorations, using much of the same talent that drove their earlier work. Delectable Shelter, directed and written by Benedict Hardie, is Hayloft's second production under Sarks. Under the umbrella of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, it's an SF apocalyptic satire, produced with all the style we've come to expect from Hayloft. It's a stylish three-act nonsense with savage undertones and a surprisingly optimistic feel.

The conceit is that a bunch of fanatics have decided that the world is past saving and have ramped up climate change to a catastrophic degree that destroys all life on earth. Five people - an engineer and four members of an upper-middle class Melbourne family - are in a bunker underground, readying themselves to repopulate the planet, once it is possible to reinhabit it, with a new, utopian society.

The bunker itself, represented in Claude Marcos's design by a kind of open-sided cabinet propped on the stage, is decorated with the most eye-burning wallpaper I've ever seen which, even more than the walls of the box, emphasises the claustrophobia of Hardie's black vision. (The single sign of real life, a painting by Van Gogh, sits jarringly on the wall, representing everything that has been destroyed). In between the three acts, we are given performances of 80s pop songs rearranged by Benny Davis as Bach madrigals, sumptuously sung by the performers in eye-popping salmon-pink choral robes.

There are touches of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf and Chris Morris's deeply unsettling Blue Jam in the text. The first two acts follow the fortunes of this dysfunctional family, immediately after the catatrsophe and then a couple of years later. Privilege functions here as emotional and intellectual cauterisation, a complete inability to empathise with anyone, or to grasp any reality beyond the immediate situation. It emerges as careless cruelty and a carefully meaningless dialogue that skates over an abyss of neuroticism. The family obediently bows to the necessities of their situation: breeding schedules and survival.

The action then leaps three centuries, to the eve of their re-emergence onto the surface of the planet. Hardie examines the (il)logical results of a vastly depleted gene pool - a bunker populated by hundreds of people who are all identical to their five progenitors, and a musical culture that has evolved from two Ur-texts, Bach chorales and 80s pop songs. Idle suggestions written down three centuries earlier have risen to the status of religious texts, cannibalism is a way of life and the Chinese - according to rumour, the only other survivors of the destruction of the earth, and masters of leaping backwards onto buildings - are The Enemy. But how to greet the Enemy? With guns or with songs?

Alistair Mew's sublimimally rumbling sound design adds to the dissociative realities, suggesting a world crumbling in chaos outside the bright, airtight box where the increasingly unhinged characters dutifully pursue their deluded dreams. Hardie's play is sharp and clever, paying off all its jokes, although I thought the middle act a little overwritten and consequently slow. The cast brings an infectious energy and some beautiful voices to this bizarro world, with an especially sharp comic performance by Yesse Spence; the early scenes were a little sticky on opening night, but relaxed as the evening progressed. Very funny, with enough sting to create a lingering aftertaste.

Chamber Made's Minotaur: The Island is another cup of tea entirely. Something between a New Music concert, an installation, a ritual or invocation and the kind of performances children make for their families, it's part of an initiative by David Young that literally brings opera into the living room. For this performance, co-commissioned by Tasmania's 10 Days on the Island festival and a private sponsor, Dr Peta Gillingham, we were invited to an apartment 17 floors above St Kilda Rd. The event was catered by a chef and involved some good wines and a stunning night-time view over the Shrine: I imagine it was a very different experience from the opera's premiere at Bruny Island, where it was developed among the community.

Quite aside from its loungeroom setting, the reverberations with theatre made at home are irresistible. Once everyone was seated, we were asked to close our eyes, in lieu of a blackout. The costumes are all repurposed - dress-ups, headgear made of baskets and handbags and pencil-cases. There is a percussion kit, a small harpsichord and a double bass, but music is also made from a series of props: cane coffee tables, wooden objects, a conch shell. The event is immediately domestic and improvised, but the effect is fascinating: it's a re-enactment of a myth that draws out of these humble objects a compelling sense of ritual. I found the performance wholly absorbing, and started thinking about the Lares, the household gods of the Romans, where the domestic sphere is also the site of the sacred.

Margaret Cameron's text is a fragmentary poem of considerable beauty that bookends the performance. The opening section is spoken by Caroline Lee, lying as Venus washed up on an imaginary shore, "the worst place I can imagine", and the final stanzas are sung by Deborah Kayser as Ariadne, who has lost her way and now must "start again". In the centre is the question of ecstasy and loss.

Venus recalls the conception of the Minotaur, half bull, half man, the result of Pasiphaë's passion for a white bull - a punishment meted out to her by the Goddess of Love for the husband's refusal to sacrifice the bull. That perverse copulation is the precursor of Ariadne's treacherous passion for the Athenian champion Theseus who, once he has used her insider knowledge to find and slay the monster in the Labyrinth, abandons her on the Isle of Naxos on his way back to Athens. The opera is about this place of abandonment.

In this opera, "identity is all timbre". David Young's score is about detail, silences and sounds drawn from ordinary objects as well as conventional instruments - the scraping along a plank, the rustling percussion from striking a basket, the breath of the performers - that build to concanetations of musical energy and then dissipate. It has a feeling of something ancient behind it: there are sounds that gesture towards the music scored for the Classical Greek theatre when it was first performed. Transformations are minimal and uneasy, and demand close listening. It's a familiar enough menu of sound for those at least a little acquainted with New Music, but what it's not is theatrical: Minotaur explores other senses of rhythm and fragmentation and attention.

The music evolves alongside highly stylised, hieratic performance. The performance walks a fine line, always with the threat of falling into the risible, but it never quite falls over. This is because its unstable tensions retain their suspension, and is also due to the performances themselves, which are utterly focused. And it creates some memorable images: a woman with a bird's head, playing the harpsichord; a multiple vision of a bull, made of six bodies; Ariadne holding a conch shell, perched like a ship's figurehead on a island made of a jumble of furniture. I couldn't always read the symbolism, but somehow that didn't matter. Fascinating work.

Images: promotion shots. Top, Hayloft's Delectable Shelter; bottom, Chamber Made's Minotaur.

Delectable Shelter, written and Directed by Benedict Hardie. Composed by Benny Davis, musical direction by Nathan Gilkes, set design by Claude Marcos, lighting design by Lucy Birkinshaw, costumes by Esther Hayes, sound design by Alister Mew. With Thomas Conroy, Simone Page Jones, Anthony Mackey, Josh Price and Yesse Spence. The Hayloft Project @ Theatre Works, until April 17.

Minotaur: The Island, composed by David Young, directed and written by Margaret Cameron. Performers: Deborah Kayser, Caroline Lee and Hellen Sky. Musicians: Mark Cauvin, Matthias Schack-Arnott and Anastasia Russell-Head. Commissioned by Ten Days on the Island and Dr Peta Gillingham, performed at a private apartment. Closed.

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Newsy bits

* It's all over US newspapers, but I can't seem to find it in any local sheets, at least online: former MIAF director Kristy Edmunds has landed a plum job at UCLA as artistic director of its renowned live performance series. As the LA Times puts it, "Her four years as artistic director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival in Australia extended her reputation as an impresario with impressive contacts and a flair for the adventurous and the offbeat." Indeed. She'll be a busy woman: for the first year she'll also be continuing her present job as consulting artistic director for a new performing arts program at New York City's Park Avenue Armory.

* Meanwhile, the Melbourne Theatre Company yesterday announced an interim triumvirate of artistic directors, who will program the 2012 season before soon-to-be-former MIAF AD Brett Sheehy takes up the reins. They are Aidan Fennessy, Robyn Nevin and Pamela Rabe. The 2012 season will be annoounced in September.

* Lastly, get your greedy hands on Robert Reid's new Platform Paper, Hello World! Promoting the Arts on the Web. You don't have to be a performing arts nut to find this fascinating: it's an intelligent and broad look at the impact of digital technology with implications beyond Reid's areas of focus. Available now from Currency House.

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Friday, April 01, 2011

Review: Amplification, Faker

Finally - the last of my responses to Dance Massive, which, such is the pace of life around these here parts, feels in the remote past already, although it only closed a few days ago. I managed to see around a third of the events, although it was one of those aggregations of energy in which everything caught my eye. Those hungry for more reviews can, if they haven't already, direct their browsers to Real Time's Dance Massive special, where various critics, including the indefatigable Keith Gallasch and fellow bloggistas Jana Perkovic and Carl Nilsson-Polias, have logged their various critiques.

When I attend a performance, some part of my brain seems to erase any information about the show I'm about to see, even if I have read it. The one thing that seems to form expectations is the previous work I've seen by the artists involved: I have a magical ability to forget press releases completely. (It's only by dint of serious concentration that I am able to note the correct venue and time.) So it was that I watched BalletLab's Amplification under the impression that it was a new work, and read it as an evolution of Miracle, which in 2009 was a new work.

This is, of course, totally backwards: Amplification is in fact 12 years old. It was choreographed long before the photographs from Abu Ghraib, long before Guantanamo and the psy-ops tortures which locked prisoners in containers and played Ravel at deafening decibels. As Phillip Adams says in his program note, he was working from a variety of genre and SF ideas: Kubrick, Frankenheimer, Lucas, and in particular JG Ballard, whose novel Crash is a deeply discomforting narrative about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes. For Ballard, the car accident suggested "the portents of a nightmare marriage between technology, and our own sexuality".

This perverse fetishisation of violence, a sexuality alienated and mediated through technology, was brought to a macabre apotheosis by the perversity of the Abu Ghraib photographs, which literally implicated every viewer in the torture of Iraqi prisoners. And it's this which gives Amplification its nimbus of prophecy: it's not as if that alienation was new in 2004. It's been said that prophecy is about seeing the present clearly, and in this dance Adams sees something very clearly indeed. All the same, the specificity of the images created is disconcerting: Adams's dancers are hooded, thrown naked in collapsed piles of limp limbs, locked in boxes, assaulted by deafening waves of sampled sound, all actions that seem to be the vocabulary of modern military violence.

Since this is articulated by choreography that is, often, extremely beautiful, I experienced Amplification as aesthetic trauma. In the opening dance the dancers' bodies became almost mechanised, their limbs unnaturally straight, creating unexpected angles and shapes, and I felt I was watching a rigorous process of objectification. This is true, to some extent at least, of all dance, but here this feeling was heightened to menace, and laid the ground for the violent images that followed.

Dancers dressed in drab, uniform-like costumes circled two others seated in chairs, their arms straight beside them as if they were restrained, and drew long lines of recording tape out of their mouths, as if they were drawing speech or entrails, winding them around their prisoners. Then one dancer flourished a pair of scissors and cut them, and there was a flash of the prisoners collapsing, before the stage was plunged into darkness. In another sequence, three clothed women, using only their legs, nudged a passive, naked male body into a box and closed the lid on him. In yet another, a pile of naked dancers - seemingly representing corpses - becomes erotically charged.

These disturbing scenes cut against others that can only be described as images of transcendence, which is where I found myself making the strongest connections with Adams's later work, Miracle. There is a beautiful, but overlong and overworked, sequence of movement where two bodies, brought on stage in body bags, are wound in cloths, as in a ritual of preparing a corpse for burial, and the dance ends on a strangely ambiguous resolution, all the dancers democratised by their mutual nakedness. Perhaps the most confronting aspect of this work is its eroticism, always at play in Adams's choregraphy: the body is a site of violent conflict, seeking escape from its materiality.

The design and sound amplify the impact of the choregraphy. Bluebottle's set and lighting - a raw, white stage hung with angled fluorescent lights and arc lamps - looks like a live installation by Joseph Beuys. Lynton Carr's score, performed live on turntables, begins at full throttle, sampling everything from electronic noise to snatches of dialogue from movies, then moves to a surprisingly lyricism and powerful moments of silence. An extraordinary work.

Gideon Obarzanek's solo work Faker is at the other end of the spectrum, although in its own way it is equally exposing. The conceit is simple: Obarzanek, successful choreographer, is approached by a young, female dancer, who wants him to create a work for her. Obarzanek agrees. The collaboration fails, and results in the dancer, some time later, sending an excoriating email in which she ruthlessly criticises Obarzanek's work. She claims that his exercises were such that she could "only fail"; she says that he has no coherent aesthetic behind his work, beyond pure curiosity; she compares him unfavourably with German choreographer Tom Lehmann, claiming he is merely superficially copying his techniques, and she attacks him for his sexism and the gendered carnality of his choreography.

The stage is completely bare, a mimesis of a working studio, aside from a desk on which is a laptop computer. The structure of the work is very plain: Obarzanek enters the stage, read us parts of the email, and then performs as if he were the humiliated young dancer, answering the unspoken question: would you put yourself through what you're asking of me? It reveals that as a dancer, Obarzanek has a considerable comic gift: some of this performance is very funny indeed.

In the first performance, she/he puts on an iPod and dances, creating a series of naive and comic movements; in the second, she/he is asked to improvise for a stated period of time, using only movements which she/he doesn't know how to do. The third is a Cagean exercise in which instructions written on paper are thrown on the floor, picked up randomly and then performed in the sequence in which they fall. It culminates when Obarzanek strips to his underpants and performs a solo that he created for the woman to a lush choral score. It's the only time when stage lighting is employed, and the one thing of which she is proud in their failed collaboration. The dance itself, performed by an aging, male but still athletic body, is extraordinarily beautiful.

Out of this simplicity emerges a lot of complexity. The title alone alerts us to the perils of taking anything here literally: Obarzanek claimed in an interview that he wrote the email himself, although the dance was sparked by a real incident. If anything, this is a work of self-interrogation: aside from the final dance, Obarzanek gives no defence of himself against the criticism in the email.

Lightly, with a steady neutrality that avoids defensive heroics, Faker exposes the power of the choreographer, who literally shapes the dancer's body, scrutinising and exposing her; the abyss between perception and self-perception; the dilemma of creating art, of generating renewal, when the surge of youthful curiosity and passion has evaporated and a certain necessary self-deception is no longer possible. At the centre is the question of authenticity: what does it mean to create authentic art? What can truthfulness mean when all art is, by its nature, a conscious and fabricated act?

The performance ends with the chasm of self doubt that opens in Obarzanek from a single glance of contempt thrown his way by the dancer: "I already knew," he says. "All that in one look."

Top, middle: BalletLab's Amplification. Photos Jeff Busby. Bottom: Gideon Obarzanek in Faker.

Amplification, directed and choreographed by Phillip Adams. Composer and turntablist Lynton Carr, set and lighting by Bluebottle, costume design by Graham Green. Performed by Timothy Harvey, Rennie McDougall, Carlee Mellow, Brooke Stamp and Joanne White. Malthouse Theatre & BalletLab, Dance Massive. Closed.

Faker, choreographed and performed by Gideon Obarzanek. Lighting design by Gideon Obarzanek and Chris Mercer. Malthouse Theatre & Chunky Move, closed.

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