Review: Circle Mirror Transformation, It Sounds Silly, InterfaceIndependent theatreSorry, everybodyReview: Namatjira, Rising WaterHolding noteReview: Special, Silent DiscoReview: PinaMelbourne Writers Festival diary datesReview: Pin Drop, Observe the Sons of Ulster ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: Circle Mirror Transformation, It Sounds Silly, Interface

"Complaining," said Rilke, almost a century ago. "The eternal vice of poets." But consider the poet in the 21st century! The digital age has amplified whingeing to a remarkable degree. This means, for instance, that Ms TN can now alert almost 5000 people instantly via Facebook and Twitter that she is having the vapours. The fact that I always feel embarrassed afterwards for megaphoning such trivia never seems to stop me. Ah well. My hope that what TN lacks in breadth is made up for in depth is coming up hard against the fact that presently I am managing neither. The only positive sign is that my nearest and dearest seem to have caught the same insidious lurgy that's pole-axing me. Nothing is so reassuring as a virus shared.

As a result, I am horribly behind on reviews, and still feeling deeply incapable. I thought of taking a leaf from the Liveable Cities people, who today rated Melbourne as The World's Most Liveable City Of 2011 (although, it seems, our culture is merely "tolerable"). It seems the top rating given by whoever measures these things is "acceptable". So, with this level of lively engagement firmly in mind, I can tell you that the three shows I have managed to see in the past two weeks - Circle Mirror Transformation at the MTC, Chunky Move's It Sounds Silly, and Interface, a short dance piece that was part of Melbourne University's Mudfest, were all "acceptable".

Admittedly, that doesn't quite cut it, so following are some brief explanatory notes. (Carved, I hope you understand, out of my actual living brain.)

Circle Mirror Transformation is one of two plays by US playwright Annie Baker presently running in Melbourne - the other is The Aliens, at Red Stitch, which I hear from various sources is worth worth a visit. Aside from noting the fine cast - Deidre Rubenstein, Roger Oakley, Ben Grant, Kate Cole and Brigid Gallacher - I trotted along with no sense of expectation. On the whole, I haven't done too well with the contemporary American playwrights we've had on show here. But Circle Mirror Transformation is, in the best sense, a charming play, and unexpectedly disarming. Its conceit - five misfits meeting during a six-week acting class at a community college - is written, performed and directed with a luminous simplicity that makes it cumulatively moving.

The narrative unfolds obliquely through acting exercises and mundane conversations. Almost incidentally, as is so often the case in these kinds of workshops, we learn all about the five characters, their vulnerabilities, fears, dishonesties and histories. We watch relationships develop and collapse. They finish the workshops, and then head off into their different lives. That's all there is to it.

What makes it shine is Baker's inexorably gentle but completely unsentimental excavation of the loneliness of each character, his or her desire to make contact with others, their different failures. Directed with an invisible hand by Aidan Fennessy, the performances are models of actorly clarity, modestly exemplary in their nuance and feeling. Bucking a trend, Circle Mirror Transformation is much more than it appears to be.

It can bring out the worst in an audience, if there happen to be any wannabe actors present. I've never heard so much ostentatious I'm-in-on-the-joke laughter as on the night I went, to the point where some of its quietly moving moments were in danger of being terminally trampled. I think a marksman in the auditorium, armed with one of those guns used to sedate polar bears, might well be the thing.

Chunky Move and SIGNAL'S It Sounds Silly was performed free over two nights in a public place - by the Signal box behind Flinders St Station - and solved the problem of ambient noise by both incorporating the sounds of, for example, passing trains, and by amplifying Alisdaire Macindoe's sound design (complemented by some spectacular lighting and multimedia) to the point where it didn't matter. It unfolded on a chilly but clear night before a seated audience and a gathering crowd of curious passers by, which gave it the edgeless feeling of a flash mob.

Choreographed and directed by Adam Wheeler, the 28 dancers consisted of four young professionals and 24 dancers from Signal, an arts studio for young people aged 13 to 20. The kind of energy this created as the dancers spilled out onto the performance space was electric. It was almost a dance version of Belgian company Ontroerend Goed's Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are so Shut Up and Listen, an irresistible show by and about young people that toured to the Arts House a couple of years ago. Very different in discipline, it had a similar kind of emotional impact.

The performance opened with four dancers emerging in hoodies from what appeared to be a kind of cubby house constructed of mattresses. The dancers exploded into a short and spectacular introduction of hiphop-based moves, using the mattresses to cushion themselves as they flung their bodies to the ground. Then the rest of the company joined them, and the dance evolved in all sorts of unexpected ways, away from the mass culture vibes of hiphop to various explorations of movement, both collective and individual.

The costumes were variations on an identical uniform, colourful t-shirt and pants, but the emphasis here was on the individuality of each dancer: their faces were projected on the signal box, or they spoke to the audience. At one point, every dancer told us the thing of which they were most afraid. Their confessions varied from climate change to being afraid they would never find anyone to love to a strangely shaped tree outside the bedroom window.

It was only half an hour long, but It Sounds Silly was a rich and detailed performance, moving and exhilarating. Exemplary youth art.

Lastly, the single performance I managed to make for Mudfest before I hit the wall was Interface, a short dance work performed by Jacqui Aylward, Laura D’Augello and Carla Lusi at the Guild Theatre. I was surprised by the ambition of this work, which explored the world of online identity with multimedia projections and a soundscape by Brenton Aylward and Daniel O’Keefe. The performers integrated classical ballet with contemporary dance in ways which were sometimes naive but were also inventive and aware of the present moment. With the barest of resources but some big ideas, they generated some powerful moments. It made me sorry about everything else I missed.

Picture: (from left): Deidre Rubenstein, Roger Oakley, Brigid Gallacher, Kate Cole and Ben Grant in Circle Mirror Transformation. Photo: Paul Dunn

Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Sets and costumes by Marg Howell, lighting design by Philip Lethlean. With Deidre Rubemstein, Roger Oakley, Ben Grant, Kate Cole and Brigid Gallacher. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Lawler Studio, until September 17.

It Sounds Silly, choregraphed and directed by Adam Wheeler. Multimedia by Robin Fox, lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne, sound design by Alisdair Macindoe, costumes by Benjamin Hancock. Performers from Chunky Move and SIGNAL. Signal, two free performances, August 19 and 20.

Interface, performed and choregraphed by Jacqui Aylward, Laura D’Augello and Carla Lusi. Music composed by Brenton Aylward and Daniel O’Keefe. Mudfest, Melbourne University.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Independent theatre

A quick heads up for tomorrow's Melbourne Writers Festival panel on independent theatre. I'll be chairing a discussion on our fertile independent scene with Declan Greene, Angus Cerini and Anne Louise Sarks at the ACMI Cinema 1 at 4pm. Details and bookings here.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Sorry, everybody

I was looking for a picture of my brain on the internet, but I couldn't find anything grotesque enough. Sorry everybody: especially to those young people at that excellent event, MUDFEST, whose shows I didn't make this week, and to those others who are waiting for reviews to emerge from this malfunctioning machine. I've been struggling for a couple of months, and this week's vile cold has helped nothing. I think I have to face the fact that I'm all wore out. Will post when I can; in the meantime, if you're looking for something to read, why not check out the essays in the archives?

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: Namatjira, Rising Water

The notion of "authenticity" in art has whiskers all over it. Art, by definition, is artifice, mimicry, representation: at its most achieved, it can perhaps aspire to be authentically fake. It's entirely possible that the rest is marketing: celebrity didn't just start with Paris Hilton, after all. This generates one of the central paradoxes of art: what makes art matter, to those who encounter it as well as those who make it, is a quality that can best be called truthfulness. It's that quality, wherever it exists, which calls up the immediate sense of recognition that makes a work resonant. It goes through you, like wine through water, and changes the colour of your soul.

It is a quality at home in any form, and therefore as indefinable as it is recognisable. I've found it in work as diverse as the alternative realities of Ursula Le Guin or the astonishing visual poems of Cy Twombly; in HD's reconstructed etymologies or Beckett's astringent theatrical sculptures or, most recently, in Antonio Tarbucchi's novels. It's in Pessoa's multiple identities as much as in the passionate fakeries of Picasso's paintings. This quality might, as Viktor Shklovsky hints, come down to something as simple as the changes registered in a work of art, its movement from one state to another, mimicking similar psychic and physical states within wider human experience. Whatever it is, it is experienced as a sense of truthfulness: and in a work of art, no matter how difficult or tragic the truth might be that it communicates, that is a joyous experience.

Authenticity and truthfulness are not the same thing, although they're often confused. While truthfulness emerges from within the work itself, authenticity is a kind of certificate, an extrinsic guarantee that the work is, in some way, "genuine". In literature, for example, the author is often the guarantor, feeding a public hunger for the authentic that somehow elides the whole question of fictional truthfulness or even imagination. This is, of course, the primary reason for literary hoaxes like Helen Demidenko or Norma Khouri.

Namatjira, which opened last week at the Malthouse after a hugely successful Sydney season at Belvoir St, plays authenticity against truthfulness in deeply revealing ways. I haven't seen a lot of Big hArt's work, but it's an exemplary maker of community theatre, and one of the most interesting companies working in Australia. I first encountered Big hArt with the production Ngapartji Ngapartji, which featured in the 2006 Melbourne Festival, and later saw a moving documentary on their community work in the Northcott Housing Project in Sydney, which resulted in a Sydney Festival performance called Sticky Bricks.

Big hArt's headline festival performances are the publicly visible part of much larger long-term community engagements. Namatjira, which narrates the story of the hugely popular Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira, is one aspect of a community project in Hermannsburg, Central Australia which, as the program note explains, "is designed to leave lasting legacies beyond this touring performance". It's this profound level of engagement which gives the production its sense of authenticity: for example, this story is told with Namatjira's grandchildren, Kevin and Lenie Namatjira, on stage. They are both painters themselves, and throughout the show, with fellow painters and family members Elton, Hilary and Kevin Wirri, work on the massive chalk drawings of country, representations of Namatjira's own paintings, that constitute the background of the set.

Such careful signals of a work's authenticity can set off all sorts of warning signals. When work like this is presented in the privileged, middle class setting of a theatre, it risks being merely worthy, served up with a sense of piety that replaces vitality and, worst of all, art itself. I don't deny there's an element of piety somewhere in the work, as well as in its reception, but mostly this is exploded with comedy, the mischievous parodying of precisely those careful contemporary proprieties. Big hArt are upfront about seeking connection with their audiences, and in their oscillation between these contradictory qualities of truthfulness and authenticity, this is what they achieve. The key is the art.

Namatjira, written and directed by Scott Rankin, is a supple mediation between the artifice of theatre - highlighted in the charismatic central performance of Trevor Jamieson, the major narrator, and his offsider Derik Lynch - and the realities that the story of Namatjira reveals, signalled by the presence of his inheritors on stage. Into this are layered the mediations of painting itself. The performance unfolds in what is effectively a giant, dynamic work of visual art.

As the audience enters, Robert Hannaford is hard at work on stage, painting a portrait of Trevor Jamieson, who sits patiently as the artist darts back and forth from the canvas to his palette. This is an allusion to Sir William Dargie's famous portrait of Namatjira, but it's also, quite clearly, a portrait in its own right of the actor who is playing Namatjira. Before a word is spoken, we are already in a complex world of representation.

The performance modulates into song and music - lush choral songs from the Lutheran Mission, country and western parodies, and Genevieve Lacey's haunting recorder compositions, played live on stage. It's a contemporary take on old-fashioned story telling, and irresistibly seductive: within ten minutes, Jamieson has his audience eating out of his hand.

The story itself is a fascinating fable of colonial Australia, at once tragic and hopeful. It starts with Namatjira's parents and his childhood on a Lutheran Mission in Central Australia, his meeting with his friend and mentor Rex Battarbee, and his decision to begin painting to feed his rapidly growing family. Then there's Namatjira's extraordinary fame and wealth at a time when Aboriginal people were still considered part of Australia's flora and fauna, and his subsequent exploitation by both whites and blacks (he supported his entire 600 member community). He was the first Aboriginal given citizenship, although this honour was conferred so he could be taxed.

There are also the various rip-offs - his desperate selling of his copyright, his unsuccessful bid to buy a cattle station - which demonstrated that, for all his fame, he was still a second-class citizen. And there was his old age, culminating in the humiliation of his unjust imprisonment to hard labour after an alcohol-related crime in his community for which he was considered responsible, and which broke and killed him.

The show is careful to pay attention to complexities: Namatjira was a victim of the conflicts that resulted from his stepping between both cultures. Here the depth and complexity of personal relationships are set against the blank impersonality of institutional racism: the friendship of Rex and Albert and their mutual exchange of knowledge becomes a glimpse of a lost possibility that the company itself seeks to resurrect in its work. It's not so far from what historian James Boyce described as "indigenising", a process in which a white underclass learned from black knowledge. It created a new way of living in this country, and was often violently repressed by colonial authorities. In the utopian space of theatre, this possibility is ignited as a hope for something better.

The word is never said, but Namatjira is an enactment of reconciliation. For one thing, it's a show consciously directed towards a white audience. White attitudes to Aboriginality are gently mocked, but this is never alienating; instead, mischievously, it invites its audience into its world. The fact that the production manages to do this without a trace of false sentiment, moralising or special pleading is a tribute to how artfully its makers step through the political minefield of this kind of community-based work. It's feel-good theatre that generates an answering goodwill in its audience, a sudden generosity of possibility. And that's a rare thing to witness.

Tim Winton's first play, Rising Water, is another vision of Australia, in its own way as artfully positioned as Big hArt's. Let's make no mistake: both these productions are unashamedly directed at mainstream audiences, and in their own ways are equally manipulative (as all art, in fact, is). But Rising Water, like Winton's novels, carefully shows us the Australia we would like to imagine, or at least, would like to talk about over our dinner tables. The artfulness here, rather than disarming me, made my teeth ache.

Rising Water is set on Australia Day, on three boats moored at a Perth marina on which live three different middle-aged characters, Col (Goeff Kelso), Baxter (John Howard) and Jackie (Alison Whyte). They all have secrets which are gradually revealed through the show. They are all stuck in the backwater of their lives, wondering how to go on. They all represent various aspects of Australia, or the Australian character (the action takes place on Australia Day, with various nationalistic tics going on in the background). Variously, they provide occasions for critiquing contemporary materialism, via WA Inc or the rapacious consumerism of suburbia, or nationalism, or change.

There are some secondary characters, played by Stuart Halusz, and a mysterious boy (Louis Corbett) floating around in a boat, whom at first I thought was a Ghost of Childhood Lost or somesuch, until in the second act he turned out to be a character too, with his own monologues. And lastly there's the young British backpacker (Claire Lovering) who sparks the action of the play. Foul-mouthed and drunk, with "Pogrom" (the name of a band, apparently) tattooed on her back, she represents what has happened to the Mother Country.

It feels like a thoroughly colonial work, in a way that Namatjira - which is wholly concerned with colonisation - totally manages to avoid. Even its diction seems like a colonial derivation of something else. Perhaps Winton's attention to a certain idea of authentic Australianness means it never feels quite truthful. Among other things, the play is about nostalgia, but at the same time the writing itself seems to be crippled by nostalgia. It is curiously old-fashioned, like a play written about fifty years ago.

The structure consists of dialogues punctuated by long reflective monologues, with moments of theatrical poetic usually signalled by the presence of the Boy. Winton gives us a kind of cod Tennessee Williams with Australian accents, only without the Williams pathos and passion. Most of the time, it's clear that this is a novelist's play: the language tends to the descriptive rather than performative. There's not a lot of sense that language is an act, a necessary understanding for writing in the theatre. This transformation does occur sometimes in Winton's dialogues, and when it does, the difference is palpable.

Kate Cherry's production is a suitably lyrical rendition in a minor key, with silhouettes of masts against a changing sky and the water itself represented by a highly polished black floor. The central performance, John Howard's Baxter, is hugely enjoyable, and makes the most of the text. Baxter is in fact the only character to whom anything happens; everyone else just witnesses it happening to him, doing a kind of psychological striptease along the way.

Given my reservations, and they are considerable, Rising Water wasn't nearly as bad as it might have been. For all its dramaturgical vagueness and its pandering to the dinner-party-fodder aspect of culture, I feel a bit eccentric for confessing that I was sitting there thinking, well, at least the man knows how to write a sentence. There are a few playwrights who could learn that skill to their benefit.

Pictures: Top: Trevor Jamieson in Namatjira. Photo: Brett Boardman. Bottom: Alison Whyte and John Howard in Rising Water. Photo: Gary Marsh

Namatjira by Scott Rankin, created with the Namatjira family. Set design Genevieve Dugard, composer and music director Genevieve Lacey, costumes by Tess Schofield, lighting designe by Nigel Levings, sound design by Tim Atkins With Trevor Jamieson, Robert Hannaford, Derik Lynch, Kevin Namatjira, Lenie Namatjira, Michael Peck, Elton Wirri, Hilary Wirri, Kevin Wirri. Malthouse Theatre and Big hArt, until August 28.

Rising Water by Tim Winton, directed by Kate Cherry. Costumes and set by Christina Smith, lighting by Matt Scott, sound design and composition Iain Grandage. With Geoff Kelso, John Howard, Alison Whyte, Claire Lovering, Stuart Halusz and Louis Corbett. Black Swan State Theatre Company at Melbourne Theatre Company, Arts Centre Playhouse, until September 10.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Holding note

Your Humble Blogger continues at a low ebb this week. As is probably clear to regular readers, Ms TN hasn't managed to control her wont to vastly overestimate her ability to do things, which, predictably, results in minor breakdowns, the kind where a vehicle is bogged in sucking clay while the driver sits outside in the rain, wringing her hands and vainly trying to flag down passing trucks. This is because, despite constant resolutions, I keep saying "yes" to interesting requests. I say "no" a lot more than I say "yes", but even so...

Here's a partial list of what has been tangling my mind over the past couple of months. I am on committees and advisory boards (literary); I am judging a prize (poetry); I am editing a novel that will be published next year (edit due in October, details eventually but very exciting) and simultaneously revisiting the Pellinor books for a re-issue in the UK next year; I have finished a commissioned libretto; I am reading various books in preparation for chairing a Melbourne Writers Festival session on essays; (and there's the whole Melbourne Writers Festival, which as a programming advisor I should attend at least a bit - especially this bit, Eliot Weinberger and Bei Dao talking about poetry and truth); I am on a panel about criticism at Freeplay, the festival of independent gaming, next Sunday (details here). Next week, I'll be out all week at Mudfest, the Melbourne University arts festival, of which, along with Andrew McClelland, Declan Greene and Lally Katz, I am a guest. In between all this, I am (foolishly, I grant you) writing another novel.

Taken individually, none of these things is in any way a problem; in fact, they're all marvellous. But they have been clumping together in a rather paralysing way. In practical terms, this means that I have been staring at this screen for three days thinking that I must review Namatjira (Malthouse Theatre) and Rising Water (MTC) and finding myself totally unable to find a way to begin. I must have scrubbed out about sixteen opening paragraphs remarkable only for their uninspired dullness. So, apologies for the glitches. My inner Oompa Loompas are hard at work attempting to remove the rubble.

I agree with everybody that I should organise my life better. I'm hoping that today I will work out my frayed ends, which might mean reviews get uploaded tomorrow: in the meantime, do get tickets to Big hArt's Namatjira, which is by one of the most interesting companies in this country.

And any commenters burning with commentary, do feel free to talk below about what is exciting you right now.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Review: Special, Silent Disco

I wish I could adequately explain the irrational joy that The Rabble's latest work, Special, invoked in me when I saw it last week. There is something in it of pure theatre, unafraid act, that set a flame in the gloom that has bedevilled me this long Melbourne winter. Or maybe it's just liberating to see something this angry.

In Special, The Rabble confront the psychic disintegration of contemporary life. Emma Valente and her collaborators tap into the increasingly ominous sense that it is later than we think, that the endemic violence that powers the machinery of our society - violence against people, against meaning and relationship, against the living systems of our planet - is accumulating to a point of crisis. In such a time, what can meaning mean?

We are left with the absurd, the abyss over which our attempts at continuity and knowledge and purpose flail and expose their emptiness. Yet what The Rabble track in their vignettes is not, for all its sardonic exposures of failure, a trajectory towards nihilism, but a strange and exhilarating affirmation. "If nothing had any meaning, [nihilism] would be right," said Camus in the 1940s. "But there is something that still has a meaning." It's that "something" - relationship, the possibility of transformation - that is at the centre of this extraordinary work of theatre.

In Kate Davis's design, the stage is surfaced with a deep layer of earth, topped with a thin layer of a disconcertingly artificial green, with the earth mounded on one side to create a small hill. On three sides it's surrounded by what appear at first to be white curtains but which are in fact white paper streamers. Special consists of a series of scenes between the spectacularly pregnant Special (Mary Helen Sassman) and her mother Goldie (Liz Jones). When the lights first come up, Jones, in a white pantsuit, is slogging away on an exercise bike, while Sassman, decked out in a huge Indian headdress, is lying on her back, ostentatiously licking an ice cream. It's worth seeing for this image alone, which somehow evokes the emptiness of consumerism in one gloriously absurd moment.

The lighting and set emphasise toxic hues of green or oxidic white, so it seems that our characters are enclosed in a world which unsuccessfully mimics the natural world. Within this frame of the artificial, Sassman's pregnant belly (no illusion, there's a real baby in there) and the exposed earth suggest a chthonic anarchy on the point of eruption. This eruption - of anger, desire, violence, love - is more or less what happens through the show. Valente exploits some extremely effective lighting and sound design to create an almost Artaudian sense of transformation. Only this is - how do I put it? - a distinctly female exploration, in which conception and rebirth are much more than metaphors appropriated into masculinised meanings. There's a strong whiff of Hélène Cixous's "repressed" about the whole thing.

The relationship between Goldie and Special is both antagonistic and mutually dependent, and it's this relationship which gives vitality and shape to the bizarre rituals which they explore during the course of the performance. They collect the rubble of transcendence, scraps and fragments of ritual stolen from a grab bag of cultures - Native American, Spanish American, Catholic, tribal African - which they pile into an increasingly grotesque pastiche of faith.

Goldie announces it is her "special day", which involves an elaborately solemn costuming and which collapses into comic anti-climax. Instead, the mysteriously pregnant Special, whose child we begin to suspect is immaculately conceived, begins to create her own ritual. What's interesting is how this sense of transformation is embedded in the ridiculous: there's a lot that makes no sense, or at least, doesn't make any common sense. But it's riveting theatre.

Its theatrical movement makes me think of Octavio Paz's comments in his book on the sacred, Conjunctions and Disjunctions: "History is a discourse. But the rebellions of the twentieth century have violated both the rules of dramatic action and those of representation. We have unforeseen irruptions that disturb the linear nature of history ... both the events and the actors betray the text of the play. They write another text, or rather invent one. This is the end of discourse and rational legibility." Special mimics the formation of this "other text", opening possibility beyond the enclosures of words.

I haven't seen all The Rabble's work, having missed their Sydney productions, but Special is the first show I've seen that isn't hobbled by a sense of over-aestheticised seriousness. It's funny, tough, unafraid, and beautifully realised.

Silent Disco, which is part of the Full Tilt season at the Victorian Arts Centre, arrives from Sydney with a raft of glowing reviews. It's fair to say that the glow didn't transfer to me; without exactly hating it, I was scratchily disappointed. I guess I expected more than a competently realised, conventional social drama.

Lachlan Philpott's play about a doomed relationship between two misfit kids is directed by Lee Lewis, last seen here with her beautiful production of Twelfth Night for Bell Shakespeare. As with Robert Reid's The Joy of Text, the play is set in a school, and related through the matrix of educators; but in its tracking of adolescent breakdown, it recalls Declan Greene's Moth, recently remounted at the Malthouse. Unlike Moth, which created an authentic theatrical diction for its characters, Silent Disco never escapes the sense that this is an adult vision of young people. It's not surprising to find that Philpott has been a teacher.

Unlike Reid's The Joy of Text, teaching itself is presented unproblematically, as a known (if sometimes failing) function: a central character is the well-meaning English teacher Mrs Petchall (Camilla Ah Kin), observing with concern the disconnected, alienated generation hooked up to their iPods and Facebook. The "silent disco" of the title is one in which everyone dances to his or her own headphone music, which here becomes a somewhat obvious metaphor for social disconnection. I'm not sure it's that simple: this is an authority's perception of youth culture, which only awkwardly enters into the experience of what that culture is.

The central characters are troubled teens Tamara (Sophie Hensser) and Squid (Meyne Wyatt) who wind up towards inevitable crisis. In both cases, slightly disturbingly, their problem is absent, uncaring mothers - Tamara lives with her gay father, the Indigenous Squid with his auntie. Their awkward romance is derailed by Squid's criminal brother Dane (Kirk Page), who targets Tamara for seduction as revenge for being thrown out of the family house, and to undercut Squid's nascent ambitions to make something of himself.

Silent Disco affirms all sorts of worthy impulses - concern for deprived youth, the role of education, and so on - in the lingua franca of heightened naturalism. In two acts, it's overwritten and you can hear the dramatic shifts coming a mile off. The odd verbal or theatrical pyrotechnics don't prevent its being weighed down by predictability. The British have a brilliant tradition of socially committed work that looks at the experiences of alienated or deprived young people - think Ken Loach's devastating film Kes, or Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, or more recently Shane Meadowes's This Is England. Philpott's intentions are clearly in the same arena, but Silent Disco never gets near this kind of plain-speaking anger or emotional power, and it certainly isn't anywhere close in terms of political intelligence.

With her hard working and committed cast, Lee Lewis's direction injects the production with moments of vitality. There's Tamara's evocation of her first experience of sex, a delicate subject that here attains a moment of real theatrical power, or a comic portrayal of check-out chicks at the supermarket, sharply observed vignettes of social irony. Aside from these moments, it seldom touched me. It's fine, as far as it goes; it just doesn't go very far.

Pictures: Top: Liz Jones in Special. Photo: Marg Howell. Bottom: Meyne Wyatt (left) and Sophie Hensser in Silent Disco.

Special, directed by Emma Valente, concept by Emma Valente, Mary Helen Sassman. Devised and performed by Liz Jones and Mary Helen Sassman. Lighting, sound and composition by Emma Valente. The Rabble @ La Mama Courthouse, until August 21.

Silent Disco by Lachlan Philpott, directed by Lee Lewis. Designed by Justin Nadella, lighting design by Ross Graham, sound design and composition by Stefan Gregory. With Camilla Ah Kin, Sophie Hensser, Kirk Page and Meyne Wyatt. Griffin Theatre Company, Hothouse Theatre and Australian Theatre for Young People, at the Victorian Arts Centre Fairfax Studio, until August 13.

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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Review: Pina

I've never seen a work by Pina Bausch. As with those of us who come too late, who miss the boat, who weren't there, my knowledge of her work with Wuppertal Tanztheater has been limited to the scraps you gather together - critical books, photographs, videos, reviews, the descriptions of friends, even the traces of her influence in the work of others. I have built a patchwork Bausch, intuiting the language of this choreographer, whose work galvanised modern dance and theatre, from the traces left behind. It's never as good as being there. It never will be.

Wim Wenders knows this. His beautiful documentary film Pina is all about absence: most signally, the absence of Bausch herself, after her sudden death in 2009, five days after being diagnosed with cancer, and just as she and Wenders were planning to make a film about her work. It is not a biography of Bausch, so much as an invocation of her work and her company. Among improvisations made for the film by the different dancers, we are shown some of her most famous dances, including three iconic pieces from the 1970s - Le Sacre du Printemps, Kontakthof, and Café Müller - and a more recent work, Vollmond.

Wenders opens with an evocation of a virtual theatre, in which 3D technology permits him to open up illusory spaces and perspectives to give the spectator something like the shape of Bausch's choregraphy. As he begins, with scenes from Kontakthof, the 3D illusion is heightened, emphasising its artifice to a degree that I found discomforting. The powerful illusion of depth, of the rounded presence of dancers, made clear what was missing: the bodies of the dancers themselves.

These dancers were creatures of light, phantoms who are exact in every visual degree: but in watching dance, I suddenly realised, other senses are also employed, subliminal animal senses that track physical weight, the smell of sweat, disturbances in the air, perhaps even changes in heat. The lack of these other stimuli was at first alienating, then strangely revelatory: the absence of the dancers' bodies was sometimes as strong a feeling as the loss of Bausch. This is, in a real sense, a posthumous film: it's a tribute to a choreographer who is dead, recording performances that have long vanished from the air.

What's beautiful is how conscious Wenders is of these limitations. He knows very well that he can't reproduce the experience of performance, so he doesn't attempt to: from the beginning, his framing of the documentary makes this very clear. He subtly highlights what is missing, and then translates dance into the language of film, the language of light and shadow and illusion. Sometimes this is stunning; there's a particular moment when, as audience members, we standing between curtains at the edge of the stage, looking in at the dancers. He films dances on stage (without too many close-ups, a particular bugbear of mine in filmed performance), and places them also in different contexts - the industrial streets of Wuppertal, a quarry, a modern building that appears to be a glass gallery in the middle of a spring forest.

Wenders uses minimal documentary footage of Bausch herself; the major sequence is a moving black and white film of her role in Café Müller, which she danced with her eyes shut. He is, quite rightly, more interested in her work than her life. Her work, you feel, left her naked enough: and her recondite presence in the fleeting glimpses we are offered radiates a powerful sense of privacy. She is mainly remembered through her dancers, who are filmed in front of the camera, their faces mobile with thought, as a voice-over of their reminiscences plays against their silence. (In a couple of cases, the dancer remains speechless).

The film is not merely a tribute to Pina: it is also, with an increasing freight of emotion, a tribute to the company she made, the dancers who worked with her, in some cases for decades, attempting to realise her vision. They were, as becomes increasingly clear through the film, her collaborators, offering their ideas and feelings and wit as well as their skilled bodies to her work. As much as anything, this is a film about relationship: it permits us an insight into the profound relationships between these artists, and how these emerged into some of the most influential dance works of the past 30 years.

What I wasn't prepared for was the overwhelming emotional power of Bausch's dance. For all the difficulties of performance on film, this is where Wenders triumphs. All her dancers speak about the feeling of Bausch's work, of her scrupulous, pained search to create a language that could express and embody the inexpressible. "Words can only invoke," said Bausch. "That's where dance comes in..." A dancer said of Bausch: "She danced as if she had been risen from the dead... in her pain and loneliness..." In Pina, you can see that quality for yourself. I don't know how the precise gesture of a hand, the angle of a head, a leap, a step, can so surgically open the latent grief and love in your own psyche, but this is what Bausch's choreography does. I was floored by the immediacy and beauty of her language, the fluency and toughness of its emotional economy.

It's not surprising to learn that Wenders was a close friend of Bausch's. Without resorting to the vulgarity of declaring it, this film is made with a great deal of love. It's a lament and celebration, an invocation and farewell. Wenders never intrudes: he stands modestly behind the scenes, enabling us to see what he so admired in his subject. Like Bausch, with the maximum of tact and the minimum of fuss, he manages the translation of feeling into his own medium. It's a marvellous film, and essential viewing for anyone with even the slightest interest in contemporary dance.

Pina by Wim Wenders opens nationwide on August 18. Check Hopscotch Films for details.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Melbourne Writers Festival diary dates

The Melbourne Writers Festival, which opens later this month, is bearing down like some kind of benign leviathan. And this year there are a few events that might appeal to theatrenauts. There isn't a category on the website called "theatre", so I'm listing some here so you can put them straight into your diary.

The Arrival: A performance of Sydney composer Ben Walsh's sonic-scape of Sean Tan's The Arrival, performed by Orkestra of the Underground. Melbourne Recital Centre, 7.30, August 26.

New Indie Theatre: I'll be chairing what promises to be a lively discussion on the independent scene with Declan Greene, Anne Louise Sarks and Angus Cerini. ACMI Cinema 1, 4pm, August 28.

In Conversation: Daniel Keene. Multiply awarded playwright Keene talks to Deborah Leiser-Moore about working in France, the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project and so on. 11.30am, The Cube, September 2.

Meant To Be Spoken: Declan Greene, Lally Katz, Katy Warner, Daniel Keene, Robert Reid, Peta Brady and Angus Cerini read their own work. Hosted by Deborah Leiser-Moore. ACMI The Cube, 7pm September 3.

Essaying Opinion: Do Richard Flanagan, Robert Manne and Marieke Hardy think we are being served well by our publishers and thinkers? Chaired by me. 11.30am at the BMW Edge, September 3. (Ok, not theatre, but hey.)

Writing for theatre workshop: Lally Katz. Wheeler Centre, 2pm September 4.

There are many more events, literally hundreds of them, but you can find that out for yourself. The program and booking details are available here. My personal suggestion is not to miss Eliot Weinberger because OMG Eliot Weinberger is coming OMG. Disclaimer: I'm a member of the Programming Committee for the MWF. No, I didn't suggest programming Keene.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Review: Pin Drop, Observe the Sons of Ulster

We all know some variation or other of this feeling. You are alone, it is dark. You hear an almost inaudible sound, just on the edge of hearing, that you can't quite identify. Your body is shocked into a state of hyper-alertness: adrenaline floods through your bloodstream like a rush of cold water. Your ears strain into the busy silence. You hear it again. Or maybe you don't hear it, maybe it's just the sound of your heart beating in your ears.

This is the imaginative landscape of Tamara Saulwick's exemplary Pin Drop. Saulwick recorded interviews with a number of women in which they were asked to describe experiences in which they felt unsafe. In Pin Drop she weaves the stories together into a sound poem of recorded and performed voices. The stories - some unexpected and funny, some sinister, all candid - lead into some surprising places, far from the tabloid sensationalism that loves an eroticised female victim. Saulwick is not so much interested in violence itself, as in the experience of fear and threat.

A sense of terrifying estrangement is a staple of horror films, in which the familiar and domestic is transformed into the strange and threatening. It is also a commonplace of torture: part of torture's world-destruction entails ordinary objects - telephone books or broomsticks - becoming agents of pain or humiliation. But this ambiguity wouldn't hold its power if it were not part of the fabric of our urban lives: it is the cusp between solitude and our social selves, where anything might erupt over the lip of possibility. Realities of assault or robbery or rape feed this anxiety, but are not the whole of it: it is also a shadow in ourselves. Whether a threat is actual or not, our vulnerability is real: we realise in these moments how fragile we are, how mortal, and, perhaps, how dangerous we might be. As one woman says, it's in such moments that she realises that she is capable of murder.

This investigation becomes the occasion for an extremely powerful work of sensory theatre. One of the striking things about Pin Drop is how very real it seems: its power stems, at least in part, from a careful attention to the fragmentary and contradictory nature of experience. It makes you remember afresh how much fear shapes our lives: we put locks on doors, walk fast in night streets, never appear to be lost in foreign cities. It's a constant bluff designed to ward off the Bogeyman, who may or may not be there.

It is primarily driven by Peter Knight's remarkable sound design. Bluebottle's set and lighting are a platform for Knight's compositions - looped sounds and voices, pulsing electronics, taut silences. The sound envelops the audience, resonating in our breast bones but also making us acutely aware of the space around us: footsteps echo coldly as they move around the perimeter of the auditorium, voices and sounds erupt from different corners, or complete blackouts plunge us into the soundstream of our own blood.

The very simple elements employed so ingeniously here - a stage within a stage, smoke, darkness, light and sound - powerfully call up your own memories of fear or threat. The theatre becomes, quite nakedly, a kind of psychic echo chamber. There is an invitation in the very bareness of the gestures: the manipulations offered here are all completely exposed. One sequence involves Saulwick using a series of objects - a door lock, a knife, a water melon - to make a series of amplified noises, that are then treated with feedback. The objects are lit, the rest of the stage is dark. And even though we know exactly how those noises are made, it's surprising how they ratchet up a real sense of anxiety.

Sense memory is a potent thing, and by coolly and precisely accessing mnemonic triggers, Saulwick invokes a parallel theatre in your mind. Pin Drop reminded me of the particular senses of vulnerability that come from being alone in a house with small children, or from obscene anonymous phone calls late at night, or from home robberies and house invasions. It's clear that sexual threat, part of the texture of living as a woman, is a gendered experience, but even though this focuses on the stories of women, it doesn't exclude men: we all are frail in the house of our flesh.

What's less easily explained is the strange, breathless sense of liberation that comes with its aftertaste: perhaps it's as simple as the naming of a fear that is often evoked - we are surrounded by warnings about violence - but which is, in fact, seldom examined. It's remarkable theatre, executed with an exact brilliance that makes its sensual vividness all the more powerful. It's a short season, closing on Saturday, so hurry. This is not to be missed.

Meanwhile, over in Brunswick at the Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, stalwarts Hoy Polloy are performing Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. This is a strange and terrible text written in the mid-80s, when the IRA and Ulster Loyalists were on the one hand secretly attempting to find a negotiated settlement to Protestant/Catholic warfare, while on the other pursuing an active program of terrorism and assassination. This background is implicit rather than explicit in this play, which observes the intractable violence of Northern Ireland through the lens of the First World War, in which Ulster Loyalists marched, like good Colonial boys, to their own deaths in the service of Empire.

McGuinness presents this political violence, present and past, as neurotic repetition. His anti-hero Kanneth Pyper (played by Ian Rooney as an old man, and by Dan Walls) is haunted by the ghosts of his lost comrades in the 36th Ulster Division, of which he is the only survivor. Pyper moves through the action as a ghost among ghosts, a man in whom possibility is destroyed. It is written with a desolate irony and anger: in its play-acting of empty signifiers - the Loyalist drum-beatings and commemorations of ancient wars - the play reveals these men as lost in a dance of death, each victims of their own misled impulses to heroism and glory.

None of this would count if the heroism wasn't, in its own way, convincing: and each of McGuinness's doomed characters (for even Pyper is dead, by his own admission "changed utterly" on that day in the Somme) has his claim to something admirable, a sense of courage or hope or capacity for love. The central story is, in fact, the love story between Pyper and David Craig (Nicholas Brien), showing what is destroyed by the black and white moral certainties that map the binaries of Protestant and Catholic, male and female, right and wrong, across a landscape of blood.

McGuinness's denunciation of this idea of heroicism - if not of his characters, who are victims of its deathly absolutes - is bitter and scathing. From early on, when a Loyalist soldier boasts of beating up and humiliating a Catholic child, to Anderson and McIllwaine's desperate conjurations of the Loyalist "Holy ground", the Ulster myth is presented as deathly and empty. It's difficult to get a sense of these very specific contexts and passions, those that decimated Ulster in the late 20th century, in a production in Brunswick in 2011, and perhaps unfair to ask. Director Steve Dawson softens these bitter questions to a vague sense of tragic heroism and historical regret, a colonial mythos not unlike that of the film Gallipoli. He presents past violence as it is caught in the amber of history, rather than as present violence that is traumatically re-enacted in an endless Purgatory. So the play feels a little sentimentalised.

The design is striking and effective - the action plays on a stage the shape of a cross, like the cruciform floorplan of a cathedral, with the audience watching from the various edges in traverse. It's a straight-up-and-down production, although there's a puzzlingly placed interval after 40 minutes, one third in, which made me wonder why it isn't played through. For the most part, however, Dawson and his hard-working cast make a good fist of a difficult play, and achieve a rough and admirable sense of honesty. I wish they had left the Irish accents out - often they wandered all over Ireland and the Antipodes. But this a play worth seeing, and which is seldom done. And it demonstrates how powerful writing can be in the theatre. Recommended.

Picture: Top: Tamara Saulwick in Pin Drop. Photo: Ponche Hawkes. Bottom: Nicholas Brien and Dan Walls in Observe the Sons of Ulster. Photo: Fred Kroh

Pin Drop, created and performed by Tamara Saulwick. Composition and sound design by Pater Knight. Movement by Michelle Heaven. Design and production by Bluebottle, Ben Cobham and Frog Peck. Malthouse Theatre @ Beckett Theatre until August 7.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
, by Frank McGuinness, directed and designed by Steven Dawson. With Ian Rooney, Dan Walls, Nicholas Brien, Angus Brown, Tosh Greenslade, David Passmore, Mathew Gelsumini, Kevin Dee and Karl Cottee. Hoy Polloy, Mechanic Institute Performing Arts Centre, until August 13.

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