Away from my desk: and then back againNCP preamblingInterview: Paul GrabowskyArt and revolutionMelbourne Festival review: AviaryMelbourne Festival review: Hedda Gabler, The Rehearsal, Playing the DaneMelbourne Festival review: Double Think, Journeys of Love and More LoveMelbourne Festival review: Whiteley's Incredible Blue, FoleyMelbourne Festival review: Political Mother, The Magic FluteMelbourne Festival: AftermathMelbourne Festival review: The Manganiyar Seduction, Rhinoceros in LoveMelbourne Festival review: AssemblyMelbourne Festival review: Ganesh Versus The Third Reich ~ theatre notes

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Away from my desk: and then back again

Ms TN been making sad little meep noises all year about the increasing necessity to pull back on the blog and focus on my own work. Now, as the late, great Midnight Oil once had it, the time has come: for the next fortnight, circumstance will forcibly remove me from my desk. Next week I'll be in Sydney workshopping Night Songs, a music theatre piece co-written with Daniel Keene, with music by Andrée Greenwell, which was commissioned by Bell Shakespeare's Mind's Eye. The week after that I'll be at Victorian Opera workshopping Mayakovsky, an opera scored by my old partner-in-crime Michael Smetanin and commissioned by VO. I don't know why these two entirely separate projects should suddenly come to the fore at the same time, but maybe the universe is telling me something.

And after that, I really have to put my day job first. Next year Walker Books UK is reissuing my fantasy quartet The Books of Pellinor with funky new covers - I've seen the concept art and am very excited - and also some new copy, which I must write; and it's a chance for me to go through the early books and rid them of some minor infelicities. (Cough. Adverbs. Cough.) My forthcoming novel Black Spring, which is due out with Walker/Candlewick in 2012/13, is now at the fiddly stage of final edits. But top of my list is the need to start serious work on the mega-super-dystopian epic that has been knocking on the door for a year now.

These books are how I make my living, and give me the independence to do a number of things, including this blog. Right now I really have to give them the attention and energy they deserve. This doesn't mean that I'll abandoning TN, but inevitably things will wind down a little here. I'll still be posting the odd review - there are some upcoming shows at the Malthouse and the MTC that I'll be covering - but please note, companies, I'll be seeing very little before Christmas, and afterwards will be putting my own work first.

I'll be also taking some time out to think seriously about the future directions of TN: while it will always be theatre-focused, it seems to me that it ought to reflect my wider interests. Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed the description tag has changed to "arts commentary" in the recent redesign. It also occurs to me that I ought to make it clearer - even though it should be clear enough in my reviews - that I write criticism from the viewpoint of a practising artist.

While I'm on the personal: a plug for Boxman, Daniel Keene's new play premiering at the Big West Festival from November 16. It's a monologue written for the young actor Terry Yeboah, and is directed by Matt Scholten. It's a bit of a family affair, as our son Ben Keene is composing the music. As those who have seen the early readings will know, this will be something special. Very limited seating - it's in a tiny venue in Footscray - so book early. Details here.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

NCP preambling

During the recent Australian Theatre Forum, one of the Open Space groups worked on a response to the National Cultural Policy discussion paper. This diverse group consisted of people from all areas of Australian theatre, including funding bodies, major organisations, independent companies and independent artists. They decided that a preamble to the policy would be a good idea, and to model this idea in this their own submission. Then they asked me to write it.

The result is up at Overland Magazine's blog. The ATF Open Space submission itself, which deals with specific policy, is also well worth reading; but, along with some other significant documents, doesn't yet seem to be online with the NCP submissions. Hoping the Office for the Arts catches up with its filing soon.

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Interview: Paul Grabowsky

Curating an international arts festival, says Adelaide Festival artistic director Paul Grabowsky, isn't simply a matter of assembling a shopping list. And it's complicated. "With something like the Adelaide Festival, there are so many areas to cover," he says. "The performing arts, literature, visual art, film, public outdoor events... they're all things which people rightly expect..." And all this has to be made into a coherent event, a narrative that gives the public a sense of a journey. A daunting task, one might think.

Grabowsky has structured the 2012 Adelaide Festival loosely on the idea of Heaven and Hell, which he said represent the extremes, the best and the worst of earthly endeavours. In this, he's calling on art's transcendent possibilities. "The arts aren't subject to time and space, they're in denial of the three dimensional," he says. "And they gain importance beyond the times in which they're created. Art isn't ignited until it's experienced: it's a contained latency that's released by its audience. It's a way of making graspable moments out of the large movements of history."

In accessing these possibilities, Grabowsky says that a festival needs to be the result of a meaningful process that includes the local arts community, and which results in the public experiencing the kind of work that they haven't seen before. "Why else would governments spend so much money on them?" he asks rhetorically. "What else are they for?"

This has always been the remit of Australian arts festivals, of which the Adelaide Festival is one of the oldest. (The oldest is in fact the Perth Festival). The Australian arts festival experience was originally driven by the tyranny of distance: festivals injected into our culture influences and experiences that otherwise were only available to those with the resources to travel. A famous example is the Pina Bausch tours in the 1980s, which had an electrifying and on-going influence on performing arts here.

Grabowsky says this emphasis has subtly shifted, with energies now driving both ways in a decentred global culture. "In the 20th century, the idea was that we were distant from the world, whereas in the 21st century we are now celebrating our place in the world." As the recent Melbourne Festival has demonstrated, local art stands comfortably with its international peers. What hasn't changed is the notion that festivals can provide a space for artistically significant works that otherwise would be too risky for local companies to present.

For his final Adelaide Festival - not so much, he says, the first of the annual festivals as the last of the biennials - Grabowsky has taken care of the performing arts. "Nobody has the expertise to cover all areas: I prefer to work collaboratively with people in the different arts, who have the expertise I don't possess." For 2012, for example, Victoria Lynn is curating the visual arts, whereas Sophia Brous is taking care of the contemporary music program.

There are certainly some treats coming up on Adelaide stages, especially in the international programming. One of the highlights is Hard To Be A God from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó. This definitely from the polarity of Hell. "It's a tough piece, a documentary style work on human trafficking and the sex trade. Sexual violence is implicit in every moment. It's Brechtian in how it has distancing narratives - it's also interspersed with popular songs. I believe it's a really important piece."

He's also bringing out Isabelle Huppert in a controversial adaption of A Streetcar Named Desire from the Paris Odeon by avant garde director Krzysztof Warlikowski. "It divided Paris," says Grabowsky. "I really loved it, and wanted to see what happened when it was brought out of the hothouse context of France." For contrast, he's programmed a celebrated production of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker from Liverpool Everyman, featuring Jonathan Pryce, which he says is the epitome of well-made theatre.

Another international highlight is Raoul by French artist James Thiérrée, who practises the peculiarly French style of physical theatre, magic, acrobatics and poetry. "He's simply the greatest exemplar this kind of theatre," says Grabowsky. "He works on a grand scale - the festival centre has the deepest stage in Australia, and we need all of it to stage him." Thiérrée is in fact Charlie Chaplin's grandson - "he would hate me saying this" - and Grabowsky says that, although his work is very different from his grandfather's, it's also undeniably in that tradition, of the little man in a huge and bewildering world.

And then there's Gardenia from the unmissable Les Ballets C de la B, directed by Alain Platel and Frank van Laecke, which comes out of Belgium's amateur drag scene. "It's about metamorphosis really, how beauty is discovered within: the show itself is the transformation." This is show that Grabowsky describes as "redemptive".

Australian highlights include two shows from the Sydney Theatre Company, Stephen Page's Bloodland and a co-production with Force Majeure, Never Did Me Any Harm. "It's great to see the STC engaging like this," says Grabowsky. "It's a model for other major companies. After all, these companies are given funding to push the envelope, to push the artform forward. Quote me on that."

New works include The Border Project has a show at the Adelaide Zoo, I Am Not An Animal, and Windmill Theatre's School Dance, written by Matthew Whittet and directed by Rosemary Myers, a show which, as Grabowsky says, promises most interestingly. And Australian Dance Theatre presents interactive dance and video with Proximity.

Grabowsky is justly proud of his program. "No festival is going to be the ultimate experience," he says. "But whatever it is, it has to be the thin edge of the wedge."

More details on the Adelaide Festival 2012 program here.

Photos: from top: Paul Grabowsky; Hard To Be A God; Raoul; Bloodland.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Art and revolution

When Brett Sheehy, Melbourne Festival artistic director, launched his program earlier this year at a lavishly corporate event, he announced that the themes of this year's festival were "rebellion and revolution". This immediately set up a jangling dissonance: anything less revolutionary than the event which announced it is hard to imagine. This, you might justifiably conclude, is a comfortable revolution, rebellion appropriated and served up as a spicy dish for the middle classes who can afford it - one step away, maybe, from the Schweppes "Cocktail Revolution" ads, featuring faux stencil text and punching fists, that are presently plastering Southern Cross Station.

Ironies went into overload in the festival's last week when the Occupy Melbourne protest began in the City Square under the shadow of one of AES+F's giant demon babies - the signature image of the festival - and when protestors were violently and controversially removed by Victoria Police under instructions from the Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle.

Suddenly AES+F's artworks accumulated a subversive frisson of strangeness and ambiguity, as the sinisterly polished gargoyles transformed into perverse graces above the action. Above the tents of the occupation, the giant striding baby seemed like a ugly but benign avatar, emblematic of the extrusion of the different into the business of the city, ambiguous promise slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. After the police raid, it stood like an ominous reproach, or a sardonic comment on the infantile impulse behind the exercise of brute power. The image above, for example, which shows one of the statues towering above a City Square newly fenced off and "returned to the people of Melbourne", is striking (click on the photo for a larger image).

The Occupy Melbourne adventure highlighted the fraught issue of the privatisation of public space, an issue dear to the heart of many contemporary performance makers. For the festival, it put pressure on its pretensions to revolution. Despite easy dismissals, such claims are not without substance: Sheehy's best performance program yet hosted events like Ilbijerri's Foley, Gary Foley's bitterly funny account of Indigenous activism, or Hofesh Shechter's obliterating Political Mother, or former Dead Kennedy and iconoclast Jello Biafra, a vocal supporter of dissent, as well as a program of talks at the Wheeler Centre which directly canvassed ideas around revolution. In the heavily corporatised context of this year's Melbourne Festival, which even included a commercial production, this seemed akin to the artistic subversion that occurred under communism: art smuggling itself into a hostile environment as metaphor.

Many of the works on show did what art does best: raising questions in profound and complex ways, pressing against the limits of received opinion. Art, after all, is not activism, and its relationship to politics is often uncomfortable and a little Emily Dickinson, telling it slant. Art deals in complexities, and - as is especially clear in performance, but is true of all artforms - it exists in the nexus between private and public experience. Artists often sup with the devil: if they're smart, using a very long spoon. Nevertheless, you have to be blind or ignorant of art history to claim that art is apolitical, whether it's the Fascism of Ezra Pound, the art/reality investigations of Rimini Protokoll or art that reinforces conservative values, as in so much of the middle-brow performance around town.

Several works justified Sheehy's theme: Gideon Obarzanek's Assembly, for instance, struck sparks with the zeitgeist by investigating notions of private and public space; Back to Back's sublime Ganesh Versus The Third Reich - for me, and many others, the pick of the festival - interrogated not only the assumptions of theatre and performance, but the profound implications of power that underlie the most trivial of human interactions. Shows like BalletLab's Aviary, Barry Dickins's Whiteley's Incredible Blue or even Roysten Abel's joyous celebration of Sufi music The Manganiyar Seduction drove into an ecstatic sublime that, as George Bataille argues in Literature and Evil, must necessarily set itself against the good order of rational society.

Other works seemed to demonstrate what happens when subversive pretensions are co-opted into the mainstream and shorn of originatory discomfort and insight. Thomas Ostermeier's Hedda Gabler took all the revolution out of Ibsen and, for all its avant garde dress, served up a mild slap to a fictitious middle class, while Pan Pan's The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane domesticated Shakespeare to an academic argument. Then there was motiroti's Journeys of Love and More Love, which seemed the perfect presentation of tick-the-boxes liberal art: multiculturalism and the immigrant experience as tasting plates. Perhaps it was simply a mistake to bring an event of this kind to a city as habituated to immigration and as used to food as cultural expression as Melbourne.

It seemed to me that the festival served up enough exciting work to create a frisson of its own. Yet for me, somehow, that frisson never happened: there was not enough of the kinds of connections that happened with the AES+F statues. Perhaps this really is down to the festival context. I experienced it as a discrete series of events, some exciting, some not, rather than the dynamic cultural catalyst it might have promised. Sheehy was definitely picking up on the zeitgeist in foregrounding a theme of revolution: was this merely rebellion as consumer decoration? The answer must, broadly, be yes: that is, if you ignore the experiences of the art itself, which are - or are not - their own justification, and which work subtextually in a society in ways that are almost impossible to trace, but which can be profound. What's clear is how the collision of art and life in the final week of the festival illustrates the faultines that exist in our culture.

What to make, for instance, of Ted Baillieu, Premier of Victoria and Minister for the Arts, promoting on the one hand the "edgy and diverse works" in the festival program, and on the other supporting the violent police action against the 100 or so campers in the City Square? Does this taint the artists who, in imagining alternative realities and exploring the possible, expand possibility themselves? Can art subvert its contexts, or is its power inevitably negated? If subversion the best that art can manage, what does that say about the contexts in which our art is made? And does that subversion matter so little in the consumerist marketplace that it may be permitted a little dance? (Up to a point, Lord Copper). But, on the other hand, should this main stage public space simply be ceded on the grounds of these contradictions?

I don't have answers to any of the questions I've raised here, but I think they need to be raised. Especially after the brutal show of reactionary conservatism on show in Melbourne this week. As Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience, "Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was." The most interesting artists always act from principle - Back to Back being a germane example. And they can and do change "things and relations".

Plans for future festivals, after Sheehy finishes his tenure next year and moves on to helm the Melbourne Theatre Company, are deeply unclear, although the removal of "arts" from its name - it used to be officially the Melbourne International Arts Festival - could be taken as an ominous sign. New executive director Tim Jacobs, formerly the Arts Centre CEO, wants the festival to redefine the notion of an international arts festival, and to become an event as publicly notable as the Melbourne Cup. He is suggesting it should be moved to March, when it will compete with the Comedy Festival, the wine and food festival and Moomba. There's certainly a lot of room for a rethink of the arts festival model in Australia, but I wonder if this is, as Jacobs says, the "way forward". I guess we'll find out.

Pictures: Angels-Demons Parade, AES+F, above the City Square. Photo Indy Media; bottom: Back to Back's Ganesh and The Third Reich. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Aviary

Some of the dance at this year's Melbourne Festival has been full-on sensory overload. Hofesh Shechter's Political Mother hit like a sledgehammer, an avalanche of sound and imagery that struck me as an almost unmediated response to the violence of our times. BalletLab's Aviary had a similar physical effect, with very different means and imagery. Immersive theatre? The choreographers do it by obliterating the unsuspecting audience with sound and rhythm, so you feel that your brain has been reprogrammed and the edges of your body have dissolved.

In Aviary, Phillip Adams creates dance of such intensity that it plunges the watcher into the experience, destroying any sense of distance from the work on stage. You could try to remain "objective", whatever that means in a theatre, but I imagine the result would only be boredom: the choice is to go with the ride, or to experience painful alienation. The dancers are put through the wringer of physical extremity - you don't see many dances that end up with blood on the floor. One effect is to destroy any notions of "good" or "bad": these become secondary considerations in an experience which invites intense participation.

The word "Dionysian" keeps turning up in my previous reviews of Adams's work. All his dances invoke ecstatic states: he obsessively explores the notion of transcendence, pressing the connection between the erotic and the mystic. Aviary is a reminder that dance has origins that predate human evolution, as is clear to anyone who has watched the complex displays and courtship rituals of birds on natural history documentaries. And it illustrates Adams's impatience with the politeness of art's conventions. Not that he can't exploit these conventions beautifully, when he chooses.

In Aviary, Adams applies his research into bird behaviours in a dance that "pays homage to the spectacle of the bird". The piece is inspired by Olivier Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux, a 1958 work for piano based entirely on birdsong. No trace of this music remains, save as scores laid on the floor in the first act to be consulted by the dancers, but Messiaen's sheer craziness informs the whole work.

It's in three distinct parts. The first, Les oiseaux en cage, is a joyous and lighthearted display of feathered costumery and display (the costumes, which are works of art in themselves, are by Tony Maticevski and Richard Nylon). The connection to fashion is made overtly when two dancers pick up handbags: at another point, four become a parodic string quartet, sawing atonally at their instruments. This is the sequence that most closely follows the conventions of contemporary dance: danced to a score of recorded birdsong, it features some glorious choreography, as dancers mirror each other's gestures, display their feathers, whirling into couplings and groupings, with no attention paid to distinctions of gender.

This display of technical discipline, the excellences, if you like, of the cage of art, begins to be undermined in the middle act, Le coq dandy. Adams himself appears on stage, dressed in a military uniform topped with an extraordinary white cloak, huge wings made of feathers. He dips and bows solo to some grinding organ music by Messiaen which reminded me of nothing so much as Vincent Price in his evil basement. Here he is showing himself off as an older alpha male, a locus of authority but without the suppleness and accuracy shown in the dance of the previous act.

The rest of the dancers soon sweep on stage dressed as brownshirts with delicate feathered masks. What follows is a bizarre cross between an 80s nightclub and some erotic military fantasy, a la Genet: to Simple Minds's Love Song, Adams's minions march, fall over, mime shooting each other, as he directs their bodies, violently shoving them into sentry boxes, making them march in rows.

This leads to the final act, Paradis, which is heralded by stage hands bringing huge heaps of fresh leaved branches onto the stage. It's introduced by Adams, dressed in a formal suit, albeit with an absurd two-peaked top hat, stepping up to a grand piano and improvising freely, using the heels of his hands, his fists and elbows, on the keys and the strings. He makes short, sharply rhythmic pieces to which each dancer, now adorned in a riot of pheasant feathers, are introduced in short solos. Then follows the sequence that finishes the dance, backed by percussive trance music by Geoffrey Hale, which builds from the behaviour of New Guinean bower birds.

This last sequence goes for longer than seems possible. The dancers, with Adams stepping between them, still the cock of the walk, throw the branches all over the stage. They pick up sticks and dance with them, they throw them, they beat each other, roll in heaps of branches, even eat the leaves. There is a strong sense in here of exoticism, but in truth much of it is so strange that it largely escapes a crude primitivism: the animal behaviours observed here are sometimes literally animal.

I had no way of telling if this sequence was improvised or not: there was an organic logic to it, but it kept splintering, the dancers breaking up into couples doing individual movements, at one point running around the stage until they were exhausted. The variations in the music's repetitions echoed the variations in their gestures: it seemed continually the same, and continually different, not so much building in impact as accumulating. At last four dancers began to make some formal movements that echoed those in the first act, coming together forestage holding sticks, which they formed to make a cross. And then, without warning, there was a blackout, and it was over.

There are lots of ideas in Aviary: the relationship between eroticism, display and art; the relationship of dance to instinctive animal behaviour; the fascism of the director; perhaps even an enactment of evolution. But these all coalesce after the fact, once you've recovered from the impact of the dance itself. I sometimes feel that through the extremities he unleashes on his dancers and audiences, Adams is searching for performance at its most pure, its ecstatic centre. Whatever else it is, Aviary is extraordinary.

Picture: Aviary. Photo:
3 Deep Design with Jeff Busby

Aviary, directed and choreographed by Phillip Adams. Costume design by Toni Maticevski, millinery by Richard Nylon, composition David Franzke and Phillip Adams, set design by Phillip Adams, nest design by Matthew Bird, architect, backdrops by Gavin Brown, lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne. With Phillip Adams, Luke George, Daniel Jaber, Rennie McDougall, Brooke Stamp, Joanne White and Peter AB Wilson.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Hedda Gabler, The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane

Watching Thomas Ostermeier's production of Hedda Gabler - the first of his works I've seen - was unexpectedly fascinating. Through directors such as Benedict Andrews, a stablemate of Ostermeier's at Berlin's Schaubühne, the aesthetic of Ostermeier and his peers has had a profound influence on contemporary Australian theatre. So much of the design language here - architectural spaces defined by mirrors and windows, revolves, projections, pop references - is immediately familiar. I felt as if I were looking through the wrong end of a telescope: in the face of what's followed Ostermeier, Hedda Gabler, which premiered in 2005, feels like a museum piece.

What's immediately striking is its deliberate affectlessness. This is a production which strikes a note of cool anomie, creating a surface elegance that expresses a monumental sense of boredom. The play has been updated, in a light adaptation by Marius von Mayenburg, to contemporary times. As is usual with such adaptations, violence has been done along the way: here Ibsen's play becomes a scathing miniature, a portrait of an emotionally numbed, intellectually trivial bourgeoisie. The problem, as always in contemporary adaptations of Ibsen, is how to make the social imprisonment of his feminine characters believable now. Here the solution is to make Hedda and her peers improbably shallow and stupid. Hedda's destructive actions become endowed with a vacuum of un-meaning: her twisted rebellion against the suffocation of her life becomes the moue of a spoilt child.

At this point, I started wondering if the theatre itself was as cynical as the actions of the characters it portrays. Which is to say, there's something too easy in this act of épater le bourgeoisie: nothing is at emotional risk, and so nothing matters. Compared with other recent Ibsen adaptations - Simon Stone's devastating Belvoir St production of The Wild Duck, for instance, or Daniel Schlusser's recent The Dollhouse - it felt like a one-dimensional experience: there was none of the textual radicality of those two very different productions, and little ambiguity of meaning. I admired the consistency, the almost bloody-minded formalism, of Ostermeier's approach, but coldly: and in the end, I left untouched.

Mayenburg's adaptation follows the play closely: the maid is cut from the character list, but otherwise all the characters and actions remain, albeit slightly updated (for example, the manuscript Hedda burns is changed to a laptop that she hammers to bits). The interpretation here is in the production, beginning with Jan Pappelbaum's design, an evocation of a sleek modernist house with walls of windows and polished concrete. It's set on a revolve and becomes the shifting planes for various between-scene projections. Above the set is a huge mirror, which gives us a voyeur's eye view of the actors when they move off-stage.

The performances are heavily naturalistic, with all the action set around the designer settee or on the verandah. This naturalism clashes with a stylised melodrama that attends the play's climactic moments. There is little sense - except in a couple of moments in Kay Bartholomäus Schulze's performance of the unstable Løvborg - of emotional pressure building under repression: most instances of emotional behaviour are play-acting, as studiedly conscious as Hedda's (Katharina Schüttler) feline restlessness. I don't know whether it's relevant that Schulze reminded me insistently of Julian Assange, but that association might have thrown a different kind of bomb into the action.

Hedda's motivations become almost an abstraction of the Pinteresque: she is solely interested in gaining power over others, and when she finds herself at the wrong end of the machinery, she tops herself. There is little sense of her initial powerlessness to illuminate this behaviour, and almost none of her radical longing for a more glorious, more beautiful world than the one in which she finds herself. Ibsen's Hedda has always been selfish, but has seldom been more trivial.

When the play steps into unreality - especially in its final moments, when Hedda's suicide prompts a ripple of dismissive laughter and shrugged shoulders from her husband and friends - it permits only cerebral response. Hedda and the gang are symbols merely, flattened-out representations of the conscious heartlessness of the middle classes, absorbed in their trivial pursuits as they turn their faces from the blood on the walls.

This insight may contain a general (and deeply angered) truth, but in the particular truths with which theatre deals it lacks any kind of emotional logic. I found it increasingly impossible to believe in people so determinedly shallow. We conclude that all these characters who we've been watching for the past two hours are psychopaths with empathy by-passes, and ... so? As audience members, no matter how selfishly middle class we might be, we all know that we are empathetic creatures, unlike those we've been watching on stage. Why else would we be here, elite beings, enjoying the fruits of culture? So what does this have to do with us?

Pan Pan's good-humoured production of The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane induced similar thoughts, although this production by no means seeks the cool affectlessness of Hedda Gabler. It too transforms a tragedy into a comedy, this time by opening up, Ayckbourn-style, the machinations behind the scenes.

The audience walks into a stage dressed as a rehearsal space, with the actors piled on a big table, like the heaps of corpses that finish most of Shakespeare's tragedies. Local academic
Dr Sue Tweg stands forward and delivers a short lecture on Hamlet, one of the most performed of Shakespeare's plays.

The lecture, by Amanda Piesse, senior lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, is about the instability and polysemity of Shakespeare's texts, and introduces the premises of the work of theatre we're about to see. Tweg holds a handsome Great Dane, who tugged her impatiently as she mentioned instability, creating one of several ripples of serendipity that illuminate the performance, before finishing with an ear-rakingly awful rendition of Greensleeves on a recorder.

The instability of interpretation and role is then reinforced by the "director" arranging a reading of a scene from Hamlet, assigning the roles to the most improbable actors: the guy who's obviously Polonius (Daniel Reardon) plays Hamlet, and so on. At this point an audience member is called up on stage to read one of the smaller parts.

We then watch as three actors audition for the role of Hamlet before a table of people which includes the Melbourne Theatre Company's own casting director, Kylie McCormack. Each actor brings his own story and own twist on the role, and these are hugely entertaining comic pieces. They also permit, almost by-the-bye, a look at the different facets of a couple of scenes, as they are repeated by different actors. The upshot is that the audience is invited on stage, to choose which of the three auditionees ought to play Hamlet in the second half of the show.

What follows is a dramaturgically slashed version of the play, watched from backstage by the shadowy production crew. The connections between Hamlet's existential dilemmas and Beckett's Endgame - signalled in the first half by a short performance during an audition of a speech by Hamm - are here hammered (haha) home by a proliferation of dustbins arranged around the set. The action revolves around the players - here performed by drama students in school uniform from Trinity Grammar School - the grave scene, Ophelia's mad scene and the massacre at the end of the play. The show is rounded off with a brief conclusion from the academic.

It all passes pleasantly enough, but feels curiously unsatisfying. It's actually hard to see how this illuminates Hamlet beyond the points made in the introduction: Shakespeare's reflexive games with performance, identity and play; the ambiguities of his meanings; its essentially performative nature as a text. It did feel as if the lecture was a kind of safety net, ensuring that the audience "got" it, and lifting the risk from the rest of the production. And it seemed to me that the meanings given us enclosed possibility, rather than opening it through performance. There are times when it seems - deliberately, I'm sure - like a parody of bad avant garde performance: experiment without the danger of taking it too seriously. The dog provided some moments of anarchic interruption, as animals do, but I still wasn't convinced that it was more than a bad pun.

What I missed was more of the emotional realism Judith Roddy brings to the role of Ophelia, so the production might shift more radically between the realities it represents - rather as happens, say, in Ganesh and the Third Reich. (As a side note: on the strength of his performance as a Player and the Queen, watch out for Trinity Grammar student Tim Dennett.) There are lots of in-jokes for theatre nerds here, lots of audience-friendly invitation, but not, for all the activity around it, a lot of Shakespeare. I'm all for blowing up the classics: but I want the resulting fragments to add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Pictures: top: Katharina Schüttler as Hedda Gabler; below, Conor Madden as a possible Hamlet in The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Set design by Jan Pappelbaum, costumes by Nina Wetzel, music by Malte Beckenbach, dramaturgy by Marius von Mayenburg, video by Sebastien Dupouey, lighting Erich Schneider. With Annedore Bauer, Wolfgang Bauer, Lars Eidinger, Kay Schulze, Katharina Schüttler and Lore Stefanek. Schaubühne Berlin and Melbourne Festival, Arts Centre Playhouse, until October 23.

The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane, by William Shakespeare, directed by Gavin Quinn. Designer Aedín Cosgrove, costumes by Sarah Bacon, dramaturge Simon Doyle. With Andrew Bennett, Derrick Devine, Conor Madden, Bashir Moukarzel, Gina Moxley, Daniel Reardon, Judith Roddy. Also Dr Sue Tweg, the Venerable Eden-Elizabeth Nicholls and students from Trinity Grammar School, Kew. Pan Pan Theatre, Melbourne Festival. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until October 22.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Double Think, Journeys of Love and More Love

Byron Perry's new dance work Double Think opens in complete darkness in the vast space of the North Melbourne Town Hall. To the rhythms of Luke Smiles's electronic score, blindingly bright geometries of white light flash out and vanish. The movements are precise, created as two dancers lift small boxes concealing the light source, and there's not enough time for the light to bleed out and illuminate anything but itself. It creates a dance of image and after-image on the shocked retina, and immediately suggests that this is an experience of interiority as much as spectacle.

It introduces a dance which explores further Perry's fascination with the manipulation of objects on stage, as in his joyous 2008 collaboration with Antony Hamilton, I Like This. The major set element is a wooden wall which can be pulled apart and reassembled like children's blocks. In one sequence, the dancers are hidden behind the wall as they push differently sized blocks in and out like organ stops. This creates a beautiful geometry of shadows, but, as with the manipulation of the light boxes, this is somehow never machine-like: at some subliminal level, we're aware of the minute variations of human movement. Perry is literally animating his set.

The tension between object and human movement widens to a consideration of subconscious contradictions, the "double think" of the show's title. This becomes articulate in a word-play sequence in which dancers Kirstie McCracken and Lee Serle throw random nouns at each other, to which the other dancer responds in wilful, even satirical movement. They then reassemble the wall into two distinct halves. A dancer sits on each side and gives the other wildly contradictory instructions on what they "must" do, furiously agreeing with each other. Serle insists on control, McCracken on the lack of it. It seems very clear here that they are representing the different hemispheres of the brain.

In other sequences, such as a vision where gravity shifts and we see both dancers as if they are seated at a table from above, they become a couple, negotiating the differences and contradictions of relationship. But mostly this is an exploration of the ways in which human beings deal with and express their interior polarities.

I really enjoyed this piece, but I had a nagging sense that there was something unresolved in the whole: the tensions between object and dancer, for example, seem still in process, rather than fully articulated. In the end, I wasn't sure what this work added up to, beyond a fascinating experiment, and some beautiful dance from McCracken and Serle. Perhaps this goes back to its concept, which as outlined in the program is a little muddy.

Perry's title directly references Orwell's notion of doublethink. Doublethink, says Orwell, is "to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies." While this is an excellent description of the rhetorical strategies of someone like Andrew Bolt, I saw few connections with the dance.

Rather than the "deliberate lies" that Orwell describes, it seemed to me that Perry is exploring a creative dissonance. A more precise notion might be negative capability, the quality John Keats famously defined as the capacity to be "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason". These concepts are certainly related, but they are quite different: Orwell's idea is about destroying thought, Keats's about its genesis. I suspect a little more precision of thought - perhaps even an exploration of the contradictions and conenctions between these two ideas - might have helped to consolidate the dramaturgy of the dance.

After Double Think, I traversed North Melbourne to the Meat Market for motiroti's Journeys of Love and More Love. Written, directed and performed by Ali Zaidi, who describes himself as "Indian by birth, Pakistani by migration and British by chance", Journeys of Love is a story of odyssey, interspersed with a menu of tasting plates. After hanging around a bar decorated with bowls of flowers and pungent with incense, the audience is directed into a space which has been transformed into a large restaurant. The tables are surrounded by four huge screens that are filled with lush animations of flowers, and later with digital graphics which illustrate Zaidi's story.

It's billed as a participatory experience in which the audience gets to share food (recipes created by Zaidi) and Zaidi's personal story, and to reflect on "issues around identity and... static perceptions of culture". I, personally, am all for food in the theatre: La Mama has provided a couple of memorable nights in which the sensual pleasures of theatre are extended to taste. But somehow, for all its impressive dress, Journeys of Love was a lot less than it promised: sadly, the most interesting aspect was the food itself.

As a theatrical experience it gave us an alienated vision of love, mediated through a text that glosses contradiction and loss. Maybe the first mistake is reproducing a restaurant rather than, say, the environs of a home: this effectively atomises the audience. Zaidi is maître d'hôtel rather than a host, and there is little sense of more than a professional invitation. Zaidi's narrative is spoken through a mic, which is immediately alienating, and begs further the question of doing this kind of show in a large space. I had a couple of interesting conversations with my table mates, but this is the kind of interaction prompted simply by seating strangers for an hour or so at the same table. There wasn't much feeling of a collective audience response.

The text itself is banalised by Zaidi's repeated insistence that all experiences of migration - even the miserable existences of migrant workers in Europe - are "journeys of love". Take a letter, Mr Berger. It's hard not to feel that this show is the ultimate neo-liberal theatrical experience: the lesson is that all differences, even the homicidal conflicts between extremist Hindus and Muslims, can be resolved in an embrace, or through eating interesting food together, or by watching videos of local migrants talking about what it's like to be a migrant. Frankly, Poh's Kitchen on ABC TV does far more to communicate the love of food and cultural heterogenity. This is a tourist's experience of difference.

Pictures: Top: promo image for Double Think; bottom, Journeys of Love and More Love.

Double Think, choregraphed and directed by Byron Perry. Sound design by Luke Smiles, lighting by Benjamin Cisterne. With Kirstie McCracken and Lee Serle. North Melbourne Town Hall, Arts House. Melbourne Festival until October 15.

Journeys of Love and More Love, written, directed and performed by Ali Zaidi. Recipes and videography by Ali Zaidi. Composition and sound design by Andy Pink, lighting and production by Steve Wald, video aditing and animation Daniel Saul and Katerina Athanasopoulos. motiroti at the Arts House Meat Market, Melbourne Festival. Until October 16.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Whiteley's Incredible Blue, Foley

La beauté, “Beauty is difficult, Yeats” said Aubrey Beardsley
when Yeats asked why he drew horrors
or at least not Burne-Jones
and Beardsley knew he was dying and had to
make his hit quickly

Hence no more B-J in his product.

So very difficult, Yeats, beauty so difficult.

- Ezra Pound, Cantos

I left Whiteley's Incredible Blue last night with Pound's verse circling around my head. Barry Dickins's new play, subtitled "an hallucination", is almost an essay on the proposition of the difficulty and necessity of beauty, through the medium of the enfant terrible of Australian art, Brett Whiteley.

Whiteley is a compelling figure: part artist, part charlatan, myth-maker extraordinaire, he died of a heroin overdose in 1992, aged only 53, in a country motel. So much of his work is trashy product for the cannibalistic art market that at once made and destroyed him, and yet his sublime gift for colour and line gave us some of us our most iconic paintings. Dickins, however, isn't interested in moralising, nor in biography. What he has created instead is a poetic riff that recreates Whiteley's restless imaginative excesses, a theatrical meditation on art, beauty and self-destruction.

The title not only recalls Whiteley's fondness for the colour ultramarine blue, but colloquially suggests Whiteley's argument ("blue") with life itself. It's probably Dickins's best play, and certainly a play only he could have written: here his Dylan Thomas-esque ear for rhythm and colour is given full rein, looping and relooping in an avalanche of imagery. These flights are grounded by an earthy self-awareness, a deprecating humour that pricks the impulse towards romanticising the artist, seeking instead to make luminous the sensual passion that informed his paintings. The blur of the sentimental is always a danger in a work like this, and this play never goes there.

The conceit is simple. Brett Whiteley's soul is in purgatory, trapped in the squalid motel room in which he died. He is played with a startling verisimilitude by Neil Pigot, who with the addition of a curly wig looks almost exactly like him, but it's clear from the opening moments that this isn't intended to be a realistic representation. Pigot plays him as a clumsy dancer, half child, half cynic, regretful and regretless, looking back at the failures of a passionate life from the dispassion of death, a collision of quicksilver and human flesh borne down by the gravity of mortality. It's a bravura performance, exact and compelling, which drills into the observation that might be Whiteley's epitaph: "I'm not good. I'm a good artist."

Julian Meyrick's production is carefully designed to frame and amplify the text. The set is simple: a wide stage, featuring only a messy double bed that recalls Tracy Ermin's squalid autobiographical My Bed, a side table loaded with pills, a radio on the floor. To one side is the band (Pietro Fine, Robert George and Robert Calvert). The art is suggested visually by the barest of cues - a mobile of birds in flight to the right of the stage and a few projected graphics. The paintings are principally invoked through music, Whiteley's line echoed in the soaring notes of a saxophone.

Hallucinatory stage directions are read in voice-over by Richard Bligh, Keonie Dodd and Daniela Farinacci, sometimes overlapping each other, punctuating the various movements of the monologue with vivid, oneiric mise en scenes. This is a reality created almost entirely through Dickins's words.

I wished that the acoustics at Fortyfive Downstairs were less muddy, as the music sometimes overwhelms the text. And occasionally Meyrick's directorial eye slackens: Pigot's physicalisations - playful dance, jumping on the bed - can tip over into the merely silly. When Pigot's gestures, however odd they are, unite with the extremities of the text, it creates a potent expressiveness, but this is not unfaltering. It made me think of the sort of precise physicalisations Anita Hegh created in Peter Evans's production of The Yellow Wallpaper: the performance language here is not as sharp. But these are quibbles. This is a sound production of a challenging and complex text, from a writer who should not be forgotten.

It felt serendipitous that I should see Foley on the same day as Whiteley's Incredible Blue: it was a day for Australian icons. Gary Foley, Aboriginal activist, uncompromising anarchist and unrepentant larrikin, is a living repository of a fascinating and shamefully little-known aspect of Australian history: the battle for self-determination and land rights for Aboriginal people. Rachel Maza Long's production is basically a lecture tarted up with a cardboard set that recalls a television talk show, with four screens showing various media - photographs, graphics, television footage. It's plain, unpretentious theatre, and absolutely riveting.

As with Ilbijerri's Jack Charles Versus The Crown, this is an exercise in autobiographical theatre. Gary Foley presents himself in his "native habitat" as an Aboriginal historian, which is a room scattered with archive boxes. Late in life, he tells us, he became a creature he despised, an academic (spit), graduating with honours in history from Melbourne University (spit), and now can be observed in his rooms at Victoria University. From here, he tells us the story of his life, which - as Foley was part of some of its most important events - is also an introduction to the wider history of black struggle in Australia.

It's a warts and all presentation, and often hilarious. It opens with a video of the young Foley on the lawns of Parliament House, being buttonholed by a disapproving matron in a twinset. At first he attempts to explain the aims of the protest, but soon he loses patience and roundly abuses her. When Foley himself, sans beard and long hair, 61 years old, steps onto the stage, he tells us that this angry young man is dead. "Now I'm a grumpy old man," he says.

Foley's often controversial life is full of colourful anecdote. He was one of the founders of the Aboriginal Embassy on the lawn of Parliament House in Canberra, a member of Black Power, which started the first free legal and medical services for Aboriginals (or anyone) in Australia, and even co-designed the Aboriginal flag. Importantly, he is also an actor. Indigenous theatre has been from its beginning a political theatre, the most consciously political we have; it's here that the very European notion of theatre as social revolution exists as a living thing.

Foley was a member of Sydney's Black Theatre, founded under Bob Maza at the Nimrod, and was in the cast of the ground-breaking 1972 political revue Basically Black. This is a legendary production, and one of the highlights of Foley is a short showing of some of the sketches filmed by the ABC for a pilot. The series was never made, presumably because it was considered "too political". On the evidence of those few minutes, Basically Black is the funniest tv show that was never made. You can only sigh for what could have been.

He outlines the history of Aboriginal activism against the background of the notorious White Australia policy and the wider international Civil Rights movement. This history reaches back to Federation, and forward as Foley traces his own involvement in the protests of the 1970s and the various governmental betrayals of the Aboriginal quest for Land Rights (it finishes by making the point that Native Title is an entirely different question to Land Rights).

Foley highlighted the shameful fact that I know much more about the US Civil Rights movement than I do about the history of Indigenous activism here. Even so, I had no idea that the early 20th century boxer Jack Johnson - in his time the most famous black person on the planet - was a prominent activist, or of his far-reaching influence on Indigenous politics here. This history is not only necessary; it's fascinating. If nothing else, that these stories remain largely untold demonstrates how colonial Australian culture remains.

And you'll seldom be taught history as entertainingly as in this show. Invigoratingly irreverent, driven by an unflinching lifelong passion for justice, it makes absorbing theatre. As the Age said of Foley himself: "If his ego is epic, as his opponents allege, so is his story." Foley's the one to tell it, and you'd be mad to miss it.

Pictures: Top: Neil Pigot as Brett Whiteley. Photo: Jeff Busby. Bottom, Gary Foley as Gary Foley.

Whiteley's Incredible Blue by Barry Dickins, directed by Julian Meyrick. Designed by Meredith Rogers, lighting by Kerry Saxby. Performed by Neil Pigot, with musicians Robert Calvert, Robert George, Pietro Fine. Melbourne Festival, fortyfivedownstairs, until October 23.

Foley, written, performed and co-devised by Gary Foley, directed by Rachael Maza Long. Co-devised by Jon Hawkes, co-written by Tony Birch. Audio and lighting by Danny Pettingill, costume and design by Emily Barrie. Ilbijerri Theatre, Melbourne Festival. Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 15.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Political Mother, The Magic Flute

When Hofesh Shechter debuted here during Brett Sheehy's first Melbourne Festival, I was in the UK and missed it. So it's fair to say that I had no idea what to expect last night when I sat down to watch Political Mother - aside, that is, from the kind of generalised anticipation prompted by a bunch of people saying things like "!!!" when his name was mentioned. 70 minutes later I staggered out of the Playhouse Theatre, not so much enlightened as endarkened. I didn't even know what I thought, and the truth is that it will take a few days before I do. However, I'm seeing four shows in the next two days, and needs must, etc. Herewith some notes.

Shechter is an Israeli choreographer and musician based in London, a former member of the Tel Aviv dance company Batsheva. That influence remains in the clarity of his choregraphy and in the disturbing images of militarisation that inform Political Mother. But where Batsheva's Ohad Naharin retains an almost classical quality, Shechter drags dance into a universe of theatrical assault. From its opening moments, when a soldier clad in the ceramic armour of the ancient Middle East appears out of darkness, plunges a sword through his body and writhes in agony as he dies, it's relentless.

Political Mother is a - I want to say "meditation", but this seems almost precisely the wrong word - an analogue in performance of political violence, especially the violence of nationalism. Its visions emerge out of a thick darkness and then vanish, almost like ghosts across the inner eye, to an amplified score. The music throbs through your body, making the experience visceral and immediate - its various music is mostly a driving contemporary beat, threaded through with the half tones of Middle Eastern folk music, but includes the sound of the wind in a desert, Verdi and Bach, and some blinding death metal. The three drums and four electric guitars are performed live, as a singer/charismatic dictator, sun-glassed like a glamorous Gaddafi, screams into a microphone between them.

The choreography mostly weaves out of folk dance - a staple of nationalistic identity since it was first created in the 19th century - here extended to extreme states of ecstasy and abjection, defiance and oppression. Shechter's command of dynamic relationship is masterly: groups of dancers collect and disintegrate, creating a rising tension between the individual and the group. There are glimpses of pastoral idyll or communal ideal that collapse and distort under the avalanche of sound and fury; moments of human connection, even love, that splinter and corrupt under the tyrannical obliteration of political domination. The dancers are astonishing, performing this challengingly complex movement at a pace which seems physically unfeasible.

I experienced a lot of this performance like a dream, often a horrible dream: there are glimpses of obscure nightmare - necrophiliac coupling on a battlefield, concentration camps, a chorus of marching zombies - which suddenly clear to moments of realistic representation - a couple imprisoned, threatened with a gun, who are then released and, in a rare moment of lyricism, embrace. This nightmare-like quality is reinforced by the design: the musicians are back stage, on different levels above the dancers, and flash in and out of darkness. The drummers first appear half-lit in military uniforms, so all you can see is the gleaming buttons on their torsos, avatars of war.

Shechter's brutal shifting of theatrical focus makes it impossible to read the dance outside its own terms of reference: you are forced to experience it. A brief interlude, in which we are staring at an empty stage to the sound of baroque strings, comes as an emotional relief. The final minutes rewind the opening sequence, until we are back at the opening image, with the unknown soldier brought back to life, drawing the sword out of his body. Perhaps we should go back, Shechter seems to be saying, and undo the act of primal violence to the self that inaugurates the nationalistic state. Unmissable.


Impempe Yomlingo's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute is equally dreamlike, but rather less traumatic. It seems impossible that this most charming of operas should be scored almost entirely for marimbas - I confess, not my most favourite of instruments - but here it is. Rather than diminishing the music, it exposes its wit and enchantment.

The connection is a traditional Tsonga folktale that is so close to Mozart's absurd fairytale that it makes you wonder if he knew it. Taking this cue, director Mark Dornford-May has translated the opera into the vocabulary of African townships, rescoring its orchestrations for marimba, voice and - in the famous Papageno/Papagena duet - with bottles of water struck by the chorus. The cast performs barefoot on a raked stage of scaffolding and humble wooden boards, with the marimba orchestra performing on either side. The witty costumes combine fantastic contemporary conceits with African motifs. The various characters and events are transformed into African equivalents, with a libretto performed in English and Xhosa.

The result is exhilarating. It's performed by an impeccable cast which seamlessly combines operatic bravura with African traditions of song and dance. There are many stand-out performances: Mhlekazi "Wha Wha" Mosiea makes an enchanting Tamino; Nobulumko Mngxekeza is a superb Pamina; Zamile Gantana, decked out in military camouflage, is a charismatically comic Papageno, and Pauline Malefane (also one of the musical directors) as the Queen of the Night - in a costume of feathers, studded black leather and gravity-defying hair - is hugely impressive.

Part of its pleasure is in the sheer ingenuity of the adaptation: but the rest is in the infectious joyousness of the performances. I doubt that Mozart would ever have thought that his opera might have been reinterpreted as a fable from a South African township, but I can imagine his ghost laughing with delight.

Pictures: Top: Political Mother by Hofesh Shechter Company. Photo: Sean Fennessy; bottom, Pauline Malefane as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute.

Political Mother, choreography and music by Hofesh Shechter. Musical collaborators Nell Catchpole and Yaron Engler, lighting design by Lee Curran, costumes by Merle Hensel. Performed by Hofesh Shechter Company. Melbourne Festival, Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 15.

The Magic Flute
, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May. Words and music by Masnidi Dyantyis, Msali Kgosidintsi, Pauline Malefane and Nolufefe Mtshabe. Choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana, lighting design by Mannie Manim, costumes by Leigh Bishop. Performed by Impempe Yomlingo. Melbourne Festival at the State Theatre, until October 16.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Melbourne Festival: Aftermath

A pointer to my review of New York Theatre Workshop's Aftermath, which I saw at the Perth Festival earlier this year, and which opened in Melbourne at the Malthouse Theatre last night.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: The Manganiyar Seduction, Rhinoceros in Love

Much has been said about The Manganiyar Seduction, a stunning theatrical presentation of Rajasthani music, and no doubt I will simply add another bunch of superlatives. Indian director Roysten Abel has created a work that had the Melbourne Festival audience standing up, cheering and stamping its feet. Like everyone else, I was seduced: by the musicianship, by the passion of the music, by the production itself.

The Manganiyars are a caste of musicians, an unknown concept in western culture. The performers in The Manganiyar Seduction are mostly Muslim, although there is one Hindu, and mostly, intriguingly, have the surname "Khan". Their work combines both classical and folk traditions, creating a music of winding complexities: driving rhythms that get under your skin and make you want to dance contrast with solo voices that seem to express all human longing, edged with raw feeling and yet astonishingly skilled in their flexibility.

At first we're presented with four tiers of booths curtained in red velvet, each surrounded by light globes. The progression of the show is through revelation: one by one, two by two, three by three, the curtains open and reveal singers and musicians, until there are 37 musicians all playing together. It was like an Advent calendar, and I found myself pleasurably looking forward to finding out what I would see next. The other simple conceit is that the globes around the booths light up when individual musicians are playing, and darken when they stop. This creates a constantly changing geometry, and permits the conductor/percussionist/dancer (Deu Khan) who performs before the set to act as a conductor of the visuals as well as the music.

The performance itself consists of three songs, which fluidly connect in a text-book example of theatrical orchestration. The primary song is a Sufi work by the poet Bulleshah, Alfat Un Bin In Bin, which explores the love of God and the Sufi journey of gnostic self revelation. Two other songs are woven into the first: Halariya, a traditional welcome for newborn children that describes the birth of Lord Krishna, and Neendarli, a comic song about a wife attempting to seduce her husband.

I wished I could understand the words: not that the music wasn't enough in itself, because it was, but because the directness of its emotional effect made me want to know what they were singing. However, I didn't need to read the program afterwards to know that all these songs were about love. That was absolutely palpable. This show made me want to cry with happiness.


I walked out of Rhinoceros in Love shaking my head. One of the Melbourne Festival's headline acts, it's a production from the National Theatre of China, billed as China's "most popular contemporary drama". It was first produced in 1999, and was the National Theatre's resident playwright Liao Yimei's first play. We're seeing the fourth production, directed by Meng Jinghui, who has, among other things, specialised in bringing productions of the European modernists - Dario Fo, Samuel Beckett - to the Chinese stage.

This production is a bizarre collision of Chinese and European traditions. And yet... for all its faults - and these are legion - it generates a seductive energy that I found impossible to resist. Within this work is a feeling that I think western theatre has largely lost: it manifests an expressive liberty which reminded me strongly of the modernists of the early 20th century, a sense of almost defiant arbitrariness. All the dramaturgical care, all the polish and experience that can be brought to the best western theatre, can have a constipating effect, creating a feeling of aesthetic politeness and, in the worst cases, a "by the rules" stolidity. There's something refreshing in the total lack of attention to our unwritten laws of aesthetic production here, and in its best moments it creates an electric sense of the unexpected.

The play itself is the tale of Ma Lu's (Zhang Nianhua) hopeless passion for Mingming (Qi Xi), who is herself in love with an abusive man who won't love her back. Ma Lu is a zookeeper, and his only confidant is a lone rhinoceros, to whom he addresses his confessional monologues. This dodgy love story is punctuated by satirical clowning scenes, in which the reckless individualism represented by Ma Lu and Mingming is counterpointed by the conventions of the state or market. There is, for example, a series of "Love Tutorials", in which young people are taught the proper expressions for love through Hollywood cliches and pop songs.

Ma Lu's obsession reaches stalker territory - he declares that he will keep loving Mingming until she loves him back, no matter what she says, and that she will never be allowed to escape. There's no irony in this: he is presented as the heroic individual who persists in his beliefs against all odds. Perhaps it's not surprising that there should be a rape joke in there. Again, and this time not in a good way, it made me think of the early 20th century.

It's quite clear where the expertise lies in this production: in the performances, which are highly skilled, especially in the impeccable chorus work, and, for all its problems, in the text. I don't know enough about Chinese culture to be able to read this clearly against tradition, but even through the uncertain surtitles it seemed to me that Liao Yimei's text spirals out of a long tradition of Chinese poetry. The play's lyricism and obsession with the natural world recalls Li Po and Du Fu, who famously celebrated the romantic figure of the poet as an exile from society, and also contemporary poets such as Yang Lian, one of the figures who unites Chinese traditions with European modernist influences.

The design is probably its worst aspect. The set features suspended metal rectangles and reflective panelling at the back, and is very approximately lit: the lighting design has some good ideas, but is indifferently executed. The whole looks like a bricolage of modern effects, but doesn't appear to mean anything. Likewise, the show opens with a flourish of percussion which is never seen again, and which seems to bear absolutely no relationship to anything else. This, and a lot of the clowning, made me think of the acrobatics which were interpolated into Shakespeare's productions: these elements seem designed to catch the attention of the groundlings in the pit.

To one side of the stage is something like a billiard table that turns out to be a treadmill. This is the locus of one the production's hilariously kitsch moments: a Chinese pop song rises and the two lovers are running together, in an analogue of making love. It made me feel as if I had strayed into a bad anime. Towards the end of the play, the stage is flooded with water, forcing the cast, rather charmingly, to don green gumboots. In the climax, Zhang Nianhua ends up standing on a table being drenched with a private rainstorm, passionately declaiming his stalker ambitions. I still don't know why he had to be so wet.

Pictures: Top: The Manganiyar Seduction; bottom, Zhang Nianhua in Rhinoceros in Love.

The Manganiyar Seduction, conceived, arranged and directed by Roysten Abel, conducted by Deu Khan. Sound engineer, S Manoharan, set and lighting design by Roysten Abel. Melbourne Festival. Closed.

Rhinoceros in Love, by Liao Yimei, directed by Meng Jinghui. Design by Zhang Wu, lighting by Zhang Jian, sound design by Yan Guihe. With Zhang Nianhua, Qi Xi, Zhao Hongwei, Zhang Ziqi, Kou Zhiguo, Lui Chang, Wang Xiaoshen and Feng Qilong. National Theatre of China and the Melbourne Festival. Closed.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Assembly

One of the strongest aspects of this year's Melbourne Festival program is the local performance. I can remember a time when under-developed local shows too often made an embarrassing contrast with the production-polished international work: not so in 2011. It demonstrates the depth of achievement that has been nurtured in this city over the past decade, and festival director Brett Sheehy's good fortune in being able to draw from such a rich field.

This cultural depth has come about through the patient investment of many institutions and people. Companies like Back to Back or Chunky Move or BalletLab don't spring up overnight: they emerge from initial risks taken on raw and untested talent, years of often unrewarding work, and, crucially, the faith that gives this work stages and audiences beyond the "fringe". For example, Back to Back's Small Metal Objects premiered at Kristy Edmunds's 2005 festival. That exposure led to an international tour which established their European reputation and to their subsequent 2008 Melbourne Festival premiere, Food Court. This leads directly to the confidence and experience that can mount a show as ambitious and finely worked as Ganesh Versus the Third Reich.

Chunky Move, one of the driving forces behind Melbourne's thriving dance culture, is another. Founded in 1995 by Gideon Obarzanek, this company has constantly surprised its audiences with work that restlessly explores the possibilities of dance performance. It actively nurtures new talent (Byron Perry, whose work Double Think is also in this year's program, is a Chunky Move protege). Obarzanek himself has choreographed everything from extravagant multimedia spectacle to a minimalist one-man show. In Assembly, his last work as artistic director of Chunky Move, he has shifted the goal posts once again, joining forces with Victorian Opera and its director Richard Gill to give us a meditation on the discrete self and communal identity, and the conflicting human longings for belonging, connection and individuality.

Assembly focuses entirely on the bodies of its 62 barefoot performers. They provide the entire score - breathing, yelling, hissing, drumming their feet, or drenching us with the harmonies of plainsong or sacred Renaissance choral works. Obarzanek and Chris Mercer's design is a plain wooden construction of bleachers or stairs, which sits beautifully inside the panelling of the Melbourne Recital Centre. This apparent simplicity belies the sophistication of the design: costumes which appear to be the casual outfits of the performers reveal themselves to be a carefully designed palette of reds and blues (Harriet Oxley), and Nick Schlieper's lighting is a masterly demonstration of the power of subtlety.

Eight dancers, six principal singers and 48 choir members in itself makes a considerable impact on a stage, and Obarzanek's choreography takes full advantage. The movement is bound by a notion of pneuma, the Greek word for "breath" which also means spirit, or creative energy. Even the stage seems to be breathing: at one moment it's crowded with people, and in the next, seemingly by magic, it's empty. People flood over the top of the steps, or stream in from either side, and as quickly vanish. Assembly demonstrates Obarnzanek's control of the dynamics of space: he exploits every plane of the set, vertical, horizontal and diagonal, to full advantage. The work's various moods transform the space from a public area - stairs in a public square, for example, or a football crowd - to stylised abstraction that brings us back to the public act of dance, to an interior evocation of private loss, an expression of the human longing for connection in an alienating world.

Assembly balances its austere structure with a surprising richness and variousness, and creates moments of unexpected beauty. Obarzanek constantly disrupts focus: at one moment we are studying the mechanisms of flocking behaviour, with gestures rippling through a crowd, and in the next are aware of the performers as disunited individuals. He divides his cast into a hostile halves, hissing and shouting at each other, before uniting them in a joyous celebration of a goal, and then immediately shifts us to a different notion of communal harmony with the choral music. The eight dancers emerge from the crowd, spilling down the stairs in gestures of defiance, or abjection, or longing, or expressions of humanity as machine, with pneumatic sounds (breath again) emphasising mechanical movements, and as suddenly dissolve into the collective.

The first half provides some of the most overwhelming moments of the show. The sheer beauty of the choral music emerging from the apparently "ordinary" crowd lends its emotion a strong utopian focus: a choir is a powerful image of community. Here, the work strikes chords with the collective behaviour that is presently re-entering the public sphere, with demonstrations from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, and feels like a forceful expression of the zeitgeist.

The dance shifts in the second half towards an exploration of coupling, of the individual within relationship: the crowd becomes an expression of the conventions which surround, extend and confine the anarchic possibilities of sexual desire and love. Here the dance becomes more obviously formal: Obarzanek creates a texture of symmetries, with couples mirroring each other's gestures, or weaving images out of their limbs that are reminsiscent of Hollywood dance movies. He certainly isn't afraid of kitsch: at one point the dancers even shape a heart with their arms.

These displays of romantic convention play against a subtext of conflict, desire, confinement and loss, including a fragmentary spoken text that suggests a man inarticulately defending himself against accusation. The final image is of solitude and longing: Alisdair Macindoe, isolated mid-stage, makes stylised gestures of weeping that seem to come from the vocabulary of Asian theatre, as Paul Capsis appears out of nowhere (he is not in the previous dance) and sings an a cappella love song. It feels surprising how far this work has evolved from its opening image of a loudly chattering crowd: by this time, we've had a chance to see all these people as individuals, and to contemplate them (and us) as both social and solitary beings. It's a fascinating and moving multi-faceted work, and a fitting finale to Obarzanek's achievement with Chunky Move.

Picture: Assembly. Photo: Jeff Busby

Assembly, directed and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek, musical direction by Richard Gill. Lighting design by Nick Schlieper, costume design by Harriet Oxley, set design by Gideon Obarzanek and Chris Mercer. Dancers: Sara Black, Nathan Dubber, Benjamin Hancock, Alisdair Macindoe, Lily Paskas, Harriet Ritchie, James Shannon and Frankie Snowdon. Principal singers: Casselle Bonollo, Olivia Cranwell, Frederica Cunningham, Tobias Glaser, Jeremy Kleeman and Matthew Thomas. With Paul Capsis and the Victorian Opera Youth Opera. Chunky Move, Victorian Opera and Melbourne Festival. Melbourne Recital Centre. Closed.

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Friday, October 07, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Ganesh Versus The Third Reich

I've been dithering over this post for days, trying to find a way in to writing about this extraordinary show. As with Back to Back's Food Court, which remains one of the most compelling experiences I've had in a theatre, Ganesh Versus The Third Reich takes an idea which initially appears to be very simple, and then, with cumulative force, systematically unpicks every expectation that you might have formed, until the psyche finds itself at such a point of vulnerability that you are suddenly confronted with - what? The Human Condition? Your own existential solitude? The naked soul as Foucault imagined it, criss-crossed and scarred by the traces of power and authority?

One of the problems in discussing Back to Back, the little theatre company from Geelong that could, is that it creates experiences that defeat description. Outlining a production's shape gives an idea of its characteristics, its morphology, if you like; but this morphology doesn't explain the vitality that inhabits the work. I feel, even more than usual, as if I were attempting to invoke an entire life, with all its incidence, richness, mundanity, conflict and beauty, by dissecting a corpse.

Bruce Gladwin and his collaborators make a work that can only happen in a theatre. It can't be translated into another medium, because it exists so fiercely in its transient present, in the particular moments in which it's witnessed by the particular people who happen to attend. Its transformations are a kind of alchemy, a human magic that ignites in the shifting relationships between the performers and the audience. It's at once transparently simple and profoundly complex.

As those who have followed the mild controversy that greeted its publicity will know, Ganesh Versus The Third Reich is, in part, a fable about how Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, travels to Nazi Germany to wrest back the swastika from Hitler. A major god in the Hindu pantheon, Ganesh is the deity of obstacles: he not only removes them, but will place them in situations that need to be checked. One of his lesser aspects is as lord of letters and learning, an avatar of stories (which is why I have two small brass effigies of Ganesh on my desk).

Ganesh's aspect as remover of obstacles must have special significance for a company in which most members are disabled. And Back to Back's decision to interrogate Hitler reminds us that, well before their plans to eradicate Jews, homosexuals, Roma and Slavic people, Nazi Germany targeted its disabled population. In 1939, the state systematically began to murder people with mental and physical disabilities, labelling them "unworthy of life", with estimates of deaths varying from 200,000 to 250,000. These murders were the experimental laboratory for what later became the death camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka.

Given such a dark subtext, not to mention the questions of cultural appropriation in employing the figure of Ganesh, it's unsurprising that the company discarded their initial idea for Ganesh Versus The Third Reich. "We knew our narrative was morally fraught," says Bruce Gladwin in his program note. "Over time our thinking shifted. Our self-imposed censorship - our reasoning that we should not create the work - became the rationale for bringing it to life."

What is presented instead is a double reality. We see the actors - Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price and Brian Tilley - and director David Woods creating their Holocaust fairytale. When we walk in, the stage is a working studio littered with tables, ladders and other miscellaneous mess, with a row of huge curtains tied up at the side of the stage. As the performers argue in a desultory fashion, the director comes in and takes charge.

These glimpses of rehearsal are punctuated by scenes of theatrical spectacle, in which the semi-transparent plastic curtains, painted with silhouetted outlines of trees, houses and other illusions, are drawn across the stage. They are backlit, so performers can be seen in silhouette as well, or are used as a screen for shadow puppetry. The shifts from mundane reality to fairytale are swift, signalled by sound and lighting, and completely transform the stage, so that you are plunged wholly into mythic realities and just as suddenly, almost with a sense of bereftness, dragged out of them.

What is hard to explain is how this rhythm of contrast intensifies into a shattering potency during the show. As in Food Court, the work is an ambush: gestures and relationships which seem of merely mundane importance, or which begin as comic confrontations, inexorably gather emotional force. Subtly and incrementally, connections begin to accrete between the two storylines; for example, David plays Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted horrific experiments on, among others, disabled children, and David's very correct treatment of his actors begins to collect sinister undertones.

Perhaps part of this sense of ambush is in how lightly these connections are drawn. The rehearsal scenes are leavened by absurd comedy: Simon, for instance, complaining about his part as one of Mengele's experimental subjects: "It's hard being a Jew." They argue, passionately, about the issue of appropriation. There are sudden and confronting gestures towards the audience: David flinging his hand towards us, as if he is addressing a bank of empty seats, claiming that the audience is just coming to watch "freak porn". As the arguments between the performers intensify, his contempt becomes double-edged, and you begin to wonder if the person most interested in "freak porn" is David himself.

When these arguments explode into violence, the effect is devastating and shocking: the disparate elements and themes of the production suddenly fuse in a wholly unexpected way. The final image is unforgettable. David, tired of his job, tired of these freaks, is left with Mark, who has been the silent focus of many of the cast's arguments. Mark's mother will pick him up later. David, using all his professional skills in people management, deals with the annoyance of Mark by suggesting that they play hide and seek.

Mark hides under the table; David, pretending to look for him, picks up his things, and leaves the room. As the light closes in on him, Mark remains crouched under the table, wriggling with delight at the game, waiting to be found. Even thinking of this moment shakes my heart. It's not simply that this disabled man has been carelessly abandoned by someone who should know better. It's how this apparently trivial gesture becomes, in the deepest and most vulnerable echo chambers of the consciousness, a metaphor for the betrayal of all human hope.

This shows the power and ambiguity, also, of what Back to Back do to the notion of performance. David Woods is the only actor without disability, and his is, in the conventional sense, a brilliant performance. There is no question, at any time, that the rest of the cast isn't making a performance: this is the company's counter-argument to the bitter notion of their being "freak porn". But these actors bring another edge, a sense of perilous exposure that is intensified under Gladwin's impeccably sure direction. I can't think of another company which so foregrounds the knowledge that this work is being made, in each moment, before our eyes: it is a great part of why the audiences becomes so deeply involved.

Back to Back have never had any truck with "special" treatment: their work has a harsh honesty that makes it impossible to patronise. But they also specialise in moments of breath-taking beauty that assert the sheer power of their skills. There are images I won't forget: the impossible poignancy and strangeness, for example, of Ganesh, dressed in a business suit, standing before Hitler, who is played by Simon in a ridiculous knitted Hitler costume. Or an evocation of Indra's net, when a back curtain of stars was lifted to reveal a blazing light, like a sunrise. I've never seen anything like this show, because only Back to Back could make it. They are, simply, our most important independent theatre company.

Picture: David Woods and Brian Tilley in Ganesh Versus The Third Reich. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich, directed, designed and devised by Bruce Gladwin. Lighting design by Andrew Livingston, Bluebottle; design and set construction by Mark Cuthbertson, design and animation Rhian Hinkley, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Performed by Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley and David Woods. Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne Festival and Back to Back Theatre. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until October 9.

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