Melbourne Festival review: Clybourne Park, Half-Real ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Clybourne Park, Half-Real

Your faithful blogger has been shanghaied by the day job lately, dealing with an editing deadline for my forthcoming novel. (Forthcoming Christmas 2012, that is - lead times are long in the publishing world). And I find, lifting my weary head from the coalface of the imagination, that I've fallen rather behind in my reviews, and this despite steadfastly missing nearly the entire Melbourne Fringe. I'll apologise here to those who invited me personally to their shows - I tried to reply to everyone, but believe me when I say that my inbox exploded. And I know I missed some worthy events. Perhaps my biggest regret is Nicola Gunn's At The Sans Hotel, at La Mama, which I meant to see last Sunday. That plan was derailed by a migraine, another regular pothole in the Croggon road to enlightenment. The spirit is willing, etc...

Despite my most cunning attempts at theatre evasion, I was still lured to three shows. Clybourne Park at the Melbourne Theatre Company opened two weeks ago, which demonstrates how tardy I am. The other two are the first harbingers of the Melbourne Festival, which officially opens tomorrow. (Expect TN's usual blanket Melbourne Festival coverage; I've cleared my desk and will be focusing on being a critic for the next three weeks.) The Malthouse got in early last week with The Border Project's Half-Real and Back to Back's Ganesh Versus The Third Reich. Back to Back's show is an exceptional work, which confirms this company's place as one of the most significant we have; more on that tomorrow later. Half-Real is mostly striking as a missed opportunity. But, first, to Clybourne Park.

Bruce Norris's Pulitzer Prize winner springs from Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry's play is based on the hostile racism (culminating in a lawsuit) that she experienced during her childhood when her family moved to a white neighbourhood in Chicago. It follows the fortunes of the Youngers family as they attempt to move into the middle class, along the way exposing the mechanics of North American racism, especially as expressed through the housing market. In A Raisin in the Sun, the family buys a house in a suburb called Clybourne Park: and this is where Bruce Norris picks up the story.

The first act of Clybourne Park, also set in 1959, is almost Ayckbournian in how it fills in the "other" side of Hansberry's play, although Australian audiences, unlike American theatre goers, will miss most of the cross-textual references. It begins as Russ (Greg Stone) and Bev (Alison Whyte), haunted by the suicide of their war veteran son, are selling their house in Clybourne Park.

When it becomes known that it has been bought by a black family, all hell breaks loose: their neighbours, who claim to be all very tolerant of black people in their place, are horrified by the thought of their being next door. Community leader Karl (Patrick Brammall), a take on A Raisin in the Sun's character Karl Lindner, even offers the family money to buy elsewhere. The second act is set in the same house fifty years later. Clybourne Park has in the meantime become a black neighbourhood, and now the new white gentry are moving back in, thoughtlessly obliterating a complex history.

This juxtaposition permits Norris to make mordant fun of liberal hypocrisies, exploring how little has changed in American social relations. Aside from race, its major question is the place of memory and history in a world defined by the marketplace. It's a conventional realist play, with nods to the expressionist theatre of Arthur Miller as well as situation comedy and farce. And it's strikingly well written: while it never reaches the heights, say, of Death of a Salesman, it's rare to see a play this well crafted, and that goes a long way to dispel the inevitable mustiness of its form.

The production is as well-crafted as the play itself: it's beautifully lit by Matt Scott, with a simple and effective set design from Christina Smith and an unobtrusive but evocative sound design from Jethro Woodward. Director Peter Evans brings together an exceptional cast, who ably negotiate the various levels at play in the text. The tone shifts with blinding swiftness from farce to robust comedy to tragedy, and the actors step nimbly and exactly from one to the other, with such skill that you barely notice the artifice.

It's truly an ensemble effort, but to pick out some highlights: Greg Stone as the depressive Russ handles the role's miserable aggression with wit and force and, in the end, moving humanity. We've long known that Bert Labonté (Albert/Kevin) is one of our best stage comedians, but I had no idea Zahra Newman (Francine/Lena) could be so funny. Given that I've seen her playing the title role in Elektra, and more recently in Debbie Tucker-Green's stunning one-woman play Random, this woman is blazing a trail as one of our most complete actors. And Patrick Brammall's Karl is a comic jewel. I often come out of these kinds of plays badly needing some artificial stimulants, but I really enjoyed this.

The main question bouncing around after the premiere of The Border Project's Melbourne Festival offering Half-Real was: why? Anyone wanting to prove the popular thesis that video games and art are an incompatible mix will find their prejudices amply affirmed by this show. Its successes - mainly in Geoff Cobham, Michael Marner and Chris More's fascinating digital design - only highlight how badly Sam Haren's production misses the mark.

The premise is that a woman has been murdered. Audience members, furnished with a Wii-like controller (minus buttons), are invited to investigate aspects of the crime by voting to choose which aspects of character or event they would like to witness, thereby "solving" (or not - my audience certainly didn't) the murder. While it was kind of fun waving the controller and seeing if your choice got up, it's fair to say that the novelty palls.

Half-Real's basic choose-your-own-adventure format is the first problem: as productions like LA Noire or Heavy Rain demonstrate, videogames outgrew simplistic narrative structures years ago. They offer far more sophisticated experiences, with morally complex stories and deeply designed environments. But even the most basic shoot'em up offers player choice and participation in ways that theatre is challenged to match: within a guided structure the player controls every action, not simply, as here, which chunk of story they wish to witness. And games are not confined by theatrical limitations of time.

Immersive theatre has been the buzz phrase over the past few years, with companies such as the UK's Punchdrunk leading the way. And there's continuing discussion about the formal possibilities interactive digital technologies offer for theatre. For my part, it's easy to see why writers might be excited about exploring the narrative structures pioneered by games. It's not a big step from the complex interactivity of games to, say, the aleatory playfulness of John Cage or even (as is teasingly hinted in Duncan Graham's text) the kinds of oblique narratives imagined by a writer like Roberto Bolaño.

, however, only demonstrates the limitations of a by-the-numbers story. There's little evidence that the concept was thought through beyond the superficial details of structure: what such an approach could mean for theatre itself is barely examined. As a consequence, we get neither the best of theatre nor the best of gaming: instead of an imaginative collision of different forms, we get a reduced vision of both of them.

The impressive aspect is the design, in which projections transform an angled set into different environments. Digital characters are represented as shadows which are voiced by actors standing off-stage, and interact seamlessly with the actors. It's ingenious and sometimes beautiful. This is let down by DJ TRIP's sound design, which is almost a parody of bad videogame music. But even an actor as good as Amber McMahon can't rescue the banality of the story or, more profoundly, of the concept.

Pictures: top: (L-R) Patrick Brammall, Laura Gordon, Bert Labonté and Zahra Newman in Clybourne Park, photo Jeff Busby; bottom, David Heinrich in Half-Real. Photo: Steve Tilling

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, directed by Peter Evans. Set and costumes by Christina Smith, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition by Jethro Woodward. With Greg Stone, Alison Whyte, Zahra Newman, Luke Ryan, Bert Labonté, Patrick Brammall and Laura Gordon. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Sumner Theatre, until October 26.

Half-Real, by Duncan Graham, directed by Sam Haren. Design consultant Geoff Cobham, lighting design by Chris Petridis, video art by Chris More, video system design by Michael Marner, composition by DJ TRIP (Tyson Hopprich). With David Heinrich, Alirio Zavarce and Amber McMahon. The Tower, Malthouse Theatre, until October 15.


Born Dancin' said...

Hmmm, I'll be very interested to see Half-Real tomorrow. I wonder if different showings/audiences will result in experiences that vary radically from yours. I'll try to keep an open mind!

And as to the videogame/art debate, I used to have no problem with the notion that one can be the other but have increasingly been persuaded that when you conflate the two, the specific pleasures of each suffer. That is, what makes a game a game is something quite distinct from what makes art what it is (whatever that may be). Different definitions of the concept of 'play', for instance, and ideas of reward, autonomy, problem-solving...

Alison Croggon said...

I'll be really interested to see your response, John. I actually can't imagine that, given the set-up, the base experience will be much different whatever choices are made. But who knows? And, of course, you might have a different reaction anyway.

I get what you're saying about the game/art dichotomy, although again I think about John Cage... And there's things like that rather gorgeous game Bill Viola made, that rewards contemplation rather than the usual gaming achievements. But mostly, it seems to me that it's perilous to rule out possibility. Ie, as soon as something is said to be impossible, somebody will prove that wrong.

Keith Gow said...

At the end of Half-Real, I wondered if the audience choices actually decided who the guilty party was - rather than "solve" the crime, they actually influenced the narrative. I figured every audience picked the guilty party, in some kind of comment about groupthink or trial-by-media. But it doesn't sound like that's the case, given your audience failed to solve the crime.

But otherwise, the whole exercise was quite tiresome - and the great acting moments were reduced to warm props amongst the flash of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure set up.

Alison Croggon said...

I think that there must have been three fixed storylines, which could be shuffled by audience choice in any number of ways. Your idea sounds much more interesting! And also might make something of the "majority rules" thing.

On the night I was there, the audience investigated, as instructed, two of the suspects, both of whom appeared to have strong motives. But when it came to deciding guilt, more than the half the audience perversely voted for the third suspect, whose story we didn't know at all. I was one of them, and extrapolating from my impulse, I guess this means that not that many people were that invested in solving the crime.

Anonymous said...

Clybourne Park easily the best show MTC has staged all year!

Born Dancin' said...

Saw it at a matinee yesterday and while the audience - almost entirely composed of people much older than me - all seemed gently delighted at the end, I agree very much with your review.

It really is a diminished engagement with both theatre and gaming. While there are certainly some games with really thick and complex narratives, generally its the one area most fall short in. So why not use the opportunity to make the most of theatre's ability to craft rich narratives? Nope - the story here is about as complex as a text adventure game from 1985. It's along the lines of "You enter a room. There is a chair and mirror. What do you do?"

A lot of it comes down to the nature of the theatrical audience, though. Games are usually played individually - even a multiplayer game allows each individual to control or interact with the virtual world on their own terms. This was a 'game' only as much as an impro night that allows responses to be called out, except that only two or three responses are possible. And a lot of your responses will be ignored, due to the majority rules thing. I don't know of many games where your attempts at engagement produce no results.

Yeah, a missed opportunity.

Cameron Woodhead said...

I'll add my voice to the chorus of agreement.

At least the technology is out there. It seemed to me that the tech deployed in Half-Real could have fused with more open-ended theatre to great effect.

I'm thinking specifically of Post's Who's The Best? The critique of competitive performance culture in that show could really have taken flight if the audience were actually voting for the performers they thought strongest. It's a collaboration waiting to happen, imho.

Born Dancin' said...

Or have a work where different members of the audience are choosing different outcomes at the same time - where there are a number of variables at play throughout, and a real complexity and sense of openness results (within a predetermined field of possibility, which is how games work).

Also, my audience did make an effort at guessing the killer and we got it wrong - which was frustrating, since I reckon our decision made more sense. But perhaps they're all wrong, and that's frustration is part of the point (except, as you mentioned Cameron, there's no option to replay).

Keith Gow said...

I'd be interested in knowing how the audience affects the narrative or whether they actually do or not. There's little to no opportunity for anyone to see it again (the season is basically sold out), nor am I that willing to sit through it again, but I'd be interested purely to see how different audiences interacted with the material. But it's so regimented and fixed, I can't really see "Half-Real" achieving anything more than seeing the third suspect through the investigation - and whether or not the facts about each suspect changed our perceptions of them.

Mike said...

Half theatre. Half CD Rom. Like you say, a "missed opportunity". There must be more potential for this kind of technology in theatre. I wonder how much time the theatre-makers had to properly explore the possibilities and develop their ideas?

I thought it was a shame that they didn't make more of the fact that it was 3D! It also felt that technology determined everything about the show's timing and pace. (Some of the most 'alive' moments were watching the actors negotiating the moment just after the audience made it's choice.) Who killed the magic of theatre? Tonight it was technology.

Daniel Coghlan said...

Video killed the theatre star? In all honesty I enjoyed Half-Real but perhaps not as a piece of drama and instead a separate activity all together. Will this become a thing of the future - a distinction between going to the theatre or to an interactive performance piece - who knows?

Despite enjoying it, and having a few laughs at both the performers and myself along the way, it really was a "missed opportunity". At the same time I can't see what that sort of technology is truly able to achieve on a deeper level. I'm probably not thinking far enough outside the box but to me the novelty and design/spectacle value of a piece like Half-Real (which should be commended) is always going to overshadow content. Maybe by reflecting on the majority's decision more could be said about the audience themselves. I thought it was heading this way when the audience were questioned why they chose their initial 'gut-feeling' suspect. Unfortunately, no.

As most people here and loitering in the foyer after the show have mentioned the difference in the audience and their decisions is one of the biggest talking points. Our audiences interacted in more ways that turning a remote upside down - there were lots of laughs and a few 'oohs', 'aahs' and 'boos' throughout the show. It was a casual and light atmosphere - these people weren't expecting beautiful prose or thought-provoking content. Our audience chose one of their two suspects (one of which was the fantastic Amber McMahon) as the night's guilty party but still didn't solve the crime. Most people left disappointed that they had chosen wrong, that their suspect wasn't chosen or that they'd never know who it was (or if there was a true guilty party in any scenario). However the general consensus was that the audience wanted more. Maybe that sums it up and it's where your review is spot-on Alison ... "Why?" Why employ a new technology with clever design and some good cast members and not provide a real punch/reason for sitting in the theatre?

As mindless entertainment, it worked, and I decided to take it that way. When searching for something deeper, it really did fall apart.

Anonymous said...

I tend to disagree with this review. Personally I felt the actors were the downfall of this show, if anything. This show was inventive with the use of new technology, and the audience participation. This was a very two dimensional play, which its sole purpose was to entertain. It's part of the fringe festival, which is a platform for new, never before seen works. I think it was an entertaining piece, and even though the audience I was in didn't get it right and we did feel a little disappointed, I liked the fact that they didn't reveal who the murderer was.

Alison Croggon said...

Glad you got something out if it, Anon. Just one correction: Half-Real wasn't part of the Fringe, but of the main stage Melbourne Festival.