Bits and bobsReview: Ophelia Doesn't Live Here AnymoreMs A's Guide To Theatre EtiquetteReview: Little Match Girl, The Importance of Being EarnestReview: Return To EarthShop talk ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bits and bobs

George Hunka at Superfluities Redux (whom I'm sure you all read religiously) blogs on the recurrent death of criticism, and in particular on the argument that its death sentence is signed by the new democratisation of the web. This is (sigh) an old and whiskery argument, but as George points out,"the real danger is in formalizing (the) informal process of inclusion and exclusion". It's an interesting read. As a bonus, check out some rare photos of Sarah Kane performing in Howard Barker's Victory.

Meanwhile, Katharine Brisbane delivered the Philip Parsons Memorial lecture over the weekend, giving an overview of four decades of Australian theatre. An extract is published in the Australian (free registration required). (Update: full text here.) As she says:

More people attend arts ventures than sport, according to polls. In 40 years it is a record of which we should be proud. And yet (with rare exceptions) the leaders of this industry are not influential in the way leaders of other professions are. A new play may be acclaimed but is rarely discussed as an insight into, or barometer of, our culture. Artists have become a collection of specialists for whom communication outside their art has become more difficult. The less they try to break through this barrier the more they are misunderstood. It seems that only for artists is the word elite a pejorative. In the sports world they are heroes.

Brisbane suggests this is the result of a demolition of a "culture of inclusion", which meant that theatre failed to take its audience with it. I suspect this problem might have more to do with the media than with audiences. Worth thinking about in tandem with George's post.

Lastly, for those who might be interested, I have idly started a new blog called Lost Poems. This came about because a week or so ago, in the interests of order, I plunged into the labyrinths of my computer and discovered a bunch of poems that I had completely forgotten about. What to do with them? A blog seemed like an excellent idea. From now I'll be posting one every few days, until I run out of poems.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore

It's proverbial that there is a Hamlet for every century. As Jan Kott says, it's a play that absorbs its times. The Romantic era gave us a pale, introspective youth; the 20th century an animal trapped in the pitiless mechanisms of power. In the 21st century, the Prince of Denmark has become the random particle in a corrupted, dysfunctional and claustrophobic nuclear family.

Stripping the play of its larger politics reveals the powerlessness of its two women: Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and his love object, Ophelia, are starkly shown to be male possessions, objects of exchange whose value rises and falls on their sexual conduct. Ophelia's own brother lectures her on keeping her virtue intact, as her virginity is a commodity by which her family honour and standing is measured. Her father is more explicit while ordering her to avoid Hamlet's wooing, when he tells her to "tender yourself more dearly". Gertrude's lubricity in marrying her husband's brother (and, unknowingly, his murderer) shortly after she is widowed is the ignition point of the whole play.

Female desire in Hamlet is dangerous, a threat to patriarchal authority. "Fear it, Ophelia, fear it!" Laertes says: but, as with all the other men in the play telling women how to manage their sexuality, it's his own fear that he expresses. It's the fear of this female desire, and most deeply, the fear of his own uncontrollable impulses, that leads to Hamlet's incestuous jealousy of his mother and his unconscionable cruelty towards Ophelia; and in the middle of it all, Ophelia, seeking only to be obedient to her father's and brother's will, is herself broken.

In Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Daniel Schlusser and his collaborators have picked up this subtext of perilous sexuality to create a work that is part installation, part dance, part performance, part music. An opera, a work, in the broadest sense of its meaning. It's a co-production between Chamber Made Opera and Bell Shakespeare's developmental wing, Mind's Eye, which permits an experimental freedom difficult to find in the pragmatic contingencies of theatre.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ms A's Guide To Theatre Etiquette

I see that Dr Peter West, retired university lecturer and social commentator, is in today's Age fulminating on the bad manners of Young People at the Opera and the Consequent Decline and Fall of Civilisation. Apparently nobody obeys Rules any more. It's all the fault of entitled young people with their newfangled phones, according to Dr West. Or possibly people on drugs. Anyway, I was inspired, and decided to list some Rules of my own.

Ms A herewith releases her own Manifesto for Properly Behaved Theatre Patrons.

It's all quite simple, really.

One Rule To Rule Them All And In The Darkness Bind Them: Remember that you are in the same room as a lot of other people, including actors, who can both see and hear you.

All else follows from this.

Rule 1: Turn off any electronic devices about your person, and leave them off. Embarrassment Moment No. 1 is your phone ringing during a play. An actor might even break the fourth wall and comment on your solecism from the stage, thus holding you up to public mockery and ridicule.

Rule 2. Checking email, Twitter, messages and so on during the show is right out. Lighting designers spend a lot of time getting their lighting right, and a constant bloom of flickering smartphones in the auditorium stuffs it right up, especially in that carefully crafted blackout. And no, you're not allowed to take photos.

Rule 3. Even if everything that is happening on stage makes you shrivel with horror and/or boredom, refrain from expressing your outrage and disappointment out loud until the show is finished. Unless, that is, you are invited by the performers to do so, in which case go right ahead.

Rule 4. If the boredom, horror and detestation get overwhelming and you have to leave, do so with as little disturbance to your fellow audience members as possible. Does the rest of the audience need to know how appalled you are? No. They might even be enjoying themselves.

Rule 5. You don't really need to discuss Aunt Madge's terrible disease in a loud whisper with your neighbour during the climactic moments. Really, you don't. Other people can hear you, and would Aunt Madge be comfortable with that?

Rule 6. Leave your handicrafts at home. No knitting, crocheting or whittling allowed.

Rule 7. Even the best-intentioned theatre goers can be ambushed by a cough. Carry a kit of Anticol and tissues. If you have a very bad coughing fit that can't be controlled, leave the theatre until it is over.

Rule 8. Never take a child under 11 to adult theatre, unless you are very sure he or she will enjoy it. It's not fair on the child, you, the rest of the audience or the performers.

Rule 9. Take - but don't force - children over 11 to the theatre, after impressing upon them (with threats if necessary) that they can be seen and heard by other patrons and the actors. Discuss the show with them beforehand (so they have some idea what to expect) and answer their questions afterwards. Not during the show.

Rule 10. If you fall asleep, don't snore. Make a pact with a companion to wake you up if your snorts start rippling through the auditorium. Speaking of which: isn't the theatre an expensive place for a snooze?

Rule 11. Don't snack. Especially don't snack on chips or anything that rustles or crackles. I promise you will not starve to death.

Rule 12. Silence in a theatre is okay. Really, it is.

Did I miss anything?

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Little Match Girl, The Importance of Being Earnest

*Spoiler warnings*

The end of the year is rushing up like a charging rhino. Melbourne theatre has its traditional means of signalling this milestone - widespread admissions of astonishment that Christmas is only 34 sleeps away, the issuing of phalanxes of party invitations, and, of course, the Christmas shows, crowd-pleasers that fill the houses with cheer and, hopefully, audiences. The Malthouse and the MTC have two winners this year with Meow Meow's Little Match Girl and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Meow Meow is not so much an artist as a phenomenon. She likes to have her cake and eat it too, while simultaneously throwing it at her audience. No performer could get away with it unless they had nerves of titanium and the charisma of an anti-Christ: Meow Meow does, because she's Meow Meow.

Anyone who's experienced her cabaret act will know the breathless feeling that the whole tottering edifice might collapse at any moment, the increasing tension of frustration and delight as the world's most accomplished theatrical tease refuses the moment of climax again and again, delivering in the final moment with some heart-stopping version of a masterpiece such as Surabaya Johnny.

In Little Match Girl, Meow Meow again moves her prodigious abilities onto a larger stage, collaborating with musical director Iain Grandage to create an intoxicating mixture of music and Meow Meowness, under the sharp direction of Marion Potts. Here the conceit is Hans Christian Andersen's story, in which a starving, abused girl is staring into the windows of the rich on Christmas Eve, as she freezes to death outside.

Don't, however, expect an adaptation: the story is rather the show's informing metaphor. Meow Meow points out that the Little Match Girl has never gone away, and that homeless, abused children are dying in every city on the planet. "Maybe it's too much to expect," she says, "that a song will change the world..." And of course, as Meow Meow knows as well as anybody, it is. The surprise is that anyone should raise the idea.

It opens with one of Anna Cordingley's most spectacularly lush sets (beautifully lit, or, in some cases, unlit, by Paul Jackson): a long thrust, with art deco floor lights, silver curtains, a huge chandelier. We enjoy this for perhaps five minutes before the whole thing is plunged into complete blackness by a small explosion in the lighting box, and Meow Meow is scrambling over the darkened seats of the auditorium, bullying audience members to lend her iPhones (which, astonishingly, they do), or to hold torches ("my face! on my face!"), or to power a bicycle generator. One particularly harassed audience member turns out to be music theatre star Mitchell Butel, who proves to be much more than a foil to Meow Meow's incandescence, and has a couple of show-stoppers himself.

As well as comedy, the darkness permits some powerful moments of intimacy: Meow Meow singing lit by hand-held torches in a cavernous space, or lighting a series of matches that immediately splutter and die. Of course the lights come back on, eventually, in one of the more gorgeous coups de theatre we've seen this year.

There's always been a strong smell of the Weimar Republic about Meow Meow (reinforced by her opening remarks being in German, until she remembers with a start that she is in Melbourne). And it's this which makes her work feel so contemporary: she brings a defiant spark to the darkness of our times, although it is a light that, in the end, only illuminates the shadows. One of the highlights of the show is her rendition of Laurie Anderson's The Dream Before, a tribute to Walter Benjamin's vision of the Angel of History flying backwards into a storm as the rubble of progress heaps up ruinously before its face.

Meow Meow is the embodiment of intellectual eroticism, supple and perilous as a flame: you'd have to have a heart of mud to resist a show that carelessly folds Richard Wagner, Walter Benjamin, The Magnetic Fields, Laurie Anderson and Noel Coward into one heady mixture. The energy of its theatricality is sparked by continuous contrast, which Peter Brook once claimed to be the basis of all theatre: at one moment, it is all heart-breaking poignancy; in the next, all heartlessness. Irresistible.

If there is such a thing as a sure hit, the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Geoffrey Rush as Lady Bracknell, is it. The show is all but booked out, although I believe the MTC is holding daily ticket raffles for last minute seats. Simon Phillips's farewell show as artistic director is a remake of his 1988 production, which featured an astonishingly beautiful and ingenious Beardsley set: a giant Yellow Book opened by the butler (I saw Frank Thring in this role, and will never forget his superb loathing as he surveyed the audience) to reveal black and white pop-up sets.

The original designer, Tony Tripp, died in 2003, and his design is recreated by Richard Roberts and Tracy Grant Lord (who realised the sumptuous costumes). Geoffrey Rush and Jane Menelaus, who played John Worthing and Gwendolen in the original production, are respectively Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism in this one. It's fair to say that this is a production rich with nostalgia: so many of the original cast members - Monica Maughan, Ruth Cracknell, Frank Thring and Gordon Chater - have since died. Tempus fugit, indeed.

Back in the present, the show pretty much lives up to expectations. Phillips is at his best with this kind of quicksilver text: his production skitters over Wilde's profound surfaces with stylish ease. To his credit, Rush doesn't camp up Lady Bracknell, and makes a frighteningly convincing bellows-voiced aunt, a redoutable galleon in full sail. Christie Whelan (Gwendolen) and Emily Barclay (Cecily) are stand outs, handling the mercurial text with deceptive suppleness. On opening night, Patrick Brammall (Algy) and Toby Schmitz (John Worthing) seemed constrained, sometimes a little stilted, although this lifted in the second act. And I guess nobody could stop Bob Hornery from outrageously mugging the role of the senile butler, Merriman.

The artifice of Wilde's writing is heightened by touches such as freezing the characters at the end of each scene, so they become images frozen against the pages of the book. I suspect that the symmetries of Phillips's blocking, which became increasingly mannered towards the end, might have strained Wilde's notions of taste: asymmetry is, after all, one of the necessary cross-grains of beauty. But it feels churlish to nitpick a production which so artfully fulfils its own expectations of sentiment and style. A foregone winner, as I said.

Pictures: top: Mitchell Butel and Meow Meow in Little Match Girl; bottom, Patrick Brammall and Toby Schmitz in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photos by Jeff Busby

Little Match Girl, created and performed by Meow Meow and Iain Grandage, directed by Marion Potts. Sets and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson. Featuring Mitchell Butel. Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn, until December 4. The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival, January 6-29.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, directed by Simon Phillips. Original design by Tony Tripps, set realiser Richard Roberts, costume realiser Tracy Grant Lord, lighting design Matt Scott. With Patrick Brammall, Bob Hornery, Toby Schmitz, Geoffrey Rush, Christie Whelan, Jane Menelaus, Emily Barclay and Tony Taylor. Melbourne Thatre Company @ the Sumner Theatre, until January 14.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Return To Earth

I walked out of the opening night of Lally Katz's new play Return To Earth with my stomach in a knot. Readers, I have seldom seen a production which was so utterly wrong. It's wrong from the ground up, wrong from the first moment, and goes on being wrong all the way through to the end. Every flicker of life in this play is wrestled to the ground and throttled to death.

Any text, if it's at all interesting, invites a multiplicity of interpretation, and it's always possible merely to disagree with a take on a play. In this case, the wrongness goes beyond disagreement to a fundamental misunderstanding of the very being of the writing, to the point where the play itself is terminally obscured. It can happen to any play - I've seen it done to Shakespeare. It's as if a mistaken decision were reached early in the process, and every step afterwards led inexorably to doom. How this happened with the cast and production team that director Aidan Fennessy had to hand is a case study in artistic car crashes. On paper it's impeccable, some of the best talent that our theatre has to offer.

I should say that I am already familiar with this play. Back in 2008, I was one of three judges who unanimously gave Return To Earth a RE Ross Playwright's award for further development. The following year I saw it read in Hobart as part of Playwriting Australia 2009, and saw no reason to revise our judgment that this was one of Katz's best plays so far. Not that it's visible in this production; if I hadn't read the text, I might have thought it one of her worst.

Katz's early work, from the closely observed suburban absurdity of The Eisteddfod to the wildly theatrical dislocations of Lally Katz and the Terrible Mystery of the Volcano, created a riveting tension between a stern, even cruel emotional truthfulness and the dizzying vortex of her imaginative world. As her work has developed, from plays such as Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd to A Golem Story, the writing has become sharper: more theatrically crafted, less anarchic. But those desolating absurdities remain at the centre of the work: an obsession with death, loss and love, refracted through a self so splintered it can be scarcely said to exist. Katz is, crucially, a playwright of surfaces: her characters are performances of themselves, role-players in the most profound sense, and the emotional abysses that open beneath their emptiness and lostness can be vertiginous.

Return To Earth is an apparently simple fable that preserves Katz's unstable realities, but here locates it firmly in a - supposedly - naturalistic suburbia. There's not much in the way of plot. Alice (Eloise Mignon) returns home to her family after an unspecified time away, searching desperately for something real. Her parents Wendy (Julie Forsyth) and Cleveland (Kim Gyngell) welcome her home with claustrophobic solicitude.

Alice attempts to reunite with an old childhood friend Jeanie (Anne Louise Sarks), reconnects with her widowed brother Tom (Tim Ross) and her terminally ill niece Catta (Allegra Annetta) and has an affair with local car mechanic Theo (Anthony Ahern), a man whose skin is disconcertingly covered with shellfish. Alice finds she can save her niece's life by donating a kidney, but at the same time discovers that she is pregnant, which means the life-saving operation can't be done. Her niece dies, but Alice has her baby. Finally she tells her mother where she has been - in outer space, where she has lost her self but discovered the marvellous.

What counts is the slippages and ellipses in the texture of the play, how it lurches from apparently banal reality to strangeness in the space of a sentence. The result can be, as in Borges's story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, an increasingly disturbing feeling of the known world losing its moorings, becoming strange and perilous. In this production, we get quirky instead of strange, and emotional insight becomes mere whimsy.

Alice is played as terminally naive: there is no sense of interstellar alienation in her performance, no sense of almost irretrievably damaged adulthood. Her unvarying tone sets the pitch for the rest of the performances: somehow these characters, despite everything that happens in the play, are curiously static. The performances are generalised caricatures, rather than detailed investigations of emotional states. Claude Marcos's design, an abstract revolve mimicking a planetary system with a diorama of a night-time suburb in the background, exacerbates the problems: the actors all seem lost in the space. The set almost acts as a spoiler, leaving nothing to reveal about Alice's travels: we know from the beginning that she has been in outer space. Everything looks slick, but feels empty.

The major problem in this production is that the play's emotional realities have been flattened or simply avoided; certainly, I very seldom felt any emotional connection with what was happening on stage. Once or twice - interestingly, when the everyday realities were allowed to play without an overlaid theatrical self-consciousness - you could feel a flicker of life in the text, but otherwise its comedy and poignancies are all but destroyed. One feels that the MTC has tried to "make sense" of Lally Katz, closing up the centrifugal polarities of her work in the process, when her real gift is to use emotional truthfulness to destroy such enclosing rationalities. Without that truthfulness at its heart, the felt realities of loss and lostness, the play makes no sense at all.

Picture: Anthony Ahern and Eloise Mignon in Return To Earth. Photo: Jeff Busby

Return To Earth, by Lally Katz, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Set and costumes by Claude Marcos, lighting by Lisa Mibus, composition and sound design by Kelly Ryall. With Anthony Ahern, Julie Forsyth, Kim Gyngell, Eloise Mignon, Tim Ross and Allegra Annetta / Talia Christopoulos / Matilda Weaver. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until December 17.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shop talk

Recently quite a few theatre bloggers have been tracking their creative processes: George Hunka, for instance, is logging some of his thinking material as he writes a new play in his Elf King notebooks on Superfluities Redux. I don't especially want to do this myself - if I wanted to talk about my writing process, I would start a different blog - but I thought some readers might be interested in hearing about the theatre workshops that have absorbed my energies for the past fortnight. Also, they've been fab.

These were two entirely separate commissions that the cosmos decided should be workshopped at the same time. Night Songs, with music by Andree Greenwell, is being developed by Bell Shakespeare's Mind's Eye, and Mayakovsky, scored by Michael Smetanin, is a Victorian Opera project. They couldn't be more different from one another: Night Songs is a music theatre work intended for young adults, and Mayakovsky a contemporary opera. Both are very much in process, and the workshops permitted us writers and composers to get under the hood of the work and give the mechanics a bit of hammering, with the talents and brains of performers and directors to hand. Both weeks ended with showings of the work to small invited audiences.

The Night Songs workshop was at the Bell Shakespeare studio in Sydney. I co-wrote this text in a tag-team process with Daniel Keene and so we tag-teamed the workshop too: I was there for the first half of the week, and Daniel for the second. This worked brilliantly in every respect, aside from the fact that I missed the showing and associated drinkies. Reports were that it went very well indeed. Andree had set about half the songs, and by the end the showing was a reading of the entire text, interspersed with songs where they were completed. We had a great team: Matthew Lutton directed the workshop, with actors Paula Arundell, Cameron Goodall and Thomas Conroy and musicians David Trumpmanis and Loretta Palmeiro, and Courtney Wilson was our hard-working stage manager.

Mayakovsky, which was at Victorian Opera in Melbourne, was much more about exploring the music: Michael Smetanin and I have worked closely on the libretto over many months, and it is pretty much finished. I rather expected to be a useless excresence at the workshops, but fortunately 'twas not so. It was also a chance for me and director Peter Evans to hear the music. I've heard bits over the phone from Sydney, with Michael singing the odd note, but let's face it: it's not the same. Under the exacting musical direction of Richard Gill, four singers (Frederica Cunningham, Olivia Cromwell, Timothy Reynolds and Matthew Thomas) worked painstakingly with pianist Daniel Carter on about half an hour of music, which was again given a showing on Friday. I know I shouldn't say so, but I think it was awesome: this is an opera with grunt. (I mean that literally. There are wild animals on the electronic soundtrack.)

I can't think of a better way of working on a performance text. This is not "development hell"; it's a directed, intensive exploration of a work-in-progress with carefully picked teams, free of the pressures of production. You can get a lot done in a week, if you're working with the right people. And I was. Exciting, inspiriting and enormously satisfying. Huge thanks to everybody involved.

Pictures: top: the Mayakovsky libretto; middle: Night Songs workshop in Sydney with (from left) Matthew Lutton, David Trumpmanis, Cameron Goodall, Paula Arundell, Thomas Conroy and Loretta Palmeiro. Bottom: Mayakovsky workshop at Victorian Opera, Melbourne, with singers (from left) Frederica Cunningham, Olivia Cromwell, Timothy Reynolds and Matthew Thomas.

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