Perth Festival: Beautiful Burnout, Driving Into Walls ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Perth Festival: Beautiful Burnout, Driving Into Walls

When I emerged from Beautiful Burnout, the National Theatre of Scotland and Frantic Assembly’s examination of the art of boxing, I tweeted enthusiastically (in twitter language, which as you might know is its own special dialect) something like “awesome!” To my surprise, this created a minor avalanche of replies to @alisoncroggon, almost all of them variations of “Rlly? Shocked!!!!”

Ah, the instant responsiveness of the internet age: it’s twitchier than the skin of a thoroughbred racer. I am long used to being a minority opinion, even a minority of one, but this gave me unusual pause. I had just seen what I thought was a powerful and moving show – it certainly left me in tears - and my interlocutors, none of them fools, were telling me they found it boring, old-fashioned, unengaging and stale.

Beautiful Burnout: from left, Eddie Kay, Kevin Guthrie and Taqi Nazeer. Photo: Brett Boardman

I can’t presume to second-guess the other responders, all of whom saw this production in Sydney. Aside from differences in taste, I wonder how much this division of response has to do with the venue: in Perth Beautiful Burnout was staged in the ABC studios in East Perth, a huge unadorned space which allowed the set to function very like that of a real boxing ring.

I also wondered how much these responses have to do with our expectations of physical theatre. Australians do physical theatre exceptionally well: it’s a tradition that stretches back to the early days of Circus Oz and the Pram Factory, and given a particular fillip by the tours of Pina Bausch's dance theatre in the 1970s. In recent years this tradition has cross-pollinated with local dance culture to produce work of astounding quality and variousness. If you think of collaborations like Chunky Move’s Tense Dave, Nigel Jamieson’s Honour Bound, Splintergroup's Lawn or Kage's Headlock, to randomly name some notable examples, it’s clear that much of the innovative thinking in Australian theatre has focused on physical theatre.

Beautiful Burnout takes a more conventional approach than perhaps we are used to. Scripted by playwright Bryony Lavery, this is physical theatre that stems from another genealogy: I’m thinking of the British realist tradition of the 1950s and 60s, inflected in Beautiful Burnout through things like the tropes of popular British television.

Barking Gecko's Driving Into Walls. Photo: Jon Green

Driving Into Walls, a work I saw the following day from the remarkable Perth youth theatre company Barking Gecko, is on the other hand quite clearly a work of contemporary Australian physical theatre: I recognised oblique quotations from all sorts of influences, ranging from Benedict Andrews to Shaun Parker. Although it's scripted by a playwright, Suzie Miller, this is work much more closely aligned to contemporary dance than Beautiful Burnout.

There are similarities in how these works are generated: both, for instance, collectively created their works from a core of research into local communities (in NTS’s case, the back street boxing gyms of Glasgow; in Barking Gecko's, from extensive interviews with Western Australian teenagers). Both employed writers to organise the source material into a text for theatre. But the treatments differ enormously: in the first, by creating a fiction which explores the realities discovered in the research: in the other, by collaging the material into an anti-narrative, arranged by theme and form, in a treatment that can only be described as non-fictional. Both reveal their own kind of truthfulness.

Beautiful Burnout explores boxing culture by following the fortunes of four young people - Cameron (Kevin Guthrie), Neil (Eddie Kay), Dina (Vicki Manderson) and Ajay (Taqi Nazeer) - who train at a tiny gym under the tyrannical eye of Bobby Burgess (Ewan Stewart). Cameron's mother Carlotta (Blythe Duff) is the though, unsentimental sole parent who narratively strings the work together. It's a fairly conventional, unexceptionably written story of winners and losers that begins to hit its straps in the second half, as Cameron becomes the ultimate loser when a knockout punch gives him brain damage.

What makes it exciting theatre is the craft and precision with which it's realised: the committed performances make it feel true to the Glasgow backstreets from which its story is drawn, even down to the naturalised sexism of the working class streets, which is more complex than it may first appear (both in reality and in this play). No judgments are made about boxing, either for or against: the action presents both its compelling attraction, for spectators as well as for the young men for whom it’s a way out of the dead-end of poverty, and its devastating risks.

Naturalistic scenes are punctuated by movement drawn directly from the athletic movements of boxing, arranged rather than choreographed into dance, directed in three-quarter round on a boxing ring. The sound is provided by British electronic duo Underworld, and backstage is a cluster of video screens (the video work was the only thing that didn’t grab me in the production: the images added little to the language on stage, and in one crucial scene towards the end, significantly distracted from it).

The techniques might not be especially innovative, but they create a palpable sense of physical excitement: it's performed with enormous polish and, crucially, a volcanic energy. I was surprised by how effective the evocations of boxing were: as much as televised boxing matches have (which I confess I nerdily followed for some years, until Mike Tyson took all the fun out of it), screen representations such as Raging Bull have conditioned us to expect a realism that this production imaginatively manages to evoke, without the blood, but with plenty of sweat.

In the culminating boxing match, the performers use slow motion techniques to mimic the physical damage, and in a long, agonising scene, invoke the entire breakdown of language as the drawn-out destruction of a hit destroys the speech and motor functions of the brain. This was the scene where the very literal video behind the action distracted immensely from the focus on stage. But the real devastation is in the final scene, where the mother becomes her disabled son’s coach (teaching him to walk again, "every minute of every hour of every day"): an unsentimental portrayal of mundane, unglamorised heroism.

Driving Into Walls, on the other hand, is a no-holds-barred exploration of the real life of teenage Western Australia. After interviewing 500 teenagers, Barking Gecko assembled this show from their confessions to create a portrayal of contemporary teenage life: its driving sexuality, its cruelties, its isolated sufferings. Here projected graphics, dance and sound play an integral role in driving the fragmentary narratives that make up the show.

It's high energy from the start, and approaches its subject matter with refreshing, unmediated frankness: the girl who undresses in front of her computer for viewers from Finland to Melbourne; the boy haunted by the car accident in which his mother was killed, and which he believes was his fault; the lingo of contemporary teen relationships; the sense of betrayal that most teenagers feel, that they have been born into a world destroyed by their parents.

Again, no judgments are made: this is a simple presentation of realities that are often considered too vexed to be given public voice. It seems the more crucial in the context of various moral panics that obscure the lives of teens: the adult fear of anarchic, unformed sexuality; issues of bullying and violence; the ideologies that cluster around the notion of the family, and especially the hyper-connectiveness and reflexiveness that characterises the digital age.

I wasn't sure at times of the relationship of the dance to the various narratives, and sometimes it felt to me that this was a performance language on the way to being developed, rather than fully realised; but for all that it was exciting theatre. I saw it with an audience of teenagers, and their rapt, silent attention and ecstatic applause was its own tribute.

Beautiful Burnout, by Byrony Lavery, directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, featuring the music of Underworld. Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland, Perth Festival, ABC Perth Studios, until February 25.

Driving Into Walls, by Suzie Miller, choreographed by Danielle Micich, directed by John Sheedy. Barking Gecko Theatre Company, Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, until March 3.

Disclaimer: Theatre Notes visited Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival.


Cameron Woodhead said...

Great review of Beautiful Burnout. I agree with every word, so now I don't have to write one. I saw it Perth too. Perhaps venue is a factor.

As for 'innovation' ... it's overrated: our society is saturated with it, why should our theatre be? Remember the audible groans whenever it was mentioned at the Australian Theatre Forum last year? Self-conscious striving for innovation in art tends to be more susceptible to prevailing fahions, in my experience.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron - the general reaction in Perth seemed to be much more positive, it must be said, so I suspect the venue might have had something to do with it. So much depends on the spatial relationship with the audience.

And yes, innovation is one of those buzz words... It describes an important quality, without which the culture would be stale; but sometimes it's just about novelty.

Anonymous said...

This site reads like someone co-opted by a Festival to write positive reviews of every show, no matter their worthiness. I'd be curious as to the exchange of goods, services, freebies, etc being given. I don't see much in the way of objective criticism.

Alison Croggon said...

Maybe read a little more of "this site", Anon. You might stumble across the negative review of Propeller's The Winter's Tale, which seemed to cause so much angst.

What do you mean by "objective criticism"? Is there such a thing? Or is a review only "objective" if it's negative?

That aside, you have a point, in that I have totally forgotten the standard disclaimer that should have been put beneath the Perth Festival reviews. Mea culpa: it's a genuine oversight which I'll remedy at once. Like many other members of the media, including journalists from the Age and the Australian, I was flown over as a guest of the Perth Festival. The understanding in all such situations is that I do so in order to write my honest opinions. And that is what you get here.

Tom Conroy said...

A friend of mine, whose taste is usually fairly in line with mine, saw Beautiful Burnout in Perth and loved it as well. I, however, saw it in Sydney and was pretty underwhelmed overall. I agree that the venue probably had a lot to do with it. The Seymour's York Theatre is a cavernous energy-sucking sort of a space. There were a lot of empty seats the night I saw it, too, which always has a huge impact on the performance.

Maybe that's a lot to do with why I left the theatre wishing I'd seen the performance about a year ago (I confess I have no idea how long the show's been going for); while the physical element of the play was undeniably impressive and the performer's physical endurance a feat, a lot of the text work almost seemed marked-through rather than lived in. I felt like a lot of the actors were playing an idea of a state (boy's having a joke around during training session, teenage male bravado...) rather than actually being affected by and 'being inside' these very particular things that were happening to them.

The moments of real connection were beautiful, however. I wish I'd experienced more of them. It sounds like Perth was the place to see it.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tom - thanks for that - fascinating. Of course, the only way you'd know for sure was by seeing it in both places, but the York Theatre sounds like exactly the wrong kind of space. I wonder if anyone did see both? Fwiw, I liked the performances I saw, which seemed real and invested. Finding sympathetic venues is a real challenge for a touring show.