Review: Summertime in the Garden of Eden, And the Birds Fell from the Sky, The Wild Duck ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Review: Summertime in the Garden of Eden, And the Birds Fell from the Sky, The Wild Duck

Over the past week or so, I have announced in every possible internet way my intention of seeing less theatre and giving some necessary time to my other writing hats. It is somewhat awkward to find that while I was, perfectly sincerely, proclaiming my stern resolution, I managed to see four shows last week. As the poet said, Between the idea. And the reality. Between the motion. And the act. Falls the Shadow... Oh well. There's always next week.

Anthony Phelan and Anita Hegh in The Wild Duck.

One of the shows I saw was the Malthouse edition of Belvoir St's production of The Wild Duck. Luckily I saw that one in Sydney. I don't have much to add to what I said then: the production has transferred triumphantly to the Merlyn, basically replicating the space at Belvoir Upstairs. There are subtle refinements, but it is the same show: the performances remain remarkable, the emotional impact devastating. It's deeply intelligent, beautiful theatre, and pairs with Thyestes as Simon Stone's best work so far. And it's selling out fast: best to book now, if you don't want to be disappointed.

At the other end of the scale, I caught the train to Thornbury to see a play in a backyard shed. It was Summertime in the Garden of Eden, the latest offering from Declan Greene and Ash Flander's queer theatre collective, Sisters Grimm. This was, in its own way, as remarkable as The Wild Duck. Both shows, in completely different ways, demonstrate how little (and how much) it takes to make compelling theatre: you can make it with almost nothing, if you invite the imagination of the audience in to open up its dark and tender places. It's the one thing theatre can't fake, and no amount of plush can cover its absence.

Sisters Grimm has created quite a following in Melbourne for their scratch shows, often mounted in a matter of weeks. Summertime is a big step up from their last, wickedly enjoyable creation, Little Mercy (staged in the Collingwood Underground Carpark). It's a southern melodrama set during the Civil War, drawing on Tennessee Williams, legendary shlock like Gone With the Wind and Melbourne's drag culture to create a potently subversive work. Aside from the spectacular costumes, the production's trash aesthetic - sheets for curtains, random chairs drawn from somebody's kitchen, the shed itself, the suburban back yard that acts as a foyer - belies the sharpness of the production. This is classy theatre.

Summertime gleefully exploits all the Gothic cliches. The story begins with the return of an estranged sister, Honey-Sue (Mummy Complex), to the family plantation. She is reunited with sister Daisy Mae (Agent Cleave), who is newly engaged to the dashing Clive (Peter Paltos), and her proud patriarchal father Big Daddy (Mzz Erin Tasmania). The scene is set for the revelation of Dark Secrets. The Dark Secrets keep on revelating, until the snake in the Garden of Eden (it's full of Biblical allusions) is revealed to be the homosexual desire hidden shamefully at the heart of the patriarchy.

The darkest secret of all, the racist slavery that underpins this privileged society, is in plain view from the start. Here Sisters Grimm outrageously portrays the family slaves as golliwog puppets, with Mammy manipulated by Genevieve Giuffre. If you're not uncomfortable with that, you ought to be: it's an excoriatingly disconcerting exposure of how racism functions in Gone With The Wind and countless other Hollywood films, a dehumanising trivialisation that is shown here to be the precondition for rape and murder.

The play, co-authored by Greene and Flanders, is as sharp as a pin, deftly walking the impossibly narrow line between meta-theatrical self-consciousness and the emotional heat necessary to make a successful melodrama. Summertime draws as much from the mannered theatre of Oscar Wilde, in which the charm of his improbable characters emerges from their consisting entirely of surfaces, as it does from the histrionic theatre of Williams. It's hard not to recall Susan Sontag's Notes on Camp when thinking of this kind of theatre. "The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration..." says Sontag. "To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater." Also, crucially: "Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp."

Many of Sontag's observations can be folded into the Sisters Grimm's explorations of camp popular culture, but for all its hilarity, the political subtext here is far from frivolous. It goes beyond Sontag's Notes to give us a dark reflection of the tyrannies of normative heterosexuality. As the Southern Belles, Agent Cleave and Mummy Complex (gorgeously attired in crinolines from Rose Chong Costumiers) give us the Feminine as the pure performance it is; Agent Cleave as the ingenue Daisy Mae is extraordinarily beautiful, a response only made complex by her beard and tattoos. To dizzy up the gender play, Mzz Erin Tasmania is a full-blown Big Daddy with enormous breasts.  

As in all good melodrama, the emotional extremities are played straight. The scenes of lovemaking invest all this artifice with some confrontingly real eroticism, and Miss Honey-Sue's descent into broken madness is genuinely distressing. Gender in Summertime is a play of desire made toxic by repression; madness or death are the only escape, and the guns of the revolution are coming up the hill. It's very funny, but the laughter here has an edge of steel.

On Saturday, I spent twenty minutes at North Melbourne Arts House with Il Pixel Rosso's And the Birds Fell from the Sky. Described as an "immersive video-goggle experience", this show combines "instructional theatre" with the so-hot-right-now immersive theatre experience, to create a futuristic fantasy involving the audient in an post-apocalyptic mythos involving, well, clowns.

You see it two at a time, even though it's essentially a private experience. I should say at the outset that my theatre partner totally enjoyed himself. He said it was like one of his dreams: and indeed its brief, strange narrative is something like a dream. I didn't enjoy myself nearly so much. Among other things, only the week before I saw the extraordinary OrĂ¡culos, a genuinely profound work of immersive theatre. It's almost an unfair juxtaposition, because it draws the differences between the two works so starkly, especially in their thinking about imaginative and sensory stimuli.

At the beginning you are given noise-cancelling headphones and a pair of goggles, inside which is projected a film. Once deprived of all other senses you are put in a wheelchair, as per careful instructions from the headphones, and witness the story. The soundtrack tells you where to look, how to move, what to expect, and the video plays in front of you, within the frame of the goggles. Occasionally there's some physical stimulus - a quick spray of alcohol, mirroring an event in the film, or some air-freshener and a fan to simulate the outdoors - but these felt as inexact as seeing someone else's hand substituting for mine in the visuals. This inexactness made the dissociation between the sensual expectation and reality jarring, and if anything it placed me further outside the experience.

It was quite the most passive experience I've ever had. It's more passive than watching television or a film, and different from other instructional theatre (say, Bettybooke's En Route, which I saw at the Adelaide Fringe a couple of years ago) in the severe limitations it places on choice. There isn't any, as there is no interactivity built into it; even if I chose not to "look out of the window" as instructed, the camera still made me do it.

It meant that rather than being, as per the expressed intent, at the centre of the experience, I felt only subject to it. If I were really one of the performers, I could choose not to look or not to move or to do something else, but these weren't options. I thought about the imaginative projection that happens when you play an RPG video game; this wasn't anything like that, because what makes you invest in a game is the illusion of decision, however guided by the perameters of the game. My being there, aside from the brute fact of my physical presence, didn't make a whit of difference to what happened in And the Birds Fell from the Sky. I felt curiously cancelled out.

It made me think that one of the things I value about theatre is the sense that the audience's presence, even in the most straight-up-and-down proscenium play, makes an active difference to the show. After all, theatre is, among other things, an exchange. It's not something that's done to you.

The Wild Duck, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, after Henrik Ibsen. Set by Ralph Myers, costumes by Tess Schofield, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, composition and sound design Stefan Gregory. With Johngaden, Anita Hegh, Ewen Leslie, Eloise Mignon, Anthony Phelan and Toby Schmitz. Merlyn Theatre, Belvoir and Malthouse Theatre, until March 17.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden, created by Ash Flanders & Declan Greene. Costumes styled by Anthony Cleave of Rose Chong's Costumiers. With Agent Cleave, Mummy Complex, Genevieve Guiffre, Peter Paltos and Erin Tasmania. Sisters Grimm. Closed.

And the Birds Fell from the Sky, written and directed by Simon Wilkinson and Silvia Mercuriali. Il Pixel Rosso at North Melbourne Arts House, until March 18.


Andrew Fuhrmann said...

Hi Alison -- agree about Birds. I find it difficult to read Robin Detje's scathing piece on postdramatic theatre and not find myself nodding in agreement when the last show I saw was Il Pixel Russo. It seems to demand not even passivity, but an active submission to the technology. To quote Detje:

"Simply being allowed to play this game is considered 'freedom'. We cannot win it so we shut ourselves off."

It makes me I wonder if the postdramatic fantasy of intensifying awareness of the theatrical experience by dissolving the distinction between performance and reception is not bound to fail every single time. Certainly it has every time I've tried to engage -- more so where technology has been involved. Experiences like Etiquette, Birds Fell, various live digital feeds, and audio-guided tours may well have charm, but they ain't intense:

"Its narcissism is all in its concept, in the desire to prove its own modernity—which is all too easily done."

I don't know, but perhaps they fail because Lehmann and other postdramatic theorists have steeped their writings in so much Hegel that they can only imagine the postdramatic space as a synthesis of auditorium and stage. And yet the very fact that they presuppose such things as "auditorium" and "stage" might be the problem. If you're a theatremaker who thinks, "Ah, the audience, and how do I integrate them?" then maybe you'll never be able to structure a performance such that those individuals who arrive as "audience members" can have experiences where they are intensely aware of themselves as participants.

I reckon where these postdramatic ideas have been effectively used, whether naively or not, they have been used as tools of attenuation, not intensification, as in Wild Duck, where the audience's reflection is projected onto the playing space.

Not that I have any of Detje's apparent nostalgia (which for me would be a false nostalgia anyway) for a time when radical theatre was more visceral. It'll be more interesting to see what a gang like Pop Up Playground can achieve in the way of theatre -- I see them as attempting some of the same ends as postdramatic theatre, but without starting from the position of an audience/performer distinction.

Alison Croggon said...

I guess it depends on what you mean by postdramatic theatre. As laid out by Lehmann, which bears all the problems of a book that actually introduces the terms into a complex and volatile culture, it includes auditorium-focused texts such as those by Heiner Mueller or Elfriede Jelinek or Howard Barker, or theatre makers like Richard Maxwell and Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre or Tadeusz Kantor - ie, it's a very broad brush that covers theatre which does not depend on the kinds of dramatic/narrative structures that accrete around western drama, from Aeschylus to Ibsen. (It also includes some of my favourite contemporary playwrights and some astoundingly important artists). Given that, it's not something to dismiss lightly because of lesser or derivative works. Immersive theatre is only one aspect of that possibility. We probably need some better terms.

I do wish you had been able to experience Oraculos, which showed how powerfully this kind of thing can work. But you can tell that a lot of very searching thought went into the making of that, and perhaps that is the key.

Andrew Fuhrmann said...

Mm, yes, obviously I'm not claiming that everything which gets lumped in as postdramatic is flawed -- only perhaps the specific project of merged the space.

I too wish that I'd been able to see Oraculous -- among many other shows at the festival -- but it's not clear to me from your review that Oraculous is in fact what we commonly take to be postdramatic. I think that to call something postdramatic implies that it is part of a specific conceptual tradition. Simply because something is immersive doesn't tie it to the same influences that inform Il Pixel Russo. But maybe Oraculous is -- like I said, wish I'd seen it.

Andrew Fuhrmann said...

*the merged space

and that Detje article is at if anyone else is interested

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, just caught up with the article after some diligent googling. Will need time to absorb it. But these two shows are absolutely both classed as immersive theatre (Il Pixel Russo's self description). I have to say it didn't even occur to me to think of Birds as post dramatic, although on reflection I guess it is. Perhaps it's become a term with too much baggage to be useful: it's become as much as anything a generalised term of abuse. Fwiw, when I read that article, my first thought, on reading of theatre that doesn't bleed, was Schaubuhne's Hedda Gabler...

Born Dancin' said...

What frustrated me about Birds... was the bizarre disconnect between content and form. They didn't speak to each other at all. On the one hand you have this carnivalesque narrative of sorts to which you have to submit, and which gestures to commedia dell'arte, surrealism, the post-apocalyptic... but it's all situated within a tradition of video art, live art, installation and cinema that doesn't seem to justify its presence. I left thinking 'how was that so distinct from watching a short film on a TV screen?'

It seems to me that those who've really enjoyed the work (there are many) are those who enjoyed the 'story', whereas those who were disappointed were stymied by the presentation.

I'm in the latter camp, and I guess it comes from viewing it as a piece of immersive cinema, not theatre. There's no shortage of theory on the passivity of the film viewer, and the work doesn't engage with that at all. 'Look to your right' is what cinema has always done, in far more sophisticated ways than this, and I didn't feel it was problematising the passive audience. I've also got no problem with works that explore submission to technology but Birds... didn't seem to problematise any of that.

But like you, Alison, I'm comparing it to other immersive works which were probably aiming at something very different. This might be 'immersive' in the way a 3D or IMAX film is immersive - not interactive, which is something quite other.

So: frustrating, but that's not a bad thing. Left me with lots to think about.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks John - yes, quite true that many people have enjoyed it. I was thinking about plane seats - it was still framed, like any screen, but because of the goggles your peripheral vision was simply blanked out. I think that was probably, physically speaking, the thing that frustrated me most.

Cameron Woodhead said...

"Theatre is, among other things, an exchange. It's not something that's done to you."

Ah, but for the exchange to work, you have to bring something to the performance. You say passivity, I say receptivity. The narrative made it clear from the outset that your naivety and helplessness were crucial: it invited you to forget what you knew and submit to what was there. You're within your rights to decline the invitation, but don't, having chosen to do so, blame the art rather than your own action. Maybe talk about why you declined it? That would be fairer.

Interestingly, I went with an digital artist and ubergeek who has done much more technologically advanced work with panorama filming (providing 'missing' peripheral vision) and motion-sense headgear (allowing you to see the missing portions at will by moving your head from side to side). He really liked this piece, and he knows a lot more about what could have been done to improve it than any of us do.

Just as an aside, I can't believe you found this a more passive experience than Tribes ... Now there's a patronising, passivity-inducing piece of theatre.

Alison Croggon said...

Cameron, this whole conversation (as well as the rest of the review) is about why the "invitation was declined", and not only by me. I thought the work was naive, rather than being an invitation to naivety. And I wholly agree with John that none of this passivity was problematised in any interesting way. I totally don't understand what you mean by saying that Tribes was "passive"; what, like any other play?

Cameron Woodhead said...

The conversation is in part about why the invitation was declined, but it isn't the whole story. Why, for instance, did you disobey the instructions to look out the window? Curiosity? An anti-authoritarian streak? Are you the kind of person who gets killed halfway through a choose-your-own adventure book and blames the book (and then wildly cheats to get to the end)? My point is I suppose that an intimate piece like this demands an equally intimate response. By classifying the piece as 'passive', you neatly sidestep any part your own character might have played in its failure for you. Be more interesting if you didn't.

As for Tribes, I'll explain in my review. Suffice it to say that if you thought The Seed was bogged down in social themes, I can't for the life of me see why you liked Tribes so much. It was the more egregious offender on that score by far. And the stage moving at geological speed back and forth between scenes to no effect? Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, audience, we have a budget and we're not afraid to use it! For a director committed to 'sobriety' in theatre, such crass monumentalism was ... unbecoming.

Alison Croggon said...

No, Cameron; my point is that (unless, I suppose, I closed my eyes) I literally could not choose not to look out of the window. I "looked" whether I disobeyed or not, whether I made the requested movement or not. That is what I mean by "passive", and I utterly fail to see what part my "character" could possibly play in that setup. (Or what my "character" has to do with anything, anyway: are John's and Andrew's characters equally up for interrogation in their refusals, or is it only mine?)

Whatever one's response to Tribes, the fact remains that I could choose to look at the lights, back stage, forestage, this actor or that actor, my feet or the ceiling of the theatre, as I willed. My active physical perception of the event, in other words, played directly into my experience of it (as it does in most works of theatre), instead of being almost totally imprisoned, as it was in this case. In the other case where sensory deprivation was a crucial part of an intimate experience - Oraculos - I was utterly free to disobey the suggested actions, which gave me an entirely different sense of agency inside the work. It's a shame you didn't see it.

Born Dancin' said...

All this talk of passivity leads me to Plato's Cave, since it's such a pivotal reference in film theory, and I began thinking about how the piece might offer a rejoinder to the theory of the sadistic gaze of cinema (pleasure in voyeurism) by making physical the masochistic side of spectatorship. We're all chained up watching the parade of forms, and all that.

Is Birds... an ironic comment on mimesis? Submitting to the reality of the representation a mug's game, since the world of forms is just a bunch of clowns on a violent joyride? In which case, attempting to turn away is a positive but ultimately futile gesture?

Or maybe the piece is postmodern gnosticism. There's plenty to ponder there. The dual worlds of the demiurge-inspired Faruk and... whatever the narrator-type guy signified.

Or the post-colonial. The clowns clearly stem from a tradition of eastern-european theatre, in this case adopted by a UK-based company, offering for the Anglo eye a vision of a terrifying continental anarchy associated with the end of the world. The anarchist movement is deeply connected to the first mass apocalypse, the world war that began in the Balkans and all but destroyed the movement. The language of Birds... might commend this kind of reading: the devils are panglossic Euros, the redeemer a well-spoken gent in a nice suit.

I could go on, but the work didn't actually inspire these thoughts in me at all. Only the commentary. Maybe if I'd been in the cave a little longer. Willing to let my character take the punch for me, however, as I've never even met the guy.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John - I guess the fact that it's provoked some discussion on these things suggests... something. I haven't discussed the set-up of the story, but I guess it's worth a look: so the Faruk clowns are a kind of non-nationalistic anarchistic nomad people, disregarding boundaries and causing trouble, a little like Romany people perhaps (but if so, a bit patronising to Romany culture); in any case, presented to us as an idea of freedom, in that borders are ignored, as well as the ultimate Others, since even their language is incomprehensible to outsiders. The "return of the repressed", perhaps?

I took the whole invention as some kind of allusion to Occupy, anarchy breaking in to ordered capitalist realities, but mostly it seems like a kind of nostalgia for idealised village life ('everyone knew your business so none can deceive"). There's a bit of stuff in the fake newsletter that seems to suggest a critique of capitalism - the beanfields etc - but it's all so vague and generalised that it does my head in. It's a speculative reality that is on the one hand too complex to set up in 20 minutes without a lot of explanation, and on the other too simple-minded to spark any real political response. And it's all so safe, in an occupational health and safety way, rather than an invitation to trust, which plays somewhat against the anarchistic ideas. And how does that play into the stimuli you're given, that alert you to the presence of your body without permitting you to do anything about that presence? Maybe your comment about cinematic masochism is where to look...

These elements are offered as stimuli to spark your own imagination, while at the same time the setup supposedly relieves you of "responsibility" as an audience member. None of this makes any sense to me: the invitation to imagine, for example, is surely an invitation to take responsibility... This is where Andrew's quoting of Detje plays into it for me. What is freedom in a theatre? Who, if anyone, takes responsibility? What's it all for?

Cameron Woodhead said...

The set-up does not relieve you of "responsibility" as an audience member Alison, in either respect. You're unfairly branding the art again to deflect from your own "irresponsible" response.

I've been dismissing postdramatic theory as utterly unhelpful for years. Now Andrew's in on the act. Go bruv. But don't forget to cite examples that don't support your thesis: Cassavetes' Opening Night @ the Festival leaps to mind, as does the Hungarian mindfuck I've just seen at the Adelaide Festival.

What's theatre all for, Alison? What's it all for?


Why does it have to be "for something"? It always is "for something", of course, but that is rarely the most beautiful way of talking about it. Bleurgh.

Alison Croggon said...

Cameron, the point about relieving an audient of responsibility comes from the program notes. If it's "irresponsible" to read a program with some attention, mea culpa. I am still baffled why you always have to sketch a difference of response as a moral failing on my part.

And you are one of the worst offenders in using the term "post dramatic" as a generalised term of abuse which deprives it of any useful application. If you were actually making an argued intellectual provocation, as opposed to just waving around a bunch of unthought and inconsistent prejudices, it might be more fun to argue with you.

Cameron Woodhead said...

I imply no moral failing, Alison. I have enough of my own to worry about. Perhaps a failure of imagination, but that is impossible to argue over sensibly.

And come off it, I don't bandy around postdramatic as a generalised term of abuse. If I'm one of the worst offenders, please provide evidence. Or are you just insulting me for fun ... "teasing" me again, as is your wont?

I've seen a lot of theatre I've loved that one might term postdramatic (there are too many to link to, in fact), and a lot I've hated. I'm not prejudiced in the slightest, and my remarks on the subject are typically born of knowledge and contemplation.

At the risk of repeating myself, and to clarify, my chief concern with Lehmann's use of the term is that it is so broad as to mean virtually nothing at all, and I can discern nothing in his survey that disinclines me to view it as a trendy catchphrase for postmodern theory applied specifically (and often problematically) to theatrical practice. Maybe if you'd read as much po-mo theory as I have, you too would come to view Lehmann as a second-rate thinker, I don't know and it doesn't interest me.

What is interesting is that the last five years have seen a rejuvenation and refocusing of what might best be termed postmodern theatre. A similar thing happened in the mid-90s in literature, just as the movement looked dead in terms of artistic output.

The important thing is that the theory should inspire good art rather than being allowed to strangle it.