Moonlighting: poetry reviewsReview: The Plague Dances, Boy Girl WallReview: The HistrionicReview: Welcome to ThonnetReview: Red ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Moonlighting: poetry reviews

I may have mentioned that I am now reviewing poetry for Overland Literary Journal's swish new blog. My most recent review, of Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections,  is now online. Finlay's a significant poet and a fascinating figure - Concrete poet, "avant gardener", visual artist and sometime playwright. And in case you missed the earlier review, of Sean Bonney's Happiness: After Rimbaud, it's up there too.

Read More.....

Monday, April 23, 2012

Review: The Plague Dances, Boy Girl Wall

From outer-edge indie theatre to main stage is an crucial and delicate transition for any company. One of the best things that has happened in recent years is the opening of both the Malthouse and - more recently, with the Lawler Studio programming - the Melbourne Theatre Company to productions by independent companies. One of the highlights of last year's MTC program was in fact an indie import from Queensland presented as part of the Education Program - Letitcia Caceres's production of Debbie Tucker Green's Random, starring a transcendently good Zahra Newman. This year, as part of the same program, they've brought another Queensland gem, Boy Girl Wall from the Escapists. More of that in a moment.

The Plague Dances: L-R Genevieve Fry, Ida Duelund-Hansen, Lisa Salvo, Ben Hoetjes (masked), Karen Sibbing (masked), Esther Hannaford (masked). Photo: Jeff Busby

The chance to make this transition with a degree of institutional shelter is one of the major legacies of Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong's helming of the Malthouse - they instituted the Tower residencies that permit independent companies to explore their practice over a long rehearsal time, and to introduce their work to a wider audience. It gives these smaller collectives the chance to show the very qualities that make them notable, rather than filing them down into something more marketable or conventional. The results - Black Lung's anarchic Tower season, Hayloft's Thyestes, My Darling Patricia's Africa - are their own justification.

It's good to see that Marion Potts is continuing this important project. Four Larks, the latest Tower residents, have been making waves around town for some years now. Resolutely independent, entirely unfunded, they have put on shows in back sheds and abandoned stables in the inner suburbs, gaining a loyal following with their meld of bravura visual theatre and indie folk music. The ambition of their work is palpable, its lush sensuality utterly seductive. The Plague Dances, the work created for the Tower, demonstrates both their strengths and their weaknesses in equal measure.

Read More.....

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review: The Histrionic

The Malthouse/Sydney Theatre Company production of Thomas Bernhard's 1984 play The Histrionic is, apparently, the first professional production of Bernhard's work anywhere in Australia. The transparency of Daniel Schlusser's triumphant production makes you wonder what the problem was: why did we have to wait so long? The Histrionic is so manifestly a brilliantly written play, gripping from its beginning to its extraordinary final moments. It's outrageous, sadistic, hilarious, brutally bathetic, playfully and powerfully theatrical. In the most expansive sense of the word, it's an entertainment, exploiting every trick in the theatrical book: but here Bernhard employs entertainment as a depth charge, to destroy the submarine walls of our self-regard.

Bille Brown as Bruscon in The Histrionic. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Histrionic premiered nearly three decades ago. I'm well used to the fact that most significant playwrights, especially those outside the Anglosphere, are largely invisible in our mainstage culture - where are our professional productions of major contemporary dramatists such as (to stick with the Europeans) Jon Fosse, Elfriede Jelinek, Biljana Srbljanovic, Falk Richter? - but for some reason this delay struck me. If anything demonstrates the narrowness of our mainstream culture, it's this kind of catching up after the fact. It's not as if myopia is limited to overseas writers: we had to wait longer than three decades to have Patrick White's The Ham Funeral professionally produced in Melbourne, and his plays are still thought of, even by people who ought to know better, as lesser achievements than his novels. The luminously unconventional, the intransigently theatrical, the poetic, the rawly intelligent, even the beautiful, have more often than not been marginalised in Australian culture.

Nowhere do our colonial petticoats show more than in Australia's anxious love for authority. In our culture, genuine artistic originality, with its unsettling combination of disrespect for authority and serious respect for its own antecedents, can only figure as an embarrassment. It has no visible means of support, no legitimisation beyond its own artistry. In a colonial culture, the fear of being thought "wrong" overwhelms all other possibilities of reception. It even muffles outrage: the response to too many of our most interesting artists has been the white noise of silence. Bernhard is the model of another possibility, and this production of The Histrionic is one of several events that suggests that doors long sealed shut may now, very slowly, be creaking open.

Read More.....

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Review: Welcome to Thonnet

For the past couple of weeks, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival has crashed over our fair city like a tidal wave, dragging the crowds and a bunch of increasingly exhausted critics out into the extraordinarily beautiful autumn evenings. But your humble blogger has remained at home, deaf to the siren call of comedy: far be it from me to "discourage earnest conversation," as psychiatrist Brendan Flynn suggested is the dark heritage of festival time. Flynn would approve of me: I have resolutely remained in my dour study, turning my face from the trivial levity of the light-hearted, to defend Melbourne's beetle-browed reputation as "a home of original ideas". But at least I now know who to blame for the sad state of our public discourse: it's those damn comedians.

Martin Blum as Ray Living in Welcome to Thonnet

And so it would have remained, gentle reader, had not rumours come my ears of a show called Welcome to Thonnet. Playing at the Northcote Town Hall, it is written and performed by Martin Blum. Blum is a very interesting actor: along with talents like Hayley McElhinney and Dan Spielman, he was one of the 12 original members of the STC Actors Company, resigning a couple of years later to travel overseas. The show has been assisted by various other intriguing names: its co-devisors include Chris Ryan, of Thyestes and Wild Duck fame, and Bojana Novakovic (The Story of Mary MacLane, By Herself). Govin Ruben, who's designed lighting for Hayloft and Black Lung, is production designer and provides some incidental performance. In short, all these seemed sufficient reason to wash my inky hands and venture off into the balmy night.

I returned home shaken, to recover from one of the most uncomfortably hilarious hours I have spent in the theatre. Blum is a fearless actor, and his monstrous creation, YA author Ray Living, demonstrates his courage: I haven't been on this kind of razor edge since seeing Howard Stanley's brilliant Howard Slowly shows in the 1980s. Welcome to Thonnet is pitiless: its cruelty plays on the abyss between self-perception and the perception of others that makes David Brent in the UK edition of The Office so toe-curlingly compelling.

Read More.....

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Review: Red

A few years ago, I spent some time with the Seagram Rothkos in the Tate Modern collection. Grouped together in a specially designed gallery, they are extraordinary paintings: their profound reds and blacks create thresholds of light and darkness, unstable luminosities that grow more profound the more you look. They are invitations to a pregnant emptiness, doorways - two-faced, like the Roman god Janus - which at once forbid entrance and draw the viewer into their ambiguous interiorities. More than anything, they seemed to me to be like stages: framed spaces which vibrate with mysterious potential. Something may have happened, or be about to happen. Or it may have been happening while I was looking.

It is, as Rilke said of the theatre, all in the gaze: "gazing so intensely that as my gaze / at last swings up, an angel is forced down..." Through the intense relationship of looking, the human impulse towards the divine inhabits the material world, for a brief, inexpressible moment. Inexpressible because it's impossible to find words for that suspended feeling of simultaneous entrapment and liberation, of irredeemable bleakness and strange joy. They are paintings precisely because words are not sufficient. As Sean Scully says, Rothko's works with colour "communicate a fully lit and orchestrated generosity... Wherever they are placed, the works inhabit and light the space without trying to control it. Theirs is simply an act of giving."

Colin Friels and André de Vanny in Red. Photo: Jeff Busby

Given this sense of the stage, and especially of exchange with a viewer, it was no great surprise to discover later that theatre was of major importance to Mark Rothko. In one of his most famous essays, The Romantics Were Prompted, he said: "I think of my paintings as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.... They begin as an unknown gesture in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which occur.... The presentation of this drama in the familiar world was never possible... [My emphasis]"

Rothko's interest in theatre was practical as much as theoretical: in the 1920s, he trained and worked as a actor, and he applied, without success, to join the American Theatre Laboratory, a company then at the forefront of American avant garde theatre. The Laboratory had a direct link to the Russian director Stanislavski, and its students included Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Stella Adler, all of whom went on to enormously influence American theatre. Stanislavski himself was a colleague and defender of that other great Russian director, Meyerhold: although the two are often thought to be at loggerheads, in reality their admiration was mutual. Stanislavski remained loyal to Meyerhold even after Meyerhold was murdered by Stalin's police.

This gives an interesting gloss to Colin Friels's attacks, retailed to everyone who will listen, about the present state of theatre, and in particular his attacks on the auteur director. In playing Mark Rothko in John Logan's play Red, Friels is portraying an artist who is a premier avant gardist of his time and an ultimate auteur: a man who insisted on the philosophical and literary thought behind his painting, and who believed that his individual vision, and especially his feeling, could be communicated to others through his work. One can't but wonder how Friels negotiates the contradictions of his convictions in playing Rothko, but it must be admitted that he's helped by the play. Here the artist is erased by his persona, in a representation that is ultimately as vulgar as the crude copies of the Seagram murals that we see on stage.

Read More.....