Review: On the Production of MonstersReview: Next WavePhilip Salom's poetic heteronymsReview: PersonaHeads up: Next Wave and PersonaReview: The HereticReview: The Seizure, 100% MelbourneMy Week, By Alison: and a RecommendationOlive as tragic hero: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll ~ theatre notes

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: On the Production of Monsters

The art of light writing, as playwrights like Oscar Wilde demonstrate, is a serious business. Writing a light play about serious business is even more serious. The danger is that "light" - which is not, by any means, a synonym for "slight" - can so easily become banal or substanceless or, worst of all, indigestibly soggy in the middle. It requires a quicksilver theatrical wit, faith in the intelligence of the audience, a lot of writerly tact and, perhaps most of all, the ability to keep contradictory impulses in dynamic suspension. You can see all these qualities at work in Robert Reid's On the Production of Monsters, now playing in the Lawler Studio at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Virginia Gay and James Saunders. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Set in the cafes and offices of inner-city Melbourne, On the Production of Monsters exploits hipster urban chic even as it pokes fun at its absurdities. The elegant conceit is that each scene is a dialogue between different characters, all of them played by the same two actors, Virginia Gay and James Saunders. The plot revolves around the young couple Shari and Ben, uber-cool Melburnites who, following the unwritten laws of hipsterdom, recognise the hip in everyone but themselves. They are sweeter than they realise, basically well-intentioned and harmless. Reid is interested in how these two are transformed, through an innocent mistake, into the favourite monster of the tabloids: child pornographers.

The play opens with Ben and Shari breakfasting in a cafe, tallying up points for hipster-spotting while they sip their coffees. Ben works in a call centre for the local water authority, where he embarrassedly fends off awkward advances from his supervisor. Shari, a keen environmentalist and aspiring artist, is seeking funding for a project which will see children from local schools clearing rubbish from the banks of the Merri Creek. When she is interviewed by an ambitious young reporter from the local newspaper, she forwards him an email leaked by Ben, which has the minutes of a meeting from the water authority. Unfortunately, Ben has also forwarded a photo of a naked and possibly underage girl which his boss has sent to him as a coarse attempt at seduction.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: Next Wave

Part of the problem in responding to the Next Wave Festival 2012 is knowing where to start. After much dithering, I'm going to begin by talking about the festival itself: I'll be posting about the individual performances I saw over the next couple of days. Perhaps the most important aspect of a festival is the least tangible: a good festival is much more than the sum of its parts. It necessarily consists of programmed events but, if the magic happens, those events will become part of a dynamic phenomenon that generates its own energy. It's the kind of second order process that happens with a neural network, in which the material synaptic connections create that miracle called consciousness. 

Art in the city: The Stream / The Boat / The Shore / The Bridge

For Next Wave, artistic director Emily Sexton has radically rethought the question of what a festival is. The result was an extraordinarily seductive event that generated an almost irresistible gravity. I saw six performances, and altogether attended nine events, a small percentage of the work on offer. Keeping my attendance down only to those (which was personally necessary) required an active exertion of will: as soon as the festival started, I wanted to get to everything. Even on the outskirts of the vortex, the pull was palpable: attending one event made you want to see three more.  I met two people at a table at one of the daily Breakfast Club talks - "ordinary punters", if you like - who were there because they had attended the previous day, and enjoyed it so much that they came again. Strangers felt moved to discuss what they had experienced. Everybody was swapping notes on what they had seen and what they wanted to see.

The last time I felt this sense of excitement in Melbourne was during Kristy Edmunds's Melbourne International Arts Festivals. Those were events on quite a different scale, and with different ambitions: but they also plugged into Melburnians' endless appetite for debate. (I also felt it at a visual arts festival directed by Ivan Durrant in Benalla back in 1995 - it needn't be a city thing). The sales pitch for MIAF one year was "Be Curious": I was fascinated how generously GP audiences responded. Events were packed out, even some that you didn't expect to appeal beyond a niche audience. And everybody, whether they liked what was happening or not, was talking. Likewise with Next Wave, a much smaller - but no less ambitious - festival geared towards those interested in new artists. Such a focus will attract a particular audience: but the invitation was open and, as far as I could see, was taken up with gusto. Be curious. What do you think?

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Philip Salom's poetic heteronyms

A pointer to my latest review on Overland, which looks at Melbourne poet Philip Salom's recent heteronymic collections The Keeper of Fish and Keeping Carter, out from Puncher and Wattman Poetry.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: Persona

It may sound banal, but the most important thing, both in film and in the theatre, is the human being - the study of human beings. What you want above all, whether you are doing film or theatre, is to make the audience experience the result as something absolutely alive. The most important thing of all is to create a reflection of reality - to capture a heightened intensity, a distillation of life - and to guide the audience through that magical process.

Of Winners and Losers, interview with Ingmar Bergman

What I have written seems more like the melody line of a piece of music, which I hope with the help of my colleagues to be able to orchestrate during production. On many points I am uncertain... I therefore invite the imagination of the reader or spectator to dispose freely of the material that I have made available.

Preface to the script of Persona, Ingmar Bergman

Persona is one of Ingmar Bergman's most enigmatic films. The idea is notionally very simple: an actress, Elizabeth Vogler, falls silent in the middle of a performance of Elektra. She resumes the performance, but the following day refuses to speak at all. Doctors can find nothing wrong with her, physically or mentally: it seems that she has simply chosen to be mute. Her doctor decides that she should spend the summer at an isolated house with a nurse, Sister Alma. Elizabeth never speaks. Alma never stops speaking. The result is a film that investigates profoundly, and often cruelly, the nature of performance as an existential state of being human.

Meredith Penman (L) and Karen Sibbing in Persona. Photo: Pia Johnson

To attempt to remake Persona as a work of theatre is surely the definition of risk: certainly, director Adena Jacobs and the Fraught Outfit team can't be faulted on their ambition. Such an adventure could so easily end up being a bad imitation, with the haunting performances of Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson inviting invidious comparison. Yet, miraculously, Fraught Outfit has taken up Bergman's invitation to "dispose freely" of his material, translating it into another form, and, crucially, into an autonomous work.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Heads up: Next Wave and Persona

The Next Wave festival - a look at up and coming artists from around Australia, with a significant international component - is now in full swing, illuminating all sorts of hidden corners of Melbourne. It's a must for anyone interested in what's happening underneath the skin of the culture. I've been out and about over the weekend, catching some of the early events. My program included a Day Pass adventure, which is a seductive and startlingly cost-effective way of experiencing the festival. A guided tour of Next Wave which begins with a breakfast talk at the Wheeler Centre and curates visits around the city to various exhibitions, events and performances, it's highly recommended.

My diary tells me that I won't get to write about most of the work I've seen until after the shows are closed, so here are a couple of brief notes. So far highlights have been No Show's fun Shotgun Wedding, and Natalie Abbott's extraordinary dance work Physical Fractals. And make sure you find time to pop into Laura Delaney and Danae Valenza's installation at the Mission for Seafarers, Hull. I'm also told that The Exchange Program - Dewey Dell and Justin Shoulder - is unmissable, but haven't yet got to either performance. What's clear already is that this is a really exciting festival. Closes Sunday. Check out the program here.

To make life for theatrenauts more complicated: outside the Next Wavey goodness, Persona, Adena Jacobs's theatricalisation of Ingmar Bergman's screenplay, is presently on at Theatre Works. It's incredible theatre. Hoping to do some justice to this production in the next few days, but in the meantime, try and get there before it closes, also on Sunday.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: The Heretic

Because Richard Bean's play The Heretic is about climate change, it attracted the notice of hardline climate change denier Andrew Bolt in the weeks running up to its opening. There was a minor flurry of polemic that at once excoriated the "arts community" for its leftie lockstep, and on the other jubilated that at last a climate change denier was being granted her proper prominence. (Granted by whom? That very same "arts community" - apparently an identikit bunch who dress in black, live in Brunswick and plot the downfall of the RSL.) The logical absurdity of this sums up Bolt's usual modus operandi, and is hardly worth addressing. But I assume, operating on the basis that "no publicity is bad publicity", that this kind of controversy is why The Heretic was programmed. I can't think of any other reason.

Andrew McFarlane and Noni Hazlehurst in The Heretic. Photo: Jeff Busby

It's hard not feel a kind of colonial resentment that so many resources - an excellent cast and design team, a main stage budget, hours of work and attention - have been thrown at a British play of such unrelenting mediocrity. Bean's play is given a much better production than it deserves. If we're going to support mediocrity, let's at least keep it local: we have budding Williamsons aplenty here, with the added bonus that they're at least addressing regional specifics. But let me not get carried away with reactionary nationalism, a hat that doesn't really suit my complexion.

The Heretic, as is known to anybody who has followed the jejune controversy, concerns Dr Diane Cassell (Noni Hazlehurst), a climate scientist at the University of York who specialises in measuring sea levels. She has written a paper which questions the consensus that sea levels are rising and which, according to everyone around her, means that she is about to topple the whole edifice of scientific consensus around climate change. This alarms her boss and former lover, Professor Kevin Maloney (Andrew McFarlane), who is trying to swing a lucrative sponsorship for his Earth Science department and believes that publication of the paper will queer his pitch. She also starts receiving death threats from an extremist environmental group called the Sacred Earth Militia.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: The Seizure, 100% Melbourne

Today the Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, is announcing the long-awaited review of the Australia Council. Early reports indicate that one of its major recommendations is the abolition of the boards that overlook dance, music, literature and so on in favour of a single board responsible for all artforms, to reflect contemporary fluidities of practice. Another recommendation, which is likely to get far less airplay, is that Australia Council funding is increased. It's that last one, however, that strikes me as most urgent; and never more than when I look at what's known in theatre as the "small to medium sector".

Haiha Le, Christopher Brown and Naomi Rukavina in The Seizure. Photo: Lachlan Woods

Due in part to government investment - in organisations, in arts training institutions, and in artists themselves - we have seen an explosion in independent theatre over the past decade. Artists have been encouraged to be skilled, inventive, imaginative, entrepeneurial, adventurous and smart. The point is that this has worked. My inbox, which is flooded with invitations, is just one symptom of what has happened in Melbourne. I am constantly turning down invitations to work that I know very well is significant, and not only because I am trying to live a saner life. And that is markedly more the case than when I began this blog in 2004.

All sorts of initiatives have, as intended, nurtured a remarkable diversity, depth and - crucially - quality, in our theatre culture, but our funding mechanisms can't reflect this vitality. Artists have done exactly what they have been asked to do, and the result has been astonishing. Expectations of independent theatre are high, and that's because there's been so much good work to create those expectations. But even attaining "excellence" isn't enough when there simply isn't enough of the arts dollar to go around. Funding has always been a lottery, and competitiveness isn't always a bad thing: but when only a small percentage of those who have earned support can get it, judging by even the most rigorous standards, you wonder how this present richness can possibly be sustained. I guess the short answer is that it can't be.

To turn to matters at hand: it is telling that The Hayloft Project's latest show, The Seizure, is unfunded. Since they first appeared on the scene with Spring Awakening in 2007, Hayloft have established themselves as one of the most significant companies-about-town. Since then, the founding artistic director Simon Stone has moved on to main stages in Sydney (Stone's latest show, Strange Interlude, opened this week at Belvoir St). But, as those who remember shows like Yuri Wells or The Nest will know (both were directed by current AD Anne-Louise Sarks), Hayloft has always been a collective of interesting minds rather than the product of a single vision.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

My Week, By Alison: and a Recommendation

I'm going to be very bloggish today, gentle reader, and tell you all about my week. As always, I've had a problem with hats. My misfortunes began when I accidentally finished a novel. I say "accidentally" because I am working on something else, and around Monday I realised that I couldn't continue it until I had dealt with an earlier idea which I had abandoned, at last count, three times, but which was still taking up space in the "novel" department of my head. Last Thursday I light-heartedly typed "THE END", totally forgetting what happens when I finish a long project.

It's always followed by inexplicable physical collapse, as if my body is taking revenge. Partly as a result of the resulting migraine, on Friday I twisted my foot on the way home from Rimini Protokoll's 100% Melbourne. This meant that on Saturday night, instead of heading off to see Hayloft's new show, The Seizure, I was at home watching my foot turn an interesting shade of purple. Several people have pointed out that, since The Seizure is an adaptation of Philoctetes, a play about a man with an injured foot, this was strangely appropriate. These people are smartarses: worse, they are smartarses with classical educations.

I caught up with The Seizure on Monday night, and since then have been attempting to note my responses to both shows. But there's another thing that happens when I finish a project: my mind packs up and goes on holiday, possibly in a galaxy far, far away. So far, I have been almost completely unsuccessful in transferring into decent written English any of the thoughts that 100% Melbourne and The Seizure have set in flight. Worse, I am leaving Melbourne tomorrow for some other business. I'm traveling first to Adelaide, to be part of a panel at the Adelaide Festival Centre on Thursday night (Everyone's a Critic) and then on to Darwin for Wordstorm and the Poetry Festival, where I will be wearing a couple of other writer hats.

I can only say that if you missed Rimini Protokoll, you missed something special: and recommend that you click here and book tickets to The Seizure, an elegantly realised, austere and compelling work that demonstrates a new departure in the evolution of one of the most interesting independent companies we have. I'm hoping to say why next week, when I return from my round trip of the continent.

The moral of this tale of woe, children, is to be less careless about headgear.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Olive as tragic hero: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Below is the text of a talk I gave at the Wheeler Centre last month as part of the series Australian Literature 101. I was asked to discuss Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which allowed me to expand some of my earlier responses. Most of all, I'm struck by how Olive has most often been seen as a secondary and ultimately childish character, when I've always thought the principal tragedy of the play belongs to her.

To anyone familiar with Australian theatre, Ray Lawler’s 1950s play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a monument: the most famous Australian play ever written or produced. Like many monuments, it generally stands unnoticed in the background, covered with dust and sundry pigeon droppings, and every now and then it’s dusted off to remind us about the achievements of Australian culture. As I said in a review of Neil Armfield’s recent Belvoir St production, which I saw at the MTC earlier this year:

“One of the paradoxes of art is the uneasy legacy of success. As soon as a work is labelled a "classic", it becomes curiously invisible: it transforms into a monument, cobwebbed by all the extraneous things its success now symbolises, and the energies that made it a success in the first place are polished away by the pieties that must now attend it. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a good example: a fixity in the Australian theatrical universe, a symbol of nationalistic pride, it too easily becomes a thing instead of an act. It even has a nickname: The Doll.”

Alison Whyte as Olive. Photo: Jeff Busby

The significance given to the Doll as a unique, groundbreaking Australian drama, the “Great Australian Play”, has meant that it has been largely read through a lens of cultural identity, which I think has inadvertently obscured some of its interesting aspects. I agree with everyone, however, that it’s a thoroughly Australian play. Its cultural status has also obscured other plays of the time that might have an equal claim to attention. All the same, it deserves its place in theatre history. I don’t believe it’s a great play – Australian playwrights have arguably written works of greater theatrical and literary significance.  Even in its own time it broke little new ground: it opened in London the week after the premiere of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, which starred Laurence Olivier. Next to The Entertainer, the Doll, as a well-made three-act play, appears a little old-fashioned. But it is churlish to deny that the Doll remains a compelling drama sixty years later: it’s a realist tragedy that still has the capacity to strike home. If anything makes a classic, it’s the ability of a work to remain vivid, a quality of suppleness that allows it to speak to us powerfully in times different from those in which it was written: and the Doll certainly qualifies.

Lawler’s play has suffered from its classic status, as much as it has benefited from it: the nimbus of nationalistic pride, and especially the masculine ethos that goes with that, has tended to obscure its more interesting aspects. Armfield’s magnificent production earlier this year revealed it to be a play of more complexity and genuine power than is usually assumed. I hadn’t seen it, or thought about it much, since I saw the 1978 MTC production in high school: for me, as for many others, it was a dusty part of our theatrical heritage, an achievement worthy of genuine respect, but perhaps not of huge intrinsic interest. Armfield’s production reminded me, first of all, just how well-written it is: it’s an impeccably structured play without one ounce of fat, in which every utterance works inexorably towards its shattering climax.

The other thing that struck me was that in Olive, then played by Alison Whyte, we saw a protagonist every bit as tragic, every bit as iconic, as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. For me, Olive is the central character – hers is the desire which holds the dream together and which, finally, destroys it. Although the tragedy in the play belongs to all the characters, it belongs most of all to Olive.

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