Patrick White, playwrightHasty pointer: Melbourne Theatre Company 2013Melbourne Writers FestivalReviews: On the Misconception of Oedipus, His Girl FridayQuick note: Victorian Premier's Literary AwardsReview: HelicopterReview: Hell HouseReview: Blood Wedding, TrianglePoetry review ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 27, 2012

Patrick White, playwright

A brief talk on the plays of Patrick White, which I delivered yesterday at the Melbourne Writers Festival as part of the event Remembering Patrick White. My fellow panelists were David Marr, Rodney Hall and Peter Craven, chaired by Sophie Cunningham. Readings by Benedict Hardie and Edwina Wren.

Playwrights are a very particular breed of writer. Anyone who has read the plays of James Joyce or Leo Tolstoy will know that the ability to write transcendent prose doesn’t guarantee the ability to write for the theatre. Nor does a gift for writing plays necessarily transfer to other forms: Jean Genet’s and Tennessee Williams’ forays into poetry were generally dire. All the same, there are writers who have created significant works across different forms – Samuel Beckett, Elfriede Jelinek and Bertolt Brecht all spring to mind as writers whose plays are equally as significant as their poetry or novels. Patrick White is another.

L-R Peter Carroll, John Gaden, Dan Spielman, Hayley McElhinney in Benedict Andrews's The Season at Sarsaparilla. Photo: Tania Kelley

Playwrights differ from other writers because the demands of their form are different. Writing a play requires another kind of imagination to that of a novel: a precise sense of the spatial dynamics of a stage, a musical intuition for the rhythms of spoken language, a certain fondness for the necessary vulgarities and strict limitations of theatre.

Above all, a playwright is a writer who collaborates: she profoundly understands that writing is only one aspect of the complex process of making and receiving a work of art. This is true of all writing, of course: publication is a long process of negotiation, from contracts to editing, from writing to book design. But in the theatre these processes are naked, and challenge the illusion that the writer is a solitary figure making a solitary work of art. The successful realisation of a play depends as much on the other artists who collaborate in a production as it does on a writer: the production crew, the lighting and set designers, the director, the actors. This is, as many playwrights have said in different ways, both the misery and the joy of theatre.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Hasty pointer: Melbourne Theatre Company 2013

Brett Sheehy's first season as artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company was launched last night. It's fair to say that the 2013 program been rapturously received: it's the most imaginative MTC season that I remember. Miraculously, Sheehy has covered all bases: fans of David Williamson and Joanna Murray-Smith are well served, with new plays by both of them, Williamson's, notably, a play about Rupert Murdoch. The international hit, the National Theatre production of One Man, Two Guvnors, covers more commercial bases. But this jostles with shows such as Simon Stone's adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, and a mainstage work for young people, Neil Armfield's popular The Book of Everything.

Most importantly, Sheehy has prised open the programming to create spaces for new work. Perhaps the most exciting initiative is the Neon season, which showcases in two week seasons works by five of Melbourne's best independent companies (all, I might say, TN favourites) - the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, The Rabble, Sisters Grimm, Adena Jacob's Fraught Outfit and the Hayloft Project. This will be a must-see. There is also an empty space at the Sumner Theatre called Zeitgeist, a five week spot reserved for "the freshest and most innovative" work that emerges in 2013. The education program, which has produced some of the MTC's best work in recent years, is being foregrounded as well with Open Door, and presents plays by Melissa Bubnic and Adam J Cass. In short, fellow theatrenauts: how interesting.

Check out the season brochure for yourself. My advice is book early, and book often.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Melbourne Writers Festival

It's that time of the year again, and I have a busy weekend coming up. If you want to stalk me at the Melbourne Writers Festival, here's the roadmap. I'm part of four sessions: two events around Patrick White, in one of which I am to talk about his plays (with readings of White's work from Benedict Hardie and Edwina Wren); another "everyone's a critic" session; and a panel on video games. I'm nothing if not a squishy peg that fits in all sorts of holes. There are hundreds of other events, literally, but I'm sure you already know that. Aside from booking for all of mine, which oddly she hasn't suggested, Stephanie Honor Convery has a useful guide on how to choose what to see.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Reviews: On the Misconception of Oedipus, His Girl Friday

There's a certain discomfort and sharpness, a sense of reaching beyond the limitations of merely making "good" theatre, that filled me with relief when I was watching On the Misconception of Oedipus. I realised that I've been missing this quality recently: a feeling that a work is jostling uneasily at the edges of form as its explores its ideas.  Devised by director Matthew Lutton, designer Zoe Atkinson and writer Tom Wright, On the Misconception of Oedipus is a short play that explores one of the foundational theories of psychoanalysis, Freud's Oedipus Complex. It jams together the ancient myth of Oedipus - the child prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother, and abandoned to die on a hillside - with a contemporary narrative moved by the same dark motivations - jealousy, fear of death, misogyny, infanticide, incest.

Richard Pyros and Natasha Herbert in On the Misconception of Oedipus. Photo: Garth Oriander

Atkinson's set is an illuminated box (expressively lit by Paul Jackson) that represents a domestic room, newly plastered but yet to be painted. Back stage is a closed door, through which the actors enter; on the other side of the stage is a huge tape reel that turns itself on and off at the beginning and end of the show, mutely recording memory. It's a scrupulously formal structure: three chairs are placed carefully before three microphones, the three characters tell their stories, and there are three acts, each stylistically distinct.

In Lutton's production, an exposed naturalism jars against moments that are almost operatic, heightened by Kelly Ryall's sound design, which later on amplifies the stage itself. The tension between the production's tight discipline - Tom Wright's almost neurotically shaped prose and the sharp stage dynamics - and the anarchic forces unleashed in performance makes for riveting viewing. Sometimes this tension explodes in laughter. Sometimes it remains, unresolved and savage, as ugly shadow.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Quick note: Victorian Premier's Literary Awards

The shortlistings for the Victorian Premier's Literary Prize were announced recently, and are now online at the Wheeler Centre's website. I mention it because this year the Wheeler Centre, in an excellent innovation, has commissioned reviews of the shortlisted books, which will serially appear on the site in upcoming weeks, and are inviting discussion. I am writing about the poetry books, and my first review, of John Kinsella's collection Armour, is up there now (scroll down). It's especially noteworthy that the shortlisted plays will be reviewed as well - as texts, not as performances - putting them out there as literary works, rather than poor siblings of the more "important" genres. Check out Clare Strahan's review of Lally Katz's A Golem Story and look out for further reviews. The winners are announced on October 16.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Review: Helicopter

Briefly, before the week disappears into the irrevocable past. And a suggestion that if you have an idle nine hours, you should spend them at Robert Lepage's Lipsynch, now on at the Arts Centre Melbourne: well worth the seeing, although after the experience I'm not very sure what it adds up to. Hoping to write about it later.

A pitiless satire on the spiritual emptiness of the suburbs, Angela Betzien's Helicopter is a worthy addition to the 2012 Lawler Studio season at the MTC, which is punching well above its weight. Here Betzien examines the splintering anxiety that the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman identified as a condition of the dislocations of corporate globalisation. According to Bauman, the middle classes, the particular target of Betzien's savagery here, react to the insecurities that result from the inequalities of globalisation with fear and suspicion: gated communities, increased policing, relentless materialism become defences that shield them against risk. The focus of this fear is often those they fear they might become: the homeless, or refugees displaced from war-torn countries. Ironically, these are strategies that can only intensify anxiety, since they can't address the origin of their fears.  

L-R: Charles Grounds, Terry Yeboah, Paul Denny and Daniela Farinacci in Helicopter. Photo: Jeff Busby

She (Daniela Farinacci) and He (Paul Denny) are a comfortably wealthy couple living in a six bedroom McMansion in a up-and-coming suburb. She describes herself without embarrassment as a helicopter parent, projecting all her anxieties onto her teenage son Jack (Charles Grounds); He works in pharmaceuticals. The play opens with a dreadful accident: He has run over and killed the child next door in his X5 four wheel drive. The child is from a family of African refugees, who rented the house before He and She moved into the upscaling suburb.

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Sunday, August 05, 2012

Review: Hell House

Some notes

I saw Back to Back's Hell House - or, at least, the Hell House part of it - on Friday. I've been thinking about it ever since, and I want to get some thoughts down before I head off to see Robert Lepage's Lipsync this afternoon and my head is full of something else. These notes will be hasty and provisional, but I suspect that their discursive nature is what the experience is intended to provoke. Hell Houses are a recent phenomenon in America's Middle West, which draw on the US tradition of making haunted houses for Hallowe'en as a means of conversion. They take their audiences on a tour of contemporary sin, showing in gruesome and absolute terms what their fate will be if they don't embrace Jesus. Significantly, they are directed towards children. Rather amusingly, Back to Back warn that the show isn't suitable for audiences under 18.

Back to Back have picked up a version from Keenan Roberts, of the New Christian Destiny Centre, that's franchised over the internet. "The method is timely! The message is timeless! Desperate times call for drastic measures! If your church or ministry is determined to take a stand against sin and the kingdom of darkness and to reach people for Jesus like never before, then this outreach is for you!" It comes as a theatrical kit: "Piece by piece, prop by prop, costume by costume - the master plan is organized in a comprehensive manual," says the website. "This sizzling evangelism event is designed to capture the attention of our sight and sound culture!" And Back to Back have faithfully realised this hokey piece of theatre, with the help of a huge cast of volunteers from Geelong, at the North Melbourne Meat Market.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Review: Blood Wedding, Triangle

"Publish? I don't publish my plays... Plays are made to be felt in the theatre. They should last as long as the performance does, that's enough... That is what makes the theatre so lovely: as soon as it is created, it disappears." - Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca

Blood Wedding: (L-R): Matias Stevens, Nicole da Silva and Irene del Pilar Gomez. Photo: Jeff Busby

Few writers have as acute a sense of mortality as Lorca. His plays are saturated with the sense of their own temporality: they are dreams that traverse the stage and vanish, having changed the colours of our mind. He sought a pitch of expressiveness that walks the edge of things, on the cusp between life and death. To create this, he called on all the musical resources of his language: the lyrical simplicity of Andalusian folk songs, the experimental resources of modernist poetry. Like all poets his work is embedded inextricably in the sensual aspects of his native tongue, but Lorca presents a particular challenge in translation. There are things that Spanish can do, ways in which Lorca twisted its possibilities, that simply don't exist in English.

Marion Potts's bilingual production of Blood Wedding is probably as close as we can get to experiencing Lorca without being able to speak Spanish. The story follows the savage logic of vendetta - two sons from warring families, a fatal love affair that can only end in blood - to create an Attic sense of the tragic. Lorca's characters exist simultaneously in a hieratic, symbolic order of reality and in a sharply delineated world of ordinary objects - knives, pins, wheat, sheets - which anchor the play's extreme, stylised passions in a very material, recognisable present.

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Poetry review

My review of folk singer/poet Kate Fagan's collection First Light is now up at Overland Journal.

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