RenovationsHeadlock / The Clean HouseThingsThings on SundayBien-pensants, pfft!The Shakespeare we have to haveLanguage and warUnder the weatherMrs Petrov's ShoeAnd as for the play?BlognoteAnd Handke says...Handke comedie updateA Single ActLe Grande Affaire HandkeA View of ConcreteRound the BlogsWe Built This City / It's a Mother!Handke update ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I have given Theatre Notes a swish new look. Unless they're squinting at it through Internet Explorer 5 for Mac, which seems to scramble it entirely. Apologies for this glitch: I am investigating solutions. In the meantime, I suggest Explorer surfers try another browser, such as Firefox or Safari, which puts all the text and graphics and sidebars and gewgaws in the right places. Many apologies to anyone going cross-eyed trying to read this...

The image in the top bar is Robert Fludd's 1619 drawing of the Globe theatre, the Theatre of Memory, from "Ars memoriae".

Update: I've given up; the software problems on IE5/Mac seem insoluble, and are certainly beyond my primitive coding. Since IE6 for PC seems to work fine, I can only urge Mac users to trash IE5, which is no longer supported by Microsoft anyway, and use Safari (or to download a more useable browser, like Firefox). Boo hiss (yet again) to Bill Gates: his software has wasted many of my precious hours over the years....

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Headlock / The Clean House

Headlock, text by David Denborough, directed by Kate Denborough. Set and lighting, Ben Cobham, Music by Byron Scullin. With Luke Hockley, Bryon Perry and Gerard von Dyck. Kage Physical Theatre @ The Malthouse, until June 3. The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Kate Cherry. Designed by Christina Smith, lighting by Jon Buswell. With Julia Blake, Daniela Farinacci, Wendy Hughes, Pip Miller and Deidre Rubenstein. Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre until July 8.

Last week I had a good week of theatre. This was a fine thing because, gentle reader, your blogger has been under the gun lately: sometimes I am simply wearing too many hats, and no head, however swollen, can keep track of all of them. I keep rediscovering that each day has only 24 hours, and I have only one body with which to while those hours away...

And so, do forgive me for the brevity of these reports. But I must tell you about these shows. Firstly, on Thursday night I went to see Headlock.

Headlock was a surprise for me. I hadn't encountered Kage Physical Theatre's work, although I had heard Good Things: but the prospect of a show exploring masculinity and set in a boxing ring does rather call up a possibility of cliche: the aggressive male body at the wrong end of another aggressive male body in yet another incarnation of Raging Bull, yada yada yada...

It turned out to be much more interesting than that. It is in fact a work that explores male friendship in a way that seems honest, neither sentimental nor prurient. And finally it evokes an image of masculinity that is not so far from that of Giuseppe Ungaretti's First World War poem, Brothers:

What regiment are you

Speech trembling
in the night

Leaf just born

In the tortured air
the helpless revulsion
of man so close to


The impressionistic narrative follows the memories of a young man in prison, whose loneliness and vulnerability in the institutional desert is punctuated by his memories of his two best friends. The story is told through movement which segues effortlessly into pure dance, and a brilliant soundscape of music and ambient sound. There is very little text spoken, and much of it is inaudible; among other things, this is a journey through the inarticulate.

Perhaps what principally impressed me about the scenes enacted here is that, apart from the opening sequence, a car chase evoked by sound in the darkness, they are all utterly banal. The costumes are authentic Werribee, the games the young men play - arm wrestling, daring each other by a train line - not very far from childhood. The prisoner rings his mother or has a shower; he remembers eating fish and chips with his friends by the foreshore or going to a concert. There is no desire to sensationalise; rather an attempt to explore the significances of apparently trivial moments of living.

A tangible sense of the fragility of the male body grows through the performance. There are moments of sheer exuberance - the scene at the concert, for example, where a dancer jumps off the stage and unexpectedly bounces back up into the light from a hidden trampoline. But there is also a brooding sense of a world full of hard edges, in which one of the few refuges is the unspoken love between these men - not the love that dare not speak its name, but a perhaps even less speakable fraternal love - that can find its expression only in a dream.

Ben Cobham's design exploits the Merlyn Theatre about as well as any I have seen. The main action takes place in a boxing ring, around which seats are arranged intimately in a horse shoe, leaving at least half of the theatre empty. This permits vignettes to occur in the distance, on the actual stage, vanishing like ephemeral visions into blackness. It's visually thrilling, and the performances are at once athletic and expressive, forming a stylised language of movement from the ordinary gestures of young men.

I thought Headlock very beautiful. The crowd of VCE students who filled the theatre the night I was there stopped talking about ten minutes in, when they started watching it intently, and burst into whoops and cheers when it finished. Which I think says something too.

The following night, nursing an incipient cold, I went to see The Clean House at the MTC, and again had my expectations disrupted. Another American play, the misanthropic TN grumbled to herself; well, at least it has a good cast...

Actually, it's a great cast (Wendy Hughes, Julia Blake and Deidre Rubenstein on stage together? Come on!) and worth seeing for that alone. But the play too was unexpectedly charming: light comedy at its best. It concerns a career-driven doctor, Lane (Wendy Hughes) who employs a Brazilian maid to clean her house. Matilde (Daniela Farinacci) is recovering from a tragedy: she is mourning her parents, both great joke tellers. Her mother died laughing at one of her father's jokes, and her father died shortly afterwards.

Now she has come to North America to earn her living and to find the best joke in the world. She doesn't like housework; it makes her sad. So Lane's sister Virginia (Deidre Rubenstein), the image of the repressed housewife itching to tidy up the world, offers to clean up for the maid. Meanwhile, Lane's husband, also a doctor, leaves her: he falls passionately in love with Ana (Julia Blake), an older woman whose breast he has just removed in surgery.

Predictably enough, the sterile white set with which the show opens doesn't remain sterile for long, as life and death flood the house and the lives of these women with their anarchies. As in a good farce, Sarah Ruhl's play follows its own impeccable logic, which is a parallel logic to that of the "real world": a logic, one might say, of the heart rather than the mind. There's a subtext of grief and love leavened with a black humour that staves off mawkishness. I wouldn't call it magic realism, a phrase which my fellow critics have fallen on with cries of relief; I'd call it theatre.

In the capable hands of the cast, The Clean House plays delightfully: all of them are wonderful comic actors and deftly make the most of their roles. The production is also notable for Christina Smith's stunningly elegant design, which, like the writing, playfully transcends the naturalistic conventions of this theatre. It's the best design I have seen in the Fairfax Studio, which is an awkward space at the best of times. Not too demanding, but not brainless entertainment either. As they say, a good night out.

Photo: Headlock at the Malthouse. Picture: Jeff Busby.

Ungaretti translation by Daniel Keene.

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Monday, May 29, 2006


Launching with a bang on this momentous Monday, with posts already on the imminent demise of the novel, the situation in East Timor, an obituary on the French philosopher Roger Saint-Douche, and more - much more - any minute now - is Australia's own group litblog, Sarsaparilla.

Get thee hence, culture vultures, and check it out. It's sure to be a most interesting addition to our indigenous literary conversation. And, yes, among the 14 contributors is one Alison Croggon. I didn't quite make the starting gate, but I will get there, and am delighted to find myself in such good company...invisible on the contributor's list, but also apparently on board, is our very own Chris Boyd, so theatre will be well represented in this new parliament of letters. The gorgeous design is by Laura Carroll, who conceived the idea and then cajoled us all into joining up.

I didn't get to blog because I was busy at the Malthouse, being forced to read the "I am an animal" speech from Marat/Sade in the company of Robert Menzies and Lindy Davies. Now, that's the definition of intimidating. I think I passed the audition, and the reading (aside from my speech) was excellent, reminding me, anyway, how powerful language can be in the mouths of great performers.

On a less cheerful note, George Hunka has announced that he is hanging up his board over at Superfluities. One of you New Yorkers take that man for a drink and convince him of the error of his ways. Always thoughtful and literate, sometimes inspiring, Superfluities sets a standard for theatre blogging that will be sorely missed if he sticks to his resolution to leave the cyberworld behind. So I'm crossing my fingers and hoping he changes his mind.

And finally, I expect those who scour every inch of this blog will notice that I have a new email address - alisoncroggon at aapt dot net dot au. I have been having an interesting time lately with technology, and in the process have exhausted the resources of at least four tech help people at Apple, not to mention Aapt. But I will desist from boring you further. Normal transmission - and for those who have mentioned to me that they miss my missives, normal email updates - will resume very soon.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Things on Sunday

Wondering what to do this Sunday? Of course you are. So head on down to the Malthouse, where your faithful blogger is hosting the next Things on Sunday session.

The theme is "theatres of violence", and it will be a treat to hear the distinguished actors Robert Menzies and Lindy Davies reading excerpts from the work of four exciting playwrights: to wit, Peter Weiss, Jasmine Chan, Sarah Kane and Daniel Keene.

Sunday May 28, 2.30pm, running for approximately one hour.
Venue: CUB Malthouse
Cost: $10, free for Malthouse Theatre subscribers
Bookings highly recommended: Box Office (03) 9685 5111

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Bien-pensants, pfft!

The rebarbative Gilles d'Aymery gives his opinions on l'affaire Handke some vigorous exercise (for background, just scroll down) and provides a useful summary of the issues in the webzine Swans. Worth reading. Courtesy Playgoer.

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Shakespeare we have to have

I am not reviewing Romeo and Juliet, The Bell Shakespeare Company's first touring production for this year, for two reasons. One is that I didn't see all of it; by interval I had had quite enough. The second is that I have known Chloe Armstrong, who plays Juliet, for many years, and feel unable to review a show in which one of the few compensations for an excruciating hour in the darkness is the startling talent of a good friend.

I haven't seen every Bell Shakespeare production, but I have seen a number over the years. Again and again (here's an exception - significantly, directed not by John Bell, but by David Freeman) the productions are superficially conceived, unevenly acted, confusedly designed and directed with an almost triumphalist mediocrity. Bell can have his pick of talent but, as in Romeo and Juliet, the good actors - those three or four investing the language with a feeling and intelligence beyond the fallback dum-de-dum rhythm - are dimmed by the complacencies that frame them. In the face of productions like these, it's very hard to argue with those young Turks who think Shakespeare ought to be banned from contemporary stages.

How does John Bell get away with it? Review after review lauds John Bell as the great Australian interpreter of Shakespeare. The company boasts a string of prestigious corporate sponsors, a large educational program, and a touring circuit that this year includes 47 theatres around Australia. In fact, as is noted on its slick website, Bell Shakespeare is "Australia's national touring theatre company" and "tours every state and territory with creativity and audacity".

I guess it's a kind of audacity to mount a production which lazily recaps Baz Lurhmann's sparkling gang warfare take on Verona, Romeo + Juliet, only without the flair, or to jam a model of Mafia corporatism over Antony and Cleopatra (watch out for those Sicilian asps). But the audacity referred to here is, I think, the company's supposed irreverence towards Shakespeare, a nationalistic expression of our very Australian egalitarianism, which lends the language a new, contemporary vitality. Or something. Certainly, according to Katherine Brisbane, in his early days at the Nimrod Theatre, John Bell patented "larrikin" productions of Shakespeare notable for their "energy, colour and a certain felicitous vulgarity".

That energising vulgarity has now, I fear, decayed into intellectual crassness, playing a corporate audience for easy laughs. Bell's patronising takes on youth culture might please the suits, but media-savvy young urbanites see straight through it and yawn, wondering as an aside why anybody should bother with anything as naff as theatre. Under its glossy PR, Bell Shakespeare is giving us the very definition of deadly theatre: it's Shakespeare-lite, stripped of everything that makes the Bard a significant and popular playwright.

Is this really the best that Australians can do with Shakespeare? I don't believe it for a moment. There is a truth in the core of Bell's cliched "larrikinism": the Australian vernacular can bring a tough vitality to Shakespeare's blank verse, and prick it fully alive. See my reviews of A Poor Theatre's production of Hamlet or The Old Van's Macbeth for some other possibilities. As for anyone actually interested in seeing Shakespeare on stage, my advice is to assiduously avoid our national company.

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Language and war

Worth reading, for those intrigued by the conundrum of Peter Handke's attitudes to Serbian nationalism and by the nexus between language and war, is a brief essay, written in 2000, by the English poet J.H. Prynne.

"Whatever the context may have been for the comment attributed to Peter Handke, who in a recent protest against the NATO air-raids over Bosnia is reported to have observed that the first victim of war is language," writes Prynne, "it is hard not to wince at what seems extreme naivety and self-righteousness."

The charitable explanation for Handke's public presence at Milosevic's funeral is, indeed, naivety, and his subsequent statements are hardly free of self-righteousness. But more significantly, A Quick Riposte to Handke’s Dictum about War and Language illuminates the hiatus in Handke's work that leads from a notion of a "pure" poetic language to a troubling nationalism. Prynne elegantly dismantles the notion of a language uncontaminated by complicity with the machinations of power, and also points out that writers have historically played a crucial role in constructing the nationalist identities that are so important in the rush to war:

It may be resisted that true poets are patriots only to an ideal kingdom, of pure language and equally pure humanity; but enquiry shews this contention to be mostly false, because such purity is itself chimerical, often substituted for less admissible alternatives. The bread and butter that a man or woman eats (or even a poet) does not materialise like manna out of thin air. The emergence of nineteenth-century European nationalism, in the period of state-formation that composed the map for the start of the twentieth, was propelled by the intense development of national schools of culture and literature, by the locking up of international possibilities into the closed citadels of a national language, and by the poets who endorsed its ultimate separateness from the other languages all around its frontiers. No other art will do this so well, because music and painting are able to be more transparent to trans-national modalities; but writers proclaim the essence of their patriotic kingdom, and their work is most frequently enrolled into ideas of national identity by which one kingdom rallies its purposes against another.... If writers and poets think that language can somehow resist this involvement with the worst, while claiming natural affinity with the best, then they are guilty of a naive idealism that ought least of all to attract those who know how language works and what it can do.

The whole essay is available in Keston Sutherland's excellent magazine Quid, Issue 6. Many thanks to Edmund Hardy of Intercapillary Space for the pointer in my comments.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Under the weather

Ah Melbourne, Melbourne, Melbourne: would it be home without the weather? It's a Melburnian obsession: every conversation, on buses, on trains, in supermarkets and offices, hovels and palaces, hovers anxiously about the weather. What do I wear today? Will that fur-lined overcoat become uncomfortably sweaty five minutes after leaving home, when the merciless gales razoring off Antarctica suddenly transform into balmy breezes, and a wholly unexpected flood of sunshine pumps the temperature up 10 degrees in five minutes?

Yes, being "under the weather" is an occupational hazard in this vile climate, and I am fallen beneath its baleful influence. But so is everybody else I know, so I don't feel so bad. All by way of excuse for my absence the past few days. However, as consolation, permit me to direct you to a fascinating on-line forum, Critical Edge, on the challenges facing contemporary arts journalism, a discussion that ended up circling obsessively around blogs, just as Melburnians get stuck on the weather. Well worth reading all the way through, as MSM'ers (mainstream media journalists) and bloggers and assorted hybrids engage in a frank and free and sometimes energetic exchange of ideas...

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Mrs Petrov's Shoe

Mrs Petrov's Shoe by Noelle Janaczewska, directed by Chris Bendall. Video Kirrilly Brentnall, design Kelle Frith, lighting Nick Merrylees, music and sound Kelly Ryall. With Jude Beaumont, Mike Bishop, Katie-Jean Harding, Toby Newton and Carole Patullo. Theatre@Risk at 45 Downstairs until May 21.

From the moment Ania bounces on stage in blonde pigtails and Polish national dress, fulsomely accepting a major literary award for her autobiographical novel about her immigrant background, the image of Helen Demidenko is impossible to shake.

The Demidenko affair was colourful even by the high standards of Australian literary scandals. In 1995, Helen Darville, daughter of Grace and Harry Darville of Scunthorpe, England, scooped a bag of literary prizes (including Australia's most prestigious, the Miles Franklin) with The Hand that Signed the Paper, a novel purporting to be by Helen Demidenko, the daughter of an illiterate Ukrainian taxi driver from Cairns, and trading heavily on its autobiographical authenticity.

Ms Demidenko - a camera-friendly young woman with startlingly blonde, waist-length hair - appeared on television in Ukrainian national dress and even performed Ukrainian dances, and spoke movingly of how "my father who can read and write neither English nor Ukrainian flew to Brisbane to see me after I won a prize for writing-words. So my mother who left school at twelve to work as a domestic, read her first book..." The media loved it. They loved it even more when her persona was exposed as a sham.

The Demidenko affair was one of the most bitter and tabloid-friendly scandals in Australian literary history. The Hand that Signed the Paper was controversial even before it won the Miles Franklin, accused of anti-Semitism and a tenuous grasp of historical fact. It was also attacked for plagiarising a variety of sources, including Toni Morrison.

But more complexly, the affair raised all sorts of bitterly contested questions, especially about minority literature and the performance of ethnic identity. "I kept it going for the cameras and they kept wanting to come and participate in it," Darville told Channel Nine's Sunday program. "I mean, this is this whole - part of this whole false celebrity that's attached to writers. If they want to make a false celebrity, I gave them a false celebrity. And it's - it's all false. It's - it's bogus."

Which brings us to the question of "authenticity", and fiction's relationship to reality. Demidenko's persona, consciously poised in its first edition by an author's introduction vouching for the historical authenticity of the novel, filled out what was missing in the prose. And if her Demidenko alter-ego enchanted the press with those Ukrainian dances, who is to blame her for giving them the simple ethnicities that Anglo-Celt Australia wanted to see?

It's been a decade since I read Darville's book, but I agree with Les Carlyon's observation that it takes a particular gift to make the Holocaust boring. I remember the novel as being coarsely imagined and poorly written, its stereotypical portrayals of Ukrainians, Jews and Germans doing nothing to mitigate the crudity of its didactic prose. It was, after all, a first novel by a precocious young writer who decided to tackle themes - genocide, racism - that require the power and subtlety of a Dostoevsky.

This wouldn't have mattered, had the novel not won so many prestigious awards, most of which cited the author's bravery in tackling such difficult and unspeakable themes. Helen Darville, as she pointed out with some justice, didn't award herself all those prizes. In other words, it wasn't the book that mattered, so much as the performance of identity around it. The ensuing fuss split Australia's literary community down the middle. Ten years later, it's telling that, unlike that other notorious Australian fiction Ern Malley, Helen Demidenko is remembered merely as a curiosity, and her novel, now out of print, is vanishing into the shadows of literary history.

This by way of a long preamble to Noelle Janaczewska's play Mrs Petrov's Shoe, which bases itself on the Demidenko hoax in order to investigate how ethnicity is perceived in Australia, at once marginalised and envied for its exoticism. Janaczewska has invented a somewhat less toxic Demidenko, Anna, a compulsive fantasist who wins a major literary prize for her moving novel about her childhood in Tasmania as the precociously imaginative daughter of Polish immigrants. For more than half the play, the scenario switches between Ann's victory speech and enacting the novel, which follows Anna's fascination with the story of the Russian defector Petrov and her conviction that her mother is spying for the Soviets.

Beyond the child Anna's feverish imaginings of spies, however, exists an uncomfortable and frightening world of adult complexities that Anna comically misreads. Her mother (Carole Patullo) is not spying for the Soviets; her furtive behaviour is in fact about helping a neighbour, who is hiding because he is an illegal immigrant. Moreover, her father's (Mike Bishop) frequent absences are due to illness, not nefarious activities. Anna is reminded again and again that life is more complicated than she knows. Unlike The Hand that Signed the Paper, this is a charming coming-of-age tale about a child learning to understand adult sadness.

Once the novel is enacted - which takes long enough for me to start wondering if I had got the Demidenko link wrong - the hoax is revealed. It turns out that Ania is in fact Ann, daughter of English immigrants from Scarborough who live a life of stifling ordinariness. There follow a few somewhat earnest summaries, via video and the actors, of the arguments that surrounded the Demidenko affair: defences of her right to invent herself as she likes; accusations of appropriation; observations that Anna's fraud compromises the perceptions of genuine minority literature; revelations of Ann's long-term fantasy life, which dates back to her schooldays. Ann is exposed as a fraud, but despite the public humiliation her compulsive imagination takes off again, reinventing herself...

It's impossible to talk about Mrs Petrov's Shoe without talking about Darville/Demidenko, and I think this is part of its problem. It remains too close to the Demidenko affair to really take off as a fiction of its own, and yet it is not, either, a theatrical retelling of Darville's fantasising. The play leaves to one side the less comfortable aspects of Darville's fake history - its anti-Semitism and incipient fascism - which in reality sparked bitter devisions between the Ukrainian and Jewish communities in Australia, and raised questions about mainstream Australia's comfortable fetishisation of the "simplicity" of the ethnic.

What we are left with is the marginalisation of minorities (expressed as a fashionable fetishisation of the exotic), the alienation of suburbia, and the question of whether a writer has the right to imagine realities that do not "belong" to her. Janaczewska's fake novel, with its layered complexities of realities, is in fact a more complex creation than Darville's; but the play remains imprisoned in the Demidenko narrative. This is, as I fear this review rather reflects, a play that is ultimately about issues, illustrative rather than inherently theatrical. Its theatrical lack is underlined by a lumpen structure, and Theatre@risk's production can't overcome that basic problem.

As a result, despite some fine and even moving performances, particularly from Mike Bishop and Carole Patullo, and Chris Bendall's inventive and fast-moving direction, it feels like a long evening. Everyone on stage is working their butts off, to little effect. And in the end, despite Jude Beaumont's energetic performance as the alienated Anna, the person you end up thinking about is Helen Demidenko/Darville, who these days is Helen Dale, and who is no longer a writer.

Picture: Jude Beaumont and Michael Bishop in Mrs Petrov's Shoe

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

And as for the play?

Michael Roloff, Handke's English translator, has some noteworthy comments on the Handke controversy at this colourful Handke web page, where he talks about the cancelled play. (For what it's worth, I agree with his high opinion of Voyage to the Sonorous Land, which is disturbingly strange and beautiful as only Handke can be):

The play "DIE KUNST DES FRAGENS, oder die Reise in das sonore Land" happens to be a truly great play; it creates a profound and delicious sense of deep puzzlement in the audience, something that, ordinarily, is achieved only after years of psychoanalysis.

I have known Herr Handke since 1966, personally feel some considerable justified ambivalence about him, little ambivalence if any about most of his work ... and have written extensively on various aspects of Handke, including his involvement in matters Yugo-Slavian. It appears Handke was following his grandfather's road in hoping for a continued federation, also as a counter model to the current European federation. Best as I can tell from this distant perspective that depends entirely on written texts and documentation, he is not guilty of denial of anything, but of not speaking in platitudes.

Last year he published an essay in the German magazine LITERATUREN, in which he detailed why he would not appear as a defense withness at Slobodan Milosovic's trial, where I especially liked how he made fun of his own sense of self-righteousness. That he came out in simple defense of the Serbian people against the orchestrated attempt, in Europe and in the United States, to make them solely responsible for the disintegration of Yugo-Slavia I find worthy of the highest praise, as compared to no end of writers, such as Salmon Rushdie, who were only too ready to join the lyinching mob, or band wagon, as so many pret a porter intellectuals frequently are. Having disassociated himself from the defense of the more and more indefensible Slobodan Milosoviscs - as the trial proceeded and his entire history became available -- I don't think Handke needed to show up at the funeral, have his photo taken in front of a huge flag-like photo of Milosevics, or make any kind of funeral oration. Herr Handke can be as petit bourgeois, exhibitionistic and obnoxious - the German word is BORNIERT - as Bozonnet. THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS in this instance is THE PLAY. I am glad that there is a controversy over a great play!

Onya Michael. I love that plague-on-both-your-houses irritation at the end... also, writing this in Australia, one can't but reflect that such a controversy would never happen here, since aside from fringe productions of Offending the Audience and other early plays, Handke is seldom done, and certainly never on main stages. Maybe that should be the larger scandal.

Also, the competing petitions for and against M. Bozonnet, both headed by their own Nobel Laureate, continue to be circulated. According to Literary Salon: "It wouldn't be France if there weren't now a counter-manifesto: Olivier Py's A plus tard, Peter Handke (which can be translated as: 'See you later, Peter Handke'). The manifesto in support of Handke had its Nobel laureate supporter -- Jelinek -- , and this one has its -- Gao Xianjian. Among the 150 others who have signed it, agreeing that part of artistic freedom is the freedom to censor (well, some bizarre idea like that anyway) are Hélène Cixous and Ariane Mnouchkine."

Hmm. One question: if this is French theatre people being reticent...

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Friday, May 12, 2006


Just added a couple more links from the Northern European English Speaking Sphere of Influence (ie, England and Scotland) to my theatre blogroll - Andrew Eglinton's fascinatingly eclectic Desperate Curiosity and the very informative Mark Fisher's Scottish Theatre Blog.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

And Handke says...

Update: Via Playgoer: The London Times weighs in with a think piece that defends Handke - and art - against narrow moralising. Unfortunately, Rachel Campbell-Johnston doesn't seem to have caught up with Handke's legal action against the Nouvel Observateur (see Ben's blog for a translation of Handke's statement on what he actually did and said at Milosevic's funeral) and the newspaper's subsequent withdrawal of and apology for its claims. Most helpfully, Andrew Eglinton at Desperate Curiosity has some more translations of pertinent documents here.

Le Monde's comment about the general reluctance among French theatre people to comment publicy seems to be borne out, by the way, by my own researches. I am now intrigued as to why. And a PS: Having slogged through the Comédie-Française's web page, which lists its reasons for pulling the play as well as Handke's defence of himself, I can only wish that debates here were conducted with such passion and intelligence. When did we last hear a director say that inviting a writer into the theatre is "an act of love"?


Peter Handke is quoted on the controversy in the left-wing Paris newspaper Libération, with a far from negative response to Bozonnet's cancellation of his play. He is clearly as prepared to play politics as is Bozonnet. The irony of course is that the actual play has nothing to do with these issues:

Peter Handke, the Austrian playwright who saw one his plays dropped from the Comedie-Francaise's schedule on the grounds that he publicly defended the legacy of the late Slobodan Milosevic, is delighted about the consequences of this controversy. "Finally, after more than a decade of one-way (and dead-end) journalistic polemics, a breach seems to have been created in the press in France, and perhaps not just in France, to speak differently - or maybe to just begin to speak - about Yugoslavia. ... So let's widen this breach or opening, this spring blossoming of words. Let us finally listen to one another instead of yelling and barking within two enemy camps. ... Let us stick to the already proven facts which, being facts of a civil war that was triggered, or at least co-produced by a Europe acting in bad faith or at least ignorance, are appalling enough on all sides."

AFP reports outraged German reaction from the Frankfurt-based publisher Suhrkamp and the Berliner Ensemble:

"This is an attack on the foundations of a free society -- the right to freedom of expression and the independence of art," the Frankfurt-based publishing house Suhrkamp said in a statement. The Comedie-Francaise also came under fire from the Berliner Ensemble theatre over its decision to pull Handke's "Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking".

Claus Peymann, the director of the theatre founded by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, urged all those working at the Comedie Francaise to "push for Handke's piece to be performed".

"That the national theatre of a country which has long been a defender of freedom should practice such cultural censorship is shocking," Peymann said. "What is absurd is that they are boycotting a piece of Handke's that perhaps more than any other reflects a profound humanitarianism. It is a manifesto against violence."

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Handke comedie update

Update: Our Man in Paris Ben Ellis updates the story with an excellent post that summarises for us blockhead monolinguists some of the admirably complex arguments happening in the French public sphere. And Ben makes some good points himself. Most interesting is an article in Le Monde asserting that despite much private noise, a public silence surrounds the decision. Superfluities and Playgoer follow up.


Despite much interest (here and here) in the banning of Peter Handke's Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking by the Comédie Française, it's hard to follow what's going on. Here I plead mea culpa: if I had studied French instead of Latin in high school, I'd be able to read the newspapers...

Despite speculation that the decision might have been reversed, it appears that M. Bonzonnet, defender of the purity of French theatre, has stuck to his guns. My spies tell me that competing petitions - one, originating from within the Comédie Française, supporting Bozonnet and the other defending Handke - are currently battling it out in the fora of public opinion. The Literary Salon also has some interesting details on the article that sparked M. Bozonnet's displeasure, which has the Nouvel Observateur apologising for regrettable "factual errors" after threats of legal action from Handke. And Literary Salon also has some links. In French. Merde.

As a side note: on Playgoer, a poster in the comments draws a further parallel between the Handke bingle and the Rachel Corrie controversy. Brian Souter, a fellow Australian, claims that Slobodan Milosevic is, like Rachel Corrie, a "victim". "If Rachel Corrie has been demonised for the defence of Palestinians," he writes, "even more has Milosevic been a victim of the media-spun lies of the western power elites".

This kind of sticks in my craw. Whatever the merits of her actions, Corrie was a genuine innocent. Milosevic is not. I've no doubt that Milosevic was the victim of sustained and politically motivated media spin, and that ought to be acknowledged and debated. But no side on the Balkans war has clean hands - one cliche which demonstrates its truth again and again is that the complexities of the Balkan conflicts are labyrinthine. To side with Milosevic in the interests of justice seems to me a profound mistake.

For some balanced views of the demonisation of Serbia and the culpabilities of Milosevic in the run-up to the NATO bombing campaign, see here and here. Also, for an interesting and complicating take on the manipulation of the media by all sides, and a re-framing of the idea of Balkans nationalism, check out Sylvia Poggioli's fascinating 1993 article in Harvard's Nieman Reports.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

A Single Act

A Single Act by Jane Bodie, directed by Julian Meyrick. Design Louise McCarthy, lighting Ben Cobham, composer Darrin Verhagen. With Anita Hegh, Neil Pigot, Travis McMahon and Tanya Burne. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse until June 10.

For once, I find myself applauding the MTC's programming policy. A Single Act is the first in a studio season of new writers, "Young Turks, vibey up-and-coming writers we predict will be the future of Australian theatre writing," as artistic director Simon Phillips has it. And I think in this instance they've got it right: Bodie is an impressive talent.

Perhaps as an indice of the MTC's nervousness about how this play will be received by its subscribers, this production comes well-studded with cautions: "A contemporary play with frequent strong language, nudity, a simulated sex scene, adult themes and acts of violence. Please note there is smoking on stage and strobe lighting effects used. A live rabbit features on stage; Animal Welfare and RSPCA guidelines are being observed." Prepare for a wild ride, aesthetes.

Frankly, it's not especially shocking: A Single Act isn't nearly as out-there as the Malthouse's A View of Concrete, currently playing upstairs in The Tower, which also addresses the impact of terrorism on personal lives. Yet I think A Single Act is the superior play, a coolly intelligent work by a writer very aware of her form and of what she wants to do with it. Sadly, it's not served well by this production, which almost obscures its subtle power.

A Single Act follows the relationships between two couples, Scott (Travis McMahon) and Michelle (Tanya Burne), and Neil (Neil Pigot) and Clea (Anita Hegh), after an unspecified but devastating urban terrorist attack clearly based on September 11. At the beginning of the play, Neil and Clea return home, shaken to the core, each desperately relieved to find the other alive. Scott and Michelle are shown a year later, at what is clearly the end of their relationship, when Michelle finally gathers the strength to leave an abusive Scott.

We watch Clea and Neil's relationship disintegrate, as they crumble before their inability to help each other. Neil is the one who most visibly falls apart, unable to deal with the void of grief that the terrorist attack has opened within him: he withdraws from his life, driven to aimless walks and relationships with strangers which now seem more meaningful to him than his marriage. Clea, on the other hand, flounders through grinding loneliness, attempting to continue an ordinary life by repeating the gestures of relationship, which become emptier and emptier as the gaps between them widen.

Threaded between these painful scenes of estrangement is the story of Scott and Michelle, which moves backwards towards its beginning on the day of the terrorist attack. In the first scene, Scott brings home a pet for Michelle, a rabbit, which she rejects: it isn't what she wants now, it was something she wanted when she was seven. Scott infantalises her as a means to control her; when that doesn't work, he beats her. But now she is, at last, deciding to leave him, to follow through on "a single act of defiance".

Behind Scott's behaviour is fear: fear of rejection, fear of lonelieness, fear of failure, but mainly just fear itself. And fear also drives Michelle's behaviour: not, as might seem obvious, fear of her lover, but of being in the world. Right in the beginning of their relationship, she hands the power over to Scott: and that abrogation of responsibility for herself leads her into the abusive relationship. The terrible secret is that the relationship would not exist without her collusion, if somehow Scott's abuse and control didn't fulfil a deep need within her. And this shift from confident working woman to will-less victim occurs precisely on the day of the terror attack.

Bodie is a writer of considerable subtletly and formal elegance, and she records these shifts of relationship through dialogue that exposes the viscera of human relationships with the economy and delicacy of a scalpel. She has clearly read, and what's more, learned from Harold Pinter, most tellingly in the oblique precision of her dialogue. The backwards movement of Scott and Michelle's story also nods towards Pinter's Betrayal, in which the story of a relationship moves from its end to its beginning.

Julian Meyrick's overdressed production muffles Bodie's (admittedly challenging) clarities. It features a rather ugly set - curved wooden ribs represent a house, behind which flicker three television screens set in a wall that is partly a green screen and partly naked bricks. It has several playing areas at different levels, lit by lamps as well as theatre lights. The design ought to be interesting, but it remains unresolved and fragmented.

The modular furniture needs to be rearranged by the actors between nearly every scene, making the emotional orchestration of the play subordinate to the demands of the set. This effectively clogs the action, making the play feel much slower than the writing or performances seem to warrant; and also any delicacies between scenes, contrasts or similarities between the unfolding relationships, are muted or effectively lost.

Although there is little to complain about in the individual peformances, which are each skilled and committed, there is something a little crude in the characterisation. This seems more a problem in the direction than in the acting, a question of general approach. I felt that, despite the complexities of the script, everyone was presented as a "type": Scott as a working class brute or buffoon, Michelle a victim, Neil a traumatised nutcase and Clea a stressed professional woman.

This tendency towards stereotype and its subsequent muddying of emotional clarities may account for some longueurs in the middle of the evening which are not, on reflection, problems in the writing. It's hard to be sure, of course, without reading the play: but it seems to me that, as in the relationships portrayed on stage, crucial connections aren't happening, and an elusive, vital charge is missing from the production.

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Le Grande Affaire Handke

Over at Parachute of a Playwright, Ben Ellis has an excellent update on the Handke affair. He translates an article from Le Figaro (Paris' right wing newspaper) in which M. Bozonnet, manager of the Comédie-Française, defends his decision to take Handke off next year's program: "I didn't ban the producing of Peter Handke, but I'm refusing to invite to the Comedie-Francaise a man who doesn't respect essential values."

Ben pertinently comments: At the phrase, 'essential values', my blood also runs cold. It's a phrase which has the potential to destroy the recognition that an audience (in concert with a production, no less!) possesses the capacity to reconcile contradictions within and outside a work - this recognition goes back to the way theatre as we know it functioned in antiquity. If we junk this recognition, I dare say that we junk a bit more of our capacity to be civilised. It may be all very well for theatre administrators to become barbarian kings, to deal with purging inessential values from theatre, but it infantilises the rest of us and diminishes the capacity for complex engagement, for the rest of us to entertain, experience and thus acknowledge complexities.

He also points to claims by Handke that he never denied Serbian war crimes, but rather was pointing out that others - Croats, Bosnians - were equally culpable of atrocities. I have a rather complex reaction to this: my reading of A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia certainly left me with the impression that Handke believed that the Srebrenica massacre was a libel against Serbians created by the Western press. But I also believe, as I have said elsewhere, that there is some justice in Handke's critique of the mass media's demonising of certain select targets, to the political advantage of Western powers. The scandal of the New York Times' Judith Miller's uncritical and interested reporting of the famous Iraqi WMD snowjob is only an obvious example.

Whatever the political whys and wherefores, Handke's work has found its defenders. Ben again:

Nobel Laureate playwright and novelist, Elfriede Jelinik and others have signed a petition against what they term censorship. ...I'm quite moved by the last paragraph of the petition:

"[Handke's] ouevre, fortunately, doesn't need us to defend it. It ignores opinions. It is there, rich and quiet, vast and alive. It will not have 'the last word', besides, it doesn't seek to have it. It awaits nothing. It gives no response. Those who do not understand everything beforehand will savour finding it."

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Friday, May 05, 2006

A View of Concrete

A View of Concrete by Gareth Ellis, directed by Lauren Taylor. Design by Adam Gardnir, lighting Richard Vabre, composer Tom Spender, sound design by David Franzke. With Peter Houghton, Richard Pyros, Alexandra Schepisi and Lauren Urquhart. The Tower @ The Malthouse, until May 21.

"Without alienation," Arthur Miller said famously, "there can be no politics". But what if alienation is all there is? What politics can happen then? A View of Concrete suggests the only possiblity is narcissistic self-destruction.

Gareth Ellis' award-winning play is a far cry from Miller's rational liberalism. His characters are trapped in a world of simulacra, Baudrillard's "desert of the real", where the image precedes reality and itself becomes murderous. The natural world is a nostalgic dream: there is nothing beyond the man-made. And this reality is psychotic.

Ellis's hallucinatory world is given feverish life in Lauren Taylor's fast-paced, high-octane production. I suspect I might not have enjoyed the play half so much without Taylor's uncompromising treatment; she gives the text a heightened edge that makes the most of its sinister vaudevillean comedy and pushes open its anarchic possibilities.

A View of Concrete is about four young people, incapable of communicating for all their almost aphasic ability to speak, who retreat into darker and darker fantasies until they cannot but wreak them on each other. James (Richard Pyros) is addicted to television, obsessively watching the news at the expense of his relationship with Jacquie (Lauren Urquhart); Jacquie herself is too afraid to admit that the inner violence she senses in James sparks her masochistic fantasies.

Jacquie's friend Billy (Alexandra Schepisi) dreams of becoming a fairy, of making herself smaller and smaller until she can ultimately disappear, but violently rejects the label "anorexic". Neil (Peter Houghton) deals out escape with the drugs he sells. He is a compulsive reader who refuses to finish any books he reads (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Carroll, Nietzsche) and keeps himself in careful ignorance of their titles and authors - if he finds out, he throws the book in the bin. He is the ultimate in free-floating, contextless consumption of knowledge.

None of these characters is stupid. Each is perfectly capable of seeing the delusions of the others, but utterly unable to persuade others that they are mistaken, or of perceiving their own self deceptions. So while the women mock James' increasing obsession with his next door neighbour, whom he is convinced is a terrorist, Jacquie can't shake Billy's faith that fairies live in the jacaranda tree. None of them sees the real story which is occurring before their eyes: a young girl is being brutalised by drugs, for which crime a terrible revenge will be enacted.

But these abberent behaviours, Ellis suggests, are all merely symptoms of a reality that is fatally sick. In a reversal of agency, the domestic animals are committing suicide: a cat hangs itself, a pigeon flies deliberately into a window. This is a post Twin Towers world, says Ellis in his program note, that is not "safe", "where the definition of 'humanity' can only be found in the is an exact replica of our world".

Ellis's nihilism is perhaps a little easy: the callousness he portrays is in some ways no more than the egocentric cruelty of small children. And certainly this play isn't quite as radical as it thinks it is. Fernando Arrabal or Heathcote Williams (especially Williams' immortally weird AC/DC) go much further on all counts - in visceral extremities of violence, political anarchy or hallucinatory realities. But Ellis has an ear for tough dialogue that is accurate and bleakly comic, especially for his male characters, and a real lyrical gift. He is certainly an imagination to watch.

This incubation of emerging talent is possibly the most important aspect of the new Malthouse, which is drawing strongly in its programming on Melbourne's vital but under-resourced independent scene. It's great to see what Lauren Taylor can do with a budget of more than two dollars. Adam Gardnir's set runs the length of the Tower Theatre, with seating two deep on three sides, and is dominated by a tree-like chandelier of fluorescent lights that is spookily lovely. Richard Vabre's lighting score is sharp and precise, allowing the instant shifts of realities and locations the direction demands.

The play goes like a train, rushing headlong to its desolate conclusion. Taylor and her excellent cast create an almost operatic interpretation, which never slackens in intensity but remains nuanced, shifting deftly from humour to surrealness to moments of sheer anarchy which are at once comic and frightening. The performances are stylised, sometimes even neurasthenic in the artifice of their gestures, and carry off the conceit with complete physical conviction.

Each actor finds a physical correlation for the individual tics of his or her neurosis. Lauren Urquhart's brittle portrayal of Jacquie is an increasingly hysteric constellation of truncated gestures. It gives her a dark, neurotic comic quality heightened by the artifice of her delivery: at times she almost sings her text. Richard Pyros slides imperceptively from suspicion to violent, drug-fuelled paranoia, falling apart in front of our eyes.

Peter Houghton's deadpan delivery almost makes him seem like the only point of sanity ("I'm a professional," he boasts at one point, speaking about his dealing: like all organised crime, he is the dark face of capitalism) but the disconnections in his performance betray that he is as dysfunctionally unselfaware as the others. Alexandra Schepisi portrays Billy's obsessive desire to shrink with such intensity that I swear that she visibly loses weight during the two hours of the play.

The extremities of the performances as they evolve through the evening become ever more compellingly believable. It makes visceral, exciting theatre, and certainly gives the lie to those who claim that new Australian plays are in the doldrums. If this is a doldrum, it's been getting bad press.

Picture: Richard Pyros, Lauren Uquhart and Peter Houghton in A View of Concrete

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Round the Blogs

I've just updated my Blogroll (scroll down the side panel) to add some great theatre blogs that have swum over my screen recently. So do check them out. And a few pointers - some belated - to what's been swirling in the blogosphere the past couple of weeks.

Mr Hunka over on Superfluities is a one-man Renaissance. Hurry over for a fascinating three part interview with musician Marilyn Nonken (available in full here); more thoughts on radical theatre from provocateur and necessary thinker Walter A Davis; a long and fascinating post on Peter Weiss; quotes from that stern old modernist Adorno, and more. Much more. The man makes me feel lazy.

Meanwhile over in Parabasis land, Isaac Butler has thoughts on directorial process which have sparked off various discussions (see Lucas Krech and Ian. W. Hill for some further thoughts). And over at the indispensible Playgoer, Garrett Eisler, indefatigable champion of free speech, is nose-down on the censorship trail with posts about Tony Kushner's controversial employment as a speech maker, the fall-out from the Rachel Corrie fuss (depressing), the ins and outs of theatre awards, and much else. Also, check out the comments on Theatre Notes' posting on Peter Handke's removal from a Comedie Francaise season for more on the censorship issue.

PS Doh! Almost forgot (perhaps because my recent pout makes me super aware, ahem, that this is close to home) that our very own Chris Boyd has posted Part Two of his interview with Daniel Keene.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

We Built This City / It's a Mother!

We Built This City, written and directed by Donna Jackson. Composer and band leader Mark Seymour, percussion director Mark Grunden, media artist Malcolm MacKinnon, lighting Phil Lethlean. Melbourne Workers Theatre @ Scienceworks, Spotswood, May 3-6.

The West Gate Bridge provides the only view in Melbourne that's not from the top of a tall building. And what a view - nothing beats driving over it at night and seeing the industrial sprawl of Yarraville stretching out westward like a sci-fi city, with the flame of the Altona oil refinery blazing ominously in the distance.

So the Melbourne Workers Theatre's decision to site We Built This City, a celebration of Melbourne's construction workers, at Scienceworks, just beneath the bridge's spectacular curve, gives it huge visual grunt. But there is another other, grimmer significance: the West Gate is the site of Australia's worst industrial accident, when the half-completed bridge collapsed in 1970, killing 35 workers.

The show is part of a program of events curated by the Melbourne Workers Theatre to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Eight-Hour Day. Interestingly, the campaign was started by stonemasons working on the quadrangle of Melbourne University in 1856, who downed tools and marched on Parliament House to demand this cornerstone of worker's justice (eight hours' work, eight hours' play, eight hours' sleep), sparking a proud tradition of Australian unionism.

There are several notable things about this show, but maybe the most important is that it's a collaboration between the artists and the workers they are celebrating. The performers are mostly artisans from Melbourne's building industry (including, I was heartened to see, a woman stonemason).

The audience is initially gathered in a small amphitheatre and told the rules (follow the man with the flag and stay behind the barriers) and treated to a bit of song and vaudeville courtesy of the Trade Union Choir and the performing workers. Then we are led outside and given the show, which is basically a series of installations/performances.

Scienceworks is a science and technology museum partly housed in the former Spotswood Pumping Station, a remarkable piece of Victorian industrial architecture in its own right. And this ambitious work of promenade theatre, conceived and directed by Donna Jackson, imaginatively exploits its spatial possibilities. It's beautifully designed, with industry-related abtracts (plans, patterns) projected on walls, and all through gorgeously lit by Phil Lethlean, who must be one of the foremost sculptors of light in this country.

It includes displays with multi-media - a series of interviews with workers talking about their jobs, or reflecting on the use of nicknames between workers, or remembering the fall of the West Gate. And there is also a fabulous gig in the Pumphouse, where former Hunter and Collectors frontman Mark Seymour belts out some classic blue-collar rock with a huge band and backing vocals that include the choir. Seymour here is an indigenous version of Bruce Springsteen (to whom the narrative songs owe a considerable debt). The old steam pump, beautifully lit, pumps away in the background. Each song is punctuated by short monologues again meditating on the history of the trade union movement in various ways - memories of the BLF Green Bans of the '70s, or of friends dying in work-related accidents.

The indisputable climax of the show is a kind of bulldozer ballet, accompanied by two throbbing electric guitars, which features a bulldozer lifted by a giant crane into the night sky: a bizarrely beautiful surreal image that I won't forget for a while. The final scene was a parable of the current IR laws being resisted by workers, to the accompaniment of impressive industrial percussion. Again, this was spectacular, but the storyline went over my head - to me it was as mystifying as mime.

It's agitprop, sure, but of the most exciting kind. Anyone whose heart quickens at the sound of heavy machinery should race to Scienceworks this week and catch the show - there won't be another display like it for a while. It's hard not to watch it without a sense of nostalgia, in this era of punitive IR laws that have all but dismantled the gains the Trade Union movement made over more than a century of activism. Whether this show is a symptom of a new radicalism remains to be seen, but it would be nice to think so.

Melbourne Workers Theatre

It's a Mother! Directed and designed by Don Mamouney, various writers. Video design Assad Abdi, lighting Inka Straface. With Alex Blias, Elena Carapetis and Natalie Alexopoulos. Sidetrack Performance Group @ North Melbourne Town Hall until May 7

It's a Mother! is in the tradition of the ethnic comedy pioneered by Wogs Out Of Work in the 1980s, in which young Greeks, Italians and Spaniards embraced the negative racist stereotypes and fed them back aggressively to their own (and a hugely appreciative audience of Anglo-Saxons as well) as an empowering statement of identity. In this case, director Don Mamouney has cobbled together a number of scripts that explore the cliche of the Greek man's obsession with his mother (and his mother's obsession with him).

The mother of this show believes unconditionally that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. She is a terrifying tyrant at the heart of the family, forgiving her co-dependent son all his sins, adept at manipulating men by any means possible - emotional blackmail, gourmet temptations - to ensure her own power.

Like all cliches, it's not as if there's not an element of truth in these various sketches, but at times the show can veer uncomfortably close to misogyny. I don't think it quite gets there, but in playing off the gender stereotypes there is a clear danger of simply confirming them. The problem lies centrally in the dramaturgy: there are too many writers, and despite Mamouney's efforts to make a single show from all these vastly different voices and takes on the theme, they merely end up negating each other.

The writing is patchy, varying from broad comedy to a couple of stabs at something more poignant. The most successful scenes, by Evdokia Katahanas and Bill Kokkaris, play off the comedy of recognition - the old Greek couple next to me were vastly entertained, especially by the bits in Greek that I couldn't understand. But not even Assad Abdi's lush multimedia projections or the energetic and precisely observed performances from the three actors can make up for the show's basic lack of focus.

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Handke update

News from my spy in Paris. It seems that the Comédie-Française's decision to cancel a production scheduled for early next year of Peter Handke's Voyage to the Sonorous Land, or the Art of Asking is (as I guessed it must be) hugely controversial. More interestingly, it seems that M. Bozonnet made the decision to do so entirely off his own bat, and many members of the Comédie-Française are strongly against it.

There is a Comédie-Française press conference scheduled for May 4 in which the decision will be confirmed - or, it seems, possibly reversed. I'll keep you posted on further developments.

And check out the comments on the previous post for some interesting discussion...

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