George Fairfax Memorial AwardYour turnWell, then...Construction of the Human HeartMore about meValeBelatedly...Critical massesFestenFrom the archivesMore ThingsNot Like BeckettElsewhereYou heard it from Ben first ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

George Fairfax Memorial Award

Last night I had the pleasant task of helping to give away some money to a young artist. It was the announcement of the winner of the George Fairfax Memorial Award, which is given every two years to a VCA School of Drama alumni to permit them to develop their professional and artistic ambitions.

This year's winner is Luke Mullins, one of the members of the very talented group Stuck Pigs Squealing. (The 2004 winner is, interestingly, Stuck Pigs director Chris Kohn...) Mullins will use the money to collaborate on a theatre piece with Canadian poet Anne Carson and to work with the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in New York. Luke's new show, based on Anne Carson's novel An Autobiography of Red opens, in fact, at the Malthouse on September 12, so get down there to see what the fuss is about.

As one of the judges of this prize, with Lindy Davies and Richard Murphet, I can attest that it was an inspiringly difficult decision. There was a depth to the field of entries that made awarding only one prize seem a little unfair, and the breadth of vision on offer was a tribute to the profound impact that the VCA School of Drama is having on Melbourne theatre. If a theatre renaissance is quietly bubbling here, as some claim, the passionate, skilled and thoughtful theatre artists turned out by this school is one of the reasons.

And meanwhile, back at the ranch - I am in conversation tomorrow with the very charming poet George Szirtes at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Last year George won the prestigious TS Eliot Award for his collection Reel. As the screed runs, "This morning, this major figure in British letters and acclaimed translator of poetry and prose from the Hungarian, reads from his works and speaks to Alison Croggan. 31 August 11:45 am"

Should be fascinating, so come if you can. (And a whinge- shouldn't the Writers Festival get my name right? Croggon, guys: Croggon

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Your turn

ABC Radio National program Airplay is broadcasting my radio play Specula either today or yesterday (they say August 26, I was told 3pm on Sunday 27). However, it will be unambiguously repeated at 9pm next Friday September 1 Melbourne time. And for those who miss the broadcasts, the recording will be online for a few weeks here after the program is repeated on Friday.

Specula is a collaboration between myself and composer Sam Mallet. Institutional restrictions at the ABC meant it wasn't quite the intense collaboration we envisaged (though good on them for being interested), so we're both perhaps a little disappointed: but you can still hear Sam's music and my words. The radio play is part 3 of a private project of mine to do with an obsession with mediaeval woman mystics: those curious can find an interview here about part 1, a series of poems, and part 2, an essay, here.

And yes, those mystic bits are all my own work: the only actual quotations are from Malleus Maleficarum. Perhaps I missed my vocation?

Feel free to comment: I'd be most interested to hear any responses.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Well, then...

A few days ago I mentioned that I had to cut back on my workaholic tendencies before I either collapsed or began to write bilge.

A writer would, of course, always prefer to collapse before the bilge, rather than afterwards; so I hope, for the sake of my pride, that it all happened in the correct order. Your indefatigable crrritic proved not so indefatigable after all, and was, to the alarm of herself and of everyone around her, carted off in an ambulance early on Thursday and put very firmly into hospital. And they wouldn't let me out again until today, which was, to say to the least, tedious. Though to be honest for a day or two I was far too sick even to be bored.

I fear that I am in some ways very thick; certainly, it didn't really hit home until Thursday morning that it is possible to die from being unable to breathe. Anyway, I have made my acquaintance with many innovative and cutting-edge drugs, and am now, regretlessly and without any kind of struggle, an ex-smoker. Who needs to be that sick? Not me.

Things here will obviously be a little slower until I get up to speed again. But I feel very committed to this blog (perhaps I ought to be committed) and am not planning to give it up. I just have to organise my priorities - slowly and carefully - so I can survive them all. But I'm back, I'm fine and I'm planning to be finer still. Just not in any manic hurry.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Construction of the Human Heart

Construction of the Human Heart by Ross Mueller, directed by Brett Adam. Lighting by Rob Irwin, sound by Casey Bennetto. With Fiona Macleod and Todd MacDonald. The Tower @ the Malthouse until September 3

Physical pain, says Elaine Scarry in her groundbreaking study The Body in Pain, destroys human language. The problem is that, as Scarry puts it, "the act of verbally expressing pain is a necessary prelude to the collective task of diminishing pain".

Behind this is an assumption that we have a ready vocabulary for emotional suffering. And certainly, you can wave a hand at millenia of literary expressions of grief, loss and despair, or even at the stumblingly moving In Memoriam poems in the daily newspaper. But for all their expressiveness, can these millions of words really mitigate an iota of anguish?

For my part, my private nadirs have always exposed language - otherwise the DNA of my conscious being - as utterly useless. I have no doubt that the ability to articulate emotional pain is better than being unable to do so, and yet I have never quite felt either that therapeutic faith which underlies so many of our assumptions about human expression. A facility with language may even be counter-productive: language can be something to hide in, a means of denial as much as of admission.

This is the emotional and intellectual territory of Construction of the Human Heart, which is my first acquaintance with the writing of Ross Mueller. Where have I been? Mueller is surely one of the most intelligent, formally adventurous and emotionally brave playwrights now writing in this country.

On the face of it, a play that is about a play - worse, a play about two writers and a play - sounds like a sure recipe for unbridled narcissism. In Mueller's hands, it becomes a desolately moving meditation on human helplessness in the face of overwhelming grief.

Construction of the Human Heart is about a couple, Him and Her, who are haunted by two deaths. Her returns obsessively to the death of her mother, a relationship scored by unbridgeable absences and alienations. The other death is that of the couple's son. We never find out why he died, or even how old he was; but his death has triggered mechanisms of blame, denial and anger that really only conceal the utter devastation of his loss.

The play sets up a disarmingly simple conceit which, almost by the bye, also interrogates the formal conventions of theatre and writing. The stage in the Tower Theatre is simply a raised platform, the acting area delineated by white paint. On the stage are two chairs, each with a bottle of water placed beside them. We are, it seems, about to attend an informal public reading of a work in progress.

The actors, Fiona Macleod and Todd MacDonald, enter through the side door when the house lights are still up. They clear their throats, fiddle with their scripts, smile nervously at the audience and settle down on the chairs. They begin to read the first scene.

So far, so conventional. Then Him drops his script, the two start bickering and you begin to understand that Him and Her are partners and that they are reading Her script, which is written out of their personal lives. At this point I realised that the house lights had gone down. They had dimmed so gradually that, although I was expecting them to go dark, I hadn't noticed when it had happened. The transition from a public reading, where the audience is visible to the actors and to each other, to a formal piece of theatre, where we sit in the dark witnessing the action on stage, is cunningly imperceptible.

The effect is a potent sense of complicity between the audience and the actors: they have seen us as much as we have seen them. And this reinforces a sense of voyeurism as the actors move in and out of differing imaginative realities - the relationship they are enacting before us, and the script they are reading. A third layer is added by Casey Benneto's pre-recorded voiceovers, which boom increasingly baroque stage directions. They describe powerful visual and sonic elements that never eventuate on the bare stage, becoming at once cues for the audience's imagination and sly satires on theatrical convention.

The dynamic between the read script and the "real" play becomes increasingly more complex and more fraught. Is Her, as Him claims, really the one in control, the one who can articulate what happened and deal with her grief? Or is she as lost as Him, floundering in her grief as she uses her imaginative life to deny that her son is dead?

What becomes clear is how little these two people can help each other. As writers they both have a privileged relationship to expression, but even this doesn't help them communicate or even to understand the actuality of their
own pain. Even their love is not enough. "The land of tears," as St Expury says in The Little Prince, "is so mysterious".

In Brett Adam's hands, this complex script is given its full emotional and intellectual range. The stripped-down design and Rob Irwin's unobstrusive but effective lighting frame two extraordinarily generous performances. Neither Macleod nor MacDonald miss a beat: on them rests the human weight of the play,
the painful silences behind the words, and they meet the challenge with performances that articulate its subtleties and emotional power.

It makes superb, thoughtful theatre, which manages to be at once astringently intelligent and heartbreaking. And this stylishly minimal production, imported into the Malthouse after a successful season at the Store Room, is as polished as any I've seen.

Picture: Fiona Macleod and Todd MacDonald. Photo: Deryk Alpin

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More about me

For which this blog is not intended, so I promise I will get back to controlled egocentricity very soon.

However, I feel that I need to explain that over the next six months I will have to be restricted in my reviewing, as I need to focus on my novel. I will certainly not be abandoning the blog, which in some ways keeps me sane while I prosaically labour away at my desk, but I am definitely limiting my playgoing to one show (at a stretch two) a week. Even I, blithe idiot that I am, realise that if I do more I will (a) collapse and/or (b) start writing tripe. So apologies in advance to the people whose invitations I will have to decline (and please don't stop sending them!)

Secondly, Theatre Notes has had a couple of nice mentions in the press this weekend, thanks to her inclusion in Creme de la Phlegm, a newly-released MUP anthology of notable critical hatchet jobs edited by SMH arts writer Angela Bennie. Worth reading in full is James Bradley's review in the Age this weekend, which among other things intelligently (and positively) discusses the arts blogosphere, and has some hard words for mainstream reviewing:

The democracy of the net is often closer to licensed demagoguery. But simultaneously it offers access to voices that struggle to find space in the traditional media. And the online forum's flame wars notwithstanding, these voices are flourishing, meaning much of the best writing about Australian art and culture is now to be found online.

[Bennie] is also correct in her assertion that we now inhabit a society where serious thinking about art and culture - indeed, serious thinking of any kind - is routinely derided. But simultaneously her desire to preserve the cultural status of the critic hampers her attempt to map out the factors that have driven that decline.

They are, of course, many and complex. The impatience with ambiguity and difficulty that has grown up hand in hand with consumer capitalism's culture of instant gratification, the increasingly blurry line between marketing and editorial, the ongoing erosion of educational standards; all play a part.

The status of criticism, as Bennie, like West before her, sees all too clearly, is only one victim of these forces. The same culture of impatience with serious thought pervades almost every aspect of our culture, from politics down. And almost invariably it is the interests of the powerful that are served by the lack of engagement and serious debate.... One of the symptoms of this malaise is the endless, underinformed rush to judgement we see every day in our media, the constant asinine commentary about what's wrong with our art and our artists.

And Gerard Windsor also says nice things about my criticism in his review in the SMH.

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Friday, August 18, 2006


Over at Sarsaparilla, Kerryn alerts me to two deaths. Playwright Alex Buzo, one of the pioneers of the New Wave Australian drama, died after a battle with cancer at only 62. And James Hall, former literary editor of the Australian and variously arts editor and editor of the Bulletin, died suddenly the day before. Jim was in fact responsible for my becoming a critic: he gave me the job of Melbourne theatre critic when he was arts editor at the Bulletin and I was a young tyro. I respected him tremendously and am very saddened to hear of his death.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006


I ought to read Andrew Bolt's blog more often. I'm not sure whether I should be flattered - it seems that I'm a "much talked about poet" who has made it to his list of pinko enemies (as a result of my defence of Kristy Edmunds and MIAF). Perhaps it's a little petty to respond, but I do feel compelled to make a couple of points to, as it were, defend my honour.

First, Bolt uses John Slavin's review of Diamanda Galas to "prove" that my response to Galas' performance is, um, invalid. Well, I wrote about the inadequate critical response to Galas, including Slavin's very fuzzy review, at length last year. It's more than an aesthetic difference: Slavin clearly didn't know what he was talking about.

That aside, in my Age piece I was pointing out that, despite the canard that no one was interested, last year's MIAF was enjoyed by crowds of Melburnians, and that an awful lot of shows were actually sold out. (I won't re-enter the tired old argument that commercial viability equals artistic excellence. Tell that to Milton, who struggled to sell 3000 copies of Paradise Lost in his lifetime.) But Bolt claims, at a more personal level, that I wouldn't have a hope of knowing what's popular anyway, being an elitist poet and all. I am apparently all bristles because I've had too many Australia Council grants and don't have enough readers.

Bolt naturally neglects to mention that I do actually write popular literature. As well as the elitist stuff. Hey, just this week I made it to a best seller list for the first time, with my latest YA release The Crow (NB: I'm not sure how long this link will remain current). According to this week's UK Publishing News charts, in the Bertram's Children's lists The Crow is at Number 6 in the UK. That's above JK Rowling, folks, who clocks in at Number 9. I'm quite chuffed, really. Plus book number two, The Riddle, this week scored a starred review (for exceptional merit) in the US trade mag Kirkus on its release in the States this month (again, this link will go out of date....) Not bad for an old anti-populist.

To clinch his argument that I am an undeserving recipient of public money, Bolt even quotes a poem of mine. Well, half of it, anyway. He could have had the grace to mock the whole thing. (Note to Andrew: if you're going to clock me for being obscure, do it honestly.) As regular readers of Bolt's writings will know, leaving out the important parts of an argument is a key part of his rhetoric. I'm not going to defend my poetry: it's never going to please everyone, and people of more integrity than Bolt give it enough recognition to be going on with. But I thought that I'd post the whole thing, just for the record (minus indentations that I can't do on this blog). It's called Bread.

Whatever drags downward, the heart hampers:
hands softer than dough
may leaven massy weights, o delicate
knucklings of love,

those confusing perfumes, wafers taken
out of the fragrant ovens
to be laid on muteness, on whatever starves
in crowds of noise

or between walls neither silent nor friendly
where restless shadows
take refuge from themselves, wherever
no rains fall,

there may the tongue flood and flower:
harsh the stone that cracks
the seed, harsh the fire, harsher still the heart’s
voiceless need.

Why did Bolt mutilate it so, I wonder? And this is the man who keeps protesting in hurt tones that he's not a philistine.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Critical masses

Thanks so much to everyone who posted nice comments on the essay I dragged out of the archives. Theatre Notes feels loved and cherished... This is perhaps not good for a crrritic, who rightly ought to be dipping her nib in venomous wit prior to skewering her next hapless victim (phew, I just remembered that I'm reviewing Leonard Radic's new book for ABC Radio National, so balance is restored).

The responses highlight how obsessed we theatre types are with the question of theatre criticism. There are a number of reasons for this, mainly to do with theatre's status as a temporal art. Companies depend on reviews as a means of getting the word out on a show and drawing an audience. And (one of my bugbears) once the show is closed and gone, reviews are often the major documentary evidence that a work existed at all. Inadequate reviewing can mean that entire swathes of theatre history vanish altogether.

Anyway, for further discussions on criticism in London and New York, where concerns are interestingly congruent, check out Encore Theatre Magazine's stimulating discussion on responding to critics and Superfluities' own dip into the archives, this thoughtful essay here.

And a PS: I just caught up with Ben Ellis' review of Cameron Woodhead's demolition of David Grieg's The American Pilot, recently mounted by Red Stitch. Not having seen this show, I have no opinion of the production or play: but I'm wholly with Ben on his opinion of Woodhead's "toxicity". I think it's a serious problem that a reviewer who so transparently knows so little about theatre and whose main vocation seems to be that of a walking sneer should be the new senior reviewer at the Age. In comparison, the daze of Radic seem almost halcyon. And that's saying something...

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Saturday, August 12, 2006


Festen, dramatised by David Eldridge, based on the dogme film and play by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo Hr. Hansen, directed by Simon Phillips. Designed by Shaun Gurton, lighting by Matt Scott. With Nicholas Bell, Julia Blake, Melinda Butel, Ditch Davey, Jason Donovan, Julie Eckersley, Kim Gyngell, Bob Hornery, Chris Kirby, Alex Menglet, John Stanton, Kat Stewart and Greg Ulfan. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until September 23

I have to begin this review with an abject confession. Yes, gentle reader, in things cinematic, Theatre Notes is a dolt. Not only have I not seen Thomas Vinterberg's film Festen, on which this play is based: I have never even seen a Dogme film.

As everyone else knows, Dogme was a Danish collective of avant garde film makers started by Lars Von Trier in 1995. Dogme was defined by a manifesto which excoriated the decadence of contemporary cinema and called for a new, democratic purity. Directors were exhorted to put aside the bourgeois individualism of the auteur, refuse artifice and devote themselves to revealing reality. To this end, they were expected to adhere to a Vow of Chastity.

Festen (Celebration)
was in fact the first Dogme film. Given the austerity of the Dogme vow - which prohibits any kind of illusion, including props, sets, lighting or even bringing extraneous items into a location - it seemed to me an unpromising basis for that child of metaphor and illusion, the theatre. And in any case, I am inclined to be suspicious of theatre that chases the illusory glamour of film.

I am, of course, always glad to be proved wrong, and Eldridge's adaptation turns out to be brilliantly theatrical. Although I found its conclusion mystifying (which may have been a function of the production), I was compelled by a script that was at once tough, subtle and muscularly gestic.

The celebration of the title is the 60th birthday of a wealthy hotelier, Helge Klingelfeldt (John Stanton), held shortly after the suicide of one of his daughters. When his oldest son Christian (Jason Donovan) rises to give the toast, he reveals a shocking family secret. This prompts a succession of increasingly violent reactions as the household - the extended family and servants as well as the parents and children - struggles through denial and is finally forced to confront the truth.

It's not quite as direly therapeutic as it sounds in this bald summary. It is saved from the Oprah Winfrey genre by the complexity and subtlety of its characterisation, which allows for a truly human contradictoriness to emerge in its portrayals, and by how the drama opens up metaphorically to become an indictment of bourgeois mores. Its exposure of the sadism, hypocrisy, racism and exploitation running underneath the skin of capitalist society made me think (uncharacterically) of a film that also opens with a family celebration - Visconti's masterly exploration of the roots of Nazism, The Damned.

Moreover, there is a genuine fascination in its close observation of the rhythms of social convention, how human beings protect themselves from painful realities through rituals of habit. This is reinforced by staging meals in real time - tables are set, people are seated and real food is eaten - which gives the action a compelling frame of veracity. And there are moments of theatrical magic - one scene weaves three separate dialogues from three bedrooms seamlessly together, replacing simultaneity of time with simultaneity of space. In a beautiful piece of choreography, all six characters end up on the same bed. Awesome theatre.

The Dogme anti-aesthetic aims to focus attention entirely on the story and performances. It is possible to do something similar in the theatre: there's a parallel aesthetic in the early Keene/Taylor Theatre Project productions, which were presented in a working Brotherhood of St Lawrence warehouse using only the objects found there as props.

The necessary artifice of the stage presents its own obvious challenges. The English production of Festen, directed by Rufus Norris, solved this problem with a design of formidable austerity that sculpted a play of light and shadow on a mostly empty stage. Simon Phillips gives us a much softer interpretation. Shaun Gurton's set - a semicircular framing of hauntingly-lit birch trees - avoids the literal, but it is a tad pretty and lyrical. And it is overdressed, a frequent flaw in MTC designs, with gratuitous touches such as a chandelier descending from the flies that distract not only the eye, but the mind.

This slightly fudged air continues through the production, which leaves you feeling as if you just missed something: it's as if the emotion of the play is a melody half-heard in the distance. Phillips has some excellent actors at his disposal, and elicits some fine performances - in particular, John Stanton as Helge and Julia Blake as his wife, Else, who give controlled, understatedly powerful performances. Julie Eckersley and Ditch Davey as Christian's dysfunctional brother Michael and his put-upon wife create an authentic energy of violent, damaged sexuality. Bob Hornery, Alex Menglet and Kim Gyngell as the comic mechanicals provide some requisite black humour; but few of the other performances quite hit the mark.

Jason Donovan in the central role of Christian is an emptiness in the middle of the production. There is, of course, a sense in which he is meant to be a kind of black hole, exerting a traumatic gravity into which he draws the rest of the family; but for all his exertions - and there is no doubt he is working his arse off - Donovan seems strangely absent as an actor. He mistakes mere blankness for the emotional numbness of trauma, and confuses emoting for the material of real feeling.

A sense of actorly self-consciousness flaws Kat Stewart's performance of Christian sister Helene as well. For all its toughness, Festen is a delicate play that depends crucially on a sense of authenticity in performance, and in this production emotional nuance is terminally blurred. Hence, I think, the puzzling ending, in which the writer has either lost his nerve or something has been crucially misunderstood.

The final scene is a family breakfast which appears to tie off the traumas of the previous night's action in a neat bow: catharsis is attained, everyone is healed and the repentant malefactor is punished. It all feels rather too pat. Here I really am hampered by not having seen the film: does it really finish with such simplistic psychologising? I had the feeling that something else was happening subtextually that just wasn't apparent in this production: a certain menace, perhaps a certain manipulative reassertion of patriarchal power. But here I am only guessing.

Despite this, Festen has moments of real potency, and Phillips' flair for stage choreography is well in evidence, especially in its early scenes. It's an opportunity teasingly missed by a very small margin. Unfortunately with a play like this, the small things really matter.

Picture: Jason Donovan as Christian. Photo: Jeff Busby

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From the archives

Today, for a couple of reasons, I was going through some old work, and I found this essay. I don't think it has ever been published, and some of you might find it interesting. Among other things, it outlines how my brilliant career at the Bulletin went bung, and gives a snapshot of how I saw things in 1997. And it also articulates many of the reasons why I started this blog. Those who regularly read Theatre Notes will know that I feel rather more hopeful about Melbourne theatre now than I did then, and of course my views have evolved considerably. But of course there is the other argument, that the more things change, the more they remain the same...

Little Alison and her battle against the eunuchs

VLADIMIR: Abortion!
ESTRAGON: Morpion!
VLADIMIR: Sewer rat!
ESTRAGON: (with finality). Crritic!
He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

EVERYONE loves to hate critics. All too often, they make it easy. No matter how much you believe in the importance of public debate, no matter how passionately you argue that a vigorous, informed critical culture is essential to the health of a democratic society, some pompous ignoramus will prove to the world in the Saturday supplements that critics are on the bottom rung of intelligent life forms. Nevertheless, one must fight the good fight. This is the story of part of my personal battle, the three years I spent as a theatre critic for the Bulletin and the absurd results of my high-minded crusade to get cultural debate happening in Australian theatre. It is all, like all comedies, tragically illuminating.

In considering the contemporary disappearance of the moral authority of the critic, Hans Magnus Enzensberger comments:

... it seems that the appearance of the critic is related to the rise of bourgeois society, as if he had dominated this society for just as long as this society held on to the idea that the public discussion of cultural norms is something essential: that is, crudely put, from Boileau to Sartre, from Samuel Johnson to Edmund Wilson, from Lessing to Benjamin, from Belinsky to Shlovsky. What characterises these fabulous intellectual beasts? Legend has it, and it is confirmed by reading the works they left behind, that they were writers who wrote about the books of other writers. Further, these critics are said to have been independent people, who owed their significance solely to their work, not to an institution or an industry, at whose service they had placed themselves. Apparently the essay was their preferred form, the journal their favoured medium. They are said to have known what they wanted - obstinate, uncomfortable spirits, looking to long-term results instead of quick turnover.

Enzensberger concludes the days of the critic are over, that what remains are the mouthpieces of an industrial machine. I think he is correct, but at least he has the privilege of speaking out of European culture. Australians might well yearn for such a dilemma. Here, in a culture scarred by colonial insularity, there has never been the cultural curiosity that permitted serious public discussion of literature or art or anything else. Now that snappy advertising allows us to delude ourselves that we are a serious culture, we can catch up breathlessly with the ruins of Europe - a culture polluted by fashion, public relations and the imperatives of the culture industry.

Unlike Germany, we do not have several centuries of brilliant public thinking to shore up at least the idea of critical thought. In a country that has an insecure sense of its place in the world, the merest whiff of criticism is enough to send the so-called aesthetes screaming towards the courts of special pleading. No one thinks of donning their armour for a pyrotechnic bout of intellectual fencing for the delight and illumination of anyone who cares to watch. At best we get a bit of mud slinging, with all its attendant crudity and mess. At worst, we have the edifying anthropological spectacle of tribal groups of cultural heavies licking each other’s bottoms.

It is no accident that some of our most famous exports - Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James - are all critics. Nor that they all appear to be singularly isolated talents. One can only speculate what might have happened had they chosen to remain here. The grim guess is, not much. The impregnable fog of stupidity would have stifled them in the end. But this can only be fantastic speculation. There was nothing to keep them here in the first place.

One of our fondest myths is that everything has changed since the dull daze of Menzies. My suspicion is that, despite a glittering cosmopolitan veneer, things are probably worse. At least then it was obvious how bad things were. Australia has proved to be a good breeding ground for brilliant, isolated talents - among them a disproportionate number of extraordinary poets - the only kind tough enough to survive the death by a thousand cuts that is the lot of the artist working in Australia. Nothing is as deadening as apathy. Nothing is as savage as pettiness called to question. Nothing is as unanswerable as wilful ignorance.

I came to theatre reviewing by accident. The first job I was offered as a freelance journalist after I resigned from the Melbourne Herald in 1985, was to write the theatre pages for TV Scene, an execrable tabloid that met its unlamented demise when Rupert Murdoch bought the Herald and Weekly Times. My job for the Bulletin came about because the publicity person for the Melbourne Theatre Company suggested my name to James Hall, then the Bulletin’s art editor, when his incumbent critic couldn’t cover a play. I have no doubt my name was suggested because it was expected that, out of gratitude for the chance to move up the career ladder, I would write glowing quotes for the PR blurbs.

However, I was naive enough to take the job seriously: the chance to write something of substance had come my way rarely as a journalist. The production was Hedda Gabler. I read the play closely, mugged up on Ibsen, went to see the show and was disappointed. I said so, and why, in my review. The publicity lady was grossly offended and the director didn’t speak to me for two years. Invitations to MTC opening nights mysteriously stopped arriving, although this made me perversely ensure I went along anyway. In my beginning, as Eliot was wont to say, was my end.

Two months later James Hall offered me the position of Melbourne reviewer for the Bulletin, a post I held for the next three years. I was, in most ways, a fairly typical reviewer. I had, at best, a sketchy and local knowledge of theatre: I knew only a little of its history, its theory and its techniques and almost nothing at all about contemporary theatre elsewhere. However, in other ways I was not typical.

One was a sound intuition that, in order to write well about theatre, I had to watch it. I wanted to abandon the privileged role of “critic” and participate in the theatre as a member of the audience. I never took notes; I found that if I did this I couldn’t watch the stage. I thought note-taking accounted for the fact that many reviews seemed to be about a completely different play to the one I had seen. I found that with concentration and practice my memory served me very well. I also, whenever possible, read the plays I reviewed, especially if they were new work.

I used the style of tabloid journalism in order to write seriously about art, for two reasons. One was to destabilise the privileged art-speak that dismissed an audience as stupid. I wanted to demonstrate to the people who read my reviews that the audience, also, has a vital place in the theatre, that it isn’t there merely to worship at the hallowed shrine of culture, which is often more accurately the hollow shrine of money and cultural status.

The other reason was pragmatic. Newspaper and magazine editors believe that reviews serve two purposes: to tell their readers where, when and how a production is on, and to act as a consumer guide. To talk about art is considered a wank, as art in itself is not considered interesting. I think art by itself is interesting and wanted to talk about it: and this technique was one way of subverting the formalities of a newspaper review and getting serious ideas in, as it were, under the door.

My ideas about art were informed by the belief that, as Trotsky said, true art is truly revolutionary. I don’t mean that art exists as a form of social engineering - it is ultimately too private an act for such grandiose designs, too complex for ideologies - but that true art can shatter the comfortable constructions we all build within our lives, privately and publicly, and force us to a radical reappraisal of ourselves and our world. “A book,” said Franz Kafka, “must be the axe to break the ice within.”

Theatre can offer such radical experiences. Australian theatre usually doesn’t, because theatre is by its nature a social act. One person cannot make theatre on her own and repressions, conscious and unconscious, operate at almost every level of its production and reception. A major repression is the fear of ridicule and dislike. Our theatrical institutions ensure that the work they produce is acceptable to its audience. This is not a problem confined to Australia; in every Western culture, theatre producers face the bogey of the subscription audience, which is too often the death of theatrical courage. Everything is carefully airbrushed to a nice beige, in order not to offend anyone, and younger artists, rebelling as they must against the prevailing order, produce a lot of radical - beige. It is worth remembering that Patrick White, one of our really great writers, became a monster, a popular cultural icon of artistic nastiness who fulfilled public expectations of his behaviour most obligingly. It is difficult not to suspect that a source of his corrosive anger was the need to assert within himself the validity of excellence in the face of the indiscriminate acceptance of mediocrity.

My own critical practice was largely shaped by my practice as a poet. My work had always been informed by astute and rigorous criticism from other people. I learnt early to distinguish between what I thought of as “useful” and “useless” criticism. Useful criticism was specific, attuned to the ambitions of the work, honest and carefully argued; useless criticism was characterised by generalised statements that responded to a nimbus of preconceptions surrounding the work rather than the work itself. Useful criticism stimulated me to heighten my own critical faculties: it raised questions that forced me to scrutinise my work and evaluate what I was doing there. Useless criticism, positive or negative, stimulated nothing. Perhaps the most important aspect of useful criticism is its implicit love of the art form it interrogates. Useless criticism is devoid of love; it is at best indifferent to art’s imperatives.

I wanted, first of all, to be a useful critic. I saw that theatre and criticism have a dialectical relationship and I wrote my reviews as part of the dialogue, or polylogue, of a continuum called theatre. I never believed they bore the imprimatur of irrefutable judgement: I wrote them to stimulate discussion, to raise questions, to disturb assumptions. I never saw any point in denying my subjectivity, because I thought subjectivity was an essential admission. I worked to make my subjectivity informed, to understand as much as I could of the techniques, histories and ideas that make theatre what it is. In this aim, I was influenced particularly by David Mamet’s passionate address to critics in Writing in Restaurants. I wanted to be a critic like that. I don’t believe I achieved my ambition. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

The more I reviewed, the more clearly I understood the fraudulence of what often passes for art and arts commentary in our culture. Art in Australia is massively beauracratised and stupidly written about in our mass media: and these things conspire to ensure that art as a genuinely radical dynamic is all but invisible. All art, interesting or not, is blurred into a sludge called culture, an industry which mainly exists to employ mediators who ensure that the “products” are passively consumed. The essentially uncommodifiable quality of aesthetic is pushed off the agenda.

As a substitute we have celebrity, watered-down social issues and the odd trite controversy. The effect is the creation of an “official” culture, well-oiled by public relations, which keeps in place a number of cherished assumptions and careers by the simple expedient of appearing to be challenging, cutting edge, exciting and everything else a culture is supposed to be, without any of the substance. This hypocrisy is endemic in all of our arts and is reflected in the repression of dissenting voices.

While I was reviewing, I was the only critic I knew who regarded it as a full-time job. Most critics worked part-time, having other jobs in academia and journalism, because otherwise they would have been as poor as I was. The media is not interested in having good critics: a mediocre critic serves its purposes just as well and is far less trouble. And there’s no doubt I was troublesome. The Bulletin copped a law suit over one review and many angry letters from outraged recipients of my altruism. I was only 25 when I started, so my innocence is perhaps excusable: I was amazed that people became so angry with me, because I thought it was obvious that everything I said stemmed from my love of theatre, and didn’t they love theatre too?

The major row during my time with the Bulletin was with the Playbox theatre. Contrary to the wisdom of gossip, that harassment didn’t get me sacked. But perhaps it is only from this distance that I recognise with clarity how extensive, malicious and unremitting it was.

The facts are simple and petty. When, during the season of 1990, the Playbox Theatre’s first in its swish new Malthouse Theatre, I reviewed awful play after awful play, Carillo Gantner, who was then artistic director, decided that I was a blot on the landscape that had to be removed for the good of Australian culture. He started with a series of phone calls to the arts editor, Diana Simmonds, in which he suggested it may be a good idea to sack me. When that failed, he tried the Bulletin’s editor, James Hall. When that also failed, he started a smear campaign that attacked my credibility. It included a highly libellous letter to the Victorian Council for the Arts that asked for their help in getting me sacked for my alleged campaign against Playbox caused by my “psychotic” personality (there could be no other reason why I found the plays below par). Finally, he banned me from the theatre for “unprofessional conduct” after an unspecified “incident in the foyer”. James Hall rang me and asked what I had done: had I drunkenly abused the actor involved, or what?

The “incident” bears some examination. Then, as now, I had many friends who worked in the theatre. One day, an old friend, an actor then employed in a Playbox production, rang me and asked me out for a coffee because he was troubled. He told me that the day before, he had been called into Gantner’s office and cross-examined because he had been seen talking to me in the foyer at the Malthouse on the opening night of the play. Our conversation had been, briefly, about the play: I hadn’t liked it and had apologised to him, in advance, for the review.

It was after this that James Hall rang me about Gantner's complaint. Clearly, my speaking to my friend was the “incident”, given some considerable spin by the Playbox machine. I couldn’t ask the actor concerned to stand up for me in public: he would probably never have been able to work in Melbourne again. I had no recourse against this gross slander except to say it wasn’t true. Argument was reduced to the level of the pre-school sand pit - “Did so!” “Did not!” “Did so!” - in which the loudest always wins.

Gantner’s strategy transparently sidestepped the censorship at the root of his actions; he claimed that my banning from Playbox was nothing to do with what he called my “vitriolic” and “personally abusive” reviews. I wrote a letter passionately arguing against the censorship of debate, pointing out how damaging such censorship was to the arts and to the culture. (I have a thick file of the correspondence between the Bulletin, myself and Gantner which is probably most notable now for its absurd comedy.) I even attempted to explain that to criticise someone’s work was not the same as a personal attack. I was making a fundamental mistake: although even Gantner was forced to concede that my reviews were accurate, what was at stake was Playbox’s funding and stature, which he claimed I was directly threatening. The larger arguments of artistic quality, the only questions with which I was concerned, were pushed aside and remained unanswered. It began to dawn on me that some artistic organisations are interested in anything but art.

When it became obvious even to Gantner that he was making a fool of himself, the whole fracas sank into a silent pool of embarrassment. It was tacitly agreed that everyone should just get on with their jobs. By then I was exhausted and sick of the whole affair and its attendant notoriety. I wondered why I had worked so hard, for so little money, for such trivial results. If I had “played the game”, if I had refused to have any thoughts of my own and had simply followed the line of least resistance, no doubt I would still be attending opening nights and dozing my way through reviews. But why would I want to do that? Life’s too short.

Shortly afterwards, on the strength of the free publicity I had given the Bulletin, I wrote and asked for the retainer that I had been promised for two years. I had already decided that if I was to live in abject poverty, it would be more profitable to resign from journalism and concentrate on my real work, poetry. Unfortunately, at the Bulletin my old mate James Hall had been replaced as editor. (The media is a volatile profession). The new editor impolitely told me to go jump. So, impolitely, I did. I think it is no coincidence that I resigned at the same time that I finally felt I knew enough to do the job properly.

It was a most unedifying affair. It did teach me a lot about pettiness, dishonesty and why Australian theatre is peculiarly insulated from ideas.

There is one crucial aspect of theatre that doesn’t apply to most other arts: its temporality. A poem can be read five hundred years later, a film can be watched fifteen times. But if you’re not there at the theatre, you’ve missed it. This means that theatre criticism has another function: as a record. Our theatre history is seriously compromised by our theatre criticism.

I’ll cite one example: former Age critic Leonard Radic’s 1991 book The State of Play. Anyone looking for an informed and stimulating discussion of the past 25 years of Australian theatre will be disappointed. The book is a cliche-ridden, limp regurgitation of received wisdom, written with the false objectivity that masks an entrenched subjective smugness. What it tells you is what we all know: that David Williamson, John Romeril, Jack Hibberd et al started at the Pram Factory and La Mama and thus was Australian theatre born. Williamson scores a whole chapter to himself, and a cringing, crawling summation it is.

There is only the briefest mention, for instance, of the work that was occurring simultaneously in the early 70s and which helped to make that time so exciting: the productions of work by European playwrights like Arabal, Handke, and others, some of which was the first to be performed in English anywhere in the world, or the work by women such as Sue Ingleton. There is no critical intelligence exploring, except in the crudest nationalistic terms, the political agendas that were operating within the theatre. Radic, whose analysis of plays only approaches that of an intelligent high school student, is simply not up to it. The history of the Pram Factory in the early 70s has yet to be written. All the ferment, all the excitement, all the variousness, is pared down to the level of a press release: and now, for a student like me, it may as well not exist.

This uninteresting book wouldn’t matter if other useful critical commentaries were easily available: but they’re not. There is a scrappily researched history produced by Currency Press, but that is as useless. Nowhere do we have, for instance, books like Michael Billington’s One Night Stands or Kenneth Tynan’s collected reviews of British theatre, that can tell you what it was like to be there, why it mattered, why it was exciting.

Radic was the senior theatre reviewer in Melbourne for more than two decades. I have no doubt that in that time he caused immeasurable damage to Melbourne’s theatre culture, by sins of omission as well as commission. For 20 years he told audiences that theatre’s greatest aim was to be “warm hearted” and informed theatre practitioners that the only thing that counted was box office approbation. The theatre of ideas, of imagination, of spiritual and intellectual struggle, of beauty and tragedy, of vulgar comedy and robust protest, the theatre that bore Shakespeare and Aeschylus and Beckett, simply did not exist for him. And Melbourne theatre slowly went into a disenchanted sleep, from which no prince’s kiss has yet awakened it.

Amid the snores, I haven’t been able to rid myself of the desire to write about my responses to art. I do so when I am asked and sometimes when I’m not, for my own reasons. I do not expect any real debate to result from my work. The work, and the rewards, are purely private. I’m quite aware of how ridiculous a position it is since, unlike almost any other literary mode, criticism is primarily a public act. Theatre reviewing remains as dull and ill-informed as it ever was - perhaps a little duller, since no doubt other reviewers took note of what happened to me and took more care not to think. The theatre has, sadly, the critics it deserves: the critics have the theatre they deserve. Who is cheated? Theatre’s audience, and any artist attempting serious work. And most of all, theatre itself.

Melbourne 1997
From a lecture delivered to students at the
Victorian College of the Arts in 1993

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

More Things

Your faithful blogger is again hosting Things on Sunday at the Malthouse Theatre on, yep, Sunday. The topic is "The Empty Space", and I'll be hearing from Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move, Malthouse Theatre AD Michael Kantor and Juliana Engberg from the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) as they discuss space and design and their relationship to dance, theatre and visual art.

August 13, 2.30pm. Cost: $10, free for Malthouse Theatre subscribers
Bookings highly recommended: Box Office (03) 9685 5111

And while we're on things Malthouse, Chris Boyd has a radically different response to Not Like Beckett, demonstrating that beautiful ability of theatre to polarise audiences:

For the first time in my life, I climbed over people to get out of a theatre. Climbed? I almost fell over people to get out.
Me, I went again last night (I was being Peter Clarke, who was unable to host the Time To Talk session because of family problems) and was able to review my response - it still works for me, especially when - say, 15 minutes in - it ceases to be a homage to our Sam. Chris, I think you missed the good bits...

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Not Like Beckett

Not Like Beckett by Michael Watts, directed by Michael Kantor. Design by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, sound and composition by Darrin Verhagen. With Russell Dykstra. Beckett @The Malthouse Theatre until August 20.

It's hard to know how to describe Not Like Beckett. Should I take a cue from the title and do some negative theology, attempting to describe it by listing all the things it is not? As it says on the box, it is not at all like Beckett. It isn't like Ibsen or Chekhov or Miller, either.

However, it is, in a particular and very recognisable way, extremely Australian. The iconic Yellow Peril that dominates the set is only the most obvious signal that this is a work about us, from us and for us. But there is nothing earnest - and not a shred of the provincial - in this anarchic, rambunctious and liberatingly offensive piece of theatre.

Not Like Beckett embodies many of the things that I love about Australian culture: its irreverence, energy, intelligence, fearlessness and wit. There is no contradiction in the fact that it highlights our good points by exposing our bad: here, written large, is our racism, the apathy that segues into cruelty, the tinpot triumphalism of colonialisation, the sexual viciousness. But it's in all in the name of good, filthy fun.

Our lone protagonist is a rabbit (Russell Dykstra, sans bunny ears), who may or may not be Walter Walloon Beckett, disreputable scion of the famous Beckett clan of pioneer rabbits, famous travelling comedian and, scandalously, the lover of an indigenous bilby, Boo Boo.

As the play begins, he is caught in a rabbit trap, waiting for the trapper to come and turn him into a fur hat. (As this is theatre, his being caught in a trap doesn't stop Dykstra from scrambling all over Anna Cordingley's ingenious set). He alternately laments his fate, admires the beauty of the view and tell us the story of Walter Walloon's brilliant career.

An outcast at school, Walter Walloon discovers popularity with his signature joke, sticking a carrot up his bum. He then shocks his respectable settler family by entering showbusiness and, most egregiously of all, falling in love with Boo Boo, the last of her race, whom he liberates from a cage in a shop window by buying her.

Walter Walloon's love for Boo Boo - and somehow we believe that he really does love her - doesn't stop him from treating her with the most brutal misogyny. Walter Walloon is monstrous, and knows he is monstrous: hence the increasingly despairing denial of his Becketthood. As the metaphor of the rabbit trap makes plain, this is no simple victim/oppressor narrative: Walter Walloon may be a monster, but it is impossible, all the same, to wholly dislike him. After all, he is us.

And he's hilarious. The laughter he elicits is, to be sure, barbed and uncomfortable. Walter Walloon gives us a picture of colonialisation that is at once fanciful and brutally real. Its critique in fact goes deeper than might be possible in a realistic play, because it permits an irony and heartlessness that in a more literal rendering would be simply unbearable.

While it's a little difficult to disentangle Watts' writing from the full-on production Michael Kantor has given it, it's clear that Michael Watts writes tough theatrical prose that shifts effortlessly between vulgar comedy, mordant wit and delicate lyricism. If the play begins under the shadow of Samuel Beckett, with a sub-Beckettian soundscape of mutters and cries ("I am not like Beckett!") echoing around the hectically-revolving set, Samuel Beckett himself drops out of the picture fairly quickly.

The prologue, at least as staged, is effective; but the least successful part of the play is the first ten minutes, before Watts's writing shakes itself free of negative obesiance to this genius of modern theatre and finds its own identity. Calling so baldly on the ghost of Sam inevitably provokes comparison, and it has to be said that Watts' writing lacks Beckett's astringently mandarin intellect and severe poetry. Nor does it possess the profound understanding of visual art that Beckett brought to his creation of theatrical mise en scene.

Watts, in fact, best invokes Beckett's tradition when he stands as far away from him as possible. The authentic connection between Watts' and Beckett's writing is in their mutual exploitation of music hall and vaudeville. Watts invokes a rich Australian tradition of performance, drawing from the Tivoli and, in particular, Roy Rene's iconic character, Mo McCackie, who is recalled in Dykstra's own white-faced clowning.

The character of Walter Walloon Beckett also plugs into a robust modernist heritage of Australian theatre, and stands with Monk O'Neill, the Beckettian antihero of Jack Hibberd's Stretch of the Imagination, as one of the memorable creations of the Australian stage. Dykstra's astonishing performance - surely among the most sheerly outrageous and courageous I've seen - is, in fact, almost a potted history of Australian performance styles from Roy Rene on. There are shades here of the anarchy of 1980s comedy, such as Tick Where Applicable or Los Trios Ringbarkus, or the 1970s "larrikin" theatre of the Australian Performing Group. (And a touch of Sid Vicious, in case it's all getting too parochial).

Dykstra's performance has more than a little of Jacques Lecoq's bouffon, the grotesque clown to whom nothing is sacred, and whose extreme fooling cleanses the social body. Certainly, to get away with what Dykstra doles out to us requires a certain effrontery. He shamelessly enacts some of the most racist and misogynist jokes in the Australian repertoire. He charms us with the simplest of materials: shadowplay with his hands, or the dumbest products of the joke shop. He spends an inordinate amount of time eating a carrot. The slightest doubt, the smallest hesitation, and the entire performance would collapse into embarrassment; but fortunately, Dykstra owns the stage.

Michael Kantor's direction weaves all the disparate elements at work into a seamless whole and keeps the audience continuously surprised. Not least in the tapestry is Cordingley's set, designed around a model of Ron Robertson-Swann's public sculpture Vault (popularly known as "The Yellow Peril"). This creates its own cascade of associations: Vault was originally designed for the Melbourne City Square and, as is often the way with contemporary art in this culture, fell foul of conservative critics.

The sculpture lasted only six months before it was ignominiously dismantled and removed. It spent some time skulking in Batman Park before it was restored and reinstalled in Southbank, just down the road from the Malthouse Theatre, in 2002. Vault's fate is a tempting metaphor for the outright hostility often faced by contemporary art in Melbourne, and it's rather charming to see it celebrated so fondly in this production, in which it becomes a humpy, a stage, a mountain and even a flight of stairs.

The only thing you can be certain of in this show is that you don't know what is going to happen next (although you suspect that it will all end badly). If part of Kantor's project as artistic director of the Malthouse is to redefine what is meant by the phrase "Australian theatre", this production is a fascinating and powerful addition to the conversation.

Picture: Russell Dykstra in Not Like Beckett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006


TN has been catching up on her blog reading, which was interrupted by a refreshing three weeks away from a computer screen. And to say I am delighted to see the return of Encore Theatre Magazine after a long downtime is putting it mildly. Rude, witty, stylishly written and, most importantly, deeply informed and passionate about theatre, the indefatigable Theatre Worker (a pseudonym for an anonymous collection of English theatre types) bracingly reminds you that theatre is hip, intelligent and beautiful. (Well, sometimes it is.)

The site is named after a British theatre magazine that circulated almost 50 years ago, and states its mission thus:

The life of Encore was brief but furious. For little more than a decade, between 1954 and 1965, the magazine railed at the state of British theatre, championing work that it saw as standard-bearing for the experimental, challenging, vital theatre it sought. It was not an ideologically-driven magazine; it was not consistent; it admired the Royal Court, Theatre Workshop, Ionesco, Arden, and Tynan, and it often attacked all of these. But it had passion and it had curiosity. Its standards were invariably high. It knew what it wanted.

We've named this site after Encore. We're not reviving the magazine but maybe we can revive its spirit. We want the online Encore Theatre Magazine to champion what is good and attack what is not. Just like its predecessor, we want to be a voice for a new theatre, building on the firmest foundations left to us, but pulling down the timbers of the rotten playhouses.
Words to warm the cockles of an old blogger's heart. Get thee hence for some frankly hilarious scalpeling of Tom Stoppard's latest play Rock'n'Roll, which opened to much celebrity hoohah while I was in London. And lest you think Encore's appeal is all schadenfreude, hang around to read its meditations on the Royal Court's 50th anniversary. And much else.

Meanwhile in New York, Mr Hunka at Superfluities is lamblasting commercial excesses in this post. And on this continent, Mr Boyd over at The Morning After has been getting to quite a few shows I've missed, including Unspoken, recently on at the Malthouse, and the Sydney production of Marius von Mayenburg's The Cold Child.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

You heard it from Ben first

The Australian finally catches up (via the London Times) on the Comedie-Francaise/Handke stoush, an issue followed closely on Ben Ellis' Parachute of a Playwright blog and on this blog here and here and here and here and here and, oh yes, here as well... Well, you get the picture.

The latest is the sacking (correction: unexpected non-renewal of contract) of the Comedie-Francaise adminstrator, Marcel Bozonnet. Covered by Mr Ellis a week ago.

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