Review: Killing GameReview: Simple GiftsMIAF: The WrapsMIAF: Pichet Klunchun and MyselfMIAF: Peepshow, Blind DateMIAF: I La GaligoFestival nanniesMIAF: VoyageMIAF: Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels EmptyBriefly off topicMIAF: Ngapartji Ngapartji, La Fille de CirqueMIAF: Tragedia Endogonidia, 1984Fringe Review: Rubeville <i>and</i> DebrisNotablesBlogrollin' ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Review: Killing Game

Killing Game by Eugene Ionesco, directed by Greg Stone. Design by John Bennett, lighting by Nick Merrylees, sound by Greg Stone and Evan Drill. With University of Ballarat Arts Academy Third Year graduates. Theatreworks until November 4.

Eugene Ionesco's Killing Game is notable, among other things, for probably holding the theatrical record for deaths on stage. It might even beat the record in its first scene, which starts off as an innocuous portrayal of streetlife and ends with a mysterious and deadly illness striking down everyone in sight.

Ionesco's enthusiastically comedic overkill continues through almost every scene in the play, providing every actor in his large cast with at least one death scene. But like Albert Camus in his rather more sober novel The Plague, Ionesco is concerned not so much with death itself, as with what happens to human beings in a society that perceives itself under threat: how easily human freedoms are compromised and manipulated by fear.

Written in 1974, Killing Game is one of Ionesco's later plays. Less overtly surreal than a play like Rhinoceros, it nevertheless takes Emily Dickinson's advice to "tell the truth, but tell it slant". The plague that afflicts this unnamed town kills astonishing numbers of people: 30,000 in one day. They keel over in the streets, in their homes, in prisons and hospitals, dying mere seconds after exhibiting their symptoms.

Ionesco is simply unconcerned by the realities of pathology or with the logistical details of, for example, removing 30,000 corpses a day from the streets. The literal details of what might be called his propositions about reality do not interest him.What does concern him is the absurdity of the human capacity for self-deception and folly and the possibility - always contingent - of true human communication.

Ionesco himself fiercely resisted political or ideological interpretations of his work. "The true society, the authentic human community," he wrote, "is extra-social - a wider, deeper society, that which is revealed by our common anxieties, our desires, our secret nostalgias....A work of art is the expression of an incommunicable reality that one tries to communicate".

But this doesn't mean that ideologies cannot be read in Ionesco's work. Perhaps his truest insight is the profoundly Marxist idea that society alienates human beings from themselves. "I believe that every society alienates," he said. "Even and above all a 'socialist' society...wherever one finds social functions, one finds alienation." Such refusals of the binaries of Left and Right look less wilfully eccentric now than they might have done in the 1950s, when they caused pain to critics like Kenneth Tynan, who saw them as an expression of aesthetic irresponsibility.

In Killing Game, the disease that attacks the community might be seen a metaphor for society itself. But although its black satire of a community destroying itself in order to protect itself seems grimly apposite now, Greg Stone's lively and intelligent production refuses the temptation of burdening the play with heavy-handed relevance. It speaks for itself, and so retains its complexity.

It opens as a faceless red-cloaked figure, an avatar of Death, strums a sinister solo on an electric guitar. She stands on the heights of John Bennett's striking multi-level set while the citizens of the town unknowingly go about their business below, creating a theatrical image that is very like the mediaeval idea of memento mori.

Stone's energetic student cast keeps the pace fast, exploiting Ionesco's black ironies with enthusiasm and comedic aplomb. The scenes cut from one to another across the multiple levels of the set, signalled by changes in lighting states. It's backed by an powerhouse soundtrack, including live music and a good dose of Tom Waits' The Earth Died Screaming.

For the most part, the performances are more than creditable; the only time when their youth is a problem is in a moving (and rather crucial) dialogue between an old couple (
Michael Bevitt and Helene Koen). It is not these talented young actors' fault that this scene is beyond their capacity: it is not only the physical appearance of age that is missing here, but the profound and subtle sadness with which Ionesco imbues his characters, and which can only come with age itself.

This production certainly shows off the various talents of Ballarat University's Arts Academy. And as an old Ballarat girl myself, I'm glad to say they do Ionesco proud.

Picture: Michael Bevitt and Helene Koen in Killing Game. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

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Review: Simple Gifts

My review of George Ogilvie's autobiography Simple Gifts, published by Currency House, was broadcast today on ABC Radio National's The Book Show today. Audio and transcript here.

Worth listening to on the same program is Frank Moorhouse's talk on The Writer in a Time of Terror, in which he ruminates on freedom of speech (or the increasing lack of it) in Australia.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

MIAF: The Wraps

The Age has several wrap-ups today on MIAF, in general dubbing this year's festival a rather puzzling success. Arts Editor Raymond Gill even complains that there were no flops. After listing a long line of shows that had received good word-of-mouth, he says: "Although there were some shows that did not engage with audiences, there were no controversial failures. In a curious way, that was a disappointment - a festival should be the place where big ideas are launched and either take flight or fail spectacularly." Hmmm.

Under the contradictory headline "Too few risks in festival fare", dance reviewer Hilary Crampton talks about the riskiness of dance performance, and comments that the festival contained too little to laugh at. There's a generous note from opera reviewer John Slavin mentioning how nobody complains about the public expense of the Grand Prix or training Olympic sportspeople and Raymond Gill talks up the festival's programming for children.

In fact, it's all fair enough until you get to the part that concerns me most - the theatre. And here we have young Cameron Woodhead doing his best Peter Craven impersonation. "Edmunds has a predilection for exposing us to non-mainstream art," he claims, "and this year's festivalgoers certainly bore the brunt of that ambition."

So were the critics who attacked Edmunds right? Was what we ended up with little better than a "high-class fringe festival", as Robin Usher put it?

Well, yes actually. Among the riot of avant-garde acts and innovative hybrids, theatre-lovers in search of something resembling a play faced slim pickings. The closest we got was Tim Robbins' The Actors' Gang performing George Orwell's 1984 - and it was a disaster.

Well, we all hated 1984. Woodhead then goes on to make an extraordinary claim: making the marginal so central to her enterprise, Edmunds seems out of touch with a city that is starting to suffer from fringe overload. Apart from strong showings at the Next Wave and Fringe festivals, the Malthouse Theatre has been recast in an avant-garde mould - if we have a paucity of any kind of theatre, it's well-presented mainstream fare.
It's hard to know where to begin here. What Edmunds presented was a diverse range of contemporary international theatre practice, and her programming in fact included much text-based work - Marie Brassard's Peepshow, for example, or Ngapartji Ngapartji, or Robert Wilson's spectacularly operatic I La Galigo, or Max Lyandvert's version of Richard Foreman's play Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty. Words were everywhere, even in the dance pieces. Woodhead's definition of "play" seems to be innocent of most of the theatrical developments of the past century.

And once again there is that meaningless distinction between "mainstream" and "fringe", with "marginal" and "alternative" being code words for "bad". Robert Wilson is allowed to be a "great" theatre artist (I La Galigo in fact won the Age critic's prize for best act of the festival) but everyone else - from Robert Lepage's collaborator Marie Brassard to Romeo Castelluci - who is a Chevalier dans l'ordre des Artes et des Lettres, the French version of an OBE - to Jérôme Bel, who works at that marginal fringe venue the Paris Opéra - is dismissed as "fringe". Is this merely parochial innocence on Woodhead's part? Or something worse?

Stranger still is Cameron's claim that Melbourne is suffering from a paucity of straight plays. Little Cameron Woodentop should take a good look at what's going on around him: Melbourne is well served here. The largest theatre company in the southern hemisphere, the MTC, fulfils to a tee its brief to put on "well presented mainstream fare". La Mama's program is overwhelmingly play-based, and independent companies like Red Stitch and Theatre At Risk consistently present programs of new plays from local and international artists. And this is without even looking at the straight-out commercial theatre.

Even that apparent bastion of the avant garde, the Malthouse, has presented many straight plays - from Patrick White's The Ham Funeral to Ross Mueller's Construction of the Human Heart to Stephen Sewell's It Just Stopped to Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado. Coming up soon is Brian Friels' Translations and Peter Evan's and Anita Hegh's wonderful version of The Yellow Wallpaper, imported from the Store Room. Or are these plays too "fringe"? What is the boy talking about?

PS Who needs Woodhead when we have Peter Craven himself wittering on about the "central culture of our times" like a cut-price Harold Bloom? It seems that I La Galigo is The Thing, but everything else is - gasp - "fringe". And not nearly as good as a retrospective of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Nothing against Antonioni, but...what? It sounds as if Craven didn't see much of the festival in any case, aside from the Wilson piece and possibly 1984 - "reports" of Castelluci's Tragedia Endogonidia suggested it was "a terrible thing to witness", "a long way" from Shakespeare (has he ever witnessed the unwatchable scene in King Lear where Gloucester's eyes are put out, I wonder?) But hey. Craven's argument makes even less sense than Woodhead's, and mainly makes me wonder why the Age published an opinion piece about MIAF that is really a rather confused plug for the Italian Film Festival.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

MIAF: Pichet Klunchun and Myself

Festival diary #7

TN is recovering nicely after three weeks of extreme culture vulturing (not as extreme on my part as some others, to whom I can only tip my hat in astonishment) and might soon be able to receive visitors. It's been an intense, fascinating, diverse and very enjoyable time. I guess everyone cuts a festival like this their own way, and will have their own story on it: but me, I feel well fed.

What I will probably remember most from MIAF 2006 is Romeo Castelluci's Tragedia Endogonidia and the piece I talk about below. Perhaps what both of them have in common is the courage to do only what they needed to, and nothing more. Which is much harder than it sounds.

Pichet Klunchun and Myself, concept by Jérôme Bel, by and with Jérôme Bel and Pichet Klunchun. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre

After the rich diet of the past three weeks, this startling and beautiful piece comes as a cleansing of the palate: light, dry, subtle, leaving a profound aftertaste. Plichet Klunchun and Myself is an often very funny encounter between two very different artists, the controversial contemporary French choreographer Jérôme Bel and the traditional Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun. Or, more strictly speaking, a performance of an encounter. Perhaps what is most astonishing about this show is that it feels like a first meeting, although, as audience members, we know perfectly well that this is a piece that has been performed many times.

It is about as simple as it gets. Two chairs are placed facing each other on the vast emptiness of the stripped Playhouse stage. On one sits Jérôme Bel, who looks as if he has recently fallen out of bed, dressed in white sneakers, a casual pullover and jeans. On the other sits Pichet Klunchun, dressed in long black shorts and a black t-shirt. Bel has an ibook open on his lap, from which he reads a series of prepared questions for Klunchun.

The questions begin as simply as the staging: what is your name? What is your profession? Why are you a dancer? The answers, as might be expected, are not so simple: the third elicits a long answer about how his mother had longed for a son, and had made an offering at a Buddhist temple, after which she had become pregnant with Pichet. In the face of Bel's bafflement at what this has to do with dance, he explains that the temple god appreciated dance, and so after his birth, his mother commissioned a performance before the temple statue. It seems, although he does not say so, that he was destined for his vocation.

Klunchun is a Khon dancer, a very stylised form of traditional Thai dance, and soon Bel wants to see what it is. What follows is about as lucid an explanation, complete with demonstrations, of the physical language of Khon and the formal conventions of Asian theatre as you are likely to hear. He explains how the text relates to the movements, how the orchestra is on stage, and that the dance is masked, which means that the dancers themselves do not sing or speak.

Bel asks how Khon represents death on stage, and is shown various means of indirect representation, since it is bad luck to represent a death. In one, the warrior dies off-stage; in another, the grieving family and retainers and possibly the deceased's army walk very slowly across the stage (a scene which can apparently take 20 minutes). The last, in which a courtly lady is told of the death of her husband, wiping away her tears so that no one will see her grief, is exquisitely beautiful, and Bel is visibly moved by it.

Soon it is Klunchun's turn, and he asks Bel the same questions: who he is, what he does, and why he does it. This time it is Klunchun's turn to be baffled. Bel is one of the foremost practitioners of contemporary European dance. His performances have caused people to throw objects at the dancers or demand their money back (apparently, they don't get it). When Bel demonstrates his favourite dance (which involves standing still on stage, doing nothing) Klunchun is dumbstruck. Why would anyone pay to see that? he asks.

Bel then explains why his choreography produces so little dance: he is reacting, he says, against the Society of the Spectacle. In a society in which people are alienated from real human relationship by the mediation of images, he refuses to entertain: he wants to disappoint his audience's expectations, in order to permit the possibility that something else, something more authentic, might occur. People go to see contemporary art, he explains, because they don't know what will happen, not because they do know. They go in the hope that they will see something that articulates the experiences they have in their daily lives.

Klunchun asks him how he represents death, and Bel puts on a recording of Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly and does his standing thing again. Before long he drops to his knees, and finally he ends up lying on the floor. This elicits a moving story from Klunchun about the death of his mother, who was paralysed for 11 years before she died.

"I want to make space for people to have their own thoughts about death," says Bel, adding, almost as an afterthought, "Sometimes I make too much space..."

"I liked it, because it is traditional," answers Klunchun.

Bel becomes very still and is silent for a long time. He is clearly appalled. "I think you are wrong," he says finally.

"Maybe - maybe what I mean is that it is international," replies Klunchun. "Death is very international."

He recognises something, suggests Bel, just as Bel was able to understand the gesture of the woman wiping away the tears from her face, even though he couldn't understand, without explanation, the complex and subtle vocabulary of Khon dance. The movement in these dances expressed something that was humanly common across their very different cultures.

Just in case we get too comfortable about the universality of art, the dialogue ends with Bel enthusiastically beginning to take off his trousers to demonstrate his nude choreography. Klunchun is horrified and begs him to stop. "Don't you like my work?" asks Bel, hurt. "No, no, it's not that," says Klunchun. "I get it. It's just that I don't want to see you naked in front of me...we don't do that..."

There is much art behind the apparent artlessness of this show: it is in fact a brilliant example of the aesthetic Bel expresses. The convention of having a performer watch someone else on stage is, for example, extremely theatrical, and here it is consciously employed to elicit our complicity as an audience: we too are watching. Here are two very different artists from very different societies explaining their work and their lives to each other, and hence to us. Their curiosity, their occasional offence, their mutual amusement and respect, make this show a riveting and, finally, profound meditation on human communication.

I have seldom seen a work so absolutely lucid, or so luminous with humanity. And lest you still think that two dancers talking about their work for almost two hours sounds dull, I took along my personal boredom-meter, my 11-year-old son. He was enchanted: he clapped all the dances, laughed at the humour, and talked exhaustingly about the relationship between Thai dance and Thai architecture and Jérôme Bel's willingness to take off his trousers all the way home.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

MIAF: Peepshow, Blind Date

Festival Diary #6

My apologies for the tardiness of these reviews. Retrospectively, I diagnosed myself with what Osip Mandelstam called Pre-Lyrical Anxiety (PLA to us poet-types): after three days of being completely incapable of writing a sentence, I thought of a word, and then of another word, and then, suddenly, there was a poem. Poetry is like that: inconvenient, capricious and consuming.

You can decide for yourself, Gentle Reader, whether the poem that ensued at the end of it all was worth three days of utter blankness. But in the meantime, back to the shows I saw earlier this week...

Peepshow, devised, directed and performed by Marie Brassard. Live music and sound design Alexander MacSween, design and lighting Simon Guibault. Malthouse Theatre.

The title of Marie Brassard's Peepshow summons a long tradition of voyeurism and titillation: pornography, of course, but also its historical twin, the freak show. Since long before PT Barnum opened his Museum, where 19th century New Yorkers went to gawp at human oddities like the Siamese Twins Eng and Chang or JoJo the Dog-faced Boy, human beings have flocked, with equal parts desire and fear, to witness monstrous reflections of themselves.

In Peepshow, the monsters are within. The show opens with a child's voice speaking in darkness. She tells of a dream in which she meets a monster and sits with him by a pool, utterly happy. "I could die now," the child says. Of course, this narrative is underlaid with a frisson of danger: in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the child does die, accidentally drowned in the lake by the monster.

The monster introduced next is the Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, who is less innocent than Frankenstein's creation: but here the emphasis is on his big eyes, "all the better to admire your beauty". Brassard's reading - which draws on feminist retellings, such as Angela Carter's, that construe the redness of Little Red Riding Hood's cloak as a sign of sexual maturity - suggests the unspoken complicity of the girl.

These two avatars, the misunderstood monster and the seductive wolf, dominate the fragmentary interwoven narratives that make up this fascinating solo performance. What counts here is Brassard's voice, which through the magic of a pitch-shifter - an electronic box of tricks niftily manipulated by sound designer Alexander MacSween - can be made to sound as if she is a man, a woman or a child, creating dissonances between the visual and spoken images. What could have been merely a gimmick is, however, given force and meaning by Brassard's hypnotic text and performance which, in their poetic excavation of the embodied human soul, remind me irresistably of the solo work of Margaret Cameron.

Brassard stands alone on stage in a vaguely fetishistic costume: a red dress and black boots, a wig and sunglasses. The staging is very simple: the only prop is a chair, and she is sometimes backed by unobstrusive projected images, that vary between abstract designs to images that extend the text: footage of wild wolves, or mirrors of the performer herself.

It is uncertain who the "I" of the performance is, because there are several characters of both sexes, but we construct one all the same: a bright young girl who at school refuses to give the obvious but correct answer to a question, and is humiliatingly placed with the not-so-clever ones; the young woman who secretly enjoys being followed by a man whom she never speaks to; the older woman who tenderly cares for a sick former lover; the woman who goes to a stranger's house and finds herself dressing in bondage wear and being tied to a chair. She characterises mutual attraction as a string: one leads and the other follows, like the pet duck the child recalls as her most intelligent pet.

All these encounters are strangely benign, even innocent. The stories are often comic: this show is leavened by a certain indefinable lightness that goes beyond humour, although humour is part of it. Brassard foregrounds the trembling vulnerability of desire, contrasting the heartbreak of a young woman whose boyfriend has left her with the boyfriend's Seinfeldian advice on how to get out of a relationship without appearing like a bastard, or the power the young woman holds over the older man she leads him around the city, excited by his desire, before she tires of the game. Heartlessness oscillates with the hurts it makes in others.

The real theme of the show is loss, the interior scars of love. "It is difficult," the teacher tells the little girl, "to lose someone you really love". It is these wounds that Brassard brings to the surface, making us aware of the fragilities and boundaries represented by our skin, the edges of ourselves that are so easily broken and hurt. These invisible, unhealed hurts trace both our innocence and our pain, revealing us as monsters at once perilous and vulnerable. If we showed on our faces the traces of every caress, every blow, Brassard muses near the end of the show, what would we look like?

Blind Date, choreographed and directed by Bill T Jones. Musical direction by Daniel Bernard Roumain. Music performed by Akim "Funk" Buddha, Neel Murgai, Amie Weiss, Daniel Bernard Roumain. Danced by Asli Bulbul, Leah Cox, Maija Garcia, Shaneeka Harrell, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Wen-Chung Lin, Erick Montes, Charles Scott, Donald C Shorter, Stuart Singer and Andrea Smith. Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company @ the State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre.

One of the reasons I like dance is that, usually, it is wordless. Like visual art, it represents an escape from the expressive boundaries of language.

Bill T Jones wasn't, however, about to give me that satisfaction. Blind Date is heavy with text, both spoken and visual. Words are projected onto a maze of screens that crowd the set, they are said by the dancers, they are uttered in short videoed interviews with members of the company. The text, both literally and metaphorically, frames the dance.

I feel ambivalent about the sucess of this. Blind Date is Bill T Jones' response to the re-election of George W Bush in the 2004 election, and here, with varying degrees of lightness or heavyhandedness, he explores notions of patriotism, militarism, the place of the individual within society. The different movements of the dance are each titled, and in a Brechtian gesture, are projected on the stage, along with definitions of Deism or "fourth generation warfare". Their repetition in varying contexts sometimes reinforces an ironic critique and at others slides into the merely didactic.

The score, arranged and written by Daniel Bernard Roumain, is fantastic. It includes all sorts of vocals: throat singing, a traditional Irish ballad, a full-blooded rendition of Otis Redding's Security. A Bach sonata, a recurring musical theme, is performed with a beatbox rhythm that is surprisingly effective, and later is almost completely deconstructed, slowed down into its constituent parts.

In a deliberate evocation of sensory overload, some scenes include perhaps half a dozen different things happening on stage. Sometimes - as with a dance called "Richard: the Sitting Duck", about the mutual exploitativeness of franchise corporations and the war machine - this is exhilarating, at once comic and terrifying. At others, it seems merely distracting: I found myself watching the videoed footage or reading the text instead of watching the dancers. Bill T Jones himself would probably say that this is a totally legitimate choice, but most of the time the real action was with the dancers.

For me, a defining moment was near the beginning. Jones uses extensively a quote from a 1989 Marine Corps Gazette:

In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between "civilian" and "military" may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants' depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.
Having thus implicitly placed his dance as a political action, as a node of military and militant activity, Jones choreographs a beautiful solo to Bach's Violin Sonata No 1 in G Minor. I found this transition very moving: the sheer lyric beauty of the dance, the fragility of the human body, is here an act of poignant defiance. Not all the transitions between text and dance were so effective, and most of the time it seemed to me that Jones' choreography erupted out of a cage of language, saving the work from what could have been a stultifying earnestness.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

MIAF: I La Galigo

Festival Diary #5

As we enter the third week of the Melbourne Festival, TN finds herself a little alarmed by how easily she fades these days. I had to pass on Lucy Guerin's Structure and Sadness and Kota Yamazaki's dance company Fluid hug-hug's Rise:Rose out of sheer exhaustion. Dammit. Mind you, I have never been much good at wholesale cultural consumption: there's always the danger of the experience becoming undifferentiated artistic sludge, like mixing too many colours on a palette. So, with the idea of stringing individual jewels along the MIAF narrative, I will stop regretting what I haven't seen, and get on with what I have...

I La Galigo, from the Sureq Galigo, adapted by Rhoda Grauer, directed by Robert Wilson. Music by Rahaya Supanggah, co-set designer Christophe Martin, lighting by AJ Weissbard, dance master Andi Ummu Tunru. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre

It's impossible to underestimate the influence of Asia on modern Western theatre. Ever since Antonin Artaud reviewed a Balinese theatre troupe at the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931, its theatre has been a major stimulus for the avant garde. Artaud was inspired by the Balinese dancers, who for him articulated the possibility of a theatrical language free of the chains of literature, and his rewritten review later became one of the key essays in his hugely influential book, Theatre and Its Double. A little later, in 1935, Bertolt Brecht saw the Peking Opera in Moscow, and his experience of "strangeness" profoundly underlaid his Epic Theatre and its theory of verfremdungseffekt, most often translated as the "alienation effect".

In 1978, Edward Said published his ground breaking (and much misrepresented) work about the political implications of Western portrayals of the East, Orientalism. By the time Peter Brook undertook his extraordinary nine-hour adaptation of the Indian epic poem, The Mahabharata, in 1985, the issue of cultural appropriation had entered the intellectual mix. Intercultural artists like Brook (and Ariane Mnouchkine, for her epic production of Les Atrides) were accused of a kind of neo-colonial banditry, "raiders across a frontier", according to one critic, who brought back "strange clothes as their loot".

In assuming that cultural influence only runs one way, this rather ignores Said's argument about the mutuality of cultural influence in colonised societies. Even more problematically, it can encourage a museum-mindset around minority cultures, preserving them in a kind of motionless prehistory that is hermetically sealed from the present. Some of the complexities around this question can be seen from the arguments sparked by Wesley Enoch's appropriation of Medea in his production of Black Medea: as Enoch himself said, "I've been amazed how many 'purists' have come out of the closet saying that this kind of appropriation is 'not allowed'."

Given this history, it's easy to see why Robert Wilson - one of the major innovative directors of our time - was so attracted by the Sureq Galigo, an epic poem from the Bugis people in South Sulwesi in Indonesia, and also why he has been so careful in his approach, consulting extensively with the culture to whom it belongs. The original epic runs to something like 6000 pages and exists in innumerable versions, making it one of the longest literary works in the world. In realising this text on stage, Wilson has pulled off a considerable aesthetic coup: he has created a work of breathtakingly sensual splendour that neither compromises his practice nor traduces the Asian traditions on which he is drawing.

Anyone who saw the National Theatre of Cambodia's production of the traditional Cambodian epic Weyreap's Battle at MIAF last year will be familiar with the theatrical traditions at work here: the narrative is chanted or sung, while dancers, masked and unmasked, enact the story with stylised, even heiratic movement. It's theatre that combines elements of the sacred and profane, beginning with a blessing and including elements of vulgar comedy.

Librettist Rhoda Grauer has adapted what are generally understood to be the most significant characters and events of this creation myth. The Middle World - the realm in which we live - is created and populated when the gods of the Upper and Under Worlds, in an irresistably Blakean observation, realise that they are not gods if there is no one to worship them. Patotoqe, boss god of the Upper World, sends down his son Batara Guru, and Guru ri Selleq, god of the Under World, sends up his daughter We Nyiliq. The two marry and, in a festival of fertility, everyone gives birth except the Queen. That's because her twin son and daughter have decided they like the womb and don't want to be born.

Bissu priests are brought in to help the Queen, and after a blood sacrifice in which the people battle, she gives birth to Golden Twins. Sawerigading, the warrior king, is born like Athene in full armour, while We Tenriebeng, his sister, destined to the priesthood, is born in Bissu regalia. After this difficult birth, an oracle tells the parents that their children must never meet, as they are destined to fall in love, and incest would destroy the kingdom. The princess is hidden in the palace, while Sawerigading is sent out to explore the world with his clownish cousins.

Of course, the twins meet and fall in love: but despite Sawerigading's bloody tantrums, which involve killing most of the population, they are not allowed to marry. Trying to forget We Tenriebeng, he marries We Cudaiq, a proud and stubborn princess in Cina, and begets I La Galigo. Eventually Sawerigading returns to his home kingdom and meets his sister again, at which point the gods announce the purging of the Middle World. The gods return to their worlds, Sawerigading's son and We Tenriebeng's daughter are sent down to the Middle World to be its new rulers, and the gates between the realms are closed forever, leaving the young royal couple alone on the godless earth.

When we enter the theatre, we see the blank stage, obscured with a scrim that is decorated with the original script of the epic. The show begins with the entrance of the orchestra, who settle themselves stage right, and a figure dressed gorgeously in yellow silk, Puang Matoa Saidi, who sits cross legged on a small hanamichi at the front. Puang Matoa Saidi is the main chanter and also a Bissu priest: he sits motionless through the entire show, slowly turning the pages of a book that lies in front of him on a wooden rest. Then the scrim rises and we witness the emptying of the Middle World: a procession of people carrying a miscellany of objects - pots, musical instruments, spears, baskets - cross the stage from right to left, silhouetted against the blank screen that is the major feature of the stage, and which now is a deep blue brightening to sunrise. The slow, heiratic movement introduces the pace of this production, which induces a deep, contemplative attention.

The show itself lasts for three hours, but it seems somehow appropriate that I lost all sense of time while I was watching it. Wilson orchestrates the rhythm beautifully: long ritualised scenes, such as the first meeting of the royal couple, when We Nyiliq Timoq rises in royal splendour from the sea, are contrasted with the burping-and-scratching vulgarity of Sawerigading's disreputable cousins or the comically beautiful entrance of the animals - masked monkeys and frogs, deer with antler and an unlikely-looking giraffe, each with its own musical signature. Wilson's cast of more than 50 Indonesian performers enacts the stylised dances and mimes with a precise and compelling expressiveness. This is the kind of performance that flowers from a core of stillness and contemplation, making each gesture and each change of rhythm charged and meaningful.

The costumes are, like the set design, elegant contemporary adaptations of traditional Asian designs. Perhaps what is most striking in the production is the colour: it is at once lush and spare, employing a palette of clear, luminous colours, like those used in dyeing silk. It didn't surprise me afterwards when I read that the costume designer Joachim Herzog adhered strictly to traditional Indonesian notions of colour use and heraldic symbology in his designs (yellow for royal, for example), as the colours in both the lighting and costumes have a deep coherency, which works even for those who do not understand the codes.

Likewise, Rahayu Sapanggah's original music, which draws on traditions from all over Indonesia and beyond, sounds at once deeply ancient and modern, and features some thrilling drumming as well as songs of heart-stopping poignancy. One of the instruments sounds exactly like a cello, but in fact no Western instruments were used.

Wilson escapes the trap of making a patronisingly anthropological treatment of a fascinating but obscure text: this is utterly contemporary theatre that dynamically reworks this ancient epic, bringing it freshly alive. All the various elements are seamlessly woven together to create a work of profound elegance that, like the myth it enacts, is at once lucid and mysterious. It epitomises the kind of intercultural exchange that Said himself would have welcomed; if all meetings of East and West were this fruitful, the world would be a different place.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Festival nannies

Miriam Cosic, Arts Editor for the Oz, writes waspishly today of the handwringing apparently going on over Kristy Edmunds' MIAF:

POOR Melbourne. Sometimes it doesn't know whether it's coming or going.

The Victorian capital prides itself on its cool quotient: all those funky laneways, the designers' designers, the innovative alternative theatre and contemporary dance.

And yet its idea of what constitutes an arts festival can be positively nanna-ish.

It seems that the "tabloids" (aka the Herald Sun) and the talkbacks have been doing the "call this art?" tango, while Toorak matrons are bewailing the lack of 19th century opera. Cosic bracingly points out that young people pay taxes as well - and she, too, has noticed the packed houses that I've seen at every show I've attended.

Sigh. Sometimes I wish this parochial angst were not so bloody predictable. It would be nice if the claim that Melbourne is Australia's "cultural capital" - bruited by those busy being appalled and disgusted by said culture - could be allowed to be more than an advertising slogan.

Note: Chris Boyd takes Cosic (and me, for "echoing stupid remarks" about the Herald Sun) to task in the comments for exercising "heresay (sic), at best. Vivid imagination at worst". Far from beating up a non-story, Cosic is clearly responding to Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt's full-frontal attack on Kristy Edmunds' programming of MIAF. Bolt is also, as it happens, a guest on talk back radio, where I expect he continued to make his claim that MIAF is a "crime against the arts" and that the Melbourne Festival is "dead".

Chris also suggests I'm running a "line" on festival audiences, and cites his own observations. Fair enough. We're clearly going on different nights. The shows I've seen, with a single exception (in a small theatre), have had full houses, although of course I can't swear that means they've been complete sell-outs. The canard that nobody is going to MIAF - which was claimed about last year's well-attended festival as well - is directly contradicted by my own experience. Obviously it's partial - I'm not at every performance on every night. But if nobody is going to the festival, who are all these people obscuring my view with standing ovations (two so far, Ngapartji Ngapartji and I La Gaglio)?

Finally, and the only thing I take exception to: Chris implies that I am soft-pedalling my critical responses. "I thought you've been showing distinct signs of turning into one of those critics that like everything! " That is simply not true, as a quick look at recent reviews will show: in fact, I've had reservations about four of the past nine things I've seen (five out of ten, if you count the book review).

Chris and I seem to differ on almost everything we see, and that is fine: one of the things that has been missing in discourse about Melbourne theatre is the ability to civilisedly and intelligently disagree. And TN welcomes dissenting comments. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will be very aware of my taste in theatre, and I make no secret of the fact that I am an advocate for certain kinds of contemporary work that I consider exciting and important. But to imply that I am not calling things as I see them is at best presumptuous. At worst, simply offensive.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

MIAF: Voyage

Festival diary #4

Voyage by dumb type, performed by Manna Fujiwara, Yuko Hirai, Takao Kawaguchi, Hidekaazu Maeda, Seiko Ouchi, So Ozaki, Noriko Sunayama, Mayumi Tanaka, Misako Yabuuchi. Visuals by Shiro Takatani, Takayuki Fujimoto, Hiromasa Tomari. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre

Darkness. After a time, the faintest of illuminations; at first you are not certain whether it is a trick of the eyes. An electronic roar that sounds disconcertingly at once like an amplified organic sound – perhaps the rushing of blood through the body – and machine-like begins to swell up from silence. As your eyes adjust and the lights slowly brighten, you begin to make out the edges of three huge silver spheres on stage, and a human form moving in the shadows against the wall of electronic sound. The dancer’s movements are like flight, like swimming; her body is reflected in the polished floor beneath her. She returns to darkness.

The first movement of Voyage, dumb type’s hypnotically beautifully multimedia show, is at once spectacular – the beauty of the unadorned human body against the austere simplicity of the spheres is striking – and subtle. It introduces a series of autonomous vignettes that invoke a myriad of responses, but which all highlight the fragility of the human body in a world which is at once beautiful and threatening.

dumb type is that rare beast, a collective: as they put it, “we don’t want a king”. Formed in Kyoto in the 1980s by a bunch of arts students frustrated by the narrowness of their studies, the company brought together artists from a variety of backgrounds who began to pioneer multimedia theatre in Japan. Clearly inspired by Pina Bausch's conflation of dance and theatre, they create work of an intriguing beauty: it skirts the edges of kitsch, finding its expressiveness by magnifying and making symbolic what are sometimes very ordinary elements of contemporary life.

Voyage is centrally a series of expressions of anxiety and yearning, through which run several common images and concerns. The transience and speed of contemporary life is placed in deliberate tension with qualities of reflectiveness and slowness. Most gestures in the choreography are simple and contemplative, aside from one jazzy piece, a kind of satire of airports, which features mini-skirted air hostesses doing a Broadway dance number. For the most part, the work focuses on stillness: a woman lies on a desk idly typing flight schedules on a typewriter - itself a relic of a vanished modernity - interspersed with with questions: where am I? where are you? Her image is reflected in a giant projection, which closes in on the keys typing: finally it is typing cancelled flights. "Baghdad: cancelled."

Text plays into these images in very interesting ways that make some of these sequences huge visual poems: in a scene where Misako and Mayumi run in the dark, lamps affixed to their foreheads, searching for each other, they cry out in Japanese while the text runs across the back of the stage in English. Surtitles, of course, but not merely surtitles, as they are also visual elements in their own right.

In another sequence, which begins with a huge lightbulb swinging like a luminous pendulum over the dark stage, projected words fall down from the ceiling, rippling over the performers’ bodies. They are all single words, starting with "slow", that conjure the transience of time: "before", "once", "moment".

A particularly beautiful vignette features a voiceover that lists a long sequence of wishes, beginning with “I wish I were an angel”. A woman lies prone on a circular mat in the middle of the stage, surrounded by gorgeous images of the natural world which transform to a giant doubling of herself, projected on the back wall of the stage and reflected on the stage floor. The projected image, with its actual grass, dominates the physically present woman, a manifestation of the hyperrality of the virtual image. At first benign and fanciful, the vague banality of the wishes become more and more suggestive of human disaster, until the words dissolve into an earsplitting shriek of white noise, while the image becomes a matrix-like flow of digital numbers and letters, before resolving again into sense. But now the seemingly childlike "I wish I were an angel" is more sinister; it is a deathwish, an inability to cope with the pain of loss.

Voyage finishes with a dance which is a reflection of the opening scene, but where there had been blank spheres, now the solo performer moves against a changing background of flightmaps. It suggests that human restlessness is not so much about arrival as a marking, the traces we leave on our planet. The natural world is a major feature of this piece, but in a way that almost seems nostalgic: there are projected images of the sky or forests or mountains that are at once gorgeously lush and, in their very magnification and heightened colour, curiously alienated. They are are contrasted with images of with human mapping and exploration - airports, for example, or flight maps of the Middle East, in which no-go zones flash up the subliminal fears that underlie so much of this imagery.

The dichotomies between interior, private lives and public impersonal spaces, between the natural world and technology, or between private and public anxieties, give these theatrical images fruitful tensions and complexities: only once, during a dance that seemed to be in empty arctic space, did I find my absorption flagging. Ryoji Ikeda's brooding soundscape effectively uses ambient sound - the amplified dragging out of a plastic sheet that is part of the set, for example, or the sound of stones being shaken in a box - as well as electronic music. And the lighting is pure genius, a dance in itself.

Pictures: Voyage by dumb type. Photos: Kazuo Fukunaga

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MIAF: Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty

Festival Diary #3

Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty by Richard Foreman. Direction, composition and design by Max Lyandvert. Lighting by Luiz Pampolha. With Benjamin Winspear, Gibson Nolte and Rebecca Smee, Voice by Helmut Bakaitis. Kitchen Sink @ The Tower, Malthouse Theatre.

Many moons ago a friend of mine, then an eager young drama student, read Richard Foreman's plays and decided he wanted to direct one of them. He wrote to Foreman asking for pointers, and received back a friendly, helpful and and deeply perplexed response: "Why on earth would you want to do that?"

It's a good question. My friend's production never got off the ground, as the actors rebelled; but composer Max Lyandvert has found some more amenable performers and has now directed three of Foreman's works: My Head Was A Sledgehammer, Now I've Got The Shakes, and Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty.

Having seen the last, I find myself turning over the question of how possible it is to do Foreman's plays. On the one hand, they exist as texts which anyone might perform, just as one might perform Moliere or Ibsen or Stein. But on the other, if anyone is a theatrical auteur, it is Foreman: how possible is it really to separate Foreman's idiosyncratic texts from his theatrical practice, honed over more than three decades?

In one sense, it's easy to see why you'd want to give it a go: Foreman's plays are funny, intriguing, multi-faceted and disturbing. Eschewing plot, psychology or "common" sense, they are like the best sort of nonsense poetry - Lewis Carroll, for example, or Edward Lear - in which language creates its own alternative reality, opening up the subconscious mind to unexpected and sometimes poignant perspectives on the world. Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre is perhaps the most successful theatrical expression of Baudelaire's maxim about poetry, that it must be "a debacle of the intellect".

On his website, Foreman explains his writerly process:

For many years I have created plays in the following manner. I write-- usually at the beginning of the day, from one half to three pages of dialogue. There is no indication of who is speaking-- just raw dialogue. From day to day, there is no connection between the pages, each day is a total 'start from scratch' with no necessary reference to material from previous days' work. ...

Every few months, I look through the accumulated material with the thought of contructing a 'play'. I find a page that seems interesting and possible as a 'key' page-- and then quickly scan through to find others that might relate in some way to that 'key' page.

The relationship is not narrative-- but loosely thematic-- in a very poetic sense-- even in simply an 'intuited' way. Often-- I can not explain why-- simply that one pages seems interesting in a yet undefinable way, if juxtaposed to other selected pages.

When I have forty to fifty pages, I consider this the basis. I then arrange the pages in search of some possible loose thematic 'scenario'-- which again, is more 'variations on a theme' rather than strictly narrative. I look to establish a 'situation oif (sic) tension'-- then imagining how the other pages somehow augment and 'play with' that situation, rather than leading to story and rersolution (sic).

As Foreman explains, even typos and spelling mistakes have their place - they might "indeeed" be an artistic decision. It adds up to a vision that is intensely idiosyncratic, something like a three-dimensional map of the processes of Richard Foreman's very interesting mind.

A clue to the difficulty of dividing Foreman's text from its theatrical process comes from New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley, for example, who comments that "the gnomic dialogue... as usual with Mr. Foreman, seems inspired when you're watching it and embarrassing when you repeat it". Foreman's scripts are only one aspect of a complex and evolving theatrical process (as an aside, for a voyeuristic peek inside Foreman's process, check out Foreman's new blog, in which he notates his evolving thoughts on his forthcoming production Wake Up Mr Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!).

Max Lyandvert's production of Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty takes the only possible approach: this is very much Lyandvert's vision of the play, and clearly bears no resemblance, despite the extensive Foreman quotes in the program, to what Foreman actually does on stage. And indeed, a photocopy of a Foreman production would be a lifeless thing. But it left me feeling very ambivalent, confirming rather than challenging my doubts; much as I hesitate to claim that Foreman's texts are impossible to reproduce, the challenges are considerable.

The play itself, written in 2001 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seeming triumph of the Free World, is not, despite its title, a "political" text. Its two characters, Fred (Benjamin Winspear) and Freddie (Gibson Nolte), exist in a Foremanesque universe of non sequitur - at one point Indians appear from nowhere on stage and run around - in which they alternately lament and celebrate the death of the huge ideologies that dominated the last century - Communism, of course, but also religion. Outside these intellectual safety nets, life, as Freddie says, is "cold and lonely". " So," he asks, huddling into a blanket, "how do I warm myself in this cold and lonely world?"

Their antics are punctuated by a Voice (one assumes the Author) intoning things like "Red Communism is dead, my friend" or "I wonder what I will think next?" Images such as half-eaten apples or boxes full of "permanently sealed documents" thicken the metaphoric mix. And there is a dog that is kept in a box, which reminds us, in Foreman's characteristic semantic play, that dog is "God" spelt backwards.

The dog perhaps epitomises my difficulty with this production. Lyandvert has replaced the dog in the box with a sex doll, which turns into a real woman (Rebecca Smee) complete with fetish mask and S&M bindings (she later becomes a kind of Social Realist angel in a bikini). This misogynistic imagery is nowhere to be seen in Foreman's text, and introduces a gendered savagery - Smee wavers between a sex slave, crawling around on stage on hands and knees, and sadistic Soviet dominitrix; at one point she steals Freddie's penis, marching off with the rubbery phallus held high.

It's hard to know what to make of this imagery: it obscures the dog/god twinning in Foreman's text (which at once parodies the idea of God and calls up, for instance, figures like Anubis) and it has none of the reflexive, self-conscious mockery, say, of the equally misogynistic portrayal of the junkie whore in Black Lung's recent production, Rubeville. I guess it equates the American Cold War paranoia of Communism with masculinist anxieties about women. But I couldn't shake the feeling that it was gratuitous.

Another problem was simply the age of the actors, who are too young to convincingly have been part of a time when it was possible to believe in the dream of communism. More elisions are created by the American accents, which vanish in odd moments when the actors briefly play themselves. These perceptual gaps are cumulatively obscuring, without really being addressed in the production: after all, there's no reason why they might not be fruitful, especially given Foreman's idea of a "spark gap" over which consciousness jumps when there is more than one thing happening on a stage.

The opening moment was perhaps the most effective: Fred sprays a mist of cleaning fluid in the air and scrapes a clear space in a pane of glass hitherto unseen, so that at first it appears as if he is cleaning the air, while the two performers repeat the opening two lines several times. It promises to be as maddening as some passages of Beckett's novel Watt (which is saying something). Although Winspear and Nolte's performances remain focused and energetic all the way through, the production lost me about twenty minutes in: a clarity of imagery in Foreman's text - which has, despite its complexities and non sequiturs, a certain elegant simplicity - is simply not translated into the production.

Lyandvert is an accomplished theatre composer, and so it's no surprise that the sound design - composed music and amplified sound - is very good, as is his design, fronted by glass panes in a reference to Foreman's practice of dividing the audience from the stage with a sheet of clear plastic. There's no doubt Lyandvert is a talented director, with a vision all his own. It leaves me wondering why he doesn't make his own texts, or instead, if he wants to work with Foreman's ideas, why he doesn't take up Foreman's open invitation to pillage his notebooks and take off from there.

Picture: Rebecca Smee in Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty. Photo: Brett Boardman

Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty (text, Ubuweb)
Wake Up Mr Sleepy! Your Unconscious Is Dead! (Richard Foreman's blog)
Ontological-Hysteric Theatre

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Briefly off topic

My review of JG Ballard's new novel, Kingdom Come, was broadcast today on ABC Radio National's The Book Show. Transcript and audio here (you have to fast forward through David Malouf, ahem, or better still, listen to the whole thing).

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

MIAF: Ngapartji Ngapartji, La Fille de Cirque

Festival Dairy #2

Keen observers might notice that TN is wilting a little. I'm not complaining - far from it - but I'm thinking rather wistfully of the long-departed elasticity of youth, when I could party all night and work all day and still keep going (four days was the limit, as I recall, before I collapsed into brutish slumber). However, before anyone starts spitting on me for whingeing about my privileged existence, I will gracefully segue into What Little Alison Saw At MIAF Last Week.

Ngapartji Ngapartji (I give you something, you give me something). Key performer/co-creator Trevor Jamieson, writer/director Scott Rankin. Design by Genevieve Dugard, lighting design by Neil Simpson, choreography by Yumi Umiumare. With Pantjiti McKenzie, Jennifer Mitchell, Lorna Wilson, Iris Ajax, Nami Kulyuru, Rhoda Tjitayi, Dora Haggie, Elton Wirri, Julie Miller, Sadie Richards, Nathaniel Garrawurra, Mervin Adamson, Yumi Umiumare, Lex Marinos, Najeeba Azimi, Saira Luther, Damian Mason, Andrew McGregor. Big hART @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre

In the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its chilliest, the British Government asked permission from the Prime Minister Robert Menzies to perform nuclear tests on Australian soil. Menzies more or less said, go for it, boys! And subsequently nuclear bombs were dropped on a variety of sites in northern and southern Australia, most notably at Maralinga.

In a continuation of the de facto policy of Terra Nullius, nobody asked the permission of the traditional owners of the land. Thousands of Indigenous people were forcibly removed and placed in refugee camps, and an unknown number were never found by the Aboriginal Protectors and died on their lands. The tests spread radioactive clouds as far as Adelaide, but there are no records of their impact on the area's inhabitants: back then, Indigenous people were not counted in the Census or in medical records. Notoriously, signs warning people to keep off the polluted country were posted in English.

Trevor Jamieson, the charismatic performer at the centre of this show, is from Spinifex country in the Western desert, the supposedly waste lands on which these bombs were tested, and Ngapartji Ngapartji is, among other things, the story of his family and how they lost their traditional lands in the most violent and irretrievable way imaginable. It's yet another story of the dispossession of colonisation, this time with a nuclear twist. But this show is much more than an enactment of that loss.

Ngapartji Ngapartji means, "I give you something, you give me something", a literalisation of what is always an implicit exchange in the act of theatre. As soon as you see that the stage, which is covered with black sand, is actually a dancing ring, it becomes clear that this is theatre that calls on its ritual roots. You are not buying a ticket to a show: you are being invited to participate in a ceremony.

Big hArt is a community theatre company that works with marginalised people in small communities around Australia on long term projects which are then taken to national and international arts festivals. Like communities themselves, it is fluid and multiple: Ngapartji Ngapartji is only one of seven projects it is currently running around the country. This piece of theatre is itself part of a larger work that includes an online site that teaches Pitjantjatjara and is a focus for weekly meetings between young people and elders of various communities in the Northern Territory and South Australia.

The show begins with introductions: you meet Trevor and his sister and his Mum, and all the members of the cast, including the Pitjantjatjara Choir, and are taught a few words of Pitjantjatjara with a children's song. Tried and true audience participation, Wiggles style, but curiously unembarrassing, perhaps because it is so transparently friendly. It is, in the way of these things, faintly shambolic, but switches rapidly to honed, riveting performance, an oscillation that continues through the show.

Trevor Jamieson and writer/director Scott Rankin incorporate Western, Indigenous and Asian theatre traditions to create what is almost utopian enactment of cross-cultural understanding. The story of the dispossessed desert peoples is interspersed with other narratives of exile: the Japanese mother who was caught in the blast at Hiroshima, the Middle Eastern mother fleeing her country with her daughters, trying desperately to reach her husband in Australia. One remarkable aspect of this work is that it is never narrow or accusatory in its focus. Jamieson remembers, for instance, that when the bones of dead children were taken without their parents' permission and ground up by medical authorities to test their levels of radioactivity, they were from both white and black families.

The stories are told through a mixture of shadow puppetry, straight narration, dance, song (including a Talking Heads song in Pitjantjatjara) and movement. It's a moving and involving work that authentically achieves what it sets out to do. It is at once a lament for the dead, a joyous celebration of survival and an extraordinary expression of reconciliation. This kind of theatre is often done badly, relying on the goodwill and sympathy of an audience to get it through the shaky bits. Ngapartji Ngapartji miraculously avoids any such trying of patience: what could easily be sentimentality or just plain dagginess becomes, instead, a pure gift.

La Fille de Cirque, Camille, Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre

Like many Melburnians, I last saw Camille in the intimate space of the Speigeltent as part of the hit burlesque La Clique. So I was curious to see how this creature of delicate raunch would go in the far less intimate Hamer Hall - would she be lost in the vastness of it all?

Not a chance. She filled it up, and then some. The ghost of cabaret clings to the act, all the same: some privileged audience members were on stage, drinking at candlelit tables, and Camille wandered off into the stalls more than once to pour herself seductively into the lap of some embarrassedly delighted man.

Camille is the real thing, make no mistake. Like Tom Waits, her show is sheer theatre. Ably backed by her sharp six-piece band, she doesn't sing songs, she performs them: that enchanting voice is put wholly at the service of expressiveness, dropping to a whisper or opening to a full-throated rock and roll roar. She sashays through a repertoire of songs by Jacques Brel, Nick Cave and Tom Waits, invoking the tenderness of old lovers, the brutal business of a whorehouse in Amsterdam, the thoughts of a condemned man. Her lack of inhibition makes her spell-bindingly sexy: she is not afraid of crawling on the ground, or of transforming into a grotesque and angry clown.

Anyone looking for flawless museum renditions of French torch songs is going to be very disappointed. Part of what is riveting about this show is the immediacy Camille generates on stage; she is passionate, abject, tender, with a bracing tang of bitter irony. She drinks constantly, at one point knocking over a bottle of wine. It's all artifice, but it's also not artifice at all: there is a dangerous edge of the real underneath everything she does, a sense that anything at all might happen, including the chanteuse being carried out on a stretcher. It's a quality common to singers like Janis Joplin, Nina Simone, Edith Piaf or Patti Smith; like these stars, Camille soars beyond virtuosity into the imperfection of true greatness.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

MIAF: Tragedia Endogonidia, 1984

Alison's Festival Diary #1

Yes, it's that time of year again: the Melbourne International Arts Festival has invaded and transformed the city. Little Alison is like a toddler let loose in a sweet shop or a bee in a meadow blazing with flowers, rushing hither and thither in a daze of cultural greed. And what have I seen so far? Gentle reader, let me give you a taste...

Tragedia Endogonidia: BR.#04 Brussels by Romeo Castellucci. Direction/set design Romeo Castelluci, direction/vocal sound and dramatic score Claudia Castellucci, trajectories and writings Claudia Castellucci, original music Scott Gibbons. With Sonia Beltran Napoles, Claudia Castellucci, Sebastiano Castellucci, Luca Nava, Gianni Plazzi, Sergio Scarlatella, Atos Zammarchi. Societas Raffaello Sanzio, @ the Malthouse Theatre.

It is in fact very difficult to describe the impact of BR.#04 Brussels, Romeo Castellucci's astounding expression of contemporary tragedy. This is work that communicates at levels both beneath and beyond speech, and it leaves you filled with a profound wordlessness. I don't think I have seen any theatre which so radically and powerfully questions the place and meaning of language.

BR.#04 Brussels is the fourth part of a major theatre project called Tragedia Endogonidia, which was created as an evolutionary work across ten European cities. As its name suggests, Castelluci and his company are interested in exploring an organic conception of tragedy: "endogonidia" is a kind of fungal spore that reproduces by single-cell division. The tragedy explored here is far from that of the mortal, individuated hero: it is the tragedy of time itself, which erases all identity. But this anonymity, like the fungal spore, signals an immortality: individuals may die but, in its endless division, the spore persists.

The set is simply a huge, white marble-lined cube fronted with curtains, with no features aside from six fluorescent lights suspended from the ceiling. It could be a hotel lobby, a court, a university: any institutional space. Against this sterile but human-made space, Castellucci creates a series of tableaux, punctuated by the opening and closing of the curtains, which foreground the fragility and the enslavement to time of the human body.

The "scenes" include a baby, perhaps ten months old, sitting on a blanket near the front of the space, while a robot head at the back of the stage recites letters of the alphabet; a black woman mopping the floor; an old man who enters in a bikini and then dresses in a series of layers of clothes, one over the other, transforming from a risible, feminised figure to a Rabbinic priest, thus incorporating the feminine into the priest's robes so it becomes a symbol of patriarchal authority, and lastly, into a policeman (it is notable that the uniform is that of the Victorian police). These images are at once breathtakingly simple, focusing on the sheer presence of a body in space, and richly allusive, calling up multiple historical perspectives - not only the span of a human life, from babyhood to old age, but traditions of Mosaic law, or the history of slavery.

What follows is one of the most disturbing evocations of violence I have seen on a stage. A performer dressed as a policeman undresses to his underpants and sits on the floor, next to a puddle of fake blood poured there earlier by another policeman. Then the two policemen on stage begin to beat him with their batons, accompanied by a thunderous electronic percussion: one beats him, while the other is a witness. As the victim writhes, attempting to escape the batons, he becomes covered with blood. The beating goes on longer than seems bearable: as Castellucci himself says, "time haemorrhages". It is as powerful an image of Giorgio Agamben's conception of "naked life" - mere physical being, at the mercy of the State - as I have seen. Its clear artifice only makes this image less bearable: it is as if it makes it possible to perceive the gesture wholly, without mediation.

The bloodied man is then shoved into a body bag and, in a black comment on the media's rapacity for victims, a microphone is placed near his mouth. The only audible words in this work are the prayers uttered by the man in the body bag, whose amplified sobs and gurgles are interpersed with a Hail Mary.

His prayers summon a kind of 19th century nightmare, as if the racial and sexual fears in the subconscious of modern man erupt on stage: a dream-sequence featuring two women, one white, one black, both in 19th century mourning dress, and an imp in a top hat with a rhino horn for a nose. It invokes common dream symbols of anxiety, such as losing hair and teeth, in a macabre series of images that almost seem like a satire on 19th century Darwinian rationality.

Finally, in an image of unparalleled poignancy, an old man sit nexts to a hospital bed, eats some bread, sighs, gets into bed, wraps the blankets around himself and vanishes before our eyes, ebbing away to leave the bed unwrinkled, as if it has never been slept in. The end of the show is signalled by a nonsensical text projected onto the curtains, like film titles.

Describing these images is, alas, inadequate to the experience of witnessing them. This is theatre of rare potency. It is possible to unwind from Castellucci's allusive theatrical images various narratives of colonisation, slavery, gender, religion, the evolution of western civilisation and the contemporary police state; but at the same time, none of these narratives - which most certainly are part of the constellations of thought around this work - go very far in explaining their power.

This is work that remains essentially mysterious, in the way that human existence is mysterious, erupting beyond mere intellect to lodge in the psyche's obscurities. Where, believe me, it takes root: I had some very strange and disturbing dreams that night. Astounding, unforgettable theatre.

1984 by George Orwell, adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan, directed by Tim Robbins. Design Richard Hoover and Sibyl Wickersheimer, lighting by Bosco Flanagan, sound David Robbins. With P. Adam Walsh, Kaythe Farley, Brian Finney, Kaili Hollister, V.J. Foster and Stephen M. Porter. State Theatre @ the Victorian Arts Centre.

The Actors' Gang is also preoccupied with the police state, bringing from Los Angeles their stage adaptation of 1984, but compared to Casthelluci's lucid, resonant images this is primitive stuff. It is easy to see why, in the current political climate, one would want to adapt George Orwell's classic portrayal of the totalitarian State: but the execution here gives the novel a didacticism that Orwell himself wisely avoided.

The conceit of Sullivan's adaptation is that Winston Smith (P Adam Walsh), an abject figure in a marked space in the middle of the stage, is undergoing interrogation after his arrest by the Party Members. During interrogation, he is forced to narrate the story of Smith's rebellion against Big Brother. As he tells of his affair with Julia (Kaili Hollister) and his attempts to join a rebel movement, his interrogaters act out the scenes, with First Party Member Brian Finney doubling as the earlier Winston Smith.

This approach is perilously close to Theatre in Education techniques, and seems to assume that that theatricality is no more than the "acting out" of stories on stage. It's difficult to see what adapting this text adds to the novel: the script remains in thrall to Orwell, and thus perhaps is particularly uninteresting - as familiar passage after familiar passage is recited by the actors - to those who are intimate with the original. Only a few scenes - for example, when Brian Finney reads from the book of the Brotherhood, which explains how total war is a means of controlling a population by destroying material excess - attain the sinister power for which it aims.

Perhaps paradoxically, given its earnest sticking to the script, this production hits another problem. Orwell's Airstrip One is so deeply English - more specifically, so deeply post-war London - that it simply does not translate into American, especially for an audience to whom American accents are not neutral. By implicitly setting the story in an imaginary US, the text loses some of the specific historical realism that gives it its potency. But more, by adapting it to a pointed critique of the Bush regime - opening with blasting pop music, for example, as a reference to the psy-op torture techniques used against suspected terrorists - it becomes didactic in a way that Orwell never was.

This is reinforced by the few textual departures from the novel, which invariably elucidate something very close to neo-con propoganda. It made me think of Alan's Moore's fierce rejection of the Wakowski brother's movie of his graphic novel V For Vendetta; Moore claimed that his story was transformed into an American-centric conflict between liberalism and neo-conservatism, abandoning the original anarchist-fascist themes. Something similar happens here: in making 1984 less specific, it also becomes less metaphorically powerful.

Like the adaptation, Tim Robbins' direction has a pedestrian and earnest quality, with the militarised mise en scene of the Party members getting old fairly quickly. And while you can't argue that the acting is not commited, it is apt to slide into mere emotiveness. It's a production that, by being earnestly faithful and unfaithful all at once, succeeds in making Orwell less than the sum of his parts.

Picture: Tragedia Endogondia by Romeo Castelluci

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Fringe Review: Rubeville and Debris

Rubeville, written and directed by Thomas Henning. Music by Liam Barton, Sebastian Steiger and Sean the Saw. With Gareth Davis, Dylan Young and Eloise Mignon. The Black Lung @ The Black Lung Theatre until October 15. Debris by Dennis Kelly, directed by Tanya Goldberg. With Thomas Campbell and Bojana Novakovic. Ride On @ the Black Lung Theatre, 55 High St Northcote, until October 14. Bookings: 8412 8777

"No other production this year," trumpets the press release for Rubeville, neatly undercutting its own hyperbole, "has combined these actors with these lines!" That's marketing for you, in all its empty seduction: the banal promise, so prinked up with exclamation marks that even its own mother can't recognise it. It's the hustle, the con, the sell, the miasma of delusion. At the centre of its fog of deception is the hustler himself, the most deluded of them all.

This is the world of Rubeville, where everything is for sale and nothing has any value. As it begins, this show reminds us that working in the theatre was once considered synonymous with prostitution: an abject Hernandez (Dylan Young), whom we have just seen begging on a street corner outside the theatre, offers himself to a member of the audience ("fifty dollars? ok, thirty five"), then pulls down his shorts and bends over the sofa.

A man with his shorts garlanding his naked bum has a certain grotesque pathos; but it becomes something else when Hernandez, playing out the imagined fantasies of his putative john, begins to sob, "Don't fuck me, please, don't fuck me". The voyeuristic horror of rape gives way almost at once to a lecture from "George Clooney", played by Gareth Davis, on what Hernandez (or Dylan Young) is doing wrong in his performance. "You want to please," says George (or Gareth). "You're pandering to the audience..."

I guess you could call what follows an extended mindfuck. A savage hour-long riff on the brutalisations of commodified celebrity culture, this is wickedly hilarious theatre, acutely self-aware and blackly intelligent. Thomas Henning and his cast pitilessly manipulate the expectations of their audience, invoking extremity only to explode it, turning in a trice from violence or pathos to outrageous comedy to sly commentary.

Rubeville is a sardonic response to the Americanisation of our culture, invoking the fantasy world of Hollywood and the seductive dream of a quick buck. The stage is littered with blank television sets, one of which neurotically plays a loop of random video footage: a close-up of George Clooney, some scenes from a black and white movie, film titles in a language which looks like Finnish. The band, playing Tom Waits-style blues/rock/folk, plays in the corner. Their faces are painted white and black in a sinister echo of blackface make-up, calling up the racial erasure of the Black and White Minstrels or the nationalistic mindlessness of football fans.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a series of get-rich-quick scams hatched by George Clooney, the self-proclaimed hustler, and his half-naked, filthy sidekick Hernandez. Trixie (Eloise Mignon), a junkie prostitute, ODs on their couch (but not before stepping out of character and complaining about the gender politics of the production, which means that the only woman in the cast is playing a junkie prostitute). They decide to make a quick buck by demanding ransom money from her rich family. Then they rip off the till of the theatre, in order to go to Iceland to claim Trixie's inheritance...

The nonsense of the plot is really a pretext. Rubeville is, among other things, a satire on theatre itself: theatrical conventions are invoked only to be undermined and attacked. The actors slip in and out of character, performing themselves as well as their roles, confusing the fictive reality of the show. It is completely unclear when the play begins or finishes. You walk into the theatre where the three-piece band is playing as George/Gareth scrambles over the seats, muttering incomprehensibly. Towards the end, George/Gareth confesses sadly that he has "run out of show". The final blackout, which prompts the audience applause and actorly bows, loses its finality when the actors come back on stage and start playing with the band, as if the bows were just another scene in this apparently improvised performance.

Rubeville makes me think of the sexually-charged anarchy of Heathcote Williams' play AC/DC, but it lacks Williams' utopian optimism. Like Williams, its destruction of the barriers between identities makes it genuinely Artaudian, and it is fuelled by a pervasive anger at the state of contemporary society. "Mediocrity and delusion," says the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, "stand in a complementary relationship to each other; their apparent antagonism conceal a deep-seated collusion. A social location which lies outside this entanglement will not be found." Rubeville is a spirited protest against both mediocrity and delusion, sardonically aware that, as members of a society which expresses its anxieties about identity in performances of violence, we are all implicated in their mutual machinations.

For all its apparent anarchy, this is highly polished theatre. All three actors generate rawly powerful performances with a risky improvisatory edge, but the real tell of this show is its sharpness: the timing is always impeccable. And did I say that it is hilarious? The Black Lung is evolving into one of the truly exciting nodes of theatre-making in Melbourne.

As well as being a theatre company, the Black Lung is a curated venue. For the Fringe Festival it has imported from Sydney Ride On's production of Debris, the debut play of British writer Dennis Kelly. First performed in 2003, Debris put Kelly in the company of playwrights like Mark Ravenhill, David Harrower and Sarah Kane, who are loosely grouped under the rubric of In-Yer-Face theatre.

It's easy to see why Debris attracted attention : it's a play that intriguingly combines high poetic language, drawn in part from Christian mystic traditions, with a hard-edged and blackly comic look at family dysfunction. It concerns a brother and sister, Michael (Thomas Campbell) and Michelle (Bojana Novakovic), who have been dragged up by their alcoholic father after the death of their mother. O
ddly, for all its extremity the writing is apt to undercut its own emotional power by reaching too easily for a joke, but the energy and beauty of its writing is undeniable.

The play opens with a monologue by Michael, in which he describes how his father crucified himself in his living room on Michael's 16th birthday. The description of the (rather ingenious) self-crucifixion is at once funny and brutal, and the sensuality of its evocations of the dying father's flesh, filled with a kind of loathly eroticism, echo Julian of Norwich's descriptions of Christ's body on the Cross in her visionary work Revelations of Divine Love.

The mystic imagery recurs throughout the play, which tells a nightmare story of neglect and deprivation through a series of fragmentary scenes. The image of a lactating Christ, another common symbol in mediaeval mysticism, is resurrected in Michael's discovery of an abandoned newborn baby in the trash and his breastfeeding it with his blood. Against these macabre Christian manifestations, Kelly poses Michelle's various narratives of her mother's death and her own birth: in one, her mother dies of joy, choking on a chicken bone from a celebratory meal, and Michelle is ripped untimely from her womb; in another she gestates in her mother's corpse, which rots ignored in the corner of the living room, and turns into a nightmare carnivorous plant. These fictions, as becomes clear, are the means by which the children survive their upbringing.

Novakovic (most recently seen here in Eldorado and The Female of the Species) and Campbell are certainly up to the challenges of the script, and give powerful and nuanced performances as the two siblings. Unfortunately, Tanya Goldberg's direction lacks the bold imaginative flair of the writing: there is little sense of mise en scene, and the actors often seem awkwardly placed in the space.

The metaphor that stitches the production together - scene titles are chalked on the theatre walls by Novakovic, filling pre-drawn letter spaces like those in writing primers - also muddies the focus. Although it emphasises the childhood of the characters, the Brechtian allusion seems misplaced here, both theatrically and metaphorically - it is hard to see, for example, how this play is any kind of lesson, and the schoolroom reference, with its implications of orderly authority, has absolutely no connection to the disenfranchised lives the play portrays. For all that, it's a fair fist of a startling play, and more than worth the ticket price.

The Black Lung Theatre

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Saturday, October 07, 2006


Your faithful blogger has had an indifferent week, struggling with a cold and a short story and losing on both fronts...but I will heroically refrain from boring you with my personal laments; instead, in the spirit of Tim Sterne over at Sarsparilla, I will tally up some of the theatre I am not seeing. Which is quite a lot, as the Fringe is in full swing.

In town, there's Gigoloed!, featuring plays by two young writers, Sarah Robertson and Briony Kidd. Entertaining Mr Orton and Death By Television promise some "Ortonesque burlesque", which sounds fine to me. At the Pony, 68 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, until October 14. Bookings: 8412 8777

I missed Incognito's Chasing Pegasus, which closes tonight, but it is on at Mt Martha House from October 18-22. This play intrigued me, because it's about a fantasy author (who says we don't go to the theatre to see ourselves?) I'm sure it is more exciting than watching me at work... More information at To my chagrin, especially as it was all my fault, I also missed A Quarrelling Pair and Apples and Ladders, the Malthouse Theatre's contribution to the Fringe. Last shows tomorrow but, guess what, they're sold out.

Meanwhile, Richard Watts is bravely stepping once more into the breach and doing a noble job of seeing as much theatre as is humanly possible, and then some. So keep an eye on his blog, which has some good recommendations that I haven't doubled here, while I return to my long, hard, bitter and uneven struggle with prosaic form...

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Monday, October 02, 2006


After much procrastination (it's my middle name) I've finally ordered my disgracefully chaotic blogroll. Alphabetically, if you please, and by continent. You'll notice the Americans are beating us Australian and British types by several miles in the rush to cyberspace. I was planning to add my favourite litblogs, but I started getting RSI. Another day. And really I'm procrastinating on other things, like that short story due in a few days, and that novel due, well, soonish...

Those who scroll down the sidebar and investigate these riches will notice some new entries. Some, like Maxie Szalwinska's Webloge, are oversights I've been meaning to rectify for months, but others are brand spanking new, like Andrew Eglinton of Desperate Curiosity's very funky London Theatre Blog, and The Violet Vixen from LA.

And, given the relative paucity of my theatre-going these days, let me point you to Richard Watts, (of 3RRR's Smartarts), who is posting some pithy and entertaining reports on the Melbourne Fringe Festival. He's getting to a lot more events than I can. He's getting to lots more alcohol as well. I'm only slightly jealous. Viva Richard!

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