Review: Car Maintenance Explosives and LoveTwo thingsOrstrilia DayElephant stamps, Rilke and so onReview: Don's PartyOn tragedyPost-dramatic theatreWhat I meanWrapping the wraps ~ theatre notes

Monday, January 29, 2007

Review: Car Maintenance Explosives and Love

Car Maintenance Explosives and Love (CMXL), written and performed by Donna Jackson, original direction and dramaturgy Andrea Lemon. Midsumma Festival @ Gasworks, South Melbourne.

Donna Jackson's powerhouse solo show, Car Maintenance Explosives and Love, has attained the status of a minor classic. It premiered a decade ago, subsequently touring Australia and Britain, and its script was included in, and lent its name to, an anthology of lesbian writing edited by Susan Hawthorn. It even has its own handy acronym - CMXL. After a hiatus of a few years it's on again as part of the Midsumma Festival, and it's well worth a look.

Like Jackson herself, CMXL has worn well. Jackson founded the Women's Circus, so it's no surprise that this show includes a large component of physical theatre. And like the Melbourne Workers Theatre gigashow We Built This City, which Jackson directed last year, it features an industrial aesthetic, blue-collar rock and angle grinders. It's delivered in a full-on performance, which swings between an electric physical dynamism - fuelled by riffs from AC/DC or the Divinyls - and moments of tender poignancy.

It's a well-written piece which draws its complexities from a supple weaving of contrast rather than subtleties of writing. Donna Jackson's narrator is a car mechanic, obsessed by her American eight-cylinder car and her deteriorating relationship with her middle-class lover. She comes from a distinguished lineage of mechanics (her grandmother was a aeroplane technician in World War 2, her father a truckie, or "cartage contractor"). She describes a working class milieu in which emotional inarticulacy is balanced by a rich oral tradition, in which rough comedy or violence are often a cover for pain.

She meets her lover at a party, where she rescues her from an importunate sleaze by stuffing him headfirst into a fishtank. Romance blossoms over the duco (there is much in here about the erotic power of cars) and her lover moves in with her cat, evicting the pitbull terrier and introducing the concept of dinner parties. It begins with great sex (beautifully evoked by a sequence on ropes), domestic bliss and the joys of renovating her lover's EJ Holden, but soon the honeymoon begins to splinter under their differences. Jackson withdraws in a classically masculine fashion to her garage, where she find solace in the order of car manuals, so much more legible than relationships, and starts to take classes in demolition at the local TAFE from "Fast Eddie", so called because of his limp.

What rises to the surface of this show isn't so much the issue of sexual orientation - with its masculine/feminine polarities, this relationship seems much like many heterosexual couples - but of class. The lover and her friends are politically active, but the narrator wonders why she and her friends just talk, instead of taking direct action and blowing things up. She often feels marginalised by their conversations, of interest only when something goes wrong with their cars. But despite her impatience with their intellectualising, she finds that she is, herself, incapable of violent action; she understands its ugliness too well.

The relationship ends, in the best scene of the show, when her lover confesses that what most attracts her is the narrator's physical strength and incipient violence. She asks if she could "push her around" when they are making love. Jackson explodes with insult and rage, nearly throttling her lover. What she is protesting, without being able to articulate it, is the fetishisation of her working class background as a sexual turn-on, which exposes her lover's inability, finally, to understand her reality as a feeling human being. To Jackson's narrator, this is a kind of violence she cannot deal with. What divides them finally is an inability to see past the conditionings of class.

It adds up to a show that's hard to dislike, although it doesn't escape a feeling of datedness: circus skills in theatre are now a commonplace, and the audience interaction didn't, for me, add much to the show. Australian physical theatre has come a long way in the past decade. CMXL has some themes in common with Kage Physical Theatre's Headlock, which also sensitively and honestly explores issues of gender, emotional inarticulacy and violence; but theatrically speaking, Headlock is in a different realm. If Headlock is a theatrical equivalent of Radiohead, CMXL is like old-fashioned rock and roll: plain, honest theatre, which serves up exactly what it promises. No bullshit.

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Two things

Those nice people at Online Opinion have just published the second TN post in their January review of the Top 40 posts of 2006. This one is my cross letter to The Age over their Melbourne Festival coverage. Thanks again, guys.

And over at Sarsaparilla, I've posted a more considered response to Patrick McCauley's Australia Day poem, as execrated below.

Normal broadcasting will resume soon...

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Orstrilia Day

This is not about theatre, but I am staggering in shock and dismay. Yes, I just read a poem by the inimitable (I hope) Patrick McCauley. It's the Australia Day Poem, prominently published to celebrate our national holiday in the Australian, our national broadsheet. It's written with the prosodical elan and metaphorical flair of a three-legged cat on crack cocaine, but that's not all: it's a document that, while dripping unpleasantly with self-pity, manages to combine racism, misogyny and homophobia into one glorious bile soup.

For example: "The skinny Aborigine," opines McCauley, "has grown big and fat / wandering native titles / in concrete cities with internet lines." (I beg your pardon?) Or try this one for size:

This is the underfathered
overmothered generation
of the addicted
the extended multiple
strangulation orgasm
the synthetic selection
the survival of the weakest.

...The domestic matriarchy guards the children
and the schools teach the boys
to become male lesbians.

And so it goes, for longer than you can believe possible. I feel like I've just been dipped in a bucket of catshit. Who the hell decided (a) that this was a poem and (b) to publish it? Aren't there any poets in this wide brown land?

Offshore, in New York - which suddenly seems a very desirable place to be - a much more fun time is to be had on TONY theatre editor David Cote's blog Histriomastix, where he has sparked some discussion on "critical distance", or the notion of objectivity in arts journalism. George Hunka buys in with some observations of his own at Superfluities, beginning with the provocative observation that "only shallow people do not judge by appearances".Depends what those appearances are, I guess. It appears today that Australians (and especially Australian poets) are fuckwits. Me, I like to think that's not entirely true.

PS: Perhaps I ought to have said that there is a history of dispute between Mr McCauley and myself. He attacked me (and all Australian woman poets) in a 2002 article in the right wing magazine Quadrant on performance poetry. I wrote a letter in response (as did others), which can be read here.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Elephant stamps, Rilke and so on

A nice cheery elephant stamp, in fact, and maybe a gold star as well. TN is chuffed today to hear that one of my posts has been chosen by Opinion Online in the Best Blogs of 2006 feature they're running all through January. Chris Bendall might not be so pleased: it is The Problem of Praise post that caused much debate at the time. And (whisper) I believe there's another coming up. Thanks to the guys who called it, Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen et al. Especially Al.

Of course, this happens while the blog is relatively quiet. As you all know, I am supposed to be writing my novel, and have in fact been getting some steady chapters under my belt; but for the past couple of days I have been sidelined by an essay on Rilke for the UK poetry magazine Agenda, which is also publishing a couple of my translations of his Duino Elegies in its upcoming Rilke special issue. It's a blast to return to this poet, who reminds me what the lyric art is supposed to be: tough, beautiful, intelligent and brave.

Meanwhile, I've been following the Guardian debate on friendships between artists and critics, begun by Jonathan Jones' claim that artists and critics are too much in each other's pockets, and who wants to be friends with narcissistic wankers like artists, anyway? Michael Billington weighs in with some measured opinion, much of which is difficult to argue with, but visual arts critic Adrian Searle is on the money.

"I prefer the company of artists to that of most critics," says Searle. "Artists can more cruel about each other than any critic I have ever met, and just as hungry and insightful when it comes to looking at art. They know more about how art gets made, are sharper when comes to detecting when someone is faking it, and more generous about genuine failure." And his article comes with a sting in the tail: "although I am on amicable terms with some other critics, I realise I have no friends at all in the newspaper world. I take care to keep a distance, in case I get compromised or corrupted, or turned into a hack."

Very wicked.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review: Don's Party

Don's Party by David Williamson, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Dale Ferguson, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition and sound design Basil Hogios. With Glenn Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Colin Lane, Steve Le Marquand, Mandy McElhinney, Travis McMahon, Rhys Muldoon, Christopher Pitman, Felicity Price, Jacinta Stapleton and Alison Whyte. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Arts Centre Playhouse until February 10.

The organ known as my heart was, I confess, a little heavier than usual as I donned the gladrags for the opening night of Don's Party. This play helped to turn David Williamson into the minesweeper of Australian theatre, imploding critical objections with an unerring radar for the popular nerve centre of middle Australia. He must be great, the theatre managers (and some shameless critics) would say: just look at that box office!

As if that's not enough to hold against Don's Party, I'd already suffered through it. My review of that production, a revival directed by Graeme Blundell, led some columnist to call me (I recall approximately) a joyless feminist twat with a humour bypass. Though, true, I was singularly joyless as I watched that piece of anthropological ham: I like my theatre live, thank you, like those Japanese gourmets who demand their dinner swimming on their plates.

Breathless reader, let me relieve your suspense (I know you are anxious for me): I didn't stagger out of Don's Party lobotomised by boredom and irritation, which is my usual Williamson experience. Peter Evans' production pricked some life into the play, and even suggested how bracing it might have been on its first outing in 1971: people talking on stage as they actually talk at parties! Banal marriages at various stages of disintegration! Sex! Lewdness! Profanity! Suburban middle class tragedy! This was Us! Finally! And we're funny!

(There's something to be said for this: maybe as much now as in the 1970s, since we have witlessly become an American cultural colony as opposed to a British one, and even have our own version of Vietnam. It's a little depressing that there's a refreshing cognitive frisson in hearing someone affectionately called "cunt features" in Australian on stage.)

In my fairer moments I admit that, once upon a time, David Williamson was known to write real plays. I have a modicum of respect for his early work, which, while it never reached the heights of his English contemporaries - I'm thinking of writers like Trevor Griffiths, Howard Brenton or Arnold Wesker - had a rude liveliness and dramatic sensibility that for a time promised something rather more than the boulevard theatre that Williamson ground out, year after year, until he retired a couple of years ago.

So, it's not Chekhov. I don't expect anybody except Chekhov to be Chekhov, and I certainly wouldn't bring this up if David Williamson himself hadn't claimed that he is Anton's reincarnation, backed up in this delusion by a raft of directors who appear to think that all that Chekhov did was to invent a few bourgeois characters and stick them in a loungeroom to chat morosely around the samovar. Let me be stern with the ghost of HG Kippax, who is perhaps responsible for this particular myth: if David Williamson is doing anything remotely like Chekhov, then I'm Mikhail Baryshnikov. Since I have three left feet and at ten years of age was my ballet teacher's private Gehenna, that should be enough to be going on with.

No, in Don's Party, Williamson is making a vernacular Australian version of the English drawing room comedy, the kind of thing exemplified by Noel Coward. Oddly, Coward died shortly after this play premiered, although I don't think there's a connection. Tarted up with an edge of drunken melancholy (hence, I suppose, the Chekhovian allusions), the play moves from order to chaos, and everyone's dirty financial secrets/underwear/strange sexual habits are exposed in the course of the play.

Instead of a fantasy of the English upper classes, we have the educated bourgeoisie, facing the first failures of middle age: Don himself (Steve Le Marquand), the novelist who has settled for being a school teacher, his wife Kath (Mandy McElhinney), popping anti-depressants, his best mate Mal and an unlikely assortment of friends, ranging from the elegant artist Kerry (Anita Hegh) married to a jealous dentist Evan (Colin Lane) to the Liberal-voting accountant Simon (Glenn Hazeldine) and his flirty blond wife Jodi (Felicity Price).

The occasion is the the 1969 Federal Election, which saw the Australian Labor Party vote bitterly split by the DLP. Don and his friends have gathered to allegedly watch the vote count on television, but really to drink, pose, abuse each other, thrash out petty resentments and try to get each other into bed. The men flock around the blonde right wing bimbo, the women cluster in the loungeroom and talk about their children and their unsatisfactory sex lives.

It's funny, but it's not that funny, and it's sad, but hardly tragic in the Chekhovian sense; it's full of those famous one-liners and the farcical bedroom comedy is enough to keep you going, mostly. My boredom meter started creeping into the orange zone in the second half, during all those maudlin confessions. But I've had worse nights.

Peter Evans has assembled a good cast, a meld of actors and comedians, and they inject this (it must be said, rather jejune) comedy of manners with a bit of vim. It's directed sharp and fast on a naturalistic set that's designed to chime with nostalgic chic: the smart suburban brick veneer, the paper lanterns, the vinyls on the turntable, the home-made pizzas (which seem to be actually cooked during the course of the play). The soundscape in punctuated by MOR 60s hits: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. The wankers talk about French film auteurs, the lefties about marginal seats and mortgages. It's the play as social document par excellence, but the actors generate an admirable energy that makes the evening pass relatively painlessly.

One virtue of this production is that the women's roles are foregrounded. It's not as misogynist as it can seem (it might be truer to say it is merely misanthropic), although, no matter how you cut it, the hero is Cooley (Rhys Muldoon). The women adore him and the men want to be him. He's the ultimate portrayal of the Australian intellectual larrikin, the flawed but loveable hero-in-his-own-trousers, who lends any gathering a refreshing frankness and honesty: life is about shaving, shitting and fucking, and anyone who claims otherwise is a wanker. Although - like many of us, I expect - I've been cornered by his ilk at parties, and in such situations it's hard to see anything but a boor comfortably insulated from the smallest twinkle of self-knowledge.

Perhaps the least likeable character is the pretentious artist (played with a strange, hypnotic acccuracy by Anita Hegh) who says things like "I'm just getting into texture" and humiliates her browbeaten husband when he discovers her in bed with Cooley. Don's Party exposes the pretensions of all ambition, the inevitable compromises that life imposes on the lofty hopes of youth. Don's novel never gets written, Mal's political ambitions devolve into armchair expert and the only person who practises what she preaches turns out to be a hollow vessel indeed.

This play certainly satirises the follies of the middle classes, but the real question is: at what point does it begin to celebrate them? There is a difference between exposing pretensions and claiming that pretensions are all there are. To bring in old Anton again: although Chekhov explores human folly with the cool precision of a surgeon, he does so in order to discover the ways in which people attempt to make meaning in lives which threaten to crush human resilience altogether. Williamson's vision is never so large: he has been so popular because he uncritically reflects the way Australians like to see themselves. The virtue, in the end, is in the compromise, the via media. Art, ideals, principles: who needs them? They were only ever a wank, anyway.

Williamson showed us people like us. Or our parents (or grandparents) anyway. And the box office went ka-ching! Which is why Williamson gets the credit for bringing Australians on to the colonised stage, when in fact he wrote in a context of fine but largely forgotten dramatists like Peter Kenna, Patrick White or Richard Beynon. Well, I can't grudge him his royalties: I only grudge him the title of "Australia's Greatest Playwright", which is frankly embarrassing. Nothing that a glass of champagne doesn't allay, of course. It was that kind of night.

Picture: Rhys Muldoon and Travis McMahon in Don's Party. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

On tragedy

TN is being a good girl and putting her nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, back to the...well, you know what I mean. Yes, I'm writing the Novel in earnest: I still have 120,000 words to go, and time ever dwindles. So, with due caution, I point to my excuse in the sidebar: expect a little less here for the next few months, until I get my brain back.

In the meantime, let me point you to New York, where the bloggers are having a fine dingdong on the subject of tragedy. George Hunka at Superfluities got the ball rolling with some stirring polemic, prompting objections from Isaac Butler and Matt Freeman. And TONY's theatre editor David Cote stirs the pot still further with some disingenuous polemic of his own. Well, I think he's being disingenuous: this man likes Romeo Castellucci, after all.

UPDATE: Serial TN commenter Theatre Queen stylishly debuts in the blogosphere with Tears for a Tiara and a fascinating first post on, yes, tragedy.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Post-dramatic theatre

As if to prove it's not all pursed lips and blank faces out there in the broadsheets, the Australian's Sydney theatre critic John McCallum comes out with all guns blazing today in a stimulating overview of contemporary Australian theatre:

LET'S get one thing sorted. Any crisis the Australian theatre might be facing now is entirely a matter of money. The playwrights, directors, designers and actors are in place and ready to go.

The artists are talented and energetic, but they are struggling in a culture that for at least 10 years has systematically devalued the arts and tried to represent them as the plaything of an elite coterie, rather than the fundamental investigation of what it means to be human and part of a society.

Couldn't have said it better myself. In his article, McCallum elucidates something he calls the "post-dramatic stage" in the new energies currently vitalising Australian theatre. My feeling (and I think that McCallum is hinting at a similar idea) is that playwrights like Bernard Marie-Koltes, Howard Barker, Sarah Kane, Michael Vinaver, Caryl Churchill, John Foss and, dare I say it, Daniel Keene have, for the past few decades, been redefining "drama" rather than abandoning it. But I'll tease this thesis out another time, when I don't have a novel to write...meanwhile, go read McCallum.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

What I mean

You know, I get tired of sniping over the bows. On Planet Alison it seems a necessary evil, silence being a slow, deadly acid, but in all the shadowboxing it's easy to lose the point. After all, how is it possible to take art seriously in a world where human life is among the cheapest of all commodities, where the planet itself is scored and damaged by our greed? Why should it matter?

As the New Year struggles in its swaddling bands, blessed by a range of evil fairies, I turn to Muriel Rukeyser's 1949 book The Life of Poetry. Rukeyser is one of the great American poets of the past century, as necessary as Whitman, but her courageous and luminous poems are puzzlingly underrated. Her reputation suffered badly under McCarthy, as she was a communist who travelled to Spain to fight Franco and, later, a committed human rights activist; and perhaps it didn't help that she was a woman.

The Life of Poetry is a collection of Rukeyser's lectures, and worth reading in full, especially in dark times. Today, this quote caught my eye. The war she refers to is World War II, but her words often have an uncomfortable way of resonating in the present; and of course, although she speaks of poetry, she could as well be speaking of any of the human arts.

During the war, we felt the silence of the policy of the governments of English-speaking countries. That policy was to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterwards. The result was, of course, that the meanings were lost. You cannot put these things off.

The putting-off of meaning has already been reflected in the fashionable writing of the last years. Our most popular novels and poems have been works of easy mysticism or easy wit, with very little in between. One entire range is represented, for us, in the literature of aversion. There has been much silence.

The silence of fear. Of the impoverished imagination, which avoids, and makes a twittering, and is still.

Communication comes, to make this place fertile, to make it possible to meet the world with all the resources we have, the fund of faith, the generous instruments of imagination and knowledge.

Poetry may be seen as one sum of such equipment, as an image of the kind of fullness that can best meet the evening, the hostile imagination - which restricts, denies and proclaims death - and the inner clouds which mask our fears.

Or, as Rilke said: "You must change your life".

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Wrapping the wraps

My, we're a reflective bunch; it's a regular hall of mirrors out there in cyberland, where us "non-professional critics" (!) have been busy exercising the grey matter. Over at The Morning After, Mr Boyd - reviewer for such non-professional organisations as the Financial Review and Herald Sun - has been doing the end of year thing continuously, it seems, since mid-December, and has not only meditated on opera and dance, but has listed the shows that he ought to have reviewed and didn't. Oh, and as literary editor of The Big Issue, books as well. Meanwhile, 3RRR arts broadcaster and Man About Town Richard Watts hasn't only thought about theatre; he's pondered the visual arts, cinema and arts politics as well.

If you're hungry for more theatre highlights, head over to The Rest is Just Commentary, where tyro reviewer Avi blogs her high and low points of the year. And on his Melbourne Film Blog, Paul Martin does his top 20 and bottom 10 of a year's packed cinematic experience. I think that pretty much covers everything, aside from scuba diving and architecture.

Over in the sunny realm of Professional Critics, the Age has not one, but two overviews of the theatrical year, which is something, and possibly something good. One is by my favourite mainstream idjit, Cameron Woodhead. Woodhead's overview is particularly maddening: it's not just differences of taste operating here, folks (we even agree on a few highlights). It's the bullshit terms of reference.

"Avant garde" and "visual theatre" are phrases Woodhead applies to everything outside his limited theatrical vocabulary: so the remarkably written Eldorado and the remarkably turgid (and remarkably unvisual) It Just Stopped get lumped in the same basket. (Depressingly, it looks suspiciously like the same catch-all basket Len Radic memorably labelled as "non-naturalistic".) Woodhead's bouquet for "best original work" of 2006 is the bouncy, off-Broadway-bound musical Virgins - not that I want to dump on that show, but - what??

It makes you grateful for Martin Ball's bland but sober take on 2006. Which is a bit sad, really.

PS: In the comments here, Paul Martin points to Leslie Cannold's opinion piece on blogs in the Age, which of course paints the cliche blog picture (racist, sexist, illiterate, homophobic ranting). Like, we've all been to MySpace... More astoundingly, she claims that well-written blogs - stuffed with "well-packaged pseudo-knowledge" - are a bit of a problem. "Currently," says Cannold, "traditional editorial practices are one of the only ways we've got to achieve reasonable levels of accuracy, veracity, and good clean copy." And balanced coverage too, I suppose. Cor. If only it were true. Arts bloggers, of course, scoff as one.

PPS: Also, check out Encore Theatre Magazine's great wrap of English theatre in '06.

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