Tense Dave, devised and directed by Lucy Guerin, Michael Kantor and Gideon Obarzanek. Dramaturge Tom Wright, design by Jodie Fried, Andrew Livingston and Ben Cobham, lighting by Niklas Pajanti. Original music and arrangements Francois Tetaz. With Kristy Ayre, Brian Carbee, Michelle Heaven, Brian Lucas, Luke Smiles and Delia Silvan (understudy). Chunky Move and Malthouse Theatre co-production, @ the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until April 29.
Tense Dave is a collaboration between some of the most interesting minds in contemporary performance now working in Melbourne: Lucy Guerin, Michael Kantor and Gideon Obarzanek. Attempting to integrate three such individual visions - two choreographers and a theatre director - entails the risk of each of them becoming obscured, but a rigorous simplicity at the heart of its concept permits each talent to glow, as they say, with the genius of the ensemble. They've made a work of rich and resonant lucidity that authentically straddles dance and theatre.
It's essentially a meditation on catastrophic solitude that is at once witty, sad, violent, sinister, tragic and euphorically uplifting, shifting through its kaleidoscopic and fantastic variations with an unerring suppleness. The production on at the Malthouse demonstrates a deep polish, the mark of years of touring. Its track record speaks for itself: Tense Dave premiered at the 2003 Melbourne Festival and then toured extensively around Australia and to the US, where its New York season won it the 2005 Bessie (the dance equivalent of a TONY) for outstanding choreography.
The performance occurs wholly on a simple, quite small wooden revolve placed in the midst of a large, dark, amorphous theatrical space defined by lengths of black curtain. It turns through the entire show, its constant creaking a crucial part of the soundscape. I adore revolves: I know there's something about them which threatens arch theatrical tackiness, although it's probable that fairground quality is part of their attraction. But essentially I think it's the fascinating tension between stillness and movement that's created when the scenery is as mobile as the performer. I can promise that you will never see a revolve used more creatively than in Tense Dave.
The dance opens with a naked lightbulb that gradually brightens to reveal the revolve. The revolve is divided like a pie by rough wooden walls, in which a kind of keyhole space has been torn to permit the lightbulb to pass through the walls, sequentially illuminating several claustrophobic "rooms". In the first sequence we are introduced to the various "characters" of the piece: first of all Tense Dave himself (Brian Lucas), a tall lanky man standing alone, his body the epitome of unspecific anxiety: his gestures are rigid, he obssessively fiddles with his shirt, he crouches foetally against the wall.
Gradually the other sections become inhabited: a man in a suit, talking to his patent leather shoes (Brian Carbee); a woman in a petticoat staring longingly at a red velvet eighteenth century dress (Kristy Ayre); a woman in a night dress on a bed, holding a huge kitchen knife (Michelle Heaven); a man with almost waist length hair, seated with his back to the audience, carefully combing his hair (Luke Smiles). I thought at first that Smiles, glimpsed in a classic pose of a female nude, was a woman; the next glimpse, revealing him as a man, is the first of several perceptual shocks that accumulate through the performance.
As the rooms move past us, we are privy to a series of vignettes, all of them comically sad expressions of private desire and loneliness, and begin to enter a series of fantasias that are explored throughout the rest of the show. The suited man photographs his shoes and argues with his telephone; the woman in the nightdress acts out scenarios of threat and terror with the knife, hiding under her bed; the other woman puts on her dress and reads from a bodice-ripper romance novel set in a fantasy Scotland (I'm almost sure I've read this novel - a genre which revels in wicked fathers, forced marriages, romantic soldiers and rape fantasies).
Gradually Tense Dave begins to be drawn into the other rooms: he eavesdrops on the other characters, enters their lives, and finds himself involved in a series of obscure dramas. The scenarios are like those in dreams: Brian Carbee gives him a shoebox that must be delivered somewhere, and abuses him when he doesn't know what to do with it; Michelle Heaven's character both threatens him and asks him for help; he becomes a hapless character in the romantic novel.
Perhaps because of the formal device of the revolve, which holds the fragmentary narratives together in a single, clearly coherent space, I saw all these characters as aspects of Dave himself, grotesquely flowering out of the repressed anxieties and desires his body expresses. But equally, it's possible to see in these scenes a version of Sartre's statement that "hell is other people". It's probably most true that in watching the dance, you oscillate between these possibilities, inner and outer realities, without ever deciding it is one or the other: Tense Dave is a show which brilliantly exploits the fertile anxieties of ambiguity. The movement is for the most drawn from the ordinary gestures of vernacular life, here given formal precision and focus.
Desire - towards death, or towards a possibility of love - is enacted in all sorts of displaced ways in a fragmented narrative that becomes progressively more violent. In one very witty sequence, Brian Carbee sits in a chair, exactly as if he is ordering a prostitute to enact various sexual fantasies, ordering Michelle Heaven to act out various scenarios with her finger: her finger is lonely, meets a friend, has dinner, falls in love, murders, goes to prison. Luke Smiles makes various attempts at suicide. The bodice-ripper fantasy is read out by a disembodied voice, lipsynched by the performers, until it reaches its logical end of rape. Dave's anxieties fantastically explode into fear: he becomes the murderer and the rapist that he fears he is.
Perhaps the most moving sequence is between Dave and Michelle Heaven, in which they dance a lyrical pas de deux, mirroring each other's gestures until they make love, but all the time - even while love-making - separated by a wall. Despite their yearning and desire, they cannot actually touch each other. The aching sadness of this dance is immediately exploded by a musical number, a sardonically seductive take on the hedonistic, numbing optimism of American musicals. Dave, very briefly, forgets his troubles and gets happy.
Another peak moment is a comic satire on the butchery of splatter movies, in which the dancers are dismembered by chainsaws. For all its comedy, I squeamishly found this all but impossible to watch, although the violence is primarily generated through sound effects. I have often thought that horror movies primarily generate most of their visceral effects through the suggestiveness of sound, and for me, this proved it.
All the transitions are performed seamlessly, with the help of what must be a superlative backstage crew, and the rhythms are superbly orchestrated: there wasn't a single moment where I found my attention flagging. The dance ends as it begins, with the solitary figure of Dave. This time he's freed of his walls, freed of the other voices and bodies that have haunted and traumatised him. It's an image that's at once bleak and heartening; he is no longer trapped in the travail of his anxieties, but he is walking nowhere, his body relaxed, utterly alone.
Chunky Move web documentary on Tense Dave
Friday, April 27, 2007
Tense Dave, devised and directed by Lucy Guerin, Michael Kantor and Gideon Obarzanek. Dramaturge Tom Wright, design by Jodie Fried, Andrew Livingston and Ben Cobham, lighting by Niklas Pajanti. Original music and arrangements Francois Tetaz. With Kristy Ayre, Brian Carbee, Michelle Heaven, Brian Lucas, Luke Smiles and Delia Silvan (understudy). Chunky Move and Malthouse Theatre co-production, @ the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until April 29.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
I fear your webmistress has been somewhat defatigable this week. Fluency has abandoned me, words flee my questing tongue and ideas shrivel unborn in the desert of my mind. Whatever. Osip Mandelstam coined the phrase "pre-lyrical anxiety" for a similar cluster of symptoms; St John of the Cross described such a state as being close to Englightenment. I draw comfort from these thoughts, but it could just be that my mood button is turned to "stupid".
In the normal run of things, this wouldn't be a bother; but I do want you to know about the Chunky Move/Malthouse show Tense Dave, which I went to see on Tuesday. Like opera singers, dancers seem to wither after a week or so of performance and if you blink, you'll miss this one: it closes on Sunday. If you haven't seen it yet, order your butler to book your ticket this instant. Be brisk, be brave, extend your credit line, mortgage your children: this is one of the must-see shows of the year. I'll tell you why when the cogs unfuse, which I hope will happen in the next couple of days.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
The Receipt, by Will Adamsdale. Performed by Will Adamsdale and Chris Branch. Comedy Festival @ The Malthouse until April 29
Now I've got over the hangover (and have nevertheless - I expect unbounded admiration - posted my treadmill minimum of 2000 words towards The Novel - did I ever tell you how boring novelists are? I must corner you one day and make you suffer for my art as I do) - nevertheless, having banished the small animal that appears to have used my mouth for unspeakable private necessities, and having - brain akimbo, fingers radiant with the gleam of honest sweat - hacked away for the necessary hours at the coalface of the imagination, Little Alison selflessly dons her Theatre Notes hat again in the interests of - not, as you might imagine by now, in order to rival the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Award for the World's Longest Sentence, no! - but to faithfully report my recent theatre shenanigans.
As you might judge by the preceding sentence, they were fairly prodigious. I went to the launch of the Malthouse's next season, and then on to a show. Dorothy Parker, eat your heart out.
I don't usually preview seasons, but the launch of Season 2 '07 was noteworthy. Flushed with the current sell-out successes of Exit The King and The Pitch, they're riding high at the Malthouse, and this launch was concomitantly upbeat. Wine flowed in rivers, conversation rose like iridescent bubbles over the excitedly vibrating crowd of culture vultures, and all was well in the gilded kingdom.
And the grazing classes were spoilt: we were treated to songs by the bewitching Paul Capsis, resplendent in a sequinned pinstripe suit, diva legend Renée Geyer and Ian Stenlake, hitherto unknown to me, whose performance of David Bowie's Rock'n'Roll Suicide brought the house down. Yes, I know Stenlake was in Stingers - now, that is, after a hasty Google. TN has never been much of a television hound. But that doesn't begin to tell you what kind of talent he is. The best thing I can say is that he more than held his own with Capsis and Geyer.
And yes, they're all in the upcoming Malthouse season, which is well worth a serious look. You can see Michael Kantor puckishly imitating Isaac Newton here, but drag your eyes away to contemplate the actual shows while I segue gracefully to the review of The Receipt. Which is on, coincidentally, at the Malthouse, although it is not a Malthouse show, but touring here under the Comedy Festival aegis.
The Receipt is a wittily sardonic and, in the end, surprisingly poignant reflection on the perils of modern quotidian life in London. With a moog synthesiser and three filing cabinets, Will Adamsdale and Chris Branch conjure a world of electronic bureaucratic insanity which is not so far from ours. It's a world in which the security guard to whom you are speaking on an intercom outside a building might be 100 km away, in which the inflexible details of office procedure permit the construction of miniature tyrannies. There's the coffee maker, for example, who requires a ticket before you can order a coffee, the security guard who requires a piece of paper every time you enter and leave a building, the boss who never listens but demands impossible and mysterious labours.
Will Adamsdale narrates the story of alienated office worker Wylie, a minion in a corporation called Rotoplas, who finds himself dealing with the Kafkaesque pointlessness of working life less and less well, and finally cracks up altogether. He escapes into an obsessive and equally pointless quest - to find out the exact person who bought a coffee at a particular bar (nattily titled Bar Space Bar - it doubles as a real estate agency) on a particular day. He has the receipt, picked up at random on the street, and the receipt has the numbers which hold the key to enlightenment. Or something.
As Wylie loses everything, he gains the city: the show finishes with a beautiful miniature evocation of a cityscape. Adamsdale and Branch use ordinary objects with something of the inventiveness and charm of local troupe Suitcase Royale. Adamsdale's narration is interrupted and enhanced by the virtuosic sound effects and dialogue of Chris Branch, who plays most other characters as well as managing the lifts, ringtones, security buzzers and other perils of modern urban life, evoked via Moog synthesiser and filing cabinet.
It occurs to me that this kind of observational comedy, absolutely pertinent in contemporary Britain, doesn't quite carry to Melbourne. Melbourne, after all, has mostly resisted the ubiquitous charmlessness of Starbucks, and we are yet to enjoy what is known in London as the Oyster card - coming our way soon though, in the guise of the winningly named Myki (those guys have been watching waaay too much bad anime). But The Receipt is nevertheless a lyrical and touching reflection on modern life, performed with charm and precision by Adamsdale and Branch, and definitely worth a look.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
My robust (and esteemed) colleague Chris Boyd is feeling understandably smug for breaking some exciting advance news about this year's Melbourne Festival. We're seeing Peter Brook's production of Athol Fugard's Sizwe Banzi is Dead, now in tour in Europe, and a Barrie Kosky adaptation of Poe's story The Tell-Tale Heart. About time Barrie got to Melbourne again. And like, wow. I'm already salivating.
Meanwhile, Playgoer has some interesting background on the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which this year was awarded to David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, recently on here at Red Stitch. The 17-member panel overruled the nominations of its theatre judges to give the prize to a play not even on the shortlist. This play brought TONY theatre critic David Cote out in hives:
David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole made me sick. During this competent dramedy about the mourning process, I experienced bizarre hallucinations, nausea, confusion and an irritability verging on dyspepsia. Upon learning my theater-going patterns, the doctor delivered a swift diagnosis of Biltmore Syndrome. It's a fairly common condition brought about by seeing too many middlebrow, bourgeois plays at New York's big nonprofit theaters.
UPDATE: More discussion on the Pulitzer Drama Prize at Playgoer, who digs a little deeper in the politics of the award, and David Cote's Histriomastix. As David says grumpily: "Why are we telling the world that this is the best we can do? Where the hell are our intellectually inspiring issue plays, our bold stylistic experiments, our epic history plays?"
Friday, April 13, 2007
The History Boys by Alan Bennett, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Toby Sewell, sound/music design by Ian McDonald. With Craig Annis, Michael Finney, Ben Geurens, Andre Jewson, Morgan David Jones, Brian Lipson, Rhys McConnochie, Luke Mullins, Matthew Newton, Beejan Olfat, Deidre Rubenstein and Ashley Zukerman. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Victorian Arts Centre Playhouse until May 12.
Alan Bennett's The History Boys is British theatre's version of Harry Potter. It opened at the National Theatre in 2004 to rapturous reviews and audiences, and swept off to Broadway, where rapturous reviews and audiences followed in New York accents. A transfer to the West End was inevitable. It's won so many Oliviers and TONY awards that the glow can be seen over the horizon. Then, of course, they made the film.
And at last we get to see what the fuss is about. Of course there's no question that Alan Bennett, the British national treasure who has penned such classics as The Madness of George III and Talking Heads, can write a sentence. He writes very well indeed, with feeling and intelligence, even if - as Chris Goode points out in his acute meditation on this play - his true metier is television, not the theatre. But, despite an (almost) superb production, I can't say I like The History Boys. In fact, it's one of the most purely annoying plays I've seen in a long time. I fear that untangling my irritation will make this review very long, so be warned.
You can see at once why it's been so popular. The History Boys is artfully seductive work, consciously pressing (but not too hard) all the buttons that signal its cultural worth, while at the same time harnessing the tried-and-true techniques of theatrical entertaining. The bitter pill of poetry goes down here with a big dose of sugar, and the punters love it. Before I go on, let me explain that TN isn't one of those who sneer at the popular for its own sake; a goodly part of my life is spent whuffling around the louche pleasures of genre literature, and I'll be eating popcorn at Pirates of the Caribbean 3 the day it comes out. But, in the light of the superlatives that garland this play's arrival, it's worth remembering Brecht's comment that if everybody likes a show, something must be wrong.
The History Boys is set in a minor public (ie, private) school in northern England during the 1980s - although it is a rather strange 1980s, overlaid with strong overtones of the 1950s, when Bennett himself was a student - and concerns a group of bright, working class boys. They are the students of Hector (Rhys McConnochie), the eccentric-but-loveable English teacher, and the history teacher, Mrs Lintott (Deidre Rubenstein), a woman with a wit dryer than Melbourne's reservoirs. To bump his school up the league tables, the ambitious Headmaster (Brian Lipson) decides to bring in a brash young teacher, Irwin (Matthew Newton), whom he hopes will give the boys enough polish to fast-track them into the cloisters of Oxbridge.
The new teacher is awkward but charismatic, and the boys' loyalties are divided between the old and the new. This allows Bennett to put differing notions of education at loggerheads. The conflict is between an Arnoldian notion of humanism, leavened with a bracing hostility to utilitarian ideas of culture, versus the amoral opportunists who see knowledge and education as merely a means to self-promotion and advantage. From the opening scene of the play, when a Blairite politician tells us that in order to preserve freedom we must sacrifice our liberties, it's clear that Bennett intends The History Boys to be a critique of contemporary Britain.
Hector is a familiar enough figure: he's the off-message teacher who inspires his boys (it's always boys) to a richer appreciation of life (and of course literature). He appears, sodden with nostalgia for doomed youth, in films like Goodbye Mr Chips or Dead Poets Society. Bennett's model is a little edgier than his precursors; Hector is disillusioned and flawed - he "fiddles" with the more attractive boys while scooting through town on his motorbike. He locks the door of the classroom to permit the boys to make camp re-enactments from classic Hollywood movies or - as in one of the purely funny vaudevillean scenes from the play - to practise their French by enacting scenes from a bordello. And they all quote reams of poetry - a select bunch dominated by Hardy, Houseman and Larkin. Of which more later.
The keen young blade Irwin, who is little older than the boys, offers a leaner, meaner view of culture, with a faultline of vulnerable hypocrisy - he is too intelligent not to perceive his own dishonesty. (He later becomes a television historian and, ultimately, the politician in the opening scene). Here, as a discussion about the Holocaust makes clear, there is no room for the autonomous or even sentimental value of education or art: they provide "gobbets" which one places artfully about one's cultural persona to catch the bored or inattentive eye. Irwin wouldn't argue with Sir Francis Bacon's claim that knowledge is power, but in the present age of celebrity he would add the rider that the key to exercising power is entertainment.
Bennett adds a novel twist by introducing the fissile question of the erotics of teaching. In the current climate, he is perhaps brave to raise it at all. The play acknowledges that the intimate act of teaching - the exchange between youth and experience - is electric with erotic energy. This is something that was openly acknowledged in the ideal of the Symposia, for example, and given explicit voice in Flaubert's A Sentimental Education, the story of a young man's affair with an older married woman. Where this erotic dynamic shades into abuse is something Bennett doesn't address at all: Hector's "fiddling" with the boys' genitalia is good-humouredly dismissed by everyone, except possibly Mrs Lintott, as a trivial question, a mark of Hector's foolishness more than anything else. Even the Headmaster makes it clear that, although it gives him an excuse to sack Hector, the real problem is elsewhere.
I don't remember the groper in my school being regarded so tolerantly by the students, although his furtive feel-ups of adolescent girls was perhaps as "harmless" as Hector's mild frottage; but then, he had greasy hair and bad dandruff and was a notably uncharismatic teacher. I do remember that the groping was regarded among the students with defensive, even savage, mockery, and that those students who suffered his attentions (this was the late '70s) were mostly distressed by their disempowerment. If authority chose to feel them up, they felt, rightly or wrongly, that they had no recourse, no right to object.
There is, unquestionably, something disturbing about Bennett's light treatment of this theme; minimising the implications of such behaviour was, as I recall, one of the major ways the Catholic Church dealt with the rampant sexual abuse among its priests. I'm not by any means looking for some hysterical denouncement of pederasty, but an acknowledgement at least of the darker complexities of Hector's actions would have made a more interesting play. But, let's face it, the erotics in this play, like its period dress, are a fantasy.
Bennett has given us a school where homosexual yearnings are openly accepted by the boys, and even the teachers, as normative. Among the students, the gay boy is Posner (Morgan David Jones). His hopeless crush on Dakin (Ben Geurens), the erotic focus of the play, is both universally acknowleged and, in a strange way, universally accepted, even by Dakin himself. No bashing of the queer boy in the toilets in this school; at worst, Posner suffers a little mockery, no worse than the playful hits over the head with magazines that in this world represents corporal punishment.
To reinforce this Platonic ideal, women exist on the margins. Aside from Mrs Lintott, the history teacher, there are no women on stage. They exist as shadowy axes of desire or undesire, the faded wives one never sees but from whose orbits husbands flee in order to fumble with the bright things of youth (although in the Headmaster's case, he's chasing his young secretary around her desk).
Mrs Lintott herself is, as she puts it, gender neutral: she is a comic figure who pops up sardonically to point out her own marginality, the fact that in order to exist in this world, she must forget that she is a woman. In her major speech she rails at the boys, asking them to consider how depressing she finds it to teach "five centuries of masculine ineptitude". This outburst presents an interesting revision of feminist protest. Mrs Lintott's complaint is that of the exasperated housewife: she is tired of being one of a long line of women who have historically followed men of action, "cleaning up their mess". The feminist argument is actually rather different: it claims that history has routinely erased the fact that women have contributed to the mess themselves.
These issues gesture towards the profound problems I have with this play. There is a certain disingenuousness in its argument that unravels its own overt propositions, which is seen most clearly in its discussions of education and culture. The History Boys sweeps along on a wave of sentiment that at once celebrates and laments the values of a humanist education, the Enlightenment idea of literature as a means of articulating and expanding the complexities of a felt and private inner life. Bennett explores this idea with a mitigatingly waspish scepticism: there's a line warning against the kind of middle-aged men who "love words", to whom literature is a wanly sensuous, vain adornment to an ultimately impoverished self.
Central is the assertion of the place of literature in making a "whole, rounded" human being. At the end of the first act is one of its most important scenes, in which Hector describes to Posner the sensation of discovering a writer who articulates your own inarticulate thoughts and feelings. "It's as if," Hector says, "a hand has come out and taken yours". This is a moving expression of what literature can mean to a young (and not only to a young) person; one thinks of the adolescent Susan Sontag, to whom her books were her "friends". But in Bennett's world it's clear that this sense of connection and liberation is rigorously circumscribed; it's a possible freedom that, like Hector's fiddling, goes only so far.
There's a lot of poetry in this play. I'm of a mind with Genet, who didn't approve of poetry in the theatre, but loved the poetry of the theatre; Bennett for the most part gets his poetic effect cheaply with static recitations, although there's one marvellous scene where the lines are distributed among the boys and a poem at last comes to theatrical life. But the wherefores of poetry's theatricality are not my concern here. In the course of the play, Bennett traces a very particular poetic heritage. It begins with Shakespeare, jumps to Thomas Hardy, AE Houseman, Rudyard Kipling, WH Auden and Wilfred Owen (with glances aside to Stevie Smith and TS Eliot) and culminates with Philip Larkin.
I have no objections to most of these poets, and fervently admire more than a couple of them. But this is a very recognisable genealogy which represents considerably less than the sum of its parts. And it's what it represents that concerns Bennett, and gives me pause. Shakespeare, with his unruly vitality, is the odd man out, and one suspects that his presence has less to do with the work itself than with Shakespeare's role as a noble emblem of British cultural pride. After Shakespeare, we are notably following poets who mostly work - in often masterly ways - a minor key. Thus we have Hardy and Houseman, but not a sign of Gerard Manly Hopkins; Auden but no place for WB Yeats or Dylan Thomas; Eliot but no Ezra Pound; Larkin, but none of his equally distinguished but more ambitious contemporaries - say, Peter Redgrove or WS Graham or Geoffrey Hill or Ted Hughes. And - naturally - only one woman, Stevie Smith, who happens, happily, to be a notoriously eccentric spinster.
Philip Larkin, the apotheosis of this line, in fact occupies an analogous space in British poetry to Bennett's in English theatre. He's the becomingly unassuming northern boy made good, whose brilliance never loses the common touch; an avatar, indeed, of "Little England". In The History Boys, Bennett traces a representative tour of conventional, middlebrow English cultural taste, of which his own work is a defining marker. And why not? I hear you cry.
It bothers me because of what it leaves out. In this cultural paradigm, qualities like passion, experiment, extremity, unruliness or risk are all - sometimes subtly, sometimes with the brute power of establishment marginalisation - carefully sidelined; they're smothered, ignored, mocked, appropriated or dismissed. This happens even when they occur in the canonical poets' work; in The History Boys, for example, the extremity of Owen's anguish about the First World War is undercut by an observation that, really, he loved the war, and couldn't wait to return to the front.
This is why, quite aside from the outrageous tearjerking Bennett permits himself at the end of The History Boys, his play is sentimental rather than an argument for the value of sentiment, a work that turns away from the challenge and beauty of art even as it purports to defend it. Even in the private sphere Bennett ascribes literature, its place is limited - its chief function is consolation. Literature might well be a consolation for the inconsolable implacability of living (though Samuel Beckett would have a bone or two with pick with that); the problem is that in Bennett's purview, that is also all it can be. There is not, and cannot be, any version of the challenge Rilke believed inherent in the experience of art: "You must change your life!"
It's a view of literature that is ultimately as repressive, as hostile to life and as self-serving as the political spin of Tony Blair. In fact, the apparently opposing arguments presented here seem to me to be on the same side of the same coin: the choice is between two identical shut rooms, the charms of each as meretricious as the other.
Enough of that, although there is, as always, more to say. The MTC gives it, as I said a long time ago, a superb production; squinting at the photos of the National Theatre show (ah, the wonders of Google), it seems to me that director Peter Evans has mounted this play with considerably more visual flair and imagination than the original. While the NT designer Bob Crowley went for a sense of detailed realism (albeit with shades of Lindsay Anderson's classic film If), zapped up with video footage of a school between scenes, Dale Ferguson has created an abstract, fluid space that evokes rather than describes the world of the school.
The action takes place exclusively forestage, and basic set elements - desks, tables and so on - are swung on rapidly by the cast between scenes, a decision which, aside from being practical, subtly achieves the sense of schoolroom chaos between lessons. The stage is bisected by a kind of grid, down which screens, mirrors and whiteboards can be slid to create a constantly changing counter-text to the action. Behind this grid climbs a series of broad steps, on which are placed softly lit desks. They are cunningly sized so the perspective appears as if the desks recede into the distance, and they create a lyrical visual backdrop. In the left hand corner of the front stage, in brutal contrast to the aesthetic unity of the rest of the set, is a huge white box with a door (it's the single "door" on the stage, and everyone enters and leaves through it). It wasn't me, I confess, who picked it as an industrial freezer, down to the door handle, but I'm certain that's what it is, a sardonic commentary on the coolroom that is the education system.
Evans moves his actors over this set with precision, variety and speed, ensuring the play never falters. And he has picked a marvellous cast; it's worth going to see it just for the performances. Matthew Newton as Irwin is a wonderful mixture of brash edge and vulnerability, inhabited by a knowing despair that manifests as cynicism; Brian Lipson's Headmaster is a tough northern businessman, motivated more by pragmatic interest than class snobbery, and that fine comic actor Deidre Rubenstein is - in the moments granted her - a scene stealer: dry, bitingly precise and very funny.
The boys are smart, funny and bursting with testosterone; there is not a weak performance among these young actors, although I particularly enjoyed Morgan David Jones' sensitively nuanced performance of Posner, and Luke Mullins as Scripps, the detachedly amused outside observer who will one day be a writer (or, at least, a journalist). Ben Geurens is clever, louche, dangerous and wickedly charismatic as the sexually precocious Dakin (where, I wonder, was that energy when he was playing Mr Sloane? - here he is an entirely different actor).
The only disappointment is the central performance. Rhys McConnochie is mystifyingly muted in the role of Hector, which requires something of the irresistible actorly ham of a Leo McKern or Richard Griffiths, who played this role in the original production. Sadly, McConnochie is totally outshone by the wattage of the other actors. Most of the touching (and crucial) scene about reading at the end of the first act - a scene which ought to generate pin-drop silence - is lost to the floor, and at other times McConnochie is even inaudible. As it's such an important role, his weak performance dims the lustre of the whole, which is otherwise a most enjoyable piece of theatre.
Aside from the play, of course.
B-File, based on text by Deborah Levy, directed by Paulo Castro. Co-written and performed by Jo Stone, Karen Lawrence, Paolo Dos Santos, Paulo Castro, Silvia Pinto Coelho and Madeleine Lawrence. Produced by Tanzfabrik-Berlin, Teatro Vila Real-Portugal and Casa Das Artes Familcao-Portugal, La Mama @ the Courthouse until April 14.
Airports accrue a peculiarly modern form of paranoia. Not only are they places where you wait, entering that "room of lost steps" where time becomes another dimension altogether; they are spaces of transition, where you are neither in one place nor another. You have no context in which to expand your identity, no way of demonstrating anything about yourself except through those crucial documents - passports, visas, tickets - that establish your claim to be a human being, a citizen, a whole person with rights and a proper name.
When I'm travelling, I always have a moment of anxiety if, for any reason, my passport leaves my humid grasp. I remember once, travelling by train from Switzerland to Italy, total panic rising in my throat when the Italian conductor brusquely took my passport overnight (to save, I found out later, the Italian immigration officials the task of inspecting papers from carriage to carriage). It doesn't take much imagination to extrapolate that anxiety to the actual situation of a person with no papers, no official identity, no legitimate means of moving through the rituals of citizenship. Which is the position, for example, of a refugee, or a prisoner in Guantanamo.
It's a condition of legal non-being that the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has named "naked life": a state of legal exception in which the full power of the state might be exercised against an individual who has been stripped of any rights of citizenry. When we say people are "dehumanised" by, for example, being put in concentration camps, we actually mean that they have been delegitimised: they no longer have any rights as citizens, and literally anything might be done to them.
The fear that our citizenship may be denied lies behind the anxiety we feel at airports, when our identity, which must be demonstrated at every turn, feels particularly vulnerable. And B-File - now on in its second week at La Mama, so hurry if you wish to see it - is a dark fantasia that begins precisely from this state of anxiety.
A fascinating and classy dance/theatre piece adapted from a text by Deborah Levy, B-File is a German-Portuguese co-production spoken in six languages. The show opens with three women sitting in a row, waiting, all of them with the bored, resigned expressions of travellers. Two policemen enter, and after making an obscene gesture, so swiftly that you almost don't see it, beckon one of the women to stand on a particular spot in front of them, and demand to see her passport. The other passengers watch, with the palpable relief that it isn't them.
It seems that she doesn't speak English; she is Japanese. In a sequence that is like a nightmare, she can't find her passport. She searches with increasing panic the bag around her waist, all her pockets; it isn't there. She tries to open her handbag, but the zip is stuck. She pulls, like a magician pulling scarves out of a hat, brightly coloured items of clothing out of the bag's narrow opening, staggers around the stage in a strange, dislocated dance and finally lies down as if she is going to sleep. When she's roused from her sleep, she escapes into the toilets.
Finally she does begin to speak. No, she doesn't have a passport. They policemen want to know what she says to her lover when she makes love. She tells them. She will fuck one of the policeman, doesn't he want to fuck her? Is he a poof? (What, the German policeman asks the other, is a poof?) She is threatening, she is disobedient, she runs away and disappears. She is a fantasy.
The policemen then turn their attention to the other travellers. The same game is played, but this time it is nastier. The second woman is a Portuguese, a dancer, and this permits a few jokes about contemporary dance, and links the policing of aesthetic boundaries to the question of state power. The policemen empty her bag, throw her belongings on the floor. She is obedient, polite, attempting to appease her interrogators by being as invisible as possible, but that doesn't help her. Like everyone else, she is forced to prove who she is, to perform her identity. And this demand is overlaid with an even more sinister sense of sexual sadism.
One of the male policemen leaves, and a woman takes his place. Suddenly the gendered game that has been played becomes more complex; the woman policeman is more brutal than the man. The next interrogation, of a middle aged Australian woman who begins by assuming her legitimacy, is nastier still in a way that reminds me of Pinter, especially in the nervous explosions of laughter the performance generates: it is blackly funny, but you can't feel comfortable. The threat is palpable, but it is impossible to know what is being demanded. The only thing that is visible is the exercise of power and the distress of those at its mercy.
The different languages spoken are partly responsible for the anxiety this piece generates: you are constantly catching up with what is going on, guessing at first and comprehending later, as it is translated into English. It's heightened by explosive segues into dance, and the two or three times there is a sound effect - a sudden very loud noise that obliterates all other sound - that is disorientating, as if, paradoxically, you are suddenly deaf.
Paulo Castro's direction has a spare simplicity that focuses all your attention on the action. There is something in the final sequence that has a touch of moral closure, a sense that it is a little too pat, although it has a certain logical compulsion. It is perhaps a little comforting to think that the present state of paranoid surveillance will self-destruct. But B-File is, all the same, an unsettling and powerful contemplation about contemporary authority.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Film adaptations of theatre are mostly tragically disappointing. Recently I slipped into the DVD player a disc that purported to record Ariane Mnouchkine's luminous Le Dernier Caravansérail, only to turn it off after 20 minutes in case it erased my memories of the show. The "adaptation" was a travesty: the heavily literal hand of film had turned it all into soap opera. Only bare hints remained of the lyricism of the stage. Like they say in Mafia movies, faggeddit.
So it was with mixed feelings that I heard that one of my peak theatre experiences - The Poor Theatre's production of Hamlet, directed by Oscar Redding and starring Richard Pyros as Hamlet - had been filmed. (Review of that production here). As my review indicates, that production brought out the fangirl that lurks breathlessly beneath this stern, forbidding critical exterior: afterwards I had to be sedated with several glasses of wine.
This week producer Aleks Radovic sent me a preview of the film, which is now in post-production. It removed my doubts, and now I can't wait to see the whole thing. Redding has preserved the roughness of the "poor theatre" aesthetic by using Dogme film techniques - hand-held cameras, for example, that invite the viewer into the action - and filming at night in public locations around Melbourne.
The effect is to highlight the performances and the text. The quality of Mr Shakespeare's writing is beyond question, and I have to say that the performances look electric. The cast is a little different from the play, and they've got rid of the doubling. The film features some of my fave Melbourne actors, like Adrian Mulraney and Brian Lipson and, of course, Pyros doing his Hamlet schtick. On the strength of the 20 minutes I've seen, it looks fair to be as exciting a Hamlet as has been committed to film. No news yet on where it can be seen, but my recommendation is to keep an eye out - it could be one of those movies that appear in cinemas for a two-day season, and you don't want to miss it. A suitably sable website with a trailer is here.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
COMEDY FESTIVAL: The Pitch, written and performed by Peter Houghton. Directed by Anne Browning, sound design by David Franzke, lighting by Paul Jackson. The Beckett @ The Malthouse until April 28. The Sound of Music Drag Show, directed by Jessica James. With Jessica James, Kris Del Vayse, Amanda Monroe, Jackie Stevens, Roxy Bullwinkle and Jillette Jones. Drags Aloud @ the Bosco, Federation Square, Melbourne Comedy Festival until April 15.
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of those events that throws me completely. This year I cowered pathetically before the program: like, how many acts? So I'm afraid that if this is coverage, then a postage stamp is an overcoat. Luckily for cybernauts, indefatigable bloggers Avi of The Rest is Just Commentary and Richard Watts of Man About Town are better men than I am: they are stoutly braving the crowds and seeing stuff and even writing about it. Me, I've managed to get to two of the 250 or so shows that are whirling around town at the moment. I laughed all the way through both of them, so, despite everything, TN's horse sense still seems to be working.
Peter Houghton's one-man show The Pitch is the Malthouse's contribution to the festival. These days Houghton is riding high: earlier this month, he swept the board at the Green Room Awards, winning best actor and writer gongs for both The Pitch and his brilliant performance of Hamm in Eleventh Hour's production of Endgame. And the word on this show was glowing: a couple of my spies told me it was the best thing they saw at La Mama last year. Sadly, I missed its debut. It must have been quite something in that intimate space.
Rest assured that the hype is warranted. The Pitch, a sardonic take on that predatory mirage known as the film industry, is hilarious from beginning to end. The conceit is that Walter Weinermann, a hapless screenwriter whose love life is mess, is about to pitch his screenplay to a panel of producers. There are three of them: an Englishman who distributes films in Europe, a tough-guy American producer chewing a cigar, and an Australian academic bureaucrat. Somehow Weinermann's script has to please all three of them if he's to get any money to make the movie.
In the hour before this crucial meeting, Weinermann runs through his screenplay, fine-tuning it according to the four Big Rules as laid out by Sid, the American producer. "I'm talking about the actual stories that make the world go round," says Sid. "Four of them son. Just four." The four stories are, for reference, "being more than what you are", getting over disadvantage, love (of course) and revenge.
This conceit permits a glorious pisstake on practically every Hollywood cliche you can poke a stick at. The only thing missing is a car chase: I really think Houghton covers everything else, complete with sound effects. Running underneath is a sly comment on the links between cultural and military imperialism, as the movie shifts from the Hindu Kush in the 1930s (when imperial power was British) to present day Afghanistan.
In between is a nonsensical action movie that shifts from a smokey Paris jazz club to the mysterious Orient "where nothing is what it seems", from a surreal performance of Macbeth to an International Rap Competition. It involves spies, war, romance, assassination, a tribal Afghani who "spent a lot of time in the Bronx", the obligatory comic sidekick, a plane crash and lots of shooting. And it stars, well, practically everyone - Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, Robert de Niro and "that guy with the eyes from The Lord of the Rings". Though Weinermann isn't sure whether his hero will be Russell Crowe or Clint Eastwood, and supplies alternative lines for each possible casting.
The script doesn't miss a beat, and neither does Houghton's performance. Aside from anything else, there's the exhilaration of watching a virtuosic actor at the full stretch of his physical and vocal skills. And Houghton's Robert de Niro impersonation is really something to see.
The following night, down at Federation Square, I trickled into the Bosco, a brightly painted wooden tent which is hospitably hosting a number of Comedy Festival acts, to see The Sound of Music Drag Show. Last year it became the longest running drag show ever in Melbourne, and also won the Rainbow Award for Best Drag Show. It's easy to see why.
This is rough theatre at its rudest and most uproarious. Its cast of six re-enacts, to a rather free version of the Julie Andrews sound track (it segues into funk or Europop at a moment's notice), a scatalogical version of The Sound of Music. Maria (Jessica James) is not quite the sylph-like innocent of the movie, Captain von Trapp (Kris del Vayse) has a serious problem with flatulence, the Baroness (Roxie Bullwinkle) is a predatory vamp, and the children (who have been whittled down to four) are, if it's possible, even more unspeakable than they are in the film. And the nuns rock.
The ideal of the happy family saved by song takes a few slaps in the course of the show, and of course there's the hypnotic performance of femininity that is drag itself. Fascinatingly, you get a broad spectrum of the feminine here: the six performers are a wide variety of shapes, sizes and ages. It's fair to say that gender is a free-floating entity: when the queens dress as men, they still sport very impressive breasts.
It is as much a tribute to The Sound of Music as it is a high-spirited parody. Part of its charm is the chance to hear again all those classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, and to remember how good they are. They're certainly robust enough to survive the disrespectful treatment. The cossies are fabulously over the top, the choreography is winning, and the sheer energy irresistible. And the performers seem to be having as much fun as the audience.
Pictures from top: Peter Houghton as Clint Eastwood in The Pitch, photo Jeff Busby; Jessica James as Maria in The Sound of Music Drag Show
Thursday, April 05, 2007
Even though she lives in a glass house held together with ice cream sticks, Little Alison likes to throw stones. And as anyone who regularly reads TN knows, she likes to throw stones at other crrrritics. I really do get irritated by the laziness of some of our MSM theatre reviewers. (TN might be mistaken, procrastination-prone, psychically challenged, afflicted by typos and in danger of being crushed by a desk avalanche of old press releases, books and bills, but she isn't - she swears on her heart - lazy as such...) Ionesco, a Romanian-born Frenchman, said of the play: "I told myself that one could learn to die, that I could learn to die, that one can also help other people to die. This seems to me to be the most important thing we can do, since we're all of us dying men who refuse to die. This play is an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying." (Italics mine). An interesting and pertinent quote. But then, in her review for the Australian, Thuy On brings it back. It is also the only time Ionesco is quoted in the review: Ionesco said of the play, "This is an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying". And in an otherwise unobjectionable review for the Age, Cameron Woodhead uses exactly the same quote (and it is similarly the only Ionesco quote): TN was a little puzzled - no, let me not be too disingenuous - TN was a little depressed that this seemed to be the only Ionesco meme bobbing about in Melbourne print circles. (Unlike Beckett, Ionesco was quite chatty about his own work.) And I assumed that the two critics had simply picked up the quote from Corrie Perkin's article.
Lately I've been brooding on a strange convergence in the reviews of Ionesco's Exit the King, on now at the Malthouse. At issue is a particular quote from Ionesco. Its first appearance was in an interview with Geoffrey Rush by Corrie Perkin in the Australian, where she quotes Ionesco at some length:
Ionesco once described his play as "an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying".
But maybe not. Yesterday I picked up and read the press release that the Malthouse Theatre PR staff handed out to critics on opening night, which heretofore had lain, crumpled and unread, in the bottom of my handbag. And there, at the top, in a nice bold typeface, is a quote from Geoffrey Rush, taken from Perkin's feature - plus that very familiar quote from Ionesco, in the same partial form as it appears in the reviews.
It's not the first time I've seen critics echoing a theatre's press release, and I guess it won't be the last. But in my view, the job description of "critic" ought to involve reading past the PR. Or even past the virtual clippings out of the newspaper library. Or am I just old-fashioned?
Ionesco, a Romanian-born Frenchman, said of the play: "I told myself that one could learn to die, that I could learn to die, that one can also help other people to die. This seems to me to be the most important thing we can do, since we're all of us dying men who refuse to die. This play is an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying."
(Italics mine). An interesting and pertinent quote. But then, in her review for the Australian, Thuy On brings it back. It is also the only time Ionesco is quoted in the review:
Ionesco said of the play, "This is an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying".
And in an otherwise unobjectionable review for the Age, Cameron Woodhead uses exactly the same quote (and it is similarly the only Ionesco quote):
TN was a little puzzled - no, let me not be too disingenuous - TN was a little depressed that this seemed to be the only Ionesco meme bobbing about in Melbourne print circles. (Unlike Beckett, Ionesco was quite chatty about his own work.) And I assumed that the two critics had simply picked up the quote from Corrie Perkin's article.
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
After writing my 2000 words yesterday, something went ping in my brain. So I did a long-planned overhaul of my blogroll, which is now on a separate page with a whole lot of other handy theatrical links that wouldn't fit in my crowded sidebar. Lots of new blogs (note the embryonic Asian section, which I hope mitigates a little the dominant Anglophilia) and links to theatres and online media. While I'm at it, I might as well point you to the Review page, which lists every single review and essay that's been posted on TN since 2004, and is quite a handy way of navigating the morass.
Monday, April 02, 2007
The Green Room Awards were announced yesterday. The big winners were La Mama and the Malthouse, with the latter winning 10 awards. La Mama in fact doubly won the new play category, with Gabrielle Macdonald's Debt and Peter Houghton's The Pitch sharing the gong. Peter Houghton also scooped the Best Male Actor for The Pitch (La Mama, opening next week at the Malthouse) and his performance of Hamm in Eleventh Hour's For Samuel Beckett. The Malthouse productions of Kage Physical Theatre's Headlock and Nigel Jamieson's Honour Bound, which is soon to tour to Europe, both figured prominently.
The big loser is the MTC, which won a single award (for the design of Festen) and dipped out badly to Dusty: The Musical in the musical theatre category, where it had nine nominations for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Something is a little flat in South Melbourne, methinks...could Simon Phillips be too busy with commercial projects like Priscilla: Queen of the Desert to keep his eye on the ball?