The other evening, as I walked homewards through the lashing rain of a wintry Melbourne night, my heart too swollen and luminous with blood to feel the cold, I wondered what it is that makes Paul Capsis great. Not good, but great: the kind of greatness that tears open your own mortality, that makes you feel so intensely present that you are lifted out of time and find yourself poised in anguished nostalgia for these moments that are falling now, like shining water, through your open fingers.
What is it, I thought, about this funny, short, skinny, ugly, beautiful man, this man who flounces onto the stage in his brown velvet suit, staring at us with the eyes of an Egyptian heiroglyph, his gaudily be-ringed hands fluttering like broken doves as he offers his fragility and grotesqueness like a sacrifice on the altar of our possible scorn, our possible adoration? Yes, he has the voice of an angel (or perhaps several angels: he is never singular). But that is by no means the whole of it.
And then the word came to me: he has duende.
Federico Garcia Lorca defines duende thus: “The duende…is a power, not a work; it is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet’. Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”
And further: “All that has black sounds is duende”. And further: “All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds its greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance and spoken poetry, for these arts require a body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.”
The duende stands on the rim of the wound, inviting death to be its playmate. Janis Joplin had duende. She was that wild, raw wind that stripped each song to its bone, and then broke the bone open to its bitter marrow. When Capsis sings a Joplin song, he does not silence us because he is giving us a perfect imitation of a dead woman. No, he is summoning the death that choked her in every song she sang, and it scrapes across his throat like a hacksaw. He is summoning the blood that raced through her body, and its crimson arc as it spilled out in her magnificent voice, he is calling up within his own flesh the ecstatic awkwardness of a body on the threshold of a blazing knowledge that can only be known in the body, glorious and bright and transient as the incandescent filament that blazes in the centre of a spotlight.
He is embarrassed by neither kitsch nor art: the duende is possible anywhere. He sings a Paul Kelly song and then a ballad from Schubert’s Winterreise. In the taut-breathed silence the duende laughs like a demonic flame, and then it dares to tickle us. It has no respect for niceties. It likes crude jokes and naïve gestures. It lives in the fractures these crudities open within us, leaping out in the sudden gracelessness of a movement that forbids illusion. Its pretence is all fraud: all the time, it is telling the truth.
Paul Capsis is not Janis Joplin, nor Nancy Sinatra, nor Judy Garland. He is Paul Capsis, and he is a slender man with hands that are graceful white spiders climbing around his face, and he is sitting six feet away on the edge of the stage hurting us with a voice as pure as acetylene. His face is a mask, it changes all the time, it mocks us and seduces us, it says, you can have everything and nothing. His face is a mask of the most minute expressiveness; but his voice is naked.
Paul Capsis and Alister Spence, The Coloured Girls Go... @ the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, until June 30.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
The other evening, as I walked homewards through the lashing rain of a wintry Melbourne night, my heart too swollen and luminous with blood to feel the cold, I wondered what it is that makes Paul Capsis great. Not good, but great: the kind of greatness that tears open your own mortality, that makes you feel so intensely present that you are lifted out of time and find yourself poised in anguished nostalgia for these moments that are falling now, like shining water, through your open fingers.
You have to pity the London crrrritics. Just as the spat over Nicholas Hytner's full-frontal attack reached an uneasy detente, AA Gill reached for the cutlery and did some comprehensive mincing of his own. Gill, the notoriously waspish food critic for the Sunday Times, accused the critics of dressing badly, demanding aisle seats like spoilt children and being "moribund, joyless [and] detached". Worst of all, they write with a "uniform, dank sogginess". Where, asks Mr Gill, "are the voices that ring out as being aesthetically intelligent, passionate, current and, most important, entertaining?"
As the Guardian's Lyn Gardner comments in a spirited defence of her profession, it reads rather as if Mr Gill is suggesting himself as the Man for the Job. And, as she often does, Gardner puts her finger on the real problem that bedevils mainstream theatre criticism: lack of space.
What has happened is that theatre criticism has been squeezed in terms of length. When I first arrived at the Guardian, reviews were around 600 words; now I seldom get to write more than 300. Style doesn't have a great deal of room to swagger in such conditions, although by style I suspect that Gill really means the flip, cynical wit which characterises his own TV and restaurant reviews and which is so beloved by editors. Don't get me wrong, they're a great read, clearly written - like his article on theatre criticism - with provocation in mind. But in my experience only the direst theatre shows with no redeeming qualities lend themselves to that kind of waspish humour.
Quite right: artistic sledging is too often mistaken for discriminating taste, when in fact it's very often just a cop-out that appeals only to the little sadist within us all. (We all love a bit of schadenfreude.) It's very easy to be witty and superior at someone else's expense; much less simple to attempt to engage with a work on its own terms, and then, for good or ill, to write about that. Although I do agree with Gill that reviewing is itself a kind of performance, and has a duty to entertain.
Gardner suggests that Gill widen his field of vision, and look not only beyond the West End, but beyond print media. TN is a little chuffed (ok, very chuffed) to be named, with the reliably funny West End Whingers, as an "intelligently provocative" new voice entering the conversation through the web. And three cheers for Gardner, for at last pointing out that bloggers and mainstream critics can exist together, not in deadly rivalry, but as complementary voices in a wider and increasingly fascinating conversation.
Monday, June 25, 2007
Osama the Hero by Dennis Kelly, directed by Syd Brisbane. Designed by Kate Davis, sound design Tommy Spender, lighting design by Nik Pajanti. With Jessie Beck, Kevin Hopkins, Hannah Norris, Xavier Samuel and Thomas Wright. The Rabble @ La Mama Courthouse Theatre untilJuly 7.
Ying Tong: A Walk with the Goons by Roy Smiles, directed by Richard Cottrell. Set and costume design Michael Scott-Mitchell, lighting design Damien Cooper, sound effects by Paul Charlier, sound design by Jeremy Silver. With Jonathan Biggins, Tony Harvey, David James and Geoff Kelso. Sydney Theatre Company presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Arts Centre Playhouse until July 28.
Circus Oz: Under the Big Top. Various artists. Birrarung Marr Park (between Federation Square & Batman) until July 15.
Little Alison felt rather strange last week. I emerged from a tunnel more than half a million words long to find an alien world in which the force of gravity had decreased by around 75 per cent. Birds tootled merrily in the trees, the clouds were the colours of ice-cream and dogs bounced along the street like helium balloons. I was buzzing around Melbourne like a stoned hippy.
This, thought I, is what it's like not to be a writer. Whatever was I thinking? But life, being stern and unforgiving, reminded me that there's really not anything else I can do with myself (and if sufficiently threatened, I'll admit I quite like it, really); so it's back to the word-forge for me. Especially since I've seen three shows since last Thursday, and had better earn my tickets. I realise I'm cheating slightly by doing an all-in-one, but I fear that happy word-free daze was rather seductive, and I've been a little hoppity about writing anything.
On Thursday, I went with immense curiosity to the opening of The Rabble's production of Dennis Kelly's Osama The Hero. The Rabble is a Sydney-based collaboration between Syd Brisbane, Kate Davis and Emma Valente. I've been aware of these artists for some time, but this is the first Rabble production I've seen. It confirms my suspicion that this is a company to watch.
They're an interesting bunch, to say the least, and they're not exactly short on ambition. Davis and Valente are young artists who were previously based in Melbourne, where they founded a company called Self-Saucing Pudding. Their work was seen here last year, when they produced a fascinating take on revenge tragedy for Hoist Theatre at Theatreworks. Most recently, Kate Davis directed Corvus, by the young Melbourne writer Jasmine Chan, for The Rabble at Carriageworks in Sydney. Syd Brisbane has been around a little longer; he was originally based in Adelaide, acting with companies like the Red Shed and Brink Productions and, after Brink's co-production of the world premiere of Howard Barker's Ecstatic Bible at the 2000 Adelaide Festival, with Barker's company The Wrestling School in the UK.
Osama The Hero is a remount of a production that premiered in Sydney last year. Sydney in fact seems to be making the running on Dennis Kelly, an intriguing British writer who made big waves in 2003 with his nightmarishly surreal play Debris, which toured here last year from Sydney as part of the Fringe Festival. It's easy to see why he attracts attention: Kelly is a writer whose work combines a gift for poetic with often brutal realism, out of the school of Sarah Kane, David Harrower or Anthony Neilson. Like these playwrights, his work emerges from the spiritual desolations and alienations of contemporary Britain: while Debris concerned itself with violent family dysfunction, Osama The Hero explores the ethics of social paranoia in a time of terror.
Written in a series of fragmented monologues and dialogues, the play circles around the naive misfit Gary (Xavier Samuel), who lives on an estate where someone is blowing up rubbish bins and garages. When he is asked to present a paper at school on a contemporary hero, he comes up with Osama Bin Laden. He argues that Bin Laden - an ascetic who has fought for his beliefs, who turned away from a massive family fortune to fight the Russians in Afghanistan - is, to those who admire him, the equivalent of Churchill to the British. And he asks why it's considered heroic to kill thousands of civilians in one circumstance (Dresden, for example) and not in another (such as the events of September 11).
His paper causes a scandal, and attracts the attention of the siblings Louise (Hannah Norris) and Francis (Thomas Wright), both the products of a particularly brutal father. Francis is a speed-burned paranoiac, whose free-floating aggression is at first directed towards Mark (Kevin Hopkins), whom he believes is a paedophile. But when he hears about Gary's paper, he is convinced the boy is a terrorist and must be responsible for the explosions on the estate. In a gruelling scene, he and Louise turn vigilante: they capture Gary, tie him to a chair and torture him.
This sink-estate brutality is intercut with visions of middle-class aspiration and failure. The couple Mark and Mandy (Jessie Beck) exemplify a Posh-and-Becks aspirational fantasy: material wealth and comfort, the sheen of a "successful" marriage with the obligatory cute child. But it swiftly becomes clear that they are as emotionally impoverished as their neighbours, as spiritually alienated, as lost and as brutal. The play closes with three intercut monologues which open up the desolate loneliness, the desperate desire for simple human kindness, that in different ways drive all Kelly's characters, and which deliver a indictment, at once damning and compassionate, of an alienated, grossly materialistic society.
Osama The Hero is not as successful a play as Debris; for one thing, while it never falls into the trap of moral proselytising, it sometimes totters along the edge of it. But more specifically, I couldn't escape the feeling that this play's cruelties are so particular to Blair's Britain - to its sink estates, its class system and tacky television celebrity, even its urban landscape - that transferring it to an Australian context makes it lose much of its power. I'm not quite sure why this is so: after all, it's entirely possible to watch plays from 19th century Russia or 16th century Spain and not to feel at all alienated by their context; but I suspect that, except in the moments when Kelly touches a true humane complexity, his vision is limited by a very specific anger. This play was, after all, written in response to the UK's invasion of Iraq in 2003.
All the same, it's worth noting that Kelly's analysis of the crudities of mob justice is rather chillingly replicated on one of our very own right wing blogs. The mere title of the play was enough to bring out the slavering wingnuts, who - like Kelly's vigilantes - never permit mere facts to get in the way of a good bigotry. (I'm not giving a direct link, having no desire to attract said wingnuts: curious readers can find it on google here).
The first thing you notice on walking into the Courthouse is Kate Davis' stunning design: the entire stage is curtained in white fabric, lit inside to give a faint, soft luminosity. The curtains open to reveal a two-level stage painted antiseptic white: there's a broad area front stage, in which is suspended a miscellany of window frames, and a narrow area back-stage, across which is a huge image of a mountain range. The mountains seemed to me a mistake; while they simultaneously conjure the travel-brochure asppirations of Mark and Mandy and Gary's ascetic fantasies of Bin Laden, they seemed an unnecessary illustration in a set that was otherwise a beautiful theatrical abstraction.
Syd Brisbane uses the set imaginatively, and elicits committed performances from his cast. I was particularly impressed by Kevin Hopkins, whose unhappy smile becomes more and more painful, and Thomas Wright as the paranoid and brutalised Francis. Occasionally the direction wavers: when the actors dip their hands into buckets of blood and drip it onto the stage as they speak their final monologues, it struck me as naive theatrical metaphor (yes, we all have blood on our hands!) but, more importantly, it limits the actors' physical expressiveness. But this production's strengths well outweigh its weaknesses, and make this a show well worth a visit.
Ying Tong: A Walk With the Goons seems to invoke a very different world from Dennis Kelly's vision; but in fact, there are subterranean continuities. As any Goon nut knows (and I suppose, having been raised on BBC radio comedy, and being in possession of practically every text Spike Milligan ever published, I must count as one of those) the Goons' anarchic comedy was, among other things, a response to the trauma of World War 2 and the sheer bleakness of post-war Britain.
This was really a play that was waiting to be written, and clearly Roy Smiles was the man to do it. It threads Milligan's famous depressions - partly caused by his experiences as a soldier in Africa - into the manic comedy of the Goon Show. I expected a nostalgic evocation of the Goons, with the requisite imitations of Bluebottle, Eccles, Major Bloodknock and all the rest. A show, in short, that bought into the enduring popularity of this still wildly funny comedy, while gently reminding us of its darker currents...
And that is exactly what I got. But I was mistaken on one point: I thought this predictable recipe would add up to an excruciating evening. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself riding the Goon bandwagon with no signs of pain at all. This STC import is the best thing I've seen at the MTC for quite a while; it's stylishly directed and designed, and it's performed by a bunch of actors who look as if they're hugely enjoying themselves. And why not? It was probably once every British schoolboy's dream to be drinking "brown milk" (the brandy-laced milk they scoffed backstage) with Milligan (Geoff Kelso), Harry Secombe (Jonathan Biggins), Peter Sellers (David James), Wallace Greenslade (Tony Harvey) and the boys. It certainly was Prince Charles's.
Ying Tong opens with a re-enactment of a BBC radio recording, which was always performed in a theatre before a live audience. It's a clever device, because the audience immediately gets into the feel of the show and enthusiastically obeys the red APPLAUSE sign above the stage. I don't know if the script they perform is an actual Goon show or a Smiles imitation; if it's an imitation, I doff my hat, because it sounds completely authentic. The show is interrupted when Milligan suddenly freezes on stage, unable to speak; and then the red curtain rises to reveal the cavernous, shabby interior of a ward in a mental hospital.
The script switches between flashbacks and Milligan's rather confused present, in which he is visited by hallucinations that include, as well as the characters he and his fellows invented, a bunch of leprechauns, his ex-wife, and giant figures dressed as Morris dancers. There is one scene that is pure genius, where Jonathan Biggins channels Peter Seller's Dr Strangelove while giving Milligan a psychiatric examination. Here Smiles manages the collisions between reality, Milligan's imagination and the hallucinations of madness with a deft and unsettling hand: and Biggins' Dr Strangelove is pitch-perfect, sinister and hilarious.
Because it is about well-loved and recognisable public figures, a show of this kind is a bit peculiar: the actors are not so much acting as doing impersonations. So most of the time we are watching them being not-quite their models: it's not-quite Milligan, not-quite Bluebottle, etc. Fortunately the impersonations are good and the show is involving enough to get past this oddly alienating effect. I also discovered how deeply Milligan's writing has infected my consciousness (you can't get past that childhood conditioning): the play had an oddly patchwork effect for me, because I kept recognising the source material. But this recognition is also what gives this show much of its appeal: it's the next best thing to seeing the Goons themselves.
Michael-Scott-Mitchell's set deserves mention: he distorts perspective with a series of receding arches, which permits some interesting optical illusions that reflect the distortions of madness. In one scene, in fact, I was convinced that the actors were wearing stilts, because they looked like giants. And Richard Cottrell's direction is swift and sure, deftly exploiting the comic potential of the script.
It's by no means a profound play; Smiles skates along the surface of mental illness, exploiting its comedy and pathos rather than giving us a true picture of its hellish reality. Milligan wrote a couple of devastating pieces about his war experiences that are not drawn on here, but which suggest why it so haunted him. To bring out those truths would demand a very different kind of show, perhaps some kind of Beckettian monologue. But within its limitations, it's sensitively enough handled, and it's certainly a fun night.
I finished my week's theatre (whew!) with a visit to Circus Oz under the Big Top in Birrarung Marr Park, just past the ferris wheel. This is the next evolution of their Laughing at Gravity show, seen here last year: and it's hard to think of a better way to spend a chilly Sunday than whooping and cheering at Circus Oz while stuffing your face full of popcorn.
Under the Big Top serves up Circus Oz's trademark mixture of circus acts, cabaret and rock and roll. It's durable because it's enormous fun, with that necessary spice of voyeuristic danger. (The bendy pole act, for some reason, prompted every six year old in the tent to scream their lungs out in pre-emptive terror that the acrobat might fall down).
There are familiar acts well worth revisiting, given new twists: the mullet himself, Scott Hone, scarifying the youngsters with his BMX antics, and strongwoman Mel Fyfe having concrete blocks broken with a sledgehammer on her stomach. And the Singing Stuntman, Matt Wilson, is back with more bad puns, bringing his particular brand of clowning to trapeze and rope acts.
They're interspersed with some class new acts - the Pink Lemonade lady (Susina Wogayehu) who folds herself alarmingly into a glass box filled with pink liquid, or a wonderful Fred Astaire dance and juggling sequence. It's wicked, sexy and rude, with a feminist spin - courtesy of songstress Christa Hughes - that would warm the cockles of any old bluestocking's heart. Definitely a cheering antidote to a flu-ridden Melbourne winter.
Pictures: Top: Xavier Samuel in Osama The Hero; Bottom: Circus Oz performer Sosina Wogayehu shows how twisted she is.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Serendipity rules. Hot on the heels of a debate in the comments on my review of Bell Shakespeare's Othello, in which Anon outlined his objections to an Aboriginal Othello and his regret at the passing of blackfaced, classically-trained white actors, Mr Excitement alerts me to a Los Angeles Times article by US playwright Neil LaBute in which he calls for "colourblind" casting. "In these troubled times," opines Mr LaBute, "the man [Olivier] would never be allowed to put on blackface and play that role. Hell, he wouldn't be allowed to perform it if he went out in a strawberry-blond wig and clown makeup." This is not an argument about opportunity or imbalance; all I'm asking is that you let the theater, that last bastion of illusion — a place of magic and hope and imagination — remain exactly that. The stuff that dreams are made of. But the fact remains that theatre is an impure art, deeply embedded in its time and place, and LaBute's appeal reflects - as several others point out - his own privileged time, place and social position, and not the transcendent and universalist notion of Art that he seems to claim. As you might imagine, his article stirred up a nest of hornets, one of the stingiest being Asian-American blogger Bamboo Nation. LaBute seems to think that one of the creative community's greatest travesties of justice is that Brad Pitt can't paint his face black and star in A Raisin in the Sun. Is this what we're really concerned about in the arts? In reference to Laurence Olivier playing Othello in blackface in the 1960s, LaBute laments, "In these troubled times, the man would never be allowed to put on blackface and play that role." I know, Neil, and while we're at it I might add that, in these troubled times, we would also never be allowed to have racial segregation and have people use different drinking fountains. Neil LaBute's made a living as a misogynist (and misanthropic) playwright, skewering "political correctness" by asserting his right, as an angry male, to be a jerk. I suppose it was simply a matter of time before he decided to stand up for white actors against their colored oppressors. After all, who can argue that "when great actors are denied great roles on the stage because of their skin color, there's a problem"?... Which all-in-all gives a pretty fascinating glimpse into racial politics in US theatre. I'm quite certain there are parallels here, while at the same time I can't help thinking that there are crucial differences. One being, for example, the specificity of Indigenous experience in contemporary Australia. And thinking back, the only time I've seen blackface on stage recently was in Russell Dykstra's outrageously offensive piss-take of Australian racism in Michael Watts' Not Like Beckett. And in that performance, blackface was instantly recognisable as the code of an outmoded racism (I'm not saying that racism is outmoded, sadly; simply that the cossies change). It's hard to see it working in any serious performance. I'm curious to hear further thoughts...
LaBute finishes up appealing to the imaginative autonomy of theatre, an argument with which I have some sympathy.
White people have played people of color for generations, and look what they've done: For every Olivier, there are dozens of Mickey Rooneys; for every Othello, there are hundreds of minstrel shows, Charlie Chans, Mikados.
I too wish for a day when our stages could be truly colorblind. Maybe that'll be commonplace in American theater in our lifetimes, and maybe then American theater truly could be called American theater. But for now, I'd have to say that the "caste system" in American theater is still very firmly in place, and white actors are most definitely not on the bottom.
However, to get back to theatre: it got me thinking about whether it would be at all possible now to cast a white actor as Othello. I hesitate to claim it would be impossible - art has a way of instantly disproving sweeping statements - but it would be, to say the least, very difficult. Quite apart from the question of so-called PC sensitivities, it couldn't but look ridiculous to contemporary audiences - something the RSC seemed to recognise, for instance, by not performing the play on its main stage between 1985 and 1999, because it wasn't prepared to black up a white actor. Social mores change, and theatre conventions change with them.
This is not an argument about opportunity or imbalance; all I'm asking is that you let the theater, that last bastion of illusion — a place of magic and hope and imagination — remain exactly that. The stuff that dreams are made of.
But the fact remains that theatre is an impure art, deeply embedded in its time and place, and LaBute's appeal reflects - as several others point out - his own privileged time, place and social position, and not the transcendent and universalist notion of Art that he seems to claim. As you might imagine, his article stirred up a nest of hornets, one of the stingiest being Asian-American blogger Bamboo Nation.
LaBute seems to think that one of the creative community's greatest travesties of justice is that Brad Pitt can't paint his face black and star in A Raisin in the Sun. Is this what we're really concerned about in the arts? In reference to Laurence Olivier playing Othello in blackface in the 1960s, LaBute laments, "In these troubled times, the man would never be allowed to put on blackface and play that role." I know, Neil, and while we're at it I might add that, in these troubled times, we would also never be allowed to have racial segregation and have people use different drinking fountains.
Neil LaBute's made a living as a misogynist (and misanthropic) playwright, skewering "political correctness" by asserting his right, as an angry male, to be a jerk. I suppose it was simply a matter of time before he decided to stand up for white actors against their colored oppressors. After all, who can argue that "when great actors are denied great roles on the stage because of their skin color, there's a problem"?...
Which all-in-all gives a pretty fascinating glimpse into racial politics in US theatre. I'm quite certain there are parallels here, while at the same time I can't help thinking that there are crucial differences. One being, for example, the specificity of Indigenous experience in contemporary Australia.
And thinking back, the only time I've seen blackface on stage recently was in Russell Dykstra's outrageously offensive piss-take of Australian racism in Michael Watts' Not Like Beckett. And in that performance, blackface was instantly recognisable as the code of an outmoded racism (I'm not saying that racism is outmoded, sadly; simply that the cossies change). It's hard to see it working in any serious performance. I'm curious to hear further thoughts...
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Othello by William Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Set design Ralph Myers, costumes by Brice McKinven, light design Nick Schlieper, composition and sound design Max Lyandvert and Stefan Gregory. With Bob Baines, Wayne Blair, Mitchell Butel, Anni Finsterer, Marcus Graham, Michael Habib, Ron Haddrick, Chris Ryan, Leeanna Walsman and Tom Wren. Bell Shakespeare @ Arts Centre Playhouse (closed), Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until July 28, Orange Civic Centre August 2-4.
Enlightenment by Shelagh Stephenson, directed by Julian Meyrick. Set design by Ralph Myers, costume design by Miranda Flynn, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Tim Dargaville. With Nicholas Bell, Caroline Brazier, Grant Cartwright, Beverly Dunn, Lewis Fiander and Sarah Pierse. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until July 21.
Othello has long seemed to me to be one of Shakespeare's potboilers, like The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew: an ultimately flawed play, rescued by passages of Bardic brilliance. And I swore a while back, after walking out of Romeo and Juliet, that I'd never bother with Bell Shakespeare again. So I can't say that I approached this production, which I saw late in the season, with high expectations.
It just goes to show that you should never trust your prejudices. I came out of the theatre glowing and silenced, wrenched by the extremities that only tragedy can invoke. I still think that Othello is flawed - that crucial scene in the third act where Othello is consumed by jealousy doesn't really bear heavy scrutiny. But only the stoniest heart could fail to quicken to this classic story of love and betrayal, of the Noble Moor who has transcended his own slavery, only to be undone by the hatreds projected onto his black skin.
Marion Potts has created a production which nakedly reveals the power of the play. Ralph Myers' set is Elizabethan in its simplicity. In the centre is a wooden platform, behind which stretches a concrete wall, of the kind that have become familiar in pictures of Baghdad. On each side of stage are racks on which are placed 44-gallon drums, and high above the wall, giving an air of threat, are banks of theatre lights. If they are not in the scenes, actors either leave the stage altogether or sit on a motley assortment of chairs to either side of the platform. They play the music live, using a variety of instruments: guitars, a mandolin, tambourines, the 44-gallon drums, even bottles.
While it's not as beautifully austere as Rex Cramphorn's Hamlet, which I saw in the same building longer ago than I care to remember, this production works on the same premise. It emphasises the play's theatricality, focusing attention on the actors and the text. I'd be churlish now to deny the power of the script; and there are some truly remarkable performances which explore the playfulness and emotional dynamic of Shakespeare's language. Potts' decision to perform the whole play, leaving in the Fool and musicians and other scenes that are usually cut, intensifies its theatrical power and complexity.
Crucial to this production, but in the most sub-textual and subtle of ways, is Wayne Blair's Aboriginality in the role of Othello. It changes the dynamic of the play, and sends subterranean echoes into present-day Australia. For centuries Othello was played in blackface - the white actor taking on the mask of blackness. This, as the critic Joseph Roach argues, served both to express and erase contemporary social fears about race and sexuality.
Certainly, the play's theme of miscegenation provoked powerful responses. Roach quotes the essayist Charles Lamb, who argued that the "revolting" appearance of a "coal black Moor" offering "wedded caresses" to "this Venetian lady of highest distinction" offered unanswerable evidence that Shakespeare's play ought to be read, but never staged. Speaking of Thomas Betterton's famous performance of Othello in the early 1700s, Roach comments: "Here is the doubleness of the actor's art, a black mask covering his white face, a European general's uniform covering his history as a slave.... In a world predicated on African slavery, the actor in blackface stands astride the theshold of social death. As death and its rituals offer occasions to mark and question boundaries... so miscegenation and its representation enact the fears of some that those boundaries will collapse."
Casting a black actor as Othello removes that level of irony and erasure, and at the same intensifies the expression of its anxieties. Othello, the enslaved child who grows up to be a great general in the Venetian army and who secretly marries the daughter of a Venetian Senator, presents his blackness without irony. When he speaks of his suffering (the same sufferings with which, ironically, he snares first Desdemona's attention and then her heart), or when Brabantio (Bob Baines) spits with repulsion and rage at the thought of having a black son-in-law, it can't but ripple up against the racism that still infects contemporary Australia.
I ought to emphasise that this is not in the least the kind of production that seeks to impose anachronistic homilies onto an unwilling text. Rather, Potts' direction permits the questions of race and gender that live in the play - and I was surprised, in fact, by how directly Shakespeare addresses both these issues - to resonate through the production with their proper, complex unease.
Blair's Aboriginality extends beyond the colour of his skin, informing his entire physical presence on stage: this Othello is not, like Olivier's, more noble than the nobles, whiter even than they are, but rather the assimilated Other, whose origins are evident in his every gesture. Blair speaks with a gravity and precision that expresses the care and containment of an outsider who must watch his every word and act, lest he transgress; and yet his stance, his movement, is inflected throughout the play with the tropes of Aboriginal dance. An echo merely, no more, woven into the performance as a texture, which informs it more deeply as the story darkens, as Othello begins to brutalise Desdemona (Leeanna Walsman) and to plot the murder of Cassio (Tom Wren), and which erupts in the final operatic scene, when Blair attains an authentic grandeur in his pride and despair.
He is well matched by Marcus Graham's Iago. I have not been a great fan of Graham, but this performance made me a convert: this is a remarkable Iago, charismatic and dangerously attractive, who woos the audience with his asides into uneasy complicity with his revenge upon Othello. Where Othello is contained, Iago is a core of dynamic energy, an evil clown whom we can't but unwillingly admire, a Mephistophilean seducer who winks to the audience, provoking our horrified laughter as he explains his jealousy and hatred of Othello, and boasts of his ruthless ingenuity at working the Moor's downfall and his own promotion.
When, at his most wicked, Iago pledges himself to "wronged Othello's service", his statement that "I am your own forever" is heart-stopping: not because it is a lie, but because we know it is the truth. By making Othello his victim, Iago has chained himself to Othello forever with his crime: but there is a deeper resonance. Iago is also Othello's other self, the voice that articulates the slanders that he has internalised, despite his pride, about his colour, and which confirms everything he fears. Othello is so eager to listen to Iago only because he already suspects, at some level, that what Iago says is true.
These two performances dominate the play, as they should: but there are many fine moments in this production. The heartbreaking scene where the doomed Desdemona dresses for bed with her maid (and Iago's wife) Amelia (Anni Finsterer) was one of those moments of theatre where the entire audience was spell-bound, utterly silent: not a cough, not a rustle, not a breath. In this scene, Desdemona's vulnerability and fatalism are shocking, as if she is already a ghost, and her pure voice singing the words of a dead woman shows the true power of pathos: not as melodrama, nor sentimentality, but as measure of the desperate human need for hope against the certainty of doom.
It is a powerful production, rather than a perfect one; earlier in the play, for example, Walsman's Desdemona seems to be caught in a strangely hieratic mode of speaking, which mitigates against the nuances of sexual passion she might otherwise express, and some other actors similarly waver in and out of focus. And, especially early in the play, I felt that the convention of the playing platform could have been more rigorously used to better effect; the staging of some scenes both on and off the platform dissipated the energy that such a convention can generate.
But it's fair to say that no one gives a weak performance. I especially enjoyed Ron Haddrick's brief but important cameo as the Duke of Venice, Chris Ryan's melancholy Clown, and Anni Finsterer's wickedly radical speech to Desdemona about letting "husbands know / Their wives have sense like them". If Bell Shakespeare continues to extend itself in this direction, placing its faith in the plays themselves rather than in superficial bells-and-whistles interpretations, it will be a deeply exciting development.
AFTER the heights and depths of Othello, it is perhaps a little unfair to turn to Shelagh Stephenson's domestic drama about grief, Enlightenment. And in truth, I find myself with not much to say about it. It's a perfectly competent play, written in the tradition of Alan Ayckbourn without quite his skill or technical ingenuity, and while there's not much to object to, there's not much that grabs your interest, either.
It concerns Lia (Sarah Pierse) and Nick (Nicholas Bell), a middle-aged, middle-class couple whose son Adam has been missing for four months, after disappearing on a back-packing trip to South East Asia. The lack of certainty about his fate intensifies their grief, creating conflicts in their marriage: Lia consults a psychic, Joyce (Beverley Dunn) whose vague wittering enrages Nick but gives her some comfort, while Nick takes refuge in his work. Meanwhile, Lia's father Gordon (Lewis Fiander), a slightly disreputable MP, inviegles her into making a documentary about her grief with the morally dubious television journalist Joanna (Caroline Brazier). And then they hear, at last, that Adam (Grant Cartwright) has been found, albeit with memory loss: but is it actually Adam whom they meet at the airport?
Writing all this down makes me almost go to sleep with contrariness. I suppose I have a deep failing, in that I don't really understand why this is theatre instead of television. It looks like theatre, I suppose. Julian Meyrick gives Enlightenment a perfectly decent, if somewhat slow, production: Ralph Myers' set reflects the play's process of shedding, as Lia and Nick's painful process of understanding is underlined by the gradual removal of their possessions, leaving them without protection against the uncertainty of life.
Meyrick employs a fine cast, and I enjoyed watching the performances, even as I lost patience with the play. From its initial domestic premise, it devolves into melodramatic silliness before ending on a grave note of philosophic resignation that explains everything that has gone before. Sarah Pierse in particular plays the complexities of fragility and toughness, guilt and grief, that inhabit her character, and Lewis Fiander is always enjoyable to watch on stage, a virtuosic performer in control of his space. And you feel that if Grant Cartwright's character made more sense, he'd be a magnetic presence on stage.
In short, there was enough going on to prevent acute anguish, and I never wanted to do the Dorothy Parker thing and shoot myself. But, gentle reader, it's very difficult to write about a play which neither offends you nor particularly interests you, that is neither stupid nor particularly intelligent, that seeks to explore, neither dishonestly nor with especially profound veracity, certain truisms about the transience and uncertainty of life. How do you write excitingly about indifference?
I know I've been talking a lot about myself lately, and I swear I'll battle me down and let some theatre get a look-in. But permit me one more indulgence: today in the post, as if on cue to remind me that I am more than a novelist or even a crrritic, I received the latest issue of Agenda, a wonderful UK poetry magazine. It's a substantial issue (288 pages), A Reconsideration of Rainer Maria Rilke, and it includes an essay and two translations of mine. I'm thrilled: I'm in wonderful company with, among many other luminaries, writings by Michael Hamburger, David Brooks, John Burnside, Phillippe Jaccottet, Yves Bonnefoy and even Friedrich Nietszche. And, quite aside from my own contributions, it looks like a must-read for anyone interested in this great lyric poet.
Monday, June 18, 2007
A couple of things I've been meaning to note, to clear my desk before I catch up with the reviews that were sidelined in my frenzied burst of inspiration last weekend (the reviews are Enlightenment and Othello, if anyone's wondering, which I hope will be up by tomorrow night). Yet despite the demand and acclaim for Murray-Smith's work, the Sydney Theatre Company is yet to produce one of her plays, save for one co-production of Nightfall. STC artistic director Robyn Nevin was offered The Female of the Species — four other productions of the play are planned for Australia and abroad next year — but declined it. Now, Keene has a couple of significant productions coming up in Paris next May - a production of Half and Half at the Théâtre de la Ville, which attracts the biggest audiences in Paris, and which will be in fact the third time his work has been presented by that theatre; and a production of Five Men at the Cartoucherie, at the Théâtre de la Tempête, a sister-theatre to Mnouchkine's Théâtre du Soleil. (At the same time, he'll be seeing the touring Ouvre le Chien production of Elephant People, a 600,000 euro "sideshow opera" with text by Keene that opens this October). But until the Griffin Theatre put on The Nightwatchman in Sydney earlier this year, his work had not been seen in either Melbourne or Sydney for several years. And it has certainly never been produced by a State Theatre Company. I know - due to my intimate relationship with this Keene fellow - that he has not once written to any Board claiming that anyone is sabotaging his career. He just thought that some people didn't like his plays, or thought them unsuitable for their purposes; and although he would always prefer people to fall over in extravagant admiration, the fact is that people have every right not to like them. (He weeps copiously, but that's ok.) No one is obliged to like anybody's art. Not even mine. Perhaps this is a concept with which Murray-Smith should become acquainted...
1. There are now enough theatre bloggers in Melbourne to create a blog party. So we're having one. It's being organised by Matthew over at Esoteric Rabbit, and he's a classy sort, so the venue is the Gertrude St Enoteca, the date is Saturday July 14, and the time is 1pm. Matt is booking, so get over to the Rabbit here to let him know you're coming. All Melbourne theatre/bloggy types welcome - as Ming says, and I couldn't put it better: "Set aside the squirming and the Oooh, gawd. I dunnos, and come and get head to head with the other strange, nocturnal creatures who've been stalking your comments box. Can't hurt. Physically. (I think.)"
2. This comes under the heading "I probably shouldn't, but I can't resist". What is Joanna Murray-Smith thinking? She makes Little Alison, a screaming narcissist if ever there was one, feel like a shy and retiring violet.
Murray-Smith's The Female of the Species has been picked up by Michael Mayer - who last week won a TONY award for Best Director/Musical for the hit musical Spring Awakening - for a season on Broadway. Now that is hunky dory, and all due credit to Murray-Smith: I'm not one to begrudge success or recognition. Besides, despite myself I enjoyed the play, though it may have been simply that I was off my head on cortisone at the time.
What raised my eyebrows in the Age interview was this:
Last year Murray-Smith took the extraordinary step of writing to the STC board to highlight the importance of staging new Australian work, and to also "draw the board's attention to my belief that (Nevin) was sabotaging my career, which I still believe"...
Gracious. Can she seriously have done that? And then talked about it to a daily newspaper? Let's get some perspective here. For example: Kath Thomson is an extremely successful NSW playwright whose work is very seldom seen in Melbourne. Has she been bombarding the MTC Board with similar complaints, I wonder? Or to think further ... consider that between them, according to Australia Council figures, Joanna Murray-Smith and Daniel Keene account for half of all overseas productions of Australian playwrights.
Yet despite the demand and acclaim for Murray-Smith's work, the Sydney Theatre Company is yet to produce one of her plays, save for one co-production of Nightfall. STC artistic director Robyn Nevin was offered The Female of the Species — four other productions of the play are planned for Australia and abroad next year — but declined it.
Now, Keene has a couple of significant productions coming up in Paris next May - a production of Half and Half at the Théâtre de la Ville, which attracts the biggest audiences in Paris, and which will be in fact the third time his work has been presented by that theatre; and a production of Five Men at the Cartoucherie, at the Théâtre de la Tempête, a sister-theatre to Mnouchkine's Théâtre du Soleil. (At the same time, he'll be seeing the touring Ouvre le Chien production of Elephant People, a 600,000 euro "sideshow opera" with text by Keene that opens this October). But until the Griffin Theatre put on The Nightwatchman in Sydney earlier this year, his work had not been seen in either Melbourne or Sydney for several years. And it has certainly never been produced by a State Theatre Company.
I know - due to my intimate relationship with this Keene fellow - that he has not once written to any Board claiming that anyone is sabotaging his career. He just thought that some people didn't like his plays, or thought them unsuitable for their purposes; and although he would always prefer people to fall over in extravagant admiration, the fact is that people have every right not to like them. (He weeps copiously, but that's ok.) No one is obliged to like anybody's art. Not even mine. Perhaps this is a concept with which Murray-Smith should become acquainted...
Yes, I'm feeling celebratory today. In fact, it's a double whammy, so I'm feeling particularly self-indulgent.
First, it's Theatre Notes third birthday. In June 2004, I idly mused that a theatre review blog might be a good idea, although I didn't know whether anyone would read it. (See how dangerous thinking is - if you're not careful, it turns into an idea, and before long an idea becomes an obsession, and then you're up to your neck in it.)
It's succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. The readership has grown steadily year by year, to make TN one of the best read theatre blogs in the world. Over the past month, TN has been attracting around 6000 visitors every week. In fact, since June last year, TN has had 120,000 unique visitors, of whom 24,409 are return visits. I never thought I would say this, but check out my stats!
I don't know who all you lovely people are: in fact, part of me is quite mystified. But thank you, from the bottom of my heart. And thank you to all the companies who have been so supportive of this work, especially through the daffiness of the past few months as I've struggled to complete this monstrous novel. And thank you too to the many people who have commented on the blog and made it a lively and dynamic place to be, and to those who have emailed me or buttonholed me in foyers and said nice things, and to my fellow theatre bloggers for your support and stimulation. You have all made TN intensely rewarding in so many ways. I hope that TN and the bubbling theatrosphere (that seems to be the word du jour) will continue to grow as a space for discussion and dissension, a space where theatre can be taken seriously for the beautiful artform it is.
And if I sound a little delirious, well - the other part of the celebration is that I've finally got to the end of that novel. Yes, last night I typed THE END. (I always feel novels should have THE END at the end of them...) It doesn't mean that it's actually finished - there's a brief rewrite before I send it to my editor, and then there's the endless process of editing, copyediting and proofing three separate editions (at least when it comes out in German I won't have to worry about proofing that one). But the awful struggle to actually get it down on paper is over at last.
It's 461 pages long, 135,756 words in all. Those are beautiful stats indeed. But it's actually the end of a much larger project, a quartet of novels on which I've been working for the past seven years. I have completed a story that's about 2000 pages long. I can't quite believe that I've done it. But dammit, I have.
Friday, June 15, 2007
Over at Mink Tails, Ming-Zhu is hosting an interesting conversation about, well, all sorts of things - Melbourne theatre in the 80s and 90s, what's happening now, and so on. Among her concerns is the - to me - abidingly fascinating question of form. Tootle over and say your piece, and distract Ming still further from her grant applications.
Meanwhile, I recently promised some of you all sorts of revelations about the Melbourne Festival, blithely forgetting all about the July 17 press embargo. I attended the press briefing yesterday and now have the good oil; but being a polite sort, I try not to break embargoes. All I can say is that I plan not to sleep when MIAF rolls around. To me it looks like a program with depth and shape. It also extends in very interesting ways the abiding political engagement with the world that has characterised both Archer's and Edmunds' programming. I'll blog my highlights when it's official.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
A combination of a lingering cold and the pointy end of my novel has meant that for the past couple of weeks I've been cancelling tickets to plays right, left and centre (three at last count). My apologies to the companies involved; I'm not normally, I assure you, quite so disastrously unreliable. I'm not sure what sort of person I will be when I no longer have this epic story cluttering up my brain, but I'm optimistic that I might be merely a poet, writing very short things.
I also feel strangely obliged to mention the Tonys. Tom Stoppard's gigantic Coast of Utopia swept the awards, as most of you will know by now, and the musical of Spring Awakening - something, I confess, that I can't quite imagine, though you can check out one of the songs and download ringtones here - was another big winner. Myself, I'd rather see the actual play... The Playgoer is your Tonys man.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind, adapted and directed by Simon Stone. Design: set by Jolyon James, Mark Leonard Winter and Simon Stone; costume by Mel Page; sound by Rob Stewart; lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw. With Angus Grant, Sara Gleeson, Katie-Jean Harding, Shelly Lauman, Rhys McConnochie, Beejan Olfat, Russ Pirie and Dylan Young. The Hayloft Project @ 45 Downstairs until June 17.
Even as a self-confessed stirrer of the chicken soup, it can be a shock to discover how heartily disliked you are. (In these times, of course, you also discover your allies). Yes, Ms Alison is licking her wounds after a salutary dust-up among the poetasters, which reminds me of nothing so much as Blake's proverb that "The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow". (Nothing against crows, of course, whom I consider to be birds of a particular charm.)
And yes, these storms in thimbles waste time that should have been better spent discussing art. Say, Frank Wedekind. Right at the moment, Wedekind feels like my kind of man. As the director Berthold Viertel (1885-1953) said of him: "With a satanic sneer as polite as an abyss and full of cold melancholy, he introduced us to the mysteries of reality which began where the views of the pacifying poets end."
Wedekind could never be remotely described as pacifying. He emerges from a line of radical German writing that can be traced through poets such as Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) and playwrights like Jakob Lenz (1751-1792) and Georg Büchner (1813-1837). The plays of Büchner and Lenz, in contrast to the English writers of the time, express an unsettling and harsh modernity, and their impact is still a dynamic force in contemporary drama.
In turn, Wedekind's influence on modern theatre can't be overstated. Brecht, who was 20 when Wedekind died, was an obsessed admirer; he cited Wedekind's style as exemplary and even named his son after him. Wedekind's fierce attacks on the naturalism of his day made him an important forerunner of Expressionist theatre, and he was an inspiration for major European playwrights like Ödön von Horváth and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. In the 1960s, writers such as Botho Strauss and Franz Xaver Kroetz emerged from the same tradition, and it continues to the present day in writers like Marius von Marienburg, whose play Eldorado was seen at the Malthouse last year.
This is a strand of modern theatre that is often overlooked in Australia, although it's a major influence in the plays of Daniel Keene. Excitingly, Ödön von Horváth's masterpiece Tales of the Vienna Woods is coming up at the Sydney Theatre Company later this year. And this week in Melbourne you have an exhilarating opportunity to see why Frank Wedekind continues to make waves. His classic Spring Awakening, which caused riots when it was first performed, remains confronting a hundred years after it was written, and The Hayloft Project, a new company stuffed to the gills with youthful talent, deserves high praise for bringing to the stage this very contemporary, intelligent and passionate interpretation.
Spring Awakening is set in a provincial town in 1890s Germany, and is a full-frontal attack on life-hating bourgeois hypocrisy and ignorance. For all the specifics of its time and place, its portrayal of the amoral innocence of adolescent sexuality in collision with repressive authority still resonates with surprising force. I suppose when the Catholic Church is threatening MPs with excommunication in Scotland and Australia, when US educationalists claim that chastity-led sex education is the way to go, when Amnesty International is condemned by church authorities for supporting abortions for raped women, the idea of "progress" in these issues comes under question. We are more like the 19th century than we care to admit.
Wedekind's references to abortion, homosexuality, rape, masturbation, sadism and so on made the play so scandalous that, although censored versions played long and successful seasons in Germany during his lifetime, the full play wasn't performed on the British stage until 1974, when it finally premiered in a translation by Edward Bond. This version is a new adaptation by director Simon Stone.
It is considerably cut back: the original cast of 37 characters is here rendered down to 13, performed by eight actors. To Stone's considerable credit, he has filleted out the bones of the work without losing its substance, and he preserves the complexity and force of Wedekind's poetry. Stone renovates the 19th century structure, giving it - except for a longueur towards the end - a very 21st century form. This version also preserves the comedy, which is at least as important as its poetry; this is, for all its sturm und drang, often a blackly funny play.
Spring Awakening concerns a group of fourteen year old boys and girls, all of them feeling the first stirrings of sexual desire. Their confusions and, finally, their tragedies stem from the wilful ignorance in which they are kept by their parents and other authorities: the awakening of their bodies drives them to actions they do not understand, and that often bewilder and frighten them. In the case of Melchior (Angus Grant), his discovery of the facts of life - through observing dogs and fragmentary reading - leads to a comprehensive disillusion and atheism. His friend Moritz is terrified and ashamed even of his dreams, and for him sex is a horror that can only be escaped through an even more driven obsession with death.
The girls are equally trapped in their own ignorance. Wendla (Katie-Jean Harding) is caught between childhood and burgeoning womanhood; she is desperate to know where her sister's babies come from, but is kept in such ignorance by her mother's explanations that her innocence is impenetrable, even when she is raped. Her friend Martha (Sara Gleeson) is brutally beaten by her parents, whose sadism has unsettlingly sexual overtones; Wendla is excited by this and, in one of the more disturbing scenes in the play, demands that Melchior beat her. ("I've never been beaten my whole life!")
Wedekind's condemnation of the hypocrisy and repression that destroys or maims the burgeoning life in his young characters is comprehensive. But this is far from a nihilistic play: it's primarily a celebration of life's transient, uncertain joyousness. "Sometimes," says the doomed Wendla,"I'm so happy - there's so much joy and the sunshine is so bright! I want to go out and walk over the fields when it's dusk." Or as Rilow (Beejan Olfat) says, confessing his love for his schoolfriend Robel (Russ Pirie): "We musn't be sad! Perhaps when we look back in thirty years we'll jeer - but now, everything is beautiful..."
Simon Stone's use of the space at fortyfivedownstairs is dynamic and imaginative, and demonstrates that he has a gift for creating memorable theatrical image. A corner of the space is heavily curtained to enclose an intimate auditorium facing the corner of the room, with two dramatic arched windows on either wall and the audience on two sides of the stage. The set consists of about a dozen old-fashioned school-desks, which are manipulated to become hills, walls, doors and so on as required. Sensibly, there is no attempt to update the play to make it more "relevant", and Mel Page's costumes are neutrally 19th century, theatrical rather than accurate. Rob Stewart's sound design is deliberately up-front; sometimes this works, and sometimes it ceases to battle fruitfully with the dialogue and becomes merely overwhelming. But I'll forgive him everything for the stunning opening after interval.
It's worth noting that the bulk of this cast is drawn from recent Victorian College of the Arts graduates, and it's a reminder of how much the VCA is contributing to the theatre renaissance that is presently making Melbourne such an interesting place to be. The actors embrace the considerable challenges of this text with passion and discipline and, sometimes, forgiveable excess. It is, after all, a consummate play for young people, and aside from Rhys McConnochie, who is the Masked Man - the role Wedekind himself played - they are all young actors. There is no doubting their physical and emotional commitment: it is exciting simply to be in the same room. And they are fearless in approaching the extremes of eros and thanatos Wedekind works through his text (and in dealing with his complex language). I especially liked Angus Grant as Melchior and Katie-Jean Harding as Wendla; perhaps they best managed the tricky, even perverse, balance Wedekind attains between sexual desire and childish innocence.
In fact, much of this play's comedy, as well as its entire tragedy, exists in Wedekind's acute grasp of his characters' essential innocence. Its dramatic force comes from the clarity with which Wedekind exposes the damage that is caused by the projection of the adults' own fears and desires onto their children. It's there not only in Martha's savage beating for a shy expression of her womanhood in wearing a satin ribbon, but also in the condemnation of Melchior by the school authorities for writing about sex. In the loathing expressed by the adult world - the criminalisation of Melchior's questing intelligence, the disgust and shame invoked by female desire - is all the damage that has been wrought on those adults, all the fear of everything that has been repressed within their own bodies.
It's a fair bet that Freud saw Wedekind's plays; certainly, Wedekind's "tragedy of childhood" anticipates Freud's theorising of sexuality. But the true power of Spring Awakening is in how Wedekind opens up the mystery and strangeness of being alive, the "tormenting doubt of everything" which is, in the end, the only true key to joy. And, of course, to poetry.
Pictures of Spring Awakening: Top: (Left to right) Katie-Jean Harding, Russ Pirie, Beejan Olfat, Angus Grant, Shelly Lauman and Sara Gleeson. Bottom: Angus Grant, Katie-Jean Harding, Shelly Lauman and Sara Gleeson.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Newsflash: Howard Barker's theatre company, The Wrestling School, has had its funding cut, as the first high-profile casualty of the London Olympics' raiding of the British arts coffers.
Barker has his say in the Guardian here:
In killing The Wrestling School the Arts Council has silenced a voice, and yet further diminished the range of theatre practice when its very purpose was to extend this range. Political interference is now seen to be the standard practice of the funding system. We live with the washed-out remains of a Stalinist bureaucracy obsessed not with art but social welfare projects, points-systems and 'public benefit' scrutiny, which annihilates (or rather, in the context, "liquidates") thriving and ambitious companies and artists.
Sounds familiar, somehow...remember the stoush over La Mama last year? And yes, arts funding is, among many other things, an issue to do with freedom of speech. George Hunka editorialises at Superfluities, and I'm sure much more will be said.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Ms Alison has a bad cold. I will spare you the details. In the snotty gloom that is my reality at the moment, inspiration is sadly lacking. To divert myself, I decided to do some legwork. Sydney 4,293,105
The burning question: is the common perception that Sydney arts are oddly favoured in the Australian - our only national newspaper - fair or unfair? To shed some light on this crucial issue, I totted up all the reviews from today back to May 15 - listed online here - and distributed them between our capital cities.
The results of this rough survey were certainly interesting. Firstly, if you want national attention for your play, exhibition, opera or concert, you don't want to live in Darwin. There were precisely no reviews from the Northern Territory.
The score went like this: Sydney, 10; Melbourne, 6; Brisbane, 4; Perth, 4; Adelaide, 4.
It gets more interesting when you consider how many of the events reviewed are touring, ie, how many will have lives beyond the city in which they originate. (The reviewed shows that are not touring are, we surmise, considered important on their own singular merit.) So: of the 10 arts events reviewed in Sydney, one (the Australian Chamber Orchestra) was embarking on a national tour. That's 10 per cent. So it seems that 90 per cent of the Sydney shows are considered worthy of national interest. OK.
Brisbane and Perth both get reviews of one touring event out of four, so 75 per cent of their shows are considered to be of national interest. None of the four events reviewed from Adelaide were tours, so that's 100 per cent (go Adelaide!)
But poor old Melbourne. Of the six events reviewed, three were tours. OK, three and a half, because the Melbourne Opera's Carmen is touring to Warrnambool. Here in the sticks, we only manage a national interest strike rate of 41.6 per cent.
Face it, Melbourne: since May 15, we have been precisely 48.4 per cent less interesting than Sydney. And we're 58.4 per cent less interesting than Adelaide. But at least we're 100 per cent more interesting than Darwin.
PS: I forgot about Canberra, our official "capital city": it seems I was not alone. No reviews from there either. It would be very interesting if some patient soul tracked all reviews for the past year, to see if the trends here are justly indicative of coverage (from my casual observation, which made me start counting in the first place, I wouldn't be surprised). In any case, I thought it might be handy to have relative population sizes, to put these figures in some perspective. For example: Melbourne's population is 85 per cent that of Sydney. Our arts coverage in the Australian is 60 per cent that of Sydney's. Is that an indication of a lack of cultural activity here? I don't think so...