Review: VillanusStopgapReview: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Melbourne Writers FestivalUber-scoopingWilliamson returnsBrook's LearTanja LiedtkeUpdate: Cross-Racial CastingThe northern hemiblogosphereCross-Racial Casting: or The Social PagesOn banishing crrrriticsInteresting thingsReview: Holiday/Chapters from the Pandemic...and againA confession of sortsReview: CriminologySalt MagazineNews just in: Hamlet/MIAF bites back95 Sentences About TheatreReview: The Glass SoldierReview: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of DenmarkGonglandComments policyReview: 4:48 PsychosisTraditional grousing ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Review: Villanus

Villanus, by Vlad Mijic and Rhys Auteri. Performed by Vlad Mijic, with Raphael Hammond (video). Lighting and set design by Vlad Mijic, music by Raphael Hammond. Welcome Stranger Theatre Company, Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall, until September 2. Bookings: (03) 9782 2625.

Lately I've been thinking about the poetic language that's turning up in so much of Melbourne's contemporary theatre. There's a lot of it about, and it's an interesting - and I think healthy - phenomenon. Many inquisitive minds are turning back to the word, after a period of its banishment from any serious exploration of theatrical form.

A decade or so ago, "text-based theatre" was most often a pejorative term, considered synonymous with the faux naturalism that then dominated our main stages. But, as Robert Musil illuminatingly pointed out in 1926, this is a mistake, even if the so-called laws of the stage are "nothing but a dramaturgy of cutting real spiritual cloth down to marketable size". "Many of our contemporaries," he wrote, "have rebelled against the mindlessness of the stage, with the result that all parts of a stage performance were 'discovered' and made, one after the other, the chief part." He goes on to elucidate the "new theatre" of the time:

The actor's theatre, the director's theatre, the theatre of acoustic form and that of optical rhythm, the theatre of vitalised stage space, and many others have been offered to us.... They have taught us much that is worthwhile, but about as one-sidedly as the assertion that one should throw a man who has a cold into the fire,which is also fundamentally based on a correct idea. ... As incomparably as something unutterable may be expressed at times in a gesture, a grouping, a picture of feeling or an event, this always happens in immediate proximity to the word; as something hovering, so to speak, around its core of meaning, which is the real element of humanity.

Musil suggests that the danger of radical reforms that ignore the intellectual possibilities of the word is an inescapable inner banality. "The experience of our senses are almost as conservative as theatre directors," he says, and only language can take us beyond what we already know.

Musil's statements, which pertain to the German theatre of his time, are of course highly arguable. But they remain provocative and, I think, pertinent to some of the work I'm encountering around Melbourne. I'm thinking of, for example, the work of Stuck Pigs Squealing, who last week had a showing of a work-in-progress that dislocated linguistic meaning using techniques imported from sound poetry, or Luke Mullins' exploration of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, or Carolyn O'Connors' Material Mouth (having a remount soon at Arts House), or Adam Broinowski's unrapturously received Know No Cure, the text of which, at least, deserves some notice for its densely poetic attack on theatrical language.

There's a lot of rethinking of how written language can be used in theatre: attempts to expand the vocabulary, that are in part reactions to the banalities of both text-based and non-text based theatre. As Musil's statement shows, there's nothing new under the sun; but there are always new contexts in which these old things can be reilluminated.

Which brings me, at last, to Villanus, the latest work of Welcome Stranger, one of a rash of young independent theatre companies in Melbourne that are exploring a vein of what might be called junk theatre. This is theatre that questions conventional theatrical aesthetic, defying the idea that theatre is a consumable object. In junk theatre, you are unlikely to see anything resembling a three-act play, or expensive and lavish sets. What you will often encounter is a dramaturgy ordered along poetic, rather than narrative, principles. The connections in the text will be metaphorical and allusive, and its apparent meanings and stories will be ironised, subjected to an aggressive and restless interrogation.

It's all to different ends, of course, and very much a work in progress. Junk theatre is occurring under the aegis of tiny companies like the Black Lung, which last year saw its very rude – in all senses – Rubeville sweeping the awards at both the Adelaide and Melbourne Fringe Festival. Uncle Semolina and Friends presented a lo-tech version of Gilgamesh at the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival that featured toy cars and a sandpit. They appeared in a double bill with the charming Suitcase Royale, who make their ingenious and intricate props out of discarded objects like old telephones and typewriters.

Like these others shows, Villanus looks defiantly messy. The set consists of a jumble of television screens and other electronic equipment, a table, a bookshelf on which are placed random objects, and various rough scaffoldings. A major design element is packing tape. The apparent artlessness of the set belies the intelligence of the theatre that follows, a series of discrete verbal arias in which notions of self and identity are put under intense interrogation.

The show opens with a stumbling disclaimer from Mijic, in which he explains that although this performance is partly autobiographical, it is also a tissue of lies and half truths. Playing a version of himself called Vlad, Mijic launches into a paranoid exploration of what it means to be called a “villain”. Wearing a piece of paper taped to his back which says "Vlad is dead", he begins with the obsessively repetitive recording of a video diary. “If you are watching this now,” he says intently into a camera, “I have been murdered”.

Mijic and his co-creator Rhys Auteri are most concerned with the notion of mediation, with how much our self-image - individually and collectively - is formed by expectations projected onto it. Much of the text, which is both spoken and written in Texta on butcher's paper or projected onto a screen, consists of lists (a major trope of much contemporary poetry): lists of personal characteristics, of fragments of text rescued from unlikely places, of scraps of received reality that enter a world-view and then form it.

At the centre is the question of Vlad's Serbian ancestry: Serbs being, before the sudden stardom of Saddam Hussein, the arch-villains on the international global stage. He was born in Yugoslavia, he tells us, but now Yugoslavia no longer exists: like his primary school, which was shut down by Jeff Kennett, it is now a place that only lives in memory. What is the fiction called Vlad to make of this? Is his inescapable ethnicity a reflection of an inherent monstrousness, or is his villainousness simply a desire "not to disappoint" expectations (a desire immediately ironised by this show's anti-aesthetic presentation)? This question splinters and fragments through fantastic or even surreal obsessions, several posthumous death scenes and a comedically dislocated self-reflection on the process of making Villanus itself.

In its sensibility and diction, the text isn't a million miles from the Serbian poet Vasko Popa, who often explores how the hidden, even murderous self relates to its social masks. His unsettling poem In The Village of My Ancestors is not untypical:

Someone embraces me
Someone looks at me with the eyes of a wolf
Someone takes off his hat
So I can see him better

Everyone asks me
Do you know how I'm related to you

Unknown old men and women
Appropriate the names
Of young men and women from my memory

I ask one of them
Tell me for God's sake
Is George the Wolf still living

That's me he answers
With a voice from the next world

I touch his cheek with my hand
And beg him with my eyes
To tell me if I'm living too

Mijic is a strangely uncertain presence, at once summoning and deflecting attention; "acting" seems the wrong word for what he is doing here (in a short extract from Edmund's "bastard" speech in King Lear, he gives us an extreme version of acting that parodies the whole idea). But he holds your attention, standing in that uncomfortable place where a performer is not quite removed from his quotidian self, in which role-playing becomes the whole of identity.

In any case, Villanus is a show that provokes a lot of thought. I'm not sure that it's wholly successful - whatever success might mean in this context. For example, it feels tautologous to criticise its dramaturgy, which towards the end deliberately and wickedly tests the audience's patience, although I suspect that if there are future incarnations, it might be shorter and structured in such a way to make its final monologue seem less like a postscript. But it certainly transcends the dangers of narcissism that attend a project like this, and it's well worth a look for anyone interested in the livelier edges of Melbourne theatre.

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Monday, August 27, 2007


Little Ms Alison is a bit wan today: the last week has been full-on, and I've been out and about and missing my burrow. So I'm putting my feet up and Mrs Rabbit is making me some nice chamomile tea. In the meantime, let me point you to Villanus, performed by Vlad Mijic and co-authored with Rhys Auteri, which I saw at the Trades Hall last Thursday. It's well worth a look, as I briefly report in today's Australian. Hoping to say more later, when my ears are less rumpled.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Christina Smith, lighting design by Matt Scott, sound design by Ben Grant. With Alison Bell, Wendy Hughes, Garry McDonald and Stephen Phillips. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centreu, ntil October 6. Bookings: 1300 136 166.

Edward Albee’s savage lullabye Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reminds you that the Elizabethans enjoyed their theatre in the interludes between bear-baiting. Four decades after it was first staged, it remains an inimitable piece of theatrical bloodsport.

It is also one of the most disturbing love stories ever written: Martha and George give vivid life to the old saw that hatred is the other face of love. Their dysfunctional marriage is – quite literally – a performance that brings to the surface the demons that seethe beneath the conventions of middle-class career and marriage. And they prove that nothing is funnier than cruelty.

From the moment the play opens, we know it’s a fight to the death. It is 2am, and failed history academic George (Garry McDonald) and his wife Martha (Wendy Hughes) are returning home after a boozy evening at the faculty. Martha has invited the new couple in town, blond wunderkind Nick (Stephen Phillips) and his daffy wife Honey (Alison Bell) over for a nightcap.

What follows is a nightmare few hours of social evisceration. Albee’s script is an elegant machine that pitilessly peels open the ugliness of inter-generational and sexual warfare. As copious slugs of alcohol make them progressively more legless, the naïve young couple turn out to be not so naïve, after all: in the end, they are less innocent than their hosts.

Honey and Nick’s relationship, at first glance an untainted thing compared to the alcohol-soaked boxing match that seems to constitute their hosts’ marriage, is at once more and less than it seems. Nick is as unprincipled in his ambition and greed as George claims he is, and Honey is neurotically unhappy, concealing even from herself her knowledge that her marriage is loveless.

Finally George and Martha are left alone to face the abyss that remains once illusion is destroyed, their lives poised on a fulcrum between terror and hope. Nick and Honey, on the other hand, will not admit their inner emptiness. Towards the end of the play, in one of its most quietly cutting lines, Honey tells her husband: “I don’t remember anything. And you don’t remember anything, either.”

Director Peter Evans gives us the play, like Martha’s alcohol, straight. It’s an honest reading that leaves it in its time and place, complete with American accents. His production discreetly foregrounds the artifice of apparent naturalism: the performances are big, taking full advantage of the inherent theatricality of Albee’s writing, and they're viciously funny. Three and a half hours whizz past.

There were trivial things that caught like burrs in my perceptions as I watched the show. I sometimes felt that Matt Scott’s lighting design was a tad obvious, bringing the lights down on “important” moments, rather like the camera in a current affairs show zooming in for a voyeuristic close-up at the critical moment of grief. And the sound design, spartan as it is, sometimes seemed similarly unsubtle.

Christina Smith’s design is intriguing. I spent half the play hating the set, and half the play liking it; rather like its major characters, I guess. An uncomfortable compromise between abstraction and naturalism, it’s a semi-circular stage in front of a flat of empty bookshelves done out in a ugly natural woodgrain, with a pair of antlers sticking out aggressively on the right. Yet often my discomfort with its ugliness felt wholly appropriate. It’s an ugly story, after all, and the design offers no assuaging escapism.

The set does have the paramount virtue of unobstrusively and intimately framing some superb performances: and the performances are the heart of this play. Wendy Hughes’s brassy Martha emerges from a ferocious disillusionment and despair. She is perhaps more tragic than Elizabeth Taylor’s famous performance in the film, because she lacks Taylor’s louche sexiness; it throws a darker shadow over her seduction of Nick, and his later impotence. And Phillips gives a complex and subtle portrayal of Nick that only lacks a little aggression and edge.

Garry McDonald's bravura performance of George – embittered, disillusioned, humiliated and vicious – finds the tenderness that lurks inside George’s cruelty without crossing the line into sentimentality. And Alison Bell’s portrayal of Honey is brilliant: in her hands, the car accident that is Honey is no minor role, but a tragic journey into anaesthesia.

My only real complaint is how Melbourne audiences begin to clap the very instant the stage goes dark at the end of the play. What I wanted, after the last scene’s final devastating admission, was a breath of silence in which those lines could resonate, ripening to their full meaning. But there’s nothing the MTC can do about that.

A shorter version of this review appears in today's Australian. Link if and when it appears.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Melbourne Writers Festival

If you pop along to the Melbourne Writers Festival at 1.30pm this Sunday and wander into the Beckett Theatre, you'll find me on stage with my colleagues Barry Hill and JS Harry. (Harry is making a rare Melbourne appearance, launching her new poetry collection Not Finding Wittgenstein, which has some bizarrely interesting connections with Michael Watts' play Not Like Beckett - both feature very sentient and rather intellectual rabbits. I'm sure there's a thesis in there somewhere). It seems that we're supposed to be discussing the war in Iraq, but I'm assured that is merely a cover story to lull poetry-phobic patrons, and that it's the poetry that will be speaking.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007


TN jumped the gun last week when we announced Maryanne Lynch's defence of Sleeping Beauty at Arts Hub. Yes, the reason there was no link was that the article wasn't up there yet! It's up there today, and the friendly folk at Arts Hub have passed on the link for your reading pleasure...

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Williamson returns

In 2004, our most popular commercial playwright David Williamson decided to go into semi-retirement. His decision was on doctor's order's - as the Age reports today, "The pressure of coming up with one, sometimes two, plays a year had taken a toll, as had some of the vitriolic views of critics". (Hey, he should try being me for a few years). Anyway, he's back, writing a vehicle play for the rightly esteemed diva Carolyn O'Connor, which will premiere in the MTC's next season. You can hear the financial excitement crackle through the land.

Despite the awful strain of it all, there are compensations for being Williamson - his last play took $1 million at the box office. And without the annual Williamson play to bump up the coffers, the State companies went into mourning. This is about the economics of survival. As I said in 2004, on the occasion of Williamson's retirement:

The fact that our major theatres are funded so poorly explains why Williamson is a fixture on our subsidised stages. The MTC receives only 15 per cent of its funding from government sources, which leaves 85 per cent of its budget to be raised by box office and sponsorship. In 1996, the most recent figures I could find, the comparable flagship companies in France, the National Theatres, received 73 per cent of their funding from the State, 21 per cent through the box office and the remaining six per cent from other sales.

I'm unsure of the present levels of MTC funding, but they might be even less. Certainly, the STC's government funding amounts to 7 per cent. At this rate, our two largest theatre companies can barely be said to be subsidised. And while our flagship companies are so scandalously funded, it is unsurprising they should fall on Williamson's neck with cries of joy.

Nor, perhaps, is it surprising that the anxiety of underfunding should foster a fortress mentality that makes the State companies reluctant to enter the critical discourse on wider questions about theatre in Australia (such as Lee Lewis's paper on Cross-Racial Casting). But it's lamentable, all the same. And in the end, you have to feel a little sorry for Williamson, who seems to be carrying our State companies on his back. It's not his job, after all.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Brook's Lear

It's a truism to say that Peter Brook's film King Lear is a masterpiece. But what is a masterpiece? Saying this of a work can be a way of not looking at it: the artwork becomes "timeless", a glazed exhibit in the museum of our cultural self-regard. It turns into a monument.

Thinking this over after watching Brook's film recently, it seems to me that when I say something is a masterpiece, I mean that its achievement is not that it rises into some lofty empyrean sphere where history no longer exists. It's a masterpiece because it does the opposite: because it makes a gesture so potent that it seems to draw all human experience into its gravity, because it reaches deep into individual and collective memory and hauls experience, naked and bloody, into the present.

When Paul Scofield lifts his dead daughter in his arms and howls in the desolate landscape of battle, for a moment he is every father who has stood in the ruins of his home, holding the corpse of his murdered child. When Alan Webb as Gloucester is roughly bound to a chair in his own house and stares at his captors in disbelief and growing fear, he is every prisoner staring at those who are about to become his torturers, pleading a claim of common humanity in the face of everything that denies it. When Lear confesses to Cordelia (Anne-Lise Gabold) that he has wronged her, it touches everything we know about forgiveness: the grief, the shame and the mutual love of the act.

Watching King Lear now is a different experience from watching it when it was made: our world has changed since 1971. But this film illustrates Ezra Pound's truism that art is "news that stays news". Perhaps what is most shocking about Brook's film - and it remains shocking - is how profoundly it galvanises our present. Gloucester is a prisoner in Abu Ghraib; Lear is a bereaved father in Chechnya or Lebanon. The loss, the grief, the cruelty and the love are all of our own time.

Brook's stripped-back adaptation, which uses all the avant garde film techniques of his day, draws from Jan Kott's insight that Lear, like Beckett's Endgame, reveals a world devoid of consolation, morality or universal justice. To underline the Beckettian connection, Brook uses two of Beckett's favourite actors: Patrick McGee, who plays the coolly sadistic Duke of Cornwall, and Jack MacGowan, who plays the Fool. Brook filmed it in the bleak landscape of a wintry Denmark, and portrayed Lear as a king of 10th century Britain, tyrant of a petty kingdom. The eye is undiverted by pomp and luxury: here both nature and man are brutal.

Brook gives us a complex Lear. He is a king whose madness is evident at the beginning of the story, a man whose fierce will is the only force that controls the madness that stirs inside him. The opening scene is a sweeping shot of the commoners who stand outside the door of the throne room, awaiting a fate that will be decided by capricious forces beyond their control.

What follows is a stark examination of the mechanisms of power. Its victims are not only those who are its objects, but those who brutalise themselves in their lust for it. Perhaps the scene that speaks most of this is near the end, when Brook includes Edmund (Ian Hogg) in the background of the shot as Lear speaks to Cordelia when, having lost their campaign against Regan and Goneril, they are led to prison:

When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies...

Behind them, Edmund listens. His face, marked by the blood and grime of battle, hardens to stone as he realises that such humility, humour and love, such trust, are lost to him forever. His order that Lear and Cordelia be killed is an act of visceral anguish and denial, a recognition of what he has murdered in himself and cannot bear to witness in others.

Brook's film is a devastating realisation of the play: a pitiless examination of the cruelty and emptiness that lies at the heart of the lust for power. But it is by no means a nihilistic portrayal of humanity. It breaks your heart not because it unflinchingly reveals how cruel human beings can be - that would be merely horrifying - but because it reveals the fragile human possibility that is destroyed by this cruelty.

In King Lear, Shakespeare shows us humanity at its most abject, and - almost miraculously - a great beauty shines within its abjection. When Lear, at the height of his madness and humiliation, prays for those who "bide the pelting of this pitiless storm", lamenting their "loop'd and window'd raggedness", it is a plea to all of us to "show the heavens more just". As too often in this world, the heavens remain unjust: but within that prayer is the awakening of a true compassion that illuminates the value of all real justice.

And maybe that compassion might awaken within those who listen to Lear's speech. That we might "see better" is, after all, what art might legitimately offer us: a slight hope perhaps but, all the same, real and obdurate in a world which so often seeks to make us blind.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Tanja Liedtke

The death of Tanja Liedtke, the brilliant young dancer who was to take up the leadership of the Sydney Dance Company in October, stunned the performing arts community last Friday. Tributes at The Morning After, Minktails and Sydney Arts Journalist.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Update: Cross-Racial Casting

The threads are spinning on this discussion. The comments are flying on Lee Lewis's paper on Cross-Racial Casting, with some interesting observations from American practitioners bringing an international perspective; Matt's response Lee Lewis's paper on Cross-Racial Casting is up at Esoteric Rabbit: "[Lee's essay] has inspired me in a way that, thus far, I'm still not entirely sure I understand". Ming at Minktails is more concerned with the problem of translating talk into action and there's a response from David at Jotternotes noting that it's crucially an artistic question. Tony (aka Jay Raskolnikov) has some fascinating stuff to add about "the safe black play".

At the moment, I'm feeling slightly uncomfortably that, aside from Ming, it's a bunch of "white" people talking. We need to talk, and I don't think we should stop - it's our problem too - but I'd like to hear something from those who find themselves filed under "other". (Update: An example of why it's our problem too can be found in this enraged comment on Nicholas Pickard's blog - as usual, most rage seems to come from those who haven't actually read the paper).

I'll resist spinning off into self-reflection, tempting though it is - the construction of privileged whiteness is something that has deeply concerned me, nay, pained me, for many years (I spent my first four years in apartheid South Africa, and I'm descended from bigwigs in the Raj in India, and I guess I feel it as a kind of scar, quite aside from some other familial complexities). But I just watched Peter Brook's Lear - a deeply appreciated gift - and am still a bit dizzied by its brilliance; and I think I ought to go to bed.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The northern hemiblogosphere

Here at TN, we proudly stand at the cutting edge of the art of ugly neologism. I guess it goes with an unfortunate passion for awful puns that used to afflict me when, as a lowly sub-editor, I wrote headlines and captions for our esteemed daily newspapers. (Yes, sometimes it was me! I won the Herald Sun's Headline of the Week competition twice! But enough of unseemly boasting...)

Anyway: our northern brethren (the ones near Iceland) are mostly preoccupied with the Edinburgh Festival, Fringe and Main. (There is some local interest - the main bit is, as you'll recall, currently run by homeboy Jonathan Mills, and the fringe as always attracts local talent. Our man Peter Houghton, who's exported The Pitch to Scotland, seems to be keeping his head up amidst the chaos). How anyone can cover an event that includes more than 2000 acts beats me, but the Guardian is doing its best.

Meanwhile in blogland: Chris Goode at Thompson's Bank, who has brought a couple of projects to Edinburgh (you can hear about them on Theatre Voice here), is keeping a diary - so far, here, here and here. He's had a characteristically innovative idea: "Even though I've been in Edinburgh a week now, why, I can still do the previews I intended to do, but after I've seen the shows instead of before. Wait, wait, don't freak out. I'm sure it's possible. I guess we'll just have to call them something other than previews. It's kind of like, instead of writing before I've viewed the shows -- in a pre-viewing mode, you might say -- I'll be, as it were, going over the shows that I've already viewed: revisiting them, in my mind's eye, if you like, or..."

Dan Bye at Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will, who has brought two shows to the fringe, is also logging his experiences, both as artist and audience, and like Mr Goode is complaining about the lack of critical engagement. And Andrew Haydon at Postcards from the Gods has a few previews up as well. I'm sure there's tons more out there, but that should bring you up to speed...

Meanwhile, the US must-read of the week is Qui Nguyen's hilarious and (I hate to use this phrase, it's horrible, but it is) heart-warming post about his family's attitude to his theatrical vocation on his blog Beyond Absurdity.

PS: Statler quite rightly points out that I have neglected the local Edinburgh coverage. He reports: "On Stage Scotland and One4Review have a large number of reviews and I've found both to be fairly reliable. Sadly my own View From The Stalls has only managed 16 reviews so far, but I'd like to think that what it lacks in quantity..."

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cross-Racial Casting: or The Social Pages

Last night, Lee Lewis' Platform Paper on Cross-Racial Casting was launched at the Beckett Theatre with vim, espièglerie and lashings of after-launch conversation lubricated by copious amounts of wine. Among a crowd of 30 to 40 interested people were Stephen Armstrong and Michael Kantor (respectively executive producer and artistic director of the Malthouse) as well as a notable blogger presence - Matt from Esoteric Rabbit, Ming from Mink-Tails and Daniel from Our Man in Berlin.

An hour and a half flew by. Or it did for me, anyway. Platform Papers editor Dr John Golder was MC; I spoke briefly (see below) and then Lee talked with lively passion about her paper and responded to questions from the audience. Topics covered included: the reasons why she decided to investigate this issue; the responses so far to what she has written; the influence of the dominance of naturalism and Lee's conviction that the first step should be aggressive cross-racial casting of the classical repertoire; the present conservative political climate that has so inhibited experiment on main stages and, perhaps most interestingly of all, Lee's interrogation of her own practice and ethics as a director. Peter Brook turned up once or twice, although sadly not in person.

Conversation afterwards flowed through many byways (the differences between Sydney and Melbourne, Dr Who and Harry Potter, blogging, the general theatrical discourse, the inhibitions that surround discussions about race, and so on...) One major question was how to extend the conversation about cross-racial casting into a general ethic in theatrical practice. Ming - whom I'm sure will write further about this - was bothered that such an important issue was considered by many of her peers to be a minority concern that doesn't affect white people. There was a notable sense throughout the evening that this issue is not about "worthiness" and rather has everything to do with the task of making exciting theatre that engages with the Australia in which we all live.

It was all, as my kids used to say, very fun. Let's hope the conversation does continue: I'm with Lee in thinking it one of the vital questions in Australian theatre. If you haven't read it, buy the book - I assure you that it's a fascinating, smart and stimulating read - and maybe subscribe to the Platform Papers series, which is well worth your attention.

Here's what I said in launching the book:

I’m honoured that Katherine Brisbane asked me to launch this book, and would like to thank her in absentia. It seems to me that Lee Lewis’s paper, Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre, is an important contribution to the continuing conversation about theatre in Australia, and I’m delighted to be here today. The editorial board at Currency House is to be congratulated for this series of Platform Papers, which has for the past few years provided a valuable and sorely-needed space for extended and thoughtful analyses of Australian performing arts culture.

This particular paper has already generated a lot of comment and discussion, some of it excited and positive, some of it hostile. Perhaps, as Lee Lewis ventures so fearlessly into such a delicate and complex area, this is only to be expected. But I’d like to begin with some negative theology. There are a number of things that I think this paper is not.

This is not an accusatory paper. It’s not an argument that blindly points the gun of racism at theatre directors or writers or artistic institutions. It is not concerned with apportioning blame. As Lewis quite rightly says, “Little is served by this discourse of blame beyond encouraging inertia”.

Rather, I think Lee does something much more interesting and much more positive. She intelligently and sensitively identifies a complex problem that she perceives within Autralian theatre culture, and then, without ignoring the minefields that surround the issue, she suggests a possible approach towards its resolution.

What is the problem? According to Lee, the diverse ethnic make-up of the Australian population is not reflected by a similar diversity on our stages. Sydney main stages – and by extension, mainstream stages in other Australian cities – remain "reprehensibly White". Not reflecting this diversity, she argues, means that theatre is missing a huge opportunity to re-imagine our national identity, that we are unwittingly participating in implicitly colonial practices that privilege the White over every other kind of identity.

In order to develop her thesis, Lee examines the social construction of Whiteness and the broader implications of the marginalisation of what she calls Third World Looking People. And she takes a searching and not unsympathetic look at how this plays out in the complicated culture of theatre.

The solution, she says, by no means lies in simplistic identity politics. TWLP actors are not, for example, granted the same possibility of transformation that White actors are: a White actor is considered neutral and able to be protean, whereas a TWLP is forever trapped in the biological reality of his or her ethnic origin.

I think Lee’s identification of the problem is pretty much unarguable. On the whole, our mainstages are, as Barrie Kosky said while casting his eye over the STC’s Actors Company, very “white bread”. And actors who do not identify as White are very seldom seen on our main stages outside ethnically-specific roles. We recently had an Indigenous Othello in Melbourne, but we are yet to see a Black Lear or an Asian Hedda Gabler. And, as Lee points out, even if cross-racial casting began to happen routinely, this could only be the beginning of a complex and exciting shift in our cultural dialogue.

I hope that Lee’s paper does lift us past the discourse of blame to a more positive recognition that there is a problem, and more, to further discussion on how it might best be dealt with. I declare this book launched and now pass over to Lee to talk more about her ideas.

And then she did...

Nicholas Pickard's blog report on the Sydney launch here.

Pictures: Top: Lee Lewis speaks at the launch. Bottom: Some of the later conviviality: (L-R) Brad and Sarah from the Malthouse, David, me, Matt the Esoteric Rabbit (front), Stephen from the Malthouse, Ming from Minktails. Photos: Brett Boardman

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On banishing crrrritics

A quick pointer to an excellent post by Chris Boyd which, while pointing to some recent contemplations in the blogosphere (including Ming-Zhu's wonderful search for theatrical orgasm), discusses the "all-too-regular ... 'bannings' and attempts at manipulating or silencing critics". Well, friction goes with the job: if you want to be liked, don't take up criticism, because the knives will be lining up. But there are times, as Chris notes, when friction morphs into something more sinister. As can be seen here with our young friend at Esoteric Rabbit, Matt Clayfield. Worth a gecko.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Interesting things

Yes, I know, Ms TN has been blogging like a maniac. Rest assured, I'll calm down over the next few days - I have a quieter week ahead. But some things of interest demand the attention of my tired little fingers.

Don't forget the Cross-Racial Casting Launch and Forum at the Malthouse tomorrow afternoon, where I will be launching Lee Lewis's controversial Platform Paper for Currency House. Join us, as they say, for a chance to discuss this landmark paper and maybe even buy it for yourself if you haven't seen it yet. The event is free, at 5.30 for 6: details at Currency House.

Which gives me an excuse to point to Outlier, the blog of Australian playwright Noëlle Janaczewska, who has recently posted some stimulating thoughts about the whole question of representation on our stages.

Meanwhile, partly in response to the fierce debate my review of Sleeping Beauty unleashed on these pages, Malthouse dramaturg and co-creator of Sleeping Beauty Maryanne Lynch answers her critics in Arts Hub in a fascinating essay about the ideas behind the show. "What is it about using music, popular music, that has created such fierce commentary?" asks Lynch. "Or, more positively, why did we make this artistic choice?"

What our critics have found hardest to deal with is using such music as the narrative of a theatrical work and how this might accurately reflect the journey of a young girl from childhood to adult life. Underlying both issues is that hoary old question “but is it theatre?”

So, the nay-sayers say, Sleeping Beauty was nothing more than a tarted-up Year 12 Eisteddfod, we’re just a bunch of theatre artists who don’t even know what’s contemporary for teenagers, and most interestingly that the work failed to engage with the real-life experience of real-life young women.

Lynch goes on to explain the thinking behind their choices of music, what they did with it theatrically, and why they were playing with ideas of entertainment. Popular songs, says Lynch, are the contemporary equivalents of fairy tales.

Just as a culture takes on other influences and moulds them into its own, [Sleeping Beauty] tries on first this and then that idea of female identity, attempting to find out who she is as she works it out. There’s a musical parallel here too. Indigenous Australia has embraced Country and Western, and we all know the origins of white rock and roll but always these sources are reconfigured by those who appropriate them. Our Sleeping Beauty knows these songs, the same songs our critics know, but she receives them from where she’s at, for better and worse, and does the same to them.

She wanders through a dreamscape of her own making, and she inhabits but must discard all these versions of herself as she goes on. Instead, she faces life as a journey, navigated by choice and circumstance and culture, with no clear destination.

Popular music tracks the pathways she could take but knows, as theatre does, its own limitations in embodying the rich confusion of the journey. It satisfies us because it pins us down and we in turn take it up and spin it around. Like a record; like a tune in our heads.

The Arts Hub link is here (registration required). Well worth checking out, if you can get there.

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Review: Holiday/Chapters from the Pandemic

Holiday by Raimondo Cortese, directed by Adriano Cortese. Design by Anna Tregloan, sound design by David Franzke, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With Paul Lum and Patrick Moffat. Ranters Theatre @ Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall. Bookings: 9639 0096

Chapters from the Pandemic, written, directed and performed by Angus Cerini. Design by Marg Howell, music composition and sound design by Kelly Ryall, lighting by Rachel Burke, video design by Michael Carmody. Doubletap @ fortyfivedownstairs. Bookings: 9662 9966

These two shows demonstrate the depth, range and quality of independent theatre bubbling beneath the skin of Melbourne. They represent a startling contrast in style: Chapters from the Pandemic is a full-on expressionist dance theatre work, devised and performed by the human tempest Angus Cerini, while Holiday is exquisite minimalist theatre that focuses on the apparently inconsequential minutae of human communication.

All the same, they do have some common ground. For one thing, they are part of a significant shift in the magnetic field of Australian culture. Over the past decade, many of the most interesting theatre-makers have been aligning themselves with Europe and Asia, rather than with the traditionally Anglocentric centres of London or New York.

Many significant artists in the Australian performing arts – Barrie Kosky, Benedict Andrews, Gideon Obarzanek, David Berthold or Daniel Keene, to name just a few – work between Europe and Australia, often developing significant careers overseas. We don’t have expatriates any more, we have a culture of nomads. Ranters Theatre and Doubletap are no exception; in recent years, they’ve both toured Europe, garnering plaudits along the way. And it's easy to see why they attract attention.

From writing to performance to design, Holiday is a devastatingly elegant show. Using black curtains, designer Anna Tregloan has enclosed an intimate auditorium within the vasty heights of the North Melbourne Town Hall. Once you find your way through the slightly disorientating darkness, you see before you a small stage that is effectively a white box. In the centre is a blue paddling pool, on which float two huge, brightly coloured beach balls. To one side is an absurd velvet chaise lounge, and on the other are a couple of stools.

The actors, Paul Lum and Patrick Moffat, sit either side of the stage. They are wearing shorts and bathers, and they are apparently relaxing: sighing, rolling their shoulders and stretching, smiling at each other with the slight apology of strangers sharing an intimate space. It’s clear that they’re indulging in that strange Western ritual, the holiday.

Before long, the silence stretches into anxiety. Somebody has to speak. And somebody does. What follows is utterly enchanting: absurd, gentle and profound. It’s a series of apparently artless, inconsequential dialogues, interspersed with a capella performances of baroque love songs by Schubert, Bononcini or Gluck that excavate the unspoken desires that run beneath the skin of idle conversation.

Raimondo Cortese's dialogues have an airy sense of improvisation, seemingly leading nowhere, but they are written with acutely honed skill. They create a sparkling surface that unobstrusively hints at depth: underneath we sense sadness, loneliness, vulnerability. Some have an air of comic confession (one man compulsively lies about himself; the other, a lapsed Catholic, regularly attends confession to relieve his mind of childhood betrayals). And others circle around performance, exploring the different selves we present to the world and to ourselves, the idea that we are always, in one way or another, acting.

At one point, one man departs the stage (to buy, as we discover, a chocolate bar and a soft drink), leaving the other in solitude. The lights come down: it is evening, and a sense of peace fills the theatre. We watch, with the lone man, a ship pass over the horizon (a video inspired by Simryn Gill’s work Vessel) and for once, the awkward question of self is left behind, absorbed in contemplation.

The production is superb, backed by a subtly nuanced sound design by David Franzke, and beautiful lighting by Niklas Pajanti. But what matters in this show is the text and the performances, and Adriano Cortese has orchestrated these with delicacy and attention. Lum and Moffat are stunning performers, achieving the extremely difficult task of doing nothing on stage with apparent effortlessness. You can’t take your eyes off them.

In its artful artlessness, Holiday reminded me of the anti-spectacle of Jérôme Bel’s beautiful Pichet Klunchun and Myself, which was one of the highlights of last year’s Melbourne Festival. Like Bel, Ranters Theatre achieves a profound and joyous lightness.

Angus Cerini’s one man show, a post-apocalyptic dance piece, couldn’t be more different: here there is minimal text, and Cerini and his collaborators create a rich stage environment that includes video projections, dramatic lighting (strobes, spotlights) and a huge set that evokes a world of human ruins. Chapters from the Pandemic, a project that emerges from Chunky Move’s Maximised program, imagines a world in which all living creatures have been killed by humankind.

Cerini's vision isn't a million miles from Konstantin’s ill-fated playlet in Chekhov’s The Seagull:

Men, lions, eagles, and partridges, horned deer, geese, spiders, silent fish that dwell in the deep, starfish, and creatures invisible to the eye – these, and all living things, all, all living things, having completed their sad cycle, are no more…The bodies of all living creatures have turned to dust, eternal matter has turned them into stones, water, clouds, and all their souls have merged into one. That great world soul – is I…

Like Konstantin's "world soul", Cerini's human is the last living creature in the world, the final locus of memory within a dead landscape. When you enter the theatre, a naked man is displayed on what looks like a laboratory table. And I mean naked: he is, from head to toe, completely hairless. At first he seems to be a statue, utterly still, even breathless, but he draws in a shuddering breath, and then another. He is alive.

What we witness over the next 50 minutes is a man, but a man reduced to a state of new infancy. He is without speech, and he must relearn his body: how to walk, how to hold things, how pushing breath through his larynx permits him to make a noise. Slowly he begins to explore a frightening and mysterious world, a world of jarring edges and objects whose use he does not understand, while confused memory plays in his head in a jumble of sound and light.

Kelly Ryall’s score shifts from lyrically plucked guitar to ambient animal noises (bird song, the lowing of cows) to loud, abstract bangs and howls, and fills the space as dramatically as Michael Carmody’s video projections, which assault the stage, playing over Cerini’s body so that its vestiges of humanity are almost dissolved in a chaos of light and shadow.

Cerini’s performance – grotesque, touching, vulnerable, utterly concentrated – is astoundingly brave. His nakedness is the least part of it: he tests our patience and attention, taking exactly as much time as he needs to shift between one state and another. The movement oscillates between moments of lyrical stillness and extreme anarchy, when the body, its head engulfed in a gas mask, flings itself in ecstatic abandon. And at last, with neither sadness nor regret, the human body dissolves into the natural world.

Sometimes you feel that Cerini's vocabulary of gesture could be expanded, and that perhaps the space could be better exploited (the left hand of the stage, for example, is never visited). But these are quibbles: Chapters from the Pandemic is riveting, a strange elegy for a dead world that is somehow, to quote the poem in the program, a celebration of "human magic".

Picture: Angus Cerini in Chapters from the Pandemic.

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...and again

Update: More reader responses from Arts Hub here.

Our self-appointed arbiter of public taste, Age journalist Robin Usher, has a big bee in that bonnet of his. One bee, buzzing very loudly. Yet again he gets in a gratuitous snipe at the Melbourne Festival from his bunker, this time under the cover of a feature about Edinburgh Festival director Jonathan Mills. "Mills, 44, has definite ideas about what a festival should be," says Usher, "and is a critic of what he calls wilfully postmodernist or relativist programs. This could be interpreted as a swipe at recent Melbourne Festival programming."

Most certainly, whether Mills intended it as a swipe or not, Usher is going interpret it that way.

Usher then goes on to comment approvingly that Mills has built his festival around "the Western canon, albeit interpreted" and that his program includes companies like the Wooster Group and Barrie Kosky's Vienna Schauspielhaus. At this point, you want to throw up your hands: reinterpreted works from the Western canon are studded all through the 2007 Melbourne Festival program (Shakespeare and Euripides, anyone? and hey, we've got Kosky too...) and if Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson, Peter Brook and Laurie Anderson don't fire your little red wagon, well...there's no hope for you.

Meanwhile, over at Arts Hub, readers are having their say on Usher's attacks. "The 'western' canon may not be boring but Robin Usher certainly is," says Sarah Miller. "And his attacks on Kristy Edmunds and her programming are way out of line. MIAF is a festival that people living elsewhere in Australia envy. It actually engages with the 21st century." Well, we don't want anything like that here, do we?

It might help if Usher's arguments actually made some sense. If, perhaps, he studied the program he's so energetically attacking. All due credit to Mills's success in Edinburgh, but I'm not sure that many people would agree with the "advertising millionaire" Harold Mitchell that Mills "has given Edinburgh a festival that Melbourne wishes it had", as if the artists programmed here were a bunch of fringe-dwellers and nobodies.

I guess Usher will be continuing his one-man anti-MIAF campaign in the run-up to the festival. And I guess, just for the record, I'll dutifully continue to report his digs. One would think that the Age might be concerned to provide some balanced coverage, but on past experience, balance is not one of its priorities. And they complain about the bias of bloggers?

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Monday, August 13, 2007

A confession of sorts

Taking a deep breath before leaping into reviews of the two other shows I've seen over the past week (Ranters' Holiday and Angus Cerini's Chapters from the Pandemic, coming up - I hope - tomorrow), it occurs to me that it might be interesting to some readers here if I write about the process that informs these reviews.

This blog exists for two major and extremely selfish reasons. Firstly, I adore going to the theatre, to the point that it is something like a obsessive passion: it's an artform that for me never loses the crude enchantment of innocence. Secondly, I have this compulsive desire to talk about almost everything and, in particular, an uncontrollable compulsion to talk about art.

When I first began to think critically about art, in my early 20s, the medium that offered itself as a way to begin to explore my evolving ideas was theatre. In fact, my involvement with theatre, at first as a practitioner and increasingly as a critic, has informed every aspect of my artistic practice. (My next collection of poems, due out with Salt Publishing next year, will be called Theatre: Poems). It's crucial to my creative writing to keep my critical faculties supple, and a continual engagement with a dynamic and various artform is an excellent means of keeping mentally fit.

But there's more to it than that. We all know that theatre is an impure artform, a form in which economic necessity rubs up against artistic ideals. It is impossible to pretend that theatre is not imprinted by its time and place; in other artforms, this can be less obvious, or even completely hidden. Theatre takes place in real time and in real space, and is made by real bodies. It costs money to make and to see. And yet, what crucially happens is an exchange: something is offered by the artists who make it. When I sit in a theatre and watch a show, I am the other half of that exchange. I am not a critic. I am a member of an audience.

"Exchange is creation," says the American poet Muriel Rukeyser. "In poetry, the exchange is one of energy. Human energy is exchanged, which is consciousness, the capacity to produce change in existing conditions. But the manner of exchange, the gift that is offered and received - these must be seen according to their own nature."

She is speaking of poetry, but what Rukeyser says applies equally to theatre. When I watch a show, I am receiving a gift. And no matter what it is, I do my best to receive that gift openly and without fear or prejudice, to offer in exchange the gift of my attention. I do my best, within my limitations, to perceive a show for what it is: not to expect a tragedy when I am watching the circus, not to let my own biases or expectations blind me to the gift that being offered.

Sometimes the exchange is not a happy one. Sometimes the exchange fails in the space between the auditorium and the stage. Theatre doesn't always live up to its ideals, and neither do I. But all my critique, positive or negative, stems from that experience in the theatre, during which I pay all the attention of which I am capable. My later intellectual response - the intellect is always later - is totally conditioned by what I feel in my body when I walk out of a theatre.

My qualitative responses - whether I think a piece "works" - rely on something utterly inarticulate. There are shows that I have not understood at all, or which have aesthetically or intellectually challenged every belief I have: but if I leave the theatre feeling light, excited, stimulated, alive, well then: I will have to rethink my ideas. Or, on the other hand, if I leave the theatre feeling depressed, heavy, trapped, then something is not working. The exchange is compromised; the gift is not received.

In truth, I know of nothing else to work with. "Reason," says the philosopher Gillian Rose in her beautiful book Love's Work, "is forever without ground". And the same might be said of my critique. What is most important to its formation is not at all defensible. That is just how it is: experience is incorrigible and unarguable.

Everything else - the intellectual and aesthetic framework which is articulated on this blog - is arguable. And I hope that framework is clear and informed. It's a framework that I have worked hard to create, by reading and writing and thinking, by seeing a lot of theatre over many years. But what it rests on is something any child can know and understand.

The process of critique is for me an intellectual working back, an attempt to articulate or understand why a particular work has engendered those particular effects. Sometimes it's easy to know why, sometimes it's a struggle that leads me beyond my given knowledge. But it's always a process that I find fascinating and illuminating, and that's why I keep doing it. It's really icing on the cake that other people read, and argue with, what I have to say.

This process is why I don't believe that any critique - and certainly none of mine - can ever be the last word on any work of art. It would be the height of solipsism - and even I am not that solipsistic - to think that I, alone of 50 or 200 or 800 other people in an auditorium, can have the only authentic experience in the theatre. It would also be rather dull. Any response is, rather, the beginning of another conversation. And it's all these conversations, shimmering skeins of them, over dinner tables, in newspapers and journals and blogs and pubs and cafes, that make what I understand to be a living culture. And I am very proud to be one talkative thread in the whole noisy tapestry.

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Review: Criminology

Criminology, devised by Rosemary Myers and written by Lally Katz and Tom Wright. Design by Anna Tregloan, video design direction Peter Brundle, video design Chris More, lighting design Paul Jackson, composition Jethro Woodward. With Gemma Cavoli, Jing-Xuan Chan, Simon Maiden, Bojana Novakovic, Luke Ryan and Samantha Tolj. Arena Theatre and Malthouse Theatre @ the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse until August 19. Bookings: 9685-5111.

When you walk out of the doors of the Malthouse Theatre, the first thing that catches your eye is a huge yellow billboard across the freeway. It squats beneath the urban skyline asking, in brash red letters: “WANT LONGER LASTING SEX?” This garishly desolate image has a disconcerting continuity with the world explored in Criminology, a fascinating archeological exploration of the pathologies beneath the surface of middle-class suburban Australia.

It’s co-written by Tom Wright, who last week won a Helpmann for his work on The Lost Echo, and Lally Katz, best known for her work with Stuck Pigs Squealing. But Criminology is a theatrical collaboration in which the work of the director and its several designers is as important in creating meaning, through projected video and mise en scène, as the writing itself.

Devisor and director Rosemary Myers draws from Helen Garner’s controversial book The Consolation of Joe Cinque, which explored the bizarre 1997 killing of a young man by his girlfriend Anu Singh, both students at ANU in Canberra. Singh was convicted of manslaughter for deliberately overdosing Cinque with heroin, and served a prison sentence. Among the more disturbing aspects of the crime was that their circle of friends knew of Singh’s intention to kill Cinque, but did nothing to prevent it.

Criminology is almost an inverse picture of Garner’s book. Garner was concerned with the victim, filling out the anonymity of the headlines with the visceral reality of his grieving family. Notoriously, Anu Singh refused to speak to her, and the figure of the young woman remains mysterious, inscrutable and deadly. Myers has chosen to see the story from another angle, as if in a mirror darkly.

She and her collaborators create a nightmarish indictment of the pathological narcissism of contemporary society. Criminology reveals a world of unrelieved banality, in which the language of feeling is expressed through the cliches of blockbuster movies, values are taken from the gossip pages and sexuality is merely pornographic.

In this telling, everything is backwards: Anu is fictionalised as Una (Bojana Novakovic) and Joe Cinque becomes The Boyfriend (Hazem Shammas), a passive cipher who is a blank screen for the projection of Una’s warped desires. Even some of the performances are backwards: 1990s celebrities like Princess Di and Michael Hutchence appear on stage performed by actors with masks on the backs of their heads and their clothes on the wrong way round. It makes them move like zombies, jerkily and unnaturally, and they grotesquely focus Una’s fascination with the link between sex, death and fame.

This is theatre of a profound semantic richness – performance, image, design and Jethro Woodward’s brilliant soundscape combine to create a complex and confronting language. Anna Tregloan’s design capitalises on the banality of the world explored in the show – the walls are even beige, and the wide set is littered with comfortable furniture. The bedroom – the site of both sex and death – is a glass box. Above the stage hang a constellation of screens, on which are projected fragmented images – close-ups of bodies, plants, trees – that work in counterpoint to the action on stage.

Una exists in a haze of psychic distortions caused by her drug-taking and bulimia. She and her friends live in a world marked, more than anything, by sexual and spiritual impoverishment, and her psychosis is shaped by the desires projected upon her and the fantasies of an unreal world populated by visions of magazine-cover celebrities.

Aspects reminded me of George Bataille’s The Story of the Eye, which brutally explores the the excesses of adolescent sexuality: but unlike the children in Bataille’s story, who take a perverse and imaginative pleasure in their sadistic games, Una’s erotic provocations and manipulations seem strangely pleasureless. For Una, sex is not an end in itself, but a means to power: and her need for power is directly related to her own sense of feminine powerlessness.

What makes this show particularly riveting is the physically potent performances from all the cast. The body is at once celebrated for its perfection and tormented, distorted in sexual ecstasy or vomiting or death. Bojana Novakovic portrays Una with total commitment: she oscillates from a manipulative sexual succubus to desperate bulimic, unflnchingly performing Una’s self-loathing and extremity. Luke Ryan as the corrupt young drug dealer Alastair gives a nuanced, sinister performance, and Hazem Shammas as the Boyfriend is a cryptic, wordless shadow until he convulses in his death, which is perhaps the only time he is real to Una.

There are occasional longueurs in the dramaturgy, a feeling sometimes that the ideas aren't going anywhere – the grotesque image of Princess Di, for instance, dulls in repetition. And I felt ambivalent about the portrayal of Una, a sense that it exploits the archetypal power of the deadly, sexualised woman as much as critiquing its creation. I’m not sure that it’s an entirely successful piece, but it's undoubtedly powerful and confronting theatre.

Picture: Hazem Shammas (projection image), Jing-Xuan Chan and Bojana Novakovic in Criminology. Photo: Ross Bird

More blog responses at Post-Teen Trauma and Esoteric Rabbit.

A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Australian.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Salt Magazine

Salt Magazine, which under John Kinsella's editorship became one of the most stimulating literary journals of the 1990s, has resurrected as a free web journal. Issue One is up today. It includes two poems by me, amid an international line-up of some of the most notable names in contemporary poetry. And there are also some fascinating-looking essays that I will read when I find a quiet moment. That is, not this week.

While I'm in boast mode, I also have a poem in the current issue of The Wolf, a leading independent UK poetry magazine. Which is, for the company I'm keeping if not for my poem, well worth getting your greedy hands on.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

News just in: Hamlet/MIAF bites back

Great news for those who missed the MIFF screenings of A Poor Theatre's brilliant film The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. Malthouse Executive Producer Stephen Armstrong emails this morning to say: "Inspired by this work, and aware how hard it would be to get a commercial release, we decided to turn the Tower into a boutique screening lounge for two weeks". So it's on in March next year. And kudos to the Malthouse for some smart, imaginative programming.

Meanwhile, Melbourne Festival General Manager Vivia Hickman yesterday answered Age arts reporter Robin Usher's recent criticisms of festival programming in a swingeing defence in Arts Hub. "It is not the Festival's role to replicate what is on offer for the other 49 weeks of the year," says Hickman, "and that is not what we are asked to do."

Hickman isn't afraid of taking the battle into the enemy's camp. The money par:

It is completely appropriate that journalists like Robin Usher speculate about the nature of festival programming. As a major part of this city's cultural life the Festival warrants and welcomes such speculation. But is it appropriate however for a journalist to use the opinion pages of a major daily newspaper to suggest names, or rather to name one person for the role of Artistic Director? It seems misguided and intrusive to campaign for an individual in such a way, particularly when the Festival is just about to begin its recruitment process to fill that very role.

Good question. Perhaps Usher was keen to answer it when, as my spies tell me, he rang Arts Hub "within minutes" of the article appearing.

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95 Sentences About Theatre

Your weekend reading: over the past few weeks, George Hunka at Superfluities has been nailing his equivalent of Martin Luther's 95 Theses - 95 Sentences About Theatre - up on his front door. A Protestant, perhaps, in the profound sense, making his claim for the true sacredness of theatre against its gross commercialisation, its profiting by the sale of indulgences. Much to ponder, argue with and enjoy.

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Review: The Glass Soldier

The Glass Soldier by Hannie Rayson. Melbourne Theatre Company, Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre. August 8. Until September 8. Bookings: 1300 136 166.

The mechanised carnage of the First World War has generated a rich tradition of plays, from the Expressionist drama of early 20th century Germany to powerful contemporary works like Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme or Howard Barker’s The Love of a Good Man. Hannie Rayson’s The Glass Soldier is, at best, a modest addition to the line-up.

Originally conceived as a movie, The Glass Soldier bears the stamp of a film script transferred, with lots of bells and whistles, to the stage. It’s essentially a biopic that is loosely based on the real-life story of Nelson Ferguson, who was almost blind for half a century after he was gassed on the Somme in the First World War.

Despite his handicap, Ferguson taught art for many years and then helped to run a stained glass business in Ballarat. His eyesight was restored in 1968 with corneal transplants – too late, unfortunately, for him to see his wife Madeleine, who died shortly before the operation.

Rayson has heavily fictionalised the original story to create a schematic demonstration of the life-long effects of the trauma of war. Related over three hours in a parade of scenes which give us a none-too-subtle lesson in Australian history, it’s rather like Theatre in Education for grown-ups: long on exposition and short on any real drama.

The narrative moves from the First World War to Ferguson’s old age, with whistle-stops at Depression-era Australia, World War 2 and the Vietnam War. Each period is signalled by the appropriate contemporary songs. The trauma of war is signalled by flashbacks in which Australian infantrymen, accompanied by loud explosions, fling themselves across the stage.

There’s one moment of startling theatre – a monologue delivered by Steve Bisley that graphically describes the effects of gas – but, for the most part, the presiding muse is cliché. For the first half hour or so, it reminded me of those creaky war movies that used to play on day-time television.

However, no one can say that director Simon Phillips has treated the text badly. The production is beautifully designed: Dale Ferguson’s abstract set is based around a number of pillars, creatively using scrims to continually redefine the space, and it is lushly and inventively lit by Nick Schlieper.

The hard-working cast, all playing multiple characters, does its best with the material. Steve Bisley and Robert Menzies in particular generate some moments of feeling, but in the end even they can’t transcend the limitations of the script.

This review is published unchanged from the review printed today's Australian newspaper. Online link if and when available.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Review: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

As I left the Melbourne International Film Festival premiere of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, it occurred to me that I will probably not be able to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet again without wanting to laugh. First-time director Oscar Redding has achieved something spectacular: he’s created a new Hamlet, an interpretation so radical and emotionally searing that it redefines the role.

This is possibly the most tormented Hamlet committed to film: a man so isolated that his only friend, Horatio, is a hand-puppet; a Hamlet who is mad from the start, driven to despair and paranoia by the dishonesty and venality that surrounds him in the corrupt court of Elsinore.

It’s definitely not Shakespeare for the costume-drama set. Redding treats the play with bold disrespect that reveals a deeper concern with its living meaning, giving us a Hamlet that digs deep into the psychoses of our age. He’s made a demanding, relentless film that invites you into the drama and then hurts you. The emotional realism of some scenes is so painful to watch that you want to turn away. But you keep watching, because you can’t help it.

The great Shakespearean critic Jan Kott says Hamlet is a play that absorbs its times. And there is certainly a dizzying variety of Hamlets: the wan melancholic poet of the 19th century, or the mid-20th century Hamlet, who was the personification of modern self-consciousness in collision with the brutal machine of history.

Peter Brook suggested another take in his beautiful 2001 film La Tragédie d’Hamlet, which features Adrian Lester in the title role. Brook fillets out a claustrophobic family drama of individuals trapped in remorseless passions, and Lester’s Hamlet, lushly framed in luxurious crimson fabrics, smoulders with sensuous loathing and corrosive wit. In Brook’s film, the easy adage that the personal is political is illuminated with new meaning.

It’s hard to imagine anything further from Brook’s exquisite aesthetic than Redding’s grim settings, where Elsinore becomes the Flinders St Station subway, or Gertrude’s bedroom a shabby bathroom. But there are similarities, all the same, in the approach of these two films. Both cut the play heavily, dropping the introductory ghost scene and stripping out all of its complicated political machinations. And both expose the emotional nakedness of the text, depending on brilliant performances to convey the complexity and depth of its passions.

Redding’s cuts are much more radical than Brook’s – Ophelia, for example, says scarcely anything at all, although the pitiable image of her suicidal madness is at the centre of this film. He hasn’t attempted to contemporise the script: the play is performed straight, so that Hamlet, filmed in familiar places like the Bourke St Mall or Melbourne laneways, becomes a nightmare that lurks under the skin of urban Melbourne. And in truth, it’s a little unsettling to walk out into those same streets after watching the film.

Drawing from the Dogme school of minimalist film-making, each scene is filmed in a single take using one hand-held camera. The action takes place over a single night, beginning at 12.15am and ending at dawn. The camera is a character in itself, peeking around corners or through curtains, or zooming up on faces in unbearable close-up.

And as Hamlet’s psyche disintegrates, so does the cinematography, which as the tragedy reaches its climax has something of the quality of live war footage. The screen goes jarringly black, or we are running in a panic, or the sound continues over a sudden still, as if the screen is arrested in shock.

Redding's film began life on stage in 2004, when he directed Hamlet with most of the same cast in a shabby shopfront in Northcote. Drawing on the poor theatre aesthetic, which is the theatrical equivalent of Dogme, the actors rehearsed for months in public spaces around Melbourne. What resulted was one of the most exciting Hamlets I have seen anywhere.

This background accounts for the remarkable performances in the film. With the exception of Steve Mouzakis, whose thuggish Claudius lacks the subtleties of the other performances, they give the lie to the claim that Australian actors lack the skills to deal with classical dramatic language.

This cast features the cream of Melbourne theatre actors, with stand-out performances from Brian Lipson as a comically naïve, bumbling Polonius, Adrian Mulrany as the Player King and John F. Howard as the Gravedigger. But crucially, Redding has a brilliant Hamlet in Richard Pyros. There are times when his performance lifts the hair on the back of your neck: this Hamlet might be mad, but the method in it has a profound legibility, and his corrosive intelligence shines through every gesture.

As Aristotle said, tragedy is a dramatic means of calling up within an audience cathartic feelings of pity and terror. That this is difficult to achieve is beyond question: to explore the extremities of the human psyche without descending into Grand Guignol or self-parody requires not only a passionate honesty, but acute intelligence and skill. Redding’s micro-budget achievement is astounding.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, adapted and directed by Oscar Redding. A Poor Theatre Film. Melbourne International Film Festival, screening 5pm Thursday, August 9, Capitol Cinema, Melbourne. Picture: Richard Pyros as Hamlet.

This review was printed in today's Australian.

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Monday, August 06, 2007


Yes folks, it's time for the thrill and glamour of the Helpmann Awards, which are presented tonight at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney. Having suffered through a couple of AFI award nights - I think I've never quite got over the tacky gilded pillar that optimistically graced the 2004 event, a night of such catastrophically soul-excruciating boredom I should probably never complain about theatre again - I can't say that award nights fill me with excitement. Still, they are symptomatic of something. Though it's hard to say quite what.

Nobody's suggesting that finalising nominations for a national award isn't a headache of major proportions. Still, as Chris Boyd points out in a handy analysis of the nominations, Melburnians have a right to grizzle. Out of 24 nominations for theatre, we scored three Melbourne-exclusive gongs, compared to 15 Sydney-exclusive. Anyone who thinks that's a fair reflection of the theatrical energies in these respective cities needs to get out more. The SMH's Bryce Hallet reports on "heated and fraught" selection processes for the theatre and music theatre categories, but somehow fails to mention the Sydney bias. To be fair, perhaps it was Melbourne-based producers who refused to nominate their shows for consideration... Ho hum.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Comments policy

I haven't uploaded an official comments policy, and I suspect it's time I did.

One of the aims of Theatre Notes is to be a forum for lively, open and fearless discussion about theatre, and thoughtful posts from readers with diverse points of view are strongly encouraged. I expect all discussion to observe basic civilities.

This is my party, and I reserve the right to remove spam or posts that I consider offensive. This includes posts that mistake personal abuse for reasoned argument, or which are directly sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise plain bigoted. While impassioned argument is welcome, trolling - the activity of deflecting an argument into a time-wasting flame war - will not be tolerated.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Review: 4:48 Psychosis

4:48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, directed by Alyson Campbell. With Richard Bligh, Olivia Connolly, Tom Davies and Suzette Williams. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, until July 26. Bookings: 9533 8082

Like Heiner Mueller’s 1977 play Hamletmachine, Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, at last having its Melbourne premiere at Red Stitch, is the kind of work that redefines the possibilities of language on a stage. Hamletmachine, most famously realised by Robert Wilson, is a six-page text in which Mueller’s political and psychological obsessions are given explosive expression through the traumatised figure of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a densely allusive, almost cubist text that at once expresses a deeply personal sense of despair and critiques the social conditions that produced it.

It has other suggestive connections to 4:48 Psychosis. "It became, more than ever anticipated," says Mueller, "a self-critique of the intellectual … It is the description of a petrified hope, an effort to articulate a despair so that it can be left behind. It certainly is a 'terminal point', I can’t continue in this way."

Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, as is well known, was her last play: this vastly talented young writer hanged herself in 1999, at the age of 28. While Mueller went on to create other works – although Hamletmachine was the last play of its kind that he wrote – Kane reached both a personal and an artistic end point with this play. Contemplating it is rather like looking at Rothko’s final bleak canvases: it is impossible not to feel the weight of the artist’s suicide behind the work.

But an artist’s life is not the same as her work, and it’s unfair to conflate the two. For all its terrifying expressiveness, 4:48 Psychosis is a work of art, not a diary entry: it may be an expression of personal despair – written, perhaps, as Hamletmachine was, in an effort to leave it behind. But that is not why it matters as a work of art. What I find most terrifying about it is, in fact, how Kane manages to draw so rawly from her personal experience of mental illness and yet to frame it with an absolutely icy intellectual and aesthetic discipline. In this achievement – her ability to successfully objectify, critique and theatricalise her own pain – she is arguably only matched by Antonin Artaud.

Stylistically, 4:48 Psychosis is most certainly a "terminal point", the logical end of a continual stripping away of theatrical convention, in which she was influenced by artists like Howard Barker and his Theatre of Catastrophe and the plays of Caryl Churchill. Her first play, Blasted, scandalised theatrical London by conflating sexual violence with the extremities of civil war, physicalising on stage the traumatic wounds of the psyche. Its crudity is at once brilliant and shocking. And she continued through her tragically slim oeuvre of five plays to refine her aesthetic, questioning every aspect of the contemporary stage, until she reached the terminal point of 4:48 Psychosis: a text with no stage directions, no characters, no direction even of how many actors might perform it.

Some people question if it’s even a theatre text. A critic colleague claims that it’s a poem, a text that is whole on the page and doesn’t “demand to be performed”. For me, 4:48 Psychosis falls on the theatrical side of that shadowy divide that distinguishes a play from a poem, even while it sits uncomfortably close to the boundary: it’s definitely language that’s written to be voiced and physicalised in space. But there's no doubt that part of its radicality exists in how it brings modes of interior expressiveness to the stage that more traditionally live in the realm of the lyric poem.

Under Alyson Campbell’s direction, Red Stitch gives Melburnians their first chance to see this extraordinary text on stage. It’s a creditable production, intelligently staged with some excellent performers, but it left me with a nagging sense of disappointment. There’s no doubt that this is a difficult play to realise: again like Hamletmachine, which on its US premiere was judged a “dull monodrama” and was only fully realised when Robert Wilson got his hands on it, to experience its full power requires a production as radical as the writing.

Given that there’s no direction on who says the text, or how many actors might perform it, there have been a wide number of interpretations. In France it was performed as a monologue by Isabelle Huppert; the Royal Court used three actors. For this production, Campbell has distributed the text between four actors, Richard Bligh, Olivia Connolly, Tom Davies and Suzette Williams, perhaps calling on an anima/animus model of the human psyche.

Campbell has carefully ignored the possible division of the play into different “characters” – the psychiatrist, for instance, or several “I”s. While this deflects the possibility of turning the play into a more conventional drama in disguise, making all the voices interchangable splinters of a shattered psyche, it also has a curiously muffling effect on its emotional power. Most seriously, when the lines themselves are split, word by word, between different voices, it destroys the careful orchestrations of Kane’s linguistic rhythms: and I couldn’t see what these splintered lines added to the performance. The production’s most powerful moments are, in fact, where the actors are permitted monologic moments, when the rhythms of the language begin to exercise a fatal power.

Here psychosis is imagined as a place of unbearable cold and endless perspectives: the stage floor is covered with fake snow, which attaches to the performers’ clothes as the work progresses, and the set itself is a series of receding doors or frames, dwindling into an imagined distance. The actors perform a series of “scenes”, with pauses between each one, discovering an ingenious variety of physical correlatives for the language.

It is, as I said, a creditable attempt, and worth seeing for its serious and uncompromising realisation of Kane’s text. Strangely, given my reservations about Campbell's attack on Kane's rhythms, I suspect it is all too reverent of Kane’s poetry, too respectful of her language: this text might be traumatic and traumatised, but it is not, as it sometimes seems to be here, catatonically frozen. It is, in fact, a passionate struggle for life itself: and I wish I could have felt a little more of that passion.

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Traditional grousing

I don't think Robin Usher can help it. Bubbling with enthusiasm at the present domination of Melbourne stages with what he calls "traditional" fare - Phantom of the Opera and the RSC in particular - Usher bares his teeth at the Melbourne Festival, gnawing at his favourite bone, MIAF director Kristy Edmunds. As Usher says:

No approach to festival programming is set in stone and although the festival's director, Kristy Edmunds, concentrated on more cutting-edge works in her first two programs, she has included more mainstream artists this year. Yet she seems to have little interest in either traditional theatre or classical music. Her argument is that she does not want to duplicate what's on offer during the rest of the year.

But the riches available in the past week demonstrate the benefits of grouping together acts with a common base in the Western tradition. The key is the visit by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which will continue presenting Chekhov's The Seagull and Sir Ian McKellen's definitive performance in King Lear until Sunday.

Well, we all know my feelings on the RSC, which are very mixed. Myself, I love "straight" theatre staged with skill and passion, which is what the RSC - and, yes, the MTC - does at its best. I even have a rather big soft spot for the Western tradition, seeing as it is mine own, and if Usher and I went head to head in a quiz on Western theatre, I'm willing to bet I'd win comfortably.

Usher's plea for more of the "Western tradition" in the festival is a little disingenuous, to say the least, considering this year's MIAF program includes the greatest Shakespearean interpreter of the past century, Peter Brook, as well as productions of Titus Andronicus, Medea and a theatre work that apparently draws from Hamlet. Not to mention one of the canon-defining figures of western dance, Merce Cunningham.

No, it's not the canon that Usher wants. It's the canon in a straight-jacket, dusted off and placed behind glass in a museum of artefacts, where it may be purchased as decoration and status-symbol: not the living, real thing. It's the artistic equivalent of John Howard harking back to the Menzies era.

After all, those great canonical artists were canon-breakers in their time, before the cultural machine did its work: this is what Edmunds remembers and fosters, and what Usher seems to forget. On present form, he would have been booing at the premiere of Madame Butterfly, damning Hedda Gabler as raw sewage and signing petitions to ban Ulysses.

And he wants this relaxed and comfortable plushness all year round. Usher's entitled to his preferences but, as he also points out, these things can be seen on Melbourne stages throughout the year. How about those of us - also a considerable audience - who want to see something different?

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