Notes on The Serpent's TeethCriticism...againMore on the 2020Review: Venus & AdonisThe 2020 experienceGreen Room AwardsHome from OzReview: Haneef: The InterrogationRush, rush, rush...I'm always the last to know...Running up to 2020Gallery forayReview: The 39 StepsSunday morning at the MTCSpamalotRound the sphereThe 2020 wikiEdinburgh's Australian invasionReview: The Winterling, The Ghosts of Ricketts Hill ~ theatre notes

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Notes on The Serpent's Teeth

The Serpent's Teeth: Citizens and Soldiers, by Daniel Keene, directed by Pamela Rabe and Tim Maddock. Set design by Robert Cousins, costume design by Tess Schofield, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composer/sound design Paul Charlier. With Brandon Burke, Peter Carroll, Marta Dusseldorp, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Steve Le Marquand, Ewen Leslie, Hayley McElhinney, Amber McMahon, Luke Mullins, Pamela Rabe, Emily Russell and Narek Armaganian/Josh Denyer. STC Actors Company @ the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until May 17.


There is something about the act of theatre that can annihilate language. It can silence the critical voice that runs in the head, that background chatter that is continually questioning, taking notes, making impatient comments. Despite itself, that voice finds itself wholly absorbed in the present, its attention held, its sceptical distance destroyed. All sense of the passing of time vanishes.

It’s a rare experience, but that total absorption is what I seek in the theatre. And it’s what happened when I watched The Serpent’s Teeth, a diptych by Daniel Keene that opened last week at the Drama Theatre, performed by the STC’s Actors Company. When the lights came up at the end, I found in its immediate aftermath that I had nothing to say, that what I had just experienced had emptied my mind of anything so superficial as an opinion. I felt that the only proper reponse was to write a poem.

Yet it is probably true that I have never devoted so much thought to writing about a work of theatre. Ever since I heard, in the middle of last year, that The Serpent’s Teeth was to be programmed by the STC, I’ve been debating the ethical question of whether I should write about it. (Those interested in that internal debate can find it here: I would ask anyone who wants to attack me for writing about my husband’s work to consult this document, to save me the trouble of defending things I never asserted in the first place).

But in the end, all the laborious justifications fell away, swept aside by the theatre itself. More than anything else, I think this production is its own magnificent justification. Yes, my response – afterwards, if not in the intense experience of watching it – is conditioned by a certain personal pride. This is an ambition, a possibility, that I have believed in now for so many years – and not only in Daniel’s writing (I have long been aware, for example, of the austere integrity of Tim Maddock’s directing).

I know such work can call out of other artists their most serious and principled thinking, and permit the expression of their most ambitious art. I know this ambition is possible because I have seen it realised, but most often thousands of miles away from here.

But last week I saw it at the Sydney Opera House: a work of theatre in which every aspect held the others in a profoundly delicate formal balance, a work in which the differing disciplines of lighting, performance, direction, sound and text were each suspended in synthesis, bent towards a common desire.

At its most profound, theatre is always about the dissolution of the individual ego, which seeks instead a more permeable expression of its soul. The one and the many cease to oppose each other, and become the necessary elements of a complex, living dynamic. To achieve this is difficult: it is why failure is and must be part of the lexicon of theatre (“Fail again. Fail better.”) But on the rare occasions when this ambition is fully realised, it offers a brief glimpse of human possibility: a larger, more generous way of being.


“Beauty,” said Ezra Pound, “is difficult”. It is difficult to see, difficult to create, difficult to negotiate. Yet at its core is always something very simple: one human being perceiving with newly rinsed eyes the world that he or she lives in. Beauty is something that only belongs to human beings: it is an aesthetic order we make out of the chaos of experience, the vulnerability of truthfulness. There is always an ethical aspect to representation, a moral question in the making of beauty, which is why, when it is most terribly honest, it is sometimes considered neither ethical nor moral.

Beauty is what artists make. Very often the beauty they create is not considered beautiful at all: it is too full of human sorrow, human flaws, human danger and violence. Artists take the unbeautiful world and show us its beauties. In order to do this, they sometimes destroy our cherished ideas about what we consider beauty to be. That is as it should be: flux and change and ambiguity are all we will ever know of certainty.

Artistic beauty emerges from structure: artists make things. Daniel Keene has offered, in Citizens and Soldiers, two objects made out of words. They are sculpted with a stern, even fierce poetic, austere and plain and finely honed as a surgeon’s scalpel. They are two very different explorations of the formal possibilities of theatre, but each rhymes with the other to make a third thing: a diptych that meditates on different aspects of the price of living with war.

It is possible to read these plays and experience them as you might any other work of literature, as autonomous worlds made out of language. But they are plays, designed to be expressed by the breath and bodies of actors, to be choregraphed in the three-dimenional space of a stage. They are words written for theatre, designed ultimately to be written on the air and to vanish in their saying, into the past, into memory.

Citizens and Soldiers are plays about love. Not love as it is understood in romance novels or Hallmark greeting cards, but love as it is: the generous wound of need, the binding that draws people together, the anguish of the understanding that we are not alone, and that our fate depends upon others. It is love that makes one face more precious than another, that makes us understand that our private selves are embedded in other lives, that we are larger than we realise. In love lies the seeds of hatred and betrayal and sorrow; it contains all the trivial and mundane irritations of human relationship, the silences of what cannot be expressed, the gulfs that open between people, the desire that speaks across these gulfs but can never close them. The possibility of love is the only thing that gives me hope for the human race.

Everyone in these two fictions – one set before the wall that bisects Palestine, the other in an aircraft hangar in Australia where five families wait for the remains of their men to be flown home from war – acts out of love. A man takes his mute grandson on a long walk to swap an olive tree for an orange tree, a token of peace exhanged for a token of beauty. A woman seeks schoolbooks so her daughter can study. Each person present in the hangar is there because they loved the man who is now dead and must now face the anguish of his absence. And it is this difficult love that illuminates the tragedy and comedy of these humble stories about war, that gives them their meaning, that invites us towards understanding.

One can moralise about war, but these plays do not invite such moralising. It is impossible to moralise about love. It is too complex, too contradictory, too necessary. This is not art that seeks to moralise. It simply says: on either side of this stage, we are all human. All of us.


The central character in Citizens is a wall. It has been built hurriedly out of concrete blocks, a raw fact that bisects the world between here and there, ours and theirs. It looms at the front of the stage, defining a narrow strip strewn with rubble. The actors may only enter from the right or the left: all other choices are forbidden them. The wall has a voice that rises and falls. It might be surf or the low rumble of a hidden city. It might just be the wind.

It pulses in the light.


When we return for Soldiers, the wall has vanished. In its place is a cavernous, industrial space. We cannot see the ceiling. In the first play, we are confronted by the brutal, horizontal line of the wall. The second is dominated by a high vertical, the huge double doors of the hangar at the back of the stage, which the actors open and close, letting in sharp diagonals of light.

There is no sound except the actors' voices and footsteps and the metallic clang as the doors close.


Narrative here is about place. Light sculpts the narrative, binds it together, gives it meaning. It shapes time into the measure of a human breath. It carves the emotional spaces through which the actors walk, so we are aware of the darkness that surrounds them, of the shadows that stir in their hearts and spring behind each gesture of their hands. Light heightens the intimate vulnerability of their bodies, mercilessly illuminating every nuance of expression, and then it dwarfs their human measure, and they vanish into its harsh brilliance.


We are always aware we are watching a stage, on which actors are performing. There is no pretence otherwise. The few objects we see -- an orange, a shopping trolley, a toy plane -- become richly imbued with our attention. An orange is simply an orange, but it is also a metaphor. What that metaphor means is up to us.

We are watching a dance. In Citizens, it is a dance of bodies restricted to a narrow strip, "contained, pure, narrow, human", in which we briefly witness fragments of very ordinary lives: a married couple painfully squabble as they rest from an exhausting journey, or a man and his daughter journey to a funeral beneath an absurd yellow umbrella, or a young woman takes her injured dog to the vet in a cardboard box.

In Soldiers, we are watching a theatrical liturgy, a meditation on grief. The empty stage is stripped to its most essential elements -- actors, light, space. The space is alive: it breathes, changes, swells and shrinks. In one moment we are watching a man alone in a strip of light that knifes across the darkness. He is weeping. The single action of his grief fills the theatre:

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow...

In another moment, almost without our noticing, the stage inhales: before us is a chorus from a classical tragedy that echoes our own witnessing, that stands and watches as we watch. In each moment, a sense of absolute, razor-sharp spatial intelligence, a restraint that releases emotional pressure only when it is most telling, when it will break our hearts.

Echoes everywhere, fragments of our theatrical past: the ghosts of Beckett, Miller, Kroetz, Chekhov, flit across the stage and vanish.


It is not real: it is a work of theatre.

What is real is feeling. Every detail of voice and breath, each gesture, each step, is shaped into the communication of feeling. Within the stark formality of the direction and design is the discipline of the performances, and welling within each of those is a vast generosity, an ocean of tears veined with laughter.

We recognise each gesture, each expression, each voiced nuance of emotion. If we do not know what it is to live with war, we understand thirst and weariness. We might not have mourned a dead son, but we all understand loss. The performances enter embodied experience and pierce the membrane of imagination. We recognise, with pained delight, the shape of our own own sorrows. And our joys.


I haven't yet named anybody except the writer. This is a true ensemble production: there are no stars, nor even any major roles, and it is impossible to pick out a single aspect of production or performance without feeling that I am doing an injustice to the rest.

But credit must be given. Nick Schlieper's lighting design is revelatory: I am not sure that I have seen lighting so richly expressive, so deeply integrated into text, design and performance. Robert Cousins' stark staging eschews any hint of naturalism. He offers the integrity of a theatrical space, employing an absolute minimum of elements to maximum effect. As crucial as Cousins' spare vision are the acutely noted details of Tess Schofield's costumes and, in Citizens, Paul Charlier's unobstrusive but pregnant soundscape.

The performative depth of this production would not have been possible without the Actors Company ensemble. These plays are demanding, formally and emotionally, and the slightest misjudgement would smudge their delicacies. They give actors no time in which to establish character: they must be immediately present in all their fullness, or they will not be there at all. Only a group of accomplished actors who have worked together for years could attain the richness, complexity and emotional honesty these plays demanded. Perhaps for the first time, this production exploits the full capacities of this remarkable company.

Citizens and Soldiers are beautifully directed, by Pamela Rabe and Tim Maddock respectively; they reveal two different visions of theatrical possibility, each of which profoundly understands how the larger dynamics of space and time interact with the detail of performance and text. In each, the meanings and formal shapes of the plays emerge organically through the action on stage: nothing is inessential, nothing is signposted. Together, Rabe and Maddock have created a stern and deeply gentle beauty, a pure act of theatre that uncompromisingly reveals the impure complexities of human beings.

Pictures from top (left to right): Josh Denyer and Pamela Rabe in Soldiers; Peter Carroll and Hayley McElhinney in Citizens; cast, Soldiers; Steve Le Marquand and Marta Dusseldorp in Citizens; Brandon Burke, John Gaden and Steve La Marquand in Soldiers; Josh Denyer and John Gaden in Citizens. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Other views
Australian Stage Online
The Sydney Morning Herald
The Australian
Daily Telegraph
Nicholas Pickard (Sydney Arts Journalist)
Kevin Jackson's Theatre Reviews

Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
The Second Duino Elegy
by Rainer Maria Rilke
An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
by Les Murray

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Saturday, April 26, 2008


In today's Australian, art critic Sebastian Smee ponders whether criticism is at all defensible. And confesses that critics "are hobbled by jealousy". (I'm not, believe me - I suspect I enjoy looking at other people's work principally because I want to get away from mine, in the spirit of TS Eliot's observation that "only those with personality know what it means to want to get away from it").

Smee cavils at the thought of criticism playing any kind of educative role, or that it plays any important part in stimulating a culture. Here I'd take issue: without pumping criticism up as more important than it is, it's all too easy to trace the direct effects of a dull, ill-informed critical culture. Or to see what happens when critical responses are more than exercises in establishing some kind of snarky superiority over the reader or the artists. And Smee goes on to remark something I think is crucial, if often more observed in the breach: that criticism ought to be pleasurable to read. And his conclusion is on the money:

Good criticism (and I mean this as an expression of an ideal) should be risky, challenging, candid and vulnerable. It should be urbane one moment, gauchely heartfelt the next. It should kick against cant wherever it sees it, and cherish and applaud not only art but the impulse to make art, for that impulse, which comes out of life as it is lived, is the real mystery, and the source of everything that makes it wonderful.

PS: It seems to be a week for navel-gazing. Andrew Haydon ponders the dwindling British blogosphere and his own changing critical practice - in particular, he pokes the dilemma of "what one does with reviewing the work of people who, by no fault of one's own, one turns out to know to some extent". (I say, simple: be as honest as you can, and use your privileged insight to become a better critic: but then, I would say that...) And across the Atlantic, George Hunka questions utilitarian attitudes towards art, suggesting that "an art of theatre disclaims any responsibility for culture or politics even as it examines most intently cultural and political concerns – its interests are elsewhere." And is steadily posting those meditations he calls Organum, which this week includes the superb art of Paul Cava.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

More on the 2020

Just back from Sydney, of which more in due course (once I plant a few trees to offset my carbon footprint, get some sleep and find my brain, which I know I left somewhere...) In between hopping on and off planes, I've been furiously journalising. To think that I thought I had given all that up! One bit of which, my report on the 2020 Summit, ran in the Culture section of yesterday's Guardian.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: Venus & Adonis

Venus & Adonis by William Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Set and costumes by Anna Tregloan, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition by Andrée Greenwell, sound design by David Franzke. With Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior, music performed by Ben Hauptmann, David Hewitt and Ryan Williams. Malthouse Theatre and Bell Shakespeare, @ The Beckett, CUB Matlhouse, until May 4. Bookings: 9685 5111

Reading the scholars on Shakespeare can sometimes be unexpectedly diverting. F.T. Prince, who edited the Arden edition of Shakespeare’s poems, remarks of his early poem Venus and Adonis that “few English or American readers nowadays will respond to such happily wanton fancies”.

Prince says that this explains why, for all its artistic success, Venus and Adonis is considered a lesser achievement in the Shakespearean canon. How times change. It is precisely this pagan lubriciousness that makes it seem so fresh and vigorous in the 21st century.

The poem is based on an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the goddess of love, Venus, takes the beautiful Adonis as her first mortal lover, before he is killed in a hunting accident. Shakespeare’s innovation was to make Adonis spurn Venus’s advances.

The poem becomes a dramatic paean to erotic desire, frustration and sorrow. Its melding of delicate rhetoric and blunt colloquialism, forged in an urgent poetic vision, presages Shakespeare’s later plays. Marion Potts’ stunning theatrical adaptation, Venus & Adonis, joyously celebrates Shakespeare’s Elizabethan frankness and the sensual eloquence and wit of his language.

As in the poem, the dominant voice is that of womanly passion, amplified through the two performers who play the part of Venus, Melissa Madden Gray (best known by her cabaret nom de plume Meow Meow) and Susan Prior.

Adonis is the audience, whom these performers must seduce. And although the hero remains elusive, we become putty in Venus’s four hands as she finds herself suspended in torment between animal lust and divine love.

Madden Gray and Prior pant, writhe, plead and weep as they prowl around a luxurious 1970s-style hotel room. Anna Tregloan’s stage, gorgeously lit by Paul Jackson, is enclosed in a curtained, low-roofed box. At the back is another curtain which opens to reveal the band playing behind a barred window amid a riot of tropical plants.

The performance moves from self-conscious displays of seduction – the offering of the body, or comically staged tantrums and tears – to a profound enactment of the anguish and ecstasy of love.

This is in no small part due to Andrée Greenwell’s exquisite score, which sets some of the verses to subtly updated Elizabethan harmonies that take full advantage of the vocal talents of the actors. When fused with the opulent artistry of Shakespeare’s language, it creates moments of sheerly bewitching beauty.

Here, as Shakespeare said in a later play, is indeed “art to enchant”.

Picture: Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior in Venus & Adonis. Photo: Jeff Busby

This review was published in today's Australian. There's much more to say about this production, but I don't have time to say it; I'm off to Sydney today after a Very Important Interview this morning (of which, I hope, more later), and hoping like hell life returns to what passes for normal next week.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The 2020 experience

Yesterday, I felt like Wil E. Coyote after he's been thumped by a giant hammer. That little flattened concertina shape was Ms TN, just back from the 2020 Summit. On Friday afternoon, I registered as an official 2020 Summiteer, put on the blue-ribboned lanyard of the Creative Australia stream (for "best in show", as poet Peter Goldsworthy remarked), and entered a surreal parallel universe.

It was a world of corridors and party rooms and the Lego gigantism of Parliament House. It was instant media feedback via huge screens in the Great Hall, in which events I had witnessed live that morning were rendered in the afternoon as image and symbol, already swollen into myth. It was a thousand conversations. It was an exhilarating, bruisingly exhausting experience, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

The 2020 Summit was at once exciting, frustrating and disappointing. It was, above all, a startling expression of collective goodwill, a fascinating and – for all its faults – inspiring experiment in open government. The weekend ran the whole gamut, from the genuinely moving opening event to the bizarre disconnection of Sky Channel vox pop interviews which seemed to have nothing to do with anything under discussion.

I spent most of the weekend on a steep learning curve, attempting to understand some new and strange vocabularies. The first was the language of “facilitation”. This process, run by volunteers from private corporations, involves industrial quantities of butcher paper, textas and white boards, and is supposedly designed to permit the rapid transmission and synthesis of ideas.

The second was the language of politics, the massaging of message into digestible chunks. Or, as many Creative Australia delegates complained on Sunday after they heard the presentation of the interim 2020 report, into pap. Nobody felt that what was presented on Sunday was a fair representation of what had emerged from our collective labour. (A rather less hurriedly put together report has since emerged).

There were 102 Creative Australia delegates (or Creatives, as we were inevitably tagged). The mix was diverse and by no means predictable. It included, as has been dutifully noted by the press, a fair proportion of glamour, and this rather obscured the collective intellectual weight, which included economists, commentators, producers, curators of museums and galleries, broadcasters, artists, bureaucrats and philantropists.

This weight was evident in the discussions that ensued, and equally in Cate Blanchett's accomplished handling of proceedings. Her co-chairs were media academic Julianne Schultz and Arts Minister Peter Garrett. They, and the increasingly grey-faced facilitator Andy Schollum, always faced a difficult task: it was, as Blanchett remarked, a question of "herding cats".

Creative Australia represented a dizzying range of interests, and it was always going to be a challenge to shape all these voices into coherent policy suggestions. But it happened. It's just going to be a few weeks before the full breadth of the thought that happened that weekend is clear. What will be even more interesting will be the continuing conversation that has been invited by the government.

Evident from the beginning was a palpable pragmatism. Contrary to popular belief, arts workers tend to be very practical. And they’re also used to collaborating and negotiating difference, so the individual discussions were notably free of conflict or grandstanding.

Everyone expected the Creatives to ask for more money. The Creatives were more concerned that the rest of Australia understood what they had to give. Among the benefits discussed were social and individual health, cultural intelligence, economic stimulus and international status.

And, for all the multiple interests, there were clear areas of common concern.

As it was across many streams, education was a big issue. It was seen as a means of ensuring cultural literacy and fostering a community open to new ideas, and of demonstrating in the only way that counts - in the fabric of people’s day-to-day lives – what the arts and creativity have to offer.

Education was connected with the need to strongly address the issue of inclusion. There was a broad awareness that too many Australians feel disenfranchised from culture, either because of social issues (ticket prices are too high, or it’s only for perceived “elites”) or geographical isolation.

Another area of major concern was that, while the creative economy supports many jobs, from arts managers to ushers, the artists whose work underpins this economy still find it difficult to scrape a living. Yet another was to place Indigenous identity at the centre of Australian identity, as is the case in New Zealand. Probably the major understanding underpinning discussion was the need to seek resources outside governmental support.

Even in the few hours allotted on Saturday, the stream came up with a wide range of ideas, though on Saturday night many people felt dissatisfied. More than a few felt they had been hijacked by a pre-set agenda, and that they hadn’t been able to speak to their areas of expertise.

On Sunday morning, when they presented the document that supposedly summed up the previous day’s work, the co-chairs and facilitators faced a minor revolt. Overnight, the plethora of ideas that the delegates had produced had been presented to the Prime Minister and then boiled down by the facilitators into “Priority Themes” and “Top Ideas”. And it seemed to many delegates that some major concerns had been lost in translation.

It was here that we hit the central conflict in the notion of the 2020 Summit. On the one hand, we were being encouraged to boldly imagine a new Australia. On the other, the message was clear: whatever we came up with had to meld with ALP policy if it had to have a chance of being implemented. And a key phrase was “cost neutral”.

Politics, remarked Otto von Bismarck, is the art of the possible. Grasping that nettle, the delegates hijacked the agenda back to their own concerns, and got down to some serious work outlining specific policy ideas. However, that work was barely visible in the plenary session report, which left a number of Creatives stunned and disappointed. (“There were,” said one delegate dryly, “issues of collation”.)

Some points seemed disappear completely in the process: among them, a strong call for rethinking public broadcasting and the issue of responsibility towards climate change. Others surprisingly appeared: when Mr Rudd mentioned summer schools, the entire Creative stream went blank ("summer schools? who said summer schools?") More generally, some concerns never quite made it to the whiteboards: a major oversight in the general debate was the digital gaming design industry, supposedly an area slated for discussion.

It was clear from the beginning that the issue of the income of individual artists was a hot potato. Even a low-cost, low administration and effective scheme like the creation income tax exemption, which has been a successful arm of Irish arts policy for 36 years, was too much like giving money to artists. Which demonstrates how much public discourse is still conditioned by the culture wars of the past decade. Not to mention upcoming economic gloom.

For all the criticisms, the general mood was upbeat, excited and hopeful. Nobody present felt the 2020 Summit was a cynical exercise in public relations. Far from it: it was an inspiring invitation to a participatory democracy, and it resulted in some valuable and stimulating discussions and ideas. If even a few ideas are adopted, it will change things. And the placing of the arts and creativity so prominently in the centre of a new identity for Australia signals a radical shift.

Delegates were continually assured that the missing issues will be noted in the full 2020 report, which will be available in a few weeks, and will each be considered by the government. And Mr Rudd – and the Creative Co-Chairs – have been at pains to emphasise that this is the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.

They can be sure that delegates will take them at their word. Perhaps the most interesting part of this Summit will be watching what happens now.

A shorter version of this report appears in today's Australian. Picture: the "best in show" lanyards.

Summiteer Julian Meyrick's report in today's Age
Summit observations from music lawyer Adam Simpson

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Green Room Awards

The Green Room Awards were announced on Sunday. I would have been there - I'm on the Theatre - Companies panel and had more than a passing interest in the results - but had that other pressing commitment up in Canberra. But other bloggers are onto it - Chris Boyd has the lowdown on The Morning After, and Ming, who is presently putting the fire back into feminism, quotes panel convenor Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy's judging notes, which comment on the continuing gender imbalance in major company directors.

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Home from Oz

I'm back home, feeling like I've been through a mangle. I'm writing a report for tomorrow, so watch this space.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Review: Haneef: The Interrogation

Haneef: The Interrogation, by Graham Pitts, directed by Gorkem Acaroglu. Lighting design by Dori Bicchieri, set consultant Anna Cordingley. With Simon King and Adam McConvell. Courthouse Theatre, Lama, until May 3. Bookings: (03) 9347 6142.

On July 2 last year, Dr Mohamed Haneef was arrested at Brisbane Airport as he was about to fly to India. Two days earlier his second cousin, Kafeel Ahmed, had driven a jeep packed with explosives into Glasgow Airport. Haneef was the first person to be held under Australia’s new anti-terrorism legislation. He taken into custody and held for 12 days without charge on suspicion of giving “reckless assistance” to a terrorist organisation.

The link, notoriously, was that Haneef had, many months earlier, given a Sim card to Ahmed, which was allegedly used in the attempted bombing of Glasgow Airport – a claim that was later contradicted by British police. The ensuing events kept Australia transfixed. Haneef’s arrest and subsequent farcical release did more to publicly discredit the anti-terror laws than any protest campaign.

It was an extraordinary story, which produced one of the most compelling news photographs of the year: Haneef, barefoot and in prison garb, doubled over in despair in the Brisbane watch house. In the foreground, a giant padlock seemed to symbolise a new, frightening vision of Australia as a police state.

Playwright Graham Pitts has dramatised this case in Haneef: The Interrogation. He’s based his play on the transcripts of the police interrogations, which were controversially leaked to the press at the time. Haneef highlights the black comedy of the interviews (which sometimes recall in their absurdity the Pythonesque court transcripts of the Ern Malley obscenity case against Max Harris). Although it also misses some comedy gold – the scornful comments of the British police about the AFP, for instance. And it never attains the bleak power of Eddie Safarik’s news photograph.

There’s the seed of a powerful documentary drama in this play. Unfortunately, Pitts can’t resist the temptation to proselytise. The best parts of this play are the naked transcripts, which demonstrate the Malleus Maleficarum logic of guilt determined in advance. Left alone, or treated with more imaginative dramaturgy, this might have made a darkly disturbing piece of theatre.

The two actors, Adam McConvell, who plays Haneef, and Simon King, who plays the interrogating officer, step out of their roles to explain the subtext for us. King represents the unknowing public which doesn’t understand the implications of legislation that undermines habeas corpus; McConvell the alert activist angered by its injustice. It’s a device that paradoxically dampens the disturbing power of its subject matter and leaves you feeling faintly patronised.

Its most effective moment is the beginning of the play, when we stare at a darkened stage while overhearing the two actors having a stand-up argument next door before they burst on stage. But after that, it’s rather as if we’re being given a lecture.

Gorkem Acaroglu’s direction is efficient but at times unfocused: the physical movement of the actors often seems to be there merely to distract the eye. Similarly, the set – a false wall backstage, decorated with abstract pictures of the Queen and other emblems of empire,and fronted by a number of orange plastic chairs – never quite coalesces into meaning.

Backstage is a screen, on which is projected live black and white footage of the actors. Again, this feels like an idea which isn’t quite developed, and which loses its potency through repetition. There’s nothing wrong with the actors’ performances – McConvell in particular attains some real moments of power as the bewildered doctor finding himself enmeshed in an interrogation in which the most innocent of actions has a sinister meaning.

It’s a short show, around an hour, but I found my attention lagging. There’s no doubting the urgency of the impulse behind this theatre-making, but it fails the audience in its art. In a real sense, it’s as predetermined in its outcomes as Haneef’s interrogations: complexity is, after all, about more than a dialectic between two different polemics.

Crucial to Brecht’s idea of political theatre – in his Lehrstücke or learning plays, for instance - was that acting out an issue created a visceral response in an audience that underpinned the intellectual reaction. (“If you get them by the balls,” as he famously said, “their hearts will follow”).

There is little sense of this theatrical viscerality in this show, which means the only possible response is to agree that yes, that anti-terrorism legislation sure is bad. In the end, it’s the kind of theatre that leaves you feeling that you’d be better off watching a good documentary.

Picture: From left: Adam McConvell and Simon King in rehearsal for Haneef: The Interrogation

A version of this review appears in today's Australian.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Rush, rush, rush...

Ms TN is writing a review for tomorrow, organising various family things, sneezing (oh no!), answering emails and packing her bags for Canberra. In the meantime, good to see Julian Meyrick's report in today's Age on last week's preparatory meeting at Arts Victoria, in which all the Victorian Creative Australia participants got together for a sandwich and chinwag. I feel much the same as he does. "The results were hopefully a taste of things to come," says Meyrick. "There was no grandstanding. The tone was pragmatic, not ideological....I expected to hear different views. I didn't expect the degree of convergence between them, making agreement on key issues a real possibility."

Fingers crossed. And wish us all luck.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I'm always the last to know...

I've just been told that my play Samarkand, which was produced by the Red Shed in Adelaide just over a decade ago, was broadcast by ABC Radio National on Sunday on Airplay. I am fond of this production, which was performed by the original cast, Annabel Giles and Edwin Hodgeman, and directed by Tim Maddock. If you're curious, you can listen online, or wait for the repeat at 9pm on Friday.

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Running up to 2020

It struck me with seismic force yesterday that the Australia 2020 Summit is this weekend. Well, at least it doesn't give me too much time to panic. And I'm looking forward to it with lively interest: whatever transpires, positive or disappointing, it can't fail to be educational.

Summit participants have been given a private website in which we can engage in preparatory chat. A smart idea, I think. Interestingly, the "stream" (we're all in different streams of this great big delta of ideas) that has most taken advantage of this is Creative Australia. Unkind souls might suggest that this is because artists haven't anything better to do: personally, I can assure you that this is definitely not the case. Lately I have been heard muttering that April is indeed the cruellest month...

Trawling through the different streams, I also notice that Creative Australia has by far the biggest component of recommended background reading. All sites have links to a background paper and an overview of the public submissions; a few maybe have links to a couple more documents. Creative Australia includes links to no less than 10 rather hefty documents from a wide variety of sources, local and international, including a couple of the excellent Currency House Platform Papers series.

Combined with my own background reading, this adds up to hundreds of pages of information and argument. Perhaps the key issue here is that Summit work is unpaid. Anything new or revelatory in that? Not for anyone who works in the arts...we've long known that arts work is anything but a soft option. And while I'm here, the TN 2020 wiki is still open for business, and will be until Friday morning, when I'll be heading to Canberra. It includes some interesting discussion from various bods, and anyone else who wants to chew my ear is welcome.

UPDATE: Creative Australia co-chairs Cate Blanchett and Julianne Schulz outline the broad agenda in the Age today, and it makes me feel very upbeat. They've been listening: and they're taking the ball and running with it.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Gallery foray

On Thursday night, Linden Centre for Contemporary Art in St Kilda is opening its new exhibition, My Doubtful Mind, subtitled "Artists aim to screw with your head". A gruesome prospect, indeed. It seems that several artists were asked to make visitors as uncomfortable as possible, and the exhibition, curated by Jan Duffy and Alex Taylor, is an investigation of irrational phobias (including a phobia of bananas). But a couple of theatre artists are there in the mix.

Dan Spielman's contribution is, as far as I understand, a meditation on grief, so I'm not sure how much it has to do with irrational phobia. This is Dan's debut as a visual artist - a man of many talents, he is best known as an actor, and over the past few years has forged a career which included being a founding member of the Keene/Tayor Theatre Project and a two-year stint, until he resigned last year and was replaced by Luke Mullins, at the STC's Actors Company.

Moreover, this exhibition includes a suite of poems written by Daniel Keene, best known as a playwright (and whose diptych The Serpent's Teeth opens at the STC next week - personal disclaimer in the sidebar, blah blah). Daniel will be reading at the exhibition opening on Thursday evening, at around 7pm. It's called a "spoken word performance" on the web page, but I call it a poetry reading.

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Review: The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow, from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, directed by Maria Aitken. Designed by Peter McKintosh, lighting design by Jon Buswell, sound design by Mic Pool. With Helen Christinson, Marcus Graham, Grant Piro and Tony Taylor. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until May 10. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

The 39 Steps is a classic British spy thriller which began life as a 1915 novel by John Buchan. It’s hit the screen three times, most notably via Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, and its latest incarnation is this seductively irreverent adaptation by Patrick Barlow.

In Hitchcock’s hands, Buchan’s book is barely recognisable. He vamped up the plot and injected romantic interest in the shape of a series of photogenic women. And it’s Hitchcock’s movie that is so gloriously spoofed here.

Despite its cinematic provenance and gleeful Hitchcockian allusions, The 39 Steps – a remount of Maria Aitken’s original London production, complete with original designer Peter McKinstosh – is pure theatre.

The story is enacted by four performers, with Helen Christinson as the various women, Grant Piro and Tony Taylor playing everything from rural Scots hoteliers to underwear salesmen to spies, and Marcus Graham as the tweedy hero Richard Hannay.

The show is a meta-theatrical joke that relies on an audience’s willingness to suspend its disbelief while simultaneously being diverted by the transparent tricks of theatre. In Melbourne we’ve seen a fair bit of this lo-fi theatrical piss-taking, which paradoxically requires a high degree of precision.

Exposing the devices of theatre makes us complicit in imagining the action, galvanising an active relationship between performers and audience. As was clear on opening night, it’s an approach that immediately invites the audience into the show.

Notable recent examples of this approach are the British duo Ridiculusmus’s absurd two-man performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, Suitcase Royale’s Chronicles of the Sleepless Moon, and Brian Lipson’s Freudian mayhem in the Melbourne Festival show Berggasse 19 - The Apartments of Sigmund Freud.

The 39 Steps doesn’t explore, as Lipson and Ridiculusmus did, the deeper implications of theatrical role-paying; it's content to remain high-spirited nonsense. But there’s no denying that it’s irresistibly funny.

Backed by Mic Pool's witty sound design, Aitken’s direction ingeniously exploits every possible device, from music hall hat-swapping to shadow puppets to blindingly fast costume changes. There’s a river conjured from a length of blue cloth, bogs that are mackintosh-clad actors and toy trains chuffing across the forestage. And, naturally, tons of smoke.

The lynchpin is Graham’s brilliant performance as Hannay. Here Graham’s considerable gifts as a stage clown are brought to the fore: he achieves the baffled sincerity appropriate to the romantic lead while slyly taking the mickey.

He’s ably backed by the other three cast members, no mean clowns themselves, in their dizzyingly various roles. Cliches are seldom this much fun.

Photo: Grant Piro and Tony Taylor in rehearsal for The 39 Steps.

This review was published in today's Australian.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday morning at the MTC

What was Little Alison doing this morning? No, she wasn't lounging in bed being fed hot toast and tea. (Sadly, this never happens, but as Wittgenstein pointed out, some things are better passed over in silence). She was in fact staring biliously at pink champagne and nibbling croissants among the hard hats at the official MTC launch of its new home.

Such events normally wouldn't tempt me out of my burrow, but I've been dying to get a peek at this space for months. And believe me, even as a building site, it's impressive. By August next year, when it officially opens, the MTC will have - in the shape of the justly named Sumner Theatre - arguably the most beautiful modern theatre in Australia, as well as the 160-seat Lawler Studio, a genuine black box studio space that has been a signal lack at the MTC.

The Sumner Theatre features an intimate 500-seat auditorium that sweeps up from the foot of the stage, with brilliant sight lines even from the back row. The height of the building is mitigated by some false balconies, and the walls will be decorated by an LED display that features quotes from famous plays - from Wilde to Beckett, Chekhov to Sartre, Lawler to Shakespeare.

But it's the other side of the stage that's impressive. It's designed to be wholly flexible, and it has practically everything that opens and closes. The fly tower is 20 metres high, with 64 flylines, and the entire stage floor is trapped. There are juliet (false) balconies either side of the stage that lead to the balcony areas above the auditorium, which can be used in productions. There's a retractable orchestra pit (in three sections) and a centre aisle can be created or removed at will.

And there's an adjustable proscenium that, aside from allowing designers and directors more control of the kind of stage they want to play with, will permit, for example, shows designed for the letterbox stage of the Sydney Opera House space to be moved in without the design problems faced by the Playhouse season of The Season at Sarsaparilla.

But, brilliant though all this architecture is (it certainly excites politicians - the launch featured the Victorian Minister for the Arts, Lynne Kosky, and the Minister for Major Projects, Theo Theophanous), it's what this space makes possible that strikes me as most exciting. This could be as significant for Melbourne theatre as the launch of the Malthouse out of the ashes of the Playbox. As artistic director Simon Phillips says, it opens MTC programming up to a range of new possibilities. They'll still be programming big shows at the Arts Centre Playhouse, but with these smaller spaces, they can take some risks.

"It opens everything up," said Phillips. "To date, it's been incredibly difficult to program smaller works, and there have been things we'd have liked to do, but couldn't because we didn't have the right space. Now we have a theatre in which 20th century drama can stand effortlessly, and with the studio we'll have an incubator space for new Australian work, and for edgier, more contemporary European-style work."

Moving MTC operations into the centre of the arts precinct - near the Victorian College of the Arts, the Malthouse, Chunky Move and ACCA, and just down the road from Federation Square - should mean more than a physical relocation. Phillips is hoping that the MTC will similarly situate itself in the centre of Melbourne's theatre ecology, rather than perching uncomfortably on top.

If the 2009 program demonstrates half the imagination that the actual building does, Melbourne theatre is in for a most interesting ride. And those who care about independent and experimental theatre should be as interested in how it goes as any MTC subscriber.

It's a no-brainer that a healthy independent theatre is essential to the health of our main stages, for where else are new energies to emerge? But equally, it's just as important for independent and small companies that our main stages are vital, creative places. The zero-sum thinking that complains about large companies swallowing money that ought to go elsewhere is short sighted: in culture, possibility creates possibility. And a great big possibility is soon going to open its doors. Like the man says, I'm excited.

Pictures: (top) architect's impression of the Sumner Theatre auditorium (bottom) live webcam image of the MTC theatre construction site.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Not my area really, but I wrote a piece about the closure of Spamalot for the Guardian theatre blog pages, which seems to be resulting in a debate about the worth of reading about Australian theatre in England. A question that makes me feel a little aggressive...

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Round the sphere

It's been a while since I've done a round-up of interesting blog posts. Mea culpa: I've always said that the real point of blogging is the network and conversation. My excuse is that my three lives are all a bit out of control at the moment: besides the usual theatre work, there's the 2020 Summit and a couple of other interesting possibilities; the imminent Australian re-release of my fantasy series, which now have nice new jackets based on the lovely English titles, if somewhat more airportish. (I used to make jokes about writing books with my name in raised gold lettering: well, I'm almost there. These have raised silver lettering. I am a real author! The only thing wrong with the new books is that somehow I missed a booboo in my bio, and it turns out that I am married to David Keene. My other husband is a bit miffed.) As well, on my dining table is the intimidatingly large proof of the final book, The Singing, due out in June. And I'm also planning a poetry tour of the UK in June, of which more later.

But that's enough about me. Below is a brusque list of links to a few of the blogposts I've enjoyed reading recently, some a little belated:

* The ever-reliable George Hunka on Wagner and Beckett, jumping off the NY Met's production of Tristan und Isolde.

* Andrew Haydon on the various responsibilities inherent in theatre culture - making, seeing, writing.

* David Williams links to a bunch of his thoughtful reviews of recent work in Sydney.

* Another view of the Malthouse Theatre's Moving Target from Chris Summers.

* Ming-Zhu blogs her rehearsal process here and here.

* Chris Boyd tells Odette to jump in the lake after seeing Swan Lake six times. (I love Chris. I never really understand what he's talking about).

* Lyn Gardner defends theatre producers on the Guardian's theatre blog.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

The 2020 wiki

As threatened/promised last week, I've made a wiki to clarify my own ideas and incorporate those of any readers who care to contribute. It's now ready for public exposure, so heave yourself over and have a squiz. Theoretically, you should be able to contribute your own editorial once you sign up. Those intimidated by the wiki software can just email me (email alisoncroggon at aapt dot net dot au). I'm working out the wiki format as I go, so bear with me on any glitches...

Over to you!

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Edinburgh's Australian invasion

Ms TN is a bit slow off the mark this week - blame the massive bundle of proofs that thumped on my doormat yesterday, distracting me from the press releases in my inbox. But good news is good news, be it ever so second-hand. As Jo Roberts reports in today's Age, the Malthouse Theatre and Chunky Move have scored slots at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. The shows invited by festival director Jonathan Mills are Barrie Kosky's The Tell-Tale Heart, a sell-out hit at last year's Melbourne Festival, and Chunky Move's new work Mortal Engine, which premiered earlier this year at the Sydney Festival.

The Tell-Tale Heart is Kosky's second Edinburgh appearance under Mills's directorship - last year, his version of Poppea wowed the UK critics. Mortal Engine is a continuation of the collaboration between Gideon Obarzanek and Frieder Weiß that resulted in Glow, a bright little gem which, having toured Australia, is now off around the world. Roberts also reports that Mortal Engine is a strong tip for this year's Melbourne Festival, so prime that credit card: I saw a showing of this dance piece in rehearsal just before its premiere and, believe me, you don't want to miss it.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Review: The Winterling, The Ghosts of Ricketts Hill

The Winterling by Jez Butterworth, directed by Andrew Gray. Set design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis, costumes by Naomi Clegg. With Steven Adams, Nicholas Bell, Ella Caldwell, Adrian Mulraney and Martin Sharpe. Red Stitch Actors Theatre until April 19. Bookings: 9533 8082

The Ghosts of Ricketts Hill, directed by Neil Gladwin. With Joseph O'Farrell, Miles O'Neill and Glen Walton. Suitcase Royale @ The Bosco, Federation Square, Comedy Festival, until April 5. Bookings: 1300 660 013

The intimacy of Red Stitch theatre is peculiarly suited to creating claustrophobic spaces. And for its production of The Winterling, designer Peter Mumford has conjured a derelict farmhouse, an eyescape of greys and dun browns that generates a tangible sense of poverty-stricken gloom. What's fascinating about this, however, is that while the space itself is claustrophobic, it calls up a powerful sense of a dark, huge emptiness offstage, inviting your imagination into the harsh, bare landscapes of rural Dartmoor.

It's an evocative visual setting for Jez Butterworth's play, which places the petty and brutal dealings of human beings against a wider natural setting. Here humankind, like nature, is red in tooth and claw, trapped in a remorseless struggle for survival.

It's a play that isn't driven by plot so much as by the imperatives of dialogue; the story is really secondary to the moment-by-moment interactions of the characters. In The Winterling, former hard man West (Nicholas Bell) is hiding out in a remote farmhouse in Dartmoor after he has suffered a nervous breakdown. His former associate Wally (Steven Adams) has driven from London with his stepson, Patsy (Martin Sharpe). During their visit, they encounter two Dartmoor natives, the tramp Draycott (Adrian Mulraney) and Lue (Ella Caldwell), a homeless girl who has holed up at the farmhouse.

Butterworth is a writer who has clearly learnt much from Harold Pinter, especially from his early plays like The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. Like Pinter, his major concern is the relationships between men, and his characters remain largely mysterious: language is not so much a vehicle for communication, as a means of exerting dominance, of establishing territorial rights. Power is a game, and dominance shifts without explanation, sometimes within the space of a line. Again like Pinter, he employs the techniques of surreal interrogation to create a potent sense of menace.

The dialogue - and Andrew Gray's production - are compelling enough to keep your interest throughout the play. And Butterworth is gifted at forging a rich and poetic colloquial speech, especially in the many monologues. But while Butterworth has clearly understood Pinter in the details of dialogue, he doesn't demonstrate a concomitant understanding of larger dramatic structure.

Given the play's linguistic dazzle, The Winterling is puzzlingly clumsy. It is written in three scenes, the middle scene being an unnecessarily explanatory flashback, and draws to a close that supposedly presents a dilemma, but which in fact is too pat, too redolent of a playwright's conscious control of meaning, to resonate with anything but a superficial menace. The larger metaphor of the play ends up being less than the sum of its parts, and consequently Butterworth never crawls out of Pinter's long shadow.

For all that, it's an impressive production, featuring a very strong cast. It's worth seeing for the performances alone, which call up enough neck-prickling moments to justify the price of admission. It's carefully orchestrated, permitting the actors to negotiate those razor-sharp shifts of power with total commitment. I enjoyed all the performances, but a monologue of Adrian Mulraney's involving a real sheep's heart cooked off-stage (where the director invokes the audience's sense of smell) and a rapid-fire dialogue between Bell and Sharpe were standouts.

I'VE FOLLOWED Suitcase Royale since I was enchanted in a Fitzroy back room in by their first show, Felix Listens to the World. They moved on from that irresistible piece of whimsy to the black surrealism of Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon. The Ghosts of Ricketts Hill is their third piece, directed - if indeed this anarchic lot can be directed - by former Los Trios Ringbarkus member Neil Gladwin.

Suitcase Royale's signature is its junkyard aesthetic and the set - largely constructed out of roughly hacked pieces of cardboard - is, if anything, even more low-rent than their previous shows. And the plot pays little heed to any kind of narrative sense. Three aviators in various stages of psychological confusion crash in the middle of the desert. Two depart to look for help, heading for a nearby lighthouse, while the third, in the grasp of some mysterious obsession with the cargo, remains behind. The ensuing story might have been written by George Lucas on a bad acid trip, and involves an evil wolfman, a sentient lighthouse, a battery-powered magical amulet and David Bowie.

But the plot is merely an excuse for the real action, which is the disintegration of the show amid a profusion of boy jokes, groaningly recognisable quotations from popular songs and profane language. Light cues are missed, arguments break out among the cast, actors forget their lines or assault each other. And it all happens at breakneck speed, pulling you along with its raw, anarchic energy.

It's all great, even irresistible, fun, but I miss the delicacy that informed their previous shows, in which the performers' full-on testosteronic energy was put in tension with a genuine poignancy. This extends to their use of objects, a feature of all their work: a great deal of the charm of both Felix Listens to the World and Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon was the ingenuity of the props, the compelling realities that could be made out of discarded objects. Here objects are treated with an awesome disrespect, and everything is mugged for laughs. On its own terms, it works: but you can't help feeling this is too easy.

What The Ghosts at Ricketts Hill lacks is the multiple layering that makes a show more than an occasion for transient laughter, the image that punctures the joke and enters a darker and more troubling space. It seems to me that this is a transitional work, Suitcase Royale on the way from one mode to another. In which case, the show to look out for might be the one after this.

Picture: Ella Caldwell and Adrian Mulraney in The Winterling. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

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