Review: Anatomy Titus, Fall of RomeDark ages?A brief fittReview: Care Instructions, I Like ThisReview: The Women of TroyReview: Avast and Avast II - The Welshman ComethPoems at MeshworksReview: The HypocriteChildren in artLinksses, my precioussReview: The Lower DepthsHope and so onHello, America!Review: The Masque of the Red Death, Yibiyung ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Review: Anatomy Titus, Fall of Rome

Anatomy Titus: Fall of Rome: A Shakespeare Commentary, by Heiner Müller, translated by Julian Hammond, and directed by Michael Gow. Designed by Robert Kemp, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition and sound design by Brett Collery. With John Bell, Robert Alexander, Thomas Campbell, Peter Cook, Scott Johnson, Nathan Lovejoy, Steven Rooke, Christopher Sommers and Timothy Walter. Bell Shakespeare and Queensland Theatre Company @ the CUB Malthouse until December 6.

Heiner Müller, the defining post-war playwright of the East German stage, understood power. Its machinations were the obsession of his art and his life. It's easy to see why he was so fascinated by Shakespeare who, like Müller, saw theatre and history as two sides of the same coin. He wrote three major adaptations of Shakespeare's work - Macbeth, Hamletmachine and Anatomy Titus - among a slew of other works that grappled with classic texts.

Müller's motives in approaching classical works were never pure, and expressed his intellectual and ideological restlessness, a certain necessary lack of respect. "A classical literature," he said in 1975, "is first of all a literature of a class". Just as his admiration of Brecht turned him into Brecht's most excoriating critic, so he approached the classics in order to subject them to explosive critique. His version of Hamlet was, as Müller said, "the shrunken head of the Hamlet tragedy", splintering Hamlet's subjectivity in order to expose the "something rotten" in contemporary society. And his version of Titus, which cuts the play and interpolates the text with commentary, exposes the blood-soaked, gratuitous violence of contemporary empire.

Shakespeare's original was an early text, heavily influenced by Seneca. It's gore-drenched schlock, so lurid with ultra-violence - rape, mutilation, murder, cannibalism - that the bloodiness becomes ludicrous. Müller's adaptation historicises Shakespeare's splatterfest. In Anatomy Titus, written in the shadow of the CIA-led coup against Chilean president Allende, the exploited colonies of empire - the Germanic Goths and Africa - take their revenge against Rome, even as Rome, decadent and swollen with power, betrays its own.

After the geopolitical adventures of the past decade, its contemporary aptness ought to be obvious. The amorality of power is here written starkly, a text of violence that inscribes itself on the bodies of its victims and leaves in its wake a pile of corpses. There is no lesson to be learned in this violence, no message to be taken (as Müller said - quite honestly I think - in a 1990 interview, "I'm no ideologue. I use Marxism as a material, in the same way I use a Shakespeare play... this becomes form and is valid as such.")

In the same breath, Müller speaks about the absurd obscenity of the first world's treatment of what was then the third world. His insistence that he was only interested in his writing often is taken as cynicism: in fact it is a form of idealism, an aggressive rejection of the contemporary insistence on looking for meaning behind a work, which he thought a sign of decadence. One cannot escape the political critique of Müller's work: at the same time, to think that political critique is the point is to miss the point entirely.

In Müller's Titus, we can't but be aware that the stage violence, however excessive or ludicrous, has literal analogies in the Middle East, in South-East Asia and India, in the mountains of the Caucasus and Pakistan. No playwright's imagination, not even Shakespeare's, outdoes human inventiveness in actual cruelty. But Müller's primary concern was with the politics of artistic form. "Perhaps Godard formulated it best," he said in a 1987 interview. "The task is not to make political movies, but to make movies politically. What is political is the treatment of the material. In other words, it's the form, not the content. That's the problem with young radical movements when they deal with art. What they end up with is philistinism."

Eager revolutionaries aren't the problem in this production, which is rather an exercise in muting Müller's formal radicality. All the same, it's good to see Bell Shakespeare tackling this challenging text, which is a welcome shift from its earlier, shonkily contemporised productions. Julian Hammond's translation, which includes a good deal of the original Shakespeare, is a tough realisation of Müller's savage and excoriating lyricism. (As an aside, it would be interesting to know whether
Müller's play translated Shakespeare's English into contemporary German, or left it in a pastiche of, as it were, Elizabethan German - each would have a very different effect). But you have to listen hard to hear the language through the noise of Michael Gow's production.

Watching this very uneven show, I often felt as if I were witnessing a copy of something, a production that goes half-way. It is as if it begins with the best of intentions, only to waver at the sticking point: it has its moments, but they founder beneath a wider formal uncertainty. When you enter the theatre, the stylistic language looks promising enough: Robert Kemp's set is a simple box, white walls smeared with red. Back stage is a wall topped with books, the intellectual fruit of civilisation, which will be torn and besmirched with blood, and in the centre is an industrial barrel which, we soon find out, is full of gore. The all-male cast is dressed in contemporary casual clothes and, as with Dood Paard's meta-theatrical adaptation of Titus at last year's Melbourne Festival, assign each other their different roles.

Even though I know the play quite well, I found the first ten minutes deeply confusing. Müller dispenses with the first act, replacing it with a bald summary of events, but this is rushed through in the telling. I was so busy keeping up with the chorus work that nothing fixed in my mind. Once I'd sorted out the plot, I still had problems negotiating a mish-mash of theatrical intentions. If the production is so stripped back, why have herald's trumpets suddenly ringing out in isolated scenes? Wherefore lighting changes that transform the naked stage into more conventional theatrical spaces? Why does the Emperor (Nathan Lovejoy) sound like someone from Monty Python's Life of Brian?

There's no doubt (believe it or not) that Müller is funny. His humour is, however, blacker than the inside of a cat, corrosive and subversive. He's a specialist in the kind of laughter that arises from a literal apprehension of catastrophe, from the felt knowledge that there are wounds beyond the help of therapy or redemption. He would be the first to reject a holy reverence towards his texts. All the same, I find it very difficult to think of his work as camp.

But an undeniable campness runs through this production, from the Emperor's lisp to Lavinia's lipsticked pouts. Peter Cook's portrayal of the vengeful Goth queen Tamora, on the other hand, doesn't press so hard on gendered stereotypes, and is the more effective for it. I'm not sure why the decision to have an all-male cast should result in such posturings: one reason given, which suggests some of the problems in the direction, is that the rape and mutilation of Lavinia (Thomas Campbell) is less hard to take if she is played by a man. A major effect is to empty the play of its dark lusts; they become a joke, merely an exercise in pushing the boundaries of taste.

The treatment of the African slave Aaron (a bravura performance by Timothy Walter) pierces through the camp to something more interesting. It is played in crude blackface: when we first see Walker, he is wearing a gorilla mask, and the racial representations become successively more outrageous. Aaron's baby is even represented by a gollywog. Shakespeare's play is nakedly racist, and in this production it's amplified to acute discomfort.

However, even here the effect draws back from reflection on its larger implications - the wealthy world's exploitation of Africa, which is driven in its abjection to nihilistic revenge - to a more personally-sized racism. The action is divorced from its larger political implications and historical context - the very aspects
highlighted in Müller's text - and the disturbance stirred by the racism becomes that much more manageable.

The cast, as so often in Bell Shakespeare productions, is uneven; and this text, even more than conventional Shakespeare, demands actors who can deal with complex language. This perhaps accounts in part for my feeling in many scenes that I couldn't quite grasp the words. John Bell plays Titus, and for the first third stalks around the stage as stiff as a board. Once Titus goes crazy, you begin to see why Bell is so respected as a Shakespearean actor: he eats up the role with gluttonous relish.

But all this beautiful language led me back to wondering why, if "poetry is murder", as Müller claims in the play, we have so much lovely enunciation of it. It's as if its beauty remains, at the core, an unquestioned good. I found myself longing for the language to be somehow assaulted in the performances, rather than preserved intact in the midst of mayhem.

In short, Anatomy Titus seems neither one thing nor 'tother. It's caught uncomfortably between radicality and convention, and ultimately blurs to something uncomfortably close to jolly japes about mutilation. In the chaos of gesture, Müller's formal inquiry is obscured, reduced to the merely sensational: punches are pulled everywhere.

It's Gow's misfortune to have mounted this play hard on the heels of Barrie Kosky's potent evocation of Greek tragedy in The Trojan Women, and with Dood Paard's brilliant and funny realisation of Titus still in recent memory. For all their different approaches, both the earlier productions were exemplary in their wrought simplicity, in how each production employed only the elements that were necessary to its purpose. What emerged was a burnished lucidity, a deep lustre in which the original text burned with renewed relevance. The most crucial lack in this production of Anatomy Titus is a concomitant sense of artistic necessity.

Picture: John Bell as Titus in Anatomy Titus.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Dark ages?

Lifting my studious head from the bloody skirmishes of 5th century Denmark, I stumbled over a report which claimed that things appear scarcely less bloody in Melbourne. Today Nicholas Pickard passes on an unconfirmed tip from Crikey which claims that Arts Victoria is about to defund some important local arts bodies.

Names named include Chamber Made Opera, Ballet Lab, Elision and Astra. An alarmed Ms TN phoned Chamber Made - which this year lost its Australia Council Music Board funding, another story to warm the cockles of the heart - and was assured that Arts Victoria is still on board. "In fact," said general manager Geoffrey Williams, "the State Government has increased its funding this year. I can assure you, if our funding were cut, you would hear the screams from there."

So that's good news, and it seems we can put the kybosh on that story. Chamber Made is pushing on stubbornly, despite losing, along with a number of other local organisations, its triennial funding status with the Oz Council. This focuses the dilemmas that face arts organisations which cross artform boundaries - in this case, music and theatre. There's been a fair bit of a musical comedy going on in the Music Board recently, who are the body of choice for funding music theatre. Among other things, they wonder why music theatre companies need so much more money than companies that just put on concerts... It culminated, according to Williams, with their deciding this year to fund no music theatre companies at all.

Instead, they've set aside $350,000 next year - "our money", as Williams said - which anyone interested in mounting music theatre can apply for. This rather broad category includes Broadway musicals and classical operas as well as the more difficult area of contemporary music theatre. Despite the difficulties, Williams says that they're optimistic that they'll mount at least one production, and possibly two, next year. So rumours of their death are definitely premature.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A brief fitt

It's gone quiet because I'm back with Beowulf and the Geats, squinting through the Anglo-Saxon and picking out another version. I'm now about halfway through. Why? It's not like the world needs a new translation. Maybe I just want some light diversion from the mayhem and slaughter of crrriticking.

Back later this week.

(Image: first page of the Beowulf codex, British Museum)

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: Care Instructions, I Like This

Care Instructions by Cynthia Troup, directed by Margaret Cameron. Music by David Young, lighting design by Danny Pettingall. With Jane Bayly, Liz Jones and Caroline Lee. La Mama @ The Courthouse until November 29.

I Like This, choreographed and directed by Antony Hamilton and Byron Perry. Lighting and sound by Antony Hamilton and Byron Perry. Costumes by Paula Levis. With Antony Hamilton, Stephanie Lake, Alisdair Macindoe, Byron Perry and Lee Serle. Chunky Move - The Next Move, Chunky Move Studio, until November 29.

O, my back, my back, my bach! I’d want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Pingpong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez! And Concepta de Send-us-pray! Pang! Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew! Godavari, vert the showers! And grant thaya grace! Aman. Will we spread them here now? Ay, we will. Flip ! Spread on your bank and I’ll spread mine on mine. Flep! It’s what I’m doing. Spread ! It’s churning chill. Der went is rising. I’ll lay a few stones on the hostel sheets. A man and his bride embraced between them. Else I’d have sprinkled and folded them only. And I’ll tie my butcher’s apron here. It’s suety yet. The strollers will pass it by. Six shifts, ten kerchiefs, nine to hold to the fire and this for the code, the convent napkins, twelve, one baby’s shawl. Good mother Jossiph knows, she said. Whose head? Mutter snores? Deataceas! Wharnow are alle her childer, say? In kingdome gone or power to come or gloria be to them farther? Allalivial, allalluvial!

Finnegan's Wake, James Joyce

Sometimes it's assumed that the sheer pleasure of playfulness indicates a concomitant lack of seriousness. This makes me think of a Chinese ink drawing I saw many years ago at the old Melbourne Museum, a portrait of an enormously fat Buddhist monk reclining idly on the ground. I have seldom seen such knowingness so economically expressed in a few brushstrokes. He was looking out with an expression of profound, unmalicious mischief, his face luminous with some deep, mysterious joy: he seemed to hold within him a bubbling fountain of laughter on the verge of erupting. I know just about everything, the monk seemed to be saying. But, in the face of eternity, human knowledge is a huge joke. So pass me the rice wine and the dumplings...

At the other end of the scale - or maybe not - is the seriousness of children at play. For children, play is crucial means of discovering their worlds, of beginning to grapple with the things that baffle or frighten or fascinate them. The truthful aspect of the oft-cited (and pejorative) description of artists as "childish" is that artists have never stopped playing. Why, after all, are plays called plays? And this playfulness is particularly clear in these two pieces of theatre, one a dance, one a beautiful realisation of a poetic text.

It was impossible not to think of James Joyce's richly playful Finnegan's Wake - in particular, the famous passage on the washerwomen by the River Liffey - when watching Cynthia Troup's fantasia on washing, Care Instructions. While Troup can't hope to match Joyce's encyclopaedic wordplay and linguistic inventiveness (well, who can?) she draws similarly on a deep well of myth, rafting her melodious language with allusions from fairytales, nursery rhymes, poetry, the Bible, Greek myth, washing instructions from the labels of clothes, and any number of other sources.

In Margaret Cameron's hands (and with her marvellous trio of performers) it becomes an enchanting evening of theatre. I use the term advisedly. Some kind of magic is going on in this incantatory language: a summoning of the sensual pleasures of clean sheets and crisp linens, the smell of washing in sunlight; a joyous celebration of the labour that invisibly cleanses the human world. Like all magic, it's double-edged: cleanliness implies filth and disease. And magic of any kind pulls on darkness as well as light, just as the self is a dense, amoral weave of good and bad, the selfish and altruistic.

Care Instructions is irresistibly Beckettian, not only in how the performers are constrained by being in big laundry bags, but also in how it resembles a painting or installation. It opens with a filmed monologue, performed by Liz Jones in a mob cap, projected onto the circular window of a dryer (whose drone accompanies much of the play, sending out the scent of warm, dry laundry). As she speaks, the linen bags that litter the set begin to move, like strange larvae, until at last they give birth to three women (Jones, Caroline Lee and Jane Bayly). What follows is a meld of nursery rhyme, story, song, dance (and, of course, washing instructions).

It could be merely whimsical or even kitsch, but manages to avoid both. I can't think of a better way to disperse the clouds of a bleak Melbourne evening than to spend some time with these three witches - or graces, as they also are.

Unless, of course, you wander down to Chunky Move to see I Like This, the collaboration between young choreographers Byron Perry and Antony Hamilton. Anyone who has watched these dancers in action will be familiar with their physical wit, and here is an opportunity to see how dancers can make brilliant clowns. I Like This is, appropriately enough, an almost preternaturally likeable show.

The conceit is simple: we are watching a work being assembled as it is performed. Hamilton and Perry crouch for most of the time centre-stage, fiddling with a sound system and surrounded by a wild tangle of wires, the evil geniuses orchestrating the action. Stephanie Lake is - initially at least - a kind of tv-show host, rather like the role played by Brian Lipson in Two-Faced Bastard (with which this show bears some affinities).

All lighting and sound is lo-tech and controlled by the performers. Much of the visual wit emerges from hand-held lights that the performers switch on and off in the total darkness of the Chunky Move studio, revealing brief glimpses of vignettes or comic poses that invite any number of narratives from the audience. It's performed to a collage of music that ranges from early blues to Phillip Glass, with side references to zombie movies or Star Wars. It's unashamedly self-referential - this is a dance that is all about itself - yet its teeming imaginativeness ensures that it's continually surprising. It is as if the choregraphers have sketched out a couple of formal conceits and then squeezed out every possibility and combination.

What drives the show is the play between the choreographers' control and the way the dance continually seems to escape them. And what makes it work is the dancers' split-second precision and physical humour. Often it is laugh-out-loud funny, but this doesn't erase the possibility of some beautiful moments - a lone dancer with a light wandering into the darkness until she becomes a star wandering through the firmament, or the two choreographers crouched beneath a doona cover that transforms into a cloud at the centre of an electrical storm, before they emerge, like two naughty boys playing at bedtime, to argue about how best to end the show.

Picture: Jane Bayly, Liz Jones and Caroline Lee in Care Instructions.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Review: The Women of Troy

The Women of Troy by Euripides, adapted by Tom Wright and Barrie Kosky, directed by Barrie Kosky. Designed by Alice Babidge, lighting by Damien Cooper, musician Daryl Willis, sound design by David Gilfillan. With Robyn Nevin, Melita Jurisic, Arthur Dignam, Natalie Gamsu, Queenie van der Zandt, Jennifer Vuletic, Patricia Cotter and Kyle Rowling, Giorgios Tsamoudakis and William Larkin. Sydney Theatre Company presented by Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn Theatre, until November 22.

Sophocles is supposed to have remarked of Euripides that, while Sophocles portrayed men as they ought to be, Euripides showed them as they are. It's an observation that goes to the heart of his drama. While Sophocles and Aeschylus wrote heroic tragedy, Euripides was concerned with the everyday: his characters were often the despised and marginalised, the women, children, slaves and functionaries caught in the unforgiving machinery of larger events. Euripides was, in fact, western drama's first realist.

Yet even on Euripides's terms, The Women of Troy is an odd play. For all the archaic beauty of the original text, it has an air of unsettlingly modernity. It's a play of almost brutal simplicity that crystallises the traumatic shock of the aftermath of war. Originally part of a full-scale tragic trilogy that looked at different aspects of the war on Troy, The Women of Troy seems to have been a kind of coda, the final comment on the tumultuous events that preceded it. The other two plays are now lost, leaving us this fragment in which nothing happens because the worst already has.

The other thing to note about Euripides is that, for all his mythical framing, he was writing directly about contemporary events. When The Women of Troy was first performed, in 415BC, Athens was mired in the Peloponnesian Wars with Sparta and was about to launch its disastrous expedition to conquer Sicily, an invasion which ended with the humiliating defeat of Athens in 404BC. In the various conflicts, Euripides had ample opportunity to observe the cruelty with which each side treated its civilian captives: most commonly, the men were put to death and the women and children enslaved. Sometimes this happened to entire cities.

Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright's adaptation highlights this realism, bringing Euripides's steady gaze to bear on contemporary events. They've created a production which is probably as close as we can get to an experience of classical tragedy, which looks unblinkingly into catastrophe: from the beginning, its outcome is inevitable and unavoidable. It reveals that this is a play of our time as much as of Euripides, at once true to its ancient roots and opening up its contemporary aptness. And it's bleak indeed: no chink of light pierces the darkness. The emotional effect is cumulative, and ultimately shattering. It's extraordinary theatre.

This two-fold vision of the ancient and the contemporary is evident from the moment you enter the theatre and see that the auditorium is shaped like an amphitheatre. Every seat is draped in white; the fabric is reflective and has a weird effect on the fluorescent lighting, which is already alienating and harsh. We look down on a naked stage, which is dominated by a huge back wall constructed of old lockers, stacked like bricks up to the ceiling.

It begins with a figure draped in black and crowned in a tiara being pushed onto the stage on a flatbed trolley by a guard. The guard is wearing a white mask, like those worn by people who deal with corpses, which is subtly configured to look like the masks on Hoplite helmets worn by Greek soldiers. The woman - for we know at once it is a woman - is standing in the pose made famous through the photograph taken in Abu Ghraib, balancing precariously, her arms stretched out, trembling with strain, on either side. The guard (Kyle Rowling) takes a photograph with his mobile phone, and then begins to strip the woman's finery - her rings, her bracelets, her necklace, her tiara - putting them in a clear plastic bag. He leaves her face draped, anonymous and blind, helpless, until he also takes her sumptuous dress.

At last she is revealed as Hecuba (Robyn Nevin), former Queen of Troy, standing in her shift on a cardboard box as ordered by the guard, her face bruised and bloodied, her hair shorn. Then the guard leaves and wheels in the other women, also cowled in black: also brutalised, anonymous, stripped of all civic rights as they are of their clothes. They are the theatrical image of what Giorgio Agamben called "naked life", the "state of exception" that defines the sovereign power of the State.

What follows is the summary allocation of the women - in particular, Hecuba's daughters - as spoils of war. Some have been distributed to the Greek soldiers by lot, some will be shot. The play simply consists of the women waiting to discover their fate, and finishes when we know what happens to each of them.

The adaptation hacks what is already a minimal play to its bones, hewing closely to its original dramaturgy. Tom Wright's language is chillingly effective: utterly plain, with the weight of tragic necessity in every word. Basically, three things occur: Cassandra - the virgin cursed with second sight by Apollo after she refused his advances - is taken away and given to Agamemnon. The heavily pregnant Andromache, who enters with her son Astynax (Giorgios Tsmamoudakis or William Larkin) is sent to be the slave of Achilles, who killed her husband Hector, and finds that her small son is to be murdered. And Helen of Troy, whose abscondment with Paris started the whole thing, is given a short trial by Menelaus (Arthur Dignam) and Hecuba, and condemned. These three women are played by Melita Jurisic, making the play effectively a duet between Nevin and Jurisic.

This brutal reality is punctuated by singing, a diverse range of music which includes Dowland, Mozart, Bizet and Slovenien folk songs. The music is a lament for everything that the action of the play denies and destroys - love, beauty, harmony - and is the single human expression remaining to the women.

As in conventional Greek tragedy, the violence occurs off-stage, a most effective means of engendering imagination. We hear off-stage screaming and gunshots, and we see the fear before it and the effect afterwards - most desolately when the half mad Cassandra is raped in one of the lockers by the guard and returns, her bloodstained pants around her ankles, hobbling and violated, babbling incoherently of her marriage to Agamemnon, or when the blood-drenched corpse of the little boy is carried onto the stage.

This production is particularly effective in how it exploits the banality of atrocity. One aspect of torture is how it transforms ordinary objects, even household items, into instruments of pain. Here there is a rather grim moment when the guard walks across the stage, fiddles in a tool box and returns with a huge awl. We have no idea what he is going to use it for, and don't want to imagine. When the women are allocated, they are put in cardboard boxes which are sealed with masking tape and wheeled off, reinforcing their dehumanised status as cargo, mere trophies of war whose identities are not only erased but irrelevant.

What carries the grief and crushing inevitability of the horror enfolding these women is the performances. As Hecuba, an old woman witnessing the destruction of her life, Nevin is the lynchpin of the play: she is present on stage all through, and she is the medium through which we experience the tragedy. This is an unmissable performance: that voice vibrates in your bones, raging, lamenting, sorrowful, utterly broken and defeated and yet stubbornly refusing to be demeaned, even in this ultimate degradation. Melita Jurisic in her three roles is a brilliant foil, the hysteric counterpoint to Nevin's stoic refusals.

Perhaps what is most impressive about this production is its refusal to reach for easy theatrical manipulations. The contemporary allusions are never gratuitous: rather, they emerge as inevitable aspects of the reality this play is revealing. It's heartbreaking, but Kosky's restraint means that the effect goes deeper than tears. His directorial tact represents the reality of war without cheaply exploiting it: this seems to me to be a production of exemplary honesty, that openly and without showiness acknowledges its own artifice and by doing so reinforces the horrific realities behind it. It's a cry of grief, a keening, that resonates in its own present and then leaves us to deal with the aftermath. Because the worst part about it is that you know that it's true.

Picture: Melita Jurisic as Helen and Robyn Nevin as Hecuba in The Women of Troy. Photo: Tracey Schramm

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: Avast and Avast II - The Welshman Cometh

Avast & Avast II - The Welshman Cometh, by Black Lung Theatre Company, presented by the Malthouse. With Sacha Bryning, Gareth Davies, Thomas Henning, Mark Winter, Thomas Wright and Dylan Young. Sound design and music by Liam Barton, lighting design by Govin Ruben. Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until December 6.

In a model of enlightened patronage, the Malthouse Theatre this year offered the Black Lung Theatre Company and Whaling Firm (to give it its full moniker) a three month residency in the Tower. And, it seems, basically left them alone to see what would happen, in the spirit of a scientist leaving a petri dish at the back of a laboratory. The result is Avast - a reprise of this company's first show - and Avast II - The Welshman Cometh, a new work which is (apparently) a prequel to Avast.

The Black Lung is a collective of seven startlingly fearless performers, who devise a particular kind of anti-theatre that at once brilliantly exploits and destroys theatrical artifice. They attracted particular notice with their Fringe hit Rubeville, which deservedly carried off the gongs in the Melbourne and Adelaide Fringe Festivals with its blackly hilarious assault on the delusions of celebrity culture.

A crucial element of their previous work has been the sense that the audience enters a self-contained environment, in which the events they perform (it’s hard to call them “plays”) follow their own inscrutable laws. This environmental element could easily have been compromised by their move to a main stage, but the three month residency seems to have been spent on extensive renovations. The Tower is almost unrecognisable; it has the air of a bizarre, ramshackle domicile rather than a conventional theatre, a place that is lived in rather than a mere stage.

It's fascinating to see what is, in effect, a mini-retrospective, jamming together their first and most recent works. The two shows, for all their common provenance, are actually quite distinct from each other. Both exploit clichés from mass culture – The Lord of the Rings, samurai movies, westerns, role playing games, apocalypse fiction – and, like all parodies, also pay them fond homage. And each has a narrative of sorts. Avast concerns two brothers meeting again after long estrangement, while Avast II is a post-apocalyptic western in which a stranger arrives at an isolated settlement to rescue the doomed inhabitants.

However you look at it, there's no escaping that the Black Lung is men's business. The company is all male, and squinting through the shambolic disorder of Avast and Avast II reveals a deep preoccupation with contemporary male anxiety.

In both these shows, the contradictory construction of masculinity - the delusions and mythlogies that sustain it - is put under extreme pressure. Like the theatrical conventions that are invoked only to be exploded, these delusions collapse, leaving in their place the raw and absurd presence of the (often) naked and (always) sexually ambiguous body. The abject incontinence of the feminine body - its uncontrollable leakages of blood, sexual fluids, tears, saliva - is, in traditional ideas of masculinity, contrasted with self-sufficient, impermeable manliness. But here the naked male body leaks various fluids with as much promiscuous abandon as Woman.

Avast II (the prequel, remember) opens with a tour de force: the baptism of a baby that, with a touch of gothic horror, lots of smoke and moody lighting and a brooding Nick Cavean guitar accompaniment, invokes the ritualistic nature of theatre. (Ritual is, in fact, not at all inappropriate as a way of understanding these shows: they are, among other things, enactments of psychic expiation.) Here a wild-eyed priest figure (Mark Winter) shouts incantations into a microphone before raising a cleaver and cutting off the baby's hand in a sacrifice that is intended to protect his frontier community from some dreadful evil that assails it.

We then strike the Gunslinger figure (Gareth Davies), the lone hero who encounters the handless baby (Dylan Young), now grown up. Gareth is The Welshman, and he lassoos young Dylan and drags him around in a way that rather irresistibly recalls Lucky and Pozzo in Beckett's Waiting for Godot. They make their way to the frontier town, where the luckless inhabitants, led by the Mayor (Thomas Henning in top hat, pyjamas and wheelchair) are assailed by some supernatural beast at nightfall and lock their doors in terror. The strangers are left outside to die.

The Hero and his sidekick are attacked, saved by God (a deux ex machina puppet lowering from the flies), shoot Him dead, and enter the amazed township. Then they do the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven thing, rousing the inhabitants with an exhilarating spoof of sumarai fight sequences and boldly striding off to do battle. The hero gets the Girl (Thomas Wright in an appalling black wig and nightie), stealing him/her from the town's blacksmith (Sacha Bryning). They fight the monster, the Girl dies, and then...

Well, then the story gets kind of forgotten. One of the intriguing aspects of Black Lung's practice is how the company quite genuinely channels the power of gothic melodrama and epic grandeur, while at the same time mercilessly taking the piss. This is not suspension of disbelief so much as its constant levitation, before the tightrope snaps with loud twang. And maybe what happens after that twang gets terminal is most interesting, as the theatre cuts closer and closer to literal reality: a recitation, for example, of the various ways the cast will die in the future, which generates a superstitious creepiness, as if it's a curse; or an extraordinary monologue which is a gem in itself and which takes the show into entirely different emotional territory.

And then it kind of finishes with a song, with no clear signal to indicate it's over. Certainly no bows. Like other Black Lung shows, it just stops, and leaves you to wonder what just happened.

Avast (their earliest show, which supposedly follows their latest - are you with me?) is similar in how it constructs and brutally destroys staged realities. The narrative here is simpler - a long estranged brother (Gareth Davies) returns home, and confronts his brother (Thomas Wright). Davies, who most of the time stands in a washing machine, is covered in blood, and Wright is wearing black speedos and appears to be covered in semen.

The dialogues continue through all the necessary clichés (the dead mother, the revelations, the recriminations - "you were never there!"), interrupted by various strange visitations - a man in a ten-gallon hat and outrageous moustache, a polar bear. And then the whole thing explodes. I'm reluctant to describe how, but suffice to say that I've seldom seen meta-theatre done so effectively. It left my theatre partner, young Ben, sleepless with outrage, distress and dilemma.

These brutal interventions of literal reality go way past parody, generating a sense of genuine abjection and discomfort. There really is no way of predicting what will happen in the next moment and, with the help of some remarkable performances, it makes for riveting theatre. It's risky stuff that could easily slump into boring mayhem or mere embarrassment, and The Black Lung only gets away with it because their apparent anarchy is underlaid by some steely discipline and accuracy. And sheer front, of course.

Another version of this review is in today's Australian.

Picture: The Black Lung Theatre Company and Whaling Firm

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Poems at Meshworks

MESHWORKS - the Miami University Archive of Writing in Performance - has uploaded several videos of readings from the Soundeye Cork International Poetry Festival which, as some of you might remember, I attended earlier this year in Ireland. The whole event was something like this:

The videos on the university site don't stream well, but those interested in the readings can check out the Meshworks YouTube page, which works rather better.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Review: The Hypocrite

The Hypocrite by Molière, adapted by Justin Fleming, directed by Peter Evans. Designed by Stephen Curtis, lighting by Matt Scott, music by Ian McDonald. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre until December 13. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

Melbourne this year has felt like a little outpost of France. There have been no less than three main stage productions of Molière’s plays, including two of Tartuffe. This new version at the MTC, adapted by Justin Fleming as The Hypocrite, follows a rambunctiously vulgar adaptation presented earlier this year by the Malthouse Theatre.

It’s easy to see the appeal of Molière’s unforgiving satires of human folly and greed, and in particular why Tartuffe – about a conman masquerading as an evangelist – should strike a chord. In our time religion is a locus of deep anxiety, and the gap between language and action in public life has become an almost unbridgeable abyss.

Like the Malthouse production, this new version is contemporised, but its 17th century antecedents are stamped on the design and performances and, with less felicity, onto the script.

There are many things to like about Peter Evans’s direction, which features a stripped down and deeply theatrical elegance. Stephen’s Curtis’s set emphasises its own artifice and his absurd costumes unite frou-frou opulence with contemporary simplicity.

Evans has gathered a cast with depth as well as breadth. Garry McDonald plays the hapless Orgon, who falls under the spell of the charlatan holy man Tartuffe (Kim Gyngell), sacrificing his family and property before realising that Tartuffe is a greedy, lustful weasel (dressed rather unsettlingly like a ‘60s intellectual) who has worked out that he can do what he likes as long as he cloaks his actions in pious intentions.

The first 10 minutes, with Kerry Walker in full flight as Madame Pernelle, are very promising. But for all its fine elements, the production ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

The major problem is Fleming’s script. Most puzzlingly, it makes Orgon’s family innocent victims of Tartuffe’s nefarious strategies, rather than themselves ambiguous objects of satire. This blunts its comedy and transforms Molière’s play into a straight defence of bourgeois values.

The language occasionally achieves a balance between colloquial and literary, and when it does, it works beautifully. But more often it’s staid, with a stitled vernacular featuring rather too much forced and clunky rhyme (varied, apparently, between quatrains and couplets, but all with the same punishing rhythm).

To sustain rhyming couplets for any length of time in English – a language with very few rhyming words – requires the linguistic dazzle of a Byron. Fleming is simply not that inventive. In his hands, Molière almost becomes earnest, which is new indeed.

This review was published in yesterday's Australian.

Picture: publicity shot for The Hypocrite: Marina Prior, Kim Gyngell and Garry McDonald.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Children in art

The Australia Council yesterday released its Draft Children in Art Protocols, which will determine council funding where artists are working with children. They are available for comment and response online.

The immediate response from arts organisations is that areas of real concern are already covered by existing laws and that key recommendations are unworkable. For example, among the recommendations are that all photographs of children (who are defined as anyone under 18) - clothed or unclothed - can only be exhibited with the permission of their parents or guardians. Which will make life a little difficult for documentary makers and street photographers. Moreover, there is concern that such protocols shift the Council's role from funding body to regulator.

And don't think that these protocols only apply to photographers. They apply to all artists - as the documents says, "photography, painting, printmaking, performance, sculpture, written text, digital imagery, etc". Young adult fiction writers will, I imagine, be particularly concerned about the insistence that young people cannot be portrayed in writing in an "indecent" manner.

As always, the question is what constitutes indecency: while in law such restrictions are clearly made to forbid pornography involving children, the inclusion of this clause in an arts protocol means that it can be more widely applied to include any literary depiction of the sexuality of anyone under 18. The conflation with pornography of - say - Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, or the beautiful and sensitive books of David Almond, draws ever closer.

I keep wondering if no one remembers what it's like to be 13.

At present the protocols are disturbingly vague, which means they can be extended far beyond their original purpose. They were originally foisted on the Australia Council as a kind of deal after the fact-free shockjock hysteria that surrounded (and still surrounds) the work of Bill Henson: if you don't make them, said Garrett, Rudd will. And that will be worse. Anyone who doubts this is over can check Hetty Johnson's comments in the Australian today, where she claims that the controversy over Bill Henson's work demonstrated that "the existing legal framework is far from adequate".

In the meantime, the nightmare of compliance these protocols imply suggests that their main effect will be to make childhood a no-go area for artists. And I'm not at all sure that's a good thing, for children or for artists.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Linksses, my preciouss

Summer is icumen in, meaning that 2008 is rushing to its close with, on my part, a feeling of inexpressible relief. Wasn't it March only yesterday? The past six months seem to have vanished. Perhaps they were gobbled up by the voracious amnesia of the internet. Who knows?

Before they plunge into the abyss of forgetting, allow me to point you to some interesting things I've read recently. The estimable Guardian critic Lyn Gardner shares some reflections on the uncertainties of reviewing, which is well worth a squiz. Chris Goode asks what the fuck am I doing?, a question which in his case is always fruitful. He describes pretty well the loneliness that goes with (so far as I can see) making any kind of art, and which he says adheres with a particular paradoxicalness (paradoxality?) to theatre:

What is that loneliness? It's the signal, I suppose: which will always be broken in transit, and the sacrifice of which is itself ineluctably and bountifully theatrical. But the impulse that begins within me, as a vision -- often tremblingly indistinct or inchoate or literally impossible to hold: but a vision, if we can say that, if that's not too histrionic....talking about which, even (or perhaps especially) among fellow practitioners, is sometimes like describing a dream: elusive in the mind, banal on the lips, boring as it arrives in the other's ears.

Meanwhile, Richard Watts begins a series of meditations on Indie theatre in Canvas Magazine, which made me wonder rather hopelessly if anybody can remember a time before 2000. Speaking tangentially of which, on Sunday ABC Radio National's Artworks broadcast a feature on Daniel Keene which examines what actually goes on in Europe with his work. They managed to spell his name two different ways on the website, but the program - which features interviews with his translator Severine Magois and a couple of French actors as well as the man himself - is worth a listen. I only mention it here because so many people have mentioned it to me.

And while I'm talking family: yesterday my 10-year-old nephew, Rory Young, won the Primary Schools section of ACMI's Screen It animation competition. We're all proud as anything, especially since he's totally self-taught and makes his charming animations on his kitchen table. Here's his prize-winning entry, stolen from Rory's MySpace page, Tin Robot Animations.


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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Review: The Lower Depths

The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky, directed by Ariette Taylor. Designed by Adrienne Chisolm, lighting by Emma Valente. With Adam Pierchalski, Bessie Holland, Alex Menglet, Chloe Armstrong, Denis Moore, Genevieve Picot, Evan Jureidini, Greg Stone, Luke Elliot, Heather Bolton, Malcolm Robertson, Marco Chiappi, Paul English, Natalia Novikova, Stewart Morritt and Syd Brisbane. Ariette Taylor Productions @ fortyfive downstairs until November 29.

Although there are persistent rumours that he was murdered on Stalin's orders, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, the founder of social realism, was the literary poster boy of the Bolshevik Revolution. His early life was of exemplary harshness: born Aleksei Peshkov in Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, he was orphaned at an early age and sent out to work. He ran away from home when he was 12, and became an itinerant worker, barely escaping starvation. His teenage experiences prompted the adoption of his pseudonym Gorky, which means "bitter".

Among many other temporary jobs, he worked as a dishwasher on a Volga steamer, where the cook taught him to read, fostering the passion for writing that ultimately shaped his life. As a rising young writer he met Anton Chekhov, who urged him to write a play. He subsequently wrote two for the Moscow Arts Theatre, the most famous of which is The Lower Depths. The characters in this play are supposedly inspired by real people Gorky met at the Bugrov Homeless Shelter in Nizhny Novgorod. The Lower Depths is an unsparing portrait of Russia's underclass, a wretched and doomed group of people who scrabble for a living by whatever means they can - thievery, prostitution, piece work - and whose savagery is most often turned against each other.

It's also an essay on the choice between facing harsh truths or embracing delusions that make life bearable. The play itself reaches no conclusions: in the brutal social order that sifts some human beings to an irredeemable bottom, political or social insight can bring with it a crushing weight of despair, to which fantasy might be preferable. A delusion, says Gorky, can be life-saving, bringing hope where none exists and prompting action where despair brings only self-destructive apathy and cynicism. Only the strong and free can face the truth.

In many ways this production is a logical evolution, both in practice and philosophy, from the late '90s work of the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, which was founded by director Ariette Taylor and Daniel Keene. This is reinforced by the cast; seven of the 17 performed with the KTTP, and several are founding members. And, as with the KTTP, this production is graced with some astounding performances from some of our best actors.

The KTTP began its work in 1997 in the Brotherhood of St Laurence Warehouse in Fitzroy. The plays were performed as poor theatre, using the furniture that was available in the warehouse for their sets. The company's early and most successful work was about people who seldom reach our main stages, those forced, because of circumstance or birth, to the invisible edges of society. As with Gorky, the plays Keene wrote for the KTTP examined the dehumanising processes of poverty and social marginalisation.

Keene and Gorky's work is certainly fuelled by social anger, but neither observe a simple politics. Gorky's Marxism led him to believe that culture was a redemptive force in social revolution, and he protested strongly to Lenin, whom he knew personally, against the Bolshevik persecution of intellectuals. On its premiere, his unsentimental portrayal of poverty in The Lower Depths caused revulsion for what was seen as its dark pessimism. Neither Keene nor Gorky traffick in the politics of empathy, the easy pity that is as easily forgotten: rather, they insist on the difficult and mutual recognition of humanity in even the least sympathetic and most brutalised of their characters. Ultimately, both are interested in the erasure of the line between Them and Us, the pitied and the pitying.

The Lower Depths is presented in a robust collaborative translation from a text by Alex Menglet, which sounded very good to my ear. Rather like Chekhov's early play Platonov, it's an exercise in realism. Beyond a couple of events which occur with a kind of random melodrama, nothing much happens. There is little attention to the dramatic shaping of plot: rather, Gorky is concerned with the disorderliness, the inartistic lack of purpose, which informs life itself. The play consists of the various characters arguing, playing cards or drinking; merely passing the time in ways that were later aestheticised in Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

What plot there is revolves around the arrival at the boarding house of Luka (Alex Menglet), an apparent innocent who believes, unlike any of the other characters, that every human being matters. He is a kind of derelict Pollyanna, spreading light among the inmates by recognising what each of them needs to believe to bear his or her life (or death, as the case may be); but it becomes clear that his comforting stories are not the fruit of naivety, but rather of a clear-sighted compassion, even a certain stark realism.

Meanwhile, a squalid domestic drama emerges between the miserly and exploitative landlord Kostylyov (Denis Moore), his vicious wife Vassilissa (Heather Bolton) and her lover the thief Vasska (Stewart Morritt). Vasska is in love with Vassilisa's sister, Natasha (Chloe Armstrong), who will have nothing to do with him. His passion arouses Vassilisa's jealousy, and she constantly beats her sister, and meanwhile plots the murder of her husband.

These events flow through the daily life of the boarding house, which is peopled by a various cast of characters. The Actor (Greg Stone) is a hopeless alcoholic whose memory has been largely erased by his addiction, the Baron (Marco Chiappi) is a man who has known better times ("I used to drink coffee before I got out of bed!") A locksmith, Klestch (Malcom Robertson) works constantly on a lock that can't be fixed while his wife Anna (Genevieve Picot) dies pathetically of consumption close by. The capmaker Bubnov (Syd Brisbane) and other characters provide a chorus of brutal scepticism (when Anna dies, Bubnov comments that at least that means she will stop coughing).

With 17 characters and a sprawling structure, the challenges of mounting this play ought to be obvious. Ariette Taylor's production demonstrates her directorial weaknesses as well as her strengths. For all the quality of the cast, the acting is uneven, with the less experienced performers tending to fall into mystifying caricature. Even deeply capable actors such as Heather Bolton or Chloe Armstrong seem oddly subdued.

On the other hand, there are superlative performances from Syd Brisbane, Paul English, Stewart Morritt and Marco Chiappi. It is a particular pleasure to watch Alex Menglet accessing his full abilities, rather than merely providing comic relief in a cameo role. His portrayal of Luka is multifaceted, detailed and moving. Greg Stone is at the top of his considerable game as the Actor; he lights up the stage with a performance that is almost an essay on acting, creating a role that is itself a role, a man whose transparent facade constantly crumbles into pathetic self-realisation.

This is acting as good as you will see, and it often transcends the limitations of the production. When it does, the result can be electrifying. But for the first half, the direction is distracting, seldom achieving the moment-to-moment focus that Gorky's writing requires to maintain compelled attention. Adrienne Chisolm's design doesn't help: the pillars in the midst of fortyfive downstairs - which have been craftily avoided in other productions - stand in the main performing space, causing acute problems with sightlines: actors are constantly disappearing behind them in the midst of speeches. Moreover, some of the action occurs in a kitchen behind the stage, obscured from most of the audience.

The intrusion of such mundane irritations might have worked if there was a sense that they were more than ad hoc. But there was little feeling until after interval that the production was more than a series of brilliant individual performances strung together with some pretty choreography. The stage action was all too dislocated in the opening scenes, a problem emphasised by the uneven acting. Once the stage focused on a more conventional mise en scene around a table in the second half, the play livened up. Unlike Chekhov's Ivanov, which Taylor directed in a revelatory production three years ago, Gorky's play is too unwieldy for a show to rely solely on performance and text: it needs a stern intelligence creating theatrical shape around it.

For these and other reasons, the production doesn't wholly escape romanticising its subject. Its Russian protagonists are sufficiently distanced for their realism to remain historicised, even exoticised, rather than making them uncomfortably present in their human dilemmas. It's worth seeing for the acting, some of which is remarkable; but it ultimately seems a decadent and swollen shadow of the beauty and complex political power of the first KTTP productions in that Fitzroy warehouse.

Picture: Chloe Armstrong in The Lower Depths. Photo: Jeff Busby

Disclosures: I am married to Daniel Keene and was a member of the Board of the KTTP for the length of its existence.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Hope and so on

Over the weekend, Ms TN's body found new and nasty ways to remind her that she is human, all too human. I succumbed to a few minor but uncomfortable conditions, all of which are apparently "stress related". Ha! I am always reluctant to admit to myself that stress is an issue, since it seems really wimpy when all I do is write things. Imprinted somewhere in my psyche is the image of the lady of leisure at her Georgian writing desk, jotting menus for the cook on purple notepaper before she idly lops some roses into a basket.

Yes, my name is Alison, and I am a workaholic. Perhaps I should enter a 12-step plan of concentrated holidays and enforced idleness. In fact, I am planning soon to do just that. But before that, I have a little work to do. And as a practised procrastinator, in order to distract myself I have been also following the local hobby of pondering precisely what it is that makes being someone who values art and who lives in Australia a peculiarly stressful existence. Making art is hard anywhere, and here it is in fact more materially comfortable than in many other places. But that tends to elide its challenges.

Watching the US election yesterday, I couldn’t help comparing it to the last Australian election. Yes, there was euphoria (soon sobered into what one Labor politician in the 1980s called “the latest political reality”); but I confess my major feeling was an overwhelming relief that the Howard era was over. I spent some time as a young reporter following industrial affairs, and it disillusioned me so thoroughly that I refused to vote at all. And I had a certain scepticism – a feeling since borne out in many ways – about the Rudd government: Rudd was largely elected because he was Howard-lite, a younger and more progressive conservative model. I fear that the blackly funny ABC comedy series The Hollow Men got Australian politics right.

Obama’s election was different. Even though, when you get down to it, his stated policies weren’t a million miles from McCain’s, that wasn’t what was most striking about the billion-dollar theatre that is an American Presidential election. Obama so clearly embodies the desires and hopes of a constituency that wants to reinvent itself as what it believes it is: the Greatest Country in the World, the place of freedom and opportunity. Yesterday it was possible to believe that these aren’t just words falling idly from lips that meant the precise opposite. It was possible to believe, however briefly, that these weren’t just the lies of Empire. That belief shone in the faces of Obama’s supporters, in the people standing patiently in line waiting to vote, in the stories of old men and women, born just after slavery, voting with all their heart for what, only months ago, seemed a complete impossibility: a black president.

America’s great talent for myth-making suddenly stood large in its heart and seemed for once an admirable thing. And whatever I think about the American political machine, I’m not prepared to be cynical about the hope that yesterday's events so dramatically expressed. It’s real, and it’s a powerful force. Democracy is a contract that American people believe in, and yesterday that contract was observed.

To move to Australia, it illuminates harshly something that is missing here, and not just in our politics. In our artistic life, there is something something fundamental missing from our social fabric. It seems to me that what we lack, the ur-problem from which all others evolve, is a vital culture.

Culture isn’t the same as art. Culture is the contract, however defined, between an artist and his or her public. Culture is the lively communal yeast that makes everything rise. It’s the air that lets art breathe, the space where it can swing its arms, the multiple influences that flavour it.

If our theatre culture is deeply impoverished, it’s not because there are not committed and skilful artists, or that there aren’t audiences – even enthusiastic audiences – for what they do. It’s because something crucial is missing in between, in that implicit contract between the creation and reception of art. Whatever the causes – and they are manifold, historical and difficult to track – the effects are plain.

The first and major effect is the constant need to justify having art at all. No artist in Australia can assume that his or her work matters for its own sake, and the inability to make this assumption, the need to continually justify one’s existence, generates a corrosive spiritual exhaustion. At its worst, it makes our art at once reactionary and timid. Art becomes a package which delivers an aesthetic experience according to certain given guidelines: the matrix of “standards”. This underlying assumption – which is by no means confined to conservative critique – edits out the raw energy of actual innovation, which challenges those aesthetic standards, often by breaking them, always by interrogating them, sometimes by paying them serious homage rather than lip-service.

It’s been the same for as long as I have been thinking about these things.

What follows is an attempt to sketch out what I mean. It is, I fear, very long.


A couple of days ago, Jana Perkovic at Mono no aware posted an interesting quote from British theatre blogger Andrew Hayden, in which he compared a European production of a recent British play with its British premiere. In particular, Jana honed in on a major observation of Andrew’s: what he saw as British theatre’s “abandonment of metaphor”. By implication, Jana was pointing towards a crippling literalism in Australian theatre.

It’s an interesting and pertinent issue, and I began to write a reply. But it was like pulling the thread on a jumper: the whole thing began to unravel, and before long I found I was digging towards a fumbling definition of something that has been bugging me for some time. I don’t think Australian theatre lacks metaphor, or liveliness, or skill, or inventiveness, or innovation. I think it possesses all these things, in actuality as well as in potentia. Of course there are shows that are less exciting than others, but for every Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot you can point to a Food Court.

Andrew Haydon’s comparison of the difference between English and European approaches towards text made me think of Daniel Keene's play, To Whom It May Concern. This is a 20 page play which premiered here in the late '90s as a 20 minute piece in an evening of three short works. It was a straightforward poor theatre production by the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, performed as a modest two-hander.

When it premiered in France in 2004, directed by Didier Bezace at the Théâtre de la Commune, this 20 page play went for seventy five minutes. It was performed on a big stage on a set that required a dozen technicians to make the transformations. It starred two very famous actors, including Jean-Paul Rousillon, who was a very old Comédie-Française actor (in fact, it was his last role) who had been directed by Beckett in Waiting for Godot. It was a sold-out hit and drew a lot of hyperbole, including a claim from an excited France Inter critic that it was the most important Paris premiere since the first production of Godot in 1953.

There is obviously an enormous difference of resource here. Théâtre de la Commune has suffered from the Sarkozy cuts, which have slashed French cultural funding by two thirds over recent years, but it regularly plays to 90 per cent capacity. Before the cuts, its state funding amounted to something like 70 per cent of its total budget (as compared, say, to the MTC's 13 per cent). But the difference in scale and notice is about more than funding - it's about the theatrical possibilities that are easily reached for within a culture, the space given both culturally and personally to artistic imagination. It’s also about an ability to read the theatrical potential and meaning of a text, an ability to discriminate critically that stems from a basic intellectual and social confidence in the value of art.

La Commune is a mainstream company, if proudly radical (it is in the middle of the last Communist arrondissement in Paris). Bezace himself was part of the radical theatre movement of 1968; he founded La Cartoucherie with Ariane Mnouchkine, and their work plugs into a French cultural history that places theatre at the centre of social revolution, right back to the Revolution itself. (In connection with this, it's worth remembering how the theatre was at the centre of the Velvet Revolution, eventually making playwright Vaclav Havel president of the country). Theatre has seldom been so literally a force for change in English speaking countries, although it has of course a tradition of political radicality, and this is a major difference from Europe. English-speaking culture is much more tied to the idea of theatre as entertainment. This is not all bad, but it's not all good either.

This European tradition creates a different kind of literacy and feeds into different audience expectations: unlike Australian audiences, French and German audiences will sit through three hour plays without a murmur. A Paris production of the Scottish playwright David Harrower's Knives and Hens, another 20-page play, went for four hours (and then afterwards most of the audience stayed on for a lively and long discussion). Which is as unimaginable here as actors going on strike.

However, it’s ridiculous to complain that we are not Europe. Of course we aren’t. Some time ago I decided to live where I am, instead of wishing to be somewhere else. I see enough exciting work to make it worthwhile, and over the past four years the parameters of our theatre culture have changed out of sight. Specifically, the expectations of main stage theatre have changed: the Malthouse, the Melbourne Festival and the STC have all contributed to this change. Most astonishingly, this change has been wildly successful.

It is no longer possible to assume – as theatre academic Hilary Glow did only last year – that “mainstream” means naturalistic, populist and consciously “Australian” plays while “fringe” means weird non-naturalistic “internationalist” experiment. This binary, which has always been highly dubious, informed the theatre establishment through the 90s, cheer led by critics like the Age’s Leonard Radic. Now we are as likely to see so-called avant garde work on our main stages and new experiments in naturalism from new companies.

Richard Watts rang me earlier this week to discuss this change. He perceives what he called a “lull” in independent theatre in Melbourne, and expressed a fear that the fact that the Malthouse “cherry picks” the best independent work in Melbourne has resulted in a concomitant lack of energy. I confess that I was surprised by this: independent theatre here has been strong for years, and surely main stage exposure can only give it more confidence and brio. When you look at fortyfive downstairs, The Eleventh Hour, Ranters, La Mama, Red Stitch, Theatreworks, Hoy Polloy, White Whale, Black Lung, Liminal Theatre, the Dog Theatre and the overwhelming local content of the Fringe Festival, it’s hard to think there’s not much going on.

But I suspect that Richard is onto something. Now that the categories of mainstream and fringe have been so thoroughly destabilised, it is possible that “alternative” theatre has lost a major reason for its being: to be a reaction to the mainstream, to be “new”.

This begs a very big question. If innovation in our theatre has only been driven by these reactionary impulses, this suggests a concomitant lack of depth in our artistic vision and possibility. There are reasons to make art that go beyond mere reactiveness. How much is our culture driven by a desire for novelty rather than the expression of individual artistic vision, the responsiveness to the world we live in? How interested are we, really, as artists, as audiences?

Louis Nowra complained many years ago that Australians have no sense of metaphor. This explains the radical shift from his early work - brilliant plays like Inside the Island, Inner Voices and The Golden Age - to the more palatable naturalism of Summer of the Aliens or Cosi, plays which were much more commercially successful and for which he is much better known. Perhaps he is right.

One of the ironies of Australian culture is that we have produced more brilliant poets per capita than practically anywhere else. Australian poetry is rich, diverse, intelligent and inventive; yet hardly anybody knows this. Aside from a couple of names like Les Murray, Australian poetry is a dark and unknown country, and our poetic history remains practically unknown outside a small coterie of readers. Francis Webb (whom Sir Herbert Read hailed as the peer of Rilke, Pasternak and Eliot ,"one of the greatest poets of our time . . . one of the most unjustly neglected poets of the century") is out of print. David Campbell, Randolph Stowe and untold others are forgotten. The situation is little better for most contemporary poets. The work is there, but very few people either know about it or are interested. It is certainly hardly a source of national pride.

This irony persists, to a lesser extent, through all our artistic disciplines. Even compared with Britain, Australia's grasp of the idea of a living culture embedded in its society is rather tenuous. This manifests in many ways: in the infantilism of the conservative criticisms made against Kristy Edmunds, which were more or less the equivalent of Nagg in Endgame crying "I want me pap!" You also see it in the impatience that demands Results, and hangs artists when they don't deliver. George Devine’s oft-cited “right to fail” – a most misunderstood right, which has to be earned through honest work – is not a concept that really exists in public discourse.

As regular readers will know, I will always call failure if I perceive it, and although I do attempt to be fair even when I loathe a work, calling failure always looks – and no doubt is – brutal. If I am to be honest as a critic, I have no choice. I personally feel that I owe it as a duty to art. (Yes, it sounds high-minded and even prim, but then, I was ever thus). How else is success to mean anything? I have never believed my opinion is the last word on any work: to do so seems to me the highest hubris, and is directly contradicted by some famous historical examples of critical maulings (Ibsen, Puccini, Kane spring to mind).

But nevertheless, as the Sydney critic James Waites said recently, there is an unease in doing so. Not because of the fact of failure, which is the risk of making art. But because perceptions of failure enter the public discourse in ways that can be crippling.

As a culture, we do not know how to deal with artistic failure, a judgment that is always – and must be – arguable. I have adored shows that others have loathed, and vice versa: that is how it should be. Having failed myself, and spectacularly, on many fronts, I don’t consider failure a life-blighting shame. (Some of the things I consider failures, I should note, have been publicly considered “successes”, and some of my private successes have publicly been considered failures – but perhaps, being a critic myself, I have a different relationship to criticism than most artists.) Success and failure have always seemed to me to be, as Giacometti said, secondary questions. Yet to fail in Australia gathers around itself a moral dimension, as if it’s a sin and a personal defect, rather than part – sometimes a necessary part – of the continuum of artistic endeavour.

This seems to me to denote a more general failure of attention. The evolution of artists is not considered an interesting phenomenon. It is a common complaint from practically every artist – unless they're popular superstars like Tim Winton or David Williamson – that to launch a new work always means starting from scratch. There is no sense in how art is received of a cumulative credit earned through the production of good work, no sense of continuity. Each work lands on the cultural stage existentially alone, hermetically sealed from its individual history, from its social context and artistic tradition. It is presented as a object that we consume, before we move onto the next, and is quickly absorbed and forgotten.

A telling example this year has been how the STC's Actors Company - one of the most ambitious mainstream experiments in our theatrical history, and certainly the most ambitious in the past decade - disappeared without a ripple. I have not seen a discussion anywhere that considered the implications of its failures or evaluated its successes (which, in my view, were considerable and exciting). Perhaps the commentators are waiting for the final production (the History plays, starring Cate Blanchett with the company) in January before they write their obituaries; but I still find the lack of comment after the announcement of the STC’s 2009 season startling. The end of the ensemble surely means, for example, the death of the persistent dream of a permanent ensemble that has haunted Australian theatre for decades. But even that barely raised an eyebrow.

Aside from some major problems of vision, and what was no doubt an increasingly unjustifiable expense in the light of complaints from subscribers, the major problem with the Actors Company seemed to be that audiences got sick and tired of seeing the same faces. They got bored seeing Pamela Rabe being brilliant in yet another role, or watching Hayley McElhinney again demonstrate that she is one of the best young actors in Australia.

As Diana Simmonds put it on Stage Noise:

Although the repertory company is now viewed through the rosy specs of nostalgia, there were many reasons for its demise: economics, television, bingo - and boredom. Boredom!

Boredom has arisen with Sydney's incarnation not necessarily because of play choice (more of that later), nor because the company actors are not - in the main - the crème de la crème, but because what started out as a glorious indulgence for a bunch of very lucky performers has turned into something much less for punters. Not least because there is even more crème left out in the cold, unable to get a gig because of this mob.

Even during the first season in 2006 variations on the following were overheard on a number of occasions in STC auditoria: "I love John Gaden and Pam Rabe is lovely, but I'm sick of them. I don't want to see them in every single show. I'm not renewing my subscription."

Aside from the fact that the Actors Company was actually not doing "every single show", and the palpable ressentissement of envy, this made me reflect. The Comédie-Française has survived for centuries, despite boring a large part of the Parisian theatre audience rigid. And “boredom” isn’t a complaint levelled against Mnouchkine’s ensemble, the Théâtre du Soleil – perhaps helped by the fact that they make one new show every couple of years, rather than 12 in two. (A major complaint was in fact that the Actors Company wasn’t as achieved as the Théâtre du Soleil. But how prepared are we to support an ensemble that will produce a new show every two or three years?) Rather than its failures, it seems to me to be more notable that the Actors Company produced some real triumphs in its brief life, despite a gruelling schedule and some dubious programming.

What does this suggest about Australian audiences and, perhaps more tellingly, commentators? It says to me that, while they might be briefly interested, even at times entertained, by art, they are not interested in culture. They are not interested in the kinds of evolution of practice that the Actors Company displayed in shows like The Lost Echo to The Season at Sarsaparilla. Watching the evolution of particular artists is for me of enormous and abiding interest, whether it's reading the oeuvre of a poet or novelist or following the trajectory of an actor. But perhaps in this I am a little odd.

What Australian audiences want, it seems, is the either the new or the expected. Whatever falls in between - being neither new nor a repeat of what went on before - falls through the cracks into a strange invisibility. It’s hard not to think of this as an inability to perceive art for its own sake; in either case it expresses a need for art to feed a desire that is extrinsic to the work itself: either a desire for novelty or a desire for consumable distraction. If neither of these things are present, the cultural mind glazes over.

In other words, success – the redefining of mainstream expectations – can open up another kind of failure (and not in the Eliotic sense). “Success” means the loss of the patina of the new. This is in fact right and necessary, part of the continuous dynamic evolution of culture. But in our case, it comes at a heavy price that is perhaps the reason why so many people complain that our culture is as thin as our topsoil.

We have little vocabulary to describe the evolution of artistic work. There are two choices: the new, young and “alternative”, which is its own justification, or a slide into torpid mainstream repetitions, which seems to be the mainstream definition of "success". What about artists who do not rest on their laurels, who are constantly exploring the possibilities mapped out in their early work? Where do they fit in? So far as I can see, precisely nowhere. And this, more than anything else, betrays the essential lack of depth in our culture.

What it means is that is very difficult in this country to build early success into deep achievement. Daniel Keene is a lucky exception – he has the resources of European theatre supporting his work, which means he can dream of big stages, large casts and imaginative directors, and has the freedom to explore all sorts of impulses in his work, in the knowledge that these investigations will be realised on stage. That this freedom is not available to most of our writers has been very clear in our playwriting over the past three decades. Its debilitating effect is nowhere clearer than in our film industry, where directors routinely disappear after their second film.

The crisis for mid-career artists - those who have a track record and experience and now are poised to make the work of their lives - was recognised by Paul Keating. His Australian Artist Creative Fellowships were introduced to counter this very problem, after he famously met the pianist Geoffrey Tozer and discovered to his shock that he earned less than half the yearly income of Keating's 18-year-old secretary. Predictably enough, those fellowships created not excitement, but envy and resentment, especially from those taxpayers who couldn’t see why money should be “given away” to artists, and they were scrapped quickly under Howard in favour of smaller grants to younger artists, which were, as always, easier to justify.

I should emphasise at this point that this is not the disgruntled plaint of a middle-aged artist against the brash interpolations of youth. If a young artist is valued more for her youth than her artistry, she is in as much trouble as the middle-aged concert pianist struggling away on $6000 a year. Although perhaps she is less tired.

The reasons for this blind spot in our cultural attention have been endlessly discussed for decades over every kind of table. I suspect one reason is that we are the only nation on earth that was founded as a bureaucracy, a fact which has had a much more lasting impact on the creation of our cultural mores than our convict past or the slaughter of bronzed Australian sons at Gallipoli. Crucially, the cultural contract between artists and their public is to a large extent formed by how art is written and spoken about in the public arena. And there's no escaping the fact that much of our cultural commentary, particularly in our mainstream media, has left a lot to be desired.

This doesn't erase the work of journalists who struggle against the limitations of daily newspapers or radio or television to cover the arts. Outside the mass media, there are many people attempting to bridge the gap: people like theatre historian Julian Meyrick, who addresses the persistent problem of Australian cultural amnesia, or initiatives like Currency House's excellent Platform Papers, which is a bold attempt to build public discussion. The situation now is a definite improvement on a decade ago, when aside from RealTime there was almost no intelligent discussion about the performing arts anywhere. In addressing the question of the cultural contract, the problem is that most of these outlets are specialist and remain outside the wider public discourse.

What I fear is what has always happened in Australian culture, the possibility which flares with wild promise and then splutters out into ashes of amnesia, the exhaustion which stems from the necessity for hope's constant resuscitation. Here culture has seldom suffered swift execution: much more often it is death by a thousand cuts, the gradual suffocation of the soul. The Rudd Government is presently giving little encouragement that much has changed since Michael Dransfield wrote in Like This For Years:

In the cold weather
the cold city the cold
heart of something as pitiless as apathy
to be a poet in Australia
is the ultimate commitment.

I guess the truth is that any real change is incremental and long term. And I am ever hopeful.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Hello, America!

Welcome back to the world!

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Review: The Masque of the Red Death, Yibiyung

(Or: yes, there is life after MIAF...)

The Masque of the Red Death, adapted from a story by Edgar Allan Poe, directed by John Bolton. Music by Jo Laing, set design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Jane Noonan, lighting design by Kimberly Kwa, sound design by Timothy Bright. Victoria College of the Arts Company 2008 Graduating Performance, Space 28, Dodds St, Southbank, until November 7.

Yibiyung by Dallas Winmar, directed by Wesley Enoch, dramaturgy by Lourise Gough. Set design by Jacob Nash, costumes design by Bruce McKinven, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti, composer and sound design by Steve Francis. With Jada Alberts, Jimi Bani, Sibylla Budd, Annie Byron, Russell Dykstra, Roxanne McDonald, David Page, Melodie Reynolds and Miranda Tapsell. Malthouse Theatre and Company B @ CUB Malthouse until November 16.

After too many years listening to respectable poets talk about their "craft", I have conceived a violent - if admittedly perhaps eccentric - prejudice against the word when it is yoked to "art". Craft is important if one is, for example, demanding shoes that don't let in rainwater or tables with the correct number of legs. Craft is essential and wholly admirable in the creation of any functional object. I spent many childhood hours watching a master blacksmith at his forge making lovely and useful things in ways that are now largely forgotten, and can personally attest to the deep magic of artisanship.

In the less directly functional realm of art, "craft" is a quality that makes me think of boxes that are cunningly joined together to admit no air. I'm not sure that I think that craft has anything much to do with art at all, perhaps primarily because I suspect that art isn't about function. I much prefer the terms "skill" or "technique" and can get as highminded as you like about the necessity of these: although even there I align with the poet Paul Celan, who said that technique is like hygiene: simply the least that one should expect.

And perhaps, for all its evident skilfulness, John Bolton's VCA production of The Masque of the Red Death would fail every measure on the dramaturgical craft meter. It doesn't make a lot of narrative sense or develop recognisable psychological portraits of its characters or follow any obvious laws of dramatic development, aside from having a definable beginning and end. A middle, I suppose, hangs between these things, but more as duration than development.

And although the performers quote most of Poe's original story, the show doesn't, for most of its length, have a lot to do with it (except that it is certainly a "gay and magnificent revel"). The story provides a structure, rather than a plot. Poe's gothic description of aristocrats holding a magnificent entertainment while plague rages in the outside world is rather the occasion for a string of theatrical sketches.

It is an evening of extreme cabaret, delivered with a black Artaudian edge, inventively directed and designed and performed with enthusiasm and (yes) skill. The comedy often has more to do with The Mighty Boosh or Derek and Clive or (in one obscene satire of Madame Butterfly) Austen Powers than with Poe, but there are moments of purely theatrical image-making that are beautiful and grotesquely unsettling. It has a hectic edge of doom-laden hysteria that seems especially apt for our media-hyped times.

Almost incidentally, it also explores various ways to relate to audiences, so you are always in a state of perceptual disruption. After watching the opening from conventional seats, the audience is invited into a tent that is constructed around them by the cast, seated in a circle and treated to some gyspy fortune telling. After that we were divided into smaller groups who were each taken into tiny rooms and entertained with a story (in our case, about Nelly, the "well-intentioned flea" who spreads the plague).

There are recitations of Poe's poems, sometimes in rude parody. There's a macabre tap dance, some ridiculously transparent magic tricks, a lot of gorgeous singing, many cruel jokes, lots and lots of mise en scene and more double entendres than you could poke a phallus at. It's all in highly questionable taste and no doubt most of the scatalogical humour is juvenile. But two hours went by on winged feet.

Yibiyung is, on the other hand, a well-crafted play. It's the story of Dallas Winmar's grandmother, who was taken from her family at the age of eight because she was a "half caste" and sent to a mission. From there she was hired out as a domestic servant to various white employers, until she ran away and rejoined her own people.

It's a story that, since the report on the Stolen Generations revealed a shameful litany of destroyed lives to a wider public, is now very familiar. And as director Wesley Enoch points out in the program, "in a post-apology world, the need to tell these stories has not evaporated". Given the continuing paternalism of Federal Indigenous policies, that's hard to argue with.

And in a way it's difficult to argue with this work, in that it is all honestly done and impeccably fulfils its own stated ambitions. It's beautifully directed, performed with energy and passion, well designed and lit. This coming of age story reveals the bureaucratic totalitarianism that ruled the lives of Indigenous people in Australia for most of the 20th century, and enslaved them in all but name.

In other words, this is Worthiness with a capital "W". Unlike Enoch's irresistible production of The Sapphires, it seldom escapes its didactic impulses. This worthiness is leavened by some inventive direction and appealing performances - notably from Miranda Tapsell as Yibiyung, with compelling support from David Page and Jimi Bani - but it's always there.

It's not like it's bad or that time hangs especially heavy. Yibiyung is an unusually well-realised example of a certain very recognisable kind of Australian theatre: it has an emphasis on researched authenticity, with a central character surrounded by multiply-cast cameos, which are mostly played with an exaggerated theatricality I'm beginning to think of as a Sydney style. It employs a lot of stage tricks to generate effective and clear story-telling, it has a moral (usually triumphalist) at the end, and it features much careful dramaturgy.

You can in fact see dramaturgical fingerprints all over it, even without noting that Louise Gough gets top billing on the program, underneath the playwright. Yibiyung tells its story clearly, it bounces along with vigour, it gets its meaning across without any fear of ambiguity, it even gets in some necessary complexity in its portrayal of White power over Black lives. You can almost hear the conversations that informed the play.

And that, really, is the problem. This is theatre that asks for an affirmative nod at the end, and which leaves you with the warm compensation of touching your own compassion. Its function - to record the untold stories of Indigenous Australia - is paramount, and its craft painstakingly fulfils its aim. It's hard to condemn, and equally hard to get excited about. I much preferred the tragic extremes of Enoch's Black Medea, which to my mind communicated with far more devastating force and complexity the dilemmas of Black Australia. But that one was a realisation of art rather than craft.

Pictures: (top) Josh Price in The Masque of the Red Death; (bottom) Miranda Tapsell and Jimi Bani in Yibiyung. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

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