Review: Peer GyntUshering in an old era?King of BroadwayBefore I forget...More over thereHere and over thereTN shenanigansReview: And When He FallsDance Massive: Lawn, Rogue, UntrainedReview: Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie MuddHolding noteSTC does ChurchillReview: The Year of Magical ThinkingHungerReview Dance Massive: Inert, Mortal EngineFrom the Land of the BlahsReview: Van Diemen's LandFillums, old and newEmail problems ~ theatre notes

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt. What a loser! Liar, narcissist, storyteller, dreamer, wild boy, arms dealer, Emperor of the Self, so fixated on his own desires that he loses himself altogether. Sinless because there isn't enough of him to sin with. He's saved by a song. (Or is he?) Saved by love. (Or is he?) Kept alive in the heart of a woman. Or was that him? Did he exist? (Do any of us exist?) What is he doing in this work of theatre? Is it a work of theatre? What is a work of theatre?

Who is Peer Gynt? He doesn't know. He jumped out of the brain of a Norwegian playwright one hot summer in 1867. Henrik Ibsen was an expatriate in Italy, then in the midst of war: as Garibaldi marched against Rome to eliminate the Papacy, Ibsen grumbled his way through various Italian beauty spots, his crazy epic poem spiralling recklessly out of the brutally hot sirocco that hit Ischia that year, so that he rose in his nightshirt sometimes because his head was so full of verse, writing down his octosyllabics and decasyllabics, the iambics, trochaics, dactylics, anapaestics and amphibrachs that all translators claim are impossible to translate into English. On a day of 46 degrees, Ibsen sent the first three acts to his publisher. After a minor earthquake sparked his famous physical cowardice, Ibsen fled Ischia for Sorrento, then Naples and Pompeii, and finally Rome, where he finished the poem in October. It was published in Scandinavia a month later.

Unlike Ibsen's previous epic Brand, which featured a noble protagonist, Peer Gynt met mixed responses. The poem was eviscerated by Norway's most influential critic, Clemens Petersen, who called it an "intellectual swindle", and declared that it was not poetry. Georg Brandes, another critic, said: "Ibsen's poem is neither beautiful nor true; what acrid pleasure can any poet find in defiling humanity like this?" After his fury (Ibsen was a bitter hater of his critics), his most illuminating answer to his critics is in an inscription he wrote in a book: "To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. / To write is to sit in judgement on oneself."

In all its unstageable recklessness, Peer Gynt is a pitiless self-portrait of a man fleeing the most essential conflicts within himself, endlessly seduced by his own trolls. Ibsen wasn't admired by people like James Joyce or Sigmund Freud for no reason: he was one of the first modern writers to externalise the demons of the unconscious, and Peer Gynt was the first of his extended explorations of the potent truths of nightmare and fantasy, the trolls beneath the skin of mundane reality.

Its fantastic elements mean that Peer Gynt is, like Goethe's Faust, famously unstageable. (Hence the joke in Educating Rita: How does one solve the staging problems in Peer Gynt? Answer: Do it on the radio.) In fact, in his astonishing production at the Victorian College of the Arts, it's debatable whether Daniel Schlusser has staged the play at all. He has rather conducted a parallel examination to Ibsen's of himself. He delves beneath the skin of Ibsen's text, reaching into its prior impulses in an attempt to summon the demons that lurk in contemporary realities. This production of Peer Gynt ambitiously extends the explorations begun in Schlusser's productions of A Dollhouse and Life is a Dream. Here Ibsen's savage nightmare becomes a haunting, fragmentary and hallucinatory, that spirals out of a distorted quotidian mundanity.

For the first 45 minutes, the play exists only in a snatched phrase or two, a scrawl of graffiti on the wall, a jokey reference to Grieg's famous music. The set - an extraordinary over-the-top design in day-glo colours by Anna Cordingley, mainly fashioned out of dozens of balloons - stretches the length of the studio theatre. On stage are a red sports car, a combi van, a blue swimming pool, banana lounges, a table. Nothing happens for a time, aside from some outrageously kitsch music and the sounds of magpies carolling (it is morning). A man stumbles out of the combi van and shuffles about the stage. He wakes a woman who is sleeping in the sports car. He gets a beer. Several beers. One by one, various actors in a confusion of costumes - a woman in white twinset and sunglasses carrying suitcases, a man in a panama hat, women in bikinis, a man in football beanie and shorts, people on motorbikes and bicycles - enter the stage. Some leave and return, some stay and fuss about with the banana lounges, opening champagne bottles, greeting each other with squeals of pleasure, gossiping inaudibly.

Gradually we understand, from fragments of conversation that we overhear as if by accident, that people are gathering for the rehearsal of a wedding. It's a wedding in which there is conflict; the bride is unhappy and keeps bursting into tears. Still the actors' movements are mysterious: they eddy about the stage, inscrutably private. It is as if we were watching a party from an elevated angle. And this is sustained for much longer than seems possible, flirting with the edges of frustration. Always, just as you begin to lose patience, something else catches up your attention: a man enters with an enormous bag of balloons and fills the swimming pool, or a fight breaks out, or a woman runs away crying.

Where, you begin to wonder, is Peer Gynt? And then you realise he is the skinny young man causing trouble at the edges of the gathering. And out of what seem like random swirls of activity, a story begins to emerge. It's the story of Peer Gynt, radically translated into contemporary symbols, barely recognisable but nonetheless present, through a glass darkly. The wedding is - or is like - the wedding at the beginning of the poem, in which Gynt's sweetheart is married unwillingly to the local butcher, and runs off with him for the night, causing his banishment. Imperceptibly, we find we are watching a double reality, a mundane and ugly reality that is infected by images from a dream.

At about this point the dream begins to shift to the foreground: the lighting states shift from general to specific, and fragments from the play begin to be enacted, spiralling out of the banal event we have been watching. It's never quite pinned down, and the reality is never quite stable. But from this fascinating confusion emerges moments of strange, almost surreal clarity that reflexively are excavated from the superficial and strangely heartless social occasion we've been witnessing. Peer Gynt himself (a marvellous performance by Kyle Baxter) stands out in relief at last against the action; he meets the trolls, he is mocked by a nameless voice wanting to know who he is, and he discovers, over an epic and strange journey to material success, that he has no idea who he is. He is, he finds, as empty as the middle of an onion: beneath all the layers that he is created of himself, he is nothing.

The urgency beneath the performance is a questioning of authenticity: of experience, of art. For all its fantastic nature and bizarre incongruities, what makes this show compulsively watchable is a profound veracity in its performances and intellectual exploration which is, all the same, radically dislocated from any sense of literal truth. It's most true to Ibsen's text in its poetic vision, how it has burrowed into and exploded the metaphors in the play, returning them to a surprising and vexed sense of truthfulness. It is an excoriating expose of the culture of narcissism that is nevertheless not without compassion, attending closely to the trivial details out of which people construct meaning.

In some ways, this production seems like a defiant wrenching of richness from a wide menu of emotional poverties. The ambiguity of the ending is telling: Schlusser pushes the sentiment of the love story between Peer and Solveig to the risible, placing them next to a giant pink heart made of balloons as Solveig sings a folksong of aching loveliness. And yet out of this extreme collision of kitsch, this strange wedding of contradictions, emerges a sharp splinter of real feeling; a glimpse, however ambiguous, of salvation.

Schlusser's re-blending of Peer Gynt is mischievous, beguiling and ultimately haunting, demonstrating that an act of creation is always simultaneously an act of destruction. He gets away with it because of the quality of attention in the direction: the stage is always focused, always dynamic, with a spatial discipline that recalls dance. If you expect to see a respectful performance of Ibsen's text, you'll be disappointed: the text is rather a provocation or occasion for thought. What you get instead is the chance to watch the continuing evolution of a fascinating investigation, in one of the most deeply interesting works of theatre you'll see in Melbourne this year.

Picture: Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer and Kyle Baxter in Peer Gynt. Photo: Jeff Busby

Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Kimberley Kwa, sound design and composition by Nick van Cuylenburg and Martin Kay. With VCA Acting Company 2009 and VCA Alumni. Space 28, Victorian College of the Arts, until April 1.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ushering in an old era?

Will the new Age arts editor, Michelle Griffin, herald a new era of accurate, in-touch arts journalism? Not if alleged arts journalist Robin Usher's report on the Green Room Awards in today's paper is any indicator. But maybe she hasn't had time to settle in yet. In today's report, Usher gobsmackingly manages not once to mention the Malthouse Theatre - even though, with 24 nominations, it garnered more than any other single theatre company. He also misunderestimates the MTC's haul by more than half - he says they got eight nominations, rather than 18. I thought he was, very eccentrically, refusing to count co-productions, but even on that basis he's got the wrong figures (nominated non-co-productions run five for the Malthouse, six for the MTC). (Update: See comments for further discussion on the non-co-pro question). To be fair, Usher does mention the Malthouse/STC's The Women of Troy - but only crediting it as an STC production.

This plumbs new depths, even for Usher. Perhaps someone should remind him that it is a news story, not an opinion piece.

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King of Broadway

News bulletin #153: Our Geoffrey has conquered Broadway with his genius portrayal of the dying Berenger in Ionesco's Exit the King. Among a swag of critical bouquets, New York Times senior critic Ben Brantley calls Rush a "fire-trailing comet" in an unreservedly rave review of Neil Armfield's production. It's a triumph for the Malthouse (known in its overseas entrepeneurships as Malthouse Melbourne) and Company B Belvoir St, which produced the original production. And remember: we saw it here first.

And while we're on the subject of New York: Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children continues to generate controversy after its New York Theater Workshop presentation. George Hunka points to Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon's must-read examination of the play.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Before I forget...

I should have been on the quivive, as I'm a member of the Companies panel ... but better late than never. The 2008 Green Room Awards nominations were announced yesterday. The Green Rooms cover musicals, theatre, dance, opera, cabaret, independent and mainstream theatre. There's also something called "alternative/hybrid performance" which I'd just call "theatre", but you know me. Given the cross-over nominations in other categories, the hybrid category tells you a lot about the present fluidity of theatrical form since the good old days - not so long ago, actually - when things were neatly divided between "fringe" and "mainstream". A quick trawl is a reminder of what a rich year 2008 was for Melbourne performance lovers, and also gave me a few pangs in reminding me of what I missed. Big winners in theatre are the Malthouse, with 24 awards in total across four categories, with the MTC coming in with 18.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

More over there

This should have been a continuation of yesterday's post about peripatetic Australians, but only arrived in today's mail: to wit, an announcement that the Malthouse's production of Optimism, which opens in Melbourne in May, is traveling to the Edinburgh International Festival and the 2010 Sydney Festival. Both festivals and the Sydney Theatre Company are co-producers of the work, an adaptation of Voltaire's Candide which will be directed by Michael Kantor and is written by Tom Wright. Wright's adaptation of Euripides's The Women of Troy was, incidentally, yesterday shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Literary Awards Play Prize. You can find the other shortlistees through the link.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Here and over there

Some titbits from the TN mailbox that might interest theatrenauts:

* The Australian Script Centre is turning 30, and to celebrate its birthday is conducting a national poll, in association with ABC Radio National, to discover Australia's favourite play. Join the conversation online at the Centre's site here.

* Patricia Cornelius's play Love, which premiered at the Malthouse way back in - 2004, was it? - is presently on in New York under the auspices of the Production Company's Australia Project, directed by blogger Mark Armstrong. Matt Freeman reckons it's fab.

* Independent Adelaide company Floogle opens Duncan Graham's Ollie and the Minotaur at Belvoir St Downstairs next month. Check it out; it was one of my favourite shows in Melbourne last year.

* Back to Back's brilliant show Food Court, one of my highlights from last year's MIAF, is finally coming to Sydney in June. It was dropped from the Sydney Festival program just before its first season, but Brian Eno has picked it up for his Luminous Festival at the Sydney Opera House, where it will travel after an appearance in Brussels.

* Our Geoffrey, lest we forget, is opening on Broadway this week in Exit the King, which as you all recall is a Malthouse/Belvoir St production directed by Neil Armfield. Only over on the other side of the Pacific, Rush is leading an American cast featuring Susan Sarandon.

* Over in the UK, London Bubble - a charming company whom I saw doing a fabulous adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses one magical night in a London park - has come up with a smart idea to make up for funding cuts: invite their fans to invest in them. You can buy a stake for 20 pounds, which means you can offer ideas, be in on rehearsals and in general be part of the Bubble community. Check it out here.

* And finally: Simon Phillips' Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical opens in London to standing ovations - and general canning from the British crrrritics. But it seems that where the West End counts - in the box office - it's hitting the spot. Even that dyspeptic duo, the West End Whingers, gave it a rave recommendation.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

TN shenanigans

I'll be doing light posting over the next couple of weeks, due to some heavy extra-curricular activity. Yes, in answer to some who have asked, I am writing another novel; it's much shorter than the other ones, I'm just over half-way, and it's providing me with the necessary creative angst for weeks of plaintive blog posts. But that's not why I'll be quieter here.

Firstly, I'll be chained to my desk reading plays for the 2008 Patrick White Playwrights' Award, an extremely worthy prize which was jointly won last year by Timothy Daly and our very own Angus Cerini (whose winning play, Wretch, was recently seen in a wonderful production at La Mama). Secondly, on Sunday I'm beginning my new career as a tv reality star. I will travel to the hamlet of Blinman in the Flinders Ranges to shoot an episode of Bush Slam, a new ABC series on, believe it or not, poetry. (In mitigation: I did explain to the producers, at length, that I am neither a bush nor a slam poet, and what's more, deeply urban, and that I was sure they were asking the wrong person; my protestations only made them more persuasive). My highest ambition on this one is not to make a complete dick of myself on national television, so wish me luck: I'll need lots of it.

Thirdly, after a punishing eight-hour drive through the nightscapes of South Australia, I will be travelling to Hobart for a few days to illuminate some tyro critics on the mysteries of theatre reviewing for Critical Acclaim. This program, which is in conjunction with the excellent Ten Days on the Island festival, is run by Arts Tasmania to encourage critical dialogue, and involves a few of us crrritics; I'll be taking up the baton from James Waites, who will have been warping those tender minds for a few days before I get there.

I'll be taking a laptop on my travails and might have time to check in (although, looking at the frighteningly dense Hobart schedule, maybe not there...) Meanwhile, I'm going into heavy training. Life sure is strange at the moment. But I'm not complaining.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Review: And When He Falls

I have an acquaintance to whom the mention of Shakespeare is as the red rag to the bull. Mention the "S" word and veins start throbbing his forehead and his eyes flash like traffic lights on the blink. Waving his copy of Das Kapital, spittle flying dangerously hither and yon, he raves of the oppression of the masses and of the sinister march of imperialism, of the Boots of the Establishment on the crushed necks of the Working Class, and so on and so on.

As one schooled in the mid-20th century radicalism of Jan Kott and thus believing that Shakespeare is a sly theatrical genius with subversion in the very marrow of his bones, this has always puzzled me. But maybe John Stanton has at last showed me why some people react with such class hatred to the Bard of Avon. If Shakespeare really were just the writer presented in And When He Falls, perhaps I would be out there waving a pitchfork with the best of them.

And When He Falls is like squinting through a glass darkly at the theatrical era conjured by Laurence Olivier. Or perhaps even further back, to Donald Wolfit. This Shakespeare is an English nationalistic icon, the dramatic historian of English imperial power. Stanton's mirror is fractured, so we only get little splinters of it, but it's full of nostalgia for the gargantuan performances that my father saw as a young man at Stratford-on-Avon, with Olivier pinning the disobedient audience with a gimlet eye, or even for that melodramatic extremity recalled in Ronald Harwood's brilliant remembrance of Wolfit, The Dresser.

Stanton's show is this Shakespeare dressed down for the Val Doonican generation, titbits of high culture dispensed with an avuncular air from an armchair.
It's a wholly Anglophilic piece, an exemplary piece of colonial art. Its real excuse is that it gives John Stanton - to give him his due, one of our best known and respected main stage actors - the opportunity to perform some of Shakespeare's great speeches.

Directed by his wife Jill Forster, Stanton recites a selection of passages from Shakespeare's History Plays - the St Crispin's Day speech from Henry V, for instance, or Richard II's marvellous meditation on the mortality of kings, as well as a couple of pieces from lesser characters, such as a panicked French sailor describing the destruction of the French fleet by the English longbowmen. Since the show is structured as a little history lesson on the Plantagenets, it's prefaced with a speech from Marlowe's Edward II.

The staging is simply a piano draped with a red cloth, a chair and a stool, and lighting that goes (unvaryingly) up and down on the dramatic bits. The direction follows the lighting: Stanton moves metronomically between piano and playing area, depending on whether he is being Simon Schama or Laurence Olivier. The composer Tony Gould sits behind the piano and tinkles a few notes underneath the language, barely enough to be called a soundscape, although whenever Stanton says "DEATH" or 'MURDER" the piano hammers out a ghoulish chord, just in case we missed the bloody bit.

Forster's direction permits Stanton to get away with some sheer ham. The show is a gallery of crude performance decisions, characterisation imagined as caricature. Edward II is a screaming queen, the Duke of York is a bluff northerner, Richard II a self-piting, fey aristocrat. And I don't think I have ever seen (outside a comedy, I mean) anything quite like Stanton's ssssssibilant Archbishop of Canterbury. I woke up briefly for Hotspur's speech, which had an emotional versimilitude, a spiteful rage, that the other speeches lacked. And before his rendition of Richard III turned into a pastiche of Ian McKellen's twistedly camp malevolence, I was drawn into it for similar reasons.

Perhaps it is simply my misfortune that the brilliant performances of many of the same speeches in the STC's The War of the Roses are still fresh in my mind. Certainly the memory of them amplified the mono-dimensional effect of these thumbnail portraits which, lacking the dramatic blood of context, are reduced to the status of party pieces. Worse, the stolidly factual historical contexts they are given seem sadly misconceived, since they conflate historical fact and fiction in ways which illuminate neither: the greatness of these plays exists, after all, in their metaphorical illustration of power, not in their (highly dubious) value as illustrations of history. Seldom has so much skill and virtuosity - both of which Stanton has in spades - been applied to such empty effect.

And When He Falls: The Plantagent Kings of England, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Directed by Jill Stanton. Performed by John Stanton and Tony Gould. Fortfive Downstairs until March 29.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dance Massive: Lawn, Rogue, Untrained

I've had one of those months where writing a sentence - any sentence - feels like I'm trying to sculpt a hammer out of porridge. Or did I just imagine that sometimes the logos floweth like those rivers of wine and honey? Maybe it's a trick of memory, something like the idea that women forget about the pain of childbirth (although that one must surely have been invented by a male gynaecologist whooping it up on laughing gas - I've never spoken to a mother who has said anything of the sort). Surely there must have been some reason I took up the trade of wordsmithing, besides an inability to play world-class tennis or to add up columns of numbers?

So take this as an apologia: I know very well that what follows is a loose and disconnected series of impressions rather than a sober review. Perhaps I can't think properly because my novel keeps calling me and taking some dastardly inner revenge when I don't answer. Perhaps it's just that I need a new brain from the supermarket. When I finish this, I am going to have a bath and a good lie down, and perhaps then I'll remember why I ended up being a writer. God was having a good laugh that day.

You know that things aren't working when it looks difficult, when those sentences still have hammer marks all over them. One of the hallmarks of ability is its invisibility, how it makes skill look like ease. Or so I reflected last week, watching the guys in Lawn lift each other with one hand as if they were made of paper. Goddam it, they made it look as if they were lifting balloons. They crawled up and down walls as if they were cockroaches. They threw themselves around the stage as if their bones were made of rubber. They stuck their heads in chairs and stayed there for what seemed like hours, and didn't suffocate. (Actually, that didn't look easy, it looked very uncomfortable). Afterwards, as they took their bows, you saw the sweat soaking their clothes. And by then you were so enchanted and moved by this extraordinary piece of dance theatre that all you could do was cheer.

Lawn is a collaboration by three Australian men - Vincent Crowley, Grayson Millwood and Gavin Webber - that is about the relationships between three Australian men in a cold German winter. It was created in Berlin and expanded in their native Brisbane, and has toured internationally to enormous acclaim. And no wonder. This is deeply exciting dance, physically thrilling (and sometimes even distressing in the anxiety you feel for the performers), visually beautiful (an extraordinary collapsible set by Zoe Atkinson) and musically brilliant (Iain Grandage creating a collage of vastly differing styles of music, from achingly lovely cello solos to German heavy metal).

Emotionally - well, emotionally it's all sorts of things. It's a passionate and unabashed exploration of masculinity - its aggression, its lostness, its danger, its tenderness, its hilarity - that makes you realise how exciting the smell of testosterone can be in the theatre. Through the physical language these men create, its wit and tension and brutality, emerges a profound tenderness, a lyrical delicacy and grace that is almost classical in its purity of movement.

The dance begins with the absolutely mundane - one man brushing his teeth, another eating cereal, another vacuuming - in a grotty apartment with thin walls and dodgy pipes. But this mundane reality is full of cracks through which emerge the grotesque, the violent, the beautiful and the funny: cockroaches appear from nowhere and run down a dancer's arms, a wardrobe door opens to reveal a man playing a cello, or a man in lederhosen comes out and plays Waltzing Matilda on an accordion, which is one of the funniest things I've seen on stage. The final image - an extraordinarily moving evocation of homesickness - makes you gasp with its unexpected beauty.

The young company Rogue, which presented three short dances at the Tower Theatre, offers a contrast to Lawn that demonstrates the range of Australian dance. As I saw one immediately after the other, the contrast was marked. Where Lawn is three bodies lost in an infinitely expanding domestic space, Rogue is many bodies crammed into tiny spaces. Lawn is impure dance/theatre, generating a personal, even lyric narrative; Rogue is much more concerned with pure dance, the intricacies of abstract movement. It's marked by a street-smart, pop sensibility, and is a lot of fun.

Byron Perry's A Volume Problem is a witty take on amplification, using two speakers as props. It begins in miniature, a dance of hands on a table-sized stage, and expands into short vignettes punctuated by darkness: flashes of a crowd at a concert, or solos that seem to be interior dances, the inward-directed privacy of the iPod generation. Antony Hamilton's The Counting, choreographed with the dancers, extends the technological imagery to sinister evocations of techno-humanity, with machine-like gestures evolving before an insistent, metronomic beat.

The final dance, Puck, reduced me to uncontrollable giggles: here the dancers are framed by a set by Malthouse in-house designer Anna Cordingley, which pulls on the imagery of shopping centres or games arcades. Another dancer carrying an old-fashioned Streets ice-cream tray roams the audience, distributing various noise-making objects: a bicycle bell, a light sabre, a ridiculously honking horn. Each sound is a command to the dancers, signaling a different routine. When the dancers run out of routine, they simply stop until someone in the audience rings their bell. The dance - which otherwise might continue indefinitely - is structured by a couple of blaring sirens and the lighting states.

Our audience was somewhat shy, which I regret: I would have been waving that light-sabre like a crazy woman, just to see what happened. But even so, as the noises became more varied and the dancers attempted frantically to respond to conflicting signals, an irresistibly funny anarchy began to emerge among the tightly disciplined routines. As its name suggests, Puck is an exploration of mischief, with a touch of the sinister: for all its comedy, the dancers are at the mercy of the audience, driven to please, to answer their commands.

Lucy Guerin's Untrained, presented in the dance-friendly space at the Meatmarket, is another take on command and response. The premise is lucid and simple: four performers, two trained dancers (Antony Hamilton and Byron Perry) and two untrained (visual artists Ross Coulter and Simon Obarzanek), are given a series of tasks, which they perform before an audience. The tasks are listed on pieces of paper laid on the floor, and the performances take place in a small square outlined in the middle of the stage.

It could be the essence of banality, a merely intellectual examination of the differences between levels of performative skill. Indeed, before I saw it, I read this withering review in the Age, which said that the work was simply going over old ground broken in the 1960s, and that although it was "mildly entertaining", Untrained was "ultimately uninteresting". Ouch.

After I had seen the show, this struck me as a rather ungenerous response: as with Two-Faced Bastard, I think you have to work hard to resist the unexpected charm of this show. But the review prompted me do some reading about the post-modern dance that emerged in 1960s New York. Post-modern dance evolved in part from the dance of Merce Cunningham, although it was a reaction to the purities of modern practice. It famously began with an influential series of performances in the Judson Church Hall in Greenwich Village in the early '60s. And yes, Jordan Beth Vincent is quite correct: Untrained is indeed in the same area. Like those performances, this show draws on Dadaist influences, Cagean randomness and task-based activity, and the vernacular of the everyday, using both trained and untrained bodies to examine the nature of performance.

Does this mean Guerin is merely reinventing the wheel? Is it naive to find it engrossing? I'm not so sure. For one thing, you'd have to be absolutely certain that Guerin doesn't know that the wheel exists in the first place. Myself, I'd be taking bets that she is perfectly aware of the traditions from which she is drawing. And also, you'd have to ignore the immediacy of the performances, which engage your attention throughout the show (which seemed a lot shorter than its 90 minutes). I thought of Borges's story about the man who rewrote Cervantes' Don Quixote, and his assertion that, although the second text was exactly the same, word for word, as the original, the newer writing was an entirely different work, because an entirely different time and series of necessities had brought it to fruition. I think something similar pertains here. Only more so, because performance only ever exists in the now.

What emerged from this series of tasks, ranging from the mundane - say your name backwards - to the comic - do a slow-motion fall - was a surprisingly moving process of personal revelation. You would expect the non-dancers to be vulnerable, exposed by their lack of skills when juxtaposed with such skilled bodies as Perry and Hamilton; what you might not expect is the vulnerability opened in the dancers as the visual artists began to exploit their comedic incompetence to charm the audience.

More than anything else, Untrained is four very intimate portraits. Portraiture is an overt theme: during the course of the show the performers drew pictures of each other, as well as speaking to paper sculptures that were self-portraits. The show is almost cubist in the way it opens out differing perspectives of looking (I guess it's no accident that two performers are visual artists) - we are aware of the performers looking at each other as well as us looking at them, and of the differing expectations with which we look.

It demonstrates how revealing movement is, exposing a person's shynesses and extrovert defences as well as their generous expressiveness. And it shows how expressiveness expands through play, opening up privacies of which the performers are not necessarily conscious. A young girl in front of me was enchanted and shook with laughter all the way through it; it was certainly funny, but that transparent comedy was gently underlaid by something else, something profoundly humane, which was much more complex than it seemed.

Lawn: Choreography: Splintergroup; performers: Vincent Crowley, Grayson Millwood, Gavin Webber; Rehearsal Director: Michelle Ryan; Dramaturgy: Andrew Ross; Musical Composer/Performer: Iain Grandage; Designer: Zoe Atkinson; Lighting Designer: Mark Howett. Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse.

Rogue: A Volume Problem
: Choreography: Byron Perry; Composer: Luke Smiles; Set Construction: Anita Holloway. The Counting: Choreography: Antony Hamilton and Rogue; Sound: Panasonic; Costume Designer: Doyle Barrow; lighting design: Frog - Bluebottle 3. Puck: Choreography: Rogue; Costume Design: Doyle Barrow. Dancers: Derrick Amanatidis, Sara Black, Danielle Canavan, Holly Durrant, Laura Levitus, Kathryn Newnham, Harriet Ritchie. Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse.

: Concept/ Direction: Lucy Guerin, Performers: Ross Coulter, Antony Hamilton, Simon Obarzanek, Byron Perry. Arts House, Meat Market.

Pictures, top to bottom: Lawn; Rogue; Untrained.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Review: Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd

Back in 2000 I was, for six months, a writer-in-residence in the hallowed halls of academe, viz. Cambridge University. This was a most interesting time in my life, not least because I am completely innocent of academic qualifications. This didn't prevent my hosts from (just in case, I suppose) painting DR CROGGON in gold lettering above the door of my rooms, which is the closest I will ever get to a PhD.

While I was there, I was granted an audience with JH Prynne, whom a number of smart people regard as the most significant English poet of the late 20th century. (Read him. He probably is.) With an austere but friendly courtesy, one of the most subtle and formidable minds I will ever meet took me for tea and buns in the Senate House, where dark polished wood tables and leather armchairs nestled comfortably on a huge and no doubt uninsurable William Morris carpet.

Naturally (he was talking to me, after all) the conversation at one point turned to theatre. "The problem with theatre," said Prynne, "is that it's crude." "Oh!" said I earnestly. "But that's why I like it so much!" It was barely perceptible, but a sort of pained shudder passed through him, a seismic quiver as of an oak whose roots are subtly disturbed by some hidden monster... We moved on to discuss other things. But I think I did my dash with Jeremy Prynne right then.

I guess it's the irrepressible vulgarity of Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd that made me think of that meeting with Prynne. It's crude, all right. It exploits the tricks and illusions, the painted faces and acrobatics and coarse jokes, that make up the vulgate of theatre; in this case, vaudeville around 1914. And yet it demonstrates precisely why this crudity can be so enchanting, and ultimately profound. Samuel Beckett, for example, was a huge fan of vaudeville, and exploited it in his own plays. Aside from its robust, even brutal liveliness, he understood how it can reveal, with an irresistible poignancy, our human absurdity, our fragile, self-blind mortality.

The parallel universe of Lally Katz’s imagination has always had something vaudevillean about it. It's an estranging, breathlessly anxious, uneasily hilarious place, a mirror in which the world is not merely backward, but upside down and inside out as well. Her long-term collaboration with director Chris Kohn has been one of the most fruitful in independent theatre, with award-winning productions such as The Eisteddfod and The Black Swan of Trespass establishing them among the most striking talents on the Australian stage. Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd brings their collaboration to a new level.

It echoes elements of all their previous work, but its extrovert theatricality and emotional richness reminds me most of the haunting sadness of Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano, an extraordinarily original dramatisation of fractured solipsism. Like all of Katz's plays, her characters exist in a claustrophobic, self-contained fantasy world, a world of sinister and seductive charm tinged with nightmare. As the plays progress, they become - I can't think of a better word - unhinged: a kind of centrifugal force undoes the tendons of the characters, revealing beneath their artifice a terrible emptiness: an anguished longing, perhaps, or something as simple as the recognition of death.

This makes her oeuvre sound repetitive and even gloomy. On the contrary, the restlessness of Katz's imagination ensures that her creations have been enormously various, and they're always funny, with her spiky lyricism generating moments of genuine beauty. In this latest work, the tatty charm of vaudeville in the brief moment of Edwardian sunshine before the outbreak of World War One (beautifully realised in Jonathan Oxlade's set and costume designs) is re-imagined as a distorted fairytale, a fable about love, time and change.

Charlie Mudd (Jim Russell) is the not-so-successful impresario of Charlie Mudd Vaudeville Castle, a down-at-heel theatre that in this alternative Melbourne is situated on the bank of the Swanston River. He leads a strange band of misfits: Maude Adle (Christen O’Leary), “ventriloquist, singer and musical paper tearer”; Knuckles (Circus Oz star Matt Wilson), “acrobat and domestic balancer”; Allarkini (Alex Menglet), “magician and man of mystery”; Ethylyn Rarity (Julia Zemiro), “insect impersonator and singer of dramatic arias”; and Bones (Mark Jones), the “End man”. They are framed in an old-fashioned 19th century stage, complete with red velvet curtains, and their performances are drawn from genuine Tivoli variety acts. But in Mudd's theatre, there is no difference between the performer and the actor; both are the same person. As the Great Allarkini says, the magic is real.

Although the Tivoli acts have been, as it were, lallykatzed, there is a feeling of authenticity in the peformances that make up the bulk of the first half, which is structured - sort of - as an improvised and notably unsuccessful performance before an absent audience. The racism and sexism of the early 1900s haven't been airbrushed out of the picture. When Bones walked onto the stage in full Black and White Minstrel blackface at the beginning, sitting down at a piano decorated with a watermelon, the audience gasped audibly. Even more so when the new ingenue Violet - soon to be drawn into the theatre's sinister dreamworld as Ethylyn - commented that it must take a long time to make up before his performances. He is uncomprehending: "I'm sorry, Miss Violet," he says. "You done lost me there." In this theatre, to perform is to be; outside the act, there is nothing.

What you understand primarily is the essential innocence of each character, a sense that deepens in the second half, when the back-stage realities come to the fore. Each character is damaged - Bones suffers the pangs of unrequited love, Maude is a victim of incest, Allarkini's only magic trick is to suck worms out of the veins of the living, demonstrating that they are the walking dead. Charlie Mudd himself is a kind of Bluebeard who would rather kill than accept the death of love. (There is even the fairytale forbidden door, but it reveals not the corpses of dead wives - they're beneath the floor - but the possibility of freedom).

As with the Katz/Kohn Ern Malley, I found myself sympathising with these greasepainted characters, who are half-aware of their vertiginous fictional status. Like them, we all believe that our roles are real, acting them out in the tawdry theatres of our imaginations; like them, we're afraid to let go of our illusions and assigned roles, in case we find a yawning vacuum beneath. And we too hover with blithe unawareness on the edge of global catastrophe. It's hard not to laugh uncomfortably at the opening song: "Welcome to 1914... the people are peaceful, the economy is strong / There's nothing that could possibly go wrong". Yeah, right.

What begins as a warts-and-all evocation of a mostly forgotten past morphs into an unexpectedly moving meditation on time, nostalgia and mortality. And, perhaps most importantly, a meditation on both the imprisonments and freedoms of love. It's as much an essay on theatre and the nature of illusion as distorted fairtale. The final scene is a dismantling of theatricality that reminded me of nothing so much as Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest, when the enchanter breaks his magic staff and pleads for his release from the audience “with the help of your good hands”.

The performances are exhilarating, striking a note between heartless caricature and possible sentimentalisation, discovering an uneasy, even grotesque realism. Every cast member finds at least one moment of genuine tenderness - Christen O'Leary's lovelorn ventriloquist, for example, reflecting that the only man who loved her was her incestuous father, or Mark Jones (who also composed the music) when he sings Bones' song of unrequited love, which is the show-stopper of the evening. Jones is in fact the lynchpin of the show, his piano punctuating the dialogue and action just as his emotional story provides the backbone of what passes for plot. (I'm not sure Katz does plot, as such).

Chris Kohn's meticulously orchestrated production grabs your entire attention for two and a half hours, stepping deftly between comedy and tragedy, illusion and reality. While you might miss the vertiginous sense of risk that characterised some of Katz and Kohn's earlier work (notably in Volcano, which somehow maintained throughout a sense of imminent collapse, and seemed to be a play imagined as a acrobatic feat), it's more than made up for by the sureness with which unlikely imaginings are here realised on stage. This is deeply accomplished work, darkly beautiful theatre that resonates in the intimate chambers of the mind.

Picture: Julia Zemiro and Christen O'Leary in Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd.

Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd by Lally Katz, concept and direction by Chris Kohn. Set and costumes by Jonathan Oxlade, music composed by Mark Jones, sound design by Jethro Woodward, lighting design by Richard Vabre. With Mark Jones, Alex Menglet, Christen O'Leary, Jim Ruseell, Matt Wilson and Julia Zemiro. Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until March 28. Bookings: (03) 96855111.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Holding note

Ms TN is nearing the end of what has been an extraordinarily high-quality, buzzy week of theatre/dance going. In fact, I've been so busy going that I have been doing little writing... but reasoned and perhaps even properly spelt commentary is, I assure you, on the way. First up on a rather long list is Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd: a brief consideration was in yesterday's Australian but I'm meditating something a little longer here. Which will be up this weekend, I hope, with dance reviews hard on its heels. In the meantime, you need not lament for lack of reading: RealTime has been logging some heroic coverage of Dance Massive, much of it by some of our constellation of indefatigable Melbourne bloggers. Onwards!

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

STC does Churchill

The Sydney Theatre Company is presenting a reading of Caryl Churchill's controversial short play Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza. Approximately ten minutes in length, the play is Churchill’s response to the situation in Gaza, written in January 2009. It caused a widespread media furore when it was first performed in February at the Royal Court Theatre, London.

Seven Jewish Children will be presented as a free rehearsed reading on Sunday, March 22 at 7pm at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1, immediately following the evening’s scheduled performance of The Removalists by David Williamson in the same theatre. Ian Sinclair will direct the reading, but casting is still to be confirmed.

Previous productions of Churchill's work by the STC have included Far Away, directed by Benedict Andrews, Top Girls directed by Melissa Bruce and Serious Money directed by Simon Phillips. The event is part of the Company’s Back Stage program, including play readings, ‘meet the artist’ forums, pre-show briefings and back stage tours.

The reading is a free, unticketed event with entry on a first-come first-served basis. And it also gives me an excellent excuse to point to David Jays' meticulous close reading of the text, Practical criticism: reading without prejudice, on Performance Monkey.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

If criticism were simply a matter of ticking boxes, it might be safely assumed that I would hate The Year of Magical Thinking. It's a 90-minute monologue adapted by Joan Didion from her book of the same name, in which she recounted what happened after the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, during the ultimately fatal illness of their only daughter, Quintana. Didion's book was finished before her daughter died, 20 months after Dunne, but the second death is folded into the play.

The play narrates Didion's devastating experience of grief and the beginnings of her acceptance of the deaths of those whom she most loved. Put like that, it sounds straightforwardly bathetic. Superficially, this show appears to have the voyeuristic attraction of the misery memoir, prinked with a blush of aspirational privilege (Didion is the very image of the privileged American, a cultural aristocrat). Worse still, it's underlined by autobiographical facticity, pulling on an authenticity which is, most often, hostile to the more elusive authenticity of art.

It could be the worst kind of middle-brow theatre, the placatory event which opens a wound only to declare that a band-aid is sufficient to erase it entirely. What prevents this is two coruscating artistic intelligences, Joan Didion and Robyn Nevin, whose work is framed by a non-invasive, minimal production directed by Cate Blanchett.

The show begins with Didion reporting the death of her husband from a massive heart attack, three months before their 40th anniversary. She speaks with a sceptical, ironic accuracy that heightens the numbed denial that is the subject of the play: the "magical thinking" that makes her refuse to throw out his shoes, because he will need them when he returns. Gradually she also reveals the dangerous illness of her daughter. The text jumps neurotically from scalpel-sharp details of the appalling present into the "safe" past, a past which at the same time Didion seeks to avoid because it is annihilatingly painful to remember.

The journey from borderline insanity to difficult acceptance is mercifully free of affirming statements: Didion is far too honest and exacting to cheat. The denial she describes is a wholly human inability to cope with pain; here she scales the grim topologies of the grief Gerard Manley Hopkins describes in his poem:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief
More pangs will, schooled as forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief? ....

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Didion's is a prosaic expression of this pain, athough she often calls on poetry (Auden, for example, in a beautifully elliptical allusion to Musee des Beaux Arts in which she speaks of the ordinary details that surround disaster: "The clear blue sky from which the plane fell. The swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.") She desires, with the passion for truthfulness which is the real mark of intellectual energy, to describe grief as it is: "Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."

Didion is enough of a writer - which is, as Robert Frost once confessed, a cold vocation - to be able to take such deeply personal anguish and shape it into art. This is much rarer than our confessional culture will admit, requiring an almost inhumanly cool attention that at the same time admits the raw reality of feeling: the icy hammer, if you like, on the molten metal. The difference between this activity and what's called "self-expression" is like the difference between the shaped energy of a Giacometti sculpture and, say, a pile of guts on a butcher's block.

Which isn't to say that The Year of Magical Thinking is a great piece of drama. It isn't: mostly it remains great prose, an art closer to the patient, cumulative detail of weaving than it is to the sculptural dynamic of dramatic writing. But it still makes a compelling monologue that is wrenchingly moving, yet shot through with a profoundly literate and mischievous intelligence.

I suspect that Robyn Nevin is perfectly cast in this role: like Didion, she is a flawless and meticulous technician, able to modulate with superb subtlety and nuance the fluid, destabilising tensions between sceptical, investigating intelligence and shattering feeling that animates the text. If she doesn't quite scale the heights of her terrifying performance in The Women of Troy, she isn't far behind in this role. It was a grand day for Australian theatre when Nevin decided to return to the stage.

Alice Babidge's set is minimal: black cavernous walls on two sides of the Fairfax, and on the floor rows and rows of black chairs. Nevin is revealed seated mid-stage at the beginning, and moves from chair to chair, intimately close to the audience and then lost in distance, her monologue punctuated by Nick Schlieper's impeccable lighting and Natasha Anderson's sound design. I felt occasionally that the sound design lacked the nuance of the other aspects of the production, that there was perhaps the odd crudity in the direction; but for all that, what counts in this show are the text and the performance, and they shine.

However leavened by Didion's wit, The Year of Magical Thinking is an emotionally gruelling and demanding play. It's certainly not for everyone: the man next to me was almost catatonic with boredom, squirming and fiddling in his chair to the point where I was tempted to deck him, and clapped very reluctantly. Indeed, after a few conversations, I began to wonder if there is something in this show that appeals especially to women: the toughness and intellect in it is so specifically feminine, perhaps, in its unsparing relationship to feeling. But that's very wobbly territory, and I won't go there; certainly my speculations emerge from some unscientific research. But if you're interested in brilliant acting, and what bourgeois theatre can look like when it's very good indeed, go see it.

Picture: Robyn Nevin in The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, directed by Cate Blanchett. Set designed by Alice Babidge, costume by Giogrio Armani, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composer/sound design by Natasha Anderson. With Robyn Nevin. Sydney Theatre Company presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until April 11.

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"The difference between hunger and appetite is very important. And the harder it becomes to feed the population of the world, the more hunger in art decreases. There can't be art without hunger. Art can't exist if it doesn't want to consume and to possess everything."

The Death of Seneca, Heiner Müller

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Review Dance Massive: Inert, Mortal Engine

"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! - There is nothing like dancing after all. - I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."

"Certainly, Sir; - and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. - Every savage can dance."

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

It's not surprising that Jane Austen's Mr Darcy, a product of a literate, aristocratic and above all language-centred society, should feel discomfort with dancing. In his snooty dismissal of its value to civilised life is an unspoken fear: he quite rightly suspects that there is an innate quality in dance that subverts the realities which language seeks to legislate - the ordered layers of the class system, for example, or the rational syntax of an ordered (colonial) society in which everyone knows his or her place, itself rigidly predetermined by race and birth.

Although we're a long way from 19th century England, dance still holds that subversive possibility. Partly it's the inescapable eroticism of dance, its insistence on the physical reality of the human body. Dance imbricates the certainties of language with its own language of gestural ambiguities. No matter how pure and effortless a movement might seem to be, those watching are still aware of the dancer's weight landing on a stage, the heaviness of a body in tension with its dynamic flight. Even more insistently than in the theatre, the metaphor of dance grounds itself on literal fact: the body on stage performs, and the body off-stage watches, responds, and generates the multiple narratives that individual imagination brings to performance.

This might seem to be the absolute basis of performance, the irreducible earth from which all else grows. But a lot of contemporary dance seems to zero in on even these assumptions, holding up the relationship between performer and audience to relentless and fascinating scrutiny. Inert - a collaboration between dancer /choreographers Simon Ellis and Shannon Bott, designer Scott Mitchell, sound designer David Corbet and videographer Cormac Lally - is a radical example.

Inert is performed by two dancers for an audience of two, which is interesting enough as a proposition. My curiosity was piqued still further when I was asked for my height (why could they possibly need that detail?) I confess to feeling slightly nervous beforehand as I waited in the anteroom with my co-audient at North Melbourne Town Hall, knowing already that this would probably be a uniquely naked experience. After all, when you are part of an audience, you are - or at least, you feel that you are - invisible. As John Berger points out, the gaze is a powerful authority. What happens to that authority, that entitled sense of selfhood, when the artwork looks back, and it can't be looking at anyone except you?

Even so, as the usher led me into the room where the performance took place, there was also an sense of immense privilege. Effectively, a dancer was to dance for me alone. It was like being the Sun King (if you can imagine the North Melbourne Town Hall as a kind of Versailles...oh, never mind...) This mixture of contradictory feelings, disempowerment and privilege, was made more complex still as we were each led to vertical metal slabs, perhaps two metres apart. These looked like nothing so much as operating tables, with footrests on which we were asked to stand. Then we were both given cushions to place behind our heads and headphones to cover our ears. From then on, we were uniquely alone: for the rest of the performance, I was aware of everybody in the room except my co-audience member.

The effect of all this preparation was twofold: I was wholly passive, my arms hanging down, my eyes directed forward. It seemed impossible to move (and there was no desire to, either). It was almost infantalising, like being in hospital. At the same time, I was acutely aware of the weight and shape of my own body, and of the dancer before me (Simon Ellis), who began his dance as an ambient electronic soundscape began to fill my ears. Mainly, as if my gaze was riveted in front of me, I watched Ellis, although I was aware of Shannon Bott dancing the same moves. It was almost as if it was discourteous not to watch "my" dancer all the time, although my gaze flickered across the room. For their part, the dancers performed solely for their chosen audient, except for one moment where each acknowledged the other, glancing across the room.

For the first few minutes I felt very exposed. I was sensitised to the weight of the smallest gesture - my own as well as the dancer's. Should I meet the dancer's eyes? Or was that presuming too far on a relationship that was, after all, between strangers? Was I trying too hard not to look self-conscious, too obviously breathing to relax myself? But after a while, I lost that self-consciousness and found a deeper awareness not mediated by shyness; I became absorbed in the dance itself. My sense of self-presence was subtly alienated and sharpened by the headphones, which provided a kind of privacy; and yet at the same time I was unable to forget the weight of my body, that I took up as much space as the dancers.

Then Ellis approached me, and there was a brief moment of something rather like terror - was he going to touch me? (Why should that be terrifying? Or was it pleasure? Or both?) But no, he grasped the slab and began to push it very slowly backwards, until I was aware that there was a screen above my face, less than a metre above me, and that images were flickering across it.

These were intimate images of Ellis: close-ups of his hands, filmed so you could see the grainy texture of the skin, or of his face, smiling at me (no, not smiling at me, smiling at the camera, at someone else, at some other time). They were accompanied by a voice whispering urgently into my ears, speaking obliquely of a relationship, all of it addressed to a "you", that might have been "me", although I knew it wasn't, it was someone else. But it was said to me all the same. This was, interestingly, the most intimate part of the performance: the filmed images permitted me a proper invisibility and distance, I suppose. And now my body was floating in space, in some other dimension, fully aware, fully relaxed. The words became more insistent, even a little hostile, and then I was looking at an image of feet hanging, two shiny black shoes suspended above a skirting board, and for a moment I thought, oh no, this is death, he has hanged himself; but then I realised it was an extreme slomo shot of Ellis jumping.

Finally, when the monologue had finished, Ellis slowly turned the slab to the vertical again. This time I was wholly aware of my changing centre of gravity, of the heaviness of my feet and the way the organs inside my body shifted. There was a brief dance, and then the lights went out. I wasn't sure if I should clap - one person clapping in an empty room can seem much louder than a whole auditorium - and was led out into the world. During the performance the skies had burst and big fat drops of rain were falling outside the window. I was so disoriented, a feeling that persisted for at least an hour, that I thought at first that the sound of the raindrops was another performance. Which perhaps it was. God's own installation.

What stays with me is the enormous tact of this performance: it was an act of radical destabilisation that was never anything but gentle. It demonstrated that intimacy is, more than anything else, the act of noticing details, of sharpening the gaze from the general to the acutely particular. When I walked out, I ruminated on the final words: This is not real. Of course it was real, in the same ways, and with the same contradictions, that the whole world is real, and the intimacy wasn't wholly false. But of course it was a fiction as well.

It's hard to think of a greater contrast to Inert than Chunky Move's spectacular Mortal Engine. Unusually for Gideon Obarzanek, who has been the among the most restlessly experimental minds attacking the question of spatial relationships between audience and performers, Mortal Engine is a straight proscenium arch show, with the audience front-on to a steeply raked stage, that is itself framed within the darkened space of a theatre. So far, one might think, so conventional.

But of course, Chunky Move is never that straightforward. Mortal Engine is in fact a continuation of Obarzanek's collaboration with the technical magician Frieder Weiß, who designed the interactive system that drives the light and sound in this show. The first fruit of their work was the solo dance Glow, a lyrical gem that evolved disturbing and beautiful choreographies of body and light. Glow, performed on a square mat in what was effectively a boxing ring, had a visceral intimacy and elegance of form that is here opened out, with phenomenal sensual success if not without a concomitant loss, into spectacle.

The radical alienation of Mortal Engine begins before the performance starts, in the low lighting of the auditorium. It is dark enough to fool the eyes, for individual faces to be thrown into relief by the yellow light against pools of blackness. In stark contrast to Inert, the audience is invisible, hidden in shadow. The dancers emerge from this shadow like primeval life forms creeping out of the id, falling down the steep face of the stage in their self-generated pools of light and shadow.

The show's dream-like feeling is underlined by a series of almost domestic sequences that punctuate the dance. A couple seem to be lying in a double bed (actually a vertical wall that rises from the foot of the set), turning in the blind, clumsy intimacy of sleep. The scenes seem like those infrared films taken of sleeping people, and carry a similar sense of voyeuristic invasiveness, except that as they move strange things happen - in one sequence they writhe away from gelatinous shadows, with an amplified noise like damp sticking plaster, and in another they are possessed by a field of electric energy, which explodes out of their bodies in a visible field.

Mortal Engine is, as its title indicates, a choreography of dualities - male and female, waking and dream, self and other, flesh and machine, light and shadow - moving in a constant state of flux and tension. Most of it is characterised by ambiguity: in this world, a dancer can "throw" light just as he or she throws a shadow. But at other times images evolve with a sinister directedness: near the beginning, a dancer is menaced by a many-legged shadow, a humanoid mass that swallows her and from which she fights free, only to be swallowed again. In another, a woman lies on top of a man, pinning down his every movement, his shadow blotted out by hers.

The vivifying sense of tension is missing in a sequence that is pure light show. It features spectacular sound-sensitive graphics but, without the complexity of the human body, they remain just a retinal explosion. It's frenetically brilliant, but lacks the visceral connection that otherwise dramatically emphasises the emotional textures - including the alienations - of Obarzanek's choreography. The danger of spectacle is, of course, that it remains merely spectacle.

There are sequences that are blindingly beautiful - dancers moving across the white stage as little flecks of shadow fall down from their gestures, like trails of confetti, or two dancers moving through grids of light that move chaotically where their bodies touch. And the final laser sequence, in which dancers control the lighting with their arms, carves the auditorium into strange fluid chambers defined by green light. After all this distancing, this ocular estrangement, we are fleetingly in a small room with the dancer, enclosed by rippling walls of darkness. It's deeply unsettling, at once intimate and alien. As if, as it almost seemed to be in the beginning, the dance emerges from our own dreaming.

Top: Simon Ellis in Inert. Photo: Nat Cursio; Bottom: Charmene Yap in Mortal Engine. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

Dance Massive:

Inert, choreographed and performed by Shannon Bott and Simon Ellis, designed by Scott Mitchell, sound by David Corbet, videography/editing by Cormac Lally. North Melbourne Town Hall until March 15.

Mortal Engine, directed and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek, interactive system design Frieder Weiss, laser and sound artist Robin Fox, set design by Richard Dinnen and Gideon Obarzanek, lighting by Damien Cooper. Dancers (rotating): Kristy Ayre / Sara Black / Amber Haines / Antony Hamilton / Marnie Palomares / Lee Serle / James Shannon / Adam Synnott / Charmene Yap. Chunky Move @ the Malthouse Theatre, closed.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

From the Land of the Blahs

Your fearless blogger made several Resolutions at the end of 2008, most of which - rather unusually - she has stuck with. One of them was to cease and desist from writing those endless posts whinging about her hayfever/colds/attacks of typhoid which seemed such a feature of TN 2008. So no whinging, just a quiet apology for her recent slackness. Despite everything, I have managed to appear discreetly at a couple of Dance Massive events. Dance Massive, if you haven't caught up, is a small but perfectly formed program of contemporary Australian dance that is on in four venues around town until March 15. It's not a "festival", apparently. Which is good. I am, as you no doubt know, constantly afflicted by harassing feelings of guilt during festivals...

Although I'm less than present at present, there's no shortage of excellent reading online for all you eager theatrenauts. So let me list a few. Jana Perkovic at her smart new blog Guerilla Semiotics has a comprehensive and useful rundown on what's happening in Melbourne this week, with some useful Dance Massive links (if you haven't subscribed to this blog, which is looking like a must-attend, do so immediately). Up north in Sydney, Matt Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit has taking time out from being a star cub reporter for the Australian to attend to his blogging, and today has a thoughtful review of Bell Shakespeare's Venus & Adonis, now on at the STC after opening at the Malthouse here.

On the shock horror front, Sydney critic James Waites has posted some pictures of himself in the aftermath of a brutal mugging that happened on his way home from a play, demonstrating that the life of a critic can be more dangerous than most people realise. (As a corrective to those images, he also puts in his bid to be a soft porn star.) David Williams from Compromise is Our Business makes his own bid for celluloid stardom with some useful hints on how to write successful grants for the Australia Council. Disappointingly, as I was secretly hoping for some Brendan Behan theatrics, I didn't see any sign of the boozy lunch that allegedly preceded the filming...

Further afield, David Jays at Performance Monkey, another must-read blog, has an amusing post about theatre etiquette in the age of cyber-narcissism. And George Hunka at Superfluities Redux provides some brain food with links to some fascinating interviews with Heiner Muller and some news about up-coming Howard Barker events which, sadly for me, aren't happening in Melbourne. And also an overdue pointer to Alex Sierz's new blog, Pirate Dog, which is posting bite-sized chunks about British theatre. Sierz, some of you might recall, is the coiner of the term "In-yer-face theatre", and even wrote the book on it.

Now I'll go back to my discreet grumbling. Back soon, when my fettles are finer.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Review: Van Diemen's Land

I first encountered the story of Alexander Pearce around 15 years ago in Robert Hughes's indispensible history, The Fatal Shore. It's a narrative notable for its brutal mathematics: eight men escaped from the notorious punishment camp of Port Macquarie, established on the far side of Tasmania, and entered what is still some of the harshest wilderness in Australia. One man, Alexander Pearce, survived.

Pearce gave a statement to authorities after his eventual capture in which he confessed to killing and eating his companions. It was so outlandishly grotesque that they refused to believe it, thinking that he was covering for his fellow escapees. But after Pearce escaped again and was caught with human flesh in his pockets, they hanged him. When Marcus Clark based an episode in For The Term of His Natural Life on Pearce's story, he was assured notoriety as the "cannibal convict".

Discussing Pearce's statement, Hughes comments that it "might have come from an Elizabethan revenge tragedy..." And it's not surprising that this tale should be the subject of a film. What is a little surprising is that last year no fewer than three movies drew on Alexander Pearce's story for their premise: The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, directed by Michael James Rowland, which ran on ABC-TV a couple of weeks ago; a cannibal horror-fest called Dying Breed; and a modestly brilliant short film by VCA graduate Jonathan Auf Der Heide, called Hell's Gates. Clearly something is in the zeitgeist; of which more in a moment.

Hell's Gates won Auf Der Heide the Melbourne Airport Emerging Filmmaker and Best Student Film awards at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival. He then announced that he planned to raise a laughably miniscule budget from private sources and make a feature-length version in the wilds of Tasmania; a quixotic adventure indeed, the kind of thing that warms the cockles of Ms TN's heart, as long as she isn't out there freezing her tender bits off in the snow. And against all probability the result, Van Diemen's Land, premiered last week at the Adelaide Film Festival.

Anyone familiar with Melbourne theatre will recognise a few names in the production listings. Oscar Redding, who co-wrote the film with Auf Der Heide as well as playing Alexander Pearce, was the director of The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, a Dogme-style gem filmed in the streets of night-time Melbourne that started off life as a remarkable theatre production. Thomas Michael Wright and Mark Leonard Winter have been making names for themselves as members of the anarchic Black Lung collective. Greg Stone is a fixture on Melbourne's main stages and deservedly regarded as one of our finest theatre actors, and John Francis Howard has been a stalwart of experimental Melbourne theatre for decades. The film's music is by Jethro Woodward, who is a well-known theatre composer. Auf Der Heide himself is no stranger to independent stages: I first saw him as a very young actor in the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project.

Van Diemen's Land emerges, in fact, from Melbourne's independent theatre culture, which explains my personal interest as well as, I think, its romanticism. For all the savagery of its story, the visual beauty of this film harks back to the haunting poetry of some classic Australian films of the 1970s - Picnic at Hanging Rock, for instance, or Peter Weir's The Last Wave. And like those films, it is driven by an urgent sense of self-definition, a desire to grapple with the received ideas of what it means to be Australian. From its opening moments, which quote a 19th century newspaper article that compares Australia's founding with the equally bloody birth of Rome, Pearce's story is presented as a foundational myth of nationhood.

I suspect the recent fascination with Pearce might be, consciously or not, a corrective to the nationalism which came to the fore under the Howard Government, which fetishised the bronzed Aussie heroes of Gallipoli as the noble sacrificial emblems of nationhood. This story is earlier and uglier, and is a brutal reminder of the predatory and violent act of colonisation. Notably, in this story the colonial predation is, quite literally, on the colonists themselves.

Van Diemen's Land makes a fascinating contrast with Terrence Malick's film The New World, which also looks at an early moment of colonisation, this time of America. Both films share a fascination with landscape, and in fact feature almost identical shots of rivers opening lyrically through forested hills and dizzying silhoettes of trees against sky. But the differences are striking. The New World was a projection of Renaissance Europe, a fantasy of savage splendour and fertility. Two centuries later, Australia was its dystopian answer: a penal colony, the creation of Georgian bureaucracy, which became synonymous with authoritarian brutality. Its initial promise of fertility turned out to be a mirage, its landscape and Indigenous people indifferent, even hostile, to European notions of wealth.

Where Malick forges a myth of innocence betrayed, Auf Der Heide's film dramatises the Australia whose intellectual patrons were, as Hughes says, Hobbes and De Sade. There is the merest glimpse of innocence in this film, and the beauty of the landscape - emphasised by the wintry bluish light of the cinematography - is the beauty of indifference, primeval and impenetrable and inhuman. Van Diemen's Land is, just as the New World was, a European projection, and here its foreignness - and reflexively, the foreignness of the people moving through it - is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. Like the penal colonies, the environment is closed and claustrophobic; the landscape the convicts see is, as the colonists claimed it was, a Terra Nullius.

Against this indifferent landscape, which is filmed with the tenderness of a Tarkovsky, Auf Der Heide places the human rhythms of his characters. The story is reduced to its simplest form: it begins with the convicts' escape, and ends when Pearce is finally alone, before his capture and return to (comparative) civilisation. It's partly narrated with a poetic (and very beautiful) voiceover spoken in Irish, the fictional inner voice of Pearce which rubs hard against the tough dialogue. The action moves inexorably through day and night, from meal to meal, charting the degradation of its characters as they face the realities of starvation and murder, the stark choice between living and dying.

Just as much as it's a story about Australia, this is a story about men: there are no women, just as there are no Aboriginals. And what makes this film, besides Ellery Ryan's stunning cinematography, is the strength of the performances. They open subtle spaces in this most inhuman of stories, admitting the textures of humour, friendship, loyalty, even innocence and love.

It's a truly ensemble cast, and their commitment means that there are no false notes. And you also have to admire their physical courage. As with Werner Herzog's crazy adventures in the South American jungle - Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre - you can't but be aware of the literal reality behind the story: there's a verisimilitude in the performances that goes beyond acting. Among other things, this is a film that makes you acutely aware of the vulnerability of the human body, and there are scenes here - aside from the horrors of the very convincing butchery - that make you wince: Oscar Redding as Pearce walking barefoot through freezing primeval forest, for instance, or the ragged cast shivering on the top of a bare mountain in flurries of snow, or Adrian Mulrany, as a hapless guard, trussed naked and tied to a tree.

I'm certain that Van Diemen's Land will attract notice on the festival circuit, and equally certain it will be watched years hence. It's unlikely to be a box office winner - the grim story will see to that - but its uncompromising poetic means that it's one of the few Australian films that genuinely deserves the appellation of "art". If it comes your way, don't miss it.

Ms TN flew to Adelaide as a guest of Madman Entertainment.

Van Diemen's Land website

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Fillums, old and new

Last Friday, irretrievably sealing her reputation as Frivolous Arts Wanker, Ms TN flew to Adelaide to see a movie. The idea was that I would have a leisurely and solitary dinner - one of life's more underrated pleasures - and then take in the arty fillum at the Adelaide Film Festival (to wit, Van Dieman's Land, which features some of Melbourne's premier theatrical talent) that was the excuse for my visit.

I was, naturally, the only person in Adelaide who didn't realise it was the opening night of the Adelaide Fringe Festival. So much for my dinner plans, or for my status as arts pundit. It took me all night just to fight my way up Rundle St to the Palace Cinema. By the time I arrived, my sophisticated Melbourne persona had reverted to neolithic savagery and my elbows were behaving like the spikes on Boudicaa's chariot. It was tougher than the Boxing Day sales in Myers, and twice as crowded.

Perhaps this is why I have barely been able to write a sentence since I returned. There will be a detailed report on Van Dieman's Land once I manage to evolve my thoughts out of the Stone Age and into something resembling coherence; in the meantime, I'll leave you with my Australian review of the MTC's production of Moonlight and Magnolias, which is published in today's newspaper. A play by Ron Hutchinson directed by Bruce Beresford, it's a comic homage to classic Hollywood. It didn't quite hit the mark for me. Previewing the MTC's 2009 season late last year, I thought it smelt "a bit dodgy": and, you know, I was right.

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Email problems

Aapt, my service provider, has been doing something mysterious to my emails over the past three months or so. I am getting too many reports of emails going awol, either not being received my end or disappearing into the ether after I write them. And that's only the emails I hear about. For the moment, while I ponder the hideous possibility of changing my email address, I suggest that those who are suffering an unexpected radio silence should cc their emails to ajcroggon at gmail dot com. And apologies to anyone I may have unintentionally snubbed; it's not me, it's the software. Or something.

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