On turning into a crrriticFabulous womenReview: QuartetMinistering to the artsMonday portmanteauBlowin' in the windVCA debateMedia rashSaving the VCAReview: PoppeaReview: Knives in HensNews from TassieReview: Ontroerend Goed, Forced EntertainmentInterview: Ross MollisonIt's all happening in North MelbourneBut I don't wanna be a pirate!MIFFEt ceteraCraven on criticism ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 31, 2009

On turning into a crrritic

This might surprise some of you, but I never really meant to be a Critic. I began with an irresistible loquacity, a desire to talk about the art stuff I see, which is married to the desire for interested interlocutors. The transformation into a Critic, which subtly ossifies this essentially private and fluid desire into a fixed public role, an authority, is perhaps an inevitable evolution. But it feels false. And not only because something which started with an ambition to be a kind of belles lettres, a leisurely and civilised way of keeping myself mentally stimulated while I pursue my own work, now means that I spend most of my time either writing reviews or worrying about not writing them. As if, a little voice behind my shoulder keeps whispering, it really matters what I think.

Similarly, I thought I'd left journalism 20 years ago. And yet it's crept up on me again, and here I am, despite my heroic efforts at career sabotage, being a journalist. Neither role, critic or journalist, is necessarily a bad thing. I remember when I resigned from the Melbourne Herald in order to write poetry, my decision prompted the wrath of a senior journalist, Bill Hitchens. He told me off in no uncertain terms: he thought that in turning my back on the possibility of a mass audience, I was being criminally irresponsible. He was, of course, quite right. But I also knew I had other responsibilities, even if they looked like irresponsibility to him. And I still do.

Perhaps it's because it's August, and all of Melbourne is entering that bleak phase when you're really tired of grey skies and rain and woollen underwear, and longing for sunshine and balmy evenings and the swish of chiffon. Maybe it's because everyone I know seems to be drowning in mucus, and I can feel my annual bout of bronchitis coming on. But all this is weighing heavy on me at the moment. I think it's not so much overwork (though no doubt that is part of it) as a tangle of ambitions that presently are tripping each other up. Whatever, Ms TN is doing that rather human thing of wondering how she ended up here, where she never quite intended to be.

Anyway, bear with me while I negotiate the perverse byways of my psyche. I saw three shows last week, and will indeed write about them - a fascinating production of The Lower Depths at Theatre Works, Peter Houghton's The Colours at the MTC and Yumi Umiumare's astounding En Trance at the Malthouse, which I wholeheartedly recommend. I'm off to find my mojo.

Picture: Honoré Daumier, The Art Critic

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fabulous women

My paean to the women on our stages is in today's Australian. And yes, it was a hard list to make.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review: Quartet

Artaud, the language of pain. Writing from the experience that the masterworks are the accomplices of power. Thinking at the end of the Enlightenment, thinking that began with the death of God. Enlightenment is the coffin He was buried in, and it is putrefying with His corpse. Life imprisoned in this coffin. ... The lightning that split Artaud's consciousness was Nietzsche's experience that thinking might be the last joy of mankind. Artaud is the terminal case. He wrested literature from the hands of the police, the theatre from the hands of medicine. His texts blossom under the sun of torture that is shining with equal force on all continents of this planet. Read on the ruins of Europe, his texts will be classics.

Heiner Müller

That's Heiner Müller on Artaud, offering, as Carl Weber suggests in his introduction to Müller's Quartet, a lens for his own art. One of the most undeceived observers of 20th century Europe, Müller's work always has a post-Apocalyptic edge; Müller walks, like his Hamlet, with "the ruins of Europe behind me".

Quartet, based on Choderos de Laclos's epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (also the source of a celebrated adaptation by Christopher Hampton) is a case in point. The opening stage directions bookend the birth and death of Enlightenment Europe: Timespace: Drawing Room before the French Revolution. Air raid shelter after World War III. The protagonists, Merteuil and Valmont, are both decadent libertines, seeking oblivion in sexual excess; but that fleeting corporeal bliss has, like all drugs, lost its potency with repetition. Müller presents us with a picture of hell, in which souls are tormented by their own decaying bodies. "Your breath tastes of solitude," says Merteuil, in her opening monologue to an absent Valmont. "Let's rub our hides together..."

All that is left to titillate these jaded appetites is the destruction of innocence. The two conspire to seduce Merteuil's virginal niece, Volange, and the virtuous wife Madame de Tourvel, breaking and abusing them for their amusement. In Müller's play these sadistic seductions are played out by the two protagonists in a grotesque endgame in which both sides know the only winner is death. Shot through with Müller's pitiless intelligence, Quartet generates a perverse beauty. It's essentially a play of long monologues which highlight the existential isolation of each character, layered with literary allusions that create a darkly scintillating surface. But here civilisation and culture are simply baubles that adorn decaying flesh: Müller's lapidary style is thick with corporeality, the obscenity of the body.

The independent company A is for Atlas signals its ambition with its production of this challenging text, which is performed in tandem with The Razor, a new music work by Annie Hseih written for violin and cello. As you enter the space, the first thing you notice is Grant Cooper's breath-taking and ingenious design: the audience sits in a single row looking down into what is effectively a pit, where Merteuil (Felicity Steel) stands on the floor on the stage. It's a kind of grunge take on an ancien régime drawing room, with alcoves in which are set television screens (which take live feeds of the actors) or mirrors. The music is performed by Larissa Weller and Jonathan Tasio, who are seated level with the audience.

It opens with the first movement of The Razor, as Merteuile moves out of stillness into what is effectively a kind of dance. Her movements signal the rhythmic style of the play: like the delivery of the text, they are are languorous, slow and highly controlled. Eroticism here is signalled by distance (and, interestingly, in the spectacularly beautiful costuming). Merteuile's first dialogue with Valmont is still all but a monologue: Valmont (Andrew Gray) crouches in an alcove in the wall, eating strawberries. The effect is hieratic and stylised, and perhaps a little over-aestheticised, although Hseih's nervy take on Haydn gives a welcome barbed edge to the performance.

Merteuile and Valmont play out their fatal games, tearing each other to pieces with their language but seldom broaching the formal stylisation of performance. After a while, the unvarying rhythms begin to damp down the language. This style of poetic delivery is a hard ask for actors: I think that the only time I've seen it successfully achieved is in Steve Berkoff's National Theatre production of Salome, when performers would move front stage to speak Wilde's poetic perorations to the moon in a thrilling theatrical sprachgesung. When the conceit does work here, it's marvellous, but a lot of the time it doesn't quite hit the mark, and over the course of the play its major effect is to flatten out the theatricality of Müller's language. It was sometimes difficult, for example, to track the shifts in the character's roles: there's a lot of play in the language that is left unplayed.

The main thing missing in Xan Coleman's direction is the stench of death: and it's death that rules here. Through the deaths of his characters, Müller is tracking the death of God, the death of love, the death of the whole Enlightenment project, in which reason was supposed to save humankind from itself. Here he savagely takes apart that folly by dramatising the torment of reason in the rotting chains of the body's lust.

Paradoxically, I felt the text was respected too much, as if the company is seduced by the beauty of Müller's language: on the one hand, the formality of the production imprisoned the actors, just as the characters are imprisoned in their bodies: but on the other, the text is so full of rot, excrement, blood, mucus and so on, that the tension between the aesthetic cleanliness of the production and the physical savagery of the language simply broke apart. One felt that Merteuile should have spat on Valmont's corpse, rather than strewing it with rose petals. In the end, it just was too pretty.

The only other time I've seen Quartet was in an eye-popping production directed by Ariette Taylor in the early 90s. It was performed in the foyer of the Playbox on a tiny, bare stage, with Robert Morgan and Melita Jurisic (whom I saw a couple of weeks ago in Kosky's scorching meditation on love and death, Poppea) at their savage best. That sets the benchmark high indeed. But for all my reservations, this is an eye-catchingly impressive production, which firmly places A is for Atlas in the ranks of companies to watch.

Quartet by Heiner Müller after Laclos, translated by Carl Weber, and The Razor by Annie Hsieh, after Haydn. Directed by Xan Coleman, designed by Grant Cooper, costumes by Julie Renton and lighting by Suze Smith. With Andrew Gray and Felicity Steel. Musicians Larissa Weller and Jonathan Tosio. A is for Atlas, @ J-Studios, 100 Barkly St, North Fitzroy.

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Ministering to the arts

Gobsmacked to read in the Age this morning that every single former Victorian Arts Minister, Labor and Liberal, has written to University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis to protest the changes at the VCA, and asking for a meeting to express their concerns. The only ones who didn't were dead. That's a stunning and unprecedented show of bipartisanship.

As Mr Kennett said: "'You can't have a modern city without a thriving creative life at its centre. If the State Government saw fit to spend $65 million to get the World Swimming Championships for a one-off event for Melbourne then surely it could give the VCA a secure life for the future.'' Well, yes. The meeting will occur, according to the report, later this week.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Monday portmanteau

* I forgot yesterday to mention James Waites's continuing meditations on the Bacchanalian qualities in Barrie Kosky's work, including the recent production of Poppea. In the course of which he reveals that Kosky is unlikely to be working in Australia in the future, as his job with Berlin's Komische Oper looms closer. Which is sad news for us.

* The Malthouse production of Optimism finished its sell-out season at the Edinburgh Festival last week, garnering a swag of glowing reviews on the way. Mark Fisher (of Mark Fisher's Scottish Theatre Blog fame) described it as "the feelgood hit of the summer", while others, such as the Guardian's Lyn Gardner, suggested that it was too much fun to be serious. Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times, enjoyed the irreverence: "A decorous evening of high culture this wasn’t, but what the hell: surely we can take one night off from guarding the citadel." The Malthouse is crowing after Frank Woodley, who plays the terminally naive Candide, won a Herald Angel award for his performance in the show. Prost! Sydneysiders will get to Optimism at the Sydney Festival next year.

* Among the usual bloggish navel-gazing about whether critics are allowed to say what they think about a show or whether, especially in a recession, they ought just to be nice, George Hunka over at Superfluities has written a stimulating overview calling for a larger view of criticism in Theatre, Criticism and the Public Intellectual. Well worth a leisurely read.

* Another film festival, another censorship debate. Richard Wolstencroft, director of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, is furious that the OFLC has banned MUFF's screening of Jennifer Lyon Bell’s Matinée, which was part of their Mini Muffs short season. In demanding that the OFLC repeal its decision, he says the ruling is "hypocritical, suppressive, and worryingly anti-women".

At issue is the depiction of real sex. Matinée is made by Blue Artichoke, a company which specialises in making female-centred erotica. Wolstencroft says the OFLC's decision negates the film's artistic merits: "Matinée is a picture which embodies many of the qualities which should be sought after in high quality artistic filmmaking", he says. It creates "a highly stylized, enigmatic and atmospheric world, the likes of which is often attempted in independent cinema but rarely so deftly achieved." Worse, he claims that an office which passes Lars Von Triers' controversial Antichrist, which featured high levels of sexual violence and mutilation, but bans a film that features frank sexuality but no violence, is displaying a worrying ease with misogyny. "Banning Matinée reveals a tendency in the OFLC to suppress films which strengthen female sexuality on screen and to allow films which encourage a view that female sexuality is damaged, fractured or violent."

He's also pointing to precedents where films depicting actual sex in complex situations (Shortbus, 9 Songs) have been passed for screening. Sounds like a case to me.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Blowin' in the wind

Even gale-force winds couldn't stop the theatrical event of the week: to wit, the Save VCA protests, which culminated in a 1000-strong march this morning to Parliament House, where the troops were rousingly addressed by Geoffrey Rush and Julia Zemiro. (Ms TN, alas, could only be there in spirit). As Crikey's Ben Eltham reports:

The University seems to have badly under-estimated the strength of feeling about the proposed changes to VCA. The protests are now starting to garner broader media attention, owing to strong feelings in Melbourne’s tight-knit artistic community and the high profile of Rush and Zemiro. Now three prominent members of the VCA Advisory Board have quit in what looks suspiciously like a protest.

The situation has been exacerbated by the University’s ham-fisted attempts to spin the issue. The embattled new Dean, Sharman Pretty, who has become the lightning rod for student and staff discontent, was initially held back from all but hand-picked media appearances, until this strategy started to look like arrogance. When she finally fronted up to be interviewed by the ABC 774’s Jon Faine this Wednesday, it was deer-in-the-headlights stuff as Faine took her apart on air.

The strength and feeling of student, staff and community protest about the VCA course changes appear to have surprised senior executives at the University, who perhaps thought the VCA could be successfully integrated without too much fuss.

Instead, it seems to be turning into something of a PR disaster for the University of Melbourne and Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis. And certainly for Dean Pretty, whose evisceration by Jon Faine can be heard here. Save VCA is calling for the Federal Government to fund the VCA as a national training institution, as it does NIDA and other institutions.

Photo: courtesy of Twitter

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

VCA debate

In lieu of a post: a pointer to the discussion on TN about the reforms at VCA.

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Media rash

Or something like it. I have 470 unread messages in my gmail inbox, 299 unread messages on my Facebook account, and I don't know how many read but unanswered messages on my other two email accounts. I have a play to finish in a week, a magazine feature to finish by tomorrow, two unwritten reviews, and two books to finish reading by next week, when I appear at the Melbourne Writer's Festival as Robert Dessaix's interlocutor. And that's only the immediate demands. It's beginning to trickle through, even to me, that this is unsustainable.

I know I swore I would never, ever again complain on this blog (mainly because I then get embarrassed when people ask me if I'm feeling better). This is more by way of a generalised apology to those people - you know who you are - to whom I owe letters, rsvps, and probably apologies of various kinds. My mantra "I can't get to everything" is at present in danger of turning into "I can't get to anything". (OK, I saw three shows last week. I have only written a review of the one I had to do for the Australian - Joanna Murray-Smith's Rockabye, which I enjoyed. I'd like to write about Hoy Polloy's Purgatorio, about which I have a few reservations, but I don't think I'll find the time. And I wouldn't write about Slava's Snow Show in any case, because I was sitting in the gods and only saw the tops of people's heads.)

There are several shows I would, if I were in any sensible state, like to see, and given my present state, probably won't. I realise this generally means that I am mainly seeing mainstream shows, and I'm not very happy about that. Also I seem to have been, despite myself, hijacked by journalism. At the same time, I'm not sure what to do about it. Anyway, if you see a small exploding critic in Williamstown, try to be kind. I'll get over it.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Saving the VCA

Update: more info on VCA action - tent cities! flash mobs! sing outs! - and links to more info at Twitter and Facebook.

This week, SaveVCA is organising a last-ditch round of protests against the changes to the college, culminating in a march to Parliament House on Friday August 21.

For the past few years, along with most Melbourne arts observers, I have been glumly following the continuing story of Melbourne University's predatory absorption of the Victorian College of the Arts (now known as VCAM). It's a complex story - detailed at length, with useful media links, on the informative Save VCA website - which boils down to a battle about the philosophy of arts education, between a generalised, more academic approach, as promoted by the new regime under VCA Dean Sharman Pretty, or the extraordinarily successful practice-based teaching that the VCA has refined over the past three decades.

Although the battle seems all but won, with the winning hand being the one with all the money, a number of alumni, students and interested arts affiliates are leading a growing protest against the changes. All power to their arms, I say: it's difficult to see how the proposed changes, which include savage redundancies, reduced teaching hours and axing of courses (so far, in Puppetry, Music Theatre, Music Repertoire and Music Composition) will benefit students or the wider culture.

Friday's protest march begins at 10am at the St Kilda Rd entrance, VCA Campus, 234 St Kilda Rd, Southbank. It will feature prominent industry speakers, MC'd by Julia Zemiro. And there will also be "after-event details revealed on the day".

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: Poppea

George Orwell once remarked that if a writer says he can't write, he can't write. It's not laziness or malingering or disorganisation: it's mysterious, crippling incapacity. When allied to the desire to write, he listed it as one of the major frustrations of a writer's life; if a writer isn't writing, he enters an existential no man's land in which it's difficult to see his reason for being on the planet. (This is assuming that a writer's self is entirely defined by writing which is, fortunately, not entirely true).

So it is that Ms TN has been thinking about Barrie Kosky's Poppea for more than a week, yet has been curiously unable to write a word. Last Saturday I stole a precious 24 hours, flew up to Sydney, relaxed enough to realise how near to burnout I actually am, and then trotted off to the Sydney Opera House to see the opera. From the overture, during which the lights slowly faded in the auditorium and the curtain rose, revealing Amor with her back to us, one garishly braceleted hand gracefully extended in silhouette, my breath seemed to stop. I left the theatre exhilarated, moved and shaken.

I thought Poppea was an outstanding and fearless work of theatre, which is perhaps what has inhibited my writing about it. It seemed to me to be a work about love that was for grown ups, a work that enacted the darkness and beauty and amorality of eroticism with a rare honesty. It showed at once the preposterousness of lust and the dignity of love, the ruthlessness and tenderness of desire, its ludicrous obsessiveness, its corruption and its purity, the murderous seduction of power. Its ironies are savage, and yet it pierced my soul, that wounded and scratched prison of my body, with profound sorrow.

Kosky has taken Monteverdi's last opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea, and given it a very 21st century treatment. The opera is cut to the bone: all the secondary characters and all the gods save Amor, the goddess of love, are gone. He has also translated the original libretto, by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, into German, and he's interwoven Monteverdi's music with songs by Cole Porter, which illuminates both of them. I'll certainly never hear Porter's songs in the same way again; this production brings out their themes of obsession and passion, their world-weary cynicism, the black polish of their urban wit, and their contrast with the baroque intensities of Monteverdi's music is as exciting as their thematic collisions. It's a bold, dramaturgically elegant attack on the original work that brings its blood to the surface of the skin.

The opera tells the sordid story of Poppea's accession to power as Empress of Rome. Originally Ottone's (Martin Niedermair) lover, she attracts the attentions of Nero (Kyrre Kvam). With the blessing of Amor (Barbara Spitz, played as a world-weary madam), she schemes to marry him: Nero has to divorce his wife Ottavio (Barbara Frey), and in order to do that, he has to get rid of Seneca (Florian Carove), Nero's former tutor and an influential moral voice in the Senate. Meanwhile, Ottavia hatches a plot to murder Poppea, blackmailing Ottone into doing the dirty deed despite his continuing love for Poppea. Ottavia is backed by Ottone's lover Drusilla (Ruth Brauer-Kvam), who was thrown over for Poppea and still seethes with jealousy. Seneca commits suicide on Nero's orders, Ottone and Drusilla are exposed, punished and banished, Ottavia is exiled, and Poppea and Nero emerge triumphant, celebrating their marriage with an achingly beautiful duet.

There are ironies here that are mostly lost on a modern audience. Busenello's libretto was based on Tacitus's account of the Emperor Nero's reign of Rome, which is by any measure a racy read. Monteverdi's audience would have been aware that Poppea came to a bad end: most Roman historians agree that Nero murdered her by kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant with her second child. Some even say he jumped on her. (Modern historians note that Seutonius, Tacitus and others were very biased against Nero, no doubt for good reason, and that she may have simply died from complications in childbirth or a miscarriage). Moreover, Ottone, Poppea's rejected lover, became Emperor in the end anyway.

Shorn of this context, Monteverdi's triumphant ending is disconcerting, even obscene, a blackly realist view of the effectiveness of ruthless power. Kosky exploits this ambiguity to the full, reserving easy judgment for a more sternly Platonic morality: that virtue is its own reward, and vice its own punishment, which I've often thought is one of the bleakest observations ever made.

The couple's first crime is the death of Seneca, which in the opera comes about through Poppea's urging. (It is certainly true that Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide, but in fact it was after the Pisonian Conspiracy, a plot to kill Nero, in which the Emperor believed Seneca was involved, although it's unlikely that he was - but hey, Monteverdi was no more interested in historical accuracy than Kosky is).

Seneca cuts his wrists in a hot bath, the favoured Roman method of self-slaughter, and so here he rises up, naked in a bath tub, from the floor of the stage. He is mute, as Nero has already cut out his tongue, and his arias are sung by another actor or, in an extraordinary scene, acted out in sign language. The scenes that show his death are the most powerful in the opera. Nero climbs into the bath with him and smears himself, with gestures like those of a lover, with Seneca's blood, before the corpse slumps heavily out of the bath in an image which is one of the most shockingly abject representations of death I've seen on stage.

Nero's spurned wife Ottavio, who first appears as a figure of grotesque comedy, writhing with jealousy and spite, comports herself in her final song as a figure of intensely moving dignity, proudly accepting her exile and proclaiming her innocence. She shows up the lack of dignity of Poppea and Nero, who prowl the stage like the grotesque, bestial creatures their power has made them into.

Likewise, the love story between Drusilla and Ottone emerges as a contrast to the self-satisfied self interest of Nero and Poppea. For this couple, their murderous adventures and their punishment lead to a sacrificial declaration of love, with Drusilla pledging to go into exile with Ottone at the height of their humiliation - both are raped by Nero, although he stops short of ordering them off to the torture chamber for a lingering and painful death. And this prompts an impassioned solo from Ottone in which he declares his happiness: a happiness, it is quite clear, that Poppea and Nero have foresworn, and which Poppea, stalking the stage like a crazed monster behind them, murderously envies.

None of this, however, takes away from the ravishing beauty of Poppea and Nero's final declaration of love. They can be monstrous and amoral and still truly love each other; after all, their victims gain their dignity through losing the power game and, aside from Seneca, are no less morally questionable than the Imperial couple. Amor, the goddess of love, is not concerned with the morality of passion: her drive is towards the orgasmic moment of excess, the primitive, unbridled nightmare of passion.

The production is realised with a simplicity of staging that mercilessly exposes the action. The set is an office-like box, white walls with doors, that throws the emphasis onto the bodies of the performers. The revealing costumes make the actors seem more naked than they would be if they were actually unclothed: here everything is revealed by what is hidden, which is the secret behind the erotics of almost everything, and especially art. Poppea works off contrast, turning in a trice from cabaret grotesquerie to sublime operatic beauty, from comedy to tragedy. And the cast, without exception, rises fearlessly to Kosky's demands; every performance here fully inhabits the contrasting extremities of the roles.

One effect is that it abolishes duration; you wake up at the end as if from a dream, aware only then of what has been stirred out of the dark reaches of the psyche. For me, it was mainly sorrow, which is perhaps what beauty inevitably does; it breaks open my awareness of mortality by briefly lifting me, with its gorgeous, fleeting illusion, out of time. If opera is indeed a song of love and death, then Poppea is, for all its impurities, pure opera.

Picture: Melita Jurisic and Kyrre Kvam in the coronation scene from Poppea.

Poppea, after Monteverdi, by Barrie Kosky, directed by Barrie Kosky. With Barbara Spitz, Martin Niedermair, Melita Jurisic, Kyrre Kvam, Beatrice Frey, Florian Carove and Ruth Nauer-Kvam. Musicians: Aisha Buka, Linde Gansch, Jorge Ulrich Krah and Barrie Kosky. Vienna Schauspielhaus, Sydney Opera House.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review: Knives in Hens

(Note: there are spoilers in this review).

Written in 1995, David Harrower’s first play, Knives in Hens, already has the status of a modern classic. This is no empty claim. It’s an extraordinary play: radical in its language, profound in its thought, and utterly original.

Set in an imaginary pre-industrial landscape, it follows a deeply strange love triangle between three characters: a ploughman, Pony William (Robert Menzies), his wife, known only as Young Woman (Kate Box) and a miller, Gilbert Horn (Dan Spielman). In this deceptively simple fable, Harrower explores the forces that underlie our conceptions of modern civilisation: the transition from a subsistence farming to more alienated forms of labour, from rural culture to urban civilisation, from feudal to modern consciousness.

Harrower exploits the fact that the miller was a figure of much superstitious hatred and fear. One reason was that millers made their living by taking a cut of the grain they milled, making their living, like the laird in the castle, from the sweat of others. Another was that millers, freed from the tyranny of subsistence labour, were often the only literate lay people in a village. They had characteristics of the priesthood and the aristocracy without being either, and so were unplaceable, neither one thing nor another. Certainly, the miller figures largely in folk tales (and even in The Lord of the Rings) as morally dubious, opaque and false.

Through the developing relationship between the miller and the Young Woman, Harrower tracks the massive shift in consciousness which accompanies literacy. In a culture that largely takes literacy for granted, it's easy to forget the radical social change it represents. Watching a small child struggle to learn to talk and read can give us some notion: the conceptual leap that connects sounds made by a human mouth to external objects, and then - even more radically - to marks on a page and abstract ideas, is one of the major evolutionary changes that defines us as human beings.

Written language permits us to externalise our inner worlds, and changes the nature of memory. In oral cultures memory is an art, because it is the entire repository of knowledge. Once knowledge can be written down that art is forgotten, because we no longer need it. Homer, who existed in a culture on the cusp between orality and literacy, begins his epic poems with an invocation of the Muse, whose mother is Mnemosyne, Memory, because although those poems were written, their primary transmission was in performance. The poet needed to know them by heart.

As Anne Carson points out, literacy radically transformed the nature of language itself, changing it from a fluid, transient phenomenon into an object. Written language shapes meaning into letters, phrases, sentences, that themselves feed back into our awareness of reality and change it, giving it an edge and a shape, defining one thing as like or unlike another, lifting us out of the Heraclitan flux of of the instinctually experienced material world.

It’s an ambiguous gift. As the Young Woman discovers, joyfully and painfully, the magical power of words as a means of realising her selfhood, Harrower show us that language is, as much as an expansion of consciousness, a crime against the authority of God. It is the snake in the garden, the apple of self awareness.

It is language, after all, that permits us to lie, as the Young Woman does at the end of the play. It allows us to create alternative realities, to be, as William tells the Miller, like God ourselves. Naming is an act of possession, an act of colonisation, as much as it is a liberation and a separation from the unsentient mass of material reality. It is language that creates a future and a past, and which puts a full stop at the end of our lives. Language is, as the Young Woman realises, a sacred act of violence against reality:

Every thing I see or know is put in my head by God. Every thing he created is there every day, sunrise to sundown, earth to sky. It cannot be touched or held the way I touch a table or hold the reins of a horse. It cannot be sold or cooked. His world is there, in front of my eyes. All I must do is push names into what is there the same as when I push my knife into the stomach of a hen.

Harrower enacts these transitions and complexities with a text of startling elemental purity, stripped to a fierce poetic starkness. It is, on one level, simply a tragic fable: a young wife is seduced, and with her lover murders her husband. Yet reading the play is very like reading a poem that accurately and mercilessly pierces the deep places where the erotic and the sacred meet: and like a poem, the more you dig, the more you find. It's a work that reminds you of the mystery of human consciousness, bringing us up hard against the realities of birth, death, desire and awe.

All of which makes it a very difficult and delicate play to stage. Despite remarkable performances from the cast, notably Menzies and Spielman, Geordie Brookman’s production realises maybe half its power. Most disappointingly, this production communicates very little of the subtext which I've teased out here; despite the murder in its centre, it maps the play as a simple journey towards self-awareness and liberation, and there is almost no sense at all of consciousness as a process of struggle.

One problem is Anna Cordingley’s design, a complex multi-level construction of steel, which at once constrains and alienates the action. The only real sense of intimacy is generated by Paul Jackson's moody lighting. It looks as if the action is taking place in an ancient sewer: the set is dominated by a huge pipe, which replaces the simple and powerful symbol of threshold that is the stable door. The concept is post-apocalyptic, a Riddley Walker kind of pre-industrial society, which builds an extra level of complexity on what is already a complex and difficult play. Here the anachronisms are obscuring rather than illuminating.

Another, practical problem is that the metal construction makes the set very noisy. Harrower’s wrought language emerges from profound silence, but there is little sense of this in either the design or the rhythms of the production. Andrew Howard's sound design is intrusive and unsubtle, varying between pseudo-Celtic melodies that swell up behind monologues and abstract electronic noises. Yet for all the noisiness, one of the puzzling aspects of this production is that in the few times when sound is specified in the text - William's dying screams, for example, or the deafening industrial cacophony of the mill - it is absent. Again, it all seems over-complicated, while at the same time missing the point.

Brookman has a first class cast, and the performances are undeniably powerful. But so much of the text's power seems muted: the play's frank eroticism, like its violence, is abstracted and distanced. Despite the sense of constraint, there are scenes which tap into the play's elemental potencies - most notably a dialogue between Gilbert and William, where the ploughman illuminates for the miller the mystery of the woman's body, the blasphemy and wonder of knowing that the Glory of God is not in God, but in His creation. In this crucial moment, the words of the ploughman awaken the Miller's desire, making him understand what it is he wants.

The pacing feels rushed and crowded, allowing little time for delicate shifts of relationship to occur on stage. It seems, more than anything, an anxious production, hurrying along for fear the audience might get bored. Unlike Peter Evans's production of Harrower's play Blackbird, which was an exemplary demonstration of how powerful language and performance can be if they are allowed their full presence, it felt as if an interpretation was being imposed, rather than being permitted to emerge. These words need space around them to achieve their full power, but here their resonance is muffled. Still, it remains a great play.

A shorter version of this review is in today's Australian.

Picture: Kate Box and Dan Spielman in Knives in Hens. Photo: Jeff Busby

Knives in Hens by David Harrower, directed by Geordie Brookman. Set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, sound design by Andrew Howard, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Kate Box, Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman. Malthouse Theatre and State Theatre Company of South Australia. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until August 22. Space Theatre, Adelaide, August 26-September 12.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

News from Tassie

Those of you with antideluvian memories might recall that, way back in April, I spent a a few days in Hobart helping to run Critical Acclaim, an intensive workshop on theatre criticism. (And intensive it truly was...) I'm delighted to see it's born some real fruit, with five Hobart participants setting up the group blog Write Response. It's shaping up to be an excellent review blog; they're posting a range of reviews of a range of work (and sometimes uploading two different takes on one show). And it's a useful way for mainlanders to keep up with what's happening on the Apple Isle. Well worth tapping into onto your bloglines or other RSS reader which, as I'm sure you all know, is by far the easiest way to keep up with blogs.

Meanwhile, Jana at Guerilla Semiotics has put together an excellent theatre links page, which kind of saves me the trouble of updating mine. Perhaps.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review: Ontroerend Goed, Forced Entertainment

For Ms TN, North Melbourne is the Twilight Zone of Melbourne suburbia. The first challenge is getting there. Theoretically, you can get there in a trice, especially if you're travelling from the Western Suburbs, which are after all on the same side of town: but the train station is eccentrically situated a half hour walk from where the action is (if conveniently close to the Lost Dogs Home). These days, as a paid up - if automobile-challenged - member of the haute bourgeoisie, I just catch a cab. I'll keep doing that until the money runs out; even if I have to explain where it is to the cab driver, sometimes a fascinating exercise in itself, there's less chance that I'll end up, ruffled and sweaty, circling disconsolately in the outer edges of Kensington or Carlton.

Once you're there, you still have to get to where you're going. This is where my infallible sense of indirection kicks in. Maybe the souls of slaughtered animals of centuries past crawl into my consciousness and up-end my inner map, or maybe a disaffected wizard put a spell on the streets to confuse strangers, or maybe the streets are feral and move around behind your back. I don't know. What I do know is that I have lived in this city for nigh on three decades, and I still get lost in North Melbourne.

All the same, I know I have to go there more often. The Meat Market is surely one of the most beautiful venues in Melbourne, and Arts House keep on mounting stuff that I want to see. I'm willing to sacrifice even my directional dignity on the altar of high art. The only problem is that the Arts House seasons are so short: this week's commitments mean I have no chance of getting to see Panther or Suitcase Royale, which makes me even more disconsolate than when I walk briskly for 15 minutes and find myself just around the corner from where I started. Which is what happened last week, when I went to see Ontroerend Goed and Forced Entertainment. I smugly thought I'd see two shows in a single evening, running from the Meat Market to the Town Hall in the quarter hour gap between events. My best laid plans, alas, came unstuck when I ended up in Flemington Road. So I opened up the envelope labelled "Plan B" and saw two shows in two nights.

But enough about me. What about the shows?

Last week’s program included the Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are so Shut Up and Listen, a performance by and about adolescents directed and devised by Belgian director Alexander Devriendt, and Spectacular by Forced Entertainment, the company which for the past two decades has set the agenda for innovative theatre in Britain.

Once and For All was a major hit at the Edinburgh Festival, and has toured widely to great acclaim. The show it immediately bears comparison with is, oddly enough, from another Belgian company, That Night Follows Day. That very beautiful work was a collaboration between Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells and Belgian company Victoria, and was part of last year's Melbourne Festival. Like Once and For All, it explores the gaps in perception between youth and adulthood by having young people themselves address the audience. Its large cast was somewhat younger than the performers in Once and for All, who are aged between 14 and 18.

This is a smartly structured show that celebrates all things teen, spiraling out from the anarchic energy of adolescents to generate a tautly disciplined work of physical theatre. It is, as one girl tells us frankly at the beginning, about the clichés: the rebellion, the boundary pushing, the gauche obscenity. Punctuated by klaxons that recall staged anarchy to scrambled order, 13 teenagers act out all the clichés – childish cruelty, sexual fumbling, self-parody, surly aggression, drug taking, insecurities and fear.

It begins with a bare stage, on which are set 13 chairs, while a wild rumpus is going on in the wings - yells, screams, banging of drums. The teenagers enter, alone or in twos or threes, and indulge in apparently aimless behaviour - two boys flick each other painfully with balloons, girls fall backwards on their chairs, the introverts build a castle out of plastic cups which the rebel kicks over. The alarm starts, the cast frantically tidies up the stage, and they run off. Silence. Then the music begins again and they run on stage and re-enact the whole scene, with tiny variations, and the show begins to get interesting.

Building on structures of repetition and variation, Alexander Devriendt gives this apparent artlessness shape and focus, exploiting the raw energy of his performers to generate a show that does exactly what it claims. It celebrates the nascent possibility that lurks in the young, giving the finger to those who, having repressed their own desires, demonise youth’s restlessness and extremity. Its insistence on raw performance recalls the work of French choreographer Jérôme Bel, without quite reaching his elegant transparency and joyousness. Unlike Bel, its agenda assumes a certain audience attitude (and that the audience consists of adults): that teenagers are a strange and alien species, that adulthood inevitably means repressing the urge to take risks or test boundaries.

In recalling the lostness and disempowerment that can accompany adolescence, the forces that inevitably end up expressed in rebellion, it made me reflect that there are reasons to grow up. There is as much danger, after all, in the unreflective worship of youth as there is in its demonisation: they might indeed be different sides of the same coin. But there are moments that are sheerly exhilarating: this show has irresistible elan, elegance and wit, which makes it an enjoyable ride. Sydneysiders can catch Once and For All at the STC's Wharf 2 from August 14.

Forced Entertainment’s ironically named Spectacular is again an exercise in raw performance. A middle-aged man (Robin Arthur), costumed as a skeleton a in a crudely painted black tracksuit and fencing mask, plays Death as a standup comic. The conceit of the show is that the show isn’t happening: instead Death describes for us the spectacle that is inexplicably absent from the empty stage. Meanwhile another performer, Claire Marshall, stages an extended and noisy death scene in the background.

For about half an hour I was absolutely there, enjoying the frisson between the presence of the performers and the absence of the spectacle described; but then, gentle reader, boredom began to move in. Over the next forty five minutes, it built a house, married and had children, redecorated and added an extension. The meta-theatrical jokes, Arthur's self-deprecating patter and Marshall's melodramatic death throes are the substance of the act; there is no pay-off. It’s a show that undermines itself and has all the answers, and in the end, knowingly, it simply runs out of gas.

Spectacular is hermetically sealed against criticism: its aim is failure, the excavation of expectations about theatre that are then carefully not met. Aside from the theoretical deconstruction of a theatrical experience and the Milliganesque humour that points (in Milligan's case, hilariously) at what is not funny, opening the gap between laughter's expectation and deflation, there's not much really going on. And after a while, you begin to wonder what the point is, especially as we never get close to any emotional apprehension of death. I thought it telling that nowhere was there any evocation of the dead, whom to the living are our experience of death: death remained an abstraction, a "presence", as Arthur says, rather than an absence. (Although, of course, that absence was there by virtue of the absent spectacle: the circles are intellectually impeccable).

I thought again of Jérôme Bel; in particular, of the marvellous sequence in The Show Must Go On, in which dancers slowly collapsed on stage to Roberta Flack singing Killing Me Softly. Bel's representation of death was absurd, yes; but it was also deeply and mysteriously moving. It's possible to do a lot with almost nothing.

I guess the point of Spectacular is that one goes away and wonders what theatre is all about. And maybe (though this is actually dubious) what death is all about. And possibly life. In between, you've had a bit of a chuckle at the absurd artifice that is theatre itself. It prompted the (for me, reactionary) thought that I wanted theatre to be about something. And then I hear the cry: but that's the point, that you are thinking that. And so you wander around in circles muttering, yes, on its terms it's therefore succeeded: but isn't it, after all, a bit of a waste of time? What about, the inner philistine wants to know, actually doing a bit of theatre?

I did ponder whether the pay-off, the actual emotional meaning, is the total blackout that descends at the end, after a little dance of lighting on the empty stage. They follow the best lines in the show: a poem-like meditation repeating the words "lights on, lights off", which Arthur reads from an imaginary comedian's notebook as he slowly departs the stage. But that potentially Beckettian moment wasn't earned; and in any case, some eager audience members started clapping even before the blackout, thus dissipating any possible potency in the transition to darkness.

I felt a bit empty at the end. The fact that this show is clearly made by people who know what they're doing on a stage only intensified the feeling. The putative theme is, after all, death; and it leaves you with the feeling that we're all a bit post-death now, a bit too sophisticated to actually grapple with it, that its representation need mean nothing except a kind of witty in-joke about what we're actually looking at (with, of course, all the negative theology this also summons). It makes it very safe, and vaguely depressing; it expresses the same kind of evasion of risk that infuses Philip Larkin's (yes, beautifully written) poem As Bad as a Mile:

Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.

I think I prefer my apples bitten. Very Eve of me, I guess. Luckily I went to Sydney the following day and saw Barrie Kosky's Poppea, which reanimated my faith that theatre can actually be about something profound without selling its artistic soul and, maybe more importantly, can be something without compromising its intelligence. Of which more hereafter.

(As a footnote, there will be more hereafter also about the Malthouse production of Knives In Hens, once I find out what the Australian is doing with my review... which further research reveals, for those millions waiting with bated breath, will be in Thursday's paper.)

Pictures: top: Ontreorend Geod's Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are so Shut Up and Listen; bottom, Robin Arthur (front) and Claire Marshall in Forced Entertainment's Spectacular.

A shorter version of this review was in yesterday's Australian.

Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are so Shut Up and Listen, by Joeri Smet and Alexander Devriendt, directed by Alexander Devriendt. Ontroerend Goed, Kopergietery and Richard Jordan Productions. Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne. (Closed). Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney, August 14-29.

Spectacular, by Tim Etchells, Robin Arthur and the company, directed by Tim Etchells. Design by Richard Lowdon, lighting by Nigel Edwards. With Robin Arthur and Claire Marshall. Forced Entertainment @ Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall. Closed.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Interview: Ross Mollison

"The one rule of producing," says Ross Mollison, "is that nobody knows nothing. The things that you least expect to be successful can be your biggest successes. And vice versa, of course."

Mollison speaks from experience. He is one of Australia's most successful international producers, those invisible hands who keep the financial wheels turning beneath the wonky juggernaut of live entertainment. Producing, Mollison is at pains to say, is not the same as presenting, an activity with which it is often confused; presenters buy in work that is already successful from other places. (Mollison does both, as well a running a successful marketing consultancy). Producers are the people who put it together, who match the venues to the shows, collate the dates, add up the sums and cross their fingers that the gamble will work.

As Guardian critic Lyn Gardner said recently, "commercial" can be a dirty word in the theatre. "We are still quite squeamish about the idea of people who not only have a demonstrable passion for the arts, but who are also capable of seeing the arts as a business like any other," she says. "That squeamishness is daft; after all, way back in a golden age of new writing, the careers of Shakespeare, Marlowe and their contemporaries relied entirely on the entrepreneurial flair of theatre owners." Quite. And she points out that in the current climate of financial gloom, "we have as much need of organisational energy, corporate skills, original ideas and a willingness to take risks as we do of creative energy". Mollison is one of those people.

There was some acknowledgment of the crucial cultural role producers can play last year, when Malthouse Executive Producer Stephen Armstrong was awarded the Kenneth Myer Medallion for Outstanding Achievement in the Performing Arts - the first producer to be given this recognition. Mollison himself is no stranger to awards - he was nominated for a Tony this year for the spectacularly successful Broadway season of Slava's Snow Show, which is returning to Melbourne at the Athenaeum this week.

He is of the breed that merits the term "impresario". "It means you're part economist, part psychic," he says. "A successful show is confluence of producing savvy, the right show in the right venue at the right time with the right publicity." It's that savvy that saw him bringing Puppetry of the Penis to Australia when no other producers would touch it, with box offices chinging in delight with takings that amounted, worldwide, to something like $100 million. It was the savvy that took Tap Dogs to the top, and has been the driving force between countless shows worldwide.

And it's a savvy which understands that the line between high art and popular art isn't nearly as clearly drawn as some would have it, and that shows come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In Australia, Mollison hooks up with subsidised producers. In New York, he works closely with Vallejo Gantner, who runs the PS122 space, a mecca for New York's alternative theatre. It was their collaboration that led to the Speigeltent show La Clique, a Melbourne Festival favourite, heading to New York with Paul Capsis, retitled Absinthe. And then coming back to the Melbourne Tennis Centre during the Australian Open.

Producing successfully is, he says, a matter of giving a show the "correct airing". Some shows - he suggests the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - do better in the plush subsidised spaces of the Arts Centre. Others, like Casey Bennetto's hit musical Keating!, can be developed from fringe status to out-and-out commercial smash. "That began in the Trades Hall playing to 200 people and graduated to the Sydney Opera House. It basically paid off Belvoir St's national debt."

Mollison laments that there isn't a small commercial theatre in Melbourne - like the old Russell St Theatre, which still sits moribund and dark next to the Forum - which allows small commercial shows to be mounted in the middle of the city. It's a striking thought - there hasn't been such a space since the Universal Theatre closed in Fitzroy. A commercial venture, the Universal was home to many legendary productions, including the first production of Handspan's Cho Cho San, which subsequently toured Australia and China, Anthill's memorable Peer Gynt, starring Robert Menzies, and Billie Whitelaw's tour of Australia with her performances of Beckett's short play, notably the brilliant Rockaby. He's right: it would be fabulous to have a space like that now. But would it work?

"You have to be open to anything," he says. "Particularly now." What he means is that now producers work in an uncertain environment where phenomena like Facebook and Twitter - not to mention the Global Financial Crash - have changed the rules. "It's interesting these days. Nothing works any more. You put a full page ad in the newspaper, nothing happens. Maybe 60 tickets sold in a day. Two years ago, that would have been 300 tickets. Five years ago, 1000 tickets. People make decisions at the last minute. And that makes it hard."

He compares producers to developers. "Developers over-develop everything," he says. "Shopping centres are the thing, so they build shopping centres. And after a while everyone goes broke, because no one wants shopping centres any more, so they start doing cinemas. And they keep building cinemas until they start going broke..." You sense that Mollison isn't that kind of developer: he's sitting in the high chair, looking over the horizon for the next thing. And as far as he's concerned, the next thing is circus.

Musicals, he says, have had their day. "I think the market is sceptical of musicals," he said. "On Broadway there's Wicked, Mamma Mia, Shrek, Avenue Q... it goes on and on. Sometimes you have to say, well, that's where I think the market is going. I think circus is really exciting - you look at Circus Oz, their last show was a real step in an exciting direction. Or Circa, the Queensland company." Or the young performers featuring in this year's upcoming Fringe Festival, aggressively jamming together circus and theatre.

And, of course, the multi-awarded, critically applauded Slava's Snow Show, which features an ensemble led by Russia's most distinguished clown, Slava. "What this show taught me was the importance of emotion in presenting work," says Mollison. "I think a lot of New Genre [circus] forgets about emotion, and the clowning is poor, lousy. And a lot of producers don't care about clowns. But clowning is what gives circus meaning." He nods towards Circus Oz again, and names as exemplary clowns Derek Scott, Bill Irwin and Geoffrey Rush.

"I love this show," Mollison says of Slava's Snow Show (and the thing is, you believe him). "Clowns are born, not made, and Slava is one of those born clowns. He was basically a rock star in Russia, a television star, when Brezhnev was still in charge. He created all these characters - Assisai, Blue Canary - and the authorities didn't know if he's subversive or not, so they let him be. Then he went to the Edinburgh Festival, and his show was picked up and went around the world." The rest is, as they say, history.

That was in the early noughties, and now Slava's Snow Show has played to literally millions of people around the world. It's back in Melbourne for a second run as part of an Australian tour, opening August 12 at the Athenaeum.

Picture: Slava's Snow Show, with colours mangled by blogger. I will keep attempting to upload an image that doesn't come out in the negative. But kind of interesting, eh?

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Friday, August 07, 2009

It's all happening in North Melbourne

A short note to alert you to some shows on at North Melbourne Arts House, because if you blink you'll miss them. Three must-sees are running concurrently - David Pledger's Not Yet It's Difficult presents Strangeland, a collaboration between his company and the Wuturi Players from Korea, while the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed present their show Once and for all we’re gonna tell you who we are so shut up and listen (an Edinburgh Festival hit, which is also on later this month in Sydney). And finally, the acclaimed British company Forced Entertainment present their latest show, Spectacular. A spectacular mini-season indeed; and it closes this weekend, so hurry. Details here.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

But I don't wanna be a pirate!

Born Dancin' gets all Coleridge on the Critic Question. Dudes! Pirates! Sharks! Whales! Poetry! Is he totally taking the piss, or what?

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009


I feel remiss for not mentioning the Melbourne International Film Festival, which is now in full swing, with a good dose of political controversy to keep things interesting. However, a couple of other theatre bloggers are keeping well in touch - Carl Nilsson-Polias at Spark Online and Richard Watts at Man About Town are heroically logging reviews, and well worth checking out.

Although I'm not attending MIFF, I've seen a couple of the featured Australian films, which I mention here because they involve some names which will be familiar to Melbourne theatrenauts. And because they both, in very different ways, show how strong and uncompromising Australian work can be.

Balibo, Robert Connolly's film about the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, is as traumatising as everybody claims. It starts slowly, but gradually builds up power until it becomes a shattering experience. It's one of those rare films that absolutely impresses with its ethical commitment, its careful attention to the story it is telling. For example, Connolly carefully frames the story of the deaths of the six Australian journalists murdered by the Indonesian military as part of the larger massacre - 200,000 East Timorese - that took place when the island was invaded. It's a devastating indictment of many things, but perhaps most of all of the political pragmatism, exemplified by Whitlam's diplomat Richard Wollcott, that permitted these things to happen without a squeak of protest.

It's impeccably researched and, tellingly, is one of the few films I've seen about journalists that resists the impulse to romanticise them. It features a brilliant performance by Anthony LaPaglia as Roger East, with roles also by stalwarts of the Melbourne indie theatre scene - Mark Winter and Thomas Wright, known to us as the boys from Black Lung, and Simon Stone of Hayloft fame. If you missed it at MIFF, Balibo will be on general release from August 13.

The other is Jonathan Auf Der Heide's haunting, brutal and beautiful Van Dieman's Land. It features remarkable performances from some notable Melbourne theatre actors, including (again) Thomas Wright and Mark Winter, Oscar Redding, John Francis Howard and Greg Stone, and the music is by theatre composer Jethro Woodward. I saw this at the Adelaide Film Festival (review here) and loved it.

As I said at the time: "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."

PS: If you missed the sell-out MIFF screening, Van Diemen's Land is on general release from September 24.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Et cetera

You're probably all sick to death of last week's Meyrick/Woodhead/Croggon showdown but, as is the way of these things, it is prompting some extremely interesting thoughts about theatre criticism which I feel compelled to note. The latest is from our local Augustan, Neandellus, who contemplates the notion of critical dialogue in its various forms: between critic, audience and artist. In part, he says:

The objection that a reviewer can have no opinion except his/her own, is, to me, a non-sequitur. Why must criticism be only about opinions? What happened to judgment? It almost goes without saying that I do not believe the two are synonymous.

Anyway, that’s not how I’ve been doing it, publicly, for seven months, which, in the scheme of things, is not long. Maintaining an awareness of the audience has helped me make clear the reasons behind my own opinions and helped me produce more interesting criticism.

Echoes here of the distinguished American critic Robert Brustein, one of my own models, and his dislike of what he calls "Himalayan criticism". Myself, I agree with Brustein that opinion is the least of criticism; what matters more is an accurate and perceptive analysis. Not least because an emotive opinion - “Loved him, hated her” as Brustein puts it - is simply not arguable, although of course it is always going to colour any response. Part of theatre's seduction is that it is never pure.

Neandellus also points out the pleasures of conversation as an integral part of being part of an audience.

I, as an audience member, am dead keen on talking about what I’ve seen with whomever will listen, whether that’s my companion for the night, a fellow casual audience member, a theatre industry pleb checking out the work of their colleagues, a professional reviewer or any of the long-suffering housemates I happen to cross when I get home a-nights.... The dialogue helps me better articulate my own response. Of course I don’t have to do it like that. But it’s more fun. It’s serious fun. But it’s still fun. And it doesn’t feel wrong. Why must Craven say fudge? Why not refine? And what’s wrong with messing about?

I think Craven here is not so much arguing for a critic's Olympian untouchability - though maybe that is part of it - as reacting to a common perception that a critic has a duty to reflect the majority audience response to any work, suppressing his or her own thoughts in favour of becoming a kind of consumer guide. Its not an uncommon experience to sit in a show to which everyone else is responding wildly, either rocking with laughter or weeping into their hankies, in what Michael Billington once called "mutinous isolation". In which case, a dutiful critic usually does note the audience reaction and his or her lonely rebellion against the emotional orgy. An undutiful critic would simply shape his response in line with the majority reaction. Which is quite different from refining a response through conversation with a bunch of differently thinking others.

It used to be common to see a Critic walking around after a show in a bubble of splendid solitude, with someone whispering respectfully that one shouldn't speak to said Critic in case, I suppose, their precious thoughts became ruffled or obscured. I always thought that was just odd: if the precious thoughts are so easily destroyed, what use are they in the first place? But I think these times of eager conversation - in foyers and cafes and kitchens as well as blogs - have rather shifted that model. And that's good. As Neadellus says, conversation is serious fun.

Mind you, we're still a long way from being as outspoken as the French, who disrupted a performance of Von Horvath's Casimir et Caroline at the Avignon Festival last week with a lively performance of audience outrage in the stalls. Way to go!

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Craven on criticism

In today's Age, Peter Craven writes a sober and sensible analysis of this week's excitement, namely Julian Meyrick's attack on Cameron Woodhead's and my reviews of The Birthday Party. (Cameron's, sadly, is not online). In the process, he makes some good points about critical writing in general. This is particularly justly said:

Too often criticism in Australia has been characterised by a sugar-and-water or sugar-and-lemon approach, where the critic is afraid of frankness even when she is unimpressed. In contrast with this, both Woodhead and Croggon have the virtue of being fearless critics. Fearlessness is no guarantee of accuracy but it’s one kind of safeguard against the most obvious form of dishonesty. It is not the critics’ business to fudge their reaction or to mess about mediating the audience’s potential response. The critic is not there to review on behalf of the audience. The critic is the audience because he can have no opinion but his own...

Candour and eloquence are no guarantees of right judgment but they do guard against various kinds of falseness, including the falseness that comes from caring too much about the feelings of the frogs in the pond to say that it’s contaminated.

There’s also the plain fact that negative criticism is the logical corollary of its opposite. Only if you have the right to say that something is rubbish do you have the right to say that it’s a masterpiece.

Update: David Mence weighs in on the Captain's B'log with a commentary on the "theatre wars".

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