More datesOverland, MWF and stuffReview: The Trial, All About My MotherReview: This Kind of RuckusReview briefs: Superheroes, 2 Dimensional Life of Her, Fraudulent BehaviourCybec readingsReview: 9 fragmentsMore on Mills, and other stuffReview: Dying City, Do Not Go Gentle...A matter of art: Henson and MillsTracy LettsReview: Measure for Measure, Human Interest Story ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 30, 2010

More dates

My diary is insane. The rollercoaster seems to be plunging right on until November: and then it's the end of 2010. Like, what happened? Wasn't the New Year only last month? Is it the expanding universe or something?

But to turn to some particular fluctuations in the time-space continuum: next week, the Wheeler Centre, aka the Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, is running a series of panel discussions with what they cheerfully admit is the "thoroughly prejudicial" title of Critical Failure. Covering four artforms, films, books, theatre and visual art, the discussions will "review the state of critical culture in Australia and cast a critical eye over Australian reviewing".

Surprisingly enough, I'm on the Theatre panel, and will be appearing next Wednesday, September 8, with my old sparring partner, Age critic Cameron Woodhead; Julian Meyrick, a vocal critiquer of criticks, including La Croggon; and Stephen Sewell, firebrand playwright. Might make some fireworks, but even given the polar set-up I'm hoping for more light than heat, and that I don't end up as kebab. We'll see. It's a free event, 6.15 at the Wheeler Centre, bookings online here.

Meanwhile, this week I'm mainly attending AussieCon4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention. I've listed my appearances on my Books of Pellinor blog, if anyone here happens to be heading there and wants to see how my fantasy hat suits me.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Overland, MWF and stuff

I hope you've all ordered your copy of the 200th issue of Overland, due to be launched in a shower of bubbly at the Melbourne Writers Festival on September 4. I will be there, as I contributed an essay on Australian theatre and nationalism. And tomorrow, as a spin-off, I will appear with some of my fellow contributors in a shipping container on Riverside Terrace at Fed Square for a Melbourne Writers Festival event called "Magazine". Overland editor Jeff Sparrow will be wrangling Kalinda Ashton, Rjurik Davidson, Michelle Carmody and Jacinda Woodhead as well as me, nailing us into the hot-seat and asking probing questions for a magazine-style 15 minutes of fame. It goes from 10am to 1.30pm, and I'm on about 11.30. Please come!

This begins a crazy fortnight or so of heavy litting. For a lot of it I'll be hanging at the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, where I have a busy program of panels. It's my first Con, and I'm as excited as any 13 year old fangirl. I'll post details later and probably elsewhere, for any closet nerds out there. But tellingly, even in the heart of SFF city, I'm doing two panels about theatre ...

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: The Trial, All About My Mother

Last week, as is our wont now and again, Ms TN and her alter egos spent some hours pondering what it is that most matters to me in art. Is there one quality, we wondered, by which I gauge how much a work matters to me, one value by which we measure the rest? Yes, I answered myself, there is. What’s more, for all the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written here and elsewhere, I have never really said what it is.

Why is that? Is it cowardice? Is it because it’s too private? Is it that to articulate something so personal as what matters most is, somehow, to do it violence – to reduce it, to nail down a delicate and necessary silence with the crudity of words? And let's face it, when you put it baldly, it just sounds banal. What matters most to me, in any artwork, is its truthfulness.

Of course, "truthfulness" is a shorthand term for a constellation of qualities, some of them contradictory (as Whitman says, "Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict myself...") There is, however, one thing I unambiguously don't mean by truthfulness. I don’t mean that a work of art must tell The Truth, that one-eyed monster so beloved of morally calcified politicians or right wing columnists. The Truth – a singular, jealous god that admits no Other – is only the shiny side of a lie.

No, I'm thinking of less monumental, more profound qualities of truthfulness. True, as in when a craftsman runs his hand along a beautifully made table, or when a dressmaker cuts a pure line. True, as when you are true to your ideals, or to someone you love. True, as in poetry. This quality of truthfulness can't be disproved; but then again, it can't be proved either. Since its foundations are, like the ladders of Rilke's lovers, "long-since groundless ... leaning / on only each other, tremulously", it is, ironically perhaps, a little like faith. It has nothing to do with being "right" or "wrong". Can a life be right or wrong? Can an artwork?

"Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling," says Muriel Rukeyser. For Rukeyser, life and poetry are very nearly synonyms. They are a dance, an exchange, an invitation. I would say that of most arts, and claim it an especial quality of the theatre. The negation of feeling, its complexities, its realness, results in waste and injury, a necrosis of denial that infects every area of public and private life. Truthfulness is beyond mere honesty: "If we settle for honesty," said Rukeyser, "we are selling out." It is more complex and more ironic, more supple, more self aware. It's also more primitive. Its presence alerts the same kind of senses that make a deer startle when it smells a predator on the wind, or which reassure a suckling infant that it is safe. This truthfulness is never still, because it is a living thing. It keeps on happening, rippling out from the energy generated by encounter: artist and world, artist and work, work and witness.

So, if I have a "bias" - as is asserted now and again by more or less anonymous commenters on this blog, or by disaffected directors, or even by professional arts journalists interviewing total strangers about stuff that has nothing to do with me - then this "bias" tends to art that, to my mind, struggles towards the true. Equally, work that flinches from the true - especially art that makes grand gestures towards truthfulness, borrowing the weight and courage of others who have dared it, but refusing their risk - gets up my nose. Truthfulness has a price – for the poet Lorca, the price was his life – and you can’t cheat it.

Are my judgments "subjective"? Indeed they are, as are all judgments in matters of art by anyone. They don’t mean that work I don’t enjoy is therefore a lie – just as The Truth is almost certainly always a lie, so the opposite of a truth might be another truth. But they are certainly judgments that record my own struggle to be truthful. More, in writing down these thoughts and speculations, I seek to make reasonable judgments, because I value rationality as fiercely as I do feeling. No one can argue with my belief, because belief is unarguable and incorrigible: but anyone can take issue with my arguments.

Well, now I’ve said my ideals. Which, if any of you are still reading, brings me finally to last week's theatre viewing: The Trial, Matthew Lutton and Louise Fox's staging of Franz Kafka's famous novel at the Malthouse, and All About My Mother, Simon Phillips's MTC production of a play based on Pedro Almodóvar's film of the same name. Both are adaptations, and it's reasonable, given my preamble, to begin by asking whether the adaptation is true to the original. After all, Almodóvar, contemporary Spanish film-maker, and Kafka, Prague insurance clerk, are both, to the point of anguish, truthful artists. This fidelity is not about slavishly copying the work from one medium into another: it's more properly a question of whether the adaptation faithfully refracts in its new form the truthfulness of the original work.

Although it was first published in 1925, a year after Kafka's death, The Trial is one of a handful of novels – George Orwell’s 1984 and Albert Camus’s The Plague are others – which articulate with an almost sadistic precision the "human condition" of the 20th century. Matthew Lutton and Louise Fox have achieved something brilliant with this production: they have translated this iconic story to the stage without trivialising it, and without resorting to the romantic cliches that cluster around Kafka like flies around a corpse.

Kafka's work especially attracts this kind of thing, perhaps because of the obdurate refusals and opacities of his texts. They are more like cruel objects than stories, full of brooding significance that seems to retreat further the more you attempt to interrogate its meaning. For some commenters, he becomes a moraliser, although Kafka went to more trouble than almost any other human being to avoid moralising; to his hagiographers Max Brod and Gustav Janouch, Kafka was even a saint.

The brief essay printed in the program, by Dimitris Vardoulakis of UWS, is not untypical: Vardoulakis says the "main objective" of The Trial is "a critique of the ideal of liberal democratic freedom". "Instead of the logic of the law, Josef K should have followed the logic of desire that he discovered in his association with women characters...only then can Kafka's other freedom be possible." Yet the great nightmare of The Trial, and the reason why it resonates so disturbingly through the history of the past century, is that it shows a world where freedom is not possible at all.

It's fortunate that the production has nothing to do with Vardoulakis's argument, which attempts to rescue a utopic hope from a novel that is peculiarly resistant to any such illusion. The multiple seductions in the novel are far from expressions of liberation; rather, like the kiss Josef K bestows on Leni, they are "aimless", fevered and furtive exchanges that promise nothing except another slavery, this time to the imperatives of bodily functions. Josef K doesn't just die "like a dog"; like everyone else around him, he ruts like a dog too, only without the privilege of a dog's bestial innocence. The torment in this novel is consciousness, which is why Josef K's death comes almost gently, as a relief. One of the great virtues of Lutton's production is how powerfully it communicates a palpable sense of the sordid bodily realities Kafka evokes in The Trial – you can almost smell the grotesque seductions, the shabby, stuffy rooms, the sour sweat of panic.

Josef K’s unavailing struggle against the law that both accuses and condemns him is uncannily prescient; it foreshadows the faceless bureaucratic violence that came to fruition in Auschwitz or Kolyma or Tuol Sleng. Nor have its insights dated: in the surveillance society of the 21st century it resonates with an extra chill. And yet it's a mistake to think of it as a political novel. To regard The Trial as merely as a critique of the state's power to inscribe itself on the bodies of its subjects is to ignore its metaphysical dimensions, which culminate in the famous and inescapably Judaeic parable of the Doorkeeper at the end of the novel. Kafka is, like Beckett, a master of the precise and essential metaphor: The Trial might be most accurately called a portrait of the modern soul, in the same way Foucault's study of the penal system, Discipline and Punish, is described as that soul's genealogy.

The major strength of Fox's lucid script is that she refuses to lay any interpretation over Kafka's hauntingly mundane narratives, leaving them open to the multiple interpretations that resonate in the book. It's almost sternly faithful to the novel, but avoids any hint of deadly reverence. Likewise, Lutton's direction constructs a theatrical simulacrum of Kafka's claustrophobic reality that is at once compelling and, for all its nods to Orson Welles's magnificent film, totally original.

In Lutton's hands, the narrative becomes crudely theatrical, mockingly exposing the clumsiness, embarrassment and abjection of the human bodies which tumble around the raw plywood revolve that mainly constitutes Claude Marcos's set. The direction is swift, almost clinical, in how it moves the story imperceptibly from its banal, comedic opening into the logical absurdity of a nightmare. From its opening moments, when Josef K wakes up to find two police officers by his bed, ("before breakfast!"), to its desolate final image, Lutton and his cast generate an irresistible cumulative power.

The action is punctuated by several changes in the set - the dropping of curtains, the activation of the revolve about an hour in, and particularly a stunning set reveal late in the show. Each change serially exposes the mechanics of the stage, making us aware that the actors are trapped in the machinery, literally as well as metaphorically. Kelly Ryall’s brilliant sound design is one of the most textured and dramatically active I've experienced: it's a world in itself, paranoid and inscrutable, of half heard human voices, technological noise, irritating beeps, acoustic echoes punctuating the spoken text. In certain crucial scenes it segues gloriously into the lush romantic piano music of Ash Gibson Greig, a harsh juxtaposition that generates an almost unbearably poignant irony.

However, the credit for generating this reality must lie with the cast, who give impeccable performances, precise, comic and powerful, in a genuinely ensemble production. Only Ewen Leslie as the increasingly abject Josef K has a single role: the other six actors - John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas - play differing parts as the play requires. Leslie is riveting, slumping from the entitled outrage of the wrongly accused bank clerk to a man who is more and more abject, more and more certain of his own guilt and especially of his own shame. With some clever doubling, such as the splitting of the role of Leni between Kalnejais and McClory, the recurring faces become increasingly disconcerting, reinforcing the feeling that the action is some terrible, endless dream-reality where meaning and sense infinitely regress.

I think this a brilliant and perceptive theatrical adaptation of a novel that is at once simpler and more difficult than is generally allowed, as is the case with so many books called masterpieces. And it's also first-class theatre. I went twice, to make sure. And yes, I thought it truthful. All the way through.

This is not the case with All About My Mother, which is adapted by Samuel Adamson from Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 film. You might wonder why it was adapted at all, given that the film is so easily available, and so good. But even given the current fad for film-to-stage adaptations, it’s not so surprising that it should have been transposed to the theatre: All About My Mother is, after all, the most directly theatrical of films, stealing its structural and emotional ideas from plays such as Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

In his film, Almodóvar takes the form of contemporary soap opera and amplifies the tragic chords that underlie its melodrama. In doing so, he draws out the raw emotional truths behind the role-playing and performance of ordinary life. His abject, doomed characters are full of feeling, but never sentimental. The emotional landscape Almodóvar exposes is, like Lorca’s, bitterly beautiful: it’s a world of twilit ambiguity, where life and death, male and female, the sacred and the profane, meet at a disputed border.

What is surprising is that this production, directed with luscious visual flair by Simon Phillips, seems to be competing with the seductive spectacle of movies, rather than exploiting theatre’s capacity for emotional intimacy. It looks gorgeous, but it feels empty. In the clean, over-aestheticised spaces of Stephen Curtis’s design, Almodóvar's duende becomes so much exotic decoration. Without any palpable sense of abjection and filth in the production, there is no concomitant sense of the sacred. Instead, we just get soap opera with arty quotes.

All About My Mother – the title itself a nod to the most theatrical of films, All About Eve – concerns Manuela (Alison Whyte), working nurse and single mother of 17-year old Esteban (Blake Davis). For his birthday they see legendary actress Huma Rojo (Wendy Hughes) perform A Streetcar Named Desire, and Esteban is killed in a car accident as he tries to get Rojo’s autograph. Manuela, stricken by grief and regret, then revisits her former low-rent life in Barcelona, in an attempt to track down Esteban’s transsexual father, Lola (Jolyon James).

Samuel Adamson’s adaptation is, tellingly, an hour longer than the movie, and often feels like explication. Although it doesn’t slavishly attempt to reproduce the film, it’s hard to see what the play offers - aside from a spectacular design, that is - that the movie doesn’t do better. And there are one or two bad decisions - most notably, making the dead Esteban a continuous presence through the play - that introduce a cloying sentimentality.

The cast, led by Whyte’s gruelling and intense performance as Manuela, work hard and break through the multimedia wall now and again to generate moments of connection. Paul Capsis’s deadly irony saves the transsexual prostitute Agrado from becoming a camp cartoon, and Hughes delivers the final lines - a quote from Blood Wedding - with thrilling poetry. It's a borrowed, unearned flourish, although it did make me think that Wendy Hughes in Blood Wedding would be really something. But mostly, sentiment and spectacle win out over Almodóvar’s harsh and beautiful truths.

Versions of the reviews of The Trial and All About My Mother were published in the Australian.

Pictures: Top: Ewen Lesie as Josef K in The Trial. Picture: Jeff Busby Middle: Ewen Leslie and John Gaden. Picture: Jeff Besby. Bottom:The cast plays scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire in All About My Mother.

The Trial, adapted by Louise Fox from the novel by Franz Kafka, directed by Matthew Lutton. Set designer Claude Marcos, costume design by Alice Babidge, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Ash Gibson Greig, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas. Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until September 4. Sydney Theatre Company, September 9 - October 16.

All About My Mother, by Samuel Adamson, based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar, directed by Simon Phillips. Set design by Stephen Curtis, costume design by Esther Marie Hayes, lighting design by Matt Scott, sound design by Matt Scott, composer Alberto Iglesias. With Paul Capsis, Blake Davis, Katie Fitchett, Wendy Hughes, David James, Jolyon James, Katerina Kotsonis, Peta Sergeant, Lourise Siversen and Alison Whyte. Melbourne Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, until September 26.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review: This Kind of Ruckus

I've been meaning to catch up with version 1.0 for years. Under the guidance of David Williams - listed, I note uneasily, as the company's CEO - this Sydney-based theatre has established itself as one of Australia's must-see companies, redefining and, most of all, revitalising contemporary political theatre.

One of the few Australian companies that lists political engagement as its raison d'etre, version 1.0 has developed a theatrical language that jams found texts from a variety of public sources - court transcripts, media interviews, television shows - against the personal stories of the performers. In their own words, version 1.0 "engages with significant political and social issues using innovative theatrical strategies". The corporate-speak mission-statement vocab is off-putting, but don't let it deter you: this is a company alive to the complexities, ambiguities and, above all, the deceptions of language. Not least, one suspects, its own language. On the evidence of This Kind of Ruckus, the company's ambitions work in ironic counterpoint with the jargon it employs, takes apart and, ultimately, subverts.

Version 1.0's previous work includes shows about the Australian Wheat Board scandal (Deeply offensive and utterly untrue); the ethics of the invasion of Iraq (The Wages of Spin) and the scandal and tragedy of SIEV-X, the boat of asylum seekers that sank in 2001, killing 353 people (CMI: A Certain Maritime Incident). This Kind of Ruckus steps into the equally explosive arena of sexual politics. It's certainly the most lucid demonstration I've seen anywhere of the lose-lose deal that goes with being a woman in a patriarchal society, and I walked out of the show feeling a deep, ancient rage burning its way to the surface of my psyche.

This Kind of Ruckus is an exploration of sexual violence, beginning with the notoriously misogynist culture of leagues clubs in NSW. In the careful, intelligent hands of the five performers - Valerie Berry, Arky Michael, Katia Molino, Kym Vercoe and David Williams - this potential minefield not only makes excellent theatre, it makes its point.

It avoids simplistic portrayals of woman-as-victim, man-as-aggressor - images that permit us to avoid thinking about the complexities of sexual violence - and throws an uneasy light on the grey areas that exist between these too-easy absolutes. It makes the point that women want sex just as much as men do, that women can be filthy, ugly, rude, aggressive and criminal, just as men can be. Yet in a society that privileges the male, a woman's expressions of desire will be seen differently from a man's. Ultimately, a woman's sexuality will be used against her: her own desire can be used to violate her autonomy, to grind down and destroy her sense of self.

We all know about the famous double-standard, but this is a show uninterested in binaries, the easy hefting of blame. Instead, it seeks to make its audience more conscious of the implications of language and actions that many people never give a second thought. With intelligent repetition and juxtaposition, This Kind of Ruckus excavates the realities of male privilege. Patiently, without histrionics or exaggeration, it exposes how the female subject is routinely marginalised and even erased by the unexamined assumptions that place the male at the centre of legitimate experience.

And it does all this through effective, vernacular theatre, which is neither didactic nor simple-minded. From the opening moments, when each performer walks separately onto the stage in front of a drawn curtain, the performers exploit familiar images and gestures: here the men and the women parody cheerleaders, posing theatrically before the audience with their red pompoms. At a given signal, the actors perform a complicated twirl that leaves all five seated and apparently in the middle of lively conversation. Like everything that follows, it's sharp, clever and arresting.

The action weaves around a central recurring image - David Williams, a shaven-headed, heavy-set man, seated on a chair looking straight at the crotch of an unconscious woman (Kym Vercoe), who is stretched out on the floor. Her left leg is propped slightly, so the pose is exactly the same as the woman in Gustave Courbet's iconic erotic painting, The Origin of the World. Williams is inscrutable: he is looking, but seems to have no pleasure from what he is seeing; he is transfixed but curiously passive. Sad, perhaps; creepy, perhaps; threatening, maybe. It's an image of aftermath: the one thing we know is that something has happened.

The show itself is a collage of fragmentary narratives - a couple in therapy; a personal anecdote of a horrific unacknowledged rape; a quote from Matthew Johns's notorious shamed interview, from Four Corners; glimpses of a woman who is a victim of domestic violence - that are punctuated by dancing and seduction to pulsing electronic funk in a leagues club, where beer in plastic cups is lined up on a makeshift bar. Two screens dislocate the action further, sometimes projecting live action, sometimes not. The show winches up unease, cutting deeper and deeper into the ordinary, everyday self-deceits of which no one is not guilty, paring away at the exceptionalism which permits the audience - ourselves - to claim that it's them, not us.

The point is not to drive home a lesson, which can be easily learned and as easily forgotten, but to open a scab. Scratch this kind of theatre, and it's no surprise to find Brecht. Version 1.0's practice is in fact a very smart contemporary application of Brecht's theory of Epic Theatre, which by describing an event from the contradictory angles of all its witnesses, attempts to build a truthful picture of what happened. Above all, it's a dynamic picture, that opens out of the comforts of received wisdom the uncomfortable prickling of consciousness. Yes, it reminds you of the reasons to be angry: but most of all, at various levels from the subconscious up, it provokes thought. Frankly, it's pretty rare to find theatre that so clearly and stylishly does exactly what it says it intends to do.

This Kind of Ruckus, devised by Danielle Antaki, Sean Bacon, Arky Michael, Jane Phegan, Deborah Pollard, Christopher Ryan, Yana Taylor, Kym Vercoe and David Williams with Stephen Klinder. Performed by Valerie Berry, Arky Michael, Katia Molino, Kym Vercoe and David Williams. Video art by Sean Bacon, sound art by Gail Priest, lighting by Neil Simpson. Version 1.0 @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until August 28.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review briefs: Superheroes, 2 Dimensional Life of Her, Fraudulent Behaviour

I have been squinting at these unwritten reviews for a few days now, pondering my complete inability to write a legible paragraph. Why is it that one day sentences can shimmy like Heraclitan paisley, and yet the very next, for no apparent reason at all, the brain makes a sad phut sound, as when you accidentally stand on a puffball mushroom? If I'm smart on Monday, why on Wednesday am I so stupid? Who turned my brain into fudge overnight, and why, and can I mince them?

I am still at the phut stage, as might be obvious from the tortured metaphors. But I am conscious that this week, starting from tonight, I am seeing three more shows, and if I continue with the phutting, that would make a queue of six undone reviews. On the other hand, if I don't write about them, it will be thought that the fault is not in myself, but in the stars, which is not really the case. (Or maybe, really, nobody cares, and all this super-ego melodramatics is a way of avoiding the washing up, or life, or something.) Anyway, with no further apologia, herewith some brief responses to last week's viewings.

All these shows were at North Melbourne Arts House, and due to the Arts House blink-and-miss-it programming, they're all closed in Melbourne (although some are touring further around Australia). I caught a cold late in the week and so missed what several people have told me was the best of the week's openings, The Bougainville Photoplay Project, a theatrical lecture on colonialism that opened on Friday and closed on Sunday.

Superheroes, by Jo Stone and Paulo Castro, is set in an institution for the mentally ill, and out of that reality spirals some really effective moments of physical theatre. It suffers from Castro's sledgehammer script: the focus on atrocity, especially through the character of the soldier, is both crude and politically problematic. Superheroes certainly confirmed that my practice of reading programs after a show is sound; if I had read the notes beforehand, I would have enjoyed the show rather less.

Superheroes is, according to the director's note, "a play that explores the chaotic human mess that is not only brought about by war but that initiates war and violence". The notes go on to quote Edward Bond, while talking about the alienation of mediated violence in daily life. "If society is violent," says Castro sententiously, "the theatre needs to reflect this violence". If that is indeed what Superheroes was attempting, it seemed to me to be ill thought-through: especially in how the script seemed to be using sensationalist gestures of violence for theatrical affect, in ways that were ethically parallel to media exploitation. It's a fine line, and it needs better writing than Castro's to negotiate.

What was most interesting about this show was not the "epic" themes, the big questions of war and violence, but the humbler questions that spiralled out of Jo Stone's staging, especially in the relationship between imagined and mundane realities, and the fractured dependencies and shifting power dynamics between the different people - guards and inmates - on stage. These created genuinely complex theatrical moments out of very simple elements, and rather than ambitiously illuminating themes of global import, revealed something about the fragility of human presence.

Fleur Elise Noble's 2 Dimensional Life of Her was probably my favourite of those I saw: a beautifully contemplative uniting of film and sound in a theatrical space. It exploits black and white film and puppetry to follow the adventures of a projected girl, whose elusive presence becomes disconcertingly real through some clever sound and visual design that bring the two-dimensionality of film into a three dimensional, human-sized space.

The result is unexpectedly affecting: as we follow the projected girl's adventures through differing layers of reality - William Kentridge-like transformations, filmed puppets, flats that trickily opened or or were torn out into unexpected perspectives - I found myself more and more drawn in by how these figures of light and shadow, momentarily so real, would completely vanish off screen - much more completely than, say, an actor going off-stage. There was a poignancy in this poetic dance between imagined presence and absolute absence, the real and the unreal, which in the end remained unexploited, and could have been explored much more deeply.

I also enjoyed Rosie Dennis' s beguilingly low-key Fraudulent Behaviour. Dennis creates a seductively transparent performance, part dance, part surreal monologue, that is by no means as artless as it appears. It opens with Nietzsche's proposition that "we need lies in order to live”, which she writes up on a whiteboard. It's probably worth digging out the whole quote: "There is only one world, and this is false, cruel, contradictory, seductive, without meaning - A world thus constituted is the real world. We have need of lies in order to conquer this reality, this 'truth", that is, in order to live - "

According to Nietzsche, truth is unbearable without the human fictions (science, religion, morality) we create to make sense of it. Greatest of all of those fictions is art: "stronger than pessimism" and "more divine" than truth, it is the lie that knows it is a lie. In Fraudulent Behaviour, this bleak view of truth cuts against another quote from Emily Dickinson: "Truth is so rare that it is delightful to tell it." On Dickinson's side, truth is joy; on Nietzsche's, it is intolerable, terrifying reality.

Dennis dances through these polarities to a Tom Waits sound track, denying neither. The show explores a desolating loneliness, expressed by her one-sided and absurdly comic "conversations" with a decoy duck and her imaginary (and treacherous) friend Elise, and yet also creates its joyous fictions for their own sake, culminating in an unashamedly beautiful (and transparently manipulative) trumpet solo from Simon Ferenci. This is of course immediately undercut: this show is not about seduction. Dennis teasingly leads you to expect that her lies will be stripped aside to reveal some "actual" truth: but instead she leaves you with only the immediate, ephemeral truth of performance.

Picture: 2 Dimensional Life Of Her.

Superheroes: concept and direction Jo Stone, written by Paul Castro. With Julian Crotti, Nick Bennett, Lewis Rankin, Jo Stone, Paulo Castro, Hew Parham, Nigel Major-Henderson. Stone/Castro. Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall. (Closed)

Fraudulent Behaviour by Rosie Dennis and 2 Dimensional Life of Her by Fleur Elise Noble. Arts House Meat Market, Melbourne. (Closed). Darwin Festival, Aug 18 – 29; Brisbane Powerhouse Aug 20 – 28; Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts Sep 2-5; Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, Sep 8-11. Mobile States.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cybec readings

One for your diary. The MTC's Cybec Readings, developed under the watchful eye of associate director Aidan Fennessy, offers an eye-catching series of playreadings by Raimondo Cortese, David Tredinnick and Tom Holloway. Sadly, the programmers clearly forgot that AussieCon 4 (the 68th World Science Fiction Convention) is on in Melbourne this year on exactly those dates. It causes all sorts of conflicts for Ms TN, who'll be louchely masquerading as an SFF author at the Con... But those without such conflicts should be at the Lawler Studio with bells on: this is a classy program featuring some fab artists. Details after the fold.

The Dream Life of Butterflies
by Raimondo Cortese, directed by Heather Bolton. Featuring Natasha Herbert, Margaret Mills and Anastasia Russell-Head.

Two middle-aged women talk in a room. One is recently returned. One has always been there. Between them sits their past. The Dream Life of Butterflies is a beautiful dissertation on the illusion of memory and the impossibility of retrieving what has been lost. In a seamless single scene, award-winning writer Raimondo Cortese exposes their delusions about themselves and each other, hinting at the terrible taboo at the heart of their relationship.

This is How
An adaptation of the MJ Hyland novel by David Tredinnick, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Featuring Katrina Milosevic, Richard Piper and Luke Ryan.

Patrick, a young motor mechanic, escapes to an English seaside village to lick his wounds after a relationship break-up. However, he soon discovers that his demons have followed him, and he will end up doing a very, very bad thing. This is How traces the journey of a man through Britain’s criminal justice system in the late 1960s. It’s a waking nightmare where fantasy and reality co-exist.

You Won’t be Seeing Rainbows Anymore
By Tom Holloway, directed by Matt Lutton. Featuring Julie Forsyth, Jan Friedl, Francis Greenslade, Bruce Kerr, Thomas Wright and Dylan Young.

Within the world is a city. Within the city is an apartment block. Within the apartment block are six very ordinary human beings. One is on the roof looking back at the world, which seems, in a way, that it’s perhaps, well … dying. With deft humour and his typically distinctive style, Tom Holloway’s genre defying new work guides us through the human condition as it enters its death-throes.

The Dream Life of Butterflies: Thursday September 2, 7pm
This is How: Friday September 3, 7pm
You Won’t be Seeing Rainbows Anymore: Saturday September 4, 7pm
Venue: The MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio
Tickets: Adult $10 (or 3 plays for $24)* / Under 30s $5
Bookings: The MTC Theatre Box Office (03) 8688 0800, or at the door.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: 9 fragments

As the poet Anne Carson points out, it was Sappho who first described eros as “bittersweet”. “No one who has been in love,” says Carson, “disputes her”. Desire is, after all, fraught with paradox: it is the zenith of human bliss, but its annihilating power destroys the illusion of human autonomy. As Sappho describes in her most famous fragment (here in Carson's translation), it can seem like dying:

...when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead - or almost
I seem to me.

After two and a half millennia, Sappho’s poems still speak across what would seem unbridgeable gaps of time and culture, expressing with a directness and delicacy that has rarely been matched the contradictions of “limb-loosening” desire. In her extraordinary performance Sappho…in 9 Fragments, actor/writer Jane Montgomery Griffiths takes on Sappho’s legacy, exploring the history of her texts and the various myths and conjectures that fill the absence of knowledge about her life. Lesbian, wife, mother, suicide, exile, tenth muse of the archaic Greek world: how can we hear her elusive voice, through the clamorous myths that cluster about her name? 9 fragments is not so much a homage to Sappho as a reanimation of the body of her work (with an emphasis on "body") through a particular subjectivity. Most of all, it's a passionate engagement with the poetry itself, a multifaceted imaginative dance with Sappho’s work brought with painful intensity into the present moment. Montgomery Griffiths does a seemingly impossible thing, and makes theatre out of an act of understanding.

Reading, listening, watching, comprehension, become - both in our watching, as audience members, and in Montgomery Griffiths's performance - acts of love: the stroking of a page is also the stroking of skin. Before our eyes she enacts the creation of meaning, which is always a collaboration, a dynamic exchange, between the artist's work and those who encounter it. But it's an act fraught with peril, with the risk of annihilating damage and pain. Eros wakes an unassuagable longing, making us aware of our incompleteness, our existential solitude. As Atthis says in Fragment 8, recalling Plato:

"Once, we were whole. A smooth, round completeness of total happiness... But we did something wrong, and the gods punished us. We were split and sundered... and our two dismembered halves were left to wander. Looking for each other. Looking for that wholeness. But when we met again, the damage was too great....And when we embraced, all we felt was our hollowness. And so we parted. Resigned to live forever with our emptiness and our lack."

First performed at the Stork Hotel in 2007, this complex, moving and powerful work has been further developed by Malthouse Theatre under the direction of Marion Potts. I missed the first production, but was very glad to see this one. The writing is sharp, witty and passionate: Montgomery uses her own free translations of Sappho which, unlike the spare renderings of Carson or Diane Rayor, spiral in intensifying thickenings of linguistic desire that work surprisingly well in performance.

Anna Cordingley’s design, lit with Paul Jackson's usual sensitivity, is breathtakingly beautiful. The audience is placed on three sides, facing a tank that appears to be full of honey, which gradually empties onto the stage during the course of the monologue. Sappho’s naked body is gradually revealed inside the tank, at last emerging from this amber prison to a soundscape composed of fragments of Greek, the trickling of fluid and archaic percussion. It's a bold and hauntingly lovely opening to a riveting show.

Through the performance, Montgomery Griffiths embodies several things at once. She performs the poet herself, but also becomes her poems - there's a moment where she is the fragments of papyri which have lain underground for centuries, begging to be discovered, to be read again. There are skin-tingling recitations of the fragmented poems in the original Greek, which invite us into Sappho's exquisite musicality. Montgomery Griffiths explores, with various degrees of irony, their lexigraphical adventures through the centuries, and the invented biographies of Sappho that have rounded out the few historical facts, while also adding her own projected narrative.

Montgomery Griffith's Sappho is seductive and terrifying: a potent, desirous and desirable woman, as unforgiving and vulnerable as the art she creates. She and her avatars are in fluid dialogue with the voice of Sappho’s lover Atthis (“there can be no Sappho without an Atthis”), told through a contemporary story of seduction and betrayal. Sappho is figured through a famous actress playing that great victim of love's extremity, Phaedra, and a lowly chorus member who catches her eye. This sometimes painfully comic narrative twines through the other voices, enacting the passions - desire, love, jealousy, anguish, loss - of the poems.

Montgomery Griffiths’s performance is outstanding; like her wit and intellect, the virtuosity of her superb physical and vocal skills do not serve as masks so much as tools to excavate the unmediated rawness of feeling. She can be spiky, predatory, even bestial, and in the next moment expose a piercing vulnerability, walking a tightrope of extremity which, if she faltered, could tip her into bathos. But her assurance and, finally, her naked honesty, ensure there is not a trace of sentiment in her performance. Anyone who believes that passion and intelligence are opposites should see this show, where each crucially informs the other. Not to be missed.

Picture: Jane Montgomery Griffiths in 9 fragments. Photo: Jeff Busby

A shorter version of this review was published in the Australian last Friday 9 fragments, written and performed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. Staging by Marion Potts, set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design Darrin Verghagen. Malthouse Theatre @ The Beckett until August 21.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

More on Mills, and other stuff

The Wheeler Centre, aka the Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, nicely asked me for another response to Jonathan Mills's lecture, so this time I went for something slightly more personal. It's up today on their site. And while you're there, you might want to check out the series of discussions the centre is hosting next month on arts criticism, provocatively titled Critical Failure: why arts criticism is failing us all. I'll be part of the theatre discussion, which is scheduled for September 8. Plenty to chew on there, though I'm hoping that it won't be me that's mostly being chewed.

Elsewhere in blogland, George Hunka posts some recondite statements about the dramatist's art from British playwright John Whiting, which are well worth a ponder. Once you get past the insistence on the masculine pronoun, the assumption that art is a job for "a man", there are some interesting points about the individual as opposed to the communal voice. And I hope you'e following Chris Goode's Edinburgh diary on his blog Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, as he rehearses and performs Tim Crouch's The Author at the Edinburgh Festival. And, being Goode, much other stuff. Someone said that they print out Goode's blog posts to read on the bus, which is, in fact, probably an excellent way to read them, especially given the uncertainties of Melbourne's public transport system.

Closer to home, Robin Usher reports in today's Age that the MTC could "do an STC" and appoint Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as its new artistic director. I guess they could do a lot worse: and we all know Rush is a man of the theatre. But would he be interested, I wonder? One can't help suspecting the job is a bit of a poisoned chalice... And while I'm at it, let me point you to Jeff Sparrow's excellent comment piece on The Drum, which looks at the neo-liberal commodification of politics, and the concomitant panic about "authenticity": "Pro-wrestling makes a pretty good analogy for where we're at: an election is a product designed for TV, in which the wacky antics of assorted larger than life characters disguise how little's actually at stake. Welcome to the desert of the Real, as someone once said." Indeed.

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Monday, August 09, 2010

Review: Dying City, Do Not Go Gentle...

Christopher Shinn is rightly lauded as one of the most powerful and accomplished playwrights now working in the US. Like his compatriot Will Eno, his work in his country of birth is more often honoured in the breach: his first play Four was rejected by every US theatre he sent it to, before it premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1998 and established his growing British reputation. Dying City premiered in London in 2006, a year before it received a New York production. Shinn's most recent play, Now or Later, premiered at the Royal Court two years ago, and despite four and five star ratings has yet to receive a production in New York.

In a recent interview, Shinn suggests that this reluctance to embrace his work is not, as he once thought, because of an increasing conservatism in the US theatre scene, so much as a cultural denial of emotional pain and tragedy. "It's not so much that they understand and then reject the work, but that they never actually experience it in the first place," he says. "That's much scarier to me than conservatism. Denial and negation are very hard, if not impossible, to undo."

Watching this play hard on the heels of Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone at the MTC, it's difficult not to speculate that there might be similar denials here: why, in the work available from the US, choose Ruhl's work, or indeed JT Rodger's Madagascar, over a play that is not only vastly better written, but also more intelligent, more honest and, crucially, more moving?

Dying City is an elegant and powerful foray into contemporary naturalism. It moves between two different times: the night of the departure for Iraq by the volunteer soldier Craig (Brad Williams) and an evening and morning just over a year after Craig's suicide overseas, when Craig's gay twin brother Peter (also played by Brad Williams) unexpectedly visits Craig's mourning wife, Kelly (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley).

It opens with an understated scene that is heavy with unsaid tension: Peter's arrival provokes Kelly's inarticulate distress. At first it seems that Kelly's grief is sparked by his resemblance to her husband, and by how his unscheduled visit echoes the way the military turned up to tell her of his death. But as the play progresses, it gradually reveals an altogether darker emotional landscape that reaches beyond its domestic setting into a damning critique of a militarised, misogynistic society, and the media-saturated anaesthetisation that is both its cause and effect.

This critique is folded into the dialogue, as part of the emotional action rather than a didactic lesson, and so attains an increasing emotional power as the play progresses. Shinn weaves his argument into a lament for an increasingly decadent, anaesthetic culture, with allusions to America's great literary tradition - Melville, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner, O'Neill - cutting against the ironised poverty of the present.

Peter is an actor, who on the night he visits Kelly has just walked out of a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night after a homophobic comment by another actor; Craig has joined the military to gain a tertiary education, and is halfway through a thesis on William Faulkner. Yet the love of both brothers for their cultural heritage is truncated, betrayed by a violent present. This present is most potently symbolised by the twin images that have dominated the US in new century: the Abu Ghraib photographs and the events of 9/11 which is, as Craig says, writing from Iraq in 2004, "already a punchline".

But here these images of extreme violence have their correlatives in the minutae of domestic life, manifesting in irretrievable pyschic damage. Kelly is a therapist, part of a profession that holds out the promise of "closure" in the face of trauma. But as becomes clear, her professional skills are of no use in dealing with her own trauma. She is unable to face the reality of her marriage, and instead takes refuge in television crime series that hold out the promise of a death that is "symbolically reversed". Rather than face the pain that is crippling her, she is fleeing it: she is in the middle of moving house and has even changed her phone numbers so she won't be pursued by her husband's doppelganger and the horror of the memories his presence evokes.

For all the significance of the ideas Shinn is exploring, this play is never heavy-handed. And its poise is reflected in a concomitantly elegant production by Matt Scholten, which simply permits the emotional life of the writing to emerge. Kat Chan's cardboard box set manifests the transiency of the characters and is beautifully lit by Tom Willis. What counts in a play like this is the performances, and it's worth seeing for these alone.

Ellerton-Ashley and Williams are both remarkable, doing full justice to the nuance and suppleness of the writing. Williams's double act as Craig and Peter is a bravura demonstration of the actor's art: so complete is his transformation between the two characters you wholly believe they are different people (my daughter thought at first that they had in fact cast twins). The dialogue emerges from potent silences, in which the loneliness of the characters becomes almost palpable. Highly recommended.

Patricia Cornelius’s high anticipated Do Not Go Gentle... also opened last week at Fortyfive Downstairs. The winner of the 2006 Patrick White Play Award, this is another play that has struggled to find mainstage production here, despite what would seem to be its ideal provenance: not only is it a play that appeals to older audiences, it shapes its unsentimental tragedy with an appealing dose of comedy. Certainly, seeing the high-calibre cast in Julian Meyrick's lyrical production, which includes Paul English, Terry Norris, Anne Phelan and Malcolm Robertson, it makes you wonder if the best of what is generally called "mainstream" is, for the most part, lurking in independent theatre.

Cornelius borrows her title from Dylan Thomas’s poem, Do not go gentle into that good night. Perhaps the most beautiful villanelle written in English, Thomas’s poem celebrates the vivid life of old age, pressed hard against death: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”. Likewise, Do Not Go Gentle… explores the flare of vitality that reaches a desperate intensity in the face of death, through seven characters who live in an old people’s home.

The central character, Scott (Rhys McConnochie), is obsessed with the tragic heroism of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, a race he lost to the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and which ultimately cost him his life. In Cornelius’s hands, this expedition becomes a metaphor for the long defeat that is life itself, moving with a poetic suppleness between entries from Scott’s diary and the mundane details of life in an institution.

She evokes with unsentimental compassion the confusions and longings of old age, or, in the case of Bowers (Pamela Rabe), a younger woman suffering from premature Alzheimers who doesn’t remember her own husband, of tragic memory loss. Scott’s story provides a narrative spine from which emerges the stories of the various characters. Most powerfully, this double reality becomes a theatrical metaphor for the uncertain world Cornelius’s characters inhabit, with the white wastes of Antarctica a potent image of desolation.

Yet, like Thomas’s poem, the play is primarily a celebration of life. Cornelius’s characters, like the actors who play them, are funny, angry and defiant, and out of the poverties of their situation create a richness that is its own meaning. The play isn’t wholly successful: there are scenes where the conceit of the double reality isn’t sustained, and Cornelius’s poetic language loses its tension, falling into the merely literal. But for much of its length it makes riveting and moving theatre, and Meyrick's production generates some moments of breath-taking theatrical beauty.

The opening scene is spine-tingling: Maria (Jan Friedl) shuffles onstage in dressing gown and slippers, opens her mouth and sings a glorious aria, while behind her six anonymous figures, dressed in thick arctic gear, march onto the stage, each leading the other like the figures in Breughel's painting The Parable of the Blind. It recalls Walter Pater’s insistence that all art aspires to the condition of music, yearning towards the mysteries of what can’t be expressed in words, and is as moving an image of mortality as I have seen in the theatre.

It can be great watching older actors on stage, and unsurprisingly this all-star cast elicits excellent performances, given an extra power here by the age of the actors. Malcolm Robertson is at his gritty best as Oates, haunted by the suicide of his son, and Anne Phelan as the increasingly uninhibited Wilson, making up for a life of self-abnegation in a late love affair, is comic and poignant. As Scott, Rhys McConnochie gives a moving portrayal of an ordinary man with huge dreams, breaking against his failed life.

Marg Howell's design exploits the wide space of Fortyfive Downstairs, using its windows beautifully: the stage is bare save for a collapsing ceiling at once end, baring it to be a space of imagination. Meyrick's direction moves the scenes swiftly between their shifting realities, using the whole of the space and its view outside to generate a sense that the stage has no borders. I found myself haunted by this play for several days after seeing it: it doesn't attain the elegance of Shinn, but it possesses a direct poetic honesty that lifts it past its flaws. Certainly, this production has an undeniable beauty and power, and I suspect it will be a major hit for Fortyfive Downstairs.

Disclosure: Ben Keene, who composed the music for Dying City, is my son.

A shorter version of the review of Do Not Go Gentle... was published in today's Australian.

Pictures: (Top) Zoe Ellerton-Ashley and Brad Williams in Dying City; (bottom) Pamela Rabe in Do Not Go Gentle... Photo: Jeff Busby

Dying City by Christopher Shinn, directed by Matt Scholten. Designed by Kat Chan, lighting by Tom Willis, music by Ben Keene. With Zoe Ellerton-Ashley and Brad Williams. Hoy Polloy, MIPAC, Brunswick, until August 21. Bookings: (03) 9016 3873.

Do Not Go Gentle... by Patricia Cornelius, directed by Julian Meyrick. Designed by Marg Howell, usic and sound design by Irine Vela, lighting design by Richard Vabre. With Paul English, Jan Friedl, Rhys McConnochie, Terry Norris, Anne Phelan, Pamela Rabe and Malcolm Robertson. Fortyfive Downstairs until August 29. Bookings: (03) 9662 9966.

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Friday, August 06, 2010

A matter of art: Henson and Mills

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves. If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun....

Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, 1949

Everyone agrees that this has been the most insipid election campaign in recent memory. (It’s telling when the most illuminating television commentary on the election campaign comes from a comedy program about advertising.) It's hard not to think that we’re watching contemporary democracy play out its reductio ad absurdum. Or, more likely, that the sham debate of democratic choice is the entertainment that diverts the masses, while the real business goes on in boardrooms and plush hotels hermetically sealed against public scrutiny.

Instead of policy, we have slogans: “Moving forward” (at least until mockery silenced the line); “Not a big Australia, a sustainable Australia”; “Stop the boats”. We have interchangeable cartoon figures – Rudd, Gillard, Abbott – whose only aim is to wrongfoot their opponents. We have scare campaigns from interest groups like the mining industry and trade unions. Where in all this is the sober discussion of actual issues that we face, as citizens of this planet? What does it all mean? Who can possibly care?

Between the lives people actually live and the glib phrases of campaigning politicians there is an abyss. Public language is so debased that its meaninglessness becomes the whole of its meaning, with political commentary reduced to an analysis of the gestures and tics of its impoverished rhetoric. But this is no accident: it's a deliberate strategy, in which language becomes a simulacrum of reality that bears no relationship at all to truth. Public language is about striking a series of generalised attitudes, teflon-coated against meaning, which can be changed at will with impunity. Politicians don't break promises: they make them in the full knowledge that everybody knows they won't be kept. Our public language is amnesiac, alienated, half-conscious, and it's designed to keep the electorate the same, diverted from real problems by a parade of concocted fears.

This made two events early this week deeply interesting. On successive nights, there were major public lectures delivered by significant arts figures. I can't helping feeling encouraged that there's the public space for these events, although thinking about them also makes me wonder about their potency in the wider discussions in our polity.

On Monday, photographer Bill Henson delivered the Melbourne Art Foundation 2010 Lecture, while on Tuesday, Edinburgh Festival artistic director Jonathan Mills gave the Wheeler Centre's inaugural State of the Arts lecture, which is planned to be an annual event. Both events were packed out and widely publicised; Henson's talk, in particular, was widely spruiked as the artist "speaking out" after his long public silence since the nationwide controversy that engulfed his work in 2008.

Henson and Mills represent very different sensibilities, yet what is most striking about these lectures is their common ground. Both strongly assert the centrality of art to human life, its crucial importance at the core of lived experience and knowledge, in the face of a society in which it is most often claimed that art is a luxury, a kind of optional add-on that is extrinsic to the serious business of reality. Both attacked the utilitarian mindset and language of politics, claiming that its very language constricts our human perceptions and possibilities, making us smaller than we are in a time when we need more than ever to reach beyond ourselves to cope with the challenges that constitute our future. And both called for art to be fundamentally integrated into the education of our children, as a matter of urgency: for their individual and for our social good.

I know they're both right: the achievements of civilisation - the definition of civilisation itself - is unimaginable without factoring art into the equation; what we are as human beings - our conception of the sacred, our longings, our intelligence, even our erotic being - has, for centuries, been conditioned and shaped by art. Yet I can't help wondering how much this message can be heard. I can't help fearing that our public discourse is too stunted, too frightened of the uncertainties and generosity art embodies, too spiritually deadened to even hear what they're saying.

Henson's description of art's "moral truth", the "dumbfounding" power that emerges from the struggle of its genesis, will chime with anyone who has experienced something of what he is saying. But what of those who have no idea of what he's talking about? Mills's urgent plea for a way of thinking that encompasses reason and feeling, which incorporates all the senses in a higher ratiocination that perhaps will help us to imagine a way through our challenging future, is sheer uncommon sense: but how can those ideas even begin to enter the utilitarian discourse that for our society represents the locus of real power?

In the course of a discussion which references a dizzying range of art, from Bellini to Ovid to Blake to Scorsese, Henson offers a privileged peep into his imaginative world. He discusses the demonology that has often attended discussions of art - the romantic idea that the artist is possessed, the untamed wildness that drive its truths - in defence of the "terrible beauty" that infuses both life and art. Art is, says Henson, the means by which we have made our civilisation, and the expression of our human history. And yet, when we experience its power, we step outside history.

He calls this experience "millennial slippage", the sudden breathtaking epiphany when we understand, through the work of an artist who died decades or centuries or millennia ago, a sense of its presence in our contemporary lives that illuminates both the art and ourselves. It's an experience Henson characterises as, most centrally, an evocation of tenderness or compassion, in which a simultaneous perception of the futility and potency of human endeavour makes us understand acutely our own mortality. And, contradictorily, in doing so, we access the realm of the divine.

This is central to Henson's idea of the moral truth of art, which is its simultaneous invitation into the worlds of the imagination and the real. Its risk exists in the eternal tension between its license, its Bacchanalian freedom, and its Apollonian discipline and form: the artist transforms what she perceives, and what we perceive, when we experience this art, transforms us. As Rilke said after seeing Michelangelo's David, art's message is that "You must change your life".

And this is what, says Henson, we can most profitably give our children. Instead of a "regime of pandemic fear", we should open for them the mysteries and beauty of art. "I think that this can give our children that tremendous gift: some glimpse into the world of the gods. What we have a moral duty to bequeath to our children is an apprehension of the spiritually radiant landscape of history, as art has illuminated it and given it truth."

Mills, on the other hand, opened with George Steiner's warning, in his 1971 book In Bluebeard's Castle, against the perils that attend the dominance of the technocratic mind. "Technical advances, superb in themselves, are operative in the ruin of primary living systems and ecologies," says Steiner, with a prescience that echoes ominously four decades later. "Our sense of historical motion is no longer linear, but as of a spiral. We can now conceive of a technocratic, hygienic utopia functioning in the void of human possibilities.”

Arguing against that void, Mills discusses the various ways in which we value human intelligence, referencing recent discoveries in neuroscience as models for a better understanding of culture. And he speaks from his experience as composer. "As an artist, my relationships are experiential rather than theoretical," he says. "I certainly share with scientists and philosophers a desire to make sense of my existence. It is just that my approach is poles apart. It is a fragile, highly intuitive process, in which sensory acuity and memory are subtly intertwined."

This process of intelligence, which Paul Carter calls "material thought", is not abstract: it relies on a sensory, immediate apprehension of the world. Following this thought leads Mills to anthropological studies of the Inuit people, or the Kaluli in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea, whose very survival depends on sound: in environments where the visual sense can be misleading or useless, hearing becomes crucial.

As contemporary urban citizens, these sensitivities are mainly lost to us. Mills suggests that it is only through art that we can expand our consciousness to access these other kinds of intelligence, and in so doing attain a wider and more profound understanding of the world in which we live. Intelligence is, he says, best understood as an "evolving entity", more plastic than we imagine, and its potential is barely accessed. And yet we have never had more need of it, in dealing with the challenges we face today - the problems of increasing and mobile population, environmental destruction, international instability.

Here Mills turns his attention to Australia, and to our increasing population in particular. As India and China become dominant economic forces, how is it that we have so little cultural engagement with them? As Australian society becomes more and more diverse, why do we know so little of the cultures that make up our population? He names culture as the means of finding common ground, of expanding mutual curiosity and understanding, and seeks to replace "multiculturalism" - a term predicated on "the strangeness of the Other", and suggests replacing it with "Cosmopolitanism". Here he quotes the sociologist Ulrich Beck: "Cosmopolitanism, then, absolutely does not mean uniformity or homogenisation. Individuals, groups, communities, political organisations, cultures and civilisations wish to and should remain diverse, perhaps even unique. But to put it metaphorically: the walls between them must be replaced by bridges."

This bridge, says Mills, is culture. It's through culture that we can find common ground, a reciprocal interest that can translate our differences into a dynamic and positive relationship. And yet, he says, "in preparing this lecture I read a number of official documents, as well as speeches, comments and interviews with a variety of government ministers, I struggled to find the slightest mention of culture."

Like Henson, Mills urges a closer relationship between the arts and education, which he sees as increasingly inadequate in preparing young people for the complex world in which they live. He imagines an education system rather different from what now exists. "Alas, where there might be potential for learning about the Mahabharata or understanding the subtleties of kun opera, or appreciating Shia religious ceremonies through exposure to a Taziyeh performance along side the symphonies of Beethoven or cantatas of Bach, we rely instead on a diet which is exclusively comprised of adolescent, self expressive rock eisteddfods. There is nothing wrong with fun and frivolity, unless it becomes an overwhelming controlling metaphor for absolutely everything that occurs in a classroom." Worse, "integrating and assimilating the work of schools and universities with that of professional ensembles is only the first step. It is sadly a step Australian governments have yet to take."

Henson's insistence on the crucially subjective experience of art, in uniting the individual with the wider spheres of history and contemporary society, and Mills's call for a conception of culture that creates a common ground out of which we can shape our differences as enriching and valuable, meet in an insistence on a different view of education. Both imagine a world of wider possibility inspired by curiosity rather than fear, a society in which the self sees itself in positive relationship to the other. And both see the key to this possibility as art.

So where do these ideas enter into Australian social discourse? Henson's lecture was mostly reported as an unapologetic speech that merely defended his right to photograph nude children. Mills's lecture fared rather better: it was run in full in the SMH and the Age printed an edited extract. Yet I don't know how these important assertions of meaning will resonate, how they can be translated meaningfully to those who most need to hear. I don't know how they will mitigate the wider hostility to art that exists in Australia, a hostility motivated by fear and ignorance, and fanned by the attack dogs and the plain apathy of both the right and the left. The very utilitarian language criticised by both Henson and Mills makes it impossible to communicate widely the substance of what they say.

Meanwhile, the election campaign runs on in its breathtaking banality, with not one hint anywhere that there might be other ways of speaking or thinking about the challenges that confront us all. Somewhere, in this seemingly unbridgeable gap, we're all being cheated.

Update: George Hunka responds on Superfluities Redux, in the context of the "Adornonian nightmare" of another argument about corporate sponsorship of the arts.

Bill Henson's lecture, The Light and the Dark and Shades of Grey, can be watched in full on Slow TV. Jonathan Mill's State of the Arts lecture is available for download (pdf) on the Wheeler Centre site.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Tracy Letts

My interview with Tracy Letts, author of August: Osage County, is in today's Australian.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Review: Measure for Measure, Human Interest Story

With All's Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida and, sometimes, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is most often characterised as one of his "problem plays". This is an anachronistic label, placing Measure for Measure in the context of an early 20th century theatre conditioned by the socially-conscious plays of Shaw and Ibsen. But that doesn't mean that it's not a problem.

It's perhaps Shakespeare's strangest play: intellectually intriguing but dramaturgically absurd. Over the centuries it's prompted a wide variety of critical responses. Samuel Johnson thought the comic bits "very natural and pleasing", while the tragic themes showed "more labour than elegance"; Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought the whole play darkly disturbing, at once "disgusting" and "horrible". While William Hazlitt thought it a marvellous demonstration of natural morality, other critics saw it as variously an allegory of Christian doctrine on mercy and atonement, or as an example of extreme Jacobean negation and cynicism.

All these contradictory assessments suggest a play of considerable complexity: and there's no doubt that Measure for Measure is an intricate beast. It's probably best understood as an exploration of tragicomedy, which at the beginning of the 17th century was a new form. More than tragedy twisted to happy ending, tragicomedy was envisioned as a blending of disparate elements, a dramaturgy driven by contrast that through its violent juxtapositions sought to demonstrate the via media, the way of moderation and humane reason that tempers the extremes of idealism or cynicism, and which finds the middle path between divine justice and human mercy.

It's easy to see why this deeply problematic text would have attracted Benedict Andrews, perhaps the most intellectually rigorous of our directors. His Belvoir St production brings this baggy monster into the 21st century, rethinking it as a play of image and appearance. He presents Measure for Measure as a theatre of substitution, a mapping of lines of power and desire that expose the tensions of the modern state, especially in the perilous margins between private and social moralities.

Ralph Myers's set (beautifully lit, as one might expect, by Nick Schlieper) is a revolving hotel room surrounded by white curtains, which is plonked in the middle of a blank theatrical space. It's neither private nor public, but rather encompasses both spheres: the hotel room functions as an impersonal site of intimate sexual encounters, or becomes an incongruously private space in which the state makes its public pronouncements. On either side of the stage are two video screens which give us, in merciless close-up, images of the actors who are performing live in front of us. It's disconcerting how often the eye prefers the videoed image over the real actor, and this uneasy visual dance between raw and mediated performance underlines the tensions Andrews brings to this production.

The play begins with the Duke of Vienna, Vincentio (Robert Menzies) mysteriously absenting himself and giving all his authority to his deputy Angelo (Damon Gameau), a well-known hardliner on matters of sexual morality. As the Duke explains, Vienna is rife with vice and corruption, and he wishes to investigate this state of affairs as an anonymous observer, in disguise as a friar. Meanwhile Claudio (Chris Ryan) has impregnated Julietta (Maeve Dermody), and under Angelo's unyielding interpretation of the city's laws, is sentenced to death for fornication, despite his intention to marry his betrothed. When Claudio's sister Isabella (Robin McLeavy), urged by Claudio's louche friend Lucio (Tony Schmitz), pleads with Angelo for her brother's life, Angelo reveals his hypocrisy by striking a corrupt bargain: he will spare Claudio's life if Isabella surrenders her virginity to him.

This set-up heralds a comedy of substitutions: Isabella saves her chastity by sending the lovelorn Mariana (Helen Thomson) in her stead; Claudio is saved by the execution of another criminal. In the end, the Duke, having trapped his erring subjects in all their declared lies, throws off his disguise and marries everybody off in a series of judgments that demonstrate both mercy and justice. Finally, the Duke declares his own intention to marry the virtuous Isabella, who in the final dispensations of justice finds herself betrayed by the libidinous currents of power in the city.

Andrews has gathered an impressive cast, and they deliver excellent performances. Menzies is at his best as the Duke, who is played with a sardonic dignity that is disarmingly vulnerable, and there are excellent performances in particular from Frank Whitten as the old lord Escalus, Robin McLeavy as Isabella and Chris Ryan as Claudio. As Lucio, Toby Schmitz exploits the comedy of his role to the point of mugging: fun to watch most of the time, but I wished for more restraint.

What emerges unexpectedly, especially in the more successful first half, is an overpowering sense of human mortality: the production is dominated by a sense of the state as an arbiter of death. As the set itself is a human construction, an island of light propped in a space of edgeless darkness, so this humanly mediated justice plays out against a sense of supra-human fatality, the mortality that no human authority can control or escape. While in Elizabethan times justice was considered to be the worldly manifestation of divine justice, here justice seems profoundly secular, even existential, a human contrivance playing out against an abyss of meaninglessness. It's a sense that Shakespeare brought to fruition later in King Lear: here it's not so much expressed as intimated.

For all the power of this interpretation, the production never quite holds, and it finally founders on the clockwork mechanics of the play's heavy plotting (which is far more intricate than I can describe here). The text fairly creaks with contrivances that sit uncomfortably between the driving inevitability of tragedy and the nonsensical but satisfyingly symmetrical fictions of comedy. Within its absurd frame are, undeniably, dramatic treasures - highlights are the comic interludes where the cocky Lucio retails his shonky gossip about the Duke's corrupt bad habits to Vincentio himself, who fairly chokes with outrage but is unable to throw off his disguise, or the brilliant dialogue between Claudio and Isabella, where he begs and finally bullies her to sacrifice her virtue in order to save his life. But it never quite melds into a dramatic whole.

As it plays out its conceits, it seems more and more as if the production is at war with the play, attempting to drag it from its Jacobean roots into a contemporary reading that, for all the applied intelligence and passion, the play can't sustain. The fault is mostly Shakespeare's: without much more radical cutting than he attempts here, Andrews' elegant framing can't do much about the overwrought contrivances, which in the second half devolve interminably into the comedic tying up of loose ends that by then you no longer care about.

The effect is rather dizzying: close up, and especially in the details of the speeches, this play is all intelligence, rich with Shakespeare's wrought language and complex ideas: but from further back, at the cruder level of structure, it simply seems fudged. I suspect the primary problem with Measure for Measure is that, for all its teasing ambiguities, it's not a particularly good play: what becomes in the tragedies an organic marriage of action and idea is here tripping over its own form. But you can't deny its fascination, which - as is so often the case - stems as much from its flaws as its virtues. I suspect it's one of those plays that is much more interesting to think about than it is to watch.

Like Measure for Measure, Lucy Guerin's latest dance theatre piece, Human Interest Story, explores the mediation of human experience. Her recent works - Untrained and Corridor in particular - demonstrated an increasing preoccupation with spoken language, exploring speech as an imperative, controlling and directing dancers, or distorting it as sonic punctuation, so it became a pure physical act, dislocated from semantics. It's an approach that has more to do with contemporary poetry than with dramatic language, picking out the element in which we swim unthinkingly as communicative animals and revealing it to be abstract, arbitrary, opaque, even sinister.

Human Interest Story goes much further than her previous works, and is perhaps Guerin's bleakest and most powerful work yet. Paradoxically, it is also the funniest. It has an epic feel: it begins in the mundane comedy of domesticity, and winds out inexorably into an increasingly dark meditation on the limits of human autonomy. What, this dance seems to be asking, counts as an authentic human experience? Can we experience anything purely, or is all our being unconsciously mediated through the imperatives of the mass media? Is it possible to escape the wider conditioning of the consumerist society in which we live, or is its influence so saturating, so ubiquitous, that what we imagine as freedom can no longer exist?

Gideon Obarzanek's design is dominated by a huge television set, which in the opening sequences has its back to the audience. Behind it are six chairs, and behind them is a dark, edgeless space (one of the virtues of this production is Paul Jackson's miraculously subtle lighting, which seems almost to shape shadow as plastic matter). Six dancers emerge and begin to recite news stories in precise chorus, moving mechanistically, even neurotically, in tandem with their voices.

It's very funny, and yet it has an uneasy edge, as vastly different events and issues - Michael Jackson, climate change - are rendered down to identical packets of meaning (or meaninglessness) in the language of news stories. During the dance, the light lifts to reveal a vast, matte-black tank at the back of the stage. The tank emerges from the shadows and then vanishes throughout the show, opaque and threatening, a mute symbol of the war industry that underlies western capitalism like a bad conscience.

This opening sequence reminded me of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's discussion of the contemporary tabloid newspaper as the exemplary modernist text, in which each story - natural disaster, celebrity scandal, crime, war, politics - is endlessly interchangable with the others, stripped of context and translated into a module of prepackaged language that communicates nothing, because it is in fact designed not to communicate: it feeds a desire to consume, rather than to know.

Guerin explores how these mediations of reality reach into the intimacies of domesticity, shaping and refracting our personal lives. Her dancers become present not as abstract figures, literally playing themselves on stage and reminding us that dance is also a mediation, an illusion of reality which becomes, for the moments it exists, another simulacra. This is often purely comic: Stephanie Lake steps out in front of the others and speaks about cooking for her children and eating dinner in front of Master Chef in the hope that her culinary ineptitude will be transformed by the visual input of gourmet feasts. And there's an interlude where the television is turned around and Anton Enus ("the most fortunate vowel in showbusiness") reads a series of news stories about the dancers' private lives.

Interwoven with this comedy of the mundane is an increasing sense of anxiety, a subtext that is mostly expressed in the movement, which becomes in the second half of the dance the dominant mode of expression as speech is left behind. The hinge is an early BBC news report about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; against the dry, factual and (in ironic retrospect) inaccurately optimistic report the dancers circle about it in ever-increasing loops and spirals, in a sudden and surprisingly moving explosion of pure dance.

The dancers turn their attention to written language, laying newspapers precisely on the ground and then crumpling the paper and incorporating them into extensions of their bodies, as heartbeats, as violent expressions of anxiety. In this sequence, the crumpled pages end up stuffed inside the costume of one of the dancers: he becomes a grotesque, distorted figure who is violently disembowelled by the other dancers. It's a compelling image of the contemporary soul, if the soul is what Foucault described as the surface on which is scored the tracks of social power and authority - the human figure overloaded, sickened and finally destroyed by metastasising tumours of information.

The final sequence plays with impatience and refusal, teasing the boredom of the audience, as dancers begin a series of movements only to be interrupted by one of them stepping out of the dance to retie her hair or perhaps walk out into the auditorium, leaving the rest in frozen stasis, waiting for her return so they can resume the dance. This felt like the longest sequence, although I'm not sure that it was; by then I was so enfolded into the performance I had lost all sense of objective time.

From a ground of the absolutely familiar and the commonly understood, Guerin leaps into the world of the body, where gestures are ambiguous, opaque, mysterious. Often in Guerin's work it has seemed to me that the body becomes a site of rebellion against the tyranny of linguistic meaning, which figures as didactic and imperative: the dance, which spirals into pure abstractions out of the impure medium of dailiness in which she works, plays in tension against the legislating impulses of language and choreography, becoming the physical expression of resistance and anarchy.

This seems much less the case in Human Interest Story, where it's clear that the gestures of the body are as mediated as spoken language: what we see are neurotic, truncated expressions of anxiety or violence, or the gestures of an illusory freedom which themselves are mediated through our systems of information and communication. They ultimately become expressions of our imprisonment in the economies of information and money in which we live. Which may be, for all its bleakness, no more than the truth.

Pictures: top: Benedict Andrews' Measure for Measure; bottom, Alisdair Macindoe (on floor), Jessica Wong, Stuart Shugg, Talitha Maslin and Stephanie Lake in Human Interest Story. Photo: Jeff Busby

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews. Set design by Ralph Myers, costume design by Dale Ferguson, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composition and sound design by Stefan Gregory. With Maeve Dermody, Damon Gameau, Ashley Lyons, Robin McLeavy, Robert Menzies, Arky Michael, Colin Moody, Steve Rodgers, Chris Ryan, Toby Schmitz, Helen Thomson and Frank Whitten. Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney (Closed).

Human Interest Story, choreographed by Lucy Guerin. Set design by Gideon Obarzanek, realising design by Anna Cordingley, costume design by Paula Levis, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design by Jethro Woodward. Performed by Stephanie Lake, Alisdair Macindoe, Talitha Maslin, Harriet Ritchie, Stuart Shugg and Jessica Wong, with newscast by Anton Enus (World News Australia - SBS). Malthouse Theatre and Perth International Arts Festival, Merlyn Theatre. (Closed).

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