Next year, Lally Katz is probably the most produced playwright in Australia (although Shakespeare might give her a run for her money). She has three new plays coming up on main stages through 2011 - Neighbourhood Watch at Belvoir St, Return To Earth at the MTC and A Golem Story at the Malthouse. Who would have thought that this least classifiable of playwrights should have become a mainstream fixture?
But before any of that happens, she is premiering a new play in New York with The Production Company. This theatre company was founded by artistic director Mark Armstrong and Nicolle Bradford to forge exchanges between US and Australian playwrights, producing work from both. Since 2004 it has quietly built a solid indie reputation, most recently with highly praised productions of Patricia Cornelius's Love and Blair Singer's The Most Damaging Wound. Seasons of short plays under an umbrella called The Australia Project have introduced names like Van Badham, Ross Mueller, Wesley Enoch and many others to American audiences. Lally's play, Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart, started life as one of the shorter plays in The Australia Project, and she has extended it for this production.
Now over to Lally, who has generously shared her thoughts on writing plays, New York and sharks over several emails during the past week...
AC: Why are you in New York?
LK: I am in New York to attend rehearsals of my play Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart which is being produced by The Production Company. They're a really great company in New York, who are very committed to putting on Australian works- which is wonderful! I came here to come to rehearsals and work with the company and cast. I've worked with the director, Oliver Butler before in a collaboration with Stuck Pigs and his brilliant company The Debate Society. I was really excited when Mark Armstrong, the artistic director of The Production Company, suggested that Oliver direct the play. It's a really good fit.
I'm having a ball here. For a while I was going to every single rehearsal and doing constant rewrites, but now I've kind of banned myself from rehearsal so that I stop rewriting and give the actors a chance to learn their lines. Although I went tonight. And I'm going tomorrow night. So I guess it's not a very successful ban... Especially since already I'm planning on doing a couple of rewrites. I keep hearing Australian actor Luke Mullins in my head saying, "Rewriting doesn't necessarily make it better- sometimes it just makes it different". But still, I feel there are just a few more rewrites that really will make it better!
I am also seeing as much theatre as I can while I'm here. I went to Chicago where Neil Armfield's opera Midsummer Night's Dream was opening in this amazing, glamorous building. Damien Cooper had done the lights and Dale Ferguson had designed it. It was pretty exciting seeing an opening in Chicago, and seeing all these people on the other side of the world stunned by the work of Australian artists. While I was there I also attended the Steppenwolf New Writing Festival with my friend/agent Jean Mostyn. We both were really blown away by the plays we saw. It's a really different style to plays that I'm familiar with and I really felt I learnt from it. In New York, I haven't been able to see as much theatre because I've been rehearsing every night (or hanging out with my grandparents in New Jersey), but I did see Will Eno's Middletown, which was stunning.
Your plays recently seem full of Goodbye (Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart; Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd) or its opposite, like Return to Earth. Does this reflect a preoccupation with transition, from childhood to adulthood, or at least from some state of innocence to a state of knowing?
That's a great question! It's funny, because these are the sorts of questions that you don't think about much in your day-to-day conscious mind - but it's kind of your core story - or a core story in your life. I think I am constantly in a state of transition between innocence and knowing. It is like every situation in life is an epiphany both about the world and myself in the world that I'm on the crest of finding out. Those scenes from life often end up in my writing.
For a long time I thought of things as endings. I guess I thought of life as a series of eras, that came to an end. I feel differently now. I don't feel like things are usually as final as they seem at the time. I guess for years I was seeing life as a play. My friend Martina Murray and I talk a lot about that - how we're subconsciously trying to bring everything to conclusion constantly so that it fits the format of a play - and to us that has been reality. Now I see life a little bit more like television, you have a strange episode with someone, but there will be something different next week. Mac Wellman, this really great New York playwright, said to me once when I was asking his advice on my romantic life and on something which I saw as definite disastrous end, and he said: 'Things don't always have to be so final. You don't have to make things be so final". This was a huge realisation and comfort to me. I hadn't realised it was a choice.
I don't know if that's really answering your question. I guess my writing and my life cross over all the time. And the past fifteen years have been a long transition from childhood to adulthood for me. So there have been all these kind of goodbyes to innocence. I guess I feel more like an adult now. And it's nice. Maybe that is why I feel like the next plays that I write will be less about transition and more about people in the lives that they're in.
But in terms of the Goodbye.. plays, yes, I think both those plays have transitions from innocence to knowing in them. Both Vaudeville... and Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart have the characters realising that they have to let go of their forced innocence or unrealistic or unlivable ideals in order to move to the next phase of conscience or life.
You’re a playwright who collaborates closely in rehearsal. How important is collaboration to your writing? Do you write for particular performers?
I do collaborate closely in rehearsal. I think it's a really important part of my writing. When I'm writing a play I see it in real life. I never see a stage, or set or lights, or anything - I just see it in the world, really happening (this can be a bit of a challenge for directors because it can make some things quite hard to stage!) So then when rehearsal begins, I start to see what it is onstage.
So if I'm in rehearsals, then I usually end up making lots of little - and sometimes big changes to the script- this is often in response to offers that the director or the actors make. Sometimes I can go too far with it. On a lot of the productions that I've done with Chris Kohn, the two of us would get really into making changes and trying new stuff, and eventually the actors would have to say, "No more. We open in two days". And then we'd know the jig was up!
I've been working really closely with Oliver Butler who's directing Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart on making shifts in the script - and really closely with the actors too. I hadn't met any of these actors before, so now as they become more concrete in my mind, they become the characters I see when I write changes and do edits - which shifts the overall script too. I guess with some scripts you wouldn't want them to shift too much. And in that case, I think it's better for the writer not to be in rehearsal too much. Because when the writer is in rehearsal things are up for grabs a bit - because there's always the potential that things can change. At the moment, I'm probably going to every second rehearsal so that they have the time they need away from me, but I can still be making little tiny alterations.
In terms of writing for specific actors, that's something I really enjoy. Because you have the format for the character straight away. I think it actually costs you less creative blood as a writer in a way, because already the character is sort of alive, because you're seeing the actor in there. We created Black Swan of Trespass for the original cast that did it, and the parts of Abalone and Gerture in The Eisteddfod were written for Luke Mullins and Jessamy Dyer - though I didn't actually get to know either of them until later and wasn't even in rehearsals because I was overseas (Luke thinks that sometimes the process works better when I am overseas!)
I wrote Neighbourhood Watch which is on at Belvoir next year specifically for Robyn Nevin. I had a whole life adventure with my neighbour because I was looking for a character to write for Robyn. That was really fun. I've also spent a lot of time meeting with Robyn and talking about the character and the world of the play. She's been really involved in it from the beginning, which has been just brilliant. It's so exciting to work with actors to create these lives together.
That's a play that I don't want to be changing much in rehearsal because it's a big production, and very complicated for the actors - especially Robyn because her character speaks a very different kind of English - almost like her own language. So Simon Stone who's directing it, Eamon Flack from Belvoir and I have been meeting regularly, doing developments on the script, so that it's a really finished play by the time we get into rehearsals. I also did a lot of work on it with Julian Meyrick - and Belvoir did a reading of it.
Actually, I don't think any of my plays next year will be having many changes in rehearsal. I guess that is always the aim - that they're really finished! Developments really help this. The Malthouse as usual, have been great making sure that A Golem Story has had plenty of developments and readings. Also I was meeting regularly with Michael Kantor for a lot of this year going through the script. And Return to Earth at the MTC has had quite a few developments and readings with RE Ross Trust and Playwriting Australia, so we know what it is theatrically. Neither of those plays will have to have many changes during rehearsal. I'll still be in the room for all three of those plays - as much as the director wants me in there for - but it will probably be more to assist in questions about tone than actually making changes in the script.
We haven't made huge changes in Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart, just little ones - but they always feel huge when you're doing it. It's exciting to come to New York and work with a bunch of people that I don't know and find that we have very similar emotional, tonal and aesthetic theatrical instincts. Before coming to New York Oliver and I were emailing and skyping a lot about the script, so we were really on the same page when I got here. Mark Armstrong, the Artistic Director of The Production Company has been really involved with the script too, ever since first commissioning a version of it in 2007. So again, there's been lots of opportunity to be in the world of the play before rehearsals began.
I've veered way off, but I guess what I'm saying is, sometimes I start off writing for a particular actor - or sometimes I begin to write for them during the process - and then sometimes the play is just itself and it's a finished product before the production begins (though perhaps it's had development and readings). They're all such different ways of working. I think when doing shows within big companies it's better if you can have the script as stable as possible before rehearsal begins, because there's so much else going on in the production. But one thing is, you never really know what a show is until you see it. I guess that's a reason why multiple seasons are great - because the production and the script together have a chance to evolve and strengthen.
How do you first begin to imagine a play? Does it just begin with a line? Or do you think about what shape it might be, or what it might feel like?
It begins in different ways. But it will usually start off being a collection of different things that all end up all forming the pieces of a world or a story together. Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart first started the last time I was in New York, four years ago. We were tech-ing a development we'd been doing and I wasn't needed. I asked if I should stay or go to the top of the Empire State Building, and Oliver Butler (who is directing GNYGH- through no connection to this story) said, "Why don't you go to the Empire State Building? You'll probably have an adventure that you end up writing about". So I started walking there. It was twilight, about to be dark. And, as I was walking there were these two girls walking ahead of me. And I thought I heard one of them say to the other, in this sort of knowing voice, "Yeah, but you thought Star Wars was never ending".
For some reason, that really caught my imagination. And I kept saying it out loud to myself, over and over again as I walked to the Empire State Building, "Yeah... But you thought Star Wars was never ending". I wanted to find out what it meant.
On that same trip, Luke Mullins and I walked from where we were staying across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to rehearsal everyday. And as we would walk over the bridge, I would think about how buildings in New York looked so set. So deeply placed. It was like they had become as much of a part of the world as cliff faces, or mountains. Like the buildings of New York had become nature.
Again - on that same trip - it was my last day in New York and I was walking by myself - (basically all these things revolved around me either walking by myself or with Luke Mullins) through Fashion Avenue and near Central Park. And I was looking at all the buildings - it was a really hot day. And I was looking at that big, beautiful glass Apple store near Central Park, and I was thinking, "It's all going to go. All this stuff - this permanent stuff they built isn't going to last". I don't know why I thought it, but it was such a big feeling. I'd also been seeing this guy in New York - just briefly, and I was a little sad to be leaving because of that. So I kept thinking in my head, Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart. I knew all these things fit together.
Then, back in Australia, maybe a year later, I was reading online about different teenagers who had committed suicide and left all this stuff on their myspace pages. And then their friends had made all these tributes on their myspace pages. And I thought it was like they had committed suicide on the internet. But at the same time, they were also continuing to live on the internet.
It was around this time, that The Production Company asked me to write a short play for their season featuring all Australian writers. It was a great season - with lots of writers who I love in it. I won't say who, because I'm so scared I'll forget someone. So anyway, they asked us all to write something on what our experience of New York was, as an Australian. So I started writing - I knew it was going to have some of this stuff in it. The shape and life of it had begun that first time I heard the Star Wars thing. It was like all these things, plus some other stuff from my life at that time, were like connect the dots in this story. However, this first script was really short, and was kind of just the beginning and end of a much bigger story.
Three years later when Mark Armstrong, the Production Company's artistic director asked me to write a full length version of the play, I had lived or seen, or heard all the missing dots that needed to be connected to form the whole shape of the play. And then of course, things change shape again in rehearsal.
That is one specific example, but often my writing will take that shape. Though it is rare for me to write something as a short play and then extend it later. It was right for this project.
Neighbourhood Watch began with a conversation with Robyn about writing a character for her, then grew when I met my neighbour Anna, and then every experience I had fed into it from there. I always feel like I end up having to live every play. I guess it's fair though - because you want the play to be alive.
Finally (I can't resist) - why is it that the thing that you fear most about flying is sharks?
I love this question! I have actually been talking to my cousin Eli about this a lot! And he's been really helpful about this phobia. When we were moving from Miami to Canberra when I was eight and three quarters years old, I somehow tricked my parents into letting me get the book Jaws the Revenge at the airport. It was a great book. I was engrossed in it, all through the long, long flight. So straight away, there as an association with sharks and planes.
I shared this experience with my six year old brother, by reading him sections as we flew. Then after that, we bought the video of Jaws and my brother and I would watch it everyday after school. Then Jill got killed by a shark on Baywatch and I taped it. Now my brother and I would watch Jaws everyday after school and the part of Baywatch where Jill got attacked. Then I would make my brother come outside to our circular, above ground pool, where I would make him be the person in the water that the shark was circling and I would then pretend to be Jill going in to rescue him, where I would then act out the gory attack, pretending I was Jill, getting eaten.
Somehow, the end result of this is, that my brother and I are both terrified of this: Being on a plane. Flying over the ocean. Then the plane goes down, over the sea. You pass out - or you're knocked unconscious. You wake up, realising you're alive. But then you look around, and everything is dark. The plane is filling up with water. The only light is those safety lights that lead to the exit - flashing on and off, making a kind of buzzing noise. And then you see, in the flashes, swimming up the aisle - a shark.
That is my worst nightmare. It is also my brother's. Both of us dream about it. All the time.
Picture: Publicity image for Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart. Photo: Julie Skarrat
Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart opens on December 2 at HERE Arts Center 145 Sixth Avenue, NYC. Details and bookings here.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Next year, Lally Katz is probably the most produced playwright in Australia (although Shakespeare might give her a run for her money). She has three new plays coming up on main stages through 2011 - Neighbourhood Watch at Belvoir St, Return To Earth at the MTC and A Golem Story at the Malthouse. Who would have thought that this least classifiable of playwrights should have become a mainstream fixture?
Thursday, November 25, 2010
I've a short speculation up at the Overland blog today which wonders about art, use and politics. All extremely difficult questions which, as regular readers here would know, are close to my heart.
It's part of the Subscriberthon that this excellent literary magazine is running this week. May I encourage you to take part and subscribe? You can even do it online here. You mightn't get free beer like Herald Sun readers, but the good people at Overland are offering a brace of great prizes, not to mention the regular occurence of one of Australia's finest lit journals in your post box. Plus I'm writing a column for them next year. Go on. You know you want to.
Monday, November 22, 2010
I saw three astonishing works of theatre last week, all created from texts not originally intended for the stage. One, A Woman in Berlin, is based on a personal memoir of the Russian occupation of Berlin at the end of World War 2. Another was Fragment 31's Irony is Not Enough: Essay on my Life as Catherine Deneuve, a poem by Canadian poet and scholar Anne Carson. The poem wasn't so much adapted - the collaborators performed the work as written - but "translated" into a fascinating work of theatre. The third was Barrie Kosky's terrifyingly beautiful The Tell-Tale Heart, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's gothic story about a murderer's self-betrayal.
Unsurprisingly given the source material, each work is markedly different from the others. All the same, they each have something profound in common: none assumes that either language or theatre is transparent. And in transforming a written work into performance, they reveal something profound about writing itself.
All writing is a dance around absence. A text notates something that isn't present, and perhaps was never present; it enacts the magic of revelation, of making visible what is invisible. Writing is memory, imagination, thought, made manifest: it gives what is otherwise unseen and intangible an illusory solidity. It is a record of an act - the act of writing - that generates its meaning once the act is finished, once the text is written and can be read.
What is most crucially absent from the written word is the body itself. A body makes a text, a body reads it, a body imagines and responds; but the text itself is bodiless. Without flesh and nerves or organs, boneless and hairless, a text is merely marks on a page or a screen or a wall: it's a trace of something, not any thing itself. The fetish of book design, focusing on the book as object, conceals the evanescence of text with an appearance of permanence: yet the object remains obdurately silent, its meanings dormant, until the immediate moment in which it is read.
When a text enters the theatre, the body is pushed into its foreground: both performer and audience are present. The performer's body is mediated: it's a body shaped by language, that now in turn interrogates and transforms the text. Sensitive adaptations or translations understand this recouped embodiment as the primary gift of theatre: the performer is the presence through which meaning is animated. And this meaning, whatever it is, in turn becomes memory, a potential text carried in the bodies of the audience. Sometimes it seems that the whole of human communication exists in this constant transformation from one state to another and back again: from revelation to hiddenness, from object to subject, from the intangible to the palpable. One reason I find theatre so fascinating is that it makes these transformations impossible to ignore.
The three works I saw all place the body in the centre of performance, exposing it as a site of trauma. Here language fragments under the pressure of its enactment. The performer's body - ambiguous, carnal, paradoxically private - is the focus of attention as the bodily absence hidden in the writing spills into an excess of presence. In performance, these texts are thickened and made opaque by what language is unable, finally, to express: the tactility of pain and desire, the incorrigibility of physical experience.
The performer is a complex presence that cannot easily claim its own authenticity. He or she offers a re-presencing, an enacted present of an imagined past. Yet this representation can't dissolve either into sheer abstraction. It is immanent with its own authenticating physicality: the actor's sweat, the actor's voice vibrating in the same air the audience is breathing, the sense of bodily duration. In all truthful theatre, the performer's enactment carries a double knowledge: the body both represents and is; the actor is both herself and someone else. The mask is real.
To claim that A Woman in Berlin is a confronting text is to state the obvious. To begin with, it's a personal memoir, a vexed form that often sparks fierce battles about its authenticity. A diary of two months of the Russian occupation of Berlin in 1945, it gives a detailed first-hand account of the experiences of a young, "well brought up" woman attempting to survive in the city in the final days of World War 2. It is, above all, a dispassionate account of survival - pages are devoted to the urgent task of finding enough food and fuel to sustain life. But the most sensational - and deeply contested - aspect of the book is its account of rape by the Russian troops.
Historians give differing estimates of how many women were raped during the occupation - some say at least 100,000, others say up to two million. The troops that arrived were bent on revenge. Hitler's invasion of Russia is generally agreed to be the bloodiest war in history; by the end of World War 2, 30 million people had been killed on the Eastern Front. The orgy of destruction that took place in Berlin was one of the final atrocities of the war.
The anonymous author was named in 2003 by literary critic Jens Bisky as Marta Hillers, an educated and well-travelled journalist who had written some small-time propaganda for the Nazis, but was probably not a member of the party herself. She was in her early 30s when the Russian stormed Berlin. The book was initially released in 1954, when there was little interest in Germany (or elsewhere) in examining the suffering of Germans, the aggressors in history's most ruinous war; and the author herself refused to republish it. But in the early years of this decade, there was renewed interest: publications such as W.G. Sebald's A Natural History of Destruction, or Anthony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin, began to expose a history that had been hidden by shame or trauma.
Unsurprisingly, rape is the centre of the book's controversy. Anonymous's account - especially her semi-romantic, almost tender relationship with a Russian major, with its hints of treacherous collaboration with the enemy - was considered to have smirched the honour of German women, and the truthfulness or otherwise of the book has been fiercely contested. It's a text with literary qualities by a clearly literate woman; the original writings were retyped and expanded for publication. Paradoxically, the more literary it appeared, the less reliable it was assumed to be. The poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who republished it in 2000, demanded that it be seen as a strictly documentary source, a work of absolute historical truth, and historian Anthony Beevor validates its historical authenticity.
For all that, perhaps the most illuminating analysis is of the book as a literary work, because that is how it represents itself, complete with a epigraph from A Winter's Tale. Above all, the diary recounts the struggle to survive as an entire world is destroyed: a city breaks down under war, cutting off food supplies, electricity, all public services; and with it comes the collapse of all moral and social certainty. The most graphic symptom of that collapse is the transformation of the women in the book into into casual sexual prey.
The book is in part not just about rape, but its representation. "What does it mean—rape?," Anonymous asks herself. "When I said the word for the first time aloud ... it sent shivers down my spine. Now I can think it and write it with an untrembling hand, say it out loud to get used to hearing it said. It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything—but it’s not." The women in the book, and even the soldiers who rape them, whose relatives had been raped by Germans, oscillate between an understanding of rape as "worse than death" and a brutalised jokiness that is perhaps more confronting than any other aspect of the book. Anonymous's dispassionate observations make the line between victim and aggressor extremely unstable: at one point she even claims that Berlin's ordeal "balanced an account", extracting from the Germans some of the suffering they had dealt others.
Given these complexities, it would be misleading and reductive to present this text as a simple story of victimhood. It would be even more perilous to assume an immediate empathy with this young woman and the atrocities she suffered and witnessed; that would risk a kind of emotional pornography, an exploitative sensationalism. Instead, just as the diary is a literary imagining of real events, director Janice Muller and performer Meredith Penman frame A Woman in Berlin consciously as a work of art. Penman's performance permits us to witness an act of imaginative identification that shifts from the present to an evocation of the past.
The set appears to be an exhibition about the conquest of Berlin, with text and mementos on the white walls and a gallery bench in the centre. A young contemporary woman enters, wandering casually from item to item. She idly presses a button and listens to an audio in German. She earnestly contemplates a picture. She is any of us, peering from the outside into an atrocity we can barely understand. Then she drops her leather jacket, and her dress is subtly changed: she is no longer of the 21st century. She begins to speak extracts from the diary.
This is an extraordinarily powerful performance. Much of its power emerges from its intelligent restraint: it is only when it finishes that its trauma really registers. Penman presents a woman brutalised by her experience, not only of rape, but of the bare struggle to survive; the self she once knew - cultured, middle class, safe - splinters under the deprivations of war. She witnesses and reports, not only on what she sees, but on her own feelings: her observing, writing self is the single coherent element of a world reduced to madness.
In the end, all that matters is that she lives. Her survival is not triumphant, but a bitter, self-knowing will that recognises the shame of "naked life", as all the markers of civilisation are stripped away to a bare play of power: an animal instinct that overpowers every other consideration. We know that knowledge is now imprinted on her body and will never be undone: it is now part of who she is.
Then, just as the audience does, Penman transforms back into the young contemporary woman, picks up her jacket and walks out of the gallery.
"Irony is a mask," says Anne Carson in her poem Irony is Not Enough: Essay On My Life As Catherine Deneuve. "The problem is that we become the mask". It's an understanding of the paradox of performance that perhaps explains why Carson's work, intentionally or not, so often enters the theatre: in 2003, this particular poem also formed part of the basis for a dance/theatre work by William Forsythe, Kammer/Kammer.
Fragment 31's production is a brilliant collaboration between some of our most interesting theatre artists: performers Luke Mullins and Leisa Shelton, designer Anna Cordingley, composer Jethro Woodward and lighting designer Jenny Hector. In their rendition, the poem is presented unchanged: as they explain in the program, "to edit, re-write or change in any way the writing of Anne Carson is to defeat the purpose of choosing this writer and her work as the source material".
This signals what could potentially be an inhibiting reverence for the text. But this profoundly intelligent collaboration avoids fetishising the text, instead opening up its complexities into a parallel essay about fetish, the irrational displacement of desire. The poem's fragmented narrative is refracted through an equally fragmented performance, in which the component parts of theatre - design, sound, staging, performance and text - become fluid constructions that are made and unmade before our eyes.
When we enter the theatre, we seem to be entering a workshop: there are tables covered with technical equipment, and parts of set are still being dressed. The designer is kneeling on the floor, working on a design detail with tape and a box-cutter; the performers are leafing through files of script, checking the pages are all there, the sound designer is testing levels. There is an air of industry and preparatory concentration. Once the audience is seated, Leisa Shelton sits down with a businesslike air at a desk at the very front, only feet away from the audience. Darkness pulls in around her, a single light on her face. She says the first words of the poem: "Je commence". And so it does.
Most of the poem is spoken by Luke Mullins, with interruptions of pre-recorded text and dialogic lines spoken by Shelton. The writerly self, which seems a binding unity in the text despite its fragmentations, is immediately split and mediated. Carson's exact language is full of raw spaces, caesurae which electrically shift the speaker's realities. She is a classics lecturer suddenly pierced with desire for one of her students ("Knife of boy. Knife of girl.") Burned by this impossible desire, she imagines herself as Catherine Deneuve. She speaks of herself in the third person in one sentence, in the first in the next. She enacts the repetitions of traumatic desire in a cityscape chilly with snow.
Desire is traumatic, as Carson says, because it is felt as a disintegration of the known self. It can only be experienced as fragmentation. In response, Fragment 31 takes apart the supposed coherence of theatre: they present a series of contingent unities, theatrical images that collapse back upon themselves. Shelton dons a blonde wig and becomes Catherine Deneuve behind a table of telephones in a miniature set that mimics a bourgeois Parisian apartment: she does not answer the insistently ringing phone, but it is answered nevertheless. The designers focus a light on her, rearrange her clothes. They hold an empty black frame in front of her hand or her foot, so we might examine the parts of her body, adorned by a bracelet, a shoe, as if they are a close-up in a film. They hand Mullins a microphone, and he speaks into it.
The tableau collapses. The stage returns to a raw state of preparedness, and then is remade as something else. These pauses begin to generate a particular electricity: we are continually reminded that this is a performance, that it is an artifice. A poem, said Marianne Moore, is "an imaginary garden with real toads in it": what is real here is the articulation of feeling. Once or twice we seem to see the performers stripped of any mask at all. They stand in front of the audience at a momentary loss, and the entire pretence briefly dissolves into a larger understanding of our own implication in this anxiety, this painfulness and loss. All this occurs with an delicate and precise attention to rhythm - not merely the rhythms of Carson's language, but the breath of the stage, how it contracts and expands in the light, how the performers inhabit or leave a space.
And then, quite suddenly, we are at the end of the poem, and the work is finished. Blackout.
I had forgotten the sheer brilliance of Barrie Kosky's The Tell-Tale Heart. This was my second viewing: I saw it in 2007, when it was staged in the Malthouse workshop as part of the Melbourne Festival. Here Kosky's production is remounted by Michael Kantor in the Merlyn Theatre, with Michael Kieran Harvey taking Kosky's place on the piano.
Edgar Allan Poe's story is a famous parable of the self-betrayal of guilt. Its nameless narrator suffers from a disease that has resulted in a morbid over-sensitivity, which drives him to murder an old man, perhaps his father, with whom he lives. The murder, he explains, is necessary, even though he felt no animus towards his victim. Rather, the reverse - "I loved the old man. He had never wronged me... I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture - a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees - very gradually - I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever."
The murder might be an act of madness, but it is not irrational - as the narrator points out, he is extremely logical, and plans his crime meticulously. Poe's anti-hero is perhaps an extreme case of hyper-rationality, of a logic devoid of the wider considerations of felt reason: the perception of the whole is obliterated by a single anguished act of cognition, from which all else follows. He never explains why the old man's eye is so dreadful to him: it is enough that it is predatory and veiled, an inhuman organ. What he doesn't say is that the eye looks back at him. Perhaps what is most unbearable to the murderer is what it sees, or what he thinks it sees.
In this performance, The Tell-Tale Heart is a single act of theatre, as cleanly achieved as a knife: there is absolutely nothing extraneous, nothing that is not needful. It begins as the auditorium lights gradually fade on the sumptuous red curtain that veils the stage. We sit for what seems like a long time in total darkness and silence: there is the faint sound of the curtains opening, but otherwise nothing.
Then, so suddenly that it made me jump, there blares out a jazz era song which is, in its bright brashness, an assault, and a single spotlight illuminates a tiny object in the vast blackness. At first it seems as if might be a trick of the eye, but gradually you see that it is a face, or half a face: a mask. The spotlight shifts like a voyeur, exposing first one side of the face and then another, until at last there is the whole head, suspended in the darkness. It looks like the face of a corpse, or a ghost: tonight we will listen to the dead.
Martin Niedermair speaks thickly, as if his lips are decaying, as if the words must be imagined and created before he can utter them. He stops and starts unpredictably, distorting the shapes of sentences; at one point the struggle to speak reduces him to mere slavering. It's an extraordinary performance, in which the human body becomes itself a thing of shadow, opaque, mysterious and sinister. Even the boundaries of his body are questionable: by shaking his head rapidly from right to left, Niedemair blurs our vision and briefly becomes a living sculpture by Francis Bacon, a two-headed, anguished monster.
Paul Jackson's lighting is miraculous: he doesn't so much design light as sculpt the darkness. As the lights widen around Niedermair, they reveal the single feature of Anna Tregloan's set: a vertiginous staircase, bereft of banisters, floats in the darkness, stretching right up to the roof of the theatre. It's so steep that it's impossible not to fear that Niedermair might fall off: it's a tension that screws up with the narrative, until he is revealed lying impossibly upside down, as if he has indeed fallen, singing of his yearning for a love that he has himself murdered.
In the controlled environs of the Merlyn, this production has a feeling of absolute precision. Harvey's exquisite renditions of Bach and Purcell bring a new and aching loveliness to the performance, drawing out the palpable tensions between beauty and repulsion that drive this production. But there are more pragmatic reasons too: the blackouts occur, for example, without the distraction of ushers holding up boards to conceal the exit signs. It is, quite simply, one of the best works of theatre I have ever seen.
Pictures: Top: Meredith Penman in A Woman in Berlin. Photo: Andy Baker. Bottom: Martin Niedemair in The Tell-Tale Heart. Photo: Jeff Busby
A Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous, adapted by Jancie Muller and Meredith Penman, directed by Janice Muller. Set and costume design by Gabrille Logan, lighting by Matt Cox, sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Performed by Meredith Penman. Tower Theatre, the Malthouse, until November 28.
Irony Is Not Enough: Essay On My Life As Catherine Deneuve, by Anne Carson. Created by Anna Cordingley, Jenny Hector, Luke Mullins, Leisa Shelton and Jethro Woodward. North Melbourne Arts House. Closed.
The Tell-Tale Heart, after Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Barrie Kosky. Return season directed by Michael Kantor. Design adaptation: Anna Tregloan (set and costumes) and Paul Jackson (lighting). Performed by Martin Niedermair. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until December 2.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
I am sometimes puzzled by a disconnect between form and content. No, let's go further: I am baffled by how a perceived form can obliterate what I find myself forced to describe as "content", or vice versa. Perhaps it's simply a poet's failing, but I have a great deal of trouble separating one from the other in any work of art, since the fusing of formal imagination and subject seems to me to be art's very definition. You may, by doing a deal of violence to a work, divide the two, for the purpose of dissection; but that too easily ends up being a forensic examination of a dead truth, lying devoid of a pulse on the critical slab.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Some days, writing is about as much fun as flogging yourself with a wooden spoon. Different parts of the brain refuse to speak to each other, which causes problems with the brain-hand-keyboard co-ordination traditionally associated with the art of writing. Thoughts float past in clogged, alienated lumps, not one connecting to the next. Every sentence you screw out has the vim and grace of a three-legged gazelle on valium. Gentle reader, it's bloody miserable.
And yes, Ms TN spent all yesterday - hours of fruitless, frustrating struggle - in such a state, attempting to write of three shows she saw last week, until at last she gave up and retired in dudgeon and dolour. I'm going to try again today, in the hope that the Muse of Criticks - Errata, wasn't it? - might be more merciful, because this week I'm seeing another four shows. (Plus I'm at the Wheeler Centre tonight talking about Privacy in the Age of Social Media, which I hope might give some nuance to these musings...) I suspect that my real problem is that most of me packed up and stopped at the end of October, whether I wanted me to or not. It's been a long and full year - novels written, essays churned, blogs blogged, stuff stuffed - and, basically, Me has had it.
This by way of an apologia for responses that are brief and partial and perhaps a little disconnected at the joints, which maybe bothers no one but myself.
1927's The Animals & Children Took to the Streets made me think about genre. The company itself is named for, among other things, the year that Fritz Lang's classic SF movie Metropolis was made. Back then genre art, although it certainly existed, lacked the dizzying sub-categories of modern marketing, and the lines between "literary" and "genre", or "popular" and "art", were less blackly drawn.
There were the fantasy worlds of Lord Dunsany or George MacDonald or William Morris, and the science fiction of pioneers such as HG Wells or Jules Verne, themselves with plenty of literary precedents. And there was plenty of pulp: the proto-steampunk stories of late 19th century scientific romances, say, in which sociopathic robots terrorised Native American savages. But SFF, from Morris on, always had a thread of social idealism in between its imperialist narratives, and modernist artists frequently appropriated its tropes for imaginative visions of the contemporary world.
1927 takes us back to genre art's modernist heritage, especially its social critique. The Animals and Children is a parable of a modern city, written with a wicked wit by Suzanne Andrade. It's performed with a mixture of animation and white-face melodramatic acting, as if it were a graphic novel brought to life. Backed by live piano, the story is set in the cockroach-infested slums of the Bayou, which skulk in the east beyond the shiny skyscrapers. It tells how the anarchic slum children invade the respectable parks and gardens of the well-to-do, demanding a decent living, a decent education and an X-Box.
The government's response is a plot to kidnap the revolutionary children and feed them addictive lollies that not only sedate them, but paralyse them with fear: a suggestive reference not only to drugs like Ritalin, but to that great opiate of the masses, the mass media. After a week of treatment in an abandoned asylum, they are returned to their families, who declare their subjugated young a great improvement.
There are a couple of sub-plots: the well-meaning and naive do-gooder Agnes Eaves moves into the slums to reform the bad children with pots of clag and creative programs, and her daughter Evie is kidnapped as well. The lugubrious Caretaker of the Bayou Mansions, who looks rather like the mad scientist in Metropolis, has a hopeless crush on her, and sacrifices his one chance to leave the Bayou in order to rescue Evie. There is - apparently - a choice between two endings, the "realist" and the "idealist" - but despite the audience calling for the idealistic one, we got the realist ending: Agnes returns, a sadder and wiser woman, to her little village, the slum children remain in the slums, sedated and frightened, the Caretaker begins to save up again for his ticket out of the Bayou, and everyone gets on with their lives.
For all its gestures towards the fantastic and its sharp comic wit, The Animals and Children delivers a bleak picture of contemporary life. In tandem with the headlines about the biggest government cuts in Britain since the 1920s, increasing economic divisions between the rich and poor and a worldwide drift to the right, its brutalised world begins to seem more literal truth than fantasy.
Its framing in fact permits a far more direct critique than might otherwise be palatable. The abiding spirits behind this tale of urban squalor, middle class powerlessness and authoritarian repression are a couple of Soviet Russia's most talented artists: the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose lively, disrespectful writing championed the urban poor, and the brilliant Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko. Paul Barritt's animation ranges across references from Betty Boo to Inspector Gadget, but is mostly like a cross between a graphic novel by Shaun Tan and Rodchenko's collages: its soft gloomy browns recall Tan's melancholy urban landscapes, while Rodchenko's graphic invention is directly referenced with angular blocks of animated text and lots of Cyrillic font.
All this is bound up in a story that, aside from its grim message, looks and sounds like a children's fairytale. Its razor-sharp folding of animation and performance makes extremely seductive theatre. I'm not sure whether it's one of the most subversive shows I've seen.
Across town, Hoy Polloy - who for the past decade have stubbornly continued to premiere some of the most interesting international plays around - offer another dystopian view of contemporary life. Electronic City, by German playwright Falk Richter, looks at the marriage of technology and capitalism, and how the new corporate nomadism comes at a horrific human cost.
Richter is a stablemate of Marius von Mayenburg at Berlin's Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, where he is an associate director, and is regarded as one of Germany's leading exponents of the post-dramatic theatre. Written in 2004, Electronic City is a fascinating text: it's mostly a series of chorus-like third person statements that might be divided between any number of performers (Richter suggests a cast of "between five and 15"). Buffeted by this continual commentary and mediation are two characters, both employees of the global city that corporatism has made of the world: Tom (Dan Walls), a businessman, and his wife Joy (Sarah Ogden), a kind of international check-out chick for an airport supermarket chain.
These two are examined at a crucial moment of breakdown. Tom has arrived at another city to broker another deal (another takeover of another company) and has completely lost his bearings: he finds himself in a hotel corridor, unable to remember the code to his room: "he can't remember any more, he absolutely can't remember, he can't even name one place he has been to recently or what he actually did there". Joy is a "stand-by" flown to whichever part of the world needs a person to plug a hole: today she is scanning goods in a take-away food counter when the infra-red scanner stops working, leaving her in front of an increasing queue of angry businessmen.
The play tracks their different crises as they attempt desperately to make some authentic human contact. The chorus is a continual confusing mediation, mimicking the information overload that characterises modern cyberlife: Tom and Joy might be stars in a reality tv documentary, or actors in a horror film, playing themselves but always less certain who this self they're playing is supposed to be. The effect is a dissociated panic, a creeping horror at the disconnect between the cauterised, disembodied language of contemporary life (the hotel chain called "Welcome Home" that has, for instance, nothing to do with any human sense of home; the debased lingua franca of business-speak, "downsize, download, outsource, out-task", that destroys meaning with euphemism).
Wayne Pearn's sternly minimal production employs a chorus of six, presenting Electronic City as a cross between physical theatre and oratorio. It's constantly inventive and energised, and often, despite the dystopian message, very funny. Designers Kat Chan and Ben Morris create a deceptively simple stage that unobtrusively throws the entire emphasis onto the bodies of the actors. The cast is dressed in black, the single splash of colour provided by Joy's red-checked apron, and the space is entirely defined by light and shadow. The production ruthlessly exposes the text, and it's all the more powerful for the absence of the technology that the play invokes, for insisting on the human body as the medium of its message.
In the centre of this production are two first-class performances by Ogden and Walls: they provide the emotional authenticity that is splintered and destroyed by placelessness, demonstrating Richter's thesis that global corporatism inevitably ends in madness. They represent a desire so thwarted it barely knows how to name itself, so deeply trapped in their anxiety that they can't see past a passive resignation. Powerful, riveting theatre.
Songs For Nobodies is a simple conceit – the great singers of the 20th century are summoned, with a kind of theatrical voodoo, through the recollections of the anonymous people who loved their songs. And with the miraculous voice of Bernadette Robinson as her medium, Joanne Murray-Smith is on a winner.
This play is an evolution of Murray-Smith’s hit one-woman show Bombshells, a series of monologues by different women on the brink of emotional disintegration, which was written to exploit the pyrotechnic talents of Caroline O’Connor. This time Murray-Smith has Robinson’s uncanny vocal abilities at her disposal, which permits the introduction of some of the greatest songs ever written. Each monologue recounts a story of how the lives of the singers evoked in the show – Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas – briefly brushed against the “nobodies” of the title.
What’s impressive in the writing is its wit and exactness: each character is vividly realised. Like their songs, the singers represent a dazzling freedom, a possibility beyond the mundane, even a strange blessing, that is briefly granted in otherwise unremarkable lives. If it sometimes comes across as a paean to resignation, to a powerlessness that rubs uneasily with the thesis of Richter's play, this strikes against the potency of Robinson's performance.
The show opens with a disquisition on happiness – defined as the absence of fear that something bad will happen – by Bea Appleton, toilet room attendant. Disappointed in both life and love, Bea has learned to cut her cloth according to the measures given her. Her shining memory is of Judy Garland coming into the ladies to find Bea crying. The story segues into Garland’s rendition of Come Rain or Come Shine – “We’ll be happy together, unhappy together / Now won’t that be fine.”
Murray-Smith plays the variations on this theme with a diverse cast of characters – an usher, an English librarian, an Irish nanny and a New York Times journalist desperate to get off the women’s pages. The variety of accents and characters permits Robinson to demonstrate her virtuosic acting skills. But the real draw of this show is her voice, which shifts from the smoky blues of Billie Holiday to the vibrant contralto of Patsy Cline with startling ease.
Her performances of Edith Piaf and Maria Callas, however, strike another chord altogether: they rise beyond the virtuosity of mimicry to the sublime. In these moments, she is doing much more than imitation. The baroque composer Lully is supposed to have said that music was a way of speaking to the dead; and Robinson makes you believe it.
Pictures: top: Esme Appleton as Agnes Eaves in The Animals & Children; centre: Dan Walls and chorus in Electronic City. Photo: Fred Kroh. Bottom: Bernadette Robinson in Songs for Nobodies. Photo: Jeff Busby.
Versions of the reviews of Electronic City and Songs for Nobodies were published in the Australian.
The Animals & Children Took to the Streets. Performer, writer and director, Suzanne Andrade; animation and design, Paul Barritt; performer and co-costume designer Esme Appleton, performer and composer Lillian Henley. Costume design Sarah Munroe, voice Jamie Adams, lighting by Jamie Adams. 1927 @ the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse. Until November 28.
Electronic City by Falk Richter, directed by Wayne Pearn. Sets & costumes by Kat Chan, lighting by Ben Morris, sound design by Tim Bright. With Dan Walls, Sarah Ogden, Nick Darling, Liza Dennis, Ngaire Dan Fair, Elizabeth McColl, Luke Mulquiney and Daniel Rice. Hoy Polloy, Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Brunswick. Until November 27.
Songs For Nobodies, by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Simon Phillips. With Bernadette Robinson. Melbourne Theatre Company @ Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. Until December 23.
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
Ms TN spent most of last week in her bathchair with smelling salts taped under her nose, which partly accounts for the belatedness of these reviews. But it's also because Daniel Schlusser, who directed The Hollow, and The Rabble, who created The Bedroom Project, are among our more restless experimental artists. The work of both is an on-going interrogation of theatre, and consequently they make shows that are quite difficult to write about. Not many hooks, see, and those that are offered tend to be illusory.
Schlusser's relationship with the VCA has been a fruitful one. A trilogy of projects - A Dollhouse, Life is a Dream and Peer Gynt - took classic texts and applied extreme theatrical pressure, resulting in some of the most interesting theatre that Melbourne has seen over the past three years. And, intriguingly, after tackling Ibsen and Calderón, he has turned to... Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie? Well, maybe it's not unlikely; not only does theatre feature as a major trope in much of Christie's writing, but her novels, which have now sold in their billions, have been widely adapted into hugely popular plays, screenplays and television dramas.
The Hollow is one of Christie's Hercule Poirot novels, although she left Poirot (as Schlusser has) out of her stage adaptation. It has the usual Christie motifs. Like almost all her detective fiction, it creates a fantasia of upper middle class England, with a cast of privately wealthy characters who are imprisoned in a belljar (a hotel, a country house, a village) noxious with repressed desire. In The Hollow, Poirot arrives at a country house to find a murder scene which he initially believes, because of its obvious contrivance, is a poorly judged joke by his hosts. The surprise twist is that what is set up as an obvious falsehood is in fact the actual case: the mousy wife of a glamorous and unfaithful Harley St doctor has murdered her husband.
It's unfair to Christie to say that her novels are little more than a series of cleverly turned tropes, but it's is one reason why she remains so enduringly popular. Her characters are not quite stereotypes, but they are instantly recognisable, with enough wit and authentic feeling in their portrayal to plump out their legible outlines, and the predictability of the outcome - the solution of the crime - is satisfyingly played out against the variables of character and class, until a proper order is at last restored.
The forward momentum of her crime fiction exists in the continually delayed moment of satisfaction, the moment when the crime that threatens the gleaming surface of her characters' lives is dragged out into the open air and expiated through its rational explanation. Detective novels are perhaps the popular fiction par exemplar of the Enlightenment: they shimmer with the promise of rationality dragging out and vanquishing the murderous monsters of the id.
Schlusser makes of this a theatre that is almost entirely a formal investigation of the tension between artifice and authenticity. Unlike the other three productions, this is not a show that brings profundities to the surface. It's more a kind of gothic pantomime, disinterestedly lifting generic rocks in order to poke the wriggling uglinesses of the English class system that Christie's novels reveal.
Its near two hour duration is a hypnotic and often comic unravelling of the events that led to the crime: or, to be more precise, the non-events in between the events. It is mostly a series of apparently unstudied moments, which puts the audience in the position of naturalists observing human behaviour. These scenes are offered to us raw, seemingly without mediation: we witness half-heard conversations, unhurried domestic routines, inconsequential games, punctuated every now and then by a sudden flurry of activity that leads to a tightness of focus: a quarrel, a dance routine, an infidelity.
Effectively, The Hollow is a theatrical exploration of frustration. Delayed satisfaction is the entirety of its dramatic mechanism: all the way through characters are holding cigarettes, calling for matches that never arrive until the final moment, when an actress showily lights and inhales. The characters of The Hollow circulate on stage in little whirlpools of private activity that seems to lead nowhere, constant eddies of tension and relaxation that slowly and inexorably wind up the tension to the single moment of truth: the murder, stripped of its theatrical falsity.
These mundane moments are fractured by elements that are both sinister and absurd - monkey masks, rubber ducks, rabbit traps - that prevent this apparent naturalism from being merely illustrative. The distinctions of privilege, threatened by the crime, are brutally enforced, as is particularly clear with the servants; the maid is humiliated, the butler ends up as a parody in blackface. The murder itself is genuinely disturbing, a sudden moment of messy authenticity in what has been a continuous exhibition of artifice. It's richly ironised, of course, by our knowledge that we are watching a work of theatre: what occurs is a sudden shifting of key from one kind of theatrical contrivance to another, the second generating a moment of genuine affect.
Schlusser orchestrates these spiralling energies with a fine attention to the respiration of the stage, its choreography and rhythm, teetering on the edge of boredom with a finesse that for me intensified the fascination. The set, a kind of stylised abstraction of Edwardian decor, continually transforms: often you don't see the mechanism, so objects and people seem to appear and disappear of their own accord, as if the stage itself is malign. Its irrational evolutions and surreal excess reminded me rather of AES+F's photographic series, The Feast of Trimalchio, which was here for the Melbourne Festival. The Acting Company 2010 perform more than creditably, although Elizabeth Debicki as the naif murderess made wonder what might have happened if all the cast could have generated her unstudied, exact presence.
If Melbourne has an equivalent to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it surely has to be The Rabble. A loose collection of artists who have been making theatre in Melbourne and Sydney for several years, they are producing some of the most densely serious performances and provocations seen here recently, valuing the "direct and serious and heartfelt" in a way that rebukes any shallowness of response.
Theirs is a high-risk altitude, and - as with their last show, Cageling - it doesn't always work for me: innocence might segue into naivety, or fruitful ambiguity into a sudden jarring obviousness; sometimes there seems to be no invitation into their meanings, and what should be a refusal of ease simply locks the audience out. Yet for all that, it's impossible to deny that The Rabble's explorations can produce astonishingly powerful creations that vibrate unsettlingly in the mind long afterwards.
Their work unabashedly expresses a post-romantic nostalgia for innocence and beauty, and touches an oneiric strangeness that leans on the verge of consciousness, vibrating in the liminal state between waking and dream. Perhaps, as much as the Pre-Raphaelite twilight, they belong with the Symbolists: this work expresses delirium, perversion, corrupted purity, erotic ambiguity, an almost mediaeval sense of the hieratic.
The Rabble's performances have often seemed as much installation as theatre, and so it's not surprising that The Bedroom Project should have found a home at Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts. The Bedroom Project is first of all a series of installations in five different rooms, constructed by Emma Valente, Kate Davis and Dan Spielman. They are all weird memory boxes: in one, The Glass Mattress and The Silver Sword, an oval ring is suspended above a grubby mattress, from which sweep metal bars that enclose the bed rather like a strange bird cage. The room looks as if it is the site of an obscure ritual: a number of octagonal fishtanks are placed around the mattress, each half-full of white wax or watery milk, on top of which floats a silver dagger.
The Room of Regrets is another bedroom, with a disembowelled mattress, again with a construction suspended above it: this time a kind of curtain made of individual sheets of toilet paper joined together with metal rings, each marked with orange and yellow stains, suspended from an ovoid ring. An art deco dressing table with large mirrors is cluttered with jars, an electric jug, a teapot and heaped with salt, which is also scattered on the floor. A third room, Pink Dreams, is simply a corridor illuminated by shifting red light. The floor is covered with a thick layer of feathers; on the walls hangs a crude skull mask made from cardboard and from the ceiling are suspended white nightdresses.
Inside the Mattress is so full of smoke you can barely see the walls, although a single torch illuminates a dim spot on the wall. In the centre you can make out a many-sided construction that seems to be a drinking fountain. The final room, Tonics and Poisons, is the biggest and is mostly empty: at one end is a kind of low, white altar with a fountain trickling out streams of blue water. Suspended above it is a bright yellow, intricately constructed hanging made of marigolds.
In performance, with the help of a complex soundscape of subliminal electronic sounds and ambient natural noises by Tommy Spender, all these spaces are animated into environments of dream. This is work that is inescapably feminine (as opposed, say, to being about the feminine); it's impossible not to think of Christina Rossetti. The audience is divided into three and led separately into different galleries, where each witnesses interlocking performances by Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman. How you experience it depends in which order you encounter the rooms: I was in The Glass Mattress room first, followed by Inside The Mattress, and lastly The Room of Regrets. The audience joins for the final part of the performance in Tonics and Poisons.
The Bedroom Project is a love story: "Isabella and Irena are lovers. Isabella has killed a bird. Irena has killed Isabella." Imprisoned in their solitary sublunar worlds, Miltins and Sassman, dressed in Pre-Raphaelite white nighties, enact mysterious rituals that express desire and alienation, hatred and love. During the first three parts, we can overhear the performances in the other rooms, which generates an increasingly unsettling sense of absence: as those overheard sounds - cries, crowd noises, impassioned declamations - explain themselves when we witness them, they become the more inexplicable.
The performance is at its most powerful when it is suspended in mystery, when, as happens often, an extraordinary theatrical image - a half-seen figure groping along a wall, a bandaged woman cursing as she violently hurls handfuls of salt on the floor - seems to knock on the door of meaning, without quite entering. What text there is is often jarringly obvious, pushing us towards a narrative that is the weakest part of the work. It could be that it might be more fruitful for the company to explore the etiolations of a poet such as Mallarmé than the crude neo-Romanticism they use here. But equally, it might be that the articulations of language are simply too crude for the ambitions of The Rabble: the text exposes a sentiment and obviousness that the other aspects of the performance, especially the visuals and sound, gloriously transcend.
Pictures: top: The Hollow. Photo: Jeff Busby. Bottom: The Room of Regrets, The Bedroom Project. Photo: Marg Horwell
The Hollow by Agatha Christie, adapted and directed by Daniel Schlusser, Set Designer Romanie Harper, Costume Designer Zoe Rouse, Lighting Designer Megan Fitzgerald, Sound Designer Nick McCorriston, Stage Manager Shayndle Grinblat. Performed by Alicia Beckhurst, Francesca Bianchi, Paul Blenheim, Zoe Boesen, Dean Cartmel, Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Dent, Tom Hobbs, Christopher Ioan Roberts, Renae Shadler, Jack Starkey-Gill and Cate Wolswinkel. Victorian College of the Arts Drama and Production schools, Grant St Theatre. Closed.
The Bedroom Project, created by Emma Valente, Kate Davis and Dan Spielman, performed by Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman, sound by Tommy Spender. Linden Centre for Contemporary Art. Closed.
Briefly: Marion Potts, the incoming artistic director at the Malthouse, announced her first season yesterday. And she's giving us a solid line-up of crunchy excellence. This is a heavily text-based season, with a well-judged mix of classics and new work, leavened by four dance pieces: a fine evolution of the Malthouse's style.
2011 opens strongly with Potts's own production of John Ford's Jacobean tragedy, 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, a continuation of the collaboration that created the glorious Venus & Adonis, followed by Robert Menzies in Samuel Beckett's The End, the show that wowed audiences at Belvoir St earlier this year. That's followed by the four dance works in Dance Massive: Chunky Move's Connected; Narelle Benjamin's In Glass (featuring Paul White, whom we last saw in Meryl Tankard's Oracle); BalletLab's Amplification and a solo show from Gideon Obarzanek, Faker.
The Hayloft crew is back after its knock-out Thyestes with another bad man of the theatre, Bertolt Brecht's Baal, translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright. This is Brecht's first play, the first of his, in fact, that I ever read, and I've wanted to see it for years; I can't wait to find out what they make of it. That's followed by two new plays - Porn.Cake by Vanessa Bates, directed by Pamela Rabe, and A Golem Story by Lally Katz, directed by Michael Kantor. The final play is a return season of Declan Greene's sublime Moth, so all of you who disconsolately queued and missed out this year can get to see it. All of which is enough to make me view 2011 with a sanguine heart. You can check it out for yourself at the Malthouse website.
Monday, November 08, 2010
One would think that, after more than a month of thespian festivities, Melbourne theatre should have collapsed, gorged with its own dizzy art, and decided instead to enjoy the burgeoning spring in a sensible and above all relaxed manner. But lo! The laurels of Dionysus jiggeth still! All the shows that have been queuing patiently as the Fringe and Melbourne Festival hogged the spotlight are now shyly stepping forth and wiggling their wings seductively, crowding into the next few weeks before Melbourne shuts down for summer. Frankly, they're making my diary a clogged and clotted mess.
Which means that I can't attend an event I'd very much like to see, though you might be able to make it. The Wheeler Centre has organised a major reading at the Merlyn Theatre, The Poet's Voice: Lovers in Trouble. A celebration of the poems of Dorothy Porter, the much-loved poet who died almost exactly two years ago at an unjustly early age, it coincides with the release of Porter's Love Poems. Novelist Andrea Goldsmith, Opera Victoria's AD Richard Gill and actor David Trendennick are among those who will celebrate Porter's passionate art, alongside readings of other works in this rich tradition. Details and bookings on the Wheeler Centre website.
Meanwhile, I have a couple of reviews to finish and upload before the onslaught begins. Watch this space.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
* There's no shortage of new writing in November. In fact, Melbourne is so lousy with readings of new plays that there is absolutely no excuse not to encounter at least one. Some are, however, happening in the teeth of bureaucratic resistance. Last week the fledgling writers theatre, MKA Richmond, was bizarrely thrown out of its new home in Richmond after only two days of operation. According to John Bailey, the council's action followed complaints from a couple of residents about "increased foot traffic" in the area. This must be some sort of record of bureaucratic efficiency: if only local councils moved as quickly on broken swings or pavements...
John has the full press release on Capital Idea, so I won't reproduce it; suffice to say that the company is undaunted, if justifiably outraged, and will continue its planned program of readings at a different venue at the QV complex in the CBD. Their ambitious Open Season of 25 Playwrights from around the world will continue right through November into December. The program looks well worth checking out, and includes work from Van Badham, Ben Ellis, Declan Greene and Chris Summers among many others. Details on the MKA Richmond site.
* Meanwhile, the second round of the MTC's Cybec Readings will be held later this month. The readings, curated by Aidan Fennessy, are the result of six months' artistic development, during which three playwrights were matched with three directors to write a new script. Michele Lee's Roundabout, directed by Sarah McCusker, will be read on November 18; David Mence's The Gully, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, on November 19; and Natasha Jacobs's If I Can Dream, directed by Petra Kalive, on November 20.) All at 7pm in the Lawler Studio, MTC Theatre. More details on the MTC website.
* Artists should also check out the recently announced Climate Commissions, announced recently at the Malthouse. They consist of three major commissions for artistic projects that seek to grapple with the implications of transition to a carbon-free future, and range from the big (a $30,000 European/Australian collaboration between scientists and artists) to the small (commissions for works to take place in a person's home). Details on the Tipping Point website.
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
For the first time I can remember, Daniel Keene has two productions on at once in his home town. One, the comedy Life Without Me, opened last month at the Melbourne Theatre Company to enthusiastic reviews and sell-out audiences as part of the Melbourne Festival. The other, the delicate generational drama The Nightwatchman, opens later this month at Theatre Works in St Kilda as an independent production.
Since he lives in the same house as I do, I sneakily exploited our proximity to ask him some questions.
And, eventually, he answered them.
AC: To Elizabethans, says the critic Jan Kott, the world was the stage and the stage was the world. What world is your stage? What does it become in the hands of others?
DK: The stage is a frame. I like the frame to be simple and unornamented.
To put it a different way: the stage is a metaphor. It doesn’t need any other metaphors added to it.
The theatre is a pragmatic art. When I write a play, the action of the play has to happen somewhere. In a room? On a street corner? Both? I make fundamental delineations.
When I imagine a play, I imagine a bare stage, a source of light, an actor. Depending on the content of the play, I might call what I imagine ‘the lobby of a hotel’ or ‘the kitchen of a suburban house’ or ‘a building site’. In other words, I locate my actor standing lit on a bare stage in the world outside of the theatre. I am suggesting a simple recognition, nothing more or less. Once that recognition has occurred, we can all get on with the play. In other words, we can ask ‘what will happen?’
I write plays for the hands of others; the hands that make them and the hands that applaud (or don't applaud) them. A play is a casting off.
When we speak of poetry in the theatre, what do we mean? You read a lot of poetry, and sometimes write it yourself. What is the difference between a poem and a work for the theatre?
In a very, very basic way, a poem and a work for the theatre share a need for rhythm: the striking arrival of the next line, the feeling of inevitability when the line ends (an inevitability that is created by the line itself).
Perhaps it’s simply that I think every line in a play deserves the same attention as every line in a poem.
Is writing plays another kind of thinking?
Yes. It’s a very delicate, very crude way of thinking.
Who are the writers who matter most to you?
I keep discovering them. But there is no ‘most’.
What do you seek to make? Do you want anything? Do you simply arrive with empty hands?
I don't seek to make anything in particular. When I begin to write a play I never know what I’m going to make. I sometimes surprise myself and actually write a play. I abandon more plays than I finish. I sometimes have, as Beckett once said, 'the itch to make but nothing to say'. I think it's a kind of pathology. I don't understand it and have avoided trying to.
Empty hands? Yes, always. To want nothing, to know nothing, to bring nothing. And then the making. It’s a kind of magic, as is baking a cake or building a house.
For as long as you have been a playwright, you have worked closely with particular actors. How important is the actor to your imagining of a play?
The art of the theatre is the art of the word made flesh.
I am always aware that I am writing for the voice. I think that perhaps poets might have the same awareness. But where for a poet the voice is their own firstly (familiar), and secondly that of the reader (unknown), the voice(s) I am writing for belongs to a known other: it is not my voice, but it is a voice that I know, that I can hear as I write, the voice of the actor. I can hear what I imagine are the possibilities of that voice. I am not talking about the interpretation of the lines, but their music, their rhythm and cadence, their tone and volume. You could say that the voice is an instrument that I am writing for. The more familiar I am with that instrument, the more freedom I have. I can write lines that I myself could never say, lines whose expression is beyond my capacity even to imagine uttering them.
The voice comes from the actor’s body. When I write for the actor’s voice I am writing for his/her body. Generally, I don’t write many stage directions. I want the language itself to (literally) move the actor, for the voice and the body of the actor to become one energy, one dynamic expression of the language, without the ‘prompting’ of prescriptive directions. In other words, I want the act of speaking the lines that I write to propel the actor’s body, I want the act of speaking to bring the actor’s body to life.
Is the actor, alone and vulnerable on a stage, caught in the light before the eyes of an audience, the secret of the humanity of your theatre?
There is no secret. The actor, alone and vulnerable on a stage, caught in the light before the eyes of an audience is the beginning and the end of the theatre that I want to make.
In its exploration of the possibilities of absurdist comedy, Life Without Me strikes me as a play with a close relationship to Half and Half (2002), a two hander which you also wrote specifically for specific actors, in this case Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman. Comedy has always been an important part of the dramas you write, as far back as Silent Partner (1991). How important is it to laugh?
People often forget that in almost everything I have written there are moments of comedy (I call them ‘the funny bits’). Perhaps they forget because this comedy rarely lasts until the end of the play. In my plays laughter is usually the prologue to its opposite. Comedy makes the audience more open to what is occurring on stage (makes them more vulnerable to it). I try to create that openness by offering the possibility of laughter. Comedy is an invitation that I extend.
How important is it to grieve?
To grieve is to openly acknowledge our mortality. I think grief should be embraced. The acknowledgment of our mortality may be all that can save the human race from itself.
The theatre can be a place that opens a space for grieving. To put it another way: I take it that a metaphor can be understood as a displacement of reality that allows that reality to be more clearly perceived. The theatre is a place where metaphors are literally made in front of our eyes, where they exist only at a particular time and in a particular place. When the performance is over, nothing remains except our memory of it. It is as if the performance shares the mortality of its audience. This fact is in itself a metaphor (which may in fact lead us back to ‘all the world’s a stage’). If to grieve is to acknowledge our mortality, then the theatre can be the place where that acknowledgment is made manifest, where we can, literally, experience that acknowledgment as an emotional, intellectual and physical event in time and space.
That’s at least the beginning of an answer to your question.
Picture: Robert Menzies and Kerry Walker in Life Without Me. Photo: Jeff Busby
Life Without Me, directed by Peter Evans, is playing at the Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, until November 21. The Nightwatchman, directed by Matt Scholten, opens at Theatre Works, St Kilda, on November 24 and runs until December 12. Details and bookings online here.
Monday, November 01, 2010
This weekend, I spent two days at the Malthouse Theatre talking about the climate crisis. It was part of an event called Tipping Point Australia, a series of three forums in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. As it says on the website, the forums are "for invited international and Australian artists, scientists and others to explore ways in which we can adapt to and mitigate functionally, culturally and socially the effects of climate change.” Melbourne was the first.
The nexus between artistic practice and social or political commitment represents a vexed and often anguished question. I've been wrestling with the questions around artistic practice and social conscience for years, always discovering different means of failure. In a lecture for the International Federation for the Teaching of English in 2003, I speculated on the politics of representation, and the refusal of commodification versus the entrapments of ideological utilitarianism; at other times, I've wondered how an expression of hope might be about clear-sightedness rather than self-delusion or denial. Again and again, I've concluded that art itself is an act, an awakening of larger and enabling possibilities that in turn generate forms of agency.
This is not a particularly comforting conclusion, since it suggests that art achieves nothing in itself. In the face of climate change, is art anything more than more hot air, more toxic emissions? Given the systemic nature of the environmental crisis, its mind-numbing scale and complexity, what can be done? Is it actually possible to combat the processes now in motion - the grinding self-perpetuating machine of corporate global capitalism - in order to make any difference to those disastrously multiplying predictors?
I went to Tipping Point with two major questions. One is purely personal: it haunts my practice, and recently has silenced my poetry. Is the only act that honestly remains for art, given the scale of the catastrophe we face, a lament? What use is that? I’ve been writing elegies for the natural world since I was ten years old: and if that is all I can do, then it’s difficult to see the point. The second is: given that it’s quite clear that we can’t trust even a democratic system to deliver a government that will resist the corporate drive towards destruction, are there other ways of taking action, of changing social habits and ideas and fears before the planet is irrevocably wrecked, to the point where it no longer supports mammals like us?
They are complex questions, and I came away with the beginnings of complex responses. I talked to systems designers who said effecting change is all about being able to see the levers. I talked to a man who, using the best scientific advice he could access, took two years to design a zero-emissions blueprint for Australian industry, and I talked about reclaiming public language. I heard about Julia's Bicycle, the British collective of scientists and artists who are working tirelessly - and are succeeding - in reducing the footprints of the arts industry: replacing plastic CD covers, for instance, with cardboard, which reduces emissions by a staggering 97 per cent, or mapping the environmental impacts of theatre and concerts in order to find out how to reduce them. I heard Tim Jarvis speak about the work he is doing to create change in corporate and government practices. I heard a lot about how adapting our behaviour to a waste-free, carbon-free future is an opportunity, and how that is much more than a slogan.
There's no way I can summarise every aspect of this weekend: it was fascinating, inspiring, absorbing, exciting and, most of all, encouraging. Perhaps typically, none of the bad news – the scientific evidence of irreversible and disastrous crisis, or the legislative or corporate failures and blindnesses – came as a surprise. What was surprising was the sense of hopefulness I encountered. It’s not uninformed hopefulness, it’s not blind optimism. There is no single solution to an environmental catastrophe like the one now unfolding before us: but that doesn’t mean that we can do nothing, or that we can make no difference.
When I came home, I found myself thinking about Vaclav Havel’s book Living In Truth, written when there was still a Soviet Union. In an essay called Politics and Conscience, he speaks about a childhood memory of seeing smokestacks pouring their filth into the sky on his way to school, and of how this image, even without any adult understanding, seemed to him expressive of a terrible wrongness.
"The chimney 'soiling the heavens' is not just a technologically corrigible flaw of design, or a tax paid for a better consumerist tomorrow, but a symbol of a civilisation that has renounced the absolute, which ignores the natural world and disdains its imperatives. So, too, the totalitarian systems [of the Soviet Union] warn of something far more serious than Western rationalism is willing to admit. They are, most of all, a convex mirror of the evitable consequences of rationalism, a grotesquely magnified image of its own deep tendencies....
"These regimes are the avant garde of a global crisis of this civilisation.... They are one of the possible futurological studies of the Western world, not in the sense that one day they will attack and conquer it, but in a far deeper sense - that they illustrate graphically to what the 'eschatology of the impersonal', as Bělohradský calls it, can lead. It is the total rule of a bloated, anonymously bureaucratic power, a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalise anything without ever having to brush against the truth."
“The truth”, says Havel, meaning a human truth. “We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy and tolerance, ” he says later. “Just the opposite: we must set these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their ‘private’ exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community.”
There is always hope. If sometimes we feel that hope is delusory, it is not simply because the graphs tracking "business as usual" all point to doom. It is because hope implies agency, and agency is what is refused in so many aspects of contemporary life, and is lost in the splintering of our disenfranchised communities. Fear and grief can be paralysing: we shovel our anxiety into the back of our minds, so we don’t have to look at them. It's hardly surprising that our biggest health issue world wide is mental illness.
Which brings me to another thing that surprised me this weekend: the grief I feel for the natural world. When I came home, I remembered the first time I felt it: on a visit to England in the early '70s, when I was ten years old. There were some woods which, when we had lived nearby as even smaller children, we had often visited. We picked primroses in the spring or gathered pine-cones and chestnut cases in winter, to be painted silver and gold for our Christmas tree. But when we went back to see them, the woods were being chopped down. I remember watching the men in the tractors looping chains about the corpses of those beautiful trees, and dragging them away through the mud, and I remember that the sight was like a knife in my heart.
At around that time, I read a poem which was in a book that was on a shelf in the room where I was staying in my grandmother's house. It's irrevocably linked to that experience of loss, of grievously wrecked beauty. I never forgot its quick, painful music, although it must have been a decade before I read it again and gave it a name - Gerard Manley Hopkins's Binsey Poplars.
I guess that was a formative experience. Although environmental destruction has formed the dominant imagery in my poems for two decades now, although I am perfectly aware of how deeply worried I am by what we are doing to the planet, destroying entire eco-systems, species, environments, and with them entire constellations of cultural knowledge and language, I had pushed that grief to the back of my mind. My question about lament didn’t take into account that there is, in fact, little space for lamenting in our world.
Perhaps seeing that grief reflected in the eyes of others permitted me to know it as more than a background shadow to everything I do. And that is a liberating thing: background shadow manifests as paralysing depression, the helplessness we all feel as citizens. I remembered that there is a place for lament: and I also remembered that it is not the only thing that art can do. It is sometimes important to be reminded of things you already know. I am comforted by those thoughts, even as I'm daunted by what needs to be done and by the uncertainty that attends it.
My last book, Theatre, contains a poem called Beasts, which was first published in Pretext, the literary magazine that comes out of the University of East Anglia, in about 2005. For Tipping Point, we were asked to bring an object along that expressed our feeling about climate crisis, and I brought that poem. It is, of course, a lament, but I principally brought it with me because it says my sense of individual helplessness in the face of the systemic nature of the crisis. It's a poem which emerges from that "eschatology of the impersonal" which, as Havel presciently pointed out in the 1980s, is as powerfully expressed in the rationalism of western corporate economies as it was in Soviet ideology. It is the reality I experience and resist in that expression: but I want to write towards other possibilities, other actions.
I can begin to see a map. Many maps, made by many people, which imagine other kinds of futures than the destruction we're creating. In order to change anything, you have to be able to imagine a future first.
The beasts are retreating. They are sliding
into the dusk, into the supple light of vanishing trees,
into the glue of dreams. All their strangeness
wavers behind wire, between the four sides of a screen,
odourless and deathless. The beasts stare out of
bleached pages, enclosed at last, and the zoos
are silent, except when parrots and keepers
conduct their weird orchestrations.
Panic flicks in those slotted eyes but the sadness
is only ours. Police hunt corpses in rubbish dumps,
a pregnant mother and child. Beneath the surface,
submarine cries burst the ears of whales.
Coral is leached to stone by the stripped sunlight
and houses crouch by the shore, awaiting the wave
prophets see in the distance. In forests
that glow at night, there are boars and wolves
whose futures mutate daily. There is much that is unknown
as always and even more that now will never
be understood. The cedar forests of Lebanon
are tinder dry and bears starve on the wet tundra.
In the depths of night there may be a phone call
we dare not answer or a cry in the street
which makes the hair rise on the back of our necks.
They will not come back, something is happening
at the edge of our eyes, behind the reflections,
and billboards shout in the silence, delivering words
that in a more innocent age we thought were ours.