Review: The Wild DuckHolding noteBriefs: In Glass, These Are The IsolateDance Massive: Sunstruck, NOWNOWNOWDance Massive: ConnectedDivertissementReview: The End, The Dream Life of ButterfliesWell, how about thatBrief: The Wau Wau Sisters' Last Supper ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: The Wild Duck

Last week Ms TN took a few days off to lounge about in the fleshpots of Sydney. And lo, it was good, although the perilous aspect of taking a short holiday is that it makes you understand how much you need a longer one. But it was not all caviar and champagne, I'll have you know. I had a good theatrical reason to be there: viz, it was the final week of Belvoir's justly acclaimed The Wild Duck, a contemporary take on Ibsen's play by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan.

It's so long since I last read this play that I couldn't remember what happened, so when I returned home I dragged out the Penguin classic. The translation is dodgy to say the least - it's full of people exclaiming "I say!" and "Oh, good Lord!", making you think of Bertie Wooster rather more than Nordic forests - but you can still squint through the creaky language and see the structures and ideas that informed the original.

Reading the original text only heightened my admiration of this production, which is the best so far of Simon Stone's increasingly interesting oeuvre. It's a fascinating evolution from Hayloft's Thyestes: Ryan and Stone are clearly applying and extending ideas from that production, but by no means repeating them. The text is, quite correctly, credited as "after Ibsen": it is effectively an extremely well-written new play. There are maybe three or four lines of Ibsen's text, if that, in this version. Major themes and a swathe of characters have vanished: the action is placed uncompromisingly in the 21st century, creating a strangely dislocated theatrical world, a contemporary Australian reality with Norwegian motifs.

What's astonishing (and, in the end, a little mysterious) is that you walk out of the theatre feeling that you have just watched an Ibsen play. The sinews of Ibsen's obsessions - the past that haunts and destroys the present, inheritance and paternity, the social critique of class and gender, the plutonium-enriched explosion of truth - are boldly translated into present day forms. Stone and Ryan's collaboration, astringently dramaturged by Eamon Flack, is a vital re-imagining.

In the first half the impending tragedy is built patiently, stroke by stroke, in a series of short, apparently naturalistic scenes. On the occasion of his second marriage to his 28-year old secretary, wealthy businessman Werle (John Gaden) welcomes home his estranged son, Gregers (Toby Schmitz). It's soon evident that Gregers bears a grudge against Werle for his treatment of his mother, who suicided after one of Werle's affairs. Gregers meets up with his old friend Hjalmar (Ewen Leslie), who runs a photography studio with his wife Gina (Anita Hegh). They live with their 17-year-old daughter Hedvig (Eloise Mignon) and Hjalmar's father Ekdal (Anthony Phelan), who is showing the first signs of dementia. Ekdal, we discover, has been imprisoned over some scandal to do with Werle's business, a disaster which has had far-reaching effects on his family.

In Ibsen's play, Gregers is a fanatic blinded by idealism, a man irrevocably wounded by his father's corruption who tragically wreaks worse destruction by attempting to right his father's wrongs. He worships Hjalmar's integrity, and claims that he will invigorate his life by revealing the lie at the heart of his marriage, but the results are predictably catastrophic. Here the character of Gregers is more ambivalent: he is a cynic who prides himself on his truthfulness, but the sense that his destructiveness is subconsciously driven by envy of Hjalmar's domestic happiness is palpable. Likewise, the marriage presented in the first half of the play is a good one, as opposed to the sense in Ibsen of an educated man limited by his wife's lower class: Hjalmar's family is chaotic, argumentative, loving and arrestingly real.

Part of this production's power comes from the simplicity, even crudity, of its framing. Here the design is exemplary in how it contributes to the meaning of the performance, from Niklas Pajanti's lighting to Stefan Gregory's sound design, which mics the actors so we hear their bodies as much as see them: the labial sounds of kisses, a deep, shuddering, in-drawn breath. Ralph Myers's set is a kind of terrarium or tank that seals the audience from the performers, a literal fourth wall which heightens the voyeuristic sense that we are transgressively peering into privacies. The window/mirror has almost become a cliche in contemporary theatre, but here the design, perhaps because it so aptly represents the play's dynamics, is fresh and striking. At the top of the set are electronic displays, harking back to the scene titles in Thyestes, that introduce each scene with a specific time date and time.

Harsh, directionless lighting reveals a bare, black, slightly scruffy stage. During the first half of the play, this alternates with blackouts between scenes that turn the glass into a mirror of the audience. The darkness itself becomes symbolic of the hidden truths and conflicts that are hinted in scenes played swiftly across the naked stage. The second half of the play is completely different: the Bach cello pieces that play between scenes in the first half is exploded by crashing electric guitar and the stage is flooded in merciless fluorescent light. Now scenes run together, instead of being meticulously individuated, with characters from different scenes simultaneously on stage.

The simplicity of these elements highlights the complexity and nuance of the text and performances. Stone has the talents of a remarkable cast: there is no performance which is not integral to the success of the work. The mark is hit in every moment, from the cauterised relationship between father and son in Gaden and Schmitz's meetings, to Mignon's bewildered pain as a daughter rejected by the father she adores, to Anthony Phelan's anguished portrayal of a disintegrating mind as Ekdal. The emotional weight of the tragedy falls on Hegh and Leslie, and their performances as two people who deeply love each other, but whose love is unable negotiate the disaster that befalls them, is as painful and real as anything I've seen on stage. Theatre seldom draws a hacksaw across your emotional nerves with such intelligent finesse.

It makes me look forward with even more lively interest to Stone's upcoming adaptation of Brecht's Baal, co-written with Tom Wright, which opens soon at the Malthouse as a co-production with the STC. In part this is because I have even less idea what to expect: it seems to me that Stone is continually lifting the stakes on himself, making work that refreshingly refuses to rest on its laurels. And that's exciting.

Picture: Anita Hegh as Gina in The Wild Duck. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

The Wild Duck, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, after Henrik Ibsen. Set by Ralph Myers, costumes by Tess Schofield, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, composition and sound design Stefan Gregory. With Johngaden, Anita Hegh, Ewen Leslie, Eloise Mignon, Anthony Phelan and Toby Schmitz. Belvoir, Sydney. Closed.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Holding note

I saw three fascinating performances last week: two Dance Massive works (BalletLab's Amplification and Gideon Obarzanek's one-man piece Faker) and, in Sydney, Simon Stone's astonishing adaptation of The Wild Duck. Faker is on at the Malthouse until April 2 and is highly recommended, but the others closed this weekend. Responses may take a few days, as Ms TN has pressing duties in her other lives. But they will arrive.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Briefs: In Glass, These Are The Isolate

Less, so the conventional wisdom goes, is more. Like most truisms it isn't always true, but it's a handy rule of thumb that Narelle Benjamin might have heeded when creating In Glass, a multiply-imaged extravaganza which played last week in the intimate environs of the Beckett Theatre as part of Dance Massive. The work is choreographed for two extraordinary dancers, Paul White (whose classical purity animated Meryl Tankard's Oracle last year) and Kristina Chan: and I can't help thinking that their explosive chemistry might have been enough on its own.

Benjamin has created an erotic duet in which the masculine and feminine flow together in mirror images of movement or separate in tense conflicts of difference (it's notable that the male is most active, the female most passive). The dance emerges from darkness, exploring a liminal space of dream and unconscious desire: White first enters the blacked-out stage with a torch, seeking Chan's prone figure with its dim beam. The choreography explores complex motions of collapse and restoration, of sensual connection and sharp separation, and its focus on individual parts of the body - arms, hands, legs, or at one point White's Apollonian torso - suggests the fragmenting nature of eroticism itself.

White and Chan are riveting: their precision and fluidity is astounding and moving. But the experience is overlaid by a storm of visual stimuli: the dancers are surrounded not only by reflections in the mirrors that are the main feature of the design, but also by projections and even backlit movement from behind the mirrors. Shadows, endlessly multiplying bodies, shifts of perspective and videoed images collide in a visual excess that begins to have a diminishing impact, and at last distracts from the dance itself.

In Glass seems to explore a Lacanian notion of love or erotic attraction as a form of infantile narcissism, parsed through a sub-Jungian exploration of myth, notably Eve and Narcissus. This is reinforced by the videos, which are surprisingly banal - a girl in an orchard eating an apple, broken glass, a tree of knowledge made of limbs, rippling water. There are undeniably striking moments - White holding two oval mirrors, kissing his grotesque reflections - but these, and whatever ideas were driving them, become blurred in the image overload.

Around 15 minutes before the dance finished - a moment where we revisited the Edenic apple orchard - the dance seemed quite suddenly to run out of ideas, which made the final sequences feel very long. This might be a problem with dramatic shaping rather than the choreography itself. Still, I can't help wondering what the dance might have been like without all the extras. It reminded me a little of some theatre in the 1990s, when multi-media was a novelty in itself, rather than another theatrical language.

On Thursday night I eschewed Dance Massive for These Are The Isolate, a show by the young company Mutation Theatre. This was one of two works that Mutation Theatre premiered during last year's Fringe: I saw their other piece, an adaptation of Shaun Tan's The Arrival at Docklands that demonstrated their energy and potential, but missed this one. And this was the show that garnered the praise and prizes, including the Theatre Works award which led to this production.

These Are The Isolate, written by Katy Warner (who also performs) is a text that, rather like Falk Richter's explorations of corporate capitalism or Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, tracks the collapse of the individual self in an alienated social world. A man (Tim Wotherspoon) is seeking a promotion, which is denied because he is married. Or because he isn't married. But is he married? Is there a child? Has his wife left him, or is she dead, or is she present? All the possibilities are presented as undecided until this short duet for voices reaches its climax, whereupon we witness a singular reality that collapses all the fantasies that have animated the play.

The writing is seriously promising, witty, concrete and detailed, but it doesn't quite match its ambitions. I regretted the urge towards significant narrative that undermines the suspension of its best moments. It might have been a far stronger play, and have headed in less expected directions, if Warner could have stuck to the banality of the crisis it was exploring and resisted the temptation of dramatic flourishes. But there's no doubting the promise it reveals, especially in the bold poetic of its theatrical attack.

Marcel Dorney's production effectively exploits the cavernous darkness of Theatre Works to evoke a shifting inner world, with Katie Sfetkidis's stern lighting picking out or concealing the performers in an abstract theatrical reality. Mutation Theatre has been marked as one to watch for the past year or so, and rightly so. Well worth checking out.

Picture: Kristina Chan and Paul White in In Glass.

In Glass, choreographed by Narelle Banjamin. Composed by Huey Benjamin, visual design Samuel James, costumes design by Tess Scofield, lighting design by Karen Norris. With Kristina Chan and Paul White. Dance Massive, Malthouse Theatre. Closed.

These Are The Isolate, by Katy Warner, directed by Marcel Dorney. Lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, sound design by Tim Wotherspoon. Devised and performed by Katy Warner and Tim Wotherspoon. Theatre Works, until March 27.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dance Massive: Sunstruck, NOWNOWNOW

Dance Massive is now in full swing, offering the kind of fare that means I am constantly kicking myself (an interesting athletic feat) for not seeing everything on the program. Altogether, I'll get to six shows over the fortnight, which is not exactly insubstantial: but such is the diversity of practice on offer - from film, improvisation and sound art to more conventional theatrical performance - that those who get to the whole festival will gain an enviable overview of the vital currents now rippling across Australian contemporary dance. Well, a gal's gotta know her limitations, and mine are intransigent at the moment. Below are meditations on a couple of the shows I did see this week.

One of the pleasures of this festival is the remounts. I missed Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham's Sunstruck at the 2008 Melbourne Festival, though I didn't miss the buzz. Those who saw its first incarnation tell me that this remounting at North Melbourne Town Hall is substantially different from its premiere in a huge shed at Docklands, but for this kind of performance, which is intensely sensitive to the space it inhabits, that's completely unsurprising.

Its music and movement are improvised, although clearly within solid structures, and the dance exists in that liminal state between sleep and awareness - not dream so much as reverie. When the audience enters, we are immediately made welcome with an offer of tea or sake before being directed to a circle of wooden chairs that glows luminously within an edgeless, smoke-enhanced darkness. The chairs are placed within a circular rail, along which is run the major lighting source for the show, a rig holding a huge sodium-coloured light covered with venetian slats.

It begins in silence, with Trevor Patrick stepping with a delicate, even shy hesitancy before us. At this point the lighting is from above, so everything is softly illuminated, the dancer and the audience. Immediately you notice the expressiveness of Patrick's hands, and you become aware of your own gaze on the dancer, which seems to touch him as the light does. He speaks: "No rain. Still." Then darkness, and the rattling noise of the rig being dragged behind the chairs, and the sodium light comes on. Its effect is like the sun seen through closed eyelids, intense but tempered by darkness, a dream of a harsh sun perhaps recalled in fever. Sunstroke.

Patrick is joined by Nick Sommerville, who seats himself among the audience. They speak again, but this time it is half-heard nonsense, dissolving into stylised laughter that turns into weeping. Then, from out of the darkness, there is the scrape of a cello. (The darkness in the hall was so tangible that I didn't see the musicians - Tamil Rogeon and Tim Blake - when I entered, and this came as a surprise.) The dance shifts between solos, where the other dancer sits among the audience, and duets, and gradually builds up its intensity, weaving deftly through the music and sound and light, responsive and richly allusive. It moves through moments that seem intensely private - the cradling of a child, gestures of affection - to others that touch on public representation of gender: an exaggeratedly feminine step, an overtly masculine pose, masculine conflict, maternal poses - that feed into and transform each other.

A lot of the movement, especially in the rippling delicacy of Patrick's hands, seems to spring from the stylised representations of Asian theatre, themes reinforced by motifs in the music (Tamil Rogeon and Tim Blake): there was a particularly beautiful moment where Patrick mimed wringing out water from long hair that could have come straight from a Kabuki performance. At another I was suddenly thrown into a bullring and found myself thinking of Lorca's great poem, Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias: "The wounds were burning like suns / at five in the afternoon". But, as with the lighting, these images are all liminal, holding themselves on the other side of bald representation: they are allusions that hover on the threshold of perception, winding through the shifting experience of the whole.

Livia Ruzic's soundscape is an important part of this experience: the musicians move unseen around the space, so that the cello or violin emanate from unexpected places, making us aware of spatial perspectives beyond the circle of sight. The music is punctuated by ambient sound - seascapes, birds carolling, subliminal electronic sounds - that enrich the texture of the entire piece. This one will stay with me: it's an exquisitely staged, focused work that offers an enthralling immersive experience.

Where Sunstruck is all darkness, the mind ranging across interior reverie, Luke George's NOWNOWNOW (closing tonight at Dancehouse) is all light and surface. This is an unambiguously joyous experience, in the mysterious ways that dance that attempts to focus on the absolute presence of performers and audiences often is (I'm thinking here of Les Ballets C de la B or Jerome Bel). This makes it intensely difficult to describe at all satisfactorily, because there is almost no there there: as they say, and it's very true of this work, you had to be there.

One of the characteristics of this kind of dance is an abolition of barriers between the audience and the performers. This is evident as soon as you enter the theatre: from the moment you step through the door, shoeless as requested, you are walking on white carpet. The carpet stretches the length of the stage and covers the stepped rostrum where the audience is seated, explicitly embracing us all in the same space. The whole is enclosed by black curtains, and we are all brightly illuminated. In the right corner of the stage, near the audience, is a small television with its back to us, and backstage are a couple of big amplifiers. Otherwise the stage is empty.

As the audience enters, the three dancers - Kristy Ayre, Luke George and Timothy Harvey - are on stage doing nothing in particular, dressed in the most absurd costumes I have ever seen. They look as if they have raided an opshop full of Xena the Warrior Princess dress ups - plastic greaves, velcro armour, yellow shorts, lime-green codpieces, toy Indian head-dress. It's impossible not to wonder what it can all possibly portend. Then, once the dance proper begins, each dancer strips, dresses in plain-coloured tracksuit pants and shirts, and puts the costumes away.

Okay, first set of expectations thrown away. What follows is a series of explorations in which the dancers continually focus in different ways on the bare literality of what is occurring on stage. The performances are key here, because there is nothing else. These dancers, in their physical skills and, crucially, in their ability to merely be on stage, which is much harder than it sounds, are impeccable. The only narrative here is the dance itself, which shifts from complex abstract movement to gestures drawn from aerobic exercise or the mundane minutae of, for example, people watching and responding to television.

They begin by shouting in perfect chorus all the rhymes they can think of for NOW: cow bow frau miaow and so on, an explosion of Dadaist nonsense that sets the tenor for the rest of the dance. At one point all the dancers do energetic star jumps until they are exhausted, and stand, panting, until they have caught their breath. At another George approaches an audience member in the front row and gives her a headset, which she puts on. We can hear the whisper of the sound, but not what it's saying. She walks onto the stage, obeying recorded instructions that become part of the dance.

Or again, all three dancers put on glossy black wigs backwards, so their faces are concealed, and perform a hilarious and somehow sinister minimalist version of a Supremes stage routine. Or they are seated, watching television, making fragmentary, mundane statements that become like prefab phrases repeated with different expressiveness through each performer. Towards the end, they shout out what they are doing and perceiving: BLACK! TEXTURE! SHADOW! DIAGIONAL! ABSTRACTION!!

The effect of all these attacks on the present is an increasing buoyancy and joyousness. George's explicit intention is the exploration of the present moment, especially the complexities and contradictions of spontaneity when it collides with the consciousness of a structured work of art. In depriving us of narrative, sense or expectation, NOWNOWNOW opens up a glorious sense of liberation. Dadaist post-post-modern dance? I don't know. Whatever it is, it went by in a flash: it effortlessly engrosses your entire attention. It's very funny, provoking almost constant ripples of laughter, but underneath that is a sense of generosity and mutual trust that is mysteriously profound. Get there if you can.

Picture: Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sunstruck, by Helen Herbertson (devisor, director, sound concept) and Ben Cobham (design and lighting). Soundscape by Livia Ruzic. Performed by Trevor Patrick and Nick Sommerville, musicians Tamil Rogeron and Tim Blake. Dance Massive, Arts House North Melbourne Town Hall, closed.

NOWNOWNOW, choregraphed by Luke George. Design by Bejamin Cisterne, dramaturgy by Martyn Coutts, costumes by Ede Strong and cast, music by Glass Candy. With Kristy Ayre, Timothy Harvey and Luke George. Dance Massive, Dancehouse until March 20.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Dance Massive: Connected

You know, I thought that Melbourne was a small city, just the right size for a cultural grasshopper like Ms TN. Unlike the seething metropolises of London or Paris, it seemed to me that in Melbourne a keen observer would be able to see most of the interesting performance on offer, or at least a good proportion. Lately, I've been revising this view. 2011 is full-on already, and no one can keep up. Least of all me, but that's another story.

Dance Massive, which began humbly enough as a small and exciting festival only a couple of years ago, highlights this energy vividly. Operating across three venues - the Malthouse, North Melbourne Arts House and Dancehouse - it's rapidly grown to be the biggest dance festival in Australia, with a program featuring a cross-section of the most interesting dancers and choreographers around. Some events, like Michelle Heaven's strange fairytale Disagreeable Object (review here) or Helen Herbertson's exquisite Sunstruck, of which more later, are return seasons; others, like Gideon Obarzanek's Connected, are lavish world premieres. What the festival as a whole demonstrates is the rich cross-fertilisation of dance and theatre cultures that characterises the best of Australian performance.

Connected, a collaboration with Californian kinetic sculptor Reuben Margolin, is the first work of Obarzanek's final year as artistic director of Chunky Move. Certainly it's been highly anticipated: the buzz on opening night at the Malthouse Theatre was palpable. It left me exhilarated, perhaps a little intoxicated. Connected combines mathematical and human complexities in a work of dance that pulls simultaneously on an almost Platonic idea of beauty and mundane human reality. At its core is the question of relationship: the relationships expressed in complex sciences, for example, which examine dynamic phenomena like flocking or cloud formation, or economic relationships, or the relationship between lovers. The only word I can think of is Rilkean.

A few years ago I wrote an essay on Rilke for the English poetry magazine Agenda, which traced some of the qualities that attracted me in my attempts to translate his great sequence, The Duino Elegies. Forgive me for quoting at length, but almost everything I said about Rilke seems to me to be at work in Connected:

The turbulent currents that make the Elegies so enthralling are generated by the dynamic contradictions of a mind acutely conscious of its own movements. There is nothing static in the Duino Elegies: direction, velocity, is all. This is why it is such a mistake to read them as if Rilke were dispensing philosophy, as if a meaning can be accurately paraphrased away from the texture of the language itself. Rilke is not a philosopher, still less a sage: he is a poet. The poems are not “about” life: rather, they are a startling mimesis of its instability and transience.

In my struggle to translate these poems, which seems to have taken longer than it did for Rilke to write them, one thing has come very much to the foreground. The intractability of some lines or images, their often stubborn refusal to resolve into a clarity that I knew existed within the most difficult or obscure of them, depended to a crucial extent on my comprehension of the spatial relations within them. The relationship between the poems’ elements is fluid and in constant motion: everything is above, below, before, behind, within, without. Things and people leave and arrive, approach and depart, climb over or vanish behind each other, restrain or release each other. Every surface is permeable, every physical or psychic state in a process of flux. Even matter itself exists in state of dynamic transformation: Rilke makes you constantly aware of its weight or lightness, its viscosity or airiness or solidity. This stanza, from The Second Elegy, is not untypical:

For we, when we feel, evaporate; ah, we
breathe ourselves out and away; from ember to ember
giving a fainter smell. Here perhaps someone might say
yes, you enter my blood, this room, the spring
feels itself with you ... it’s no use, he can’t hold us,
we dwindle in and around him. And those who are beautiful,
who who holds them back? Appearance continuously
enters and leaves their gaze. As dew on the early grass
what is ours rises from us, as the heat off a
steaming dish. O smile, where do you go? O upturned glance:
new, warm, vanishing wave of hearts -;
alas, that’s what we are. Does the universe
in which we dissolve, taste of us? Do angels capture
only their realness, streaming towards them,
or sometimes, in error, a little
of our being? Are we only diffused
in their features, like a vagueness in the gaze
of pregnant women? Unremarked in the vortex
of their recoil to themselves. (How should they remark it.)

The complexity of the transitions here is not merely a question of the supple turning of the metaphor of feeling as an evaporation of the self. Rilke is constantly interrupting himself, as if – to borrow an image from Mandelstam – a thought in flight evolves in mid-air to something else, in a constant process of improvisation. In this stanza Rilke moves restlessly from an abstract thought to a specific place (“this room”), from first person to third and back again, from an image of dew rising to the domesticity of a hot dish of food; and then, without warning, he flings us into the immense ocean of the cosmos, where the faint traces of our felt life are absorbed into the dynamic vortex of angelic being.

Later, which is also important in relation to Connected, I remarked that "the maelstrom of Rilke’s longing holds in its still centre the world of concrete, material reality. He leaves us in the middle of our ordinary lives, as human, mortal and full of yearning as we ever were, but momentarily transfigured..."

Obarzanek is doing something similar here, but with dance rather than poetry. Connected has the same sense of continuous evolution, of dynamic movement and transformation, of shifting focus from the mundane and concrete to the cosmic. At its heart is Margolin's dynamic sculpture, which we first encounter in stillness as we enter the theatre: it looks like an idealised loom, with countless threads threaded through a system of pulleys and suspended in exquisite order over the otherwise bare stage. At their base, the strings are connected by strips that create a fluid, dynamic shape that can be manipulated by a machine or by the dancers.

This is certainly a beautiful object, one you'd examine with great interest should you encounter it in a gallery. Like the dance itself, it has four phases: at first, as the dancers enter the space, it is backdrop, a construction that the dancers are are still making in the background; then it becomes an expressive extension of the dancers' bodies; then it becomes, baldly and crudely, an artwork in a gallery, a valuable commodity; finally, it is an autonomous movement, a dynamic wave that, like the natural world, is not us.

The dance begins at a high pitch of energy: pulsing electric percussion (Oren Ambarchi and Robin Fox) slams us into a world of human geometries meeting, separating, writhing through each other, in a series of duets and trios. The performers who are not dancing stand under the sculpture, linking the string with magnetic strips, completing its construction before our eyes. In the next sequence, four of the five dancers are linked to the strings, bringing the sculpture alive: each movement a dancer makes is amplified in the shapes of the sculpture, creating some of the most beautiful moments in the dance.

This sequence culminates in an extraordinary duet between Marnie Palomares and Alisdair Macindoe: Macindoe remains the only dancer connected to the sculpture, his movements slowed by its weight as if he is walking in a high wind, while Palomares, a free agent, embraces him, moving away. As she walks under the sculpture that Macindoe controls, it lowers towards her or ripples to embrace her, a delicate mimesis of making love.

The third phase is in abrupt, even jarring contrast. Now the sculpture is hooked to a machine, so it is in constant mechanical motion, but stripped of the complexity of human movement: it immediately becomes an object, without the aliveness that marked the previous dance. Here the dancers are dressed as security officers. Obarzanek has recorded interviews with gallery guards, and their various statements are spoken, mostly as recordings, by actors. They are bored, they are interested, they are funny: they are doing their jobs. This is part of the unnoticed labour that surrounds art: the people who spend all day at galleries ensuring the security of the valued object. It's here that the question - what is art? what can it mean? - becomes palpable.

For me, this sequence grounded the work, placing the details of people's lives in direct relationship to its other expressions. For the fact is that art exists first of all in these mundane relationships, and would have no meaning at all if it didn't. And it's here that the desire in the work also becomes palpable: as its title indicates, what matters here is connection. And the connection it seeks is with those who encounter it, with us who are in the audience and beyond. This longing for relationship infuses the feeling of the entire work.

There is nowhere else to go from here but further into dance itself; the curse and blessing of all art is that it can ultimately have no justification except itself. The final sequence is not so much an answer as another question, the dancers recalling Grecian friezes, echoing all the way back to the beginnings of western culture, as the inscrutable object behind them ripples and flows. The music is an intensifying pulse that builds up to a gasp-inducing finale in which the human and the non-human create a deeply moving harmony. I thought Connected an astonishing work: it has the beauty of sheer intelligence made manifest, but its abstractions never forget the humility of human physicality, ours as well as the dancers, the body in its raw presence. Not to be missed.

Connected, directed and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek. Sculpture by Reuben Margolin, music composed by Oren Ambarchi and Robin Fox, lighting design by Banjamin Cisterne, costumes designed by Anna Cordingley. Performed by Stephanie Lake, Alisdair Macindoe, Marnie Palomares, Harriet Ritchie and Joseph Symons. Chunky Move and Malthouse Theatre, Dance Massive, Malthouse Theatre. Until March 20. Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney, until May 14.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011


Ms TN has been having one of those curiously pointless fortnights that are the special purgatory of writers. Today, as I was attempting to gather my wits from the dark corners where they have skittered like so many cockroaches, a fortuitous parcel in today's mail prompted me to post this contribution from Daniel Keene. It amused me, and I thought it may amuse some of you.

The parcel contained a slim book, a collection of "literary games" that were written as a gift for Jean-Pierre Engelbach, the founder of Daniel's French publisher, Editions Théâtrales, when he retired last month. A number of Théâtrales playwrights were asked to respond to a line from Peter Hacks's play Conversation chez les Stein sur Monsieur de Goethe, absent, one of Théâtrales' first books. The line was: Oh mon Dieu, pourquoi tout nous est-il à tous tellement trop difficile? which means, Oh my God, why is everything so difficult for all of us?

Théâtrales, the second biggest theatrical publisher in France, boasts an impressive list of contemporary playwrights, including Frank McGuinness, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Howard Barker, Athol Fugard, Sergei Belbel, Roland Fichet and countless others. Théâtrales has published 10 books of Daniel's plays over the past decade, all translated by Séverine Magois, adding up to 34 plays in all.

The tributes were performed at Engelbach's retirement celebration last month, at the Théâtre de l'Aquarium at La Cartoucherie (which is the home also of Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Théâtre du Soleil), and were published in a privately printed book for the occasion. This is Daniel's contribution.


Report To The Academy

(with apologies to Mister F. Kafka)

Honoured members of the Academy!

You have done me the honour of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as a playwright.

Since my release from the Asylum I have given little thought to those wild and sometimes pleasant days. In fact the various medications I have been prescribed make it almost impossible to remember them with any certainty. I have been assured by my doctors that this chemically induced amnesia is for my own good. But fragments of my past remain embedded in my mind, like shards of glass. And there are of course my various physical ailments, all of which can be directly attributed to my work as a playwright. These I can do nothing about and must live with them until death releases me.

The first among my ailments is my partial deafness. This, according to my doctors, is what is called a Voluntary Affliction. It seems that from years of not listening to the advice and / or protestations of the theatre directors with whom I had the good fortune to collaborate, my inattention became automatic whenever I encountered one. This automatic inattention, often confused with indifference or simple bad manners (of which I hope I could never be accused), while at first a simple matter of attitude, slowly took on a physical manifestation. My ears, as it were, became as narrow as my opinions. I am still able to hear actors quite clearly, especially when they cannot accurately remember the lines I have written for them to speak, and the applause of an audience, however meagre, literally thunders in my eardrums. But, to my shame, directors I cannot hear. I know that there are some very fine human beings among them, whose words I may find a comfort or the source of inspiration, but I am condemned to watch them drift around me, as silent as fish.

The second among the physical trials which I must endure is my Visual Schizophrenia. This was caused by years and years of trying to look at two things at once: what I had written and what was happening on the stage, which were often, to my mind at least, two very, very different things. This affliction has caused me no end of trouble, as I cannot look at anything without wondering what it might have been. To me a goat, for example, might well have been a bicycle, or a tree a tri-cornered hat. I am not blind, but I might as well be; I see everything quite clearly, but I see nothing as it really is.

My hunched back can be easily understood as the result of years spent bent over a desk; my lack of any sense of direction as the result of endlessly worrying about whether or not to write stage directions from the point of view of the audience or the characters on stage; my habit of constantly walking into walls is due to the fact that for me the fourth wall in any room is invisible.

As you can imagine, the combination of all of these ailments makes my life very difficult. In public I am a nuisance, having no idea whatsoever of where I’m going, a lurching, misshapen creature, hard of hearing, half blind and crashing into walls.

My only consolation is that no one knows who I am.

I remember once standing in the foyer of a theatre where one of my plays was being performed in Sydney, Australia. It was interval and there was quite a crowd. Standing next to me, two audience members were reading through the program. They came to a photograph of the playwright.

‘So that’s what he looks like. I thought he was much older,' said the first.

‘Yes, that’s him,' said the second.

I leaned a little closer, thinking that they might notice my presence. After all, why shouldn’t I talk to them? I would have liked to ask them what they thought of the play. Why shouldn’t a playwright speak to his audience?

‘He lives in France now. He’s lived there for years,' said the first.

‘I heard that he had died there,' said the second.

‘Really? What a shame,' said the first. ‘He looks like such a nice man. Playwrights are usually such awful people.’

Honoured members, there is little more for me to say. I live a quiet life now, far from the bright lights, the bustle and excitement of the stage, as content as I can be. I still attend the theatre occasionally, an anonymous member of the audience, sitting in the back row of the auditorium, still able to marvel at the invention, the grace and the energy of the art that was once my love and my home and that has left me the deformed wreck that I am today.

I must leave you now as it’s time for my medication.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Daniel Keene
February, 2011

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Monday, March 07, 2011

Review: The End, The Dream Life of Butterflies

The catastrophe of the body is never far away in Samuel Beckett's writing. Mortal, decaying, risible, smelly, full of inconvenient humours and vapours and needs, the human body steps forward in all its poignant obscenity. It's the eternal answer to human hubris, a tube of flesh which serves only to transform nutrition into dung. So too in The End, one of several novellas Beckett wrote in the 1940s that presage, in theme and often in phrase, many of the later works that generated his fame.

Written with Beckett's characteristic stylistic parsimony, The End is an exquisite work of prose. It's clearly an earlier work, since it permits itself flourishes - notably a subtext of Christian symbolism - that Beckett pared down in his later work. It shouldn't be surprising that this first person monologue translates into stunning theatre, but somehow it is: Beckett is such a purist of form that his prose gives the impression of needing nothing except the page and a reader to generate its full imaginative life. What could a performer add to this?

Robert Menzies provides one answer in this gem of a production at the Malthouse, not so much adding to Beckett as embodying Beckett's story for us. Directed with perfectly judged restraint by Eamon Flack, there is nothing here aside from the performer, the words and the dimensions of the stage. This is theatre stripped to its most essential, radiating a sternly focused power, which beautifully folds the exposure of performance into the emotional duress of Beckett's story.

The set (there is no design credit aside from the lighting, and the set was reportedly posted to Menzies) consists of a wall with a door in it and a floor on which there is marked a cross in white tape. At the beginning, Menzies enters through the door and slowly, with a sense of loathing and reluctance, makes his way to the cross and places his feet on it. Once he is on the cross, he expressionlessly examines his audience, those who have come to witness his crucifixion: at last, he speaks. Teegan Lee's minimal lighting design - there are, I think, four cues in all - shapes the space around him, at once imprisoning and exposing the actor, and at last creating a darkness without perspective in which Beckett's ghost flickers and vanishes.

The story he tells is of the adventures of a homeless man who has fallen from better days. He tells us of his peregrinations after he is thrown out of a charitable hostel, in a suit that is too small for him, his own clothes having been burnt. He has a bowler hat, a tie, "blue, with kinds of little stars", a small amount of money. He knows that "the end was near, at least fairly near". He drifts through the city, recounting his various places of lodging; he is cheated by a dishonest landlady; he sits by a horse trough. He encounters his son, a businessman in the city and an "insufferable son of a bitch". He meets a man he had known "in former times", who lives in a cave and offers him shelter. Like Christ, he exits the city on an ass, but instead of celebration he is greeted by small boys throwing stones.

Unable to stay in a single place for any length of time, Beckett's anti-hero ends up living in a shed in the back of a grand house, hiding in a boat he has adapted to keep out rats, and begging for a living. The story finishes with a vision of his floating downstream into the sea, crushed by the hugeness of the natural world, "the sea, the sky, the mountains and the islands", and "then scattered to the uttermost confines of space".

As well as its subtextual Christ, the story echoes an ancient Irish poem, Buile Suibhne (The Madness of Sweeney), which recounts the travail of an Irish King who is cursed with insanity. Crazy with fear, he can't stay in a single spot but leaps from place to place in the wild "like a bird", homeless and lost, and at last is killed by a cowherd as he is "eating his meal out of the cowdung". As the poem says, "Wretched is the life of one homeless, / sad is the life, O fair Christ!" In The End, Beckett transforms this abject mythical figure into its contemporary version: a filthy, half-mad homeless man, eking out the tiny details of his life invisibly on the edge of society.

Which is no more than to say that although this is a short work, it encompasses whole worlds. Menzies' performance brings every nuance of this story into present life: its tragedy, its beauty, its obscenity, its humour. Most of the time the lighting focuses on his face and his hands, which are almost cruelly expressive. The performance gradually builds up to the desolate beauty of its finale, attentive to the crucial detail of each moment: it's Menzies at his unafraid best, straddling both grandeur and humility, pity and revulsion. Unmissable theatre.

It's perhaps unfortunate that I saw The Dream Life of Butterflies, the new play by Raimondo Cortese that opens the MTC's 2011 Studio season, the following night. It certainly suffers in direct comparison: another example of minimal theatre, this production demonstrates what happens when a text exposed to the demands of performance lacks the largeness and profundity of Beckett. Well, we can't all be Beckett, and life would be very dull if we were.

Still, it's a long time since I was this bored in a theatre. I don't have a long acquaintance with Cortese's work: the first thing I saw was Ranter's Holiday in 2007, which I liked very much indeed on both viewings. Holiday gave us two men (Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt) who encounter each other at a resort. They are strangers, they don't know each other at all, and their conversation consists of inconsequential ramblings, punctuated by a cappella baroque songs. I thought this exquisite, buoyant theatre that beautifully exposed the fragility of human relationship.

The next was Affection, at the Arts Centre, which featured friends on a couch, making inconsequential conversation. I thought this didn't work so well: where this conceit worked brilliantly between strangers, it lacked nuance and fire when it came to expressing relationship. I had similar reservations about Ranter's offering for the Melbourne Festival last year, Intimacy, which seemed to me even more mannered. Cortese, I felt, was in a stylistic rut; so I was curious to see what he did when he was working purely as a playwright, away from his collaborative ventures with Ranters.

Well, The Dream Life of Butterflies is about two sisters, Vanessa (Natasha Herbet) and Zelda (Margaret Mills). They sit around, on benches this time, making inconsequential conversation. The difference here is that underneath this inconsequential conversation there is a plot: these sisters are reunited after a long estrangement, and we gradually get to hear about their lives, the reasons for Vanessa's long unexplained absence, and that Zelda has been raising Vanessa's son during her absence. There is a lot of affable smiling, pace Lum and Moffatt, a lot of idle chit chat that (I suppose) reveals the distances between these sisters as well as their desire to renew their relationship. Anastasia Russell-Head introduces the three acts of the play with some baroque music on a harpsichord, again reflecting the Ranters productions, although I couldn't really work out why.

The story that emerges is as banal as the dialogue which reveals it, and there's no chance here of communicating the woundedness we are presumably supposed to feel. The Dream Life of Butterflies seems like a marriage of avant garde theatre and mainstream "well-made" plays that turn on emotional revelation for their power, taking the worst of both worlds and placing them in a universe of edgeless tedium. The play runs mercilessly along the same catatonic rhythm for more than 90 minutes, with never a variation.

Cortese has a weirdly Tourettian idea about what subtext is: he seems to think it has independent life that goes on underneath spoken language, like an underground river that bears no relationship at all to the exposed geography above-ground, with occasional eruptions into bald statement. More interestingly (as in, say, Pinter's or Mamet's plays) subtext works as a complex disturbance of conscious language, a retreating and gathering of meaning that intensifies its complexity and significance as the surface action evolves. Silence isn't simply space that must be filled up with a bland narrative.

I certainly don't understand Cortese's one-size-fits-all aesthetic. If this is supposed to be uber-naturalism, I couldn't believe the characters, who seemed like automata, and I didn't believe the plot, and I certainly didn't believe the end. Perhaps it's a sophisticated joke on us all, but I missed the punchline.

I can't blame the performers, who both shaped what they could out of this strangely emotionless text. And Marg Horwell's set frames the performances with stylish cool. I think director Heather Bolton's decision to do a Ranters on the play is a mistake, because it heightens the imaginative poverties of this text; but on the other hand, it's hard to know what else she might have done with such excruciatingly mannered dialogue. Deeply puzzled on this one.

Picture: Robert Menzies in The End. Photo: Jeff Busby

The End, by Samuel Beckett, directed by Eamon Flack. Lighting design by Teegan Lee, stage manager Bec Allen. Performed by Robert Menzies. Belvoir St production, Malthouse Theatre. Until March 11.

The Dream Life of Butterflies, by Raimondo Cortese, directed by Heather Bolton. Set and costumes by Marg Horwell, lighting design by Jenny Hector, stage manager Julia Smith. Lawler Studio @ MTC Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company until April 2.

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Well, how about that

Quick pointer this morning to Peter Craven's latest peroration on the Evils of Postmodernity in this morning's Age. Which gives me an excuse to mention the recent announcement of Brett Sheehy's appointment, after months of feverish speculation, as the new artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company. Sheehy's appointment was certainly a surprise to most of us, but it's been warmly welcomed: his solid background as literary manager for the Sydney Theatre Company and artistic director of some of our major festivals means that he brings to the job both a proven talent for fund-raising and a wide appreciation of theatre (including, clearly, "text-based theatre": after all, Sheehy was responsible for programming Daniel Keene's Life Without Me, which Craven liked so much, as part of MIAF). And it suggests a welcome opening of the horizons for the MTC, perhaps modelling itself on the diversity that the STC has been exploring with such success over the past few years.

What Sheehy has never been accused of, until now, is radicalism. Craven expresses alarm that Sheehy's appointment might spell doom for "traditional theatre" and the "well-made play": he claims that "this appointment is remarkably consonant with a world where the recently appointed head of Belvoir Theatre in Sydney, Ralph Myers, is a designer and where the wing of the Sydney Theatre Company most articulately represented by Tom Wright is ambivalent about the viability of what gets referred to as text-based drama". And he makes a forlorn plea for Sheehy to renounce the "smoke and mirrors of post modern moves" and retain "a faith in the play as the thing". Frankly, the only smoke and mirrors here is Craven's argument: straw men are flying in the wind like nobody's business. Still, an amusing start to the week.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

Brief: The Wau Wau Sisters' Last Supper

The Famous Spiegeltent is back in its cosy niche in the Victorian Arts Centre forecourt, lighting up the grey environs with a pleasurable sense of liveliness and long queues. Beside the Spiegeltent itself, that beautiful remnant of the Weimar Republic where Marlene Dietrich herself once performed, there's an ancillary flotilla called the Spiegel Garden: an old W-class tram has been done up as a bar, which is surrounded by scattered chairs and tables. I can't think of a better place to spend a mild autumn evening.

This week the star attraction has been New York City's Wau Wau Sisters (Adrienne Truscott and Tanya Gagne), a wickedly funny double act that stirs burlesque, acrobatics and cabaret into an evening of full-on anarchy. Audience participation is part of the act, so be warned: I generally dislike it, since it is so often about humiliating audience members, but here it's done with such good-humoured sexiness that it becomes an invitation for the whole audience to be part of the show.

The show begins with some naughty hijinks performed to the famous Benny Hill music. It sets both the tone - "we're not just dirty," they tell us, "we're filthy!" - as well as what I'll call, for the sake of this review, its argument. Like the best of their burlesque sisters, they are the feminist answer to Benny Hill: the Wau Wau Sisters are the centre of attention, not decoration with boobs. They have all the punchlines, they control the audience, and they are unapologetically out-there polymorphous sex.

As the show's title suggests, there's a few shots at religion (their first act is a schoolgirl routine which they claim had them thrown out of their Catholic school). A lot of the fun here is about dressing up - they throw on their different costumes in front of us, both on stage and among the audience, and the audience members who are inveigled into their mayhem end up wearing all their costumes, as well as a couple of men who find themselves being unlikely fauns, complete with horns and hairy flanks.

As with much contemporary cabaret, it's all performed on the edge of collapse: the show generates the feeling that anything could happen, and that it could all go wrong, but doesn't. Truscott and Gagne are completely fearless performers, and the crowd just goes with them. They interleave their banter with songs and acrobatics, sometimes doing both at once: a highlight is a truly impressive aerial act in which they scramble about the trapeze at high speed, which is so well-coordinated that they seem like two halves of one body. There's a lot of art about this apparent anarchy. This is definitely an adult show, with red lights on nudity and foul language, so not for the easily offended. But for sheer, joyous fun it's hard to beat.

Picture: The Wau Wau Sisters doing a little bit of count-ry.

The Wau Wau Sisters's Last Supper, The Famous Spiegeltent, Victorian Arts Centre. Until March 6.

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