Review: Die Winterreise, UndineReview: HamletReview: Small OdysseysMelbourne Festival: here we goForm, content, feeling, perception, knowledgeReview: The Burlesque Hour Loves Melbourne ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: Die Winterreise, Undine

For the first ten minutes or so, I was completely transfixed by Matthew Lutton's theatrical extrapolation of Schubert's late song cycle, Die Winterreise. It is a beautiful idea: the juxtaposition of some of Schubert's most sublime lieder with the experience of a man listening to them in the most mundane of settings. Die Winterreise, set to a poem cycle by Wilhelm Müller, is one of the most emotionally potent works of the Romantic era: its stripped simplicity, lone voice and piano, exposes a raw nerve of feeling which has never dated.

The production begins with the audience looking into profound darkness: it's a black curtain which absorbs all light. This opens to reveal Adam Gardnir's set, a room of astounding shabbiness, recreated in every hyper-real detail, on what is clearly a stiflingly hot summer day. It's a loungeroom dating from about the 1960s, with sliding glass doors at the back, sash windows on either side, a galley kitchen. The walls are moldy, the windows opaque with filth. It speaks of neglect and loneliness: every object, from the lamps to the fan to the kitchen, is old, mismatched, falling apart.

An old man (George Shevtsov) is cooking his dinner, and we can smell the onions frying. The sounds of chopping are amplified, and we begin to understand that this is a subjective reality. He fussily arranges a lace cloth on the table, and puts a vinyl on his stereo. Through the crackles, we hear it is a recording of Schubert. Outside the sliding doors is another kind of space altogether: a continual shower of green foil suggests this is an imagined place. It's a potent image; even if shiny foil is practically copyrighted by Benedict Andrews, and perilous to use, this creates an immediate frisson of strangeness.

A man (Paul Capsis) suddenly appears outside the doors like a ghost and enters the room. Then another (pianist Alister Spence) and, later, another (dancer James O'Hara). As live performance overtakes the recording, Capsis sings the first of the songs while Shevtsov goes about his domestic business. And so the excavation of memory and grief begins.

The danger of directly invoking emotion is, of course, that it can veer into sentimentality, which is the crude obscuring of feeling, rather than its articulation. Die Winterreise, for all its notation of a young man's hopeless love and his subsequent wanderings through a winter landscape, is far from a sentimental work. Alas, this can't be said of Lutton's production, which topples headlong into the trap.

I think the problem begins with the conception: why make this work, so much a young man's composition (it was written shortly before Schubert died at the age of 31) an exploration of old age? We are given a parallel narrative which ends up grasping at the obvious: the mundane and potentially profound experiences of aging and loneliness are explained for us as past trauma. If the production had found the balance between emotional extremity and simple ordinariness of Müller's poems, it might have been riveting: I'm thinking here of something like the devastating simplicity of Franz Xaver Kroetz's short play Request Concert. But that would have required a steady gaze.

For all its musical drama, Die Winterreise is not a dramatic work, and you can't but feel that Lutton overcompensates. On stage, the drama is provided by three earlier selves summoned by the music, each expressive in different artforms: music, song and dance. As is my wont, I'd not read the director's note beforehand, and I found this very unclear: following the lyrics of the songs, I was under the impression for much of the show that the dancer (James O'Hara) was a former lover, rather than a former self. At another point, I thought that Shevtsov was dying of a heart attack. Which would have been okay, except that he wasn't, and I was forced to conclude that he was having some kind of melodramatic crisis instead.

Chrissie Parrot's choreography, however beautifully danced, mostly felt unintegrated with the rest of the production, except in one sequence that shifted from its earlier enactments of neurotic physicalities to a more lyrical expression. One of the more puzzling aspects is Capsis's performance. He sang two of these songs for Barrie Kosky's production of The Lost Echo (and recorded Irrlicht for his album Everybody Wants to Touch Me). I've seen him perform Schubert live before, and can attest to the electric power he can bring to this music. Yet here he seems physically and vocally lost and, despite their being sung in English, the songs lose some of their resonance. Although I confess Capsis's rendition of Irrlicht (Will o'the Wisp), in which the singer declares that all sorrows have an end, still left me in tears.

Perhaps the worst misjudgment is the introduction of an explanatory text, written by Tom Holloway, just before the end. Here the emotional hamfistedness of the production becomes very clear indeed. This monologue lets us in on the story that has informed the previous actions; it is (of course) a traumatic experience of loss, probably during Word War 2, probably in Germany. Suddenly Die Winterreise is enclosed in literalism, which shuts down its emotional openness and metaphorical resonance.

All these seem to me to be errors of feeling, a lack of the emotional accuracy which makes Schubert's songs so powerful. And it's made the more egregious by the promise this show holds. All aspects of its design - lighting, sound design, set - are superb. There are moments of real beauty: perhaps the most striking is when snow that is falling outside, invoking the winter journey of the songs, begins to fall inside the house. But the whole is much less than the sum of its parts.

If you want to see contemporary Romanticism at work in the theatre, you're better off scoring a ticket to Undine, the latest show by those resolutely indie theatre makers Four Larks. This takes place in a big back shed in Brunswick, not far from Moreland Station: you meet at a designated street corner before you are guided through an alleyway to the back of a house, where you are served mulled wine. Which, on the wintry night I attended, was mighty welcome.

Like Die Winterreise, Undine is show driven by music. It draws on a plethora of folk tales and literature which tells of a man falling in love with a water spirit, a theme drawn on by writers from Friedrich de la Motte Fouque (who wrote the major inspiration behind this show) to Hans Christian Anderson to Oscar Wilde. Here an unnamed composer - who is played by three actors (Ben Pfeiffer, Luke Jacka and Paul Bourke) - finds a mute, half-drowned woman (Karen Sibbing) by the edge of the sea, and brings her home. They fall in love, and so the stranger gains both a soul and a voice, until the composer's obsession with his music drives her back to the sea.

This simple story is delivered in a sensual avalanche of music and visuals. The set, designed by Sebastian Peters Lazaro and Ellen Strasser, is extraordinary: it's a detailed domestic interior festooned with pages of music, drenched in an amber light, through one wall of which we can see the band. There is, as one might expect liberal use of water, both as a sound and as a visual cue: it rains from the ceiling, it splashes out of baths and tubs.

The entire play is scored by writer and director Mat Diafos Sweeney (lyrics by co-director Jesse Rasmussen) and the text is delivered almost in the manner of song. The effect is rather as if one of Joanna Newsom's longer narrative songs were transformed into theatre: it has the same kind of tumbling, over the top imagery, the same heightened energy. There is even a harp. The show strikes an emotional pitch very early on and maintains it all the way through, with inventive staging (there's an extremely ingenious reveal) and concentrated performances.

If there's a criticism, it's in the show's uncritical acceptance of the Romantic feminine, the soulless elemental that at once inspires and destroys the male artist: you feel that work this intelligent ought to be a little more self aware. But that's a quibble after the fact. It's a signal step forward from the last production I saw, Peer Gynt, which had an air of theatrical naivety this one doesn't possess. It's exciting to see this company so confidently developing its own theatrical language. Certainly, no one in Melbourne is making theatre quite like this.

Die Winterreise, featuring songs by Franz Schubert, conceived and directed by Matt Lutton. Original text by Tom Holloway. Choreography by Chrissie Parrott, set and costumes by Adam Gardnir, original composition and sound design by Kelly Ryall, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Paul Capsis, James O'Hara, George Shvtsov and Alister Spence. Malthouse Theatre and ThinIce, Merlyn Theatre until July 31.

Undine, written and directed by Mat Diafos Sweeney and Jesse Rasmussen, Movement direction by Sebastian Peter-Lazaro. Set by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro and Ellem Starsser, lighting feisng by Nicola Andrews and Tom Willis, costumes by Mallory Gross. Musicians: Adam Casey, Genevieve Fry, Caleb Latreille, Esala Liyonage, Prudence Rees-Lee, Lisa Salvo and Mat Diafos Sweeney. Performed by Ben Pfeiffer, Luke Jacka, Paul Bourke and Karen Sibbing. Singer: Linsday Cooper. Four Larks Theatre until July 30. Bookings: 0423 863 336.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: Hamlet

Back in another age, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a copygirl in the Finance section of that long-gone afternoon daily the Melbourne Herald, I found myself unexpectedly fascinated by the captains of industry. In another life, I might have become a finance reporter. The Alan Bonds, Rupert Murdochs and Robert Holmes à Courts of that time, ruthless accumulators of wealth, power and privilege, were, I realised, our equivalents of the princes of the Renaissance.

Since then, we've entered an age of increasingly volatile hyper-capitalism in which corporate power has swollen monstrously to become the major global influence, eclipsing national governments in its power and reach. Many corporations have bigger revenues than entire countries: the giant US corporation Wal-Mart, for instance, has revenues equivalent to the GDP of New Zealand. And this has had a catastrophic influence on our politics (the News International meltdown in Britain is only one, obvious example: remember Tony Blair and Britain's defence industry?) and even more sobering implications for the future of the planet.

It's this background that makes Simon Phillips's corporate interpretations of Shakespeare so compellingly lucid. As the great critic Jan Kott elaborated, Shakespeare is the theatrical chronicler non pareil of the revolutions of power: and Phillips correctly locates contemporary power in the boardrooms and designer mansions of the filthy rich. His superb Richard III pulled on familiar techniques of propaganda and media spin, the political theatre of appearance, to generate a portrait of the deceptive glamour of tyranny. And now, with Ewen Leslie again in the leading role, he's turned his attention to one of the great tragedies.

Directed and performed with a brutal clarity, this production of Hamlet is a riveting evolution from Richard III. It gleams with Phillips's theatrical deftness, which is reflected in the sardonic wit of the prince; you can be sure that Shakespeare's comedy is well-buffed here. As in Richard III, but with more art, Phillips has ingeniously folded technology - mobile phones, iPods, laptops - into the action, so that the anachronisms create a stage language that places us simultaneously in the present and Shakespeare's past. His solution to the fight-scene in the final act is in fact a blindingly obvious stroke of genius.

But crucially, for all its cleverness, this production doesn't flinch from the darker aspects of the play. The world of the Danish court, with its murderous competitiveness, deception and surveillance, is brought unsettlingly into the present. Although the details of war are mostly excised, we are always conscious that it stirs in the shadows. This production brings to the fore Shakespeare's unillusioned examination of the brutality of power, and the foul dust floating in the wake of its dreams.

Hamlet is arguably the ur-play of modernity: as countless critics have said, in the figure of Hamlet, feudal notions of power and honour clash with modern introspection and self-consciousness. Many contemporary productions dispense, as Phillips has here, with the role of Fortinbras, making it a effectively a family drama, and also, not incidentally, removing the hopeful horizon of a return to order: the play finishes with the corpses.

One of the best Hamlets I've seen is Richard Pyros, in an astounding 2004 production performed in a shopfront in Northcote: he played Hamlet, as I said at the time, as a contemporary romantic, "at once sensuous and full of loathing, raging against the mortal trappings of his flesh", in the claustrophobic politics of a toxic family. In Phillips's Hamlet, by contrast, we are always aware of money and power: the prince is a scion of a toxic house, a son usurped of his inheritance.

Pyros's Hamlet, with Horatio as his hand-puppet, was mad from the beginning, a man locked in an existential crisis. Leslie's is a rational prince, at first playing at madness and at different points plunged into its outreaches, without ever quite succumbing to its escape. His madness is all act, and contrasts with the heartbreakingly real breakdown of Ophelia (Eryn Jean Norvill), one of the high points of this production. This interpretation makes the final conflict between Laertes (Tim Ross) and Hamlet, and Laertes's sudden doubt of his revenge, deeply moving, because Hamlet is unambiguously in his right mind; and it gives weight and meaning to Horatio's (Grant Cartwright) loyalty. Power here is an abstraction, like capital itself, which infects every relationship with fatal ambiguities: the single exception is Hamlet's friendship with Horatio.

If you like, this is an anti-Romantic Hamlet, a man broken by the impotence of his rationality, rather than by his excessive sensibility. He becomes a reflection of contemporary powerlessness, intelligently aware of what is rotten in the state of Denmark, and yet unable to act against it. The machineries of power, like those of tragedy, have their own force and logic, so even those who think they control it, as Claudius does, become its victim. It's impossible to watch this production and not think of Rupert Murdoch.

Shaun Gurton's set, a revolving maze of glass walls, is extraordinary: its abstract lines recall Benedict Andrews's obsession with windows and reflections, and with Nick Schlieper's lighting, permits a continuous shifting of perspective, with backlit glimpses behind the walls of other characters, or a sense of endless corridors that open into public or private spaces. The action moves swiftly from the sumptuous interiors of the rich to desolate vignettes showing the shabbiness or waste behind the luxury: Hamlet, for example, interrogates the ghost of his father (Robert Menzies) in a pile of rubbish, next to an overturned wheelie bin.

My one real criticism of the production is the sound design: there's clever use of amplification, necessary when the scenes are behind walls, but the blaring pop music was overdone, without adding anything much, and there were those creeping strings climbing up behind the scenes to indicate a Significant Moment which can be a bit of a curse in MTC shows.

As with Richard III, its success ultimately comes down to the performances of a strong cast. Leslie's Hamlet is an intelligently modulated performance: in the first half, his performance seemed oddly constrained to me, but after interval the constraint morphed into a finely judged restraint, in which passion and extremity throb beneath an increasingly distrait surface, as Hamlet begins to realise his true impotence against the powers that entrap him. Norvill's fractured Ophelia, clutching her box of precious objects, is the revelation of this show: Ophelia is not a big role, but it is critical, and very easy to get embarrassingly wrong. Norvill gives us not the melodrama of madness, but its tragic, mundane truth.

Grant Cartwright is an appealing Horatio: his friendship with Hamlet becomes perhaps the pivotal relationship in the play, the one true element in a world of masks and deception. Robert Menzies is at his actorly best as the Player King and is wholly compelling as the Ghost, bringing shades of Beckett to this desolate soul condemned to Purgatory. John Adams is a convincing Claudius and Garry MacDonald is a classically comic Polonius, with an uneasy edge to his pompous servility: as the eager servant of its corrupt power, he is the character who makes us most uncomfortably aware of the surveillance of the court.

I felt Pamela Rabe was somewhat underused as Gertrude, although her performance is first class as far as it goes. Stern, oddly vulnerable and sensuous, Rabe brings the passion for her son that uneasily underlies the role, although like everyone else she deceives him. Like Ophelia, Gertrude is an object of power, not a subject of it, and this aspect is under-explored. It makes Gertrude strangely static in the second half: she is trapped and damaged by her role, but it has little effect on her.

For all that, this is an excellent main stage production of Hamlet and, in its own way, surprisingly radical. It's a stark vision of the impersonal amorality and destructiveness of power that makes an intense and swift three hours in the theatre. I believe the show is sold out: if you don't have tickets, you'll have to pray that the MTC extends the season.

Pictures: Top: Ewen Leslie (Hamlet) and Robert Menzies (the Ghost); bottom, Leslie and Pamela Rabe. Photos: Jeff Busby

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Simon Phillips. Set by Shaun Gurton, costumes by Esther Marie Hayes, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composer Ian McDonald, choreography by Andrew Hallsworth. With John Adam, Ian Bliss, Jamieson Caldwell, Grant Cartwright, Travis Cotton, Ewen Leslie, Garry McDonald, Robert Menzies, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Eryn Jean Norvill, Pamela Rabe, Tim Ross, Brian Vriends and Lachlan Woods. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until August 31.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: Small Odysseys

Watching Rawcus's superb new production Small Odysseys was an oddly personal experience. For me, it was the psychological equivalent of that optical test in which, when a bright light is shone into your pupil, you see the veins of your own retina. It was as if I was watching a repatterning of some of my peak Melbourne experiences of the past few years: Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées), Bill Viola's The Raft, Ron Mueck's sculptures, the theatre of Romeo Castellucci and Jérôme Bel... even down to a recent book purchase, the haunting and comic urban miniatures of Slinkachu.

If ever there was an argument for the dependence of art on a rich soil, it's this show. It demonstrates how artists are magpies, stealing one idea here, another there, and transforming them into something completely other. Works of collage or bricolage expose this process, but all artists do it. When the original inspirations remain undigested or misunderstood, it produces more-or-less successful pastiche, the merely derivative. The process has to be equal to its sources: when it is, it creates an artwork that absorbs those earlier influences into its own concerns, throwing their illuminations into unexpected contexts. In a sweet synchronicity, I recently quoted the great literary critic Viktor Shklovsky here on just this process: as he says, "Art cognizes by implementing old models in new ways and by creating new ones."

This language of formal and emotional allusion is one of the ways that an artwork signals its ambitions, which is always a risky business: the bigger the ambitions, the bigger the scope for collapse. Small Odysseys makes its claims from its opening moments: this is epic work, seeking to give poetic shape to intimate, inarticulate moments of isolation and loneliness. Director Kate Sulan and her collaborators walk the line to create a dream-like work of theatre which is as deeply felt as it is richly imagined.

Like Back to Back, Rawcus is a company of performers with and without disabilities which collaboratively generates self-devised works. The sense of ensemble is tangible in the rhythms of the work, which are (almost) unfaltering. Perhaps one sequence extends itself too far, but mostly it steps from transformation to transformation in ways that ignite continual slight surprise, loosing time from its moorings. The performance lasts almost exactly an hour, but the concentration it quite voluntarily elicits makes this hour seem both shorter and longer: it passes swiftly, but it seems to traverse whole worlds. Small Odysseys is huge, both literally - it uses the vast perspectives of the Meatmarket stage to full advantage - and emotionally.

Mnouchkine's influence is perhaps the most explicit, and not only in its title: as in Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées), designers Shaun Patten and Emily Barrie employ miniature sets on wheels which are swept over the wide spaces of the stage: small illuminated rooms, in which we witness private moments, or islands, complete with grass, that recall the islands Odysseus visited on his long journey home. As with Mnouchkine's show, these miniature sets create a disconnect between the motion of the set and the performers which is oddly intensifying: more importantly, it generates an increasingly powerful transitoriness, a sense of how human beings exist in vast, indifferent space.

Mnouchkine used this convention to permit the swift telling of complex narratives; here, the fluidity of movement allows the performers to create poetic vignettes, images that invoke emotional states rather than stories. For some reason I can't quite trace, another artist it recalled for me was Paul Klee: maybe it was a strong sense of dream, of incongruities that create their own overwhelming emotional logic.

Mnouchkine is only one of the influences employed here - there are many others. At one point the performers recreate Théodore Géricault's famous Romantic painting, The Raft of the Medusa, the inspiration behind Bill Viola's The Raft, engaging both of the earlier works. There is minimal text - we hear one side of phone conversations, a list of questions about what it means to be lost, one performer singing lustily from the back of the space. The stage is constantly animated with an opening and closing of perspectives that moves with a rhythm like breathing. Illusions are rapidly created and as rapidly dismantled: one moment it is a sea peopled by surreal, mythically resonant islands of humanity, the next a naked, harshly lit space in which the performers stand exposed and vulnerable before our gaze. There's an honesty in this performance which allows it to escape the seductions of the merely pretty to explore a real beauty.

Richard Vabre's superb lighting design is crucial: it can blank out the stage altogether by blinding us with a bank of yellow lights, give us a haunting glimpse of a ship with a lighted prow gliding far in the distance, or set us in a moment of complete everydayness by locating a performer in a corridor of light. And the emotional texture is extended by Jethro Woodward's encompassing sound design, which reaches from lush lyric to harsh percussion.

Within this complex construction, the performers move like voyagers, always the central focus. It is probably closest to dance theatre - there is in fact is a powerful dance sequence, in which gestures are picked up and repeated by an increasing number of performers - but it's not purely anything. What's most interesting is a gathering sense of the individuals who made this piece, a sense of personal investment, that is released by the show's formal shaping. (This is the quality that made me think of Jérôme Bel). Its lucid focus on human desire and longing makes Small Odysseys deeply moving. It's probably one of the most beautiful works of theatre we'll see this year.

Small Odysseys, directed by Kate Sulan. Sets and costumes by Emily Barrie, sculptures and design by Shaun Patten, composition and design by Jethro Woodward, lighting design by Richard Vabre. Musicians: Jethro Woodward, Ida Duelund Hansen. Dramaturge: Ingrid Voorendt. With Steven Ajzenberg, Clem Baada, Michael Buxton, Ray Drew, Rachel Edward, Nilgun Guven, Paul Matley, Mike McEvoy, Ryan New, Kerryn Poke, Louise Risiik, John Tonso, Danielle von der Borch. Rawcus @ Arts House Meatmarket until July 23.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Melbourne Festival: here we go

Launches have their conventions: they are the events where those interests, state and corporate, who invest lavishly in an event get to stand in the spotlight and be thanked. And the Melbourne Festival launch last night, at the sparkly Forum Theatre, was no exception. It gave the impression that the newly-monickered Melbourne Festival, stripped of its "international arts" component, was a whisker away from becoming the Foxtel Melbourne Festival. (Brett Sheehy did, after all, swing naming rights to the Adelaide Bank when he was artistic director of that city's festival.) But no doubt that would have been a step too far.

Even given the conventions, it seemed a long time before we got to the actual program. We heard from a high-powered bunch: Carrillo Gantner, now the hands-on president of the festival; Kim Williams, CEO of Foxtel; acting Victorian Premier, Peter Ryan; and Robert Doyle, Lord Mayor of the City of Melbourne. In between the expected platitudes about the rich place of The Arts in our society, each of them fulsomely thanked the Kulin Nation and their elders, which on its third repetition seemed decidedly odd: the usual formality is an acknowledgement at the beginning of proceedings. It suggested an unusual anxiety to get things right for that lefty crowd of arty types, mixed with a strange sense of corporate triumphalism. To be honest, I didn't know what to make of it; but I began rather to wonder what was in the program.

Perhaps, despite the incongruity, it's not surprising that the stated themes of the festival are rebellion and revolution. When Brett Sheehy ("card-carrying genius") was finally permitted on stage, he revealed a festival which is, as was heralded by the former speakers, one of the most international we've seen. It's not the fait accompli that hype would have - it's moot whether 2011's festival will be the mandatory drawcard for interstate visitors that earlier festivals have been. I suspect, a little sadly, that Sydney, with twice the budget and bling, might be stealing Melbourne's arty thunder. But given this, its music and visual arts programs, in particular, look very strong, and there are plenty of drawcards. The proof of the pudding is, as ever, in the eating, but on the face of it, I think this is Sheehy's best program so far.

The performance has the signature sprinkling of populist spectacle (not that there's anything wrong with that), punctuated by some genuinely interesting shows. What's missing, certainly in the theatre, is a strong sense sense of the unexpected or new: most of the names here will be recognisable to Australian festival regulars. Two international visitors caught my attention: the National Theatre of China with its Rhinoceros in Love, and a South African production of The Magic Flute, in Xhosa and English. Look out too for the Kronos Quartet's multimedia performance of Terry Riley's Sun Rings, although I'd be inclined to book their other performance, which features a series of Australian premieres, including Steve Reich's WTC 9/11. Other works have been seen elsewhere already: The Manganiyar Seduction was a hit at last year's Sydney Festival, and I saw the New York Theatre Workshop's exemplary Aftermath at the Perth Festival earlier this year.

Thomas Ostermeier's Hedda Gabler, here from the Schaubuhne Berlin, is a welcome Melbourne debut, especially for those, like me, who haven't yet seen his work. And British-based motiroti's Journeys of Love & More Love, an exploration of cultural hybridisation through narrative and tasting plates, looks like it might be another highlight. From Ireland is another backstage deconstruction of theatre, The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane. International dance has a strongly political edge: Sheehy is bringing back London-based Hofesh Shechter Company, with Political Mother, and introducing Indonesian company JeckoSDANCE with a Papuan rap performance, We Came from the East.

Most striking is the extremely strong local component. There are usual suspects such as Chunky Move, which is presenting its collaboration with Victorian Opera, Assembly. On the strength of a showing of the work-in-progress I saw last week, this will be a must-see. Back to Back, another festival regular, is premiering its Ganesh Versus the Third Reich with Malthouse Theatre, and Ilbijerri Theatre Company is reprising last year's successful exploration of bio-theatre, Jack Charles V. The Crown, with Foley, featuring Gary Foley playing Gary Foley. Better still, Sheehy has reached into the Melbourne dance culture, with new works from up-and-coming choreographer Byron Perry, Double Think, and BalletLab's anticipated Aviary. Also look out for David Chisholm's KURSK: An Oratorio, Requiem, set to poems by Russian Anzhelina Polonskaya.

There some plays worth noting. Adelaide's The Border Project is bringing interactive whodunit theatre with Half-Real, written by the presently ubiquitous Duncan Graham. Barry Dickins's Whiteley's Incredible Blue will premiere at fortyfivedownstairs, directed by Julian Meyrick. And Red Stitch is presenting readings of some remarkable texts by Maria Irene Fornes, Debbie Tucker Green, Suzan Lori-Parkes and Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, in a series called Provocateur. These will be directed by Gary Abrahams and Adena Jacobs.

Check out the program for yourself here. And get ready for giant black demon babies.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Form, content, feeling, perception, knowledge

If in art we are comparing a cat with another cat, or a flower with another flower, the artistic form as such is not constructed solely of the moment of cross-breeding; those are merely detonators for triggering much larger explosions, entryways into knowledge, explorations of the new.

By refuting emotion or ideology in art, we are also refuting the knowledge of form, the purpose of knowledge, and the path of experience that leads to the perception of the world.

Form and content are then separated from each other. The brilliant formula is actually a formula of capitulation: it divides the realm of art - destroys the wholeness of perception....

Art cognizes by implementing old models in new ways and by creating new ones. Art moves, transforming. It changes its methods, but the past does not cease to exist. Art moves using its old vocabulary and reinterpreting old structures and, at the same time, it seems to be static. It changes fast, changes not for the sake of changing, but to impart the sensation of things in their difference through rearrangement.

Viktor Shklovsky: Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar

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Friday, July 08, 2011

Review: The Burlesque Hour Loves Melbourne

Right now, just after the winter solstice, Ms TN is struggling. The skies have been grey for too long, the news has been bleak for too long, and human beings have been stupid and destructive for too long. Nary a light gleams at the end of the tunnel, and actually doing things - like, say, getting out of bed - seems impossible and futile. Yes, I know despair is a sin - I suspect I am on my way to discovering why - but the fear of God's wrath is little use to an atheist.

Midwinter funk is an all-too-common disease. But I can recommend a very effective temporary medicine - a visit to the latest incarnation of The Burlesque Hour at Fortyfive Downstairs. The theatre is transformed by a cloud of red Chinese lanterns into a cosily tatty club that might have existed in the Weimar Republic, with nests of be-candled tables and a catwalk up the middle of the space. You can hear the buzz of conversation ascending as you walk down the stairs, and already the sad heart lifteth. The Burlesque Hour Loves Melbourne is a tonic for the soul: sexy, hilarious, perverse, disturbing and liberatingly beautiful.

Contemporary burlesque curated by Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, it's an exhilarating meld of cabaret, circus, vaudeville and performance art that moves spankingly through its many moods. It's a very Australian show, and has everything I love about this culture - fearlessness, subversion, wit, mischief and intelligence. And it has a starry list of weekly guests: so far they've included Rhonda Burchmore and Pamela Rabe, and coming attractions include Phillip Adams (he of Balletlab) with an especially commissioned dance; Meow Meow, direct from the West End; Constantina Bush and the Bushettes and Die Roten Punkte.

Finucane and Smith fans will have seen a few of these acts already: this is a kind of "new and selected" anthology of burlesque hits, with spangles, feathers, balloons and plenty of spillage (umbrellas are provided). But I can confirm that they are even better on a return visit. There's Romeo, the leather-jacketed macho boy stripping to Chrissy Amphlett's I Touch Myself, and the Queen of Hearts, with her cloud of red balloons and her nests of nipple-needles. There's Finucane's repressed pie woman, trembling with orgasmic excitement as she stirs her finger into a meat pie to AC/DC, and spilling tomato sauce and pie innards all over her neatly buttoned uniform.

Vaudeville acts by Holly Durant, Harriet Ritchie and Sosina Wogayehu include juggling, a whip cracking display and dance, including a dervish dance of two outrageously hairy women, an extension of an idea first performed for the burlesque by butoh dancer Yumi Umiumare. Their somehow innocent perversity recalls something of Maenads or forest spirits out of a Miyazake film. And they encapsulate the polymorhous nature of this show, which is at once serious and outrageously hilarious, surface and depth, spectacle and intimacy. Many acts invert expectations, such as the incomparable Maude Davey, stark naked aside from heels and rhinestone necklace, turning the sexual mystery of the vamp torch singer inside out by exposing everything, which somehow got funnier as the act went on.

There's a dark subtext to this show. A woman in a fur coat and sunglasses enters through the audience to Anthony and the Johnson's heartbreaking ballad Hope There's Someone, and appears to collapse; she makes her trembling way to the back of the stage, and is then hoisted up naked, like a carcass in an abattoir, leaving us momentarily and starkly silent. Or an avatar of death parades slowly down the catwalk, draped in black fabric through which she languorously smokes a cigarette, before popping a balloon that leaks sticky strips of black tar all over her naked body.

Finucane's bizzare erotic monologue to the National Gallery's water wall is a highlight. I can't think of another performer who is able to reach simultaneously such heights of comedy and erotic extremity. Unless, of course, it's Pamela Rabe. The guest artist for this week, she appeared as a statuesque goddess in a full-length black rubber dress with buttons all down the front, and performed an extraordinary monologue. It was a collage of quotations from Franz Wedekind's Spring Awakening and excerpts from an ancient Sumerian poem about the Queen of Heaven, the goddess Inanna. I shall not forget (and neither, I suspect, will the two men from the audience with whom she exited stage left) Rabe declaiming: "Who will plough my vulva!" It was breath taking, beautiful, terrifying and absurd, all at the same time.

But maybe I laughed most at Maude Davey's astounding performance of The Angels' classic hit, Am I Ever Going to See Your Face Again. Davey is in heels, nipple stars, ridiculous orange ostrich feathers, spangles and not much else. I'm old enough to remember seeing an angel-faced Doc Neeson belt this one out in some sticky-carpeted pub, and I can tell you that Davey gives him a run for his money in the rock-star charisma stakes. But she is much, much funnier.

This show is all about being human: human desire and human fear and human beauty and human laughter. It's a reminder of all those complexities that get edited out of mass culture. As with poetry, these things won't make the news, but people "die every day for the lack of what is found there". I can't think of a better antidote to the midwinter blues.

Picture: Queen of Hearts Moira Finucane in The Burlesque Hour Loves Melbourne

The Burlesque Hour Loves Melbourne, created and directed by Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith. With Moira Finucane, Maude Davey, Holly Durant, Harriet Ritchie, Sosina Wogayehu & Miss Pamela Rabe. Fortyfive Downstairs until August 14.

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