ArchiveThe Last PostReview: Pompeii, LAReview: Wild Surmise, I am the WindSo, that was a blastMelbourne Festival: Dance TerritoriesMelbourne Festival: Before Your Very Eyes, The House of DreamingMelbourne Festival: An Enemy of the PeopleMelbourne Festival: The Minotaur TrilogyMelbourne Festival: An Act of Now, Weather, DESHMelbourne Festival: Holding NoteMelbourne Festival: OrlandoMelbourne Festival: After LifeMelbourne Festival: Forsythe Dance Company, Force MajeureMelbourne Festival Diary: A Divagation on CriticismShout out: 2012 Sidney Myer Performing Arts AwardsPoems for Pussy RiotReview: Top GirlsAcknowledging defeatMalthouse 2013What I'm doing right nowPatrick White, playwrightHasty pointer: Melbourne Theatre Company 2013Melbourne Writers FestivalReviews: On the Misconception of Oedipus, His Girl FridayQuick note: Victorian Premier's Literary AwardsReview: HelicopterReview: Hell HouseReview: Blood Wedding, TrianglePoetry reviewQueen Lear updatesMetapraxisReview: Queen LearReview: Briwyant, The McNeil Project ~ theatre notes

Friday, December 14, 2012

Archive

Theatre Notes will remain here as an archive. The blog is fully searchable using the search box to the right, and there are browsable lists of all reviews since 2004 and of notable interviews and essays.

Update, February 2013: After receiving an offer I couldn't refuse, I am now Performance Critic At Large (they said it) for ABC Arts Online. I'll be writing monthly reviews/essays throughout the year, which is pretty much perfect and is also, frankly, mega-cool.

You can find my ABC Arts critical pieces here. And my poetry reviews and columns for Overland Journal are archived here.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Last Post

Dear Readers

As some of you will already know, I've decided to close down Theatre Notes. It's a decision that's been staring me in the face for a while now, and it's fair to say that I've been in furious denial for months. Having to finish up here makes me more sad than I can say. Making TN has been more rewarding than I ever imagined when I idly thought, back in 2004, that it might be an interesting idea to begin a theatre review blog. It's been my privilege and joy to chronicle the theatre I've seen over the past eight years, and to bear witness to what I am quite sure will be seen as one of the richest periods of Australia's theatre history.

The reason is simple: I can't sustain the work of serious theatre criticism and also be a writer, without regularly slamming into the walls of exhaustion that have bedevilled me this year (and not only this year). It's a lamentable fact that writing doesn't get easier: it gets harder, as each new work demands that you reach further. I suspect the same is true of reviewing. I have always hated repeating myself, and aside from the works I'm already writing, the various projects I have in mind demand and deserve my proper attention. Despite all my flailing attempts to avoid it, I find that I have to make a choice: and it has to be for my own work.

This hit me with particular force a month or so ago, when, wondering why I was (again) so deeply tired, I tallied up my wordcount for this year. In 2012 I have written, at a conservative estimate, around 180,000 words. Of those, about 120,000, or two-thirds, are words of criticism, the vast majority of it for TN. The rest are accounted for by a short novel I finished in June, another novel which I have now half completed, and two libretti. Numbers are crude and, in matters of creative output, often misleading: but staring at those figures (and also at the notebook in which I record my progress with my novels), I couldn't any more deny to myself that this blog interferes with my work.

I've attempted to battle TN down to something sane, but I can't: TN is the kind of blog it is because of the hours it takes to make it. To turn it into a TN-lite would defeat its purpose more thoroughly than actually ceasing to do it. In the past few weeks I have gone over this decision again and again, and I always reach the same conclusion. It's painful but it's also right. Some people have suggested that perhaps I could find a way for TN to make money. But it's never been about the money: I've been able to afford to do it because of the income I made from my books. The resources that are most scarce are time and creative energy.

A disbelieving colleague whom I told a couple of weeks ago said, Nah, you'll miss it too much. And I will. I really will. I'll miss the shows, I'll miss the challenge of thinking and writing about performance, I'll miss the whole damn thing. I've long thought the Melbourne theatre community, in its generosity and robust vitality, its argumentativeness and its curiosity, is something special. It's a huge and precious part of my life, and will no doubt continue to be so. However, if I'm part of it, I will be mostly be on the other side of the fence. I can't imagine that I'll cease criticism altogether, as that part of me continues restless; but it will be an art I pursue as a secondary practice. And, yes, I've learned through experience never to say never. But this is it for TN. Eight years is a nice, sacred number. If you turn it sideways, it means infinity: and it's true to say that this period of my life has been infinitely rich.

I want to thank the theatre companies, here and interstate, who have supported TN over the years, and here I especially want to thank Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong at the Malthouse Theatre, who in the early days of blogging were miles ahead of the rest of the world, in actively encouraging the debate that happened here and in other theatre blogs around Melbourne. Thanks too to the many institutions who supported TN over the years, especially the Perth and Melbourne Festivals. My heart broke when I had to refuse a visit to the next Perth Festival in February, and yes, that was when I understood that I was serious. I must thank my family for routinely standing me up at the theatre doors and for patiently and sweetly supporting their obsessive mother and wife; my colleagues, both bloggers and print critics, and the countless TN commenters for the many stimulating and fascinating arguments; and most of all, the hundreds of artists who have given me so much delight and inspiration over so many years. And lastly, I want to thank you, the reader. There have been a lot of you: the total for unique visits to TN now stands at 1,250,050. That works out as an average of about 17,000 visits (or 23,000 page loads) a month over the past two years. Not bad for a determinedly local, specialist blog. Your interest made it all possible.

Over the next few weeks I'll do some housekeeping, to make TN more useful as an archive and resource. Several people have suggested that I should put together a book of reviews and essays, and when I have caught my breath, I will think about doing so. (Publishers are welcome to flood me with offers.) In the meantime, dear friends, again thank you. I'll see you on the other side.

With my love

Alison

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Pompeii, LA

Warning: here be spoilers

From medium to medium, the real is volatilized, becoming an allegory of death. But it is also, in a sense, reinforced through its own destruction. It becomes reality for its own sake, the fetishism of the lost object: no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of denial and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal.... 

Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard

America is burning. In Declan Greene's new play, Pompeii, LA, there is no reality except death. Everything that exists is simulation: LA is the imaginary city whose representation has become so much more real than the city itself that it has devoured its original referent. The City of Los Angeles evaporates in the toxic dream-machinery of Hollywood: all that remains are the volatilised hallucinations of corporate capital, in love with its own terrors, which it stages again and again on the dreaming screens of the American Empire. Earthquake, volcanic eruption, environmental desertification, murder, accident, psychic breakdown, economic disaster, the annihilation of meaning. What are you so afraid of?

David Harrison, in Pompeii, LA. Photo: Pia Johnson

Pompeii, LA is Greene's most ambitious work yet. Here are obsessions familiar from his earlier work - the apocalypse of the individual in Moth, the B-grade Hollywood camp of Little Mercy, the self-consuming fetishes of 21st century trash culture of A Black Joy. Green's discontinuous text is rendered through the spectacle of Matthew Lutton's direction to create a work of theatre that compellingly expresses, through a glass darkly, the present cultural moment. 

In the opening sequences, reality shifts from scene to scene, even from sentence to sentence, generating an increasing sense of vertigo as it becomes clear that there is no original "reality" from which these scenes depend, no ground on which this narrative can stand. The scenes are all "back stage", at first posing as the banal realities behind the fantasies of Hollywood: Judy Garland (Belinda McClory) in her dressing room with her make-up artist (Anna Samson); a cast rehearsing a scene from a disaster movie, in which one of the stars (Luke Ryan) storms out.

Yet these scenes quickly lose their moorings: the make-up artist tells us a story about returning home to her murdered boyfriend (is it real or a story from television?); an older actor who has "paid his dues" (Greg Stone) enacts an uneasily hilarious monologue about love with a horrific subtext of paedophilia, which ends with him grotesquely kissing a television. Actors change costumes in front of us to become other characters, reality retreats into an infinitely receding hall of mirrors. Each moment is serially revealed as fantasy, leaving the audience nowhere to rest.  The only thread linking these scenes is a constant iteration of dread: What are you so afraid of?

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review: Wild Surmise, I am the Wind

Last week I saw two adventures in theatrical poetry. Malthouse Theatre literally brought poetry into the theatre with Jane Montgomery Griffiths's and Marion Potts' theatricalisation of Dorothy Porter's poem-novel, Wild Surmise. Meanwhile, in the Collingwood Underground Carpark, young independent director Sapidah Kian gave us the Australian premiere of I Am The Wind, a recent work by one of the most poetic theatre writers alive, Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse.

Jane Montgomery Griffith in Wild Surmise. Photo: Pia Johnson

As a result, I've been brooding about theatrical poetic for days. I've been wondering about writing and form and poetry and plays and everything. So first, a stumbling attempt to describe what I mean when I talk about poetic in the theatre.

Theatre is an inherently poetic medium. An actor on a stage is not only herself, she is also like herself: she is herself and not herself, a breathing physical presence who is also translated into a metaphor. This doubleness, a simultaneous alienation and immediacy that operates in both the audience and the performer, is the tension that drives theatrical poetic. Shakespeare exploits this double knowledge when he has Edgar lead the blind Gloucester to the edge of an imaginary cliff in Lear, knowing his audience will be as moved by the exposed pretence - there is no cliff, only a bare stage - as much as by Gloucester's inward transformation.

In this famous scene, Shakespeare exposes the mechanics of theatrical imagination as brutally as any writer of the post-modern stage: he foregrounds the consciousness of a reality created entirely by language, designed to be enacted; and at the same time, through exposing the tricks of the stage itself, he questions the very provenance of that language. Likewise, Beckett, surely among the most stringent poets of the stage, never lost sight of theatre's metaphorical engine, the stark image of humanity that is an actor on a stage in front of an audience. Every line of Beckett's works as simultaneous critique and exposure of these theatrical and ontological realities. These realities are represented, the process through which art alienates a thing from itself so it becomes like itself, and at the same time are enacted in the present moment as an immediate reality. (HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something? CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!)

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

So, that was a blast

Despite Melbourne's uncertain spring, Ms TN had a most excellent adventure at the 2012 Melbourne Festival, Brett Sheehy's last before he takes up the reins as AD of the Melbourne Theatre Company. Sheehy opted to go out with a bang: general agreement dubbed this his best festival so far. An important part of this success was the Festival Hub by Princes Bridge, which provided the social heart an event like this needs: a multicoloured purpose-built three-storey structure with a cheap bar, food and entertainment, it was packed out every time I went.

If you check out the archives for October, you'll see why I enjoyed myself. Part of the festival experience is missing the show that everyone else declares The Thing, and there was a bit of that. But even so, I saw work that, that like The Rabble's Orlando, inspired passionate response, or addressed profound contemporary anxiety, like Schaubühne Berlin's An Enemy of the People, or prompted intense debate, such as with Chunky Move's An Act of Now. The program was various and exciting, reaching into Melbourne's independent performance scene: Dancehouse's fascinating minimalist season, Dance Territories and Arena Theatre's gorgeous fantasy house for children jostled against international works like Williams Forsythe's far from minimalist I Don't Believe in Outer Space, to create a sense of depth as well as breadth.

I wasn't so enamoured of the contemporary opera, The Minotaur Trilogy and After Life; but, as always, not everyone agreed with me. It's been a while since I've had such interesting and demanding discussions about performance, which is a tribute to the program: it generated an energy and engagement that I associate with the most successful festivals. Thanks to all of those who came along for the ride on TN, or who buttonholed me offline for arguments over a bevvie or three. It's been a blast.

For me, October was a holiday, albeit a rather exhausting one: I let everything else drop and was just a Crrritic for three weeks. I'm still a bit beat, truth be told (but in a good way). Now I'm back at my desk, in novel mode: the current novel is perhaps half written, and I would dearly love to finish it by the end of the year. That means at least another 40,000 words. So it's back to my (so far spectacularly unsuccessful) balancing act. Even so, I'll be aiming to post a review a week here, if the mind/body/spirit complex co-operates. Onward!

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Dance Territories

Melbourne Festival Diary #10

After three weeks of full-on performance, Dance Teritories was a refreshing return to the basics: a stage, a performer, an audience. Dance Territories presented four works over two double bills, curated from both local and international artists. Program 1 was Perrine Valli's Ma Cabane au Canada & Série and Sandra Parker's Transit. For my last night out for the festival, I saw Program 2, which consisted of Swiss artist Cindy Van Acker's Fractie and Australian dancer Matthew Day's Thousands. Rigorous, austere, riveting, these are performances which mercilessly expose the human body.

Cindy Van Acker's Fractie: Dance Territories

Introducing this program, Dancehouse artistic director Angela Conquet invokes the precept "less is more", quoting the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For all its modernist roots, it's clear that this is work that has a contemporary urgency, turning its back on the spectacle and consumerist excess that circumscribes so much of contemporary experience. This has a pragmatic aspect that reaches into the political: Matthew Day speaks of minimalism as a sustainable practice, as a reminder of how little one needs to make a performance. "Simplicity is not only an aesthetic value," says Conquet. "It is a moral perception."

Minimalist aesthetic creates work that, while it can't escape representation, is nevertheless a direct challenge to its assumptions. What happens when everything is stripped back? Sometimes, as with the work of Jérôme Bel or Samuel Beckett, an inexplicable joyousness. Sometimes, as with Lucinda Childs' and Philip Glass's Dance, an irresistible, even violent, possession by the present moment.  In the performances of Van Acker and Day, we're invited into a direct, unmediated contemplation of the human body, here exposed to physical stresses that at times seem unbearable, but which, through their intensity and focus, become utterly compelling.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Before Your Very Eyes, The House of Dreaming

Melbourne Festival Diary #9

We're heading towards the end of the festival, which closes on Saturday, and Ms TN is feeling, truth be told, rather ragged. On the one hand, devoting myself to a single activity rather than the several which usually occupy me is something of a holiday (although the copyedit for the US edition of Black Spring is sitting on my desk, looking reproachful and reminding me of other duties). On the other, this has been a consuming festival which has generated a lot of intense conversation, both offline over post-show drinks and kitchen tables, and online, as you will see if you look at the comments beneath An Enemy of the People and An Act of Now. This passionate engagement is the quality I most associate with a successful festival, and the 2012 Melbourne Festival has had it in spades.

Before Your Very Eyes: Gob Squad/CAMPO

My Regrets of This Week are missing Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die and Merlyn Quaife performing Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, of which I hear good things: but let's face it, you can't be everywhere. Or anywhere, sometimes. This week I dipped my toe into another strong strand of this year's festival: the presence of children. With Gob Squad and CAMPO's Before Your Very Eyes, seven young people created theatre for adults. In Arena Theatre's The House of Dreaming (as well as Polyglot's How High The Sky, which I didn't see) theatre was made by adults for children. That taking theatre for children seriously is crucial to the artform ought to go without saying; but it's been a point often lost in our mainstream programming, which has lagged seriously behind Europe in its focus on young people. This, as Age critic Cameron Woodhead observes, is now changing.

Back in 2008, when CAMPO were called Victoria, they brought a beautiful show to Melbourne, That Night Follows Day. Directed by Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells, this was the second part of a trilogy in which Victoria/CAMPO collaborated with different artists to create shows in which children performed for adults. Before Your Very Eyes is the third part, a collaboration this time with the German/English collective Gob Squad. Developed over three years, Before Your Very Eyes takes advantage of how rapidly children change as they get older: there's a radical developmental difference, for example, between seven and 10, or 14 and 17. The long development permitted the company to enact encounters between older and younger selves, which betrays the meticulous level of planning that underlies this show.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Melbourne Festival: An Enemy of the People

Melbourne Festival Diary #8

I woke the morning after seeing the Schaubühne Berlin's production of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People seething with a burning, undirected anger. I don't know what I had been dreaming: but I think this play named something accurately enough to blow those embers - of disillusion, impotence, political alienation, whatever - into a white heat. Some flame in me leapt up: yes, I thought, that's how it is. It's just like that.

Stefan Stern as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, Schaubühne Berlin

Is An Enemy of the People a revolutionary production? No: but it's about a certain kind of revolution that has always emerged from the intellectual bourgeoisie. Does it draw any conclusions, offer any program for the redress of the ills that the play analyses? No. Will it make its audiences rush to the barricades? I doubt it: it's only a play, after all, not a manifesto. But it is political in a very interesting way that profoundly implicates and exhilarates its audience. If political theatre is, as Brecht believed, about illuminating a situation so that it is possible to reflect fruitfully upon our place in it, then this is certainly political theatre.

The only Thomas Ostermeier production I've seen is his 2005 version of Hedda Gabler, which was performed at last year's Melbourne Festival. I found it disappointing, for several reasons: perhaps the major disappointment was its deliberate affectlessness, which amounted almost to cynicism. As I said at the time, "Ibsen's play becomes a scathing miniature, a portrait of an emotionally numbed, intellectually trivial bourgeoisie... Hedda and the gang are symbols merely, flattened-out representations of the conscious heartlessness of the middle classes, absorbed in their trivial pursuits as they turn their faces from the blood on the walls." What bothered me was that there was nothing at stake.

Here again Ostermeier is concerned with the middle classes - as Jana Perkovic observes, in her must-read response to the Berlin production, he is quintessentially a director of and for the middle classes. But this production cuts much deeper than easy caricacture. It revitalises naturalism, pulling on its original power to implicate its audience in self-recognition. In Hedda Gabler, this for me came close to avant garde David Williamson: in An Enemy of the People, the implication of the audience in the reality on stage was a whole lot more complex and direct. Ostermeier has a cast of exceptional actors, whose detailed performances generate a complex texture of argument: no character, not even the smooth, swift-talking politician, is simply reducible to symbolic moral significance. There is much to say about the production, which is beautifully realised in many ways: but here I want to concentrate on the ideas that animate it.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Melbourne Festival: The Minotaur Trilogy

Festival Diary #7

Chamber Made Opera's innovative series of Living Room Operas - small-scale opera performances commissioned as site-specific works and performed in private houses - has produced some of the more interesting work I've seen over the past few years. Works such as Daniel Schlusser's Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Any More and Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey's beautifully judged Dwelling Structure opened out and questioned domestic space in fascinating and sometimes disturbing ways; Another Lament, a collaboration with Rawcus, successfully made the difficult transition from domestic space to theatre when it transferred to the Malthouse earlier this year.

The Minotaur Trilogy: Chamber Made Opera

But relocating a site-specific performance is a tricky and delicate business which materially changes the nature of the work. The Minotaur Trilogy, which premiered as a tripartite work as part of the Melbourne Festival, demonstrates how problematic this can be. I saw the first part of David Young and Margaret Cameron's trilogy, Island, back in 2011, in the living room of a St Kilda Road apartment. Parts two and three, The Labyrinth and The Boats, are extensions of the original idea, here shown together for the first time.

The Minotaur Trilogy is in three parts of 49 minutes each, punctuated by 20 minute intervals, to make a work that lasts for three hours altogether. This makes it, among other things, a durational work: the audience is asked to spend time with the six performers, and further, to be aware of that time. Durational theatre can be deeply rewarding, but in this case for me it simply became an exercise in impatience. Repetition that plays off variations on minimal themes can pay off in two ways: it can deepen and enrich - perhaps the classic example of this is Bach's Goldberg Variations - or it can deaden and impoverish. Here, sadly, I just felt deadened.

The Melbourne Recital Centre's Salon, an intimate, wood-panelled performance space with near-perfect acoustics, is a very different proposition to a living room. It's a much larger space, for a start, and it mercilessly exposes everything: music, performance, design, choreography. In a living room, with the performers less than three feet away, the domestic context gave Part 1, Island, a playful, improvised quality that infused the performances with a certain humility: the found nature of the props and costumes - hats made from pencil cases and handbags, worn bits of driftwood - was foregrounded, and the sense of discovering ritual and myth within the ordinary and everyday was palpable. Performed in the round, with a new distance not only between the performers but between the performers and the audience, these qualities melted away, leaving in their wake an uncomfortable sense of archness.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Melbourne Festival: An Act of Now, Weather, DESH

Melbourne Festival Diary #6

Even off the plan, the strongest aspect of the 2012 Melbourne Festival was always the dance. It's a feeling borne out in the performances I've seen: William Forsythe's I Don't Believe in Outer Space was the first knockout, and these three works  - Chunky Move's An Act of Now, Akram Khan's DESH and Lucy Guerin Inc's Weather - further demonstrate the vitality, reach and power of contemporary dance.

An Act of Now, Chunky Move. Photo: Jeff Busby

I've been dithering for several days about how to write about them. Dance, and especially dance of this calibre, often has that effect: you can't hide behind words, even if words are present in the performance, because what matters is movement, gesture, living bodies in space, the performance itself. Critical response becomes, even more than usual, an impossible act of translation, an attempt to interpret the wordless body into written language. Maybe part of this stuttering is overload: when you think of the complexities - the sheer volumes of sensual and intellectual information, the emotional intensities - that attend a really interesting performance, it's ridiculous to think you can even begin to understand it in a few hours. Sometimes covering a festival feels like trying to process War & Peace five times a week. Which is to say, one is always face to face with one's own failure.

I'm no closer to a solution, perhaps because there isn't one: but reviews are beginning to bank up, whingeing is not to the purpose and I'd had better square my jaw, akimbo my elbows and get on with it. Either that, or stop going to festivals and begin a Slow Art movement. I don't know how you young people do it.

*

An Act of Now is Anouk van Dijk's first work as the new artistic director of Chunky Move, and she has certainly arrived with a flourish. I've only seen one other work of van Dijk's: an extraordinary collaboration with the contemporary German playwright Falk Richter, Trust, at the 2011 Perth Festival. At the time, I was struck by the strangely oneiric effect of her choreography: her rhythms and movement often seem counter-intuitive, gracefulness turning back on itself to create complex, often violent, forms of collapse and reformation. As I was watching Trust, something in the movement of the dancers seemed to creep deep into my subconscious and inhabit it, in unsettling ways that felt akin, if not quite the same as, an experience of lucid dreaming. The same thing happened in An Act of Now, a completely different kind of work, which made me think that it wasn't simply an accident of my subjectivity.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Holding Note

Melbourne Festival Diary #5

Holding note: Sometimes I find that all that emerges from my fingertips is a sludge of meh. This can particularly happen when I've been knocked out by a work: all those responses just won't clarify into something coherent. I've been struggling for two hours now, and getting nowhere. So for the meantime: let me simply recommend that you see, if at all possible, Akram Khan's solo dance DESH (closing on Sunday) and Chunky Move's An Act of Now (Anouk van Dijk's first work as artistic director, which opened last night). Longer responses are, my subconscious assures me, in the mail.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Orlando

Melbourne Festival Diary #4

Some notes on Orlando

White. No colour, every colour; plenty and absence at once. The empty page awaiting inscription, the page which may be shredded or burned. The colour of milk, the colour of semen, the colour of fertility. The imaginary of European Empire, the sterile fictions of race, purity, virginity. The hymeneal bride, the deuil blanc of mediaeval mourning. The colour of deep freeze, of immobility, of the Great Frosts of Elizabethan London, when the river Thames was sheeted with ice eleven inches thick. Arsenic. The nuclear heart of a star, the colour of absolute cold. The colour of The Rabble's Orlando.

Mary Helen Sassman and Dana Miltins in Orlando. Photo: Sarah Walker

In Kate Davis's design, the stage is a shallow pool of white liquid, enclosed above by a low ceiling outlined by lights, and backstage by a huge mirror. Before the actors appear, it is absolutely still: it seems a solid white floor, a sheet of ice. As the actors wade ankle-deep through the liquid (milk? semen? both? neither?), the surface becomes a chaos of ripples, their white costumes become sodden. It is impure, this white.

The imagined shade of absolute clarity. The white-out of a snowstorm, in which every thing is obscured.

*

It's certainly been an interesting, if not especially edifying, fortnight for women. A popular resurgence in feminism, which in Australia has remained largely beneath the radar, collided head-on with the received wisdom of mainstream political commentary.  Julia Gillard's Question Time speech in which, turning on a rhetorical sixpence, she took Tony Abbott's hypocritical borrowing of feminist feathers and shoved them so far down his throat that he choked, became the focal point of a blizzard of debate. Suddenly sexism and misogyny were the words of the moment. Feminism? Not so much.

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Melbourne Festival: After Life

Melbourne Festival Diary #3

It may have only opened on Thursday, but the Melbourne Festival is now well into its stride. Aside from the Forsythe Dance Company, my highlight so far has been Orlando, a hallucinatory theatrical riff on Virginia Woolf's novel from independent Melbourne company The Rabble, which is at the Malthouse as part of its Helium season. Beautiful, obscene, wickedly funny, wilfully theatrical, this is The Rabble's best work yet. When I work out what happened I'll write about it further, but it occurs to me that this might be what contemporary feminist theatre looks like.

Frustratingly, I've missed what were reportedly the two ovational events of the opening week: Nilaja Sun’s No Child..., a one-woman show at Theatre Works about the failures of the US education system, and Antony and the Johnsons' Swanlights at Hamer Hall. No Child..., oddly, wasn't on the invitation list that was sent out to media, which might explain my first oversight; although picking from a festival program often feels like playing Tetris with your diary, and inevitably you miss something important. There is talk of a return season, so keep your eyes peeled.

After Life, Michel Van der Aa

I simply wasn't issued tickets for Antony, which suggests that TN might have slipped onto some pr Z-list*: an impression strengthened, it must be said, by the seats I had for the opening event of the festival, Dutch composer/director Michel Van der Aa's After Life. Up in the gods at the Regent Theatre minus binoculars was not the way to see this opera. This isn't simply privileged whinging (although, to be honest, it partly is). Critics tend to be fussy about seats: if you're writing about a show, and especially if you didn't enjoy it, you feel that, in fairness to the artist, you ought to have experienced it at its best. On the other hand, anyone who pays for a show ought to have a good experience, even if they are at the back of the theatre. That many didn't was evidenced by the dress circle walkouts during the final hour of the show: I stopped counting at about thirty.

The fact is that the Regent Theatre was entirely the wrong venue to do this work justice: its over-the-top Renaissance kitsch might be a brilliant frame for musical spectacle, such as the upcoming King Kong, but it dwarfed the austere set of Van der Aa's opera and completely flattened the possibility of emotional response. This is a major problem: as Van der Aa says in the program: "For me, opera only makes sense if we find subjects and librettos that connect to an audience here and now." This opera, which is based on a 2001 film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda, depends on emotional connection; without it, the result is a kind of epic bathos.

The conceit of After Life is that we are in a metaphysical limbo, in which the souls of the recently dead are met by purgatorial bureaucrats who must determine with them the defining memory of their lives. The lower stage is cluttered with piles of domestic objects, a kind of mnemonic warehouse through which the various characters rummage until they find the memory they will take with them to eternity. The characters - three live on stage, three on film - have a week to decide on this defining moment. The drama of the libretto itself turns on the relationship between the bureaucrat Aidan (Roderick Williams) and his client, Mr Walter (Richard Suart), who turn out to have history in common.

Van der Aa complicates the original scenario with documentary footage of several people asked about their most significant memory. These interviews, projected on the large screen back stage, have the complex feeling that the libretto signally lacks: when Flint, a little boy of surpassing sweetness, talks about his favourite dog, or Bert remembers working with his eccentric grandfather in a basement making a perpetual motion machine, it heightens the lack of affect in the opera proper. And this in turn begs the question: can there be such a thing as an opera which depends on naturalistic identification? Despite the tricky interactions of video and stage presences, these elements neither integrate nor fruitfully contrast: the overwhelming feeling is of watching two different kinds of work, a documentary film and an opera, jammed together on a single stage.

This isn't helped by the staging: as a director, Van der Aa strikes me as a very good composer. It's overwhelmingly static, even conservative. As soon as I realised, early into the show, that the opera was going to finish when the stage was emptied of objects, I couldn't help noting their departure as one by one piles of clutter - lounge suites and bicycles, park benches and standard lamps - were wheeled off stage. This feeling of marking duration was heightened by an increasing indignation at the banality of the libretto and, in particular, a growing feeling of disbelief at its simplistic treatment of something as complex and evanescent as human memory. Given (say) Proust, how is it seriously possible to reduce the sensual interiority of lived memory to a kind of MTV video? Perhaps this conceit might have worked in the original film, which I haven't seen: for me, the effect was a baffling sentimentality.

Once the various characters decide on their defining memory, the moment with which they will live for eternity, the operatic bureaucrats set about re-enacting and filming it. Here, I supposed, we were witnessing the artifice of memory, how it reconstructs the past into a present fiction; instead, it seemed to me that we were being shown a kind of poverty, the leaching of the multiple richness of memory by visual mediation. The emotional pay-off of the opera is the projection of these recaptured memories as films at the end, when they are given a sense of reality by the illusions of artfulness; by then I couldn't but feel that being condemned to watch a single piece of footage for ever and ever would, indeed, be a kind of purgatory. But I don't believe that irony was intentional.

Like his mentor, Louis Andriessen, Van der Aa's music mixes contemporary electronica influences and jazz with more traditional classical instruments: notably in this case, woodwind and harpsichord. The score reminds me of a kinder, less discordant Andriessen, with clear lyrical lines and a focus on melody: there is little drama in the music, which relies on subtler musical interactions that again were largely lost in the space of the Regent. I had no complaints with any of the performances, from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra nor from the singers. I suspect in a more sympathetic theatre, such as the Playhouse, After Life might have been a different experience: for me, the Regent exposed its weaknesses and cruelly dissipated its potential strengths.

* I should add a postscript: I have been hastily assured by the Melbourne Festival that this is not the case. And also, despite my caviling here, I can't help wondering sometimes whether it's a good idea for critics not to be privileged...

After Life, after Hirokazu Kore-eda, composition, stage and video direction and text by Michel Van der Aa. De Nederlandse Opera, Melbourne Festival, at the Regent Theatre. Until October 27.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Melbourne Festival: Forsythe Dance Company, Force Majeure

Melbourne Festival Diary #2

I Don't Believe in Outer Space, Forsythe Dance Company; Never Did Me Any Harm, Force Majeure.
 
I used to say that I enjoyed seeing dance because it gave me a break from words. As I Don't Believe in Outer Space and Never Did Me Any Harm demonstrate, this is less and less the case. Language is now such a common dynamic in contemporary dance that wordless movement is almost an exception: the word is everywhere, as sonic texture, rhythmic device, vocalised meaning, instruction, play, choreographic punctuation, visual cue and so on. It is almost always language stripped of the prosaic freight of narrative or dramatic meaning; often, and most satisfyingly for me, dance liberates language as pure poem.

I Don't Believe in Outer Space, The Forsythe Company. Photo: Dominik Mentzos

William Forsythe is exemplary. I Don't Believe in Outer Space, ultimately a meditation on mortality, is a joyously traumatic work. From beginning to end it is heavy with language. This is a language which is heavily in question: no transparent vehicle of meaning, it becomes a gestural aspect of Forythe's neuroticised choreography. Forsythe's dancers are grotesquely distorted in angular, counter-intuitive gestures that somehow are haunted by an echo of the everyday, a feeling heightened by the casual dress of the dancers. This means that the work balances acutely between comedy - much of it is laugh-out-loud hilarious - and an abiding sense of anxiety, even of menace.

The empty stage is littered with round objects that at first look like shiny volcanic boulders, but which turn out to be balls of rolled-up gaffer tape. They become many things in the course of the dance: endowed randomly with qualities of lightness or heaviness, they demonstrate the ambiguities of appearance. They are images of the behaviour of matter, from the pull of gravity to the Big Bang and particle physics. They are a locus of anxiety (I worried at first about the dancers' ankles) and objects of play and chance. The balls are kicked casually around the stage by the dancers, or thrown, or swept up by their bodies, or shoved inside costumes to distort the shapes of bodies.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Melbourne Festival Diary: A Divagation on Criticism

Festival Diary #1

The Melbourne Festival officially opens tonight, but a couple of pre-opening events have already tempted Ms TN out of her burrow. Over the past two nights, I've seen two contemporary dance works, Force Majeure's Never Did Me Any Harm and The Forsythe Company's I Don't Believe in Outer Space. Both are recommended: William Forsythe's work in particular is astounding. I'll be uploading meditations on both: but I find that before I can write properly about them I need to clear my mental decks.

As regular readers know, a few weeks ago I put up the blinds and shut shop, pleading theatrical burnout. Of course, I've been busy: my novel Black Spring finally landed in bookshops last week, I am plodding along on another novel, reviewing Mallarmé, writing columns, and so on and so forth. This time out meant I saw almost none of the Fringe Festival, which cost me some twinges; but all the same, it's been an excellent thing to stay home and reflect. In particular: what is this burnout of which I speak? Is it merely a personal thing, or does it reflect a wider feeling of stress?

In the past couple of weeks I've had a few interesting conversations about theatre criticism in Melbourne. This navel-gazing is an occupational hazard worldwide: the New York Times last week launched yet another round table, Do We Need Professional Critics?, prompting Age critic and blogger Rebecca Harkins Cross to tweet: "Do we need another debate about whether we need critics?" I've lost count of how many panels I've sat on to debate the same question over the years: the last was during the Melbourne Writers Festival in August. In part, this crisis of professionalism is a response to the tsunami of digital culture, which for some people suggests that serious criticism is over. Needless to say, I don't agree: but I do sometimes wonder where that criticism is going to come from.

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Friday, October 05, 2012

Shout out: 2012 Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards

Know someone who's made an outstanding contribution to the Australian performing arts? I thought so. You should be nominating them for the 2012 Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards. Right now, as nominations close on November 9. The annual awards were created in 1984 by the Trustees of the Sidney Myer Fund to recognise outstanding achievements in dance, drama, comedy, music, opera, circus and puppetry. The are national, and comprise:

• The Individual Award - $50,000 
• The Group Award - $80,000 
• The Facilitator’s Prize - $20,000

Details and a handy online nomination form can be found at the Myer Foundation website. Hop to it!

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Poems for Pussy Riot

As we all know, three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were recently imprisoned after a farcical trial in which they were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. In response, English PEN's Writers at Risk is hosting Poems for Pussy Riot, initiated by writer and editor Sophie Mayer, to collect poems, translate them into Russian, and send them to the band as a gesture of support and protest against censorship. Poems for Pussy Riot will also be an ebook. My contribution, Dance of the Seven Veils, is here.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: Top Girls

Okay, okay, I know I swore that I was writing no reviews for a month. But just this one, because it's important.

I was completely unprepared for the emotional impact of watching Jenny Kemp's brilliant production of Top Girls. It was as if an abscess of grief and anger were lanced deep inside me: all the things I already know, that are reconfirmed in the media every day, in casual conversation and trivial encounters, in a lifetime's experience of being a woman, were given form and focus and represented anew. It's a long time since I've read or seen this play, perhaps the most famous of Caryl Churchill's extraordinary oeuvre: but as Kemp and her team so lucidly demonstrate, it remains as powerful as it was when it was first performed in the 1980s, at the height of Thatcher's Britain.

L-R: Li-Leng Au, Anita Hegh and Maria Theodorakis in Top Girls. Photo: Jeff Busby

Most of all, Top Girls released an overpowering sadness. To be a woman in a male-dominated world is to be the second sex: millennia of cultural conditioning can't be overthrown in a generation, or even in a century. And what this play argues, with unwavering pitilessness, is that the subjugation of women can't be separated from the subjugation of class. It's a play driven by the "shuddering horror" described in a letter to her lover by Rosa Luxemburg, which the British poet Keston Sutherland recently quoted in a paper on Revolution and Being Really Alive:

"[T]his feeling of shuddering horror does not let go of me […] Especially when I lie down to sleep, this fact [of my mother’s death] immediately arises again before my eyes, and I have to groan out loud from pain. I don’t know how it is with you but I don’t suffer mainly from longing anymore and I don’t suffer on my own account, but what makes me shudder every time is this one thought: what kind of life was that! What has this person lived through, what is the point of a life like that! I don’t know of any thought that is so dreadful for me as this one; I feel as though it would tear me apart if I began to think about it, and yet it comes to me under the most surprising circumstances, at any moment."

There's some dialogue in the second half of Top Girls that so precisely echoes Luxemburg's letter, that I wonder if it is one of the seeds of the play itself. What kind of a life is that? And the passion and horror of this question tears apart the shallowness of popular critiques of feminism. It's all too easy for the western middle class - and especially for men and women who argue that feminism is over, that women are quite equal enough - to ignore the poverties that the west has outsourced to so-called "developing" countries, and even to ignore those that exist closer to home. Yet these poverties - physical, economic and intellectual - exist everywhere, inflicting their damage of millions of lives. And, as study after study has shown, it is women who bear the brunt. What can equality possibly mean if the glamorous board room success of a few does nothing to change the lives of the many?

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Acknowledging defeat

Dear everybody: as we all know, good intentions are the road to hell. And Ms TN is full of good intentions. I wrote them all out this morning, having cleared some space to catch up on the shows I've seen and not written about. And I realised I have to face the fact that I simply can't do everything I would like to: it's not really a question of time, but of mental energy. The truth is, as I have said in serial posts, that this has been a crazy year, and I have been writing like a maniac, and the sort of tiredness this induces is cumulative. The past month has been especially bonkers. Which isn't helped by sudden obsessions, like writing this review on Poetry, truthfulness and political speech.

For the past few months I've been trying to keep all the balls in the air, but a big part of the problem for me is that I just can't see the point of half-doing anything. I hate half-doing this blog, which is what has been happening because of everything else.

So here are the shows I've seen and not reviewed: Doku Rai at North Melbourne Arts House, Pale Blue Dot at Helium at the Malthouse, Angela's Kitchen at Malthouse Theatre, Happy Ending at the Melbourne Theatre Company, and the Eifman Ballet's Anna Karenin and Tchaikovsky. All of them were interesting, and deserve proper responses. I recommend all the shows that are still on: Angela's Kitchen begins as a conventional immigrant story about Paul Capsis's Maltese background and ends in a wholly unexpected place, both theatrically and emotionally, as a meditation on transience and grief; Pale Blue Dot is a fascinating movement piece which cuts together meditations on photography, film, space exploration to create a theatrical picture of consciousness and memory; Happy Ending is a slyly hilarious play about sexuality, women and cultural misunderstanding. I'm also booked to see Pinnochio at the Malthouse and Caryl Churchill's Top Girls this week, and the Melbourne Fringe is about to launch like a juggernaut.

Also, not unimportantly, I have this novel to write, and that has been suffering most of all. So I've made a stern and, in truth, rather difficult decision: TN will close down for the next month, and I won't be posting until the Melbourne Festival opens on October 11. I'll do my usual blanket coverage of festival shows, and then perhaps I might be able to strike some kind of (ha!) balance. I still have to finish this novel, and I have to make it a first priority. I'm happy to be asked to shows, for future reference: but for the meantime I won't be writing about them. Don't take this as a statement of intention about Theatre Notes: it's not. But I'm going fishing.

PS: Yes, I'll still be on twitter at @alisoncroggon. And will tweet any shows I see.  No substitute for considered comment, I know, but less exhausting!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Malthouse 2013

'Tis the season for theatre launches, which gives Ms TN ample opportunity to exploit her genius for SNAFU. Recently my trigger finger gave the MTC's pr department conniptions by blithely tweeting their entire Neon season before its formal announcement. (Lucky you can delete tweets, huh?) The Malthouse wisely emailed the preview of its season with a big sign saying EMBARGO that even I couldn't miss. In this case I told everybody that I was going to the launch last Thursday, when it was in fact last night. This tells you everything you need to know about my present state of mental dishabille. Anyway, I have checked the date three times and am almost sure that I can now write about it.

Meredith Penman and Karen Sibbing in Adena Jacob's Persona

2013 features some eye-catching shows. It looks like Marion Potts's strongest, and certainly most diverse, season so far. To almost nobody's surprise, given the persistent rumours that Persona would return next year (and given it wasn't in the MTC's season), Adena Jacob's brilliant production is getting a run at the Beckett. If you missed its Theatre Works season (or even if you didn't), this is a must see: it's probably my show of the year so far, even with some stiff competition. Michael Kantor is back at his old stamping ground with an ambitious reworking of King Lear, The Shadow King. This will be performed in a mixture of Indigenous languages and modern English, and has been created in close collaboration with Elders. Again, a must-see. Likewise, mark your diaries for a new show on superheroes by Back to Back Theatre, Laser Beak Man, which promises "parallel realities": well, that's what you always get with Back to Back, surely our most significant independent theatre company.

There's a wide range of plays, which together reflect an overt political engagement. The season opens with the timely return of Stephen Sewell's 1990s play Hate, a work that critiques the dynasties of political and corporate power. Look out for Matt Lutton's production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Dance of Death. Darkly, wickedly, despairingly funny, Dürrenmatt is yet another playwright done all too seldom on our stages. Marion Potts is directing Evgeny Shvarz's The Dragon, a play and playwright with which I am completely unfamiliar. This was premiered in 1944, at the height of Soviet Stalinism, and is a fairytale satire on totalitarianism. Also reaching beyond the Anglosphere is a premiere of Iranian Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, which appears to be an exploration of scripted improvisation. On the feminist front, Van Badham has adapted Angela Carter's explorations of the legend of Bluebeard for The Bloody Chamber.

Intriguingly, Lally Katz is stepping forward as a performer, and presenting a one-woman show, Stories I Want to Tell You in Person. I have no idea at all what that will be like, but I can't imagine that anyone will want to miss it. Other performance includes a puppetry show for young people, Hard Rubbish, by Men of Steel, which pits Ikea against old, unloved furniture. And excitingly, Dance Massive is back, with works by Chunky Move's new director Anouk van Dijk, 247 Days, and Larissa McGowan, Skeleton.

In short, get to it. You can explore the Season 2013 online here.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

What I'm doing right now

Regular readers will be chortling into their coffee to hear that Ms TN has been yet again ruefully contemplating her total inability to control any aspect of her writing life. Viz: yet again, or still, I am wallowing in the slough of overcommitment. (And that's even with putting Teh Novel aside for a couple of weeks to - cue hollow laughter - "clear the desk". Also, I got stuck.) I suspect that the Melbourne Writers Festival, where I had several sessions to prepare, was the straw that broke the camel's back; but I have been writing reviews in other places too. Perhaps you'll forgive me for prioritising reviews for which I actually get paid; but the truth is also that I think it's quite good for me as a critic to pay the kind of attention that reviewing poetry demands. And it is. But it also quite demanding.

Anyway, for those interested: I reviewed the three books shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Poetry Awards: John Kinsella's Armour (which I liked very much); Michelle Cahill's Vishvarupa (which I also enjoyed) and John Mateer's Southern Barbarians (where I had a few questions). (Scroll down for the reviews). This week I am writing my monthly blog review for Overland, and pondering my quarterly column, which is due soon. And I'm also writing up an interview for another publication. And beginning the publicity for my novel, Black Spring, which is due out on October 1 from Walker Books, and which seems to involve other kinds of blogging. Yes, the literary world is throwing out its siren lures and seducing me.

I have been seeing some theatre, all the same, and am plotting to see more. Doku Rai at North Melbourne Arts House was astounding, fascinating theatre: the anarchy and theatrical invention we expect from Black Lung, but with an extra political edge brought by the East Timorese companies Galaxy and Liurai Fo’er. I'm hoping to get a chance to think through this experience. I went to see Eifman Ballet's Anna Karenina, which is kind of brilliant imperial kitsch that seduces with the passion and rigor of its performance and theatricality. And, to answer some people who have asked, I have yet to see Top Girls, but do you think I'd miss Caryl Churchill? And I'm hoping to get to Optic Nerve's Pale Blue Dot, the latest in the Helium season at the Malthouse.

My inbox is flooded with invitations, especially as Fringe looms over the horizon, and I regretfully will not get to see most of them. I'm still not sure how to sustain this blog, but so far I'm clinging on with my fingernails. In moments of stress, I just visit this essential website. You should too.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Patrick White, playwright

A brief talk on the plays of Patrick White, which I delivered yesterday at the Melbourne Writers Festival as part of the event Remembering Patrick White. My fellow panelists were David Marr, Rodney Hall and Peter Craven, chaired by Sophie Cunningham. Readings by Benedict Hardie and Edwina Wren.

Playwrights are a very particular breed of writer. Anyone who has read the plays of James Joyce or Leo Tolstoy will know that the ability to write transcendent prose doesn’t guarantee the ability to write for the theatre. Nor does a gift for writing plays necessarily transfer to other forms: Jean Genet’s and Tennessee Williams’ forays into poetry were generally dire. All the same, there are writers who have created significant works across different forms – Samuel Beckett, Elfriede Jelinek and Bertolt Brecht all spring to mind as writers whose plays are equally as significant as their poetry or novels. Patrick White is another.

L-R Peter Carroll, John Gaden, Dan Spielman, Hayley McElhinney in Benedict Andrews's The Season at Sarsaparilla. Photo: Tania Kelley

Playwrights differ from other writers because the demands of their form are different. Writing a play requires another kind of imagination to that of a novel: a precise sense of the spatial dynamics of a stage, a musical intuition for the rhythms of spoken language, a certain fondness for the necessary vulgarities and strict limitations of theatre.

Above all, a playwright is a writer who collaborates: she profoundly understands that writing is only one aspect of the complex process of making and receiving a work of art. This is true of all writing, of course: publication is a long process of negotiation, from contracts to editing, from writing to book design. But in the theatre these processes are naked, and challenge the illusion that the writer is a solitary figure making a solitary work of art. The successful realisation of a play depends as much on the other artists who collaborate in a production as it does on a writer: the production crew, the lighting and set designers, the director, the actors. This is, as many playwrights have said in different ways, both the misery and the joy of theatre.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Hasty pointer: Melbourne Theatre Company 2013

Brett Sheehy's first season as artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company was launched last night. It's fair to say that the 2013 program been rapturously received: it's the most imaginative MTC season that I remember. Miraculously, Sheehy has covered all bases: fans of David Williamson and Joanna Murray-Smith are well served, with new plays by both of them, Williamson's, notably, a play about Rupert Murdoch. The international hit, the National Theatre production of One Man, Two Guvnors, covers more commercial bases. But this jostles with shows such as Simon Stone's adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, and a mainstage work for young people, Neil Armfield's popular The Book of Everything.

Most importantly, Sheehy has prised open the programming to create spaces for new work. Perhaps the most exciting initiative is the Neon season, which showcases in two week seasons works by five of Melbourne's best independent companies (all, I might say, TN favourites) - the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, The Rabble, Sisters Grimm, Adena Jacob's Fraught Outfit and the Hayloft Project. This will be a must-see. There is also an empty space at the Sumner Theatre called Zeitgeist, a five week spot reserved for "the freshest and most innovative" work that emerges in 2013. The education program, which has produced some of the MTC's best work in recent years, is being foregrounded as well with Open Door, and presents plays by Melissa Bubnic and Adam J Cass. In short, fellow theatrenauts: how interesting.

Check out the season brochure for yourself. My advice is book early, and book often.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Melbourne Writers Festival

It's that time of the year again, and I have a busy weekend coming up. If you want to stalk me at the Melbourne Writers Festival, here's the roadmap. I'm part of four sessions: two events around Patrick White, in one of which I am to talk about his plays (with readings of White's work from Benedict Hardie and Edwina Wren); another "everyone's a critic" session; and a panel on video games. I'm nothing if not a squishy peg that fits in all sorts of holes. There are hundreds of other events, literally, but I'm sure you already know that. Aside from booking for all of mine, which oddly she hasn't suggested, Stephanie Honor Convery has a useful guide on how to choose what to see.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Reviews: On the Misconception of Oedipus, His Girl Friday

There's a certain discomfort and sharpness, a sense of reaching beyond the limitations of merely making "good" theatre, that filled me with relief when I was watching On the Misconception of Oedipus. I realised that I've been missing this quality recently: a feeling that a work is jostling uneasily at the edges of form as its explores its ideas.  Devised by director Matthew Lutton, designer Zoe Atkinson and writer Tom Wright, On the Misconception of Oedipus is a short play that explores one of the foundational theories of psychoanalysis, Freud's Oedipus Complex. It jams together the ancient myth of Oedipus - the child prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother, and abandoned to die on a hillside - with a contemporary narrative moved by the same dark motivations - jealousy, fear of death, misogyny, infanticide, incest.

Richard Pyros and Natasha Herbert in On the Misconception of Oedipus. Photo: Garth Oriander

Atkinson's set is an illuminated box (expressively lit by Paul Jackson) that represents a domestic room, newly plastered but yet to be painted. Back stage is a closed door, through which the actors enter; on the other side of the stage is a huge tape reel that turns itself on and off at the beginning and end of the show, mutely recording memory. It's a scrupulously formal structure: three chairs are placed carefully before three microphones, the three characters tell their stories, and there are three acts, each stylistically distinct.

In Lutton's production, an exposed naturalism jars against moments that are almost operatic, heightened by Kelly Ryall's sound design, which later on amplifies the stage itself. The tension between the production's tight discipline - Tom Wright's almost neurotically shaped prose and the sharp stage dynamics - and the anarchic forces unleashed in performance makes for riveting viewing. Sometimes this tension explodes in laughter. Sometimes it remains, unresolved and savage, as ugly shadow.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Quick note: Victorian Premier's Literary Awards

The shortlistings for the Victorian Premier's Literary Prize were announced recently, and are now online at the Wheeler Centre's website. I mention it because this year the Wheeler Centre, in an excellent innovation, has commissioned reviews of the shortlisted books, which will serially appear on the site in upcoming weeks, and are inviting discussion. I am writing about the poetry books, and my first review, of John Kinsella's collection Armour, is up there now (scroll down). It's especially noteworthy that the shortlisted plays will be reviewed as well - as texts, not as performances - putting them out there as literary works, rather than poor siblings of the more "important" genres. Check out Clare Strahan's review of Lally Katz's A Golem Story and look out for further reviews. The winners are announced on October 16.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Review: Helicopter

Briefly, before the week disappears into the irrevocable past. And a suggestion that if you have an idle nine hours, you should spend them at Robert Lepage's Lipsynch, now on at the Arts Centre Melbourne: well worth the seeing, although after the experience I'm not very sure what it adds up to. Hoping to write about it later.

A pitiless satire on the spiritual emptiness of the suburbs, Angela Betzien's Helicopter is a worthy addition to the 2012 Lawler Studio season at the MTC, which is punching well above its weight. Here Betzien examines the splintering anxiety that the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman identified as a condition of the dislocations of corporate globalisation. According to Bauman, the middle classes, the particular target of Betzien's savagery here, react to the insecurities that result from the inequalities of globalisation with fear and suspicion: gated communities, increased policing, relentless materialism become defences that shield them against risk. The focus of this fear is often those they fear they might become: the homeless, or refugees displaced from war-torn countries. Ironically, these are strategies that can only intensify anxiety, since they can't address the origin of their fears.  

L-R: Charles Grounds, Terry Yeboah, Paul Denny and Daniela Farinacci in Helicopter. Photo: Jeff Busby

She (Daniela Farinacci) and He (Paul Denny) are a comfortably wealthy couple living in a six bedroom McMansion in a up-and-coming suburb. She describes herself without embarrassment as a helicopter parent, projecting all her anxieties onto her teenage son Jack (Charles Grounds); He works in pharmaceuticals. The play opens with a dreadful accident: He has run over and killed the child next door in his X5 four wheel drive. The child is from a family of African refugees, who rented the house before He and She moved into the upscaling suburb.

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Sunday, August 05, 2012

Review: Hell House

Some notes

I saw Back to Back's Hell House - or, at least, the Hell House part of it - on Friday. I've been thinking about it ever since, and I want to get some thoughts down before I head off to see Robert Lepage's Lipsync this afternoon and my head is full of something else. These notes will be hasty and provisional, but I suspect that their discursive nature is what the experience is intended to provoke. Hell Houses are a recent phenomenon in America's Middle West, which draw on the US tradition of making haunted houses for Hallowe'en as a means of conversion. They take their audiences on a tour of contemporary sin, showing in gruesome and absolute terms what their fate will be if they don't embrace Jesus. Significantly, they are directed towards children. Rather amusingly, Back to Back warn that the show isn't suitable for audiences under 18.

Back to Back have picked up a version from Keenan Roberts, of the New Christian Destiny Centre, that's franchised over the internet. "The method is timely! The message is timeless! Desperate times call for drastic measures! If your church or ministry is determined to take a stand against sin and the kingdom of darkness and to reach people for Jesus like never before, then this outreach is for you!" It comes as a theatrical kit: "Piece by piece, prop by prop, costume by costume - the master plan is organized in a comprehensive manual," says the website. "This sizzling evangelism event is designed to capture the attention of our sight and sound culture!" And Back to Back have faithfully realised this hokey piece of theatre, with the help of a huge cast of volunteers from Geelong, at the North Melbourne Meat Market.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Review: Blood Wedding, Triangle

"Publish? I don't publish my plays... Plays are made to be felt in the theatre. They should last as long as the performance does, that's enough... That is what makes the theatre so lovely: as soon as it is created, it disappears." - Federico García Lorca

Blood Wedding: (L-R): Matias Stevens, Nicole da Silva and Irene del Pilar Gomez. Photo: Jeff Busby

Few writers have as acute a sense of mortality as Lorca. His plays are saturated with the sense of their own temporality: they are dreams that traverse the stage and vanish, having changed the colours of our mind. He sought a pitch of expressiveness that walks the edge of things, on the cusp between life and death. To create this, he called on all the musical resources of his language: the lyrical simplicity of Andalusian folk songs, the experimental resources of modernist poetry. Like all poets his work is embedded inextricably in the sensual aspects of his native tongue, but Lorca presents a particular challenge in translation. There are things that Spanish can do, ways in which Lorca twisted its possibilities, that simply don't exist in English.

Marion Potts's bilingual production of Blood Wedding is probably as close as we can get to experiencing Lorca without being able to speak Spanish. The story follows the savage logic of vendetta - two sons from warring families, a fatal love affair that can only end in blood - to create an Attic sense of the tragic. Lorca's characters exist simultaneously in a hieratic, symbolic order of reality and in a sharply delineated world of ordinary objects - knives, pins, wheat, sheets - which anchor the play's extreme, stylised passions in a very material, recognisable present.

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Poetry review

My review of folk singer/poet Kate Fagan's collection First Light is now up at Overland Journal.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Queen Lear updates

The debate around Queen Lear has been going on, and on. It's not only in the monster thread under my review, which broke even the record for Baal - hitherto the holder of TN's Most Commented Production record - at the end of the opening weekend. The critiques themselves have also come under fire, most notably from director and academic Julian Meyrick. First he claimed in a news story in the Australian, headlined "Queen Lear reviews unhinged", that the reviews were, well, unhinged. He followed this up with an editorial piece elaborating on the evils of criticism in general and the "blogosphere" in particular. My thoughts, answering Meyrick and commenting on the "perfect storm" that is this debate, appeared online at the Oz yesterday. For those hitting a paywall, a hint: google is your friend.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Metapraxis

North Melbourne Arts House is making my life very complicated this year. It has always been a venue notable for its curation of contemporary performance, but under the eye of creative producer Angharad Wynne-Jones, Arts House has put together a stunning season of work. Amid a rich offering of performance, exhibitions, live art, workshops and residencies, upcoming shows include Back to Back's Hell House and Black Lung's Doku Rai. If you haven't already, look up the season and mark your diaries. The season are short, so easy to miss.

Metapraxis, a vivid evening of New Music, demonstrates the quality we can expect. 11 young string musicians, including the Melbourne ensemble Atticus, presented a various program of contemporary compositions under the leadership of notable avant garde violinist Jon Rose. They included Anthony Pateras's quartet Crystalline, Cat Hope's Cruel and Unusual, Jan Christou's theatrical celebration of ensemble, Praxis for 12 and The Long and the Short of It, a performance of Rose's Fence project. On the night I went, this was preceded by an improvisation between violin and electronic sound by James Rushworth and Joe Talia.

At its best, New Music invites its audience to listen closely: exploring the subtlety, precision and complexity of sound in ways that surprise your ears out of lazy expectations. From the witty exchanges of the aptly named Crystalline, where musical phrases are tossed and playfully transformed between the members of the quartet, to Cat Hope's sinisterly looping strings, which somehow recall the skittering anxieties of armed conflict, to the use of incidental sound in Rushford and Talia's duet, this concert was a constant pleasure, a cumulative succession of little shocks of alertness.

The two major pieces were a study in contrast.  Jon Rose's Fence project transforms wire fences - ugly lineations of border - into instruments of play and liberation. In The Long and the Short of It, video footage of Fences is is integrated with live musicians conducted by Rose using instruction cards. It was intensely absorbing and unexpectedly moving. Praxis for 12 is playful and theatrical, at once a celebration and a fond satire of performance. All these works, drawing from Christou, are about transformation: sound into meaning, one pattern into another pattern, order into disorder (or another level of order, which is what chaos really is) and back again.

The concert was designed with careful attention to space, with the audience seated in a semicircle around the stage, and the musicians placed and lit to highlight the differences between the works. I'm no musicologist, but I really enjoyed this concert and walked out feeling alive and exhilarated: a tribute to the energy these performers brought to the music. All you need to bring is your ears.

Why the short reviews? Here's why.

Metapraxis: music Anthony Pateras, Jon Rose, Cat Hope and Jani Christou.  Ensemble led by Jon Rose. North Melbourne Town Hall, Arts House. Closed.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: Queen Lear

For the first thirty seconds I thought we were in for something special in Queen Lear. Robyn Nevin in the titular role, regally costumed in red, is lushly illuminated backstage studying her face in a mirror, a cameo blooming out of impenetrable darkness. Four corridors of light delineate the borders of the stage and she paces them slowly, marking out her realm. It is arresting and bold theatrical image-making. But almost nothing in this production bears out the opening promise. Misled, misconceived, misdirected, Queen Lear is almost baffling.

Robyn Nevin in Queen Lear. Photo: Jeff Busby

There's absolutely no reason why Nevin, one of our most majestic actors, should not play this towering role. What's much less clear is why Lear therefore had to be a woman. In Benedict Andrews's sublime The War of the Roses, Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe played Richard II and Richard III without changing the sex of the role: as I said at the time, "we are made pricklingly aware that Richard is an actor, a player who is, moreover, a woman, Pamela Rabe, who after the play is over will walk off the stage, strip off her costume and take a shower. This double consciousness of performance is a particularly Shakespearean trope, and Andrews has exploited it to the hilt in The War of the Roses." The playing of the kings by women in that case heightened Shakespeare's essential theatricality, and brought the question of gender into intriguing play.

Here the assumption seems to be that feminising Lear has only a superficial effect on the play's meaning: as in a Lego set, all you have to do is take out the boy toy and stick in the girl toy. Since Lear is, among many other things, a profound study of patriarchy, one would expect that changing the sex of the title role might have been thought through a little more. Afterwards, seeking some clues, I read director and dramaturge Rachel McDonald's note in the program. It opens with a bald statement: "King Lear is a political story that also deals with revelation, reconciliation and the infinite".  The "infinite"? O-kay...

McDonald then drags us through some pop psychobabble ("in dysfunctional relationships, we often fall into the roles of Bully, Rescuer or Victim. In this play we watch characters continually rotate their way through this Drama Triangle"). There's reference to single-parent families - Gloucester and Lear - and "abusive parenting". We are told that "Lear's gender is almost irrelevant. The play doesn't concern itself with gender issues..." And then, confusingly: "Our female Lear is not gender-neutral casting: we are not side-stepping the issue of gender. We are embracing it, imagining the story as written for a woman in the first place." What we have, according to McDonald, is a "re-focusing" of the story, with a bad mother instead of a bad father.

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Monday, July 09, 2012

Review: Briwyant, The McNeil Project

Briwyant

On the evidence of Briwyant, Vicki Van Hout is rightly celebrated as one of our up-and-coming choreographers. There are moments of brilliance in this performance, which takes a Dreamtime legend and retells it as a wrong skin romance of contemporary Indigenous Australia. Van Hout's physical wit and precision are given sharp elucidation by an extraordinary company of dancers and the best sequences show a promising theatrical imagination at work.

(L-R) Raghav Handa, Henrietta Baird and Rosealee Pearson in Briwyant. Photo: Jeff Busby

Yet Briwyant is a mess, mainly due to a series of baffling design decisions. The uncredited set, which incorporates three video screens, makes it look like a refugee from the 1990s. The videos themselves add little to the show's meaning, and largely distract from the dancers. Forestage is occupied by a floor sculpture, a kind of landscape constructed of playing cards, which means in practice that for the most part the dancers are confined back stage. This limits the geometry of the choregraphy, placing most of the action at a distance, and crucially diffuses the energy of the performers and their relationship with the audience. This is exaggerated by murky lighting which means that sometimes the dance is difficult to see. The sound design is equally murky: despite some interesting compositions from Elias Constantopedos, it switches uncomfortably from amplified recorded sound to acoustic voices.

It took me a while to recover from the ill-advised opening scene that introduces the Dreamtime story, a spoken word poem weirdly rich in 19th century diction and 21st century doggerel that is theatricalised with painful obviousness. Again there's no credit for this, the only substantial text in the show, and I couldn't but wish the job had been given to one of the many fine Indigenous poets around: maybe someone with the clean, tough lyricism of Ali Cobby Eckermann. What this show lacks is focus: the dance itself is often superb, but you have to squint through the detritus to see it.

The McNeil Project

Jim McNeil is Australian theatre's version of a criminal literary celebrity. He was serving a 17-year sentence in the 1970s for armed robbery and shooting a police officer when he wrote The Chocolate Frog and That Old Familiar Juice. Both these short plays, remounted at fortyfive downstairs, are examinations of the morality of prison life. They are naturalistic dramas set in a cell with three prisoners, and both take the premise of an innocent newcomer being introduced to prison mores. The first excavates the hatred for the informer (the "chocolate frog") and the second is about the rape of a younger prisoner by one of the older men.

Richard Bligh, Cain Thompson and Luke McKenzie in That Old Familiar Juice.

McNeil's concern was to demonstrate that life inside a prison, with its brutally enforced hierarchies and hypocrisies, is a reflection of life outside it, rather than an aberration. The dialogue is tough and intelligent, and it's here given a plain and unadorned reading by director Malcolm Robertson and his cast. The standout is Richard Bligh, playing an old alcoholic prisoner in That Old Familiar Juice. Although well executed, the performances lack a necessary sense of real physical danger. The whole production has a whiff of the museum about it: McNeil's diction is very much of his time, and little in the production gives the plays the urgency of now. Worth checking out all the same for an interesting slice of Australian theatre history.

Why the capsule reviews? Reasons here.


Briwyant, directed and choreographed by Vicki Van Hout, in collaboration with the performers. Videography by Marian Abboud, lighting design by Neil Simpson, composition by Elias Costantopedos. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre until July 14.


The McNeil Project: The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice, by Jim McNeil, directed by Malcolm Robertson. Lighting by Katie Sfetkidis. With Will Ewing, Luke McKenzie, Cain Tjompson and Richard Bligh. Fortfive Downstairs until July 29.

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