Queen Lear updatesMetapraxisReview: Queen LearReview: Briwyant, The McNeil ProjectReview: The Golden Dragon, sex.violence.blood.gore, TerrainStriking out for sanity ~ theatre notes

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


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


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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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Review: The Golden Dragon, sex.violence.blood.gore, Terrain

The Golden Dragon

L-R: Jan Friedl, Ash Flanders, Rodney Afif and Roger Oakley in The Golden Dragon. Photo: Melissa Cowan

Roland Schimmelpfennig's deconstructed play The Golden Dragon teases out the verities of performance by pushing the text into the face of the audience. We are not asked to "believe" in the reality on stage: instead, we are asked to understand it. Everyone is cast against type: women are played by men, Asian characters by westerners, old characters by young actors, and so on. Actors move fluidly between different parts, with spoken stage directions serving as narration: the usually silent parts of a playtext - especially the pause - are said out loud. This is something like the conceit of Elevator Repair Service's Gatz - the most baffing avant garde hit of all time, in my isolated opinion - but much wittier. And, as its story unfolds, of much more significance.

The Golden Dragon is a series of vignettes featuring characters who live in an apartment block, on the ground floor of which is an Asian restaurant. The catalyst for what becomes a meditation about the treatment of illegal immigrants, exile, misogyny and violence is the extraction of a young waiter's poisonous tooth by the other restaurant staff. Daniel Clarke's sharp production takes Schimmelpfennig's conceit at face value and flies, with a top-flight ensemble cast who judge both the comedy and pathos unerringly. It also features Andrew Bailey's ingenious pop-out set, which is unpacked at the start of the play from a shipping container. After Robert Reid's On The Production of Monsters, this demonstrates that the Lawler Studio season at the MTC has invested in some classy writing. Closes July 7, so hurry.


Matt Furlani and Zoe Boesen. Photo: Sarah Walker

It's no surprise to read that Singaporean enfant terrible Alfian bin Sa'at is a poet as well as a playwright. sex.violence.blood.gore (co-written with Ching Tze Chien) is a play that exploits the poetic of theatre, pushing at the edges of rupture that also concerned Jean Genet. Like Genet, bin Sa'at explores a queer aesthetic that links sexual and colonial violence, invoking disturbing fantasies of power that open up the perversions of repression and lacing the anger of his writing with moments of unexpected lyrical tenderness. He is a moralist in the same sense as Genet, wrenching open the hypocrisies and hidden desires that writhe inside conventional moralities and offering up the resulting complexities, with a curiously dispassionate air, for our inspection. Which is to say: MKA has done us a service in breaking our Anglocentric bubble and bringing this significant writer to our notice. Singapore is just up the road, people: we (meaning me too) should know more about what's going on there.

The play itself is really a series of short plays: a repressed geography teacher whose suddenly released sexual rapacity must be destroyed at all costs; a viciously satirical skit on British colonial women fantasising about their Cantonese maids;  two lovers and two soldiers in the wake of the Japanese occupation of China and the infamous Rape of Nanking; two teens meeting a pair of transvestites on a train; a monologue from Annabel Lee, a cross between the "world's biggest porn star" Annabel Chong and Lee Kuan Yew. Stephen Nicolazzo directs a compelling production: Eugyeene Teh's set frames the action in a pink simulacrum of a traditional proscenium arch, all wonky Grecian columns and Hans Belmer naked limbs, and the cast is costumed in archly pornographic corsets, dog collars and panties, with the white-face make-up of Kabuki theatre. The performances - as in The Golden Dragon, cast against expectations - are outstanding.


Anyone who saw Frances Rings's Artefact, half of Bangarra's double bill of earth and sky, will be aware of the power of this choreographer's sensual expressiveness. Terrain - a nine-part dance work inspired by Lake Eyre - is her first full-length work, and it's a dazzler. Springing from the Indigenous traditions of this inland sea, Rings weaves a dance of dualities - salt and water, male and female, fluidity and obduracy, body and landscape - into intricate harmonies of movement.

Parts of this work made me cry for the sheer unashamed beauty of it. This is no anodyne prettiness, but a tough, detailed and confronting grace that offers an experience of the sacred which is rare in Australian theatre.  (There's a solo by dancer Elma Kris - who must be some kind of shaman - that gave me goosebumps.) As this dance reminds us, this knowledge of the sacred is no anthropological curiosity, but as contemporary and alive as the continuing struggle for land rights. Beautifully scored by David Page with sounds ranging from Indigenous songs, throbbing electronic sound, chants for Land Rights to unadorned lyric melody, it also features a stunningly minimal design from Jacob Nash. This is a work that totally possesses you for the duration and leaves you exhilarated.

Why the short reviews? Here's why.

The Golden Dragon by Roland Schimmelpfennig, translated by David Tushingham, directed by Daniel Clarke. design by Andrew Bailey, lighting by Emma Valente, sound by Russell Goldsmith. With Rodney Afif, Ash Flanders, Jan Friedl, Dana Miltins and Roger Oakley. Melbourne Theatre Company, Law Studio, until July 7.

sex.violence.blood.gore by Alfian Bin Sa'at (with Chong Tze Chien), directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. Design by Eugyeene Teh, lighting by Yasmine Santoso, sound by Claudio Tocco. With Genevieve Giuffre, Caherine Davies, Matt Furlani, Whitney Boyd, Amy Scott-Smith, Zoe Boesen and Caitlin Adams. MKA Theatre at MKA Pop-Up, 64 Sutton St, North Melbourne, until July 17. Bookings.

Terrain, choreographed by Frances Rings. Composed by David Page, set design by Jacob Nash, cosotume design by Jennifer Irwin, light design by Karen Norris. Bangarra Dance Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 7. Sydney Opera House July 18-August 18. IPAC Wollongong August 24-25. Adelaide Festival Centre August 29-September 1. Canberra Theatre Centre, September 13-15. QPAC, Brisbane, October 3-7.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Striking out for sanity

Limitations. I haz them. And right now, I have to face the fact that I'm unable to run this blog as I would like. My other activities - which mean, among things, that I have a prospect of paying the rent - are very demanding. (I laid them out last week, so I won't repeat a list here). Regular readers will know that I've been grappling with this problem for a long time, but this winter it's felt a bit tougher than usual. A swift look through this year's reviews will show that I've tried not to compromise the writings on TN, but the fact is that they don't come easy: they take a lot of concentrated hours, brow-wrinkling, space-staring and assorted bookish riffling. I know all this stuff is what makes people value Theatre Notes, and it's also what makes it worth doing personally. But right now, what's being squeezed in between the novels, the blog and my life is me. Reluctant as I am to admit it, the pressure is doing me in.

The most sensible option is to temporarily put the blinds up here while I work on the current novel, but somehow I don't want to do the sensible option: even if it's not fully ambulatory, I'd rather keep the blog on a drip. So although it feels like a cheat, I'm going to wind things down radically. Seeing fewer shows doesn't seem to be working as a policy, so instead I'll be writing less. While I work on my latest soon-to-be-best-selling fantasy, I'll be writing capsule reviews instead of the usual essay. I should be able to post responses more promptly, and they'll at least have the virtue of alerting you to anything I consider worth seeing. In theory, this should avert total collapse. Crossing fingers, toes, eyes etc. We'll see how this works.

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