The Last PostReview: Pompeii, LAReview: Wild Surmise, I am the Wind ~ theatre notes

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


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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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