Melburnalia; acerbic.

We can learn from Kevin Lynch’s study The Image of the City that the “alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) [are not capable of consciously processing or localizing] their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves [they are at the mercy of].” The works in this program attempt by means of film and video to create a cartography or topography of a territory so as to reconquer a sense of a location’s construction and function. A landscape in a borderland, pathways in the megacity, a residential building, an office complex or a city which has been laid siege to in a past war: They are all redefined as social or allegorical spaces in which the remains of subjective and collective narratives, utopias and political programs are legible.
(Brigitta Burger-Utzer [in the introduction to Mapping the Territory])

1.xi. 2007. White Whale Theatre: Melburnalia

Director: David Mence. Dramaturge: Melanie Beddie. Ensemble: Terri Brabon, Ra chapman, Nadia Coreno, Laura Maitland, Jono Wood, Gareth Yuen. At fortyfivedownstairs. 1-3, 7-10, 14-17 November.

Melburnalia, on a casual thought, should be right up my alley, with urban theory and such. But beware casual thoughts: having been a prospective urbanist for some time now, I have seen a festivalful of films, and read a library of books trying to engage with space. Space, think of space as a cake: layered. The physical surface, the impression it leaves on the human mind, the way it shapes our understanding of reality (for it is no coincidence that mountains are holy in almost every culture); then the re-production of this understood reality through the manipulation of space, building and destruction; then the effect this manipulated space has on human society. Add generations of the now dead, and their attempts to leave an imprint, to be remembered, and the necessarily disfigured, distorted effect their remains now have on us, and it's a very complex thing, space. And cities, as oldest, densest centres of human activity, are by far the most intricate cakes of physical and psycho-geography. Most forms of art that claim to engage with space of any kind are wildly unsuccessful: they do it superficially, either by grouping disparate artists from an area, or by making a travel brochure, or by simply describing the ordinary that happens now, without giving a single thought to the web of memory, thought, trauma, folklore and power we have constructed (and continue to) through space. For this reason, when alerted to a spatial theme in art, I cringe ahead.

Film has by far a better chance, due to its expressive possibilities, to capture the spirit of a living, breathing place, because it can show, it doesn't need to tell; from the swanky Jarmusch and his places and peoples, through the fine-grained google-mapping of Cidade de Deus, to the experimental shorts. One of the works that stayed in my mind as perhaps the bravest exploration of how space and humans work together is the beautiful Mapping the Territory, a collection of formally and stylistically disparate shorts. Mapping the Territory, indeed is what I hoped Melburnalia may be: it started with a short consisting only of long, languid sequences of views from a US freeway; continued with citizens of Sarajevo taking us to their favourite city spots and telling the stories, in an entire pop manner; finished with descriptions of World War 2 battles juxtaposed with recent footage of same places, now agricultural fields, rural back yards, abandoned land. Stylistically they could not have been more different, yet there was a shared sense of, well, reclamation of territory by art. If theatre could do the same in Melburnalia, I thought, it will be terribly interesting.

In Melburnalia, Tee O'Neill's The Queen of Ringwood gives us a young criminal couple in the middle of an existential crisis in the outer suburbs. Kate Hudson's Waiting it Out is a late-evening conversation at The Galleon in St Kilda (just before it changed owners, I presume). Lally Katz offers her trademark silly surrealism in The Fag from Zagreb set in the equally silly mid-suburban Kew. Alice Pung goes back to Footscray in Educating Riah, which looks very much like a scene right out of her Unpolished Gem. Finally, Ross Mueller deconstructs the CBD in Becoming Greg Stone. And allow me here a casual observation that, if these short plays ever met each other at a party, they would have almost nothing to say to each other. The quality of direction, the acting of the evening, all seemed to rise and fall with the wildly oscillating quality of writing, as if the audience was not the only one struggling in frustration.

Theatre, like books, works with essentially abstract building blocks (words, movement, symbols), does not enjoy the opulence of the recorded reality that film has. Both media have to reconstruct the entire sense of space on the blank surface that is the white page, or the black box. As a result, they have a freedom to go straight in, through the material, into the geography of thought, memory, trauma, power. Text can lean on the essay form, or on the impression: the French moderne, from Baudelaire to Zola, offers a clearer image of that infernal machine that the 19th-century industrial city was (industrial city as our trauma and object of fascination) than some photograph of the time could. But theatre? The dangers of trying to substitute one verisimilitude, of showing space, with another, of performing space, of staging the supposed 'typical' actions and loudly labelling the space, were obvious to me. But I was hopeful. I thought, whoever attempted to produce a short-play collection on different suburbs of Melbourne, certainly gave a thought to their theme and form.

Instead. To paraphrase Brigitta, in Melburnalia there is not only very little sense of a location’s construction and function, there is also very little theatre. Not only did we jiggle in our seats trying to see suburbs redefined as social or allegorical spaces in which the remains of subjective and collective narratives, utopias and political programs are legible to no avail, we also witnessed some very bad theatre. The first problem may have been to choose writers that work in prose, not drama; or, more precisely, writers not at all acquainted with the medium. Kate Holden and Alice Pung's works are essentially television pieces, or 19th-century theatre at the very stretched best. Television, indeed, may be seen as the logical child of the well-made play, particularly the studio soap and the sit-com, and no value judgement done, but do we not have enough television, and its expressive range, in our lives as it is? There is more to the theatrical form than the unity of time, space and action, but these two works don't know that. Perhaps the problem was of a more complex kind: the two young writers' published work is inextricably tied to documenting their own strange life in their suburbs, and for Melburnalia they have simply produced more of the vaguely autobiographical same. Lars von Trier might have managed to get them out of their comfort zones and get some real drama on the boards, but then, would Lars want to get involved in a sector where nobody, as a rule, gets paid?

That Tee O'Neill's The Queen of Ringwood watches like television as well is a bigger problem, because O'Neill is a playwright. I, unlike some, enjoyed her Requiem for the 20th century, found much of interest in the condensed staging of the world and a hundred years in those few hours, but Requiem was a million times more theatrical than the slice of East-Enders presented here. Only Lally and Mueller's playlets are, in this case, actual theatre. Perhaps it's due to their formal success that I feel they are also the only two pieces successfully engaging with space.

The other three works simply say, this is what's happening there, now. Watch, oh theatre-going Melbourne! The Queen of Ringwood manages to be downright offensive, with its facile equation of outer suburb and poor and political: I got the same stomach-wring I feel when the Balkans are quickly viewed as warring, passionate and Gypsy. Pung makes another step down the road of getting typecast forever as the writer of the deprived ethnics (which will be a terrible shame if it happens). All very simplistic, very earnest, and fundamentally not representing any space: junkie lovers are a cliché of Australiana, Chinese girls worldwide fall in love, and PhD students could lament the passing of Fitzroy as well (only sans prostitutes and – let me disgress – the weakest part of Hudson's playlet may be simply that St Kilda is a very interesting suburb, that one doesn't need to dig deep to find interesting situations, but is that enough?).

What Katz and Mueller do, however, is very interesting. In what's probably the best piece of this puzzle ( and you know it immediately from the way she doesn't use Croatia for yet another war story), Katz bites straight into the heart of mid-suburbia: lonely schoolboys, resounding empty houses, imagination going wild, silence creeping in the corners, and apocalypse bears. There is something of History of Violence and Caché in Katz's story: that acute feeling that we've pushed all the bad things so far out of our lives that they must have mutated into monsters, that the doors (of wardrobes, cupboards, of the outside world) will break open soon and the bad things will come to haunt us. As was cheerfully concluded afterwards, in so many of the proverbial aspirational households of Australia there is a real potential for an apocalypse bear. The use of space is wonderful: the lack of movement, the sense of being trapped inside a cushy house, the profound unreality of everything outside (the forest behind the Kew Junction, Zagreb, drama classes in Richmond or Toorak). Using only theatre, Kew is painted in vivid colours as an ark of little island-houses floating in this imaginary world, where awful things may or may not happen, but certainly aren't real.

Mueller puts together the CBD of black-clad latte-sippers and rubbish in the laneways, frantic coffee service for the glitterati by the aspiring glitterati, possibilities and failure, with a wonderful (and both very theatrical and very CBD) energy. The progressively surreal story every once in a while explodes in a cloud of political desperation, then quickly subsides back to the mundane; this may be the best expression of the left-wing Melburnian attitude to life I've noticed around. Taking CBD as the mirror of us all, here it is: the place as a mindspace, not a set for an ethnographic documentary, and certainly not a backdrop for well-made social critique in the true 19th-century sense. The detail of Greg Stone the homeless, Greg Stone the sleeping waiter, was just a wonderful little observation: how many times does it look like that laneway coffee is coming to you from a heap of rubbish in the corner? How much of CBD, and of Melbourne throughout history, was just such a combination of international glory, yet one that you can't find the unmarked door to?

I can't escape the feeling that we might have appreciated Becoming Greg Stone more, for its fine humour, imagination and employment of theatrical devices, had it not come after hours, hours, and many more hours of theatralised television. I don't doubt that the unsuccessful of the plays might work very well on television, even offer an engagement with space (and wouldn't it be nice to reclaim Footscray for the pan-Australian family soap?). But good television does not good theatre make, and, as it stands, we got two very interesting short plays at the price of an evening of frustration.

As a prospective urbanist, and an unhappy art-observer, I hope this trend for trivially tackling space will pass soon. And no trend for freshening up theatre with trendy writers will develop.

SEE ALSO: Michael Magnusson 's (wildly disagreeing) review at On Stage (and walls) Melbourne: