This is going to be a but-review, a classical type of guilty criticism. A but-review will always start by praising elements: the acting, the set, the lighting (the more peripheral the better). It will try to wash away the guilty dislike, which the critic fears may be due to personal reasons (taste, fatigue, mood), by giving just and due credit to the skill, the effort, and the commitment displayed by the production team, the artists, the performers. It will say, conscientiously, Ash Flanders channels presence through accents, emotions, gesture and colour, never letting this one-man-show loosen its grip on us. It will duly note that the success of a monodrama rests on the sole performer the way no other drama does. It will point the looming risk of boredom (visual, aural, tonal, spatial), the heroism embedded in the format. It will say, good on the lighting!, or some such silly thing.
If the but-reviewer is feeling generously just, she will add, Adam J.A. Cass writes a mean sentence, and won’t make any snide comments about multiple middle initials. The review will continue on the beauty of the language, the rhythm, the observation of dialect, slang and jargon (for what is the chat-room lingo if not a jargon?), note that it takes brio to put a real-life soap opera conducted exclusively in an online chatroom on stage with any success. If feeling journalistically inclined, the but-review will launch into a summary of the events in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, in 2003. Or it may provide a link instead. The story of a boy who tried to incite his own murder is extraordinary enough, and some points may be dispensed to Cass for building a complex web of deceit, through heavy accent, and not once underestimating his audience. All this because the critic, if she has any heart, will be aware of both the skill and the effort it takes to produce theatre of this standard (and it is a high standard) – particularly if independently (which precludes anyone from making anything but a loss, of money, of time).
And then it will happen: the crritic will say: but…, usually followed by an articulation of why the entire enterprise was a bad idea. Her reasons will have to do with the extraneous: with the history of theatre; with the local fashion, or recent artistic developments in the form; or with someone’s political position. Yet it will be an absolute argumentum ad hominem (ad teatrum), since it will declare it invalid by definition, not satisfied with judging whether it achieved what it set out to achieve, which in some circles is still the definition of good criticism.
Finally, the text will end on either a demi-shrug (to each their own), a battle call (let’s end this misery), or an admission of personal defeat in the face of popular taste. I am guilty of them all.
I Love You Bro is a perfectly wonderful thing to spend an evening watching – and I say this without irony – except that it would work beautifully on the radio. In one moment, Flanders says: I close my eyes… and I slowly open them again, and I am itchy with irritation, for the performer has eyes, the eyes are on stage, so is their opening-and-closing, and this redundancy, this inability of the dramatic text to assume the presence of a living, breathing body, makes it self-sufficient as text, as literature. It is a play fully upholstered with words, wall-to-wall language that doesn’t let the stage breathe anything but dialect-slang-jargon.
If to this conscientious crritic this automatically invalidates the project, it is because this crritic sees contemporary theatre in Australia as stuck between two paradigms: that of the still, language-based thing with some people performing it live, in front of us, ranging from a well-made play to statically reproduced Sarah Kane on the one hand; and of the visual dramaturgy, of silence and time and paradox and images, on the other. For this crritic, the first theatrical universe is exemplified by literary adaptations, poetry slams, radio dramas, West End, Melbourne Theatre Company, and is driven as much by actors who like to pronounce beautiful words and critics who graduated in literature as it is by an audience who likes to avoid embarrassment, who likes a screen between its seat and the performing body it has come to observe. The spectre of television and mainstream cinema hangs over this type of theatre like an ominous cloud, both because the audience knows it better and expects to see it staged, and because of the seep between the jobs that the performers, writers and directors may be trying to catch (television, after all, pays).
While text is seen as the history, the past, of the theatre (because it is the document that survives the best), it is but one part of this history, and it is the stream that has historically realised itself, in this crritic’s opinion, with complete success in the realm of television, of radio, and to lesser extent in the cinema. It is, in other words, something that the theatre, if there is to be such a thing as theatre, needs to outgrow.
But theatre, even in this country, is finding its way out of this redundancy, of explaining its own signs. In the other stream, while language survives as a semiotic layer, it tends to assume equal standing with the sound, images, etc, as an expressive system. We have seen some thrilling performances as a result: the Katz&Kohn productions, for example, a beautiful version of Mishima’s The Damask Drum by Liminal in 2006, the Black Lung works, but otherwise mostly circus, dance and what we vaguely call live art or performance. This is what makes them so riveting, so much more exciting at the moment: circus, dance and performance are so clearly not television, and not radio, that to a theatre idealist they offer a comforting answer to the nagging question of whether this form has a place left in the world. In this approach, theatre is not just text standing on stage, but a moment of encounter, with its own spatio-temporal reality, its own ethics and economics. If we want there to be theatre in a hundred years, existing as anything other than a relic of the past, this is what it will be made of.
In the philosophical battle over the importance of the text for the mise-en-scene, theatre theorists from the radicals such as Thies-Lehmann to the philocentrics like Anne Ubersfeld broadly agree that the dramatic text is fundamentally incomplete: the amount of justification given to the directorial tinkering may vary, but the text in itself is always only a part of the whole. Susan Bassnett articulates:
What we have, therefore, is a troubled and troubling notion of the play, for far from being complete in itself, like a novel or a poem, it is arguably only part of the total equation that is the play in performance. The reader of the play may experience a sense of something lacking, a lacuna that can only be filled when the play is made physical. The play as literature is distinct from the play in performance…
Writing such as Cass’s, beautifully realised texts, glean playwright awards from their strength as texts, complete and shiny and lacking the lacunae of something that does not satisfy a reader, something that needs to be chopped up into people, stage directions, staged events. What happens, as it happens with I Love You, Bro, is that the theatre itself is cleansed from these lovely words when this lack is exorcised. The moment something could exist on the radio, and could exist well on the radio, the text has become literature. And the moment that happens, nobody can argue that we could not have just as well stayed at home. And then, who will we blame in a hundred years…?
I Love You, Bro, by Adam J.A. Cass. Director Yvonne Virsik. Designer Jason Lehane. Composer Nick Wollan. Production Manager Sarah Grubb. Lighing and sound operations Stewart Birkinshaw Campbell or Angela Cole. Performed by Ash Flanders. Production by Malthouse Theatre and Three to a Room. Feb 10 – 28.
I am seeing this tonight…will report back soon…but i agree about your theory. I am looking for scripts right now and if i read one more tv family drama I will scream.
I want something that can make a visual, verbal, aural impact.
I want to see and make theatre that opens doors on new worlds using more than warm bodies on stage mouthing words! For the visual impact to support and engage the narrative (if there is one, for me there usually is)
wish me luck! we are considering taking a graphic novel as a starting point for out next piece of new work…I would like to hear your thoughts
I do agree some what, but I was riveted. If it was on radio we would loose two important things. Firstly we would not be in Jonny’s bedroom with him as the story unfolds and secondly we would not get to see Ash’s wonderful performance, which would be lovely to just hear, but is so much more engrossing and interesting live.
Hello. It’s probably unusual (and a bit wrong!) for the playwright to comment on these things, but I wanted give a bit of a cheer and say to you that this is a wonderful, thoughtful ‘review’.
I agree totally that theatre has to rely on much, much more than text, and when I write a play I’m also always trying to write a song, a dance, a poem, a painting, etc, etc… all at the same time. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t, but theatricality is always at the forefront. I suppose I’ve come to understand that words themselves can be so wonderfully theatrical, and all sorts of things hinge on a stress here, an accent there, a ‘d’ pronounced at the end of every ‘and’ in a paragraph and not in the next, a ‘shee-yit’ instead of a ‘shit’, etc. I started Bro with a true story, which was and is somewhat limiting, but this particular true story offered so so so much Truth; and what’s the heart of theatricality if not truth?
A few people have said that they think the play would work well (or even better) as a radio play… I disagree largely because I think that JohnnyBoy needs to be seen and MarkyMark needs to remain invisible in order for the whole thing to work. The power which Johnny gets from that fact alone is, I reckon, the secret to the manipulation (both his manipulation of MarkyMark and the play’s manipulation of the audience). That the audience gets to see John and never Mark, that Johnny gets to be the showman and show off to the world while his poor beguiled ‘Mark’ remains literally and eternally always in the dark is, I’m sure, a large part of the tragedy.
But who knows?
Oh, because people keep on sniggering, I also want to say that the ‘J. A.’ in my name is there mainly because I rather enjoy reminding myself that at the end of the day I really am a bit of a Jacass. There’s another more personal reason, too, but it’s mostly because if I’m going to allow myself the pretension of calling myself an ‘artist’ I may as well go the whole hog and turn my Joseph and Amos into a part of the show.
I hope I haven’t broken any rules writing this note.
All the best,
Adam J. A. Cass 🙂
Hi Adam, wonderful to have you here. The more conversation we have, the better, I think. We’re all tainted with conflicts of interest; the best we can do is state clearly what our many roles are. (The ethics of reviews is a much bigger minefield than the ethics of commenting on reviews, too!)
I am now thinking about my own little internet romances, and the infinite liberty to lie they allow, and wonder if the presence of JohnnyBoy on stage is not somehow antithetical to the beautiful dissolution of the physical self one gets to experience. The freedom not only to become a different person with each conversation (which we very well do in real life, from one situation to another), but an entire identity, body and life. The body in the room, the computer buzz, the swivel chair, the carpet, are completely not relevant to this intoxicating state, where you’re shredding the trust that the society is built upon into ashes and dust.
The reporting, again, was strangely unadventurous, nothing like the story of, say, much less exciting Corey Yellow Sunglasses Delaney. It was all Boy A, Boy B, wasn’t it? I remember reading about it at the time (in British press, complete with CCTV images of the murder, as a matter of course). It was all very much like reading about someone’s alcohol problem or divorce – and if Boy A is the biggest liar in the world, his glory was all private.
On the other hand, I am torn and in many minds about the role of the playwright – not least because I work with language myself. So torn, in fact, that I cannot think of a single thought to continue this paragraph with that I would really, truly believe as I type it. What one does with her/his writing talent in the theatre that needs something else is a quandary for me.
Compliments on a beautiful text, in any case, you living paradox in my books…
Goldele, I know what you mean. I am also so much more exciting live… but I can review perfectly well online. You know what I mean? (Hope I’m making sense, not merely sounding like I’ve been working like a mule and insomniac for days.) I’m not saying this play would be better on the radio – it wouldn’t – but it could exist, perfectly well, the way a dance could not exist on the radio. (Granted, a dance could exist on TV, but its reception would be drastically altered. Dance on film is considered to be a very separate thing, and for a good reason.)
Which graphic novel? You know I’m a purist of form, Goldela… Why would I approve?
Two actor friends of mine saw this show. They had a bad time as they couldn’t get past Ash Flanders’ attempt at an English accent. Another friend, not an actor but a theatre person, also had a big problem with it.
I saw the first production of the show which I thoroughly enjoyed when the Flanders spoke in his own accent, but I wasn’t game to go again based on the responses I mentioned.
My English friend thought it was a good fusion of, oh what did he say?, midlands and cockney. The accent question is a whole other field of mines, because I am not sure that it isn’t just another slant towards television.
I once aired my thoughts on the whole matter, after one particularly troubing production, in this mini-essay. But one could spend a lifetime ranting against incomplete accents: they are literally around every corner. These days I only take note if a Russian text is done in Slavic-accentuated English, or some similarly offensive thing.
Hello, on the accent I happen to know (as I think a number of people do) that the writer (Cass) was dead set against the accent being used. I think he would agree with you 100%, Jana, when you say it takes the show further towards television. I’ve heard this only second hand, but Cass apparently made it very clear that he wanted the play to stand as a play and that he hadn’t set it in the UK, but in a geographically ambiguous location. From what I hear this was a big controversy in the way this producition ended up being done. When I heard this it raised a lot of questions for me about how much say writers of plays get into things. Maybe he’ll answer this for himself, but I’ve heard that Cass was really upset by the accent as it overwhelmed so much of the poetry in the play. If that’s true, I feel sorry for him (I still think it was a good show, but the accent definitely dominated).
Hello Simon, and ooh!, yet another minefield: how much should the writer say? It may be an idea to write an introduction, the way Anthony Neilson does, and specify what the purpose of what is. (In Neilson’s case, he usually explains the associative logic and demands the local equivalent.) While I’m normally in favour of tough directorial choices, the ethics of staging a new play is a convoluted and complex question, isn’t it?