Reviewbit: in the absence of sunlight

Local theatre has been experimenting with reception studies and things-that-make-theatre-not-film, such as site-specific performances, interactive performances, and doing things to the audience, for a little while now, and you would think we would have moved past taking such gestures as meaningful in and of themselves. Taking one person on a little tour round North Melbourne, as in the absence of sunlight does, I assumed that A is for Atlas, the company behind it (who have treated us to a solid take on Heiner Muller’s Quartet this year), would have thought through the possible problems. Eg, how will the single audience member feel about being walked around and spoken to in quite confidential terms? Will they get bored? What if they try to walk out? What if they feel they can’t walk out? What is the purpose of it all anyway?

None of those questions (and more) got answered by the one-on-one walkabout, which was not only batshit-boring, but also awkward in the manner of bad dates. The similarity, I shudder as I write, was in more than just my lack of power to cut it short. The sole performer, an otherwise beautiful woman who led me around a pub in that actorly trance in which my presence didn’t seem to matter much (why pretend to be interactive then?, I wonder), performed a quasi-confessional talk, which reminded me not little of conversations one occasionally has with insane people, and held exactly the same level of intrigue, which is to say little. Her deeply self-involved mimicry of conversation was not dissimilar from the stock-standard behaviour of a woman working very hard to be seductive: self-absorbed, even self-consciously poetic, always looking behind her back, and being charming but sort of self-gratifyingly so, emitting a kind of onanistic purr that makes the other side wonder whether their presence is even required for this game to go on.

So I switched to my usual bad-date survival mode (which is also how you deal with crazy people): I watched her carefully talk herself into a happy climax, unresponsive to her antics and thinking about what I was going to have for dinner, until she either cut the performance short to kick me out faster, or got to the natural end of one particularly inconclusive dramaturgy.

At this point, it’s worth remembering Chris Goode’s Cat Test for live art, still the classic of its genre:

The Cat Test can perhaps best be thought of as a development of the old miners’ practice of using a canary to test for the presence of carbon monoxide. (Not to be onfused with the ‘pop’ test for carbon dioxide, for which you insert a lit canary into a test tube, etc.) The Cat Test discloses liveness: an ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down — the structures of the event, not of the cat — then the event is said to be ‘live’, and is therefore disqualified from the Hampstead Theatre. If the Cat Test produces only the spectacle of Richard Griffiths shouting at the cat, a ‘let’ may be played.

As the cat of this live performance, I felt my presence rather underappreciated.

This sort of misthought failure gives a bad name to live art/hybrid/alternative/performance, which may explain why we still don’t have a short snappy name for the form. Not all is gloom, though. By making a few stretched analogies, we have just come to a litmus test of a bad date. Would it be any different if you weren’t there? *

* This may be the right moment to announce that Guerrilla Semiotics is seriously considering establishing the First Australian Award for a Hatchet Job, in the honour of Dale Peck, to advance the art of well-said controversy in this country. As you may be able to read between these lines, even mean-spirited critics like myself have come to struggle with phrasing damnation.

in the absence of sunlight. Artists: Tamara Searle, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy, Dayna Morrissey, Danny Pettingill, Ivanka Sokol, Xan Colman. Fringe Hub – Foyer – Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
521 Queensberry Street North Melbourne. 24 Sep – 11 Oct.

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11 thoughts on “Reviewbit: in the absence of sunlight

  1. Paul says:

    Who was your performer? I saw this (for want of a better verb) on Friday and would be interested if you had the same person.

  2. Jana says:

    I’m not sure I should tell. I was mean enough without pointing fingers at names&surnames…

    Why, who was your performer, Paul? And what were they like?

  3. Paul says:

    I feel bad naming names as well now… but I will. I had Tamara and honestly didn’t know what to make of the whole thing. I was sent to review it and perhaps it’s my own inexperience as a reviewer showing through but I tended to look for what did work rather than what didn’t.

    Your review made me think that perhaps I should have been quicker to dismiss the whole experience as a waste of time which, immediately afterward, I did think it was. But in the 3 or 4 days that have followed I’ve had so many conversations with people where they were so genuinely intrigued by my account of what happened that I wonder if it wasn’t all bad.

    I agree that they should have responded more to my input. The most ridiculous moment being:

    Her: Have you been here before?
    Me: No.
    Her: Oh, really?
    Me: Yeah.
    Her: I’ve seen you around here sometimes…

    Just ignoring my input altogether… but it wasn’t all like that. I fear my review (submitted but yet to appear) was far too generous.

  4. Jana says:

    What an exceptionally candid response. Thank you, Paul.

    I think, quite honestly, that we reviewers move back and forth, or in a spiral, as we get more experienced, and that’s a good thing. It takes a while for one to learn the rules of a genre to the point of saying “well, that was just bad”. I’ve had the good fortune of being taken places by a performer for years now – mainly because theatre in Europe is more adventurous – and occasionally it hits the right spot and teaches you what works. There’s no glory in being dismissive without understanding how a show functions (great example being Cameron Woodhead’s review of 3xSisters earlier this year).

    The problem arises when critics aren’t getting educated about their form, and the same mistakes are lauded again and again – for example, in the critical reception of Chunky Move and Lucy Guerin Inc in Australia.

  5. I saw this last week. I didn’t think it was “bad” at all – rather a quite beautiful and delicate exploration of many things – fiction, self, reality, performance, presence. Not to say an intriguing way of adapting a short story (Marjorie Barnard’s The Persimmon Tree). I guess a lot depends on how prepared one is to enter the reality created by the performer.

  6. …just caught this comment, so an afterthought – Lucy Guerin and Chunky Move are critically respected in many places, not just Australia, and in fact perform more overseas (Europe and the Americas) than they do here. And they won the biggest dance award in New York, the Bessie, for Tense Dave. So I wouldn’t put their popularity down to simple parochialism.

  7. Jana says:

    Hi, Alison,

    I see the point you’re making, and I’ll be very interested in reading your review.

    I am passionate about what we, for a lack of better name, currently call ‘hybrid/alternative performance’, and I want to see it grow and develop in this country. I am interested, enormously, in ways theatre-makers approach their audience, and I couldn’t see this show as doing anything other than a little bit of window-dressing with the way they took us around and apparently conversed, yet did not, not really. The audience is such a fundamental part of theatre (half of it at least, you might say), that a show that understands the performance, but not the audience reaction, cannot be a successful one in my books.

    This, of course, is my bias.

    As of Lucy Guerin and Chunky Move, I keep meaning to do a global overview of their critical reception. I’m aware that they tour, but I think local critics will always be in a better position to assess the work of these two companies, simply by sharing the space and having greater interaction with the companies. I am quite frank about the fact I don’t find either of the companies exciting (have not since Glow), and none of the overseas critics I most respect (you know, my pantheon of critic gods) have ever written a word on either.

  8. Chris Boyd says:

    Rumours of your hatchet job have been *slightly* exaggerated.

    Funnily enough, my (still to be published) review ends “as intimate as a first date.” Clearly, my date with Tamara was better than yours. (We went well over 50 minutes… I give good audience!)

    The only flaw in her performance was her mispronunciation of Castlemaine, which no native would ever start with a “car” sound. :-)

    Bein’ a girlie swot, I read The Persimmon Tree a coupla times before our date. (Hey, I even wore some rather elegant black clothing!)

    Unlike you, I found that my contributions were dealt with coolly. Certainly not dismissively. I was actually admiring of her facility in swapping between improv and text. And she dealt with my interrogation pretty well.

  9. Jane Montgomey Griffiths says:

    Hi Jana,
    I’m entering this discussion new to the melbourne arts blog scene, but pretty experienced in reviewing and performing overseas. As such, it’s interesting to see this discussion on the parochialism of reviewing here – certainly true for some reviewers, but emphatically not for all. And I’m wary of your implication that finding pleasure in ‘in the absence of sunlight’ indicates ignorance of the ‘rules’ and potentials of this genre of performance. I’ll be honest, this isn’t my favourite performance genre, but that’s the nature of the beast and my discomfort with it shows why it can be important and effective. Generally, when I attend this type of work, I find myself vacillating between my different personas as
    academic/performer/spectator, and awkwardly juggling my levels of engagement and embarrassment, activity and passivity – but that confusion of identity and engagement is precisely the point of this form of art – it’s about shifting frames, subjectivities and interactions. It’s all about reception. So if, Paul, you didn’t know what to make of it, I’d respectfully suggest you find a way to validate that response. It’s ok not to know. Even as a reviewer. And the most refreshing and informative reviews are often those in which the reviewer doesn’t try to show off his cleverness, but interrogates, articulates and contextualises her or his perplexity. Don’t start doubting the worth of your initial reaction because you read another reviewer who disagrees with your views (or has a more adamant opinion). Similarly, Jana, while I have respect for your reaction, I’d suggest a more circumspect approach to the possibilities that the piece prompted other, just as valid responses. That is, after all, the point of the genre…As for me, once I gave into the form, I found the whole piece delicate, poetic and strangely moving. I enjoyed the small and intricate surprises hiding around the room. I loved blowing bubbles on the balcony and discussing my 3 year old’s joy at doing just that. And I was strangely moved by noticing, and being noticed by, people on the other side of the street and feeling an odd connection to a loneliness I’d felt many years ago. Not earth shattering stuff, but touching and poignant. A tender 30 mins of difference. And praise, too, to Tamara’s performance – not an easy thing to pull off, and done, in my date, with charm and assurance.

  10. Jana says:

    Hello Jane, Chris, I’ll try to respond to your comments as thoroughly as a thoroughly exhausted person can… it’s a big week for me workwise, blogwise, studywise and future-plan-wise.

    Jane, I was commenting on Paul’s remark that perhaps he “should have been quicker to dismiss the whole experience as a waste of time”. Since there is no right or wrong answer in situations of art, there is no imperative to be praising or dismissive, which you’ve said with perhaps greater clarity yourself (I am a very tired person these days).

    As of ‘tender 30 minutes of difference’, this is what I wonder. I am occasionally faced with art that clearly tries to make the spectator aware of something often overlooked, but I often wonder about the implied hubris of that gesture: how often do we really overlook things? I often talk to people on the street, and a regular portion of them is insane. It is, also, strangely moving, touching and poignant. (I also remember an art exhibition, a little while ago, which featured only artistic variations on architectural plans. Architectural plans are extremely beautiful in themselves, I remember thinking: there is no need to dress them up as art. To go against Duchamp, it makes me wonder about whether we are genuinely expected to overlook the beauty of every common urinal.)

    Chris, were there rumours of my hatchet job? What a strange honour.

    The interesting question that arises from your reference to ‘The Persimmon Tree’, of which I wasn’t aware – because it was in no way referenced in the complimentary material, or the show itself – is about the expected prior knowledge or ignorance that a theatre piece works with. I often wonder about the certainty one should try to achieve in that respect: whether it should, or could be made clear to the audience that there is knowledge they need, or knowledge they need to ignore.

    For example, radical reworkings of classics, or postmodernist art of almost any kind, demand prior knowledge of material referenced for the experience to be meaningful; if a pastiche is not referenced as such, the entire thing semantically collapses. Jerome Bel’s Jerome Bel, or Heiner Muller’s Hamletmaschine make no sense without prior knowledge of Hamlet.

    On the other hand, an enormous amount of theatre presupposes ignorance: most clearly works that plagiarise, or steal ideas from another place. Benedict Andrews’s The City consciously introduces a foreign innovation into the local theatrical landscape: it does not assume that we would otherwise recognise its conventions (I don’t consider this to be a flaw). More simply, a ‘straight’ production that ‘serves the play well’ assumes our ignorance of the text (or assumes we have not seen it done already), because it understands its role to be bringing the text to the audience.

    Then there are theatre productions that assume we have not yet tired of the same old conventions.

    How do we solve this? I remember Martin Ball disliking Anita Hegh’s The Yellow Wallpaper (a masterful production in its own right) because he thought it misinterpred the short story it was based on. If you are familiar with Ultima Vez, Splintergroup’s recent work looks hugely derivative. Then, I saw an overhead-production-in-public-space in Vienna 2008 that didn’t know one of the many things Back to Back have been doing for years. Which one of these is right?

  11. Paul says:

    Hi Jane,

    Thanks for your comments. In my review I did find a way to interpret my own uncomfortable and confused response so am now a lot happier with that than I was initially. I suppose my reaction to Jana’s review was that it named all of my misgivings about the piece so forcefully I wondered if I had been too eager to forgive them.

    I’ll try to stand my ground a bit more in future :)

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