1. A really, really long preamble (scroll down for the reviews)
Contrary to the popular opinion, I really like a good story. There are exactly four entry points into the explanation why. The first is perhaps obvious, and I have mentioned it many times: human experience is organised narratively, we understand the world through story-telling (as anthropology and folklore studies tell us), we even experience our own lives as an unfolding story and, in fact, one of the more reliable signs of mental illness is the inability to understand one’s life as a coherent narrative. Stories are not pop, in other words, no more than oxygen or a functioning bladder would be.
The second relates to bedtime stories, my memories thereof. My parents reading me whatever was at hand, in their case large books of Greek myths. Jason and Medea being my favourite, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear. At one point my clever parents started recording these stories as they read them to me in bed, and then would present me with a pile of tapes to listen to instead. I don’t remember having any problems with that – recorded fairy tales, narrated by actors with beautifully rounded voices, sometimes with music and singing, were all the rage in children’s pop culture at the time. I eventually developed my own collection by recording, every evening at 19:45, the bedtime story on the national radio, and listening to it a little later, in bed. Great stuff: stories from Goscinny’s ‘Le petit Nicolas’ were only one of the highlights. Then came other stories, told by my parents: stories of life. My dad’s stories about his childhood in the country, my mum’s stories about her high school years, the graduation dance, and then even better stories of grown-up life: how they once moved from a tiny town in Istria back to Rijeka by driving an entire house, piece of furniture by piece of furniture, in their little Renault 4, even if it meant going up and down a tall mountain, on a narrow and windy road; how they went to Prague and had to spend the night in the car because all the hotels were booked; how they went to Italy to buy CDs and jeans, hiding money in their clothes because only a certain small amount could be taken out of Yugoslavia, how they once got searched because all the customs officers knew everyone crossing the border was lying, and how the customs officer let them go once he found the money, because he was more interested in seeing whether he could find it, than punishing anyone for it. These were great stories, and they didn’t spoil with repetition. I played my favourite tapes over and over again, knowing perfectly well that Medea becomes priestess after killing her children. I would ask my mum: „tell me the story of how your friend slept in and came to school with hair going in all directions!“, because I liked to hear my mum impersonate the class laughing, the teacher laughing, the boy saying „Sorry, I didn’t wake up on time“, the teacher laughing harder, and him saying, „But I really didn’t!“, confused. It was the telling that mattered, not the surprise. A good story was like a couch of sorts, getting better with every sitting.
The third is brief and psychologically revealing: I cure my existential crises, which are many and frequent, by watching Hollywood movies. It’s all very simple: I don’t have crises of meaning, those big ‘is this all there is to life?’ quandaries. I have small crises of doing: ‘how does one hit the right balance?’ The last time it happened, I saw The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 3D, and I came out in a much better shape than I went in.
The fourth is nostalgic, and will strike some as Euro-centric, or just maladapted. It’s alright. I’m not Australian, and if I say it so often it’s not because I feel the need to enforce the boundary between Australia and myself, but because people are genuinely unaware of the extent to which I am from somewhere else. This is possibly a result of not many people here knowing much about any place, certainly very little about Croatia, and also a result of me being white and reasonably fluent in English. I am probably not as lost in Australia as I would be in South Korea, say, but in South Korea the distance would be made easier by Koreans’ expectations of distance. I imagine, some attempts would be made to bridge the gap, attempts which Australians don’t make. In any case, I come from a place where people tell stories a lot more. Life is communicated through stories. Jokes, rather than the witty one-liners, take a more narrative form.
Dear Santa, in 2009 you took away from me my favourite singer, Michael Jackson, my favourite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favourite actress, Farrah Fawcett. I’m writing to you just to remind you that my favourite politician is Tony Abbott. Thanks!
Bear walks through the forest when he stumbles across a camping site. The campers run away, the bear starts rummaging through their things. And so he finds a packet of viagra and eats the whole box. He goes home, when after a little while he starts getting a hard-on! What to do?, nothing else is possible!, and our bear starts screwing the forest folk. Two days into the situation, the bear sees the fox. He wooes her and talks her into it. After the big shag, while they’re having a cigarette, the bear asks:
“Was I good?”
The fox answers:
“Yes, it was fine, but, man, you’re really hairy down there…”
The bear looks down and exclaims surprised:
“Ooh shit, I still have the rabbit on…”)
This communication of life through stories if all-pervasive: just like I found out about my parents through the stories they told of their life before me, so I find out about my friends these days. One of the highlights of my last trip home was my dear Srdjan telling me the long and exciting story of how one morning at 6am, just before going to work, the police arrived at his door and he got arrested for not showing up in court as a witness a few weeks earlier. Another dear friend had great stories about his workplace falling apart and the firm finally going under, everyone had great stories about the corruption in the government, and I had a few stellar ones of my own about divorce. The point is not simply to make someone dear to you laugh, although it is that as well: it is to inform, entertain and instruct, all at the same time. To tell a funny and sad story about a horrible divorce is to say: this is how it happened (the mechanics), this is what it was like in all its unique and horrifying glory (the anecdote), and this is what I think it meant (the conclusion). Just like those tapes from when I was little, these stories are enjoyable when reheated: I told the story of how my friend Srdjan got arrested at least another five times, so good it was.
Australians don’t do any of this. You people don’t tell stories about your life. You serve each other witty one-liners, you sigh and offer short, discrete summaries of what you’ve done and how, and you nod in return. I, in all honesty, have not yet discovered how people here transmit information about their lives, how they tell each other what’s going on in their relationships, in their families, at their work. Do you infer it all from the casual comments and try-hard one-liners? Are you people so skilled at reading between the lines that what results is a full story, with the funny detail and the moral and everything? Do you feel that you know the people mentioned in it by the end, your friend’s workmates and grandparents and classmates from high school? Do you feel that you know how the other person felt when this implied event happened? I know that my friend Srdjan is the sort of man who, when locked up at 6am with no explanation, tries to make friends with the evil-looking policeman, because he is trying to procure himself a lift back home when whatever is happening finishes, but also because he feels the need to convince the policeman that he is not a criminal; I know this because he told me. I know that my friend Rene’s grandpa is a nasty old man who remembers me as ‘that girl whose arse is like the back of a bus’, but I also know that Rene loves both me and his grandpa, because otherwise he wouldn’t have told me that particular story. Without the stories, how do you know who other people are? Is it all implied and, if so, how do you know when you’re wrong? How do you know that life is more complicated than you thought (for example)? How do you know that what you’re being shown (not told) is exactly what you’re seeing?
I miss stories because I like people who are honest about life, and Croatian people overwhelmingly are honest about life, their life, and then life generalised. I miss a story being told because it’s a good story, and a necessary one, not because it makes the narrator look good or because the punchline is great. I’m reading Aleksandar Hemon right now (Hemon is Bosnian-Ukranian) and his work is full of it: however post-modern (very) and however clever (very), Hemon’s writing is also humorous and full of soul, and it truts along like a steadfast train taking characters somewhere distinct, and there is a story in it to get immersed in even if the journey is manifestly intellectual. It reminds me of another extraordinary book, Bora Ćosić’s The role of my family in the world revolution, which is Serbian, ridiculously funny, and a story about surviving World War II. It is possible to be smart and simple at the same time, and that is how.
I was watching Invisible Atom and wondering if Australians don’t do narrative very well because they don’t tell stories about their life to their friends, and their jokes are short too.
Invisible Atom, by a Canadian company called ‘2b’, but largely a work of a single man, Anthony Black, is essentially a staged story. A first-person, single-voice story of Atom („not as in the apple, but as in the bomb“), an orphan who grows to be educated, rich, working in finance, a success story, and then has a crisis of conscience. One man, no props, some lighting changes, less than an hour on stage. A lot is woven into it: physics, history of economics, philosophy. (2b present themselves with these words: „Our work reflects the urban intellectual climate of our city, a city that boasts five universities.“ Melbourne boasts more universities than Toronto, but I have never heard a local theatre company talk of this as an asset.) Ultimately, however, what makes Invisible Atom a great evening at the theatre is that all this thinking is integral to the story, and it’s a great story, with twists where they should be, changes of heart whenever plot turns should decelerate, and moments of thinking when the accumulated information demands sifting through. It is thoroughly entertaining, informative and instructive, in the sense that I want to tell you exactly how he starts and how he gets to the end, the way I wanted to tell Srdjan’s story to everyone I know. But the details are too finely picked, the narrative too satisfying, and the thinking too crystalline, for me to do it justice.
If Invisible Atom is a finely crafted and balanced dish, akin to Fincher’s The Social Network, Richard Pettifer’s NO-SHOW, on the other hand, is a delicately woven wonder, very similar to what Spalding Gray achieves with a glass of water and some notebooks. Pettifer has so little to start with („I have no show“ is what he first says, and he is being entirely honest) that Invisible Atom, with its tight script and obvious months of development starts looking like a bloated whale in comparison, but the two one-man shows have a great deal in common nonetheless. They both spin a story almost without theatre: a little bit of light, a little bit of sound, some words. But where Invisible Atom tends towards Hollywood almost against its better judgement, instinctively – and this is fine, if you’ve read my rambling preamble – Pettifer turns the other way, towards a deconstructive anti-theatre, and tells a story without even perhaps knowing that that’s what he’s doing.
There is no fine weaving of theme and motif here, text and subtext. Pettifer tells the story of another theatre show, Smudged, which had a text, four actors, Twitter incorporated („Brecht and all that“), which Pettifer directed. The story is of the show we’re not seeing – resounding hints of Forced Entertainment, here, as Pettifer describes what happened on stage – of the process which led to the show, of the process failing, of the shows failing in their effects on the audience, but it’s ultimately Pettifer’s story, and he tells it with the same authenticity and investment with which my friend Goran told me of how his firm once again miraculously didn’t fail. One of the greatest problems of Australian theatre is this corrosive need to conflate a good story with some special event: death of a child, end of the world, massacre, war, history. NO-SHOW tells a simple story of how a piece of theatre was made, and there is more basic, essential human truth in it than an average recent year of Australian dramatic writing would muster if piled up in one large heap. If it’s gripping, engaging and rewarding, it is because it tells how it happened, shapes anecdotal and amusing detail with great gusto, and finishes touching upon the question of what it meant that it happened. It finds its structure, its skelleton, in a deeply personal place – it holds together because it makes sense to the narrator – and in that sense resembles the autobiographical works of Spalding Gray, works which showed a deep and strong internal coherence despite Gray’s own chaotic process.
Here, another anecdote: I learned almost nothing while studying theatre – theatre studies were a place where, by and large, there were no attempts to learn nor to teach – except that Spalding Gray got it right. One day, we watched him on DVD, talking about his doctor, his mother, losing sight, going to Cambodia, being neurotic, and so on, for hours, and then had to go away and write and perform a personal monologue. Every single person in the room came back with an excellent piece of dramatic writing, and an excellent performance thereof. People with no training in writing and barely any training in performance did a series of short performances that were absolutely top notch, talking about things that were personal, funny, paradoxical, but always interesting, interesting because they made sense to the person telling. NO-SHOW gets it right in the same way. Even though it looks like a very Pirandellian essay on what theatre is, it really functions as a story.
Both shows, no need to stress, are really worth seeing. Both are ending very soon after really short runs.
Invisible Atom is presented by FULL TILT and showing at The Arts Centre. Ends on Saturday, 12 February.
NO-SHOW is showing at La Mama and ends on Sunday, 13 February.