Review: Daniel Schlusser Ensemble: M+M (way overdue)

While nominally based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Daniel Schlusser’s M+M does not attempt to represent the text: a perhaps wise decision given that the novel is arguably – more than 500 theatrical versions later – fundamentally unstageable.

Unwieldy and expansive in both size and scope, Master and Margarita weaves three narratives wildly disparate in theme and tone: a hilarious grotesque in which the Devil with his entourage (including the vodka-swilling cat Behemoth) wreaks havoc on the 1930s Moscow; the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, seen from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, troubled both by his conscience and a raging headache; and the story of Margarita, who makes a pact with the Devil to save her lover, the imprisoned author of a novel about Christ in the anti-religious Soviet Union.

It is a perplexing work and has been read as an hommage to Goethe’s Faust, a denunciation of the human condition under Communism, a Menippean satire on Moscow’s literary circles, a Tolstoyan exploration of Christian ethics, an absurdist grotesque in the vein of Gogol and Kharms, and an occult fantasy, richly informed by Freemason and medieval symbology.

Any familiarity with the novel, however, may be a hindrance more than an aid: M+M uses Bulgakov’s life and work merely as the starting point for an original theatrical exploration. Those searching for familiar characters and plot points may fail to grasp the peculiar beauty of this production.

This review was published in Guardian Australia on 14 October 2013. Read the whole review here.

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RW: Hofesh Shechter: Sun (way overdue)

Shechter’s choreographies are distinctly masculine: angry and political, they are socially and emotionally situated in the contemporary world. With hard and heavy bodies and momentous shifts of weight, they carry echoes of Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva – the company for which he formerly danced – but are more overtly narrative and theatrical. Also a percussionist, Shechter’s self-composed scores strongly shape these pieces with their relentless rhythmic pulse and propulsion.

Australian audiences have been able to follow Shechter’s work closely – while the choreographer is based in the UK, he has made frequent visits to Australian festivals, from early short works Uprising and In Your Rooms, to his 2011 work Political Mother. That show suggested Shechter was still struggling with the transition to long form, and that issue remains apparent in Sun.

This review was published in Guardian Australia on 13 October 2013. Read the whole review here.

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Adelaide Festival (somewhat overdue)

Dear reader,

At the beginning of March, I went to Adelaide Festival as a member of the Guardian Australia team, and I spent six or seven intense days writing, interviewing, podcasting, and occasionally eating and sleeping. It was a wonderful, and very worthwhile experience. During these few days, I produced a miraculous amount of writing.

I reviewed Adelaide Festival shows:
- Sadeh 21, by Batsheva Dance Company, one of the best performance works I’ve since in my entire life. Like all best dance, it was both indescribable and sublime.
- The Seagull, by State Theatre Company, which was unfortunately very poorly made. I felt cornered by this production, which I could not rate very highly, and I wondered why it was included in the Festival program – it couldn’t compete with the high calibre of international work. The Seagull is such an important play for the history of acting: not just because Chekhov is famous for extremely nuanced naturalism, but also because Stanislavsky practically developed his famed ‘method’ (you know, like ‘method’ acting?) while directing the first serious premiere of The Seagull. To this day, Moscow Art Theatre has a seagull in its emblem to mark the importance of this play to its artistic project. So, you cannot stage this play with imprecise acting, with a lack of nuance. There are playwrights and plays in which very careful naturalistic acting is not that important: Brecht, for example; expressionists; Moliere; even Beckett. But Chekhov dies on stage if the acting is not fine. If you take nuance out of Chekhov, there is nothing left to talk about.
- Blackout, by Stone/Castro Project. I love physical theatre, but it requires extremely well-rounded performers, trained both in movement and acting. This work was more ambitious, I felt, than many of the performers in its big cast could do. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and it was worth our while, because a highly ambitious work that doesn’t quite fulfill its promise is almost always more interesting than a successful work of modest ambition.
- Continuum, by Australian String Quartet. This was a really great experience, because 1) both the program and ASQ were amazing, 2) I probably appreciated it beyond the average because I just very rarely get to attend classical music recitals these days, 3) I never ever review classical music, and 4) I realised I do actually know a thing or two about it.

At Adelaide Fringe, I saw:
- Glory Box, by Finucane & Smith. I find Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith’s bizarre burlesque a bit hit-and-miss. They are such an unavoidable presence in Melbourne, so definitive of alternative burlesque here, that one by necessity sees a lot of their work, and it’s uneven both in concept and in execution. But this one worked perfectly for me. Perhaps because I had just returned from Western Europe, and was a bit fatigued by the world in which women with armpit hair are inconceivable, it just felt great to experience a terrifying striptease in which milk and cornflakes became horror props, a diva in a dress with a sequined vagina pattern, and similar over-the-top feminine self-expression. It was genuinely cathartic. (As I get older, and I put less and less effort in not looking like a boy – because I naturally look like a boy – the more I genuinely enjoy silly femininity. Perhaps because I feel less oppressed by it? Who knows.)
- Run Girl Run, by Grit Theatre, which I thought was simple, but clever, but simple. In Australia, live art and performance basically happen in Sydney, which has a rich living performance culture centred around the university programs and Performance Space. Melbourne has never had that. As a result, ‘live art’ and ‘performance’ in Melbourne tends to be made by artists basically trained in theatre, not specifically in performance. The works often seem a bit naive, a bit unaware of the history of the form, their own artistic context. This was definitely one such work. Nonetheless, it was good. But simple.

I interviewed:
- Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company. I thought Naharin would be a stern and scary person, because I’ve found his choreographies cerebral and abstract – but he was genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I was so taken by his description of his work. Dancers who get to train with Batsheva Dance Company are very, very lucky people (I think).
- Alexander Devriendt of Ontroerend Goed. The interview overran by 2 hours, I bummed cigarettes off Alexander, we were talking about how to make a theatre show about love, I told him how abused I feel about O.G.’s show ‘Internal’… It was a slightly insane process, but I was very glad to have a chance to chat with one of my biggest idols of contemporary theatre. I am a huge fan of Ontroerend Goed, and it was amazing to be able to quiz Devriendt on his process, motivations, and ideas.
- Robert Lepage, of himself. I had such a good time talking to Lepage, who has such an interesting mind – I mean, we were talking about the birth of existentialism, the origin of theatre in communion, about urban sprawl… – that I really wanted to revisit his work, which I had often found maximalist, spread rather thinly. I am now looking forward to seeing his works with a better insight into the man that he is.

On the podcast, you can hear me:
- on episode foud, discussing Batsheva’s Sadeh21, and
- on episode five, interviewing Sharon Draper from the Australian String Quartet, and summarising my experience of the whole festival.

And I also did a video interview with Paolo Castro, with Bill Code, but you can’t see or hear me, I am just there.

A critic’s code of practice

Just to remind us all that this is not exactly unexamined territory:

“Theatre is among the most interactive of the performing arts. As privileged spectators, theatre critics share with audiences and performers the same time and space, the same individual and collective stimuli, the same immediate and long-term experiences. As working theatre commentators, we seek in our individual ways to articulate these interactions as a frame for discussion and as a meaningful part of the interpretation and significance of theatrical performance. The International Association of Theatre Critics therefore urges its members worldwide to accept as an agreed starting point the core professional guidelines articulated in this document.

1. As writers and thinkers in the media and/or as scholars connected to various branches of academic discourse, theatre critics should always remain aware of normative professional practices, respect artistic and intellectual freedom, and should write in what they believe to be the best interests of the ideals of the art of theatre.
2. Theatre critics should recognize that their own imaginative experience and knowledge is often limited and should be open to new ideas, forms, styles and practice.
3. Theatre critics should speak truthfully and appropriately while respecting the personal dignity of the artists to whom they are responding.
4. Theatre critics should be open-minded and reveal (as appropriate) prejudices – both artistic and personal – as part of their work.
5. Theatre critics should have as one of their goals a desire to motivate discussion of the work.
6. Theatre critics should strive to come to the theatrical performance in their best physical and mental condition, and should remain alert throughout the performance.
7. Theatre critics should try to describe, analyze, and evaluate the work as precisely and specifically as possible, supporting their remarks with concrete examples.
8. Theatre critics should make every possible effort to avoid external pressures and controls, including personal favours and financial enticements.
9. Theatre critics should make every possible effort to avoid situations which are or which can be perceived to be conflicts of interest by declining to review any production with which they are personally connected or by serving on juries with which they are personally connected.
10. Theatre critics should not do anything that would bring into disrepute their profession or practice, their own integrity or that of the art of the theatre.”

IATC.org

A critic’s code of practice

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My body – after #1000thLIVE

From 5am till 11am, on 22 Mrach 2014 (Saturday/Sunday), I live-blogged about the live streaming of Forced Entertainment’s ‘And on the Thousandth Night…’ here:

http://1000th.exeuntmagazine.com/

The following was written just after the performahce finished, thus not making the conceptual cut. It’s not a review, not a reflection, it’s live thought, and so it only makes sense to me to post it straight away, close to the time of writing.

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My body is hungry. I have drunk two pots of tea and peed dozens of times. I was extremely sleepy for twenty out of the last thirty minutes – but not the last ten. My body is coming out of a shock, like a long flight, like meditation, like exercise. I have already forgotten what happened to it, I can only feel the physical imprint of the experience.

Durational always gets the easiest in the last hour, because it is no longer taken for granted. I am alert because I want to see the end. And yet I always miss the exact moment somehow: I blink, it’s gone. Roll credits, applause.

Is this against our rules? Not if we can agree that the performance ends only when we stop thinking about it, as half of that famous phrase goes. I wish there was a ritual of exit from the theatre, like there is one for entrance. If we could be directed towards the ritual of debrief.

What was it? Perhaps up to… five hundred?, a thousand?… unfinished stories in a row. Themes and variations, like jazz: dead children, monkeys, kings. Remember the orgasm shop?

It’s not just jazz that feels like this. Techno parties feel like this. One remembers them in a haze: between hour X and hour Y it all came together really well.

I really wanted to hear more about curled sandwiches sitting in the window at 5 to 5, knowing they would be thrown in the bin at 5pm, when the cafe closed.

Durational Blogging

In a very unusual turn of events, almost exactly 5 hours from now, I will be one of the bloggers that will come together, united by the forces of Exeunt Magazine and Forced Entertainment, to critically and bloggingly respond to the live streaming (on the internet) of Forced Entertainment’s 6-hour performance And on the thousandth night….

Which means: Forced Ent will be performing, in Lisbon, for six hours. Six of us will be blogging, in Melbourne, London and Berlin, for six hours. The result (what result?, the process!) can be followed here, here and here.

But first I will try to catch a few hours’ sleep. Good night!

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Public Discourse Analysis Series #03: Tone Argument 101

Already covered, but here is a great example of how to deflect a discussion in one swift gesture by rephrasing it, rhetorically, as a question entirely of tone and emotion.

toneargument101

Read the original article: Jacqueline Maley: March in March: Two sides to the story we didn’t run

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Vale James Waites

James Waites passed away when I was on my way to Sydney, two weeks ago. When I left Melbourne, he was still alive – in the sense that we didn’t know yet that he wasn’t – and by the time I had arrived in Sydney, the news of his death had become known. The message I sent him on Facebook went from being the most normal thing, to something obscene.

Today at 3pm, in NSW there will be a memorial for James Waites, organised by the incredible Augusta Supple, who has tended to the entire business of concluding James’s life after his death: wrapping unimportant things up and securing the preservation of the important ones. Augusta has been incredible throughout this, and I hope that we will all be blessed with a friend like her when our time comes.

I called Augusta when I realised what had happened, and asked if there was anything I could do; I was in Sydney, after all. She said: “Maybe you can write a little something on your blog. James thought so highly of you. He loved the time when you guys ran Spark Online, he really saw in it the future of criticism. It was a great time for him: he felt he was a part of a community of critics. He saw you as this brave young critic, a young gun, snapping at the heels of Alison Croggon, keeping her honest, the way he thought of himself as snapping at the heels of Harry Kippax, keeping him honest.”

It took me a really long time to write anything about James that felt in any way worthy of him. Or of my sadness. It is the day of his memorial, and I still haven’t managed to write anything I’m not ashamed of. I’m writing this hoping the words won’t let me down, because it would be so unworthy of James to be late to his memorial.

I met James through his blog. I hadn’t known of him, but older critics did. When I met him in Sydney – and I met him many times, because, for a short period of time in 2008-2010, I used to go to Sydney a lot – I was always struck by just how generous he was. James was a kind of mentor to me, because, even though we lived in different cities, I got so much from him: he was generous with his time, with his knowledge of theatre, his knowledge of theatre history, his knowledge of people. I sat in his beautiful small apartment near Belvoir, and leafed through book after book of newspaper clippings, photographs, essays, while James would tell me stories. I helped him with his blog, and he would mention me on it. We discussed theatre across our respective blogs – although less and less, the less time I had to come to Sydney.

James is one of those critics with whom I never disagreed. Everyone has those: people we respect so much that, even when we cannot see what they see, cannot feel what they feel, we wish we could, because it seems like so much fun, like such a great experience. He had a fantastic ability to let himself be swept along by art: and when he couldn’t do it, because the art was a bit shit, you could hear the disappointment in his voice. ‘Why is this not better?’, he seemed to demand, ‘we could be having such a great time right now!’

Blog, I think, was a great medium for James, because he could take his time: to agree and disagree with the artist, with himself, to make lovely little jokes about ‘Glitter and Fluffy’, say (this will forever be my favourite thing James ever wrote), to expand on what he really cared about, without the constraints of the newspaper format to stay on topic. James knew the topic well enough not to have to stick to it.

And now I am stuck in a world in which a piece is inexplicably missing, like that chunk of island in Norway, which I saw a couple of days ago and agreed with completely.

I really loved James. I am so fucking sad he’s gone. I am so fucking sad that I just missed the opportunity to see him. It would have been the first time in two or three years. Maybe, just maybe, some other amazing project would have been cooked up between us, and James would have felt like hanging around a bit longer. But of course we all think that, don’t we?

I am in tears while I’m writing this, and I’d like to think that James would like the honest human drama of it all.

On Petra von Kant and disgruntled bitching

A particularly mean review of Gary Abrahams’ production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by Byron Bache for Herald Sun inspired a response from Daniel Clarke, of Theatre Works, to the Sun, followed by a response from the Herald sun arts editor, Sally Bennett.

Clarke:

I just felt there was a lack of respect for the artists and independent theatre as a whole. Sensationalist remarks undermine the value of the review. You can be critical of something but you’ve also got to be accurate and respectful. There is another way of talking about someone’s emotional range without comparing them to a Hills hoist. There are other ways of talking about people without reducing them to an object.

Bennett:

I am not required to get it. You are required to explain it to me, to connect with me, so that I do get it and, hopefully, have the kind of experience that makes me seek you out again.

Somewhere down the rabbit hole of Facebook, a discussion happened, and I wrote something that I will soon lose if I don’t file it here, on these pages. So here it is, my two cents:

I think reviews such as the one above are important to have, but not for reasons stated by Bache. They are important for a few reasons.

1) Theatre criticism is emotional labour. We all try to remain objective, and should be mostly objective, but experiencing art involves emotions, and every so often one is swayed by great ecstasy or dismay, and sometimes this emotion outweighs the objective judgement enough to fill the whole review. What these reviews then lose in information, they gain in emotional, erm, information. Of course, no critic should write only from emotion. But to sanction a critic from having the occasional emotional outburst is both to tell them to rein in their emotional openness to the art – openness to both profound insight and irritation – and to deny that, if art has the power to provoke deep emotions, we must accept that deep annoyance is on that spectrum.

2) Criticism is not in-house feedback, and not just audience guidelines, but forms part of that dialogue we call culture. As such, it has the responsibilities of being both truthful, non-deceptive, non-navel-gazing and engaging. For criticism to do its purpose, it really must be interesting, on top of being non-incorrect. The number of comments here, the follow-up article in The Herald Sun, and the fact that multiple people have forwarded me this review, all signal to me that this review has succeeded in being interesting. Since a few people forwarded it to me because they felt their experience of the production validated by this review means it is not entirely untruthful or deceptive. And if we get proof of non-theatre-goers reading it and enjoying it, then it is non-navel-gazing, is bringing theatre to the attention of the wider audience, and is ultimately good for us all.

3) The reason why these reviews are so popular to read is because their emotional momentum propels the reader through (I think), and the purity of the emotion gives them a unifying focus that reviews otherwise often lack.

4) Ultimately, as in everything, we can only objectively engage with the content, not the tone of the review. If the review is lying/incorrect, that is what discredits it. The emotional content makes it a good read. It also gives us information as to how at least one person felt the experience. But to debate with this review must start with debating the accusations/critique, otherwise we are not debating, we are silencing.

If I were to engage with the tone of this review, which I would in good faith describe as disgruntled bitching, I think the most interesting thing to note would be how one deals with the ongoing emotional toil of going to the theatre and having to have deep affective responses for money. It’s a question worth asking, because a critic – a good critic – is neither an unfaltering cheerleader nor a merciless marker of essays and assigner of points. A critic, like a teacher, a psychotherapist, or a dramaturg, comes to their work invested, prepared to give to the work, to the experience, but with the added difficulty of then having to turn their emotional response into constructive, coherent, articulated feedback – to other audience members and to the artists. This is hard work. It requires both emotional openness and a preparedness to then dissect one’s own emotional response. Imagine if prostitutes gave a feedback session afterwards, because it is a little bit like that. And not the other way around, because critics come into the theatre building without an agenda, without a plan.

Emotional labour is labour that cannot be done with a closed heart, that requires an empathetic – or at least sympathetic – response, and this emotional component to the work is not only unpaid, it often marks the whole job as unworthy of being paid much, because our culture sees emotions as a mark of femininity, thus lesser in value. (Typical forms of emotional labour are caring jobs (aged care, nursing, child care, teaching) and hospitality and other service jobs.) The disgruntled bitching is an interesting response to a work of art, because it’s both authentic, and stronger than forgetting about the unpleasant experience, but is also, to some extent, self-defensive. The same way in which hospitality workers tell jokes about awful customers, secretaries share stories of bosses who harass them, the way my co-workers, when I worked in a restaurant with a terrible boss prone to fits of rage, made cruel jokes about the man who paid us. It is self-defensive because how else does one process an unpleasant experience? By despairing? By quitting the work? By walking out? I sometimes wonder how theatre practitioners – plenty of whom I have witnessed bitching disparagingly about artworks – understand critics. As full human beings? Or merely as vessels of other people’s humanity?

Of course there are critics who don’t get it. Even worse, there are critics who don’t try to get it, critics happy enough to dismiss entire genres, aesthetic families and art forms because it’s not their thing, critics who don’t read up on the work and then complain of its opaqueness, and I think they don’t do their work properly and are poor critics. But this is a sin of another kind: it is lack of interest in, and openness to, work. To be upset and disgruntled at the end of a theatre show is something else entirely: it is openness that backfired, openness that felt unpleasant.

And I challenge theatre-makers everywhere: would you like a racist to see a work that condemns racism? How do you expect the racist person to react? How do you imagine this encounter? Am I the only one, seriously the only one, who sees disgruntlement as fundamental to one’s encounter with art?

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(Not Quite) RW: The Worst of Scottee / Theatreworks, Midsumma

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One of the gay men with whom I saw this performance later told me that gay panic is still acceptable defense for murder in many places, including Queensland. When using ‘gay panic’ as a defense, “the defendant claims that they have been the object of homosexual romantic or sexual advances. The defendant finds the advances so offensive and frightening that it brings on a psychotic state characterized by unusual violence.” In 1997 in Queensland, a man was acquitted of murder and sentenced only for manslaughter of a gay man because, the judge said, the victim’s unwanted, non-violent sexual approach “represented “provocation of a very grave kind” and would cause “some ordinary men [to] feel great revulsion.”. Murder became manslaughter because “an ‘ordinary’ man in his position would have reacted in this way.”

The Worst of Scottee was a first-person narrative of a gay adolescence and childhood, notable not just for its extraordinary comic voice, and for its precise, sophisticated direction, but above all for the way it gradually stripped the dramatic persona of a camp, showy, attitude-ful performer of all of that glitzy, queen-y stuff, stuff as in frills and gestures and vocal work, and revealed, with a candidness that I later realised is somewhat rare in the mainstream heterosexual universe, some of that incredible, traumatic pain that marks so many gay people of a certain age as to be… how to put it… assumable. It did it gradually, with immense tact, because it hurt nonetheless.

Afterwards, another gay man, younger and from a liberal country, wondered why a teenager would, after some confusing but consensual gay sex, accuse another of rape. The rest of us were sort of surprised by his surprise. I have seen and heard so many stories of people who engage in gay stuff and gay feelings and then have violent, untethered, blaming, confused, unpredictable responses. The hurt that a confused person can do to a gay person is immense and un-underestimable.

There was a moment, in this beautiful, absolutely unmissable production, in which the performer said, simply, how he had to describe his first sexual encounter “in front of my mother, father, judge, and child abuse officer, in graphical detail.”

And at this I suddenly remembered the prolonged break-up with my first real girlfriend, at 17, which involved parents on both sides, an actual psychotherapist, lots of crying and strangely shaped distances, conflicting versions of reality, changing descriptions of feelings, and large numbers of adults wanting to know the details of everything, large numbers of adults arbitrating a teen romance. This was my first romantic experience, my first erotic experience, and as such indescribably private. To have a bunch of people show up uninvited and unwelcome, and trample through something so precious, felt like a betrayal beyond anything I could put into words, as an unspeakable violation.

Dating a man, afterwards, resounded with the silence of being left alone.

The Worst of Scottee is not about the way gay lives and loves, as luminous and delicate as any other lives and loves, are so readily invaded by medical sciences, forces of law and religion, and the most violent incarnation of bonton. If anything, it is more about how a vulnerable person, often prised open for no good reason, learns to be open and closed at the same time. This is perhaps simply where it touched me. But I cried so much in that auditorium, cried for my 17-year-old self and a love that exists in no photos, no reminiscences at the family table, that I felt a little dizzy for the rest of the evening, a little unable to hold a conversation.

The Worst of Scottee, written and performed by Scottee, directed by Chris Goode, 20 Jan 2014 – 25 Jan 2014, Theatre Works. Book here.

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