Tag Archives: atmospheric

3xSisters and independent theatre (a polemic)

3xSisters is an extraordinary production, and possibly the best thing I’ve seen the independent theatre do in Australia yet. Examining Chekhov’s classical play with the confidence that comes with serious effort, large amount of talent, and big budget – as usual with Hayloft Project – it does what independent theatre should do: it insists that we know only that we don’t know anything.

Directorially divided between the founder of Hayloft and the darling of theatre neocons, Simon Stone, Black Lung’s Mark Winter, and Benedict Hardie, Sisters are pushed through not one, but three very different interpretative sieves. The parts were assigned by pulling bits of paper out of a hat, and created in isolation from one another: it would have meant something else (equally valid, perhaps more interesting) had the order been different, but the current composition, with its rather serendipitous symmetry, poses a number of big questions.

Stone opens the show with a clean, emotionally intact presentation: in a waiting room, under a row of clocks showing time from Tokyo to Berlin, the characters in evening clothes argue, break into tantrums, leave and confess secrets over the microphone. This is classical Stone, an elegant and accessible overview of the emotional content of the play that respects both the text, the characters and the audience, even as it amplifies the melodrama and ripples the textual surface.

But thus created high-strung dinner-party is broken as Hardie interrupts what is now revealed as a rehearsal. Actors are back on stage in tracksuits and wielding script photocopies. After Stone’s reduction of the text, Hardie’s prolonged reading of a scene suddenly exposes Chekhov’s beautiful, worshipped words as something both flinty and muggy and not necessarily working on stage, a mixture of chat and small-town philosophising that dies under actorly enunciation. If the scenes build up emotional intensity, they do it against the words, against the flat rehearsal reproduction, sloppily overtheatricalized, butchered by overzealous reverence. It also restores some humour, regularly overlooked in Chekhov. In a moment of absolute beauty, Vershinin delivers an intense monologue, after which the director announces that “now he can move”, and Angus Grant politely takes a few steps across the stage.

In what’s directorially the most accomplished part, the play is then amped up into Mark Winter’s mass-mediatized pastiche of pop references. Police drama, family stories of the American South, and teen tragedy are all smartly built as logical consequences of Chekhov’s provincial malaise. Told from the perspective of Solyony, the mentally destabilized soldier of the original text, it digs out not so much the 19th-century Russian violence simmering behind the genteel Prozorov walls, but the utterly strange evolution of mainstream entertainment since drawing-room drama. The pathetic Natasha, lower-class bride quietly caricaturized on the margin turns into the Oedipal Southern woman O’Neill or Williams will find; the naive Irina into the crippled child-woman of suburban slacker genre (local Dogs in Space comes to mind), but also the semi-retarted sister of all those 90s teens having sex and drugs on film (there must be a name for that fad by now); the quiet existential despair of the Prozorov sisters escalates into the 1970s urban nihilism, until ultimately it resolves itself (or rather knots itself into suffocation) in the decadent upper-class boredom as exemplified by Brett Easton Ellis: a carnivalesque party in which sorrow is smothered by meaningless sex and violence. Within Winter’s uncompromising dramaturgy, a contemporary theatrical impulse to make a classic relevant by giving audience titillation, is explored to the extreme that, despite the ironic humour, still hits the mark.

Directorially, the whole is bigger than the parts. While gorgeousness abounds, each director plays with an amount of trite moments (those buckets of blood are by now a convention teetering into cliché, and all those misguided microphones), effectively shorthanding his aesthetic. It is in the sheer accumulation that this production finds its magic, in the discourse created between the directors. Hayloft has made a name for itself as mainstage-by-other-means. Black Lung, on the other hand, is wall-to-wall orchestrated chaos (their last show, Avast II, in particular, was a consistent/beautiful jumble of pop culture). To attempt, seriously, to merge such different work into a single piece, with balls and budget, is an act of enormous courage.

It is not Chekhov, Hayloft makes it clear, but a discussion among types of contemporary theatre and the audience. It is a bitch of a production: it argues and plays devil’s advocate in a way that is perfectly, spot-on un-Australian. It is theatre as an unresolved creative argument. From the elegant to the grunge end of the independent theatre in Melbourne, visiting restrained deconstruction on the way, it is a merciless inquiry into what-the-fuck we go to the theatre for when we go to the theatre in Melbourne. Pitching completely incompatible ways of tackling the sisters one against another, the three directors raise different questions and offer differing answers, resulting in a wonderful clamour that enlightens as much as it admits its own limitations. Each part implicitly criticizes, ridicules the others, each fails on the terms of the other two, yet each succeeds in a different way and, finally, each makes demands on the audience to justify its expectations, demands and assumptions. Rather than a clean, safe ‘experiment’ that we are so often told we see (an oak tree or the nudge-nudge-wink-wink deconstruction of No Success Like Failure), which surprises no one and discovers nothing new, because it is conducted with scientific safety, not creative recklessness, 3xSisters explodes into an unruly, unexpected synergy that goes beyond the force of any individual part.

As audience, we are repeated seduced by each honey-mouthed approach: we find emotion, laugh at our own bourgeois need for catharsis through language, enjoy the ironic gore. Yet once we have been convinced to swap sides and condemn bourgeois entertainment and the worship of language, after the inerval the production takes us back, through Hardie’s third, then Stone’s fourth act, first into a text that still resounds sweet, despite deconstruction, despite our awareness of our own jejune worship, and finally into an emotional response we disagree with, but cannot quite help. We are cooed into agreeing and disagreeing with so many opposing arguments, that the play finishes with the audience shell-shocked by its own, until now unacknowledged, sensibilities. Precisely by giving us everything we could possibly want in the theatre, the incoherence of this gluttony (how can we want both dinner-party neurosis and a splatterfest?) confronts the audience with its own, now estranged, needs.


For as long as the mainstream theatre in this city remains dinner theatre, independent theatre will keep being asked to assume the role of the mainstream. Since there is no big stage to see time-preserved Beckett on, we need to see it at La Mama. Since MTC will not do a clear Sarah Kane, it must happen at Red Stitch. And since a good Chekhov is nowhere to be seen, Simon Stone must make it. Even worse, since good solid mainstream needs to exist externally before we feel safe enough to plunge into experiment, shock, questions, we continue to confuse consistency of shape and colour, or some form perfected thirty years ago, with ‘beauty’ and ‘lyricism’. The paradox is that it becomes more acceptable to believe in the autodidact genius (Simon Stone’s treatment being the finest example), and praise well-done, elegantly repeated work, as extraordinary etc, than allow that artists need to experiment, fail, risk and grow.

Hence I take offense at reviews such as Cameron Woodhead’s in The Age. I would not take issue with the formal pedancy of calling a montage “dog’s breakfast”, were it grounded in something more than this unacknowledged, self-evident stance that theatre is to be beautiful, as in coherent, as in simple and elegant, as in well-made. As broad as this desire sounds, it excludes uncertainty, inner conflict, clashes of colour and worldview. Provocative work is praised, yes, but only if wall-to-wall grunge, only if it clearly marks the edges of its offensiveness by never crossing unexpected thresholds, by never mixing its own provocation with anything we genuinely hold dear, or with, say, emotional impact. In other words, beautiful comes to mean something we can sink into like a comfy chair, something consistent, something safe. It becomes a question of style, rather than content. The beauty of 3xSisters is a difficult, emotionally complex beauty that has more to do with the inner life of the audience that the colour coordination of stage business.

It was Jerome Bel who, a few years ago, stated in this city that theatre must be allowed to try things, that the path to success goes through failure. To attempt a production that cannot possibly succeed on the terms of the local well-made play (either preppy or grunge) strikes me as an enormously courageous act, something genuinely important for the Melbourne theatre scene, and something to be applauded even if it failed in its own terms – and this production certainly doesn’t. This is why young theatre artists are here: to create, not repeat models that were perfected around 1975. The moment they are asked to replace the state theatre companies, just because we don’t have a healthy mainstream theatre sector, they are effectively asked to act older and more experienced than they are, and create the sort of work that can best be done, and should be done, within well-funded institutions. No one becomes a respected interpreter of Chekhov at the age of 20-something. Not even in Australia, no. It takes decades of asking questions from oneself and the audience, of trying and failing and all that Beckettian stuff, until one genuinely knows how to reduce their experience into a simple, elegant masterpiece. 3xSisters is not here to be inspiring and revered: but it does bring the entire independent theatre around a table, starting a genuine discussion, one to which we don’t the answer yet. Rather than being about Chekhov, it is about theatre, which strikes me as an equally noble pursuit.

To conclude: to ask for an illuminating interpretation of Chekhov from recently graduated students – particularly when the company announces they are not doing that – is misguided and unconstructive, but to accuse a montage of inconsistency, I am sorry, Mr Woodhead, is dumb. There are other things in art as important as colour-coordination and lyricism. There is more than one way of making theatre, and asking very difficult questions is the one that offers the highest return. Mr Woodhead, let the independents be independent. Must they really constantly be asked do the MTC’s job?

3xSisters. Direction: Benedict Hardie, Simon Stone, Mark Winter. Cast: Gareth Davies, Angus Grant, Thomas Henning, Joshua Hewitt, Shelly Lauman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Anne-Louise Sarks, Katherine Tonkin and Tom Wren. Set Design: Claude Marcos. Lighting Design: Danny Pettingill. Producer: Carl Nilsson-Polias. April 24 – May 10 at the Meat Market, 5 Blackwood St, North Melbourne.

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RW: Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd

To call Lally Katz a surrealist would be correct, but imprecise. She is certainly the only widely-produced playwright of her generation to be squarely settled in a very personal world of half-digested fairy tales, misunderstood urban myths, and personal anxieties. This is not that dissimilar from Black Lung productions; however, while Henning’s writing features pastiche characters bereft of a play, a sort of channel browsing embodied and searching for the lost narrative thread, Katz stretches her pop incoherence over sociohistorical confusions (from Ern O’Malley to suburban rivalries in Melbourne, to the history of local vaudeville), overlays it all with an anxious suburban sexuality, and wrings hard.

Katz’s characters are always vaguely aware of their fictitiousness and, like suburban teenagers, less fight it than try to manipulate their own image, make willful exits, evolve, delude: and yet, they are always trapped in the strict girdle of a Lally Katz play, a self-aware machine of its own, that gallops with the unrelenting mercilessness of the grown-up world. Levels of discourse intermingle, predictable plotlines start and finish against all odds, while the unpredictable ones drift off, and the characters, like the repeatedly erased Daffy Duck in that seminal cartoon, struggle to assert themselves. Abalone and Gerture, the two suburban orphans in The Eisteddfod, get trapped in an entire soap-opera of intrigue and ambition, despite cracking under the conflicting pressure of their own alter-egos. In Black Swan of Trespass, Ern O’Malley cannot find consolation in his brief and tortured life, despite being just a literary hoax, while Ethel O’Malley is a psychological cripple, a tragic puddle of incomplete characterization (like some David Williamson character magically granted self-awareness). In Smashed, two teenage girls are on a time trip through their own fantasy, confusing themselves and each other. It is this wild democracy of reference points that makes Katz’s productions, usually directed by Chris Kohn, a respected translator of her ideas, something of a treat for Australian stages.

Julia Zemiro and Christen O’Leary. Photo by Jeff Busby.

None of this magic, mind you, could be deducted from their last collaboration, now playing at the Malthouse. There is a 15-minute chunk towards the end of the second act, when Katz’s usual voice cuts through the conflicting ambitions of the play so far, and suddenly all the botched possibilities are made visible. Ethylyn Rarity (not the first one to embody the role), while wrestling Charlie Mudd, the owner of the unsuccessful vaudeville house she is trying to leave (I have retold you the previous act and a half just there), finds an exact copy of her wig and dress under the stage. “How long have I been here?”, she cries, and gives a repeat of one of the first phrases we hear her utter in the show: “I don’t know my lines…” After that, she somehow coerces Mudd into killing all his characters, and it’s all meta- and confusing and utterly beautiful. And somehow, you see how high the performance could have flown.

Instead, the 125 minutes beforehand are a pretty studious failure; and less so because of any precise decision, than the cumulative effect of so many moves in many directions. A large part of Vaudeville is a low-key, low-intensity, terminally slow and dramatically flat vaudeville performance. Racist and sexist jokes are shot at us, repeatedly, with a painfully consistent lack of audience enthusiasm. Had this gone on for 140 minutes straight, it wouldn’t have been the average Katz/Kohn production, but would have been interesting nonetheless: it would be an unflinching look into the eyes of the past, untainted with the cushy nostalgia that so ruined a similarly-minded A Large Attendance in the Antechamber in 2007 Tower. As Stuff White People Like has succintly pointed out, there is a diffuse and mute sense of guilt over so many things in certain Anglo-Seaxon societies that apologies become a sort of thin veneer on the everyday life. The dissection of what exactly we get so nostalgic about that drearily drags across those planks is a marvelous goal: Mark Jones in blackface, Christen O’Leary’s horny ventriloquist puppet, Jews who lend at zero interest?

Unfortunately, Vaudeville then cascades into a stage version of Dr Quinn the Medicine Woman; a psychologically slim docu-drama on the backstage of history that cannot escape its own absurdist impulses. In purging nostalgia, it seems to veer towards revealing unpleasant historical truth, but trips over its own hysterical fantasies instead. A ventriloquist has slept with her father, the magician with two midgets, and the until-then squirmy humour turns genuinely humour-like – it still isn’t funny, but it stretches its own playing field, simulating an honest attempt at inducing laughter. Perhaps Katz has been outdone by the self-parody of cinema. While the unmasking of characters as paper dolls trapped within the play is nominally her territory, I can think of a bucketful of Sunday afternoon films in which circus freaks reveal a saccharine human face in digestible, family-friendly doses (and it merely starts with The Wizard of Oz).

Ultimately, the tripartite coalition of tendencies doesn’t quite lead us anywhere: it is not an absurd inside-out of a play that Katz likes to write; not a crude dissection of nostalgia that the program notes roundaboutedly hint at; and the part that most easily absorbs these two failed trajectories is the third slant towards rather unremarkable nostalgic setpiece. The result is wildly uneven. Like John Bolton’s recent The Masque of the Red Death, it is neither representation nor pure presence, neither vaudeville nor a well-made play, and certainly not the Katz/Kohn theatrical lunatic asylum. Its majestic, spectacularly boring offensiveness neither lasts long enough nor steps into territory slippery enough to seriously challenge the audience (the way This Is Set in the Future, with its unrelenting vulgarity, did at La Mama last December). It looks, more than anything, like an MTC-esque crowd-pleaser, and as such it clearly fails, due to the above-mentioned surrealist and offensive tendencies.

These days, I rarely book myself into performances that completely disappoint me. After Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, I had to apologise for dragging my +1 along, which is very rare indeed. The last time this happened was at the equally praised, and equally ill-conceived The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another promise of a quirky tale that couldn’t quite decide how close to middlebrow to trot. Perhaps Katz and Kohn work better off on small, semiotically already oblique stage. Perhaps it could have all been saved by more spirited acting. Not mine to tell. I am just hoping that next time will be better.

Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd. Written by Lally Katz, concept and direction by Chris Kohn. Set and costumes by Jonathan Oxlade, music composed by Mark Jones, sound design by Jethro Woodward, lighting design by Richard Vabre. With Mark Jones, Alex Menglet, Christen O’Leary, Jim Ruseell, Matt Wilson and Julia Zemiro. Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until March 28.

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Breaking all rules of good composition, I would like to start on an unrelated note. It leaves me wondering whether the atmospheric density, the sensual coherence, so common in Australian theatre (Liminal Theatre, cabaret, quaint circus, The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest, and many many more), even art in general, from film (The Proposition) to visual arts (Fred Williams, John Olsen, Russell Drysdale, and the plethora of landscape painters) is somehow related to the lacking grand narrative of this culture. The basic reduction of colours, shapes and motifs, the bedrock of all aesthetic coherence, is also the bedrock of the narrative coherence of cultural identity. To describe a place ex novo is nothing less than to bring it into existence or, as Lepecki would smugly put it, we need to consider representation as an ontological force. And the complicity between landscape painting and nationalism has long been identified. Sunstruck looks very much like

Russell Drysdale: The Cricketers, 1948.

this. More importantly, though, it also looks like

Raymond Depardon: Désert du Téneré (detail), 1989.

this which, no less importantly, was used as a cover image for L'Estranger [The Outsider].

The sun was shining almost vertically onto the sand and the glare from the sea was unbearable. There was no one left on the beach. It was hard to breathe in the dry heat rising from the ground. I wasn't thinking about anything because the sun beating down on my bare head was making me feel sleepy. (…) For two hours now the day had stood still, for two hours it had been anchored in an ocean of molten metal. – Albert Camus, L'Estranger

The sun is one of the most frequent motifs in the first part of the book: the grinding sun that reduces existence to two-dimensionality. There are no fine shades, no minute complexity of detail, in front of the blinding sun. Everything is reduced to the elementary. Flat black and white – like graphic novels, a medium extremely apt to deal with basic existential questions (and interested in them). Sunstruck also looks like

Danijel Zezelj: from Stray Dogs (detail), 2004.

this, and like

Hugo Pratt: from La ballata del mare salato (detail), 1967.

this. Both of these graphic novelists, interestingly enough, are chiefly concerned with monochrome explorations of the most fundamental mechanisms of life. While in Zezelj's work the fine lace of detail dissolves into spare lush strokes of black on white whenever a larger theme is brought up, so do Pratt's characters regularly meander out of world wars and treasure hunts to walk empty beaches and have existentialist dialogues.

According to Sagi and Stein, Camus is concerned with concrete existence, which he thinks of in terms of the basic encounter with immediate experiences, exemplified by the sea and the sun – what they term 'his Mediterranean thinking'. In this sense, he continues the existentialist-phenomenological tradition of the Husserl/Kierkegaard/Hiedegger variety. Aesthetically, his writing contrasts the experience of the sea as immersion into absolute immanence to the existential alienation of the sun. In front of the blinding sun, we are reduced to our barest humanity.

Who doesn't know that heavy feeling of heat, turning life into abstract, thoughtless being?

The idea of 'Mediterranean thinking' is something that appeals to me, although I would stretch it to include hot and dry climate more broadly.In hot climate, all the questions appear more basic: all major religions have sprung up, fundamentally, in the desert, and so have philosophy and mathematics and tragedy. Pursuit of principles, so to speak. Standing in the front of the sun, one is never much more than simple geometry.

George Hoyningen-Huene: Untitled (Bathing Suits by Izod) (detail), from Vogue, July 5 1930.

A bit like the unavoidable abstraction of the beach body.

But this all came much, much later. Sunstruck was a piece of performance that blinded, cleansed; it left one feeling sated on pure ether, heart full of empty space. Discursive response was impossible for days after, the pure and amimetic unsuggestiveness of Sunstruck slowly letting the contradictory, overwhelming wealth of emotional response build into something more than speechless awe.

With nothing more than two men, dressed in black, one circle of chairs, one rotating sun, a fantastically fluid incorporation of the enormous shedspace into the relatively unspatious performance. Livia Ruzic's soundscape alone makes fifty percent of the experience. The choreography is never more than a rich hint of human existence itself, two men moving like blinded by great headlights, like on that Algiers beach, and it is no wonder they are men, and not women. Something about the lines being cleaner. The sea, I hear you smart kids wondering, is also present, if nothing in the seagull cries right before the end, the seagulls flying over the construction landscape outside our enormous shed. If we believe in Camus, and there is no reason not to, it is at this point that the absurd finality, limitedness, of bare existence makes peace with the immanent, and the two two-dimensional men merge with the world. There is, really, nothing more. Like that Japanese cottage in spring, like utsubo, a quality, greatly appreciated in buddhism, of being empty in order to contain the immense, hollow as an ability to become full. A bit like the capacity for pregnancy.

Martin probably summed it up best, saying:

It just seemed to encompass everything about men and joy and inexorable tragedy and struggle and continuation and children and inevitable loss and sadness and wisdom and compassion. It was one of the most empathetic pieces I have ever seen.

In this year's Arts Festival, with such aggressive preponderance of explanation, of persuasion, of unfulfilled promises, Sunstruck shines like a supernova, all understatement, undermovement, all viscous substance. By plunging as deep as possible into an atmosphere, a sensation, unexplained, unjustified, unconceptualised, it encompasses everything and more.

MIAF. Sunstruck: a premonition of events from memory, fantasy and the imagination. Concept collaboration: Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham. Directed by Helen Herbertson. Design and lighting by Bluebottle/Ben. Physical realisation by Helen Herbertson, Trevor Patrick and Nick Sommerville. Set realised by Alan Robertson. Soundscape by Livia Ruzic. Music by Tamil Rogeon (violin) and Tim Blake (cello). Production by Bluebottle/Frog. Shed 4, North Wharf Road, Docklands. Season ended.

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The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest

As published in Laneway.

Twelve Restless performers are confronted with twelve Rawcus performers, fully-able bodies with those with disabilities of different level and quality, in this fascinating exploration of the mystery of the other. Program notes quote from Kafka:

When you stand in front of me and look at me,
What do you know of the griefs that are in me
And what do I know of yours?

The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest opens with a loop of beautiful live music: guitar, piano, pan flute, cello. I’ve often noted that the fusion of genres in Australian theatre happens less between theatre, performance and dance, and more often with visual arts, music, and puppetry. That is, rather than eschewing dramatic narration for rebellious deconstruction, it engages in a sensuous tickle of all the senses, a total experience. This process usually creates, like in this case, lyrical theatre, stage poetry (as Maeterlinck demanded: “la pièce de théâtre dout être avant tout un poème”), in which the linear time of ascending action is replaced by slowly accumulating image-time, what Gertrude Stein would have approvingly called theatre as landscape.

Some of the most successful Australian theatre of recent times meticulously researched the possibilities of this approach, from My Darling Patricia’s Politely Savage and Peepshow Inc.’s Slanting Into the Void, to Vitalstatistix’s Cake (it is not surprising, therefore, that a number of names overlap in the credits of these shows). To analyse The Heart of Another with an analytical mind, thus, may be doing it great disservice.

There are moments in this performance of terrifying human beauty. More terrifying because resolutely silent – by which I don’t mean that speech isn’t present, merely that the words don’t amount to a statement, explanation, or challenge. They remain a part of the stage poetry.

Right at the beginning, all performers assemble on stage, merely breathing until they slowly smile. The variety of persons, of bodies, is astonishing – the sparse means of physical theatre work extraordinarily well at showing the individual beauty of each one of this enormous, diverse ensemble. Where will they all go?, you wonder. How will they all move? Where will this dense human mass disperse? It does and doesn’t: despite choreographic skill at emptying and populating the stage, The Heart of Another seemingly keeps the theatre densely upholstered, filled to the brim, with thick emotions, with faces, costumes, movement, but most crucially with objects.

A man is back-lit behind a life-size child drawing of a man. A woman cuts out a red heart in the paper, and through the hole starts pulling out a red scarf, a paper chain of little girls, toy animals, which another man gives to a girl, who assembles the lot in a wooden box. A mass of people unfolding a silk scarf, each with their own little assemblages: a collection of chocolate coins, or plastic roses and a plastic wedding cake. Someone’s memories, someone’s very private mementos. A girl puts words in a sequence of glass jars; another listens inside each one. Even the backstage is used to reveal a dark, private space behind the representational space at the front. At different times, the performance is counterpointed by a romantic duet, or a solo in dark sfumato.

On the one hand, it is a performance firmly situated in this world, latching onto an endless array of objects and gestures and relations and characters. At the same time, by refusing any response to this world apart from the hermetically, solipsistically intimist, it is a dance of deep, almost painful privacy. Using semi-abled performers, by definition a quiet part of our society – indeed, any society – underpins this sensuous introspection.

At multiple points, perhaps because of the opening quote, I was reminded of Kafka’s love letters to Milena Jesenska, among the most painfully intimate love correspondences of all times. There is more than a flimsy connection of this barely un-symbolist theatre to the love-letter format, with its own solipsism, planar non-narrative time, and an alchemist power to turn awkwardness, unease, fear and disgust into heavy, difficult and intensely private beauty. Instead of judging, we are led to feel. As a way of approaching the problem of able-bodiedness, this is not unintelligent. Everything in The Heart of Another is heart-breakingly beautiful in silence: loneliness, desire, the inability to connect, the girls and the boys. Members of the Rawcus ensemble seemed unaware of how much admiration they incited: the foyer buzzed with excited whispers on the beauty of particular girls.

There are, however, problems for the analytical mind. Keeping in mind that Australia is a resolutely mute culture in many aspects, that much of its best dramatic writing explores the poetic rhythms of non-communication and non-discussion (eg, Holloway’s harrowing Red Sky Morning), its predilection both for physical theatre and for ‘theatre as a poem’ becomes problematic, politically problematic.

Aesthetically, the silence of objects and people makes for very intense theatre. But, in a rich yet delicate landscape of visual effects within The Heart of Another, every object, motion and gesture resounds with what is left unsaid. The moment in which girls, all the girls, one by one join in a group homogeneous movement, although some simply cannot do it properly, struck me as somewhat aloof. In another, a man with speech impediments reads on the back stage – stirring too many memories of war orphans forced to pose at anti-war rallies, of that banal exploitation of someone’s misery for some quick, cheap compassion.

The wallpaper, framing the entire set in a florally geometric, patterned repetition of the same, may have been intended only as decoration – indeed, I commonly see Victorian wallpaper in Australian performances. It is, however, present as an unconscious atavism, a constant reminder of the oppressive, bourgeois structures that sent us all here. It was a society that created textile printing, the industrial, regimented repetition of geometrically restrained, prettified nature. So we have it: the imperative of pleasant decoration, the imperative of sameness, and in the middle of it all, elementary human wonder dancing. The effect is incongruous, raising more questions than it placates with silence. Are we watching prettified disability? Does it need to come with lush music to keep us calm? Are we refusing to think? These are just some of the nagging questions in the back of my mind. To every such political problem that arises, the answer seems to be to smother it indulgently in beautiful décor.

In targeting the body first and the mind later, there is always the danger of abandoning problems half-way through; of not allowing the audience to see clearly, and of choosing the pretty option over the less aesthetically rounded. This can happen even if there is no intention of glossing over. It happened in Cake, with its cheap conflation of baking, pregnancy and femininity; it happened in Politely Savage, with its ornate orientalization of Australia, the 1950s, and the housewife. The entire subtext of Kafka’s love letters is that of a deeply unhappy existence. Many unpleasant things may have been pushed aside in The Heart of Another in order to please the senses, but we may only realise later.

Melbourne Fringe Festival. The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest, by Rawcus ensemble and Restless Dance Company. Directed by Kate Sulan and Ingrid Voorendt. Set design: Emily Barrie. Lighting design: Richard Vabre. Sound design: Jethro Woodward. Music: Zoe Barry. Dancehouse, September 24-28.

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Review: Kids Can Get Lost: A Live Instructional Guide on Safe Family Roadtrips

Kids Can Get Lost: A Live Instructional Guide on Safe Family Roadtrips. Devised by Spilt Second. Producer/artistic director: Matthew Kneale. Director: Dan Koerner. Costume designer: Esther Hayes. Sound designer: Rob Stewart. Performers: Paul Bongiorno, Reuben Brown, Josh Cassidy, Shelly Lauman, Ellen Steele, Wazzadeeno Wharton-Thomas. Narration: Simon Godfrey. Season ended.

It is a remarkable testament to the Melbourne grassroots theatre culture that Kids Can Get Lost sold out most of its season. A part of the Next Wave festival, set out of the theatre way in an absolute sense, demanding comfortable footwear and wearing of unfashionable clothing; and yet. In a sense, Florida was right and wrong about Creative Cities. Any place can set up an event, but only in Melbourne will people attend, commit. It is this base of mutual support that all our great theatre is growing from.

Kids Can Get Lost is a good example of this poor theatre, put together with not much more than love and ingenuity. The core of the show is a sort of mime on dangers of family travel – dangers as wild and imaginative as any danger Australians are warned of in real life: kangaroos on the road, homicidal teenage hitch-hikers, tidal waves, wrestlers in full costume. It features a killer soundtrack, subtitles, and commercial breaks. Audience interation, and dancing! It's utterly enjoyable. However, quirkily, the venue is under, over and behind City Link – the audience is equipped with stools, guided from Flemington Community Centre in tidy rows of hand-holding twos, repeatedly briefed on safety procedures, in case of cyclist encounter, or road collapse. (Apparently these were genuine concerns raised by CityLink, safety procedures genuinely needed to be put in place, only adding to the overall merriness.) None of this creates ground-breaking theatre, of course, but it does result in intelligent entertainment of very high standard.

Photo: Shiffi Blustein

Site-specific theatre of this kind tends towards psychological flatness. Probably due to the lack of intimacy in vaguely defined space of performance, it gets closer to light entertainment, spectacle. It parallels the way mass spectacles (opera, festivals, summer open-air performances) are primarily an experience of a place (the stadium, the festival town, the castle) and the socially-placing genuis loci (upper-class, exclusive, opulent). While attending some such spectacle invariably bonds the spectator with the upper-class city, walking through the meandering underpasses of City Link we are learning to love a neglected part of Melbourne, one populated by public housing, lone skaters, western-suburbanites stuck in traffic jams. When the car headlights go off (the only source of light for the show), and we are left in the warm, moody silence of a show packed-up, its bittersweet, somewhat retro, somewhat ironic, mood lingering in the air, in the dim lights of the infamous phallic accessories to road construction (cheese sticks for youse from elsewhere), the hum of the road in the distance, it is hard not to feel proud, and full of love for this little city that does quirky so well.

We walk back, some of us still holding hands, and it was worth it.


Meryl Tankard; two stories.

After the untimely death of the brilliant Tanja Liedtke, the just-announced artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company, the company commissioned work from three choreographers, ad hoc, to fill up 2008 while in transition. Meryl Tankard was one. Inuk2 was based on her 1997 Inuk, meaning 'human' in Inuit, a work I haven't seen. By a choreographer I don't know, performed by an ensemble that's just a group of strangers to me.


Meryl Tankard and Sydney Dance Company in rehearsal. Photo: Steven Siewert

The first is the key to the beauty of dance.

The key to the beauty of dance is half-unlocking for me through the way I always prefer to post photos of a dance moment, rather than video clips. The sheer beauty of the human body, of the movement congealed, arms and legs stuck in time, hanging off the layers of thick air. Can you see what I'm saying here? For the longest time I dreamed of being a theatre photographer. I would smuggle cameras into the auditorium and steal photos like kisses, of curtain calls, of bare feet, of midmotion and endmotion and premotion.

(I was hoping, one day, to take photos of rehearsals. A rehearsal is ontologically the other side of the construction of a shopping mall, or a suburb. Walking through Melbourne Central half-finished, once upon a time, I was observing the retreat of reality, of texture and meaning, in front of polished layers of the Gruen Transfer. A rehersal is a layering of truth, quite the opposite. Hence the opening photo.)

Meryl Tankard's Inuk2 was going to be my final splurge in this godforsaken land, a piece of Australia to take traveling with me. Was it? It was. After a stint at Next Wave (forthcoming) viewing 'indigenous' theatre that, to broadbrush, didn't seem to come from very deep, it felt almost aboriginal, unashamed, in the way it invoked this country, the experience of this country. It was a dance from the stomach, not the mind.

And it succeeds and it fails, of course. Just like Australia, it doesn't quite know whether it's gruesome drama or a gentle comedy. The first part, The Freeway, is exquisite: all 1930s or so, gentle, feminine, a pointe, with a beautiful girl dissolving into the ethereal immensity, say, of the road. Lost children, the engulfment of the wilderness. Beautiful lighting design. I thought, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on stage. The next moment, as we come through to the other side, suddenly we have feminist gymnastics. The Tribe is the longest, most repetitive and most philosophically dubious part: although it gave me some food for thought over politically engaged art, what if the feminist in me disagrees? What if women will never beat men in physical fight and what if that's not the point? So I suffered through. Perhaps it's my aversion to group sports.

The third part, The Party, after the interval, is another brutalist look at Australia: goddamn, there is something about that billboard of the blue sky. It was wiping the floor with the audience. Dancing, drinking, mating rituals, and a harrowing sequence that will be remembered as the Binge Drinking moment; all under this billboard. The rubbish! The crying! Balkan Beat Box in a dingy discotheque: we are a global tribe after all.

With the unruly and imprecise (not to mention aggressively laid-back), but so is Australia, The End out of the way, all four corners of this country were covered: a brush at sublime, the youthful energy, the unstructured dark night, and the final slapstick song&dance. No wonder one is confused about whether life here is happy or utterly miserable. It seemed so Australian that it almost made fun of my intention to keep Inuk2 in my heart during overseas travels; as if it said, this is how we do things here! When we're unsure of the message or the mood, we attach a lightweight coda.

Inuk2 is patchy, but gutsy. Convinced in ideas, but not in execution. It is very much the product of a company in transition working with a new choreographer. Not everyone comfortable in their roles, not everyone utilised best. The bold and beautiful Sarah-Jayne Howard visibly excels, but is also Tankard's frequent collaborator and not a member of SDC. The random succession of music, moods and styles was deliberate, and if it worked, it worked to the extent to which strong scenes rhythmically broke this mechanical rotation of scenes, this MTV drone. Again the photo quality of dance. Suspension of air and body. But there was a too-muchness: too many superfluous people on stage, too many disagreeing elements. Nina Simone!, Inuit singing!, r'n'b! The water extravaganza at the end was annoying, rather than adorable, and not everyone seemed convinced by their direction.

So, like tourists, we are left with a collection of beautiful images not quite giving us the answers. The lines in the airport tarmac. The blue sky billboard. The drunk woman. The tribal games. The rubbish. Oh the rubbish. And if that didn't remind me of one very early, muggy morning in Portugal, when newspapers and rubbish were rolling everywhere, taking over the streets (something about the street cleaning in Portugal was explained to me), and I felt cold, unhappily in love and disappointed in the state of humanity, and I'm sure many people had the same pangs of recognition in same intervals, I don't know if I would call it successful.

As it ended, though, with the beautiful images hung at regular intervals on the walls of this lunapark ride, it was puzzling and beautiful and rewarding.


Have a look.

Photo credits: Regis Lansac


The second is the theatre audience.

Sitting in the foyer of the Arts Centre at these un-indy shows, these big ballet shows with ballet audiences, always full of skinny (skim?) girls with long curled hairs and slight tweenager make-up and semi-high heels, and their mothers with plucked eyebrows and furs, you understand, all black and stylish, I used to feel like I used to feel in front of Europeans (we all have our Europeans, perhaps). I used to feel alone, and short-haired and perplexed in front of this teeming femininity, somehow untaught the rules of being a girl and, by extension, of being civilized: the rules and reasons to hair removal, to make-up, to the tricks of always smelling of expensive perfume, not dry sweat, and the entire cacophony of confusion over what women do in toilets.

The awareness of my grandmother, who may have read the entire Chekhov – reading is a cheap hobby, thank Lord for socialism and libraries – but has never been to ballet. The expensive good seats, the glossy programs with artistic pictures (quite unlike the little gold-coin-donation ones I am used to), it all combines into a feeling of not quite awkwardness, but, rather, of being completely alone.

I am sure there are those who don't like the idea of cheap seats, of matinées, of young immigrants speaking too loudly in their theatres, stepping on their feet or making out in opera. I'm sure there exist those willing to argue of the benefit of rules of conduct, dress codes, conversation etiquette. More so in Europe, or even North America, than in this convict colony. But they exist.

Later, when the show starts, it doesn't matter anymore. The questions of how many good eyebrows are raised over scenes of binge drinking don't even feature. We are all equals in front of art. But outside, in the foyer, I am as alone as in front of death. I am de-tribed.

Does that change our perspective of the play?

by Jana Perkovic

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