Tag Archives: criticism

The original Rolling Stone review of Patti Smith’s Horses (1976)

[from “Patti Smith: Shaman in the Land of a Thousand Dances,” by John Rockwell, Rolling Stone, February 12, 1976.]

Patti Smith is the hottest rock poet to emerge from the fecund wastes of New Jersey since Bruce Springsteen. But Smith is not like Springsteen or anybody else at all.

Springsteen is a rocker; Smith is a chanting rock & roll poet. Springsteen’s followers thought he was a poet too, at first, because of the apparent primacy of his speedy strings of street-life images. But Springsteen himself quickly set matters right by building up his band and revealing his words to have been what words have been for most music all along — conceptual frames on which composers hang their art.

For Smith, the words generate everything else. Her “singing” voice has an eerie allure and her “tunes” conform dimly to the primitive patterns of Fifties rock. But her music would be unthinkable without her words and her way of articulating them — and that remains true even if they are occasionally submerged in sound. Patti Smith is a rock & roll shaman and she needs music as shamans have always needed the cadence of their chanting.

Her first record, Horses, is wonderful in large measure because it recognizes the overwhelming important of words in her work. The words are nearly always audible, as they sometimes aren’t onstage. There are occasional touches that betray the studio: an overall instrumental tightness, subtle twists and overdubs (in “Redondo Beach” for instance) that transcend the three-chord, four-man rock & roll basics that prevail elsewhere on the album. But even in the dizzying mix of two and three vocal tracks in “Land,” the climactic song of the album, the raw primordial feeling of a Patti Smith club date — minus only the between-songs patter and all the quirky humor that involves — is right here. John Cale, the producer, has demonstrated the perfect empathy he might have been expected to have for Smith, and he has done so mostly by not distorting her in any way.

The range of concerns in Horses is huge, far beyond what most rock records even dream of. “Gloria” is about sex (with Patti defiantly thrusting herself into the male of the first song), pop glory and redemption. “Redondo Beach” is about a lesbian suicide. “Birdland” is about the death of a boy’s father and the boy’s vision of being taken up into the “belly of a ship” and rejoining his father as an extraterrestrial. “Free Money” is cosmic anarchism. “Kimberly” is about her younger sister and the sky splitting and the planets hitting. “Break It Up” is about God knows what (no doubt he/she’s told Patti) — for me, it’s about schizophrenic shattering of the identity as a prelude to passing over to a higher reality. “Land,” the most complex of a complex lot, is about a teenaged locker-room attack that turns into a murder and homosexual rape that runs into horses breathing flames and an ominous, ritualistically intoned version of “Land of a Thousand Dances” (“Do you know how to Pony?”). And, finally, “Elegie” is about Jimi Hendrix’s death.

To say that any of these songs is “about” anything in particular is silly — it limits them in a way that hopelessly confines their evocativeness. Like all real poets, Smith offers visions that embrace a multiplicity of meanings, all of them valid if they touch an emotional chord. Her poems are full of UFOs and shining light that illuminated parallel worlds, mirrors you step through and cracks in our common realities. She leaps between meanings of words like an elf across dimensions, deliberately dizzying you with crisscrossings between comfortable perceptions: you see, the see becomes a sea, the sea a sea of possibilities.

But with all her Martian weirdness, Patti Smith doesn’t drift hopelessly beyond comprehension, and her music isn’t synthesized neo-British progressivism. Her visions repay consideration but don’t lose their immediate impact. Partly that’s because she couches them in the common words and experiences of everyday life. And partly it’s because she anchors her imagination with the sturdy ballast of rock & roll.

Smith’s singing voice is more Neil Young than Linda Ronstadt. By that I mean that it doesn’t have much range or natural amplitude or conventionally beautiful tone color. But it is full of individuality and entirely sufficient to support the intuitively apt phrasing to which it is bent.

The underlying instrumental music is the kind of artful rock & roll primitivism that has long characterized the New York underground. She has four men in her band but the leader is clearly Lenny Kaye, who has been with her since her first musically accompanied poetry reading five years ago. Kaye is a rock critic and oldies expert. The songs on Horses are co-written by Smith and either Kaye, Richard Sohl and Ivan Kral of the band, Tom Verlaine of Television (a striking, as yet unrecorded New York avant-garde quartet) or Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult. All eight songs betray a loving fascination with the oldies of rock. The hommage is always implicit — the music just sounds like something you might have heard before, at least in part — and sometimes explicit.

It is Smith’s elaborations of rock standards that provide the most striking songs in her repertory. On her limited-edition, long out-of-print, privately released single of Hendrix’s version of “Hey, Joe,” she spun a Patty Hearst fantasy full of sex and revolutionary apocalypse. On Horses she subjects “Gloria” and “Land of a Thousand Dances” to a similar treatment. Each becomes something far more expansive than their original creators could have dreamed. And with all due respect to Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and all those who recorded “Land of a Thousand Dances,” Patti’s versions are better. The other songs on Horses aren’t so overt in their appropriations of the past, although, as in “Elegie,” with its return to Hendrix and a direct quotation from him, they are permeated with a feeling for rock historicism.

Smith is a genuine original, as original an original as they come. But all these debts to rock’s past may make some in the rock audience wonder about that originality. And indeed, if one looks beyond rock, there are all sorts of other antecedents for her, too, and the question is whether a perception of those antecedents undermines her newness or merely places it in its proper context. The Beat poets are the easiest to spot, and particularly the Romantic/surrealist, Blake/Rimbaud sort of visionary mysticism that has always lurked behind the Beats. Such cosmic quests have rarely been prized by the establishment rationalists, leftist revolutionaries and rock & roll populists among us, but that hasn’t fazed the poets much. One reason is that the whole lower Manhattan avant-garde community has for at least 20 years acted as a self-contained world, incubating art on its own. The art toddles blithely across traditional borders: poets sing, composers dance, dancers orate, painters act, rockers make art. These artists owe everything to one another and far less to the outside, even the outside practitioners within any given medium. Patti Smith cares a lot more about Lou Reed than Robert Lowell.

If hardly took Soho to think up the notion of combining words and music — that goes back far beyond Greek tragedy. But there are more immediate musical poetic antecedents. Allen Ginsberg and the Beats couldn’t keep their hands off music. They read to jazz and chanted mantra fashion for hours on end. Their chanting has flowered into a whole movement among Soho artist today. La Monte Young has spawned a school of wordless chanters who move slowly and precisely up and down the overtone series of a give drone in “eternal,” evening-long performances. Meredith Monk, the dancer, has put out two privately issued records and given concerts of her music, which alternates between Satie-esque little piano and organ pieces full of childlike repetition, and quite amazing chants in which her voice (a voice rather like Smith’s) passes through a rainbow of aural colors in witch-doctor incantations.

Most of these efforts arise out of widespread fascination with cultures and modes of perception foreign to a Western sensibility. Young studies Indian singing; Monk’s debts to primitive shamans are overt. But there is another, related kind of music involvement that embraces the West with a violent vengeance. This is the sexually ambiguous, pornographic-pop sensibility that produced Andy Warhol, pop art, instant celebrities and the Velvet Underground.

Cale is the transitional figure here. Born in Wales and trained in classical music, Cale arrived in America from London in the early Sixties, studies with Iannis Xenakis in Tanglewood, and eventually gravitated to lower Manhattan and Young’s circle, where he spent a couple of years doing Young’s kind of quiescent, Orientalized avant-gardism. But by the mid-Sixties his own, rather more pop self began to emerge, and along with Lou Reed he founded the Velvet Underground, the most influential of all the underground New York rock bands.

Why were artists — Walter De Maria played drums occasionally with members of the Velvet Underground in its formative days — attracted to rock & roll? Well, first of all, by the Sixties it was as integral a part of the American consciousness as soup cans and a lot more powerful than they were. It epitomized rebellious violence that mirrored the meditative quiescence that other avant-gardists were sinking into, and it did so with flash and perverse style. Equally important, its simplicity of structure evoked a response in artists caught up in an aesthetic of minimalism and structural process. The other kind of intellectually respectable popular music, jazz, had drifted off into an anarchistically free chromaticism that was tied up too tightly with black rage.

But all of this, one might argue, happened in the Fifties and the Sixties. Aren’t the Sixties dead? Visual artists provided the impetus behind the Manhattan avant-gardism of the Sixties, and perhaps they have settled down a bit now. But the kinds of activities I’ve been talking about here are just getting into gear, and if New York is still the center of it, the activity is really worldwide, from the English and German progressive rocker to Stockhausen’s chant and ritual pieces to Xenakis in Paris to Terry Riley in Oakland. Even now, in New York, the post-Velvet Underground rock scene is in the midst of a fresh eruption of energy, with bands like the Ramones, Television and Talking Heads about to afflict themselves on the national consciousness.

Originality is always something tricky to prove. An artist’s detractors rush to dredge up antecedents in order to deny the claimant’s newness: the artist’s fans stress what is unprecedented about their idol. In Smith’s case, most of the response so far has focused on her debts to the Velvet Underground, the Stones, Jim Morrison and even Iggy Pop, while ignoring her nonrock roots. Horses is a great record not only because Patti Smith stands alone, but because her uniqueness is lent resonance by the past.

Copyright © John Rockwell 1976

from a patti smith babelogue


Ah, but anyone can shit on a play…

January/February are somewhat dead theatre time in Victoria, I’ve been plenty busy with other art forms, and I find Twitter a little distressing, so I had missed the fact of a new (beautifully designed) Australian general-interest publication, The Global Mail, having an inaugural arts feature pertaining to theatre bloggers.

Or rather, using theatre blogging as a pretext to profile one Jane Simmons, who voiced her opinions on theatre (anonymously until The Global Mail report) on a blog titled, indicatively, Shit On Your Play.

Carl Nilsson Polias alerted me to the fact that I was name-checked in the article, and I read with great interest the profile, the quotes from Ms Simmons’ blog, and then the blog itself. And I suppose what I read made me want to respond.

It is unusual for the Australian press to report positively on blogs – theatre blogs in particular; despite the global opinion generally being positive (what with The Guardian jumping on board with their Theatre Blog years ago, and the emergence of authoritative sources of theatre criticism such as Nachtkritik.de), Australian media are still presenting them roughly with a combination of bored yawn (‘oh dear, everyone is a critic now’) and outright hostility towards the un-edited, un-professional, un-paid criticism uncloaked in the authority of a general-interest publication. The exception to that, of course, have been the many (many, many) articles published by Alison Croggon (of the widely read Theatre Notes, for my overseas readers), articulating the relative strengths of theatre blogs, and the hole they plug in the relatively poor coverage in the mainstream media.

For those reasons, it was interesting to read The Global Mail article, which was a rare case of a non-hostile write-up. But. Oh but. To start, it is simply incorrect to present Jane Simmons as model blogger (as Alison C notes in her response to the article:

blogging is much more interesting, diverse, porous (and long-lived) than is represented here. […] It seems like an enormous missed opportunity to explore the pros and cons, the challenges and problems, of current blogging and critical culture.

But Jane Simmons’ is such a singularly poor model of theatre blogging that profiling Shit On Your Play (in eerily positive terms) is an enormous disservice to everyone: Simmons herself, theatre blogging, Australian theatre, Australian media, the uncritical Stephen Crittenden, and The Global Mail itself.

At least two bloggers have already and publically taken offence at being packed into the same basket: Alison C and Augusta Supple, who wrote in her blog:

I’m not going to shit on anyone or their play or their blog. I don’t think that’s cool. I don’t think that’s useful. But I will ask those who delight in the style of writing that empowers the anonymous and aggressive – if this is the tone and style of the artistic conversations we should be having? Is this the best we can do for each other?

What to say about Jane Simmons, except that she has basically been a troll with a blog? She has been known for writing in the style of the following (her review of the Malthouse/STC co-production of Baal:

Stone calls this play a tragedy- “by presenting humanity in extremis, tragedy shows us the extents of our psychological potential…Baal is the nightmare catharsis of the anti-social instinct”. Ah…sorry, what was that? Do you mean, by presenting as many cocks, cans, titties and a man in women’s undies, we will expose the deepest darkest parts of ourselves and show the world how terrible to succumb to this extreme? I struggled to think the cast cared, let alone me. I left the theatre more concerned about what to have for dinner than what message the play might have tried to imbibe.

Or, from her review of STC’s production of Gross und Klein:

German surrealist literature….well, perhaps all German literature actually, can often be categorised as reflecting a people who understand that everything turns to shit. This being the case, Gross und Klein fulfilled its objective. By the end not even the enticement of hearing the actors Q & A or catching another glimpse of Kevin Spacey in the audience was enough to make me want to stay.

There is so little in this kind of review that could be of any value to anyone: to the audience, to the artist, to the production company, to the reader. It is largely opinion without analysis, plus critique ad personam, often amounting to the following argumentative logic: ‘this play sucked because the director is stupid, and so 5 minutes in I wanted to go home and do my laundry instead‘.

There is no analysis of what went wrong or how – no real meat to her argument, anything to debate with, anything to use as development of one’s own experience of the work, very little new information about what the work could or should have been. Compare Augusta’s review of Baal:

The adaption itself seemed to be obsessed with the sound of the language – declamatory and forced and overt – and therefore clumsy. The delivery seemed equally as staccato, stylized and forced. I found the style itself alienating (harking back to Brecht’s ideas within Epic Theatre – which is interesting since I don’t think he’d yet developed that idea when he wrote BAAL – so to overlay that directorial style on this texts seems somewhat anachronistic). I found the characters to be utterly basic and one dimensional – with little to no sub-textual level and therefore without any major transformation or change. And I wasn’t sure what I was being asked to feel. Was I to feel sorry for Baal? Or his friends? Or the women? I felt was disconnected from them all. I also felt like it was all a fore-gone conclusion. They brought about their own demise – but did I care? Nope.

And so I asked myself, “why don’t I care?”

Is this an example of my own numbness? Perhaps. But I guess it came back to the fact that I feel like that world – where desire is soley manifested in the act of sex, and sex is confused for love, and stimulation is synthetic and drug-induced – is so far away from my life, reality/experience that I had no connection to it; at all. I watch on as the embarrassing pink-fleshed animals of my species destroy each other and I think – well… I’ve learnt nothing – this is what I assumed of this world and it follows what I believe – ego is ugly, fame is fickle, fame creates a false sense of power, entitlement and immortality, having no values hurts. So I was vindicated, but not transformed.

Or, say, my own:

Stone has made his name by essentially re-writing, then directing, the works of that same previous generation – and the generation Brecht was particularly defining himself in opposition to. […] And Stone has directed them aptly Bergmanesquely: in chiaroscuro, with long shadows, carving hints and glimpses of universal significance out of meticulous portrayal of the mundane. […]

Whereas a scene from Ibsen is a meticulous moment of mundane, through which one may glimpse a universal significance, Brecht’s writing is blunt, sketchy, showing only the essential point of the scene. The role of the spectator is then to relate this sketch to an everyday moment, to anchor it in reality (in this aspect Brecht’s writing functions as satire).

So. Ibsen: particular hinting at the universal. Brecht: universal hinting at the particular.

I don’t think it’s easier to direct the former than the latter kind, but much of this production nonetheless looked like Stone wasn’t sure what particular he was hinting at.

Jane Simmons and The Global Mail make a big deal out of other critics being overly supportive of bad theatre, but I think this is a claim incorrectly made on purpose, to mask the lack of substance of Jane Simmons’ reviews. Many of us didn’t like Baal. Most of us went through the effort of analysing why, what went wrong. That is hard work, harder, in any case, than sniping at male nudity and shrugging the whole enterprise off. What Jane Simmons tells you, in most cases, is that she liked or didn’t like a play; or that it worked or didn’t. That’s all you get: an appraisal, a vote. The review could have been replaced with a number: 4/10, sit down.

A commenter on Theatre Notes related that to Simmons’ role as drama teacher:

It seems to me that Jane speaks like many a drama teacher in her sharp criticisms. Anyone who has been in an acting school or class has probably been told that what they’re doing is shit at one point or another. I’ve read articles about awesome actors who came in for heavy criticism from their teachers at drama school, so it’s no surprise that this particular drama teacher has a ready supply of caustic things to say, it’s just that she’s now giving the drama teacher treatment to everyone, not just her students.

But, again – I have myself participated in numerous crits, on both sides. Only a bad crit is about character assassination. The purpose of the crit is to interrogate the artist (budding) on the intentions and goals of their work, their method and process, and then judge the work on having or not achieved those goals – and do it in a way that can send the (budding) artist off with a plan to fix the flaws. (See wonderful American reality TV series Work of Art for a much better example of what a crit consists of.) To disagree with the artist’s entire premise, aesthetics and goals is not what you are there for; you are there to be a sort of art doctor.

The non-constructive review has its place in this world, too. Every so often one sees a performance whose flaws would take too long to list – here we have the hatchet job, as exemplified by Dale Peck in literary criticism. However, if it not going to be a constructive lament of sorts, if it is going to be heartless, a negative review must, at the very least, be a good read.

Compare any of the above Simmons to Kenneth Tynan lamenting (completely unconstructively) the dearth of commercially successful theatre in England (The Lost Art of Bad Drama, 1955):

One begins to suspect that the English have lost the art of writing a bad successful play. Perhaps some sort of competition should be organized: the rules, after all, are simple enough. At no point may the plot or characters make more than superficial contact with reality. Characters earning less than £1,000 a year should be restricted to small parts or exaggerated into types so patently farcical that no member of the audience could possibly identify himself with such absurd esurience… Irony is confined to having an irate male character shout: ‘I am perfectly calm!’… Apart from hysterical adolescents, nobody may weep; apart from triumphant protagonists, nobody may laugh; anyone, needless to say, may smile…. Women who help themselves unasked to cigarettes must be either frantic careerists or lustful opportunists. The latter should declare themselves by running the palm of one hand up their victim’s lapel and saying, when it reaches the neck: ‘Let’s face it, Arthur, you’re not exactly indifferent to me.’

Or, say, David Foster Wallace’s merciless review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time:

It is, of the total 25 Updike books I’ve read, far and away the worst, a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape.

I’m afraid the preceding sentence is this review’s upshot, and most of the balance here will consist of presenting evidence/ justification for such a disrespectful assessment. First, though, if I may poke the critical head into the frame for just one moment, I’d like to offer assurances that your reviewer is not one of these spleen-venting, spittle-spattering Updike-haters one encounters among literary readers under 40. The fact is that I am probably classifiable as one of very few actual sub-40 Updike fans . […]

Most of the literary readers I know personally are under 40, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar [Great Male Narcissists]. But it’s Mr. Updike in particular they seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason-mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:

“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”

“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Limbaugh makes fascism seem funny.”

These reviews make editors money and increase literacy rates across countries because they are fun to read, witty, well-observed and still informative, not merely because spleens are vented. When spleens are merely vented, it is called ‘ranting’. And when they are vented anonymously, as is Shit On Your Play, without even presenting a coherent on-line identity, then we call it ‘trolling’.

Writing witty unfriendly things about John Updike’s latest novel, or Simon Stone’s direction of Baal, and signing it with one’s own name and surname, carries the risk that the same John Updike or Simon Stone might bump into you at a magazine office, theatre foyer, dinner party, or on the street, and want to discuss your work the way you discussed theirs. This is not pleasant, hey – which is why using one’s name and surname is the best and quickest way to get a critic to build sound and researched arguments.

Jane Simmons’ reviews often conceal, rather than articulate, her knowledge of drama – her discussion of Brecht in the review of Baal makes sense to me, but would not inform anyone else. Her own taste constantly gets in the way of good analysis: she dismisses the entire German dramatic practice (its writing, its direction, and its dramaturgy) without batting an eyelid. Her critical manner is appalling, and I would be worried if she extended it to her teaching practice.

Finally, her snide and anonymous comments, devoid of articulated argument or charm, are quite the opposite of unusual: the theatrical social world of every country I know is lubricated with unfounded, slight, ad hominem, often vicious, informal and unsigned commentary behind people’s backs.

This approach is basically anti-intellectual: it amounts to yelling at people who disagree with you, and attempts to disqualify them from the argument, rather than arguing anything out. It turns everything personal too soon. It shuts debate, rather than feeding it. It makes participants give up, and either ignore a discussion held at such low level, or attempt to be bland and even-sided to the point of terrible boredom, just to bring the discussion back on some civilised track. It is completely and typically Australian in all of these aspects.

It is so tiring to see an Australian general-interest magazine focus on the arts, once again, only to construe a mini-culture war: overly polite, inner-city, Europhiliac, bleeding-heart critics and theatre establishment versus rugged individualists and suburban working families, with their no-bullshit, tell-it-how-it-is attitude. It does not need to be like this. I have just returned from Hobart, a small city which has embraced its temple to avant-garde art, MONA, with unreserved curiosity and delight. MONA, in turn, has embraced its locale to an astonishing degree. Being there, watching children wander through MONA, and having the local hair-dresser eager to discuss the influence of religious ethos on Wim Delvoye, felt very much like being in Europe, a place similarly relaxed about the role of art in everyday life.

But alliance-building takes time, and a certain astuteness, in a country ravaged by culture wars, and I don’t see J.S. exactly leading the way. The only people who will really enjoy J.S.’s dismissive reviews are those who either cannot get to the reviewed shows (either because of geography or finances) and want to feel they are not missing anything, those who have made a conscious decision not to go and want their views validated, and those for whom theatre-in-Australia is something to opt out of as an act of identity definition. (Look at the comments.) It will not foster an audience, the way I started going to theatre in Melbourne only once I felt I could trust Theatre Notes to guide me. It will not foster a discussion, not beyond the outraged blip that is has caused already. Now that J.S. has been named and profiled, her reviews might acquire a degree of accountability, and she might grow into a constructive force yet. But, as of today, nothing constructive has yet come out of her shitting on people’s plays.

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Show Ponies for a Young Nation

Show Ponies For A Young Nation

By Jana Perkovic

There’s a thriving, internationally recognised performance scene in Australia — but it’s barely reflected in the programming of major arts companies, writes Jana Perkovic

Beneath the surface of Australian cities bubbles an undercurrent of performance. Artists — both young and old, trained and untrained — are creating small interventions of chaos and beauty, much of which draws on specific local traditions of vernacular theatre: travelling circus, pub music, guerrilla performance, mixed-media cabaret.

It’s easy to dismiss these forms as niche pursuits; and they are, indeed, an ecosystem of small communities. When this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival organised a perplexingly dull launch for McSweeney’s, one of the world’s most innovative young literary journals, it was the Suitcase Royale, a local performance collective, who saved the event with an electrifying gig/stand-up/performance.

If our literature has forgotten joie de vivre, and our cinema is proclaimed “recovered” on the basis of seven good films a year, then theatre certainly ought to be recognised as one thing Australia consistently does well.

Overseas, reviewers rave about Acrobat, Back to Back, Panther and Chunky Move: circus, physical theatre, interactive performance companies producing cutting-edge work in their select fields. They don’t pay so much attention to the companies that swallow the lion’s share of our arts funding: our state theatres.

With the honourable exception of Melbourne’s Malthouse, our major performing arts companies have persistently avoided this undercurrent, opting for programming that lacks flair. Even allowing that 2009 was a panicky year for the mainstream — the Global Financial Crisis bit into both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship — the year’s programs were altogether business-as-usual. Fifty years after Merce Cunningham choreographed to chance music and Beckett put nothingness itself on stage, our theatres still offer a bewilderingly old-fashioned mix of European classics, last year’s Broadway and West End successes, and a smattering of local plays with music (the latter to be distinguished from musical theatre by virtue of being unfunny).

Scavenging through Australia’s main stage offerings in 2003, German journalist Anke Schaefer noted that “every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions.” The problem is not just that our mainstream theatre is overwhelmingly male-dominated and almost completely white. And it’s not that staging a play written in 1960 is still considered adventurous — it is the abyss between what the bulk of “performing artists” in this country are doing and the work showcased on the well-funded stages.

To be fair, there have been some improvements over the past few years. The Lawler Studio is a not-yet-properly-funded baby stage for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) with a small, but promising season, and the Sydney Theatre Company’s maturing Next Stage program brought in Perth wunderkind Matthew Lutton — and will present the abovementioned Suitcase Royale in 2010. But for every innovation that reaches a big audience, there is a scathing critical attack from the likes of Peter Craven that we need better-made plays, not avant-garde tinkering.

Craven typifies the deep conservative current in our theatre commentariat. While aficionados have organised themselves in the blogosphere, forming a reliable network of guerrilla arts reportage, the mainstream patron is limited to the opinions of the mainstream press, which consistently criticises any departure from pleasant digestive after-dinner theatrical fare.

The understanding that permeates theatre criticism, funding policies, festival curatorship, even the design of performing arts venues, is that theatre is an expensive toy to show off to our international visitors. It helps prove that here, at the arse end of the world, we have a functioning high culture. Arguably, we build “world-class” arts centres, fund show-pony opera and invest in international arts festivals because we fear being mistaken for a subcultural backwater. A national ballet ensemble — like a broadcasting network, a flag, an army and a giant ferris wheel — is a sign of a serious nation.

Hence the currency of theatre as an impossibly highbrow endeavour, something that excludes large swathes of the population who claim not to attend for the pricey “elitism” of arts events. Yet, when we leave the realm of the ethereal and the literary, of The Nutcracker and King Lear, it is often hard to distinguish performing arts from fairgrounds and other dubious entertainments.

Our mainstream arts funding reflects this confusion. Theatre is sometimes a flagship investment, and sometimes a failing commercial sector in need of subsidy. If we give it money, it better demonstrates its market relevance. Most of our state festivals were set up as tourism initiatives, providing world-class this and gold star that — but they are also judged on the extent to which they animate the city.

State companies are thus in a double bind: they ought to stage excellent interpretations of classics, but they also need to keep their subscriber base with populist programming. The media and the funding bodies do not question populism. Here the Peter Cravens, Andrew Bolts and Paul Keatings of the nation join voices to demand in unison that we fund some quality orchestras before sponsoring avant-garde wank.

So, while Opera Australia can cross-fund its season with My Fair Lady without reprimand, Kristy Edmunds’s edgy curatorship of Melbourne Festival was viciously attacked as — you guessed it — “elitist”: insular, pretentious, niche. But young audiences responded and artists found her choices inspiring.

This year, under Brett Sheehy’s artistic direction, the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) broke box office records — mainly due to the sell-out performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra — and gleaned glowing praise for restoring mainstream common sense to the program. Yet the local theatre community has criticised it as too white, too European, too predictable, focusing on big-ticket events at the expense of smaller, braver shows, and — yes — “elitist”. In this equation, elites, like hell, are always other people.

It is a scavenger hunt for audiences. Where the audience preferences lie is not so clear. The MTC may have the largest subscriber base in the country but it is rapidly aging. Programming for the middle-class, middle-suburb punter may rely on unwise mathematics: audiences are not developed through insistence on a 19th-century understanding of highbrow. For all its success at the box office, often I felt off attending MIAF 09 performances surrounded by an audience thrice my age.

Melbourne Fringe featured no Philharmonic and managed to break its box office record in 2009 — despite the GFC — showing how robust specialised audience loyalty can be. TINA and Imperial Panda, independent arts festivals in NSW, have also done well, as has the inaugural Dance Massive, dedicated exclusively to contemporary dance. Perhaps mainstream programming should acknowledge these “passionate communities” and “creative laboratories” that make up the solid core of the arts audience: they, after all, nurture its most vibrant new developments. Even fans of well-made plays, we should recognise, are increasingly becoming a niche.

Rather than trying to stretch nation-making dinosaurs over an increasingly diverse nation, we should focus on nurturing smaller, specialised festivals, and recognise that our cultural excellence may lie not in opera but in grungy circus. Our current funding model is completely unsuitable for this task. Audiences will not develop through programming that blends the safest aspects of all our arts into a soup that, in attempting to please everyone, pleases no one. What we should do, instead, is encourage the continuing exploration of the many vibrant art forms thriving under the radar: they count as culture. And statehood? Aren’t we too old to worry about that?

Originally published on 31 December 2009, on NewMatilda.com

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Bookmark: Timbuktu

I will, in the years to come, try to establish a section along the lines of ‘Guerrilla Semiotics Presents…’, a kind of evil twin to 5th Wall‘s Critic Watch, with theatre writings notable & worth pointing out.

For now, though, they will remain ‘Bookmarks’, and here is another one. A very dear friend of mine, and a wonderful performer, Petar Sarjanović, on Montažstroj’s Timbuktu (based on Paul Auster), in two versions:

-original: Dresura pobune, pobuna dresure
-and English: The training of rebellion, the rebellion of training


Life… is a Dream.

Seeing a progression in someone’s work the wrong way around is always intriguing for the possibilities it offers for misreading, or overly simplifying. Having seen Daniel Schlusser’s Peer Gynt before Life is a Dream (a remount of which has just closed at The Store Room – but bear with my lateness, for I am working hard), it is easy to see a history, kernels yet to be developed. Foucault warns against this, asking to do a genealogy instead. Well.

Life is a Dream premiered in late 2008, and appears to set up the framework for the complex theatrical text (as in weaving, textile) that Peer Gynt, in early 2009, became. It inserts Calderón de la Barca’s baroque dramatic text into a layering of fantasies. It removes all but scraps of text, which appear not as the truth of the performance, but its final point of unreality – a relatively consensual game played by children trapped in a room. It settles on a relaxed, thinly performative mode. The reality of the stage is paramount, tactile, driving all else: the whole performance timed to a whistling kettle. The performers are sometimes characters, sometimes calling each other by their name. It is playful, smart theatre.

Back in 2008, the premise would have been clearly recognised as a reference to Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who, it had just been discovered, had sexually abused his daughter for 24 years, keeping her locked up in his basement, together with the three children born out of the affair. The children have since become subjects of psychiatric study, as they grew up in total isolation from social reality – the eldest was 19 when they were released. These are the children of Life is a Dream: a posse of completely unsocialised human beings, their mother gone, making up their world as they go along. The dynamic between them is subtly realised, and often mesmerising to watch: we realise that some children are barely able to speak, but some have a patchy sense of the world, and they use this epistemological high ground to dominate the others. At most times, however, theirs is a mini-society set up according to a completely nonsensical premise: the mother is dead, the father was never there, there is someone to blame, and someone to punish.

Schlusser uses the kettle (constantly boiling water) as a theatrical clepsydra. Between endlessly recurring cups of tea, we get a sense of the terrible, maddening boredom of the basement, the despair and the physical frustration of confinement, and the physical and psychic aggression that builds up and can only be relieved through ever more inventive games. In one, Sophie Mathisen directs and choreographs the story of the Sleeping Beauty on herself and children. In another, Calderón’s play is played.

The layering of dream and reality in Life is a Dream is perversely disfigured: Segismundo, a confined prince, is released into the Polish court. Waking up in society for the first time, he kills and rapes and is drugged and returned to his tower, and told the previous day was just a vivid dream. However, a revolting gang frees him and he wins the throne, sparing the father who had imprisoned him, marrying off secondary characters; still unsure of whether this part is dream or reality, but convinced that even in dreams we have to behave honourably. Yet, in Schlusser’s basement, Segismundo may have been imprisoned in the corner toilet his whole life, or only for the duration of one game. He may be liberated for good, or just until another game starts. We don’t know. What we do understand, as the kettle boils again, is that there will be a lot more time to waste.

At the end of 2009, the Fritzl case withdraws as the first interpretive prism, and the filthy room could now be a sealed and forgotten nuclear shelter, an aftermath of war, or submerged under the melted glaciers. The tragedy is no less clear, but its meaning is more generalised.

One of the things that have always intrigued me about Life is a Dream has been the questionable relationship between what we see and what we know, or a certain doubt in the reality of reality, that Baroque shared with our age (or certainly the post-modernity pre-9/11). There is not only the similarity of stories to judge from: the skepticism of both Life is a Dream and, say, Matrix. It’s also the delight in surfaces, in excessive decoration, in motion as opposed to stillness. * What seems to connect the periods is the general acceptance of affectation and mannerism as self-evidently and widely appreciated. (Now, we could generalise further, we have entered a period more akin to rococo. Subtler, gentler, but equally, if not more, mannerist. Wes Anderson, in this interpretation, would be the Watteau of our age.) The comparison also looms over as a threat of future insignificance, incomprehensibility, the overly stylised baroque literary style is near-impossible to read today, in almost any European language. What’s more, few care. Bound-up in looking up its own arse, comparatively little of the period has survived in literature as important for the canon.

While Life is a Dream is as baroque as 2008 gets, it is a comparatively clean, tidy and elegant production, and I have to say I preferred the bewilderingly complex Peer Gynt. Perhaps it comes with familiarity with method: the layering of realities, the sense of anti-performative, real time and space that anchored the stage overburdened with worlds, the accumulation of detail, the snippety use of text. Life is a Dream is tied together with a good knot, but it is far less exciting once we can read what is inside, or even predict what will come next. And some things are not as well executed: the use of music (a moment of Nick Cave, and the threatening bass of Massive Attack’s Angel that closes the show) is strangely dysfunctional, neither integrated with the subtlety of the total, nor incongruent enough to be ironic. (Compare with a burst of soap bubbles at the end of Peer Gynt, a brilliantly off-handed gesture to manic stupidity.) There is a resolute rhythm, and a purposeful meaningfulness to much of the dialogue that lets the production lean slightly too much towards a sit-com: a sort of feigned casualness that is shredded away in Peer Gynt. But this is what I mean by ‘tidy’ and ‘clean’.

Finally, there is a thin film of melodrama in the conceit: the basement, the tragedy, the poignancy of it all. The loveliest improvement of Peer Gynt on the formal skelleton of Life is a Dream is the exquisite lightness it brings to very much the same philosophical inquiry, same existential despair. It manages to create the same desolation, the same absurdity and grief, by making a puzzle out of the most banal, most inconsequential elements: a wedding rehearsal, a game of Fußball, plastic chairs, soap bubbles. It doesn’t signpost its intentions with trip-hop. It smiles as wide as nothingness.

I wonder what comes next.

*For a long time, I very firmly associated Calderon’s play to the general weirdness of Shoujo Kakumei Utena:

Life is a Dream, adapted from Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Beatrix Christian, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Marg Horwell, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, special make-up effects by Dominique Noelle Mathisen, composed by Darrin Verhagen, stage management by Pippa Wright, produced by Sarah Ernst. With George Banders, Brendan Barnett, Johnny Carr, Andrew Dunn, Julia Grace, Sophie Mathisen, Vanessa Moltzen, Sarah Ogden and Josh Price. The Store Room, November 18-29.

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Bookmark: Marianne Van Kerkhoven

The image of the Berlin Wall comes from Dream of Harlequin, where is appears uncredited.

If we define idealism as “acting on the basis of an unshakeable belief
in the possibility of a better life”, then we were the bearers of a
fervent idealism and great optimism. In its philosophical meaning,
idealism is a theory that holds first of all that reality is a product of
one’s consciousness, the ideas one has in one’s mind. But that was
not the theoretical foundation on which the movement of ’68 rested.
We drew support from the materialist philosophy of Marxism which
holds that the social being, the materiality of existence, in the final
analysis shapes man’s thoughts, emotions, mental processes. We
knew that people living in huts would inevitably think differently,
and see society differently, than people living in palaces. We were
aware that there were classes in society who had different needs and
concerns, and that this would inevitably lead to the emergence of
social struggles.

The achievements of the Enlightenment were not yet being questioned
at that time.We believed in the power of reason, in the power
of the word. We also believed in the power of progress, in hope, in
the possibility of improving the world. We were convinced that the
true nature of life in society was being hidden from view by an
ideological veil.We wanted to do what we could to remove that veil
from in front of others and ourselves, so that another perception of
the world could clear the way for another activity.


And yet, despite our efforts and enthusiasm, the great revolution
did not occur; the world seemed amore difficult place to change than
we had anticipated. Our perception of the world started to sway, or
was it the world itself which was swaying?

In “Between Two Colmars”, an essay from his volume About Looking,
John Berger, the English author and art critic who resides in France,
describes two successive visits he made to the small French town of
Colmar (in Alsace) to see Grünewald’s famous Isenheim altarpiece:
first, in 1963, and then again ten years later, in 1973. In the space of
those ten years, the lives of many thousands of people would be
radically altered. In his essay, written in 1973, Berger observes that
for him, too, the years before 1968 were “a time of expectant hopes”
and that “hope” was “a marvellous focusing lens”. He attempts to
compare with great precision the impressions Grünewald’s altarpiecemade
on him at those two different moments. “I do not want to
suggest that I saw more in 1973 than in 1963,” he writes. “I saw
differently. That is all. The ten years do not necessarily mark a
progress; in many ways they represent defeat.” The difference in his
consecutive observations lies in the difference in his frame of mind
at the time of observing: hopeful in 1963, doubtful in 1973. “Hope”,
he wrote, ”attracts, radiates as a point, towhich one wants to be near,
from which one wants to measure. Doubt has no centre and is
ubiquitous.” I quote further: “It is a commonplace that the significance
of a work of art changes as it survives. Usually however, this
knowledge is used to distinguish between ‘them’ (in the past) and
‘us’ (now). There is a tendency to picture them and their reactions
to art as being embedded in history, and at the same time to credit
ourselves with an over-view, looking across from what we treat as
the summit of history. The surviving work of art then seems to confirm
our superior position. The aim of its survival was us. This is
illusion. There is no exemption from history. The first time I saw
Grünewald I was anxious to place it historically. In terms of
medieval religion, the plague,medicine, the Lazar house.Now I have
been forced to place myself historically. In the period of revolutionary
expectation, I saw a work of art which had survived as
evidence of the past’s despair; in a period which has to be endured,
I see the same work miraculously offering a narrow pass across

What impact does it have on us if, as Peter Sloterdijk put it, we have
to come to terms with the most important mental shift in Western
civilisation in the twentieth century; namely, the shift from the
primacy of the past to the primacy of the future. We draw up little
lists of important things that we want to take with us from that past;
we discuss the canon, cultural heritage, repertories, the final attainment
levels; we elect the most important Belgian or Fleming etc.
of all time. But none of this yields a real solution to the issue of how
to deal with the past. If you were taught in the seventies about the
importance of historical conscience as the means par excellence
with which to read the contemporary world, this is a development
that is very difficult to grasp.

The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran defined utopia as
“the grotesque en rose”. “A monstrous fairyland” will replace the
image of the future, “a vision of irrevocable happiness, of a planned
paradise in which there is no room for chance and where the least
fancy comes across as heresy or provocation”. But Cioran added:
“You can repress everything in people except their need for an absolute”.
And he concluded: “No paradise is possible, except in the
innermost of our being and, as itwere, in the I of the I; and even then
it is necessary, in order to find it there, to have observed all paradises,
the bygone and the potential, to have hated or loved them with
the awkwardness of fanaticism, and then to have explored them and
rejected them with the skill of disappointment”.

The holistic vision of the world that, in the seventies already, we
nourished in theory, namely, the sense that everything was interconnected,
today seems to have become a reality. A single system
spans the entire world. Like time, space too seems to be compressed.
The internet, other real-time media, and tourism have made our
world smaller. We can, as it were, communicate with anyone around
the world as if they were our neighbours. The world is flowing into
our lives and our homes. When a tsunami hit a number of countries
around the Indian Ocean in late 2004 causing 300,000 victims, not
only was this event brought close to us through real-time footage,
but it also became clear how many Europeans spent their holidays
there, as if it were a destination in the south of France.


Today, communication seems to occur more often through images,
without having recourse to words. Language, that old and slow
symbolic medium, has seen its status affected in both social and
theatrical communication. William Forsythe has devoted a
performance to this topic, Heterotopia, in which language acquires
a spatial dimension. Language has become an image, a square
peopled with characters, a Tower of Babel that has been flattened,
made horizontal. And all these characters, including the audience,
are following the inscription (but simultaneously the injunction)
that Peter Handke wrote at the beginning of his wordless play Die
Stunde dawir nichts von einanderwußten
(The Hour We Knew Nothing
of Each Other
): “Do not betray what you have seen. Remain in
the picture.” All letters of the alphabet are literally on stage, but no
matter what the performers do, these letters refuse to form words, to
create meaning. And yet, there is a constant communication on the
stage: with bodies, actions, movements, sounds, images. In Romeo
Castellucci’s Purgatorio, “the reading of text” is turned into an
image; this also occurs in Hooman Sharifi’s God Exists, the Mother
Is Present, But They No Longer Care
, in which, during the representation,
time is set aside for the audience to read the projected text.
In Castellucci’s play, the projected text includes descriptions of actions
that will occur on stage, or not. He is playing with time,
keeping us alert. The projected words make us pay attention.
What, in fact, is the relation between words and images?


Every day in my work as a dramaturge, I observe how the naming of
things leads to a readjustment of the perception of those things, and
vice versa. In order to talk about new realities, a new vocabulary has
to be developed. To name, to try to describe reality seems to me to
be the first task that we have to take on in the face of the confusing
reality that surrounds us. In order to decipher the world, to be able
to narrate the world, we must indeed believe that it can be described.
Maybe that offers one possibility, an initial boost. In order to
understand something, we must be able to imagine it. For understanding
to be possible,word, image, thought and imagination must
come together.

-Marianne Van Kerkhoven, The Ongoing Moment. Reflections on image and society. Hosted on Sarma.be.

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Adventures in Pornography

Today, for perhaps the first time really, for the first time in this way, it struck what a waste of resources tertiary education may be. I mean, a total waste of money and manhours on minds too young, and too inexperienced, to genuinely benefit. This even before we factor in the tremendously homogeneous education they receive, and the limited range of experiences they have had, in this country.

I was doing a presentation on Pauline Reage’s The Story of O for a literature class mainly concerned with censorship. The Story of O is one of the major pornographic novels, together with Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye and the opus of Marquis de Sade. It’s a work of high modernism, published in France in 1954, and follows, in third person, a woman referred to only as ‘O’, through a series of sadomasochistic escapades. It is unmistakably porn. It is not an erotic novel, but one that graphically depicts a stockstandard range of situations unmistakably drawn from smut. It is not concerned with feelings, with consent, with empowerment, with mutual adoration. It is, also, unmistakably, art.

What makes The Story of O so fascinating is its idiosyncracy. It is both obscene and morbid; superficial and profound; arousing and repulsive. It reads like a nightmare, and has all the allure. O is the typical pornographic heroine, abused by a number of men in a variety of ways; but the book adds psychology to the stereotypical narrative, in a most disconcerting way. O is submitted to torture by her lover, Rene, and yet she both suffers and enjoys her suffering. She submits herself gladly, as a proof of love for Rene. The intensity of her debasement escalates from the cliched, through mildly offensive, to completely morbid: in the last pages of the novel, naked, tattooed, chained and masked, O has lost any trace of individuality and isn’t even spoken to anymore. Yet the narrator points clearly to the deep satisfaction she feels in this renunciation of self, despite the pain she feels. Around the middle of the book, when her psychology is first brought into the light, the narrator even notices that Rene himself doesn’t seem to enjoy O’s ordeal very much, making it conceivable that O is orchestrating the entire show for her own purposes.

It is a very complex book, and shouldn’t at all be read as realist fiction. Susan Sontag has compared it to other modernist works interested in exploring the deepest recesses of the mind (notable surrealist fiction, for example, and Bataille), and to many works of mystic literature. O’s shedding of the layers of the self is comparable to the path of a Zen pupil or Jesuit novice. For other commentators, it is an expression of the deeply rooted human desire “to be free from oneself, to have the gratifications one associates with the self without the obligation of making the choices by which moral character and personality are defined.” From Peter Michelson’s perspective, it’s possible to read The Story of O as an allegory of falling in love. Or as a prolonged rape fantasy akin to those appearing at the beginnings of romance novels. O’s path towards self-obliteration is as extreme as it is familiar; it evokes not only the usual porn plots, but maps mental territory we genuinely cross. It doesn’t normalise sadomasochism; but it delves straight into it.

I was very interested in how other students have reacted to the book, and was not so much surprised, as deeply disappointed, with the narrowness of their reactions. Unlike a one-joke book like American Psycho or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, time hasn’t softened the transgression of The Story of O; students who would quickly defend the right of Wilde, Lawrence or Rushdie to chart difficult territories were more than ready to be shocked by Reage. What surprised me was how few of them understood any of it. They found O sad, pathetic, impossible to understand. They clearly had no direct experience of the death drive, of the self-destructive potential, which made me think that most of them have probably never even been properly in love.

Over and over again, it was called religious, and all these kids distanced themselves from the religious vocabulary they considered removed from their own lives. They couldn’t find a way into self-renunciation. This disturbed me greatly: I brought in the self-negation of a collective experience, but struggled to find anything Australian apart from the sporting event. Finally, I brought up the housewife: living through your husband and children, what a healthy human being would need to do in order to accept such fate, and how the mental mechanism employed wouldn’t differ greatly from O’s self-obliteration for love. “It’s a not a distant, exotic thing you have no contact with,” I was exclaiming at this point, “do you know a woman who has never worked? A stay-at-home mum? Is that a religious experience too?”

There was a genuine break-through at this point. One of the girls said, after a pause, “I think it’s just that it goes against everything we’ve been taught at school about how we should live, and about what love is.” Telling, the notion of being told at school what love is. This is where I realised we cannot discuss something like The Story of O in that class. It was, quite simply, too early for them.

So much knowledge is experiential, and so obvious this becomes when art criticism tries to happen. Brett Easton Ellis was one of the first artists I’ve read who drew the line between youth and formalism. In your twenties, he said, you don’t understand consequentiality: you’ve had only limited life experience, and you don’t have a proper understanding of the consequences of the things you’re doing. As a result, he said, your capacity to tell stories is limited: you cannot match causes and effects. Instead, the young artist is a formalist; and so is the young critic.

I cannot count how many theatre shows I’ve seen recently that had no understanding of the stories they were telling; and how much criticism I have read that showed no understanding of the meaning of the shows it was criticising. The semi-literary discussion surrounding The Story of O was only the last and the most exasperating case. I’ve been very reluctant to write because I’m getting not so much tired of form (form is always there), but tired of this overwhelming lack of understanding of the stories shaped by the form. A little while ago I read a newspaper article on Beautiful Kate, in which Rachel Ward, the scriptwriter and director, was asked about why she portrayed incest with a bit of sympathy. As if the inner side of all art can be reduced to plot plus artist’s message and goddamn sympathy or condemnation.

Someone, somewhere, once defined good literature as that thing you read and go, Yes, that’s exactly how life is! I never thought of it that way, but that’s how things are! In order to recognise that that’s how things are, though, you have to have known the things themselves. No amount of reading can do it instead.


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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Among the backpatters and backstabbers

Giulia Merlo’s recent article for Spark Online – a read I recommend to everybody – has made me think about a certain problem with the Australian culture of theatre criticism. While wondering why Giulia, a relative outsider to the theatre practice, regularly outwrites most local reviewers, whether it has to do with her living in an intellectually bolder culture, her Italian education, or simply immense writing talent, the challenges we face, on our island, have become a little clearer.

Let me explain. For better or worse, the only educated commentary on the theatre in Australia comes from those directly involved, in some capacity, in the sector. Professional theatre theorists being exceedingly rare (what are their employment options, after all?), and our media coverage laughable, the only educated theatre audience in our country is the theatre sector itself. What commentary we have is largely penned by current, former or future theatre practitioners. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it is often pointed out that a good critic should have some practical experience if they are to assess the success or failure. It also creates, in the best possible world, an environment of constructive, informed, and in-depth criticism. It is only a good thing that, unlike the UK blogoscope, Australian web-landscape is not dotted with prospective newspaper reviewers. As much as I enjoy reading, say, the West End Whingers, this kind of witty, catty, user-oriented coverage doesn’t provide a great starting point for any discussion.

However. Lately, while trying to expand our field of theatre commentary, I been noticing a peculiar problem. The moment a good theatre reviewer looks like they may turn into a great theatre reviewer, more often than not they seem to stop, give up. The fear cited is always the same: they are worried about the public-ness of their writing. It hurts their networking (networking hereby defined as the applied art of convincing as many people of one’s loveliness with the smallest expenditure of time and energy as possible). Colleagues may dislike them.

While some of them don pseudonyms, more often than not the result is a vague sort of semi-assesment, neither positive nor negative, descriptive rather than analytical, something akin to written networking, the equivalent of the afterparty small-talk. What I notice a lot is a certain refutation of criticism as effort, as practice. Instead, theatre practitioners focus on making performance. This is the part of the equation they choose to take seriously.

I have had a lot of sympathy for this position – after all, theatre business is not quite one in which milk rains and honey flows abundant – for the need to cultivate ties. However, faced with the sad fact that the best criticism currently published in Australia seems to be coming from a woman in London, who does not, to my knowledge, have any formal education in theatre as a discipline, it has become a troubling position to sustain.

Is it really possible to be serious about your own practice, and completely give up, strip of credibility, the critical side? Is it really possible for theatre to work as a system, if everyone makes, but nobody assesses with any credibility? Are we not shooting ourselves in the foot? If theatre artists, one after another, give up the task of genuine feedback, if the duty of criticism is not taken seriously at all, how can anyone expect to receive serious feedback for their own, ostensibly serious theatre practice? The system, as I see it, collapses. At a certain point, quality is simply not rewarded anymore.

This has to be the reason behind so many ills currently facing this world (which I love and care for). In the absence of seriously enforced aesthetic and intellectual standards, everyone is a great artist. And it sometimes seems so, doesn’t it? The only problem, ostensibly, is that there is not enough money for everyone. How to distribute what money there is, however, becomes another set of problems. Without this feedback loop, every assessment is looked upon with doubt. (And I’m sure everyone has had, heard or overhead one of those conversations in which who-got-how-much is discussed with great bitterness.)

It would be wonderful, and easy and friend-winning, to assume that, just because people are so honey-mouthed about each other’s work, this is a nurturing, supportive theatre culture, but the truth is far from it. Of the countries I have lived in – and here is another case in which the Australian mythical national character lets reality down – I do believe Australia is an exceptional case of a society of backstabbers. Even the vilest people I have met seem unable to do harm in one’s face, and prefer a thin semblance of in-yer-face civility to cover their machinations behind. Alison Croggon’s blog commentary, all too often a playground for anonymous bile, testifies to that. Not that nobody disagrees, of course. There is no place, in a certain sense, where people are more thoroughly disillusioned about the intrinsic worth of human beings than among the theatre folk. It all strikes me as generally rather unhealthy.

To qualify, I do think the situation is similar in many other sectors. Education is certainly an activity in which frank criticism has become a faux pas. A friend of mine, who teaches creative writing, has noted that any attempt at genuine workshopping results in his students complaining upwards that he is “making them doubt their ability as writers.” On the other hand, both arts journalism and arts administration are, in some broad sense, career-based activities, in which the results are not measured in the quality of the art they support. Real improvement, aesthetic and intellectual, seems to be not much of a common goal.

It all ties in with another problem, often expressed in more professionally-differentiated theatre places, of whether critics should befriend artists. In Australia, I imagine, one has no choice. One would need to be tremendously unpopular (as either) to avoid doing so. Yet I don’t think that reviewing the work of friends or acquaintances is quite the problem some people make it out to be. If the purpose of the review is to assign stars, elegantly massacre a production for readers’ pleasure, show off eloquence rather than insight, perhaps. However, if the purpose of the review is to explain, engage, work with the performance, being aware of the existence, in flesh and blood, of the person under scrutiny makes one only more aware of one’s accountability. Keeping in mind that there is a person behind the work, one becomes more cautious about making unfounded statements. To return to the quandary faced by bright young theatre things, I don’t think pseudonyms solve the problem. Putting a name under a review is still the best way we have of avoiding unsanctionable viciousness, backstabbing.

On the other hand, as anyone involved in a creative practice can attest, constructive criticism is an act of extreme generosity. To receive honest, informed and in-depth feedback is invaluable if one is to grow as a practitioner of absolutely anything – and it often requires knowledge of the person, the artform, the conditions of production. It is a more incestuous relationship than our image of the ideal critic allows. Last summer in Vienna, at ImPulsTanz’s program for educating young dance critics, I spoke to a couple of people from Serbian dance organizations about their selection process (in the program, dance companies nominated critics – the young Belgian was quite surprised, having been chosen by Ultima Vez although he reviewed their work negatively). Dalija Acin, from TKH (Teorija Koja Hoda), told me how appreciative they were of the chance to send young people to ImPulsTanz, “to educate our cadre.” Critics were not seen as the enemy, or as a superfluous part of the sector, but a necessary link between an artform and an audience, both an arbiter of taste and an interpreter. As pointed in a comment to Chris Wilkinson on The Guardian Stage blog, it was Lessing’s involvement in professional theatre that resulted in the creation of the important Hamburg Dramaturgy. Douglas McLennan, similarly, wonders wonders why arts organizations don’t have residents critics. These are unusual models, yet what they have in common is the understanding that objective criticism benefits the artist and the form.

Finally, the state of affairs in which everything is great, and everyone wonderful, lets the audience down in a very serious way. The readers stop paying attention to unreliable information. Australian film criticism has the same problem: if, as Paul Martin has pointed out, we praise mediocre local films as very good, than there is no way to set an excellent film apart. (When I moved to Melbourne, and Helen Thompson was reviewing for The Age, I stopped going to the theatre after the first few productions she praised were absolutely terrible. I have a number of educated friends who love theatre, but don’t go for the same reason.)

A big hurdle, however, is this tradition of backpatting in the light, and backstabbing in the dark. And since we are raising a generation completely unaware of what constructive criticism even looks like, I am not sure that the things are going to get any better. Against all statistical odds, the future may be uniformly wonderful.

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reminded by…

14.xii.2007. Dancehouse: Play in a Room. Including Set Up, The Idea of It and Forget Me Not. By Shelley Lasica. Performed by Shelley Lasica with Deanne Butterworth, Tim Harvey and Joanna Lloyd. Music by Milo Kossowski.

Dance, for me, is theatre amplified.

When I say, I'm interested in the relationship between words and images, I am trying to explain my two favourite art forms: theatre and graphic novels. Both are attempts to show and tell by selectively employing elements of both, colliding and exploding with beauty and truth. The importance, to me, may be that, while I think I can make words do what I want relatively well, in more than one language (although I believe I'm much better at it in Croatian than in English, still), I also believe I think in images. The translation of my mental images into words seems to make it all the more explosive, all the more beautiful. Story of a, although terminally flawed, was my attempt to take book design that one crucial step further and make a text aided by images (book design, or heavy book design bordering on graphic design, is my third love): although, in retrospect, halfway through I got tired and started designing layouts; instead of influencing the text, graphic elements started influencing the reading. Music, as wonderful as it is, does not necessarily interest me as much.

Seeing theatre for the first time – and I was quite old, in my teens, and had to coerce parents into taking me – was a great déjà vú. I had, simply, always thought that theatre would be what it was. I had dreamt of it that way. Just like, when I look for graphic novels, I still look for graphic novels I know must exist somewhere, somehow. It was a great sense of hunger suddenly satiated.

Dance was this, but amplified, but removed. I saw my first dance performance with only a couple of humble theatre performances on my viewing resume and there it was, again, the feeling of perfection: the feeling of still and silent fulfilment. Dance has nothing to do with words, certainly not mine, and very little with my thought-images. Dance is images translating straight into movement, with no words ever explaining. Dance has, then and since, felt eerie, strange. Like someone scratching an itch I didn't know I had, and not quite getting rid of it. I love dance: it's like sex, it's like falling in love; it's a sense of off-centre half-fulfilled desire that goes completely past my conscious mind, that refuses to engage on that level. Dance, for me, is the sea, is falling, is motion sickness.

I try to see every dance performance around. I often have to force myself. There is a barrier I feel that I don't feel with anything containing words: a surface tension that makes it hard to break through. It is glorious in its muteness, it is silent human bodies being almost tragically human, like that pinned butterfly before dying; but it has the impenetrability of death. I get something from it, but I don't know what it is. I keep going, and the answer keeps flying past me, smiling but rapid.

The pinned butterfly in motion is more than a lame metaphor: I find silent graphic novels scratching the itch with far better accuracy and effect, because still, because frozen, because properly dead and opened up to my hungry scrutiny. I can look and re-look until my brain, still going over the speed limit, starts making sense. But in dance, I am hopelessly behind. I can only tentatively grasp the sequence of movement, the interlaced poses, the many images per second, dozens lost between blinks, between concentration drops. I feel I am skimming the surface and there, underneath, are all the secrets like water fairies. And I go back.

I am seriously considering asking to be present at rehearsals (with what authority, I wonder?) just to see the same movement again and again and again until it makes sense, until I can break it down and keep it in my mind. It's an exercise of mine, after each dance show, to try to re-create it in memory, always a hopeless failure.

I've seen more dance this year than any other year. I've seen Lucy Guerin×3, Gideon Obarzanek×2, Merce Cunningham×3 (or ×6), Sankai Juku×1, Fringe showlets ×3 (one of which, One More Than One, was stunning), BalletLab's Brindabella and, to close the year, Shelley Lasica. As much as I love Lucy, and Chunky Move's repertoire, it's shows like Lasica's, or Merce Cunningham's, pure unadorned dance, with meaning unliteralized, left unspelled-out, unpointed-out, that are challenging me as a person who feels, thinks and relates. That are stretching my capacity to exist, as a human being.

I don't feel I can say anything about these shows, with any authority whatsoever. I thought about all sorts of things, particularly at moments when I couldn't shut my mind up, my loquacious brain coming up with metaphors, comparisons, associations and zen aphorisms: Zeami, the spiritual beauty of dance students, relationship struggles, spatial confinement of living in European and Japanese apartments, feet, faces, sweat, how modern dances should abolish lycra, the significance of short hair and nails, the difference between hard and soft movement. None of which had anything to do with the chillingly beautiful piece of dance that happened, bit by bit, in front of me. The dance was just that, a dance in front of me. Smiling.

Smug bitch.

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