Tag Archives: Daniel Schlusser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RW: The Dollhouse

The Doll’s House

I have seen two versions of this play just recently: Anja Maksić’s LUTKINA KUĆA/ZMIJA MLADOŽENJA (Doll’s House / Viper Groom) at Eurokaz in 2008 (here’s the account), and Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubuehne production (called NORA) on DVD in 2010. I am not unusual in that. Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House – which I may occasionally refer to as ‘Nora’ in this text, because that is its officially unofficial name in Europe – is the most performed play in the world. Even in Australia, a place fairly meagrely serviced with theatre by any global measure, there are doll’s houses springing up at universities, at Fringe time, at arts festivals (e.g. Mabou Mines’ DOLLHOUSE at Brisbane Festival 2006). This is a play staged for show, not for servicing the text. There is hardly anyone left today who doesn’t know this play, doesn’t know that Nora Helmer is the childlike wifey of a Norwegian banker Torvald, doesn’t know that she ends the play by slamming the door that leads out of her marriage, doesn’t know that this was a scandal on stage when it premiered. The Doll’s House is a play with a cultural significance that goes far beyond its pure literary value, and for this reason the text itself is distinctly unimportant to the productions of this play. The audience is not here for the plot. We know the play well. We are here for style. We are here to see how this particular creative team will grapple with the conundrum that is this text. We are here to see how she will solve the technical problems particular to the play (the changed condition of women, which largely neutralises the weight of the ending), and how she will claim her space in a very crowded arena of interpreters.

This is our ground zero, in the discussion of this work. This is a play that a director chooses in order to make a personal statement – not in order to honour the playwright. Western culture has already done that.

Everyone who is anyone seemed to be there at the opening of Daniel Schlusser’s THE DOLLHOUSE, a semi-revival of the work he made in late 2007 with VCA acting students (although ‘on’ them might be a better choice of words, the way choreography is done ‘on’ bodies). It was a praised work then, and a pocket-sized one on top. It was also the first work Schlusser had done in Melbourne in a long time, having come back from Germany not long ago, and the first of a series that would shake Melbourne’s theatre theatre scene up. From it followed: LIFE IS A DREAM in 2008, revived in 2010, THE ZOMBIE STATE in 2008, PEER GYNT and POET NO. 7 in 2009, THE HOLLOW in 2010, and MACBETH just recently, but at Monash (raise hands ye who have seen it, and tell us what it was like).

Schlusser has attracted a devout following in these years*. There are very few theatre theatre directors in this town that could be classified as architects, as opposed to construction workers or builders. Apart from Schlusser, and by-now-expat Kosky, only Liminal Theatre’s Sitarenos and Draffin, and to some extent Marcel Dorney and Jenny Kemp (who use original text) come to mind**.

To some extent, there isn’t enough straight theatre in this country for radical interpretations to get desirable (on which I wrote here), and to an extent we are lacking the deep understanding of classical texts, their context, their impact, their importance, their critiques, their successors, in order to be able to read radical interpretations. We are all lacking this knowledge: the directors, the audiences, the critics.

Schlusser’s work, however, has gained traction despite its hermeneutic complexity, because he has made it a hallmark of his style to make works on at least two, sometimes six or more, levels. Almost every work of his I have seen has had the ability to function both as an extremely intelligent deconstruction of a canonical text, and a sort of freeform, chaotic stage event that one can appreciate, in a way similar to how Forced Entertainment’s BLOODY MESS could be appreciated, without having even the most general idea of how it related to any text at all. His version of Calderon’s Life is a Dream was, on the surface, a story of six siblings trapped in a basement their entire life, reminiscent of that year’s paramount tabloid story, who make up power games to fight boredom. His version of Ibsen’s troll fantasia Peer Gynt was a bogan wedding rehearsal, followed by a boozy house party. If you knew the text, each one of these productions was an absolute feast of intertextuality, with classic quotes reduced to non-verbal detail (Peer Gynt playing with some onions in the corner of the stage for about five seconds), but if you didn’t, you still felt embraced by the event. A certain kind of obscure, unfriendly hermeneuticism which is so often a quality of postmodernist theatre direction was here annulled.

But there are deeper qualities to Schlusser’s method. While turning Peer Gynt into a bogan party comes with a series of beneficial effects – shortening and rephrasing the text, finding surprising contemporary cultural equivalents for what are often alienatingly different circumstances of the original text – these are effects that are, on their own, enough to gain an Australian director the label ‘auteur’, and their importance might be highly overstated.

More interestingly, reducing the time of the work means reducing the entire play to a single situation, and this has allowed Schlusser to make some extraordinary statements about the source texts, far beyond a simple transposition. To place Calderon’s text into a basement of wild, unsocialised children is to locate the Baroque European court at the very extreme of incestuous, isolated idleness. Similarly, his PEER GYNT shed the frills – the ships, the trolls, the pyramids, the asylum – to become a story of a very immature little boy, fed the lines of his life by his mum and his girlfriend, at a party where nothing anyone does can really matter. It re-played the grand drama of the original play as soap-operatic melodrama, and found emotional hollowness in every utterance kept on stage. This movement semiotically sideways is in Schlusser’s work always surprising, but meticulously judged.

A consequence of this move sideways is that the text habitually stops being the vessel of truth, both of life generally, and of the true meaning of the performance, and turns into a voiced delusion: a game played by basement-bound children in LIFE IS A DREAM, or an invented adventure of a boy nobody is taking seriously in PEER GYNT. It is entirely legitimate to appreciate Schlusser’s productions as illustrations of how we use fiction to give grandeur, drama, height, to the banality of our reality.

Then there is the extraordinary quality to the performances he elicits. Schlusser is, like no other director I know, capable of stopping the actors from acting, and settling them into a long-lasting low-performativity timbre, in which they are indistinguishable from stage hands (but there are also never any stage hands here – everyone is part of the show). This has made the entire PEER GYNT, and large stretches of his other shows, look like improvisation, or the pre-dramatic beginning – you know those few minutes at the very beginning of a certain kind of performance, in which the actors arrive, fumble about, speak to each other in a low voice, settling into the stage? – of a dramatic performance. This kind of performance creates a constant, durational, low-intensity buzz, and is interesting to watch the way a street corner is interesting to watch. The energy of the stage swells and subsides, pockets of intensity build in corners, gigantic storms occasionally sweep the entire space, and sometimes the action is as dispersed as the shaking of leaves on a tree. It lends itself to being observed as rhythm, or patterns of energy, and is accessible through all sorts of swarmy, crowdy and weathery metaphors. Since everything important happens as detail, sometimes inaudible conversation, one becomes engrossed, and focused in a way that is really rare in our contemporary world. This is not TV or cinema focus, and not really a theatre kind of focus either. Rather, an anthropological, ethnographic, fieldwork sort of focus.

I have never found time to write a reflection on Schlusser’s last big work, a version of Agatha Christie’s THE HOLLOW. I will have to make a longish aside for it here, because that work showed a real evolution in these very qualities. Schlusser condensed the entire crime, investigation and revealing of the murderer to a single, long garden party, in which everything that happens in Christie’s crime happened, in a linear fashion, one event after another, on a large large stage, with a large large cast. Apart from showing the entirely non-tragic, inevitable mechanics of Agatha Christie’s world – an interesting intervention into the standard dramatic composition of her oeuvre – it was the first time that anthropology came to my mind as an apt metaphor for Schlusser’s poetics. The killing of John Christow was presented on this stage with an engaged disinterest comparable to the way the killing of an antelope would be depicted in a nature documentary. But it seemed that Schlusser was starting to play with re-introducing dramatic performance and stage effects into his weathery work, to exciting effect; and the slippage between levels of unreality had by now assumed a baroque complexity.

Another thing worth noting before we continue is that Schlusser’s large-cast works have a poetics distinct from his small-cast works. Whether this is intentional or not I am not sure. The height of performativity differs, and with it the entire experience. In all of his productions so far, Schlusser allows his performers to play with the original text, to chew on it and spit it out at times. The effect is often that of play-acting, sometimes that of voicing a role only semi-consciously. However, the rule of thumb has been, the smaller the cast, the longer and more weighty the text. Interestingly, it is as if Schlusser doesn’t trust a small swarm to hold the audience’s attention as well as a large swarm can. Whatever the reason, large-cast performances hold all of the qualities I have been discussing better: they are less theatrical theatrical, and more like nature documentaries, than his small works, which are remain more focused, less loosely paced, more tied to the original text, more dramatic, and quite simply less unusual and inventive. THE DOLLHOUSE is one such small- cast work.

Schlusser writes, in his notes, about restraint and excess being the core of this particular dollhouse (I would love to be able to consult his notes further, but I am writing this from a hotel room in Nagoya, far away from my desk). I missed the original, 2007 production on which this short remount is based, so I cannot compare, but the current, 2011 production is one dollhouse centred around consumption, gratification, and people’s ability to resist their urges.

Australian theatre, interestingly, is not hugely concerned with consumerism (is it because it is too ungenteel a topic?, or is it because theatre is for rich people?), but this is a recurrent question for Schlusser. PEER GYNT, THE ZOMBIE STATE and THE HOLLOW had at their core money, what money can buy, and how one’s ability to buy things affects one’s social value and self-worth, in a contemporary reality largely pinpointed as Australian. More than anything, Schlusser is concerned with what we might call class, but understood more deeply, as the effect of a certain kind of monetary power on the psyche. Similarly to Christos Tsiolkas, Schlusser is interested in what we might term the essential, profound amorality of contemporary Australian society – a certain absence of core values produced by atheism, Australian national narrative, and what many people I speak to call ‘the effect of the Howard years’. Both of these story-tellers are prepared to go beyond sparkling drawing-room satire (from David Williamson’s uneven oeuvre to Hayloft Project’s excellent DELECTABLE SHELTER, and dig into the moral barrenness of lives in which plasma-screen TV becomes a measure of a great deal more than one’s disposable income.

When we meet them, Nora and Torvald have been very successfully transposed to contemporary Australia – Torvald has just got a promotion at the Macquarie Bank (Australian bank known for its aggressive investments – for those of my foreign readers, because every Australian knows Macquarie Bank). Nora is a yummy mummy, living a life of shopping and parties, with sidekick Dr Rank. The simple patriarchy of 19th-century Norway has become a more complicated story: Nora is a sex kitten alright, but Torvald is now the PlayStation husband, performing his masculinity through absence and silence, playing shoot ’em up games from an Eames armchair for most of the play. If Ibsen’s Nora had to be a chirpy little lark for a husband who treated her like a child (monitoring her candy intake, among other things), and if their marriage functioned as a happy game of pretend-domination and performed immaturity, Nikki Shiels works hard on being a sex dolly, offering a range of pornographic services in order to get her husband’s attention away from the computer game. This is not a household based on honesty, but two people’s unspoken fantasies of the other sex welded into a marriage. But Australian contemporary masculinity is a complex thing, lined with taciturn violence, where aggression is expressed more often as subdued undermining than paternal reprimanding: caught with marshmallows, Nora is seated in the Eames chair and made to gorge on them, while Torvald makes her repeat “nobody likes a chubby mummy”.

Everything here, be it sex, money or lollies and jobs, becomes a transactional good, a reward, a bribe: excess comes to signify happiness, and deprivation is meted out as punishment. There is a capitalist logic to this emotional world, very similar to that of Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, in which all love and all sex are simply transactions that raise or lower the characters’ social standing. But where Franzen shines a very harsh light on the Lambert family, Schlusser keeps his stage pastel-lit, in a way both ironic and earnest, critical and gentle. The constant gratification, an eternal present tense of morality, creates a household engaged in an ongoing party (another Schlusserian constant): the apex of the production is a beautiful, wordless celebration of gifts bestowed upon the house guests by Nora, with Torvald’s money, a choreography of Christmas lights, to the music of Sigur Ros. It is a seductive, pleasant fantasy world, and there is a surprising sweetness to this production. Even when Mrs Linde and Krogstad, whose emotionally honest romance provides a strong counterweight to the emotional candy floss of the Helmers, decide to let all secrets be spilled, they do it in a well-meaning spirit “I’ve been here for three days… nobody talks”.

Nikki Shiels. Photo: Marg Horwell.

For all the meta-frills and naturalistic banality, you can see this is a very faithful rendition of Ibsen’s play, and as such perhaps a lesser Schlusser work, certainly for my taste. The transposition is accurate, the interpretation convincing and intelligent. Still, it is a remount of an early work, and it anticipates rather than further developing the extraordinary theatricality of PEER GYNT or THE HOLLOW. There is a lot of acting here, a lot of text delivered in a fairly straight way, and we have by now seen Daniel Schlusser attempt and achieve more. I am much tougher here than I would be with almost any other Australian director, because Schlusser operates in another league entirely, and should continue to do so. It often feels here that the text is used as a crutch, to fill the stage (the swarm is too small) or to give shape to the performance – and I understand that this is a ludicrous thing to write, but I count on enough people to have seen PEER GYNT to understand what I mean. For all its merits, THE DOLLHOUSE is still reasonably conventional theatre, and Schlusser’s good name in my books is largely due to his other works. But, as I said earlier, there is a distinct separation between his small- and large-cast works, and this was a small one.

I had never quite believed in Ibsen’s ending of The Dollhouse. Nora’s final transformation from chirpy doll to emancipated woman seemed mechanical and too sudden, like a dramatic device with no grounding in realistic psyhology, until I read Lou Salomé’s interpretation of the play. Salomé, an early Freudian, wrote an exquisite psychoanalytical analysis of Ibsen’s female characters. In her interpretation, which I found eye-opening, Nora is a woman who not so much acts in someone else’s story, as stretches the limits of her own fantasy until she can no longer believe in it. Replacing one father figure with another, she responds to perceived love the only way she knows: by building her identity as an object of joy, as a happiness-bringer, a 19th-century manic pixie dream girl (this Natalie Portman in Garden State). According to Holly Welker, “MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up, thus their men never grow up.” This is as good explanation as any to the dynamic of the Helmer marriage. Salomé:

Helmer’s joy in merriment and loveliness is, at the same time, the ordinary person’s aversion to struggle and seriousness – to anything that could disturb the aesthetic comfort in which he enjoys himself and his existence. The apparent moral rigor that helps Helmer gain prestige, his need to appear blameless and to keep his dignity unblemished – all this self-control in daily life ultimately arises out of the same egotistical perspective on pleasure.

For Nora, love requires a certain sacrifice of self, and according to Salomé she does gain strength through this sacrifice, to the point that, when she realises that Torvald is not prepared to do the same for love, she resigns from the game. For Salomé, Nora’s final disappointment in Torvald is akin to a loss of God, a total demystification. Her love is revealed to be a hoax, the object of her love unworthy of it. (Note that there is a mystical quality to this kind of love, something femininity has not yet gotten divorced from – Pauline Reage’s Story of O might be read as the Holy Testament of this worldview. It is also deeply, deeply romantic – something Elfriede Jelinek picks up on in her sequel to Ibsen’s play, What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband.) Salomé:

What all the worries and experiences of the entire recent past had not taught her is not accomplished in one instant: she suddenly sees life as it is, as it stands before her in the shape of Helmer, an ordinary person, who is tormented by fear and selfishness. All her life and her thought were concentrated in him, it was in him that her life took on its truth and self-evidence – it could be demystified and destroyed only in him. (…) Something strange and immense occurred in her. All her slowly awakened strength and independence, everything that she had so humbly and zealously collected as a present, a gift of love – her entire, inner being – now rears up and fights its way free from this love in an enormous protest.

When Nora slams the door to the dollhouse of her 19th-century marriage, she is not going anywhere much. She cannot work, she will never see her children again, it is a suicide in more than one sense. This was an entirely unrealistic ending at the time it premiered, an unexpected coda to what was until then a simple bourgeois story of drawing-room intrigue. It is said that women stood and applauded, and men sat in shock. What happened on that stage was staging of something impossible. It was performing a dream, a Marina Abramović moment. This was the original effect of The Doll’s House that cannot be replicated anymore. The technical problem of The Doll’s House today is how to credibly stage this ending, how to give it the devastating impact it had then. The underlying assumption of tragedy is, thankfully, no longer possible. A woman would be leaving a marriage with children, off to a menial job (or three) and – in Australia at least (as opposed to, say, Iceland) – a world in which single mothers are still routinely assumed to create somewhat delinquent children. But still, this is not a tragic ending anymore. So Schlusser resuscitates the alternative ending, one that Ibsen had to provide for actresses that refused to perform the ending: an awful dialogue in which Torvald shows Nora her peacefully sleeping children and asks how she could possibly leave them, her dear little angels. No, she couldn’t, she decides, and stays.

I cannot quite make up my mind about the ending to this production. It strikes some false notes with me, but also some scintillatingly right ones. In retrospect, it looks quite smart. At the time, however, I was unconvinced, in particular by Kade Greenland’s Torvald, whose anger I found neither convincing nor frightening. Ostermeier’s NORA, for all its banalities, managed to create an enormous sense of physical threat, fear and loss of faith – when his Nora shoots Torvald in her Lara Croft costume, I understood why she would. When Schlusser’s Nikki Shiels comes out in a tracksuit and has a long protofeminist dialogue with her husband, whom she has now decided to leave, the production is, at least on the opening night, at least for me, hitting between the keys for the first time of the evening. And yet, upon her suggestion that they give back their rings, here is Torvald saying “I paid for both”, in a moment of majestic truth. Here is a man whose morality exists as righteousness, and whose righteousness is based on the money he earns, and who reacts instinctively to insult – in one line. Then, revealing a real, blonde sleeping child pierces your heart, because no child was until then visible on stage. And yes, this is an incredibly hard scene to get right – but it is also the scene on which we judge the success of any interpretation of this play. When Torvald hugs his daughter, the possibility of him having just acquired another songbird is terrifying, but the text has been largely kept, and a mother, however irresponsible, would today probably not be getting out of a marriage without her children. Is this a passive-aggressive, inconsistent, emotionally manipulative man, a product of contemporary patriarchy? Perhaps. Is this a woman who speaks like she knows what she wants, but doesn’t really? Or is she a woman who chooses yet another sacrifice of self, in the all-too-short moment of reflection as she is walking off the stage? Perhaps. It was not clear. After so much precision, I suddenly saw the interpretation missing its mark.

I understand and share Schlusser’s suspicion towards Nora’s emancipation. I cannot quite shake off the impression that modern-day Nora still ends up in a territory closer to the owlish disintegration of self announced in Story of O than in a fulfilled feminist dream. But this confusion that women’s lib has brought us is grasped so uncertainly by this ending, which itself would need to be less confused if it were to pinpoint it properly. This is a very minor criticism of a work which is extraordinary on so many levels – but the effect of a work of theatre is largely in its landing.

* of which I am a somewhat-member; the tone of this review will hopefully explain how and why
** although I am speaking here as a person who has managed to miss every single production by Four Larks and Mutation Theatre, please bear with this gap in my knowledge

SEE ALSO (and disagree with me, because Daniel Schlusser’s work ought to be discussed more than it presently is):
Alison Croggon’s review
Cameron Woodhead’s review

The Dollhouse, adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Tiffany Abbott, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, sound by Martin Kay. With Nikki Shiels, Kade Greenland, Edwina Wren, Josh Price, Daniel Schlusser and Cate Bastian/Gabrielle Abbott. Fortfive Downstairs, September 15-25.

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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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RW: Peer Gynt

Somewhere between the eager, calculated ambition of Julien Sorel, and the holy mania of Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger, there was Peer Gynt, a provincial boy who wanted to be king. Writing in Italy, between the shaky fervour of his early fame, and the secure wisdom of his mature psychological dramas, recently expatriated Ibsen was waxing uncomfortably personal. The first half, an act of plotting bien fait, realism-however-fanciful, is his past; the second, a phantasmagoric circular nightmare, his imagined future. For five acts, Ibsen makes Peer hop from whim to whim, day-dreaming himself into glorious roles and escaping every moment of existential discomfort, confusing this wild gratification of impulsive desires and learnt ambition with truthfulness to oneself.

In Dante’s Inferno, the antechamber to Hell is reserved for those who drifted through life without ever getting behind a cause of belief. Having gambled morals, principles and relationships away for a life lived fully, Peer is revealed to be merely a self-centred little man, not different from a common small-town butcher. He spends his last dramatic moments chased by the Button Moulder with a big ladle, confronted with the very destiny he fears the most: insignificance; oblivion. Categorically denied the last honour of being a great sinner (“merely average”, quips the Button Moulder), unworthy of Devil’s time, he will be moulded into a button.

A sprawling dramatic poem, Peer Gynt careens freely between social verisimilitude and outrageous flights of fancy. In its psychological externalization, each troll is a momentarily irresistible girl, each nightmare a folktale monster. It was not intended for performance, and Ibsen exuberantly did away with reasonable staging demands: spanning 50 years, two continents, an obscene number of characters, changes of tone, pace and fabular focus, it is as unstageable as a play gets. But it was Heiner Muller who said that only dramatic writing that cannot be realised on stage is of any use for the theatre.

Daniel Schlusser takes the text as the starting point to explore the questions and answers Ibsen posed himself. His Peer Gynt eludes, disappoints, dissonates, amazes, stretches and contracts, and meanwhile disagrees with most of what we see on Australian stages these days: despite occasionally looking it, it is not lyrical, not pretty, not atmospheric, not sentimental, and not unknotting itself with silly humour or cute explanations. lt unravels its threads of inquiry with slow thoroughness of a Hans van den Broeck (not among the C de la B for no reason), and yet the complex performance requires no long-winded explanations before it can be fully felt. Its intellectual rigour is solid enough to allow itself wild playfulness. It is gorgeous, masterful theatre.

It is entirely possible to read this Peer as a satire on conventional naturalism. The establishing scene, that two-minute cliché of actor milling around the stage, unaware of the fourth-wall crowd, is here stretched into an unrelenting, 30-or-so-minute setting up of the performance/wedding stage. A fridge is hauled in, a pool filled with balloons, the actors walk on and off stage wrapped in a visible, but gauze-thin layer of heightened stage presence: bringing the drinks, the beach towels, talking into their phones, conducting barely audible conversations, whispered gossip. The endless wedding implosion that builds up is an opaque enactment of a complex social situation, breaking into mini-conflicts, small seductions, power negotiations in far corners. All a sort of long pout at the audience that wants staged life.

However, it is when the performance breaks into the song and dance of serving-the-play, and the performers build up heightened actorliness, that strangeness sets in. In a wonderful inversion, the text is not a source of truth, but an exclamatory deceit. Once literary faithfulness start showing, it looks incongruous to whatever stage reality has been created. The performers recite Ibsen’s extravagant language and emotions sounding more and more like delusional lunatics. Gynt fornicates in the forest, becomes a troll, abandons lovers, grows old, and the closer the performance follows the plotline, the more it seems to descend into plotless chaos. Aase dies when appropriate, then resumes her stage life the hungover morning after. Supporting characters loiter on stage, or drift off into small games. Off-handedly providing the dramatic arc, the production ends in medias res of psychological carnage, leaving us confused, hovering without catharsis (save for a small burst of soap bubbles).

Katie-Jean Harding, Annie Last, Rebecca Bower, Kyle Baxter and Nikki Shiels inPeer Gynt. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Arbitrating the guilt for this life less lived, Schlusser avoids the easy parallel with our media-fed crave for the semiotics of success rather than success itself (remember teenage Grace in Sally Potter’s YES who, when asked what she wants to be, torpidly sighs: “Famous…”?). In Kyle Baxter’s performance, Peer is not a megalomaniac boy whose unstructured, but violent ambition ruins women, and then himself. He is an extraordinarily passive character instead, prancing on the outskirts of the stage playing with props, being laughed at by the cashed-up bogans and mellowly accepting their ridicule as a sign of belonging. If he is a man-boy, it is because the entire group has a vested interest in keeping him on their own level of existential blindness, and it is his overdeveloped imagination that keeps him losing whatever path he may have, not selfish hunger. Ibsen’s Gynt confuses the symbol for the meaning, hunting solid objects that stand for power: money, ruthlessness, detachment, crowns or roles (he wants to be an emperor, an explorer, a philosopher). Schlusser’s Gynt, a bubble-wrapped boy living on the cusp of the most profligate moment in history, in a wealthy, First-World metropolis, doesn’t ask, but is constantly offered. Rather than spreading his ambition too thinly, he loses himself by not being able to refuse. Aase, the mother who lives through her adored child (beautifully calibrated Edwina Wren), forms an alliance with Solveig, obsessively exchanging stories of their dear boy. And Solveig, the silver-prayer-book docile image of all the 19th-century girl cliches, is in Karen Sibbing’s manically delicate performance shown to be a wilful child, a mind as unformed as Peer’s. If she grows old waiting for her childhood crush to return, it is not God-condoned devotion that keeps her in their hut, but infantile refusal to burst her own bubble of romantic fantasy.

In the setting up, it soon becomes clear that men and women live separate fantasies: while women strut on high heels, drink champagne and throw tantrums over their wedding dreams, men set up their beer and Fußball den at the other end of the stage. Unable to break the chalk circle of the masculine group, Gynt becomes a toy boy for the women, with all the confused disrespect that this powerless subordination breeds. In the interplay of outpours of egocentric affection, everyone uses everyone, and everyone feels a winner, yet everyone also feels virtuous, affectionate, generous. When, in the last minutes of the play, Peer Gynt begs Solveig to tell him who he is, where he is, she glows with giggly joy as she announces: “You live in my head, in my song, in my dreams”. Nobody comes off clean: just like Torvald is himself trapped in the dollhouse he has built for Nora, so are these Gen Y child-women shown to be complicit in the infantilisation of the men that hurt and abandon them. In a particularly morbid observation, Solveig jumps into a noise-making, ridiculing frenzy, trying to get Peer’s attention away from his dying mother. (Whether I share this boy-friendly thesis is not the point: it is rare to see a theatre production intellectually both brave and sound enough to freely disagree with.)

However, this psychological triangle is refracted through so many distancing prisms that one could not know the text and still leave with a headful of thoughts. Ibsen’s poem already opens up conflicting levels of narrative. Is it a socially verosimile fable, or hallucinatory psychological realism? It is a story of a story-teller, a man-onion who lies because he couldn’t find his way out of his own mind. It is, finally, half-autobiography and half-anxiety. Schlusser’s production piles the layers even higher. On the boards, it builds storeys of vertiginous conflicting realities: the play slowly establishes itself as a party cum wedding; the wedding is a rehearsal; the rehearsal collapses under the disagreeing perceptions of the participants’ roles; Gynt’s entire life, fantastic as it is, probably no more than an overnight trip that ensues as the rehearsal descends into drunken shenanigans, and then further into an orgiastic ritual of sacrifice. Georgie Read, a woman in 1920s attire, walks through the set untouched by the bogan mayhem. And yet constantly, as a man with a panama hat runs to fetch the characters that drift out into the courtyard through the door at the back of the stage, there is a subtle feeling that we may be looking at a bunch of asylum crazies biding their time. (The crucial moment in Act IV, in which Peer is crowned the emperor of a mental hospital, is not so much missing as dispersed, both subtly pointed at and self-evident.) All apart from the simple fact that, since the characters make demands on the sound technicians and call the stage manager in to wipe the party mess, we all clearly admit to being in the theatre.

Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer and Kyle Baxter. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Indeed, one of the main concerns of this Peer Gynt is the multiplicity of make-believe , and the disorder that ensues in leakage. While Ibsen remains unclear about how much of a dream the entire story is, Schlusser keeps us wondering whose dream it is. Layering theatricality and anti-theatricality, virtually all stage action is apportioned into multiple collective illusions with varying numbers of participants, and each one looks equally dubious: from the footballer-wife paradise of cheap positional goods, to Peer and Solveig’s romantic idyll. Turning the wedding into a rehearsal, thus, is not just a stylistic device, but a gesture of utmost importance. There is no logic to rehearsing a performative act, except as an anxiety attenuator; yet it absorbs and breathes that same anxiety because it becomes a fragile battleground of dream and reality – just like the theatre turns into the battleground of ideas not because it is a safe space, but because it isn’t; just like one’s fantasies need to be corrected before they result in actions, and why play-acting is not for sissies. As these self-declared bubbles of comfort build up, Schlusser examines the burning violence they create outside. Wars, gangs, social groups, fashion trends and riots are all no more than collective fantasies in action, indoor safety upkept with violence radiating outwards. Thus the boganville, grown heavy and momentuous with alcohol, turns into a gang mutilation of Anitra (Sarah Armanious), the wedding dress-maker and sacrificial wog. Georgie Read, who follows individuals around wide-eyed and curious, mimicking their bacchanalia with utmost seriousness (from stripper dances to senseless violence), as if trying to prevent the friction between the conflicting frenzies by upholding them all, is not merely an ambulant comic relief, but a body that turns every quotidian affectation, every social convention, into deadpan absurdity.

And yet this same theatre never becomes a collective fantasy of its own. With heavily dramatic wasted on nothing truthful nor meaningful, and savagely grotesque endpoints of mundane behaviour played with glassy, anti-spectacular neutrality, the presentation is jarringly anti-empathetic. It betrays expectations with such cold consistency that we walk out feeling anything but lulled. Giddy, rather, and hiccuppy and confused, while the kick is slowly making its way to the gut. Despite its tone, looking all things wrong (lyrical, cute, naive, sentimental, funny), the final portrait is bleak, damning. Peer Gynt is no longer the sad story of one lost boy. Tonight, the tragedy is collective.

Peer Gynt. Based on Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and Costume design Anna Cordingley. Lighting design Kimberly Kwa. Sound designers/composers Nick van Cuylenburg and Martin Kay. Stage manager Jo Trevathan. Performed by Kyle Baxter, Edwina Wren, Karen Sibbing, Heloise Jackson, Justin Arnold, Nikki Shiels, Rebecca Bower, Annie Last, Maj Thomsen, Nick Jamieson, Katie-Jean Harding, Georgie Read, Josh Price, Sarah Armanious, Alexander England, Mike Steele, Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer, Kade Greenland. VCA, 26 March – 1 April.

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This week / reporting from the trenches

I sometimes forget that this is a blog; that I could indeed post photos of my feet were I so inclined. In the last weeks, GS has come to seem more like a monster-chore, up there with Film Production, Graphic Design, Liaising, Dinner Parties, Dance Writing. For these have sapped all energy out of me, exactly the way I had promised myself not to allow happen.

What has been going on? Dance Massive, an exercise in condensing the rather maverick diversity of movers and shakers in the city (and somewhat beyond) into two weeks. Just the right size, I say, and a report is on its way.

Arts House has returned to its rather excellent programming: after a season in Sydney, down come Hoipolloi with their fantastic show Floating. Its brilliance lies not quite in its deconstructive tendencies (that refusal to play by the rules), nor in its interest in stand-up comedy (a la Fondue Set), but rather in its playful approach to time and semiotics. I am a humourless grump prone to outbursts of rash whenever marriages of formal deconstruction and induced laughter are attempted in front of me – no soft spot whatsoever – but I loved Floating like I rarely love a performance. On until this Sunday.

Opening on Wednesday, same Arts House, same high expectations, My Darling Patricia return from Sydney with Night Garden. If you remember their excellent Politely Savage in Fringetime ’06, you are, like me, expecting a lyrical, moody, formally inventive inquiry into the Australian social mythology. Great word of mouth is preceding them.

Down at the VCA, Paul Monaghan will be opening some Strindberg (A Dream Play), and Daniel Schlusser rebuilding Peer Gynt from scratch in a little over a week. Both are opening on Thursday 26, details here.

I cannot quite put in words how exhausted I am. My brain is fried from all the writing I have been doing, a tangle of knots the only thing keeping my head up. In the act of final betrayal, my mind decided, amidst reports, print formatting, and evocative descriptions of dance (all today), to boycott the fine sieve I was trying to push it through, and switch to fiction. No extra points for creativity.

Finally, a small announcement. In 2009, I will be making a special effort to see as much hybrid art and performance as this city can muster, and my time give in to. Apart from the fact that not-quite is my favourite kind of perfomance (the mind is a melange, just like these unpinpointable brainstorms of dance, music, dialogue, image), I am also sitting on the Green Room Alternative & Hybrid Theatre Panel. So please keep me informed of all those site-specific, upside-down, one-audience-member-at-a-time, multimedia, weird-arse, and other such shows happening around. Just in case. I spend up to 10 nights a week in the theatre, but lovely events still fall through the cracks, behind the desk, together with the lost pens and forgotten dirty laundry.

On that note, I retreat back to the trenches with a salut from C. de la B:

Marina Comparato performing Voi che sapete (Mozart), in Wolf, dir. Alain Platel.

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The Masque of the Red Death

Not entirely successful, The Masque of the Red Death stands unsure between presentation and representation, self-awareness and not, always doing things a tad bit too literally. Its starting and ending point is Edgar Allan Poe's short story of one continuous party, closed off from the society ravaged by plague. This is a powerful trope, used since Boccaccio, at the bottom of it our unease about antisocial activities of all kinds, a desire to punish the autonomous outcasts, the death wish behind certain forms of transgressive hedonism; and then the tantalising image of total social breakdown. It is so simple, so resonant, that anything could have been made out of it. Instead, this production doesn't move further than square two. The program notes give it all away: “Daniel Schlusser […] told me about a task he had once set a group of actors: create the last piece of theatre allowed by a government before theatre is entirely banned in the land.” From here to pre-plague hedonism, and from Poe to the free-rolling funfair of a performance, are two very small steps.

The other problem is that Masque swings between describing the last party, and being the party, backing-and-forthing in its interaction with the audience in a way that ultimately isn't very thought-through. The dramatic structure is upheld by the narrative frame of the story, used to insert a range of Poe's writing, most of it in a purely declamatory fashion. The representational middle, a series of one- or two-person acts, draws on the vaudeville more than it tries to explore this imaginary aristocratic party, which in itself would not be a sin had the visual and spiritual clichés of vaudeville not been endlessly over-exploited on every kind of Melbourne stage already. Although the performer-spectator relationship is explored in all sorts of ways: performers sitting in the stalls, the audience sitting on stage, both dispersing into small groups and withdrawing into little rooms; it never feels like there is any higher purpose to these explorations of form than to try another trick. In the end, the two parts are collated quite safely, and our palates should be predictably satisfied: mindless amusement boxed into a safe experience, book-ended by some sense of purpose, explanation.

In certain moments, I had real hope that the performance was leading somewhere other than to the anticipated punishment of privileged antisociability. There appeared to be a slow build-up of acts, performed apparently for us, of greater and more intense transgression: from the bizarre, complexly disturbing image of a girl squatting on a skateboard, to the deliciously trash version of Raven as smut, to the full frontal nudity of a cross-dressing madame Butterfly. And yet, despite these upswings of visual creativity, most of the imagery was intellectually shallow, not doing much more than presenting commonplaces: violence on semi-naked women, glittery cross-dressing, unneeded accents. It was also visually misconceived: with gypsy fortune tellers, clowns and dancers, it was more of a romanticized village fair than the last supper of the medieval condemned. Which, again, would not be a sin had it not been the thousandth time this decade that a faux-Slavic accent was donned by a gypsy fortune teller on Melbourne stage.

The performances are passionate across the board, with each performer given a moment of one-act glory, and this ultimately makes The Masque of the Red Death a rather enjoyable experience. Much more enjoyable to witness, I may add, than think about later. However, perhaps due to the looseness of the direction, one never forgets that one is watching a student production, in serious discrepancy with last year's VCA shows, one of which, YES, could later easily get re-staged at fortyfivedownstairs.

I like tropes, I like clichés, I like common places. I believe in the power of fairy tales, of myths, of rituals. There is intrigue in the commonality of the simple ideas that order human existence across time and space. I would like to see them explored in ways more intelligent that simple declamation of poetry masquerading as provocation.

The Masque of the Red Death. Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by John Bolton. Music: Jo Laing. Set design: Jeminah Reidy. Costumes: Jane Noonan. Lighting design: Kimberly Kwa. Sound design: Timothy Bright. Victorian College of the Arts Company 2008 Graduating Performance. Space 28, Dodds St, Southbank, 29 Oct – 7 Nov.

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Review: The Zombie State

This review has been published in Laneway.

In its best moments, The Zombie State is Saturday night in the CBD.

At a cultural low point in my life, when I used to catch the glorious 4.30am Night Rider to Frankston, it was my weekly dose of the strangest of the Melbourne microcosmos. Nightshift workers, hospitality plebs, aggressive Frankstonians, vomiting girls, the desperate homeless that couldn’t pay their way out of Swanston Street that night, young accountants drinking their way out of existential angst, business tourists, casino winners and casino losers, all mingled in a haze of bile, spit, alcohol fumes, violence, money, vomit. I would escape to the KFC bouncers (another Saturday night phenomenon), a small, pacifist Sikh micro-community, who fed me spicy chicken with vegetarian detachment. The climax of the ride home, which inevitably involved brawls, singing and attempts at backseat intercourse, was the passage down Carlisle Street in St Kilda, when the entire bus would open the windows to shout abusive nonsense at the sex workers (who responded with comparative grace). And I would wonder about the personas these monster people assumed in daylight.

The Zombie State is the same barely controlled human grotesque. It flirts with the zombie horror genre, leaning on its own fear of the mindless crowd, the collective loss of reason. It’s the story of Prime Minister Kevin’s orchestration of Summit 2021, during which aloof teenagers overdose, clairvoyants foretell doom, Crown Casino cleaners clean, zombies dance themselves to death, Night Rider passengers are abducted for underground experiments and a posse of Persephones fight killer seagulls.

As long as the text is muffled, pinched and distorted through the enormous stage activity, as long as the setting, characters and context are barely approximated, it is an Artaudian phantasmagoria of associative illogic, a visual and aural feast as assaulting to the senses as it is delicately teasing to the mind. There is more than a pinch of the post-pretty European to Daniel Schlusser’s direction: that many of these actors are fundamentally playing themselves is not insignificant.

The grand and furious nightmare of The Zombie State was initially conceived as verbatim theatre, drawing upon workers’ submissions to the Howard government’s Commission for the Living Wage, and the line between mundane naturalism and hysterical parody is as sharp and thin as it was on Swanston Street on those cold Saturday nights, when structured mating rituals disintegrated into an orgy of publicly discharged bodily fluids, when healthy, acceptable business aggression morphed into senseless street fighting, and vegetarian KFC bodyguards seemed the most approximate flotsam of orderly humanity.

In terms of the sheer imagery Zombie State generates, there is enough in these 75 minutes to occupy a curious mind for weeks. It is passionately theatrical, with a cast of 26 (huge for Melburnian standards) fluidly moving through the glass cubicles, projections, backstage recordings and sound curtains that build into an experience that’s visceral, immediate, and decidedly un-television.

Alas, the script is the weakest part of the show, and the ending, played straight and political, catapults a mesmerising experience into the realm of didacticism. The Zombie State, for all its expansive, warm illusion of chaos, carefully walks the rope stretched between broad social farce and anti-dramatic fantasia, not giving in to either until the end. Both paths, hoinwever, are essentially neverending, the only possible conclusions being either implosion or explosion, theatre turning onto itself or onto the audience.

Instead, it reveals its political undergarments, with an unfortunate, politically hammy question mark that bogs down what had until then successfully remained mid-air with levity and infinite grace. In retrospect, the entire play looks tainted with programmatic politics, all those moments of social-realist dialogue suddenly springing up in the mind, the playfulness receding, the grand oneiric beauty lost with one sweep of the writing hand. While a zombie is spurting blood in a vague waiting room with an egg slowly frying on the back screen, the dentist can torture him for not having health insurance: our social sensibility is fully activated, but our sensuousness nourished nonetheless. But when Prime Minister Kevin declares that choosing zombidom allows him to rule the country without needing sleep, that delicate tickle of counterpointed images and words is shot down with a loud bang.

As strange as it may sound, Schlusser’s theatre could have been more successful had it completely renounced text. It flirts with the barely controlled plotless chaos of European performance collectives, building powerful effects out of images alone, using text as only one layer of the performancescape (something rare and needed in Australian theatre), but ultimately returns to the dictate of the writer’s message, dismantling its own battle machine. And yet, despite its flaws, I don’t remember the last time it was so exciting to be in the theatre in this city. By all means, this is a production not to miss, a rare gem of near-Regietheater in Melbourne.

The Zombie State by Ben Ellis. Directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and costumes: Kate Davis. Lighting design: Niklas Pajanti and Danny Pettingill. Sound design: Darrin Verhagen. Melbourne Workers Theatre and Union House Theatre. Union Theatre, Melbourne University, September 17-27.

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