Tag Archives: formal inquiry

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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minus signs (reviewed: Artshouse season 01/2010: works by Rotozaza; Mem Morrison Company; Helen Cole; Acrobat; Scattered Tacks)

Silvertree & Gellman, Scattered Tacks. Photo: Alicia Ardern.

THE NEXT DECADE IN THEATRE AND CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE WILL BE A DECADE OF PHENOMENA, NOT OF SIGNS, OF EXPERIENCING RATHER THAN READING PERFORMANCE. THE FIRST ‘SEMESTER’ OF THE ARTS HOUSE 2010 PROGRAM COULD BE NEATLY DIVIDED IN TWO PARTS: AUSTRALIAN CONTEMPORARY CIRCUS AND UK-BASED RELATIONAL PERFORMANCE.

The latter (where the audience become performers and co-creators) is a backlash against 20 years of over-mediatised postmodern theatre. These new works are theatre minus stage, performance minus performers and spectacle minus the spectacular. The audience experience is the event itself: tactile, immediate, immersive, anti-ironic. The semiotic component is minimal, sometimes altogether absent, as the performance exists mainly in the mind of the spectator. It appears, perhaps, as our era abandons questions of meaning and engages with amplified possibilities of doing. It’s almost like a direct answer to Deleuze’s dream of the new non-representational theatre, in which “we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit.” And although tested by performance-makers both here (bettybooke, Panther) and elsewhere (Rimini Protokoll), the UK, building on its rich variety of live art, is something of a leader.

This form is too young to have encountered much meaningful criticism in Australia, but every form quickly accumulates knowledge. While I don’t think everything we have seen at Arts House could be called successful, the failures are just as interesting, like the results of an experiment.

Take Rotozaza. Their two shows, Etiquette and Wondermart, promised a new form of expression, ‘autoteatro,’ but delivered a half-hearted combination of pomo referentiality and demanding, mediatised interactivity. Both are no more than voices inside a headset, giving instructions to a single audience member. Wondermart is a walk through a(ny) supermarket. Etiquette is 30 minutes in a café, in which you and another audience member perform an encounter, a conversation from Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, the final scene from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and much else—sometimes by talking to each other, sometimes moving figurines on the chess board in front of you.

Wondermart, Rotozaza. Photo: Ant Hampton.

While very engaging in those few moments when the narration matches what’s happening in space (such as when theories of shopper behaviour are confirmed by innocent bystanders in the supermarket), most of both shows consisted of a series of mundane and tiring little tasks. Despite the interactive pretences, they were not so much an experience for one audience member as a performance by one audience member, with the concomitant stage anxiety—even if nobody was watching. The problem was not just that many aspects of the situation cannot be sufficiently controlled by the audience-performer (my noisy supermarket trolley forbade me from following shoppers as instructed; or the concentration required to both quickly deliver lines and hear your partner-in-dialogue). Rotozaza underestimate our anxiety not to let the performance down: a compulsive need to please the dictatorial voice inside the headphones by performing everything right.

.Mem Morrison, Ringside. Photo: National Museum of Singapore/Chris P.

If Rotozaza forgot how unpleasant structured events can be, Mem Morrison went all the way and staged the worst aspects of a wedding ceremony in Ringside. Its entire conceptual spine is the sense of alienation, monotony, meaninglessness and loneliness one feels at a collective ritual. The performance starts before it starts — audience groups are arranged into family photos, well-dressed and carnation-studded as per instructions—and seated around one long table. An infinite number of black-clad women, both attendants, family and brides-to-be, deliver food and crockery. Amidst the flurry Morrison is the only male, unhappy, confused, 12 years old, jokingly told it’s his turn next, sometimes playing with a Superman toy and sometimes MC-ing with his shoe instead of a microphone.

Ringside’s aspirations are sky-high, but the performance never manages to reveal much of its topical menagerie: ethnicity, gender, tradition, multiculturalism are signposted rather than explored or experienced. Morrison’s entire text is delivered through headphones, creating a mediatised distance that in 2010, after 20 years of screens onstage, is as déjà-vu as it is genuinely disengaging. There is a paradox within Ringside: it purports to bring forth an aspect of Turkish culture, but the distanciation intrinsic to the method condemns it as facile. The experience is ultimately of witnessing a whining 12-year-old, loudly airing his discontent at being dragged to a family event.

Helen Cole’s Collecting Fireworks, on the other hand, a performance archive and an archive-performance, is as simple as it is brilliant. A genuine one-on-one performance (a dark room, a single armchair, recorded voices describing their favourite performance works, followed by recording one’s own contribution), it exemplifies the opening possibilities of this new form: no stage, no performers, but a deeply meaningful experience. I suspect the end result will be a genuinely valuable archive of performance projects, as we are encouraged to remember not only the details of these works, but also the effect they had on us.

The reasons the two local circus performances were on the whole much more successful are complex: Australia’s long tradition of contemporary circus and Melbourne’s close acquaintance with both the form and the artists are not the least important. If with relational performance, imported from an emerging artistic ecology overseas, we occasionally felt both short-changed and ignorant, with circus we could comfortably feel at the world’s cutting edge.

Propaganda, Acrobat. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

Acrobat’s long-awaited new work, Propaganda, points to the long tradition of circus used as Soviet agitprop, educational art dreamt up by Lenin in 1919 as “the true art of the people.” The company’s take is both ironic and deeply earnest, and it takes weeks of confusion before concluding that, yes, their open endorsement of cycling, eating veggies and gardening nude was serious. The tongue is in cheek, yes, when spouses Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates heroically kiss in the grand finale, centrally framed to the tune of Advance Australia Fair like the ideal Man and Woman in social-realist art. But it is a very slight joke indeed.

The specificity of circus could be defined as the pendular motion between crude and dangerous reality and the illusion of spectacle: relying on physical strength more than on representational techniques (it is impossible to just ‘act’ a trapeze trick), it can never completely remove the real from the stage. Acrobat’s previous (and better) work — titled smaller, poorer, cheaper — created tension by opening up the spectacle to reveal the hidden extent of the real: social stereotypes and obligations, physical strain, illness. Propaganda foregrounds circus as this family’s life: from the two children pottering around to the unmistakable tenderness between Lancaster and Yates and the heart-on-sleeve honesty of the beliefs they propagate. The dramaturgical incongruence between the ironic self-consciousness of the Soviet theme, with its inevitably negative undercurrent, and the performers’ trademark lack of pretence, remained the least fortunate aspect of the work. From the message to the magnificent skills on display, everything else was flawless.

Scattered Tacks, by Skye and Aelx Gellman and Terri Cat Silvertree, stripped away spectacle to reveal the essence of circus: awe. Circus is a naturally postdramatic form: its narrative arc fragmented, aware of its own performativity (what Muller called “the potentially dying body onstage”) and constantly anxious about the irruption of reality on stage. Scattered Tacks is raw circus, naked: at times it felt like an austere essay in thrill. It revealed that the rhythm of audience suspense and relief hinges less on the grand drama of leaps and tricks and more on visceral awareness of the subtle dangers and pain involved. Eating an onion, climbing barefoot on rough-edged metal cylinders, overworking an already fatigued body—these were the acts that left the audience breathless. Yet they also achieve poignant beauty. The Gellmans and Silvertree bring Australian circus, traditionally rough and bawdy, closer to its conceptual and elegant French sibling, but in a way that is absolutely authentic.

Australia offers a good vantage point from which to observe the human being. Visiting Europe recently, it struck me how dense the semantics of the European theatre are in comparison. Performing bodies there are acculturated and heavy under the many layers of interpretation, history, meaning. The body here, on the other hand, easily overpowers the thin semiotics of Australian culture, emerging strong, bold and without adjectives, without intermediary. Body as phenomenon, not as signifier. It will be interesting to observe how the emerging interest in theatre as presence, rather than representation of meaning, unravels—and how much this country will participate in this trend. In this season it’s circus, one of the oldest forms of performance, that emerges as the more successful. The relational performance works only rarely overcame the trap of referentiality.

Arts House: Rotozaza, Etiquette, Wondermart, co-directors Silvia Mercuriali and Ant Hampton, Arts House and around Melbourne; Mar 16–April 3; Mem Morrison Company, Ringside, writer, director, concept, performance Mem Morrison, sound & music composition Andy Pink, design Stefi Orazi, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-21; Helen Cole, Collecting Fireworks, director Helen Cole, technical consultant Alex Bradley, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-19; Acrobat, Propaganda, conceived and performed by Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster, also featuring Grover or Fidel Lancaster-Cole, Meat Market, March 27-April 3; Silvertree and Gellman, Scattered Tacks, created and performed by Terri Cat Silvertree, Alex Gellmann, Skye Gellmann, Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, March 16-21.

First published in RealTime, issue #97, June-July 2010, pg. 33.

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shopping for experience (reviewed: a whole bunch of relational/immersive/participatory theatre, including London’s LIFT and BAC’s One-on-One Festival; Rimini Protokoll, Dries Verhoeven)

Life Streaming, Dries Verhoeven. Photo: Maarten van Haaff.

IMMERSIVE, RELATIONAL, PARTICIPATORY, SITE-SPECIFIC… WHATEVER TERM YOU PREFER (AND I PREFER ‘RELATIONAL’, AS THIS IS PRIMARILY A THEATRE OF SOCIAL AND SPATIAL RELATIONS), THIS FORM DOMINATED THE LONDON SUMMER OF 2010. BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE (BAC) PRESENTED AN ENTIRE FESTIVAL OF ONE-ON-ONE WORKS, WITH OVER THIRTY ONE-MAN-(OR WOMAN)-SHOWS CRAMMED INTO THE OLD BATTERSEA TOWN HALL IN SOUTH LONDON. THE MORE CENTRALLY LOCATED LIFT (LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF THEATRE) DEDICATED THE LION’S SHARE OF ITS PROGRAM TO EVENTS THAT COULD JUST AS EASILY HAVE BEEN TERMED MASS GAMING, COLLECTIVE SKYPING OR SCAVENGER HUNTS.

At the Barbican, during the same period, You Me Bum Bum Train entered history as their fastest-selling show ever: part theatre, part Thank God You’re Here, it turned each audience member into the protagonist, made to improvise their way through a series of dramatic situations in front of the supporting cast of 200. With so much emphasis on you, the spectator, forgive me if the rest of this article privileges the second-person singular.

one-on-one festival


An immersive event in its own right, One-On-One Festival was possibly its own greatest achievement. The least one could sign up for was a marvellously organised afternoon of mingling through a building crammed with secret one-man wonders, appointment card in hand. The atmosphere was surprisingly welcoming, even festive: performers and spectators crossing paths in the same courtyard and café, recommendations exchanged, friendships commenced, queues spontaneously forming outside the rooms with hidden gems on the strength of on-the-spot word of mouth. Repeatedly diving into a 2-or-3-minute intensely collaborative performance, being in turns swung and shaken, kissed and sung to, frightened or intellectually challenged, by the end of the day one had no personal boundaries left to speak of.

Despite being cumulatively great, One-On-One also demonstrated how quickly an emergent genre can settle on a limited range of solutions. One kind seemed tailored to break through fears of intimacy: Abigail Conway’s On Dancefloors invites you to dance; Emma Benson sings a song with you in Me You Now. Most radically, Adrian Howells gives you a bath in The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding, while Ansuman Biswas’s more open-ended 2 FREE offers the possibility of engaging with a naked, blindfolded man. However trivial they may sound conceptually, these were some of the most powerful performances in the festival, spoken about in hushed, almost spiritual tones. You found yourself entering these rooms with the same mixture of compulsion and terror with which you might climb into a roller-coaster (and they certainly act as a kind of psycho-social one, including the lag with which you process the experience afterwards). But if theatre is ever genuinely life-changing, it is in the strangely liberating afterglow that follows consensual nudity.

Another, quieter type of performance centred on material reality, and the tactile dimension of the experience generated, not so much inter-personal intimacy as greater understanding of how the world works. Barnaby Stone’s A Little Bit of a Beautiful Thing is a story of a wooden beam, a finely polished slice of which you will receive at the end. In Ray Lee’s Electric, your body becomes a conductor. Another focused on creating a first-person narrative, employing cascades of clever sensory illusions: for the 10 minutes of Just For a Moment, by Three Blind Mice, you have a drink at a pub, lie on the beach, dance Macarena in the world’s most terrible discotheque, witness a fight and have to be walked out of the pub at the end of the night, despite being blindfolded in a single room. Stan’s Café use mirrors, projection, costumes and clever framing to generate a 240-second film noir before your very eyes, with you as the chief villain, in It’s Your Film. While these works were longer, more carefully shaped and satisfied some of that need for dramatic spectacle that drives people into theatres on perfectly lovely summer days, their beauty again seemed to derive chiefly from the promise of intimacy, of being made-to-measure and the soporific pleasures of being touched, rather than from well-executed tricks.

The most accomplished works brought together the cerebral and the felt, offering an encounter while questioning its limitations. Sarah Johns’ Below plays with your perceptions: dragged into a dark room, her performance catches you before you can make sense of where you are. Facing a mirror and a singing girl, your focus shifts abruptly from one detail to another, resulting in a series of mesmerising, well-defined impressions, as if in a film. And of course, towering above the rest, is Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy of brief, but flawless works that boldly question the gullibility of the audience.

As Peggy Phelan writes, theatre has always been a meeting place, always offering the promise of a communion, an exchange—even across the proscenium arch. The relationship between audience and performer is, in her words, “the always already unequal encounter [that] nonetheless summons the hope of reciprocity and equality” (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, 1993). Relational performance is the inevitable end-product of this quest. Yet in it, intimacy emerges not only as a tool and a goal, but as a major concern: can we have it, how, by what means and why do we desire it in the first place? A number of works at BAC traded on the false promise of quick intimacy, and most fell short: after all, the obvious difficulties of building a rapport with the actor in five tightly scripted minutes cannot be overcome just by holding hands. Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face, Internal and A Game of You capitalise on this disingenuousness. Internal, in particular, set up as a speed-dating session followed by a sweetly cruel group debrief, builds the illusion of a budding attraction only to break your heart (comparing notes with other viewers is soul-crushing). Yet, for all its oversharing, Internal provides a dose of needed realism in a universe made of caresses. It stands as a reminder that there is no such thing as conveyor-belt romance, no intimacy on a mass scale, and that audiences often give their hearts away too easily.

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll. Photo courtesy: the artists.

lift 2010

The polar opposite of the high-concept One-On-One, LIFT 2010 was a festival with an identity crisis. Rubbing shoulders were weekend events for kids, formalist community theatre and the occasional think piece. Yet here, too, the most interesting works were from the relational family.

Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before is a computer game for the whole audience. Represented by a globular multi-coloured blip, for two hours you live as a proud citizen of Bestland, making personal choices (tertiary education? children? buy a house? own a gun? try heroin?) and participating in collective decision-making (legalise drugs or guns? form an army? welcome immigrants? equal capabilities or a diverse population?). As the game progresses, you reap the fruits of some decisions and suffer the limitations of others, while your range of choices progressively narrows as you age. It is a game of consequences, but also of chance—some blips are randomly wiped out by epidemics and war while, ultimately, the whole population dies of old age. I found the end unexpectedly poignant, realising that there was no final payoff for all my prudent life choices (I had grown old with a big family and plenty of real estate). I suspect the experience varies according to your age and life experience, but also audience demographics.

Bookmarking the game is Rimini Protokoll’s trademark presence of non-performers, or rather ‘reality experts’—in this case, the game designer, a game tester, a lobbyist and a traffic flagger whom the other three would have passed by on their way to work. Their guidance and stories serve both to contextualise gaming in the real world, to relate Bestland to the political choices that Vancouver has faced, and to reconnect our personal choices to non-virtual consequences. The tension between the two aspects of Best Before, which never quite connect, is a productive one, even though I found the four Canadians’ lives infinitely more intriguing than my avatar’s cyber-shenanigans.

The real treat of the festival was Dries Verhoeven’s Life Streaming. The concept is minimal: in a makeshift internet café, each audience member conducts their own video chat with a young person in Sri Lanka. In the interstices of the poetic, but tightly orchestrated structure, filled with pre-prepared text and film and guiding us through such topics as the tsunami, loss and grief, my interlocutor and I manage to insert a real conversation about life, healthcare, the scent of the sea and lying in bed with total strangers. The work keeps the question of its own intent open, incorporating sensorial stimuli to create an exuberant experience not unlike a perfect holiday in South-East Asia, while at the same time allowing for an unusual degree of self-propelling interaction. Consequently, you come away with a real connection to a human being—if you so wish. Like Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy, Life Streaming raises big questions about art, reality and intimacy, but lets you choose your own answers.

to shop or not?


Elinor Fuchs argues that relational theatre is the last step in theatre’s commodification: after the ice-cream in the interval, now we can get ice-cream during the performance. Indeed she terms it “shopping theatre” (The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater After Modernism, Indiana University Press, 1996) as it can so closely resemble a walk through a department store. It allows us to buy a reproduction of an experience that could not be bought otherwise. The physical set up, finally, is remarkably similar to a brothel—the room, the queue, the illusion of unique relationship.

However, I am not sure I entirely agree. At its worst, relational theatre combines the direst aspects of amusement parks and popular psychology, perhaps. But at its best, it incorporates the most conceptually interesting aspects of drama therapy, while allowing us to see our own experience through a critical prism. It highlights the qualities of everyday life, in all its mundane materiality, without distortion, in ways naturalistic theatre has consistently failed to achieve. Finally, the illusion of intimacy, of giving, which has existed for as long as theatre, can now be scrutinised in genuinely interesting ways. Relational theatre allows the exploration of the encounter between the artist and the spectator, an encounter that may be obviously staged, but is also more frank about its limitations. Once there are really only the two of you, the artifice becomes first disappointing, then bearable and finally, perhaps, genuinely empowering.

One-On-One Festival, Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), July 6-18, London; LIFT 2010: Rimini Protokoll, Best Before, created by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, dramaturg Tim Carlson, game design Brady Marks, video design Candelario Andrade, set design Andreas Kahre, sound design Stegan Smulovitz, with Duff Armour, Brady Marks, Ellen Schultz, Bob Williams/Arjan Dhupia, June 30-July 3, Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA); Life Streaming, director Dries Verhoeven, dramaturg Nienke Scholts, technical production Joffrey Kranen, Silk BV, National Theatre, June 23-July 4, LIFT Festival, London, June 23-July 13

First published in RealTime, issue #99, Oct-Nov 2010, pg. 10.

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On the dyingness of things (reviewed: MIAF 2010: Stifters Dinge; David Chesworth’s Richter/Meinhof-Opera; Hotel Pro Forma’s Tomorrow, in a Year)

Stifters Dinge. Photo: Mario Del Curto.

WHAT IS A ROSE BEFORE IT HAS A NAME? WHAT IF OUR ABILITY TO INTERPRET AND INTERVENE, OUR AGENCY TO DECIDE WHAT THINGS ARE, RECEDED AND WE COULD SEE THE WORLD WITHOUT ADJECTIVES, UNMEDIATED BY INTENTION? TO WHAT EXTENT ARE WE MADE IN TURN BY THE WORLD WE THUS CREATE? AND WHAT IS THE AGENCY OF THINGS?

BETWEEN CARNIVAL OF MYSTERIES, HOTEL PRO FORMA, HEINER GOEBBELS’ STIFTERS DINGE, DAVID CHESWORTH’S RICHTER/MEINHOF-OPERA, SOME VAST GROUND ON THE TOPICS OF SYMBOLISATION AND REPRESENTATION WAS COVERED. IT SOUNDS PREPOSTEROUS; BUT THIS IS HOW.

richter/meinhof-opera

David Chesworth’s Richter/Meinhof-Opera was a highly anticipated take on the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof. Announced as a 45-minute, pocket performance artwork (opera it wasn’t), it was an even shorter, quieter beast than expected. Tackling a potentially inexhaustible subject with an absolute minimalism of input and effect, it treads that usual fine line between the open-ended and the non-committal. It barely skims the complex story of Meinhof, respected journalist who joined a terrorist organisation, and whose simultaneous canonisation as left-wing martyr and demonization as Communist murderer still divides Germany. The only trace of the other members of the RAF is a record player, playing an Eric Clapton track, exactly as it did when Baader committed suicide in his prison cell. This is a rare instance in which the music goes beyond atmospheric soundscape; the other is a string duet, which mellifluously contrasts with the rest of the work, enhancing its thinness somehow. A few of Meinhof’s best-known quotations are projected onto ACCA’s shard-like walls, while centre-stage stands Gerhard Richter (Hugo Race), who famously painted RAF members’ death portraits in 1988, and was accused of mythologising terrorism.

The intended core of this work is the enormous disjuncture between direct action, advocated by Meinhof (often paraphrasing Brecht), and the indirectness and detachment of representational art, which often gives life to such ideas. The inability of our own cynical, ideologically unconvinced contemporary era to present the full spectrum of Meinhof’s time is another big theme. However, to say that Richter/Meinhof-Opera ‘explores’ them would be to give it excessive credit. Between Richter’s moody, detached canvases, the monochrome photos of the stylish Faction (which overwhelmingly comprised young women) and the occasional discursive duet (the libretto is a slim pastiche of quotations), the myth of RAF is presented as a matter of aestheticising or not; and the issue of direct action as a matter of professional ethics (to identify or not with one’s subject matter). Cold War politics lie forgotten, and ideas are not so much revealed as hinted at.

Even Richter, whose engagement with RAF is the focal interest of the opera, remains shorthand for the generic Artist. Evading all the big questions on this big topic, Richter/Meinhof-Opera feels and looks as if in development, like a sketch for a bigger work.

stifters dinge

Those who work with things (sculptors, architects, furniture makers) are often perplexed by the readiness with which more idealist disciplines (theatre, poetry) turn this material into signs and ideas. The result is frequently naive mystification, or embellishing fetishism: we have all seen signed urinals, soup cans, as well as their less rounded children—from derelict buildings employed as metaphors to artsy tapestries. What makes Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dinge so remarkable is that it does none of this, and has its audience enraptured. Its form is sui generis: a peopleless performance, or perhaps just a giant moving contraption. And yet, its workings are magical, for idealists and materialists alike.

The dramaturgy of Stifters Dinge is all in a sequence of apparently unrelated mechanical events: light changes, mechanical actions, sound clips and video projections. These are organised around a host of motifs: principally, the writings of Adalbert Stifter, a 19th century Austrian novelist whose prose is notoriously thickly furnished, upholstered, landscaped. (Literary lore has it that modernisation was already making advances into the order of things, and that 19th century naturalism was a kind of urgent stock taking.) Other motifs are the Renaissance dicovery of geometric perspective (chiefly Paolo Uccello’s paintings), utilitarian traditional music (Greek, Papuan, Colombian), voice recordings of Malcolm X. With technical perfection, the sequence of mechanical events coalesces into a world, all whilst remaining first and foremost mobile matter, without metaphors or superimposed meaning. The work builds into a deeply satisfying and meaningful totality by making us aware precisely of the bottomless materiality of its devices. When dry ice bubbles up in the three shallow water pools, seeing the trick does not stop the entire audience from holding their breath in awe. Stifters Dinge purges the stage of illusion and interpretation, but the ‘things’ that remain are neither threatening nor banal. Rather, they assume almost sacral fullness.

carnival of mysteries

Carnival of Mysteries, conversely, is an image of a carnival world. It has it all: tents, noise, nudity, candy floss, its own (inflated) currency and many short acts of varying skill and engagement. It is as entertaining and uneven as any carnival. It is also no more dramaturgically cohesive, nor exploratory: neither does it try to bring a superior level of artistry to the content, nor interrogate the form (in the vein of One-on-One Festival; RT99, p10). With many times more mini-shows than can be experienced in the allotted two hours, it is a somewhat frenzied experience, lacking the relaxed atmosphere of a fair. But the intensity does not translate into superb artistry, at least not in the fraction of the shows I witnessed. Should we be deconstructing it critically, suspending critical judgement, or witnessing it referentially? If Carnival is the answer, what is the artistic question? Is it a lowbrow event for a highbrow audience, with highbrow performers? Is it a replacement for Spiegeltent, which used to be the place at MIAF for circus, burlesque and other kinds of friendly lowbrow? A ‘carnival but of another kind,’ it is both too close, and once removed.

tomorrow, in a year

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma. Photo: Claudi Thyrrestrup.

Hotel Pro Forma’s Tomorrow, In a Year, an ‘electro opera’ about the life and work of Charles Darwin, was the most controversial show of this year’s MIAF (its response coming close to the outrage caused by Liza Lim’s The Navigator in 2008; opera is clearly fraught cultural ground in Melbourne). It is a conceptual work, with no plot to retell. It explores the thematic links between four moments in Darwin’s life—including the death of his daughter (potentially linked to his marriage to a first cousin)—and the implications of his theory . The endless mutability of the natural world, whose laws form us despite our pretended detachment, and whose laws we can never break, is the terrible heart of this work. It opens with potentially bewildering, undifferentiated stage sludge, an image of the original primordial soup of life; it ends as accelerating hydroponic chaos, or perhaps complex order?

The stage imagery is poor: only two planes of horizontal movement, no interaction between the performers, green laser beams and much dry ice. Using botanical drawings and video footage of water, Hiroaki Umeda’s algae-like choreography and the occasional verse about geological time and entombed carcasses, it explores a complete intangible: the fact that the material world is bigger than a human being, that we do not become through it, but are crushed by it.

But unlike Chesworth’s non-committal opera, it is fully exploratory. A note of the Romantic sublime runs through the work, unnoticed by those who bemoan its coldness. It unearths a potential Western counterpoint to the Japanese concept of ‘mono no aware’: the awareness of the dyingness of things, of the essential inability of matter to last. Just as cherry blossoms are less pretty than tragically transient, so is Tomorrow, In a Year not so much beautiful to watch as it is a despairing attempt to grasp cosmic complexity.

In the absence of meaningful stage action, enjoyment of this opera is strongly predicated on appreciating the music, by the Swedish electronic duo The Knife, which forms its narrative, emotional and intellectual core. It is a complex composition of natural and electronic noises, bel canto, house beats, borrowings from Purcell, early polyphony. And yet this collage of pop and found remains staunchly anti-metaphorical, a postmodernist pile of stuff asking to be understood literally: when Kristina Wahlin sings that “epochs collected here,” she is relating a geological fact, not a poetic truth.

While the work has been hailed as showing the future of the operatic form, it seems to succeed largely in musical terms. Visually, it attempts an abstract variation on a nature documentary, with results too reminiscent of late 1990s raves to be genuinely eligible for the label ‘innovation.’ Knowing that cyborgs, virtual reality and Dolly the Sheep were all the rage circa 1998 provides some dramaturgical solace, but does not compensate for Tomorrow, In A Year falling short of its promise.

2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival: Richter/Meinhof-Opera, direction, music, sound design David Chesworth, text David Chesworth (after Tony MacGregor), performers Kate Kendall, Hugo Race, lighting Travis Hodgson; ACCA, Oct 14-16; Stifters Dinge, concept, music, direction Heiner Goebbels; Malthouse, Oct 8-11; Carnival of Mysteries, creators, directors Moira Finucane, Jackie Smith, production design The Sisters Hayes; fortyfivedownstairs, Oct 6-30; Hotel Pro Forma, Tomorrow, In A Day, directors Kirsten Dehlholm, Ralf Richardt Strobech, music The Knife; Arts Centre, Melbourne, Oct 20-23

First published in RealTime, issue #100, Dec-Jan 2010, pg. 10.

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RW: The Dollhouse

The Doll’s House

0. NORA
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.

1. DANIEL SCHLUSSER
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, A href=”http://guerrillasemiotics.com/2009/04/rw-peer-gynt/”>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.

2. RESTRAINT AND EXCESS
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.

3. LOU SALOME AND THE ENDING
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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REVIEW: The Threepenny Opera

The always-vexing question of the ‘right’ way to do a playtext is particularly vexed when it comes to Brecht; to stage Brecht is almost invariably to fail Brecht.

While Brecht’s influence on modern theatre cannot be overstated, mainly through his theory of Verfremdungseffekt, theorist Brecht coexists with Brecht the dramatist and Brecht the theatre-maker, and those among us who assume that the three are always in agreement imbue Bertolt with a Godlike infallibility, and his words with biblical weight. The reality is more complicated. Brecht’s works did not always achieve his theatrical goals, his plays have worked against his intentions, and while much of the program he set for the new theatre (disrupting the illusion, mobilising the audience’s morality, the use of technology, truncation of catharsis, etc) has been the key force propelling 20th-century dramaturgy, he has not always been the one to find the answers to the questions he has posed. Moreover, the effect and effectiveness of Brecht’s theatre has changed with time: his influence has been so thorough that few of his formal inventions have the same freshness today, and the political milieu of 2010 is thoroughly different from what it was before the World War II.

Finally, Brecht the technician and dramaturg has always been undermined by Brecht the epigrammatist. The strength of Brecht’s writing is in his one- and two-liners: ‘what is robbing a bank, compared to founding a bank?’, ‘Would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?’, ‘unfortunate is the land that needs heroes.’ There is no opportunity for a good aphorism that Brecht would not use – his epic theatre, in a sense, is an epigrammatic theatre, intended to kick us about with little paradoxes – even when the totality of the work around the two-liner doesn’t hold too well as a result. This is the problem with his musical works: how could a man like that not enjoy a form that is terminally fragmented between songs and prose, a form in which every fifteen minutes one gets to put an accent on the last verse?

The Threepenny Opera was Brecht’s first blockbuster, a huge hit despite the shambolic way in which it was made – or perhaps precisely because of it. It is Brecht at his least cohesive: a plot taken from John Gay’s 1727 opera, a plot only loosely translated into Victorian London slash Weimar Berlin, with characters launching into songs often completely disconnected from their theatrical situation. It was shaped significantly by the strong creative input from everyone involved in the first production, and John Fuegi (perhaps exaggeratedly) credits Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s lover at the time, with good 80-90% of the text (for which she received a pittance, as is often the case with career-minded men). The day before it opened, the whole crew proclaimed a looming disaster. Instead, it became an overnight success. Brecht himself couldn’t quite admit that the bourgeoisie was enjoying his scathing, subversive critique of their moral universe. But the bourgeoisie hummed the catchy tunes, loved the dark humour: the epigrammatist won by a mile.

This is why it’s difficult to talk about a success or a failure of a production of The Threepenny Opera. Who decides? Can we judge it by the amount of alienation and political commitment it shows? Brecht had read Marx by the time it opened, in 1928, but it would be another full two years before he first tries to sketch the principles of ‘epic theatre’. We cannot really demand from the works of a young man to demonstrate the thinking of the old, not even with theatre’s peculiar understanding of temporality (which is to say, a play is always atemporal to a degree, as it exists now as well as then). How can we judge it by the extent to which it fulfils a program it probably never fulfilled?

Eddie Perfect and Paul Capsis. Photo: Garth Oriander.

Michael Kantor’s production, currently playing at the Malthouse to sold-out houses, has all the usual flaws and merits of a Kantor production. It is no different in style and execution to his many other productions, and this may be its one salient failure: it doesn’t demonstrate an attempt to grapple with the peculiarity of the material as much as give us more of Kantor’s usual concoction of elements. From Peter Corrigan’s mannerist set to the uneven cast (which includes cabaret performers and trained singers of diverse skills), it is an impressionistic rendering rather than a smooth dramaturgical machine. It is gratuitously camp; it is soft on piercing critique and hard on vague gesture.

Kurt Weill’s score is delivered intact by Victorian Opera, generously, for Weill’s music is still bliss to the ears. Anna O’Bryne as Polly Peachum is a revelation, a gorgeous singer and a fierce actress, giving a raw, rude sanguinity to an often neglected role, while Paul Capsis’s majestic Jenny steals every scene (including many in which Jenny doesn’t appear). Eddie Perfect, on the other hand, grows croaky towards the end, and plays a Macheath with vile temper, rather forgetting any sense of fun – but then, it is fair to assume that Perfect was not cast for his vocal abilities. The greatest failure is, without a doubt, the set and the costumes (and I confess to feeling alarmed by this statement: what does it mean when so much of the production hinges on the way the stage is dressed?). There is no point in discussing the way Raimondo Cortese’s precise translation, which re-sets the play into contemporary Melbourne, clashes with the outrageous, no-era costuming, or how the faux-constructivist panel sits meaninglessly behind a set designed, awkwardly, unnecessarily, distractingly, as a boxing ring (demanding the rope pulled down for certain fourth-wall-breaking songs, but not for others). I did not detect any intention for making a coherent statement, against which incoherency could be judged a failure. The rare moments in which the production pulls together (such as the grand repeat of Mack the Knife before the interval, and Mack’s icily cynical pre-hanging speech) do not so much underline the confusion of the rest, as simply look out of place.

In this city, we have spent too much time lately discussing the finer points of camp, and the departing AD of the Malthouse is largely responsible. We have discussed its moral backbone, its stylistic variations, its humour, its targets. Enough. Can the Threepenny be campified? Demonstrably, it can. Does it improve? No, but neither is it particularly harmed. If you take Lotte Lenya’s words seriously, that it is the “subtleness behind the obviousness that gives strength to The Threepenny Opera”, then it ought to be admitted that there is not a lot of subtlety in this particular production, not in, above, or behind it. Perhaps a stronger directorial hand would have wrestled some poignancy into this wild, unruly text. Perhaps we would have seen through our modern-day bourgeois morality. These aren’t the right questions to ask. What we have, instead, is a somewhat perverse celebration of the criminal underworld, with singing and lavish dresses. That cutting, mean Berliner humour has been blown up into something a little farcical, a little broad. Does it matter? Only if you have serious expectations from yet another Kantor camp operetta. And only if you are serious about this whole business of staging Brecht ‘right’.

On the other hand, the production has sparked some soul-searching on the part of the GP (which is how those who go to the theatre lovingly refer to those who don’t). As non-GP, I am both surprised, puzzled and pleased. Perhaps this is exactly the theatre we need. Or deserve. I suspect Brecht would see the humour.

The Threepenny Opera. By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Text: Raimondo Cortese. Lyrics: Jeremy Sams. Director: Michael Kantor. Conductor: Richard Gill. With: Casey Bennetto, Paul Capsis, Judi Connelli, Jolyon James, Melissa Langton, Amy Lehpamer, Anna O’byrne, Eddie Perfect, Dimity Shepherd, Grant Smith, John Xintavelonis. Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre, May 28 – June 19. The season has officially sold out, but more tickets may become available closer to each performance. Check the Malthouse website for updates.

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‘Non-conventional casting’ continued…

I am swimming in the deep, deep waters of performativity and stage; that is, Butlerian performativity and Schechnerian stage. It is for the purposes of my thesis, and a very muddled place to be (not a place you’d pop over to straight before breakfast, say). But while wrestling with the questions of what it means when we do what we do, it was a pleasure to find that Andrew Haydon is back discussing cross-whatever casting, and how it relates to the questions of realism and representation in the theatre.

His post is here, and it is worth reading in total, including the more-or-less disgruntled comments. He raises all isues: race, gender, accent, realism, convention, British or Germanic, and spends more meaningful time on it than anyone I have seen recently. Do please have a read.

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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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Brief: Xavier Le Roy @ Dancehouse

Before I forget; the best dance piece I’ve seen all year, bar Sasha Waltz (still undecided), has been Xavier Le Roy’s performance Product of Circumstance, a one-night showing at Dancehouse last week. There is a write-up in The Age, but to call it a review would be absurd.

It is a description of sorts, and not an inaccurate one.

Xavier comes from that French tradition of very streamlined conceptual dance (Jerome Bel, Mathilde Monnier), rigorously following an idea and executing it with a scientific sort of measure, fidelity. It sometimes looks like this:

And when it works, it’s fabulous.

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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
despair.”

+++
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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